The Book of Kohelet has often been misunderstood, and I suppose that’s because it starts off telling us that everything is pointless, and that all our efforts are no more useful than chasing the wind.
Okay, I get it- someone isn’t happy with how things they have done has turned out.
So, who wrote this treatise on disappointment?
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Most agree that it was King Solomon, although in recent years some have stated it may have been written by someone else pretending to be a king of Jerusalem. Personally, I don’t buy that.
In the first chapter the writer tells us that he has been a king over Israel in Jerusalem. Not only that, but this book is filled with wisdom and proverbs, very much like those Solomon wrote.
1:18- there is much wisdom in grief.
2:14- wise men have eyes that see, but fools walk in darkness.
4:5- better an armful of tranquility than both arms full of effort that yields nothing
5:1 nightmares come from worrying too much, and a fool chatters too much
5:9- the lover of money never has enough money
There are other wisdom sayings throughout the book that indicate the writer is a man possessed with great wisdom. Not to mention that he tells us in 1:16 that he has acquired more wisdom than anyone else ruling in Jerusalem- that is exactly what we are told in the Bible about Solomon (1 Kings 4:30).
Now, what about this statement that everything is pointless, that nothing matters, and what does a person gain after all their efforts? These sound like the ramblings of a depressed, cynical man, but when we realize the reason he is saying this, it makes sense.
In Kohelet 1:12, he tells us that he applied himself to seek out and investigate everything that is done under heaven. I believe what Kohelet was saying was that he wanted to understand the “why” of everything- he wanted to have the same level of understanding that God does. Well, no wonder he was disappointed and found everything pointless! No one can understand anything at the same level of God.
However, he did come to an understanding of what might be the most important lesson of all- that whatever we do we should do with joy and appreciation because this is what God has given us.
Kohelet tried to understand everything by starting out with the pleasures of the body. He went on to build palaces, gardens, pools, have slaves, amass wealth, have singers and musicians, and many other material things. Yet, in the end, he realized that it was all worthless, just chasing the wind.
Why? Because when he dies, everything he worked his whole life to attain will go to someone else who will just waste it.
Throughout this book, we are given a number of examples of what is pointless:
- attaining wisdom is useless because no matter how wise or how stupid a man becomes, in the end, we all die and are treated the same.
- the pursuit of material things is pointless because the rich never have enough and the money they accumulate will go to someone else when they die.
- no matter how good a king is, it’s pointless because when the king is dead the ones coming after him will not regard him highly.
- having goods and wealth will not please a person, who will always want more, and when they die someone else gets to enjoy them.
- the righteous person can perish in his uprightness while the evil person lives a long and happy life.
Despite the overriding depressive feel of this book, Kohelet does come up with a number of revelations that are messages of hope and the lessons we need to learn in order to have a contended life:
Revelation #1: Kohelet tells us all that is left to us to do in this life is to eat, drink, and enjoy whatever fruits of labor that we have attained, because this is what God has given to us (2:24; 5:17; 8:15; 9:7).
Revelation #2: Everything that happens has its own time (3:1-11), nothing is new under the sun (1:9), and this is the way God has designed the world.
You may remember the song by the Byrds called “Turn, turn, turn” (1965) which was from this passage; it was originally written by Pete Seegar in 1959
Revelation #3: People who love things of the world will never be satisfied.
Revelation #4: Everything happens to everyone: rich or poor, wise or stupid, righteous or evil. In the end we all die, although those who live a righteous life will be in better shape when facing God.
The final and ultimate lesson that Kohelet has learned, which he tells us at the very end of the book, is this:
We should worship God and obey his laws, for that is what being human is all about;
in the end, God will bring to judgement all that we do.
This is unquestionably the wisest thing anyone can do.
Kohelet, with all his wisdom, riches, and achievements, concludes the only thing we really need to do is enjoy the fruits of our labors, the simple things in life, such as eating and drinking, and be thankful to God for giving that to us. I believe this was confirmed by Yeshua who, when telling us how to pray, said we should ask for our daily bread- nothing more, nothing less, and that we shouldn’t worry about tomorrow.
So, the next time someone tells you that they just don’t get the Book of Kohelet, asking why is such a “downer” even in the Bible, you can tell them that the real message of Kohelet is one of contentment. It teaches us we will never understand why things happen the way they do, that all things happen for a reason and that God has determined the correct time for all things that occur under the sun, and that to be at peace and enjoy life all we need to do is worship God, obey his commandments, and appreciate what God has given us because that is what being human is all about.