SOURCE FOR QUESTIONS
Ecclesiastes 1:1 through 12:14
KEY VERSE FOR MEMORIZATION
“Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13)
The Book of Ecclesiastes is a series of instructions and eye-witness observations given by “the Preacher,” to the young men of Israel. Although the author never identified himself by name, Jewish tradition records that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes during the last years of his life, probably sometime between 955 and 931 B.C. The views expressed are obviously from an individual who has spent years accumulating experiences and perspectives.
Solomon enjoyed periods of unsurpassed wisdom and immense wealth during his lifetime, and was able to gratify every personal whim and desire. However, in spite of his unlimited advantages, Solomon’s message could be summed up by the Hebrew word hebel, translated in various Biblical passages as vanity, futility, meaninglessness, mystery, or enigma. Experience had taught him that wisdom, wealth, achievement, and pleasure were not sufficient foundations upon which to build one’s life. The summary statements “All is vanity” and “This also is vanity” are repeated over and over, and a tone of disappointment and futility is apparent in all twelve chapters.
Solomon’s primary purpose in writing the book seems to have been to share his observations and ultimate conclusion with those who still had life before them. While Solomon encouraged the young to enjoy material advantages, he pointed them to the importance of committing their lives to their Creator during their youth, concluding that doing so was the only path to meaningful fulfillment in life.
Though Ecclesiastes was written thousands of years ago, it presents a question that individuals of each generation must face: what is the meaning of life? Solomon did not suggest that life has no purpose and is ultimately without profit. Rather, while he observed the futility of man’s attempts to fill the emptiness of life without God, he asserted that God’s presence was to be recognized and reckoned with at every turn during the brief days of man’s sojourn under the sun. The heart of Solomon’s advice is found in the conclusion of the book: “Fear God and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
SUGGESTED RESPONSES TO QUESTIONS
- Solomon had wealth and power, accomplishment and honor, fame and pleasure, and was deemed the wisest man in all the world (see 1 Kings 4:29-34). Yet, in Ecclesiastes 1:2-3, he stated that all is vanity. Today, mankind still strives for attainments in terms of wealth, success, and pleasure. Why do you think people fail to find satisfaction even when they achieve these goals?
Class discussion should bring out that man has a spiritual need at the core of his being, and a spiritual need can never be satisfied with material gain or achievements. While there is nothing inherently wrong with prosperity, success, or pleasure, your students should conclude that anything in life which replaces God will never satisfy. Only God can fill the deep longings of the heart. In verses 14 and 17 of chapter 1, Solomon described the results of focusing on earthly experiences and knowledge as being “vexation of spirit.” Some translations refer to this as “chasing the wind,” a descriptive phrase which aptly captures the futility of such pursuits.
It is interesting to note that in contemporary society, those with highly-trained occupations commit suicide at a much higher rate than is the norm, according to statistics offered by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.(1) For example, physicians have a suicide rate nearly 100% above average. Engineers, financiers, and lawyers also have a very high suicide rate. Along with the increase in knowledge and wealth comes pressure and responsibility that seemingly can be overwhelming.
You may wish to follow up by contrasting an individual who strives for material goals with one who strives for spiritual goals. Spiritual striving may not bring material wealth, power, or acclaim in this world. However, the person who puts God first will have His blessing, as well as the satisfaction of knowing that he is pleasing God. Ecclesiastes 2:26 tells us that God supplies joy along with His blessings. Matthew 6:33 and Proverbs 10:22 also support this point. And in addition to satisfaction in this life, the one who makes spiritual goals his priority will enjoy eternity with God in the life to come.
- In Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, Solomon addressed the subject of time, opening this portion of text with the statement, “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” The word translated season in this verse means “appointed time.” God has an appointed time and order for the events of our lives. While we participate in the specific activities listed, our life experiences are known and allowed by Him. What are the benefits of accepting and appreciating God’s perfect timing? What is the danger in failing to do so?
Your students should conclude that accepting God’s timing of the events of our lives is the way to find peace. Romans 8:28 is a good supporting reference. No matter how events or their timing appear on the surface, we can be confident that God is working circumstances together for eternal good.
In response to the second question, your group should conclude that if we fail to accept God’s perfect timing, we could find ourselves becoming resentful or doubtful regarding God’s care for us. If we struggle and contest and question the will of God, we forfeit the assurance that comes through trust and submission to Him. That mindset could in turn lead to despair or rebellion, or a temptation to take matters into our own hands. Encourage your students to share personal experiences of times when God’s perfect timing was revealed in their lives.
