So I Hated Life | Ecclesiastes 2

In chapter one, Ecclesiastes’ author, the Preacher (most likely Solomon), wrote us a poem about the vanity of everything under the sun. He observed the endless repetitions of the sun, wind, and seas and realized that we are same. Like the sea never fills, so our ears never hear enough. Like the sun continues to rise and set, our eyes continue to seek out input. So Solomon calls this life vanity. All of it is meaningless, and nothing more than a mere breath of air.

In chapter two, the Preacher begins to describe his investigation to find meaning and satisfaction under the sun. The first stop in his quest for joy is where many look as well: pleasure. Pleasure naturally makes us happy, so with vast wealth, Solomon thinks that surely he can buy lasting joy through endless pleasure. Alcohol, sex, music, work, and philanthropy, the king threw himself into his search for meaning under the sun. But vanity is all he finds, and ultimately, he concludes that enjoyment can only come from God Himself.

THE VANITY OF PLEASURE // VERSES 1-11

After Solomon concluded the first chapter by noting that wisdom alone did not give him any lasting meaning, here he decides to attempt achieve it by diving into wisdom’s converse: pure, uninhibited pleasure. This philosophical thought that Solomon is applying is called hedonism.  The argument of hedonism is that pleasure and happiness are the only intrinsic goods. The typical hedonist says to himself, “pleasure makes me happy; thus, it must be the supreme good.” Hedonism makes sense at first glance. Blaise Pascal states:

All men seek happiness. This is without question. Whatever different means they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves.

Solomon decides to apply all of his authority and wealth to pursuing pleasure to its fullest and to discover what is the end result. Thus, what we will see in the next several verses are Solomon’s various attempts at pursuing pleasurable things, but he presents us with a spoiler at the end of this first verse: none of it worked.

In verse 2, Solomon first tries laughter. Everyone loves a good laugh, and most would agree that there are few things in life that can compare to a hearty, belly laugh. We love laughter, and we love it when others laugh. That’s why half the videos on YouTube are of babies laughing. Laughter is good and good for you. Laughter releases endorphins, a natural feel-good drug that our bodies produce, which can increase blood flow and decrease stress. Laughter is good. Yet even with all the laughter that Solomon could find, it still left Solomon feeling empty. Laughter is good, but laughter is not God.

Next, in verse 3, Solomon’s quest through hedonism took him to what many still turn to today: alcohol. When laughter fails Solomon, he runs to the heart-break cure. Surely Solomon held nothing back. He bought the best wine, had the largest collection, threw the craziest parties, but none of it worked. It is also worth noting that he pairs his quest through drunkenness with laying “hold on folly.” His quest through pure foolishness reaches its peak in unadulterated drunkenness. In other words, if you want a firm grasp of foolishness, get drunk.

Solomon also throws a phrase in the middle of his account: “my heart still guided by wisdom.” How are we to interpret this? Isn’t Solomon saying to himself that he is actively pursuing the opposite of wisdom? I believe that we can take this verse to mean throughout all of Solomon’s pursuits of pleasure, Solomon remained in control. As far into folly as Solomon dived, there was always a little voice in the back of his head that reminded him why he was doing it all. As Chandler puts it:

I believe he means that he never forgot what he was doing. He never got so caught up in seeking pleasure that he forgot that his goal was, from the beginning, to see if there was really anything of value out there in the world. From day one, he never forgot that this was an experiment. (124)

When laughter and alcohol fail to bring Solomon fulfillment, he decides to build, to do great works (vv. 4-6). He decides to create great infrastructures and public parks, and when that utter folly fails him, Solomon turns to altruistic hedonism: deriving his pleasure by doing good for other through philanthropy. First, he tries his hand at real-estate. We are told in 1 Kings that Solomon’s palace took thirteen years to build (1 Kings 7:1). To put things in perspective, the temple that Solomon commissioned was built in seven (1 Kings 6:38). It took almost twice as long to build Solomon’s house as it did to build God’s, and we cannot attribute the difference to a lack of workers. Solomon literally had the best house that money could buy. Next, he tries gardening. However, Solomon’s idea of gardening was not of a quaint, retirement hobby of a garden. No, Solomon planted entire forests. Since gardening can be difficult in the desert, Solomon dug great aqueducts for watering his greenery. There are few things that are more pleasurable than relaxing in a beautiful garden, but this still would not satisfy.

So when creating things didn’t work, Solomon thought that perhaps life would no longer seem meaningless if he had plenty of servants. To this end, Solomon compiled a group of servants so large that they required enough food to feed 35,000 people (1 Kings 4:22-23). Not having to mow his own lawn, do his own dishes, or style himself, would surely lead to a satisfying life. However, just to be safe, Solomon creates his own zoo. We are told that Solomon received exotic animals as gifts from other royalty, such as peacocks (1 Kings 10:22). But he doesn’t stop there; he once again mentions his great wealth. 1 Kings tells us that Solomon was so incredibly rich that silver was worthless to him (1 Kings 10:21)! With his riches, Solomon indulges in music by having his favorite singers and musicians follow him around all day. As if all of that wasn’t enough, Solomon turns to sex. We are told that Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines during his lifetime (1 Kings 10:21)! That is a harem of 1,000 women that were reserved only for Solomon’s sexual gratification. A lot of men today attempt to build a virtual harem of that size via pornography, but Solomon had the real thing. Surely if anyone could find their happiness in sex, Solomon would have. Yet all of it (the servants, the animals, the music, and the sex) proved to be lacking.

In verses 9-11, Solomon sums up his road down hedonism. First, he reminds us again that his great wealth and authority gave him the ability to have anything that his heart desired. Verse 10 is the etcetera to his list of pursuits. If you can think of it, Solomon tried it. He poured his heart and soul into pleasure, and he did it wisely, strategically. Solomon was determined to know if hedonism could work as a way of life, and so he surrounded himself with as much pleasure as he could possibly handle. Interestingly enough, he says that he achieved his goal. “My heart found pleasure in all my toil.” He searched, and he found. But what conclusion does he make? “All was vanity and a striving after wind.” He claims that the pleasure that he found was his reward. If he got the pleasure that he was seeking, then why does he call it a vanity? The reward of pleasure that Solomon found was the same as the reward that Jesus speaks of in Matthew 6 when discussing giving, praying, and fasting in order to be seen by others, a fleeting and temporal reward. It feels good for a moment, but it evaporates quickly, leaving behind the same void as before. Pleasure, in and of itself, could not ultimately satisfy Solomon. It cannot satisfy anyone.

And yet, we continue to try it. Peter Kreeft describes this effort:

If you are typically modern, your life is like a mansion with a terrifying hole right in the middle of the living-room floor. So you paper over the hole with a very busy wallpaper pattern to distract yourself. You find a rhinoceros in the middle of your house. The rhinoceros is wretchedness and death. How in the world can you hide a rhinoceros? Easy: cover it with a million mice. Multiple diversions. (169)

Most people consciously understand that hedonism is a futile path, but that cognitive knowledge doesn’t stop us from trying time and time again. Today, we are all Solomon. We don’t need to hire singers to entertain us because we have Spotify. We don’t need to have 300 concubines because we have porn. We don’t need to build grand palaces because we can earn every achievement on the latest video game. We don’t need servants because we have Amazon. Thanks to TVs and phones, the barrage of entertainment never stops. Many haven’t felt the weight of verse 11 simply because they never pause long enough to consider anything. In the stillness and quiet, we feel our beating hearts, become conscious of our lungs, and remember that we are creatures who will die. We remember that our lives are fleeting, a mere vanity. We like pleasure because it temporarily numbs us to our mortality. It helps us forget that we are but dust being held together by Christ. The terrifying conclusion to Solomon’s quest for pleasure is that he got it. He achieved everything he wanted, but it wasn’t enough. Eventually, the haunting of eternity came roaring back. Perhaps this is partly why we are such half-hearted creatures. We pursue things with reservation because deep down we know that they cannot satisfy.

THE VANITY OF THE WISE LIFE // VERSES 12-17

After the king’s pursuit of hedonism, he set his eyes to analyzing wisdom and folly. His conclusion is that, of course, wisdom is better than folly. He compares the two to light and darkness. No normal person would prefer to live out all of their days in complete darkness. Light is obviously and clearly better. We are creatures of sight, and regardless of the brightness of the light, no one would prefer complete darkness over light. Nevertheless, even though the difference between the two is clear, Solomon still finds himself haunted by the fact that the same end awaits both.

Solomon acknowledges that because God gave his wisdom to him, he was far wiser than anyone before him. So there must be some special reward for such wisdom, right? Yet Solomon died just like a foolish man dies. Despite his wealth, the great king died just the same as the poorest beggar on the streets. “Death is the great equalizer” (Stedman, 132). And the same is still true today. Go to a cemetery, study the graves, and tell me who were wise and who were fools. You cannot. The wise die and are buried just like the foolish. In the end, it does not matter what great things a person accomplishes because after death, he or she will not be able to enjoy them. After all, what is the point of being wise if it doesn’t change humanity’s ultimate problem: death?

Notice the Preacher’s admission in verse 17: all of this vanity made him hate life. How can this be true? How can a man of God hate the life that God has given him? First of all, I believe that this is a very godly hatred that is rising up in Solomon. Too often, Christians can hide under the mask of being blessed. A thought exists that following Jesus means that you need to be happy, so we put on a happy face and do our best. However, this is dishonest because there are plenty of things to hate. Zach Eswine says it like this:

We read the news. We bury our children. Murders, thefts, bribes, fists, weapons, sex, lies, and weather patterns are used to brutalize people. We watch the raping world. We hate that what God created good has become like a rusty-nailed playground no longer fit for kids at play and cutting the skin of those who try. We hate this. The wise cannot pretend that all is well. (87)

Of course, this is a godly hatred because it is a hatred that ultimately turns Solomon to God (vv. 24-26). We can contrast this with the destructive hatred of life in other godly men of the Bible. Elijah’s cry in cave for death was not a godly lament; it was self-pitying exhaustion. Jonah call for death came from his refusal to obey the will of God. Job’s plea for it all to end came from the fresh wound of unimaginable suffering. God reached out to each of these men with grace, but their hatred is different than Solomon’s. Our Preacher is not suicidal, just honest. He sees the brokenness of the world around him, and he can’t help hating it. “The wise cannot pretend that all is well.” Indeed, the gospel will never be truly beautiful to us until we understand just how messed up everything is.

THE VANITY OF WORK // VERSES 18-23

Still thinking about his death from the previous verses, Solomon says that he hated all of his work because after his death, it will be handed on to the next person. This is true for everything in life. We can work our entire lives and create a vast empire of our accomplishments, but we have no control of what the next person will do after we are dead. It has been several years since Steve Jobs died, but following his death, the world mourned. He created Apple, Inc. from the ground up. His ideas created some of the most significant leaps in technology, but despite the world’s mourning and his work, Apple is now in new hands. He no longer has any say in the company that he created. The Preacher calls this is vanity.

Solomon tells us that this thought makes his heart despair. The thought that someone will inherit all of his accomplishments, without the work that Solomon put into them, launches Solomon into a depression. Isn’t that interesting? Solomon sought pleasure, achieved pleasure, but now finds himself in depression (a.k.a. the opposite of a pleasurable state). In keeping with his theme of looking purely at earthly gain, the king of Israel says that he can find no point in working so hard. If there is no permanence in all of our toil, why should we bother? Years from now, we will not be remembered. I have no idea what my great, great, great grandfather’s name was, and we were probably only a few decades away from being able to meet face to face. So what hope do we have of being remembered hundreds or even thousands of years in the future? In terms of earthly gain, what point is there in the life that we live?

We also see that Solomon calls all of this “a great evil.” Over the course of the last several verses, Solomon has become increasingly bitter with life. Previously, he said that he hated life, and now he is filled with so much sorrow that even at “night his heart does not rest.” His hedonistic quest only gave him what he was trying his best to avoid: pain. And of course, as we read 1 Kings, we know that Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, divided Israel into two kingdoms because of his foolishness. The Preacher’s concern indeed came to pass.

THE GIFT OF ENJOYMENT // VERSES 24-26

These verses are the first example of Solomon’s major thesis coming into play. After he has described the futility of pursuing hedonism and of leaving behind all earthly possessions, Solomon informs his audience the only source of true enjoyment: God. Now, notice that Solomon is not concluding that pleasure is inherently evil. No! Instead, he pleads that the only way to find lasting pleasure is through God’s grace. That’s the entire point of this chapter. Solomon looks at mankind and says, “I know you think that after you get _____, you’ll be happy. After you earn (or make or win, etc.) _____, then you will be content. Life will be good. But believe me, I’ve tried it all. Everything that you could possibly insert into the blank, I’ve tested. And it doesn’t work. In the end, the only way that you will ever be satisfied in life is by enjoying what God has given you.” We think that when we have more we will be happy, but Solomon’s call is for us to be content with the gifts that God has given and enjoy them to the best of our ability to the glory of God.

