Vanity Under the Sun

He Who Loves Money Will Not Be Satisfied With Money | Ecclesiastes 5:8-20

If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, ado not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.

There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind? Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger.

Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions land power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.

Ecclesiastes 5:8-20 ESV

 

After taking a brief intermission to discuss how to properly fear and worship God, the Preacher now resumes the report of experiment by turning to the vanity of wealth. Money and the love of it are some of life’s chief motivators. Actions are driven by it. Thoughts are captive to it. Partnerships are forged with it. Betrayals are bought by it. Money and the power that it buys is seductive to nearly every human. Yet even though Solomon was one of the wealthiest men to ever live (if not the wealthiest), he writes from personal experience that the quest for more money is never ending nor satisfying. Wealth will always fail to provide true lasting joy and meaning in life.

OPPRESSION REVISITED // VERSES 8-9

To begin this next section on the vanity of wealth, Solomon turns his eye once more to the oppression that he sees. However, this time he tells us that we should not be amazed by the injustice that we see being done. His reasoning for such as statement is that there is always a hierarchy of officials. Thus, we can be certain that the person who creates oppression in our lives also has someone above him creating oppression. It is an endless cycle of injustice, but don’t be amazed, this is simply the conditions of a fallen world. This is not cynical of Solomon, just realistic. He is merely describing this aspect of a post-Genesis 3 life.

Fortunately, verse 9 quickly tells us that a king cultivating the fields is a gain for the land in every way. To be honest, upon first reading this, the structure of verses 8-9 made it sound like the Preacher is saying that oppression is a way of cultivating the fields, and so it is good for the land in every way. Thankfully, that is not what this verse is saying. Instead, Solomon is providing an alternative: a king cultivating the fields. In other words, just because authority tends to be abused doesn’t mean that authority itself is bad. Authority is ultimately good for everyone, even when it is occasionally misused. Since we in the United States lean toward possessing a phobia for authorities, we need to keep this reminder in our minds. After all, God Himself is the ultimate authority, and throughout the Bible, He gives portions of His authority to finite and fallible creatures like us. Genesis 1:26 provides the first example as God grants dominion over the earth and its creatures to humanity. The judges and kings of Israel continue this cycle. Romans 13:4 applies this to all governmental authorities saying: “for he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” We rejoice whenever the legal system enforces justice rightly because it is a physical instrument of God’s judgment on earth. And this is not just righteous governments. Throughout the Bible, God even used pagan nations like Assyria, Egypt, and Babylon to enact His judgment. Therefore, as followers of Christ, let us never be a people who wholeheartedly reject authority. We lament that authority will be abused in this life, but in general, God has ordained authority for the benefit of all people.

THE LOVE OF MONEY // VERSES 10-12

Within these three verses, the Preacher presents three truths regarding money and wealth.

The first truth, found in verse 10, is that money cannot satisfy. Don’t you love how Solomon doesn’t add any qualifying comments to that statement? Quite simply, if you love money, you are chasing after something that cannot be captured. To illustrate this, a commonly told account of Rockefeller says that during an interview, the reporter asked him which was his favorite million dollars. Rockefeller simply responded, “The next one.” Even with all the money he could ever hope to spend, his heart was set on the next earning. The love of money runs contrary contentment. The two cannot coexist as they are mutual exclusives. This is why Hebrews 13:5 warns against the one and commands the other: “Keep your life free from the love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” The love of money and contentment are like oil and water, like black and white. They oppose one another. Since contentment cannot exist alongside the love of money, the often misquoted 1 Timothy 6:10 makes much sense: “for the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils.” Discontentment caused Adam and Eve to eat the fruit in order to become more like God than they already were as image-bearers. Of course, we can go one step further by concluding that the root of discontentment is pride. Discontent first forms because we are prideful enough to believe that we deserve something more than what we actually possess. Love of money ultimately creates within us a heart of envy, jealousy, and dissatisfaction. Eventually, it will bring us to the place where we are willing to do anything to get what we want.

