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The book we have come to know as Ecclesiastes takes its title from the Hebrew name of its writer, Kohelet. At the end of the book his biographer writes, “Kohelet was wise and he passed on his teachings to the people. He pondered, searched out, and set in order many proverbs. He studied to find just the right words, and what he wrote was honest and true.”
There are five themes that frame his message.
1. What does a person gain? – This is the question that drives Kohelet’s quest. Why are we working so hard and what are we hoping to get from all our toil? Kohelet’s goal is to use personal observation to discover if there is a reward for our labor which will provide a ongoing benefit, something that lasts beyond the confines of the day.
2. Under the sun – This is the location for Kohelet’s search. He is considering the fact that God not only created the world but also changed it so that now we must continually struggle to earn our daily bread. There is no hidden meaning in this phrase, it simply means “upon the earth.”
3. Lasting Benefit – God provides daily rewards for our work (food, pleasure, relationships etc.) but is that all we get? Is there anything that goes beyond the day? Something we can create or build that will outlast us?
4. Hebel – The Hebrew word for smoke, breath or vapor is used 38 times in this short book. It represents something with significance and meaning, yet it cannot be grasped or held on to. When something is “hebel” it is fleeting, transitory, vain or futile.
5. Chasing the wind – When we pursue something as an end it itself it will become “hebel” to us for a lasting benefit from these pursuits simply cannot be attained. Yet those same things (wisdom, wealth, pleasure etc.) can be a great blessing in our daily journey. Kohelet wants us to see that the blessings of the day are not to be held up as goals for the future.
At the conclusion of his book Kohelet’s anonymous biographer noted that the words of the wise “guide our lives.” I have completed a new translation of Kohelet that may help you understand and learn from his wisdom. It is arranged in 31 readings so that you can meditate on one concept each day of the month. I have found this exercise of great value in my search to understand this life that we live under the sun.
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