Introduction to Ecclesiastes
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity. —Ecclesiastes 1:2
The book of Ecclesiastes begins with a statement you probably never thought you would read in the Bible, yet one we’ve probably thought before: “Everything is vanity.” This simple thought is a refrain the book will return to time and time again as it observes life in our complex world.
In the book of Ecclesiastes, we actually hear from two voices. The first is introduced here in verses 1 through 11. This is the narrator of the book who will return in chapter 12 to give his closing remarks. In our specific passage today, the narrator is introducing the words of Qohelet or the “Teacher,”. The Teacher is stuck on one particular question that we can see in verse 3: “What’s the point of it all?” The conclusion he seems to come back to throughout the book is found just before that: “All is vanity.”
As we read on, we get a window into the Teacher’s thought process. Key to understanding the Teacher is understanding the Old Testament book of Proverbs. In Proverbs, we read about a very optimistic understanding of our world; it follows a simple “if-then” formula. For instance, “if you’re wise you will prosper, if you’re wicked you perish.” As an Israelite, the Teacher would have had this understanding of the world taught to him from a young age. Yet in verses 4 through 11, the Teacher recites a poem about the world as he observes it. It simply doesn’t seem to be adding up. The world he sees is not what he was taught to expect. His world, and ours, seems to be far from the order and simplicity expected in Proverbs. Thus, as he states, “all is vanity.” Or, as some translate it, “all is enigmatic.”
Can we make sense of our complex world? This is the question the book of Ecclesiastes is inviting you to ask with it. As we read along, we will wrestle with the deep and seemingly paradoxical words of the Teacher, an honest believer, who will ultimately point us to Christ through whom we find order in the lives we navigate. As we begin this book, pray that God would give you the courage to ask along with it life’s deepest questions and the openness to hear his response.