Verse 11 gives us our second truth: needs increase along with wealth. Whenever goods increase, so do the eaters of those goods. This can point to two things. First, wealth brings beggars. Time and time again, we read stories of people winning the lottery only to have a multitude of distant friends and family flock around them. This is likely Solomon’s primary meaning. However, we can also see the principle that vacuums must be filled being described here. A large surplus of income often means more spending. We see this whenever someone buys a larger home thinking that it will not be as crowded with things, but having a larger home just means it gets filled with more stuff. Because needs tend to increase with wealth, lower income families are not the only ones who live paycheck to paycheck. More money simply means more spending.

The third truth is presented in verse 12: anxiety increases with wealth. Solomon describes the laborer as coming home from his day of work and finding sweet rest in his sleep. The wealthy person, however, is restless because of the great needs that accompany his great wealth. An interesting thought struck me as I meditated on this verse: which countries tend to have the highest cases of sleep deprivation? Often it is the wealthier nations of the world. Writing primarily to a Western (and therefore generally wealthy) audience, Tish Warren Harrison notes the following about sleep:

According to data from the National Health Interview Survey, nearly 30 percent of adults average less than six hours of sleep per night, significantly under the recommended seven to eight hours. Only about 30 percent of high school students reported getting at least eight hours of sleep on an average school night, though they need around ten. In one national study, over 7 percent of people between twenty-five and thirty-five admitted to actually nodding off while driving in the past month. In 2013 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared, “Insufficient Sleep Is a Public Health Problem.” Most of us have heard statistics like this before. And we yawn and pour more coffee. We know, we know. We’re busy, we’re tired, we’re worn out. But this public health epidemic is indicative of a spiritual crisis—a culture of disordered love and disordered worship. We disdain limits. Wendell Berry warned, “It is easy… to imagine that the next great division of the world will be between people who wish to live as creatures and people who wish to live as machines.”

We skip sleep because there is simply too much to do. There aren’t enough hours in the day. But often the reason we continue to have more things to do is because we continue to have more things that we want. Our lack of contentment with what we have leads to our exhaustion-inducing efforts to accumulate more and more.

An example of this type of contentment stands out vividly in my mind. About two years ago, my wife and I bought our first home, a nearly 100-year-old space of 1400 feet. Upon first seeing our house, people would often comment that it was a beautiful and quaint starting home. The underlying idea, of course, being that we will need to upgrade in the future. But those comments stood in sharp contrast with my wife’s visiting grandparents from Colombia, who immediately asked if such a big house was only for the two of us.

Unfortunately, much of our stress is self-induced, stemming from our lack of contentment. We may not think of ourselves as possessing a love of money in the traditional sense. We can, however, very easily fall for the trap of trying to keep up with the Joneses. We become dissatisfied with things that are sufficient and long for things that are ultimately unnecessary. Agur, in Proverbs 30:7-9, gives us a prayer that stands in sharp contrast to modern consumerism: “Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the LORD?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.” How many of us make prayers like that? Our prayers tend to be for God to increase our possessions and wealth, not for Him to keep wealth out of our hands. Agur essentially prays, “God, I know my heart. I know my desires. Keep me out of poverty and riches. If I have too much wealth, pride will grow in me as am able to provide for myself. I will reject You and believe that I am self-sufficient.” May we learn from Agur’s prayer to be content.

A CASE STUDY // VERSES 13-17

Here Solomon provides a helpful example of how wealth is vanity. He describes a man who, after damaging himself through hard work, loses everything in one bad venture. Then having nothing to give to his son as an inheritance, he dies with nothing, leaving behind a life of misery and sorrow. Being a financial burden instead of a blessing upon his son would have been a severe shame in the ancient world, which only serves to emphasize the vanity of this man’s backbreaking work to accumulate wealth. His final days are nothing but sick, vexation, and anger.

This example may be a hypothetical case study, but many have unfortunately walked through this as a reality. Last week, I finished reading a biography of Ulysses S. Grant. The general of the Union Army during the Civil War, who went on to serve two terms as president of the United States, lived a life of success that few could match. However, during the final days of his life, Grant fell victim to one of the first Ponzi schemes and lost all of his wealth. Eventually, he spent the final days of his life desperately writing a memoir as he was dying from esophageal cancer with the hope that his wife would be able to live off of the book’s sales. The memoir sold beautifully and is still considered a masterpiece, but Grant died only a few days after completing it.

