Biblical Wisdom

The Call of Wisdom | Proverbs 1:20-33

Wisdom cries aloud in the street,
in the markets she raises her voice;
at the head of the noisy streets she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
“How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
If you turn at my reproof, 
behold, I will pour out my spirit to you;
I will make my words known to you.
Because I have called and you refused to listen,
have stretched out my hand and no one has heeded,
because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when terror strikes you,
when terror strikes you like a storm
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.
Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently but will not find me.
Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the Lord,
would have none of my counsel
and despised all my reproof,
therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way,
and have their fill of their own devices.
For the simple are killed by their turning away,
and the complacency of fools destroys them;
but whoever listens to me will dwell secure
and will be at ease, without dread of disaster.”

Proverbs 1:20-33 ESV

 

Although most Proverbs’ first nine chapters is written from a father to a son, we now arrive at one of the sections were wisdom herself speaks to the reader. Like a street preacher, wisdom is personified as a woman crying out in the busy streets for people to love and embrace her. The significance is that wisdom beckons to everyone, but few answer her call. In fact, the choice between wisdom and folly is a choice between a narrow or broad gate. Just has few find the hard, narrow gate, few embrace wisdom.

WISDOM SPEAKS // VERSES 20-21

These two verses introduce and set the scene for the literary device used in the remainder of the section: the personification of wisdom. Although wisdom is an abstract concept, Solomon is poetically giving it a voice, and since the goal of Proverbs is to give us wisdom, we could easily say that these glimpses of wisdom personified are the heart and soul of the book.

The backdrop for Lady Wisdom’s speech is not a well-kept college classroom or a philosopher’s forum; rather, Solomon pictures wisdom scream in the middle of the markets and noisy streets. She is standing at the city gates crying out to anyone that will listen. Wisdom is the equivalent of an Old Testament prophet or a street preacher. She is desperate for anyone to hear her message.

Why?

Wisdom is intimately connected with godliness. We cannot have true wisdom without knowing God, and we cannot know God without growing in wisdom. Sin is the epitome of foolishness; therefore, as we walk with God, we will become wiser. Wisdom is an essential element of a Christian’s sanctification. This is why James urges to ask for wisdom when we lack it (James 1:5). Wisdom is necessary pursuit. We cannot know God without it.

Fortunately, wisdom is attainable. In fact, wisdom is guaranteed to those who are willing to ask for it. God is generous, and wisdom is one of His many gifts that He pours out without reproach (meaning that He will not turn us away). The imagery of wisdom street preaching is important because God openly invites humanity to embrace wisdom. He is not withholding this secret of life from anyone. He gives it freely to all who will humble themselves enough to admit that they need wisdom. Of course, such humility is reason why wisdom is short supply. Free gifts require open hands. We cannot ask for wisdom until we first realize that we are fools.

HOW LONG // VERSES 22-31

Lady Wisdom begins her proclamation by crying out “how long” twice. These two words set the tone for the remainder of the passage. Wisdom is being boldly and blatantly offered but continuously refused by the simple, scoffers, and fools.

We’ve already discussed the fools and the simple, but who are the scoffers? “They are cynical and defiant freethinkers who ridicule the righteous and all for which they stand (e.g., Ps 1:1)” (NET). Scoffers stand as a category of their own because of their aggression toward the ways of God. The simple at least have the potential of becoming wise, and the fools despise knowledge and wisdom. But scoffers do not merely hate wisdom, they mock it. They are revelers in their wicked path.

In verse 23, Lady Wisdom explains how wisdom can be attained: by responding to her rebuke. This notion of wisdom’s rebuke is crucial to the passage since it also appears in verses 25 and 30. A rebuke is never fun because it means being convicted of sin or having our faults revealed, but it is a critical aspect of biblical wisdom. Upon reaching a fork in the road, we must choose which way to follow. Likewise, being shown the path of wisdom necessitates having the path of foolishness condemned. Embracing wisdom means we must repent at her reproof.

Wisdom then responds to her rejection with laughter at their calamity. She mocks the mockers when trouble befalls them. She claims that whenever they seek her in the midst of their trials, she will refuse to answer them. This may sound harsh, but verse 31 clearly establishes that when the foolish suffer, they are merely eating “the fruit of their way.” They are being left to their own devices. Their destruction is well-earned because they had plenty of opportunities to repent at wisdom’s reproof.

