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Category Archives: Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes: The Good Life #3 Disgusted with Life? Ecclesiastes 2


“There is but one step from the sublime to the ridiculous.”

Your Purpose Green Road Sign Over Dramatic Clouds and Sky.Napoleon is supposed to have made that statement after his humiliating retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1812. The combination of stubborn Russian resistance and a severe Russian winter was too much for the French army, and its expected sublime victory was turned into shameful defeat.

As part of his quest for “the good life,” King Solomon examined everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. In the great laboratory of life, he experimented with one thing after another, always applying the wisdom that God had given him (vv. 3, 9). In this chapter, Solomon recorded three stages in his experiments as he searched for a satisfying meaning to life.

Satisfaction cannot be found in pleasure (2:1-11).

(Ecclesiastes 2:1-11 NIV)  “I thought in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. {2} “Laughter,” I said, “is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?” {3} I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly–my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives. {4} I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. {5} I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. {6} I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. {7} I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. {8} I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well–the delights of the heart of man. {9} I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me. {10} I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. {11} Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”

In this section, Solomon describes his grand experiment into pleasure and its total failure. He followed the philosophy of the advertising slogan, “You only go around once in life, so grab all the gusto you can get.” He grabbed for all the pleasures of life. But after some time he realized that the “gusto” was less fulfilling and did not taste so great.56 In the first eight verses, he speaks of at least six kinds of pleasure he tried in his effort to find satisfaction.

  • Humor (2:2). Solomon writes, “I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself.’ And behold, it too was futility. I said of laughter, ‘It is madness,’ and of pleasure, ‘What does it accomplish?’”57 Solomon mocks “laughter” as “madness.” I don’t know if the comics he listened to were as bad as the ones we see on TV today, but if so, I’m not surprised he labeled it “madness.” Do you really think the leading comedians of our day are sincerely satisfied with life? Has humor given them an inside track on human happiness? Hardly.58 It is easy to seek to lose ourselves in comedy and entertainment whether it is in a theater, in front of our TV, or on-line. Although it can seem like a great escape, it leaves us empty in the end.
  • Wine (2:3). Solomon writes, “I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take hold of folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives.” Many people assume Solomon was a “party animal” who got drunk like a skunk. Not so! He was too smart for that. Getting drunk for pleasure is about as dumb as jumping off a ten-story building to enjoy the breeze. Rather, Solomon was a connoisseur of fine wine, but he clearly states that he didn’t drink so much that it would prevent his mind from guiding him wisely. Rather, wine became a socially acceptable way to loosen up and enjoy people and conversations. Yet, he states that it is futility.

Solomon had the means and the authority to do just about anything his heart desired. He decided to test his own heart to see how he would respond to two very common experiences of life: enjoyment (1-3) and employment (4-11).

Enjoyment (2:1-3).

The Hebrew people rightly believed that God made man to enjoy the blessings of His creation (Ps. 104, and note 1 Tim. 6:17). The harvest season was a joyful time for them as they reaped the blessings of God on their labor. At the conclusion of his book, Solomon admonished his readers to enjoy God’s blessings during the years of their youth, before old age arrived and the body began to fall apart (12:1ff). Eight times in Ecclesiastes, Solomon used the Hebrew word meaning “pleasure,” so it is obvious that he did not consider God a celestial spoilsport who watched closely to make certain nobody was having a good time.

Solomon specifically mentioned wine and laughter as two sources of pleasure used in his experiment. It takes very little imagination to see the king in his splendid banquet hall (1 Kings 10:21), eating choice food (1 Kings 4:22-23), drinking the very best wine, and watching the most gifted entertainers (2:8b). But when the party was over and King Solomon examined his heart, it was still dissatisfied and empty. Pleasure and mirth were only vanity, so many soap bubbles that quickly burst and left nothing behind.

Perhaps many of the king’s servants envied Solomon and wished to change places with him, but the king was unhappy. “Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful,” he wrote in Proverbs 14:13, “and the end of that mirth is heaviness.”

Today’s world is pleasure-mad. Millions of people will pay almost any amount of money to “buy experiences” and temporarily escape the burdens of life. While there is nothing wrong with innocent fun, the person who builds his or her life only on seeking pleasure is bound to be disappointed in the end.

Why? For one thing, pleasure-seeking usually becomes a selfish endeavor; and selfishness destroys true joy. People who live for pleasure often exploit others to get what they want, and they end up with broken relationships as well as empty hearts. People are more important than things and thrills. We are to be channels, not reservoirs; the greatest joy comes when we share God’s pleasures with others.

If you live for pleasure alone, enjoyment will decrease unless the intensity of the pleasure increases. Then you reach a point of diminishing returns when there is little or no enjoyment at all, only bondage. For example, the more that people drink, the less enjoyment they get out of it. This means they must have more drinks and stronger drinks in order to have pleasure; the sad result is desire without satisfaction. Instead of alcohol, substitute drugs, gambling, sex, money, fame, or any other pursuit, and the principle will hold true: when pleasure alone is the center of life, the result will ultimately be disappointment and emptiness.

There is a third reason why pleasure alone can never bring satisfaction: it appeals to only part of the person and ignores the total being. This is the major difference between shallow “entertainment” and true “enjoyment,” for when the whole person is involved, there will be both enjoyment and enrichment. Entertainment has its place, but we must keep in mind that it only helps us to escape life temporarily. True pleasure not only brings delight, but it also builds character by enriching the total person.

Employment (2:4-11).

Next, Solomon got involved in all kinds of projects, hoping to discover something that would make life worth living. He started with great works (4-6), including houses (1 Kings 7), cities (2 Chron. 8:4-6), gardens, vineyards, orchards and forests (1 Kings 4:33), and the water systems needed to service them. Of course, Solomon also supervised the construction of the temple (1 Kings 5ff), one of the greatest buildings of the ancient world.

He not only had works, but he also had workers (7a). He had two kinds of slaves: those he purchased and those born in his household. He might have added that he “drafted” 30,000 Jewish men to work on various projects (1 Kings 5:13-18). His father David had conscripted the strangers in the land (1 Chron. 22:2), but Solomon drafted his own people, and the people resented it (see 1 Kings 12).

Of course, Solomon accumulated wealth (7b-8a), in flocks and herds (1 Kings 8:63) as well as gold and silver (1 Kings 4:21 and 10:1ff). He was the wealthiest and wisest man in the whole world, yet he was unhappy because activity alone does not bring lasting pleasure.

There can be joy in the doing of great projects, but what happens when the task is finished? Solomon found delight in all his labor (2:10); but afterward, when he considered all his works, he saw only “vanity and vexation of spirit” (2:11). The journey was a pleasure, but the destination brought pain. “Success is full of promise until men get it,” said the American preacher Henry Ward Beecher, “and then it is a last-year’s nest from which the birds have flown.”

We must not conclude that Solomon was condemning work itself, because work is a blessing from God. Adam had work to do in the Garden even before he sinned. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15, niv). In the Book of Proverbs, Solomon exalted diligence and condemned laziness; for he knew that any honest employment can be done to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). But work alone cannot satisfy the human heart, no matter how successful that work may be (Isa. 55:2).

This helps us to understand why many achievers are unhappy people. Ambrose Bierce called achievement “the death of endeavor and the birth of disgust.” This is often the case. The overachiever is often a person who is trying to escape himself or herself by becoming a workaholic, and this only results in disappointment. When workaholics retire, they often feel useless and sometimes die from lack of meaningful activity.

Solomon tested life, and his heart said, “Vanity!”

  • Projects (2:4-6). Solomon writes, “I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees.” Solomon tried to create his own Garden of Eden. His buildings, vineyards, gardens,59 and irrigation canals are legendary. Solomon’s temple is known to be one of the most magnificent buildings of all time. It took 153,000 workers seven years to build.60 However, it took them thirteen years to build Solomon’s own house! Imagine what you could build with unlimited resources and 100,000 plus workers. Imagine what it looked like! But did all this beauty satisfy? No, it didn’t. The projects described here don’t seem to resemble an ongoing job or trade as much as leisure projects. The house-building, tree-planting, and reservoir-constructing in Ecclesiastes might correspond to a new shed, some tomatoes, and a sprinkler system in your backyard—on a grander scale than we’re used to, certainly, but the intended result of personal enjoyment is the same. Yet, this will never satisfy.
  • Possessions (2:7-8). Solomon writes, “I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces.” He bought more and more slaves and even bred them. He amassed larger herds than anyone before him—the real measure of wealth to the average man. He collected gold and silver and all manner of luxurious gifts from other kings and countries. So great was Solomon’s fortune that silver and gold were soon regarded in Jerusalem as stones (1 Kgs 10:27; 2 Chron 1:15). Not one of all the above good things brought satisfaction or joy. For centuries, the old saying that “money can’t buy happiness” has been espoused by many, but few ever live their lives as if there is any truth to this statement—in fact, quite the contrary. As one wise pundit with deep insight put it, “All I want is the chance to prove that money can’t buy happiness.”61

The classic movie Citizen Kane illustrates this point. In the film, you watch the character Charles Foster accrue an incredible amount of wealth, until it ultimately destroys him. As Foster is progressively tainted by his desire for wealth, power, and pleasure, there is a recurring shot of a fireplace in his home. As the wealth grows and becomes more destructive, the fireplace gets bigger and bigger until in the last few frames, it is the largest thing in the movie. The fireplace is always burning and consuming. By the end of the movie, the fireplace takes up almost an entire wall of his house.

