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The Problem with Ecclesiastes
Ecclesiastes is a difficult book; difficult to translate, difficult to interpret and difficult to reconcile within the broader canon of Scripture.
The language is unusual, there are words and phrases that are not used anywhere else in Scripture. There are some words that are not found anywhere else in ancient literature.
The themes are difficult to pin down. There are moments in which the writer appears to be plumbing the depths of despair and, at other times, he appears to encourage the reader to live a full and joyful life. This has led commentators to take widely differing views with regards to the overall meaning of the book, some arguing that the writer is an agnostic, others that he is orthodox; some that this book is pessimist in its view of life and others that the writer is an optimist.
Similarly there are difficulties in understanding how Ecclesiastes fits in within the broader canon of Scripture. ‘Do not be overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?’ (Ecclesiastes 7:16) does not seem to fit with the broad exhortation of Scripture to pursue holiness. Or, ‘There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil.’ (Ecclesiastes 2:24), seems to run in the face of other biblical text which exhort sobriety and warn against gluttony.
Consequently, Ecclesiastes is oftentimes neglected in our personal bible study and neglected even more from the pulpit. The difficulty is quite simply this; what do we do with a book where the central message appears to be, ‘All is vanity’, or, as the NIV puts it, ‘Everything is meaningless’, (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 14, 2:17, 19, 23, 3:19, 4:4, 8, 16, 6:2, 11:8 and 12:8)?
The starting point of this twenty-two part series, then, is to ask why believers in the light of the revelation of the New Testament and the cross should study the book of Ecclesiastes. I intend, therefore, to set out seven reasons why Christians should study the book of Ecclesiastes. I take the first five of these reasons from the prologue and the final two from the final chapter of the book.
i. Solomon intends this book to be read by the believing community
The book begins by introducing the speaker/writer of Ecclesiastes,
'The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.' (Ecclesiastes 1:1)
Our first task is to identify the speaker. We are told two things that help us identify the voice behind Ecclesiastes.
We consider the second point first, we are told that the speaker is ‘king in Jerusalem’, later, as we will consider next week, we are told that this king, ‘acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before [him]’ (Ecclesiastes 1:16) and that he ‘became great and surpassed all who were before [him] in Jerusalem (Ecclesiastes 2:9).
Furthermore, we are told that this king is ‘the son of David’. As has been observed by other commentators, the designation, ‘son of David’ can be taken to refer to anyone who is of the line of David. Indeed, the New Testament describes Joseph as a son of David (Matthew 1:20). It is my view, however, that despite some recent commentators who argue for a later date, that the speaker takes great pains to describe himself as Solomon, the son of King David and the greatest of all Israel’s kings.
How does any of this persuade us that this book is of value to believers living in 2009 and in the light of Christ Jesus?
It is significant that Solomon refers to himself as ‘the Preacher’ (other versions translate this as ‘Teacher’ (NIV)). The Hebrew word, ‘Qoheleth’, here translated to ‘Preacher’ is unique to the book of Ecclesiastes. The root of this word is, however, used elsewhere in relation to Solomon. Indeed, at the dedication of the temple the root word is used in reference to Solomon assembling the Elders of Israel (1 Kings 8:1) and speaking to the assembly of Israel (1 Kings 8:14).
The designation Preacher carries the connotation that Solomon is one who convenes the believing community and then proclaims God’s word. The superscription, ‘The words of the Preacher’ (Ecclesiastes 1:1) states Solomon’s intention for this book. He imagines himself speaking these words to God’s people. We can be sure that there is great value in reading, studying and preaching the words of this book, because this is how Solomon intends Ecclesiastes to be approached.
ii. Solomon intends us to feel the extent of our fall and the futility of the human condition
'Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.' (Ecclesiastes 1:2-4)
a. The scope of Solomon’s enquiry
Solomon uses the prologue to set out his terms of reference, his scope of enquiry. Ecclesiastes anatomises activity, life, ‘I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind’ (Ecclesiastes 1:14). Some commentators have erroneously argued that Ecclesiastes promotes a secular outlook on life.
It is important that we consider carefully what Solomon intends when he considers all that occurs ‘under the sun’ in order to understand the extent of his conclusion that ‘all is vanity’ (v. 2).
