For Everything There Is a Season | Ecclesiastes 3

There is no book, inside or outside the Bible, like Ecclesiastes. The Preacher, likely Solomon, writes Ecclesiastes in order to analyze life under the sun for any lasting meaning, joy, and purpose. His answer is that all of it is a vanity, with no more substance than a breath of air. All who live will die. Most will be forgotten, and of those who are remembered, what gain does that remembrance bring them in the grave? If all of that sounds rather depressing, rest assured that Solomon also points us to the hope that breaks into the bleakness of our lives.

The third chapter of Ecclesiastes begins with one of the most famous poems of the Bible. This poem muses on the back and forth, give and take nature of time. Good things happen as well as bad things. Some seasons of life are pleasant, while others are bitter. This is simply how life works, and no one is exempt from life’s shifting rhythms of time. The greatest advice that the author can give us, therefore, is to stop battling against the inevitable and start enjoying the lot of life that God has given each of us.

A TIME FOR EVERYTHING // VERSES 1-8

Up to this point, Solomon has described his journey to find meaning through wisdom and knowledge. Despite wisdom and knowledge being very good things, Solomon found that they still left him none the more satisfied with life without Divine interference. Then, since knowledge and wisdom failed him, Solomon sought the opposite: folly. In the previous chapter, the Israelite king described how he partied, spent, and lived grander than any man that has ever lived. Yet when the hangovers wore off, when the elaborate monuments were completed, when he had run out of fantasies, Solomon was just as empty as before. His ardent pursuit of pleasure gave his life no deep sense of purpose or meaning. It was vanity.

The third chapter of Ecclesiastes kicks off with a poem. As a writer of songs and proverbs, it seems only fitting that Solomon would throw a poetic interlude into his mediations. However, in case we get lost in the poetic workings of the next seven verses, Solomon provides the thesis for his poem right from the beginning: everything has its time and place. This statement builds strongly on the thought that a wise person knows when to do or say something. Is laughter good? Yes, we discussed that in the previous chapter. However, is laughter good at a funeral? No, typically laughter is considered rude or disrespectful at a funeral. Why? There is a time and place for everything, and those who are wise will understand when things should be done.

But we must also remember as we read this poem that the Preacher is not commenting on the virtues of the items presented. Many may read “a time for war” and assume that the Bible is therefore endorsing war. Or that the Bible advocates killing under appropriate circumstances. But morality is not the point of these verses. This poem is merely observing the rhythm and flow of life. People are healed, and people are killed. Fact. That’s just the world we live in. William Barrick effectively sums up the message of this poem, which we will continue to address in verses 9-22:

What is the point of this description of time-oriented events? It is that nothing happens haphazardly. No chance, no fate governs the things that happen in the lives of God’s people. He controls all events. (62)

This poem is Hebrew poetry at its finest. We find that the poem spans seven verses, each providing two couplings of opposites, which means fourteen statements total. The number seven is very significant to Jewish thought because it represents completeness or entirety. Thus, Solomon is attempting with a short poem to capture the summation of all events in human life. What a task! The goal of this poem mirrors the goal of Ecclesiastes as a whole. He begins with birth and death, the bookends of human existence. This makes complete sense. Solomon is saying that there was a time for your birth (a.k.a. your birthday) and there will be a specific time for your death. These are two moments which all of humanity will experience, and we have no control over either.

Next, Solomon describes another uncontrollable element: the seasons. The people in Solomon’s kingdom were predominately an agricultural society, and so their lives depended on the weather and seasons. Thus, they would all know which seasons were for planting and which were for harvesting.

God is certainly not telling us to murder in verse 3, and in fact, we do not need to view this phrase as necessarily applying to humans. Every farmer certainly knows that there is a time for painstakingly nursing injured cattle back to health, while a time also comes for putting the animal down.

Similarly, he states that there is a time for breaking down and a time for building up. On the surface, these opposing clauses are likely referring to architecture. There are times for new and fresh buildings and times to condemn old buildings. However, I can also see a figurative interpretation here. In the Christian life, we are called to both rebuke and encourage our brothers and sisters. During a rebuke, we attempt to lovingly tear down idols or fallacies in their life. By encouraging, we build up our spiritual family so that they will be better equipped for future weathering. Is tearing down in love a brother or sister easy or desired? No. Yet, at times, it is very necessary. The wisdom of Christ will guide us as to the correct time for encouragement or rebuke.

Verse 4 tells us that weeping, laughing, mourning, and dancing each have their time and place. As mentioned in the funeral scenario above, laughter, though good, can be used incorrectly and in inappropriate circumstances. Even though weeping and mourning seem like negative things, suppose that an esteemed colleague passes away, would we not mourn his passing? Would it not be inconsiderate to merely shrug off the death of a close friend? I do not mourn much for the death of acquaintances, but how could I not weep at the death of a brother? Mourning is a means of honoring those whom we loved and is appropriate in its season.

Casting stones (v. 5) into another farmer’s land was a common method of destroying an enemy’s produce. Likewise, if you were attacked in such a way, you would need to “gather stones” from your own land. There is also a proper season for sex, namely within marriage, and any other time is the wrong time.

Hoarders need to memorize this verse 6. Solomon speaks about material things here. Trinkets have a way of adding up and becoming overwhelming. However, the Preacher says that there comes a time for seeking things and for keeping them, but there is also a time for things to remain lost or even for us to discard items. Stuff should never become so important that we cannot bear the thought of casting it away.

