What is Ecclesiastes about and what its main message?

Reading the book of Ecclesiastes can be like driving through dense fog with a severe concussion and a blindfold over our eyes, but that’s kind of the point.

The book’s literary style is the ideal means of conveying its lessons of wisdom. Unlike Proverbs, its answers are not cut and dry because many of life’s questions are too complicated for simple replies. Ecclesiastes forces us to meditate slowly and carefully as we think through the implications of its mostly skeptical passages.

Having studied and preached through the entire book over the course of several months, I later delivered the following sermons at Eureka Primitive Baptist Church as an overview of what I had learned. On August 12-13, 2017, I attempted to help my friends in Chula, Georgia better grasp what gives life meaning according to Ecclesiastes.

 

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2)

Ecclesiastes is not a popular book of the Bible. Very rarely will any pastor attempt to preach all the way through it because it poses several interpretive challenges. The unskilled elder is intimidated by its many cultural references which require an in-depth study of ancient history. Even on the surface, it appears challenging.

Once we dig a little deeper, we discover even more problems if you will. For instance, there is no mention of Christ. There are no allusions to Christ. No types and shadows are pointing to the coming Messiah at all. Some Bible commentators have attempted to find Jesus in a few of the passages, but they’re always stretching the text further than they should. Perhaps you can understand why a Christian minister would feel uncomfortable with this book.

It gets even worse. There is no specific mention of God in this book. Yes, we do read the word God several times, but never does this book use the proper name of God. Unlike other books in the Old Testament, it never refers to Yahweh, which is usually translated LORD in all capital letters. Instead, it refers to him using the generic title, God, which is not specific to the great I AM or the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

If these things weren’t enough to make us uneasy when studying Ecclesiastes, there’s always the matter of the so-called Preacher’s cynicism, not to mention his apparent contradictions. “All is vanity,” he says, but then he turns around and tells us to enjoy life while we can. For example, Ecclesiastes 5:18 says:

Behold that which I have seen: it is good and comely for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labour that he taketh under the sun all the days of his life, which God giveth him: for it is his portion.

Let’s avoid shortcuts

When most pastors attempt to preach on Ecclesiastes, they are prone to read the Preacher’s mantra, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity,” then jump straight to the end of the book where it says:

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

The problem with that method is that most of the book is missed. If we read the beginning then jump straight to the end, we’ll have no idea how the Preacher got from point A to point B. We won’t know how he saw everything as vanity but then decides that we should still fear God and keep his commandments.

I would argue that real wisdom lies not in the conclusion alone, but in the basis for that conclusion. Why should we fear God? Why should we keep his commandments? Does this duty of man change the original hypothesis that all is vanity?

It’s a shame that we so often overlook this book of the Bible given that it addresses some of the most profound questions we have. Why does it seem that the wicked prosper while good people suffer? How can we make sense of a world that seems plagued by chaos and confusion? How much time and effort should we invest into secular things that won’t even last? After all, every one of us faces the same inevitable dilemma: We’re dying. At some point, we will leave this world for good. Why does it matter that we have a family, a job, material possessions, or anything else? What meaning does anything have? Does life itself have any meaning? What about morality?

Solomon’s speech

To understand this book, let me paint a picture for you. I want you to imagine that you live in ancient Israel. You live in the city of Jerusalem during the reign of King Solomon.

King Solomon is Israel’s third king following Saul and David. The days of Saul and David were a little rough. There were plenty of enemies all around, so peace and security felt like a pipe dream, but everything changed when Solomon became king. For the last few decades, he brought peace to the nation. Furthermore, Israel has experienced such amazing prosperity that you’ve become the envy of nations all over the world. There has never been a time like this one.

Suffice it to say that Solomon has been a great leader. He’s been a wise leader. Everyone knows that when you stand trial before King Solomon, he will always rule justly. He’ll leave no stone unturned to discover the truth of a matter, and his verdicts are always fair.

Let’s say that it’s an ordinary day in Jerusalem when to your surprise you hear shofars blaring in the distance, calling everyone to come to the temple. It’s not a special feast day, so you can’t think of a reason why everyone is gathering at the temple, but you go anyhow.

When you arrive, King Solomon steps forward to address the crowd, only he doesn’t look so good. His robe is in shambles. His face is unshaven. He looks like a man who hasn’t slept in days. Given his reputation, you expect him to bring good news. He always has good news. Instead, he speaks up and says, “Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” In other words, he says, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

Are you confused? So is everyone else. For the next thirty minutes, Solomon seems to ramble about the vanity of life. “Take a look around you,” he says. “What meaning does anything have? Even wisdom is worthless. It won’t save you. You’re going to die anyhow.” It’s not the kind of speech you expect from your king.

