The Argument of Ecclesiastes

Warren Wiersbe said that when he was asked to launch an Old Testament series of commentaries, he could think of no better place to start than Ecclesiastes, with the title “Be Satisfied.”

Yet satisfaction is what this book seems to lack, at least at first.  It shows that although we seek satisfaction in all the events, activities, people or things of life, we inevitably come up short.

Every one of us craves meaning and happiness—it’s human nature to look for it.  The question is, where are we looking to find it: work, pleasure, our children, our spouse, beauty, sex, our possessions, our position, our reputation, our accomplishments?

Ecclesiastes won’t allow for pat answers to these deeply existential questions—it forces us to look deeply at life and see where happiness and true satisfaction come from.

C. S. Lewis once wrote: “Human history…[is] the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”

For those who see no end to their laborious search for meaning and satisfaction, Jesus promises rest: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Again, setting the book within its context of wisdom literature:

Proverbs is all about getting us moving in the right direction, toward the Lord and away from ourselves.  Job shows us how to keep moving in that direction when everything falls apart.  Ecclesiastes completes the triptych of wisdom books, inspiring us to persevere in that journey, despite how frustrating it may be to do so.

Proverbs tells us what is generally true in God’s moral universe.  Ecclesiastes seems to argue against that.  It points out the exceptions, the dark side of reality, which we all feel at times and need to grapple with in a serious manner.

Ecclesiastes, more than other any book, reveals the fallout from the curse of Genesis 3.

Today we want to look at the argument of Ecclesiastes, how it is laid out to accomplish its purpose.

The thesis of this book is stated in Ecclesiastes 1:1-11, and the thesis is clear: Life is empty.

1:2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 

That’s how it’s stated. It’s stated that way not because that is Ecclesiastes’ final verdict, but to shock all who are trying to live life apart from God, or without a living trust in God, into the reality of what they are facing.

To restate the thesis in light of the total teaching of Ecclesiastes: Life “under the sun” (that is, life lived apart from God) is empty.

This phrase “under the sun” is used 29 times in the book of Ecclesiastes (and nowhere else in Scripture) to emphasize the perspective from which Solomon is speaking.  What that literally means is you lock God out of a closed system, and you are left with only this world of time plus chance plus matter.

But we should not think of “under the sun” in a spatial sense, but more of a temporal sense, “now rather than then.”  It is like Asaph’s struggle in Psalm 73 with the blessings he saw the wicked enjoying (now) but ultimately came to realize that in eternity the roles would be reversed.  We live under the sun today, but we will live in glory tomorrow.

In his famous sermon “Learning in War-Time,” C.S. Lewis wrestled profoundly with the relationship between things temporal and things eternal.  The particular pressure point in his context was the advent of the Second World War.  How should his students make sense of the pursuit of academic pleasures — what Lewis called “placid occupations” — while Europe was poised on the precipice of so great a conflict?

Lewis engaged the question by widening its lens, dramatically broadening the scope from the immediate danger to the more remote but greatest reality of all: judgment by the living God.  If learning in wartime may be compared to Nero fiddling while Rome burned, then “to a Christian the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddled while the city was on fire but that he fiddled on the brink of hell.”  In other words, Lewis suggested, the real question is this: How should we make sense of anything at all in our present, bodily, earthly lives while the yawning chasm of eternity waits for us beyond the grave?

Under the sun, life is monotonous; over the sun, it’s adventurous.  Under the sun, wisdom is vain; over the sun, wisdom is extremely useful. Under the sun, wealth is futile; over the sun, wealth opens up great opportunities.  Under the sun, death is certain; over the sun, death provides great motivation.  The Christian life can be compared to a puzzle, a battle, a challenge, a race, a treasure hunt, or a pilgrimage.  None of these are monotonous or boring. They are the stuff of true adventure.

Life “under the sun” is meaningless.  It is futile.  It’s a bad joke.  In this book, “the Preacher” (that’s what the author calls himself) argues that every human avenue to meaning and fulfillment fails, apart from faith in the God of providence.  All substitutes for finding true enjoyment and meaningful, well-grounded satisfaction in life, other than God Himself, end up empty.  Throughout the book, especially in the early going, he explores ways that humans try to dig themselves out of this meaninglessness: through thinking about life hard and long, through the pursuit of pleasure, through work, family, and affluence, for instance.