Have you ever met someone that cannot stop themselves from speaking, even in times when silence is the best option? Such awkward situations are caused by someone not knowing what is appropriate to a certain scenario (I am also sure that we have been that person at least once). That is Solomon’s aim in verse 7. Just last week I spoke with my mother about my brother’s wanderings. She was so distraught over his current actions that she cried the whole time. Over the course of the conversation, I did little more than listen. It was not a time to speak but a time to listen. Similarly, I believe that Solomon is referencing mourning when he says “a time to tear.” It was Jewish custom to tear one’s garments during a time of great mourning or distress; however, there is also a time for sewing those garments and moving on.

Verse 8 is another difficult one with which to reckon. We are typically avid preachers of love and peace, but what about war and hate? Is there really a godly time for war and hatred? We know from Scripture that there is a time for war. Joshua and Judges are filled with war. We are told via numerous prophesies that the end of time will come through God’s “war” on the unrighteous. War, in the Bible, is frequently used as an instrument for God’s wrath. Likewise, we must remember that though God is abounding in love He also experiences hatred. Does this make God unjust? No. In fact, His hatred makes Him just. Would you believe that God was good if He simply overlooked crimes like murder or rape? When faced with terrible injustice, there is a time for the people of God to have a righteous hatred.

THE GOD-GIVEN TASK // VERSES 9-15

Following his poetic interlude, Solomon brings up a similar thought from the last chapter. What purpose can be found in all of a man’s work? In verse 10, you can feel the cynicism. Solomon claims that he has seen everything that God uses to keep mankind busy. He has seen all of the advantages and disadvantages of work, and in the end, it provides no true substance. Jonathan Akin points out that within the previous poem “there are 14 pluses and 14 minuses, and that adds up to zero! Every birth ends in death, every planted crop is pulled up, every building is eventually condemned, every celebration gives way to a funeral, and every peace gives way to another war. Nothing is gained” (40). Since he claims that this comes from the hand of God, we can conclude that God has created everything in such a way that we can only find true satisfaction in Him.

I love verse 11. After looking at the futility of trying to find meaning in one’s work, Solomon turns his focus to God by, first, saying that He makes all things beautiful in their time. This verse should mean so much more after reading the previous poem. In the poem, we saw that “under heaven” life is full of positives and negatives, pros and cons, good and evil. We saw that there is mourning, war, and hate here on earth. Yet now Solomon throws the Divine into the equation. He looked forward to the day when the LORD would make all things good, when there will be no need for war or righteous hatred.

Next, Solomon says that God has placed eternity within our hearts. We are told in the creation story that God created us to be immortal. It was only our sin that caused us to die. Thus, the aftereffects still linger; we still feel as though we are immortal. This is why death seems to be an injustice to us. We have an innate desire to search out eternal things, but we “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” God’s ways are higher, deeper, and more profound than we will ever be able to grasp, yet He created us to seek Him out. This endless quest is what Tozer calls the soul’s paradox of love: still pursuing Him after having already found Him. Tozer then quotes St. Bernard in saying: “We taste Thee, O Thou Living Bread, and long to feast upon Thee still; we drink of Thee, the Fountainhead and thirst our souls from Thee to fill.”

Time is like the sky. Wherever we look, there it is. Yet, there is a problem. Humanity still has Eden in its veins. We have “eternity” in our hearts (Eccl. 3:11). Our souls instinctively yearn for a purposed life without end under this time-chained sun. The Preacher teaches us how to speak humanly and honestly about our longing for purpose, the tension we experience, and the reality of handling time with our neighbors. As those who do life with reference to the fear of the Lord, we too have these concerns in common with our neighbors (Eswine, 126).

With this chasing after eternity in mind, Solomon now claims that in this life there is nothing better than being joyful and doing good. Once again we must note that this book is not about the evil of pleasure; instead, Solomon wants his audience to experience lasting joy and pleasure, which can only be found in God. A satisfaction with our work and life is one of God’s greatest gifts, and it must come from God, for there is no other source.

It is also important to remember that this statement is not the same as the nihilistic creed: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Corinthians 15:32). Or as a character from a popular television series says, “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s going to die. Come watch TV.” That is hopelessness that desperately hides behind entertainment to numb us from reality. The Preacher’s plea to eat and drink and take pleasure in our toil is form of Paul’s command to glorify God in everything that we do, even eating and drinking (1 Corinthians 10:31).

The aging king further elaborates on God’s actions and sovereignty. Verse 14 mirrors verse 11 in their discussion of eternity. While 11 focused on our desire for eternality, this verse concerns God’s actual perpetuity. We cannot create meaning from what we set our hands to do; whereas, God can only create meaning from His works. Solomon says that God does this so that we might fear Him. The cosmic difference between us and Him should create within us a fearful reverence for the LORD.

