2 Timothy 3:12-16 3:12 Now in fact all who want to live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. 3:13 But evil people and charlatans will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived themselves. 3:14 You, however, must continue in the things you have learned and are confident about. You know who taught you 3:15 and how from infancy you have known the holy writings, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 3:16 Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,
Ecclesiastes is inspired scripture. As we continue in this study today, there is one fact that is not up for debate. That fact is that Ecclesiastes is inspired scripture and therefore profitable. While many may debate the author, date, meaning, setting, and even its divine inspiration—we will not debate whether or not it is scripture and inspired.
Ecclesiastes is capable of being understood. Often a study of the book of Ecclesiastes can be a daunting task to undertake. At times it seems confusing, at times self contradictory, at other times completely hedonistic. A presupposition that must be stated and understood in this study is that the Word of God was written to be understood. God has revealed himself in a manner which is understandable.
While we establish that the task in front of us is possible, it does not follow that it is easy.
The author of Ecclesiastes is a hotly debated subject and has been for some time, specifically the last 3 to 4 centuries. (18th/19th)
Often in the discussion concerning the author, the divine author is only assumed if even considered. While most would simply start with the presupposition that the divine author is God, it is important at times to make note of that presupposition. Whatever the outcome concerning the human authorship, there is no doubt that God breathed into a man this revelation for our profit.
Qoheleth occurs seven times in the book of Ecclesiastes (Eccl 1:1-2, 12; Eccl 7:27; Eccl 12:8-10) and nowhere else in biblical literature. As a noun, designating the speaker, it also gives the Hebrew name Qoheleth to the book itself.
Ekklesiastou is the Greek word used in the LXX which we find translated “Teacher.”
1:1 The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem:
1:12 I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.
12:9 Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also taught knowledge to the people;
12:10 The Teacher sought to find delightful words, and to write accurately truthful sayings.
(1:2, 7:27, 12:8)
1. Liberal view—the book was written by three men (preacher, wise man and skeptic)
2. Catholic view—musings or thoughts of a rational man attempting to reason himself to God. Man, if given enough data and evidence, can think himself into a corner where only God is.
3. Many more modern scholars [Margoliouth, Burkitt, Zimmerman (1945), Delitzch (late 1800’s)] thought the book was originally written in Aramaic and then translated in Hebrew. This thought dates the book in the third century BC. Obviously then the author would not be Solomon.
4. Some believe that it would have been unusual for Solomon to write 1:12 (I … was king over Israel) since Solomon was the king until the day he died.
5. Some believe that the book has a pseudonymous author. This position would state that the author wanted to offer the book a Solomonic feel, but was not truly written by Solomon.
6. There are a myriad of other extremely unconvincing arguments in favor of non-Solomonic authorship.
7. “Scott, for example, speaks for most in asserting the linguistic and historical evidence to indicate that Ecclesiastes was written in the late Persian or early Greek period. He bluntly states that claiming Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes is ‘like claiming that a book about Marxism in modern English idiom and spelling was written by Henry VIII.’”1
1. Christians and Jews have traditionally (up to the 18th and 19th centuries) held that Solomon is the author of the book of Ecclesiastes. Much of this is based on the first verse . . . “the son of David, King in Jerusalem”
2. The natural reading of the book is going to lead one to strongly consider Solomon as the author.
3. 1:12 says that the speaker was king over Israel in Jerusalem. Solomon was the last king to rule in Jerusalem over all of Israel. Following Solomon’s rule the kingdom was divided and ruling in Jerusalem would have allowed one to only rule Judah.
4. 12:9 establishes that the author arranged many proverbs. We know that Solomon wrote many of the proverbs in the book of Proverbs.
5. While some want to deny Solomonic authorship due to 1:12, it would make sense that Solomon wrote from that perspective as an old man looking back on his life.
6. Becoming the teacher in this book allows Solomon to set aside the mantle of king and take on the mantle of sage or wise man. Therefore the wisdom of Ecclesiastes is the advice of a wise man not the pronouncement of a monarch.
To accept Solomonic authorship presently puts you in the camp of very few scholars. Of the many books referred to in this study, all but 2 strongly deny the possibility of Solomon being the author. The majority of reasons offered for non-Solomonic authorship seem weak at best, yet the vast majority seem to espouse those same reasons.
The rest of this study will be approached under the belief that Solomon was the human author of Ecclesiastes and therefore the date of the writing would be placed in the 900’s BC (no later than 931).
It must be understood that canonicity is not establishing what books are part of the canon, but merely acknowledging what books are already part of the canon. The books of scripture are given inherent authority by God and the church merely recognized that authority.
1. With the Torah
Num 15:39 You must have this tassel so that you may look at it and remember all the commandments of the LORD and obey them and so that you do not follow after your own heart and your own eyes that lead you to unfaithfulness.
Ecc 11:9 Rejoice, young man, while you are young,and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes, but know that God will judge your motives and actions.
1. With Proverbs
Pro 1:7 Fearing the LORD is the beginning of moral knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Ecc 7:16 So do not be excessively righteous or excessively wise;otherwise you might be disappointed.
Ecc 2:12-16 2:12 Next, I decided to consider wisdom, as well as foolish behavior and ideas. For what more can the king’s successor do than what the king has already done? 2:13 I realized that wisdom is preferable to folly, just as light is preferable to darkness: 2:14 The wise man can see where he is going, but the fool walks in darkness. Yet I also realized that the same fate happens to them both. 2:15 So I thought to myself, “The fate of the fool will happen even to me! Then what did I gain by becoming so excessively wise?” So I lamented to myself, “The benefits of wisdom are ultimately meaningless!” 2:16 For the wise man, like the fool, will not be remembered for very long, because in the days to come, both will already have been forgotten. Alas, the wise man dies – just like the fool!
1. With Itself
Ecc 2:2 I said of partying, “It is folly,” and of self-indulgent pleasure, “It accomplishes nothing!”
Ecc 7:3 Sorrow is better than laughter, because sober reflection is good for the heart.
Ecc 8:15 So I recommend the enjoyment of life, for there is nothing better on earth for a person to do except to eat, drink, and enjoy life. So joy will accompany him in his toil during the days of his life which God gives him on earth.
“The sages sought to store away the Book of Ecclesiastes, because they found words in it which tended to heresy.”
Jerome states “The Jews say that . . . this book seemed to fit to be consigned to oblivion, because it asserted the creatures of God to be vain, and preferred eating, drinking, and transitory pleasures to all things . . .”2
Even though these concerns were held by many Jewish Rabbis, the book was still accepted as canonical, primarily due to the truth stated in the beginning and end of the book.
1. The overwhelming majority of Jewish history acknowledges the canonicity of Ecclesiastes.
2. It seems to be only a recent phenomenon to reject the canonicity of Ecclesiastes. While it is true that some Jewish authorities desired to reject it due to its seeming contradictions, those authorities were outweighed by the many who acknowledged its canonicity.
3. By the first century AD, Josephus implies (“contains hymns to God”) that Ecclesiastes is part of the inspired canon.
4. Fragments of Ecclesiastes were found at Qumran.
5. Many of the early church fathers call it canonical (Melito of Sardis, Epiphanium, Origen, Jerome)
6. Accepting Solomonic authorship allows one to easily accept canonicity due to the many other accepted canonical writings of Solomon (Proverbs, Song of Solomon).
7. Its continued preservation seems to strongly support its canonicity.
Many, naturally, want to look at Ecclesiastes as a linear writing. It does not appear to fall into that category. While it does have some structure, it more or less freely moves between many topics. While it is freely moving, it is moving into a specific conclusive direction.
Garrett3 offers a good outline of the book in the following . . .
1. Introduction (1:1-2)
2. On time and the World (1:3-11)
3. On Wisdom (1:12-18)
4. On Wealth (2:1-11)
5. On Wisdom (2:12-17)
6. On Wealth (2:18-26)
7. On Time and the World (3:1-15b)
8. On Politics (3:15c-17)
9. On Death (3:18-22)
10. On Politics (4:1-3)
11. On Wealth (4:4-8)
12. On Friendship (4:9-12)
13. On Politics (4:13-16)
14. On Religion (5:1-7)
15. On Politics (5:8-9)
16. On Wealth (5:10-6:6)
17. Transition (6:7-9)
18. On Wisdom and Death (6:10-7:4)
19. Transition (7:5-6)
20. On Wisdom and Politics (7:7-9)
21. Transition (7:10)
22. On Wisdom and Wealth (7:11-14)
23. On Wisdom and Religion (7:15-29)
24. Transition (8:1)
25. On Politics (8:2-6)
26. Transition (8:7-8)
27. On Theodicy (8:9-9:1)
28. Transition (9:2)
29. On Death and Contentment (9:3-10)
30. Transition (9:11-12)
31. On Politics (9:13-10:17)
32. Transition (10:18-20)
33. On Wealth (11:1-6)
34. On Death and Contentment (11:7-12:7)
35. Conclusion (12:8-14)
While other beneficial outlines are offered the outline above displays well the manner in which the book seems to have been written. While Solomon was working toward a conclusive point, he did so in a cyclical manner. Even though he wrote in such a manner, much of our study will be linear.
12:1 So remember your Creator in the days of your youth – before the difficult days come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them . . . 12:9 Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also taught knowledge to the people; he carefully evaluated and arranged many proverbs. 12:10 The Teacher sought to find delightful words, and to write accurately truthful sayings . . . 12:12 Be warned, my son . . . 12:13 Having heard everything, I have reached this conclusion: Fear God and keep his commandments, because this is the whole duty of man.
The wisdom that Solomon offers is most useful for the young. It appears that Solomon desired to teach young people these truths so that they could avoid the errors he made throughout his life.
While the hope is to offer wisdom to youth who have not already wasted their life away, the message is offered to the congregation. Any who might hear and heed ought to do so. “The Preacher sought to find delightful words and write them correctly.” As well the underlying truth of the book applies to every person.
1 Taken from Duane Guarett’s commentary on Ecclesiastes, pg. 256.
2 Both quotes are from Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon, p 287.
3 Outline taken from Duane Garrett’s commentary on Ecclesiastes, pg 269-270.
When man was driven from the garden, access to the tree of life was taken away. In essence hope for a fulfilling life was lost. We will shortly see in Romans how the whole of creation looks forward to once again the freedom it enjoyed.