The narrator v. the Preacher

There’s one man in the audience, however, who seems captivated by what Solomon has to say. He’s ferociously taking down notes. He refuses to miss a single word. You don’t know it at the time, but that man will eventually publish the king’s speech. He sees the wisdom in it. Though the delivery is unpolished and somewhat pessimistic, he understands what Solomon is trying to get across. When he does publish the speech, he wants the point to be clear to everyone, so he writes his own conclusion and adds it to the end.

That’s what we have in the book of Ecclesiastes. There are two distinct voices: the narrator and the Preacher. Why is he called the Preacher? A preacher (or qoheleth in Hebrew) refers to someone who gathers an assembly of people and addresses them. Ecclesiastes, by the way, means the same thing. It’s Latin for preacher.

We see here at the beginning of Ecclesiastes, the narrator, whom we’re not told anything about, introduces the Preacher and then quotes the Preacher from Ecclesiastes 1:2 through Ecclesiastes 12:8. Finally, the narrator returns at Ecclesiastes 12:9 to summarize what the Preacher has said.

Once again, we don’t know the true identity of the narrator, but we can safely conclude that the Preacher is none other than King Solomon. There are several telling clues throughout the book. For instance, the narrator introduces him as “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (Ecc 1:1). I suppose it could be argued that any one of David’s descendants could be called a “son of David,” but we also have to consider what the Preacher goes on to say about himself. He speaks of his great wisdom and his abundant wealth. There is very little reason to believe the Preacher is anyone other than Solomon.

Why not simply call him by his name? Why shroud his identity in mystery by referring to him only as the Preacher? That’s a good question. Perhaps the narrator was employing a creative literary device. Maybe he was attempting to set the scene by causing us to think of Solomon not as a king sitting on a throne but as one who is addressing a crowd of people. It could also be that the narrator is not quoting Solomon verbatim, so he didn’t want to use Solomon’s name explicitly. I don’t know the reason. I can’t be sure.

Solomon’s eminent wisdom

Regardless, we need a clear mental image of the man who is speaking throughout this book. We don’t know when this book was written. We don’t know when Solomon spoke these words. I will, however, offer a probable theory. If I were to take these words and drop them into Solomon’s biography, I would put them somewhere in the middle of 1 Kings 11.

Solomon lived quite a life. As I said, he was a wise man. You may remember that when he first became king, he was unsure of himself. He was young and inexperienced, so he asked God not for riches, but for wisdom. According to 1 Kings 3, God answered his prayer, saying:

“Because thou hast asked this thing, and hast not asked for thyself long life; neither hast asked riches for thyself, nor hast asked the life of thine enemies; but hast asked for thyself understanding to discern judgment; Behold, I have done according to thy words: lo, I have given thee a wise and an understanding heart; so that there was none like thee before thee, neither after thee shall any arise like unto thee. And I have also given thee that which thou hast not asked, both riches, and honour: so that there shall not be any among the kings like unto thee all thy days.” (1 Kings 3:11-13)

Immediately, Solomon put his God-given wisdom to use. I’m sure that you remember the story of the two woman who both claimed to be the mother of a young infant. Both had children, but one of the babies had died in the night, so both women claimed that the living child belonged to her. Solomon says, “Fair enough. Let’s just cut the child in half. You can each have a piece.” The baby’s real mother cried out, “Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means put him to death.” By that plea, Solomon knew she was the birth mother.

Solomon’s sad ending

As Solomon’s story continues, the fame of his wisdom spreads across the land. He becomes richer and richer. Israel remains at peace. Eventually, Solomon has the incredible opportunity to build the temple, which he does. He even has the wealth, resources, and manpower to build for himself a luxurious palace.

It’s a great story, but it does have a tragic ending. By the time we reach 1 Kings 11, we discover that Solomon is not the godly man he used to be. Deuteronomy 17 records a series of laws which God gave to any king who might reign over Israel. Solomon broke every one of them. Rule number one: Don’t marry foreign women. Why? Inevitably, they will tempt you to adopt their wicked idolatry.

Let me read just a portion of 1 Kings 11 to give a sense of what happened to Solomon near the end of his life:

But king Solomon loved many strange women … Of the nations concerning which the Lord said unto the children of Israel, “Ye shall not go in to them, neither shall they come in unto you: for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon clave unto these in love. And he had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines: and his wives turned away his heart. For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. … And Solomon did evil in the sight of the Lord, and went not fully after the Lord, as did David his father. …

And the Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart was turned from the Lord God of Israel, which had appeared unto him twice, And had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods: but he kept not that which the Lord commanded. Wherefore the Lord said unto Solomon, “Forasmuch as this is done of thee, and thou hast not kept my covenant and my statutes, which I have commanded thee, I will surely rend the kingdom from thee, and will give it to thy servant. Notwithstanding in thy days I will not do it for David thy father’s sake: but I will rend it out of the hand of thy son. Howbeit I will not rend away all the kingdom; but will give one tribe to thy son for David my servant’s sake, and for Jerusalem’s sake which I have chosen.” (1 Kings 11:1-13)

From there, God sent adversaries against Solomon. Though God would not snatch the kingdom from his hand just yet, Solomon would spend the remainder of his life running from his enemies. He’d have to look over his shoulder every step of the way. Rather than enjoy his old age in peace, he was forced to live in paranoia and constant suspicion.