David Gibson says that “this is the main message of Ecclesiastes in a nutshell: life in God’s world is gift, not gain” (37). What does he mean by this? Our Preacher keeps emphasizing that there is nothing to be gained from life under the sun. Toil does not ultimately profit us. Pleasure has no lasting benefit. There is nothing advantageous to be gained in this life. Enjoyment is still possible, however, because enjoyment is a gift rather than a gain. Joy is not something to wrestle for during our nine-to-five; it is a grace that comes only from the hand of God. Remember, of course, that temporary enjoyment is quite easy to achieve. Solomon both sought and found pleasure (v. 10). He found a fleeting enjoyment rooted in happiness, while eternal enjoyment rooted in joy passed through his fingers like the wind. He missed true enjoyment and found only the cheap imitation.

But why does Solomon conclude that “there is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil.” If life here is worthy of being hated, why is enjoyment such a necessity (as we will see him continue to emphasize)? I believe it is the same reason for why Paul repeatedly tells us the rejoice in Philippians: knowing God gives us a hope that can only lead to joy. The apostle wrote Philippians from a prison cell, yet he proclaimed: “Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:18-20). Paul rejoiced in prison because he knew Christ. His earthly possessions could be stripped away, but his joy would continue because Christ could not be taken away. Even his life could be taken but he knew of Someone greater than his life.

The answer to life under the sun’s inability to satisfy us with pleasure is not give up on enjoying life. God alone gives true enjoyment. He alone gives, as Lewis describes, the “kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious. It is too good to waste on jokes” (The Last Battle, 212). God does not give a frivolous and silly enjoyment that is here one minute and gone the next. His joy is deep, real, true, and permanent. The enjoyment that comes from Him makes the pleasures of this world look like plastic toy cake being compared to a royal wedding cake. Lasting and real delight can only come through the One who is eternally delightful. Therefore, we can either seek God and find endless enjoyment or seek pleasure and find weary exhaustion.

Indeed, attempting to enjoy anyone or anything other than the LORD is sin. It is misplaced affection. He is the only one truly worthy of worship and adoration. Even my love for my wife and daughter must flow from my love for God. Only by loving God supremely can we truly love anyone or anything else. Why is this? God Himself defines love. “In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10). Real love can only be known by looking at Jesus’ act of propitiation for our sins. What is propagation? It means the act of satisfying the wrath of God. This wrath comes from our refusal to worship God. We worship things that are supreme and glorious, but God is the most supreme and most glorious. Therefore, worship given to anything else is a lie. It is blasphemy. We proclaim that God is not great. And from offending this eternal God, we earn an eternal punishment. But thanks be to God, Christ, the Eternal One, paid that eternal debt with His own blood, satisfying the justice and wrath of God. That is propitiation, and that is the love of God, a love that bleeds for those who openly and blatantly mock Him. If His love truly cleanses our sins and gives eternal life, how much more will He also give enjoyment in the here and now! Our problem is that we shun God’s gift of Himself, seeking instead lesser things. As Lewis says in The Weight of Glory:

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who want to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased. (26)

Solomon’s pursuit of joy was not too strong but too weak. When we chase lesser things, the reward is a lesser joy, a lesser pleasure, and a lesser fulfillment. God alone is big enough. God alone is great enough. God alone is glorious enough. God alone is loving enough. God alone is beautiful enough to provide lasting joy, meaning, pleasure, and satisfaction. Nothing else will do. Indeed, nothing else can do. Everything outside of Him is vanity and a striving after wind.

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All Is Vanity | Ecclesiastes 1

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

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
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.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
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.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.

I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And 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. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.

I 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.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.

For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

Ecclesiastes 1 (ESV)

 

If we are honest with ourselves, life can often make us feel like hamsters running on a wheel. We run as hard as we can but never make any real progress; everything is just a repetitive cycle. Laundry and dishes are two supreme examples of this. We clean and organize, temporarily banishing the chaos, only for disorder to lash out again tomorrow. Similarly, we go to work, make a paycheck, give that paycheck to expenses, and continue working for the next check so we can pay the next round of expenses. Life is a hamster wheel, a steady cycle of monotony that only ends with death.

If all of that sounds a little too real, welcome to the beauty of Ecclesiastes. In this first chapter, Solomon introduces us to the key themes that he will continue to present throughout the book. The vanity (or meaninglessness) of life under the sun is driving force here. Solomon is a scholar who has observed all that life has to offer, and Ecclesiastes is his written verdict upon weighing out the evidence. But even though his verdict is rather gloomy, we must remember that Solomon’s ultimate aim to get us to fix our eyes above the sun.

ALL IS VANITY // VERSES 1-11

The titles that the Preacher lists in verse 1 (“son of David, king in Jerusalem”) point toward Solomon as the author of Ecclesiastes. See the background for more about Solomon’s authorship. For this book, he refers to himself under the alias of the Preacher. The Hebrew title (Qoheleth) has been translated to mean various things, such as Teacher. Either title seems to work for Solomon since he is both teaching (presenting instructive information) and preaching (urging his readers to follow his counsel).

Vanity Under the Sun

In verse 2, Solomon opens the book, and this introductory poem (verses 1-11), with a most depressing verse. Pick up any given translation of the Bible, read this verse, and I am certain that you will notice that almost all of them translate this verse differently. The word for vanity in Hebrew is hebel, and it has been translated into many different English words. The ESV uses vanity. Many others use meaningless. Some suggest vapor or a mere breath, as the best translations. Some commentators even offer the word absurd as the best translation for hebel. We even find hebel in 1 Kings referring to the idols that Solomon’s heart chases (1 Kings 11:4). Regardless of what word is used, it is clear that Solomon is attempting to communicate (from the very beginning) a sense of futility, of fleeting emptiness.

But what is he describing as vanity?

Everything. Solomon says, “All is vanity.” Life is futile. Work is futile. Sex is futile. Laughter is futile. It’s all nothing more than vanity, meaningless. If this is true, then Ecclesiastes is shaping up to be one massive downer. Yet we must be careful in how we interpret this verse. We must accept Solomon’s pessimism in relation to the rest of the book and, in particular, to verse 3.

If verse 2 provides the tone for the rest of the book, then verse 3 supplies the lens through which the book must be viewed. Pessimism seems to continue as Solomon laments that all of mankind’s work is for nothing permanent, nothing lasting. Solomon’s question is rhetorical, and he expects a negative response. However, it is not this pessimism that is our lens; instead, it is the phrase under the sun. Solomon will use this particular phrase 29 times in this book, and it is found nowhere else in the Bible. It must be, therefore, of significant importance to Ecclesiastes. Under the sun should be understood as referring to only things that are on earth, things that are within human grasp. The immanent, physical, natural, material world is the that which is under the sun. Ecclesiastes is, thus, attempting to force us to imagine the futility of an existence without transcendence, without divine interference. Of course, such a view is not difficult today.

In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor argues that an immanent frame undergirds modern Western society. This means that most people no longer look to God (or even gods) to find their meaning and purpose in life. They believe that life has given them everything they need to build a meaningful life. It’s as if the secular motto is: “I’ve got this. No need get God involved, thank you very much.”

But the problem isn’t just outside of Christianity. We who follow Christ can just as easily slip into this mode of thinking. Jen Pollock Michel summarizes this well:

Secularism is not the problem “out there.” Instead, every Sunday morning, it is “secular” people filling our pews. They attest to loving Jesus—but accept “no final goals beyond human flourishing, nor any allegiance to anything else beyond this flourishing.” They pray for God’s kingdom to come—and image the advent of their own happiness. In the secular age, God becomes a guarantor of our best life now. (117-18)

Or to say it in other words, Michael Horton claims that “even those of us who do affirm orthodox Christianity divide inwardly between praying for our daily bread and knowing that it’s always there at the grocery store. It’s not merely that our beliefs have changed, but that our way of believing has shifted away from assuming a world “with devils filled” but where God is our “mighty fortress.” Now we must become masters of our own destiny, keeping dangers at bay by our own collective and calculative reasoning. Even if God plays a role, it is a supporting one, helping us to achieve “our best life now” (23-24).

Call it an immanent frame. Or call it life under the sun. Same message, different titles. Life under the sun is a life without God, a life exclusive to immanence and exclusive of transcendence.

But while modern exclusive humanists argue that life under the sun can be meaningful, Solomon has reached a very different conclusion. He claims that everything we can achieve or obtain in this world is fleeting, temporal, and vain. Humanity, left to our own devices and without Divine interference, will find nothing but meaningless futility. That is Solomon’s message. That is the lens through which we must view this entire book: this is a study of the vanity of life without God.

The Endless Cycles of Life

In verse 4, Solomon lists another universal truth: human generations keep passing, but the earth seems to remain steadfast. We can conclude from these verses that they represent the aftereffects of the Fall. Originally, God created humanity to be immortal and to enjoy eternity with Him, but the effects of mankind’s first sin destroyed our physical eternal nature. Solomon will say elsewhere in this book that God has placed eternity within man’s heart, and we can all feel that it is true. Each of us knows that we will die; science does not need to tell us this. Yet how often do we live as though we are finite creatures? Very rarely do we ever pause to consider our own mortality. This is because we were made for eternity. We can all feel it, especially whenever we are actually confronted with death. Anytime we attend a funeral and find ourselves lamenting that the world will be a dimmer place without so-and-so, we are experiencing the truth of Solomon’s words in this verse. There is a deep part of our souls that cries out against the death of our loved ones, and nature’s steady continuation only accents our mortality. Jerome speaks of this accented vanity by commenting: “What’s more vain than this vanity: that the earth, which was made for humans stays—but humans themselves, the lords of the earth suddenly dissolve into the dust” (Akin, 10).

Solomon continues his poem with three examples of nature’s repetition and persistence. First, he turns our attention to the sun’s rising and setting. Each day the sun rises and sets, only to do the exact same thing tomorrow. Then he describes the wind moving along its circuits in a cycle. The wind blows around and around, never ceasing its course. This verse is particularly interesting because we have no other record that any ancient person understood that winds followed certain circular currents. Finally, he looks to how the rivers flow into the oceans. Even though the rivers are continuously flowing into the seas, the seas are never full. The water cycle has no end. These continuous cycles of the earth also resemble the endless cycles in our everyday lives. As the sun rises again, we brush our teeth once more. As the sun sets, we do it again. The process repeats tomorrow. Cleaning, organizing, washing dishes, doing laundry, we get things done today only to do them again tomorrow. The cycle is endless. If this makes you feel a bit weary, Solomon is one step ahead of you.

“All things are full of weariness.” When considering the repetitive drudgery of life, few statements are as true as this one. Everything in life is full of weariness because it never stops. The myth of happily coasting carefree through life is just that, a myth. Retirement cannot fix the grind of life because work is not the problem. Getting more stuff can help us ignore the weariness of life, but it only works for so long. This life is the problem. All of life becomes wearisome to the flesh sooner or later. It’s only a matter of time, and you can’t escape it. The weariness of life is inevitable because they were sealed by the events of Genesis 3.

But verse 8 also contains one of my favorite phrases within Ecclesiastes: “a man cannot utter it.” There are timeless truths within this book that everyone can relate to, that everyone knows and feels, but they’re still difficult to express into words (sometimes even impossible). With all of his God-granted wisdom, Solomon attempts to capture the essence of the human experience as much as he can. So many of the topics and so much of the philosophical weight of this book are too great for utterances. Nevertheless, with the utmost solemnity and reliance upon God’s grace, we will strive toward it just as Solomon has done. I think this is the great appeal of Ecclesiastes: it gives brief utterance to things that are ultimately beyond verbal expression.

The current application of the second half of this three-thousand-year-old verse is astounding! Our eyes and ears can never get enough. Access to the visual and auditory has never been as rapid as it is today. YouTube and iTunes provide us video and music with the click of a button or the touch of a finger. A new iPhone is released like clockwork every year. We are constantly jumping through hoops for the latest gadget or to share the next big viral video. We never have enough seeing and hearing, but at the same time, there is weariness that sets in. The fast-paced rat race only leaves our souls weary and none the more satisfied once we actually pause for a breather. We see these implications played out in large and growing cities today where most in the business world are content to never stop, never slow down, because then they will never have to face the weariness that Solomon describes. They are always trying to make themselves better, to make better money, to do better things. In a sense, this is also what Solomon does. He built. He partied. He gave. He took. He destroyed. He was constantly on the move, but here, at the end of his life, he had to pause and face the drain of it all. He had to look at his life and all of his accomplishments and ask himself what good they were to him. Likewise, our nonstop consumption of entertainment is often used (whether consciously or subconsciously) to numb us from having to face the weariness of life.

