My question will likely startle some. It seems obvious to others. Count me among the latter group. I have read the book many, many times but it has never seemed clearly apparent to me that it belongs, even among the books that we call the “wisdom literature.”
I recently read Ecclesiastes again, this time in The Message. Same question: Why is it here? How does it belong?
The writer undertakes an investigation of experience at all levels. He asks questions about creation, justice, the wise versus the foolish, and the just versus the unjust. He insists that though God is sovereign over all things we cannot know exactly what God is doing or why he is doing it. What then is our proper human response? To take what we get now and use it as best we can. (Here is the observation that I wish I had learned much sooner! I tried to connect the dots of providence in my life overmuch and quite often I did so way too simplistically.)
So when various theologians and preachers tell you how God is directing events read this book. It is impossible to know when or how God is ruling over our lives and changing history in our little moment in time. Simply put: it is always a dangerous and problematic thing to become an interpreter of providence. (The Puritans prove my point!!!) The writer (Qoheleth) says “Here is what I understand as good: it is well if a person eat, drink, and enjoy all the fruits of one’s life, for this is a person’s lot” (Ecclesiastes 5:17). Everything has a proper time. There is a “time to be born and a time to die . . . a time to weep and a time to laugh” (3:2-3). But the “why” and the precise “when” are known only to God. The advice of Qoheleth is simple: “Fear God” (5:6).
The historical fact is that the Jewish rabbis fought for a long time over whether to include Ecclesiastes in the canon of the Bible. Most agree that its ultimate inclusion happened because it was attributed to Solomon. (An editor seems to have added a pious conclusion in Ecclesiastes 12:9-14.) This message at the end can be summed up by this statement: “Fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13).
I believe it is fortunate that the rabbis included this book in the Bible. Why? (I’ll not give you a pious, highly technical defense of canonicity and biblical authority, though I certainly have a high view of the Bible!)
This book teaches something we desperately need today as much as ever. There is a great gulf between the transcendent God and our human striving to understand and to control affairs. (I remind myself of this as I watch another election cycle unfold and fear the worst outcomes.) We want to determine the best course of action for out times and we believe that we must have some say in it. We kid ourselves. We think that if we do things just so then everything will turn out well (or at least better) because: “It really is a wonderful life.” But this is false piety. True piety trusts God even when things are seemingly meaningless. True piety leads us to surrender to God’s loving care even when we have no idea where it will lead. We all know this instinctively but Qoheleth makes it abundantly plain in Ecclesiastes!