Foster’s life is nothing but this raging inferno that never, ever is consumed until he dies. And when he dies, all his possessions are burned. The viewer watches his entire life go up in smoke. The only difference between Foster and most of us is that his stuff produced a lot of smoke. He had a big trash bag. We will have little-bitty trash bags. But in the end, it all goes up in smoke.62

  • Music (2:8b). Solomon says, “I provided for myself male and female singers.” He didn’t need an iPod; he had live musicians with him whenever he wanted. Can you imagine having your favorite musician or band travel with you wherever you go? All you have to do is snap your fingers and they are at your beck and call. This too is futile.
  • Sexual Pleasure (2:8b). Solomon says, “I provided the pleasures of men—many concubines.” Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. One thousand women available to him any time of the day or night! Surely that ended his search for satisfaction, didn’t it? Well, it ended his close relationship with God, but it didn’t end his quest for meaning and significance. It only left him bored, empty, and frustrated. Several years ago, I read an article about Hugh Hefner in Christianity Today. The author explained that Hefner is completely desensitized to sexual activity due to excess. Even though he owns the Playboy mansion, for many years he has not had a sexual relationship with a woman. What a glaring example of the futility of immorality.

Solomon summarizes his pursuit of pleasure with his own analysis in 2:9-11: “Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. My wisdom also stood by me. All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor.63 Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun.” I cannot help but think here of Jesus’ question in Mark 8:36: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” Solomon would answer, “Nothing. It profits him nothing at all.” Solomon says, “It won’t work. You can earn more, spend more, collect more, drink more, eat more, sin more, you name it, but none of those things will put meaning into life.”

Solomon hated life (ECCL. 2:12-23)

(Ecclesiastes 2:12-23 NIV)  “Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom, and also madness and folly. What more can the king’s successor do than what has already been done? {13} I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. {14} The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both. {15} Then I thought in my heart, “The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?” I said in my heart, “This too is meaningless.” {16} For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die! {17} So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

 “I turned myself to behold” simply means, “I considered things from another viewpoint.” What he did was to look at his wisdom (12-17) and his wealth (18-23) in light of the certainty of death. What good is it to be wise and wealthy if you are going to die and leave everything behind?

The certainty of death is a topic Solomon frequently mentioned in Ecclesiastes (1:4; 2:14-17; 3:18-20; 5:15-16; 6:6; 8:8; 9:2-3, 12; 12:7-8). He could not easily avoid the subject as he looked at life “under the sun,” for death is one of the obvious facts of life. The French essayist Montaigne wrote, “Philosophy is no other thing than for a man to prepare himself to death.” Only that person is prepared to live who is prepared to die.

[So far we have seen that the pursuit of knowledge is futile and the pursuit of pleasure is futile. Now Solomon will tell us that…]

Satisfaction cannot be found in wisdom (2:12-17).

It’s been said that a good preacher makes points that are bluntly stated, clearly explained, and endlessly repeated. That’s what Solomon is doing here. Solomon has already talked about wisdom and knowledge at the end of chapter one, so perhaps he is going back to the subject rather than pursuing a new topic, but I prefer to think that his previous discussion dealt primarily with the acquiring of knowledge or education, while now he is more concerned with the application of wisdom and knowledge. Solomon shares two important principles.

  • The wise man and the fool die alike (2:12-14). Solomon writes, “So I turned to consider wisdom, madness and folly; for what will the man do who will come after the king [Adam, the ‘king’ of creation] except what has already been done? And I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. The wise man’s eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I know that one fate befalls them both.” Solomon concedes that wisdom has certain advantages over ignorance. However, despite its advantages, even the remarkable gift of wisdom falls under the general condemnation of hebel. The grim reaper stalks the wise and the fool, the righteous and the wicked, the believer and the unbeliever. Death is the great equalizer, and if it makes no distinctions, then why bother to be overly wise? Why not act the fool if we all end up in the same grave anyway?
  • The wise man and the fool are both forgotten (2:15-17). Solomon writes, “Then I said to myself, ‘As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall me. Why then have I been extremely wise?’ So I said to myself, ‘This too is vanity.’ For there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man as with the fool, inasmuch as in the coming days all will be forgotten. And how the wise man and the fool alike die! So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me; because everything is futility and striving after wind.” The intellectual’s real hope is that he will achieve lasting fame and be long remembered for his great contributions. Solomon pronounces all this to be an illusion. Future generations will no more remember the scholar than they will the beggar on the street. In fact, a good case could actually be made for the fact that fools are remembered longer than the wise. At least the crazy get more press. And what is Solomon’s response to all this? He says in 2:17, “So I hated life.” Notice carefully that he doesn’t say, “So I hate life,” but “I hated” This is not his final conclusion, not even his present outlook, but it was his attitude when his pursuit of wisdom turned up a dry hole—he despaired of even living.

Consider the sum total of all our knowledge, all our progress, all our technology. Has any of it really made the experience of life richer? Yes, we are thankful to God for medical advances and jet travel. Most of us have more information on the hard drives of our computers than entire nations once possessed in their ancient libraries. Yet, there have never been so many unhappy people, so many illiterate, so many hungry, diseased, and disowned. All our accumulated knowledge of history cannot keep us from terrorism and war and discord on every continent.64 We spend millions on AIDS awareness, yet people who “know better” regularly engage in promiscuous sex. We have more consultants and experts in business than ever before, yet bankruptcies continually occur. We have learned about fat grams and exercise routines, yet we are the most obese nation in the world. Books on parenting and marriage appear regularly, yet families seem to struggle as never before.65

[Solomon has pursued education, pleasure, and wisdom. His personal experience takes him on one more excursion, but the result is the same.]

Satisfaction cannot be found in work (2:18-26).

{18} I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. {19} And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. {20} So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. {21} For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. {22} What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? {23} All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.”

Since both the wise man and the fool will die, what is the value of wisdom? For one thing, we can leave our wisdom for the guidance of the next generation; but how can we be sure they will value it or follow it? “What can the man do that cometh after the king?” suggests that it is folly for successive generations to make the same “experiments” (and mistakes) when they can learn from their forefathers; but they do it just the same! There is nothing new under the sun (1:9); they can only repeat what we have already done.

In spite of the fact that all men must die, wisdom is still of greater value than folly. They are as different as night and day! The wise man sees that death is coming and lives accordingly, while the fool walks in darkness and is caught unprepared. However, being prepared for death does not necessarily relieve Solomon of his burden about life; for it takes a person a long time to learn how to live, and then life ends. All of this seems so futile.

Both the wise man and the fool die, and both the wise man and the fool are forgotten (v. 16). Solomon’s fame has remained, of course (1 Kings 4:29-34; Matt. 6:28-30); but most “famous” people who have died are rarely mentioned in ordinary conversation, although their biographies are found in the encyclopedias. (I note that some of these biographies get smaller from edition to edition.)

“So I hated life!” concluded Solomon, but he was not contemplating suicide; for death was one thing he wanted to avoid. “I hate life and yet I am afraid to die!” said the French humanist Voltaire; Solomon would agree with him. Life seemed irrational and futile to Solomon, and yet it was still better than death. We might paraphrase his statement, “Therefore, I was disgusted with life!”

The healthy Christian believer certainly would not hate life, no matter how difficult the circumstances might be. It is true that some great men have wanted to die, such as Job (Job 3:21-7:15), Moses (Num. 11:15), Elijah (1 Kings 19:4), and Jonah (Jonah 4:3), but we must not take these special instances as examples for us to follow. All of these men finally changed their minds.

No, the Christian should “love life” (1 Peter 3:10, quoted from Ps. 34:12ff), seeking to put the most into it and getting the most out of it, to the glory of God. We may not enjoy everything in life, or be able to explain everything about life, but that is not important. We live by promises and not by explanations, and we know that our “labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).

Not only did Solomon hate life, but he hated the wealth that was the result of his toil. Of course, Solomon was born wealthy, and great wealth came to him because he was the king. But he was looking at life “under the sun” and speaking for the “common people” who were listening to his discussion. He gave three reasons why he was disgusted with wealth.

