by John W. Ritenbaugh
August 27, 2013
Some have called Ecclesiastes the most puzzling book of the Bible. This is partly because commentators see an extreme pessimism in it, as well as some unorthodox statements that seem out of harmony with the upbeat, positive themes elsewhere in Scripture, especially in the New Testament. However, we must always remember Jesus' statement in John 10:35: "The Scripture cannot be broken." God's Word does not contradict itself. It is the commentators' grasp of the book's purpose that is incorrect. Ecclesiastes is in harmony with the rest of the Bible, filling a niche to ensure that our preparation for God's Kingdom is well-rounded.
Ultimately, God is Ecclesiastes' Author. Its conclusions are drawn from Solomon's varied experiences as king, and are based on his God-given wisdom and understanding. Its statements are frequently blunt and demanding in their assessments of mankind's unthinking foolishness, thus meeting the needs of those who are so spiritually "thick" that they need to be metaphorically struck on the head with a two-by-four to "get" the point.
In Ecclesiastes, Solomon confronts the ultimate mystery of life, but he does not reveal what it is because that is not God's purpose for the book. God wanted Solomon to examine some of the knotty problems that confront us in life and reveal a necessary perspective for achieving God's purpose for us. This is why the rest of the Bible is necessary, as it clearly reveals God's purpose. In realizing that, Ecclesiastes' narrower purpose becomes much clearer.
This modest series of articles will not come close to explaining Ecclesiastes' trove of valuable lessons, but it is hoped that, as it cuts a bit deeper, it will provide some enlightenment that produces a deeper respect for God's mercy—and thus more frequent submission to His commands.
A Little Background
To a Christian, the book of Ecclesiastes may appear to have a forbidding beginning, announcing, "'Vanity of vanities,' says the Preacher, 'vanity of vanities, all is vanity.' What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?" (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3). The book is part of God's Word, but is it true that life is nothing but meaningless trouble and without purpose and value? Does our Creator intend life to be an unremitting stream of frustrations broken only by the blessed relief of death? One may wonder why such a message is even in the Bible. Such thoughts, however, are far from the truth.
The book indicates in a number of places that it was written by Solomon, a man especially gifted by God with understanding and wisdom. In its first verse, the author identifies himself as the son of David and king in Jerusalem. Most commentators believe Solomon wrote it late in his life, following an eventful forty-year reign.
Upon reading Ecclesiastes, many believe that Solomon's outlook on life was decidedly pessimistic despite living in regal glory and with every amenity to make life appealing. Such readers have misjudged him. Once a person understands the reason for his palpable pessimism, then he also understands that it is clearly justified by the record of history.
Ecclesiastes presents the Christian with a unique perspective on life. Though the term "God" is used 41 times, Jesus Christ as Messiah and Savior never appears within its twelve chapters. Within its pages, there are no prophecies of Him, nor does it focus on the wondrous miraculous works of God, such as healing, raising the dead to life, or dividing the sea for His people.
Every reference to God within it uses the Hebrew word elohim. The Bible uses this term most frequently in a rather distant sense of "powerful Creator" rather than "One with whom a close, personal relationship exists." Yet, Ecclesiastes reveals Him as deeply involved in the constant operations of His purpose, not only in terms of the oversight of His creation, but in the reality of His unseen hand personally involved in the daily life of His children.
Some commentators have described Ecclesiastes as "gritty," probably because it deals with life's realities and pulls no punches. Life is difficult. The book deals, not with minor issues, but with major goals and events that come up as an individual works out the purposes and challenges of life. Such events, which can be either blessings or curses, fill and change the course of a person's life. They are the kind of happenings that may make one wonder, "Where is God in what I am going through?"
Life can be thought of as being similar to a person trying to navigate toward the exit of a labyrinth. A labyrinth has many possible paths to follow, and thus a person is forced to make many choices that either opens or closes the way toward his goal. Will his choices yield growth and profit in living, or will they block him, causing mystification and frustration?
