Enjoy Life’s Simple Pleasures When All Seems So Confusing (Ecclesiastes 2:18-26)

July 2016 survey came out with this paradoxical title, “Job Satisfaction Hits a 10-Year High – But It’s Still Below 50%.”  Work is something God created humanity to do even before the Fall.  It is something that can give us a sense of worth and significance, that helps us provide for our families and our future.

According to Sinclair Ferguson:

Man was made to work, because the God who made him was a “working God.”  Man was made to be creative, with his mind and his hands.  Work is part of the dignity of his existence.

And David Atkinson adds:

We work essentially because we have been given gifts of creativity to use in God’s world.  Work is our human activity which corresponds to the work of God in His providential care for the whole created order .

One of the most common questions you will get is “What do you do for a living?” or “Where do you work?”  We are defined by our jobs. But according to Ecclesiastes, work is the wrong place to look for meaning in life.

Michael Carroll cites a 2015 Gallup poll that found that two-thirds of Americans come to work “disengaged.”  According to the poll, whatever passion and enthusiasm they once had fades in the face of “feeling expendable; having too much to do and not enough time to do it; constant financial pressure – the list goes on.”

Remember Lee Dorsey’s song “Working in a Coal Mine”?

The verses go like this:

Five o’clock in the mornin’
I’m already up and gone
Lord, I’m so tired
How long can this go on?

‘Course I make a little money
Haulin’ coal by the ton
But when Saturday rolls around
I’m too tired for havin’ fun.

The best the world can offer goes something like this:

Try not to look at work with such drudgery.  Try to alter your work experiences into something enjoyable and if your current position is truly awful look for a new one.  Who knows maybe your next job will be one you don’t want to leave.

Solomon explored work to see whether this God-given task would give him a sense of meaning and purpose in life.  Here is what he concluded:

18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool?  Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. 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? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

Two observations highlight this section: (1) “under the sun” occurs repeatedly in a crescendo and (2) “this also is vanity” closes each sub-section.  “Under the sun” occurs four times in the first 29 verses of the book (1:3, 9, 14; 2:11), but five times in just these six verses (2:17, 18, 19, 20, 22).  “This too is vanity” concludes verses 18–19, 20–21, 22–23, and 24–26.

Verses 12–17 contrast wisdom and folly, light and darkness, and life and death. An additional contrast between rest and labor arises in verses 18–23.  “I hated all the fruit of my labor” in verse 18 is the second half of the anaphora that starts with “I hated life” in verse 17.  Irony exists in this declaration since Solomon has already declared, “my heart was pleased because of all my labor” (v. 10).

These two expressions of hate (vv. 17-18) express a deep lament akin to that of Job or Jeremiah in Lamentations.  Ray Stedman notes the progression from depression (hating one’s life and work in vv. 17-18), because he became increasingly disgruntled when he saw the diminishing returns for all the effort he put into making life work.  Then, he was frustrated by the unfairness of working and having those who come after you enjoy the fruits of your labor.  Finally, in v. 20, he sinks into despair.

This leads many people to consider or commit suicide, people like Jack London and Ernest Hemingway, or Freddy Prinz and Robin Williams.

This brother needs some Prozac!  He sounds nothing like the famous California preacher, smiling ear-to-ear in his sun-filled Crystal Cathedral while he recites his second Be-Happy Attitude: “I am really hurting, but I will bounce back.”  Rather, Solomon sounds like Job on the ashes (“I loathe my life; I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul,” Job 10:1), Jeremiah in the stocks (“Cursed be the day on which I was born!  The day when my mother bore me, let it not be blessed!” Jer. 20:14), and Jesus on the cross (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Matt. 27:46).

Clearly Solomon didn’t find meaning and satisfaction in his work and he isn’t afraid of giving us an honest assessment. 

Again, “under the sun” leaves God and a relationship with God out of the picture.  This “despair” Solomon came to is the ultimate result of leaving God out of one’s life.

One problem with work, Solomon says, is that we won’t be the ones to benefit from our labors.  No one goes to heaven with a UHaul trailer containing all his stuff.  The more he has toiled at his life’s work, the more galling is the thought of its fruits falling into the hands of others—and as likely as not, into the wrong hands (the hands of the fool).

When Solomon died, he left all of his earnings as a bequest for his oldest son, King Rehoboam.  Solomon may not have foreseen whether or not his successor would be wise, but we certainly know the truth: Rehoboam was such a fool that he lost ten-twelfths of his father’s kingdom (see 1 Kings 12).

Adam Clarke makes this point:

“Alas! Solomon, the wisest of all men, made the worst use of his wisdom, had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, and yet left but one son behind him, to possess his estates and his throne, and that one was the silliest of fools!”

All the labor and wisdom that Solomon has exerted will come under the mastery of another, and not himself.  Ultimately, he will be unable to experience the pleasures of all his labors.

Again, death enters the picture and changes everything.

Here is one of the great frustrations of our existence.  We are born with a longing for permanence, a deep desire to do something that will endure or to make something that will last.  Yet the under-the-sun reality is that we will spend our whole lives working to gain something we cannot keep.  It was enough to drive the Preacher to despair.

Not only will we have to leave it all behind, but work itself can be laborious and draining.

“What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation.  Even in the night his heart does not rest.  This also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2:22–23).

The words Solomon uses in these verses indicates both physical and mental work.  Every occupation has its own unique demands, but no matter what kind of work we do, it always takes its toll on us. Hard work can be exhausting for the soul as well as for the body. There is “too much strain,” writes James Limburg, “without much gain.”

Work is also “sorrow” and “vexation.”  Think of all the worry that work brings.  Sometimes we are anxious about having enough work to support ourselves and our families.  At other times we have so much work that we worry about getting it all done.  It would help if we could get a full night’s sleep; instead we are awake in the night obsessing about today’s on-the-job conflict or worrying about tomorrow’s project.  “Even in the night” the weary laborer’s “heart does not rest” (Ecclesiastes 2:23; cf. 8:16).

You see, we engage in work and service because we want to make a difference.  It bothers to think that we’ve made hardly a dent in this life, and when we and those who know us are gone, even that mark will disappear.

Warren Schmidt learned this lesson in the 2002 film About Schmidt .  After retirement, as Schmidt looks back on his life as an actuary for an Omaha insurance company, he realizes that he has little or nothing to show for all his hard work.  Here is what he writes to the poor, needy child he has started to sponsor in Africa:

I know we’re all pretty small in the big scheme of things, and I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference.  But what kind of difference have I made?  What in the world is better because of me? . . . Once I am dead and everyone who knew me dies too, it will be as though I never even existed.  What difference has my life made to anyone?  None that I can think of.  None at all.  Hope things are fine with you.  Yours truly, Warren Schmidt.

No wonder Solomon said back in verse 20 that he was in despair.

But in verses 24-26 Solomon speaks of something which gives us delight.  A more cheerful note breaks in on this melancholy tune.

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? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

This is the first of seven passages in which the writer recommended the wholehearted pursuit of enjoyment (2:24a; 3:12; 3:22a; 5:17; 8:15a; 9:7-9a; and 11:7—12:1a), and they make the point with increasing intensity and solemnity.

The compulsive worker of vv. 22-23, overloading his days with toil and his nights with worry, has missed the simple joys that God was holding out to him.  As v. 24 points out, the very toil that tyrannized him was potentially a joyful gift of God (as joy itself is another gift in v. 24), if only he had had the grace to take it as such.

One can find joy in the simple things of life—in eating, drinking, and yes, working.

Warren Wiersbe reminds us…

“Solomon is not advocating ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!’ That is the philosophy of fatalism not faith.  Rather, he is saying, ‘Thank God for what you do have, and enjoy it to the glory of God.'”

With all simplicity, the entire posture of the trusting child of God toward his Creator is found in 12:13, “fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”  Already at this point, and again in 5:17-19, Solomon begins to explain summarily how this childlike faith is exercised—or perhaps more accurately, how it is not exercised—in one’s day to day existence.  Whereas Solomon’s life was so terribly complicated during his period of wandering “under the sun” and away from God, the life of the believing child is amazingly simple and finds pockets of joy in the blessings that God gives.

“Having experienced the bankruptcy of our pretended autonomy,” writes Michael Eaton, “the Preacher now points to the God who occupies the heavenly realm, and to the life of faith in him” (Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary , Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), p. 73. 

Martin Luther called the end of Ecclesiastes 2 “a remarkable passage, one that explains everything preceding and following it.”  It is “the principal conclusion,” he said, “in fact the point of the whole book” (“Notes on Ecclesiastes,” in Luther’s Works , trans. and ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, 56 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1972), 15:46).

Instead of trying to figure it all out, enjoy the moment.  Enjoy the gifts that God has given.

Yes, we are supposed to enjoy God above all else, but that doesn’t mean that we cannot enjoy God’s good gifts for his sake.

How should we respond to all the enigmas and confusion of life (and death)?  By trusting God with the big problems and enjoying the little gifts God gives us.

Notice three things in vv. 24-25.  First, “we should eat and drink and find enjoyment” in our work.  That is fitting and it is also possible.  Instead of regretting yesterday or worrying about tomorrow, enjoy God’s simple gifts now.

Second, we enjoy them because these gifts are “from the hand of God.”  They are gifts of God and we should receive them with gratitude.

Third, notice how verse 25 weaves together the enjoyment one receives from God’s gifts with our relationship with Him.  He said it like this, “apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?”

There is a break in the dark clouds of life “under the sun” and we get here our first glimpse of the fact that joy only comes from life with God.  It is impossible without God and a growing, personal relationship with Him.

Solomon is cluing us in to the fact that although we cannot “shepherd the wind,” we have a Shepherd who is in charge of the wind, the storms and the sunshine.

Those who learn to fear God today are enabled to enjoy this world as a gift of the Creator and therefore as a channel of gratitude and worship.  The fear of God leads to the approval of God, which frees you and me to delight in today as we hope for tomorrow.

One is reminded of an old cartoon in which a publisher is pleading with Charles Dickens to change the most famous opening line in the history of the novel: “Mr. Dickens, either it was the best of times or it was the worst of times. It can’t be both.”

But of course it can be both, and often is.  We live in a world that is cursed by sin (see Genesis 3:17–19), but it is also a world that God created essentially good (see Genesis 1 — 2) and that he has visited in the flesh and is working to redeem through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son.  Thus we experience joy as well as sorrow, especially if we know God in a personal and saving way.

Finally, in verse 26, Solomon reflects again on how wisdom, knowledge and joy are gifts of God towards the good, or righteous man.  Also, that sometimes what others work for benefits the righteous (unlike what he had implied in vv. 18-19).  Even this is “vanity and like trying to shepherd the wind.”

