"Trying to grasp Ecclesiastes feels like trying to pin down a large resistant octopus"1

Ecclesiastes is a difficult book. Don't be discouraged if you are having a hard time trying to figure out what this book is all about. You aren't the only one! There is a reason this book is in the Bible and it is truly a powerful book once you wrap your mind around it.


For the rest of this summary, there are a few important terms to know:

  • Qohelet: This is the transliteration of the Hebrew word often translated into English as "Preacher" or "Teacher" (e.g. 1:1)
  • Hevel: This is the transliteration of the Hebrew word often translated into English as "vanity" or "futile" or "meaningless" (e.g. 1:2)

I am going to use these terms because it is hard to translate these terms from Hebrew to English without losing some of the meaning and I want us to keep in mind some important distinctions. Regarding 'Qohelet', this word describes someone who brings together a group of people to teach them. There is irony in the fact that the 'Teacher' in this book is not always right and is often confused and confusing.

Regarding the word 'Hevel', this word refers to smoke or vapor. It is used in Ecclesiastes to emphasize how life is transient, ephemeral, and lacking substance.

Authorship, Audience, Date, and Historical Context

The authorship, audience, date or writing, and historical context are all related. Each is the subject of significant debate and I will not cover this debate here. I hope to write a separate article specifically on the date and authorship of Ecclesiastes.

Literary Context

As part of Wisdom Literature, Ecclesiastes discusses topics like the meaning of life and what it means to live well in this world. Assuming Solomonic authorship, 1 Kings 2 - 11 is the backdrop for this book. The conclusion that wisdom is summed up in fearing God and keeping His commandments (12:13) echoes Job 28:28, Proverbs 1:7, and 9:10. Ecclesiastes emphasizes God's judgement and hints at a resurrection which are major themes in the New Testament as evidenced by 1 Corinthians 15 and 2 Thessalonians 1 (among many others).


Before giving a complete outline for the book, it is important to note that Ecclesiastes is a frame narrative. This is a literary structure which contains a narrative within a narrative. Other examples of frame narratives include Frankenstein (Mary Shelley's novel actually includes three layers of narrative) and The Princess Bride. In Ecclesiastes, the outer narrative (the frame) refers to Qohelet in the third person. The inner narrative is Qohelet himself speaking. If we were to visualize the inner and outer narratives, it would look something like:

Ecclesiastes is a frame narrative

Here is an outline of the inner and outer narratives in the book:

Passage Narrative Location
Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 Outer
1:12 - 7:26 Inner
7:27 Outer
7:28 - 12:7 Inner
12:8-14 Outer

Now for an outline:

0. Frame: Title [1:1]

I. Prologue [1:2-11]

II. Thesis [1:12-15]

III. Investigations [1:16 - 6:9]

IV. Results of Investigations [6:1 - 11:6]

  • There is an interlude in 7:23-29 where the narrative jumps back to the frame for 7:27

V. Conclusion [11:7 - 12:8]

VI. Frame: Epilogue [12:9-14]

Theological Themes

  • The limits of human wisdom. Like the book of Job, Ecclesiastes emphasizes the limits and futility of human wisdom. This is evidenced by Qohelet's ramblings, contradictions, and errors (refer to the observations below for more details on these). He is mistaken and admittedly confused (see 7:25-29) about some of the most importance questions in life. When he begins his quest for knowledge by saying that he will use 'wisdom' (1:13), we quickly see that he is using is not biblical wisdom. His 'wisdom' is based on human experience, observation, and logic. This allows him to make some accurate and very profound statements, but also prevents him from establishing a coherent and robust understanding of the meaning of life. Human wisdom is not enough to make sense of the scale and complexities of life. Time, death, and chance are powerful forces in life that are unfathomable by human wisdom.
  • The nature of true wisdom. If human wisdom is insufficient for understanding the meaning and purpose of life, Ecclesiastes also suggests an alternative. The conclusion of the book (12:13) aptly sums up the nature of true wisdom by saying:

    "The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments..."

The refrain that true wisdom and the meaningful life is made up of fearing God and keeping His commandments ought to bring to mind Job 28:28, Proverbs 1:7, and 9:10. This is the embodiment of wisdom. Why? Also notice that this does not answer the questions asked by Qohelet. It doesn't explain the intricacies or purpose of life other than to establish death and judgement as the ultimate ends of all human beings.

  • The importance of an eternal perspective. The phrase "under the sun" occurs 27 times in Qohelet's speech (in the NASB version). Qohelet is trying to make sense of life "under the sun", that is to say here on earth. Even Qohelet recognizes, at the end of his 'lesson', that any system which makes sense of life on earth must take into account death and life after death (Ecclesiastes 11:9 - 12:8).


  • Ecclesiastes is remarkably applicable for today. If you were to make a list of things in which Qohelet is trying to find purpose in meaning it would look something like:

    • wisdom
    • foolishness
    • sex
    • wine/alcohol
    • labor/money
    • power
    • status
    • accomplishment

    What is amazing about this list is that we could have come up with this list simply by looking at the world around us. There truly is "nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9b).

  • As surprising as this may sound, Ecclesiastes is a wonderful book for evangelism. I say this for two reasons. First, Ecclesiastes affirms the Bible's clear teaching that every human being has an innate desire for and knowledge of God. The very fact that the book of Ecclesiastes was written and that it corresponds to the reality we observe around us is evidence that human beings are trying to find meaning and purpose in the world around us. One can hardly read of how God "sets eternity" in men's hearts (3:11), of Qohelet's frantic attempt to find meaning apart from God, and of his conclusion that men have "sought out many devices" (7:29) without thinking of the suppression of truth described in Romans 1:18. Men have an innate sense that there must be a 'higher meaning' to life because God has woven this into our consciousness.