As you explore the topic of times and seasons in life, you may wish to bring out that we are responsible for what we do with our time. Our physical bodies have a variety of needs, such as proper nutrition and rest, which must be met in order for our bodies to function properly. We also have emotional needs —verse 4 mentions a time to weep and to laugh. The implication of these verses is that there are normal and permissible activities which should be part of our existence on this earth; however, we must take care not to get so wrapped up in our own needs and activities that we neglect opportunities to serve God and minister to others.
- In Ecclesiastes 4:8, Solomon contemplated the perils of isolation, and stated in verse 9 that “two are better than one.” In verses 9 through 12, what does Solomon say are the benefits of companionship? How might these benefits be experienced within the family of God?
Solomon states that if we stand alone, we do not have someone to help us up when we fall. Human companionship offers help (verse 10), warmth (verse 11), and strength or defense (verse 12). As your students discuss the second question, they may suggest that in the family of God, we can support one another in prayer, encourage those who falter, warm hearts by ministering to one another through loving words and deeds, defend one another against the wiles of the enemy, and experience numerous other benefits of Christian fellowship.
Direct your students’ attention to the visual image Solomon presented at the end of verse 12 — that of a threefold cord. The intertwined strands illustrate that individuals are better when joined and working together. Each person has unique characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. If they are united, their union forms something stronger than the individual strands, because each gives strength to the other. If the cord is untwisted, the separate threads are much more easily broken.
While Solomon did not indicate that one of the “strands” of the cord represented God, we know that when two believers are closely joined in the bonds of love and fellowship, Christ is present with them; that union then could be likened to a threefold cord. Matthew 18:19 offers New Testament support for this principle.
- Vows were a common part of Israel’s religious practice during the time of Solomon. In Ecclesiastes 5, Solomon addressed making vows or promises to God. What specific warnings did he give regarding this practice? Ecclesiastes 5:1-7
Solomon cautioned against being rash or hasty in speech, which included the making of vows (verse 2). He also pointed to the importance of keeping vows that are made (verse 4), and warned against backing out of a vow by claiming it was a mistake (verse 6). His three-part emphasis made it abundantly clear that any person who made a vow to God would be held accountable before Him to keep it.
These verses offer a good opportunity to explain the difference between a vow and a consecration. Your students should understand that a vow is an irrevocable covenant with God; a consecration is a willing act of dedication or commitment. While vows were a part of religious tradition in Israel, the New Testament mentions vows only twice, both times being made by Christians who vowed to dedicate themselves to God for a length of time, much like the Nazarite vow (Acts 18:18; 21:23; see also Numbers 6:18). We generally do not recommend vows be made because consecrations can accomplish the desired goal.
At times, sincere individuals have innocently made foolish vows. In such a case, the individual should ask God for forgiveness and absolution from the vow, and then thank Him for teaching a valuable lesson about the serious nature of making such a covenant with God. An example of a foolish vow might be one that pledges an action that could be detrimental to the physical body, which is the temple of God. That is clearly forbidden by Scripture (see 1 Corinthians 6:19), so such a vow is not appropriate.
Perhaps the best example of a vow made in this New Testament dispensation is the marriage vow, which provides a good illustration of the lifelong and unbreakable nature of a vow. Since God himself is the Author of the institution of marriage, when a man and woman make a marriage commitment, they are actually taking a vow that is recognized by God as an irrevocable bond (providing that they are both free to marry in accordance with the principles of God’s Word). This is true whether or not God is acknowledged in the actual wording of the ceremony. While individuals may take steps to legally dissolve a marriage union that is lawful in accordance with Scripture, in the eyes of God only death can end that sacred covenant because the vow was made before God. Point out that there is never any Scriptural allowance made for remarriage, no matter what the laws of the land may permit.
- At times in life it will seem that evil prevails, and the wicked get away with unrestrained wrongdoing. Solomon reflected on this in his day as well. However, in Ecclesiastes 8, he asserted his faith in the ultimate justice of God. How would you summarize the principle Solomon stated in verses 11-13 of this chapter?