Zack Eswine concludes…

God created us.  His good gifts remain for us and our joy.  Counterfeit gifts, forged advantages, and illusory pleasures now abound like weeds bent on choking out the flowerbed.  Everything is without meaning now.  But there are these flowers that bloom, these leftover beauties that do not quit.  These small voices give witness still to the moaning world. (Recovering Eden, p. 16)

Circling Back to Wisdom (Ecclesiastes 2:12-17)

Back before I became a pastor of the English congregation at Chinese Christian Church of Greater Washington D.C., Becky and I attended a church retreat in Virginia.  I was asked to speak with the youth at the event.  One of the young men, whose name was Eddie Koo, kept asking, “Why?….Why?”  He was always wanting to know why.

Qoheleth also wanted to make sense of the world and kept asking “Why?”

At first the Preacher thought that the pursuit of wisdom would give him all the answers (Ecclesiastes 1:12–15), but there were so many things in life that he couldn’t straighten out or that didn’t add up that his quest soon ended in failure. Information failed to bring transformation.  So Qoheleth turned to morality.  Perhaps knowing the difference between right and wrong would give him a sense of purpose (Ecclesiastes 1:16–18).  Yet this only added to his sorrow and vexation.

Next the Preacher-King pursued pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1–11).  If wisdom ended in sorrow, maybe self-indulgence would lead to happiness.  So he built magnificent buildings and created beautiful gardens.  He savored the luxuries of wine, women, and song.  Never abstaining from pleasure or restraining his appetites, Solomon grabbed for all the gusto he could get.  Yet even the greatest pleasures in life failed to satisfy his soul.  If he said it once, he said it a thousand times: it was all vanity and a striving after wind.  There was nothing to be gained under the sun.

Still, Qoheleth continued his quest.  He couldn’t help it.  The man wanted to know “Why?” and he refused to give up until he knew he had the answer.  So with persistent perseverance, he kept looking for the meaning of life.  Anyone who wants to know the truth about things should follow his example.  Do not shy away from the difficult questions.  Do not settle for easy explanations that will not hold up to careful scrutiny.  Keep searching until you find your way to God.

With the goal of understanding, the Preacher tells us that he “turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly” (Ecclesiastes 2:12).  If these words sound familiar, it is because Qoheleth said almost exactly the same thing in Ecclesiastes 1:13, when he applied his heart “to seek and to search out by wisdom,” and again in Ecclesiastes 1:17, when he applied his heart “to know wisdom and to know madness and folly.”  The seeker has returned to look again at something he has considered before.

This is what people often do when they are looking for something that is missing.  First they look in the most logical place to find it.  When that fails, they start to look elsewhere.  But if they still can’t find what they are looking for, they say to themselves, “Maybe I missed something.  I should probably go back where I started and look more carefully.”

And that is what Solomon does in Ecclesiastes 2:12-26.

12 So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king?  Only what has already been done. 13 Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. 14 The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness.  And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 15 Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?”  And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. 16 For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten.  How the wise dies just like the fool! 17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind. 18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun.  This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it.  This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest.  This also is vanity. 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? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God.  This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

Six times in this passage we find the Preacher’s thematic word “vanity,” emptiness.  He is coming to the end of all his explorations for meaning and purpose in life, having tried wisdom, pleasure, accomplishments and now he returns to wisdom.

The sticking point for Qoheleth is death, inescapable and final.  In the rest of the Bible, the sting of death is somewhat assuaged by the thought that one lives on through one’s good name (Deut 25:5–6).

So Solomon “turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly.”

“Madness” and “folly” go together.  The Preacher is not describing three different categories but only two.  On the one hand there is “wisdom,” which is used here in its most general sense to refer to human thinking at its very best, something that we regularly depend upon.

Wisdom in this sense is not the deep spiritual understanding that begins and ends with the fear of the Lord, but simply good, moral, practical advice for daily life that comes from the self-help section of your local bookstore.

He wants to compare the two, to make sure that he has considered life from every conceivable angle.

The Preacher wanted to write the last word about the meaning of life.  Thus he desired to make his quest as comprehensive as possible, a desire that comes through in what he says next: “For what can the man do who comes after the king?  Only what has already been done” (Ecclesiastes 2:12).

Earlier he had said that knowledge just leads to sorrow (1:18) and temporarily led to trying to find meaning in pleasure.

Derek Kidner says…

The bare comparison of wisdom and folly is simple, but the final assessment is shattering.  Nothing could be more obvious than that the two compare with one another as light with darkness (13, 14a); but Qoheleth has the wit to remember that they are abstractions and we are men.  It is little use commending to us the ultimate worth of wisdom, if in the end none of us will be around to exercise it, let alone to value it.

Solomon acknowledges in v. 12 that if he has tried it and come up empty, so will the rest of us who come after him.

13 Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. 14 The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness.  And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them.

First, a ray of hope.  Solomon does see more gain in wisdom than in folly and in light than in darkness. But one fate, death, comes to all.  Whether one stays alert or sleeps through life, the same fate comes to all.

As James Bollhagen says…

The sorry fool lives in blissful ignorance, taking life as it comes, enjoying his fun, and ignoring the weightier issues of life and death.  His thoughts never go beyond his own belly.  The wise person, on the other hand, analyzes the hardships the world brings, wrestles with the problems of life and death, and diligently searches for meaning in the joys of life, while also earnestly hoping for life with God beyond the grave.  His thoughts are lofty, always running to the higher plane.  The wise and fool—when Solomon compares the two, the difference is like night and day (2:13).

Solomon is again expressing the positive benefit of wisdom, setting up the limitations of wisdom.

His ultimate disappointment with wisdom is introduced at the end of 2:14 and spelled out two verses later: both the wise and foolish are going to die and will eventually be forgotten by the people of this world.

Yes, it is better to walk in the light.  It is better to see where one is going so as not to stub one’s toes.  However, all your shrewdness, resourcefulness and even moral character—will not keep you from death. That is the sad reality.

In the NIV v. 14 ends, “the same fate overtakes them both.”

This verse may simply mean that the wise and the foolish experience the same ups and downs in life.  In that case the word “fate” is not being used fatalistically but refers generally to anything and everything that happens in life.  Whether we live by wisdom or by mad folly, we will get caught up in many of the same events, including the same calamities and catastrophes.  As Jesus says, the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike (Matthew 5:45).  It does not matter how smart we are, many things in life are beyond our control.  Thus many of the same incidents will happen to us that happen to everybody, both for good and for ill.

Yet when he talks about “the same event,” or “the . . . fate” that overtakes us all, the Preacher seems to have something more specific in mind.  He is talking about the one thing that happens to everyone — death.  This becomes perfectly clear in verse 16, where he says that “the wise dies just like the fool!”  But already in verse 14 he is talking about the fate that awaits us all.  As we go through life, it is better to be wise than foolish.  But what will happen to us in the end?  We will all die anyway.  So what really is the use of being wise?  Once we are dead, our wisdom will not do us any good.  Whatever advantage we gain from wisdom is strictly temporary.  Whether we are wise or foolish, either way we will soon be dead, and who will remember us then?  Death is the great equalizer.

You can feel Solomon’s disappointment.  It doesn’t matter how wise we are, how much we accomplish, how much money we have, death ends it all.  “Even the wise die,” the psalmist says; “the fool and the stupid alike must perish” (Psalm 49:10).

Solomon has been so smart, but he cannot play God.

To understand the gravity of what Solomon is saying, Derek Kidner says this: “The choices that we positively knew to be significant will be brushed aside as finally irrelevant.” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 34).

We go through life desperately trying to deny the reality of our mortality; yet we are haunted by death just the same.  Gregg Easterbrook writes about this in The Progress Paradox.  First Easterbrook demonstrates that even though the lives of average Americans are constantly improving in material terms, we never get any happier.  Then he tries to figure out why people are feeling worse at the very time that life supposedly is getting better.

Easterbrook has a variety of answers to this question, many of them based on sociological research.  But at a certain point he wonders whether perhaps the problem might have something to do with death.  Maybe “people grow steadily better off,” he says, “yet seemingly no happier, because there is a baseline anxiety in all our hearts, and that anxiety is the fear of death.”  For a brief moment Easterbrook opens a window to the human soul. If only he had the answer for our anxiety!

It is one thing to believe that all men are mortal, accepting the reality of death in intellectual terms, but it is something entirely different to recognize that we ourselves must die.  This is something every soldier confronts in wartime.  Many soldiers go into their first battle with the naive expectation that although other men will die, somehow they will manage to survive.  But when they see their first comrade fall in battle, they think, “That could have been me” and are compelled to confront their own mortality.

Sooner or later everyone comes to the same shocking realization: One day I am going to die; my heart will beat one last time, my lungs will exhale one final breath, and that will be the end of my days on this earth .

This painful reality makes the wise man wonder how wise it really is to pursue wisdom.  In view of his impending demise, figuring out the meaning of life now seems like a lot of wasted effort. Jean-Paul Sartre would have agreed, for the famous existentialist has been quoted as saying, “Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal.”

Since the beginning of the book, Solomon has been hinting at mortality; “one generation departs” (1:4).  All people have “one” and the same “outcome” in their future.  Finally, in verse 16, the dreaded “D” word jumps out.

Verse 16 reiterates the thought of 1:11:

16 For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten.  How the wise dies just like the fool!

Solomon is adding here that not only does one die, but they are also forgotten.

Sometimes people try to overcome this problem by earthly achievement, but death still wins out in the end.  The filmmaker Woody Allen acknowledged this when he said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it by not dying.”

Earlier, in one of his many famous proverbs, Solomon said that “the memory of the righteous is a blessing” (Proverbs 10:7; cf. Psalm 112:6), but now he is not so sure. Will anyone remember us after all?

In dying and being forgotten, there is no difference between being wise and being foolish.

So Qoheleth’s quest has failed again.  A fresh investigation has come up with the same old findings.

“If one fate comes to all,” writes Derek Kidner, “and that fate is extinction, it robs every man of his dignity and every project of its point.”

By this point in Ecclesiastes, the Preacher’s refrain is all too familiar.  The equalizing power of death leads him to conclude — yet once more — that life is only vanity, like the steam that rises from a boiling kettle and then disappears.  But this time his attitude seems much more negative.  The repeated failure of his ongoing quest is in danger of embittering his heart:

So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind (Ecclesiastes 2:17; cf. Job 7:16).

It is one thing to be disappointed with life and all its frustrations, but hating life is another thing entirely.  The Solomon of Ecclesiastes seems to be spiraling down into absolute despair.  These are the thoughts that lead many to suicide.

It is not just his life that he hates but life in general — the whole enterprise of human existence.

As Solomon demonstrates, the effects of death are experienced long before death occurs.  Living under the shadow of death, which renders all human effort ultimately futile, he despairs of life as did Job in his first poetic response to his suffering (Job 3).

This exhibits the true end of the road for the person who does not believe in God and takes life and death seriously.