In Luke 12:13-21, Jesus gives us another hypothetical account of this kind of misfortune as a warning against all covetousness:

Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” But he said to him, “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” And he said to them, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years, relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”

Isn’t the fool in the parable how many view retirement? We await the ceasing from work in order to eat, drink, and be merry, but we do not know that we will ever be able to enjoy the rejoices that we have stored. Solomon’s case study and Jesus’ parable are both presenting the same idea: wealth is vain. It is a terrible god that can be taken away in a moment. And if it is not taken away from us, we might be taken away from it.

What is the answer then, if wealth is a vanity? Our final three verses present the answer.

CONTENTMENT: THE GIFT OF GOD // VERSES 18-20

The hopeful refrain of Ecclesiastes returns! Notice that when Solomon says that everything under the sun is vanity he is not saying that nothing is good on earth. The Preacher emphasizes that he sees with his physical eyes that it is good and fitting to eat, drink, and find enjoyment. Just because life is fleeting doesn’t make it bad. Christianity does not align with the gnostic heresy that threatened it in the first century. We do not believe that spiritual things are good and physical things are bad. No, we believe that in the beginning God made a physical world and declared it to be good. Things may be broken after the Fall, but they are not utterly broken. If we are not careful, we can fall victim to such hyper-spiritualizations that declare all wealth and possessions to be evil. But the Preacher explicitly states that wealth, possessions, and power are gifts from God, along with the ability to enjoy them.

How exactly do we enjoy these gifts of God properly? Enjoying God’s gifts means accepting our lot in life and rejoicing in the toil that He sets before us. We are to be content, and God gives contentment by keeping us occupied with Him. How are we kept occupied with God? With joy in his heart. It is all too common for people to think of God as a cosmic killjoy, that His commands limit our freedom and force us to obey His arbitrary guidelines. But Solomon emphasizes that God is not a killjoy but the giver of joy.

Later in Luke 12, verses 32-34, Jesus gives us these words:

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Jesus (and Solomon) are both calling for us not to forsake all treasures and wealth but for us to chase after eternal and lasting riches. Money is fleeting; God desires for us to know real wealth. The Bible is commanding us to pursue treasure, wealth, and riches because God alone is the greatest of all treasures. Furthermore, if He is more valuable than everything else put together, then He often loves us by stripping us of our lesser loves in order to bring us to Himself. God does not forbid idolatry because He is a killjoy. He forbids idolatry because idolatry will kill our joy. The wealth of this world is appealing, but even the very words of God are better than gold (Psalm 19:10).

Of course, the Christian life is one of suffering, a call to grab our cross, to come and die. At the epicenter of our faith is the humiliating death of our God after all. We must never ignore such difficult and sobering truths. But let us also never neglect the joy of the following after Christ. Let us sing with the psalmist to God, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). He is a God is worthy of following, of treasuring, and of enjoying.  God is not a megalomaniac who says, “Worship me or else.” He is a loving Father, who offers Himself freely as the highest good and richest treasure.

Vanity Under the Sun

Two Are Better Than One | Ecclesiastes 4

Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.
Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh.
Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.
Again, I saw vanity under the sun: one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king’s place. There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.

Ecclesiastes 4 ESV

 

The issue of community is Solomon’s primary focus within this chapter of Ecclesiastes. Though he will highlight the benefits of being in community, much of this chapter is devoted to how we sabotage community with our selfishness.

THE VANITY OF OPPRESSION // VERSES 1-3

In verse 1, the Preacher notes how community is ruined by recalling the oppression that he has seen. There is a deep hurt that is felt in Solomon’s words. It should remind us of someone who placed their trust in authority, an authority that was supposed to have the people’s best interest at heart, but only saw harm come from them. In a godly community, those with power should be servants, not oppressors. A great evil is committed when those in power abuse those without it.

He says that the situation of the oppressed is only accented by the fact that their oppressors have all of the power. They can do nothing to change their situation. Yet if Solomon was the king of Israel with all of the power and wealth that we have discussed, which oppressors was he describing? With the complete authority of the king, could not he have righted any wrongs that he saw? I believe there are two points to pull from these questions.