The second of twenty-nine uses of the phrase under the sun is located in verse 9. Expanding upon his idea of the earth moving in cycles, Solomon claims that “there is nothing new under the sun.” Certainly, that seems a bit extreme. Perhaps Solomon is exaggerating while being so close to death. Yet if we give these verses a few moments of pondering, we can find them significantly more accurate than first expected. William D. Barrick mentions in his commentary on Ecclesiastes that there are many medical discoveries that we claim as credit for modern humanity, but in fact, they were discovered long ago and lost. For example, he cites that the creation of modern pregnancy testing, which uses the woman’s urine, was actually discovered thousands of years ago by the Egyptians. The knowledge and practice were there, but they were lost (Barrick, 40). Another example is Greek fire, a flame-throwing weapon used by the Byzantine Empire. This powerful weapon is credited for being the deciding factor in numerous battles; however, the formula for its creation is lost. Our version, the modern flamethrower, was first used in the First World War. One thousand years after Greek fire was last used, we still do not know how to recreate it because “there is no remembrance of former things.” We simply recreated the same concept the best that we could.

Of course, someone will present an argument for cellphones, televisions, and various forms of computers. Yet, are not these things all attempting to satisfy the hearing of the ears and seeing of the eyes, as mentioned in the previous verse? Obviously, humanity made tremendous discoveries and inventions, particularly, in the last couple hundred years, but isn’t the human condition exactly the same as in Solomon’s day? The more things change, the more they stay the same. There are still wars, murder, theft, and random acts of kindness. For all of the new devices that we create, they still become nothing more than that: devices. With all of our advancements, we tend to develop what C. S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” That is, we tend think of ourselves as more intelligent and more enlightened than previous generations. However, our devices make us no better than our fathers and grandfathers because Solomon’s argument is that even our devices and knowledge are not new but recycled. Our “new” devices are nothing more than distractions created to quench the emptiness, to satisfy our eyes and ears. Humanity and the human condition have not changed. Every verse of Solomon’s swan song will show us that fact. Instead, we look to the New Testament to find the source of true newness. 2 Corinthians 5:17 tells us that anyone in Christ is a “new creation.” Even though under the sun there is nothing but recycled attempts to find satisfaction, in Christ we find ourselves truly new. He is the only escape from the weariness and the only source of true change.

THE VANITY OF WISDOM // VERSES 12-18

Leaving the introductory poem, Solomon begins to inform us of himself and his quest to find meaning and fulfillment. After restating his title as king of Israel in Jerusalem, he defines the scope of this book and the goal of his life: to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a task! Solomon’s main concern in life was to conduct an investigation “by wisdom” of everything that is done “under heaven.” He wanted to use his God-given, supernatural wisdom to find meaning to a life apart from God. What can become of a life that does not consider the heavenly things? What purpose can be found in life without turning toward God? Can we carve out meaning for ourselves within an immanent frame? Solomon seeks to answer these types of questions.

In the second half of these verses 12-14, we read Solomon’s short answer. He says that a purely earthly life, even though God also gives it, is hppy business.” He describes it in the same manner as in the introductory poem: busy, vain, and a chasing after the wind. What a great metaphor! Looking for meaning without looking to God is like trying to catch the wind, a pointless and foolish endeavor. That is the kind of vanity and meaninglessness that Solomon is describing in Ecclesiastes.

Verse 15’s proverb is one of Solomon’s primary building blocks for Ecclesiastes. We are told in the history books of the Bible that Solomon was a great writer of proverbs and also collected them from others (1 Kings 4:32). The book of Proverbs is one such collection. Here, Solomon uses a proverb to accent his previous statements and lead into his next point.

The essential meaning of this proverb is that we are not capable of changing things that God has done. If God makes something crooked, we cannot make it straight. We cannot count the things that God has not given us the ability to count. Despite our strongest efforts, we will never be able to alter what God has designed. His ways are higher than our ways. The LORD has created us in such a way that we can only find fulfillment in Him; therefore, Solomon’s quest to find purpose outside of God was doomed from the beginning. Yet, this too was God’s design because if Solomon (the fulfilled American dream) could not find meaning outside of God, then our thoughts of “if only I had a little more ____, then I would be happy” are moot point. Solomon had it all, but without God, it was still not enough.

Solomon admits in verse 16 to himself that he had “great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me.” And with his great gift of wisdom, he set out to explore wisdom as well as wisdom’s opposite: folly. Solomon’s goal was to find out which, if either, could lead to a fulfilled life. But once again, he arrived upon the conclusion that doing so without the aid of God was like chasing after the wind.

The chapter ends with another proverb describing the futility of wisdom and knowledge. Wait a second. Doesn’t Proverbs teach us that wisdom is worth pursuing above all else? How can Proverbs proclaim the great blessings of acquiring wisdom and knowledge, while Ecclesiastes claims that they lead to vexation and sorrow? Ray Stedman answers these questions by saying: “For students in school, that last statement is a great verse to memorize! ‘Those who increase knowledge increase sorrow.’ That is true—sad, but true. It is no argument for not increasing knowledge, because the alternative is even worse; ignorance is foolishness” (20).

Ultimately, Solomon’s search for meaning leads him to “much vexation” and increased sorrow because wisdom and knowledge unveil the reality of life after the Fall. Every piece of information that he discovers about the human experience not only opens his eyes to see our sinful depravity more fully, but also reveals just how hopeless mankind is to pull ourselves out of that depravity.

Everything confirms his humanity, his sinfulness, his accountability, and his inevitable death. With an increasingly heavy heart, Solomon’s research is driving him to a heart-wrenching conclusion: he cannot save himself. No person can.(Barrick, 47)

THE MEANING WITHIN THE VANITY // VERSES 2-3

After studying the entirety of this chapter, it seems only fitting to return briefly to verses 2-3. Therein Solomon proclaimed that all is vanity. Or using other words, everything is meaningless. That statement is true, but there is a problem. Saying that everything is meaningless is unavoidably a meaningful statement. It’s like making the claim that there is no objective truth. It is a self-defeating proposition. By being true, it would prove itself false. Likewise, Solomon says something of meaning, even while he claims that nothing has meaning. How do we reconcile this?

Once again, the key is the phrase under the sun. Everything under the sun is meaningless. The things of this life, including us, are fleeting vanities, little more than blips on the radar of eternity. If this is true (and it is), Solomon is able to utter this meaningful statement only because meaning exists somewhere beyond the sun.

We know, of course, that all meaning flows from the Author of life, Jesus Christ. Paul describes Jesus like this:

Colossians 1:16-17 | For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him and he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Take a moment to allow the sweeping magnitude of those verses sink in. All things were created through and for Jesus, and He holds everything together. In other words, the atoms that form my keyboard as I type this are held in place by Jesus. Things exist (us included) because Jesus keeps them existing. This means that there is no reality outside of Jesus. If all things are held together in Jesus, then nothing exists away from Him. Everything, therefore, is meaningless without Christ because without Christ there is nothing.

With this understanding, Ecclesiastes’ life under the sun is a myth. It is a fantasy, nothing more than a day dream. We cannot actually live outside of God because He is the giver of life. Life without God is a fool’s quest since “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Attempting to avoid God is a striving after wind.

Ecclesiastes, therefore, does not need to be a depressing book. The Bible reveals to us the God who created the sun and gives meaning to all existence. He is the only source of true purpose, meaning, and satisfaction. We do not have to embrace the meaninglessness of life, the abyss that stares back; we can follow and serve the Creator. We can exchange the vanity under the sun for the joy in Christ.

The End of the Matter | Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13–14 (ESV)

 

Throughout Ecclesiastes, as the Preacher has systematically stripped the hope out of various avenues for pursuing joy, meaning, and purpose, he has also repeatedly given us a glimpse above the sun to the only real and lasting hope for humanity. This hope is that truly enjoying life can only come as a gift from God. The LORD alone is beyond vanity. He alone is joy, meaning, and purpose. And while this refrain has popped up throughout the book, here in these final two verses Solomon concludes by fixing our eyes squarely upon Him who is above the sun.

THE END OF THE MATTER // VERSE 13

In no uncertain terms, Ecclesiastes now draws to a close with the end of the matter. The book has, in many ways, been a winding journey through the Preacher’s collected thoughts on life. No one can argue that the adventure is not beautiful and poetic, but it is also difficult to decipher. And often the pieces of Ecclesiastes that are easiest to understand are also the hardest to swallow. Throughout the book, the fragmented pleading of the refrains to enjoy life in contentment have been lights at the end of the tunnel. Indeed, the point of Ecclesiastes, so far, can seem to be that there is no point to life so you might as well just enjoy the life given to you by God. But within these final two verses, we definitively learn what the overall message of the Preacher is for us. He now finally presents his barebones conclusion, the end of the matter, after all has been heard. After reflecting upon relationships, work, finances, possessions, children, wisdom, folly, knowledge, ignorance, anger, enjoyment, contentment, pleasure, legacy, eternity, oppression, justice, laughter, mourning, prosperity, adversity, time, life under the sun, and, of course, death, Ecclesiastes now offers at its conclusion the purpose behind all of human existence: fear God and keep His commandments.

THE WHOLE DUTY OF MAN // VERSE 13

If saying that the purpose of humanity is to fear God and keep His commandments seems like a slight hyperbole, note the final phrase of verse 13: for this is the whole duty of man. Since man is, of course, referring to all of mankind or humanity, the author is blatantly ascribing these two items as our reason for existing. If this sounds a bit shocking to you, it should. The very idea of having and/or discovering the grand purpose for being alive is an innately human experience. No person can live into adulthood without wrestling with this thought. James K. A. Smith, in You Are What You Love, (commenting on Augustine’s famous prayer: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”) says it like this:

To be human is to be for something, directed toward something, oriented toward something. To be human is to be on the move, pursuing something, after something. We are like existential sharks: we have to move to live. We are not just static containers for ideas; we are dynamic creatures directed toward some end. In philosophy we have a shorthand term for this: something that is oriented toward an end or telos (a “goal”) is described as “teleological.” Augustine rightly recognizes that human beings are teleological creatures. (8)

Second-century Roman emperor and Stoic, Marcus Aurelius, agrees with Smith’s conclusion: “People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time—even when hard at work” (19). If modern and ancient, Christian and pagan, agree that we are teleological beings, then what’s the point of emphasizing this point?

Unfortunately, the postmodern thought of today seems to be snuggling a bit too close to nihilism. Either outlook is frightening enough on its own, but together the result can be horrific. When postmodernism’s perpetual skepticism meets nihilism’s cynical declaration that nothing matters, the question is no longer “What is humanity’s purpose?” but instead “What should I do without purpose?” The closing song of the musical Avenue Q sums up this mentality quite well. Throughout the play, one of the main characters searches for his purpose in life, and when his quest proves futile, the cast sings about the comfort that, for all of its hardships, at least life is only temporary. It’s a repackaging of the nihilistic refrain: let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. Which, to be fair, is a soundly logical assertion if we are merely products of darwinian evolution, just lumps of cells that formed by chance with an accidental consciousness that will cease to be after death. Without a Designer, searching for a design is a waste of time. We might as well enjoy life to the fullest because it’s all we have.

This may sound similar to the refrain of Ecclesiastes to eat and drink, for there is nothing better than to enjoy the toil that God has given us, but these two philosophies could not be more diametrically opposed. For all of the Preacher’s talk about the futility of life, he has never concluded that nothing matters so we just need to grit our teeth through life and enjoy as much of it as we can. No! The Preacher has repeatedly commanded us to enjoy life as God’s gift. We don’t try to enjoy food and drink because there’s nothing better to do; we eat and drink with joy because flavors and full-bellies are the Creator’s blessings upon His creation. For all the vanities under the sun, we know that the Creator of even the sun itself is governing all things for His glory. In the midst of adversities and evils, we are called to, even then, rejoice in the blessings all around us.

And we can do this. Even though the world is broken and so are we, God’s creation and image have not been marred to the uttermost. Now please don’t report me to John Calvin. I wholeheartedly believe in the depravity of man, especially since it is the one doctrine of Scripture that can be empirically confirmed (as I believe Chesterton noted). But even though the damage is beyond our ability to repair, by His common grace, we are not as sinful as we could be. God still preserves glimpses of His goodness, even among those who actively blaspheme Him. There is, therefore, always grace to enjoy around us because God has preserved it.

All of this emphasizes the fact that Ecclesiastes gloriously proclaims that we do have a God-designed purpose. There is a meaning behind all of life’s futilities and adversities. And now that very purpose is being stated explicitly: the whole duty of mankind is to fear God and keep His commandments.

This duty of humanity is, in reality, one action, which is why he says duty is singular instead of plural. Fearing God and obeying God are so interwoven to one another that separation sabotages both.

Let us think this through.