First, you can’t keep it (v. 18). The day would come when Solomon would die and leave everything to his successor. This reminds us of our Lord’s warning in the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21) and Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 6:7-10. A Jewish proverb says, “There are no pockets in shrouds.”

Money is a medium of exchange. Unless it is spent, it can do little or nothing for you. You can’t eat money, but you can use it to buy food. It will not keep you warm, but it will purchase fuel. A writer in The Wall Street Journal called money “an article which may be used as a universal passport to everywhere except heaven, and as a universal provider of everything except happiness.”

Of course, you and I are stewards of our wealth; God is the Provider (Deut. 8:18) and the Owner, and we have the privilege of enjoying it and using it for His glory. One day we will have to give an account of what we have done with His generous gifts. While we cannot take wealth with us when we die, we can “send it ahead” as we use it today according to God’s will (Matt. 6:19-34).

Second, we can’t protect it (vv. 19-20). It’s bad enough that we must leave our wealth behind, but even worse that we might leave it to somebody who will waste it! Suppose he or she is a fool and tears down everything we have built up? Solomon didn’t know it at the time, but his son Rehoboam would do that very thing (1 Kings 11:41-12:24).

Many people have tried to write their wills in such a way that their estates could not be wasted, but they have not always succeeded. In spite of the instruction and good example they may give, the fathers and mothers have no way of knowing what the next generation will do with the wealth that they worked so hard to accumulate. Solomon’s response was to walk about and simply resign himself (“despair” v. 20) to the facts of life and death. As the rustic preacher said, “We all must learn to cooperate with the inevitable!”

Third, we can’t enjoy it as we should (vv. 21-23). If all we do is think about our wealth and worry about what will happen to it, we will make our lives miserable. We do all the work and then leave the wealth to somebody who didn’t even work for it (v. 21). Is that fair? We spend days in travail and grief and have many sleepless nights, yet our heirs never experience any of this. It all seems so futile. “What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?” (v. 22, niv)

At this point, Solomon appears to be very pessimistic, but he doesn’t remain that way very long. In a step of faith he reaches the third stage in his experiment.

Now a significant number of people will agree with me on this point, for all of us at one time or another lose interest in our work and wonder if it’s even worth it. But let’s see the reasons behind Solomon’s analysis. Again, Solomon shares two critical principles.

  • You can’t take it with you (2:18-20). Solomon writes, “Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun. This too is vanity. Therefore I completely despaired of all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun.” It’s a pretty sure bet that Solomon was a Type-A personality. He’s like many Americans today. It’s easy for some of us to work, work, work, strategize, plan, skip vacations, miss out on family time and leisure, and work, work, work some more. Then, when everything is in place, when all the ducks are in a row, wham! We die and have to leave it all to others. That is a fact that applies to every one of us. King Tut tried to take it with him, and we smile at the futility of his effort. But millions after him have acted as though they could take it, amassing great fortunes while fearful of spending them lest they die penniless.
  • You can’t control it when you’re gone (2:21-23). Solomon writes, “When there is a man who has labored with wisdom, knowledge and skill, then he gives his legacy to one who has not labored with them. This too is vanity and a great evil. For what does a man get in all his labor and in his striving with which he labors under the sun? Because all his days his task is painful and grievous; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is vanity.” Some people amass great fortunes, not for their own benefit but for their children’s benefit. But there’s no guarantee that the child will show the same wisdom that the parent showed. Typically, large fortunes are squandered by those who inherit. More often than not it also ends up destroying relationships. Leaving our loved ones too much might be worse than leaving them too little.

The disappointing reality is that significance cannot be found in work. Some time ago, an aspiring television star was given a shot at a network series. He went to the NBC studios, saw his name on a parking space, found the crew treating him like royalty, and admired the star on his dressing room door. The series pilot was shot in five days, but television executives rejected it. When the young actor left, no one said goodbye, the name was gone from his parking space, and his dressing room was locked. “All the success was like smoke,” he said. “I couldn’t get a handle on it; like cotton candy, once it was in my mouth it was gone.” Our culture is a cotton-candy world—sugary and seductive—a pink swirl of empty calories. Today you might be the “flavor of the month,” with Hollywood or Wall Street at your command.

Tomorrow your pockets may be as empty as your soul.66 If you don’t believe me, ask Britney Spears.

Solomon, the Preacher, has taken us on his search for satisfaction through the pursuit of education, pleasure, wisdom, and work. Each effort he has judged to be futile. None of these areas, when pursued for their own sake, are able to provide meaning and satisfaction in life. So he concludes this entire section in 2:24-26 with these words: “There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen that it is from the hand of God. For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him? For to a person who is good in His sight He has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, while to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting so that he may give67 to one who is good in God’s sight.68 This too is vanity and striving after wind.”69

At first glance, 2:24 almost appears that the Preacher has flipped and is telling us that since life is hebel, the best thing you can do is to gorge yourself, get drunk, and tell yourself that your labor is worthwhile, even though you know it isn’t. But that is a serious misunderstanding of his point. Solomon is saying that eating and drinking and laboring, while devoid of ultimate meaning in and of themselves, are infused with meaning and purpose and happiness and satisfaction, when done in accord with God’s regulations and with His blessing. What spoils these activities is our greediness to get out of them more than they can give or our tendency to do them to excess.

Nevertheless, God longs for us to enjoy these activities. He wants us to enjoy a good meal with friends. He encourages us to drink in moderation. He expects us to have a positive attitude toward work, for “The highest reward for man’s toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it.”70

God also wants us to realize that He will grant three gifts to those who please him: wisdom, knowledge, and joy. But to the sinner who persists in trying to remake God’s world, there is also an outcome: “a chasing after the wind.” This reference to the chasing of wind is to the frustrating activity in which the sinner works night and day to heap things up only to find in the end that he must, and as a matter of fact does, turn them over to the one who pleases God.71 This again demonstrates the utter futility and transient nature of life.

Picture your hands out in front of you, cupped together, palms up. In your open hands are all the things He has entrusted to you—money, cars, a home, furniture, everything. All of these are His gifts (Jas 1:17). We are the stewards, and faithfulness is our charge. That means our hands must never close over the gifts, but remain open so that He may use them as required—and refill our hands.72

The main conclusion of Solomon’s search is: Get satisfaction from God’s gifts. Satisfaction is a gift from God, just like salvation. When we can take our education, our pleasure, our wisdom, and our work as gifts from God, then our search has found its goal. And all the good things that God has in store for us are ours. Death will take none of that satisfaction.73

He accepted life (ECCL. 2:24-26)

This is the first of six “conclusions” in Ecclesiastes, each of which emphasizes the importance of accepting life as God’s gift and enjoying it in God’s will (3:12-15, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 11:9-10). Solomon is not advocating “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!” That is the philosophy of fatalism not faith. Rather, he is saying, “Thank God for what you do have, and enjoy it to the glory of God.” Paul gave his approval to this attitude when he exhorted us to trust “in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17, nkjv).

Solomon made it clear that not only were the blessings from God, but even the enjoyment of the blessings was God’s gift to us (v. 24). He considered it “evil” if a person had all the blessings of life from God but could not enjoy them (6:1-5). It is easy to see why the Jewish people read Ecclesiastes at the Feast of Tabernacles, for Tabernacles is their great time of thanksgiving and rejoicing for God’s abundant provision of their needs.

The translation of v. 25 in the King James Version is somewhat awkward; the New American Standard Bible is better: “For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?” The farmer who prayed at the table, “Thanks for food and for good digestion” knew what Solomon was writing about.

The important thing is that we seek to please the Lord (v. 26) and trust Him to meet every need. God wants to give us wisdom, knowledge, and joy; these three gifts enable us to appreciate God’s blessings and take pleasure in them. It is not enough to possessthings; we must also possess the kind of character that enables us to usethingswisely and enjoy them properly.

Not so with the sinner. (The Hebrew word means “to fall short, to miss the mark.”) The sinner may heap up all kinds of riches, but he can never truly enjoy them because he has left God out of his life. In fact, his riches may finally end up going to the righteous. This is not always the case, but God does make it happen that “the wealth of the sinner is laid up for the just” (Prov. 13:22). At their exodus from Egypt, the Israelites spoiled their Egyptian masters (Ex. 3:22; 12:36), and throughout Jewish history their armies took great spoil in their many conquests. In fact, much of the wealth that went into the temple came from David’s military exploits.

It is “vanity and vexation of spirit” (“meaningless, a chasing after wind,” niv) for the sinner to heap up riches and yet ignore God. Apart from God, there can be no true enjoyment of blessings or enrichment of life. It is good to have the things that money can buy, provided you don’t lose the things that money can’t buy.

