All Is Vanity | Ecclesiastes 1

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

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.

I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

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

I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.

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

Ecclesiastes 1 (ESV)

 

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

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

ALL IS VANITY // VERSES 1-11

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

Vanity Under the Sun

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

But what is he describing as vanity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Endless Cycles of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE VANITY OF WISDOM // VERSES 12-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE MEANING WITHIN THE VANITY // VERSES 2-3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ecclesiastes 12:13–14 (ESV)

 

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

THE END OF THE MATTER // VERSE 13

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

THE WHOLE DUTY OF MAN // VERSE 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us think this through.

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

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

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

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

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

THE CERTAINTY OF JUDGMENT // VERSES 14

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

What will God judge?

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

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

Why is this good news?

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

Why is this bad news?

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

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

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

What hope do we have? 

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

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

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

THE END OF THE MATTER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vanity of vanities. All is vanity without Christ.

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

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

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

Ecclesiastes 12:9–12 (ESV)

 

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

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

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

TEACHING KNOWLEDGE // VERSE 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scripture Is Wise, Truthful, & Delightful

Three descriptions are then given of the Scriptural writings.

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

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

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

Two functions of Scripture are then described in verse 11.

Scripture Goads Us

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

Scripture Secures Us

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

Scripture Comes from One Shepherd

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

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

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

BEWARE OF ANYTHING BEYOND SCRIPTURE // VERSE 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ecclesiastes 11:7–12:8 (ESV)

 

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

LIGHT IS SWEET // VERSES 7-8

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

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

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

REJOICE // VERSE 9

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

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

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

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

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

Let us consider a few more questions.

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

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

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

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

REMOVE // VERSE 10

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

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

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

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

REMEMBER // VERSES 1-7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VANITY OF VANITIES // VERSE 8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

 

The Vanity of Folly Under the Sun | Ecclesiastes 10

Listen to the sermon here.

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

Ecclesiastes 10:1 | Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.

Ecclesiastes 10:3 | Even when a fool walks on the road, he lacks sense, and he says to everyone that he is a fool.

OPENING THOUGHT

At its heart, Ecclesiastes is an investigation of life under the sun. Written by the Preacher (most likely King Solomon), Ecclesiastes gives the author’s reflections after attempting to discover what is good for mankind to do during our short days here on earth. He throws himself head first at pleasure but finds that it is only a temporary distraction from death’s looming shadow. He observes the necessity of living in community but laments the many ways that we sabotage such relationships. He knows all too well the allure of wealth and power, yet he also witnessed those who couldn’t seem to enjoy the money and blessings that they possessed. At the end of the day, time runs out and death comes for all people, man or woman, young or old, rich or poor, wise or foolish. Therefore, the Preacher repeatedly urges us to enjoy life as being the gift of God, finding contentment with the lot that He has given us.

After summarizing most of the book’s themes in chapter nine, chapter ten is the beginning march toward the conclusion. The proverbial nature of this chapter can seem rather eclectic, but the overall goal is give us a fuller picture those who walk in foolishness. Even though the Preacher has emphasized that the wise and foolish will both face death, he is now emphasizing that there are still clear benefits to be wise and avoiding folly.

GROUP DISCUSSION

Read Ecclesiastes 10 and discuss the following.

  1. Which verses stood out most to you as you read Ecclesiastes 10 this week? Why? What do these verses teach you about who God is?
  2. How would to describe biblical wisdom and folly? How are they different from general ideas about wisdom and folly?
  3. Of the various forms of folly described in this chapter, which one(s) do you most identify with? What is the godly and wise alternate to that kind of foolishness?
  4. How can we practically pursue wisdom and flee from folly?

PERSONAL REFLECTION

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

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

The Vanity of Death Under the Sun | Ecclesiastes 9

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

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

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

OPENING THOUGHT

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

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

GROUP DISCUSSION

Read Ecclesiastes 9 and discuss the following.

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

PERSONAL REFLECTION

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

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