To fear God is to see God as God. A true glimpse of God’s holiness must result in fear. He is too great and too beyond us for us not to quake at His presence. Fear is the proper reaction to seeing God for who He is. Being afraid during an earthquake is a justified reaction, and taking shelter from a tornado is the wise response. We fear elemental forces such as those because we rightly recognize them to be beyond our control. We become afraid because we are of no consequence to their raw power. To stand defiantly in the midst of a tornado is not bravery but foolishness of the highest order.

But what does this have to do with God? Nahum writes of God that “His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet. He rebukes the sea and makes it dry; he dries up all the rivers; Bashan and Carmel wither; the bloom of Lebanon withers. The mountains quake before him; the hills melt; the earth heaves before him, the world and all who dwell in it” (1:3-5).

Just as we flee in fear of the natural elements so do they flee from the LORD. It is wise to fear whatever puts fear into our fears. The LORD formed and created all things. He is utterly above and beyond all things. Nothing in existence is His equal, and nothing can even begin to rival His glory. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom because nothing is more foolish than not fearing God. Anyone who does not fear God does not know Him.

But how does fearing God intertwine with obeying His commands? Simply put, why would we not follow to the letter each command of the Being who authored all of reality? Fearing God without also obeying Him is an impossibility. The fear of God will always lead to obedience, and disobedience is evidence of the denial of God. We cannot fear Him without obeying Him, but we also cannot obey Him without fearing Him. Why is this? Could we not, at least, superficially obey His commandments? Could we not just go through the motions and it still count? No, the greatest commandment in the Bible is found in Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” We cannot love God without first knowing Him, and as stated previously, we cannot know God without fearing Him. No one, therefore, can love God without also fearing Him. Obedience to the greatest commandment requires the fear of the LORD. Thus, we cannot obey Him without fearing Him.

I pray that we now see clearly that the duty to fear God and obey His commands is only one duty, one great responsibility and purpose for all of humanity.

THE CERTAINTY OF JUDGMENT // VERSES 14

The final verse of Ecclesiastes is very much a warning. Primarily, it acts as motivation for fearing God and keeping His commandments, just like the phrase for this is the whole duty of man. Thus, if duty alone will not motivate you to serve God, perhaps impending judgment will. If the fearsome Creator that we have been discussing is promising a judgment day, we should rightly shudder at the very thought. God’s final judgment is not a topic to be treated lightly or frivolously but with reverential fear and trembling. Four questions will guide our study of this verse.

What will God judge?

If the omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God is promising judgment, knowing what exactly He will judge should be our top priority. The author provides one answer with two modifiers: every deed, even those done in secret, whether good or evil. In other words, nothing we do will escape the judicial verdict of Almighty God. Nothing is secretive enough to hide from the all-seeing eyes of the LORD. Sadly, many will write off this statement as being referring to the vindictive God of the Old Testament. Jesus, they would argue, is different; the primary message of Jesus is love, not judgment. First, the primary message of Jesus was the arrival of the kingdom of heaven, which should be met with repentance. Second, Jesus actually takes this thought one step further beyond deeds. In Matthew 12:36-37, Jesus declares, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” Jesus, thus, affirms a coming day of God’s ultimate judgment and adds that our words will be judged along with our deeds.

Further in Matthew, Jesus takes the judgment even further by noting that sinful words derive from a sinful heart. “But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (15:18-19). God’s judgment will not only come upon what we do but what we say and even think.

Why is this good news?

Now that we know what exactly God will judge, why is this verse good news? Because God’s law is etched onto our hearts (Romans 2:15), we long to see evil brought to justice. Just this week on the local news was a report of a woman who pleaded no contest to fleeing the scene of a fatality after hitting a man with her car. The court gave her thirty days in prison with three years’ probation, to which the man’s family claimed that justice was not served. In those types of moment, we inherently long for justice. We ache to see wrongs being made right. We yearn for retribution and vengeance to come upon the head of evildoers. If you do not think this is true, read stories from Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps, the lynching of Jesse Washington, the “population transfers” in the Soviet Union, or countless other atrocities committed throughout history. Even though, as I said, God has gracious prevented humanity from being depraved to the uttermost, we certainly have made plenty attempts to prove our depravity beyond a doubt. No one with an even semi-functioning conscience can deny longing for evil to be judged.

Why is this bad news?

So God will judge everything that we do, say, or think and that is good because evil deserves to be punished. Unfortunately, this is also bad news for us. Why is God’s judgment bad news to us? Sadly, we desire to see evil punished, as long as it’s not our evil, but if God will judge everything, we clearly have evil deeds, words, and thoughts that require justice as well. Of course, someone might argue that their deeds, words, and thoughts haven’t been too evil, at least compared to the exploits of Nazis and the like. Surely, then, God’s judgment will be less severe upon us, right? How could God send regular people to an eternal hell alongside committers of genocide, serial rapists, child molesters, and mass shooters? The problem with these kinds of questions is that they fundamentally misunderstand the sinfulness of sin. All sin is primarily an offense against God Himself. Every murder is first and foremost an attack upon the God whose image the murdered person bore. Every theft is robbing from God who gives to all as He sees fit. Ultimately, the breaking of God’s law is cosmic treason, a declaration that we know and are greater than the Creator of all things. Assuming that we are not bad enough to earn God’s eternal judgment is a fundamental lack of understanding who God is. R. C. Sproul points out this error powerfully at a Q&A session from the 2014 Ligonier National Conference, where he answered the question of why God was so severe against Adam and Eve when they sinned. Here is his answer:

This creature from the dirt defied the everlasting, holy God after that God had said that the day that you shall eat of it you shall surely die. And instead of dying that day, he lived another day. And was clothed in his nakedness by pure grace. And had the consequence of a curse applied for quite some time that the worst curse would come upon the one who seduced him, whose head would be crushed by the seed of the woman. And the punishment was too severe? What’s wrong with you people? I’m serious. I mean this is what’s wrong with the Christian church today. We don’t know who God is. We don’t know who we are. The question is: why wasn’t it infinitely more severe? If we have any understanding of our sin and any understanding of who God is that’s the question, isn’t it?

Indeed, each sin, no matter how small we think it is, is a transgression against the eternal God; therefore, the justice served against such a crime must also be eternal. Since God knows all things that we do, say, and think, we have no hope of disguising ourselves as slight sinners either. Each sin earns us God’s full judgment and not one of them escapes His sight. This is bad news for us.

What hope do we have? 

Our final question to ask in light of these two verses and the truths that we have seen in them is: What hope do we then have? Calling our circumstance bleak is sugar-coating it. Some claim that God could simply forgive sin, waving it away as if it never happened. But such an action would fly in the face of justice. A judge who refuses to deal punishments for crimes is an unjust judge. Neither could God draw a line between more and less serious sins, forgiving the small ones and punishing the large ones. Doing so would fail to properly uphold His eternal glory. Besides, even if God did so, we would then simply argue about why God drew the line wherever He drew it.

So the question then becomes: how can God remain just, while upholding His infinite glory and granting us forgiveness? The sheer impossibility of each of these elements being fulfilled should cause everyone to cry out, “Who then can be saved?”

Such is the magnitude of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Upon the God-man, as He hung from the cross, came the coalescence of God’s justice, glory, and love. Jesus satisfied God’s justice by offering His own undeserved death as payment for our sins. This was possible because of the deity of Christ. He was able to pay our everlasting debt because He is from everlasting to everlasting. Thus, God’s justice was served and His glory honored. With God’s justice met and glory exalted, His love is then displayed. Having entirely absorbed our punishment in Christ, God then imputes upon us the righteousness of Christ. We are, thus, more than forgiven; we are adopted as children of God, coheirs with Christ. This is the gospel, the good news. The entirety of Scripture points to this message: God rescues rebellious sinners at the cost of His own blood.

THE END OF THE MATTER

The grand purpose, design, and duty of humanity is to fear God and obey His commandments, which we fail time and time again. Frighteningly for us, God will bring each and every thing into judgment, and that very judgment would consume us entirely if it were not the grace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

For all of its poetic beauty, Ecclesiastes, like all Old Testament books, ultimately points beyond itself to Christ.

In Christ alone are we able to fear God and obey His commandments, for it is God who works in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

In Christ alone are we able to go to the house of God, drawing near because for us Jesus was obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

In Christ alone are we able to eat and drink and do all things with joy as He strengthens us in contentment of the life graciously given to us by God.

In Christ alone are we able to find, in the midst of the adversities of life, the peace that surpasses all understanding.

In Christ alone are we able to rejoice in our toil under the sun, knowing that for us, to live is Christ.

In Christ alone are we able to meet our inevitable and looming death with confidence that to die is, in fact, gain.

In Christ alone are we able to find gain in this life under the sun, counting everything as vanity for the sake of Christ.

Vanity of vanities. All is vanity without Christ.

Depressing Joy: a thousand year search for meaning

Back in 2012, I taught through the books of Ecclesiastes and Philippians together, attempting to show how they both present that true joy is only found in Christ. Since I am now preaching through them again (finishing Ecclesiastes this Sunday), I’m sharing the essay that I wrote in 2012 to explain the connection between these two books.


The nature of joy should not be mysterious to us, yet it often is. C. S. Lewis claims, in the book Surprised by Joy, that pleasure, happiness, and joy share a commonality. This common trait, Lewis remarks, is that after one has experienced them he or she will spend the rest of their life searching for them again. However, though they share this link, joy is significantly different from pleasure or happiness. For instance, the alluring aspect of happiness and pleasure is that they are both enjoyable, yet that very enjoyment of happiness and pleasure is meant to be found within the context of joy. The word “enjoy” means, after all, to find joy in something. Thus, joy is the means by which and the purpose to which we are meant enjoy pleasure and happiness. We often seek happiness and pleasure themselves as sources of joy, but if we sought joy first, then we would already have the context for accepting pleasure and happiness. Joy should be given primacy. Happiness and pleasure could best be described as momentary glimpses of joy, whereas joy is a state of being that transcends throughout the emotional spectrum. Thus, we can be joyful and happy, but we can also be sorrowful and full of joy.

The lasting appeal of joy, I believe, derives from its interconnection with satisfaction. When we are joyful, we are satisfied. Or, it could better be said that when we are satisfied, we are joyful. As Moody notes, “if man is dying for want of bread, and you give him bread, is that going to make him gloomy?” Most, if not all, of our negative emotions can be traced to an outcome that deviated from our original desire. I will not enjoy a meal fully if it is Chinese food and my desire was for Mexican. When our desires are fulfilled, we find joy and satisfaction.

The implication of this thought is enormous because most people strongly desire to live a satisfied life. We often long, deep within our souls, for a joy that gives us true satisfaction and contentment, and we are best able to find that joy by seeing our desires fulfilled. However, if our greatest desire is to achieve joy and satisfaction, then such joy can only be found by finding… joy. And it is within this vague cycle of sought-out meaning that many throw away their search for joy. They become lost in the quest for satisfaction and, as a result, pursue one source of fleeting pleasure after another. Instead of finding lasting joy, they do their best to be satisfied with lesser things, with mere hints of the meaning and contentment that could be had.

This triviality is not lost on God nor on His chosen people throughout history. In fact, there two books within God’s Word that search out and answer how we might find a meaningful and satisfied life. The first of these is the book of Ecclesiastes. Written by Solomon, the king of Israel after succeeding his father David, Ecclesiastes is traditionally believed to be his dying thoughts. After living a life of unparalleled wealth, pleasure, and wisdom, Solomon wrote what many consider to be the most hopeless and depressing book of the Bible.

It is easily understood how one can arrive at such a conclusion. The bulk of Ecclesiastes is Solomon presenting various avenues of hope only to describe their shortcomings. However, the overarching vanity in life is not Solomon’s ultimate purpose for the book. Instead, Solomon hopes to reveal the Source of lasting joy and satisfaction, but he does this primarily by showing how other methods fail to offer such joy. In fact, the Israelite king repeatedly states that there is nothing better in life than to enjoy what you have been given by God.

Wait.

Surely the search for lasting joy cannot be that simple.

Are we meant to simply have joy?

Well, Solomon does give an answer for the Source of joy: God. The conclusion of Solomon’s life is that enjoyment, and thus joy, only comes from God. Nothing else gives such lasting satisfaction. Therefore, we must understand that Ecclesiastes is, at its core, about joy and the Giver of joy.

The second book is the widely hailed epistle of joy: Philippians. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians was written towards the end of his life as well. Over the course of his letter, Paul primarily urges the church in Philippi to rejoice (another word derived from joy), despite the church and Paul himself experiencing persecution. In fact, Philippians was written while Paul was imprisoned for declaring the gospel of Jesus. But even though Paul was sitting in prison awaiting his death, he wrote with supreme confidence that he had found the complete and total meaning of life: “to live is Christ.” Furthermore, Paul’s central focus upon Christ gives contentment and joy in any situation and grants him the ability to view death as gain. The joy of Christ delivers unparalleled joy and satisfaction, while stripping away the sting and fear of death.