Ray Stedman gives us this thought on verse 15:

A better translation of that last phrase is, ‘God brings back what has already passed away.’ The Searcher here refers to the repetition of life’s lessons. We do not seem to learn very well. I have learned some lessons in life and said, “Lord, I see what you are after. I’ve got it now. You don’t have to bring this one back again.” But down the road I make the same mistake. Some circumstance painfully recalls to mind what I had once seen as a principle of life. I have to humbly come and say, ‘Lord, I’m a slow learner. Have patience with me.’ God says, ‘I understand. I’m prepared to have patience with you and teach you this over and over again until you get it right.’ (54)

FROM DUST TO DUST // VERSES 16-22

Solomon’s next vanity is the problem with wickedness. The king looks at the justice and righteous systems and finds that wickedness is there. Even today we can see that this statement is true. United States justice systems are established upon the slogan “innocent until proven guilty.” What a noble thought! Our courts are known for trying in the best ways possible to be just, but injustice is still committed. In the very buildings established to bring justice, have we not heard stories of people being wrongfully accused, of those being abused by authority?

And what shall we make of his statement about righteousness? To what could Solomon be referring? I would venture that religious leader scandals hit fairly close to Solomon’s intent. There are two large Wikipedia page lists of both Catholic and evangelical minister scandals. Why does finding a minister with a prostitute create such a vast dissonance within us? It is not the inherent act of prostitution, though it should be. Instead, we are so shocked by such scandals because those men claimed to be godly. They claimed to be righteous but fell short in tremendous fashion. We know that it is wrong to find such wickedness in places where justice and righteousness should be. It deeply disturbs the aging king.

Over the course of this chapter, Solomon has carefully walked the border of cynical and hopefully reliant. In answer to the previous verse’s cynicism, the Preacher now conveys in verse 17 his hope that God will correct everything. Notice that Solomon prefaces his statement with “I said in my heart.” To the ancient Hebrew, the heart was used much as we use it today: as the seat of the emotions, as the depth of one’s being. Thus, he is saying that from the very core of his soul he believes that “God will judge the righteous and the wicked.” Despite the wickedness of humanity, God will have the last word. He will judge everyone, and He will judge with perfect justice. He then repeats his refrain that there is a time for everything. We must remember, as Solomon remembered, that wickedness is for but a season. In the end, God’s justice will prevail.

Solomon concludes in verse 18 from the previous two verses that God tests man. By allowing wickedness for a time, God shows us that we are nothing but beasts. This reminds me very much of Paul’s writings. Paul claims in the letter to the Galatians that God gave His people the Mosaic Law not to save us but to show us how great our need to be saved truly is. God gave us His perfect law to show us how imperfect we are and how desperately we need a perfect savior. Solomon makes the same sort of conclusion here. God is testing us, not because He is an angry kid with a magnifying glass, but because He wants us to understand how terribly we need Him. This is fitting when we consider the origin of our sin. Although they were made in God’s image, Adam and Eve were not content with being like God; they wanted to be God. We as humans were given the special privilege of displaying God’s character, but we are not content to just be like Him. All sin, therefore, is a proclamation of our own divinity. By sinning, we declare that we know better than God Himself. This is why death is a consequence of our sin. Death forces us to remember that we are merely creatures, which leads us to Solomon’s thoughts in the next three verses.

We must be careful in our interpretation of verses 19-21 since they represent one of Solomon’s furthest dives into pessimism. In the previous verse, Solomon compares man’s depravity to being like the wild animals. Continuing that theme, he states that man has no advantage of the beasts because we die just like them. I cannot stress this enough Solomon is speaking here from his “under the sun” perspective. From a purely physical and worldly point of view, humans are nothing more than intelligent animals. We look at the brutality of the animal world, but we see far greater brutality within our midst. Animals kill for primal urges, yet people have killed simply for the terror of the act. If anything, we should view ourselves as less than the animals because they act in innocence, but we act with terrible purpose. Thus, from this perspective, Solomon’s words ring true. How could we know if the afterlife for mankind was any better than for animals? Do not our bodies decompose and become dust just like the animals? Solomon is not claiming that animals have souls or that we are equal to animals, but he is showing that this worldly way of thinking is nothing but vanity.

Fortunately, this chapter is ended on a more hopeful note. Verse 22 is meant to hearken back to verse 13. In light of man’s depravity and similarity to the animals, Solomon repeats that there is no better course of action than for us to rejoice in our work. Solomon’s greatest advice is that we should enjoy the gift that God has given to us, which is the ability to enjoy at all. The closing question provides some level of difficulty. Does he mean that the afterlife is in doubt? I do not believe so. We have no reason to believe that Solomon questioned, or completely disbelieved, the existence of an afterlife. Therefore, we must take his question to mean that we have no control over what becomes of us. We have no control over what will happen once we are dead, so why not just enjoy today? We should rejoice in each day that the Father gives us because He does not promise another.

Our Creator is in control and makes known His will for His people. We are not to pour more effort into understanding our frustrating and uncontrollable circumstances. Nor ought we to spend our time comparing our lot in life with another’s. We ought not indulge in retaliation, resentment, bitterness, or disappear into a fantasy world. Reject these reactions to life’s difficult circumstances and intrinsic injustices. Abandon self-pity and despair. Identify the advantage to your disadvantage. Thank God that He uses such circumstances to humble you, to make you more dependent upon Him, and to be thankful for what He has given you to enjoy. Your joy of God’s gifts grows greater in the light of your trials while you live ‘under the sun.’ (Barrick, 70-71)

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Let Your Words Be Few | Ecclesiastes 5:1-7

In almost every book or sermon to be found on Ecclesiastes, the emphasis of these verses is placed upon how we worship God, and while worship does form the bulk of the discourse here, the point of this passage is more interested in why we worship than how we worship. The Preacher is diving at the heart behind our worship of the LORD, and the result is rather like a piece of classical music. Two movements are at play here describing how to properly worship God, and each movement ends with a refrain that muses over the vanity of dreams and many words. The piece then closes with a thunderous crescendo that is meant to cast a new light upon everything that came before. Like any complex work of art, the goal is for us to meditate deeply upon what lies before us. Here, specifically, we should consider what the repeated refrain is teaching us about how to worship God and how the Preacher’s conclusion changes how we worship by reminding us why we worship.