Derek Kidner notes:

To be outraged at what is universal and unavoidable suggests something of a divine discontent, a hint of what the great saying in 3:11 will call “eternity” in man’s mind. (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 35)

This is the hope that we have, that death doesn’t end it all and doesn’t make all of life meaningless.  When one gives away God, eternity and heaven, then certainly the reality of death brings despair, but with God and the truth about life ever after, every choice we make, every word we speak, every action, has meaning not only for this life, but also for the life to come.

And He Tried Projects (Ecclesiastes 2:4-11)

You can almost feel the heartache and desperation of a person who looks to one thing after another to find satisfaction and meaning in life, only to come up short over and over and over again.  It is depressing.

Solomon is showing us from his own life how this feels, how this betrays the reality that a life lived—even to the fullest—apart from God, will come up empty.

So far, Solomon has tried philosophy and pleasure.  He has plumbed the depths of knowledge and came up more confused.  He has experienced the heights of pleasure, and found himself still bored out of his mind.

Next, Solomon tries projects, work.  Like many workaholics, Solomon is trying to find his identity in projects and accomplishments.

Having given in to the lusts of the flesh in vv. 1-3, he now turns to feed the lusts of his eyes and the pride of life.

Derek Kidner notes:

“As if he had over-reacted in turning to futile pleasures, he now gives himself to the joys of creativity.”

Starting in verse 4 of Ecclesiastes 2:

4 I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the children of man. 9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

In addition to wine and laughter, there are many other pleasures in life, and the Preacher-King was rich enough to try almost all of them.  He lived the lifestyle of the rich and famous, building a beautiful home and planting many magnificent gardens:

“I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself.  I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees.  I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees” (Ecclesiastes 2:4–6).

Made in the image of the Creator, Solomon exercised his almost God-like control and creativity to make better homes and gardens (1 Kgs 7; 9:1; 10:21; 2 Chr 8:3-6). 

Solomon spent more than a decade building his royal palace, and at great expense (1 Kings 7:1–12). 

A hallmark of royalty from time immemorial has been the planting of “gardens” (Sg 4:12; 5:1; 6:2, 11), “vineyards” (Sg 8:11), “orchards” (Heb. Pard sîm is borrowed from a Persian word which is also the source of “paradise”), and ornamental groves.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 72-73)

From long before Nebuchadnezzar’s hanging gardens to the latest blossoming of the White House cherry trees, heads of state have been delighted to be known as patrons of horticulture.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 73)

The lush vegetation he planted was irrigated by reservoirs large enough to water a small forest.  Some of these pools can still be seen today.

The Bible describes the location of the King’s Garden best in Nehemiah 3:15:

Shallum [built] the wall of the Pool of Shelah at the king’s garden as far as the steps that descend from the city of David.

The Pool of Shelah (or “Siloam,” which translates the Hebrew shelah, “sent;” see John 9:7) and the City of David are archaeologically confirmed.  So, the King’s Garden would have grown approximately where the Hinnom Valley joins with the Kidron Valley south of the City of David.

These projects were so large that only a great man could even attempt them.  Notice the word great in v. 4.

The scope of Solomon’s grand achievement is indicated by the fact that everything occurs in the plural — houses and vineyards, gardens and parks, trees and pools.  It sounds like a second Garden of Eden, especially with all the fruit trees (see Genesis 1:29; 2:9).

In the words of Derek Kidner, “He creates a little world within a world: multiform, harmonious, exquisite: a secular Garden of Eden, full of civilized and agreeably uncivilized delights, with no forbidden fruits.”  The palace of the Preacher-King was an attempt at paradise regained.  He wanted to remove the consequences of the curse.

Paul speaks about how all creation is eagerly awaiting that moment when the curse will actually be removed…

19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 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. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 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. 

This earth will one day experience the removal of the curse, for a new earth will be made.  But right now we all—all of humanity and all of creation—labors under the curse.

Solomon tried to remove the effects of the curse from his life, but to no avail.

All this beauty was all for him.

The Bible describes Qoheleth’s building and landscaping projects as “great works” (Ecclesiastes 2:4), but they were not public works. They were part of the man’s private residence. He was living large in the garden of his own pleasure.  He was enslaved to what Ray Stedman called an “edifice complex.”  He thought that building beautiful buildings would bring him glory and pleasure.  But alas, it didn’t.

Next Solomon tried to find meaning and purpose, fulfillment and satisfaction, in the accumulation of things.

7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house.  I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 

The “herds”–large animals like cattle and oxen–and “flocks”–small animals like sheep and goats–were additional signs of luxury, given the fact that commoners subsisted on grains, fruits, and vegetables and ate very little meat.  They saved their animals for work, milk, and wool.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 74)

Solomon seems to be “possessing all things;” yet in reality it is “having nothing.”  In contrast, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:10 “as having nothing, yet possessing everything.”  Paul is reflecting the reality that no matter how much a Christian lacks of this world, he or she has everything in Christ for ultimate joy.

Given the scope of his building projects and the size of his property, the Preacher-King needed a huge workforce to run his daily operation.  So he purchased many slaves, and the slaves he owned bore many children, who also belonged to their master’s house.  To feed them all, he had to keep flocks of cattle and herds of sheep and goats all over his royal ranch.

This reminds me of the upkeep required for anyone who has toys or tools.  Whatever we possess soon possess us with all the upkeep and repairs.

8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces.  

Solomon also needed a lot of money to run his Garden of Eden amusement park.  This he got by taxing the people.

Some of his treasure came from taxes on his own people and some from the tribute of foreign powers, but all of it came from someone else. He used some of this money for entertainment and sexual pleasures.

I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the children of man.

The “singers” were used for banquets and parties within the court.  “Delights,” in keeping with its use in Sg 7:6, must have an erotic meaning–“sexual pleasures” that men (the sexual context encourages a masculine meaning to “sons of men”) enjoy.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 75)

1 Kings 11:3 gives us the raw statistics — seven hundred wives and princesses, with three hundred concubines — more sexual partners than anyone could imagine.

Solomon remarks in verse 9 that in all this indulging in pleasure “my wisdom remained with me.”  Some of us have a hard time imagining that…and it doesn’t make what Solomon did right.  But if Solomon had allowed himself to be swept off his feet by sensual pleasures, he would doubtless have sunk to the despair of a slave of immorality.  He wanted to determine to what extent one could find the key to life in a varied use of great wealth.

He enjoyed, more than ever any man did, a composition of rational and sensitive pleasures at the same time.  He was, in this respect, great, and increased more than all that were before him, that he was wise amidst a thousand earthly enjoyments.  It was strange, and the like was never met with, (1) That his pleasures did not debauch his judgment and conscience.  In the midst of these entertainments his wisdom remained with him, v. 9.  In the midst of all these childish delights he preserved his spirit manly, kept the possession of his own soul, and maintained the dominion of reason over the appetites of sense; such a vast stock of wisdom had he that it was not wasted and impaired, as any other man’s would have been, by this course of life.  But let none be emboldened hereby to lay the reins on the neck of their appetites, presuming that they may do that and yet retain their wisdom, for they have not such a strength of wisdom as Solomon had; nay, and Solomon was deceived; for how did his wisdom remain with him when he lost his religion so far as to build altars to strange gods, for the humoring of his strange wives?  (Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol. III, 989)

In the end money and the pleasures it can buy do not lift us out of the realm of earthbound frustration.  (Frank E. Gæbelein, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, 1156-57)

Wine, women, and song — the Solomon of Ecclesiastes had it all.  Today his face would be on the cover of Fortune magazine, in the annual issue on the wealthiest men in the world.  His home would be featured in a photo spread with Architectural Digest — the interior and the exterior, from the wine cellar to the lavish gardens.  Pop stars would sing at his birthday party; supermodels would dangle from his arms.

Don’t you find it hard not to envy the man?  Wouldn’t you like to live like a king?  All other things being equal, wouldn’t you rather have a bigger, nicer house with better, more beautiful views?  Don’t you wish that you had someone to do all your work for you, or at least all the work that you don’t enjoy doing?  Think of all the money that Solomon had, with all of the choirs and concubines.  Solomon had enough women at his disposal for almost three years worth of sexual pleasure every night!  Honestly, if you could get away with it, wouldn’t you be tempted to grab some of his gusto for yourself?

Here is how the Preacher-King summarized his experiment with pleasure: 

“So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem.  Also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them.  I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil” (Ecclesiastes 2:9–10).

The Bible warns against “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16, KJV).  The psalmist was heeding this warning when he prayed, “Turn my eyes from looking at worthless things; and give me life in your ways” (Psalm 119:37).  But Solomon disregarded God’s warning completely.

Whenever he spied something he wanted, he took it.  Whenever he was tempted to indulge in a fleshly pleasure, he did so.  There was nothing he denied himself — nothing “visibly entertaining or inwardly satisfying.” 

He did this because he thought he had it coming to him.  “I deserve it,” he would tell himself, “as the reward for all my hard work.”

Like Solomon, we have ample opportunity to indulge many sinful and selfish desires.  In fact, maybe Solomon would envy us.  Generally speaking, we live in better homes than he did, with better furniture and climate control.  We dine at a larger buffet; when we go to the grocery store, we can buy almost anything we want, from anywhere in the world.  We listen to a much wider variety of music.  And as far as sex is concerned, the Internet offers an endless supply of virtual partners, providing a vast harem for the imagination.

That is one of the worst things about poverty; it is deceptive.  When you have little, you can still believe the lie that more will make you happy.  But “poor little rich man” Solomon had it all, and the bubble burst; the illusion was shattered.  The rich know from experience that riches do not make them happy; the poor can still believe this lie.  That is the chief advantage of riches: not that they make you happy but that they make you unhappy–but wise.  (Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life, 40)

By every indication, then, we are living in the godless times that Paul described for Timothy, when people would be “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Timothy 3:4).  Everything is offered to us.  Nothing is unavailable.

So are we satisfied, or do we still want more?  Gregg Easterbrook gives us the answer in his book The Progress Paradox , which is subtitled How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse .  Easterbrook proves that we have more of almost everything today . . . except happiness.  In fact, the more we have, the unhappier we are, because we know we will never be able to get all the new things that we want.

At the end of his quest, the Preacher-King reached the same conclusion.  Even after experiencing all the pleasure that he could afford, he still had not gained anything out of life.  On “the morning after,” while he was still suffering the effects of his pleasure trip, he said,

“Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11).

The verb “consider” (Hebrew pana ) literally means “to face,” to look someone or something right in the eye (cf. Job 6:28).  So Solomon is facing up to his situation, seeing his life as it really is, and he wants us to know that it isn’t pretty. 

He was a liberated self-made man with every reason to be proud of his achievements.  And the verdict?  It meant nothing, all so much hebel, so much “striving after wind” (v. 11).  It is not that he has any regrets about his life style; he does not apologize for it.  It merely confirmed for him that the pursuit of pleasure was not the answer to the ultimate questions of life.  (Robert Davidson, The Daily Study Bible: Ecclesiastes, 15-16)

What do you do when you have everything you thought you ever wanted and it still isn’t enough?