Though Solomon and Paul were separated by roughly a thousand years, the central theme of both Ecclesiastes and Philippians remains eternally tied together. These two godly and wise men present to us a thousand year, Spirit-inspired look at humanity’s quest for meaning, satisfaction, and purpose in life. But even more importantly, they present the answer to that quest; therefore, over the next couple of posts, we will explore the connections and relations between these two beautiful, but challenging, books.

Two Roads

A belief that I hold is that there are two paths to hell. If eternal judgment is your desired destination, rest assured that you have at least two choices to take: the road of the “sinner” or the road of the “religious.”

You see, the only method of actually securing the eternal wrath of such a loving God is to follow your own prideful heart, to reject His grace and His Son. This is the only means of sealing one’s damnation because we know that anyone who turns from their sins and follows Christ shall be saved.

However,  though pride is the only means of earning a hellish afterlife, such a life plays out in two broad forms, both are methods of proclaiming your own glory instead of God’s. As one could probably guess, both of these views are discussed in Ecclesiastes and Philippians.

First, you can become a “sinner” and adamantly reject the inherent moral compass that God has placed within us. This way of life will almost always become some form of the philosophical thought known as hedonism. This is because, as stated above, pleasure gives us a sense of enjoyment, which we will often relentlessly pursue. When we are centered upon ourselves entirely and deny any real morality, we will seek our own happiness through various means.

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon gives us the very epitome of this “sinner” approach to life. His hedonistic quest is listed in the second chapter and is basically a dream fulfilled to anyone. Is music enjoyable? Solomon hired his favorite singers and musicians to play personally for him, whenever he wanted. How about laughter? He had the best comedians around him at all times. Animals? He had the best farms and his own personal zoo. Money? Solomon made 666 talents of gold each year just for being king. That would be a salary of about $750,000,000 in today’s currency! With all of his possessions included, Solomon is widely considered to be the wealthiest person to ever live. How about sex? He had 700 wives and 300 concubines whose only job was to satisfy any fantasy that the king had. Most men today would have great difficulty building a virtual harem that large, let alone an actual harem! He ordered the building of one of the wonders of the ancient world, the temple in Jerusalem. His philanthropy was also unmatched. Surely all of those activities gave him pleasure!

And actually, it did.

But it was only a fleeting, momentary pleasure. Disillusioned by the inability to find lasting satisfaction in any of those avenues, Solomon gives himself over to despair in the very same chapter! Though he sought joy, the end result is nothing but depression.

Or we could choose to become “religious.”

This route is no less prideful than the “sinner’s” road, though it often appears to be so because of the false humility that likely follows. In many ways, this path is no less hedonistic than the “sinner.” While “sinner” ignores the moral laws and seeks pleasure outside of them, the “religious” accepts morality and hopes to find pleasure in being a good person. Following this route, our satisfaction becomes contingent upon our good works.

In Philippians, we find this other path toward damnation played out. In the third chapter, Paul gives us his religious credentials. Paul was born into one of the more prominent tribes among God’s chosen people. When it came to obeying the laws that God gave to the Israelites, Paul was a Pharisee. This group literally devoted their entire lives to obeying God’s Word, and Paul was quickly becoming one of the best. Another aspect of religiousness is passion, or zeal. Many today will argue that it does not matter what you believe so long as you believe with your whole heart and passion. Paul had unrivaled zeal, displayed in the fact that he killed those considered to be heretics. It is difficult to imagine a greater passion than the willingness to kill for your beliefs. And interestingly enough, Paul does not say that this failed to give him pleasure or satisfaction. In fact, this form of life can certainly lead to a fulfilled existence; however, the end result will not be even remotely pleasant. Jesus informs us that at the end of time many will stand before Him and confidently sight their resume as justification for their entrance into God’s presence. Shockingly, they will promptly be denied. Why? They will be sent away because all of their efforts were for their own pride and glory, not the glorification of Christ.

Nevertheless, Paul does not reiterate Jesus’ words. He does not even state that all of his best efforts were in vain. Instead, he is more concerned with what he has found to be the greatest source of pleasure and meaning, which consequently is the same conclusion that Solomon also arrives to at the end of the second chapter in Ecclesiastes. Solomon’s claim is that the ability to enjoy life is a gift from God, and Paul’s conclusion is that everything else pales in comparison to Jesus Christ. Solomon’s hedonism and Paul’s hedonistic legalism both spring from the sin called pride and its rebellion against God. Yet both also find their hope and true joy in God and the radiance of His glory Jesus Christ.

Finding Contentment

Yet even if hedonism and religious legalism are both truly dead ends, we are forced to ask once more why people pursue these ends.

Why do we relentlessly chase after the pleasures of hedonism to the degree of ignoring our God-given conscience?

Why practice the asceticism found within religious legalism so that precious little happiness and pleasure is left in life?

Both roads are meant to accomplish the same end: contentment. A satisfied, fulfilled, and purposeful life is the goal to which almost every philosophical outlook aims. Most of us seek to live a life that is full of meaning, a life that has not been wasted.

Solomon, with all of his divinely granted wisdom, was no exception. Ecclesiastes is the Israelite king’s reflection on all of the various quests that he explored to find this contentment, this meaning in life. Though he pursued many possible means toward that end, the thesis of Ecclesiastes is that he only found one path that leads to true meaning and satisfaction in life.

In the twelfth and thirteenth verses of chapter three, Solomon states simply that there is nothing better than for us to “take pleasure” in all of our toil. He would rephrase this idea later by saying that we would do well to accept our lot in life. Thus, we have to wonder if such is the extent of Solomon’s wisdom. The wisest man to ever live, at the end of his life, reaches one conclusion: to find contentment and satisfaction in life, be content and satisfied with life.

Is the answer to the question truly the content of the question itself? Fortunately, Solomon grants us more to guide us than the advice of simply being content. Instead, Solomon reveals to us the Source of contentment. He concludes the verses mentioned above with this tell-tale phrase: “this is God’s gift to man.” From whence can such contentment and purpose in life come? According to Solomon, it can only come from the hand of God, gift to humanity that He alone can give.

Paul’s letter to the Philippian church is not without its parallel in this matter.

Given the apostle’s circumstances, it would be difficult to imagine how he could find complete and total satisfaction with life. He was locked away in prison, knowing that he could be executed at any moment. And this is after most of his missionary journeys, which saw him shipwrecked, beaten, stoned, and flogged. Luke the physician likely stayed by Paul’s side primarily out of necessity. After such difficulties and sufferings, is it possible for Paul to write about having contentment and satisfaction? Amazingly, he does!

In verse eleven of chapter four, Paul declares that he has learned “to be content” in any situation. Even so, this claim will inspire nothing but envy within us unless Paul is able to disclose the Source of his contentment. The thirteenth verse of the same chapter is one of the most famous and quoted verses of the entire Bible, and it is there that the answer is found. It is through “him who strengthens” that Paul finds the ability to be satisfied within difficult circumstances. We understand from the context of the letter and chapter that the “him” is Christ.

Therefore, Paul is making the same claim that Solomon made 1000 years prior. They have both found the same conclusion to one of life’s greatest questions, and the answer is that only God can give us contentment and satisfaction with life.

The Pursuit of Joy

We have now arrived at the Source of a content life. We have discovered that God alone, through Christ, is able granted us the satisfaction that our souls desire. However, if we stop merely at the Source of our satisfaction, then I believe that we will miss an opportunity to see the glory and goodness of God at work.

You see, part of the glorious nature of God’s gift of contentment is the means by which it is given. God, being God, could easily have granted us a form of contentment that offered no level of pleasure. He could have simply given us the ability to be completely satisfied with our lot in life, while also being quite unhappy. Yet, this is not how He chose to operate. God Himself is the Source of our contentment, but joy is the vehicle, the mode, through which His gift is given. This thought gives heart to what was discussed at the beginning: joy leads to satisfaction, which we know now to be because God ordained it as such.

In bringing the ideas of joy, contentment, meaning, satisfaction, pleasure, and happiness full circle, we may once again turn toward Ecclesiastes’ and Philippians’ persistent mentioning of joy and its derivative words.

Solomon continually reinforces that the only means of lasting value is enjoying life via the free gift of God.  Paul pleads throughout for the Philippians to rejoice in Christ, even in the persecution that they were experiencing. Thus, over the span of a thousand years, Paul and Solomon both urge, through radically different writings and lives, that finding enjoyment and rejoicing in God are the only means to achieving lasting contentment and satisfaction in life, and enjoyment and rejoicing can only come from God Himself.

Therefore, God is the Source, the Receiver of the means, and the Objective that we hope to arrive upon. In short, joy, contentment, and meaning are only in God the Father through Jesus Christ. The circular quest for purpose has but one answer: the One who is, in and of Himself, the Beginning and the End. He is the summation of the very purpose of our lives.

Thus, we enjoy and rejoice because He is good and sufficient, and in Him, we are completely satisfied. It is this biblical line of thinking that inspired John Piper to form this condensed description of his theology: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. Being satisfied in Him necessitates enjoying and rejoicing in Him.

All of this is to say that the chief end of both Ecclesiastes and Philippians is that immeasurable joy can only be found in God, which will lead to a content and satisfied life, and a life that is completely joyful in Him will be supremely glorifying to Him.  Let us, therefore, glorify Christ Jesus along with Solomon and Paul, for His glory will also become our greatest joy.

Beware of Anything Beyond Scripture | Ecclesiastes 12:9-12

Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.

The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

Ecclesiastes 12:9–12 (ESV)

 

With verse 8 of this final chapter repeating verse 2 of the first chapter, the body of Ecclesiastes came to its conclusion. The remaining six verses compose the epilogue to this biblical work of philosophy. Throughout the entirety of the book, the under the sun perspective has been predominant, with glimpses beyond scattered throughout. If in our previous study the Preacher lifted our eyes toward the sun itself, he continues to raise our heads further in these verses. Verses 13-14 will entirely point us to the God who is above the sun, but verses 9-12 direct us to His means of reaching out to us under the sun: the Scriptures.

We now enter the epilogue of Ecclesiastes, which is the subject of much debate among theologians. One of the most common views is that the epilogue was authored by someone other than the Preacher himself. This seems accurate enough at first glance since whoever wrote these verses appears to be introducing the Preacher in 1:1 and is reflecting upon the Preacher’s words in the epilogue. The other primary argument is these verses are not nearly as bleak as the main body and generally do not have the same feel or aim. A prevailing theory is that if Solomon is indeed the Preacher then perhaps Hezekiah (who compiled many proverbs of Solomon, as seen in Proverbs 25:1) composed the epilogue and first verse of the book. This view certainly has its merits and may very well be true; however, I find no problem with the Preacher also being the author of the epilogue. First, writing about oneself in the third person was far from uncommon in the ancient world. Second, the epilogue is not a shift in style from the rest of the book; it is its conclusion. Verse 13-14 get explicitly targeted as being too God-focused for the rest of Ecclesiastes, but the entire book builds toward those closing statements. And like a skilled writer, the Preacher sowed the seeds for his conclusion throughout the book. For instance, he is not instructing us to fear God for the first time (5:7). In fact, recall that 5:1-7 is a miniature replica of Ecclesiastes’ structure, complete with a refrain and an epilogue that sheds new light on the previous verses as well. God’s judgment is also not new to the Preacher (11:9). Indeed, the bleak outlook of the entire book, the constant refrain for us to enjoy the life given to us, and the exploration of living under the sun have all been leading us to these final remarks.

As I said in the study of 5:1-7, I strongly considered opening Ecclesiastes with a discussion of its epilogue, and the Preacher (or whoever authored these verses) indeed intends for us to reread Ecclesiastes in light of its conclusion. But the necessity of rereading the book is the entire point. These words come at the end of the book for a reason. The author wants to us feel the beauty of lifting our face above the sun after having spent so much time under it. They are a breath of fresh air after swimming in the vanities of this life. But they also should impact how we reread Ecclesiastes. Or I should say, they necessitate that we reread Ecclesiastes. As a blatant member of the Bible’s wisdom literature, Ecclesiastes is meant to be meditated over as we mine it for the wisdom that God has spoken through it. Providing the epilogue as a new lens through which to read the book serves as an incentive to return to its words. I would go so far as to say that a failure to reread Ecclesiastes in light of the epilogue is a failure to understand the overall message of the book.

TEACHING KNOWLEDGE // VERSE 9

The epilogue begins by panning the camera back until the director is brought into the frame. Information on the Preacher has been scant throughout the book, and the end of the book does little to change that status. The Preacher has reminded us frequently of his wisdom, but now he points us beyond that wisdom. Besides being wise (or beyond being wise), the Preacher taught knowledge to the people, primarily through the use of Proverbs, which we have seen included in this book. There are two aspects of this verse that I want to comment on.