Ecclesiastes is a view of life separate from God. The futility that began in Genesis 3 and is spoken of in Romans 8 is magnified in Ecclesiastes. What would life look like if we were left in that futility? Ecclesiastes is the answer to that question. While there are hints spread throughout the book and a clear statement of focus in the conclusion, the rest of the book views life without hope.
The hope is found in Christ. Further in the passage in Romans it is clear that Christ is the hope offered to a society plagued by futility.
This understanding of Genesis and Romans leads us into the first section of Ecclesiastes and its theme . . .
NAS Ecc 1:2 “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
Vapor, breath, vanity . . . The noun appears seventy-one times in the OT. Thirty-six times it is used in Ecclesiastes, where it occurs at least once in each of the twelve chapters except chapter ten.
Isa 57:13 When you cry out for help, let your idols help you! The wind blows them all away, a breeze carries them away. But the one who looks to me for help will inherit the land and will have access to my holy mountain.”
Pro 21:6 Making a fortune by a lying tongue is like a vapor driven back and forth;they seek death.
The first of the three meanings of hebel carries the idea of being brief or short. In these instances, the word is not so much speaking to the worthlessness of the activity as much as it is to the length of the activity. Often Ecclesiastes looks at life or a pursuit as simply being so short that it is like a breath.
Ecc 3:19 For the fate of humans and the fate of animals are the same: As one dies, so dies the other; both have the same breath. There is no advantage for humans over animals, for both are fleeting.
Ecc 6:12 For no one knows what is best for a person during his life – during the few days of his fleeting life – for they pass away like a shadow. Nor can anyone tell him what the future will hold for him on earth.
Ecc 11:10 Banish emotional stress from your mind. and put away pain from your body; for youth and the prime of life are fleeting.
Imagine a cold winter day . . . As you walk outside and breathe, you might see a mist or vapor come from your mouth. It is real, you can truly see it; but its presence is brief. Often we search for satisfaction in life; and what we often find is that those areas of life only offer a brief joy or satisfaction. The pleasure or satisfaction in those areas is as fleeting as one’s breath on a cold winter’s day.
Jas 4:14 You do not know about tomorrow. What is your life like? For you are a puff of smoke that appears for a short time and then vanishes.
In these instances, the passage is not speaking to the brief length of the pursuit. It is speaking to the pointlessness of a diligent attempt.
Ecc 2:15 So I thought to myself, “The fate of the fool will happen even to me! Then what did I gain by becoming so excessively wise?” So I lamented to myself, “The benefits of wisdom are ultimately meaningless!”
Ecc 8:14 Here is another enigma that occurs on earth: Sometimes there are righteous people who get what the wicked deserve, and sometimes there are wicked people who get what the righteous deserve. I said, “This also is an enigma.”
Consider your job . . . Why are you, diligent as you are, treated in the same fashion as the sluggard that works next to you? Why is your raise the same or even less than someone else’s? Why does the other guy get the promotion? Why does the other guy get the job, and you don’t? Do you ever feel like there might be injustice in your business setting? Have you ever asked yourself, “What’s the point in trying so hard?” This is the vanity of which Solomon speaks. Righteousness and justice do not necessarily seem to be on the side of the wise, moral and diligent.
This final nuance to the word hebel is slight from the meaning of ‘absurd.’ This meaning takes a look at the individual who was able to ‘succeed’, but even in his success there is no satisfaction. This could also be the result of the absurd. Because life is often absurd, life seems to be unfulfilling.
“When the teacher says that pleasure is a hebel and accomplishes nothing (2:1-2), he does not mean that pleasures are strictly absurd or even primarily that they are fleeting. Rather, he means that they are a waste of time in that they fail to satisfy.” 1
Ecc 4:4 Then I considered all the skillful work that is done: Surely it is nothing more than competition between one person and another. This also is profitless – like chasing the wind.
Ecc 4:8 A man who is all alone with no companion, he has no children nor siblings; yet there is no end to all his toil, and he is never satisfied with riches. He laments, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is futile and a burdensome task!
The problem is that life in light of Ecclesiastes is futile, brief and meaningless. At times we may tend to think that we might be able to overcome the meaningless of Solomon’s life. We are, of course, more technologically advanced and have had the benefit of new and improved ideas.
Ecc 1:3 What benefit do people get from all the effort which they expend on earth?
Psa 90:10 The days of our lives add up to seventy years, or eighty, if one is especially strong. But even one’s best years are marred by trouble (work) and oppression. Yes, they pass quickly and we fly away.
The root of this word “relates to the dark side of labor, the grievous and unfulfilling aspect of work. A biblical view of labor based on this word alone would be defective, but this aspect of work should be included in a full induction. Thus Moses uses this term to describe the frustration and struggle of the worker in this ephemeral, transitory world (Psa 90:10). No wonder he cries out to the eternal God “and let thy beauty (eternal, lovely work) be upon us” (v. 17). The root in its several forms is used especially by Solomon in Ecclesiastes as he details the frustration, profitlessness, and transitory (hebel) benefits of day-by-day labor; such is noted when that labor is not seen as service (even worship!) to God, but simply as work done “under the sun.” For the man whose relationship to God is tenuous, there is no profit from all his work (Eccl 1:3). Yet even in Ecclesiastes there are glimpses of a higher view of labor: “every one who eats and drinks and sees good in all his labor-it is the gift of God” (Eccl 3:13; cf. Eccl 5:18-19).2
As was just stated, ‘work’ carries a negative connotation in this context and this context views work as done ‘under the sun’ instead of as worship or service to God.
Some have seen below a parallel to the four classical Grecian elements (fire, earth, air, and water).
Ecc. 1:3b which they expend on earth?
1:4 A generation comes and a generation goes, but the earth remains the same through the ages.
1:5 The sun rises and the sun sets; it hurries away to a place from which it rises again.
1:6 The wind goes to the south and circles around to the north; round and round the wind goes and on its rounds it returns.
1:7 All the streams flow into the sea, but the sea is not full, and to the place where the streams flow, there they will flow again.
While creation continues unencumbered by the concerns of humanity, the elements themselves are cyclical and seemingly futile.
The primary purpose of these verses is to show the similarities between a hedonistic view of life and work and the cyclical, seemingly mundane actions of creation.
Ecc 1:8 All this monotony is tiresome; no one can bear to describe it: The eye is never satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear ever content with hearing. 1:9 What exists now is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing truly new on earth. 1:10 Is there anything about which someone can say, “Look at this! It is new!”? It was already done long ago, before our time. 1:11 No one remembers the former events, nor will anyone remember the events that are yet to happen; they will not be remembered by the future generations.
This is the problem and there is nothing you can do about it . . .
Not only is the vanity of life magnified by creation, it is as well magnified by the fact that we will find no new avenues of purpose and satisfaction. “There is nothing truly new on the earth.” Just in case you think our technologically advanced society might be able to come up with new ways to satisfy man that would have been foreign to the Ancient Near East, the simple fact is that there are no new novel ideas.
Our error is that once we have heard from Solomon, we think, “maybe I can do it better than Solomon. Maybe Solomon didn’t find all the potential places of satisfaction in this world. I’ll keep trying . . .”
Far from being a contradiction to the gospel, Ecclesiastes is a call for the gospel. The world has no hope of finding lasting satisfaction or an explanation for the hopelessness in which they find themselves. It is only in Christ that true hope can be found and satisfaction be realized.
1 Duane Garrett, NAC, 283
2 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament
3 Duane Garrett, NAC, 285
4 Ibid., 285
Life is hebel. It is brief, absurd and meaningless.
Consider Juicy Fruit – A gum with a phenomenal taste that only last for a few seconds. The satisfaction found is quickly gone.
Creation reflects the futility of life in its continued cycles and in the fact that it remains unmoved over time.
Man not only realizes that life is futile but as well is unable to answer the problem, find anything to satisfy the problem, learn anything to fix the problem or come up with any new ideas to solve the problem.
Man is left with a complete inability to find purpose and satisfaction.
Solomon desired to search out an answer to this problem and as we leave the first 11 verses of chapter 1, we follow the beginning of his lifelong search.
NET Ecc 1:12 I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.
NIV Ecc 1:12 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
KJV Ecc 1:12 I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem.
Once again we see the establishment of Solomon as author/teacher.1 The first 11 verses of chapter one are written in the third person, and now the person changes to the first. Solomon no longer is looking at the ‘purpose driven life’ as an onlooker but as the active participant. He is the one that, as we will see, is personally looking in all these areas for satisfaction.
1:13 I decided to carefully and thoroughly examine all that has been accomplished on earth. I concluded: God has given people a burdensome task that keeps them occupied.
Prior to jumping into Solomon’s reflections of his pursuit for happiness and fulfillment in wisdom, let us remember the very familiar story of God’s gifting to Solomon wisdom.
I Kings 3:5-12
3:5 One night in Gibeon the
I Kings 4:29-34
4:29 God gave Solomon wisdom and very great discernment; the breadth of his understanding was as infinite as the sand on the seashore. 4:30 Solomon was wiser than all the men of the east and all the sages of Egypt. 4:31 He was wiser than any man, including Ethan the Ezrahite or Heman, Calcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol. He was famous in all the neighboring nations. 4:32 He composed 3,000 proverbs and 1,005 songs. 4:33 He produced manuals on botany, describing every kind of plant, from the cedars of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows on walls. He also produced manuals on biology, describing animals, birds, insects, and fish. 4:34 People from all nations came to hear Solomon’s display of wisdom; they came from all the kings of the earth who heard about his wisdom.
Solomon desired to study, wisely, everything under the sun. Once again we see the problem in Solomon’s approach. His search is only for those things ‘under the sun.’ This Hebrew word (darash) means to “seek with care, inquire, require.” This word is used a number of times throughout the OT and many of those times speak of how man is to seek after God.
Deu 4:29 But if you seek the LORD your God from there, you will find him, if, indeed, you seek him with all your heart and soul.
Psa 9:10 Your loyal followers trust in you,for you, LORD, do not abandon those who seek your help.
Psa 34:4 I sought the LORD's help and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.
These passages are in contrast to that which Solomon was seeking after. His diligent study for fulfillment was only in those things that were ‘under the sun.’
Solomon established that his conclusions will be the correct conclusions for all time. He has already stated (1:9-10) that there is nothing new under the sun. If there is nothing new under the sun and Solomon studied everything under the sun, there is nothing beyond the scope of Solomon’s study. Therefore his conclusions are valid for all time, and this leaves modern man with the inability to find something new with which to be satisfied.
