Tuesday, March 7, 2017


The Book of Ecclesiastes does not surrender its jewels easily, for it presents formidable challenges to the interpreter. Nevertheless, I think that when we find its key, it gladly unlocks its door.

Ecclesiastes gives us valuable clues, even at the beginning, to where to find the right key.

·       The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! ALL is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2)

This opening verse contradicts a commonly held view that everything is vanity, except for the life devoted to God. Instead, it says, “All is vanity,” even everything that will happen:

·       So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 11:8)

Surprisingly, Solomon claims that even serving God is “vanity”:

·       There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26)

Even pleasing God “also is vanity.” After admonishing his reader to “Remember also your Creator” (12:1), Solomon closes (apart from the final narrative) in the way he began:

·       Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 12:8)

This would also include serving God! In fact, there is not one verse that claims that everything is vanity except for serving God. But how can serving God be vain, especially in view of the fact that Solomon encourages us to serve God? It clearly is not in vain. Instead, our lives are “incomprehensible” or “unsearchable” even as we seek to serve God. Even though our lives, even in the Lord, are incomprehensible in terms of the big picture, they still have value. I am therefore suggesting that we understand “vanity” as “incomprehensible.”

But incomprehensible in what way? Solomon confided that he had embarked on a wisdom quest to understand the meaning of life:

·       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 [or “incomprehensible”] 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. (Ecclesiastes 1:13-17)

Solomon attempted to understand life from every angle, even from the perspective of “madness and folly,” but nothing was giving him the understanding for which he sought. Instead, he found that his search for wisdom was like trying to grasp the wind. In the same way that he couldn’t grasp the wind, he also could not grasp an understanding of the larger purpose and meaning of life, even a life serving the Lord:

·       For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. (Ecclesiastes 1:18)

Why would Solomon’s gift of wisdom cause him sorrow? Because his wisdom quest proved frustrating! It did not give him the answers he sought:

·       Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity [or “incomprehensible”] and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:11)

Solomon had been a great builder and had accomplished many things. How could he conclude that it was also a “striving after the wind?” Without the knowledge and assurance of an afterlife, his life in this world made little sense to him:

·       The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:14-17)

From the perspective of his wisdom and his eyes, it didn’t ultimately matter whether a person is wise or foolish, they both would die and be forgotten. There was no assurance of an afterlife. And without this assurance, Solomon hated life. He, therefore, concluded that it is best to enjoy this life:

·       I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God. (Ecclesiastes 2:18-24)

This raises several questions. Didn’t Solomon have knowledge of the afterlife? It doesn’t seem so. Why not? The Five Books of Moses make no explicit mention of it. The blessings that God had promised Israel for their obedience never included eternal life. Any promise of it is conspicuously absent. Perhaps God had been telling Israel, “There is more to follow.”

Even Solomon’s Proverbs do not include any clear indication of eternal life. Nevertheless, David’s Psalms do refer to eternal life:

·       Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever. (Psalm 23:6; 16:11; 17:15)

We might conclude, “Solomon must have known about eternal life.” Clearly, he didn’t have this assurance:

·       For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him? (Ecclesiastes 3:19-22)

We, therefore, ask, “Why then was Solomon in the dark about eternal life?” Perhaps because it had not yet been clearly and explicitly revealed? God had given Solomon the gift of wisdom. This, not prayer, was what he had been relying upon in his quest. Ecclesiastes does not make reference to a single prayer. Meanwhile, David is referred to as a “Prophet,” and his Psalms were all perhaps prayers to God.

Lacking this revelation of eternal life and using his own great wisdom to light the way, Solomon derived some erroneous conclusions:

·       It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun. Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (Ecclesiastes 9:2-10)

Not having any assurance about an afterlife, Solomon wrongly concluded:

1.    The sinner and the righteous await the same fate.
2.    Hope is merely a matter of life here and now.
3.    The dead will never be conscious.
4.    There is no existence in Sheol.

All of this also raises the question:

·       If Solomon had been so utterly mistaken, how is it that this Book had become part of the Hebrew Scriptures? More importantly, why should it be regarded as the Word of God?

When understood properly, I think that this Book conveys vital truths. Besides, the Bible often uses the errant words of mortals for his own higher purposes. There are many errant words in the Scriptures. Just consider God’s anger against Job and his three friends for speaking wrongly about Him (Job 42:1-8). Nevertheless, God’s truths and purposes were accomplished through the words of errant humans. Together, they constitute inerrant Scripture.