First, this is not saying that the Preacher went beyond wisdom into a higher level of some sort, nor that he left wisdom behind to move onto bigger and better things. Instead, Solomon not only accumulated wisdom; he also did something with it. Specifically, he taught knowledge and wisdom to others. This is important for two reasons: 1) knowledge is worth teaching, and 2) teaching is a form of loving.

Knowledge is worth teaching because knowledge is worth knowing. Christianity is a religion that gladly admits that we are ignorant of many details and contours of God because He is infinite and we are finite. Our knowledge is limited; therefore, we will always be ignorant of something. However, the Bible continuously rebels against the notion of willful ignorance, while wholeheartedly promoting the pursuit of knowledge. We see this in the cornerstone verse of Proverbs: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (1:7). Whoever fears God is ready and willing to learn, but fools openly reject being taught wisdom and knowledge. Fools fight at the notion that someone may know something that they do not.

Similarly, the LORD brings His condemnation against Israel in Hosea 4:6 stating, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.” Israel became willfully ignorant of God in favor of pursuing sin. In verse 10, the LORD warns that sin destroys understanding: “They shall eat, but not be satisfied; they shall play the whore, but not multiply, because they have forsaken the LORD to cherish whoredom, wine, and new wine, which take away the understanding.”

Now compare that despair of ignorance with Peter’s view of knowledge: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence” (2 Peter 1:3). God’s divine power places life and godliness in our hands through the knowledge of Him. Knowing God is how we experience the power of God, but willful ignorance of God is a foolish sin that ends in damnation. Eternity, therefore, hangs upon the knowledge or ignorance of God. Is knowledge not worth teaching!

If knowledge of God is the means of receiving God’s powerful gifts of life and godliness, then such knowledge must be taught. And beyond the bare necessity of teaching the knowledge of God, such teaching is also a supremely loving act. If, as we studied in the previous text, God is the being of the greatest worth and value, then the act of introducing someone to God and His character is an act of great worth and value. If the greatest commandment is to love God with the second being to love our neighbors, then teaching our neighbors the God who is altogether lovely is a display of love of the highest order.

Unfortunately, we tend to place the meeting the physical needs of others on a higher plain than their spiritual needs. The Apostles, in Acts 6, did not fall into that trap. They rightly delegated the distribution of food to the church’s widows in order to focus on the ministry of the Word and prayer. Of course, none of this is to say that physical needs are of no value. They certainly are! But feeding upon the Scripture is eternally more important than feeding upon bread. Often it is said that people do not care how much you know until they know how much you care, but, as Christians, we ultimately long to show how much we care by showing people the God we know. Along these lines, the Preacher was too loving to keep his wisdom and knowledge of God to himself, so he taught others.

Seconds, notice how Solomon taught others: weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher poured himself into the work of collecting words of wisdom. With great care, he weighed proverbs, scrutinizing them in order to be sure of their wisdom. He studied them, reading them backward and forward, meditating on them day and night, taking them to heart, and applying them to his own life. He arranged them, gathering them together so that others might be able to study them as well. The emphasis of these three verbs is the great care with which he compiled his words of wisdom. There was nothing frivolous or half-hearted about his task. He poured heart and soul into his work, for the purpose of teaching others. To the weariness of his own flesh, he studied for the sake of others.

Why did he put so much work into words that many people will dismiss before they ever even read? The next two verses give us that answer.

WORDS OF WISDOM, TRUTH, & DELIGHT // VERSES 10-11

Within these two verses, Ecclesiastes explicitly places itself into the category of biblical wisdom literature. The word uniting 10 and 11 is words. Verse 10 states that the Preacher sought (a great summary word for the great care taken in verse 9) to find words of delight and that he accurately wrote words of truth. Verse 11 then gives us two functions of these words of the wise, as well as their ultimate source.

Let us begin by noting that the words of delight, words of truth, and words of the wise are all the same words, the collected sayings. But which words are these exactly? There is a triple layer of application here. First, these words refer to the book of Ecclesiastes directly. Second, they are also, broadly, the collected wisdom literature of the Bible. Third, they are, in the most general sense, the full text of Scripture. These three concentric circles must be understood and remembered as we look at how they are described, applied, and given, but for greatest scope, we will primarily speak of them as all of Scripture.

Scripture Is Wise, Truthful, & Delightful

Three descriptions are then given of the Scriptural writings.

They are the words of the wise. Since true wisdom comes from the fear of God, these are the words of God-fearers who are teaching us about the God whom we must fear.

They are words of truth. If is truly the Creator of all things, He is also, then, truth. If He authored reality, then all truth derives from Him because He is the greater Reality behind all of reality. Words are true indeed that direct us to He who is truth.

They are words of delight. Since the immediate application is upon Ecclesiastes, this might be a tough pill to swallow. Delight is not likely the first word that comes to mind when thinking about this book, which has repeatedly reminded us of death’s inevitable arrival. Of course, we shouldn’t exclude other books and passages of Scripture from this thought either. We do not often read the Bible’s genealogies while praising God that they are “more to be desired than gold, even much fine gold” (Psalm 19:10). Nor do we read passages like, “And these you shall detest among the birds; they shall not be eaten; they are detestable: the eagle, the bearded vulture, the black vulture, the kite, the falcon of any kind, every raven of any kind, the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk of any kind, the little owl, the cormorant, the short-eared owl, the barn owl, the tawny owl, the carrion vulture, the stork, the heron of any kind, the hoopoe, and the bat” (Leviticus 11:13-19), and rejoice that those words are “sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honey comb” (Psalm 19:10). Yet if Scripture is the written Word of God (as verse 11 will affirm), they are delightful because the Creator Himself has spoken to us! Especially as Christians, who now call God our Father because of the cross and resurrection of Christ, we should delight in the words of our Father.

Two functions of Scripture are then described in verse 11.

Scripture Goads Us

They are like goads, which resemble fire pokers and are used to goad (which is where that verb derives from, by the way) oxen into continuing the work of plowing. The words of Scripture, therefore, prod and guide us. They are pointed and sharp to move us into action. Like a goad, they hook and pull us toward one direction or the other in order to keep us along the right path. Truly the Word “is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). If the gate is narrow and the way hard that leads to life, it cannot be traveled except by the guidance of God’s Word. Put simply, a Christianity that is not guided by the Bible is not Christianity.

Scripture Secures Us

They are also like nails firmly fixed. Securely fixed nails accomplish their purpose of holding the nailed item in place; likewise, the words of the Bible secure us to the God who spoke them. Psalm 119:9-11 declares that the young man is able to keep his way pure by guarding it with the Word of God, storing it in his heart so that he might not sin against the LORD. With the Scriptures, we could not know and follow Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).

Scripture Comes from One Shepherd

Finally, all Scripture comes from one Shepherd, God. Philip Ryken comments on this phrase:

This makes Ecclesiastes 12:11 an important verse for the Biblical doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture (see also 2 Peter 1:21). Ecclesiastes is the very Word of God. The Preacher’s words are not merely the musings of some skeptical philosopher; they are part of the inspired, infallible, and inerrant revelation of Almighty God. Therefore, it is not enough merely to admire their artistry and respect their integrity—we must also submit to their authority. As the Shepherd of our souls, God uses this book—as he uses everything written in the Bible—to prod us into spiritual action. (278)

The Bible contains wisdom because it is the Word of God. The Bible is true because it is the Word of God. The Bible is delightful because it is the Word of God. The Bible is able to guide us because it is the Word of God. The Bible is able to secure us because it is the Word of God. If the Scriptures are not breathed out by God, they are simply another book to read, but if they are God speaking to us, there is nothing more important for us to read, study, memorize, and meditate upon.

BEWARE OF ANYTHING BEYOND SCRIPTURE // VERSE 12

Verse 12 begins with the phrase, my son, which should immediately bring to mind the first nine chapters of Proverbs. The introductory chapters of Proverbs were written by Solomon to us, the readers, as if we were his son to whom he was imparting fatherly wisdom and warnings. If Solomon did write this verse, then it is a very fitting return to style. If it was written by another author, then it is purposely connecting itself to the rest of the wisdom literature and Scripture.

His warning to us, as though we were his child, is to beware of anything beyond the Scriptures. He explains that the making of books will not end until the world does and study requires a physical tax upon the body, so focus your reading and studying upon the Book. This is not to say that other books do not contain truth. They often most certainly do! Many books outside of Scripture are worth reading, but even among the valuable books, too many exist for anyone to read. And the list only continues to grow. We cannot allow ourselves to be caught in the current of studying and reading other things more than Scripture.

Sadly, few today are in danger of over-reading or excessive studying, at least in the traditional sense. Even with the information of the ages available at our fingertips, most of us seem content to outsource our thoughts onto various screens, while we watch upon those screens frivolous entertainments that do nothing to benefit us. The author is warning us against the dangers of reading and studying to find eternal truth outside of Scripture, but one of the most dangerous lies in circulation is that entertainment doesn’t influence us with teachings that contradict the Bible. Every book, film, television series, or any other media teaches something as truth. Discovering whether or not that truth aligns with the Bible is our responsibility as Christians. Philosophies are often hidden, and the same empty deceits that the Colossians fought against still abound today (Colossians 2:8). I don’t argue that we should become Amish and shun entertainment, but we must become more media literate that we may be able to “destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5).

One of my favorite television series is The Office. Watching the entire series is a 100-hour commitment while reading the entire Bible takes around 70 hours. Could our deep cultural literacy be a primary factor in why so many Christians are biblically illiterate? Entertainment itself is not a sin, but O how easily it distracts us from the eternal warfare that we walk in day by day!

Ultimately, to turn away from Scripture is to declare self-sufficiency. Whether we turn to another religious philosophy or whether we hide our thoughts in a mindless Netflix binge, the outcome is still the same: we claim our independence from God. The Word of God alone is our guide and our security. The Scripture alone reveals to us the knowledge of God. To reject God and His Word is to reject the fountain of living water, the bread of life, good shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep.

Does your vision of Scripture align with the vision found here in Ecclesiastes?

Do you come to the Scriptures for wisdom and knowledge, or do you seek other counsel?

Is the Bible the final and supreme truth to which you hold, or do you blatantly or subtly follow other ideas and philosophies?

Do you delight in the Word, or do you view reading it as a lifeless chore?

Do you allow the Scripture to goad you, or do you careful interpret it to only say what you want it to say?

Is the Bible your security, or do you turn to other things to anchor you?

Do you study the Word in order to know the God who spoke it, or do you read it as a self-help or therapeutic book?

In what things do you saturate yourself? What do you “study”? What do you give your time to more than Scripture?

Rejoice, Remove, Remember! | Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:8

Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.
So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.

Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.

Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity. 

Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low—they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets—before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.

Ecclesiastes 11:7–12:8 (ESV)

 

We now come to the end of the main body of Ecclesiastes. Just as the Preacher has repeatedly warned us of death, the great equalizer, coming for us, he now concludes with a poem describing the final years of human life. The portrait of our inevitable physical decay is framed by a message to those who are not yet in those last years. Likely writing the poem from firsthand experience, Solomon commands us to rejoice in our youth, remove the sins that cause us to waste our lives, and remember our Creator.

LIGHT IS SWEET // VERSES 7-8

First of all, what does the Preacher mean when he says that light is sweet and that seeing the sun is pleasant? From a physiological standpoint, researchers continue to learn more and more the truthfulness of this statement. We now know that exposure to sunlight releases serotonin in the body, a hormone that helps to regulate moods, calm anxiety, balance digestion, and many other functions. Simply being under the sun that God created, therefore, grants many health benefits to our bodies. Given our propensity today to remain indoors more than ever before, we should make particular of this verse’s practical wisdom. Although we humans have managed to create lightbulbs and channel electricity, our lights cannot offer the same benefits as God’s original creation. In many ways, we continue to form shallow imitations of God’s works. And particularly if you wrestle with depression or anxiety, listen all the more to Solomon’s words here. For all its simplicity, a walk in the sunshine is one of the greatest weapons against the various forms of mood disorders.

It is also interesting to note the subtle shift that is happening here. Solomon has repeatedly used the phrase “under the sun” throughout Ecclesiastes, but now he is directing our gaze upward toward the sun itself. Of course, the Preacher will firmly turn our attention above the sun in the epilogue.

Verse 8 is essentially a microcosm of the verses that will follow. Two commands are given: rejoice in all of our years and remember that the days of darkness will be many. The verse then ends with yet another vanity proclamation (although it seems that vanity here is not referring to pointlessness and meaninglessness of life but rather its brevity and transience).  Since these two commands are explored more in the later verses, I will not expound upon them here, but I do want to make note of Solomon’s usage of units of time. He commands for us to rejoice in all the years that we live while remembering that the days of darkness will be many. Isn’t it so tempting for us to let days of difficulty that the LORD places before us overshadow the years of joy? This in no way makes light of the days of darkness. They will come, and they will be heavy. Let us prepare our hearts now to consider the sovereignty of God during those days of adversity (7:14). Yet in general, God gives so much more time of rejoicing than He does days of darkness.