For a Christian, this means that a reality of life is that everything matters. Not every event and choice matters to the same extent, but whether serious or passing, it does matter to some degree. The record of Solomon's experiences reminds us that our calling is too precious to waste on meaningless vanity. Though some choices are more consequential than others are, none of our choices is totally inconsequential. God gives us the wisdom in Ecclesiastes to help us grasp what the major paths and choices must be so that life is not meaningless.
The major teaching of the book is that, despite the wide diversity of choices available to us in life, in reality only two ways of life exist: God's and man's. Solomon shows us that, if life is to be filled with profitable purpose, then God and His way must not be merely considered occasionally but deliberately chosen with foresight in every matter. Otherwise, life may be filled with a great deal of activity yet prove to be a futile pursuit of time-wasting and profitless vanity.
Thus, Ecclesiastes is not truly about the meaninglessness of life. Rather, it is about the meaninglessness of living life without God, or as Solomon wrote, living life entirely "under the sun."
Vanity of Vanities
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 profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 1:1-3)
The book begins abruptly by announcing that it is written by Solomon, son of David, king in Jerusalem. Some commentators dispute this, claiming evidence that it was written as late as the third century before Christ. I cannot grasp how their speculation profits anyone who is sincerely looking for truth about how to live a life that glorifies God and is profitable for themselves. The message is what is important, and ultimately, the message is from our Creator, who inspired it and desires our growth and His glorification.
The first 11 verses act as an introduction, providing several terms that dominate the theme of the book. Three terms particularly important to grasping Ecclesiastes' message are contained within the first three verses: "vanity," "profit," and "under the sun."
"Vanity" (Hebrew hebel) is a vivid metaphor used 33 times in the book. Literally, it suggests a breath, something akin to vapor, like one's breath on a cold day, or a puff of smoke rising from a fire. Smoke and breath not only disappear quickly, but neither can they be grasped and held on to. Thus, vanity aptly portrays life as being insubstantial, rather flimsy, and passing.
One of the more vivid explanations is that "vanity" suggests the scum that remains when a soap bubble bursts against a hard surface. Of what value is such a thing? Surprisingly, vanity has some value in life.
The New International Version translates Ecclesiastes 1:2 as, "Meaningless! Meaningless! says the teacher. Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless." The Message Bible renders it, "Smoke, nothing but smoke. There is nothing to anything—it's all smoke." In the New Testament, James 4:14 describes human life similarly: "For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away."
While it makes for an arresting opening, vanity is not useless to God's purpose. We have to grow to understand that, as things stand in His purpose, vanity plays a vital role. The apostle Paul states in Romans 8:18-21:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility [vanity, KJV], not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
Without a doubt, life is difficult, and the vanity that Paul mentions plays its part in the difficulty. It seems apparent from Genesis 3:14-19, where God enumerates the curses following Adam and Eve's sin, that He not only pronounced man's subjection to a measure of vanity but activated it at that time. God deliberately subjected the creation to futility as a reminder that sin is the source of the difficulty as well as an obstacle to be overcome for the purpose of growth into His image. We must recognize it and deal with it.
Despite Solomon's exclamation, Ecclesiastes contains sufficient evidence that he never completely lost his view of God, as the book's last paragraph is witness. Instead, he clearly demonstrates that for those who believe God, vanity does not have the last word. Therefore, we can glean a great deal of hope from Ecclesiastes.
Notice how Paul considers the sufferings that this world and nature impose on us and concludes that they are insignificant compared to what lies ahead if we overcome their vanities. In fact, in Romans 8:19, he personifies the creation as burdened and groaning right along with us because of the futility imposed on it, saying that it, too, looks forward to its release from what the Creator subjected it to.
Since God purposefully subjected the physical creation to vanity, therefore we can honestly conclude that all this vanity is a reality that serves our overall good in preparation for the Kingdom of God. It is a challenging obstacle. In His wisdom, He has determined we must first experience the emptiness of life without Him, become thoroughly disillusioned with what it has to offer, throw it off, and depart from it. The sufferings that vanity imposes help us to make a true assessment of the value of His grace and goodness, as well as truly and zealously commit ourselves to Him and His purpose. In such a circumstance, vanity will not have the last word.
Is Life Profitable?