The wisdom of hindsight

When you read the book of Ecclesiastes, don’t imagine the young, prosperous king who was full of wisdom and remarkably successful. The words of the Preacher make a lot more sense when you picture an older Solomon who has made shipwreck of his life. He has angered God and lost much of what he once had. What is a man like that prone to do? He reflects. He slips into a melancholy state of pensive sadness. Not only is his life a mess, but he’s also facing his mortality. He had a lot to think about.

I believe that’s the version of Solomon we get when we read Ecclesiastes. Have you ever noticed that when you’re having a bad day, every little thing gets colored by it? The traffic on the interstate is a bit more frustrating. You have less patience for the long line at the grocery store. Your spouse or your children seem to hit on every nerve in your body. If you know what I mean, and I’m sure that you do, then you can readily understand the Preacher’s cynicism in this book.

Let’s not forget that Solomon was the wisest man to ever live besides Jesus Christ. Even in his self-induced suffering, he still possessed God-given wisdom. Despite the cynicism and pessimism, the Preacher builds his case on realism. He doesn’t say anything that’s false. He doesn’t exaggerate to make a cynical point. Plus, there are moments of what we might call cautious optimism at key stages in this book. The Preacher does have positive things to say. He has godly advice to give, but even those passages are somewhat clouded by mystery.

Life is mysteriously fleeting

Let’s start at the beginning. Shall we? The Preacher declares, “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity” (Ecc 1:2). He repeats that phrase several times, even ending his speech with it. In fact, the entire discourse is the Preacher’s attempt to prove that point. “All is vanity,” he says. “Let me show you what I mean.”

This expression is difficult to translate into English. “Vanity” is not a bad translation, but it does slightly obscure the full meaning. The NIV Bible uses the word, meaningless, rather than vanity. That’s also a decent translation, but neither word quite captures the essence of the original Hebrew word which is hebel.

The word, hebel, literally means a vapor or a mist. It can refer to someone’s breath. From a biblical perspective, what does that make you think of? Immediately, my mind goes to an expression used by James: “For what is your life? It is even a vapour, that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away” (Jas 4:14). In light of that verse, “vanity” seems to be a perfect translation of hebel. The Preacher is describing everything as fleeting. It doesn’t last very long before it evaporates into nothing.

That’s undoubtedly one layer of hebel, but I believe there’s another. Imagine yourself standing in front of a fire, watching the smoke rise into the air. Now, reach out and take hold of that smoke. It stands to reason that you should be able to grab it. Smoke is a physical thing. You can see it, but you can’t hold it in your hand. It will always slip through your fingers. It’s an enigma if you will. It’s a mystery.

That’s the second layer of hebel. The Preacher uses this word to convey two important observations: (1) Life is fleeting; (2) life is mysterious. You don’t have to be a renowned philosopher to know that life is complicated and often confusing. It doesn’t always make sense. Does it? For example, how does the world’s wisest man come to violate God’s clearest, most emphatic law regarding kings? Solomon not only violates that law, but he does so a hundred times over.

Proverbs v. Ecclesiastes

Just think about this book in comparison to Proverbs. Both books are considered parts of the Bible’s wisdom literature. How are they different? The book of Proverbs presents life as a well-ordered, black-and-white system of cosmic justice. If you do right, then you’ll be rewarded. If you do evil, then you’ll be punished. I’ve known many Christians to struggle with Proverbs for that very reason. I think that we instinctively know that life is not that simple. Even so, the Bible says it.

Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, isn’t quite so optimistic. The Preacher doesn’t see the world as though it’s operated by a black-and-white system of precise justice. He laments the fact that good people suffer. He notices that wicked people often prosper. Even wisdom, he says, will not necessarily guarantee you a good life. In the end, it doesn’t matter anyhow. The righteous die just like the wicked. In many respects, Ecclesiastes is a complete reversal of Proverbs.

The question is, which book is more accurate? In short, they are equally accurate, providing us with slightly different viewpoints. The book of Job adds a third perspective, but we’ll save that for tomorrow.