REJOICE // VERSE 9

Solomon’s first command to the young is to rejoice. This thought is not foreign to Ecclesiastes since the Preacher has repeatedly told us that there is nothing better in life than to enjoy the life that God has given us. But despite the similarity to Ecclesiastes’ main refrain, something different is happening here. In those previous exhortations, the Preacher is simply presenting the result of his investigations before us. He is informing us that he has only found enjoyment to a gift that only God can give. Whether we follow his advice or not seems to be just set in our lap. But not here. He is now blatantly commanding us to rejoice, to enjoy life.

Let me ask two questions: Do we think of God’s commands as being for our good? Or do we think of them as God trying to limit and hinder us?

In Deuteronomy 10:12, God gives this message to the Israelites: “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?” Notice those last three words: for your good. God’s commands are for our good and flourishing on the earth.

Further on in Deuteronomy 28:47, God warns Israel of the curses that will befall them “because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart”. God has never wanted mindless obedience. Curses would still come upon the Israelites for joyless obedience.

Do we tend to think of God as commanding our joy and delight in Him? God commands our joy in Him because He is our ultimate source of joy. God is not a megalomaniac who tells us simply to enjoy Him or else; rather, He calls us to enjoy Him because nothing else can satisfy us. Even the good gifts of God are temporary and, therefore, cannot give lasting joy. Everything will eventually fail us (or we ourselves will fail). God is the only One who cannot fail. God points us to Himself because there is nothing greater. When He commands us to rejoice, we can only do so in Him. We can only find true joy in God Himself.

Let us consider a few more questions.

First, who qualifies as the young man here? The answer seems to be anyone who is not presently living out the poem of verses 1-7 in chapter 12. Solomon does not appear to recognize all the various age classifications that we assume today. Young and old, youth and elderly, are the two categories of people for these verses in Ecclesiastes.

Second, is Solomon urging us to follow our heart? Typically, those of a more Reformed theological persuasion tend to throw up Jeremiah 17:9 whenever we talk about following the heart: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Yet notice that Solomon appears to be telling us to follow our heart: walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. The only thing more dangerous than following our heart is following our eyes. Didn’t the Preacher himself warn that the eye is never satisfied with seeing? How then do we reconcile these things?

Remember that Ecclesiastes is one piece of the Bible’s wisdom literature. Furthermore, if Solomon did indeed write Ecclesiastes, then this is the same author who wrote Proverbs 4:23: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” The Preacher’s command here is not contradicting Jeremiah; instead, he is issuing this command to those who will actively seek to guard their heart. Especially under the New Covenant in Christ, we should grow in loving God with all our heart, and then our heart’s desire will be to follow the ways of the LORD.

Third, the verse ends by warning that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. For which things will God judge us? There are two ways of understanding this. God might be warning us against partying too hard. Rejoice and enjoy life. Follow your heart. Do what pleases your eyes, but if you cross the line into sin, judgment will come. Or it could mean that God will judge us for not obeying His command to rejoice. To refuse to be content and satisfied with the multitude of blessings that God has given is an offense to God Himself. This interpretation seems much more likely to me. If rejoicing is a command, then judgment will come to those who disobey.

REMOVE // VERSE 10

The second command is to remove vexation and pain. Once more, Solomon’s usage of vanity here is a reminder that youth is fleeting. It is a vapor that is here today and gone tomorrow. Because youth is so temporary, stop wasting time with needless frustrations, with things that do not matter, with being upset. Stop wasting time worrying about all the things that we cannot fix or control. Remove those vexations from the heart.

Now, this does not mean that we should rid ourselves of all the annoying people in life. Second only to loving God is loving those around us. Nor does it encourage us to stop doing things that are frustratingly difficult. Often the most life-giving activities are also the most difficult ones. Nowhere is this truer than in the Christian life. The way is hard and the gate is narrow, but the reward for the few who find is eternal life.

Instead, the Preacher is commanding us to stop doing worthless (and often sinful) things that ruin our life. In fact, we could break this down into two categories. First, if you can, make life less frustrating for yourself. Second, stop making excuses, and kill the sin that is killing you. Sin, after all, is the most vexing and painful action that we can ever take.

Perhaps a personal example of how these two categories play out will be helpful. Being highly sanctified in dealing with frustrations, it was difficult to remember a time when I was sinfully frustrated, but I managed to recall an example. Let me take you then all the way back to this morning. Having spent the weekend visiting some friends, Tiff and I slept through our alarm by an hour. We were awakened by our crying daughter, which to me means that we begin the day already playing catch up. I, therefore, began the day extremely frustrated with myself. But even though the frustration was with myself, it is unleashed upon my wife and daughter. I was incapable of enjoying the two greatest gifts that the LORD has given me because I was upset with myself.  Such is the great danger of unchecked vexations. They steal the joy that God gives. Graciously, the LORD brought this verse into my heart (Psalm 119:11 anyone?), and asked forgiveness from Tiff and thanked her for not returning her own frustrations back upon me. What exactly does this verse teach me in situations like this? First, if I get frustrated by sleeping too late, I should get up earlier. Cut vexations off at the root, if possible. Second, such frustrations are sin. I sinned against my wife and daughter, so I am called to repent and turn back to the joy of the LORD. Life is simply too short to waste time being upset or sinning. Cut it out and start rejoicing in the blessings of God.

REMEMBER // VERSES 1-7

The final command is to remember our Creator in the days of our youth. He tells us to do so before the evil days appear. Turn to God before old age sets in.

The word “before” in this verse begins the final poem of Ecclesiastes. This poem, which concludes in verse eight, rivals the breadth and majesty of Solomon’s own poem on time in chapter three. However, for this poem, the Preacher writes heavily in metaphors so the meaning can be quite difficult to interpret. To find Solomon’s meaning, we must understand that verses 2-7 are poetically used to cement the idea presented in verse one. He tells us to remember our Creator in the days of our youth, and now he defines what he means by youth: “remember God before _____ happens to your body.”

Verse 2 describes light being blocked out by a gathering storm. This likely refers to the ominous approach of death, finally eclipsing our futile dreams of immortality. In the days of youth, adversity is typically just a setback, but now even small things can become a travesty from which one may never return. When a person is young, time heals most wounds, yet at the end of life, time only approaches to kill.

We must keep in mind that within this poem each verse is meant to build upon the previous. Most interpret verse 3 as speaking about the onset of old age that has come before the gathering storm of death. “The keepers of the house tremble” is likely referring to the natural tremor that finds its way into most of the elderly. “The strong men are bent” describes the atrophy of the bones of the elderly, which often results in a hunched or bent back. “The grinders cease because they are few” portrays for us the time when chewing our food will be nigh impossible because of the lack of teeth. “Those who look through the windows are dimmed” most likely refers to the dimming of eyesight caused by old age.

And the poem continues: remember God before we are too old to ever leave the house. It is a natural progression that as we age, we sleep less. Some elderly individuals sleep only for a few hours each night. Thus, the elderly rarely find difficulty waking at dawn, while many youths cannot recall the last time that they saw dawn.

Aging is also often marked by the degeneration of the mind. Dementia and paranoia are likely to cause terrors in the elderly (v. 5). Their body is no longer able to do the things that it once could, which thus makes them afraid of heights and such. Solomon’s mention of a blossoming almond tree is a reference to one’s hair becoming white. Toward the end of winter, the almond tree will begin to blossom its flowers, before even its leaves grow. This creates a period of time when the almond tree is covered in white flowers, which could be thought to resemble a head of white hair. At the end of its life, the normally bounding grasshopper will sluggishly drag itself along – “much like the awkward gait of old men and women” (Barrick, 200). Most interpret the failing desire to be sexual desire. When death approaches in the old age, there is simply no desire, nor ability, to practice anything sexual. “It may be a great comfort to many of you to see that this is last on the list! It is the last thing to go, according to this statement” (Stedman, 177). Each of these is a sign that “man is going to his eternal home.”

The repeated use of the word “before” should keep verse one in our minds. Remember the Creator before death finally comes. Verse 6 presents various symbols of how death befalls us. Snapped, broken, and shattered are the images that Solomon wishes for us to have of death. He does not naively designate death as a joyous occasion, but rather emphasizes how devastating its effects are. It is also here that we are provided a glimpse at Solomon’s true view of life after death. For the majority of the book, any time that Solomon discussed what happens after death he did so very bleakly, from the perspective of being “under the sun.” However, here he states that our bodies will return to the dust from which we were created and our souls will return to God. This recalls the image of the creation of man in Genesis. God formed man from the dust and breathed His spirit into us to give life. Thus, death is the decomposition of the entirety of man. God summons the spirit back to Himself, and without the spirit, the flesh reverts to dust.

I think what makes this poem as brutal as it is beautiful is its reminder that death is often a slow process in which each of our faculties slowly succumbs to decay piece by piece. All the signs of aging are actually signs of approaching death; therefore, one should be prepared for death.

But why does Solomon specifically command us to remember God before old age? Thankfully, repentance can certainly be found as long as breath is still in the lungs. Of course, being alive is not a guarantee that we will be able to repent. Hebrews 12:17 warns us that Esau sought repentance with tears but did not find it. But generally, there is still hope for anyone who is still alive.

I believe that Solomon is commanding us to remember our Creator in the days of our youth because he wants to save us from living a wasted and vain life. John Piper poignantly begins his book, Don’t Waste Your Life, with the powerful story of an old man who repented and believed the gospel after one of the sermons of Piper’s father. After his conversion, the man wept that he had wasted his life. He came to see the beauty of Christ and understood that everything that he lived for previously was nothing more than a vanity. The sad reality is that even if we turn to the LORD at the end of our lives, our faculties will be so decayed that we will be able to do little for Him. Contrast this fact with the reality that true joy and delight are only found by remembering our Creator and living according to His design. A life given to God is the only non-wasted life.

VANITY OF VANITIES // VERSE 8

Ah, the bitter refrain of Ecclesiastes! How fitting is it that this poem of finality should conclude with the verse that began Solomon’s first poem in Ecclesiastes! The careful reader, or uptight English student, will surely have noticed that verses 1-7 are one gigantic run-on sentence. One commentator suggests that if one attempts to read the entire poem as one sentence, he or she would be out of breath—which is fitting because hevel can also be translated to mean ‘a breath.’

Let us conclude with a message to the young and to the old.

First, to the young: rejoice in the days of your youth, remove the sins and frustrations that will ruin and waste your life, and remember your Creator now. As a young man now, here is how I hope to prepare for the day that I will walk through chapter 12’s poem (should the LORD grant me those years). During my youth, I long to grow in the one thing that I will be able to do even with my final breath: prayer. Sadly, many people lose their sense of value along with their failing body. This is a tragedy because, for the Christian, the loss of physical faculties should mean full devotion to the work of prayer. When I am an old man, I long to be a mighty force of prayer, even if my hands can longer write words like these. Even if my legs can no longer hold my body up in the pulpit, I desire to have young men at my home learning how to pray.

Second, to the old: your final years are not the time to coast through life. The race is almost complete, so sprint to the finish line. In You and Me Forever, Francis Chan writes this thought better than I can, so I will let him speak:

At 85, Caleb was as courageous as ever. Rarely do we meet people in their fifties and sixties living by faith, much less people in their eighties. In speaking to young adults throughout America, they tell me of how they would love to be mentored by older people who are living by faith. But they can’t find any. Some may be joyful and friendly, but no longer living by faith. Sadly, their lives consist of visiting grandkids and taking vacations. Some are still acquiring more possessions, hoping to make the most of their last few days on earth. (p. 185)

Time flies. And it flies faster each year. So don’t procrastinate. Think of your age in miles per hour. When you’re seven years old, it feels like life is moving at seven miles per hour. It feels like you are never going to turn eight. When you’re in your twenties and thirties, the years start passing by more rapidly. By the time you’re doing fifty or sixty, it’s hard to even keep track of what year it is. Anything beyond that, and you’re in the fast lane. You should just put this book down now and sprint. Like a game of hot potato, you should get rid of your possessions as fast as possible. Invest everything you can in the Kingdom. Your life is going to be over any minute, and you’re going to regret holding on to things you weren’t able to keep. (p. 190)

How to Waste Your Life

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
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.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
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.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.
Ecclesiastes 1:2-11 ESV

Ten years ago, I graduated high school. With aspirations for studying the Scriptures and writing books, poems, stories, or really anything of significance, I instead spent much of my time becoming moderately proficient at Halo 3 and Rock Band. Don’t get me wrong, the LORD was merciful on me in high school to keep me from many activities that could have done me a great deal of harm. But still I wasted so much of my time, so today I would like to give you the message that I would give eighteen-year-old me.