Over the course of studying this passage, I’ve toss around various ideas about how to present it. Like many do with Ecclesiastes as a whole, I considered the wisdom of beginning with the ending, so that we might have the proper perspective over the whole text. Yet I cannot bring myself to do it. Such an approach may be more systematic in leaving no stone unturned, but it also loses some of the potency of the poetry. I’ve heard it said that art is like a frog: you can dissect it into its individual parts, but doing so will kill the frog. I pray then that God will guide our discourse as I endeavor to present the text in its poetic structure.

GUARDING YOUR STEPS // VERSES 1-7

We begin with the matter of how to worship God properly. Let us break the commands issued within these verses down to five imperatives: 1) guard your steps, 2) draw near to listen, 3) avoid the sacrifice of fools, 4) avoid rash and hasty words, and 5) pay your vow.

Guarding Your Steps (v. 1)

The first imperative is a warning for us to guard our steps when approaching God’s house. What does he mean by this? Throughout the Bible, walking is a metaphor for living. And it’s a fitting comparison. As the feet move so does the body. The Scriptures, therefore, repeatedly encourage us to walk down the path of righteousness and wisdom, while avoiding the way of wickedness and folly. Of course, Jesus capitalizes on this metaphor in the Sermon on the Mount by describing a narrow road and gate that lead to life and a broad road and gate that lead to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14). The point then is that the steps you take (and where you take them) have much to say about the condition of your heart.

Solomon’s call for guarding your steps whenever you approach God is really a plea for you to consider the condition of your heart. Where have your feet been lately? What does that say about your walk with God and the condition of your heart? These are important questions to ask before approaching God. After all, God is mysteriously awe-striking and deserving of reverential fear. He is so much greater than us that we must always approach Him with the utmost reverence.

However, what does this mean for us under the New Covenant? Hebrews 4:16 tells us that we are to boldly approach God’s throne. Does that not contradict with this verse in Ecclesiastes? I believe that one of the greatest errors of modern Christianity is that we place little value on Old Testament thought. We tend to think that God used to be vengeful and angry, but now because of Jesus, He is loving and kind. We treat God as if He has changed personalities. But that is not the case! The God that we serve today is the same God that Solomon wrote about here. Instead of treating God like He is bipolar, we must understand that God is still worthy our highest reverence. He is still infinitely greater and more majestic than we can ever imagine. The only difference between us and Solomon is that because of Jesus’ atoning sacrifice we can now come before God, as His children, without fear that He will reject us. We should still approach in reverence, but we also know now that we come before Him in the perfect righteousness of Christ.

Draw Near to Listen (v. 1)

Next, Solomon tells us that it is better to come to God for listening “than to offer the sacrifice of fools.” These two form a contrasting couplet, but let us focus first on the positive command. Listening is crucial whenever we draw near to God because listening involves yielding. As I listen to someone, I am surrendering over a portion of myself and my time in order to know them more. In this way, listening validates worth. By listening, I declare that you are worth my time and attention. My focus shifts off of myself and onto you. This explains then why speaking to someone who listens is truly life-giving.

But if humans who are made in God’s image are worth listening to, how much more God Himself? The point here is not that God does not care what you have to say to Him. Scripture repeatedly makes clear that the opposite is true. But we should deeply care about listening to what God is saying and make every effort to listen to Him.

Unfortunately, we often fail to listen to God’s voice. We are like the people to whom God sent Isaiah, who “keep on hearing, but do not understand” (Isaiah 6:9). God’s Word often goes in one ear and out the other without us having truly listened to any of it. Because of this propensity, God often prefaces His declarations with the word “hear.” By default, we are fools who like the sound of our own voices and who don’t care what God has to say. John Piper describes this heart well: “Many people are willing to be God-centered as long as they feel that God is man-centered” (6). We will delight in meeting with God so long as the meeting is centered around us.

But God is God, not us. We desperately need to hear His voice far more than He needs to hear ours. His ways are higher than our ways, and His plans are greater than our plans. Why would we not take advantage of listening to Him?

Of course, this listening is done primarily through God’s Word. As we read the Scriptures, God Himself speaks. Sadly, the rigidness of our private devotions can often hinder this joy. Too often, we can lock ourselves into a pattern of spending so many minutes reading Scripture and so many minutes in prayer. We do this in order to have a dialogue with God. But how many conversations actually work like that? That pattern is more like a debate than a dialogue. Real conversations have more natural flows in them. And we can interact with Scripture in the same way. Instead of rigidly dividing a time for reading Scripture and for prayer, why not mingle prayer into Bible reading? First, this makes our prayers naturally more biblical. Second, it provides a better environment for conversation to flow. Perhaps one day you have much on your heart, so two or three verses lead you into fifteen minutes of pouring your heart out to God. But the next day a different sort of heaviness is upon you, so you simply open the Word, praying, “God speak, and I will listen.” Both are beautiful forms of communion with God.