Ecclesiastes 1:3-2:23

For now, let’s quickly move through the first two chapters of this book where the Preacher introduces us to the problems of secular life. I’ll begin reading at Ecclesiastes 1:3:

What profit hath a man of all his labour
which he taketh under the sun?

One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh:
but the earth abideth for ever.
The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down,
and hasteth to his place where he arose.
The wind goeth toward the south,
and turneth about unto the north;
it whirleth about continually,
and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.
All the rivers run into the sea;
yet the sea is not full;
unto the place from whence the rivers come,
thither they return again.
All things are full of labour;
man cannot utter it:
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be;
and that which is done is that which shall be done:
and there is no new thing under the sun.
Is there any thing whereof it may be said,
“See, this is new”?
it hath been already of old time,
which was before us.
There is no remembrance of former things;
neither shall there be any remembrance
of things that are to come
with those that shall come after.

I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.
That which is crooked cannot be made straight:
and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.

I communed with mine own heart, saying, “Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit.

For in much wisdom is much grief:
and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.

I said in mine heart, “Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure,” and, behold, this also is vanity. I said of laughter, “It is mad”: and of mirth, “What doeth it?” I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom; and to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life.

I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards: I made me gardens and orchards, and I planted trees in them of all kind of fruits: I made me pools of water, to water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees: I got me servants and maidens, and had servants born in my house; also I had great possessions of great and small cattle above all that were in Jerusalem before me: I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces: I gat me men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments, and that of all sorts. So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem: also my wisdom remained with me.

And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them,
I withheld not my heart from any joy;
for my heart rejoiced in all my labour:
and this was my portion of all my labour.
Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought,
and on the labour that I had laboured to do:
and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit,
and there was no profit under the sun.

And I turned myself to behold wisdom,
and madness, and folly:
for what can the man do that cometh after the king?
even that which hath been already done.
Then I saw that wisdom excelleth folly,
as far as light excelleth darkness.
The wise man’s eyes are in his head;
but the fool walketh in darkness:
and I myself perceived also
that one event happeneth to them all.

Then said I in my heart,

“As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me;
and why was I then more wise?”
Then I said in my heart,
that this also is vanity.
For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever;
seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten.
And how dieth the wise man? as the fool.

Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit. Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me. And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and wherein I have shewed myself wise under the sun. This is also vanity. Therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair of all the labour which I took under the sun. For there is a man whose labour is in wisdom, and in knowledge, and in equity; yet to a man that hath not laboured therein shall he leave it for his portion. This also is vanity and a great evil. For what hath man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun? For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief; yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night. This is also vanity. (Ecclesiastes 1:3-2:23)

Are you depressed yet?

Don’t worry. I don’t intend to give anywhere near a full commentary on these chapters tonight. Instead, I’ve provide you the concise version.

Studying secularism

The Preacher’s criticism in these passages and throughout the entire book is limited to secularism. You’ll notice that he uses the phrase, “under the sun,” over and over again. What does that mean? It means that he’s not thinking about the possibility of an eternal life, heaven, or anything beyond this natural world. He’s not thinking about anything outside of the bounds of time. He is criticizing only that which is secular.

What does he say about it? In Ecclesiastes 1, he shows the utter failure of secularism. According to the Preacher, even wisdom cannot bring meaning or satisfaction to a secular life.

In verse 3, there’s no hope of finding satisfaction from earthly resources. Every secular endeavor has an undertone of misery. In verse 4, there’s no conceivable end to this apparent futility. In verse 8, the dissatisfaction goes beyond words. We can’t even express the weariness of life under the sun. In verses 9-11, the past, present, and future are all meaningless. Why? It’s because every single day is part of a perpetual cycle that has no end, no meaning, no intervention, and seemingly no redemption.

But wait, you think, surely there’s an offramp somewhere. There has to be something that will allow us to escape the misery of secular life. In verses 12-18, the Preacher cuts off every escape route. If anyone had the power and resources to find a way, Solomon most certainly did. In verses 13-15, he searched and searched for something that would give this life meaning. Maybe it’s all about pleasure, he thinks. In verses 16-18, he gives pleasure a try but finds that it only makes the problems worse. Secular pleasure increases sorrow.

Are you still with me?

Secularism continues to fail

In Ecclesiastes 2, the Preacher tries every pleasure imaginable. How about superficial fun, living for the moment, and simply having a good time without putting too much thought into it? It’s madness, he says. What if we add some indulgence to our fun? Perhaps we could numb the sorrows of life with a little alcohol. That doesn’t work either.

The Preacher doesn’t give up, though. He builds for himself a mansion. He has money, material possessions, power, entertainment, and women to keep him company. He’s fulfilled the American dream and then some. All the while—look at Ecclesiastes 2:9—he retained his objectivity. He’s not just living life; he’s studying it. He’s paying close attention, desperately trying to understand the meaning of life.

