Written by someone who simply styles himself “the preacher” (Ecclesiastes 12:8), Ecclesiastes presents numerous clues suggesting Solomon as its author. Liberal scholars stumble over this suggestion, because the language of Ecclesiastes doesn’t sound like other samples of Hebrew from Solomon’s time. However, its unusual language could quite simply arise from the uniqueness of the book itself – it covers ground untrodden anywhere else in the Bible. I regard Ecclesiastes as a remarkable and singular work written by King Solomon, the son of David.
The central phrase, “under the sun,” appears 29 times in Ecclesiastes and is shorthand for “life with God factored out of the equation.” The book proposes that the reader think like an atheist and evaluate the meaning and purpose of life accordingly. The pursuit of wealth, prestige, and pleasure are meaningless; seeking wisdom and righteousness are pointless endeavors; indeed, life itself is vain, if there is nothing more to life than what we see. Sounds pessimistic and feels depressing – which is precisely the preacher’s goal!
Solomon does not make these observations to advocate for atheism or skepticism. Indeed, his bottom line is decidedly “pro-God: “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: Fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). Solomon proposes something most conservative Christians would consider shocking: Immerse yourself in the thinking of the atheist in order to deepen your appreciation for what it means to live for God.
So, who is the audience to which the preacher targets this appeal? Certainly, anyone could benefit from the preacher’s final analysis in the last chapter. But a particular group is expressly identified. Here is the preacher’s conclusion accompanied by the verses that bookend it: “But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body. The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: Fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:12–14). The word translated, “son,” is used numerous times to refer to one’s male offspring. When in the plural, it is often translated “children.” (Genesis 3:16 is the first of hundreds of examples.) Clearly, the preacher conceived of his message as a father’s dialogue with his son or, by extension, his children. This same audience is also identified in Ecclesiastes 11:9-10; 12:1.
In which case, we have now identified a third book of the Bible that is of particular importance to parents as a child-training resource. Think of Ecclesiastes as an advanced course for those who have learned how to use the moral compass of the Law and to walk in the ways of wisdom. Ecclesiastes bolsters these endeavors by making a persuasive and reasonable case for fearing God (the centerpiece of wisdom in Proverbs) and keeping His commandments (the focus of the Book of Law). It is an immersive apologetic experience that explores the meaning of life without God and therein gives young people reason to do two things: "Fear God and keep His commandments" (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
Think of the Law and Proverbs as home-school for younger students and Ecclesiastes as the secular university for the older ones. The Preacher escorts his son onto campus to be exposed to everything under the sun, to understand the way the world thinks, and to see the pointlessness of life when God is factored out of the equation. Ecclesiastes is not the right place for parents to begin the training of the children, but it most definitely belongs in the toolkit for critical preparation before they leave home.
Thanks to Steven Ethridge for proposing that Ecclesiastes belongs in our catalog of Bible books for parents. Good call!