Ecc 1:13-14 1:13b . . . God has given people a burdensome task that keeps them occupied. 1:14 I reflected on everything that is accomplished by man on earth, and I concluded: Everything he has accomplished is futile – like chasing the wind!
The statement that a search for knowledge is a grievous task flies into the face of both ancient and modern philosophical thought. Plato thought that the task of a philosopher was the highest of callings. We can see throughout time that man has held in high esteem intellectual pursuits.2
5th century BC
Socrates seems to have often said that his wisdom was limited to an awareness of his own ignorance. He never actually claimed to be wise, only to understand the path that a lover of wisdom must take in pursuing it.
4th - 3rd century BC
Epicurus believed that the greatest good was to seek modest pleasures in order to attain a state of tranquility and freedom from fear as well as absence of bodily pain through knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of our desires.
12th - 16th century
Scholasticim originally began to reconcile the
philosophy of the ancient classical philosophers with medieval Christian theology. It is not a philosophy or theology in itself, but a tool and method for learning which puts emphasis on dialectical reasoning.
Age of Reason
Existentialist thought concerns itself with trying to understand fundamentals of the
human condition and its relation to the world around us. Existentialism can be seen as a philosophical movement that rejects the belief that life has an inherent
meaning, but instead requires each individual to posit his or her own subjective values.
Rationalism proposes that all knowledge can be gained by the power of our reason alone (took the model of mathematics).
Empiricism claims that all knowledge has to come through the senses, from experience (took the model of physical science).
18th - 19th century
The Enlightenment advocated
Reason as a means to establishing an authoritative system of
logic, to allow philosophers to obtain objective truth about the universe.
19th - 20th century
Modernism begins with the finite “I” It does not assume God. At best God is allowed to be the conclusion of the argument. Modernism began with convincing and appropriate foundations and added to that were carefully controlled methods. The product of this was generated truth and this truth was universal truth.
20th - 21st century
Postmodernism as well begins with the finite ‘I’, but each ‘I’ is different than every other ‘I’. This thought would posit that there are no secure foundations. Foundations are only ‘self evident’ within the given culture. Those foundations were the products of finite beings and are therefore finite in themselves. Therefore objective knowledge is unattainable. All truth claims are only true for some people.
As we view this very brief, shallow and potentially inaccurate history of philosophical thought, the point remains unhindered. Man has for all times desired to establish, through study and the intellect, an approach to life that is fulfilling and purposeful. Very few of those studies seriously take into consideration God. They are nearly exact replicas of Solomon’s futile search.
This grievous task is given by God
What does it mean that this task was given by God? There seem to be a few acceptable implications in the statement that this task was given by God. (1) The statement seems to imply God’s sovereignty over His creation. (2) As well, God has given His creation a desire to be fulfilled. The task given to man is not to find wisdom but to find fulfillment. Solomon in this case tried to find fulfillment through wisdom.
God has given us a task that can only be accomplished in Him. We acknowledge this task in the very fact that we are constantly searching for purpose and fulfillment. God desires that we come to the end of ourselves and realize that for true satisfaction to be found, that it can only be found in Him.
“Thou awakest us to delight in Thy praise; for Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.” (The Confessions of St. Augustine, The First Book, Pg. 1)
This grievous task afflicts men
The idea that this task afflicts men follows close on the heels to the fact that all men have this desire to find fulfillment, and that no man can find it in himself.
Solomon attempted to achieve this grievous task that is given by God to man. He, through wisdom, searched everything under the sun. His conclusion after having done this search is that the search itself was like striving after the wind. One would obviously conclude that no one can catch the wind. In this context it wouldn’t matter if they did; if they were to catch it, they would find they still have nothing.
Ecc 1:15 What is bent cannot be straightened, and what is missing cannot be supplied. (cf. 7:13-14).
We find that verse 15 is the end of this first reflection of Solomon. He offers a proverb (we do not know if it is his own, or quoted from another source) to support what he had come to conclude.
“That which is ‘twisted’ refers to a problem that cannot be solved, and that which is ‘lacking’ refers to lack of information (i.e. missing data cannot be taken into account and thus contribute toward finding an answer). Some problems cannot be solved, and some information we can never find. The intellectual more than anyone else should be aware of the futility of the human position. No matter how he or she searches, the intellectual cannot answer some fundamental questions of life. The implication behind this is that God’s ways are inscrutable.”3
The passage in chapter 7 seems to indicate that God is the one who bends/twist life and thought. Who is man that they might straighten that which God bent?
Ecc 7:13-14 7:13 Consider the work of God: For who can make straight what he has bent? 7:14 In times of prosperity be joyful, but in times of adversity consider this: God has made one as well as the other, so that no one can discover what the future holds.
Ecc 1:16 I thought to myself, “I have become much wiser than any of my predecessors who ruled over Jerusalem; I have acquired much wisdom and knowledge.”
With a bold claim of having more wisdom than all in Jerusalem prior to himself, he establishes that if he could not find wisdom, no one can.
Ecc 1:17 So I decided to discern the benefit of wisdom and knowledge over foolish behavior and ideas; however, I concluded that even this endeavor is like trying to chase the wind!
There is a shift of subject in verse 17. It appears that Solomon is still searching for fulfillment and doing so through the medium of wisdom, but the subject of his search is now foolishness/the pursuit of pleasure. This search is nearly identical to that of Epicurean thought.
Imagine a train yard. The goal destination is the land of fulfillment. Solomon decides to take the engine of wisdom on the track of philosophy to see if he will make it to the land of fulfillment. This trip failed miserably (vs. 13-15). He now decides to take that same engine of wisdom, but now chooses the track of pleasure to see if he will make it to the land of fulfillment. We will see that this trip as well ended in utter failure.
This Epicurean attempt as well is characterized by ‘chasing the wind.’ Either he caught the wind and found nothing or never caught the wind.
Ecc 1:18 For with great wisdom comes great frustration; whoever increases his knowledge merely increases his heartache.
This proverb is very similar to verse 13b. As man searches for fulfillment outside of God, human wisdom and knowledge only result in pain and grief.
Our modern day equivalent (in the form of a contrasting statement) to such a proverb would be, “Ignorance is bliss.”
It is important that we understand that Solomon is not espousing that all of the areas in which he searched were pointless, but that without God they were unfulfilling. It is not true that wisdom and even pleasure carry no worth, but a complete focus on them for satisfaction will be fruitless and vain.
It seems apparent that God wants man to come to the end of himself. Often man only comes to find God when he has come to the end of his own ability. Man has the opportunity to go directly to God, but often chooses every other path to satisfaction.
As we come to the conclusion of this passage, let me ask you a question that has been disturbing me since the beginning of this study . . .
Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes as a look back on his feeble attempts to be satisfied apart from God. In reverse fashion there are many people who would admit that they first attempted to find satisfaction with God and didn’t, so they sought other places. What was the problem?
We often may throw out clichés such as, “Well, you just didn’t do it right” or “You didn’t go to church enough” or “You didn’t read your bible enough” or “God would have satisfied if you had done it right”
I would imagine that most of you have determined to only find satisfaction in God. Do you ever feel unsatisfied? Why?
We will consider this question more as we continue our study in Ecclesiastes.
1 The NET Bible translates this verse better while carrying the intended meaning. Even those who deny Solomonic authorship acknowledge that the verb is in the perfect and ought to carry the meaning of that which is seen in the NET Bible. It is at this point for the many commentators who deny Solomonic authorship to point out that the time in this verse is past. Many translations translate this verse “I . . . was king over Israel” They imply from this that the author at this point is no longer king over Israel. They take the step that the author never was king over Israel and the author is only acting as Solomon, who at their dating of the book had been in years past, king over Israel.
2 All of the above definitions with the exceptions of modernism and postmodernism are taken from Wikipedia. The definitions of modernism and postmodernism are taken from D.A. Carson’s book Becoming Conversant with the Emergent Church.
3 Garrett, NAC, 290
A question concerning our satisfaction in life has been consistently presented to us. Are you satisfied? Do you feel fulfilled? Is their purpose in your life? A simple test1 has been offered to assist you in this process.
Below are five statements with which you may agree or disagree. Using the 1-7 scale below, indicate your agreement with each item by placing the appropriate number in the line preceding that item. Please be open and honest in your responding.
1 = Strongly Disagree
2 = Disagree
3 = Slightly Disagree
4 = Niether Disagree or Agree
5 = Slightly Agree
6 = Agree
7 = Strongly Agree
___1. In most ways my life is close to my ideal.
___2. The conditions of my life are excellent.
___3. I am satisfied with life.
___4. So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.
___5. If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.
35-31 Extremely Satisfied
21-25 Slightly Satisfied
15-19 Slightly Dissatisfied
05-09 Extremely Dissatisfied
And the search for satisfaction continues. If you weren’t aware that you were either satisfied or unsatisfied this chart might have helped you come to some conclusions. I would have assumed that being aware of your satisfaction is inherent in being satisfied.
In the last lesson (chapter 1:12-18) we discussed Solomon’s path towards fulfillment by means of wisdom or philosophy. His conclusion was that satisfaction in life could not come through philosophy, and instead resulted in vain effort that resulted in grief and pain.
Solomon does not yet end his search for fulfillment. Instead he turns his focus towards pleasure. Will pleasure bring satisfaction to one’s life?
1. The potential for gratification is realized.
2. Our brain drives us to act on the potential. Our brain tells us we are hungry so we go and eat. Sexual desire drives one to make love with whoever is available. Loneliness drives us to a social life.
3. Our actions are rewarded by the sensations of pleasure. Often the action itself is the most rewarding. Eating with someone else brings much more pleasure than merely satisfying a hunger craving.
4. Once someone has been satisfied, the action comes to an end, at least until a new desire comes along.
Epicurus’ Letter to Menoeceus:
“We must exercise ourselves in the things which bring happiness, since, if that be present, we have everything, and, if that be absent, all our actions are directed toward attaining it.”
“He who has a clear and certain understanding of these things will direct every reference and aversion toward securing health of body and tranquility of mind, seeing that this is the sum and end of a happy life. For the end of all our actions is to be free from pain and fear”
“When we are pained pleasure, then, and then only, do we feel the need of pleasure. For this reason we call pleasure the alpha and omega of a happy life.”