Avoid the Sacrifice of Fools (v. 1)

Next Solomon encourages us to avoid offering the sacrifice of fools, which are evil in the sight of God. What exactly is the sacrifice of a fool? I believe they are the kind of sacrifices described in Isaiah 1:12-17:

When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations— I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.

Unlike the person who humbly comes before God to listen, the fool’s sacrifices to God are all about himself. He is trying to buy God’s favor with his sacrifices, which in the end becomes a form of self-improvement rather than worship. Mike Cosper captures this idea well:

Likewise, any approach to the Christian life that seeks self-improvement as the end goal will fail too. A life of prayer, fasting, and spiritual disciplines can easily be a life of empty religious effort if the goal isn’t communion with God. We don’t need self-improvement; we need to come home. (45)

Furthermore, I think that this kind of selfish sacrifice typically comes in one of two forms. First, fools can offer the sacrifice of good works with a wrong heart. The Christian is called to do everything to the glory of God, but often we can do good works for our own benefit. Sometimes we want to look good before others, while other times we just want to feel better about ourselves. Both are sinful motives. Second, fools can offer the sacrifice of right belief without good works. Such was the case with the recipients of the passage of Isaiah above. They knew all the religious actions to take, but they failed to do good to those around them. Their theology didn’t lead them in compassion for the world around them.

If you notice, both of these sacrifices fail to account for the whole of a person. One has the actions without the head and heart, while the other has the head without actions or the heart. Fools think that they can separate out our lives. They think that they can give God their lives without giving Him their heart. Or that they can give Him their head without giving Him their hands. But we are holistic creatures, who are called to love God with all our heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6:5). Everything we have is from God and must be for Him. This is why overeating doesn’t just bloat our stomachs it dulls our spirit. This is why few things are more spiritually healing than good food and good drink shared with good friends. Fools think that they can compartmentalize God, while the wise know that even our daily food and drink are for His glory and our good.

Religious devotion is a meaningless vanity without communion with God.

Avoid Rash and Hasty Words (v. 2)

This verse builds upon the concluding thought of verse 1. In our relationship with God, are we the ones that do all of the talking? Do we ever give God the opportunity to say anything to us? Solomon’s thought is very straightforward: God is bigger, smarter, wiser, and all around more awesome than you, so you should probably listen to what He has to say more than you tell Him what you think. It is my personal belief that we should all memorize these two verses because they are so counter to our nature. We want to be the ones doing all the talking. We want to be the ones that set the grounds in our relationship. But that’s all foolish. It’s foolish to come before God with many words. James 1:19 echoes this thought: Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” When you approach God, make it about God, not yourself. Be quick to listen to Him, and slow to share your opinion.

Of course, this does not mean that our prayers should be dishonest towards God. Praying dishonest prayers that we think God wants to hear is another sacrifice of fools. In doing so, we attempt to deceive God. But He is in heaven, and we are on earth. The cosmos is held together by His might, and He knows all things. Why then would we try to bring anything to Him other than our honesty? Indeed, letting our words be few is not permitting dishonesty; rather, it is calling us to slow down and understand the weight of speaking to God.

Refrain: The Business of Dreams and Many Words (vv. 3)

Obviously, these refrains are quite important since they are repeated twice, but they are quite difficult to interpret. What exactly does Solomon mean when by dreams? How are the vanity of dreams and many words connected to the rest of this passage? Barrick suggests that as vanities they are meaningless distractions in our life that keep us from true worship. Akin offers that since dreams during sleep after a hard day’s work, these are the works and words that we use to impress God. Moore thinks that words and dreams are cheap; God wants our hearts.

I think, similarly, that the dreams and words of a fool are centered upon himself. Chasing after the dreams in his head provides much business to attend to, but they are mere fantasies with no substance. Likewise, his many words might sound impressive at first, but they too are vanities. With the business of dreams and the fluff of many words, a fool becomes wise in his own eyes (Proverbs 12:15). He becomes fixated upon himself.

Pay Your Vow (vv. 4-6)

Have you ever attempted to barter with God? We say things like, “God, if you just let me find the one, I promise I will be happy and serve you with my whole heart” or “if you give me a million dollars, I promise to give half to my church!” These appear to be facetious examples, but are they not true to our character? We often have an “if you… then I will…” mentality. We make rash vows to God all the time. Our three-thousand-year-old philosopher tells us that this is not such a good idea. We make promises to God in haste, and should God actually give us what we want, we flake out in fulfilling our vows. Solomon says that this is foolish, and God “has no pleasure in fools.” We just discussed that God is far greater than ourselves and we should approach Him with fear, so it would make sense that we should keep any promises that we make to Him. He says plainly, “pay what you vow.” If there is anyone that you should avoid lying to, it’s God. In fact, Solomon says that it would be much better to just, like the previous verses say, keep your mouth shut before God than to make promises that you won’t keep. Jesus gives us this same message in the Sermon on the Mount. He tells us not to make any vows because we don’t know if we will be able to fulfill them. Instead, let our ‘yes’ be yes and our ‘no’ be no (Matthew 5:37). We are to be a people that fulfill our word.