First, since we are told that Solomon’s heart was turned from the LORD, it is possible that he has been one of the very oppressors that he describes. Lending validity to this thought is the statement of the people to Rehoboam, Solomon’s son, in 1 Kings. After Solomon’s death, the people assemble before Rehoboam and pleaded, “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke on us, and we will serve you” (1 Kings 12:4). Is it not a sad sign that the people’s first reaction following his death was to beg for his son to be a better king? Thus, perhaps this verse is Solomon’s regret of how his reign declined as his heart turned from the LORD.

Or Solomon could be making a statement that, even with all of his power as king, he was still powerless to cease all of the oppression that he saw. This is certainly possible as well. Even the greatest of earthly kings are not omniscient. Policies may, therefore, attempt to limit oppression, but evil men with power will always find ways around the laws that seek to limit them.

Furthermore, notice the language that Solomon uses to build our emotive connection: “tears of the oppressed” and “no one to comfort them.” He mentions the comfort of the oppressed twice in this first verse, but not once does he explicitly mention the combating of oppression. It seems as if the Preacher understands that oppression is an inevitability in this life under the sun and east of Eden. No one can stop the abuse of power. That’s just the reality of life, and he can deal with that. But what seems to truly stir his emotions is the lack of comfort given to those who are oppressed. Abuse by the ungodly is understandable and even expected, but the lack of concern from the godly is truly sorrowful. In a powerfully written article, Matt Walsh argues that our lack of concern for our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who are being persecuted for the faith stems from our moral cowardice. I’ll cite the first few paragraphs of this article, but it is worth reading in its entirety:

I was recently invited to attend and give a reflection at a prayer vigil for persecuted Christians, hosted by a church in Maryland. The church was hoping that 150 congregants would come. They got about three.

To be fair, there was some bad weather that afternoon. And it was on a Friday night, when most people would rather be relaxing on the couch or going out to a nice dinner with their spouse. There are a million reasons — a few of them even legitimate — why you might not show up to something like this. But it was sad, all the same, to see the bare pews, and to hear a couple of speakers deliver beautiful and impassioned pleas to an empty church. At the end they collected donations for a Christian school in Iraq, but nobody was there to give anything.

Before the vigil, I remember saying to my wife that every church in the country ought to do something like this at least once a month. Now I know why they don’t.

I reflected on this when I read a report that Christian persecution and genocide is worse now than it has ever been in history. Christians in Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, North Korea, Libya, Iraq, Yemen, Iran, Egypt, and many other countries, are regularly imprisoned, tortured, beaten, raped, and martyred. Their churches are destroyed. Their houses burned. They meet and worship in secret, risking their lives in the process. They live every moment in constant danger.

About 215 million Christians face what is called “extreme persecution” for their faith. It’s estimated that around a million have been slaughtered since 2005. There is no way to know exactly how many. What we do know is that Christianity has been dramatically reduced in parts of the world where it had existed for nearly 2,000 years.

Tradition tells us that St. Mark brought Christianity to Egypt in the early part of the first century. Today, the seed he planted has been ripped up. Two churches in the country were attacked and 44 Christians massacred on Palm Sunday last year. In the same year, 28 Christian pilgrims were martyred while en route to a monastery. The Muslim assailants gave them a chance to save themselves if they would recite an Islamic profession of faith. They refused and so they were shot in the head. This sort of thing is a regular occurrence in Egypt and in several other nations across the globe.

But what do we care?

There are other things to worry about here. Hollywood sex scandals. Twitter disputes. Whatever controversial thing Trump said this week. So on and so on. We — myself included — spend far more time, and spill far more ink, on these issues than we ever have on the coordinated genocide of our fellow believers in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Why?

I have come to believe that our disinterest stems not only from the general apathy that defines western society and the western church, but from moral cowardice. To face the plight of our brothers and sisters is to face ourselves. To see these Christians who would rather be shot dead in the desert than renounce their faith is to see our own faith as a shabby, pitiful, hollow imitation. To see Christians who would risk their very lives to go to church and preach the Gospel is to question why we will do neither of those things, even though we are perfectly free and able. We cannot confront these truths of ourselves, so we will not confront the truth of Christian persecution.