“And since pleasure is our first and native good, for that reason we do not choose every pleasure whatever, but often pass over many pleasures when a greater annoyance ensues from them. And often we consider pains superior to pleasures when submission to the pains for a long time brings us as a consequence a greater pleasure”
The primary thought behind Hedonism is that all actions can be measured on the basis of how much pleasure and how little pain they produce.
There are two types of Secular Hedonism: Motivational and Normative. Motivational Hedonism claims that only pleasure and pain motivate us. Normative Hedonism claims that all pleasure has worth or value and only pleasure has worth or value. As well, all pain has disvalue and only pain has disvalue.
Jeremy Bentham initially proposed the thought of utilitarianism. He found that pain and pleasure were the only intrinsic values in the world. From this he derived the rule of utility: that the good is whatever brings the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.
There are a number of different views of Utilitarianism. Some approach this position from its negative viewpoint. Negative Utilitarianism requires us to promote the least amount of evil or harm, or to prevent the greatest amount of harm for the greatest number. There are many other forms that are irrelevant to the lesson.
Ecc 2:1 I thought to myself, “Come now, I will try self-indulgent pleasure to see if it is worthwhile.” But I found that it also is futile. 2:2 I said of partying, “It is folly,” and of self-indulgent pleasure, “It accomplishes nothing!”
Ecc 2:10 I did not restrain myself from getting whatever I wanted; I did not deny myself anything that would bring me pleasure. So all my accomplishments gave me joy; this was my reward for all my effort.
Ecc 2:3 I thought deeply about the effects of indulging myself with wine (all the while my mind was guiding me with wisdom) and the effects of behaving foolishly,
It appears that Solomon’s first attempt at satisfaction through pleasure was through the venue of wine/alcohol. There are a couple possible understandings of this passage . . .
1. Solomon, since he allowed his “mind to guide him wisely,” never became intoxicated. He was merely scrutinizing the benefits of heightened awareness.
2. Another interpretation would take into consideration the fact that Solomon took hold of or embraced folly. This might imply a stronger indulgence with wine.
Either way, he describes his heightened experiment or downright intoxication as fruitless.
Ecc 2:4 … I planted vineyards for myself. 2:5 I designed royal gardens and parks for myself, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. 2:6 I constructed pools of water for myself, to irrigate my grove of flourishing trees.
As we remember the hanging gardens of Babylon, we are reminded that a beautiful garden was a sign of luxury as well as pleasure. These many gardens and parks that Solomon had built for himself found the nourishment through the ponds and aqueducts that Solomon built. Three ancient pools have been found southwest of Jerusalem. They are considered to be part of Solomon’s aqueducts. The presence of the plural (gardens, parks, trees, ponds) in all these categories shows the enormity of the tasks and extravagance of the projects.
Ecc 2:7 I purchased male and female slaves, and I owned slaves who were born in my house; I also possessed more livestock – both herds and flocks – than any of my predecessors in Jerusalem. 2:8 I also amassed silver and gold for myself, as well as valuable treasures taken from kingdoms and provinces…
I Kings 10 reveals the enormous amount of wealth that Solomon possessed. The chapter initially tells the story of the Queen of Sheba, who visited Solomon in Jerusalem and was overwhelmed by both his wisdom and his wealth. She as well left a great bit of treasure with Solomon. The rest of the chapter entails the amount of possessions and wealth that he possessed. Understanding the vast amount of wealth allows us to more easily understand how Solomon could obtain everything that his eyes looked upon. He could have easily purchased whatever he desired.
Ecc 2:8b . . . I acquired male singers and female singers for myself . . .
It appears that due his wealth, Solomon had the ability to purchase his own choir. This choir would have been different than the typical levitical choir made up of just men.
Ecc 2:8c . . . and what gives a man sensual delight – a harem of beautiful concubines!
In almost a crude manner, Solomon admits that he did not withhold his sexual passions. The word he used, translated ‘concubines,’ technically means ‘breast’ if not even more specific to more erogenous areas. Solomon admits that he had the power and wealth to possess whatever he liked. He also states that he does not refuse his eyes anything that they wanted. While there seems to be some self-control (my mind was guiding me with wisdom), apparently Solomon indulged in every sexual pleasure he desired.
We read in I Kings concerning the amount of wives and concubines that Solomon had . . .
I Kings 11:1 King Solomon fell in love with many foreign women (besides Pharaoh’s daughter), including Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians, and Hittites. 11:2 They came from nations about which the
Once again, let us remember that the above areas are not being condemned as much as they are being presented as ineffectual means to a purposeful life.
Are there ever times in our lives where we might be able to say any of the following . . .
The problem is not necessarily that we are involved in these areas. The problem lies in what we sacrifice to participate in these areas.
Ecc 2:3 … (all the while my mind was guiding me with wisdom) and the effects of behaving foolishly, so that I might discover what is profitable for people to do on earth during the few days of their lives.
We have already briefly discussed the fact that Solomon’s ventures into pleasure where guided by his wisdom. There are a couple of ways to understand this fact.
1. He indulged in every type of pleasure and throughout or shortly after, he assessed its merits as far as its satisfaction was concerned. In this scenario, he may have lived a life of debauchery, but was cautious to examine all the fruits of such a life.
2. Another scenario is possible, and more likely. In a very similar vein as that of Epicurus, he followed after pleasure modestly. He wisely approached pleasure and while he kept nothing back, he never let himself go completely. It is likely that Solomon realized that pleasure in excess can result in pain (sexual disease, loss of wealth, poor relationships) and as a result considered those potential consequences when he approached a particular area of pleasure.
A question appropriate to this section concerns our level of control. We often think that we can control something, while both scripture and observation show that it is very easy to lose control. Be careful to not indulge in pleasure because you think you might be able to control it. Solomon seems to have done just that and his conclusion is that it was a waste of time.
Ecc 2:4 I increased my possessions: I built houses for myself; I planted vineyards for myself. 2:5 I designed royal gardens and parks for myself, and I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. 2:6 I constructed pools of water for myself, to irrigate my grove of flourishing trees.
We have already looked at these verses, but another point to consider is the clear selfishness displayed in these verses. There seems to be no indication of Solomon serving someone else’s needs or desires. Everything done was simply done for himself.
There are many people in churches that appear to be very sacrificial. Others struggle in that area. Do you do things, throughout the day, with little concern for anyone else. Do you consider your family when you go home? Do you consider your spouse’s needs when you are together? Do you stay at work longer than necessary with little thought to your family? Are your evenings filled with self focused activities? Do you put your relaxation in front of serving others?
We tend to be selfish creatures. Our motivation is often even selfish, when we are serving others. The question you must answer is, “Do you place your own happiness over the needs of others and over the commands of God?”
Ecc 2:9 So I was far wealthier than all my predecessors in Jerusalem, yet I maintained my objectivity: 2:10 I did not restrain myself from getting whatever I wanted; I did not deny myself anything that would bring me pleasure. So all my accomplishments gave me joy; this was my reward for all my effort.
Solomon thought he deserved to bathe himself in all types of pleasures. He states in verse 10 that he viewed pleasure as a reward for all his hard work. “I’ve worked hard, I deserve to focus on myself for a little while.”
Have you ever had that mentality? Have you ever had a hard day’s work and came home with the mindset that you deserved a little ‘me time’? Family, spouse, church, needed projects, other people are all put on hold because you deserve some time for yourself and you don’t want to feel bad about taking it either.
Ecc 2:11 Yet when I reflected on everything I had accomplished and on all the effort that I had expended to accomplish it, I concluded: “All these achievements and possessions are ultimately profitless – like chasing the wind! There is nothing gained from them on earth.”
Once again, we come to a familiar conclusion. Solomon’s search for satisfaction in pleasure was futile. He successfully pursued every area of fleshly indulgence and pleasure and found that it brought no lasting satisfaction.
Numbers 15:38 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them to make tassels for themselves on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and put a blue thread on the tassel of the corners. 15:39 You must have this tassel so that you may look at it and remember all the commandments of the
Throughout time man has followed the impulses of his heart and the desires of his eyes. We are innately no different. It is very easy for us to become consumed by our own desires. Those desires merely bring temporary satisfaction, yet we naively and passionately follow after them.
The conclusion never changes – fear God and keep His commandments. Follow God alone.
What selfish pleasures have you justified or rationalized in your life?
Solomon clearly states that a search for permanent or even temporary satisfaction in pleasure is a waste of time.
1 By Ed Diener, Ph.D. http://www.psych.uiuc.edu/~ediener/hottopic/hottopic.html
2 This study was taken from The Canadian Institutes of Health Research. The study was associated with Hedonism. The ideas that they purport are very similar to Epicurus and other more recent philosophers.
What was the first path that Solomon took looking for satisfaction?
What was the second path that Solomon took looking for satisfaction?
What were his conclusions for both?
In the last few lessons we analyzed Solomon’s pursuits after wisdom and pleasure. His conclusions for both pursuits were similar – vanity. He as well adds concerning wisdom that it was a grievous and painful task placed on men by God. We came to the conclusion, in our modern slang, that “ignorance is bliss.”
Solomon is going to continue down other roads towards satisfaction, but before he does, he analyzes the two paths he has already taken. While both of them did not provide lasting satisfaction, he assesses which was better than the other.
Ecc 2:12 Next, I decided to consider wisdom, as well as foolish behavior and ideas.
Solomon desires to compare and contrast the two paths that he had just taken. The two paths that had just been taken were those of wisdom and pleasure seeking, and yet in this verse Solomon says that he is going to compare wisdom and foolish behavior.
Is pleasure seeking synonymous with foolish behavior? Ecclesiastes 7:4 links these two ideas and is most clearly seen in the Updated New American Standard (NAU) translation …
NAU1Ecc 7:4 The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, While the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure.
NET Ecc 7:4 The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of merrymaking.
The fools life is characterized by pleasure. The word translated pleasure has a primary meaning of ‘joy’. There is absolutely nothing wrong with receiving pleasure or joy. The problem comes when we no longer find pleasure in God, but find it solely in things ‘under the sun.’
“The verb siklut (foolish behavior in Ecc 2:12) is mostly used in contexts where a man acts out of fear and thus behaves rashly, rather than acting wisely out of a confidence based in God … This practical atheism the Babylonians used to call “living in a ramanishu,” i.e. living by oneself, on one’s own resources, without dependence on God. But this is the essence of sin … Wisdom is the way of the moral and spiritual man while folly is the way of a man with twisted values. One other association of siklût (foolish behavior) with madness (Eccl 7:25ff) is pictured by the sinner who allows himself to be entrapped by an immoral woman. The one who would be wise and pleasing to God escapes from her clutches.”2
Therefore, a fool’s life is characterized by blindly following after pleasure apart from God. Solomon’s comparison in 2:12-17 does then appear to be a comparison between wisdom and pleasure/folly.