The answer is that our dissatisfaction with life should point us back to God — not away from him but toward him.  If all the pleasures under the sun cannot satisfy our souls, then we need to look beyond this world to God in Heaven. C. S. Lewis writes:

Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that what they do want, and want acutely, is something that cannot be had in this world.  There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise.  The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. . . . There was something we grasped at, in that first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality.

God does promise us ultimate pleasure, and He will deliver.  But that joy is found not in anything thing or person in this life, but in Jesus Christ.

And He Tried Pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3)

And He Tried Pleasure, part 1 (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3)

Good morning, and welcome to Grace Still Amazes.

I’m Lamar Austin, senior pastor of Grace Bible Church in Mena, Arkansas, where everybody is welcome because nobody is perfect and anything is possible because of grace.

Having explored all sources of wisdom in his search for meaning and satisfaction and come up empty, Solomon now turns to a common pursuit of this present age—trying to find meaning and satisfaction in pleasure.

Solomon turns from philosophy to hedonism.  Instead of giving up his search, he turns to another possible avenue for fulfillment.

Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure.  This is very much the philosophy of our day. The maxim of today’s generation can be stated in these six words: if it feels good, do it!  (Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge, 14)

R. C. Sproul points out the basic problem of hedonism, which he says is often referred to as the “hedonistic paradox.”  He says…

if the hedonist fails to achieve the measure of pleasure he seeks, he experiences frustration.  Frustration is painful.  If we fail to find the pleasure we are seeking, the result is frustration and pain.  The more we seek pleasure and the more we fail to achieve it, the more pain we introduce into our lives.  On the other hand, if we achieve all the pleasure we seek we become sated and bored.  Boredom is the counterpart of frustration; it is also painful to the pleasure seeker.  Again, the paradox:  if we achieve what we want, we lose; if we don’t achieve what we are searching for, we lose.  The result of hedonism is the exact opposite of its goal.  Its only fruit is ultimate pain.  (R.C. Sproul; Lifeviews, 131)

We today, being far richer than any previous culture, with so many opportunities for pleasure, are even less happy with our lives than Solomon was.

Now, it is not that God is against pleasure.  He has intentionally given us the good gifts of creation to enjoy (1 Timothy 6:17).  As Solomon himself will conclude in 2:24, any fleeting enjoyments the world has to offer are just that—enjoyments.  As such, they are to be enjoyed, not analyzed.  The person who makes pleasure his serious business will end up with the worries and headaches that attend serious business.  “Mental analysis crushes the merry heart, just as a joke that needs to be explained ceases to be a joke.”

However, our human hearts are idol factories and instead of enjoying these good gifts for God’s sake, for God’s glory, we enjoy them only for our own benefit.  That is when we feel the same sense of frustration that Solomon felt.

1 I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” 3 I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine–my heart still guiding me with wisdom–and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. 4 I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the children of man. 9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

If you just read the first and last verse of this portion of Ecclesiastes, you once again come away with the idea that Solomon tried to finding meaning and fulfillment in pleasure, only to conclude that “all was vanity and a striving after wind” with no benefit, no gain.

Did you notice, as I read this section, how Solomon is so self-focused?  Read Ecclesiastes 2 aloud and you will be overwhelmed with the number of times the first person personal pronoun comes into play–“I”, “me”, “my”, and so forth. 

As he prospered, Solomon seems to have begun thinking more and more about himself, his pleasure, and his own interests and needs rather than those of the people of Israel.  Lost in self-seeking, Solomon opened the doors of Israel to idolatry, adultery, self-indulgence, moral compromise, and spiritual disaster (1 Kgs 11:1-13). 

Solomon tells us that he came to a point where he said to himself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure.  So enjoy yourself” (Eccl 2:1a).

Every term in this short statement is important.  The word “test” indicates that what follows is an experiment, a deliberate attempt to learn something from personal experience.  The word “pleasure” shows what he wants to experience — the pleasures of life. 

The other important word, which gets repeated in every single verse in this passage, is the word “I.”  Admittedly, the writer is speaking autobiographically, so there are times when he needs to refer to himself.  But does he need to do it quite so often?  There is so much “me, myself, and I” in these verses that we get a strong sense of self-indulgence in the pursuit of self-centered pleasure.

Qoheleth becomes an experimental hedonist—one who gives their lives to pursuing pleasure.  In other words, he chooses to make his own personal happiness his chief end in life.  This is the way that many people live today, and it is a temptation for all of us–to live for ourselves rather than for God.  (Philip Graham Ryken, Preaching the Word: Ecclesiastes, 46)

Immediately the Preacher tells us that this quest failed as spectacularly as the first one. Pleasure did not satisfy his soul any more than wisdom did. “Behold,” he says, demanding our attention, “this also was vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2:1).  This pursuit also ended up in vapor and smoke.

Pleasure seemed to hold out the promise of purpose in life, but it didn’t last.  In the end it turned out to be empty, elusive, and ephemeral. 

This is true of sinful pleasure—it is pleasurable for a moment.  The writer of Hebrews talks about the “fleeting pleasures of sin.”  Satan couldn’t tempt us if there was not some pleasure attached to sin, but it is fleeting.  It lasts but a moment.

Even good pleasures don’t last long.  While they have some temporary, immediate value (e.g., relieving grief or boredom), they do not produce anything permanently or ultimately worthwhile. 

In verses 2–8 Solomon lists all of the pleasures he tried, followed in verses 9–11 by a personal reflection on what he learned from his experience.

The Possibilities of Pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:2-8)

Solomon specifically mentions wine and laughter as two sources of pleasure used in his experiment.  It requires little imagination to see the king in his splendid banquet hall (1 Kings 10:21), eating choice food (1 Kings 4:22-23), drinking the very best wine, and watching the most gifted entertainers (Eccl. 2:8a).  But when the party was over, it left Solomon dissatisfied and empty.

First, Solomon experimented with laughter, with entertainment.  He sought to make his heart merry.  We, too, seek to amuse ourselves and entertain ourselves, especially to relieve our boredom or anxieties.  We use amusements as distraction from the burdens of life.

Imagine how the palace must have rocked with laughter.  Every night there were stand-up comics and amazing acts.

The 17th century Christian philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal said…

…prevail upon a man to join in any amusement whatever, and as long as that lasts he will be happy; but it will be a false and imaginary happiness, arising not from possession of real and solid good, but from a levity of spirit that obliterates the recollection of his real miseries, and fixes his thoughts upon mean and ridiculous objects, unworthy of his attention, and still less deserving of his love. 

Kidner believes that this is “a deliberate flight from rationality, to get at some secret of life to which reason may be blocking the way” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 31).

Like a modern celebrity Solomon ran from party to party, entertainment to entertainment.  At the end of it all, he judged it to be “mad” and useless.

The word “mad” here does not speak of mental strangeness, but of moral perversity.  The jokes were lewd and rude.

Not all laughter is bad, of course, because there is a kind of joyful laughter that brings glory to God (see, e.g., Proverbs 31:25).  But a lot of joking is frivolous and superficial, or else cynical, sarcastic, and even cruel (see Proverbs 10:23; 26:19; 29:9).  

Later Solomon will say, “For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 7:6).  It was just noise.

To honor God, we need to ask whether our laughter is rejoicing in the goodness of God or is coming at someone else’s expense.

Solomon is not saying that laughter is wrong, neither does the Bible.  He is just saying that as an ultimate answer it fails to satisfy.  It is empty.

Here is how T. M. Moore paraphrases verse 2: “I concluded that laughter and merriment for their own sakes were madness.  What did they accomplish to help me find lasting meaning and purpose in life?”

Thus, Sinclair Ferguson notes:

Most of the time the truth is that laughter is simply empty.  Watch even a ‘clean’ comedy on television or on the stage; compare the after-effect with that of watching a tragedy.  From the very beginnings of drama the difference has been well-recognized.  Comedy is light, tragedy is weighty; comedy is superficial; but a good tragedy is able to produce a catharsis of the emotions, like a medicine that cleanses pollutants out of the system and makes it function properly again.  (Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Pundit’s Folly, 12-13)

Second, Solomon turned to wine.  This, too, is a very popular way to increase bodily pleasure or reduce physical or emotional pain.

3 I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine–my heart still guiding me with wisdom–and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. 

This verse turns out to be surprisingly difficult to interpret. To “cheer [one’s] body with wine” strikes a decidedly negative note.  It certainly seems to have the connotation of abusing alcohol (or drugs).

Rather than receiving wine as a gift and drinking it with thanksgiving to God (which was, and is, possible), he took it for himself as a selfish pleasure and indulged in it too freely and deeply.

If that is what he did, then what he said next is totally untrue — namely, that “his heart [was] still guiding [him] with wisdom.”  As we know from one of Solomon’s other proverbs, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1).

To get an idea of the lavish banquets in Solomon’s court just read 1 Kings 4:22-23…

22 Solomon’s provision for one day was thirty cors of fine flour and sixty cors of meal, 23 ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, a hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fattened fowl.

A cor equals 6.24 bushels, so that was 187 bushels of flour and 374 bushels of meal…a day.  It has been estimated that this would feed between 10 and 20 thousand people, so there were many others besides the king involved in this search for pleasure.

Before we dismissively lump him together with the pleasure-seeking crowds of today or of any day, let us notice what he is doing.  He is not advocating mindless debauchery.  You would never have found him drunk and incapable or among the helpless heroin addicts.  In all that he does he is determined to remain in self-control–“my mind still guiding me with wisdom” (v. 3).  He would seek the stimulus of wine, yes, but never be its victim.  This is an experiment.  He wants to see whether it works.  It does not.  Like many a person before and after him, he discovers that the pursuit of pleasure, the search for happiness, is self-defeating.  (Robert Davidson, The Daily Study Bible: Ecclesiastes, 15)

He had hoped it would act as a stimulant, and had discovered instead that it was a further depressant.  (Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Pundit’s Folly, 14)

Robert Burns exclaimed the temporary nature of pleasures in his poem

But pleasures are like poppies spread

You seize the flower, the bloom is shed

Or like the snow falls in the river

A moment white, then melts for ever…

Or like the rainbow’s lovely form

Evanishing amid the storm. 

In summary, David Hubbard states:

He knew the lure of pleasure, and he knew its snare.  He had found that pleasure promises more than it can produce.  Its advertising agency is better than its manufacturing department.  It holds out the possibility of exquisite delight, but the best it can perform is titillation.  It seeks to tickle the human spirit but cannot probe its depths.  It daubs iodine on human wounds when what is needed if surgery.  It may distract us from our problems by diverting our attention, but it cannot free us from those problems.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 76-77)

God has made us to seek after satisfaction and fulfillment, even pleasure, but His desire is that we find our greatest pleasure in Him.