This completes the first section of Ecclesiastes—The Problem Declared. Solomon has presented four arguments that seem to prove that life is really not worth living: the monotony of life (1:4-11), the vanity of wisdom (1:12-18), the futility of wealth (2:1-11), and the certainty of death (2:12-23). His argument appears to be true if you look at life “under the sun,” that is, only from the human point of view.

But when you bring God into the picture, everything changes! (Note that God is not mentioned from 1:14 to 2:23.) Life and death, wisdom and wealth, are all in His hands; He wants us to enjoy His blessings and please His heart. If we rejoice in the gifts, but forget the Giver, then we are ungrateful idolaters.

In the next eight chapters, Solomon will consider each of these four arguments and refute them. At the end of each argument he will say, “Enjoy life and be thankful to God!” (See the outline.) In his discussions, he will face honestly the trials and injustices of life, the things that make us cry out, “Why, Lord?” But Solomon is not a shallow optimist wearing rose-tinted glasses, nor is he a skeptical pessimist wearing blinders. Rather, he takes a balanced view of life and death and helps us look at both from God’s eternal perspective.

“Life isn’t like a book,” says Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship ministry. “Life isn’t logical, or sensible, or orderly. Life is a mess most of the time. And theology must be lived in the midst of that mess.”

Solomon will provide us with that theology.

It’s up to us to live it—and be satisfied!

———————————————-

 

56 Kurt De Haan, “Why in the World am I Here?” (Grand Rapids: RBC, 1987), 8.

57 Identifying Eccl 1:3; 2:2; and 6:8a as verses that present questions that “are among the most [sic] important questions in the book,” Miller observes: “Toil, pleasure, wisdom. In one sense, each of these is a rhetorical question: by implication they make a statement that there is no surplus for toil, that pleasure accomplishes nothing, and that the wise have no advantage over the fool. Yet, their form as questions raises the possibility of an answer and Qoheleth finally does supply one in each case: he eventually allows for value in toil (2:24; 3:13; 4:9; 5:17 [Engl. v. 18]; 11:6); he urges that to seek pleasure accomplishes little (2:1), although life without it is worthless (2:24; 3:12-13; 4:8; 5:17 [Engl. v. 18]), and it is particularly to be found in companionship (4:8-9; 9:9); he says finally that though wisdom has limitations, it preserves life (7:11-12; 9:16-18; 10:10). By delaying his answers, Qoheleth raises tension and uncertainty for the reader.” Douglas B. Miller, “What the Preacher Forgot: The Rhetoric of Ecclesiastes,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 62 (2000): 229.

58 Prov 14:13 states, “Even in laughter the heart may be in pain, and the end of joy may be grief.”

59 One of the reasons we love gardens is because man was first made in one. It was the only place on earth that was completed, then Adam and mankind was given the task of cultivating the rest. Gardens are an echo of home.

60 See 1 Kgs 6:38 and 7:1.

61 Tim A. Krell, “Chasing the Wind: Philosophical Reflections on Life”: unpublished paper (3/1/1996).

62 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 31-32.

63 Davis writes, “In 1:3, the author directs his readers’ attention to what is arguably the key question of the book: ‘What advantage does man have in all his work which he does [works] under the sun?’ (NASB; emphasis, mine). In our current section of the book, the author begins to address the amal (noun — labor, toil, trouble; verb — to work, to labor, to toil) concern of that question. Throughout the book (though significantly more frequently in the first half of the book [30x] than in the second half [5x]), the author utilizes the various grammatical forms of amal (labor) 35 times, 15 (i.e., nearly 43%) of which he uses to drive the thought of the latter portion of chapter 2 (vv. 10[2x], 11[2x], 18[2x], 19[2x], 20[2x], 21[2x], 22[2x], 24). Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.

64 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 23-24.

65 Wayne Schmidt, Soul Management (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 35-36.

66 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 39.

67 The word “give” (nathan) appears in Ecclesiastes with God as its subject eleven times.

68 Solomon is not speaking of believers and unbelievers. It is speaking of those who please God or are displeasing to Him. Roland Murphy, Ecclesiastes (WBC Vol. 23a; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992), 26-27.

69 This is the first of seven passages in which the writer recommended the wholehearted pursuit of enjoyment (2:24a; 3:12; 3:22a; 5:17; 8:15a; 9:7-9a; and 11:7-12:1a).

70 Preaching Today citation: John Ruskin, Leadership, Vol. 7, no. 4.

71 Walter C. Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997, c1996), 293.

72 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 41.

 

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2021 in Ecclesiastes

 

Ecclesiastes: The Good Life #2 Trivial Pursuits Ecclesiastes 1:11-18


Your Purpose Green Road Sign Over Dramatic Clouds and Sky.

Ecclesiastes 1:12-18 (ESV)
12  I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.
13  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.
14  I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.
15  What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.
16  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.”
17  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.
18  For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

The historian now becomes the philosopher as Solomon tells how he went about searching for the answer to the problem that vexed him. As the king of Israel, he had all the resources necessary for “experimenting” with different solutions to see what it was that made life worth living. In the laboratory of life, he experimented with enjoying various physical pleasures (2:1-3), accomplishing great and costly works (2:4-6), and accumulating great possessions (2:7-10) only to discover that all of it was only “vanity and grasping for the wind” (v. 14, nkjv).

But before launching into his experiments, Solomon took time to try to think the matter through. He was the wisest of all men and he applied that God-given wisdom to the problem. He devoted his mind wholly to the matter to get to the root of it (“seek”) and to explore it from all sides (“search”). Dorothy Sayers wrote in one of her mystery novels, “There is nothing you cannot prove if only your outlook is narrow enough.” Solomon did not take that approach

What would it take to make you happy? What if you had the wealth of Bill Gates or Donald Trump? Would this make you happy? What if you had the success of Oprah or Martha Stewart? Do you think you could be happy? What if you had the brains of Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking? Do you think you could be happy? Let me guess. Your answer is, “I don’t know, but I’d sure like to give it a try.”

A few people have been able to possess wealth, success, and intelligence just as I described. Solomon, the third king of Israel, was one of them. In some ways he had everything. He had a thousand wives and concubines, enormous wealth, international respect, and unparalleled wisdom. What he didn’t always have, however, was a reason for living. He didn’t always have happiness. He fits the pattern of the highly gifted, extremely ambitious person who climbs the ladder of success—only to contemplate jumping off once he’s reached the top.

In the first eleven verses of Ecclesiastes chapter one, Solomon examined three broad categories in his search for the key to life: human history, physical nature, and human nature. Now in 1:12-2:26, he narrows his search to his own personal experience.40 In a sense he takes us on his own spiritual sojourn as he searches for satisfaction in life. In the memoirs that follow Solomon informs us that he sought satisfaction in four broad categories, but wound up empty-handed.

Satisfaction cannot be found in education (1:12-18).

In this first section, Solomon states that even the best education is powerless against life’s enigmas. In 1:12-15, he begins seeking wisdom externally: “I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I set my mind41 to seek and explore42 by wisdom43 concerning all that has been done under heaven. It is a grievous task which God44 has given to the sons of men45 to be afflicted with. I have seen all the works [intellectual] which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.46 What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted.”

Solomon begins by giving his credentials once again (1:12; cf. 1:1). Why does he reiterate his position as king? To remind us that he is a man who had everything this world could offer. If anyone could have found satisfaction in life, it was Solomon. After citing his credentials, Solomon states that he purposely set out to find the ultimate principles behind everything in the universe (1:13).

I assume he studied literature and art, psychology and sociology, astronomy and physics, and theology and philosophy.47 But he found his search to be a “grievous task,” for there are so many things that yield no answers, even when assaulted by the highest of human intelligence. Everywhere Solomon turned with his knowledge and wisdom he found hebel (1:14).48 Things that were crooked to his mind he couldn’t straighten out; and there were many gaps he couldn’t fill in (1:15).49

In 1:16-18, Solomon transitions to seeking wisdom internally.50 He writes, “I said to myself, ‘Behold, I have magnified and increased wisdom more than all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized51 that this also is striving after wind. Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.” If Solomon were alive today, he would say, “You’ve heard of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle? Morons!”52

Solomon’s point in 1:16 is that he is the wisest man that has ever lived, yet he still couldn’t find satisfaction in education and learning. At first glance, it is natural to assume that Solomon’s quest led him to observe insanity. However, in Scripture both “madness” and “folly” imply moral perversity rather than mental oddity.53

Having felt that he had mastered intellectual pursuits, Solomon decides he will seek to understand the pursuit of pleasure. These verses anticipate 2:1-11, where the actual pursuit of physical pleasure is described, but here he means that he examined the life of pleasure from a philosophical standpoint. Yet, in the end, he finds that much wisdom leads to “much grief” and “increasing pain.” Every pursuit for wisdom and knowledge under the sun is like “striving after wind.”

