The Pursuit of Ecclesiastes

Ever heard of the term YOLO?  It’s an acronym that became popular internet slang in 2012.  It means “You only live once.”  Along the same lines as the Latin carpe diem (‘seize the day’), it is a call to live life to its fullest extent, even embracing behavior which carries inherent risk.

YOLO captures the thinking and philosophy of the American young person.  It focuses on oneself and offers an answer to Aristotle’s ancient question: How ought a man live his life?

This worldview says, “you only live once and then you die.”  It is a fairly pessimistic worldview and it focuses only on the material world and the here and now.  So, go for the gusto, enjoy yourself, eat, drink and engage in sex, for tomorrow we die.  Get the most out of life now.

And aren’t we guaranteed, by our Constitution, the right to pursue happiness?

Yet Malcolm Muggeridge, in his book Jesus Rediscovered, states…

This lamentable phrase, ‘the pursuit of happiness’ as an inalienable right, is responsible for a good part of the ills and miseries of the modern world.  To pursue happiness as a conscious aim is the surest way to miss it altogether, as is only too evident in countries like Sweden and America, where happiness is most ardently pursued, and the material conditions thought to be most conducive to happiness are all in place, and yet despair abounds.

Of course, the gospel presents a different worldview—a worldview that includes a resurrection to life hereafter, investing this life with so much more meaning.

But that pursuit of trying to find meaning in this life is ancient.  And today we are going to go back to the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes.

Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon, though that is debated.  I believe it was Solomon because verse 1 tells us…

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

Solomon, of course, fits that description.  He was the son of David and he was king in Jerusalem.  Solomon also had the opportunity to pursue the paths that the author believes would lead to meaning—pursuing wealth, wisdom and pleasure.

Solomon reigned at the high point of Israel, under him the nation of Israel prospered like never before!  Solomon was rich in wisdom, the wisest person on the planet.  People traveled from all over the world to hear his counsel.  He also had over 700 wives and 300 concubines.  With his wives, he engaged in parties and rituals and festivals.

This man was the epitome of YOLO.  Surely this guy knows how to enjoy life and surely he is satisfied?  But in the second verse of Ecclesiastes he says: “Meaningless! Meaningless?’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

The book of Ecclesiastes is part of the Writings, the Kethubim, in the Jewish Bible.  It is part of a five-book grouping knowing as the Megilloth, the “scrolls.”  In Jewish tradition one of the five short books is read on each of the five major holidays that are based on the Old Testament: the Song of Songs is read during the Passover, the book of Ruth during the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), Lamentations on the anniversary of the destruction of the temple in 586 B. C., Esther during the Feast of Purim (Lots), and Ecclesiastes during the Feast of Booths, otherwise known as the Feast of Ingathering.

Why read during the Feast of Booths?

One possibility is that it recalls the forty-year sojourn of Israel in the wilderness, re-enacting that time of struggle by living in tents or booths, which matches Ecclesiastes’ focus on the brevity and struggle of life.

A second possibility is that Booths is a time of singing, dancing and drinking because of the new vintage and the harvesting of other produce.  Ecclesiastes likewise encourages eating and drinking and finding enjoyment in the gifts of God during this transitory life (2:23; 3:13; 5:7-18; 8:15; 9:7).  At the same time, the outwardly somber tone of Ecclesiastes, which accents the brevity of earthly life and the coming judgment (12:13-14), would serve to keep the revelry under control.

A third possibility is that Booths, like most Old Testament feasts, includes the theme of thanksgiving:  even though the believer may have to sleep on bare ground in a lean-to and live a hand-to-mouth existence, he still rejoices in his God, who somehow or another continues to provide for all his daily needs, fulfilling the petition to “give us this day our daily bread” (Matt 6:11).  It reminded Israel to look to God and depend upon Him.

Of course, in our English Bibles the book of Ecclesiastes is part of the section we call poetry or wisdom: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.

We acknowledge three Old Testament books as belonging to Solomonic authorship—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon, although reading the three seems to be from three different people.

Many believe that Proverbs was written first, presenting wisdom in a positive sense that guided a person to making the best choices and thus most normally experiencing God’s blessings.

Song of Songs explores the marriage relationship, again from a largely positive perspective.  Of course, remembering how many wives and concubines Solomon had, we can see that Song of Songs represents an idealistic viewpoint.  In reality, Solomon was not happy through marriage.

Barry York says…

In this final stage, toward the end of his life Solomon wants to gather people before him as a “Preacher” (1:1) and have them reflect with him on what he has learned through the years.  He evaluates his life and realizes how much of it was lived “under the sun,” or in the foolish worldview that lives life without acknowledging the God who rules from on high above the sun.  All of his false pursuits of riches, knowledge, and pleasure – representing deviations from the fear of God he encouraged his son to follow in Proverbs – were vanity (1:2) and chasing after the wind (1:14).