Persecution of Christ’s followers is inevitable, just like general oppression. Like Solomon, Walsh understands this. What he cannot fathom is our indifference toward comforting (and praying for) these brothers and sisters.

In light of all the oppression and evil that Solomon sees, he claims in verse 2 that the dead are better off than the living. How could Solomon conclude this? He is, after all, the one that has been encouraging us to find our enjoyment in life through God. For a believer in Jesus Christ, this verse is wholly true. We will see in the first chapter of Philippians that Paul claims that death is far better for him because he will get to be with Christ! For the Christian, there is nothing to fear from death. What shall we fear, the end of oppression, evil, and sorrow?  For us, Solomon’s words of seeming cynicism become words of truth that we might proclaim through our hope in Christ.

Solomon’s pessimism seems to hit an all-time low with verse 3. If the dead are better off than the living because of all of the oppression and depravity, then the stillborn must be the most blessed. Why? They do not have the chance to ever experience any of the evil and oppression that Solomon describes. This is a difficult verse with which to wrestle. There is no doubt that having a miscarriage is unspeakable sorrow, but also Solomon says that their seemingly untimely death is actually a mercy of God because they get to avoid seeing the fullness of man’s depravity. How difficult to speak, but how true as well.

HOW TO RUIN COMMUNITY // VERSES 4-6

Solomon’s lens now shifts from society in general to us as individuals. Particularly what we find within these three verses are

Verse 4 reveals the first way that we destroy community is through envy. Are his words not true: “all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy?” We can see this on display in any city or in all of history. Why are we never content with our current iPhone whenever a new version is released? We see someone else with the new iPhone, and we want it because they have it. This very idea of covetousness that Solomon describes is what tech companies base their entire sales around. If we ceased to be envious of our neighbors, would we really want a bigger house? It’s all pointless. We constantly chase after the things that others have, and even if we actually got it all, we would be none the happier for it. Envy both fails to satisfy us and can place a barrier between us and our neighbor.

I admit verse 5 is rather strange, even for Solomon. Is he advocating self-cannibalism? Thankfully, he is not. When Solomon refers to hands, he speaks figuratively of our actions, the things that we do. That being the case, I have found it very difficult to perform most tasks with my hands folded. He is referring here someone that is so lazy that they might as well be eating their own flesh. That is how self-destructive their behavior is. Have you ever known anyone that was miserable, completely and totally miserable and lonely, and yet they were too lazy to do anything about it? Relationships of any kind are not simple, and laziness can be detrimental to their growth.

Approximately thirteen movies are released every year about verse 6. As Driscoll says of this verse, we were created to be two handed people. The thought of using two hands to toil implies that we put our entire being into our work. Movies like Click detail the tragedy of people that live this kind of a life. Everything is about work. Everything is about the next promotion. Everything is about a higher salary. But what point is there? It’s as vain as chasing after the wind, and it will shatter our relationships with family and friends.

However, for this point, Solomon also lists an alternative: have one hand that’s full of quietness. Do not be lazy with folded hands, but don’t place all of yourself into work either. Enjoy life. Be with family and friends. Take a Sabbath. Worship Jesus.

THE BENEFITS OF COMMUNITY // VERSES 7-12

The aging king writes verses 7-8 as a bridge between the ideas of how we ruin community and the benefits of being in community. He achieves this by lamenting on how terrible it is for a person to work, accumulate wealth, and yet have no one to be with. If we allow it, the search for riches can easily take over our lives because we are never satisfied with our riches. We always want more, but when we die, we will leave our riches behind. So what use is it?

Some people keep on toiling although they have no one to work for, and nothing to do with the money they make. They even deny themselves the pleasures of life so they can continue to amass funds. What a sharp example was given to us in the story of the late billionaire Howard Hughes. He did not know what to do with his money. His heirs, who have been impossibly difficult to identify for certain, were left to squabble over it… Such is the folly of toiling for riches out of ambition and ego. (Stedman, 66)

In verse 9, Solomon speaks plainly that “two are better than one” because their reward is better. What kind of reward could he be speaking of? I believe that it is the reward that eluded the hypothetical workaholic in the previous verse: the ability to enjoy the fruit of one’s work with someone else. After I get finish working each day, what I enjoy the most is to simply be with my wife. There is nothing I enjoy more than just sitting on the couch or going for a walk with her and just reminding myself that life is not about how much I work. But this is not speaking only about romantic relationships. When I lived in a house with seven guys, I would spend any amount of free time just hanging out and being in community. Two are better than one.