The second of the three terms is "profit" (Hebrew yitron). Though it is used only six times in Ecclesiastes, its placement at the beginning of the book adds to its weight. It is used as if Solomon is asking, "In light of the fact that so much of life is vanity, is life really worth living? Is it worth going through life's vanity-packed challenges? What does one gain from it?"
Undoubtedly, life requires a person to expend a great deal of time, energy, and stressful uncertainty, companions of the pains of vanity. On the surface, life appears to be just running in circles, so what does one gain from it? Because of questions like this, Solomon takes the reader through the descriptions of the repetitious cycles of earthly systems that follow. Meditations of this sort make an individual appear so puny against the backdrop of the immensity of time, the earth's large population, and the monotony of the earth's natural cycles. The reality is that each of us truly is insignificant against such a background.
It is helpful to understand that Solomon's question regarding profit is asked in a rhetorical sense to stimulate thinking at this stage of his writing. Solomon already knows the final answer, but he is attempting to get his hearers to think along with him. As we study this book, we will find that not everyone's life is sheer vanity. Solomon finds that much of life is profitable but not truly lasting. On the other hand, if another factor is added to a person's life, life is not only very profitable because it is pleasing to God, but thoroughly enjoyable and everlasting as well.
Under the Sun
To those unfamiliar with the usage of this figure of speech, "under the sun" may be the most mysterious of the three significant terms in Ecclesiastes. This phrase accounts for much of why Ecclesiastes seems so pessimistic when first read. By using it, Solomon is stating the perspective from which he, and the overwhelming majority of mankind, views life in all of its vain complexities. He is literally telling us that he is looking at these matters of life where the sun shines. For the most part, and especially at this point within his lecture, his perspective does not include what is above the sun—God. To see things "under the sun" is to look at life's events from a carnal perspective. Life from God's perspective is not in view in such a case.
"Under the sun" is to think and act from an earthly point of view, to look at things carnally. Solomon is leaving God out of the picture for a time as his lecture unfolds. His purpose at this point is to cause us to begin to fear that vanity is all there is to life. All too often, in the busy crush of everyday events, we forget to remember God and His purpose. When we do this, even though we may be converted, we are back under the sun once again, looking at things carnally.
Ecclesiastes is not just about meaninglessness. It also opens the possibility of an "above the sun" perspective of life that can teach us that everything matters in spite of all the vanity we face. By being a means of helping Him to form us into what He desires, vanity can play a major role in God's purpose. We will learn as we continue through Solomon's lecture that an internal disgust of vanity can motivate cooperation with God and produce growth to maturity.
We will also find that Solomon is not at all pessimistic about a life in which God is considered in all things. The truth is that he is teaching why everything matters and that God's children need to be aware of making right choices or life will be meaningless. The gift of life is precious, and the gift of having the responsibility to make many choices in life is wonderful. God's calling and the revelation of Himself and His purpose are gifts beyond calculation. Solomon is urging us to make every effort not to waste the gifts God has so graciously given.
Each of us has only one opportunity for salvation. Life is not vain for us because we are being transformed, created for a different world. This vain and weary world should serve as a reminder to prompt us to turn our perspective to the right one, "above the sun." Tremendous profit lies in what the called children of God are experiencing. We must choose to direct our lives to follow an "above the sun" perspective so that our lives are not meaningless. The choice lies between chasing the dreams of the unconverted or submitting to what God has revealed.
Round and Round Life Goes
Following his arresting opening declaration, Solomon launches into a series of illustrations drawn from earth's natural cycles and applies them as evidence of the kind of environment mankind lives life in.
One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever. The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it arose. The wind goes toward the south, and turns around to the north; the wind whirls about continually, and comes again on its circuit. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; to the place from which the rivers come, there they return again. (Ecclesiastes 1:4-7)
This paragraph's first sentence sets the tone for the remainder. A great deal of repetitious activity takes place on earth's surface, but overall, the earth itself and the lives lived on it just keep moving on. Nothing changes. The repetitive activity largely occurs in nature's cycles, but human life remains generally unchanged, static, going nowhere. The earth and its systems permanently cycle as God designed them, but man is transient, a pilgrim living in a constant state of repeated change. It presents a picture of monotony.