Have you ever tried to catch the wind in your hands? It is impossible. In fact, it is a ridiculously futile waste of time. It can’t be done! This is exactly Solomon’s point. Wisdom “under the sun” fails to satisfy the soul. This observation actually demonstrates Solomon’s wisdom, for the more knowledge we acquire the more we realize just how ignorant we are. As Socrates himself said, “I am the wisest of all Greeks, because I of all men know that I know nothing.”

The more we are educated in current events, the more serious the world’s problems appear. The better we understand the vastness of our universe, the more insignificant we become. In other words, increasing knowledge often compounds our sense of futility.54 T.S. Eliot once remarked, “All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance.”55

[So the pursuit of education is not the answer to life’s dilemmas. Now we will see that…]

Here are some of his tentative conclusions: Life is tough, but it is the gift of God (v. 13).

He described life as a “sore travail” (“grievous task,” nkjv) that only fatigues you (“may be exercised”, nkjv). Of course, when God first gave life to man, the world had not been cursed because of sin (Gen. 3:14ff). Since the Fall of man, “the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs” (Rom. 8:22, nkjv); this is one reason why life is so difficult. One day, when our Lord returns, creation will be delivered from this bondage.

While sitting in my backyard one evening, I heard a robin singing merrily from atop a TV aerial. As I listened to him sing, I preached myself a sermon: Since early dawn, that bird has done nothing but try to survive. He’s been wearing himself out hiding from enemies and looking for food for himself and his little ones. And yet, when he gets to the end of the day, he sings about it!

Here I am, created in the image of God and saved by the grace of God, and I complain about even the little annoyances of life. One day, I will be like the Lord Jesus Christ; for that reason alone, I should be singing God’s praises just like that robin.

Life doesn’t get easier if you try to run away from it (v. 14).

All the works that are done “under the sun” never truly satisfy the heart. They are but “vanity and grasping for the wind” (v. 14, nkjv). Both the workaholic and the alcoholic are running away from reality and living on substitutes, and one day the bubble of illusion will burst. We only make life harder when we try to escape. Instead of running away from life, we should run to God and let Him make life worth living.

The ultimate door of escape is suicide, and Solomon will have something to say about man’s desire for death. Some specialists claim that 40,000 persons commit suicide in the United States annually, and an estimated 400,000 make the attempt. But once you have chosen to live and have rightly rejected suicide as an option, then you must choose how you are going to live. Will it be by faith in yourself and what you can do, or by faith in the Lord?

Not everything can be changed (v. 15).

It is likely that Solomon, who was an expert on proverbs (1 Kings 4:32), quoted a popular saying here in order to make his point. He makes a similar statement in 7:13. If we spend all our time and energy trying to straighten out everything that is twisted, we will have nothing left with which to live our lives! And if we try to spend what we don’t have, we will end up in bankruptcy.

In short, Solomon is saying, “The past can’t always be changed, and it is foolish to fret over what you might have done.” Ken Taylor paraphrases verse 15, “What is wrong cannot be righted; it is water over the dam; and there is no use thinking of what might have been” (tlb).

We must remind ourselves, however, that God has the power to straighten out what is twisted and supply what is lacking. He cannot change the past, but He can change the way that the past affects us. For the lost sinner, the past is a heavy anchor that drags him down; but for the child of God, the past—even with its sins and mistakes—is a rudder that guides him forward. Faith makes the difference.

When He was ministering here on earth, our Lord often straightened out that which was twisted and provided that which was lacking (Luke 13:11-17; Matt. 12:10-13, 15:29-39; John 6:1-13). Man cannot do this by his own wisdom or power, but “with God nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37). Solomon was looking at these problems from a vantage point “under the sun,” and that’s why they seemed insoluble.

Wisdom and experience will not solve every problem (vv. 16-18).

Those who go through life living on explanations will always be unhappy for at least two reason. First, this side of heaven, there are no explanations for some things that happen, and God is not obligated to explain them anyway. (In fact, if He did, we might not understand them!) Second, God has ordained that His people live by promises and not by explanations, by faith and not by sight. “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

If anybody was equipped to solve the difficult problems of life and tell us what life was all about, Solomon was that person. He was the wisest of men, and people came from all over to hear his wisdom (1 Kings 4:29-34). His wealth was beyond calculation so that he had the resources available to do just about anything he wanted to do. He even experienced “madness and folly” (the absurd, the opposite of wisdom) in his quest for the right answers. Nothing was too hard for him.

But these advantages didn’t enable Solomon to find all the answers he was seeking. In fact, his great wisdom only added to his difficulties; for wisdom and knowledge increase sorrow and grief. People who never ponder the problems of life, who live innocently day after day, never feel the pain of wrestling with God in seeking to understand His ways. The more we seek knowledge and wisdom, the more ignorant we know we are. This only adds to the burden.

“All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,” wrote T.S. Eliot in “Choruses From ‘The Rock.’ ” An old proverb says, “A wise man is never happy.”

All of this goes back to the Garden of Eden and Satan’s offer to Eve that, if she ate of the fruit, she would have the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3). When Adam and Eve sinned, they did get an experiential knowledge of good and evil; but, since they were alienated from God, this knowledge only added to their sorrows. It has been that way with man ever since. Whether it be jet planes, insecticides, or television, each advance in human knowledge and achievement only creates a new set of problems for society.

For some people, life may be monotonous and meaningless; but it doesn’t have to be. For the Christian believer, life is an open door, not a closed circle; there are daily experiences of new blessings from the Lord. True, we can’t explain everything; but life is not built on explanations: it’s built on promises—and we have plenty of promises in God’s Word!

The scientist tells us that the world is a closed system and nothing is changed. The historian tells us that life is a closed book and nothing is new. The philosopher tells us that life is a deep problem and nothing is understood.

But Jesus Christ is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24), and He has miraculously broken into history to bring new life to all who trust Him.

If you are “living in circles,” then turn your life over to Him.

41 The phrase “I set my mind” (1:13, 17) is what is known as an inclusion (i.e., the bracketing off of a passage by beginning and ending a section with the same or similar word or phrase). The use of this particular inclusion again emphasizes Solomon’s personal experience.

42 The word translated “seek” (darash) means to penetrate to the very core of a matter, while the word translated “explore” (tur) means to investigate a subject on all sides. In his quest for satisfaction, Solomon did his homework—he did a thorough job.

43 “Wisdom” (chokmah) in this context does not refer to living life with God in view. It means using human intelligence (“under the sun”) as an instrument to ferret out truth and significance.

44 Ecclesiastes does not use the divine title Yahweh, God’s covenantal name (Exod 3:14-15). Instead, the book uses the word Elohim for God twenty-eight times, a word that stresses His sovereignty over all creation. The wisdom writers often use Elohim when they wish to speak of universal truth instead of truths that are peculiar to God’s covenantal relationship to Israel. Ronald B. Allen, “Ecclesiastes,” in Nelsons New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 782.

45 Most of our Bibles have translated the Hebrew word adam (“man”) as “men.” The phrase then reads: “It is a grievous task which God has given the sons of men to be afflicted with.” Yet, Solomon seems to be alluding to Adam and the effects of the Fall. Therefore, the idea is: On account of Adam’s fall, the sons of Adam seek and explore in pursuit of the meaning of life, but to no avail.

46 “Striving after wind” is only used in the book of Ecclesiastes. Seven of its nine occurrences follow hebel (“vanity,” futile,” etc.) statements (1:14; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6; 6:9). Constable suggests, “This phrase ‘striving after wind’ occurs frequently in Eccl 1:12-6:9 and is a structural marker that indicates the end of a subsection of Solomon’s thought (cf. 1:17; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6, 16; 6:9).” Dr. Thomas L. Constable, “Notes on Ecclesiastes”; 2007 edition: http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/ecclesiastes.pdf, 10.

47 A universal theme in wisdom and philosophic writings is that the life of wisdom is the highest of all callings. In Plato the task of the philosopher is the purest of all. Here, however, it is a grievous task (we could translate the phrase as a “lousy job”). Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1993).

48 In Rom 1:21-32, Paul says that man’s thoughts are foolish, futile, dark, immoral, and perverted.

49 Solomon observes that it is God who has “afflicted” us with this task. This is significant because the “affliction” that we experience should be the very thing that drives us to God, the ultimate goal of living.

50 The external and internal divisions come from Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.

51 The phrase “I realized” and its synonyms occur frequently in Ecclesiastes (cf. 1:13; 2:1, 3, 14, 15; 3:17, 18, 22; 7:25; 8:9, 16; 9:1).

52 This is a great line from Vicini in the classic movie Princess Bride.

53 Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs.

54 Michael P. Andrus, “The Search for Satisfaction” (Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26): unpublished sermon notes.

