The Preacher uses many colorful metaphors to describe the vanity of everything he sees and does. In many ways, the Book of Ecclesiastes purposely paints the despair and futility he feels with the most colorful terms. He describes life to the endless cycles of the wind, the water, and other “natural” processes.
In this passage, the Preacher goes on with his depressing message. Up to verse eleven, it is thought by many that another person had summed up the entire message of the Preacher. Starting in verse twelve, the Preacher talks in the first person and says he was King over Israel in Jerusalem. Everything leads one to think that this Preacher is King Solomon, a man known for great wisdom which God freely gave Him when God asked Solomon what one thing he wanted over all else. This is the Solomon who was able to find out who the real mother of a child by ordering the son be divided and half given to each mother. The real mother was willing to lose her child rather than have him killed to solve a squabble. This is the Solomon who became rich beyond measure as well and brought the Kingdom of Israel to its greatest power and prominence in its earthly history. It is this Solomon who built the magnificent Temple to Yahweh and royal house for himself. It was this Solomon whose wisdom attracted the Queen of Sheba to come and visit him. He wrote psalms, proverbs, and some think The Song of Solomon.
So far, so good. But it was also this Solomon who built stables and fortresses, contrary to the Law’s prohibition about multiplying horses. In other words, the one who would be king over Israel was to trust entirely in the LORD for his safety and not in military alliances with other nations. Another was in which these alliances were made was to marry the daughters of the kings of the surrounding nations. So Solomon also disobeyed the LORD in multiplying 400 wives and 600 concubines, or as a young boy in Sunday School once said, “porcupines” These wives ensnared him into making places of worship for them. He imposed slave labor upon the people of Israel rather than exacting labor from the conquered peoples, another violation of the Law. So the reign of Solomon which began with such promise ended with a curse that his empire of Israel would be divided in two upon his death.
Commentators are divided whether the Preacher is Solomon himself or someone taking on the persona of Solomon. Many think the book as a whole was written some time after Solomon. I personally see no reason why a Solomon reflecting upon his life and the fact it came to a bitter end could not have written at least the first person section which makes up most of the book. But Solomon seems to be the Preacher we should think of when reading this book and his life, then, becomes important in understanding why he speaks so bitterly.
In verse 13, Solomon says that he made it the work of his life to search for wisdom. He wanted to have the total knowledge of everything under heaven. Usually, he uses “under the sun” rather than “under heaven”, but the meaning is the same. (As sun in Hebrew is “shemesh” and heaven “shemayin”, it is the same thing.) It means he wanted to know everything in the universe. And as God is over the heavens, it meant he wanted to know what everything was in his own thinking, regardless of what God thought about or had made it. Here Solomon makes a work out of what God gave to him as a gift, a problem that seems to trip us up all too often. We try to find meaning in the universe on our own terms. We owe this to the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. Satan tempted Adam and Eve with this lie: “And you shall be like the gods (or God) and know it all.
What God gave as a gift of grace, Solomon considered to be an unfathomable burden. This task was given to the entire human race to be busywork. Everyone knows how wearying busywork is, so we can relate to how Solomon feels. The question I ask is “Do we call God’s gifts to us wearisome busywork?” We of course will immediately respond with a loud “No!”, but we need to think this over very carefully before we open our mouth and insert our foot. As a church, we all have tasks to do, and not all of them are pleasant, even if they are necessary. And as human beings in the church, we sometimes find that a lot of the work we have to do comes from those in authority over us that we feel is totally useless. I as a pastor will freely admit of weariness of doing reports for the Conference that are just going to be shelved, which we do just because we are Methodists. Yet we must be careful not to treat God’s gifts to us the way Solomon did, a grasping after the wind.
Solomon who had the leisure, wealth, and power to do as he pleased made this great search after wisdom. And what was his conclusion. It was as futile as trying to grab the wind in one’s hands. Imagine having worked with all of one’s being for many years and having to conclude it was for nothing. Solomon is not alone in this. Many people become cynical and bitter as life wears on. The dreams of their youth face the crushing reality of life. I, too have observed and at times felt this gloomy weight which wears.
Solomon does not directly say this, but he blames God for his failures. All complaining is directly or indirectly a complaint against God. We shall see that the Preacher’s conception of God, more often than not, is that of a puppeteer who does what He does for His own pleasure and purpose. Now when we feel close to God, we see His pleasure and purpose leading to our good. But Solomon in this book is far from God. He never calls Him by His revealed personal name of Yahweh, only the generic and rather distant title of “God”. Therefore, Solomon at this point sees a God who is out to get him.
Solomon either coins or quotes a proverb that the crooked cannot be made straight and the things which lack cannot be counted. The two halves of the proverb explain each other. What I feel in this context the proverb is saying is that trying to understand it all is a never-ending task. I can remember a time when I knew everything. Then I got an education. The more I have learned in life, the more ignorant I have become because I have realized there is more that can be learned. I solve one intellectual or philosophical problem, and it opens up a can of worms.
