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.

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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.

The Vanity of Death Under the Sun | Ecclesiastes 9

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

Ecclesiastes 9:1 | But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him.

Ecclesiastes 9:7 | Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.

OPENING THOUGHT

The book of Ecclesiastes is a brutally honest survey of life under the sun. The Preacher’s observations of life in a post-Genesis 3 world may be a few millennia old, but the insights are just as relevant today. At the heart of the book is the Preacher’s investigation to find what is good for man to do under the sun during the days of his vain life. In other words, he searched for some kind of lasting meaning and purpose that could be found here on earth. And he certainly did search. He gave himself completely over to pursuing pleasure, taking everything that his eye desired and accumulated for himself wealth beyond compare. In many ways, he achieved the American Dream. And yet his conclusion is that all is vanity, as meaningless and futile as chasing after the wind.

In chapter nine, the Preacher turns his attention once more to the topics of death and wisdom. In many ways, this chapter is the culmination of the previous eight. He reminds us again that death is the great equalizer and that wisdom is still worth pursuing even if things don’t work out as planned. In the center of it all, he repeats again the book’s refrain. Enjoy the life that God has given you under the sun.

GROUP DISCUSSION

Read Ecclesiastes 9 and discuss the following.

  1. Which verses stood out most to you as you read Ecclesiastes 9 this week? Why? What do these verses teach you about who God is?
  2. In verse 1, the Preacher reiterates how he laid everything to heart and examined all things during his investigation. How often would you say that you time the time to truly lay everything to heart, considering God and His creation?
  3. Why does Solomon call death evil whenever it happens to everyone under the sun?
  4. Why does Solomon once again command us to enjoy life under the sun? Why enjoyment a crucial aspect of following God?
  5. Why does the Preacher so firmly commend wisdom, even while he admits that wisdom does not always work out in this life?

PERSONAL REFLECTION

Because all Scripture profits us through teaching, reproving, correcting, and training us, reflect upon the studied text, and ask yourself the following questions about the present text.

  • What has God taught you about Himself?
  • What sin is God convicting or reproving you of?
  • How is God correcting you?
  • How is God training and equipping you for righteousness?

The Vanity of Time Under the Sun | Ecclesiastes 3

Listen to the sermon here.

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

Ecclesiastes 3:1 | For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven  

Ecclesiastes 3:11 | He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into mans heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

OPENING THOUGHT

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.

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 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.

GROUP DISCUSSION

Read Ecclesiastes 3 and discuss the following.

  1. Which verses stood out most to you as you read Ecclesiastes 3 this week? Why? What do these verses teach you about who God is?
  2. Verses 1-8 form a poetic musing on time under the sun. What most resonates with you in this poem? What points does Solomon seem to be making about how we relate to time?
  3. How do verses 9-22 serve as a commentary on the opening poem?
  4. How have you experienced the feeling of having eternity in your heart?
  5. How is eating, drinking, and taking pleasure in our toil different from saying “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die?”

PERSONAL REFLECTION

Because all Scripture profits us through teaching, reproving, correcting, and training us, reflect upon the studied text, and ask yourself the following questions about the present text.

  • What has God taught you about Himself?
  • What sin is God convicting or reproving you of?
  • How is God correcting you?
  • How is God training and equipping you for righteousness?

The Meaning Above the Meaningless

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?
Ecclesiastes 1:2-3 (ESV)

In these verses, Solomon proclaims 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 also prove itself false.

Similarly, the Preacher says something of meaning, even while he claims that nothing has meaning. How do we reconcile this?

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.

Existence exists because Jesus keeps it 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 of life under the sun for the fullness of abiding in Christ.

The Vanity of Pleasure Under the Sun | Ecclesiastes 2

Listen to the sermon here.

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

Ecclesiastes 2:11 | Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.  

Ecclesiastes 2:24-25 | There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

OPENING THOUGHT

Often called the most depressing book of the Bible, Ecclesiastes paints for us a brutally honest portrait of this life, a life under the sun. The bleakness of Ecclesiastes is immediately apparent, but it is also real and tangible. This book studies the monotony of everyday life and puts some of those thoughts and feelings into words. It provides a voice to the weariness of life that we all know lurks around each corner.

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.

GROUP DISCUSSION

Read Ecclesiastes 2 and discuss the following.

  1. Which verses stood out most to you as you read Ecclesiastes 2 this week? Why? What do these verses teach you about who God is?
  2. Verses 1-11 describes Solomon’s search for lasting joy through uninhibited pleasure. Can you relate to his quest? Have you ever, or do you still, look to things like alcohol, sex, or work to satisfy you? Why is pleasure such a natural pursuit for us? Why will it never fully satisfy?
  3. In verse 17, Solomon admits to having hated life. Is there a time when you have ever hated life? Was it a godly hatred for the brokenness of the world or motivated by self-pity, exhaustion, or sin?
  4. How is true and lasting enjoyment possible? Why is enjoyment in this life a necessity aspect of following God? How can a Christian be called to both love and hate this world?

