The Message of Ecclesiastes213
There is nothing like the joy and satisfaction of a job well done. For example, you like to work with your hands and start to make a piece of furniture. After several days of hard work, when you finally complete the job and take a look at the beautiful piece that you produced, you are filled with the joy and the deep satisfaction of having produced something beautiful.
Life, however, is not always a success story. There are times when a person has to face disappointments and frustrations of a task that has been messed up. For example, the other day I started out to fix our toaster. I thought it would be very easy, and so I opened it up. As soon as I opened it up, the springs became loose. I did not even know there were springs in a toaster! Everything tangled up. After a couple of hours, I was finally able to put it back together and felt very good about my ability to fix things. But as soon as I plugged it in, the coil blew up! I must have connected the wires incorrectly.
Such things happen ever so often in our homes. However, such things do not really matter. In most cases, a spoiled job can be amended or started over to a successful completion. It may take a little more time or sometimes a little more expense than originally planned. At the worst, you may have to throw away the broken appliance and buy a new one.
But what if the job that you have almost completed, and are looking back over to see how you have done, is nothing less than your very life? What if, to your utter dismay, you find that it was a total failure, completely messed up? What can you do? Can you start it all over again? Can you exchange your life for a new one?
One of the wisest statements you can find in the Bible was uttered by an old lady from a remote, primitive town named Takoa. Talking to King David, she tells him, “Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered so we must die” (2 Sam. 14:14). In the context of the life lived in the Middle Eastern parched desert, that statement provides a far more vivid picture of wasted life than we in the Western world can imagine!
However, you can do one thing. Tell your children and grandchildren about the mistakes you made to warn them early in life. Or, even better, you can write a book about your frustrating life-experience so people can read it and learn a lesson, perhaps many years after you have gone from this world.
This is exactly what the wise man of old did when he wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes.
It is assumed here that Solomon is the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes, although his name is nowhere mentioned in the book. The references in the book clearly suggest his authorship. It is also assumed that Solomon wrote this book in the later part of his life.
We can picture King Solomon sitting in the beautiful garden of his royal palace. He is now old and weak; most of his life is gone. He is surrounded by a crowd of servants, but he is feeling lonely. He has all the good things that the world can offer, but he is not interested in them any more. Sitting in his rocking chair, lost in his thoughts, he takes a look over his life to see how he has done. What does he see? After taking stock of all his major works, he finds:
“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” (2:11).
The Book of Ecclesiastes is part of the wisdom literature of the Bible. It is a philosophical book, actually the most philosophical book in the Bible, and it presents the Judeo-Christian perspective of the world and the things of the world.
Thematically, this is perhaps the most misunderstood book of the Bible. A quick and superficial reading gives the impression that the author presents a very negative and pessimistic picture of life. The repeated use of words like “vanity” or “meaninglessness,” and phrases like “striving after wind,” create the impression of hopeless despair, depicting the emptiness and disappointments of life. For this reason, even its legitimate place in the canon has often been questioned, beginning from early church history.
Obviously, there are verses in the book that, taken out of context, present a very pessimistic worldview. But actually the book presents the hope of all hopes. It presents life as a beautiful tapestry designed by God and states that the ultimate meaning of which can only be found in complete submission to God.
There are three threads of thought that run through the book: the enjoyment theme, the vanity theme, and the eternity theme. These three threads are carefully woven together in the book to bring out the beautiful picture of God's design for mankind.
Solomon is certainly not against material things, as it may seem from a superficial reading of the book. On the contrary, he believes that material things are a gift from God, created and given to us for our enjoyment. He says:
“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” (2:24).
“I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one's lifetime; moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor – it is the gift of God” (3:12-13).
“Here is what I have seen to be good and fitting: to eat, to drink and enjoy oneself in all one's labor in which he toils under the sun during the few years of his life which God has given him; for this is his reward. Furthermore, as for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, He has also empowered him to eat from them and to receive his reward and rejoice in his labor; this is the gift of God” (5:18-19).
He says the same thing in 9:7-9 and 11:9-10.
From the Biblical perspective, material things are not evil. It is against the nature of the Holy God to create anything evil. As the Bible says, “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). On the contrary, things are considered good in the Bible. In the creation account of Genesis 1, when God repeatedly surveyed the parts of the creation, it is remarked several times that God looked at what He had made and “saw that it was good” (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). It is interesting to note that this phrase is used twice in relation to the creation of the earth and the things on the earth (1:9-13), which are later gifted to man for his enjoyment (Genesis 1:29). At the end of the overall creation, it is noted, “And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good” (1:31). The Psalmist praises God again and again for the beauty of God’s creation. Our physical body is also not considered evil, but as David notes in one of his Psalms, it is “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:13-16).
In the New Testament also material things are never considered evil. Jesus declared material things “good” when He said, “you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children … ” (Matthew 7:11). Jesus included “daily bread,” which is a symbol of all the physical and material needs of man, in his model prayer. The Apostle Paul says, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude” (1 Timothy 4:4).
So, Solomon is not against the use or enjoyment of material things of the world. On the contrary, he believes that material things are a gift from God, created and given to man for his enjoyment, and that there is nothing wrong in enjoying material things.
However, there is one more thing he wants us to remember: the meaning of life cannot be found in anything under the sun – be it our material possessions or other immaterial things like human wisdom or intellect. Everything of this world is vain and futile in the ultimate sense, as it cannot fulfill the human desire for meaningfulness.