A clue to understanding what Solomon intends by the designation, ‘under the sun’, is found in verse 3 where Solomon asks, ‘What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?’. There is here, I think, a reference to the Genesis account of creation and the fall.
We recall how, after the man and women rebelled, God cursed the ground and, as a result, work became difficult, tiring and frustrating (Genesis 3:17-19). God then sent the man ‘out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken’ (Genesis 3:23).
In turning his attention to all that takes place ‘under the sun’, Solomon is not denying the existence of God or the involvement of God in the world in which we live. Rather Solomon limits his enquiry to this fallen world with all of its frustration, difficulty and toil.
The prologue makes plain the scope of this enquiry, verses 3 and 4 address the activity of man; verses 5 to 7, the futility of creation; verses 8 to 11, the meaninglessness of mankind’s insatiable need for satisfaction.
The phrase ‘under the sun’ is, therefore, probably best understood alongside similar New Testament references to this ‘present age’ (Galatians 1:4, 1 Timothy 6:17 and Titus 2:12), ‘present time’ (Romans 8:18) and this ‘present world’. Consider, for example, Paul’s warning that believers abstain from becoming involved in the sinfulness of this world in which we live, Paul’s exhortation is grounded upon a fundamental truth regarding this present world,
For the present form of this world is passing away. (1 Corinthians 7:31).
Paul understands that all we see around us is temporary and that the world in its present form will pass away with Christ’s return and that there will be a new heavens and earth. This leads me to my next point.
b. Solomon’s conclusion
Solomon, throughout Ecclesiastes, repeatedly concludes that ‘all is vanity’ and so, we must ask, what Solomon intends by this.
The NIV translates ‘vanity of vanities’ (v. 2) as ‘Meaningless, meaningless’, alternatively this same word could be translated as ‘useless’ and, in truth, the Hebrew word contains all three meanings. Translated literally, the Hebrew word is very close to that of ‘vapour’ and the words suggests emptiness and a lack of substance or content.
In verses 2, 3 and 4, Solomon concludes that mankind’s toil is ‘vanity’, we work, but gain nothing, we toil and yet we barely make a dent on the world around us,
'A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.' (Ecclesiastes 1:4)
Those of us who work feel this frustration as one week rolls into the next and yet little changes. Our garden is clear of weeds today, but in a week, a month’s time we will be out there again toiling the earth; we empty the pallet on the production line, only for it to be replaced with yet more stock and the inbox of our email is as full today as it was last week. Solomon concludes that, ultimately, such pursuit is vanity, empty, futile and meaningless.
But Solomon’s target is greater than the mere ‘nine to five’ grind. Solomon is nailing something fundamental about the human condition. All of us crave significance; we want to feel as though we have made a difference. We long to leave something permanent in our wake; we strive after preserving a legacy. Solomon recognises that such endeavours are futile and, as an entire generation passes from the earth, the earth continues to revolve on its axis unmoved.
James picks up on this same point (it is important to remember that Solomon’s observations are, in fact, consistent with the whole of Scripture),
'Come now, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit"— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.' (James 4:13-17)
Both James and Solomon understand that our life is transient and fleeting and we are powerless to extend our life by even an hour, ‘[…] which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?’ (Matthew 6:27).
Our life, endeavour and legacy are, ultimately, beyond our grasp. We are but a mist, our life but a vapour. We come and we go, the universe remains. Solomon concludes that such toil, this search for significance is futile, vanity and, ultimately, meaningless.
iii. Solomon intends us to feel the weight of the brokenness of creation
'The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again. (Ecclesiastes 1:5-7)
Solomon turns from the falleness of the human condition to the futility and vanity of creation. Solomon observes the natural order, the sun, the wind and the streams and discovers weariness and meaninglessness even here. Solomon’s observation that the sun ‘hastens to the place where it rises’ (v. 2) literally means that the sun ‘pants’, as if a women in labour; this is why some translations write that the sun ‘crawls’ or ‘drags’ to the place where it rises.
Solomon feels, and wants us to feel, that the vanity that we perceive running through the human condition is imprinted into the very fabric of creation. The sun rises, the sun sets and the sun rises again and yet, fundamentally, nothing changes. Streams flow into the sea and yet the sea is never full and still the streams continue to flow. We see endless activity with no resolution; Solomon concludes that this is meaningless.
