Ecclesiastes can be a complicated book to understand. To assist you in your own personal study, here is a brief overview condensed into nine paragraphs organized by theme. The purpose of this blog post is to concisely convey the overall themes and message of the book while also grouping together all the passages from the text that support each theme.
It is our God-given task* [1:13] [3:10] to ascertain [7:25] [8:9a] what profit we have from all our labor [1:3] [3:9] [5:16b] [2:22] and subsequently what is good for us in life [2:3] [6:12a]. This is the task Solomon takes up in Ecclesiastes.
Many of our pursuits are in vain [6:11] [1:14] [1:2b] [12:8] [2:17], yet unaware of our folly, we continue headlong in our vain pursuits [8:11] [9:3] [10:3]. Our toil is wearisome and fails to bring satisfaction [1:8] [5:10] [6:7] [10:15a] [12:12]. We envy the perceived advantages of others [4:4], and seek out many dreams [5:7] and schemes [7:29], to our own detriment [10:8] [10:18].
We labor to increase riches, which bring dissatisfaction [4:8] and heartache [5:10-13] before perishing [5:15-16a] [2:21]. We labor to bring about pleasures [2:1] and desires of the flesh [2:10a] [2:4-9], none of which are profitable [2:11]. Desire fails [12:5c] and our life ends [3:19] [6:6b] [9:2-3] [2:14b] [12:7] [3:20-21] [8:8a], just as all things are temporary and inevitably return to their source [1:4-7] [9:10b] [5:15-16].
The past is perpetually forgotten [1:11] [2:16] [8:10a] [9:5], keeping us from ever finding out, regardless of effort [8:17], the work that God does from beginning to end [3:11b] – or how God does it [11:5], or the fate of our own works [11:6] [11:2], or what will happen to us tomorrow [9:11] or the next day [9:12], or when [8:7] or what [6:12b] [7:14d] [10:14b] will happen after us, or even that nothing is ever new [1:9-10] [3:15] – except that whatever God does is forever, and is done so that we should submit to the will of God** [3:14], for this is the way out of vanity [5:7].
Submission to the will of God is the beginning of wisdom [Proverbs 9:10] [Psalms 111:10]. Those who submit to the will of God and who diligently keep God’s commandments have done their duty [12:13] [9:1b] and thus escape trouble [7:16-18] [7:26] and find good [8:12b] [9:4], for God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy to those who are good in God’s sight [2:26a].
Wisdom strengthens [7:19], protects [7:12a], and gives life to [7:12b] [8:1b] those who have it. It brings success [10:10c], excels folly [4:13], enables us to see where we are going [2:13-14a], and also brings sorrow [1:17-18], but such a state is better than that of mirth [7:4-6], for it heals the heart [7:3] of its despair [2:17-20].
It is good and fitting for us to live joyfully [9:9], to do good, and to enjoy good in our labor [3:22] [10:17], for such is a gift from God [2:24] [5:18] [8:15] [3:12-13] [9:7], and also to remember this gift in times of adversity [7:14] [12:1] [12:6].
It is best for us to be of wise attitude: patient [7:8] and of quiet mind [4:6], satisfied with goodness [6:3], and content with what we have [6:9a]. Anger and frustration [7:9-10] are futile, for God has made everything beautiful in its time [3:11a] [3:1] [3:17] [8:6]. Thus when we perceive injustice in the world [7:15] [8:14] [6:1-2] [2:26b] [8:10] [4:16], we ought not get upset [7:21] or curse others [10:20] but rather let God [12:14] and God’s appointed officials [5:8] render the judgment, for we all make mistakes [7:20] [7:22].
Those of wise attitude also have upright conduct [11:10a] [7:7]: they keep their promises [5:4-5] and submit to authority for their own good [8:2-5], always maintaining conciliation [10:4] [9:18a]. They speak parsimoniously [5:2-3] [10:14a] [5:7] and with graciousness [10:12] [12:10-11] from a quiet state [9:17]. They teach others wisdom [12:9] and right conduct [7:1] [10:1], and they keep wise association [4:9-12].
Footnotes and Textual Citations
*Note: Most translations use the term “man”, but there is no indication that the text is specifically referring only to the male gender. Therefore in place of the term “man” I use a gender neutral plural pronoun to better convey the important point that Ecclesiastes addresses all people, not just men.
**Note: “Fear of God” is a common phrase throughout the bible, but the sense in which the term “fear” is used has become archaic in modern English. I have thus instead translated it as “Submission to the will of God” because that more closely captures the meaning of the original phrase. I do this so as not to confuse readers with the more common meaning of the term fear (terror, to be afraid of, etc). Fear in this latter sense is the antithesis of love and a product of the fall. We are told to love with our whole being and that there is no fear in perfect love, so fearing God in this sense would be nonsensical. I see this as a very important point to convey, which is why I am addressing it as its own extended footnote.
