Skip to main content
10th June

Ecclesiastes 1-4; Psalm 6

Bible in a Year
6 minutes
In this article
10th June

Ecclesiastes 1-4; Psalm 6

Bible in a Year
6 minutes

Ecclesiastes Overview

Yesterday we finished the book of Proverbs, and so today we start the book of Ecclesiastes. These are two books that are ideally studied side by side. Proverbs gave us a collection of principles we live our lives by; wise people prosper, foolish people suffer. Ecclesiastes is the book that wrestles with the times that isn't the case. We only need to look at the world around us to see bad things happen to good people, and wicked people get away with their wickedness.

The book is ascribed to the ‘Teacher, the son of David’. Some translations call this the preacher. As this teacher is described as the son of David it could be Solomon is the author, or maybe another descendant of David. However, when we look deeper, we see that the book itself is a separate speaker, a narrator, who shows us the teacher's words and then evaluates them. It is likely then that the author of this book was a later Israelite who wanted to build on the Solomon wisdom literature, and uses the concept of the ‘Teacher, the son of David’ to build that association. Solomon is also a great character study as the teacher, as he knew great power, wealth, and pleasure and so was well positioned to reflect on if they were worth it.

Ecclesiastes 1:1-2 - The narrator introduces the teacher/preacher

Ecclesiastes 1:3-12:7 - The teacher

  • Ecclesiastes 1:3-11 - Time eventually erases all things

  • Ecclesiastes 1:12-6:12 - The teacher searches for meaning

  • Ecclesiastes 7:1-11:6 - The teacher offers advice

  • Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:7 - Death consumes all equally

Ecclesiastes 12:8-14 - The narrator closes and evaluates the teacher's words

There's a word that appears a lot in Ecclesiastes. The original Hebrew word is hevel (הֶ֫בֶל). Some Bibles translate this as meaningless, while others go for vanity. While these words go some way to explaining the meaning behind hevel, they don't quite give the full picture. Hevel means smoke or vapour. These things are temporary. If you're outdoors in the open, it doesn't take long for smoke to disappear in the wind. It's also impossible to grab hold of. It will just slip through your fingers.

This is what makes hevel so hard to translate. It's not just a word with a meaning, it's an image for you to explore. When the teacher says that life and its meaning are hevel, they are saying it's fleeting and you can't understand it. Every time you try to grasp it and understand it, it slips through your fingers. Whenever you see the words meaningless or vanity, I want you to think of the world hevel (that's the word I will be using) and imagine that picture of trying to grab hold of smoke.

The goal of the book is to pull us into a deeper, more nuanced understanding of wisdom, which leads us to deconstruct all the ways we give our lives meaning and purpose without God. With just the book of Proverbs alone, you could be led to believe that you can just live a good life and it will all go well for you. Ecclesiastes wants to show us that we are to accept that life is out of our control and through it all, the good and the bad, we need to lean into God for all things.

Ecclesiastes 1-4

The book is opened by the narrator. This narrator is going to come back at the end of the book to summarise, but to begin with he introduces the teacher who does most of the speaking in this book. This teacher launches straight in with 'everything is hevel'. He points out that no matter what we do, no matter how hard we work, the sun will keep rising and falling, the wind will keep blowing, and the streams will keep flowing. Our lives seem so important but, hundreds of years after we're gone, nothing will have changed and no one will remember us.

Cheery. But remember, like Job, this teacher is wrestling with the inconsistencies he sees in the world. The point is not to take what he says at face value, but to wrestle along with him as he tries to get his head round this issue. He also points out how wisdom seems to be hevel. He's spent most of his life chasing after wisdom, and it just feels like chasing after wind.

So if wisdom and work aren’t the answer to life, what about pleasure? The teacher has tried that out, too. He's done the wild parties of laughter and alcohol. He's owned the big houses with great gardens and pools. He's been rich and wealthy, owning his own entertainers and revelling in sex and delight. He admits "whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them" (Ecclesiastes 2:10). Yet after all that, when he stopped to think it through, it was still hevel. It still felt like he was chasing the wind.