It is difficult to know how to take this and, in approaching such texts we may, quite reasonably, ask where God is in all of this? Is Solomon imagining a world (as some commentators argue) where God has lifted his hands from the steering wheel? Is he imagining a world without God or imagining what the world looks like to the unbeliever?
I think not. It seems to me, again, that the correct reference point creation and the fall.
Interestingly, the New Testament does not quote directly from Ecclesiastes. However, most commentators agree that the Apostle Paul makes a direct allusion to this book in Romans Chapter 8. Consider,
'For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.' (Romans 8:20-25)
Note the similarities in thought, Solomon exposes a flaw running through the fabric of creation, that this universe which we inhabit is stained with vanity and meaninglessness. Paul writes that creation is ‘subjected to futility’ and, interestingly, Paul uses the Greek word, here translated futility, which is taken in the Septuagint to express ‘vanity of vanities’.
This is significant. Some approach Ecclesiastes as if it is somehow out of kilter with the rest of Scripture. This anxiety then leads to bizarre and unhelpful readings and interpretations. The truth is that the themes contained within Ecclesiastes, when read plainly, are found throughout the New Testament.
Both Solomon and Paul (and other New Testament writers) understand that something is very wrong in the world in which we live. Solomon’s conclusion is that, as a result, everything is flawed, stained and ruined. Paul recognises that even in the midst of this futility works the sovereign hand of God. This futility (or vanity) is as a result ‘of him [namely God] who subjected it’. Both Paul and Solomon understand that creation is deeply flawed and both of them understand that this futility originates in the garden and is in accordance with the judgement and decree of a just, holy and supreme God.
It is important, as believers, that we understand this. This is why Ecclesiastes is such a timely book in that it acts as a reality check, a wake up call. Solomon looks at the world with his eyes wide open as it truly is and calls us to do the same. Solomon does not despair at the state of the world, but recognises the hand of God at work in all of this. This is why Solomon returns again and again to the truth that this God is at work in the act of creation and in the regulation of creation. Solomon exhorts us to remember our ‘Creator’ (Ecclesiastes 12:1).
We do not despair when we see the flawed universe in which we live; we understand that God has rendered the world thus. When we see this futility and emptiness, it should draw our eyes elsewhere looking to something (or, more properly, someone) else.
iv. Solomon intends us to feel the futility and emptiness of human experience
'All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
"See, this is new"?
It has been already
in the ages before us.' (Ecclesiastes 1:8-10)
a. The Search for Satisfaction
Firstly we ask the question, what are the ‘all things’ which are ‘full of weariness’ (v. 8)? I think Solomon has the same all in view as when he writes, ‘all is vanity’. Solomon is observing that all that is done under the sun is full of weariness, to such an extent that we are unable to find the words to adequately describe it.
Mankind also feels this weariness; neither the eye nor ear is ever satisfied. This is the theme running through these verses and Solomon will return and scrutinise this time and time again through the book. Solomon’s point is that the pursuit of satisfaction and fulfilment ‘under the sun’ is a futile and wearing business.
We know this to be true, for most of us have felt this sense of weariness. It is the gap between anticipation and fulfilment. We want, we crave and we long only to be disappointed in the fulfilment of this hunger.
We see this in our attempts to sate our hunger; we eat and yet the hunger returns. We thirst and yet hours later, we drink thirstily. Think about this in terms of sex, money, fame, power. Who makes a million and thinks, ‘I’ll stop there, I am happy with this.’ The search for satisfaction is constant, because our satisfaction is constantly frustrated.
b. The Search for innovation
How should we take Solomon’s observation that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’? Is Solomon suggesting that there will be no new inventions or discoveries and that all scientific experimentation and human exploration is pointless?
The first thing to remember is that Solomon has human endeavour in view, he is not suggesting that God is unable to do a new thing. Indeed, elsewhere Solomon contrasts the human endeavour to innovate with the God who is able to do whatsoever he pleases,
'I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.' (Ecclesiastes 3:14-15)
Solomon’s point, here and in Chapter 1, is that God is the true Creator/Innovator and it is impossible to try and change all that he has set in motion. God’s purposes, plans and holy degrees cannot be thwarted nor frustrated. He is indeed sovereign.