 [1:13] I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven; this grievous task God has given to the sons of man, by which they may be exercised (or afflicted).
 [3:10] I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied.
 [7:25] I applied my heart to know, to search and seek out wisdom and the reason of things, to know the wickedness of folly, even of foolishness and madness.
 [8:9a] All this I have seen, and applied my heart to every work that is done under the sun.
 [1:3] What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils (or labors) under the sun?
 [3:9] What profit has the worker from that in which he labors?
 [5:16b] And what profit has he who has labored for the wind?
 [2:22] For what has man for all his labor, and for the striving of his heart with which he has toiled under the sun?
 [2:3] I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives.
 [6:12a] Who knows what is good for man in life, all the days of his vain life which he passes like a shadow?
 [6:11] Since there are many things that increase vanity, how is man the better?
 [1:14] I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind.
 [1:2b] Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
 [12:8] ‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher, ‘all is vanity.’
 [2:17] Therefore I hated my life because the work that was done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and grasping for the wind.
 [8:11] Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.
 [9:3] The hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and madness while they live.
 [10:3] Even when a fool walks along the way, he lacks wisdom, and he shows everyone that he is a fool.
 [1:8] All things are full of labor (wearisome); man cannot express it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
 [5:10] He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver; nor he who loves abundance, with increase. This also is vanity.
 [6:7] All the labor of man is for his mouth, and yet the soul is not satisfied.
 [10:15a] The labor of fools wearies them.
 [12:12] Of making many books there is no end; much study is wearisome to the flesh.
 [4:4] Again, I saw that for all toil and every skillful work a man is envied by his neighbor. This also is vanity and grasping for the wind.
 [5:7] For in the multitude of dreams and many words there is also vanity. But fear God.
 [7:29] Truly, this only I have found: that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.
 [10:8] He who digs a pit will fall into it. (You reap what you sow)
 [10:18] Through laziness and idleness of hands, the house decays.
 [4:8] There is one alone, without companion: he has neither son nor brother. Yet there is no end to all his labors, nor is his eye satisfied with riches. But he never asks, ‘For whom do I toil and deprive myself of good?’ This also is vanity and a grave misfortune (or evil task).
 [5:10-13] He who loves silver will not be satisfied with silver; nor he who loves abundance, with increase. This also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them; so what profit have the owners except to see them with their own eyes? The sleep of a laboring man is sweet, whether he eats little or much; but the abundance of the rich will not permit him to sleep. There is a severe evil which I have seen under the sun: riches kept for their owner to his hurt.
 [5:15-16a] As he came from his mother’s womb, naked shall he return, to go as he came. And he shall take nothing from his labor which he may carry away in his hand. And this also is a severe evil, that just exactly as he came, so shall he go.
 [2:21] For there is a man whose labor is with wisdom, knowledge, and skill; yet he must leave his heritage to a man who has not labored for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.
 [2:1] I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with mirth (gladness); therefore enjoy pleasure’; but surely, this also was vanity.
 [2:10a] Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure.
 [2:4-9] I made my works great, I built myself houses and planted myself vineyards. I made myself gardens and orchards, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made myself waterpools from which to irrigate the growing trees of the grove. I acquired male and female servants, and had servants born in my house. Yes, I had greater possessions of herds and flocks than all who were in Jerusalem before me. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the special treasures of kings and of the provinces. I acquired male and female singers, the delights of the sons of men, and musical instruments of all kinds. So I became great and excelled more than all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me.
 [2:11] Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled; and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun.
 [12:5c] The grasshopper is a burden, and desire fails. For man goes to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets.
 [3:19] For what happens to the sons of men also happens to the beasts; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely they all have one breath; man has no advantage over beasts, for all is vanity.
 [6:6b] Do not all go to one place?
 [9:2-3] One event happens to the righteous and the wicked; to the good, the clean, and the unclean; to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As is the good, so is the sinner; and he who takes an oath as he who fears an oath… they go to the dead.
 [2:14b] Yet I myself perceived that the same event happens to them all.
 [12:7] Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.
 [3:20-21] All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to dust. Who knows the spirit of the sons of men, which goes upward, and the spirit of the beast, which goes down to the earth?
 [8:8a] No one has power over the spirit to retain the spirit, and no one has power in the day of death.
 [1:4-7] One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever. The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the places where it arose. The wind goes toward the south, and turns around to the north; the wind whirls about continually, and comes again on its circuit. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; to the place from which the rivers there they return again.