So he goes back to wisdom, but both the wise and the foolish die, so what's the point? So then he turned his mind to hard work, but then he realised he has no control over who gets the benefit of his hard work when he dies. If anything, it just means that his life is full of stress and exhaustion now. Everything is hevel.

Then we get the first glimpse of something good. The teacher declares that a man should "eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil" (Ecclesiastes 2:24). This is different from chasing after pleasure. It is taking the time to enjoy each moment as you go about living your life. This, the teacher says, is "from the hand of God".

Out of this, the teacher then goes to talk about the seasons of life. If we are to enjoy the small moments of life as they come, we must learn to ride the waves of life. The changing seasons. Sometimes people are born, and at other times they die. At times, we will mourn, and at other will dance. There will be times for war, and other time of peace.

On this earth, these things are inevitable, and so we must come to accept them, rather than trying to hold on to the season we currently find ourselves in. And so the teacher concludes this by again affirming the point "everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man." (Ecclesiastes 3:13).

But then the teacher goes back to his wrestling. He points out that even in just people, there are glimpses of wickedness. But. in many ways, that doesn't matter. Both the righteous person and the wicked person die. Just like animals, eventually our bodies will return to dust. There is wickedness in the world, and in many ways the dead have it better off than the living. Even better to not be born. These are the thoughts that the teacher is having as he's wrestling with this issue.

But despite this, there are few things that the teacher of noticed are good. It is better to have people by your side than be alone. These people can help you when you fall down and keep you warm when it's cold. It is also better to be wise than to pursue position. A foolish king or leader will only be mocked and hated. To chase after position is to chase after the wind.

Psalm 6

This psalm is attributed to king David, and falls into the category of lament psalm, specifically a psalm of sickness. We see many of the familiar themes with lament psalms; turning to God, bringing the complaint, making a request of God, and then declaring trust in God. Though in this psalm, many of the steps are blended together.

Psalm 6:1-3 - A cry for mercy, asking God to be gracious as the psalmist is wasting away

Psalm 6:4-5 - Appeal to God’s love and glory

Psalm 6:6-7 - Further mention of the psalmist’s struggles

Psalm 6:8-10 - Declaration of trust in God

The psalm opens with a cry out to God. The psalmist is wasting away and they feel like they can’t take it any more. They beg God to stop what feels like rebuke and discipline, and ask him to be gracious to them instead. They ask the common question ‘how long?’ How long must we suffer before God answers us?

Then the psalmist makes an appeal to who God is. First, to his steadfast love. Our God is a faithful and loving God, and so the psalmist asks God to be true to his character and save them because of this love. Secondly, they appeals to God’s glory. God’s glory deserves our praise, but how can the psalmist praise God if he’s dead? The psalm reminds us of the importance of focusing on who God is in our prayers. We then let that truth shape what we pray for.

The psalmist then lapses back into their suffering. They are struggling with real loss, grief, and mourning. All too often, we can skip over this section in our own prayers. Yes, God is bigger than our problems, but we don’t need to diminish our problems to make God seem even bigger. When we properly accept the difficulty and the magnitude of what we’re going through, it actually exalts God even more when we then declare that God is greater.

Which is where the psalmist ends up. Having taken time to grieve with God, the psalm now allows us to be lifted back up in the confidence of God’s deliverance. As they finished mentioning that their opponents are making them weak, the psalmist then tells those same foes where to go. Our God hears and responds to his people. One day, he will come and turn the boasting of the wicked into shame. The contrast we are meant to pick up is that he will also turn the shame of those who call out to him in to boasting. In Psalm 6:2-3 it was the psalmist’s bones and soul that were greatly troubled. Now in Psalm 6:10 it is their enemies that are greatly troubled.

Anything you think I've missed? Maybe you've got a question that still needs answering. Send me a message over on my Instagram (@brynjoslin). I'd love to talk it through with you some more.

Share this article