For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die. . . .

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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).


The Book of Ecclesiastes is a notoriously confusing portion of the Old Testament. The Teacher is uncertain and ambiguous in his writing. His claims suggest that the Teacher is the great King Solomon—the son of King David whom God blesses with powers of immense wisdom. While this identity lends credibility to the book, the Teacher’s comments are not at all systematic. The book is often repetitive or contradictory. The frequent changes in tone make it unclear whether the Teacher intends his comments to describe how humans naturally behave or to tell people how they should behave. The Teacher’s recurring lament of “vanity” is emblematic of the book’s elusive intentions. “Vanity” is a translation of the Hebrew word hebel, which means “breath of the wind,” connoting uselessness, deceptiveness, and transience. Indeed, the Teacher’s confusing style may be a means to reinforce his argument that human wisdom is essentially limited or “vain.”

Ecclesiastes’ manner of teaching contrasts with the rest of the Old Testament because it questions the process of receiving wisdom and ideals. Although much of the Old Testament is aimed at setting up absolute opposites, The Teacher is skeptical of such binary opposites. He does not endorse the division of the world into positive and negative forces, including good and evil, peace and war, clean and unclean. The Teacher does not believe that these forces do not exist, but he suggests that defining life within such simplistic terms may not be an effective way for human beings to understand it. In his most famous verse, he notes that each experience has its appropriate place in life: there is “a time to keep silence, and a time / to speak; / a time to love, and a time to hate . . .” (3:7–8). This verse suggests that the tension between positive and negative experiences is fundamental to human life, and that only God can truly judge when a situation is either good or evil. Later, he assumes a more pessimistic tone, affirming that time and chance are the only determining factors in the race between good and evil. The premise of this point of view is that the difference between good and evil is so subtle and transient that humans cannot confidently assume they are able to differentiate between good and evil or between obedience and disobedience.

The Teacher’s mode of argument is consistent with his beliefs about the limitations of human reason. Rather than providing us with a set of general rules or guidelines for wise behavior, the Teacher makes a series of observations about concrete human experiences. The Teacher’s study of human pleasure is empirical, testing each pleasurable experience and forming conclusions only on the basis of observations. The Teacher also refers to what he sees or finds in life rather than what he thinks. He says, “See, this is what I found . . . adding one thing to another to find the sum, which my mind has sought repeatedly, but I have not found” (7:27). The “sum,” or final meaning, of human life eludes the Teacher, and he prefers to base his thoughts on his experiences. The Teacher’s proverbs and sayings focus on concrete objects and feelings. To encourage humans to embrace life’s chances, he instructs, “Send out your bread upon the waters . . .” (11:1). He also speaks about walking on the road, charming snakes, digging pits, looking at the sun, and, as always, his chief advice is to eat, drink, and be merry. These sayings are metaphors and symbols for diverse experiences from which larger conclusions can be drawn; but the Teacher leaves the interpretation of his sayings to the reader, further emphasizing his distaste for rigid or dogmatic wisdom.