Keeping the wisdom literature in its canonical and redemptive-historical setting is one of the more difficult challenges for the student of Scripture. Many have interpreted the Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes atomistically under the guise of faithful commitment to a grammatical-historical reading of Scripture. However, this is not how Jesus and the Apostles interpreted the Old Testament. For them, everything is related to Creation, fall and the promise of redemption (Gen. 3:15) in the coming Redeemer. Jesus declared that Abraham saw His day (John 8:56) and that Moses wrote of Him (John 5:46). He explained to the two on the road to Emmaus, “All things must be fulfilled which were written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me” (Luke 24:44). When he appealed to the Psalms, He did so in light of their prophetic witness to Himself (e.g. Psalm 110:1 in Matt. 22:41-46). In Acts 2:22-30, the Apostle Peter unequivocally taught that David consciously spoke of the resurrection of Christ when he wrote Psalm 16 under inspiration of the Spirit. The constant witness of the New Testament is that the entirety of the Old Testament pointed forward to the Christ to come. The Psalms speak of Jesus. The Proverbs speak of Him. The Song of Songs is about the Son of David. This is no less true of Ecclesiastes than it is of the other wisdom literature.
The challenge of interpreting Ecclesiastes in light of its redemptive historical context is heightened by the fact that 1) its authorship is disputed and 2) its structure and overall meaning is elusive. Add to this the fact that there are very few helpful examples in church history. This is one reason why I am so thankful for the Marrowmen (the 18th Century Gospel-centered, Scottish Presbyterians). In his 1732 sermon, “The Little City Besieged and Delivered; or The Deliverance of the Church by Christ, and the Ingratitude of men to the Glorious Redeemer Represented,” (how’s that for a title!) Ralph Erskine expounded the words of Ecclesiastes 11:14-15 in light of Christ and the work of redemption. Here’s how he begins his exposition of the passage:
“There was a little city, and few men within it: and there came a great king against it, and besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it: now, there was found in it a poor wise man; and he, by his wisdom, delivered the city; yet no man remembered the same poor man.“—Ecclesiastes 11: 14, 15.
It is questioned among interpreters whether this is a history, or a parable. I am not here to dispute the matter, but take it to be parabolical; and reckon that the Spirit of God has left the application for us to make, which I would attempt to do, both in agreeableness, I hope, to the analogy of faith, and in a suitableness to the present occasion.
The verses contain news from heaven; and particularly,
1. Here is a city described: “There was a little city, and few men in it.”
2. The city besieged: “There came a great king against it, and besieged it; and built great bulwarks against it.”
3. The city delivered, and the siege raised: “Now, there was found in it a poor man ; and he, by his wisdom, delivered the city.”
4. The ingratitude of the citizens: “Yet no man remembered the same poor man.”
1. Here is a city described, both from the quality of it, “a little city,” and from the paucity of its inhabitants, “few men within it.” Now, what are we to understand by the city ? Why,
First. If by the city we understand the world in general, it might seem strange that the world should be called a little city; but he that walks with God, as Enoch, and as the prophet Isaiah expresses it, “dwells on high,” sees this world to be nothing but a shadow; yea, before God “all the nations of the earth are as nothing.” And as it is little, so there are few men within it; because those we call men cannot, according to Scripture, be distinguished from beasts and vipers: “A generation of vipers ;” and of these there are many. But very few men are to be found in the world; none but those that are transformed and turned from beasts to men. ” The beasts of the field shall honor me, the dragons and the owls. ‘ “This people have I formed for myself, they shall show forth my praise.” (Isaiah xliii. 20, 21.)
Secondly. By the city we are to understand the church of God in particular. The name of the city is ” Jehovah-Shammah,” “The Lord is there.” The wall of the city is “salvation,” which God hath appointed for walls and bulwarks; the food of the citizens is the Word of God, and the “bread that came down from heaven.” But in what respects the church is compared to a city so frequently in Scripture, we may afterwards consider. It is but “a little city,” and “few men within it,” in comparison of her enemies, and all the rest of the world, that are without the church.
2: Here is the city besieged. Where we may notice,
First. The greatness of the besieger: “There came a great king against it, and besieged it.” Whether we take this great king for God, in one respect; or for the devil, in another respect, and for sin and death that attend him; these, in various respects, lay siege to the city.
Secondly. Notice the greatness of the siege: “He built great bulwarks against it.” God, in his awful justice; the devil, in his desperate malice; sin, in its destructive subtlety; and death, in its dreadful terrors. A great king raising great bulwarks against a little city, and few men within it, they must be in a very dismal situation. But,
3. Here is the little city delivered, and the siege raised: “There was found in the city a poor wise man; and he, by his wisdom, delivered the city.” Where notice also two things, namely, how the deliverer is described, and how the city was delivered by him.
First. How the deliverer is described: “There was found in the city a poor wise man.” I think it is not only agreeable to the analogy of faith, but very probable to be the intent of the words, to give a description of Christ, the Deliverer and Savior of his church; whom we may here view as described,
(1.) By his humanity, a man; for “he was a man of sorrows;” “The Word was made flesh.”
(2.) By his divinity, a wise man; for he was, and is, the essential “Wisdom of God.”
(3.) By his humiliation, a poor man; for, “though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor.”
(4.) By his destination to this work; he ” was found in the city.” Who found him? God, who says, “I have found a ransom; I have found David my servant.” Where was he found? Even “in the city, among men;” “I have laid help upon One that is mighty,” says God, “even one chosen out of the people.” (Psalm 89:19.)
Secondly. How and in what manner he delivered the city, even by his wisdom: “He by his wisdom delivered the city.” By his Deity; for if he had not been the infinitely wise God, he could never have relieved the city; even He who, by his wisdom, “stretched out the heavens” when he made the world; by his wisdom fulfilled the law, and appeased the wrath of God; by his wisdom outwitted the old serpent, and “destroyed the works of the devil;” by his wisdom “finished transgression, and made an end of sin, and vanquished death;” and so by his wisdom delivered the city from wrath, Satan, sin, hell, and death. In His wisdom, He delivers the church, the city of God, by the virtue of his blood and by the power of his Spirit. Thus the city is delivered and the siege raised.”
You can read the entirety of the sermon here.