We must be careful with the words that we say because an unfulfilled vow to God is sin. How true is this that our mouth tends to lead us into sin! The king of Israel also warns that God will not accept the excuse that we made the vow as a mistake and that there will be consequences for us lying to God. Next, Solomon issues the same warning as in verse 3. If there is one lesson to learn quickly when studying the Scripture, it is that God does not repeat Himself needlessly. Since this repetition is here, we must assume that we definitely need to take its words to heart. Here is the thought: words become meaningless when they don’t have actions to back them up. Stop presenting verbal fluff. Fear God. Worship Him with a lifestyle of reverence and intentional actions.

Refrain: The Vanity of Dreams and Many Words (v. 7)

Dreams and many words are vanity because we are terrible at judging what we truly need. We have all sorts of dreams and desires that we long to see fulfilled, but we rarely pause to consider how beneficial or damaging they might be. God, of course, does not yield to our desires, which causes many to question His goodness. How can a God who is all powerful and completely good withhold pleasure from me? Surely His goodness or omnipotence is lacking, right? Wrong. God is our Father who sees things far clearer than we can. Consider my one-year-old daughter, who just today saw her mom painting some shelves outside and decided that she also wanted to play with some paint. For most one-year-olds tasting forms a significant component of playing and our daughter is no different. In that moment, being a loving father meant withholding a desire from her. Forbidding her from eating the toxins in paint is an act of love that she doesn’t yet understand; therefore, she perceives that I am limiting her freedom.

The reality is that we need limits. We need boundaries. We need a heavenly Father who loves us enough slap our hand when we reach for things that can harm us or, more accurately, things that we use to hurt ourselves. Paint itself is not harmful when used properly, but the toxins within can kill if ingested. Likewise, wealth itself is not sinful, but when clutched by immature hands, it often is. Sex was designed by God to foster intimacy between a husband and a wife, but many use it to drag the decaying carcass of intimacy across the floor of self-gratification. Because of this, there are times when God giving us what we want is like handing a toddler a steak knife. In short, God’s refusal to fulfill your dreams may, in fact, be one of His greatest graces upon you.

FEARING GOD // VERSE 7

Thus far, we have addressed five commands regarding how we ought to worship, but now the Preacher will address why we should worship God in those ways. He does this by summarizing the commands above and pointing us to the fear of the LORD.

The Preacher concludes these verses with a marvelous conclusion, which ties together the whole of the text. In many ways, this is final phrase is foreshadowing how Ecclesiastes’ epilogue will enlighten the entire book as well.

If the root problem with in our worship is that we are too focused upon our own dreams and words, then fearing God is the alternative. In fact, the fear of God is the reasoning behind the five imperatives in verses 1-6. Because God is worth fearing, we guard our steps when we approach Him, we draw near to listen to Him, we avoid the sacrifices of fools, we avoid uttering rash and hasty words, and we pay whatever we vow to Him. Each of these can only be properly motivated by first possessing a fear of the LORD.

But why is the fear of the LORD necessary? Fearing God simply comes from understanding that God is God. To know God is to fear Him. He is holy. He is unique and in a class all unto Himself. It is only right and proper to have a healthy fear of Him, and only utter foolishness fails to do so. We fear God by simply acknowledging that He is God, and seeing God as God can only result in living a God-centered, not self-centered, life. The knowing and fearing God smashes self-aggrandizement into bits by pointing us to the magnitude of His glorious worth. All of our pretty words and lavish dreams are particles of dust compared to snow-capped mountains of His sovereign decrees.

But fearing God is not just proper; it is also practical. As humans, we were created to fear the awesome might of the LORD, so when we fail to fear God, other fears take root within the heart. Consider the rise of fear, anxiety, and depression within our society which coincides with the decline of those holding to the Christian faith. Fear of terrorism. Fear of disease. Fear of collapsed economies. Fear of isolation. Fear of people. The list can (and does) go on without end. We fear these things because we fail to fear God. After all, the fear of God is exclusive. We cannot have a proper view of God, while continuing to fear other things. Understanding God’s greatness and His love for us must cast all other fears aside. Why fear the uncertain future when the One who stands sovereign over time is our Father? Why fear death when it ushers us into eternal life with our Savior? Why fear the temporal opinion of others when God’s evaluation of us is eternal? There is an exclusivity to fearing God. By properly revering Him, we realize that all else pales in comparison.

The fear of God is as good as it is exclusive. The fear of Him “who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28) is the same fear that enables us to say as in Psalm 118:6, “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” The Christian’s cry against the fears and anxieties of the world is “If God is for us, who can be against us” (Romans 8:31)? Our heavenly Father desires our good, so we are most benefitted by shifting our focus from self and onto God. Our greatest happiness is only found through our trembling pursuit of God. He is the supreme Treasure but not all desire to look upon Him, as Owen warns:

Not all who desire to go to heaven are fit and ready for it. Some are not only unworthy of it and excluded from it because of unforgiven sin; they are not prepared for it. Should they be admitted, they would never enjoy it. All of us naturally regard ourselves as fit for eternal glory. But few of us have any idea of how unfit we really are, because we have had no experience of that glory of Christ which is in heaven. Men shall not be clothed with glory, as it were, whether they want to be or not. It is to be received only by faith. But fallen man is incapable of believing. Music cannot please a deaf man, nor can colours impress a blind man. A fish would not thank you for taking it out of the sea and putting it on dry land under the blazing sun! Neither would an unregenerate sinner welcome the thought of living for ever in the blazing glory of Christ. (p. 7-8)

Indeed, everyone will one day fear God, but there will be two distinct kinds of fear. Those who have not beheld the glory of Christ by faith will be cower before Him, while those who by faith have tasted and seen that the LORD is good will rejoice in awestruck wonder. Because God is God, He will be feared. Let us earnestly seek the second kind of fear. Let us tremble that the One who authored quantum mechanics, photosynthesis, and platypuses is the same God who died in humiliation on the cross to rescue us from our sin. Let us quake that Holy of Holies has become our Father by adopting us as sons and daughters.