But what about verse 28? Is that verse teaching that God will refuse those who repent in the midst of trials and hardship? In a way, yes. The repentance being described in verse 28 is not true repentance. It is the half-hearted prayer that many people make to God while in the middle of a storm of life. They do not love and serve God, desiring for His will to be done above all else. They simply want God to bail them out of their problems. It is against this kind of superficial “Christianity” that Hebrews 3:12-14 speaks:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.

SECURITY OR DISASTER // VERSES 32-33

These final verses of the chapter summarize Lady Wisdom’s message. Those who listen to wisdom will dwell in security, while fools will be destroyed.

Verse 32 describes the path to destruction in two ways. First, the simple are killed by their turning away. Though the simple are given the choice between wisdom or folly, life or death, many choose folly and death. Instead of turning in repentance, they turn a follow after fools. They die for their lack of knowledge (Hosea 4:6).

Second, the fools are destroyed by their complacency. This is a terrifying image. While the simple were killed because they turned toward sin, fools are destroyed by doing nothing. The NET translates this as “the careless ease of fools will destroy them.” This is a great warning against “Christians” who refuse to take sin and the things of God seriously. Twice Jeremiah warns the people of Judah against prophets and priests who heal “the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (6:14, 8:11). These religious leaders refused to take the sin of Judah seriously. They spoke of peace while God was crying out for His people to repent. We must take care that we do not allow a similar complacency to sweep us away. The path to damnation is open wide for those who refuse to let God’s word call them to action.

Those who listen to wisdom, who embrace the fear of the LORD, find a much different outcome. Instead of meeting destruction and death, they find security and ease. They find the true peace that fools only attempt to imitate with their complacency. Because they listened to wisdom’s call, they live without fear of disaster.

Wait. So then what happened to Job? He was blameless man before the LORD, right? Why did the very definition of disaster fall upon him if he was a wise man who feared God? And what about the apostles, most of whom died violent deaths because they preached Christ?

Verse 33 does not promise or guarantee that God’s people will not see disaster; rather, they would not dread the disasters that may befall them. They will dwell secure regardless of what life throws their way. They are a people who possess a Treasure that cannot be stolen by thieves, eaten by moths, or corroded by time. They are a people who, when destitute, afflicted, and mistreated, consider “the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures” of all the world (Hebrews 11:26). The wise are not exempt from suffering; they simply know Him who is their comfort in the midst of the storm.

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Biblical Wisdom

Background on Proverbs

Author

Proverbs 1:1 presents Solomon as the primary author of the book, but there are other writers as well, such as Agur and Lemuel.

Theme

Godly wisdom helps us to understand and navigate the broken, sin-filled world around us by con-forming ourselves to God’s pattern for creation.

Background

Solomon, the son of David, is the primary author and/or collector of the proverbs within Proverbs, and the Bible certainly paints him as being qualified. After becoming king of Israel, 1 Kings 3:3-15 tell of God appearing to Solomon in a dream, asking what he desired. The young king asked the LORD for wisdom to lead Israel, which was a wise request itself. From then onward, Solomon became known for his great wisdom, so that people from all over the earth came to hear his words (1 Kings 4:34). With his understanding, Solomon spoke 3,000 proverbs and composed 1,005 songs. Many of those proverbs are no doubt within this book.

But the Proverbs is not the sole work of Solomon. The book, as we have it today, was not complete until more than two hundred years after Solomon’s death. We know this because King Hezekiah (one of Judah’s most godly kings) compiled more of Solomon’s proverbs about a dozen generations later (25:1). We know nothing about Lemuel and Agur nor of the anonymous authors of 22:17-24:22 and 24:23-34. Thus, Proverbs began to be composed with Solomon, was still being compiled in Hezekiah’s day, and might have been finished as late as the Babylonian exile. This vast time frame should remind us that God’s wisdom transcends the ages, speaking and guiding whomever has ears to hear.

Purpose

The purpose of the book of Proverbs is to teach us “to know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the youth (1:2-4).” Proverbs aims to increase the learning of the wise and to give guidance to the one with understanding. This book wants to make us wise, to give us the skills and understanding to navigate life in a way that pleases God.