 [9:10b] For there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going.
 [5:15-16] As he came from his mother’s womb, naked shall he return, to go as he came… just exactly as he came, so shall he go.
 [1:11] There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come by those who will come after.
 [2:16] For there is no more remembrance of the wise than of the fool forever, since all that now is will be forgotten in the days to come.
 [8:10a] Then I saw the wicked buried, who had come and gone from the place of holiness, and they were forgotten in the city where they had so done.
 [9:5] For the living know that they will die; but the dead know (or are conscious of) nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten.
 [8:17] Then I saw all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. For though a man labors to discover it, yet he will not find it; moreover, though a wise man attempts to know it, he will not be able to find it.
 [3:11b] No one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.
 [11:5] As you do not know what is the way of the wind (or spirit), or how the bones grow in the womb of her who is with child, so you do not know the works of God who makes all things.
 [11:6] In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not withhold your hand; for you do not know which will prosper, either this or that, or whether both alike will be good.
 [11:2] Give a serving to seven, and also to eight, for you do not know what evil will be on the earth.
 [9:11] I returned and saw under the sun that – the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to men of understanding, nor favor to men of skill; but time and chance (unforeseen occurrence) happen to them all.
 [9:12] For man also does not know his time: like a fish taken in a cruel net, like birds caught in a snare, so the sons of men are snared in an evil time, when it falls suddenly upon him.
 [8:7] For [man] does not know what will happen; so who can tell him when it will occur?
 [6:12b] Who can tell a man what will happen after him under the sun?
 [7:14d] Man can find nothing that will happen after him.
 [10:14b] No man knows what is to be; who can tell him what will be after him?
 [1:9-10] That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which it may be said, ‘See, this is new’? It has already been in ancient times before us.
 [3:15] That which is has already been, and what is to be has already been.
 [3:14] Whatever God does is forever, and is done that men should fear him.
 [5:7] For in the multitude of dreams and many words there is also vanity. But fear God.
 [Proverbs 9:10] The fear of YHWH is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
 [Psalms 111:10] The fear of YHWH is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do his commandments. His praise endures forever.
 [12:13] Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.
 [9:1b] The righteous and the wise and their works are in the hand of God.
 [7:16-18] Do not be overly righteous, nor be overly wise: why should you destroy yourself? Do not be overly wicked , nor be foolish: why should you dies before your time? It is good that you grasp this, and also not remove your hand from the other; for he who fears God will escape (or come forth from) them all.
 [7:26] And I find more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are fetters. He who pleases God shall escape from her. But the sinner shall be taken by her.
 [8:12b] I surely know that it will be well with those who fear God, who fear before him.
 [9:4] But for him who is joined to all the living there is hope.
 [2:26a] For God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy to a man who is good in his sight.
 [7:19] Wisdom strengthens the wise more than ten rulers of the city.
 [7:12a] For wisdom is a defense (or protective shade) as money is a defense.
 [7:12b] but the excellence (or advantage) of knowledge is that wisdom gives life to those who have it.
 [8:1b] A man’s wisdom makes his face shine.
 [10:10c] Wisdom brings success (or is a successful advantage).
 [4:13] Better is a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who will be admonished no more.
 [2:13-14a] Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. The wise man’s eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness.
 [1:17-18] And I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is grasping for the wind. For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
 [7:4-6] The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better to listen to the rebuke of the wise than for a man to hear the song (or laughter) of fools.
 [7:3] Sorrow is better than laughter, for by a sad countenance the heart is made better (well, healed).
 [2:17-20] Therefore I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and grasping for the wind. Then I hated all my labor in which I had toiled under the sun, because I must leave it to the man who will come after me… Therefore I turned my heart and despaired of all the labor in which I had toiled under the sun.
 [9:9] Live joyfully (or see life) with the wife whom you love all the days of your vain life which he has given you under the sun, all your days of vanity; for that is your portion in life, and in the labor which you perform under the sun.
 [3:22] So I perceived that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his own works, for that is his heritage (or portion, or lot).
 [10:17] Blessed are you, O land, when your king is the son of nobles, and your princes feast at the proper time – for strength and not for drunkenness!
 [2:24] There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and that his soul should enjoy good in his labor. This also, I saw, was from the hand of God.
 [5:18] Here is what I have seen: It is good and fitting for one to eat and drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labor in which he toils under the sun all the days of his life which God gives him; for it is his heritage (or portion).
 [8:15] So I commended enjoyment, because a man has nothing better under the sun than to eat, drink, and be merry; for this will remain with him in his labor for the days of his life which God gives him under the sun.
 [3:12-13] I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice, and to do good in their lives, and also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor – it is the gift of God.