    The second reason I say that Ecclesiastes is useful for evangelism is that because Ecclesiastes debunks the worldview of most of the people with whom we will interact in the western world. Consider this: it is very unlikely that anyone with whom you are speaking will ever have more money, sex, power, or accomplishments than Solomon. If Solomon found himself unsatisfied, how much more will anyone to whom you are speaking? Solomon's testimony, if we may call it that, in Ecclesiastes is a powerful example of a man who had it all and found it vanity. This quickly raises some questions. Every human has many desires so if those things won't satisfy, what will? This is where the restorative work of God in redemptive history comes front and center (see 2 Corinthians 5:11-21).

    I would be remiss if I did not mention that C.S. Lewis uses this logic in one of his books entitled Mere Christianity. In it, he argues that every desire has a satisfaction and, therefore, "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world."2 The fact that we have desires which cannot be fulfilled "under the sun" is evidence that we are not designed only for life "under the sun".

  • Some scholars have suggested that Qohelet is on a 'journey' or progression in the book of Ecclesiastes.3 I think this is a helpful way to think about the book. Qohelet is doing a series of 'investigations' or 'experiments' in the first part of the book (1:16 - 6:9) in which he is trying to figure out the significance and purpose of life. He is trying various different methods and arrives at many dead ends. Thinking in this way helps the reader understand why Qohelet is sometimes wrong (e.g. 7:15-18) and sometimes correct (e.g. 12:1-8)
  • Don't believe everything Qohelet says. At times, Qohelet contradicts himself (e.g. 4:2 and 6:3 versus 9:6) and at other times he gives patently unbiblical advice (e.g. 7:15-18). Some of what Qohelet says is correct, but some is not. You need to read with discernment. The fact that Qohelet is wrong and contradictory does not negate the doctrine of the inerrancy of scripture because Ecclesiastes is a frame narrative. The outer (frame) narrative is inerrant, but the inner narrative is not necessarily correct. The fact that Qohelet rambles and contradicts himself shows the challenge of coming up with a coherent world-view using the 'wisdom' espoused by Qohelet.
  • Ecclesiastes 1:13 is ironic when Qohelet suggests that he is using "wisdom" to understand what is going on under heaven. This is ironic because Qohelet spends the rest of the book using a mode of thinking and epistemology that is not founded in biblical wisdom. If you read Ecclesiastes, you will notice that the primary basis on which Qohelet bases his conclusions is his own experience. Perhaps there is nothing inherently wrong with making observations based on experience (this is a topic for a different discussion), but this is not what the Bible calls wisdom. When Qohelet says "wisdom" in 1:13, I think we are supposed to be asking ourselves: "How do you define wisdom?" As we read the rest of the book, we get our answer. The use of experience and human 'wisdom' is why Qohelet arrives at different, contradictory, and sometimes unbiblical conclusions. This also explains why Qohelet himself admits the shortcomings of his venture in 7:23-29, a passage which is discussed in more detail below.
  • There is an interlude in 7:23-29 where Qohelet recaps his purpose and where he is at in the process. This passage is a bit confusing so I am going to walk through verses 7:23-29. In verses 23 and 24, Qohelet admits that wisdom is "far from [him]" (7:23). In other words, he wants to be wise and practice wisdom, but he cannot and admits that he has not been using wisdom up to this point. Verse 25 reiterates his goal of discovering "wisdom and explanation", but verse 26 describes what he actually found. What do you think verse 26 is describing? Take a minute to read this verse and think about what/who he is describing. I think it is describing a personification of folly as described in Proverbs (Proverbs 9:13-18). Qohelet is saying that the only thing he found in his search so far is Lady Folly (who is opposed to wisdom). In verse 27, the narrative jumps back to the frame (as demonstrated by the use of the third person). Verse 28 has been the topic of much discussion. Is Qohelet a misogynist in saying that he could find a few, good men, but no women? I do not think so. When Qohelet says he is not able to find a woman, I think he is referring to Lady Wisdom as described in Proverbs 9:1-6. He has not found Lady Wisdom yet; only Lady Folly. The only conclusion that he has come to so far is given in 7:29: "God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices".
  • Ecclesiastes is a notoriously difficult book to outline. It doesn't have a nice, linear structure. I think this is intentional and serves a didactic purpose. The fact that Qohelet's message is so confusing and lacks a solid structure reinforces the futility of what he is doing. He is trying to figure life out without true wisdom; of course it is unclear and rambling. In this sense, Ecclesiastes is autological in the sense that its structure reflects the same properties of futility and confusion which are being described by the book.
  • Ecclesiastes is performative in the sense that "our frustration in trying to grasp Ecclesiastes... mirrors Qohelet's struggles and thereby draws us as readers into his quest for the meaning of life."4
  • There are various passages throughout Ecclesiastes in which Qohelet gives conclusions or advice about how to live. TODO: CONSIDER FINISHING THIS...


1. Mark J. Boda, Tremper Longman, and Cristian G. Rata, Words of the Wise Are like Goads Engaging Qohelet in the 21st Century (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2014), 368.

2. C. S. Lewis, The complete C.S. Lewis Signature classics (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), 114.

3. Mark J. Boda, Tremper Longman, and Cristian G. Rata, Words of the Wise Are like Goads Engaging Qohelet in the 21st Century (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2014), 137-161.

4. Mark J. Boda, Tremper Longman, and Cristian G. Rata, Words of the Wise Are like Goads Engaging Qohelet in the 21st Century (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2014), 368-369.

Further Research

  • When he says: "It is an evil task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with" (1:12), what task is he talking about?
  • What's is the narrator saying in 12:11?

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