How to Read Ecclesiastes

The Book of Ecclesiastes


Planting a garden requires the right tools. And so does interpreting the Bible. But instead of shovels, rakes, and weeders, we use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application. 


The book of Ecclesiastes is a painful reflection on the paradox of life, the inescapability of death, and learning to enjoy life even though we cannot control it. This video from The Bible Project provides an overview of the book.The goal of this post is not to replace your personal study of the Bible. Rather, it is to help you navigate the book of Ecclesiastes, discover what it teaches, dive into how it fits into the rest of the Bible, and look at how it applies to your life. Use the questions below as a guide as you watch this video.




As the video points out, Ecclesiastes is a musing on the hard-to-grasp paradox of life. Since the entire book encompasses a vast array of themes and subjects, this post focuses on Ecclesiastes 1. Use the principles from the video to inform your answers to the following questions about Ecclesiastes 1.


Ecclesiastes 1:1-18 (ESV)

All Is Vanity

1The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,

vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

3 What does man gain by all the toil

at which he toils under the sun?

4A generation goes, and a generation comes,

but the earth remains forever.

5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down,

and hastens to the place where it rises.

6 The wind blows to the south

and goes around to the north;

around and around goes the wind,

and on its circuits the wind returns.

7All streams run to the sea,

but the sea is not full;

to the place where the streams flow,

there they flow again.

8All things are full of weariness;

a man cannot utter it;

the eye is not satisfied with seeing,

nor the ear filled with hearing.

9 What has been is what will be,

and what has been done is what will be done,

and there is nothing new under the sun.

10Is there a thing of which it is said,

“See, this is new”?

It has been already

in the ages before us.

11There is no remembrance of former things,

nor will there be any remembrance

of later things yet to be

among those who come after.

The Vanity of Wisdom

12I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.13And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.14I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

15 What is crooked cannot be made straight,

and what is lacking cannot be counted.

16I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.”17And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.

18For in much wisdom is much vexation,

and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.



Observation asks the basic question: who, what, where, and when. It examines the passage at a surface level—the characters, events, themes, culture, and genre. Observations may seem obvious at first, but they open the door to the meaning of any part of the Bible. Be careful to not jump ahead to interpreting the observations, or assigning them meaning. Just list them. 


Example: The preacher rants that life is like a vapor, and people are not ever satisfied before they die.


Observe: As you watched the video, what observations did you make about Ecclesiastes 1? (Consider the characters, locations, objects, metaphors, comparisons, cultural aspects, genre, themes, and actions of the characters.)
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Where an observation determines what Ecclesiastes 1 says, interpretation takes the next step to find out what it means. We’ve asked what Ecclesiastes 1 says about God and humanity, and now we ask what that means. Look at the themes and ask what they mean as well.


Example: (Observation) The preacher rants that life is like a vapor, and people are not ever satisfied before they die. (Interpretation) All our attempts to fill and satisfy ourselves only leave us empty. 


Interpret: What is significant about each of the observations you made above? What is the main message of Ecclesiastes 1? (Think about what this book teaches about God and humanity and what that teaching means, as well as the meaning of the themes.)
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Contextualization looks at how the passage fits into the rest of the book and into the story of the Bible. It connects the themes that pop up throughout the story of Scripture and sees how the book fits into the biblical narrative. 


Example: When God created everything, all was perfect and satisfying. Sin entered the picture, fracturing our fellowship with God and ruining everything. We are no longer able to be satisfied because of our sinfulness. Mankind has exchanged the truth about God for a lie and now worships the created rather than the Creator, resulting in emptiness in our souls. Because of sin, all will die. 


Contextualize: What themes does Ecclesiastes 1 seem to establish? How do those themes connect with the rest of the book of Ecclesiastes? What themes would you say have potential to carry forward into other books of the Bible? What themes connect back to the Torah (Genesis through Deuteronomy) or the historical books (Judges through 2 Kings)?
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Application asks, “So what?” It considers how the meaning of this passage applies to our day-to-day lives. The point of reading Scripture isn’t to become puffed up with knowledge, but to be transformed. Ask God to show you how you can specifically put the truths from this book into practice. Brainstorm ways you can live out what you learned throughout your day.


Example: I need to be mindful of where I am looking to be satisfied. When I am seeking to be filled by pleasure, or a career, or experiences, I must remember those will not satisfy. For example, I can ask God to satisfy me, rather than expecting my job or my upcoming vacation to truly make me happy in a lasting way.


Apply: How does the truth from Ecclesiastes 1 affect you and your relationship with God and others? What are some specific actions you could take to live out the truths found in this book this week?
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The last step in reading the Bible helps us wrap everything up. We take the time to summarize the main message and implications of the book. As you summarize what you learned, it solidifies what God taught you through this video.  

Share: Now that you’ve spent time learning about Ecclesiastes, how would you explain the main points of this book to a friend? If you were going to explain what you learned to a friend, what would you say? What would you be sure to include? Why?
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Reading the Bible doesn’t have to be like weeding a garden. You can find great joy in learning about God through His Word. Read through Ecclesiastes this week. As you study, use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application as a guide. Take the next step and put what you learn into practice. 


To learn more about The Bible Project, click here.