To make matters worse for the Preacher, he realizes that life is full of uncertainty. Wisdom has failed. Pleasure-seeking has failed. Suddenly, he notices that it may not matter anyhow. So what if his wisdom is greater than any other man? In verse 14, the wise man dies just like the fool, making any quest for wisdom (i.e., secular wisdom) just as useless as anything else.

Perhaps a person can find meaning in his legacy. Maybe if you can do something that’s great enough to be remembered when you’re gone, then your life will have meaning. In verse 16, the Preacher crushes that hope. Will anyone care what you did once you’re dead and gone? It won’t help you. In verse 18, we’re reminded that everything we have will be left to someone else.

By verse 20, the Preacher throws up his hands. All hope of a worthwhile life has been swallowed up. Nothing guarantees permanence. Death can’t be sidestepped. All the toil, physical or emotional, will prove useless. In verse 23, he says, “For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief; yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night. This is also vanity” (Ecc 2:23).

Are you depressed now? Keep reading. Ecclesiastes 4-10 continue the Preacher’s apparent confusion, lamenting, and cynicism. There’s a brief hiatus, however, at the end of Ecclesiastes 2 and the beginning of Ecclesiastes 3. His tone changes. He offers a much different perspective. What is that perspective? Come back tomorrow, and I’ll tell you.

 

There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God. For who can eat, or who else can hasten hereunto, more than I? For God giveth to a man that is good in his sight wisdom, and knowledge, and joy: but to the sinner he giveth travail, to gather and to heap up, that he may give to him that is good before God. This also is vanity and vexation of spirit.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth? I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it. He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end. I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life. And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God. I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him.

That which hath been is now;
and that which is to be hath already been;
and God requireth that which is past. (Ecclesiastes 2:24-3:15)

Perhaps you noticed the Preacher’s drastic change in tone. Last night, everything we read was designed to prove the point that all is vanity. The last word the Preacher used in verse 23 was “vanity.”

This sudden change represents one of the primary difficulties of interpreting the book of Ecclesiastes. The so-called Preacher seems almost bipolar in his attempt to find meaning in life. One moment he’s depressed and suggesting that everything is little more than a fleeting vapor. The next moment he’s telling us to enjoy life. He says here, “There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour” (Ecc 2:24). But in the previous passage, he said, “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun” (Ecc 2:18). How do we make sense of these contradictions?

No longer ‘under the sun’

There are subtle clues in the text that run all the way through the book. It may not be a systematic, well-organized presentation, but the Preacher goes back and forth between two very different views of the world.

Do you see what’s missing in the text that I’ve read this morning? As I said, it’s subtle. What you will not find in Ecclesiastes 2:24-3:15 is the phrase, “under the sun.” It’s not obvious, but the Preacher is looking at things from a much different perspective now. Earlier, he was trying to make sense of life with no real consideration of God or eternity. Here, however, he’s not limiting his observation to only that which is under the sun. In other words, he’s no longer exclusively observing secularism. He’s thinking about the existence of God and a life beyond the confinements of time.

Verse 24: “There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God” (Ecc 2:24). Rather than think of his labors as purely secular work, he admits that it is God who has given him the work to do. Furthermore, God has given us this work and its rewards such as food and drink to be enjoyed. It should bring enjoyment to our souls which is not the same as worldly pleasure. He’s describing contentment.

Verse 25: “For who can eat, or who else can hasten hereunto, more than I?” In other words, he says, “Apart from God who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” By the way, the right translation of this text is challenging because the Bible manuscripts are different. Half of them say, “more than I,” while the other half say, “apart from God.” I personally lean toward the latter based on the internal evidence here in Ecclesiastes. You’ll see what I mean as we continue.

Regardless, this verse stands in direct contrast to everything the Preacher said earlier in this book. First, he claimed that everything leads to a perpetual cycle of despair. Second, he says that life is a gift of God to be enjoyed. Which is it?

All is meaningless (without God)

Again, we have to recognize the shift that the Preacher makes from commenting on secularism to talking about life with a God in heaven. What’s the difference?

Let me back up. Imagine the Preacher as a philosopher who’s musing out loud. He says to us, “Bear with me for a minute. I want to consider the meaning of life. Does it have any meaning? We all know that it’s fleeting. It’s like a vapor. It vanishes very quickly. It’s also mysterious.”

He looks around and notices the hustle and bustle of the city. He sees people doing business in the marketplace, the rich and poor alike. Everyone’s working and keeping busy. For the most part, people move about their day without any thought or mention of God. After all, who has time for that? What difference does it make anyhow? With or without God, we live, work, and die.

