Ecclesiastes is a book in the “wisdom literature” of the Bible, which also includes Proverbs and Job. These three books, according to the makers of The Bible Project videos, ask the question “What does it mean to live well in this world?”
The makers of the video ask us to picture Proverbs as a bright young teacher. She teaches the reader, “If you use wisdom, you’ll have a successful life.”
Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, is more like a middle-aged man who comes across a little critical. However, there are two voices in this book—the critical middle-aged man who is doing the teaching, and then the author, who pipes up at the end of the book and summarizes the critic’s words.
The critic points out three disturbing observations about the world:
The mark of time
The earth has been here a long, long time, but people’s existence is like a blink in time.
We are all going to die
The righteous and the wicked, those who love God and those who don’t—in the end we all die.
Life’s random nature
While Proverbs speaks of cause and effect, Ecclesiastes seems to argue that life is a little more at the mercy of chance.
Nearly 40 times life is described as “hevel”—which is a metaphor for smoke and speaks to how it’s confusing and uncontrollable. We translate “hevel” as meaningless since we don’t have this metaphor in our culture.
While the critic comes across as, well, critical, Ecclesiastes can be a very difficult book to palate. But the makers of the video want to emphasize the fact that the critic still believes it’s a really good idea to learn wisdom and live in the fear of the Lord. What he adds to Proverbs’ teaching is this advice: Since you can’t control your life, you should stop trying. The only thing you have control over is your own attitude. Enjoy the simple things—the good and the bad. Both are good things from God. Hold life with an open hand.
The author steps in at the end of the book and reiterates what the rest of the Bible teaches us: Life does have meaning even if we don’t understand it. The Lord will clear the hevel and bring his justice. The proper response is to fear the Lord and keep his commandments.
Job is the final book in the wisdom books, and he brings a final, clarifying perspective on the themes introduced in Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.
If you haven’t seen the videos on Proverbs and Job, be sure to check those out, too:
Understanding the Book of Proverbs
The Explanation of JOB Every Sufferer (And Everyone Else) Needs to See