The same principle seems to pertain to Ecclesiastes. Without the revelation of an afterlife, which God had gradually unfolded to Israel, Solomon had been tormented and hated life.

We tend to take this great revelation for granted. However, this Book shows us graphically what happens to the greatest of men without this revelation:

·       In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him. In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? (Ecclesiastes 7:14-17; 11:5)

We are perplexed by Solomon’s conclusion that we are to live as if this is our only life. We are shocked to read, “Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise.” This flies in the face of the rest of the Bible. However, from the perspective of Solomon’s wisdom quest, lacking the assurance of eternal life, his conclusions make perfect sense and they give us an understanding of what this secular world must endure. For them, life is like what Solomon had written:

·       So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 11:8)

However, Solomon had been hoping to understand the meaning of life. The seculars are not. They do not believe that there is any meaning in life. Instead, they believe that it is just a big accident. Therefore, they are compelled to carve out their own little sanctuary of meaning and fulfillment. In contrast, Solomon is willing to accept from God’s hand the limited morsels He has offered us.

Nevertheless, as burdensome as the quest for wisdom had become for Solomon, he still affirmed wisdom in a limited, this-worldly way:

·       Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. (Ecclesiastes 2:13-14)

·       Wisdom is good with an inheritance, an advantage to those who see the sun. For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money, and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it. (Ecclesiastes 7:11-12)

·       Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city. (Ecclesiastes 7:19)

·       If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength, but wisdom helps one to succeed. (Ecclesiastes 10:10)

Nevertheless, Solomon’s affirmation of temporal wisdom is tempered by his disappointments with the limits of wisdom:

·       All this I have tested by wisdom. I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me.  That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out? (Ecclesiastes 7:23-24)

Even Solomon’s surpassing wisdom was not able to pass through the veil into the next life. Without this necessary illumination, the wisdom Solomon had sought was eluding him:

·       When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out. (Ecclesiastes 8:16-17)

His own wisdom was unable to penetrate into God’s secrets. There are truths that are only available through God’s willingness to share them.

Paul also affirmed the apparent meaninglessness of life without God’s further disclosures:

·       If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied… What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus? If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Corinthians 15:19, 32)

If there is no heavenly eternal inheritance, then our lives are truly meaningless. They are flimsy shadows, here today and one tomorrow. Like an animal, we are left to merely fight to remain alive to enjoy the little we have in this moment.

However, our Lord has opened the way for us to come to Him and has opened our minds to see the grand picture, the hope of eternal joy. No wonder the controversy about the resurrection between the Pharisees and Sadducees!

As a consequence of this greater light, Paul was able to say:

·       For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Romans 8:18)

How could the Old Testament Jewish believer endure suffering without the clear revelation of an eternity of joy? I don’t see how. Instead, we have been enabled to endure as Jesus had endured:
  • …let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. (Hebrews 12:1-4)

We can endure the temporary suffering of this life because we can look ahead to an eternity of joy. It is like enduring a sickness that we know will only last for a few days.

Likewise, we cannot rejoice in our suffering, as we should, unless we understand that it has a blessed purpose.

  • In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials…and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:6-9)

Even atheists realize that gratefulness is essential to a life-well-lived. However, we cannot rationally be grateful, when we know that we are faced only with suffering, decline, and the finality of death.

Instead, we have been granted priceless knowledge and the hope that comes with it. Solomon lacked such a hope. Therefore, he found life burdensome and its pain unbearable.

I don’t think that we realize the extent of the gift of the knowledge and hope we have been given. For example, we need not worry about those who might take our lives, as Jesus had counseled us:

·       “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him [God] who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)

We need not worry about our temporal welfare. It is but for a moment. Yes, we still worry, but think about what it would be like if we didn’t have the hope of eternal life with our Savior!

We are also free to not be compelled to take revenge:

  • Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)

Instead, of seeking revenge, we are free to love our enemies. Nor need we hate them. Instead, we can pity them:

·       Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake. (Philippians 1:27-29)

It is the hope of eternal life that enables us to look suffering in the face with a smile. Without such a hope, we would be like Solomon. Even though he had everything that this world had to offer, wives, wisdom, wealth, honor, and adoration in excess of everyone, he was miserable:

·       I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:18-20)

We have something far more valuable than Solomon had in all his glory. We have the confidence of being with our Lord for all eternity.

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