Every 20 to 25 years, a new generation is born into the world, giving the impression that something is actually happening, but nothing really is except that the older generation is dying off. A seemingly endless procession of people comes and goes. Jerome, the translator of the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible, wrote, "What is 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?"
The sun comes up and the sun goes down. The winds constantly move the weather, but the jet streams are generally locked into the same old patterns. They blow past us and then come around once again. Rains and snows fall, and the water drains from the land into streams and streams into rivers and rivers into the oceans, but even the oceans are never filled. These cycles produce no real change in the quality of human life.
There is plenty of motion on earth's surface but no promotion of a truly profitable life for humankind. Indeed, man is perceived to be living within a closed system similar to a hamster endlessly running within its wheel—like the cycles of nature, there is plenty of motion but no advancement. Thus, life appears to be a dismal picture of tedious meaninglessness. It is in a rut.
In verses 8-11, Solomon continues with a similar theme of profitlessness except that he draws his illustrations from human examples:
All things are full of labor; man cannot express it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which it may be said, "See this is new?" It has already been in ancient times before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come by those who will come after.
None of this means that mankind is not moving about. Earth is witness to a great deal of activity, but it is essentially purposeless, a great deal of sound and fury but with no advancement in quality of life or purposeful direction. Solomon's word-pictures show mankind striving to see and hear new things, but the reality is more repetition of the same old things. He pictures mankind as little more than a milling mass.
A partial reason for this is that mankind seems to be cursed with a short memory while at the same time having an insatiable thirst for novelty. In Acts 17:19-21, Luke describes the apostle Paul's experience in Athens:
And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, "May we know what this new doctrine is of which you speak? For you are bringing some strange things to our ears. Therefore we want to know what these things mean." For all the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing.
Understanding this desire, entrepreneurs take advantage of it to make money. So, there must be new, better, bigger, redesigned, more serviceable, more attractive, faster, safer, and more economical models each year. The entertainment industry thrives on this desire by trying to fill people's need for emotional satisfaction by devising new angles to tell the same old stories. However, what this need really exposes is that our present life, combined with what we are looking forward to in the future, is not fulfilling enough to satisfy us. A vital element is missing from life: the overall perspective regarding life itself combined with the lack of a relationship with God.
Solomon does not mean that there are no new technologies or inventions. By saying "there is nothing new under the sun," he is attempting to stimulate the reader to consider what might effectively improve the quality of his life. The bulk of mankind lives by the same basic patterns as Adam and Eve did after God kicked them out of the Garden. Solomon is searching for a hopeful way of life, one that will fill a person with joy and his mind with pure, godly inspiration and character.
Solomon then states, "All things are wearisome" (Ecclesiastes 1:8, margin). Do we agree with Solomon's assessment to this point? Is he right in his litany of mankind's purposeless, hamster-like, monotonous life that leads nowhere? If so, Solomon has achieved his purpose of making us understand that he is making sense—that "vanity of vanities" is the only honest assessment of life on earth as long as people are doggedly, but without a large measure of truth, seeking purpose and profit only "under the sun."
What Solomon has shown to this point is not the full story. In fact, he has just begun! Using generalities, he has exposed only the broad extent of the problem. Specifics will be added later. Nevertheless, he has already revealed the key to changing our approach to life: It lies in taking on a different perspective. "Under the sun" is equivalent to drawing a horizontal line between earthly and heavenly realities but focusing entirely or almost entirely on the earthly ones. If a person does this, then we must accept the fruit, as described by Solomon, to be inevitable because that is all that carnality can produce. However, a higher reality exists, and it is what Solomon urges his readers to change to. It is the spiritual reality we have been created to participate in.
A Summary to This Point
I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven; this grievous task God has given to the sons of man, by which they may be exercised. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be numbered. I communed with my heart, saying, "Look, I have attained greatness, and have gained more wisdom than all who were before me in Jerusalem. My heart has understood great wisdom and knowledge." And I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is grasping for the wind. For in much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18)
The book's first eleven verses do not provide much in the way of hope for one's life, but Solomon is not yet ready to explain more fully. However, he is looking for some explanations because, unlike an animal, man is created in the likeness of God and has a spirit. A man, therefore, looks for meaning in order to have some direction for living his life. Unlike animals, man does not merely exist within the narrow parameters of instinct. Though his life is difficult, man has an inner, God-given drive that his life is going somewhere. Solomon will later provide further insight into this drive.