Yet he does this evaluation without demeaning the earlier stages, as he encourages such things as enjoying hard work (2:24), good food (2:25), companionship (4:9-12), and the joys of youth (11:9).  What must accompany these activities is the fear and presence of God.  When we reach the end of our days, will we have finished well by coming to the conclusion that Solomon expressed in the last words of Ecclesiastes (12:13-14).

By the way, the English title, Ecclesiastes, is from the Greek, meaning “congregation.”  The Hebrew title Qoheleth, means “preacher.”

Luther envisions

These words were spoken by Solomon in some assembly of his retinue, perhaps after dinner…to some great prominent men who were present.  He spoke this way after he had thought long and hard to himself about the condition and vanity of human affairs….This is, then, a public sermon which they heard from Solomon.

There are three approaches to the study of Ecclesiastes.

For example, Tremper Longman sees Ecclesiastes as having two voices. The most air time is given to the Cynic, as most of the book is an extended quote of his cynicism (Eccl 1:12-12:9).  The outer frame (Eccl 1:1-1112:9-14), however, refers to “the Preacher” in third person; therefore it was composed by someone else, who is evaluating the Preacher’s message.  This outer frame is the only place in the book where we find an orthodox, praiseworthy message.

In short, this approach typically sees the book as entirely (or almost entirely) negative and not to be commended as godly.  It is in the Bible primarily to help us understand the worldview of a thoughtful unbeliever.

The second approach, which in my observation is most common among pastors, says the book of Ecclesiastes is to be commended and held up as a model for the wise life.  Some proponents of this approach are Zack Eswine and Douglas Wilson.  The book is exploring hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure.

That pursuit may be ungodly, leaving God out, “Life is meaningless, so let’s just live it up while we can,” or it might be commendable, “Life is meaningless in itself, but God miraculously blesses us with the ability to enjoy it anyway.

In other words, Ecclesiastes presents both a dark side and a light side to life. The dark side is the vanity of life “under the sun” (which is all human existence); the light side is the supernatural gift of joy from God, despite the ubiquitous vanity. God has created a world with no meaning inherent within it; yet he also blesses his people with an irrational joy in the midst of that vanity.

Thus, this view helps us understand how to find the good in the midst of the bad.  It is in the Bible to help God’s people learn how to derive joy from the Lord even when the vanity of life may war against such joy. And the best way to apply the book is to recognize both the vanity of life on earth and the gift of joy from God.

The third approach, which in my observation is most common among evangelists and engagers of culture, says the book of Ecclesiastes is to be commended as a model of how to expose a false worldview and replace it with the truth.  Some proponents of this approach are Sinclair Ferguson and Leland Ryken.

Some, such as Ryken, see in Ecclesiastes two competing voices, which alternate, almost in dialogue.  There is the voice of the unbeliever, for whom life under the sun is meaningless and hopeless.  And there is the voice of the believer, who expresses the joy of seeing the God who superintends everything from beyond the sun.

In this approach, the phrase “under the sun” tends to refer not to human existence universally (as in the Hedonist approach), but to the human existence of the unbeliever.  Believers, therefore, can be freed from an “under the sun” perspective and have it replaced with an “eternal” perspective.

In short, this approach typically sees the book as roughly half true and half false. It is in the Bible to help God’s people relate to those whose only perception is “under the sun,” and to win such folks to a more truthful and satisfying outlook on life.  The best way to apply the book is to help people grapple with the despair of materialism and naturalism, and to win them to a God’s-eye view of the heavens and the earth.

Why Study the Book of Ecclesiastes?

I am sharing here Matt Francisco’s article The Ancient Book for Anxious Moderns, in which he says…

There is perhaps no Old Testament book more perfectly suited for preaching to the modern West than Ecclesiastes.  Even before the disquieting unrest of 2020, it was clear that America had entered a new age of anxiety.

Just over the past few years, diagnoses of major depression have skyrocketed, rising 33 percent from 2013 to 2016, as have the number of people who describe themselves as lonely.  The percentage of Americans who experience stress is 20 points higher than the global average––all while life has been getting better for the average American by almost every available metric.  As Gregg Easterbrook has written in The Progress Paradox,

If you sat down with a pencil and graph paper to chart the trends of American and European life since the end of World War II, you’d do a lot of drawing that was pointed up.  Per-capita income, “real” income, longevity, home size, cars per driver, phone calls made annually, trips taken annually, highest degree earned, IQ scores, just about every objective indicator of social welfare has trended upward on a pretty much uninterrupted basis. . . . But your graphs would lose their skyward direction when the topics turned to the inner self . . . the trend line would cascade downward like water over a falls on the topic of avoiding depression.  Adjusting for population growth, ten times as many people in the Western nations today suffer from “unipolar” depression, or unremitting bad feelings without a specific cause, than did half a century ago.  Americans and Europeans have ever more of everything except happiness.