Ecc 2:13 I realized that wisdom is preferable to folly, just as light is preferable to darkness: 2:14 The wise man can see where he is going, but the fool walks in darkness. Yet I also realized that the same fate happens to them both.
Solomon’s comparison seems to initially uplift wisdom. In similar fashion to that of Proverbs, Solomon sets up wisdom as light and folly as darkness. He acknowledges that the wise man is able to see and analyze life. Due to this light, the wise man is more likely to live a more productive life. In contrast, the fool walks about in darkness. He is oblivious to the many dangers that regularly come near his door. He often falls headlong into danger due to his complete lack of discretion.
The benefits that accompany wisdom are spread throughout the book of Ecclesiastes…
Ecc 7:12 For wisdom provides protection, just as money provides protection. But the advantage of knowledge is this: Wisdom preserves the life of its owner … 7:19 Wisdom gives a wise person more protection than ten rulers in a city.
Ecc 8:1 Who is a wise person? Who knows the solution to a problem? A person’s wisdom brightens his appearance, and softens his harsh countenance.
Ecc 9:15 However, a poor but wise man lived in the city, and he could have delivered the city by his wisdom, but no one listened to that poor man. 9:16 So I concluded that wisdom is better than might, but a poor man’s wisdom is despised; no one ever listens to his advice.
Ecc 10:10 If an iron axhead is blunt and a workman does not sharpen its edge, he must exert a great deal of effort; so wisdom has the advantage of giving success.
If left at this point, Solomon would seem to be encouraging all to follow a life of wisdom. He does not end there though. He continues his comparison and comes to a surprising conclusion. While wisdom excels folly in many ways; either way, both the wise and the foolish are going to die.
Ecc 2:15 So I thought to myself, “The fate of the fool will happen even to me! Then what did I gain by becoming so excessively wise?” So I lamented to myself, “The benefits of wisdom are ultimately meaningless!” 2:16 For the wise man, like the fool, will not be remembered for very long, because in the days to come, both will already have been forgotten. Alas, the wise man dies – just like the fool! 2:17 So I loathed life because what happens on earth seems awful to me; for all the benefits of wisdom are futile – like chasing the wind.
Solomon leaves us, at this point, with the grim conclusion that whether you choose wisdom or pleasure, you will die and be forgotten. While we are aware that Solomon will offer a different conclusion later in his book, take a moment to examine the words of the sons of Korah …
Psalm 49:7 Certainly a man cannot rescue his brother; he cannot pay God an adequate ransom price 49:8 (the ransom price for a human life is too high, and people go to their final destiny), 49:9 so that he might continue to live forever and not experience death. 49:10 Surely one sees that even wise people die; fools and spiritually insensitive people all pass away and leave their wealth to others … 49:12 but, despite their wealth, people do not last, they are like animals that perish … 49:14 They will travel to Sheol like sheep, with death as their shepherd. The godly will rule over them when the day of vindication dawns; Sheol will consume their bodies and they will no longer live in impressive houses. 49:15 But God will rescue my life from the power of Sheol; certainly he will pull me to safety. (Selah)
While it is true that both the wise and foolish alike will die; we find hope in the fact that while we both die, we do not both go to the same place after death. Consistent with the Proverbs, the wise is honored and their soul is redeemed while the foolish is destroyed.
Not only are they going to die, but they are going to be forgotten. The wise man will often sacrifice their present prestige and appreciation for the hope that even after their life, their works of wisdom will be appreciated. They believe that their gift of wisdom to the world will allow them to live on even when they die. Solomon does not allow them to find satisfaction in that. He informs them that all will be forgotten, the wise man and the fool.
1 Kings 3:3 tells us that Solomon “was walking in the statutes of his father David.” At this point in Solomon’s life, God came to him and offered whatever he wished. Solomon request for wisdom is granted.
In 1 Kings 4:32 we are told of the many proverbs and songs that Solomon wrote. The immediate preceding context speaks of the wisdom that God gave Solomon, and the apparent product of such wisdom was the many proverbs and songs that Solomon wrote. Most likely Solomon wrote many of the Psalms and Proverbs at this period of his life.
In 1 Kings 9, following the dedication of the temple, God visited Solomon and told him that if he followed in the path of his father David (in integrity of heart and uprightness) the Lord would establish his throne over Israel forever. A safe assumption might be made at this point – Solomon had been following in the path of his father David up to this point in his life.
It is in 1 Kings 11:4, when Solomon was old, that we see that he turned his heart away after other gods. The passage continues to inform us that Solomon sacrificed to detestable idols and built high places for other idols. At this point the Lord was angry with Solomon because ‘his heart was turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel’.
1 Kings 11:11 So the
The end of chapter 11 in 1 Kings speaks of the death of Solomon, with no apparent record of his having repented. While we don’t see his repentance in 1 Kings, Ecclesiastes seems to be a record of such repentance. Solomon likely wrote this book very near the end of his life.
Was Solomon a believer? That question might weigh on your mind as you view a life of rebellion in his older years. Did Solomon possess eternal security like we would understand it now? If the Spirit did not permanently indwell believers then, what sealed him in the faith? Did he have to continue to do good deeds throughout his life to remain a believer? Was salvation the same in the OT as it is in the NT?
It appears that Solomon was a believer, but in his elder years turned away from God. I would contend that Ecclesiastes appears to be a sign of repentance at the end of Solomon’s life. While much could be discussed concerning the work of the Spirit, it seems likely that God, even in OT times, continued the work He began in the lives of believers.
1. Solomon tells us that the wise man will be forgotten (Ecc 2:16). What does he mean by that? We remember him. We have written down some of his wisdom. We have literature telling us about the wisdom of other men. They haven’t been forgotten, at least in one sense … so what does he mean?
2. Solomon teaches that seeking after wisdom can’t change your destiny. Do you agree? What destiny is he speaking of, eternal or earthly? Is it true that wisdom has no benefit? If there is benefit in wisdom of what kind of wisdom is Solomon speaking?
Consider Proverbs 2 … Is the wisdom discussed here the same type of “wisdom” of which Solomon is speaking? What are the benefits of wisdom in Proverbs 2? Consider the due diligence needed to seek after such wisdom.
Prov 2:2 by making your ear attentive to wisdom, and by turning your heart to understanding, 2:3 indeed, if you call out for discernment – raise your voice for understanding – 2:4 if you seek it like silver, and search for it like hidden treasure, 2:5 then you will understand how to fear the
1 Updated New American Standard Bible, 1995, by the Lockman Foundation.
2 Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, used in Bible Works.
What are some different views or approaches to work?
A mentality that was once prominent in society seems to have waned in the last couple of generations; a mentality that demands hard work to be a characteristic of the responsible man. It was a common characteristic for men to be the primary provider for the home. He would work long hard days and would find pride in that fact. While there are many that would still hold to that position, that mentality has seemed to wane as of late.
There are some who place the emphasis on the need to work diligently, irregardless of the profession or type of work. They believe that satisfaction is found in diligent work and the provision for their families.
There are others who would agree that hard work is important but feel that the type of work or profession is of equal or more importance . They would say that someone can’t truly be satisfied if they are not working in a profession they enjoy – even if they work hard.
Let’s assume for a second that you have adopted one of these approaches above. Let’s as well assume that you have been “successful” in that approach. Will this chapter apply to you.
Solomon’s negative view of work carries over to even the person who is successful. Solomon concludes that all labor, even labor for the successful individual, is vanity.
Let’s take an initial look – at Solomon’s conclusion in these first few verses – that of vanity or futility. This “futility” is a common thread throughout all that we have read in Ecclesiastes. Everything is futility. In these few verses he states three times that labor is futile. Another phrase, seen a number of times in these few verses, is ‘on earth.’ Before we continue to assess the potential satisfaction found in labor, let’s remember the negative conclusion that Solomon came to in reference to labor on the earth or labor that seeks for present gratification and earthly profit.
Solomon, as he approaches this discussion, reflects on a time of hatred and despair. Some would like to see this time of ‘despair’ as a step of repentance on the part of Solomon. It is true that the word speaks of a change of direction or turning, but there is no indication that the turning was to God. In despair his heart turned from attempting to find satisfaction in his work, but his heart did not yet turn to God. Why does he come to such a negative conclusion concerning work?
Ecc 2:18 So I loathed all the fruit of my effort, for which I worked so hard on earth, because I must leave it behind in the hands of my successor. 2:19 Who knows if he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will be master over all the fruit of my labor for which I worked so wisely on earth! This also is futile!
2:20 So I began to despair about all the fruit of my labor for which I worked so hard on earth.
2:21 For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge, and skill; however, he must hand over the fruit of his labor as an inheritance to someone else who did not work for it. This also is futile, and an awful injustice!
2:22 What does a man acquire from all his labor and from the anxiety that accompanies his toil on earth? 2:23 For all day long his work produces pain and frustration, and even at night his mind cannot relax! This also is futile!
Remember that Solomon is looking at work “on earth” or “under the sun.” As he views work on earth, he comes up with some conclusions.
Ecc 2:18 So I loathed all the fruit of my effort, for which I worked so hard on earth, because I must leave it behind in the hands of my successor. 2:19 Who knows if he will be a wise man or a fool?
I recall a job I once held. When I entered into the business my particular aspect of the work was not well organized. The beginning of my employment came at the onset of a move for the company, and I was responsible for setting up my area of the company. I took great pride in making sure everything was done well and orderly. I put together a notebook to offer guidelines for the next employee who would take my position. I had very specific ways of doing things; and I had this naïve idea, that if I organized the position right, my manner of doing the job would continue on long after I left. What I found was that other people didn’t really care about my way of doing things. My order didn’t really matter to them. The man I trained to take my position began overlooking some of my methods even before I had left. I had felt a lot of pride in my manner of work, and yet it didn’t seem to matter to the next employee. In no way was the man a fool, but I did have to leave my work to someone who didn’t accept the organization I had taken a couple years to establish.
Imagine Solomon, the wisest man alive. Everything he did was probably extremely well done. He knew that someday he would have to leave his work to someone else, and it was inevitable that his successor would not follow the example he had set.
