Ecclesiastes is a group of short teachings that try to answer the question, “What is life?” Ecclesiastes is a series of thoughts about a variety of subjects, all of them about the purpose and worth of various actions and events. From the author’s viewpoint, any work we perform or any knowledge and skill we gain is useless.
The traditional title “Ecclesiastes” is another name for “assembly” and carries no meaning as a title. Translators might decide on a better title such as “Thoughts of a Teacher” or “Thoughts of a Wise Man.”
The author appears to be Solomon, “the Teacher, the descendant of David and king in Jerusalem.” Other evidence in the book is consistent with the status and reputation of Solomon: his wisdom (See: Ecclesiastes 1:16 and twenty-six other references to wisdom); his vast wealth (See: Ecclesiastes 2:8), and the pain that comes from wealth (See: Ecclesiastes 5:13-14; Ecclesiastes 4:8; and Ecclesiastes 9:11); the large number of servants (See: Ecclesiastes 2:7 and Ecclesiastes 10:7); the limitless opportunities for worldly pleasures (See: Ecclesiastes 2:1-2, Ecclesiastes 10; Ecclesiastes 3:13; Ecclesiastes 4:8; Ecclesiastes 5:4; and Ecclesiastes 12:1); and the wide range of his many construction projects (See: Ecclesiastes 2:4-6). The book appears to be written near the end of Solomon’s reign as he reflects on how he wasted much of his life.
Some scholars think the author was a faithful man. Other scholars think that the author made bad decisions and was sorrowful when he wrote this book. The apparent contradictions in the book may indicate Solomon’s wavering faith. Or, it is also possible that the teachings in the book differ from each other in order to be relevant to various circumstances in the reader’s life.
In the Ancient Near East, people were concerned with the reason they were being punished or blessed. They often attributed these acts of justice or retribution to their gods. Ecclesiastes explains that Yahweh will bless the righteous and punish the evil, but this might not happen in this life. (See: rc://en/tw/dict/bible/kt/bless, rc://en/tw/dict/bible/kt/justice, rc://en/tw/dict/bible/kt/falsegod, rc://en/tw/dict/bible/kt/righteous and rc://en/tw/dict/bible/kt/evil)
The Israelites have often questioned the value of this book. This is due in large part to its unusual wording and teachings. At times, it appears to disagree with the rest of Scripture. While many have questioned its authority, it has ultimately been affirmed to be Scripture. This is because it gives valuable lessons concerning the uselessness of pursuing any goal other than to give Yahweh glory.
“Under the sun” here is another way of saying “on the earth.” When the author says that there is “nothing new under the sun,” this means that there is nothing that has not happened before on earth. While the referenced event may not have specifically occurred before, there has been something similar that has happened.
There are parts of the book that can be shocking or surprising to read in Scripture. For example, “If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but if his heart is not satisfied with good and he is not buried with honor, then I say that a baby that is born dead is better off than he is” (6:3). The translator should allow these difficulties to remain and not try to make them less surprising.
The author of Ecclesiastes concluded that life without God has no value or purpose. Therefore life has no meaning. There are some subtle differences in the meaning for each of these words. A person’s circumstances or character and even all of the things of this world have little or no significance apart from God. That is because God gives meaning to everything.
At the end of their life, a person commonly sees their life as brief. The author used the metaphor of vapor or breath to describe how life ends while it seems to still be beginning.