For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die. . . .
The narrator of Ecclesiastes is a nameless person who calls himself a “Teacher,” and identifies himself as the current king of Israel and a son of King David. The Teacher opens with the exclamation, “Vanity of vanities . . . ! All is vanity” (1:2). He laments that everything in life is endless and meaningless—especially human toil and the cycles of nature—for nothing is ever truly new on earth. As the wisest man in Jerusalem, the Teacher feels he is cursed with the unhappy task of discerning wisdom, for he has seen “all the deeds that are done under the sun” (1:14). In a mixture of prose and verse, the Teacher compiles his studies, hypotheses, and proverbs regarding wisdom.
The Teacher tries many earthly pleasures. He drinks, becomes wealthy, acquires power, buys property, experiences sexual gratification, and views artistic entertainment. However, none of these experiences satisfies him. Although the Teacher originally assumes that wisdom is better than folly, he realizes that achieving wisdom is a frustrating and elusive pursuit, for the wise and the foolish both die the same death. He hypothesizes that the best humans can do is to honor God and to eat, drink, and enjoy themselves.
The Teacher also surveys the general trends of human activity. He notes that just as there is time for each good thing in life, such as birth or love, there is always a time for its opposite, such as death or hate. It is often hard for mortal humans to understand the difference between wickedness and justice, but God distinguishes between the two. The Teacher notes that human labor is marked by competition, envy, and oppression. The Teacher praises the virtues of human cooperation, noting the advantages that a team of two or three individuals has over one person alone.
Next, the Teacher discusses various foolish actions, such as gluttony, the love of money, and excessive talking. The Teacher provides a series of instructions for avoiding such foolhardiness. Each saying extols negative experiences over positive ones: mourning, he claims, is better than feasting, and the end of things is better than the beginning. He also encourages people to be neither too righteous nor too wicked but to remain moderate.
Still, the Teacher remains bothered by the fact that both evil and good people meet the same fate. He grows tired of discussing the distinctions between good and bad, clean and unclean, obedient and disobedient. He ultimately decides that the only factors in determining the outcome between life’s opposing forces are time and chance.
The Teacher gives positive exhortations. He encourages humans to enjoy their vain lives and activities to the fullest. People must embrace the unforeseen chances of life, since caution only impedes God’s providence. He urges young people to remain happy and to follow their inclinations, reminding them to always remember God. The things of earth are only temporary, and life is a cycle that eventually returns to God (12:7). The Teacher also warns the reader against heeding too many wise sayings, for the study of wisdom never ends. The “end of the matter,” he concludes, is for humans to fear God and to obey his commandments (12:13).