I believe that the reason that we find this statement to be so true is because God created us to be in community. If we recall back to Genesis 2, why did God create woman? He created her because He said that it wasn’t good for man to be alone. Man’s solitude was the only aspect of pre-fallen creation that God said was not good. We were made to interact, to love and serve one another. This is why the Church is so beautiful because it is intended to be community at its best, which is glorifying Christ.

We see the call for application of verses 10-11 in Galatians. Paul tells the people of Galatia to restore one of the brothers (or sisters) gently when they fall. This is why we have community: to help each other. How beautiful it is when a brother is rescued from traversing a path that leads to death by his friends!

What about verse 11? Is it only referencing marital benefits? No, do not believe so. Instead, I believe that Solomon is referring to the practical benefit of human contact and protection. There is little that can brighten my day like a firm handshake from my father telling me that he is proud of his son. The hug from a good friend can quickly make all the stress of the day vanish away. There is something profoundly impactful about human touch. Of course, you could also interpret this verse as biblical justification for at least one scene in Without a Paddle.

Having a best man and groomsmen at a wedding came from the tradition of the groom’s best friends not only giving their support to the wedding but also being prepared to give physical support to the groom in case the neighboring tribe attacked.  They literally stood beside the groom, swords ready, to defend him from anyone trying to stop the wedding. In any sort of situation like that, is it not better to have your friends by your side? This is what Solomon means by verse 12. In any given situation, it is more difficult to overcome three people than one. Community offers us the safety of numbers.

THE VANITY OF DISSATISFACTION // VERSES 13-16

To be honest, it would be nice if Solomon had concluded the chapter with verse 12, since it seems that each commentator has a different slant on what exactly he is saying. Yet they are inspired by the Holy Spirit as well, so let’s tackle them head on.

First, consider the opening words: “better a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king.” One of the scariest things that comes from this verse is the reality that, contrary to popular belief, wisdom does not naturally come with age. Physical aging does not innately mean that you are getting the wisdom of God. Having grey hairs does not equal being a sage. Wisdom must be sought, and it must sought constantly. Wisdom does not come naturally. It comes through fearing the LORD.

Second, I believe the key to understanding the main point of these verses is the phrase “yet those who come later will not rejoice in him.” The story, of course, is of a foolish king that is usurped by a wise and beloved youth, in whom the people delighted. Perhaps David’s rise over Saul was even Solomon’s inspiration for this parable. Or perhaps Solomon was reflecting on his own foolishness and God’s promise to raise up Jeroboam to be king. Either way, the principle is that the young, wise king who was held up as a savior of the people eventually falls out of favor with the people as well. The people will eventually become dissatisfied with him, just as they were with the old, foolish king before.

I believe; therefore, dissatisfaction is a good description of these verses. We see the truth of this principle today in presidential elections. Everyone rallies behind their candidate, proclaiming that he will be the one to change the world, to right the wrongs. Yet their ratings eventually fall as well. Even the men that we would deem the greatest presidents of the United States (men like Washington, FDR, and Lincoln) faced significant criticism during their own days in the White House. It doesn’t matter who is in the office. People cannot save us. Our leaders will one day fail us, and we will be left dissatisfied. And the cycle will only continue to repeat.

THE MIND OF CHRIST // PHILIPPIANS 2:3-11

So where is the hope in all of this? I would argue that each way that we destroy community (oppression, envy, laziness, busyness, and dissatisfaction) are all rooted in one thing: selfishness. Oppressors oppress because they are selfish. Kim Jong Un is willing to let his own people starve to death in order to pretend that he is a god. We envy others, not because we see them as valuable images of God, but because we see them as people who have what we want. We are lazy because we care about our pleasures more than we do the needs of others. We are busy because we want to feel valuable. When fear that if we stop and pause to rest, our worth will diminish. We are dissatisfied because the world is supposed to revolve around our wants and desires. All of these forms of ruining community derive from a selfish heart. Lewis, after all, called pride the great sin, and pride is simply self-aggrandizement.