This books tells the story of perhaps the only person ever to have everything the world has to offer—money, wisdom, and pleasure—and he comes to the conclusion that those things cannot satisfy.

In the first cycle, Ecclesiastes 1:3-11, Solomon says that work has no advantages.  There is no advantage to work from earth’s perspective because of the cycles of life which entrap people and because of the lack of fulfillment in doing anything.  Because everything is cyclical “under the sun,” one is never satisfied (v. 8), there is nothing new (v. 9-10) and nothing will be remembered (v. 11).

Verse 2: “Everything is meaningless” (I’m empty.)

Verse 8: “All things are full of weariness” (I’m tired.)

Verse 8: “Never enough…not satisfied” (I’m restless.)

Verse 11: “There is no remembrance” (I’m expendable.)

Ever felt that?  Empty, tired, restless, expendable?  This is the perspective of the person who has not yet integrated his or her relationship with God into the experiences of everyday life.

In the second cycle (1:12-18), Solomon tries to escape into wisdom, into learning more and more.  But he ends up in the same place. 

1:13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 

Wisdom “under the sun” merely sees work as affliction, that life cannot be altered, and that there is pain in life.  Solomon concludes that being wise, knowledgeable, savvy, smart, philosophically reflective, and astute can’t provide meaning/satisfaction. Indeed, it leads to despair.

So Solomon tries another (3rd cycle, 2:1-11) escape route, this time into pleasure.  He says, in effect, “Well then, if wisdom brings grief/despair, what about pleasure/laughter?  Maybe escape from grief via comedy and the satiation of the senses will suffice.”  But it doesn’t.  Pleasure-seeking as a way of satisfaction fails because God has not built us to be satisfied that way. “It cannot quench man’s spiritual thirst.”

A fourth cycle goes back to wisdom in 2:12-18).  In examining wisdom and folly Solomon affirms that the former (wisdom) is preferable, but not ultimately fulfilling since death is the end of both the fool and the wise (2:12-16) and because we all die it is empty and senseless (2:17).  Solomon’s conclusion, in v. 17, is…

So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.

In 2:18-26, he discusses escape route #3–the belief that work/vocation can provide meaning/satisfaction.  But there the Preacher explains, first, why work won’t work (18-19) as the provision of meaning/significance in life; second, why work alone (apart from relationship with God) leads to despair (20-23); and then tells us, third, about the kind of work that truly satisfies (24-26).

Verses 24-25 introduce a key thought:

24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 

Enjoying life for the moment is appropriate, even in the midst of hating life (on the whole) because of its troubles and inability to deeply satisfy.  Enjoying life is “from the hand of God” and is totally dependent upon Him.

Actually, Solomon will say this, or something like this, seven times throughout the book.  It’s a troubling answer, but it’s also a simple one.  Believe it or not, seven times the answer is to have fun and enjoy the life that God has given.  Until chapters 11-12, that is the only answer, but it is the penultimate answer.

So where does one go from here?  The best human wisdom can’t supply meaning.  Pleasure can’t either.  Work/vocation, apart from God, fails. Where to?  That leads us to 3:1-22 and the Preacher’s first full-scale attempt to give a positive, constructive answer to the depressing scenario of life under the sun.  From the contemplative life, to the sensuous life, to the active life–in search of meaning and satisfaction–and he can’t find it there, anywhere (apart from God).  The solution: sovereignty and providence!  The world is divided into two camps: those who believe in God’s sovereignty and those who reject it.  All else is a variation on one of those two themes.

In 3:1-8 Solomon affirms that everything, including events and experiences which seem to be contradictory, has an appointed time. 

Then in 3:9-21 Solomon gives a general solution: Although the appointments of life may point to despair in striving, meaning for life may be found if one follows the eternal drive within oneself to recognize God as the giver of life.

