“Life is filled with difficulties and perplexities,” King Solomon concluded, “and there’s much that nobody can understand, let alone control. From the human point of view, it’s all vanity and folly. But life is God’s gift to us and He wants us to enjoy it and use it for His glory. So, instead of complaining about what you don’t have, start giving thanks for what you do have—and be satisfied!” (Warren Wiersbe)
Our Jewish friends read Ecclesiastes at the annual Feast of Tabernacles, a joyful autumn festival of harvest. It fits! For Solomon wrote, “There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God” (Eccl. 2:24).
Even the Apostle Paul (who could hardly be labeled a hedonist) said that God gives to us “richly all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17).
Life without Jesus Christ is indeed “vanity and vexation of spirit” (Eccl. 1:14). But when you know Him personally, and live for Him faithfully, you experience “fullness of joy [and] pleasures forever more” (Ps. 16:11).
Have you made any New Year’s resolutions to lose weight and get into shape? Many Americans have great intentions at the start of a new year. Perhaps you have already purchased a gym membership or a piece of exercise equipment. If so, good for you!
It’s important to get in shape and be healthy. I own an stationary exercise bike…and I love it. I work out on it nearly every day. I cycle miles on this bike and burn calories and increase my heart rate. The cool thing is: I don’t even have to leave my house. But if I am honest, it is a terribly boring and tedious way to exercise. When I look down at the odometer and it says I’ve cycled five miles, I’ve actually gone nowhere. I work up a sweat and ride until I am weary, yet I know that I am going to have to hop back on the bike all over again tomorrow. It is rather depressing!
Life is like riding on a recumbent bike. It is a boring, tedious, and repetitive ride. A thoughtful person will ask, “What is the purpose in life?” Have you ever asked this question? Most people have. For some of us, this question has plagued us over the course of our lives…even our Christian lives.
A few years ago, scientists at John Hopkins University surveyed nearly 8,000 college students at forty-eight universities and asked what they considered “very important” to them. What do you think these college students said? Make a lot of money? Get married? Get a job? Buy a home? I can tell you this: only 16 percent answered “making a lot of money.” But a whopping 75 percent said that their first goal was “finding a purpose and meaning to my life. This is a staggering piece of research, isn’t it?
From the human point of view (“under the sun”), life does appear futile; and it is easy for us to get pessimistic. The Jewish writer Sholom Aleichem once described life as “a blister on top of a tumor, and a boil on top of that.” You can almost feel that definition!
The American poet Carl Sandburg compared life to “an onion—you peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep.” And British playwright George Bernard Shaw said that life was “a series of inspired follies.”
What a relief to turn from these pessimistic views and hear Jesus Christ say, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Or to read Paul’s majestic declaration, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58, nkjv).
Life is “not in vain” if it is lived according to the will of God, and that is what Solomon teaches in this neglected and often misunderstood book.
Before we go any further, we need to take care of some business, understanding the author of this amazing book and seeing some of the major themes.
Nowhere in this book did the author give his name, but the descriptions he gave of himself and his experiences would indicate that the writer was King Solomon. He called himself “son of David” and “king in Jerusalem” (1:1, 12), and he claimed to have great wealth and wisdom (2:1-11, and 1:13; see 1 Kings 4:20-34 and 10:1ff). In response to Solomon’s humble prayer, God promised him both wisdom and wealth (1 Kings 3:3-15); and He kept His promise.
Twelve times in Ecclesiastes the author mentioned “the king,” and he made frequent references to the problems of “official bureaucracy” (4:1-3; 5:8; 8:11; 10:6-7). Keep in mind that Solomon ruled over a great nation that required a large standing army and extensive government agencies. He carried on many costly building projects and lived in luxury at court (1 Kings 9:10-28 and 10:1ff; 2 Chron. 1:13-17). Somebody had to manage all this national splendor, and somebody had to pay for it!
Solomon solved the problem by ignoring the original boundaries of the twelve tribes of Israel and dividing the nation into twelve “tax districts,” each one managed by an overseer (1 Kings 4:7-19). In time, the whole system became oppressive and corrupt; and after Solomon died, the people begged for relief (2 Chron. 10). As you study Ecclesiastes, you sense this background of exploitation and oppression.
King Solomon began his reign as a humble servant of the Lord, seeking God’s wisdom and help (1 Kings 3:5-15). As he grew older, his heart turned away from Jehovah to the false gods of the many wives he had taken from foreign lands (1 Kings 11:1ff). These marriages were motivated primarily by politics, not love, as Solomon sought alliances with the nations around Israel. In fact, many of the things Solomon did that seemed to bring glory to Israel were actually contrary to the Word of God (Deut. 17:14-20).
Ecclesiastes appears to be the kind of book a person would write near the close of life, reflecting on life’s experiences and the lessons learned. Solomon probably wrote Proverbs (Prov. 1:1; 1 Kings 4:32) and the Song of Solomon (1:1) during the years he faithfully walked with God; and near the end of his life, he wrote Ecclesiastes. There is no record that King Solomon repented and turned to the Lord, but his message in Ecclesiastes suggests that he did.
He wrote Proverbs from the viewpoint of a wise teacher (1:1-6), and Song of Solomon from the viewpoint of a royal lover (3:7-11); but when he wrote Ecclesiastes, he called himself “the Preacher” (1:1, 2, 12; 7:27; 12:8-10). The Hebrew word is Koheleth (ko-HAY-leth) and is the title given to an official speaker who calls an assembly (see 1 Kings 8:1). The Greek word for “assembly” is ekklesia, and this gives us the English title of the book, Ecclesiastes.
But the Preacher did more than call an assembly and give an oration. The word Koheleth carries with it the idea of debating, not so much with the listeners as with himself. He would present a topic, discuss it from many viewpoints, and then come to a practical conclusion. Ecclesiastes may appear to be a random collection of miscellaneous ideas about a variety of topics, but Solomon assures us that what he wrote was orderly (12:9).