Over and against this, Solomon understands that mankind fundamentally does not change. People remain fickle, selfish, greedy, cruel, lustful and self-interested creatures. Consequently our ambition and desires remain the same. There is nothing new.
It seems that it is this futile search for satisfaction which quickens our desire for innovation. We constantly crave originality and the new. We see this embedded in our society; we want the latest, the shiniest and the best. Solomon knows that this is meaningless.
v. Solomon intends us to feel the futility of ambition (in the pursuit of legacy and fame)
'There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.' (Ecclesiastes 1:11)
Our lives are but a vapour, a mist, fleeting, transitory and insubstantial. So too is our name.
You and I will leave this world and, eventually, our lives, our reputation, our fame and our legacy will vanish just as for those who have gone before us.
Pursuit of such fame is, ultimately, futile.
vi. Solomon intends us to live our lives under the sun with our hearts inclined heavenwards
a. The Big Question
Still, we leave the big question unanswered. Solomon concludes that human endeavour, human ambition, our innate need for satisfaction and creation itself are (is not are) subject to futility, meaninglessness and vanity. We are a fallen people living in a fallen world and Solomon wants us to feel the weight of that.
The question remains, however, how should we respond in the light of this truth? Should we despair, give up hope and become German nihilists? Should we abandon Christ having now discovered that all is meaningless?
The truth is that Solomon does have a particular application in mind, but he makes us wait until the final chapter of Ecclesiastes,
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (Ecclesiastes 12:13)
b. The Conclusion of the Conclusion
Solomon anatomises fallen creation and human existence in minute detail and, having completed his task and concluded that ‘all is vanity’ he reaches the conclusion of his conclusion. The end of all of this is that we would fear God and that we would live obedient lives.
This is stunning.
For the unbeliever, Solomon wants you to see the world, yourself and all your petty hopes, dreams and ambitions as they truly are, futile, pointless, and ultimately meaningless. His hope is that, rather than driving you to despair, this revelation of truth, this reality check, this wake up call would cause you to seek for him. Should you feel the weight of sin, should you feel the brokenness of creation, look to him and submit to the one who stands outside creation as immutable, glorious and wise.
For the believer, Solomon wants us to feel the gravity of sin and feel the weight of its effects that we might flee from sin and turn to God.
We know from Scripture that Solomon did not remain faithful to God. Instead, Solomon married unbelieving women and turned to false gods (1 Kings 11:1-8). Tradition has it (and I place a low emphasis upon this as this is merely extra-biblical tradition) that Solomon repented in his old age and that he wrote Ecclesiastes as he looked back upon his vain life. Whether this is true or not, it is clear that Solomon wants us to see the world as it truly is so that we might shun the temptation to make creation or created things our ultimate treasure. This also is the exhortation of Jesus,
'Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.' (Matthew 6:19-20)
Jesus appeals to the same truth that we find in Ecclesiastes; earthly things are fleeting, temporary and subject to decay. To make such stuff our treasure is meaningless, it will rot and we will be left with a hand full of dust.
Instead, Jesus urges us to lay up heavenly treasure. This is, I think, equivalent to Solomon’s exhortation. How do we lay up treasure in heaven, we might ask of Jesus. Jesus might well respond by quoting from Ecclesiastes, ‘Fear God and keep his commandments’.
vii. Solomon calls us to live in the light of the salvation story of rescue, redemption and future judgement
Solomon is not an atheist or an agnostic. He is not even a pessimist. How do I know this, you might quite reasonably ask? I know this because although Solomon limits his enquires to all that takes place under the sun, he understands that there will be a final end to this futility.
And this leads me to the greatest point; the place of King Jesus is all of this. Solomon writes,
For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:14)
Although Solomon only sees in part, he understands that there will be a judgement and a final end in which all will be judged and creation will be remade. Here we find King Jesus. The Apostle Paul writes thus,
'For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others […]' (2 Corinthians 5:1-11)
Fallen creation is the sign post which points outside itself, to our glorious King Jesus, for meaning and true satisfaction. Solomon knows that there will be a day of reckoning, those of us who believe look forward to the day when Christ will return to judge and rule and make all things new.
Preached by Andrew Evans on the evening of the 7 June 2009 at Firwood Church, Oldham, Manchester, UK
For free resources and media content visit www.firwoodchurch.com.