What is important in life? Who better to ponder such imponderables than Solomon, widely regarded as the wisest man in the world? Yet when read together, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs offer not an answer but a paradox: the emptiness of the world versus the fullness of love.
Paradoxes, like this one, are propositions that seem to contradict themselves but are nevertheless true. They are a compelling way to explore the inherent absurdities of human experience. On the surface, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs seem like polar opposites. On closer inspection, they turn out to be different ways to approach the same truths.
Genre, Form, and Expression
Ecclesiastes is either a philosophical essay, a manifesto, or a treatise. It’s almost an extended proverb, offering pithy aphorisms about the nature of existence accompanied by prose commentary. Whatever you call it, Ecclesiastes declares that everything “under the sun” (Eccl 1:3) is “vanity” or meaningless, then rigorously supports this proposal with reason. The result is part satire, part tragedy, and all instructive. The words of the Preacher “are like goads” meant to draw the reader to a right way of thinking (Eccl 12:11).
In contrast, Song of Songs is a love poem. It’s an episodic series of dream-like scenes, each resplendent with imagery. In place of the Teacher’s dry fulmination is a vision of a hazy and unusually moist world: anointing oils, kisses, wine, liquid myrrh, and sweet juices dribbling down the mouth. “Your lips drip nectar, my bride,” the young man says, “honey and milk are under your tongue” (Song 4:11).
Despite their differing genres, these books employ similar material and techniques. Like Proverbs, they have no identifiable characters or settings. Instead, they have tropes: A man, a king, a lover, a storehouse, a garden, a bedchamber—these are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere, everyone and no one.
Viewpoint & Authorial Stance
The viewpoint of Ecclesiastes is that of an omniscient observer who floats above it all, drawing back the curtain on universal truths.
Where the Teacher is bit of a know-it-all, the young lovers are stumbling around in the dark seeking one another, aware of little beyond their overwhelming need to be together. They are consumed by their present experience—they speak from the urgency and immediacy of their concerns.
Nevertheless, all of the narrators are propelled by a deep sense of longing. The Teacher longs for wisdom, riches, pleasure, justice, companionship—and in the end, for death. He says that God has placed “eternity into man’s heart” that no earthly pursuit can satisfy (Eccl 3:11). The longing in Song of Songs is more prosaic and profound: the longing of a lover for the immediate presence of their beloved.
Reading Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs “against” one another can expose the mystery that makes them paradoxical, rather than merely contradictory.
Both texts capture the innate hunger that all people have for something greater than themselves—and the solution in both cases is love. Ecclesiastes 9:9 counsels men to “enjoy life with the wife whom you love,” and Ecclesiastes 11:9 tells the young to rejoice in their youth. Song of Songs takes this advice heartily.
Yet as lusty as Song of Songs is, three times it recommends patient chastity: Don’t “stir up or awaken love until it pleases” (Song 2:7; 3:5; 8:4). Why? Because your beloved is worth waiting for: She is “a lily among brambles,” and he is “an apple tree among the trees of the forest” (Song 2:2–3); he is “distinguished among ten thousand” (Song 5:10) and she is “the only one” among a plethora of queens, concubines, and virgins (Song 6:9).
The Teacher concludes that the only satisfactory pursuit is to accept God and his plan for mankind. “When dreams increase and words grow many,” he declares, “there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear” (Eccl 5:7). He expresses frustration over the unknowability of God’s plan (Eccl 1:13; 3:10–15; 8:17; 9:1; 11:5), yet he clings to faith in the unshakable nature of that plan (Eccl 2:24; 5:1–7, 18; 7:13–14).
Both Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs have the sense that all is as it should be, even when that seems untrue. There is “a time to love, and a time to hate” (Eccl 3:8). Longing inevitably leads to seeking, to following, to pursuing, to consummating (Song 4:15; 7:2). All lovers who have been parted must eventually unite. All humans who have been born must ultimately meet their maker for judgment. Round and round the circle turns, and God controls it all: “All streams run to the sea but the sea is not full” (Eccl 1:7).
Everything happens according to a plan, in its due time. “For everything there is a season,” declares the Teacher (Eccl 3:1). Don’t “stir up or awaken love until it pleases,” declares the bride (Song 2:7; 3:5; 8:4). But once the time has come: “Arise, my love, my beautiful one, and come away, for behold, the winter is past” (Song 2:10–11).
What the Teacher and the lovers long for, though they don’t know it by name, is Jesus the Messiah, who reconciles humankind with God, who rights the wrongs, who brings both justice and mercy. He is the just judge the Teacher despairs of finding and the bridegroom for whom the bride desperately searches (Matt 9:15; Luke 5:34; John 3:29; Rev 19:7). Jesus is the object of human longing, the resolution of the “eternity” placed in our hearts, and the satisfaction of all hunger (Matt 5:6; John 6:35; Rev 7:16).
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).