What I love about the structure of Ecclesiastes, is that this is the way people think as they struggle with confusion. A confused person does not fixate on a specific line of reasoning, and find his way directly to a conclusion. A confused person will often explore different options. This doesn’t mean that exploring these options is necessarily right, this is just what many people do. And God will sometimes use those meanderings to uncover what they are looking for. The author of Ecclesiastes is wise because he has found ‘the eye of the storm’. He learns how drink a good beer and eat a thick steak after a hard days work, while kings rise and fall and the philosophers quibble and fight. He does this because he fears God and desires to keep His commandments. He is able to enjoy life whereas the immoral and arrogant are intolerably prudish and hollow men.
M.J.C. Blok refers to the view of some scholars that Ecclesiastes is a debate between many speakers and so you get both orthodox and unorthodox statements, forming a fragmentary book.1 I will argue along with Blok and Richard P. Belcher for the full orthodoxy of Ecclesiastes. In fact, many of the statements that don’t sound so orthodox will bring the reader to a deeper understanding of the orthodoxy of this book. The issue with people questioning the orthodoxy of Ecclesiastes is a problem with their view of orthodoxy. It is not exactly what many might imagine. As G.K. Chesterton states: “People have fallen into a foolish habit of speaking of orthodoxy as something heavy, humdrum, and safe. There never was anything so perilous or exciting as orthodoxy.”2
Derek Kidner writes: “Wisdom – quite practical and orthodox – is his basecamp; but he is an explorer. His concern is with the boundaries of life, and especially with the questions that most of us would hesitate to push too far.”3 Many parents and leaders in the church become afraid when their children and young people “push the card” when it comes to orthodoxy and asking the deeper questions of life. But here, we see Solomon take leadership in asking the hard questions, making the tough observations. But it doesn’t end there. He also uncovers the answers. It might even remind the reader of Proverbs 2, where Solomon urges his son to cry out for wisdom and insight. If he does so, Solomon promises him that he will find the fear of the Lord and the knowledge of God (Prov. 2: 3,5). It is these answers that Solomon urges upon his son in Ecclesiastes: “My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” (Ecc. 12:11-13).
In 7:15-18 and other sections, Solomon asks the same hard questions that Asaph asks in Psalm 73. Why do the righteous die and the fool and the wicked succeed? What reward is there for the righteous? He has an unorthodox conclusion: do not be overly righteous. He has a very orthodox conclusion: do not be overly wicked. But he runs up the middle with another command (which is very much orthodox): fear God. I recognize this struggle. I have been rebuked for being overly righteous. I recognize my pride. But do I be wicked? No, I must follow Solomon’s exhortation to fear God.
Ecclesiastes is punctuated by paradox. Solomon has struggled with paradox his whole life. Solomon is an old man speaking to young men. He doesn’t focus so much on the authority of his learning, but the authority of his observations.4 Not everything needs an answer. There is mystery: because God is God and we are not. This wise elderly gentleman has learned from observation and experience that a lot of what young men do is just plain sad. He often puts himself in their shoes, because he has been there. He points out that sometimes shiny things are corroded on the inside. And so he gives exhortations to these young men towards the good life: faithfulness, joy, obedience. He also gives us exhortations away from being arrogant and idiotic. Life is best lived in humility and joy before the face of God.
1M.J.C. Blok, Ecclesiastes: 15 Outlines (London: Inter-League Publication Board, 1988), 8.
2G.K. Chesterton, The Project Gutenberg Ebook of Orthodoxy (accessed March 1, 2018), https://www.gutenberg.org/files/16769/16769-h/16769-h.htm.
3Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1976), 13.
4Van Pelt, Miles V., ed., A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the Old Testament: the Gospel Promised (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 450.