The problem, as Easterbrook illustrates, is not primarily that the American dream is dead, but that it has been achieved by so many and found wanting.

This is exactly what the author of Ecclesiastes warned us about. For 12 chapters the Preacher chronicles mankind’s fruitless attempts to find meaning, purpose, and joy under the sun, concluding time and again that all is vanity, a striving after the wind (1:14, 17; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6, 16; 6:9).

He asks, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?”  But his question is not meant to lead us to despair.  Instead, like a skilled physician of the soul, his question is meant to expose the prevailing symptom of our malady––an unrelenting restlessness and dissatisfaction with life––in order to lead us in the way of wisdom and joy.”

The quest the Preacher describes startles us with its familiarity: we too have staked our hopes on finding meaning, purpose, and joy under the sun; we too have been left disappointed.  Sure, we may have had moments where we almost grasped what we were after––maybe when we first landed that job, when we first got married, or when our work was finally recognized––but as soon as we held it, it began slipping through our fingers.

Naively, we assumed these moments pointed to a future moment, just out of reach, when everything would finally make sense, when we’d be able to rest, when we’d be unassailably happy.  As long as we were willing to follow the requisite steps, all we ever wanted would be ours.  But the moment never comes, and so we remain hungry and restless.

The Preacher reveals that he’s had everything we think we want, and his probing questions confirm our darkest suspicions––those we’ve sought to silence through busyness, distraction, and denial––that there is nothing under the sun that will ever satisfy the longing of an infinite soul.  There never could be a relationship, career, or accomplishment that would bring us rest, joy, and peace.  Pursuing these things as ends in themselves is a striving after wind.

In the end, death will make them vanish anyway, for “the wise dies just like the fool” (2:16), and man dies just like the beast.  And so castles made of sand slip into the sea eventually.

Without the sobering perspective of Ecclesiastes, we could easily be deluded into thinking that we’re restless and dissatisfied simply because we haven’t “arrived.”  The Preacher disabuses us of that notion.  In the face of this bleak future, we too cry “Vanity; vanity; all is vanity!” as we see the futility of life under the sun. But his words are not meant to leave us hopeless; instead, as Derek Kidner writes, “He shocks us into seeing life and death strictly from the ground level, and into reaching the only conclusions that honesty will allow.”

The first honest conclusion is that our restlessness and dissatisfaction arise from our attempts to find meaning and joy in God’s creation apart from the Creator.  In other words, “vanity, vanity, all is vanity” will always be true for the life lived apart from God.  We may choose to ignore the Preacher’s warning, continuing to place infinite expectations on finite things, but we do so at the cost of real joy, meaning, and purpose.

The second conclusion gives us hope: our inmost desires for joy, meaning, and purpose not only can be satisfied, but were designed to be.  Our disappointment in created things is not an act of cosmic cruelty; it’s a merciful signpost.

As early as Ecclesiastes 2:24–26, the Preacher writes, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. . . . For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy.”

Six times the Preacher encourages his reader to “eat and drink and make your soul enjoy the good of its labor, for it is a gift of God” (Eccles. 2:24; 3:12–14; 3:22; 5:18–19; 8:15; 9:7–9). Think of this phrase as a chorus meant to bookend every “verse,” gently reminding us that there is purpose and meaning and joy in one place only: a life lived before God.

The whole duty of man is to “fear God and keep his commandments” (Eccles. 12:13), a summary of his wisdom, and a message in full harmony with the rest of the Bible.  As Tim Keller has explained, the fear of the Lord is not terror, but instead a “life-rearranging, joyful awe and wonder before God.” Therefore, wisdom is found in recognizing and submitting to God, the gracious King.

Only when we recognize God and his gifts (Eccles. 3:13; 5:19) are we freed to rightly enjoy his created things. We can eat and drink and find enjoyment in our toil, because we know they’re but signposts pointing to the deeper joy of a life lived before God.

Therefore, far from a manifesto of hopelessness, Ecclesiastes shows us how to find joy in every moment.

Published by

Lamar Austin

I've graduated from Citadel Bible College in Ozark, Arkansas, with a B. A. Then got my M. Div. and Th. M. at Capital Bible Seminary in Lanham, MD. I finished with a D. Min. degree from Dallas Theological Seminary, but keep on learning. I pastored at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington, D. C., was on staff at East Evangelical Free Church in Wichita, KS, tried to plant an EFC in Little Rock, before moving back home to Mena, where I now pastor my home church, Grace Bible Church

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