As a result, the Preacher says, “Without God, all is meaningless. There’s no purpose in what we’re doing. But if there is a God, a sovereign being who sees all, knows all, and controls all, then perhaps life does have meaning. If there is no God, we’re probably working for nothing. All we’ll get in the end is death and a forgotten legacy. If there is a God, then he must be the one supplying us with work to do and rewards to enjoy.”

Are you following me? Have you ever talked to an atheist at length? If you have, then you probably noticed that his or her perspective of just about anything is quite different than your own. It should be anyhow. That’s what the Preacher is doing here. He showing a contrast between a secular, godless viewpoint and one that recognizes a sovereign God in heaven. The difference is dramatic.

Refusing to acknowledge God

Let’s continue. Verse 26:

For God giveth to a man that is good in his sight wisdom, and knowledge, and joy: but to the sinner he giveth travail, to gather and to heap up, that he may give to him that is good before God. This also is vanity and vexation of spirit. (Ecclesiastes 2:26)

What does he mean? As a general rule, God gives better gifts to those who please him. He doesn’t necessarily give better material gifts, but they are better gifts nonetheless. The sinner, the wicked person, on the other hand, doesn’t acknowledge God or attempt to do what is right in the sight of God, so he has no way of coping with the perplexities of life.

He’s no different than the righteous person in that he, too, longs for direction and purpose, but he doesn’t find any. How can he? As far as he’s concerned, there’s no God, so there’s no eternal life or greater plan. This secular world is it, he thinks. That’s all we have. In turn, the godless person works and gathers in this world, but he doesn’t gain anything because he hasn’t solved life’s greatest dilemmas: time and death. For him, life continues to be vanity and vexation of the spirit.

What does that phrase mean, “vexation of the spirit”? Vexation means to strive; spirit literally refers to the wind. In other words, the secular person is trying to catch the wind. Have you ever tried to catch the wind? It’ll slip through your fingers every time. It’s futile.

Do you remember that classic Bob Dylan song, “Blowin’ In the Wind”? Dylan asks a series of challenging questions before saying, “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.” No one knows the answers. The secular person may want to discover the meaning of life, but he’ll never do it. Why? He refuses to admit there is a God.

Verse 26 is a good summary of the two basic ways in which we can live our lives. First, we can stay in the vicious cycle of a pointless world with its temporary pleasures and fruitless labors followed by an inevitable death. Second, we can enter into an enjoyable life where we take from the hand of God daily with an assurance of faith that he will eventually deal with everyone, the righteous and unrighteous, appropriately. We have two choices.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

At the beginning of Ecclesiastes 3, the Preacher continues this train of thought by giving us a poem. The first eight verses may be some of the most popular verses in all the Bible thanks to that band from the Sixties, The Byrds. If you’re too young to know what song I’m talking about, then you’ll have to look it up later. What’s it called? “Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is a Season)”?

This passage may also be one of the most misunderstood passages of all the Bible. Let me reread it:

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

Anyone who has read the book of Ecclesiastes in its entirety may assume that this poem is part of the Preacher’s despair. It’s as though he throws up his hands and says, “Life’s a zero-sum game. We are born, sure, but then we die. We may laugh one moment, but we’re weeping the next. All is vanity.”

Look again.

God’s providential oversight

Ignore the chapter break. The division between this passage and the last did not exist when the Bible was first written. Chapters and verses were added much, much later. If the Bible were sixty-years-old, chapter and verse breaks didn’t come along until he was in his fifties. I point that out because the arbitrary division may lead you to think that the Preacher is introducing a new thought. He’s not. This poem is not part of the Preacher’s despair. He’s expressing optimism. Let me show you.

The first verse really says it all: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (Ecc 3:1). When the Preacher considers the reality of God, he no longer sees the world as a never-ending cycle of futility. Instead, he sees a purpose. He sees order. There is a reason for the seasons of life. There’s an appointed, appropriate time for everything. Life has a purpose, according to the Preacher, because everything comes as a result of God’s providential oversight. As he said in the previous chapter, it’s all from the hand of God.

In verses 2-3, we see that the most momentous events of human life are mentioned first: birth and death. The next three pairs represent creation and destruction. In verse 4, we see human emotions. In verse 5, we see relationships. In verse 6, we have two pairs which relate to our possessions and our attitudes toward them. In verses 7-8, again we see creation and destruction. Then, he highlights our communication, affections, and the relationships between people and nations. It’s life in a nutshell.

What this poem says is the basis of the Preacher’s optimism. He acknowledges not only the existence of an all-powerful God but also the sovereignty of God. Notice the perfect symmetry of this poem. Every item on this list has its exact opposite. What’s the significance of that? Reread verse 1: “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (Ecc 3:1). In other words, God controls everything. He is sovereign over birth, and he is sovereign over death. He is sovereign when we face war, and he is sovereign when we have peace.