John Piper calls this “Christian hedonism.”  He says…

Christian Hedonism is a philosophy of life built on the following five convictions:

1. The longing to be happy is a universal human experience, and it is good, not sinful.

2. We should never try to deny or resist our longings to be happy, as though it were a bad impulse. Instead we should seek to intensify this longing and nourish it with whatever will provide the deepest and most enduring satisfaction.

3. The deepest and most enduring happiness is found only in God.  Not from God, but in God.

4. The happiness we find in God reaches its consummation when it is shared with others in the manifold ways of love.

5. To the extent we try to abandon the pursuit of our own pleasure, we fail to honor God and love people. Or, to put it positively: the pursuit of pleasure is a necessary part of all worship and virtue. That is, the chief end of man is to glorify God BY enjoying Him forever.

Randy Smith clarifies…

God made us to pursue our joy. Joy is even a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22).  Therefore I believe the pursuit of joy it is a good drive within us.  I believe there is no problem with pursuing our happiness so long as our pursuit of happiness is in the pursuit of God’s glory.  In other words, the problem is not with the passion, but rather the problem is with the paths to happiness that we often choose.

That is the problem Solomon was dealing with.  He was trying to find ultimate joy in created things, in enjoying created things.  God made us to find pleasure, to experience deepest joy, but that joy is never found in created things, but in the Creator of all things.

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

We can enjoy created things, but only if we enjoy them for God’s sake, for His glory.  He must be our greatest pleasure and greatest treasure, or our souls will feel the vanity of created things.  The only way to really enjoy laughter and wine or any created thing is to enjoy them for God’s sake; then we will really enjoy them, without guilt or regret, without a feeling of emptiness or futility.

We should enjoy the good things God has given us, but we must enjoy the Giver above the gifts. When we treasure Jesus above all things and then enjoy all things as from Him and give Him thanks, then we will experience greater fulfillment and satisfaction in life.

Can Amassed Wisdom Bring Satisfaction? part 2 (Ecclesiastes 1:15-18)

After he won his third Super Bowl, Tom Brady was interviewed by 60 Minutes.  In an incredibly candid moment, he told the guy interviewing him, “There’s got to be more to life than this, isn’t there?”  Here is one of the most gifted, famous and affluent athletes of our time and he was still unsatisfied after winning three Super Bowls.

Other rich and famous people are facing the same problem.  A famous fashion model was recently interviewed after winning a contest with 10,000 other women to have her image splashed across the cover of innumerable magazines.  It made her rich and hugely famous.  A year later she said, “I finally achieved my biggest dream, the dream I always wanted.  But when I finally got there, it wasn’t all I thought it would be.” 

Solomon, argued that, at least on the surface, life is much like a cul-de-sac that we drive into and find ourselves just driving around and around and around.  The reality that life is like a cul-de-sac didn’t stop him from trying to find fulfillment along the way because there was something innate within him—just like it’s within each of us—that pushes us to find meaning and purpose.

We all need a reason to live, a reason to get up and keep going and that was true of this writer as well.  So, he picked three of the most common ways that people use to find fulfillment and then he ran after them as hard as he could.  First, he chased after wisdom.

After all, wisdom is what is touted in the book of Proverbs as better than silver or gold, or honor.

In one of Solomon’s many famous proverbs we hear wisdom say, “Whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD” (Proverbs 8:35).  Here, however, that quest seems futile.

Many good minds have reached the same conclusion.  Before he died, the modernist poet Ezra Pound said, “All my life I believed I knew something.  But then one strange day came when I realized that I knew nothing; yes, I knew nothing. And so words became void of meaning” (See http://www.quoteland.com/topic.asp?CATEGORY_ID=89.)

Similarly, the infamous atheist and evolutionist Richard Dawkins has concluded that human existence is “neither good nor evil, neither kind nor cruel, but simply callous: indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose” (Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden (New York: Basic Books, 1995), p. 96.)

Last week we started Solomon’s quest to find meaning and fulfillment in wisdom.  Here is what he said…

12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 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. 14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. 15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted. 16 I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. 18 For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

We noted that although Solomon had all the advantages to search out wisdom to the fullest extent to determine whether it held the key to fulfillment, only to come up saying “all is vanity and a striving after wind.”

Today we’re going to continue Solomon’s theme where he indicates that wisdom and experience cannot solve every problem.  Guys, listen, we can’t fix everything.

Solomon, who was an expert on proverbs, speaking 3,000 proverbs according to 1 Kings 4:32 and, of course, wrote much of the book of Proverbs.  Here he gives a proverb expressing:

 15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted. 

Duane Garrett explains:

“That which is ‘twisted’ refers to a problem that cannot be solved, and that which is ‘lacking’ refers to lack of information (i.e. missing data cannot be taken into account and thus contribute toward finding an answer).  Some problems cannot be solved, and some information we can never find.  The intellectual more than anyone else should be aware of the futility of the human position.  No matter how he or she searches, the intellectual cannot answer some fundamental questions of life.  The implication behind this is that God’s ways are inscrutable.”

Isaiah tells us that God’s ways are higher than ours.  Job came to understand that God didn’t have to explain himself.

Solomon makes a similar statement in 7:13.

Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?

If we spend all our time and energy trying to straighten out everything that is twisted, we will have nothing left to live our lives!  And if we try to spend what we don’t have, we will end up bankrupt.  Unlike God, we do not have limitless resources.  Unlike God, we cannot fix or explain everything.

In short, Solomon is saying, “The past can’t always be changed, and it is foolish to fret over what you might have done.”  Ken Taylor paraphrased verse 15, “What is wrong cannot be righted; it is water over the dam; and there is no use thinking of what might have been.” (TLB)

That is why it is such a comfort to know that God is in perfect control and has the power and wisdom to straighten out what is twisted and supply what is lacking.  He won’t change the past, but He can change how the past affects us.  Sins can be forgiven, the past can be transformed.

But that is not Solomon’s message.

We’re the most educated nation in human history; every year we graduate thousands of master’s degrees, medical degrees, law degrees, and PhDs.  As a society we pride ourselves on being smart and getting smarter all the time and we probably all know some really bright people.  You probably work with some or maybe even live with some and I know I do.  Being educated and becoming intellectually competent are not bad things at all.  But if you think gaining more knowledge and leveraging your intellectual prowess are going to give you a lasting sense of fulfillment, think again.  Our minds are the gift of God but they are limited.  Relying too much on our intellect alone is not only fleeting and a chasing after the wind; sometimes it’s downright dangerous.

That doesn’t mean that Solomon gave up on this quest.  After his first attempt ended in failure, he had a heart-to-heart talk with his own soul, a running internal dialogue about what he had discovered thus far.

16 I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.”

Those who go through life living on explanations will always be unhappy for at least two reasons.  First, this side of heaven, there are no explanations for some things that happen, and God is not obligated to explain them anyway.  Second, God has ordained that His people live by promises and not by explanations, by faith and not by sight.

If anyone was equipped to solve the difficult problems of life and tell us what life was all about, Solomon was that person.  He was the wisest of men and had the greatest opportunity to face many different experiences of wisdom and knowledge.

The more we seek knowledge and wisdom, the more ignorant we realize we are.  This only adds to the burden.  “All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,” wrote T. S. Eliot in “Choruses from The Rock.”  At the close of his life, Isaac Newton said, “I have been paddling in the shallows of a great ocean of knowledge.”  He, too, felt the frustration of not being able to understand more.

All of this goes back to the Garden of Eden and Satan’s offer to Eve that, if she ate of the fruit, she would have the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3).  When Adam and Eve sinned, they did get an experiential knowledge of good and evil; but since they were alienated from God, this knowledge only added to their sorrows.

Relying too much on our intellect alone is not only fleeting and a chasing after the wind; sometimes it’s downright dangerous.

I heard about an article that was titled “178 Seconds to Live.”  It was about a test that was given to 20 of the smartest pilots in the world, all of whom had exceptionally high IQs and a great deal of aviation experience.  Each pilot was put in a flight simulator—without the use of any instruments—and then told to do whatever he could to keep the airplane under control as he flew into some very dark clouds and really stormy weather.

The article stated that all 20 of these incredibly bright people who had long and successful flying careers, “crashed and killed themselves” within an average of 178 seconds.  It took these highly intelligent, seasoned pilots less than 3 minutes to destroy themselves once they lost their visual reference points.

All their knowledge combined with their intellect could not save them. 

H. C. Leupold suggests:

“The closest analogy to the experiment here described would in our day be an honest attempt to solve all problems and to attain to all knowledge by the processes of rational thinking.  It would be the philosopher’s attempt to probe into the depth of matters by his unaided and unenlightened reason apart from any disclosures of truth that God has granted to man.”

But Solomon had not yet considered the claims of morality, so his quest was not complete.  He had tried to learn everything he could about life, like someone who attends the best universities and reads all the latest books claiming to reveal the mysteries of human existence.  But he had not yet fully investigated the difference between right and wrong or tried to find meaning and purpose in life by becoming a better person.

So he said, “I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly” (Ecclesiastes 1:17).

Formerly the Preacher had been seeking and searching for wisdom, but now he would take a comparative approach, contrasting wisdom with folly.  When he says “madness and folly,” he is not talking about insanity but immorality.  In other words, Qoheleth was using “madness and folly” the way they are usually used in the Old Testament — to refer to the mad foolishness of living in disobedience to God.  Solomon was not trying to see if losing his right mind would help him understand the meaning of life.  Rather, he was trying to understand the difference between right and wrong.

We all have an innate sense of right and wrong and many people still want to lead good, moral lives.  Although wisdom does have benefits, like Solomon too many people study folly a little too well.

Part of the back story to Ecclesiastes is 1 Kings 11, in which King Solomon fell tragically into foolish sin.  He married many wives and worshiped many idols.  In the process, the man who knew so much wisdom learned more about folly than anyone ever should.

One of the Targums of the Jews had an interesting word here:

“When King Solomon was sitting upon the throne of his kingdom, his heart because greatly elated with riches, and he transgressed the commandment of the Word of God: and he gathered many houses, and chariots, and riders, and he amassed much gold and silver, and he married wives from foreign nations.

Whereupon the anger of the Lord was kindled against him, and he sent to him Ashmodai, the king of the demons, and he drove him from the throne of his kingdom, and he took away the ring from his hand, in order that he should roam and wander about in the world, to reprove it; and he went about the provincial towns and cities in the land of Israel, weeping and lamenting, and saying, ‘I am Qoheleth, whose name was formerly called Solomon, who was king over Israel in Jerusalem.’”

Now, there is no reference to this in the Scriptures, but we might wonder whether it represented some part of the reality of Solomon’s later repentance.

So Solomon took up the study of folly, something he will continue in the next chapter.