For our hope, we must lift our eyes beyond the sun. Philippians 2:3-11 will help us do so.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

What we have in verse 3 is a command that I doubt any of us can do very well for more than five minutes at a time. Perhaps not even that long. One problem with fallen humanity is that even when we do good to others we often do so from impure motives. Often, we do good works in order to be seen as being selfless by others. Or sometimes we serve others in an attempt to offset our guilt over having sinned. Paul peels these things away by upholding that good works are not sufficient in and of themselves; we must also do them without any form of selfishness.

How is this even possible? Verse 5 gives us the answer. This mindset of humility can only come from Christ. Notice that he does not say, “have these deeds among yourselves”; instead, he says, “have this mind among yourselves.” Brothers and sisters, even the world loves to talk about being like Jesus, just as they love to speak of imitating Gandhi or Mother Theresa. Yet they know nothing of having the mind of Christ. After all, we see Jesus not only showing compassion to the masses but also telling them to eat His flesh and drink His blood. This Jesus does not simply heal the sick; He also declares Himself to be the way, the truth, and the life. We must by all means serve the poor and alleviate the sick as imitators of Christ, but we are also called to greater things. We must imitate the mind of Christ as well. Serving can be one of the most deadly acts for our souls if we do not have the mind of Christ. After all, if we do not have a mind of humility, our very acts of service can create a superiority complex within us.

We must instead clothe ourselves with the mind of Christ, which Paul says is already ours! How in the world could we already be given the mind of Him who willingly left His cosmic throne in order to submit Himself to the humiliation of death on the cross? We cannot possibly hope to do anything remotely that selfless. To die for a single ant is too small of an analogy for Him dying for us. Yet when we are given the Holy Spirit, Paul declares we are given the mind of Christ.

The answer to how we have true community within a broken, fallen world is not just to do more; we must trust more. We must turn to the One who gave Himself for us. We will never be able to anything ourselves out of an entirely pure motive. Isaiah rightly calls our righteous acts filthy rags before the LORD. This is why Peter says that if we serve, we must serve from the strength that God provides, and if we speak, we must speak the oracles of God. Or to put it another way, whatever we do, even serving others, outside of faith is sin. We, therefore, are in desperate need of grace. We need the Savior whose blood was spilled for us to become His bride and His body. Outside of Him, we can do nothing. Our communities and our lives will never be marked by the sacrificial love of Christ until we turn to Him in everything that we do.

Let us have this mind among ourselves, which is ours in Christ Jesus.

Let us exalt Him whose name is above every other name as we seek to also treat others as better than ourselves.

For Everything There Is a Season | Ecclesiastes 3

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

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

A TIME FOR EVERYTHING // VERSES 1-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE GOD-GIVEN TASK // VERSES 9-15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ray Stedman gives us this thought on verse 15:

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

FROM DUST TO DUST // VERSES 16-22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So I Hated Life | Ecclesiastes 2

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

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

THE VANITY OF PLEASURE // VERSES 1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE VANITY OF WORK // VERSES 18-23

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

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

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

THE GIFT OF ENJOYMENT // VERSES 24-26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Is Vanity | Ecclesiastes 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ecclesiastes 1 (ESV)

 

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

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

ALL IS VANITY // VERSES 1-11

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

Vanity Under the Sun

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

But what is he describing as vanity?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Endless Cycles of Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE VANITY OF WISDOM // VERSES 12-18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE MEANING WITHIN THE VANITY // VERSES 2-3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ecclesiastes 12:13–14 (ESV)

 

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

THE END OF THE MATTER // VERSE 13

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

THE WHOLE DUTY OF MAN // VERSE 13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us think this through.

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

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

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

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

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

THE CERTAINTY OF JUDGMENT // VERSES 14

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

What will God judge?

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

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

Why is this good news?

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

Why is this bad news?

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

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

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

What hope do we have? 

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

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

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

THE END OF THE MATTER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vanity of vanities. All is vanity without Christ.

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?