The author of the Old Testament’s Book of Ecclesiastes called himself “the preacher.” And he claimed to be a “son of David,” an expression used commonly to describe oneself as a Jew rather than as an actual son of David. But some in modern times would believe that Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon, despite it being unlikely that Solomon in his old age would have turned his view of the world upside down and written about futility and the evils of oppression. Some others estimate that Ecclesiastes was written several hundred years after Solomon: around 200 BCE.
“The Preacher” began Ecclesiastes by writing:
Vanity of Vanities! All is vanity… All things are wearisome… The eye is not satisfied with seeing. Nor is the ear filled with hearing.
The Preacher was not as optimistic as the writer of the Book of Proverbs, where it was written that if one honors the Lord “your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will overflow with new wine.” The Preacher denied that people could apply themselves and better their lot. He suggested that there was no hope in this world. “That which has been,” he wrote, “is that which will be.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) He held that knowledge was futile: “What is crooked,” he wrote, “cannot be straightened, and what is lacking cannot be counted… in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.” (Ecclesiastes 1:15-18)
The Preacher described himself as having built houses for himself, as having planted vineyards, gardens and fruit trees and as having made parks for himself. He claimed that he had collected silver, gold, slaves and many concubines, and that all this had been in vain. Then he got to the heart of his message, a message that made it more likely that his writing would be included with the other writings that were scripture: Without Yahweh, he wrote, all is in vain, “For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?” The Preacher described Yahweh as having power over everything. “There is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it,” he wrote. “That which will be has already been, for God seeks what has passed by.” (Ecclesiastes 3:14-15)
Some Jews had been asking why unrighteous people were enjoying success while some who devoutly worshiped Yahweh were suffering hardship and deprivation. The Preacher had an answer for them: he wrote that in a world controlled by God there was wickedness because God was testing people “in order for them to see that they are but beasts.” “All go to the same place,” he wrote, and “all came from the dust and all return to the dust.” (Ecclesiastes 3:18-20)
In Chapter 4, Verse 2, the Preacher congratulates the dead, whom he claimed were better off than the living. “But better off than both of them,” he writes, “is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.”
In Chapter 5, Verse 10 the Preacher denounces the incentives that make free enterprise work. “He who loves money,” he writes, “will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves abundance with its income.” Expressing a disbelief in rewards, he writes:
The race is not to the swift, and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning, nor favor to men of ability. (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
In Chapter 8, Verse 2 the Preacher delivers an old, conservative message, which must have pleased the priestly authorities: he calls on his readers to obey their rulers, to “Keep the command of the king, because of the oath before God.” Then, in Verse 5, he made an incongruently optimistic comment: “He who keeps a royal command experiences no trouble, for a wise heart knows the proper time and procedure.”
Toward the end of his message, the Preacher contradicts what he wrote about the blessing of being dead or never having been born. Life, he claims is worth living: “Surely,” he writes, “a live dog is better than a dead lion.” “Go then,” he continues. “Eat your bread in happiness, and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works.” (Ecclesiastes 9:7) “Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun, for this is your reward in life, and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 9:9). Then, in his next verse, the Preacher advises to do what “your hand finds to do” and to do it “with all your might.” Yet he claims (in 9:12), that man is “like fish caught in a net or birds trapped in a snare.”