And what was the result of this new quest?  Did knowing the difference between right and wrong help him find meaning and fulfillment in life?  Not at all.  The claims of conventional morality failed to satisfy his soul.  It was all a waste.

So he said, “I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:17).

Once again the Preacher quoted a proverb that summarized the conclusion of his quest.  Human wisdom failed because it could not straighten things out or make life add up (Ecclesiastes 1:15).  But knowing the difference between right and wrong failed for an additional reason:

“For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 1:18).

Greater wisdom had only brought the writer greater “vexation” (mental anguish) and “sorrow” (emotional pain, v. 18). 

Maybe this is why some people say “Ignorance is bliss.”  And it makes us realize why Jesus recommends that we become as children in order to embrace the gospel.  Education, knowledge and expertise do not necessary make us good candidate for heaven.  Paul argues against the Greek conception of knowledge as a saving factor.

Once again the Preacher has succeeded in making us feel even worse about life than we did before.

This world is fundamentally flawed and we cannot fix it.  No matter how much information and expertise we might possess.  There must be something outside the system that can give purpose to life.

Zack Eswine summarizes this portion of Ecclesiates—Solomon’s quest to find meaning and fulfillment in wisdom—as a snapshot of that frowning moment in the Garden of Eden.  As Adam and Eve fig-leave themselves with shame and the Serpent is silent and caught in his treason, God declares a curse upon all that he had made.  They will live.  But from that point on, thorns, thistles, pain, and sweat await them all “east” of Eden (Gen. 3:14-24).

The preacher does exalt God.  But what he exalts is that aspect of God’s character which did not relieve Adam, Eve, or the Serpent from sin’s consequences.  We see his brooding and frowning.  This is the God who governs us.  He did not stop the unhappy business of paradise lost.  We must linger here.

This part of God’s story tells us that God will not bring salvation by giving us escape and immunity from the now-cursed world.  Jesus too will highlight this lack of escape throughout his teaching.  “In the world, you will have tribulation,” he assures us (John 16:33).

We will have to come to terms with this fact about God.  If there is no escape from what is under the sun, then rescue will have to come from somewhere else.  The time will come in which God will personally squint and sweat beneath the sun’s light and heat.  He will enter the gainless world, endure its vanity, and feel the pain of it.  “In the world, you will have tribulation,” Jesus will one day say.  “The poor you will always have with you,” he will declare.  In that, he will sound just like Solomon in Ecclesiastes.  But then Jesus will go further than Solomon can.  Jesus will stand beneath the sun with us.  From there he will look us in the eye and declare what Solomon cannot.  “But take heart,” Jesus will say; “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). (Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, p. 58)

So I want to encourage you to seek after true wisdom—from God and His revelation in Scripture and in Jesus Christ, in whom are hidden are the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Can Amassed Wisdom Bring Satisfaction? part 1 (Ecclesiastes 1:12-14)

Can Amassed Wisdom Bring Satisfaction? part 1 (Ecclesiastes 1:12-14)

Good morning, and welcome to Grace Still Amazes.

I’m Lamar Austin, senior pastor of Grace Bible Church in Mena, Arkansas, where everybody is welcome because nobody is perfect and anything is possible because of grace.

In his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams writes about Deep Thought, the powerful supercomputer that is tasked with determining the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. It takes the computer a long time to check and double-check its computations — seven and a half million years, to be exact — but eventually it spits out a simple, unambiguous answer: the meaning of life is 42.

“Forty-two!” someone yells at the computer. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”

“I checked it very thoroughly,” Deep Thought replies, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

That is the quest of life, the aim of philosophy, to understand the meaning of life.  This is the quest of the Preacher, especially in this next section of Ecclesiastes.  Will the search for wisdom give us the key to fulfillment and satisfaction in life?  Let’s see.

12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 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. 14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. 15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted. 16 I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. 18 For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

It doesn’t sound like wisdom enables us to find satisfaction in life either.

Ecclesiastes 1:12–2:23 announces the Preacher’s personal testimony, his confession to his inability to resolve life’s most important issues without God.  He has determined to examine a great range of human activities in a search for anything of lasting value.  In case his readers should purpose to take up the same search, “he warns us of the outcome (1:13b–15) before he takes us through his journey (1:16–2:11); finally he will share with us the conclusions he has reached (2:12–26).

Man has always held the pursuit of wisdom to be a high virtue, from Socrates, to the scholastics, to the Enlightenment, to modern scientism.  But Solomon will show us the futility of this pursuit in finding ultimate satisfaction in life.

Verse 12 affirms that the Preacher is Solomon, “king over Israel in Jerusalem.”  This statement not only helps us identify who the author is, but it reminds us that this Solomon, king of Israel at its economic and political height, would have all the resources he needed to pursue any quest.

In verse 13 Preacher perceives that in this world God has given an unhappy business, i.e., a troubling or burdensome task, to the children of man.

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.

The Solomon of Ecclesiastes was a seeker; he was on a personal quest for wisdom and knowledge.

This quest fits everything we know about King Solomon from other places in the Bible.  When Solomon became king, God gave him the opportunity of a lifetime: he could ask for anything he wished.  Solomon chose wisely.  Rather than asking for money or fame, he asked for wisdom to govern the people of God.  God was so pleased with Solomon’s request that he said,

“Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you” (1 Kings 3:12).

God made Solomon so wise that he wrote thousands of proverbs, and he was considered to be wiser than all the men of his day (1 Kings 4:29-34).

This precious gift of wisdom did not mean that the king instantly understood everything.  He still had to apply himself to the pursuit of knowledge, which is exactly what Solomon did: he devoted his life to learning.

Solomon’s quest was sincere.  When he says, “I applied my heart,” he means that the pursuit of knowledge came from the very core of his being.  The Preacher-King focused his mind and disciplined his heart to know the truth.

His quest was also comprehensive.  The words “to seek” and “to search” indicate the seriousness of his efforts.  We would say he “left no stone unturned.”  He was diligent in his search, telling us that he did all he could to find fulfillment from wisdom.

It is possible that the first verb indicates minute dissection of an issue to understand it, whereas the second means backing away to get the big picture.  If so, then Solomon did not lose the trees in the forest or the forest in the trees.

There is nothing wrong with his quest.  In fact, in Proverbs 2, Solomon recommends this to every young man:

1 My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, 2 making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; 3 yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, 4 if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, 5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God. 

The quest is commendable.  Leaders need to be lifelong learners.  But Solomon was limiting his search to only what humans could understand and had experienced.

At his command emissaries went to India, to Egypt, to Ethiopia, to Babylon, to Greece, and to the uttermost parts of the world in search of answers to life’s most perplexing questions.  Solomon has ships and men to command.  His wealth funds wide-ranging expeditions.  His knowledge of the fauna and flora excels (1 Kgs 4:33).  His wisdom, though tainted by his disobedience, is still vast and capable of collating the results and reaching a conclusion.

He wanted to investigate every area of human endeavor — “all that is done under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 1:13). In short, he wanted to know everything about everything under the sun.

This is commendable.  Later Solomon will search for satisfaction through pleasure seeking and accolades through achievements, but he starts here…with a search through wisdom.

He would have made Plato proud.

However, we must realize that the wisdom Solomon was seeking was “under heaven,” or as he frequently says “under the sun,” meaning that it was not heavenly wisdom, not biblical wisdom so much as the wisdom one gains from ones senses, experiences and thoughts.

Seeking such wisdom is a worthy pursuit, as far as it goes.  All truth is God’s truth, wherever it may be found.  If we learn anything that is true to the world as it truly is, that truth ultimately comes as a gift from God.

By God’s “common grace,” as theologians call it, even books in the “Religion and Self-Help” section of a secular bookstore give people some of the knowledge they seek.  The question is, how far will such wisdom take us?  Will it help us to know and to worship Jesus Christ as the Son of God?  Will it lead us in the way of life everlasting?  Will it help us understand why everything matters?

This is the wisdom of those who guide us to a better life in the here-and-now; how to live a healthier, happier, more prosperous life.  This wisdom certainly has value, and many lives would be better for following it.  Yet if it excludes a true appreciation of eternity and our responsibilities in the world to come, this wisdom has no true answer to the meaninglessness of life.  It only shows us how to live our meaningless lives better.

So Solomon gave diligent search to try to gain all the wisdom he could.

But ultimately Solomon realized that this kind of wisdom—wisdom apart from God’s revelation through Scripture—was a dead end.  It didn’t end up “42” but zero.

It is rather an “unhappy business.”

The same Hebrew phrase occurs in 4:8 and 5:14 (“unhappy business”), where it refers to the burdens and trials experienced by those who live under heaven (this phrase is interchangeable with the expression “under the sun”; cf. 1:14).  For some inscrutable reason, God ordains that mankind should endure painful experiences in this present fallen order.

Again, Ecclesiastes represents a post-fall world.  Solomon’s reference to the “children of man” is literally “the children of Adam.”

Remember that God had given Adam tasks to fulfill in the garden and enough knowledge to enjoy life to the full.  But when Eve and Adam rebelled against God, they and their environment was cursed.  Now, the tasks are difficult and not nearly as fulfilling.

Tommy Nelson points out:

Adam had no philosophic problems in the garden.  He walked with God in the cool of the day.  He was in touch with infinite reality; he had an absolute answer for creation, for the dignity of man and for the distinctiveness of his wife.  He understood himself in relation to the animals and to the cosmos.  He knew why he was here.  He knew where he was going.  He knew what he was to do, but he sinned.

When Adam sinned, the lights went out.  His awareness of his place and purpose vanished.  His eyes darkened, and his offspring have continued in that state.  His children cannot look up and know what is up above the sun.  We’re just down here in this machine, trying to find some scrap of meaning. (The Problem of Life with God, pp. 21-22).

Now man is not only finite, but fallen.  Everything is now filtered through this new reality.

In fact, the word for “unhappy” is a moral word.  The Hebrew ra, means “evil.”

Thus it describes a moral category rather than an emotional state. The problem is not simply that life makes us unhappy, but that it is evil in itself.  It is not just an unfortunate business, but a bad business.

Everything we do and experience has been infected with evil, with sin.

As Francis Schaeffer once wrote, “All men . . . have a deep longing for significance, a longing for meaning . . . no man, regardless of his theoretical system, is content to look at himself as a finally meaningless machine which can and will be discarded totally and for ever.” (Death in the City (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1970), p. 98.)

Notice that this “unhappy business” is no accident, it is what God has given.  So Derek Kidner says, “He sees the restlessness of life which any observer could report, but he traces it to the will of God.  It is He who has given it to the sons of men.”  He goes on to say…

“This may sound more like bitterness than faith, but in faith it drops a clue to something positive which will be picked up in the final chapters.  At worst it would imply that there was sense, not the nonsense of chance, behind our situation, even if the sense were wholly daunting.  But it can equally well chime in with the purposeful discipline which God imposed upon us as the sequel to the Fall.  That was how Paul—with an evident glance at Ecclesiastes—was to interpret the travail of the world: “for the creation was subjected to futility…by the will of him who subjected it in hope. (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 29).