 [9:7] Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already accepted your works.
 [7:14] In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: Surely God has appointed the one as well as (or alongside) the other.
 [12:1] Remember now your Creator in the days of your youth before the difficult days come, and the years draw near when you say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’.
 [12:6] Remember your Creator before the silver cord is loosed, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the well.
 [7:8] The end of a thing is better than its beginning, and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.
 [4:6] Better is a handful with quietness than both hands full, together with toil and grasping for the wind.
 [6:3] If a man begets a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with goodness… I say that a stillborn child is better than he.
 [6:9a] Better is the sight of the eyes (or what the eye sees) than the wandering of desire (or soul).
 [7:9-10] Do not hasten in your spirit to be angry, for anger rests in the bosom of fools. Do not say, ‘Why where the former days better than these?’ For you do not inquire wisely concerning this.
 [3:11a] [God] has made everything beautiful in its time.
 [3:1] To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven:
 [3:17] I said in my heart, ‘God shall judge the righteous and the wicked, for there shall be a time there for every purpose (or desire) and for every work.’
 [8:6] Because for every matter there is a time and a judgment, though the misery of man increases greatly (or is great upon him).
 [7:15] I have seen all things in my days of vanity: there is a just man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness.
 [8:14] There is a vanity which occurs on earth, that there are just men to whom it happens according to the work of the wicked; again, there are wicked men to whom it happens according to the work of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.
 [6:1-2] There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it is common among men: a man to whom God has given riches and wealth and honor, so that he lacks nothing for himself of all he desires; yet God does not give him power to eat of it, but a foreigner consumes it. This is vanity, and it is an evil affliction (or disease).
 [2:26b] To the sinner God gives the work of gathering and collecting, that he may give to him who is good before God. This also is vanity and grasping for the wind.
 [8:10] Then I saw the wicked buried, who had come and gone from the place of holiness, and they were forgotten in the city where they had so done. This also is vanity.
 [4:16] There was no end of all the people over whom he has made king; yet those who come afterward will not rejoice in him. Surely this is also vanity and grasping for the wind.
 [7:21] Also do not take to heart everything people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you.
 [10:20] Do not curse the king, even in your thought; do not curse the rich, even in your bedroom; for a bird of the air may carry your voice, and a bird in flight may tell the matter.
 [12:14] For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether it is good or whether it is evil.
 [5:8] If you see the oppression of the poor, and the violent perversion of justice and righteousness in a province, do not marvel at the matter; for high official watches over high official, and higher officials are over them.
 [7:20] There is not a just man on earth who does good and does not sin.
 [7:22] For many times, also, your own heart has known that even you have cursed others.
 [11:10a] Therefore remove vexation (or irritation) from your heart, and put away evil from your flesh.
 [7:7] Surely oppression destroys a wise man’s reason, and a bribe debases (or destroys) the heart.
 [5:4] When you make a vow to God, do not delay to pay it; for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you have vowed. It is better not to vow than to vow and not pay.
 [8:2-5] I counsel you, ‘Keep the king’s commandment for the sake of your oath to God. Do not be hasty to go from his presence. Do not take your stand for an evil thing, for he does whatever pleases him.’ Where the word of a king is, there is power; and who may say to him, ‘What are you doing?’ He who keeps his command will experience nothing harmful; and a wise man’s heart discerns (or knows) both time and judgment.
 [10:4] If the spirit of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your post; for conciliation pacifies great offenses.
 [9:18a] Wisdom is better than weapons of war.
 [5:2-3] Do not be rash with your mouth, and let not your heart utter anything hastily before God. For God is in heaven, and you on earth; Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes through much activity, and a fool’s voice is known by his many words.
 [10:14a] A fool also multiplies words.
 [5:7] For in the multitude of dreams and many words there is also vanity. But fear God.
 [10:12] The words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but the lips of a fool shall swallow him up.
 [12:10-11] The Preacher (or master of assemblies) sought to find acceptable (or delightful) words; and what was written was upright – words of truth. The words of the wise are like goads, and the words of a preacher (or master of assemblies) are like well-driven nails, given by one Shepherd.
 [9:17] Words of the wise, spoken quietly, should be heard rather than the shout of a ruler of fools.
 [12:9] And moreover, because the Preacher (or master of assemblies) was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yes, he pondered and sought out and arranged (or set in order) many proverbs.
 [7:1] A good name is better than precious ointment, and the day of death than the day of one’s birth.
 [10:1] Dead flies putrefy the perfumer’s ointment, and cause it to give off a foul odor; so does a little folly to one respected for wisdom and honor.
 [4:9-12] Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up. Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm; but how can one be warm alone? Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.