Here again, Solomon gives us a clue that the answer to life lies beyond this life. In v. 11 he says…

He has made everything beautiful in its time.  Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 

There is an afterlife.  We may not have the answer to every question in this life, but we can trust God for life after death.

Then, in a very difficult, somber, and sobering passage, Ecclesiastes 4, the Preacher contemplates all the rampant injustice and oppression in this world–the Preacher proves once again that “if we hope only for this life, we are of all men most miserable.”

Then moving through chapter 5 we see that the overall theme of chapters 4-5 is that Solomon affirms that life can be enjoyed rather than fearfully protected and despaired of when one knows God as the One who gives life.

We learn here that though wealth can be a gift from God, it is an awful curse without Him and a major trial even with Him.  There he shows the emptiness of wealth, prosperity, and affluence, without God.

In our religious life we must revere God (5:1-7).  In our business life we do not trust in riches (5:8-17).  Once again, Solomon returns to the theme of enjoying the moments:

18 Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 19 Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil–this is the gift of God.

It is ok to enjoy God’s good gifts, pleasures, possessions and powers.  These are gifts from God.  The danger is when they become the source of our joy or we begin trusting them, rather than trusting in and enjoying God Himself.

We must be careful not to allow good things to become god things—to put our ultimate trust or love or satisfaction in them.

As Augustine said, ““He loves Thee too little, who loves anything together with Thee, which he loves not for Thy sake.”

In 6:1-12, we find the Preacher’s summary of various escape routes from nihilism, vanity, and meaninglessness: wealth, long life, family, work, words; but we also find there that none of these can provide true satisfaction, significance, happiness, blessedness, meaning, fullness, fulfillment.  The search for satisfaction, significance, happiness, blessedness, meaning, fullness, fulfillment is not wrong in itself, but often pursued wrongly.  God has not built life for anything apart from Him to satisfy.

In 7:1-29, by presenting a series of opposites, dangers, and fallen-world life scenarios, the Preacher shows true wisdom and the folly of trying to make sense of life apart from God. And in 8:1-17, he continues and confirms the point of chapter seven by pointing out the quandary of oppression in this life, the futilities that face us.  This life, considered apart from God, has no cheering answer to give us about the meaning of life, and no hope to offer us–only frustration.

In 9:1-18, the Preacher emphasizes that the person who knows God draws comfort from God’s sovereignty, even in the face of death and life’s difficulties, and views death in moral terms.

Death is the big bugaboo in the book of Ecclesiastes.  It comes to all of us, cuts life short and “under the sun” is the end.

Then in 10:1-20 he compares and contrasts wisdom and folly, and basically gives us a taxonomy of folly.  The Preacher makes two basic points: a little folly can do a lot of damage, and folly is a heart problem, shows in character and conduct, is found in high places, has consequences, is especially apparent in speech and laziness, and has dreadful effects on a nation.  Although wisdom doesn’t solve every problem, it is clearly superior to folly.

In 11:1-10, we learn how to respond to the uncertainties of life in light of an overarching trust in God’s providence.  It’s the beginning of the Preacher’s “end game.”  

“The life of indifference and unbelief has been placed against [the life of faith] on the scales and been found wanting.” Now the Preacher calls for a verdict.  The whole section is a sustained call to decision.  We must respond to God without delay, in wholehearted faith, whether life is adverse or comfortable, for we are marching towards the day of our death.” (Eaton).

We meet here a call to bold, confident, and joyous living, even in light of the uncertainties of life because of the certainties of God’s providence.

11:9 and then chapter 12 encourages us to “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’” (Ecclesiastes 12:1).

The key verses of the book are found at the end, where Solomon at long last gives us the answer what makes sense of life:

13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

The book of Ecclesiastes shows us there are no pat answers in matters pertaining to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He does whatever he pleases, which often will look to us like “time and chance” (Eccl 9:11).  But His word never fails, His promises are sure, and His commandments are not burdensome.  When He sets his affection on you, he gives you the gift of irrational joy in the face of such frustration.  Don’t ever give that up or take it for granted, for Jesus died and rose so the pure life of the age to come could invade our present age of frustration.

Christians ought to respond to their world in a way unlike anyone else, and Ecclesiastes explains why.

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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