The first mention of God appears in verse 13, and Solomon directly states that He gave us the grievous task of living by wisdom. One thing that Solomon clearly counsels us on, and also shows by his personal example, is that God does not want us to run from life's difficulties but to meet them and do our best to overcome them. The ultimate escape is through suicide, but some attempt to escape through various addictions, and others simply give up and let others take care of them, as some are now using the government.
Verse 15 contains one of those blunt facts of life that all need to deal with without allowing themselves to become cynical yet also remaining realistic. When Solomon states, "What is crooked cannot be made straight," he is referring, not to anything material like a piece of steel, but rather to the circumstances and events of communal life. An obvious example is that the past cannot be changed. An injustice might be resolved or an apology given, but many lasting effects remain.
The Living Bible paraphrases this verse as, "What is wrong cannot be righted; it is water over the dam; and there is no use thinking of what might have been." We must remember, though, that God has the power to straighten out what is twisted and to supply what is lacking, yet even He will not change the past. However, He can change the way the past affects us, which is most encouraging to those who believe.
We do not understand very much. Paul writes in I Corinthians 13:13: "For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I am known." In Romans 8:28, in the same chapter in which he expounds on the futility of life, he says, "And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose."
Thus, by looking at it through the eyes of faith, we can know about life to some degree, but at this point in Ecclesiastes, Solomon is warning us that it contains a great deal of inequity, disappointment and discouragement, evil, apparent injustice, and pain. Nations enter into wars without our permission, governments and their systems are corrupt, the courts are unfair, and businessmen lie and steal—all clearly caused by the minds and hands of men. There is so much of this, he says, it is beyond count. God could easily stop these events, but He does not!
Is it any wonder Paul says in Galatians 1:4 that Christ "gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father"? One of the unwritten questions in Ecclesiastes is, "Why does God not stop these things?" It is not answered completely either, so verse 16 shows Solomon searching for where he might find it.
Sometimes, he seems remorseless in his effort to make us think, but even the wisdom of Solomon cannot break through on the basis of human reason. He sets his mind to study and meditate on resources that he already has on hand to further expand the possibilities of greater understanding.
When he writes in verse 17 that he set his heart to know madness and folly, he means that he will search for answers by exploring the opposites of wisdom so that, he hopes, the contrast might reveal a deeper, clearer understanding of wisdom. The Hebrew term translated as "madness" is somewhat misleading because it is closer in meaning to "recklessness," indicating error in thinking. It is not the type of recklessness that would bring bodily injury, but it could mislead his search for factual truths.
Verse 18 shows that his efforts were not only unsuccessful but left him somewhat frustrated. Why? He did not give an answer because he had none, and he had none because he was searching under the sun. The truth is that some extremely important facets of this mystery of the ages that Solomon is investigating must be revealed from above the sun.
The conclusion to Ecclesiastes 1 should prove to us that wisdom and experience will not solve every problem in life. We must understand and live with the reality that God is not obligated to explain our problems to us. We are the sinners who chose, as Adam and Eve did, to accept Satan's deceitful offer that, if they would listen to him and eat the fruit, their eyes would be opened. They indeed gained a great deal of experiential knowledge, but their experiences also alienated them from God. We cannot expect any different result.
Life may seem monotonous and meaningless, but for those called by God, it need not be. Life now is a tremendous blessing. We must accept the reality, though, that we must live by faith in God's promises. Following His resurrection, Jesus says, "Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed" (John 20:29). Jesus Christ is "the power of God, and the wisdom of God" (I Corinthians 1:24). In His mercy, He has miraculously broken into our lives to prepare us for His Kingdom. We must take up the challenges that He has presented, cease living our lives running in circles, and head straight for the Kingdom of God.
We will continue in the book of Ecclesiastes in the next issue.