55 Quoted in David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 23.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2021 in Ecclesiastes

 

Ecclesiastes: The Good Life #1 Is Life Worth Living? Ecclesiastes 1:1-11


Your Purpose Green Road Sign Over Dramatic Clouds and Sky.

Ecclesiastes 1:1-18 (ESV)
1  The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2  Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3  What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
4  A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
5  The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.
6  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.
7  All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.
8  All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
9  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.
10  Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us.
11  There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.

“Everything an Indian does is in a circle,” said Black Elk, the Sioux religious leader. “Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood ….”

You would think Black Elk had been studying the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, except for one fact: for centuries, wise men and women in different nations and cultures have been pondering the mysteries of the “circles” of human life. Whenever you use phrases like “life cycle,” or “the wheel of fortune,” or “come full circle,” you are joining Solomon and Black Elk and a host of others in taking a cyclical view of life and nature.

But this “cyclical” view of life was a burden to Solomon. For if life is only part of a great cycle over which we have no control, is life worth living? If this cycle is repeated season after season, century after century, why are we unable to understand it and explain it? Solomon pondered these questions as he looked at the cycle of life “under the sun,” and he came to three bleak conclusions: nothing is changed (1:4-7), nothing is new (1:8-11), and nothing is understood (1:12-18).

Nothing is changed (Eccl. 1:4-7)

In this section, Solomon approached the problem as a scientist and examined the “wheel of nature” around him: the earth, the sun, the wind, and the water. (This reminds us of the ancient “elements” of earth, air, fire, and water.) He was struck by the fact that generations of people came and went while the things of nature remained. There was “change” all around, yet nothing really changed. Everything was only part of the “wheel of nature” and contributed to the monotony of life. So, Solomon asked, “Is life worth living?”

To clarify his meaning and to support his contention in 1:3, Solomon cites four examples from nature. In 1:4-7, Solomon answers his own question: There is no advantage for one to work from earth’s perspective because everyone is caught in the unending and unalterable cycles of life.23

The Earth (1:4). The transitory nature of human generations contrasts with the permanence and apparent immutability of the physical world. Solomon writes, “A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” You are born into the world, you live your life, and then you die, but the earth keeps right on going. Birth announcements are on one page and obituaries are on the next. Generations passing parade. It’s like you’re walking across the desert, leaving footprints in the sand that the wind erases as though you were never there.24

From the human point of view, nothing seems more permanent and durable than the planet on which we live. When we say that something is “as sure as the world,” we are echoing Solomon’s confidence in the permanence of planet Earth. With all of its diversity, nature is uniform enough in its operation that we can discover its “laws” and put them to work for us. In fact, it is this “dependability” that is the basis for modern science.

Nature is permanent, but man is transient, a mere pilgrim on earth. His pilgrimage is a brief one, for death finally claims him. At the very beginning of his book, Solomon introduced a topic frequently mentioned in Ecclesiastes: the brevity of life and the certainty of death.

Individuals and families come and go, nations and empires rise and fall, but nothing changes, for the world remains the same. Thomas Carlyle called history “a mighty drama, enacted upon the theater of time, with suns for lamps and eternity for a background.” Solomon would add that the costumes and sets may occasionally change, but the actors and the script remain pretty much the same; and that’s as sure as the world.

The Sun (1:5). Solomon writes, “Also, the sun rises and the sun sets; and hastening to its place it rises there again.” The sun is on a monotonous cycle of rising, setting, and then racing back to the place from which it rises. The verb translated “hastening” means “to pant.” The sun is like a runner endlessly making his way around a racetrack. As each generation comes and goes, so also each day comes and goes with a regular and monotonous passing. It has been said, “The problem with daily living is that it is so DAILY.”

We move now from the cycle of birth and death on earth to the cycle of day and night in the heavens.

“As sure as the world!” is replaced by “As certain as night follows day!” Solomon pictures the sun rising in the east and “panting” (literal translation) its way across the sky in pursuit of the western horizon. But what does it accomplish by this daily journey? To what purpose is all this motion and heat? As far as the heavens are concerned, one day is just like another, and the heavens remain the same.

The Wind (1:6).25 “Blowing toward the south, then turning toward the north, the wind continues swirling along; and on its circular courses the wind returns.” As the movement of the sun implies an east-west course, now the wind is described as moving north and south. The repetition in “going round and round” heightens the sense of monotony and purposelessness.

From the visible east-west movement of the sun, Solomon turned to the invisible north-south movement of the wind. He was not giving a lecture on the physics of wind. Rather, he was stating that the wind is in constant motion, following “circuits” that man cannot fully understand or chart. “The wind blows where it wishes,” our Lord said to Nicodemus, “and you … cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes” (John 3:8, nkjv).

Solomon’s point is this: the wind is constantly moving and changing directions, and yet it is still—the wind! We hear it and feel it, and we see what it does, but over the centuries, the wind has not changed its cycles or circuits. Man comes and goes, but the changeless wind goes on forever.

The Rivers (1:7). “All the rivers flow into the sea, yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, there they flow again.” The sense of accomplishing nothing is reinforced here. The rivers continually empty into the sea but cannot fill it. The last phrase does not refer to the cycle of evaporation and rainfall as implied in the NIV translation. The implication here is not cyclic motion but futile activity.

These verses profoundly impress certain sensations on the reader. First, there is a sense of the indifference of the universe to our presence. It was here before we came, and it will be here, unchanged, after we have gone. Second, however, the universe, like us, is trapped in a cycle of monotonous and meaningless motion. It is forever moving, but it accomplishes nothing. Finally, a sense of loneliness and abandonment pervades the text. No one has described this better than the apostle Paul. The creation is “subjected to frustration,” in “bondage to decay,” and awaiting “freedom” (Rom 8:19-21).26 [Solomon has argued that life is fleeting. In 1:8-11, he shares a second problem with life.]

Solomon described here the “water cycle” that helps to sustain life on our planet. Scientists tell us that, at any given time, 97 percent of all the water on earth is in the oceans; and only.0001 percent is in the atmosphere, available for rain. (That’s enough for about ten days of rain.) The cooperation of the sun and the wind makes possible the evaporation and movement of moisture, and this keeps the water “circulating.” But the sea never changes! The rivers and the rains pour water into the seas, but the seas remain the same.

So, whether we look at the earth or the heavens, the winds or the waters, we come to the same conclusion: nature does not change. There is motion but not promotion. No wonder Solomon cites the monotony of life as his first argument to prove that life is not worth living (1:4-11).

All of this is true only if you look at lifeunder the sun” and leave God out of the picture. Then the world becomes a closed system that is uniform, predictable, unchangeable. It becomes a world where there are no answers to prayer and no miracles, for nothing can interrupt the cycle of nature. If there is a God in this kind of a world, He cannot act on our behalf because He is imprisoned within the “laws of nature” that cannot be suspended.

However, God does break into nature to do great and wonderful things! He does hear and answer prayer and work on behalf of His people. He held the sun in place so Joshua could finish an important battle (Josh. 10:6-14), and He moved the sun back as a sign to King Hezekiah (Isa. 38:1-8). He opened the Red Sea and the Jordan River for Israel (Ex. 14; Josh. 3-4). He “turned off” the rain for Elijah (1 Kings 17) and then “turned it on” again (James 5:17-18). He calmed the wind and the waves for the disciples (Mark 4:35-41), and in the future, will use the forces of nature to bring terror and judgment to people on the earth (see Revelation 6ff).

When, by faith, you receive Jesus Christ as your Saviour through baptism for remission of sins, and God becomes your Heavenly Father, you no longer live in a “closed system” of endless monotonous cycles. You can gladly sing, “This is my Father’s world!” and know that He will meet your every need as you trust Him (Matt. 6:25-34). Christians live in this world as pilgrims, not prisoners, and therefore they are joyful and confident.

Life is Disappointing (1:8-11).

If nothing changes, then it is reasonable to conclude that nothing in this world is new. This “logical conclusion” might have satisfied people in Solomon’s day, but it startles us today. After all, we are surrounded by, and dependent on, a multitude of marvels that modern science has provided for us—everything from telephones to pacemakers and miracle drugs.

How could anybody who watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon agree with Solomon that nothing is new under the sun? In this discussion, Solomon stopped being a scientist and became a historian. Let’s follow the steps in his reasoning.

Man wants something new (v. 8).

Why? Because everything in this world ultimately brings weariness, and people long for something to distract them or deliver them. They are like the Athenians in Paul’s day, spending their time “in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17:21). But even while they are speaking, seeing, and hearing these “new things,” they are still dissatisfied with life and will do almost anything to find some escape. Of course, the entertainment industry is grateful for this human hunger for novelty and takes advantage of it at great profit.