Solomon has put the key to Ecclesiastes right at the front door: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?” (1:2-3). Just in case we missed it, he put the same key at the back door (12:8). In these verses, Solomon introduces some of the key words and phrases that are used repeatedly in Ecclesiastes; so we had better get acquainted with them.
Vanity of vanities.
We have already noted that Solomon used the word “vanity” thirty-eight times in this book. It is the Hebrew word hevel, meaning “emptiness, futility, vapor.” The name “Abel” probably comes from this word (Gen. 4:2). Whatever disappears quickly, leaves nothing behind and does not satisfy is hevel, vanity. One of my language professors at seminary defined hevel as “whatever is left after you break a soap bubble.”
Whether he considers his wealth, his works, his wisdom, or his world, Solomon comes to the same sad conclusion: all is “vanity and vexation of spirit” (2:11). However, this is not his final conclusion, nor is it the only message that he has for his readers. We will discover more about that later.
Under the sun.
You will find this important phrase twenty-nine times in Ecclesiastes, and with it the phrase “under heaven” (1:13; 2:3; 3:1). It defines the outlook of the writer as he looks at life from a human perspective and not necessarily from heaven’s point of view. He applies his own wisdom and experience to the complex human situation and tries to make some sense out of life. Solomon wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (12:10-11; 2 Tim. 3:16), so what he wrote was what God wanted His people to have. But as we study, we must keep Solomon’s viewpoint in mind: he is examining life “under the sun.”
In his Unfolding Message of the Bible, G. Campbell Morgan perfectly summarizes Solomon’s outlook: “This man had been living through all these experiences under the sun, concerned with nothing above the sun … until there came a moment in which he had seen the whole of life. And there was something over the sun. It is only as a man takes account of that which is over the sun as well as that which is under the sun that things under the sun are seen in their true light” (Fleming H. Revell Company, 1961, p. 229).
The Hebrew word yitron, usually translated “profit,” is used ten times in Ecclesiastes (1:3; 2:11, 13 [excelleth]; 3:9; 5:9, 16; 7:12 [excellency]; 10:10, 11 [better]). It is used nowhere else in the Old Testament, and its basic meaning is “that which is left over.” It may be translated “surplus, advantage, gain.” The word “profit” is just the opposite of “vanity.” Solomon asks, “In the light of all the puzzles and problems of life, what is the advantage of living? Is there any gain?”
At least eleven different Hebrew words are translated “labor” in our Authorized Version, and this one is amal, used twenty-three times in Ecclesiastes. It means “to toil to the point of exhaustion and yet experience little or no fulfillment in your work.” It carries with it the ideas of grief, misery, frustration, and weariness. Moses expressed the meaning of this word in Deuteronomy 26:7 and Psalm 90:10. Of course, looked at only “under the sun,” a person’s daily work might seem to be futile and burdensome, but the Christian believer can always claim 1 Corinthians 15:58 and labor gladly in the will of God, knowing his labor is “not in vain in the Lord.”
This is the familiar Hebrew word adam (Genesis 1:26; 2:7, 19) and refers to man as made from the earth (adama in the Hebrew: Genesis 2:7; 3:19). Of course, man is made in the image of God; but he came from the earth and returns to the earth after death. Solomon used the word forty-nine times as he examined “man under the sun.”
These are the basic words found in the opening verses of Ecclesiastes, but there are a few more key words that we need to consider.
This word is used thirty-one times and in the King James Version (kjv) is also translated “sore” (1:13; 4:8), “hurt” (5:13; 8:9), “mischievous” (10:13), “grievous” (2:17), “adversity” (7:14), “wickedness” (7:15), and “misery” (8:6). It is the opposite of “good” and covers a multitude of things: pain, sorrow, hard circumstances, and distress. It is one of King Solomon’s favorite words for describing life as he sees it “under the sun.”
In spite of his painful encounters with the world and its problems, Solomon does not recommend either pessimism or cynicism. Rather, he admonishes us to be realistic about life, accept God’s gifts and enjoy them (2:24; 3:12-15, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 11:9-10). After all, God gives to us “richly all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). Words related to joy (enjoy, rejoice, etc.) are used at least seventeen times in Ecclesiastes. Solomon does not say, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die!” Instead, he advises us to trust God and enjoy what we do have rather than complain about what we don’t have. Life is short and life is difficult, so make the most of it while you can.
Since it is one of the Old Testament wisdom books, Ecclesiastes would have something to say about both wisdom and folly. There are at least thirty-two references to “fools” and “folly” and at least fifty-four to “wisdom.” King Solomon was the wisest of men (1 Kings 4:31) and he applied this wisdom as he sought to understand the purpose of life “under the sun.” The Preacher sought to be a philosopher, but in the end, he had to conclude, “Fear God, and keep His commandments” (12:13).
Solomon mentions God forty times and always uses “Elohim” and never “Jehovah.” Elohim (“God” in the English Bible) is the Mighty God, the glorious God of creation who exercises sovereign power. Jehovah (“LORD” in the English Bible) is the God of the covenant, the God of revelation who is eternally self-existent and yet graciously relates Himself to sinful man. Since Solomon is dealing exclusively with what he sees “under the sun,” he uses Elohim.
Before we leave this study of the vocabulary of Ecclesiastes, we should note that the book abounds in personal pronouns. Since it is an autobiography this is to be expected. Solomon was the ideal person to write this book, for he possessed the wealth, wisdom, and opportunities necessary to carry out the “experiments” required for this investigation into the meaning of life. God did not make King Solomon disobey just so he could write this book, but He did use Solomon’s experiences to prepare him for this task.