If our focus in work is on leaving a earthly legacy or establishing a permanent way of doing something we are going to feel unsatisfied.
Ecc 2:21 For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge, and skill; however, he must hand over the fruit of his labor as an inheritance to someone else who did not work for it. This also is futile, and an awful injustice!
I imagine that someone would be frustrated if they had worked all their life in a particular field, and then had to leave all the fruit of their labor to some young guy who had never worked in the field. Consider …
Ecc 2:22 What does a man acquire from all his labor and from the anxiety that accompanies his toil on earth? 2:23 For all day long his work produces pain and frustration, and even at night his mind cannot relax! This also is futile!
The root word for ‘labor’ often refers to “drudgery of toil” rather than the “nobility of labor.” It relates to the dark side of labor, the grievous and unfulfilling aspect of work.
This idea of drudgery carries with it a very negative connotation. Once again, Solomon is not looking at work as a means of fulfilling a greater purpose, but is instead wanting to find satisfaction in the labor. His focus is on the fact that he has to work hard but will have to leave all his work to someone else. With that mindset it is easy to see why a job would be drudgery.
If a job was viewed as merely a means to fulfill a greater purpose, the aspect of drudgery might diminish. If we see a job as a means to provide for our family, if we see a job as a means to minister to other people, if we see a job as a divinely appointed meeting established by God, if we see a job as an opportunity to glorify God in all that we do … we might not struggle as much with the feeling of drudgery.
2:21 For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge, and skill; however, he must hand over the fruit of his labor as an inheritance to someone else who did not work for it. This also is futile, and an awful injustice!
(1)Reflected in OT wisdom is the teaching of a personal God who is holy and just and who expects those who know him to exhibit his character in the many practical affairs of life. (2) In Greek philosophy if a person had perfect knowledge he could live the good life (Plato). Knowledge was virtue. 1
This root expresses a multitude of shades of knowledge gained by the senses. Its closest synonyms are “to discern” and “to recognize.”
The root expresses to be right and proper to; to prosper (Eccl 11:6); skill; success (Eccl 2:21; 4:4); advantage (Eccl 5:10).
These three terms convey a very successful, well-balanced man. His wisdom suggests that he is a morally sound man with the great ability of discernment. His knowledge suggests years of experience. This man is not only book smart but is as well street smart. His wisdom and knowledge have resulted in great success. He is accomplished in his field.
While it is obvious that these qualtities are not characteristic of everyone, it appears that they are characteristic of most successful workers. This successful worker has many years of experience. He has invested a lot, both mentally and physically, and has been rewarded for his hard work. As he looks back on his life of successful business ventures, he finally realizes that he will soon leave it all to someone who hasn’t done nearly as much work or is foolish.
Ecc 2:23 For all day long his work produces pain and frustration, and even at night his mind cannot relax! This also is futile!
Although this word can be used to express physical suffering, it much more commonly has to do with mental anguish.
The root meaning is to vex, agitate, stir up, or provoke the heart to a heated condition which in turn leads to specific actions.
The primary meaning conveys the idea of ‘lying down’. His mind continues to run at night keeping him from truly resting.
Ecc 2:26c This task of the wicked is futile – like chasing the wind!
Attempting to find lasting satisfaction in work is going to leave one feeling empty. As well, don’t use the fruit of your labor (power, money, prestige) as a means to satisfaction. Some might attempt to find satisfaction in the actual fulfillment of the job. Others might attempt to find satisfaction in the fruit of their job. Either way, you will be unsatisfied.
Ecc 2:24 There is nothing better for people than to eat and drink, and to find enjoyment in their work. I also perceived that this ability to find enjoyment comes from God. 2:25 For no one can eat and drink or experience joy apart from him.
‘Carpe Diem’ (Seize the Day!)
Two views concerning vs. 24:
Ecc 3:22 So I perceived there is nothing better than for people to enjoy their work, because that is their reward; for who can show them what the future holds?
Ecc 8:15 So I recommend the enjoyment of life, for there is nothing better on earth for a person to do except to eat, drink, and enjoy life. So joy will accompany him in his toil during the days of his life which God gives him on earth.
Ecc 2:26 For to the one who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy, but to the sinner, he gives the task of amassing wealth – only to give it to the one who pleases God.
We can see displayed in this passages that attribute of God’s sovereignty. Not only does God gift the righteous, but uses wicked people to accomplish His own purpose. Someone might look at this passage and think that God is arbitrary and that we are at the whim of an unpredictable God. The reverse is true. Great comfort can be found in knowing that there is a God who rules over our lives and that we are not merely left to our own fate.
1 All three definitions are summaries from the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, used in Bible Works.
There is an attitude that pervades the culture in which we live… “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” (William Ernest Henley)… “I am my own boss”… We live in an individualistic, independent culture. We want to feel like we are in charge of our own lives. When we succeed, we conclude that it is because of our hard work. Interestingly enough, when we fail, we usually blame everyone else. It is natural for us to want to feel like we are in control of our own lives. Solomon assessed this idea of independence and informs us that it is far from reality.
Questions to Consider:
Ecc 3:1 For everything there is an appointed time, and an appropriate time for every activity on earth: 3:2 A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot what was planted; 3:3 A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; 3:4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. 3:5 A time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; 3:6 A time to search, and a time to give something up as lost; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; 3:7 A time to rip, and a time to sew; a time to keep silent, and a time to speak. 3:8 A time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
The list below is made up of a number of merisms. This is not meant to be an all inclusive list. It offers the extremes and assumes everything between the extremes.
These seasons of life seem to be inevitable. Some may interpret this passage as an allowance for these seasons of life, but the point is not to justify one or more of these actions in someone’s life. These verses are merely stating the reality that these seasons will come to all whether they want them or not. There are a couple of these verses that are a bit more confusing than others…
Throw Stones to Gather Stones
While there are many possible interpretations for this meaning, the best explanation seems to point at the actual act of picking up stones to cultivate a field and throwing stones in someone else’s field to ruin their field. This would parallel the following idea of embracing and refraining from embrace. It would follow that those who want to ruin you as well do not want to embrace.
Tear Apart to Sew Together
There is some confusion as to the meaning of this verse as well. It is possible that the first part of the verse is speaking of a time of mourning. When one would mourn they would tear their clothes; and when they finished their time of mourning, they would mend those clothes they had torn. If we stick with the parallels, the time of mourning would be a time of silence whereas the time following the mourning would allow for speech.
Ecc 3:9 What benefit can a worker gain from his toil? 3:10 I have observed the burden that God has given to people to keep them occupied.
As we view the list above we immediately see that death is a reality for everyone. This fact might be a bit more palatable if we knew for certain that our present work would profit us. And yet Solomon does not even allow us that comfort. We are told in 3:9 that even work is of no benefit. Man is on the road to death; and when he dies, everything he does in life will as well die with him. We find the origination of this plight back at the fall…
Gen 3:17 But to Adam he said, “Because you obeyed your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ cursed is the ground thanks to you; in painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. 3:18 It will produce thorns and thistles for you, but you will eat the grain of the field. 3:19 By the sweat of your brow you will eat food until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you will return.”
3:11 God has made everything fit beautifully in its appropriate time…
Since we are bound to time, then we ought to enjoy our time here… Right? One may ask whether it is correct to say that “God has made everything beautifully in its appropriate time.” There is no question concerning some of the seasons above, but what about war and hate? What about killing and tearing down?
As well, this brief statement places the control of the seasons in the hands of God. For all of those who want to control their own lives or even think they are controlling their own lives, Solomon makes them aware of the fact that God is ordering their lives. He is in control of time. While it is possible for man to look at this statement in a positive manner, the context seems to not allow for such an interpretation. Man wants to have control. He wants to have a life filled with joy and productivity. Instead man is left with this burning desire to overcome the reality of his mortality. He works hard to accomplish much, only to leave all he has done to others when he dies – and his death is inevitable.
Therefore, the conclusion is that man ought to just be content with what seasons come into his life and accept them.
(NAU) Ecc 3:11 … He has also set eternity in their heart …
The problem is that man cannot be content with the seasons of life. In realizing their mortality and the uselessness of their present work, they want to believe there is more. In their heart they acknowledge eternity and their minds want to understand it.
(NAU) Ecc 3:11 … He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.
They are unable to understand eternity. God has given them the desire but not the ability to understand more. They know there is something out there but they are unable to grasp it.
3:12 I have concluded that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to enjoy themselves as long as they live
Therefore, they resign themselves to stop looking at eternity and simply enjoy the present. If man is unable to understand a greater meaning in eternity, he is left with what he can understand – his present happiness.
What do you think of the following statement? “It is significant to point out that the expression admits that what follows is not the highest, best imaginable good but life in a fallen world, which is the best humans can do under the circumstances.”1
3:13 and also that everyone should eat and drink, and find enjoyment in all his toil, for these things are a gift from God.
Man is unable to find satisfaction in eternity because he is unable to understand eternity. Therefore, he resigns himself to the simple, present pleasures of life. The problem is that even these simple present pleasures are given by God. Man cannot in and of himself even enjoy the simple pleasures of life.
3:14 I also know that whatever God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it, and nothing taken away from it …
The reality just stated is not going to change. There is not going to come a time where all of a sudden man becomes enlightened and is able to understand eternity and thereby find satisfaction. It is as if Solomon is telling us, “No matter how frustrating God’s world is, people must learn to put up with it.”
3:14… God has made it this way, so that men will fear him.
What kind of fear is Solomon speaking of in this verse? We see that a fear of God is the beginning of knowledge or wisdom. Standing in awe of God is the appropriate response of humility that ought to characterize all man … but, is this the kind of fear of which Solomon is speaking? It seems difficult to conclude that Solomon is leading us to such a positive conclusion in the midst of such a negative outlook on life.
What points of application might be drawn from this “fate” in which we find all humanity? Is there any positive way to view God’s actions?
1. God has given us desires that can only be found in Him.
2. In the same way that we are unable to control the seasons in nature, we are unable to control the seasons of our lives. These seasons of life happen to us all. There is nothing that can be done to avoid them.
3. Solomon seems to look at the fear of God (in this passage) as a negative thing. It is appropriate for us to instead draw the conclusion that humility is the correct response as we view our mortality in the hands of God.
4. While we can find some satisfaction in the simple pleasures that God allows in our present lives, we ought to look past our simple pleasures and find satisfaction in God. How do we do that?
