Ecclesiastes is really the supreme example of Wisdom literature and there are a number of ideas in it. But there are two themes that run throughout the text, as we shall see: 1) wisdom and 2) the fear of God. And these two are typical of Wisdom literature.
Let’s talk about the organization of this book. First of all, let's learn the name of this book in Hebrew. It's not Ecclesiastes. That’s the Greek rendering for the Hebrew word, Koheleth, which is the name of this writer and therefore, the name of this book. And what does Koheleth mean? Kahal is one of the Hebrew words that corresponds to our word "church." Kahal, in Hebrew, means an "assembly of people," who have gathered for some spiritual purpose. Many Israel or Messianic congregations in the United States will use this word kahal in their title, such as kehilat emunah, the assembly of the faithful or kehilat shalom, the congregation of peace or kehilat meshiach, the congregation of the Messiah. So kahal is the Hebrew word that refers to an assembly or a congregation. Now, what is the Greek word that was used in the Septuagint to translate kahal? Ekklesia. That's the Greek word for a "called out assembly" or "a group of people" and it corresponds to the Hebrew kahal. Now where do we get Ecclesiastes? Right from Ekklesia.
Now what does all this mean? It simply means that the word koheleth is the word that refers to an "assembler," or in Greek, a "convoker," someone who convokes an assembly or a collector. It's a peculiar Hebrew word because it's actually a feminine verb. But it is used here as a title and refers to the act of calling together, the act of assembling, the act of collecting, for example, collecting sayings or assembling people to deliver those sayings to. It is not technically correct to translate koheleth as it's done in the NIV and in most Bibles as the "Teacher." Or, "Preacher" as the Kings James Authorized Version says. It's someone who is addressing the assembly, but really, it is the act of collecting or calling or convoking an assembly.
Now, what about the book as a whole? What is the organizational pattern of it, if any? Some would say, there is no pattern. Some scholars say that this is a rather loose and disorganized repetitious treatment of certain themes. But I think the predominate view is that there is an organization and most scholars dispute over whether that organization should be divided into two parts or into three parts. Some would say that Ecclesiastes consists of two main divisions of six chapters each; there are twelve chapters in the whole book. Others say no, it is three divisions of four chapters each. But I wish to follow the lead of Professor Kaiser (Walt Kaiser -- I respect his scholarship) and tell you that I think the best organizational chart is one that divides Ecclesiastes into four sections. Not two or three. And here is the division that we are going to use for your reference and study.
The first section is going to be Ecclesiastes, Chapter 1, beginning with verse 2, through Chapter 2, verse 26. The second unit is Chapter 3, verse 1 through Chapter 5, verse 20. Our third unit will be Chapter 6, verse 1 though Chapter 8, verse 15. And the fourth and final unit will be Chapter 8, verse 16 through the end of the book, Chapter 12, verse 14.
Now, this will become more significant to you as we get into our study because what we're gong to find is that this author is building an argument. This is a wise man speaking. He is not speaking haphazardly. There is a plan, there is a pattern and he is building upon each unit and what you are going to find is, in fact, every unit is in summary sense a self-contained argument and concludes with a specific conclusion or exhortation or bit of wisdom. And then there is a conclusion at the end that covers the entire text. So this is the organizational pattern of Koheleth that we will be using.
Now, what is the theme, the principal theme of Kohelet? Well, there are various refrains that run through the text. There are repeated exhortations that emerge through this text. If you were to ask someone, what is the theme of Ecclesiastes, most of us would respond with the negative theme. Vanity, vanity, wouldn't we? Meaningless, meaningless, vanity. That's the negative theme. But in truth, the more important themes are positive ones and they are also repeated throughout the text. They're frequently referred to, for example, the "fear of God." The theme of "receiving" the good things of life, such as eating and drinking and enjoying your material gains as a gift from God is a theme of Ecclesiastes. And also there is a theme that we must always remember that God is, and will, judge the righteous, as well as the wicked. God is overseeing and participating and directing our lives and destinies and there will come a judgment of his -- of both the righteous and the wicked.
Now, you know me pretty well and you know, I'm a little weird. When I get a book...I don't read a lot of fiction, I always want to read fiction but it seems like I never find time for fiction because I'm always too busy reading nonfiction. So this principle doesn't apply to reading a fiction book. But with a nonfiction book, you know, the first thing I do when I get a book that I'm about to read? I look at the table of contents and find out where the conclusion is, where the author's final summation of it is and I go to the back of the book and I read it. Because, first of all, I want to know if this book is worth reading. I don't want to spend 200 pages finding out that it is not worth reading. So I go to the back of the book and find out, "what is the author's point of view here?" And then I decide whether to follow through. I want to do that with you right now. Let's go to the back of the book and read this text... Turn with me to Chapter 12. I want to show you the sum of the matter - the point that this author is making. Here is what it is all about. Verse 9. "Not only was the Teacher or Koheleth wise. But also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. Then Koheleth searched to find just the right words and what he wrote was upright and true. The words of the wise are like goads. Their collected sayings, like firmly embedded nails given by one shepherd. (And the illusion here, I think, is to the Shepherd of Israel). Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of the making of many books there is no end. (Amen -- I know that's true.) And much study wearies the body. (Double Amen.) Now, all has been heard and here is the sum and conclusion of the matter. Fear God and keep his commandments. For this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil." What is the sum of the matter? What is this man of wisdom say? His bottom line? Fear God, keep his commandments and remember that everything is subject to judgment.
Now, we are going to elaborate greatly upon this theme. There is a lot of misunderstanding about what "fear" of God is; we'll clarify that. But I want you to understand that this is where we are heading. And we are going to see this theme emerge at various points. You say, well, that seems rather simple. In fact, it is. All great truths are enormously simple. Have you ever had that experience where someone explained something to you and you thought, wow, that's so simple, why didn't I figure that out? But you never figured it out for yourself. But once somebody showed you, you say, "that's simple, why didn't I do that?" Why didn't I come up with Rubic's cube and make ten zillion dollars? That's simple. Or why didn’t I think of a hula hoop? I mean, what is complex about a hula hoop? It’s the same with great truths, philosophical truths; once someone has penetrated the thick darkness and perceived the truth and explained it, you go, "Wow, that's self-evident." These truths are self-evident. But not until they are explained. So, this is where we are heading. This is the sum of the matter.
* This is an audio transcript, listen to the original message here.