Life is beautiful (with God)

Let’s continue. Verse 9: “What profit hath he that worketh in that wherein he laboureth?” (Ecc 3:9). He’s asking a rhetorical question, but it’s also a trick question. We may be tempted to answer, “There is no profit. Preacher, you already told us that all of our labor is vanity.” That is what he said, but remember that he was studying only secular life when he said that. He’s now taking a different approach. He’s essentially asking, “What if there’s a God, and what if that God has sovereign control over the universe? Would there be any profit in our labors? Would our efforts in life have any meaning?”

The Preacher’s answer begins in verse 10: “I have seen the travail, which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it” (Ecc 3:10). He’s no longer studying secularism. He’s thinking about life with the prospect of God. He says that it’s God who gives us the business that we’re busy with.

Verse 11: “He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end” (Ecc 3:11). The old English of the KJV obscures the full meaning of this verse just a bit. In particular, there’s a better translation of owlam in Hebrew than “world” as it appears here. Owlam is time out of mind. It’s eternity. The verse could read, “God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in their hearts.”

There are two things that I want you to see in this verse. First of all, the Preacher considers the events of life to be beautiful. They are a source of delight. Why? It’s because God has a purpose for them. He controls the seasons from beginning to end. Second, notice that God has put owlam (or eternity) into our hearts. He gives us a sense of something that transcends time and space. Though our comprehension is darkened by the fog of life, we can know there is something more than this fleeting secular world. It’s that insight from which the Preacher is now drawing his conclusions.

Enjoyment and security

Verses 12-15 could be broken into two parts. First, we have an enjoyable life from the hand of God. Second, we have security because of God. He says:

I know that there is no good in them [there is nothing better], but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life. And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God. I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him.

That which hath been is now;
and that which is to be hath already been;
and God requireth that which is past. (Ecclesiastes 3:12-15)

The Preacher’s pessimism has given way to full-blown optimism. He has left secularism behind to consider the merits of theism. Suddenly, life becomes immensely enjoyable when he acknowledges the existence of a sovereign God. Life is no longer vanity. It becomes a reason to rejoice when you realize that everything you have is a gift from God.

Furthermore, verse 14 highlights three additional aspects of God’s sovereignty: permanence, effectiveness, and security. Whatever God does endures forever. It’s permanent. Nothing can be added to it, so it’s also effective and complete. Nothing can be taken from it so no one can thwart his plans. That’s security.

God spins the globe

What does verse 15 mean? “That which hath been is now; and that which is to be hath already been; and God requireth [or seeks] that which is past” (Ecc 3:15). It is what we might call a balancing truth.

In Ecclesiastes 1, the Preacher saw the cycles of life as an indication of meaningless. “What has been is what will be,” he said with a hopeless tone to his voice, “and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc 1:9). But his tone is much different in Ecclesiastes 3. He now sees that God is the one who keeps the cycles going. It’s all part of a divine plan and purpose.

The last phrase of this verse is a little more difficult to interpret. God requires or seeks that which is past? What does that mean? Have you ever spun a globe? Let’s say that you’re looking at North America on a globe of the earth. What happens when you spin it? North America disappears, but then it reappears. It may come again and again depending on how hard you spin it.

I believe the Preacher’s point is that God is the source of the earth’s movement if you will. He’s the one spinning the globe, keeping a watchful eye on everything that happens. By saying that God requires the past, the Preacher is just telling us that the seasons go in cycles because God is spinning the globe. One season may leave us, but it’s bound to come around again according to God’s sovereign will.

Proverbs v. Ecclesiastes v. Job

Where do you suppose the Preacher goes from here? In the remainder of this chapter, he talks about justice. What does justice have to do with anything? The subject of justice was crucial to the Hebrew people in ancient Israel. The all-important question was, does God rule the universe according to strict principles of justice? By all appearances, that’s not an easy question to answer.

Notice what the Preacher says in verse 16: “And moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment [or justice], that wickedness was there; and the place of righteousness, that iniquity was there” (Ecc 3:16). In other words, he’s noticed that evil abounds in those places where he should find righteousness. Later in the book, he addresses the problem of wicked people prospering and good people suffering. How can we possibly think that God is ruling in a just way?

That question takes us to the book of Job. As I said last night, there are three books of wisdom literature in the Bible: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Proverbs presents life as a black-and-white system of cause and effect. If you do good, good things happen. If you do evil, bad things happen. Then, Ecclesiastes comes along and says, “Wait just a minute. Things aren’t that simple.” Finally, Job, even though it came first, actually settles the debate for us.