Principles for Understanding Proverbs

Proverbs can be a very difficult book to understand well, so before we begin our dive into the book, here are a few principles to keep in mind while studying Proverbs.

First, Proverbs is divided into two major halves. The first half (chapters 1-9) are an introductory course of on biblical wisdom, with Solomon writing to us readers as a father teaching his son. Although these paternal speeches form the bulk of the first nine chapters, we are also treated occasionally to speeches from Lady Wisdom. Because of this teaching pattern, it is important for us to approach these chapters as students ready to learn wisdom from experts.

Second, Proverbs are principles, not promises. Many parents can testify that Proverbs 22:6 is does not always happen. Proverbs show us how things should work within God’s creation, but they are not guaranteed. Ecclesiastes and Job show us how biblical wisdom is applied to these situations when life goes against what we expected.

Third, Proverbs cannot make us wise, only God can. Even though Proverbs is the book of biblical wisdom, they cannot make us wise themselves. We must rather pray for God to use His Word to make us wise, but without His illumination, these words will never change or impact our hearts.

Fourth, Proverbs are not lifehacks to apply immediately; they require wisdom to use properly. Too many people think of Proverbs as being full of sayings that can be grabbed without context and applied to life’s various situations. This approach fails to realize the importance of Proverbs using nine chapters to introduce the concept of wisdom before launching into the proverbs themselves. In fact, Proverbs speaks against trying to use these wise words without wisdom: “Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools (26:7.” Or “Like a thorn that goes up into the hand of a drunkard is a proverb in the mouth of fools (26:9).”

Fifth, there are multiple types of literature within Proverbs. Verse lists four types of literature with Proverbs: proverbs, sayings, words of the wise, and riddles. Proverbs are the bulk form of literature present in the book. Most often proverbs are composed in a parallelism format, meaning they have two lines that reflect upon each other. There is plenty of debate over what exactly sayings and words of the wise refer to. Proverbs 22:17 begins a section of thirty sayings that are called the words of the wise, so maybe the two terms are generally interchangeable. Most commentators agree that riddles within Proverbs refer to texts like Proverbs 30:18-19: “Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of the eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on the rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin.” These are obviously not riddles as we have them in the English language; instead, they are sayings that are purposefully ambiguous and we are meant to search out their meaning.

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.

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.

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.

Vanity Under the Sun

The Vanity of Knowledge Under the Sun | Ecclesiastes 11:1-6

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

Ecclesiastes 11:1 | Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.    

Ecclesiastes 11:4 | He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap.

OPENING THOUGHT

No other book, inside or outside the Bible, is quite like Ecclesiastes. In its attempt to capture the brutal honesty of life under the sun, Ecclesiastes displays the vivid joys and pains of life in a post-Genesis 3 world. Written by the Preacher (most likely King Solomon), the book’s message is that everything under the sun is vanity. What does he mean by vanity? Vanity could also be translated as meaningless, pointless, worthless, futile, temporary, here-today-gone-tomorrow, a vapor, or a mere breath of air. The idea, then, is that everything under the sun fails to have any real substance. It’s all nothing more than smoke passing through the air. The Preacher, therefore, pleads for us to not waste our lives pursuing the things of earth. Health, wealth, pleasure, family, community, and time, all these things are gifts from God, but they are not God Himself. They will each pass away, so trying to capture them is like chasing after the wind. Solomon’s answer is to fix our eyes above the sun, upon God, instead. He claims that true enjoyment of life can only come as a gift from God.

This week, we enter Ecclesiastes’ penultimate chapter. In these six verses, Solomon discusses principles for taking wise action, even when we do not have all the knowledge that we need to make that decision. The lack of information can often paralyze our ability to make decisions, but Preacher notes that only God’s knowledge is perfect. We will never know the disasters and blessings that we befall us in life, but we are still called to do what God has set before us.

GROUP DISCUSSION

Read Ecclesiastes 11:1-6 and discuss the following.

  1. Which verses stood out most to you as you read Ecclesiastes 11:1-6 this week? Why? What do these verses teach you about who God is?
  2. Do you tend to be more overly-cautious or reckless in life? Why are both extremes harmful?
  3. Have you ever been paralyzed by indecision or inaction? Why?
  4. Why does the Bible call us to give away instead of store up?
  5. How does the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) relate to our passage?

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?