In Ecclesiastes 3:11, Solomon explains why men and women are not satisfied with life: God has put “eternity in their heart” (niv, nasb, nkjv) and nobody can find peace and satisfaction apart from Him. “Thou hast made us for Thyself,” prayed St. Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” The eye cannot be satisfied until it sees the hand of God, and the ear cannot be satisfied until it hears the voice of God. We must respond by faith to our Lord’s invitation, “Come unto me … and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).

The world provides nothing new (vv. 9-10).

Dr. H.A. Ironside used to say, “If it’s new, it’s not true; and if it’s true, it’s not new.” Whatever is new is simply a recombination of the old. Man cannot “create” anything new because man is the creature, not the Creator. “That which hath been is now, and that which is to be hath already been” (3:15). Thomas Alva Edison, one of the world’s greatest inventors, said that his inventions were only “bringing out the secrets of nature and applying them for the happiness of mankind.”

Only God can create new things, and he begins by making sinners “new creatures” when they trust Jesus Christ to save them (2 Cor. 5:17). Then they can walk “in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4), sing a “new song” (Ps. 40:3), and enter into God’s presence by a “new and living way” (Heb. 10:20).

Why we think things are new (v. 11).

The answer is simple: we have bad memories and we don’t read the minutes of the previous meeting. (See 2:16, 4:16, and 9:5.) It has well been said that the ancients have stolen all of our best ideas, and this is painfully true.

Solomon wrote, of course, about the basic principles of life and not about methods. As the familiar couplet puts it: Methods are many, principles are few / methods always change, principles never do. The ancient thinkers knew this. The Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote, “They that come after us will see nothing new, and they who went before us saw nothing more than we have seen.” The only people who really think they have seen something new are those whose experience is limited or whose vision can’t penetrate beneath the surface of things. Because something is recent, they think it is new; they mistake novelty for originality.

In these next four verses, Solomon demonstrates that everything and everyone in life will ultimately disappoint us. There are three basic reasons for this: There is no satisfaction under the sun, there is nothing new under the sun, and no one is remembered under the sun.

No satisfaction under the sun (1:8). Solomon states that nothing is truly fulfilling. He writes, “All things are wearisome; man is not able to tell it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear filled with hearing.”27 The Rolling Stones made famous the song, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” Sadly, this song could have been written by Solomon himself. Just like Mick Jagger and the rest of the Stones, Solomon had it all…and then some, yet everything was wearisome to him since one can never say, see, or hear enough. Man just can’t get NO satisfaction! Have you seen a good movie? Read a good book? Listened to a great song? Enjoyed a restful vacation? Delighted in a special experience? It is never enough. It never satisfies, for ultimately you want MORE.

Nothing new under the sun (1:9-10). Solomon writes, “That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one might say, ‘See this, it is new’? Already it has existed for ages which were before us.” The French have a proverb that goes: “The more things change, the more they turn out to be the same.” While there are new inventions, and God does do new things, Solomon is talking about how man can never be satisfied “under the sun.” Solomon is saying that there is no advantage for one to work from earth’s perspective because one’s work will never result in anything new, but only that which has been. If it appears that something new happens from time to time, it is only because our memories are short.28 Seriously, most of us don’t know history, so we keep thinking we’re coming up with new ideas!29 We often mistake movement with progress. We think we are making progress but in reality we are driving around a cul-de-sac and wondering why the neighborhoods all look the same.

Some people track their year, not on the basis of the months or seasons but on sports: baseball in the summer, football in the fall, basketball and hockey in the winter, and NASCAR in the spring. Where do you go when you conclude that there is nothing truly meaningful in life? Back to the stadium, where at least there are games with consistent rules, rewards, and penalties.30

Not remembered (1:11). Solomon writes, “There is no remembrance of earlier things; and also of the later things which will occur, there will be for them no remembrance among those who will come later still.” We need not look any further than the sports page to have this verified. One injury is all it takes to become forgotten. Household names can be discarded quickly. Yet the simple truth is: No one will remember anyone in the future. One hundred years from now everything and everyone will have been forgotten, regardless of what occurs today.

There is good news and bad news in 1:11. The good news is for those people who worry about what others think about them. In the end, no one will think about you at all. The bad news is for those who seek some type of temporal immortality. In the end, no one will think about you at all.31

When you die, there will be a funeral. You may have twenty-five or 2,000 people attend. But do you know what they’ll do after the funeral? They will catch lunch and have a great old time together. Then they will hurry back to work because somebody was covering for them. That night they’ll go home to their families, watch a sitcom rerun, and forget all about your memorial by morning. Are you ready for that?32 Mark Twain was right, “The world will lament you for an hour and forget you forever.”33

Perhaps this makes you feel empty. That’s exactly what Solomon is seeking to accomplish. He wants you to feel an overwhelming sense of emptiness, for emptiness is designed to draw us to God. We must learn to value emptiness. As we acknowledge our sense of meaninglessness, we are motivated to search for more. We must learn to value emptiness for its positive potential. As an empty cup invites water or a vacant room invites entrance, so an empty heart can lead us to search for God-given ways to fill it.34

By putting on biblical binoculars, we can see how Solomon concludes his book. In 12:13-14 he writes, “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.” These two verses and the message of the Bible tell us that the best way to live under the sun is to live in the Son. The good news is that God has not left us “under the sun.”

If you have believed in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord through baptism for remission of sins, life is not “under the sun” but rather in the SON. He brings purpose, peace, and significance. He gives you the opportunity to live an abundant life (John 10:10).

However, the Bible is clear that apart from the Lord Jesus life under the sun is terribly disappointing. It is cursed! It is disjointed! It is upside down! It is in bondage to decay! It is meaningless! It needs to be liberated!35 This will happen when we leave this life and go and be with Jesus.

In the meantime, the best way to live under the sun is to live in the Son. This means we must “fear God and obey His commandments…for God will bring every act into judgment.” The question of 1:3 is the most important question of the book: “What advantage36 does man have in all his work which he does under the sun?” Solomon’s concern is what do humans have “left over” after life is over. What difference do the activities of this life have in the next life? Does anything last beyond the grave? Can we make certain (beyond the shadow of a doubt…beyond the shadow of death) that what we do in this life has some lasting value? This should be the key question of our lives (and of the lives of all other people). What can we do to guarantee a return on our life-investment?37

The answer that Solomon gives is to fear God and obey His commandments. When we do this, our fleeting lives begin to count for eternity. The disappointments that we experience in this life are bearable. When everything around us seems meaningless and monotonous, Christ—the Meaning in life, gives us meaning. When we are weary from the wearisome nature of life, Christ says, “Come to Me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).

When we can’t get no satisfaction under the sun, we can find satisfaction in the Son. When we can’t find anything new, we remember that Christ has created a new covenant, given the new birth, and new life. When we feel like no one will ever remember us, we can take confidence in the truth that God remembers us, and one day we can overcome this world and receive a new name that Christ Himself will give to us. In the meantime, the best way to live under the sun is to live in the Son.

The Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote, “They that come after us will see nothing new, and they who went before us saw nothing more than we have seen.” The only people who really think they have seen something new are those whose experience is limited or whose vision can’t penetrate beneath the surface of things. Because something is recent, they think it is new; they mistake novelty for originality.

23 Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” See www.infoplease.com/cig/theories-universe/scientific-origins-universe.html.

24 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 13.

25 Solomon is particularly interested in the wind. He refers to it once in the Song of Solomon, six times in Proverbs, and fourteen times in Ecclesiastes. Jesus also spoke of the wind when he was sharing the gospel with Nicodemus (John 3:8).

26 Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs,

27 This last phrase is a loose quotation of Prov 27:20: “As Death and Destruction are never satisfied, so the eyes of a person are never satisfied” (NET).

28 Ronald B. Allen, “Ecclesiastes,” in Nelsons New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 781.

29 David Fairchild, “Futility Under The Sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11):

30 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 12.

31 Ray Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun: Ancient Wisdom for Contemporary Living (Chicago: Moody, 1998), 29.

32 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 12.

33 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 5.

34 Wayne Schmidt, Soul Management (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 15. Schmidt quotes David Augsburger who states, “Emptiness is at the center of our humanness. To flee it is to miss the creative openness toward creation and Creator. To stuff it full of things is to block our ability to receive others in listening love. To anesthetize it with addictive experiences is to deaden the creative springs of the true self. Emptiness is to be embraced as a gift.” See David Augsburger, When Enough Is Enough (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1984), 52.

35 Ardel B. Caneday, “Qoheleth: Enigmatic Pessimist or Godly Sage?” Grace Theological Journal 7.1 (1986): 55.

36 The noun yithron (“advantage, profit, excess”) appears only in the book of Ecclesiastes in the following passages: Eccl 1:3; 2:11, 13 [twice]; 3:9; 5:8, 15; 7:12; 10:10, 11. Profit is always on our minds (e.g., profit margins profit shares). God has wired us this way; however, He wants us to look toward eternal profit.