PERSONAL REFLECTION

Because all Scripture profits us through teaching, reproving, correcting, and training us, reflect upon the studied text, and ask yourself the following questions about the present text.

  • What has God taught you about Himself?
  • What sin is God convicting or reproving you of?
  • How is God correcting you?
  • How is God training and equipping you for righteousness?

Background on Ecclesiastes

Author

The author identifies himself as the Preacher (or Teacher).

While the book is technically anonymous, Solomon is the most likely candidate.

Theme

Everything is meaningless “under the sun,” and the only source of true meaning and joy is God.

Background

In the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, the author identifies himself as the Qoheleth (the Preacher or Teacher). Thus, strictly speaking, the book is anonymous; however, the Preacher does give us a hint as to his identity. He is said, in the first verse, to be the “son of David, king in Jerusalem.” The Hebrew word for “son” can be used to mean either a literal son or a descendant of, so the author technically could be simply a descendant of David (Hezekiah is, therefore, a possibility). However, the argument for Solomon’s authorship is quite clear. Many of the actions that Solomon describes in this book mirror the sort of accomplishments that are recorded of Solomon in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles. In addition, the Preacher makes many claims to great, vast wealth and unparalleled wisdom, which is recorded in detail in the two books previously mentioned. Once we come to accept Solomon as the author, we then must ask when it was written. According to Jewish tradition, Solomon wrote Song of Songs in his youth, compiled Proverbs in his middle years, and wrote Ecclesiastes near the end of his life. If that is true, then this book is of near infinite value because it is the final reflections of one of the wisest men to ever live (1 Kings 4:29).

Purpose

If it is true that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes near the end of his life, then it can be interpreted as Solomon’s return to the faith. We are told in 1 Kings that Solomon was led astray from the LORD by the false gods of his wives (1 Kings 11:4). Thus, Ecclesiastes could be Solomon’s final reflections on life and whatever conclusions he has made. Even so, why should we care? Why were the dying words of Solomon important enough to be considered Scripture?

Primarily, we can believe that Solomon’s words are recorded here to show us that wealth, success, and prosperity do not ultimately satisfy. Many Christians read Job with amazement. Job was a man that had everything going for him. He loved God, loved his wife, loved his kids, and God blessed him with plenty of wealth. However, in one day, Job loses it all. For centuries, people have read Job’s story, not because in the end his wealth is returned to him, but because even in the midst of horrendous circumstances, Job remains faithful to God. The message of Job is that even when we have nothing, God is everything. But what about the converse? What if we are given everything? Does God then become useless?

Ecclesiastes is the answer to that question. Solomon was a man to whom God had given everything. He was the epitome of the American dream. In terms of political power, Solomon was greater than the President of the United States. In terms of religious authority, Solomon had more than the Pope. In terms of intelligence, Solomon had more than Einstein. In terms of wealth, Solomon surpassed Bill Gates. In terms of women, Solomon was the original Hugh Hefner. We are told that the daily provisions for his personal staff were enough to feed 35,000 people (1 Kings 4:22-23). That’s 35,000 servants that waited on him, hand and foot. Solomon had it all. In addition, God granted Solomon a peaceful reign on the thrown of Israel for forty years (1 Kings 11:42). That is the longest time of peace that Israel has ever seen! Not only did countries not attack Israel, but also during Solomon’s reign, they came from all across the globe just to give him money.

So one would think that Solomon lived the good life and died the happiest man alive, but then we get Ecclesiastes. His final words to us are that “all is vanity.” Everything is meaningless “under the sun.” Ultimately, Solomon’s goal is to simply show us that a life without God is a life without purpose. Solomon records numerous times in the book that “there is nothing better” than for a person find his or her enjoyment in God. “Apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” If everything “under the sun” is meaningless, then let us find our meaning from One is above the sun.

Misunderstandings

I have rarely spoken with anyone about this book who did not find it at least a little depressing. I have even heard people claim that it was their favorite book because it reminds them just how futile life really is. To an extent, these things are true. Ecclesiastes is not the happiest book that one may read, true. It does a great job of describing the futility of life, also true. However, I do not find Ecclesiastes depressing, nor do I believe that it is one gigantic downer. Instead, Ecclesiastes is one of the world’s first philosophical works. Many people, including myself, would call it the greatest work of philosophy ever written. In fact, it appears to me that what most people call depressing is actually the presentation of life’s difficult questions. No other book calls us to face the reality of our mortality and depravity like Ecclesiastes. It addresses the human condition in such a way that Solomon is attempting to give words to experiences that are beyond words. Ecclesiastes is not an easy book, and it will not be content with simply being a “good read” or an interesting book. This book does not need to be depressing, but if we study it well, Ecclesiastes will cut through any shallowness in our souls, leaving behind a desperate need for God to provide our lives with meaning, satisfaction, and joy.