The vanity theme is the most prominent theme in the Book of Ecclesiastes. So, at the first impression, the book creates a very pessimistic picture. The Hebrew word “hebel,” meaning “vanity” or “meaninglessness,” has been used 38 times in this book, 5 in the first verse of the main body, and 3 times in the last verse just before the final conclusion. Similarly, the phrase “striving after wind” has been used 9 times. “Labor” occurs 23 times; “evil” 22 times; “vexation of spirit” 9 times. Such words as “oppression,” “grief,” “mourning,” “no advantage,” “nothing gained,” “what advantage is there?” are used frequently. All this creates an overall picture of pessimism.
One after another Solomon takes all the things that we usually consider good and points out their futility and meaninglessness: futility of all human endeavor (1:3-11); futility of pleasure and possession (2:1-11); futility of human wisdom (2:18-23); and futility of wealth (5:8-17). He sets forth the vanity of everything in this world of which he can think. He tries everything under the sun that is supposed to be capable of making man happy, but to his utter dismay, he finds that all is vanity and vexation of spirit, that every effort in acquiring happiness in whatever way it may be ends in sorrow. The greater the capacity of the object to give enjoyment, the deeper and wider is the experience of disappointment and vexation of spirit.
Solomon has brought out the meaninglessness of everything under the sun, as we noted above, to lay up the foundation for his final thesis. If nothing is permanent, if nothing under the sun can give real and lasting happiness, how can man fulfill his desire for the meaning of life? Where can he find the things that can give real and lasting happiness and fulfill the quest for the meaning of life? Solomon says certainly not under the sun, but he can surely find it from beyond the sun.
Although everything under the sun is temporal, God has set eternity in man's heart (3:11b). Every culture, no matter how primitive or developed, has a concept of eternity, of something that will last forever. Because of this sense of eternity in his heart, man is looking for something that will last forever, most of all, something that will make him last forever.
Generally speaking, man's efforts to find ways to become eternal are misdirected; he tries to do something that will make him eternal on the earth. But Solomon says that there is only one way that man's sense of eternity can be fulfilled – it can be fulfilled only in God – not in anything else under the sun. He says, “I know that everything God does will remain forever, there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it” (3:14). Apart from God, anything that man does on earth does not have any eternal value; it is only God who can bring eternity to the temporal works of man. That is why Moses prayed, “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us; and do give permanence to the work of our hands; yes, give permanence to the work of our hands” (Psalm 90:17).
Because God is infinite and man is finite, man can never fully comprehend the work of God:
“When I gave my heart to know wisdom and to see the task which has been done on the earth (even though one should never sleep day or night), and I saw every work of God, I concluded that man can not discover the work which has been done under the sun. Even though man should seek laboriously, he will not discover; and though the wise man should say 'I know,' he cannot discover” (8:16-17).
“Just as you do not know the path of the wind and how bones are formed in the womb of the pregnant woman, so you do not know the activity of God who makes all things” (11:5).
Because God is in complete control and man a finite creature, the only way left for man to be happy and satisfied is obedience – complete submission to God. The truest and greatest joy of life comes from obedience to God alone and from nothing else. Everything else is vain and meaningless – like chasing after the wind. That is why Solomon advised the young man to remember his creator before it is too late:
“Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near when you will say, ‘I have no delight in them;’ before the sun, the light, the moon, and the stars are darkened, and clouds return after the rain … ” (12:1-2).
In summary, what Solomon is saying is this: enjoy all the material things of the world. There is nothing wrong in that. They are gifts from God. However, remember that these things cannot last forever nor can they give real lasting happiness. The purpose and meaning of life cannot be found in any of these things. So, acknowledge God as the source of all enjoyment; He alone can give meaning to life; He alone can give eternal significance to our temporal works.
Solomon learned from his own experience that all material things are his to use and fully enjoy, but he realized that he can enjoy them only if he has first established a relationship with God, who is the Giver of all material blessing and the source of real joy and happiness. Without that primary relationship to God, all things are vain and empty. That is why he raises the question: “For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?” (2:25). Augustine said, “No man can find peace except he finds it in God.” Similarly, Pascal said, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every person. And it can never be filled by any created thing. It can only be filled by God, made known through Jesus Christ."”
This is the message of Ecclesiastes; this is the message of the Bible. This is what Jesus said: “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33). Paul writes in Philippians (4:11-13) that he can be happy and content in every situation no matter what kind of circumstances he is in, since his joy does not depend on the outward circumstances, but on the inner strength that comes from God.
Someone has described the enjoyment of material things during this brief lifetime like a bird perched on a branch of a tall tree.
“Let us be like a bird
For a moment perched
On a frail branch while he sings,
Though he feels it bend, yet he sings his song,
Knowing that he has wings.”
(Sarah Williams in “The Old Astronomer”)
To live life enjoying only material things without the perspective of eternity is to be like a bird whose wings are clipped sitting on a frail branch of a tall tree. Man can enjoy this life only on wings of eternity. Solomon missed it. And he wrote this book so none of us have to miss like him.
There is a positive example in the Bible from the life of another man of God, Paul. Like Solomon, he too, near the end of his life, takes a look back and evaluates his life. What does he find?
“For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge will award to me on that day—not only to me but to all who have longed for His appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
What a joy!! What a satisfaction!! At the end of my life when I look back, what will I find? Heartbreaking frustration like Solomon, or joyful satisfaction like Paul? The answer depends on whether I am living my life on the basis of the here-and-now or on the Wings of Eternity.
The book begins with the note of utter frustration: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” But it ends with the certain cure of that problem: “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”
213 This is the edited manuscript of a message delivered by guest speaker Imanuel Christian at Community Bible Chapel, on April 22, 2001.