Counting Everything as Vanity for the Sake of Christ | Philippians 3:4-9

Though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—

Philippians 3:4-9 ESV

 

Thus far, Paul has expressed his affection and thanksgiving for the Philippians’ partnership in his ministry. He then addressed concerns regarding his imprisonment by reassuring them that God was actually using it to advance the gospel and that He would keep doing so. Paul also urged the Philippians to behave as citizens worthy of the gospel by being of the same mind and love, following Christ’s perfect example of humility.

In our last study, Paul began to address the danger of legalism, warning particularly against those who required Gentile Christians to be circumcised. Within our present text, Paul challenges anyone to produce a religious résumé greater than his own, while then emphasizing that he, like everyone else, is dependent upon grace alone through faith.

THE CREDENTIALS OF PAUL // VERSES 4-6

After soundly arguing against the principle of placing confidence in one’s flesh, Paul pulls out a plot twist by saying that he has more reason than anyone for putting confidence in his flesh. With the credentials that follow, we may be tempted to think of the apostle as boasting in his accomplishments; however, the exact opposite is true. He is merely sayings that if anyone could be confident in their good works it would have been him. But they were meaningless. Nothing but vanity. That’s the point. If Paul wasn’t qualified to earn his own salvation, no one is.

Verses 5-6 then act as Paul’s religious credentials of sorts. Studying it, we must admit that it is quite impressive.

Circumcised on the eighth day – It is important to note that Paul did not refute the Judaizers’ emphasis on circumcision because he did not want to go through the painful process. No, Paul was circumcised when he was only eight days old, as Jewish law commands. Thus, if circumcision was the means of justification, Paul already did it. He would only argue against something that he has already accomplished if he truly understood that it was not sufficient.

Of the people of Israel – It is clear throughout the Old Testament that the Jewish people were special. Yet they were special not because of anything that they had to offer but because God Himself chose them to be His chosen people. The Israelites were the people of God, set apart and made holy for divine purposes. Paul, therefore, was not an “unclean” Gentile, but a member of this holy nation.

Of the tribe of Benjamin – Aside from simply belonging to the Israelite people, Paul knew exactly from which tribe he came. The tribe of Benjamin was certainly one of the more prestigious of the twelve tribes.

Benjamin was the younger of the two sons born to Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. Benjamin was the only son of Jacob who was born in the Promised Land. The tribe of Benjamin provided many noble warriors throughout Israel’s history (cf. Hos. 5:8). Israel’s first lawful king came from the tribe of Benjamin. Jerusalem and the temple stood within Benjamin’s territory. This tribe alone, beside Judah, remained loyal to David’s house when the monarchy divided in 931 B.C. The feast of Purim celebrated the salvation of the Jews by a Benjamite, Mordecai. After the Exile, Benjamin and Judah formed the core of the restoration community. Of course, this tribe’s history was not without its shame as well (e.g., Saul’s failures, the Gibeans’ atrocity that led to the civil war that almost wiped this tribe out, etc.). Nevertheless Paul could legitimately take pride in his Benjamite heritage. He came from one of the leading families in Israel. (Constable, 49)

A Hebrew of Hebrews – Though Paul was raised in a Hellenistic city, this did not prevent him from learning the fullness of his Jewish heritage. Yes, he knew and mastered the Greek language, which allowed him to scribe the letters that we have presently, but he was also a devout student of Hebrew, which even in their day was a less than popular language.

As to the law, a Pharisee – The Pharisaic sect was the all-star team of Judaism. They were the most educated men in Israel. Their theology was solid. Their commitment to keeping God’s Word was unparalleled. They had such a deep commitment to upholding the Law that they actually created their own laws (that were stricter) just so that they could avoid breaking God’s Law at all costs. Their numbers were always small and elusive. Paul had not only made the cut to be a Pharisee, but he was a disciple of Gamaliel, one of the greatest Pharisees ever to live.

As to zeal, a persecutor of the church – Zeal, or passionate fervor, for God and His Word was one of the most valued qualities of a devout Jewish person of God. Paul claims that his zeal for Judaism was so fierce that he killed those who ascribed to the “heretical” Christian sect. To be fair, it is difficult to imagine a greater form of passion than the willingness to kill for one’s beliefs.

As to righteousness under the law, blameless – I see this as Paul challenging his readers to find fault in him. He is certainly not claiming to be without sin; rather, according to all of the works and ideals of Judaism, Paul says he was blameless. He did everything required of him and more. Only a handful of people throughout history could match Paul’s religious dedication and practice.

Merida and Chan use these seven items as seven kinds of works that we often attempt to place our confidence in. Circumcision relates to our confidence in rituals. Being an Israelite and Benjamite correlate to our security in ethnicity and rank. A Hebrew of Hebrews and Pharisee can be seen as tradition and rule-keeping. Finally, a persecutor and blameless are linked to zeal and obedience to the law. Of course, none of these are bad things, but they are not sufficient to justify us before God. Which of these do you most associate with? What form does legalism take in your life?