It may seem cruel of God to devise such a system, but it is actually evidence of His great love and mercy.  He built within us the desire and need for that which brings meaning and fulfillment to life.  As Augustine wrote, the Creator made a God-shaped space in each of us, which can only be filled with Him.

Ultimately we cannot be satisfied, we won’t find fulfillment in life, unless we have a personal relationship with this God.

H. C. Leupold points out that throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon refers to God as Elohim, not Yahweh.  Now, Yahweh is the personal God of covenant and promise, whereas Elohim is the distant, majestic creator God.  It makes a difference how we view God.  It may reflect how Solomon, at this stage in life, due to his own rebellion, was somewhat distant from God.

This is, however, Solomon first mention of God, as if he is beginning to see that the only One Who can answer life’s questions is the Creator Himself.

The mention of God (for the first time) in v 13 and God’s “giving” are important for understanding some basic presuppositions of this book.  It is to be interpreted within Qoheleth’s own religious traditions: God controls everything and grants “gifts,” even if arbitrarily.  This is all part of the inscrutable divine action, which defies understanding.

So, in verses 13–15 he describes the unhappiness, the emptiness, and the futility of his own efforts to understand the universe — the end of his first quest.

Verse 13 describes Solomon’s intention, whereas verse 14 expresses his experience.

14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. 

Within the space of two verses the lofty king (v. 12), with equally lofty intentions (v. 13) has come crashing down.  All his plans are foiled.

Solomon’s exhaustive search for answers meets with failure.  All his wisdom and resources cannot turn up the answer to his most basic question: What is the purpose of life on this planet?

He attempts to make order of chaos. In our own times another very knowledgeable man has undertaken a similar task with a strange twist to it.  World-renowned physicist, Stephen Hawking, investigates the origin of the universe while seeking to disprove the existence of God.  So far, like Solomon of old, he has failed.

Could it be that people like Solomon and Hawking are looking but not seeing?  They take into account the visible, but what about the invisible?

Charles Swindoll recounts an interesting story.  A native American was visiting New York City.  Walking with a friend near the center of Manhattan, the Indian suddenly stopped his companion and whispered, “Wait, I hear a cricket.”  

His friend was disbelieving.  A cricket?  In downtown New York?  Impossible. The cacophony of sounds from passing taxis, impatient honking, people shouting, brakes screeching, and subways roaring would make it virtually impossible to hear a cricket, even if one were present.

But, the Indian was insistent.  He stopped his friend and began to crisscross the street and sidewalks with his head cocked to one side, intently listening.  Then, in a large cement planter where a tree was growing, he finally found the cricket and held it up for his friend’s benefit.

Amazed, his friend asked how he could have possibly heard that cricket.  Reaching into his pocket, the Indian grasped some coins, held them waist high, then dropped them on the sidewalk.  Everyone within a block turned to look in their direction.

As Swindoll explains, “It all depends on what you’re listening for.  We don’t have enough crickets in our heads.  We don’t listen for them.  Perhaps you have spent all your life searching for a handful of change and you’ve missed the real sound of life.”

He had researched it all, and it was “vanity and striving after wind.”

“Striving [chasing] after wind” (v. 14) graphically pictures the futility Solomon sought to communicate (cf. 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6; 6:9).  The literal Hebrew is “shepherding wind.”

The Preacher depicts how endlessly men and women can analyze life without living it for God.  Ecclesiastes reveals that the search to answer all of life’s conundrums is like trying to shepherd the wind—to attempt to push the wind into a pen of one’s own making. It just won’t go. It is futile and useless.

James Bollhagen concludes this verse saying:

The human eye surveys the panorama of human experience with no light of divine revelation piercing the darkness.  When the church sees the pathos of this verse, it will treasure all the more God’s revealing himself in the Holy Scriptures….The church will also better understand the plight of every human being.  It will not merely commiserate with people on the level of sight, but it will focus on bringing to the lost world “the one thing needful” (Luke 10:42), the Gospel of the Savior, who has seen “the all” (cf. Eccl. 1:14) of this world’s evil and has conquered it for our salvation (John 16:33).

Same Old, Same Old, part 2 (Ecclesiastes 1:5-11)

We began last week looking at Solomon’s slap in the face, reminding us that viewing life from earth’s perspective, from the here and now, without God, leaves us breathless with the meaninglessness of life.  We look for meaning and satisfaction and find none in life.

So he starts out…

1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 3 What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? 4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. 6 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. 7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. 8 All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. 9 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. 10 Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”?  It has been already in the ages before us. 11 There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.

All is vanity.  It is empty and meaningless.  Why?  Because we come and go and it seems we don’t even leave a mark on the world.  Sun, wind and rains all cycle through taking no notice of us.

5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. 6 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. 7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. 

As for the world, it remains the same.  There is no progress, only the same old, same old.  The sun (v. 5), the wind (v. 6), the rains (v. 7) appear, disappear and come back again.  These hardworking forces all seem to be quite busy doing something new each and every day.  But a closer look will show their motion-filled monotony.

The world is a very repetitive place. Nothing ever changes. So what profit is there? What do we gain?  Jerome said, “What is more vain than this vanity: that the earth, which was made for humans, stays — but humans themselves, the lords of the earth, suddenly dissolve into the dust?” (quoted in J. L. Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes , Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987), p. 63.)

Nature is not heading to a climactic point but is performing an endless cycle of the same thing every day.  You come, you live, you die, you go into the earth.  Does the earth care?  Does the earth applaud you?  No, it just keeps going.

The theory of evolution has been promoted as a way of thinking about this world.  Evolution believes that by chance we came into being because of some chemical concoction.  But if all we are is chance molecules joining together, then when we wonder “Who am I?” evolution answers back, “You are nothing.”

That’s as good as it gets “under the sun.”

According to Ecclesiastes, even the sun itself gets short of breath.  The word “hastens” is really the Hebrew word for “pant” (sha’ap), which may suggest that the sun is racing from east to west and back again; but more likely it means that the sun is weary of its slow and endless journey across the sky.  Usually we turn to nature to find encouragement for the soul, but when the Preacher looks at the sun, he simply sees the monotony of life in a static universe.

The sun rises and sets—over and over and over again, same old, same old. It never gets anywhere.  It never does anything new.  It is still a big old ball of hot gas seemingly doing perpetual somersaults around the earth. It is exhausting even to think about.

The great novelist Ernest Hemingway went to this verse of Ecclesiastes for the title of one of his books, The Sun Also Rises.  Like most modern literature, this first novel of Hemingway depicts heroes and heroines who are disillusioned and wearied with life.  (Roland Cap Ehlke, The People’s Bible, Ecclesiastes, 12)

Around and around the wind goes, following its circular course but never reaching a destination.  For all its constant movement, there is never any progress.  The wind might seem to be “free,” but it returns to the same place.

The flow of water seems just as profitless. “All streams run to the sea,” the Preacher says, “but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again” (Ecclesiastes 1:7).  When he talks about water flowing and flowing again, he is not describing the water cycle, in which water evaporates into the clouds and eventually returns to water the earth in the form of rain.  Rather, Qoheleth is talking about the way that all rivers and streams flow forever to the sea.

There is an especially vivid example of this in Israel, where Qoheleth lived.  The Dead Sea is landlocked; it has no outlet to another body of water.  Yet for all the centuries that the Jordan River has been flowing down into the Dead Sea, the sea is not yet full, and thus the water continues to flow.

Again, this is what makes the gospel so thrilling and fulfilling, for we don’t have to depend upon the waters of the world to quench our thirst when we have a fountain of water welling up inside us, the Holy Spirit.

Solomon is, however, mounting up examples of the fact that in nature, everything is in a rut.

“The preacher’s point is this: When we die, the sun will rise the next morning, the waters will tide, and the wind will blow, while human beings after us will likewise come, take their turn, and go.  So, our worst and best days fade.” (Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, p. 49).

What Solomon is pointing out to us is that we so often believe the illusions of permanence and control.  Nature reveals that neither is true for us.

Its meaning is blunt and simple: you will not be able to induce significant change in the course of life because creation itself is stamped with an indelible pattern that brooks no human alterations.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 49)

Life just doesn’t have any natural reward of itself.  It doesn’t automatically head to a climactic point of happiness, meaning, and fruition.  It just grinds on with the sun rising and setting.  Nature never rewards you; instead, it smashes you into pulp, then you die and go into the ground.  (Tommy Nelson, A Life Well Lived, 4)

All of this is true only if you look at life “under the sun” and leave God out of the picture.  Then the world becomes a closed system that is uniform, predictable (but not controllable) and unchangeable.  It becomes a world where there are no answers to prayer and no miracles, for nothing can interrupt the cycle of nature. (Warren Wiersbe)

Daily life is like the famous song from the musical Show Boat , in which Old Man River just keeps rolling along.  The song is sung by Joe, a dock worker on the Mississippi River, who is worn out by all his hard work.  What he sings sounds a lot like Ecclesiastes:

Ah gits weary,
An’ sick o’ tryin’,
Ah’m tired o’ livin’,
And skeered o’ dyin’,
But Ol’ Man River,
He jus’ keeps rollin’ along!

Michael Eaton notes:

“For Old Testament orthodoxy, creation rings with the praises of the LORD. Creation is his….  But, says the Preacher, take away its God, and creation no longer reflects his glory; it illustrates the weariness of mankind.” (Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes).

There is a treadmill to life’s experiences.  The mood has been well expressed by L. Alonso Schökel: “In what another might see as the rich, limitless variety of creation, he contemplates the monotony of existence.  The result is that the theme reveals his attitude, and the technique he uses is synonymy.  He wants us to focus on what is the same and overcomes his readers with the fatigue of monotony” (A Manual of Hebrew Poetics, 71).

All of this makes the Preacher tired just thinking about it.  So he takes what he has observed in nature and summarizes it like this: “All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it” (Ecclesiastes 1:8).  Life is such a wearisome, toilsome trouble that it is hard even to put into words.  The Contemporary English Version says it like this: “All of life is far more boring than words could ever say.”

Yet he is not finished making his argument.  It is not just the natural world that proves how little there is for us to gain in life, but also our own personal experience.

Solomon summarized the plight of man in relation to this inhuman, impersonal, destructive, entropy-filled cosmos by saying:

All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

After surveying instances of the constant repetition of an action in nature, the author now turns to the activity of humans (the primary interest in the work) and finds the same phenomenon there: they are part of that world, always active and yet never satisfied.  The inadequacy of words is not merely the inability of humans to find words that fit (the ideal of the sage was the right word at the right time; cf. Prov 15:23, 25:11).  Rather, the point is that human words never achieve their purpose.