37 Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.

also Bible Exposition Commentary – Bible Exposition Commentary – Be Satisfied (Ecclesiastes).

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2021 in Ecclesiastes

 

Ecclesiastes: The Good Life – An Introduction


Your Purpose Green Road Sign Over Dramatic Clouds and Sky.

“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.

The Author

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).

The Aim

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).

Profit.

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?”

Labor.

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.”

Man.

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.

Evil.

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.”

Joy.

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.

Wisdom.

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).

God.

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.

 

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2021 in Ecclesiastes

 

“God’s Person in an Upside-Down World” — The Be-attitudes Series and The Good Life: Ecclesiastes An Introduction


 

(Sermon presented as introduction to the Be-Attitudes series but also a class study of the book of Ecclesiastes)

What would it take to make you happy? That’s the question Psychology Today asked 52,000 Americans. And their answers in rank order included:

Friends

A good job

Being in love

Recognition or success

Sex

Personal growth

A good house or apartment

Being attractive or beautiful

Good health

The city that I live in

My religion

Recreation and exercise

Being a parent

Ironically, the last one was: My partner’s happiness

The most interesting thing about that entire list is that virtually everything the respondents named was an external thing or an external situation.

In other words, the popular idea of happiness is that I’ll have it if I can ever line up the right circumstances.

Now that’s not a new idea. In fact, our English word “happiness” is from the same root word as our English word “happening.” Do you get the connection? If I can just get enough positive happenings in my life, then surely I will receive happiness. I call it “WHEN AND THEN” thinking:

  • Like, when I get out of school then I’ll be happy.
  • Or, when I get a job then I’ll be happy.
  • Or, when I get rich then I’ll be happy.
  • Or, when I get married then I’ll be happy.
  • When I have children then I’ll be happy.
  • When all the children have left home then I’ll be happy.
  • When and then…When and then…When and then…I’ll be happy.

Well maybe, it’s some consolation to know that man has always thought that way. If you’ll turn with me to Ecclesiastes 2, we’re going to take a look real quickly at a book, a journal, that was written by King Solomon as he chased that elusive pot of gold called, “happiness.”

 “I thought in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find  out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless.”    (Ecclesiastes 2:1)

By the way, if you want to save yourself a lot of time, a lot of frustration, and a lot of heartache in your quest for happiness. Go home and read very thoroughly, the book of Ecclesiastes.

Solomon, who was far and away the most powerful man in the world in his day and likely the richest man who ever walked the face of the earth, he said, “I tried it all and I found three dead ends.

The first dead end was accumulating things.

7  I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem.
8  I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.

O Solomon said, you name it, I had it. But, we’ll see what the result was in just a moment.

The second thing he tried was experiencing pleasure.

1  I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity.
2  I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?”
3  I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life.

10  And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.

And the third thing he tried was achieving success.

4  I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself.
5  I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees.
6  I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees.
9  So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me.
11  Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

 Do you see what he tried? He said, I tried accumulating things, experiencing pleasure, achieving success.

3,000 years later, those are still the things we think we’ve got to chase to achieve happiness. Isn’t that right? Starting with accumulating things.

A bumper sticker: “Whoever said money can’t buy happiness just doesn’t know where to shop.” That’s the way most people think. How many times have I heard somebody say, “Man, if I could just win the lottery, I’d be so happy.”

Two newspaper articles a few years back, one was about a man by the name of Buddy Post. Buddy is now 58 years old, a former carnival worker and cook. He hit the jackpot in the Pennsylvania lottery. He won $16.2 million. Buddy is on Easy Street now, isn’t he? NOT!

He has been convicted of assault. His sixth wife has left him. His brother has been convicted of trying to kill him for the money. His landlady has sued him for one-third of his winnings. And the gas company has shut off the gas to the decrepit old mansion that he bought and can’t keep up.

From the Dallas Morning News, about Jim and Lynette Nichols. Lynette bought 23 one-dollar tickets and she was thrilled when one of those was good for one-third of a $48,000,000 jackpot.

Now Jim and Lynette are getting a divorce after 12 years of marriage. The divorce proceedings have taken over two years because, you guessed it, they’re trying to sort out who gets how much of the money. Lynette Nichols, who had the ticket, said, “We had one month of good times and three years of misery. It was a curse. It didn’t help at all.”

Solomon found it out the hard way. You don’t get happy by accumulating things. You don’t get happy by experiencing pleasure: sex, drugs, gambling, whatever, anything to give a thrill, anything to give a rush, anything to give a buzz. It’s like the old Eagles song says, “After the thrill is gone, you’re unhappier than you ever were.”

And you don’t receive it by achieving success. The idea that if I can just get to the top of the ladder, at least make everybody think I’ve got it made, then I’ll be happy.

Ecclesiastes 2:17 (ESV) So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.

If you don’t leave here with anything else today, leave here knowing this. Your happiness will not come from your happenings. Your happiness will not come from any external force.

Turn in your Bibles to Matthew 5 where we’ll camp for the rest of our time together.

We’re going to see what Jesus says about happiness. I’ll tell you right now that he says your happiness doesn’t depend on your circumstances, it depends on your attitudes.

In Matthew 5 we have the opening lines of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, and that sermon begins with eight positive statements about happiness that we’ve come to call the Be-attitudes.

Now it’s interesting to me that of all the subjects that Jesus could have picked to start the greatest, most famous sermon of all time, he chose to speak on, “How to Be Happy.”

Do you know why? Because he knew that is what everybody wants and what so few people find. So for the next eight weeks we’re going to look at those eight beatitudes.

Being a master Teacher, our Lord did not begin this important sermon with a negative criticism of the scribes and Pharisees. He began with a positive emphasis on righteous character and the blessings that it brings to the life of the believer.

In the Beatitudes and the pictures of the believer, Jesus described Christian character that flowed from within.

If you’ve turned to Matthew 5 beginning in verse 3, you see that each beatitude begins with the word, “Blessed.” The word, “blessed,” in English is really a holdover in the Old English in the King James. The Greek word there is “makarios” and it just literally means “happy.”

The meaning of makarios can best be seen from one particular usage of it. The Greeks always called Cyprus the makaria, which means The Happy Isle, and they did so because they believed that Cyprus was so lovely, so rich, and so fertile an island that a man would never need to go beyond its coastline to find the perfectly happy life.

It had such a climate, such flowers and fruits and trees, such minerals, such natural resources that it contained within itself all the materials for perfect happiness.

Makarios then describes that joy which has its secret within itself, that joy which is serene and untouchable, and self-contained, that joy which is completely independent of all the chances and the changes of life.

The beatitudes are not pious hopes of what shall be; they are not glowing, but nebulous prophecies of some future bliss; they are congratulations on what is.

 

The blessedness which belongs to the Christian is not a blessedness which is postponed to some future world of glory; it is a blessedness which exists here and now. It is not something into which the Christian will enter; it is something into which he has entered.

True, it will find its fulness and its consummation in the presence of God; but for all that it is a present reality to be enjoyed here and now.

Let me ask you something right now.

  • If you’re going to have to have all your problems solved before you’re going to be happy, will you ever be happy? NO.
  • If you’re going to have to have everything perfect in your life before you’re going to be happy, will you ever be happy? NO.
  • So Jesus says I want to teach you that happiness doesn’t depend on having the right circumstances, it depends on having the right attitudes.

 

In other words, “My happiness is not determined by what’s happening to me, but what’s happening in me.”

  • Jesus says it’s not how much we have that makes us happy, it’s what we are that makes us happy.
  • It doesn’t depend upon the circumstances outside, it depends upon the attitude inside.
  • What Jesus is getting at then is that happiness is a choice. You choose it as you choose the right attitudes.

 

Mark Twain over 100 years ago had a great statement. He said, “Do you know what happens to most people over life?…About the same things.” Mark Twain concluded, he says then most people are about as happy as they choose to be.

 

The world can win its joys, and the world can equally well lose its joys. A change in fortune, a collapse in health, the failure of a plan, the disappointment of an ambition, even a change in the weather, can take away the fickle joy the world can give.

 

But the Christian has the serene and untouchable joy which comes from walking for ever in the company and in the presence of Jesus Christ.

 

The greatness of the beatitudes is that they are not wistful glimpses of some future beauty; they are not even golden promises of some distant glory; they are triumphant shouts of bliss for a permanent joy that nothing in the world can ever take away.

 

We all cry, we all laugh, we all smile, we all frown, we all hurt, we all have pleasure. You know if you live long enough about the same things happen.

 

You hurt and you cry, does that mean you cannot be happy? Absolutely not. Your happiness depends upon the right attitudes. And that is what we will be seeing in coming weeks.

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2021 in Be-Attitudes, Ecclesiastes

 
 
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