1 Tremper Longman, NICOT, 122
A difficult aspect of this study has been establishing the perspective with which to read the book. If we interpret the book through the eyes of an unbeliever, we would end in despondency. Specifically, if we took a look at the immediate passage (Ecclesiastes 3:16-22), we would be overwhelmed by the following fact. God is in control of all the seasons in life and has given man an inner desire to understand eternity yet with an inability to do so. An unbeliever might find the conclusion, to simply enjoy the present life, empty. As well, the fear of God for an unbeliever would more likely be that of terror, not awe. Understandably, an unbeliever would look with doom towards the end of their and future judgement. This understanding may very well preclude them from enjoying their present life in any manner, as well dread their future life.
While Solomon at times seems to present life through the eyes of an unbeliever, (This does not imply that Solomon was an unbeliever, but merely implies that he views life at times through the eyes of one who does not believe.) believers don’t view life in the same way. Solomon likely shared the believers view point at times, even though at times it is difficult to see. Believers understand that the world would be a hopeless place separate from God. They as well understand that Solomon clearly articulates what the world would look like without the hope of God, but believers possess the hope found in God. It is difficult for someone who has a relationship with God through Christ to see the world as a hopeless place.
Understanding that there are two potential types of listeners (believers and non-believers) will allow us to understand two types of responses to Solomon’s message. One response will be characterized by the hope found only in Christ, and the other response will be characteristic of those who find no hope in this world and are separate from Christ.
Stands in terror of God.
Stands in awe of God.
Eternity scares him.
Eternity excites him.
Present joy seems weak or temporary.
Present joy is common.
Work is empty.
Work is viewed through the lens of its’ eternal value.
Inevitable judgment destroys the ability to enjoy the present.
Inevitable judgment is not a concern due to his relationship with Christ.
He demands present justice, often taking it into his own hands.
He waits for God’s future justice.
Often in a study of this kind, a discussion will arise that considers evil and the omnipotence and benevolence of God. Explanations abound that attempt to explain the seeming struggle between a just, all mighty God and the clear presence of evil in this world. Simply put, how can a just and loving God allow evil? This study has been called theodicy.
Some potential (some faulty) syllogisms …
Syllogism # 1
Syllogism # 2
Syllogism # 3
Syllogism # 4
Syllogism # 5
Ecclesiastes 3:16 might lead one to wonder how a sovereign God would allow injustice and evil to pervade the arena of justice and righteousness …
3:16 I saw something else on earth: In the place of justice, there was wickedness, and in the place of fairness, there was wickedness.
View of the Unbeliever
View of the Believer
I expect that the places of justice disperse only justice. If they do not, I will demand present vindication.
Although I desire the paces of justice to be just and honorable, I don’t expect that to be the case. When justice is not dispersed, I lean on the promises of God and realize that He is the only true judge and He will vindicate in His time.
While it is clear that the world is full of evil, injustice and wickedness, this verse points to an even deeper problem. Wickedness has been found where justice ought to reign. We might have in mind the modern courtroom or governmental assemblies or even churches … What might be some examples of such a catastrophe?
Isa 5:20 Those who call evil good and good evil are as good as dead, who turn darkness into light and light into darkness, who turn bitter into sweet and sweet into bitter.
While in no way do we endorse or justify the evil actions of this world, the wickedness of the world is a reality that we must accept and live with. They are going to pollute that which is good. Life will not be “fair.” Injustice will often reign and seem unbridled.
Ecc 5:8 If you see the extortion of the poor, or the perversion of justice and fairness in the government, do not be astonished by the matter. For the high official is watched by a higher official, and there are higher ones over them!
It is here that the question of God’s benevolence comes into play. If we must live with the reality that the world is evil and unjust and will continue to be so, why should we trust a God who is supposedly sovereign but allows that kind of evil?
God Will One Day Judge the Evil World.
3:17 I thought to myself, “God will judge both the righteous and the wicked; for there is an appropriate time for every activity, and there is a time of judgment for every deed.
View of the Unbeliever
View of the Believer
Maybe it is inevitable that God will judge all men, but He doesn’t seem to want to do it in this present world. My concern is this present world, and I doubt my existence following that.
While I must tolerate the injustice of this present world, it is inevitable that the day will come when the just and sovereign God will judge all men. This judgment will immediately follow their death.
It is true that the world is an evil place and that wickedness will reign in the places of justice and righteousness, but it is also true that the righteous God will one day judge. Do we not often, like the psalmist, desire that justice now?
Psalms 94:1 O
While it is appropriate at times to ask the questions that seem to allude us, we ought to be careful in not demanding an answer that fits our expectations, or at times, even demanding an answer. We desire a world in which justice is quickly dispersed. We watch television that often satisfies our own expectations of justice. We have become accustomed to immediate retribution in our fantasy worlds of television. While this might satisfy our human desires, rarely does God play a part in this type of justice.
Rom 12:19 Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God’s wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord.
Heb 10:30 For we know the one who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.” 10:31 It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
Rom 2:6 He will reward each one according to his works: 2:7 eternal life to those who by perseverance in good works seek glory and honor and immortality, 2:8 but wrath and anger to those who live in selfish ambition and do not obey the truth but follow unrighteousness. 2:9 There will be affliction and distress on everyone who does evil, on the Jew first and also the Greek, 2:10 but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, for the Jew first and also the Greek.
2 Thess 1:6 For it is right for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 1:7 and to you who are being afflicted to give rest together with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels. 1:8 With flaming fire he will mete out punishment on those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
Ecc 3:18 I also thought to myself, “It is for the sake of people, so God can clearly show them that they are like animals. 3:19 For the fate of humans and the fate of animals are the same: As one dies, so dies the other; both have the same breath. There is no advantage for humans over animals, for both are fleeting. 3:20 Both go to the same place, both come from the dust, and to dust both return. 3:21 Who really knows if the human spirit ascends upward, and the animal’s spirit descends into the earth?
View of the unbeliever
View of the Believer
Man will die and cease to exist just like the beast
Man will die just like the beast in the sense that he will turn to dust, but will be raised for eternal death or life.
No one can know if man will ascend upward.
Man will ascend upward for judgment.
The fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same in that they both die and their bodies go to the dust. That is where the similarities cease. The verse says that man has no advantage over the beast. In the context, man has no advantage over the beast in death. Both are going to die. Neither of them can avoid that inevitability. But, just because they both die and return to the dust, does not mean that they both have the same end.
Many evangelical scholars think that the Hebrew text in verse 21 seems to be a statement rather than a question. While this may be possible and definitely more conducive to what one might want this verse to mean, Solomon seems to continue writing in the same pessimistic manner that has characterized him to this point. While there is no question in a believer’s mind that man ascends to heaven (both believers and unbelievers for judgment), most people ‘under the sun’ view life as pointless and finite. It appears that Solomon is stating the common sentiment of man, “Who can know what happens after life?”
Other wisdom literature compares man to beasts …
Psalm 49:12 but, despite their wealth, people do not last, they are like animals that perish.
While the debate may continue as to whether or not Solomon questioned an afterlife (I don’t believe he did, as much as knew most people do), the rest of scripture does not leave that question unanswered. There are many verses that have already been stated, but consider the following as well.
Ecc 3:22 So I perceived there is nothing better than for people to enjoy their work, because that is their reward; for who can show them what the future holds?
View of the Unbeliever
View of the Believer
Since I know that I am going to die and don’t know what will happen afterwards, I might as well attempt to enjoy present pleasures.
Since I know that I am going to die and will face a just God that has forgiven my sins in the person of Christ, I will enjoy the present with an awareness of a just God.
Whether or not you come to the conclusion that Solomon has a fatalistic view of life in this chapter; it appears that, either way, he encourages man to enjoy the present life he is living.
While there may be some present joy in sin, the fact that God has placed eternity in the hearts of man seems to leave man incapable of enjoying life without Him. If a man realizes (even suspects) that he is going to be eternally judged for his actions, little joy can be found in wickedness. There would always be the question, “Am I going to be held accountable for what I am doing?”
The believer, on the other hand, can come to the conclusion that while the world is messed up, he can trust God to deal with evil in His way and in His time. In the meantime, he can enjoy life with the ability to be victorious over sin. If you have settled your fear of judgment in the work of Christ, you are then freed to enjoy life without the dread of despair.
All sorts of things happen to all people…
A couple of lessons ago we studied how both the positives and negatives of life present themselves to all people at varying times. We have no control over these happenings and it is in this realization that we are confronted with the truth that we are in bondage to time. Not only are we bound to time, we are as well incapable of controlling time. We are given an internal desire but not the inherent ability to understand eternity.
God is sovereign over all those happenings…
We realize that God, alone, is sovereign over time and the happenings in our lives. Solomon clearly establishes God as the Sovereign Judge over all men. At a future time mankind will be judged for how they responded to Him.
If God is sovereign why does he allow evil to continue . . .
It is logical to question evil once the sovereignty of God is established. People often either reject God’s sovereignty due to an acceptance of God’s benevolence, or reject God’s benevolence due to their acceptance of God’s sovereignty. Men truly struggle to grasp a God who is benevolent while at the same time being sovereign in an evil world. Solomon communicates these struggles present in men. While still in chapter 3, Solomon discusses evil in the halls of ‘righteousness.’ The question could be posed, “If God is sovereign, why does evil reign in a place where justice ought to rule?”
It is in this line of thought that we find ourselves presently. It is in chapter 4 that Solomon delves more deeply into some seemingly inconsistent realities in light of God’s sovereignty.
Be careful about your attitude towards God.
At the beginning of chapter 5, we will be challenged to ‘guard our steps’ in the area of how we approach God. Let us consider this reminder as we study the seeming contradictions to God’s sovereignty.
Ecc 4:1 So I again considered all the oppression that continually occurs on earth. This is what I saw: The oppressed were in tears, but no one was comforting them; no one delivers them from the power of their oppressors. 4:2 So I considered those who are dead and gone more fortunate than those who are still alive. 4:3 But better than both is the one who has not been born and has not seen the evil things that are done on earth.
“If God is sovereign why does He allow me to be oppressed?”
This is one of the many passages that some hold to substantiate an authorship other than Solomon. It seems clear that Solomon contributed heavily to oppression in the later years of his life (I Kings 11); and that being the case, it seems odd that he would speak of the oppressor in such a negative light if he had abused his power as well. Holding to Solomonic authorship will drive us to see either a sense of repentance in Solomon or a transparency in him. He may well be accurately chronicling his own abuse of power, regardless of whether he repented of it or not.