These verses zero in on the future states of the righteous versus the wicked. The principle Solomon declared is that though punishment for the wicked seems to be withheld, they ultimately will suffer the consequences of sin, while those who fear God will be rewarded. The prosperity of the wicked on this earth is only a prelude to their eventual destruction, but the righteous will enjoy glory forever with the Lord. Class discussion should bring out that although God’s Word is full of promises for His people here and now, it is not this life which is really important. It is where we spend eternity that counts. Our end will be blessed more than we can imagine if we stay true to God.
You could follow up by asking your class how this understanding will help us handle persecution, injustice, or the effects of wickedness when it impacts our personal lives. They should conclude that when we believe that both our temporal trials and our eternal destiny are held in the loving hands of our Heavenly Father and we look to Him for ultimate justice, we will find grace to endure and triumph even in challenging circumstances.
- After considering the uncertainties of the future and the certainty of death, in Ecclesiastes 9:7-9 Solomon observed that there are good things in life, and recommended that his hearers make the most of what they can understand and enjoy. He followed that with the directive found in verse 10. What was his instruction, and how might it apply to our Christian walk?
Solomon’s instruction was to do your work while you can, to the best of your ability. The word hand in this verse suggests “talents and abilities.” The word find refers to “opportunity,” and might alludes to “effort and intensity.” Those meanings also pertain when we apply this instruction to our Christian walk. We only have our allotted span of time here on earth to use our abilities and talents in making a spiritual contribution toward the spread of the Gospel. We want to take advantage of every opportunity, and do the work of the Lord with fervency and intensity, because when death comes, our time in which we can impact others for eternity will end. This principle is reflected in the words of the old Gospel hymn by Annie Coghill, “Work, for the night is coming…when man’s work is o’er.”
You may want to expand this thought by pointing out to your group that we must not attempt to do the work of the Lord in our own strength. History tells us that Charles Spurgeon, known as the “Prince of Preachers,” often worked eighteen hours a day. One time the famous explorer and missionary David Livingstone asked him, “How do you manage to do two men’s work in a single day?” Spurgeon replied, “You have forgotten that there are two of us.” When we have the Holy Spirit working in us and through us, more can be accomplished in our work for the Lord than we could ever accomplish with the most intense efforts on our own.
- Chapter 10 of Ecclesiastes begins a series of proverbs in which Solomon sought to provide some of the wisdom he wanted people to hear. There is no one theme in this compilation of practical advice, which continues through the concluding chapters. Solomon spoke of fools and folly, relationships with rulers, care in conduct, sharpness and strength, wisdom with words, indolence and industry, money and might. What lesson can we learn from the proverb given in Ecclesiastes 10:10?
Solomon stated that if an ax is dull, one must use more strength to gain results. However, if one employs wisdom, he has an advantage in achieving success. Trying to accomplish a task without honing the necessary skills is like chopping down a tree with a dull ax. The wise thing to do in such a case would be to sharpen the ax in order to work more efficiently and achieve more precise results. Productivity will increase if skills are improved through education, training, or practice.
While this proverb certainly applies to many areas of life, you will want to develop the spiritual parallel with your class. In our service for God, we should evaluate whether our “ax” is sharp. Are there steps we could take to make our efforts more effective? Perhaps there is a spiritual experience that needs to be received. Maybe additional training or concerted practice will improve our talent. Each of us wants to be the best we can be for the Lord, and one way we can do this is to open our hearts to the Spirit and allow Him to instruct us as to how we can improve. You may wish to refer to 2 Timothy 2:15 as a New Testament support for this principle.
- Solomon had set out to try all that life had to offer, and the book’s final verses offer a summation of his thoughts. At the close of his attempt to point the young to effective and successful paths in life, what did Solomon conclude was the duty of man? Ecclesiastes 12:13
Solomon’s summary comment was, “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). All that Solomon had said in his discourse to the young men of Israel reaches a culmination in this verse — a principle he seemingly regarded as the key to a fulfilling life.
It is noteworthy that while Solomon instructed his hearers six times in his book to enjoy life while here on earth, at no time did he advise them to enjoy sin. We must not build our lives on acquiring wisdom, material possessions, or fame, nor expect to find satisfaction in the fulfillment of secular desires. Rather, while we should enjoy the simple pleasures that life affords, we must keep in mind that the all-important purpose in life is our relationship with our Creator.
Those who have a relationship with God and are living in obedience to Him have the promise of someday finding complete fulfillment and life eternal.