THE VANITY OF LIFE

The primary message of Ecclesiastes can be summarized as follows: everything under the sun is vanity. Once we understand what Solomon means by vanity, we will begin to understand why some consider Ecclesiastes to the be the most depressing book of the Bible. Other English translations of vanity include meaningless, futility, a vapor, or the merest of breaths. Hopefully, those words capture the idea. Vanity in Ecclesiastes is meaningless, futile, empty, pointless, worthless, fleeting, here-today-gone-tomorrow, transient, and momentary. To say then that the connotation is negative is an understatement.

So what does Solomon describe as being vanity?

Everything. Solomon says, “All is vanity.” Life is futile. Work is meaningless. Sex is a vapor. Laughter is momentary. Everything is pointless, like chasing after the wind.

Come on, Solomon. Why don’t you tell us how you really feel?

The remainder of these verses give a brief summary of Solomon’s reasoning behind his conclusion: why is everything vanity?

First of all, the sun has been rising and setting since the world began, but we humans can barely manage to live to be 100-years-old. Even the greatest of us cannot beat these inanimate objects. Alexander the Great accomplished enough for history to permanently remember him as being great, but despite the vastness of his empire and the brilliance of his leadership, his body is now nothing more than dust, just like the poorest of peasants under his rule. But the sun that beamed upon his head over the Persian desert is still the same more than 2000 years later.

Although it doesn’t presently benefit him, Alexander is at least remembered today. Solomon reminds us in verse 11 that the same cannot be said for the majority of people. Even though we often live as though we are the center of the universe, the harsh reality is that within a hundred and fifty years hardly anyone will remember that we ever existed, while even fewer will know or care anything about us. This is difficult for most of us to hear because we want to believe that our name and legacy will live beyond us, but while I am thankful for my great, great grandfather, I know nothing about this essential limb of my family tree except that his name was Floyd.

With such a harsh reality attempting to stare us in the face, we shouldn’t be surprised at humanity’s obsession with heroes. Superheroes, for example, allow us to imagine the fantasy of being great, of being more than human, of having a clear sense of meaning and worth. Driving home from the latest film, we don’t immediately begin talking about what we would do as a regular person living in a super-powered world. No, we identify first with the heroes, the larger-than-life characters, the ones who have left normalcy in the dust.

Ecclesiastes feels depressing because its goal is to destroy the fantasy world that we have made for ourselves. We cover ourselves with an onslaught of entertainment in order to hide from the terror of silence, that sinking feeling in our gut whenever we get a momentary glimpse at our own mortality. The looming inevitability of death can keep us grounded in reality like nothing else can. It reminds us that because our days are short, they should not be wasted. Because we are not promised tomorrow, we should make the most of today. Truly Moses was right when he prayed, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Unfortunately, the thought of death is also unpleasant. It reminds us that we are finite instead of infinite, that we are creatures instead of gods. So we hide ourselves from the inevitable, and often waste the precious amount of time that we have been given.

HOW TO WASTE YOUR LIFE

Throughout Ecclesiastes, Solomon describes how he chased lasting purpose and meaning under the sun. He does this by pursuing many things that we often make the supreme goal of our lives. His conclusion after each is that nothing but vanity can come ultimately from living for (fill in the blank). Allow me then to describe three of these pursuits and why they lead to a wasted life. We will then conclude by looking upon the one goal of life that will never result in a vain and wasted life.

Self

First, and probably most often, people pursue their own self-interests as the supreme goal of their life. Self-esteem, self-worth, and self-actualization are the gods we serve. Decisions and plans are made with self primarily in mind. To be fair, within a post-modern and materialist frame, self-interest makes sense. If life doesn’t have a Creator or an ultimate purpose, then I don’t have a purpose. I only know that I am here now and that I might not be tomorrow, so why should I not try to do and get everything that I want? Let’s eat and drink, for tomorrow we die, right?

Unfortunately, simply from a practical standpoint, we tend to be terrible judges of what is actually good for us. For instance, much debate has raged around a study that suggested that there are three steps for avoiding poverty: graduate high school, get a full-time job, and get married and have a family. The study found that of all the people surveyed who completed those three steps (in that order) only two percent lived in poverty. The debate surrounding the study is whether the relationship between the steps and avoiding poverty is of causation or correlation, and of course, even if it is causal, there are plenty of exceptions to the rule. Nevertheless, the statistics indicate a clear benefit from doing hard things like holding a job and maintaining a family. Yet selfishness can very easily whisper in our ear that graduating high school isn’t worth the hassle, that working a job that you might not enjoy isn’t a valuable use of time, or that settling down with a spouse and kids is too much work. The point is that we rarely understand what is truly good for us.

A subcategory of self-interest is the pursuit of pleasure. Solomon’s pursuit of pleasure is found in chapter two, where he claims that he did not deny himself anything that his eye wanted. Do you want a good home? Solomon built a palace. Want a nice garden? He planted entire forests and designed whole parks. Want to avoid physical labor? He had 35,000 servants. How about sex? Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Does music make you happy? His personal singers would act as his ancient iPod. Since this is the Bible, you might expect Solomon to claim that none it gave him the pleasure that he was looking for, but instead he says, “I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil” (2:10). He sought pleasure and found it. The problem was that pleasure alone didn’t last. Pleasure is a momentary vanity; therefore, it fails royally whenever we make it our lifelong goal.

Another route of self-interest might be the pursuit of self-actualization. This is the general path of many philosophies and religions. The overall goal is to keep improving yourself, to continue mastering yourself, your desires, and your passions. While this sounds great in theory (and the Bible certainly calls us to be self-controlled and disciplined), it too is vanity as the main goal of life. The sobering fact is that you will never fully become the person that you aim to be. Illustrative of this point is the title of a blog post I read a couple of months ago that was something along these lines: “If the you from 5 and 10 years ago was an idiot, what does that say about present-day you?”

Wealth

Second, many are tempted to pursue wealth as the driving force of their life. Money, possessions, and the power that surrounds them are quite appealing. If anyone had the right to speak about the effects of money, it is Solomon. If the accounts of 1 Kings are correct (and since they are within the Bible, let’s go away and make that assumption), then some have estimated Solomon’s networth to be around $2.1 trillion, making him the richest man to ever live. To put this in perspective, Rockefeller comes in at number two with a networth of $600 billion.

So what does the richest man to ever live say about money? “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity” (5:10). Notice that Solomon isn’t calling wealth or money evil. In fact, he goes on to say in verse 19 of the same chapter that it is a gift of God whenever anyone is able to enjoy the wealth and possessions given to him by God. But sadly, not everyone is able to enjoy the wealth that they acquire, and in verses 1-6 of chapter six, Solomon claims that it is better to be miscarried in your mother’s womb than to have blessings and not be able to enjoy them. But that is how the love of money works. You become so obsessed with having more that you cannot enjoy what you already have.

Family 

Finally, we might try to our family the goal of our lives. This is a particularly difficult one to grasp because it feels like the right thing to do and Hollywood seems hell-bent on teaching this valuable lesson (at times…). And of course, the Bible calls us to love our families well. Paul tells us that “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). Clearly, family is serious business, but still it is not ultimate. If this sounds wrong, just consider the clear reality. If your spouse is the center of your life, what happens when he or she passes away, or worse if they betrayed you and left you alone? If your kids become your reason for living, what if they die, or what happens when they get married and have families of their own? As much as I love my wife and daughter, they are not God. If I make them my gods, they will be crushed under the weight of my expectations for them. Family is not eternal and will eventually fail, so family cannot replace God.

Of course, there are plenty more things that people make the goal of their lives, but we don’t have time to even attempt addressing such a never-ending list.

TO LIVE IS CHRIST

Take a moment to notice that self-interest, wealth, and family are not evil things. Each is a good gift given by a good God. The problem comes whenever we make them our gods, whenever the gifts usurp the Giver. While they are good to have, they are not eternal and, therefore, cannot truly satisfy us. Given enough time, they will each eventually fail us. God, however, cannot fail us. Augustine describes this trading of the Giver for His gifts as being like a hungry man who keeps licking a painting of bread instead of asking a baker for a loaf. Or we could say it is as ridiculous as writing and giving a thank you card to the gift itself instead of the giver. Doing so is foolish, as insane as trying to catch the wind in your hand.

This is why Solomon repeats throughout Ecclesiastes that true and lasting enjoyment of life is a gift from God. Enjoyment cannot be earned or bought. It is a gift that can only come from the hand of the Giver. Therefore, Solomon is constantly trying to force us to fix our hope above the sun, beyond this life, and onto the Author of life. All is vanity under the sun. A life lived exclusively under the sun is a wasted life, but a life given over to God is a life of true and lasting joy.

The Apostle Paul famously expresses a similar message in Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Often it is the second part of that verse that sticks out in our minds. We quote it as a reminder whenever we start to cringe at the thought of leaving this world. It comes with a lump in our throat as we hear stories of martyrs for Christ throughout history. Indeed, the blessed hope of the Christian faith is that Christ will return to resurrect our bodies so that we will live forever in His presence. Yes! Let “death is gain” be the Christian’s dying words! But the first phrase is just as important: “to live is Christ.”

What does Paul mean by saying “to live is Christ?” He means that all of life belongs to Christ. Our very state of existing is now the property of Christ. As Christians, we have been bought by God with a price, so we are called to glorify God with our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). That price was the very death of God upon a cross as a substitute for us. Because of the crucifixion of Jesus, Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Galatians 2:20).

As a Christian, your life is not your own; it belongs to God. This is why Paul tells us twice to glorify God in everything that we do, in our eating or drinking (1 Corinthians 10:31) and in our words and deeds (Colossians 3:17).

And why would we not want to do so?

He is Author of life (Acts 3:15).

“In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

All of creation was created by Him, through Him, and for Him, so that He is preeminent in all things (Colossians 1:15-20).

The universe itself is upheld by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3).

And one day, every creature in heaven, on earth, and under the earth will proclaim Jesus as Lord and bow before Him to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).

If living for the gifts of God is utter foolishness, then living for the Giver Himself is the wisest action we can take. But having God be the great purpose of our lives is for our good as well as His glory. After all, if we long to live for something greater than ourselves, who fits that category better than God! If we want to live lives that matter and have a real purpose, where else can we turn except to Him who formed all of existence?

But practically, how can we live for God’s glory?

If you are not a Christian, then the path toward living for God’s glory begins with repenting and believing the gospel (Mark 1:15). First, repentance is far more than simply apologizing for sin. Repentance is the heart-broken confession of sin, followed by turning away from it. Repentance is the renouncing of sin. Second, believing the gospel means understanding the good news that Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection saves us from our sins. The gospel is that even though we deserved the full and just wrath of God for our sins, the death of Jesus paid that penalty completely and gives to us the righteousness of Christ in its place. The good news is that we who were once objects of God’s wrath are now His children (Ephesians 2:1-10).

If you already a follower of Christ, other than continuing to repent and believe the gospel, here are some basic actions for being a disciple of Jesus. These basics are pray, know the Scripture, love the church, and obey Scripture.

Relationships cannot exist without communication, so how can we have a relationship with God without speaking to Him in prayer?

With God’s self-revelation in Scripture, we can quickly find ourselves praying to a god fashioned within our minds if we are not rooted and grounded in the Bible.

Many claim to love Jesus but can’t stand the church. The church, however, is the body and bride of Jesus. You can’t love Jesus and not love His church.

Finally, Jesus Himself said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). This does not mean that you will ever perfectly obey in this life, but it does mean that you should want to obey the commands of God.

Of course, living a life for God’s glory does not mean that you must be called to full-time ministry; instead, serve God wherever He places you in life. If you are a nurse, then be a nurse to the glory of God by working as though you are working for Christ (Colossians 3:23) and proclaiming the gospel whenever a door is opened to do so (Colossians 4:3). If you are a mechanic, then be a mechanic to the glory of God by working as though you are working for Christ and proclaiming the gospel whenever a door is opened to do so. In other words, be missional where you are and with what you are doing.

If that sounds like a boring and inconsequential life, consider the first 300 years of Christianity. Throughout that time, Christians faced some of the worst and most intense persecution found throughout history, and yet by the early 300s Rome had its first Christian emperor and in 380 Christianity was the official religion. How did Christianity become so powerful even in the midst of persecution? Church historian Justo Gonzalez notes that Christianity spread on the backs of ordinary and long-forgotten Christians, slaves and business-people alike, who took the good news with them wherever they went. Of course, Acts also tells us this fact as well: “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word” (8:4). After Stephen’s death and Christians became persecuted in Jerusalem, many fled the city, but they did not stop sharing the gospel.

The world’s greatest empire was overcome by normal and ordinary believers living their common and seemingly un-noteworthy lives for God’s glory. May we too give our lives to that one focus. After all, nothing else comes close to the value, meaning, purpose, and worth of exalting the name of Jesus Christ.