In verse 16, the Preacher continues his rant. He has studied himself to death. And he knew that he had an awful lot of smarts. Of this he was painfully aware. But he still cannot remember how he gained the ability to get those smarts. It was as we mentioned before, God’s gift to him. Instead of using God’s gift to glorify the Lord to the nations, he misused the gift to try to know and control everything. The result of the misuse of the gift was weariness and utter despair. The judgment of God upon Solomon was that instead of rightly seeing wisdom, just as earlier we saw rightly seeing the cycles of “nature” as God’s gift of providence, he was given over to a reprobate mind that saw everything as useless. Solomon had grasped for the wind and caught nothing.
Part of the structure of Ecclesiastes is meant to be wearying. Plugging through the Book of Ecclesiastes is like the journeys of the children of Israel in the wilderness, except here we are wandering in the weariness. I feel the book resolves this painful tension at the end, and I want to encourage us along not to be overcome by the negative ranting in this book. Just like there were occasional times of refreshment for the children of Israel in the wilderness, there is an occasional rest from the wearying drone of the Preacher. But these are few and far between. Israel needed to keep the end in mind and plug on. Likewise, we need to plug along in Ecclesiastes because the LORD has lessons for us to learn.
I feel we need to be slow in correcting the theology to read what we would expect it to say. Some have made Ecclesiastes into a practical book of how to get along in this world. The lesson from this text one would get from this approach is take it easy and get a little rest from your studies. Others would go to the other extreme to say that all wisdom, especially academic wisdom is of the devil and leads to a bad end. But if we take this in its proper context, God is not condemning learning per se, but rather learning which is centered in God’s truth. In other words, we should see this as fulfilling the duty of man stated in the Westminster Shorter Catechism that man’s entire purpose is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Paul says that “whatsoever we do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to the Father through Him (Colossians 3:17). Whenever God is not honored in any or all of our pursuits, this work of mind or hands leads to utter despair. But if we honor God in all we do through the grace He provides, then everything becomes meaningful.
The main reason I am preaching this series on Ecclesiastes is not to weary you. By now, some of you may think that your preacher is a bit mad to be dealing with this book. You may go along just because you feel it your duty to attend unto the preaching of the Word. But there is something very important that you need to learn from this book.
How do you think the world reacts to what Ecclesiastes has to say? Just take some of your darkest thoughts about it and multiply it. People who are not Christians do not have the worldview that you have. Many indeed feel broken and useless and are at the point of giving up. You need to enter into their pain. After all, if you are honest about yourself, you have either felt this way or are feeling this way now. When the Protestant Reformation happened 500 years ago, the preaching of the Gospel was restored. But this preaching of the Gospel was not just the one-sided portrait of the God of love. God is indeed, love, but that is singular. God is thrice holy, which is the Hebrew way of saying “most holy.” Luther, Calvin, and the other reformers preached God as a God of wrath as well as love. Luther felt it necessary to preach the Law first in order to prepare for the gospel of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. And this was one of Calvin’s three uses of the law as well. In reality, this approach started long before the Reformation with the Apostle Paul. In order for the gospel of salvation to have any meaning it required something to be saved from.
The preaching of the Law is necessary to show that salvation is impossible to obtain by human effort. As long as man thinks he can save himself, he will choose that option. But the bible clearly teaches this is not an option. Some of us have to be brought to utter futility before we will accept Christ on His terms and not ours. Others need less persuasion, but all need to be brought to the point that they trust in God’s grace demonstrated to us by the life, death, and resurrection of His Son Jesus Christ as the only means of salvation. The Book of Ecclesiastes ought to be preached in this light as well. The desperation of Solomon ought to show us the utter despair the human race is in. Nothing can save. The people you associate with need to know this. You need to lead them to the logical conclusion that all their endeavors to find meaning in life without Christ lead to hopeless despair. Then they are ready to learn Christ.
We must not shortcut this process. We need to be able to demonstrate that if the person of the world were to follow their pursuit to its logical conclusion, then all is futile in the face of death. Solomon tried just about all the ways one can find meaning in life and came up empty. So whatever way one chooses to find meaning after you have talked with them, you can use Ecclesiastes as a guide to show the futility of their goals. If death is all there is, then the worldly answer is like this: “We are born with nothing and die with nothing. So what difference does it make how high we rise or how low we go? Life is short and death comes to all. We might also let them know that after the appointment with death comes the Final Judgment as well. Their fate is even worse than the dismal prospects they thought they faced.
But when one sees Jesus Christ as being the only hope, then all is different. Death becomes the means of a new and better life. We can then present this hope to those in despair and by God’s grace lead them to Christ. Seeking wisdom without Christ leads to empty foolishness. But he who comes to Christ has found wisdom itself.