You know the story of Job. God allows Satan to ruin his life. Once Job is alone and miserable, along comes a few of his friends. Rather than cheer him up, they engage him in a rather serious theological debate. At the heart of that debate is the question, does Job deserve his suffering? Job claims to be a righteous man, but his friends say, “You can’t be a righteous man. Otherwise, God would never allow you to suffer so badly.”

In many respects, reading their conversation is like reading a debate between Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Job and Ecclesiastes say, “Things aren’t always black and white. Bad things can happen to good people.” Job’s friends and Proverbs argue, “Things are black and white. God punishes the wicked and rewards the righteous. End of story.” Who’s right?

The answer comes at the end of Job when God himself steps into the debate. Do you know what he says? I’ll paraphrase it. He says, “I am a just God. Everything I do is just. I don’t operate by any rules except those that are right and good. Even so, you can’t begin to understand what it means to rule over this universe. You can’t begin to fathom how complicated this world is. As finite creatures with a sinful, darkened understanding, you don’t know. In short, I do operate by the principles of justice, but you can’t grasp complete and perfect justice.”

Isn’t that what the Preacher alludes to here in Ecclesiastes? Look at Ecclesiastes 3:11 again: “He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set [eternity] in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.” We can know there is a sovereign God in heaven. We can realize there is an eternity beyond time, but that doesn’t mean we can understand everything. That doesn’t mean that we can always make sense of what’s happening here on this earth. We may see the hand of God working, but we won’t necessarily know what he’s doing or why he’s doing it.

Ecclesiastes 12:9-14

Where does that leave us? Let’s jump to the end of the book and see what the narrator took away from everything the Preacher had to say. He heard it all and considered it. Then, beginning at Ecclesiastes 12:9, he says:

And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs. The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth.

The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd [the Shepherd]. And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter:
Fear God, and keep his commandments:
for this is the whole duty of man.
For God shall bring every work into judgment,
with every secret thing,
whether it be good, or whether it be evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:9-14)

First of all, notice that the narrator is convinced that the Preacher is not a rambling cynic. Instead, he’s a wise man who speaks the truth. Furthermore, he speaks the truth from the Shepherd, from God himself. That’s not to say that his words are easy to hear. They’re like goads. They’re like a sharp prod moving us to greater wisdom.

Second, notice the conclusion: “Fear God, and keep his commandments” (Ecc 12:13). That’s the takeaway from this entire book. If nothing else, we should learn to fear God and obey him. Why? He’s the sovereign Ruler of the universe. All of human history is in his hand. Our futures are in his hand. If we don’t acknowledge God and his sovereignty, then we’ll never understand life nor will we find any meaning in it. We’ll be trapped in the fog of vanity, bound by time, and die in obscurity where we’ll disappear into nothingness.

If we do embrace God and his sovereignty, however, life will always have meaning. We may not always understand its meaning, but we’ll know that God does. We’ll know that he’s in control. We don’t have to know because he does.

What is Ecclesiastes about?

Let me summarize the book of Ecclesiastes for you: Have faith in God.

Many people don’t realize that Ecclesiastes is designed as an evangelistic book. The Preacher is not lamenting the meaningless of life; he’s criticizing secularism. He’s calling people, especially young people to faith. At the beginning of Ecclesiastes 12, he says, “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, ‘I have no pleasure in them'” (Ecc 12:1). Before you grow old and cynical, look to God. Trust him. He’s in control.

While the Preacher doesn’t explicitly mention the God of Israel nor does he talk about the coming Messiah, his speech is evangelistic at the most fundamental level. Sometimes the believer has to talk about the existence of God before he can speak of sin and the Savior. Paul did in Acts 17 when speaking to the men of Athens. He said, “I found an altar with this inscription, ‘to the unknown God.’ Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you” (Ac 17:23). Paul knew that he was wasting his breath to preach the resurrection without first introducing those men to the God of glory.

Do you remember what I told you about the word vanity? In Ecclesiastes, it comes from the Hebrew word hebel which literally refers to a vapor or mist. That’s an apt description of life. Life is fleeting. It doesn’t last very long, but that’s okay because there’s more to our existence than our natural lives here on earth. There’s an eternity beyond time. Life is also mysterious. It’s an enigma. Try to reach out and grab hold of vapor. You’ll always come up empty, but that’s okay, too. We don’t need to understand everything about life because our sovereign God does. Plus, he has full control over everything that happens.

Though we’ve not explored nearly all of it, Ecclesiastes is an excellent place to turn when you feel that your life is out of control. When things don’t make sense, and you feel yourself spiraling toward depression, read the words of the Preacher again. He basically provides an in-depth exposition of Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”

There is a God. He is sovereign. There is an eternity. Even when it seems that the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer—justice appears upside down or nonexistent—remember that “God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil” (Ecc 12:14).

“Fear God, and keep his commandments” (Ecc 12:13).

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