Now with this religious résumé, Paul is using himself as an example to say that if anyone could be justified by their works, it would be him. If there was anyone that could find fulfillment in the works of their flesh, it would be Paul. In practice, a large portion of us will spend our entire lives attempting to do a fraction of what Paul did. However, verse 7 will show us his true opinion of all his efforts.

COUNTING ALL AS LOSS FOR THE SAKE OF CHRIST // VERSES 7-9

Ah! What a sweet but painfully difficult verse to read! Paul’s true heart about his works is made known: that he counts it all as loss in comparison to Christ. This man, who claimed to have been blameless in his religiousness, considers everything on that list in verses five and six to be nothing when placed in the light of Christ.

Notice what is portrayed here. Paul does not say that he failed to find fulfillment in his works. All of his moral accomplishments surely gave him a form of happiness and contentment, an assurance that he was living his life for the greater good.

And that is all true. Legalism does offer a form of satisfaction, a form of gratification that comes from living for a higher purpose. Yet in this sense, religion can become little more than altruistic hedonism. It is hedonistic because the ultimate goal is pleasure. It is altruistic because it derives that pleasure from doing good. Yet even though pleasure can be found in religious works, it is not lasting. It is not eternal. It cannot lead to a permanently satisfied life. It cannot result in joy.

Thus, it is this common thread of joy that comes back into play. The joy that Paul is not afraid to repeat over and over again to the Philippians can only be found via this verse. It is not a matter of what we do, but rather it is a matter of who Christ is. The joy of this letter is not found in work or religiousness. It is only found in the glory and the supremacy of Christ. Just as we saw in the previous chapter, one day everyone will acknowledge that Jesus is supreme, that He is Lord. Being supreme and being one with God puts Jesus as the Creator and Sustainer of the all that exists. This makes Jesus the supreme source of good. Thus, when God wants to give us the greatest good, He gives to us Himself. The glory of the resplendent Christ far outshines all else so that our greatest hopes and works become mere vanities by comparison.

Expounding upon his thought in verse seven, Paul then specifies that there is a surpassing worth in knowing Christ. This knowledge is so valuable that everything is counted as loss (no longer just his religious works) in comparison to it. Jesus is of greater value to Paul than all things put together. The apostle, therefore, joyfully counted everything as lost to him because Christ is far greater and more than enough for him. Especially with the “gain” and “loss” language, it is almost as though Paul is presenting this with the logic of mathematics. If Jesus is greater than everything, I can then have Jesus plus nothing else and still be better off than if I had everything except Jesus. This explains the joyfulness of the apostle in the midst of his numerous sufferings. His persecutors had absolutely zero ability to diminish his love of the gospel because he knew Christ.

Paul further draws a line of distinction between the knowing of Christ and everything else by saying that he counts them as “rubbish.” Unfortunately, rubbish does not capture the weight of Paul’s thought here. Consider Dr. Constable’s thoughts on the word:

The Greek word translated “rubbish” (skybalon) occurs only here in the New Testament. Its derivation is uncertain, but it appears to have referred to excrement, food gone bad, scraps left over after a meal, and refuse. In extrabiblical Greek it describes a half-eaten corpse and lumps of manure. Thus Paul meant that his former advantages (his standing, wealth, and position in the Jewish community) were not only worthless but strongly offensive and potentially dangerous. He put his most prized possessions in the garbage can. (Constable, 51)

Some have gone so far as to argue that Paul was using mild profanity here, and while I don’t think that is the case, it seems to be more impolite than we would often care to admit. Perhaps the best translation in present-day English is “crap” or “dog crap.” While crap is certainly not considered profanity, it is still quite crass. The apostle’s point, of course, is that everything in life is as valuable as a steaming pile of dog crap when compared to Jesus Christ. That’s not to say that things don’t have value. They do. But when placed beside Christ, there is absolutely no comparison.

The final phrase in verse eight leads into one long thought that runs through verse eleven. Built upon the surpassing worthy of knowing Christ, Paul claims that he suffered the loss of all things and counted them as rubbish “in order that” he may gain Christ and be found in Him. This is the glory of losing everything for the sake of Christ: we get Jesus! Christ, Himself, is the reward that makes losing everything completely worth it. Jesus is the great gain that the author of Ecclesiastes searched for under the sun. He is the answer to the vanity of life and placing our hope within our own righteousness under the law is like striving after wind.

Notice also Paul’s emphatic source of righteousness: from God, through faith, and in Christ. Obtaining righteousness through obedience to the law is a fool’s errand. It cannot be done. But this doesn’t diminish the purpose of God’s law because without each of God’s commandments, we would be blind to the depth of our error. Gazing into the God’s law exposes our depravity and helplessness, which, of course, makes the good news even more beautiful. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, our righteousness now comes from God Himself through faith in Christ. God is the source. Jesus is the means. And faith is the mode. Our righteousness, therefore, a pure gift of God, leaving us with nothing to boast of before God.

Since Paul’s righteousness was only found by faith in Christ, the Author of life, his counting everything as loss makes complete sense, as does his joy in the midst of suffering. Can you also make such a claim? Has the great gain of knowing and being found in Christ eclipsed everything else in your life? Could you truly rejoice in Christ even if everything else was taken from you?

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.

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.