Death is better than life (vs. 2). It is not unusual for someone to desire death instead of their present predicament. Both Jonah (4:3) and Elijah (I Kings 19:4) desired their own deaths as they reflected on the gravity of their situations.
Non existence is better than life or death (vs. 3). In a similar vein as both Job and Jeremiah, Solomon proposes that non-existence would be better than either life or death. It would in essence be better to have never been born than to be born in a world of oppression.
Job 3:9 Let its morning stars be darkened; let it wait for daylight but find none, nor let it see the first rays of dawn, 3:10 because it did not shut the doors of my mother’s womb on me, nor did it hide trouble from my eyes! 3:11 “Why did I not die at birth, and why did I not expire as I came out of the womb? . . . 3:13 For now I would be lying down and would be quiet, I would be asleep and then at peace . . . 3:17 There the wicked cease from turmoil, and there the weary are at rest. 3:18 There the prisoners relax together; they do not hear the voice of the oppressor. 3:19 Small and great are there, and the slave is free from his master. 3:20 “Why does God give light to one who is in misery, and life to those whose soul is bitter, 3:21 to those who wait for death that does not come, and search for it more than for hidden treasures, 3:22 who rejoice even to jubilation, and are exultant when they find the grave?
Jer 20:14 Cursed be the day I was born! May that day not be blessed when my mother gave birth to me. 20:15 Cursed be the man who made my father very glad when he brought him the news that a baby boy had been born to him! 20:16 May that man be like the cities that the
One may wonder what Solomon’s intent is in these verses. Does he truly think that it would be better for man to have never been born at all than to live in a world of oppression? That seems to be his point in these verses. Is he using sarcasm or rhetoric to prove a point?
Some interpret these verses in the following way . . . If it is only after death that true justice is experienced, wouldn’t it be better to die than to live under unrighteousness and injustice? While this question is logical it does not seem to take into consideration verse 3 which states that it would be better to not have been born at all.
It seems more likely that Solomon is merely presenting the often held view of men under oppression. Oppression is constant in this world. We can be broken over it, but we cannot rid ourselves of it. As Solomon looked back throughout his life, regardless of whether or not the oppression was his fault, he realizes that many would have been better off dead or having never been born. Only a few verses earlier does Solomon seem to imply that man does not know if he will ascend or descend after death.
Ecc 3:21 Who really knows if the human spirit ascends upward, and the animal’s spirit descends into the earth?
For the many people who lived their lives entirely under oppression, if man did not ascend to heaven, it would have been better for them to have never been born. Consider Jesus statement concerning those who betray Him, “It would have been good for that man if he had not been born” (Matt 26:24). As you consider Solomon’s perspective remember that he is viewing life under the sun. If life ‘under the sun’ is terrible (and your focus is merely on this life) why would it not follow logically to desire death?
In light of God’s sovereignty, why does God allow life ‘under the sun’ to be so oppressive? This question can be answered by following the same logic that is proposed in chapter 3. God allows all things to come into the life of men. The presence of these things drives us to hunger for eternity. As chapter 3 establishes, the hunger for eternity is only quenched in a relationship with the eternal being. Practically speaking, there are two ways to view oppression. (1) Due to sin, all men continue to suffer the consequences. One of those consequences is the oppression of man by people with power. (2) God desires to drive you to Himself. He often does this by taking away all other things on which you might rely. The oppressed will never find satisfaction in this life separate from a relationship with and reliance on God.
Ecc 4:4 Then I considered all the skillful work that is done: Surely it is nothing more than competition between one person and another. This also is profitless – like chasing the wind. 4:5 The fool folds his hands and does no work, so he has nothing to eat but his own flesh. 4:6 Better is one handful with some rest than two hands full of toil and chasing the wind.
“If God is sovereign why does he allow people to manipulate and abuse me to get their way?”
We might title these verses the ‘Corporate Ladder.’ We have seen many people climb their way over many people to reach the top of their business or field.
There are abundant testimonies that will support the fact that those who reach the top of the ladder are still unsatisfied. The thrill is found in climbing the ladder. Once the top is reached there is a disappointment that comes as one realizes that it’s not as great as they thought. (“I climbed the ladder only to find it against the wrong building.”)
Solomon states the obvious. The typical work place is filled with rivalry. Men do not realize that they are hurting themselves as they continue their climb (vs. 5). Wouldn’t it be better for someone to have little with less work than a lot with more work and heartache (vs. 6)?
There are a couple of ways to approach application in these verses. Some have spiritualized this passage a little more than I am comfortable with. They view the ‘one hand full of rest’ as a reliance on Christ/God. They might encourage someone to not focus on climbing the corporate ladder but instead focus on resting in God as they do their work. One hand would continue to work while the other rests in God. While this might be true and surely produces an appropriate application, I don’t believe this was Solomon’s intention.
It seems more likely that Solomon is encouraging man to avoid the rivalry in labor by finding a balance between rest and labor. It ought to be acceptable to be average. Find a balance between ‘succeeding’ in the business world and living a full life. A possible ‘dynamic equivalent’ of this passage might be . . .
“There is no point in fighting over a position. You are only destroying yourself. Why don’t you just enjoy life with a little less?”
There is no question that you ought to rest in God. God desires that you rest in Him instead of your own laurels. Work enough to provide your needs, and then go spend some time with family and friends. This seems to be his intention since the next few verses speak to the loneliness that mankind often feels in this world.
Ecc 4:7 So I again considered another futile thing on earth: 4:8 A man who is all alone with no companion, he has no children nor siblings; yet there is no end to all his toil, and he is never satisfied with riches. He laments, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is futile and a burdensome task! 4:9 Two people are better than one, because they can reap more benefit from their labor. 4:10 For if they fall, one will help his companion up, but pity the person who falls down and has no one to help him up. 4:11 Furthermore, if two lie down together, they can keep each other warm, but how can one person keep warm by himself? 4:12 Although an assailant may overpower one person, two can withstand him. Moreover, a three-stranded cord is not quickly broken.
“If God is sovereign why am I alone?”
Have you ever felt alone and wanted more than just a spiritual relationship? The man in this passage is characterized by four things. It is these characteristics that quickly tell us that it was his choice to be alone. While he may not enjoy his loneliness, he quickly dismisses the fact that he chose work over a life. He wanted money and he deprived himself to get it. Once he had it, he had no one to share it with. As Solomon says, “that is futile.”
The fact that he had no son or brother does not signify that he was an only child. This fact simply pictures a man with no family or friends. The word ‘brother’ can mean friend, brother, and relative. This man is completely alone. He has no friends and he has no family. He consumes his time with work and is continually driven by a lust for money. Never does he stop and realize that he has no one to leave all his work too and no one to spend his money on or with.
The application is simple for it is clearly stated for us in verses 9-12. The application is as simple as ‘make friends.’ The consequences of loneliness are stated; and to avoid them, one must actively pursue friendships.
While you shouldn’t form friendships for the sole reason of recruiting help, the reality is that friends are going to assist in many ways. Two people are able to accomplish more than one person. As well, a friend is able to pick up the slack. The reality in life is that you often cannot accomplish things alone and simply need others to help. If you have ostracized everyone, they are not going to be anxious to help you. You very well might fail. That failure, in one sense, would absolutely be your own fault.
Solomon offers examples to show that a lonely individual is weak in many ways. Your strength is found in your numbers. This can apply to the physical as well as the spiritual world. In the same way that a larger army is typically stronger than a smaller army, someone attempting to live their spiritual life alone will soon find themselves swayed or destroyed.
Make friends. Don’t make friends so you can abuse their friendship, but do make friends. This might mean you will have to step out from your comfort zone and pursue someone’s friendship. You may be hurt at times, but the reward is well worth the investment. If you don’t choose to actively pursue friendships, the day will come when you need someone and no one will be there. At that point, the fault lies with you.
NET Prov 18:24 A person who has friends may be harmed by them, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
NAU Prov 18:24 A man of too many friends comes to ruin, But there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
ESVProv 18:24 A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.
KJVProv 18:24 A man that hath friends must shew himself friendly: and there is a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.
Some have used this verse to instruct someone who might want a friend that they must be friendly. But, the real intent of the verse has a bit more of a pessimistic view. In reality, the verse teaches us that a person can have too many friends.
There are expectations that come along with friendships. The more friends one has, the more is going to be required to continue and fulfill the requirements in those friendships. As well, the more friends one has the more likely the quality of friends will be low . . . thus leading to ruin.
Ecc 4:13 A poor but wise youth is better than an old and foolish king who no longer knows how to receive advice. 4:14 For he came out of prison to become king, even though he had been born poor in what would become his kingdom. 4:15 I considered all the living who walk on earth, as well as the successor who would arise in his place. 4:16 There is no end to all the people nor to the past generations, yet future generations will not rejoice in him. This also is profitless and like chasing the wind.
“If God is sovereign and He loves me, why do I feel so expendable?”
Have any of you ever felt irrelevant? Have any of you worked for years and felt successful, and then were replaced by some ‘young kid’? “He is young and vibrant, and he brings new ideas to the table. Thanks for your years of experience and hard work, but you can leave now.”
How quickly people are forgotten. It too often doesn’t matter how much you overcame to arrive where you are. What seems to matter is that you’re outdated.
Solomon is not so much endorsing this mindset as he is stating its ever present reality. He very well may have been feeling expendable as he wrote.
The truth, that might hurt, is that we are all expendable. In light of the sovereignty of God, how could anyone think that they are indispensable? It is vital that we live our lives striving to be used in the manner that God allows, when he allows. If we are constantly aspiring to our own success, we will find ourselves lonely and useless. In Christ, no one feels worthless or useless. He can truly use anyone He wants at any time, so let us yield ourselves to His sovereign will.
A secondary note . . . Solomon seems to be making a point that often the older you become the less relevant and teachable you become. Age seems to be accompanied by inflexibility. Solomon’s point is not so much that the young are wiser than the old as much as wisdom is not based on one’s age. The young may act more wisely than the old if they are characterized by receiving instruction, but the reverse is as well true. It doesn’t matter your age; it matters if you are able to accept instruction. Have you come to the point in your life that you merely assume that you are wise because you are older? If you have become stubborn and entrenched in your understanding, you are not as wise as the teachable youth.