Take time to introduce yourselves to one another (over drinks or snacks if possible). Then ask group members to answer this question:
Over the course of the coming term, we’re exploring the ancient book of Ecclesiastes. Though Ecclesiastes comes from a very different culture and time to ours, it touches on some of the most profound issues of humanity.
Ask for volunteers to read Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26 to the group, praying a short prayer that, however much they’ve come to know God, they’d know him better as a result of your time together.
You can download this video to watch offline.
Suggested questions to help your discussion.
In 1:1, the Teacher describes himself in 1:1 as ‘son of David.’ In 1:12, he adds that he was ‘king over Israel in Jerusalem.’ Technically, there were only four kings of Israel in Jerusalem before the kingdom split – Saul, David, Solomon and Solomon’s son Rehoboam. Together, these hints – and Solomon’s famous request for wisdom (1 Kings 3:9) – have led many people to assume that the Teacher is King Solomon.
This may be doubtful, though. The Teacher says he was King of Israel (past tense) – a strange thing for Solomon to say. The Teacher says he maintained wisdom in taking lots of women; whereas Solomon did so in his foolishness. A number of passages in Ecclesiastes are written from the perspective of a subject and not a king (see 5:8-9, 8:1-9). Further, Ecclesiastes is also written in a form of Hebrew that was used long after Solomon.
It seems likely instead that the Teacher takes on the persona of Solomon for his thought experiment. He explores reality ‘as if’ he were Solomon, imaginatively re-playing Solomon’s reign in order to explore life ‘under the sun.’ He imagines becoming a king to persuade us that, even if we were wealthy, powerful and wise, life in this world would still be frustrating and ultimately unrewarding.
The Teacher seems to imply that work is meaningless. Our work, he teaches, cannot secure us an identity or make a lasting impact. Further, it brings us stress and anxiety, pain and grief. All this is hardly motivating for university students!
The Teacher would not have us stop work (see Ecclesiastes 4:5). Neglecting our abilities is squandering what God has given us. Rather, he encourages us to view our work rightly. If work is the basis of our value, joy and satisfaction, we will necessarily be disappointed. Work becomes satisfying when it’s not a means to grabbing other things, but an expression of who we are and what we have.
The New Testament adds that, in knowing Jesus, we are gradually freed from self-centeredness, insecurity and wanting to make a name for ourselves. This is the antidote to workaholism, competitiveness and laziness. We are freed to do our work, honouring God with the best of our abilities.
Work is still frustrating. Computers still crash and we will still have annoying colleagues! Ecclesiastes gives us the realism of working in a cursed and broken world, whilst encouraging us to find an element of satisfaction in our work when offered as worship to God.
For more on this theme, see The Limits of Labour, a podcast on the theme of work in Ecclesiastes from the Bible Project.
Take some time to reflect personally.
Ask someone to pray in the light of your discussions for the group.
In being honest about his life, the Teacher helps us to learn from his experience.
Share prayer requests amongst your group. Include time praying that there might be natural times you share some of your own stories with friends in the week ahead. Keep each other updated in your group chat!
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