Life is such a wearisome, toilsome trouble that it is hard even to put into words.  The Contemporary English Version says it like this: “All of life is far more boring than words could ever say.”

Verse 8 speaks of our incessant curiosity, wanting to see and hear everything.  And with the internet and social media we can satiate our senses with pixels and data.  But it leaves us empty.

Every day we see an endless procession of visual images: Comcast, YouTube, BlackBerry, Netflix. We can also listen to an endless stream of sounds: iPod, iPhone, iTunes, TVs, CDs, and mp3s.

Yet even after all our looking and listening, our eyes and our ears are not satisfied. 

There is always one more show to watch, one more game to play, one more song to which to listen.  So we keep text-messaging, webcasting, Facebooking, Twittering, and Flickring.  But what have we gained?  What have we accomplished?

Our senses may be fed, but are never filled.  We always are looking for more.

As Zack Eswine relates: “Sunshine is pleasant and happy.  But it cannot satisfy us.  Everything we sense leaves us restless.  Like a child two days after Christmas, or lovers two days after holding hands for the first time, we grow bored even with the good things.  We always want more.” (Recovering Eden, p. 52)

According to the preacher, there is nothing but the same old story:

9 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. 10 Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”?  It has been already in the ages before us.

Now, it is obvious that technology and invention have given us many new and wonderful devices.  The things we create, however, are not Solomon’s focus.  Rather, the context makes it clear that his focus references the toil of human beings under the sun and the absence of gain that it provides them.

Every generation faces the same basic issues and questions.

Again, in the words of Zack Eswine…

“Every human being has tried to navigate food, clothing, and shelter.  Each one has wrestled with what it means to work, to provide a way of life, to make their way, to hope and weep for their children.  Crimes, wounds, and enemies are not new.  Handling weather patterns, sickness, romance, gaining, sadness, forgiveness, commitment, laughter, and dreams has not originated with us….A young one in love is an ancient thing.  Spring rains are old-fashioned.  Most human questions have hung around.  Death speaks all languages. Uniqueness does not bring about the gain for which we strive. (Recovering Eden, p. 53)

Has Solomon abandoned the hope-filled view of history of his people, a linear history that has a goal and purpose, for the cyclical way of viewing history common to the East?  This may be part of what is contained by the “under the sun” perspective he is forcing us to consider.

The journey goes on; we never arrive.  Under the sun there is nowhere to make for, nothing finally satisfying or really new.  As for pinning our hopes on posterity, in the end posterity will have lost the faintest memory of us.

Verse 11 states…

11 There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.

As the generations come and go (1:4), there are very few people who make any significant impact on the course of world history; the majority of the human race lives and dies in obscurity.  The seemingly never-ending march of human generations thus appears to be as purposeless as the repetitive cycles of the natural world.

Today’s celebrities are tomorrow’s obituaries, and their names are as disposable as the morning paper in which their life stories will be printed.  And if that is what becomes of our celebrities, what will become of us?

One day we too will be forgotten.  Centuries from now, the common experiences of our own time will be among the “former things” that are mentioned in Ecclesiastes 1.  What we have accumulated will be lost; what we have accomplished will be forgotten.  Our descendants will not remember us any better than we remember our ancestors.  Eventually, when things that have yet to happen are forgotten, those people will no longer be remembered either.

Folks, this is reality “under the sun.”  This pessimistic, hopeless perspective is what results when you leave God out of the equation.

Here again it is crucially important to understand the Preacher’s purpose.  There is a reason why he wants us to feel the full weight of the weariness and futility of life under the sun.  “The function of Ecclesiastes,” writes Derek Kidner, “is to bring us to the point where we begin to fear that such a comment (all is vanity) is the only honest one.  So it is, if everything is dying.  We face the appalling inference that nothing has meaning, nothing matters under the sun.” (The Message of Ecclesiates, p. 20).

Yet this phrase also leaves open the possibility of a different perspective.  When he says “under the sun,” the Preacher “rules out all higher values and spiritual realities and employs only the resources and gifts that this world offers.  The use of this phrase is equivalent to drawing a horizontal line between earthly and heavenly realities.” (H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1952), p. 28)

But, of course, this is not the only way to look at things, or even the right way to look at them.  There is a God in Heaven who rules over the sun.  Therefore, we are not limited to the terrestrial; [but] by the revelation of the Word of God, we can also see things from the celestial.  

The reason the Preacher shows us the weariness of our existence, making us more and more disillusioned with life under the sun, is so we will not expect to find meaning and satisfaction in earthly things, but only in God himself.

Here is how the nineteenth-century English commentator Charles Bridges explained the Preacher’s strategy: “We are permitted to taste the bitter wormwood of earthly streams, in order that, standing by the heavenly fountain, we may point our fellow sinners to the world of vanity we have left and to the surpassing glory and delights of the world we have newly found.”

Just because you are a believer in Jesus Christ doesn’t always mean that you are including God, spiritual realities and eternity in view in your practical, everyday life.  We often live as “practical atheists.”  We believe in God, but don’t keep Him in mind in day to day activities.  We believe in spiritual realities and eternity, but we live for the material and the present.

By the way, Solomon never uses the personal name of God Yahweh in this book.  He addresses God as Elohim.  Again, it speaks to the reality that this viewpoint occurs when we fail to pursue a personal relationship with God.

Solomon is warning us of the futility, emptiness and dissatisfaction of living this way.

As we continue through Ecclesiastes, I hope you will remember to put God front and center in your mind, and to consider the reality of spiritual and eternal things.

David Guzik points out that for the Christian, there are many new things:

· A new name (Isaiah 62:2Revelation 2:17).

· A new community (Ephesians 2:14).

· A new help from angels (Psalm 91:11).

· A new commandment (John 13:34).

· A new covenant (Jeremiah 31:33Matthew 26:28).

· A new and living way to heaven (Hebrews 10:20).

· A new purity (1 Corinthians 5:7).

· A new nature (Ephesians 4:24).

· A new creation in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

· All things become new! (2 Corinthians 5:17Revelation 21:5).

Same Old, Same Old, part 1 (Ecclesiastes 1:2-4)

“Everything an Indian does is in a circle,” said Black Elk, a Sioux religious leader.  “Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were.  The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood….” (Warren Wiersbe)

You would think Black Elk had been reading the first chapter of Ecclesiastes!

Eastern religions have this same concept, that life repeats itself over and over again throughout the centuries.  Whenever you use phrases like “life cycle,” or “wheel of fortune,” or “come full circle,” you are joining Black Elk, Solomon and a host of others in taking a cyclical view of life.  Here is how Solomon puts it.

1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 3 What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? 4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. 6 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. 7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. 8 All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. 9 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. 10 Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”?  It has been already in the ages before us. 11 There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.

We are studying the book of Ecclesiastes because it is very honest about the troubles of life—so honest that the American novelist Herman Melville once called it “the truest of all books.”

Ecclesiastes captures the futility and frustration of a fallen world. It is honest about the drudgery of work, the injustice of government, the dissatisfaction of foolish pleasure, and the mind-numbing tedium of everyday life — “the treadmill of our existence” that we see in this first passage.

Verse 2 is David’s motto, which he will spend the remainder of the book explaining, proving  and illustrating.  It functions much like Proverbs 1:7 in the book of Proverbs.

Solomon begins with a motto about life, a fairly pessimistic one:

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

Talk about a Debbie Downer!  With these encapsulating superlatives, Qoheleth takes the whole sum of human existence and declares that it is utterly meaningless.

The repetition “vanity of vanities,” like “King of kings and Lord of lords” and “holy of holies” indicates that Solomon is speaking of vanity in the nth degree, an ultimate and unsurpassed vanity.  And it is not “a mere flicker on the surface of things, where it might even had have a certain charm.  It is the sum total.”

Solomon is claiming that life is pointless—all of life, that it has no meaning, no purpose.

To him, the place that was once called “very good” has been reduced to nothing, totally empty of meaning and satisfaction.

While we as Christians might object, Solomon is not quick to run to a possible fullness of life that comes with God and Jesus Christ.

In Derek Kidner’s words:

“He wants us to look very closely at the world we can see and at the answers it seems to give, before he will do more than drop hints of his own standpoint.”

Solomon wants us to face our own discomfort and disappointment with this world.  He wants us to take an honest look at the things we don’t like about life…and death.

As Zack Eswine says…

“What God created and purposed was legitimate and good.  To lose this good is pain.  There are things worth crying about.  To learn such tears for the Eden that once was is to learn how to cry like the wise we are meant to become.” (Recovering Eden, pp. 28-29).

Again, this word vanity occurs 38 times throughout the book of Ecclesiastes and 35 times elsewhere.  In 13 of those cases it refers to idols.

It comes from the Hebrew word hebel.  It can refer to a mist or vapor.  “Whatever disappears quickly, leaves nothing behind and does not satisfy is hevel. One of my language professors at seminary defined hevel as ‘whatever is left after you break a soap bubble.’” (Warren Wiersbe, 1109.)  No matter what Solomon experiences and examines, it all comes up hevel.  This is his constant refrain until chapter 12.

Taken literally, the Hebrew word hevel refers to a breath or vapor, like a puff of smoke rising from a fire or the cloud of steam that comes from warm breath on a frosty morning. Life is like that.  It is elusive, ephemeral, and enigmatic.  Life is so insubstantial that when we try to get our hands on it, it slips right through our fingers.

Life is also transitory. It disappears as suddenly as it comes.  Now you see it, now you don’t!  We are here today and gone tomorrow.  Thus the Bible often compares our mortal existence to a vapor.  According to the psalmist, we are “mere breath” (Psalm 39:5); our days will “vanish like a breath” (Psalm 78:33; cf. Job 7:7).  The Apostle James said something similar when he described life as “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14).  So too when the Preacher says “vanity of vanities,” he is partly making a comment on the transience of life.  Breathe in; now breathe out.  Life will pass by just that quickly.

But life is not merely transient, it has no meaning.  It is “smoke and mirrors.”  Laurin (p. 586 says)…

“It appears to imply here both (1) that which is transitory, and (2) that which is futile.  It emphasizes how swiftly earthly things pass away, and how little they offer while one has them (cf. Jas 4:14).”

God had told Adam…

for out of [the ground] you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3:19).

Tommy Nelson summarizes:

“Materially speaking, life is short and then you die.  You will lose everything you own to the next generation.  Your children will rent out your house, purge your possessions, and spend your inheritance.  Ultimately, you will be a distant memory at a Thanksgiving meal” (The Problem of Life Without God, p. 11).

Kidner believes that Solomon’s method here is to embody the most radical thoughts of people, unbelievers in particular, and he follows their train of thought “further than they would care to take them.  Path after path will be relentlessly explored to the very point at which it comes to nothing.  In the end, only one way will be left” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 23).

Fortunately, we know from this side of the cross that Jesus came to make empty lives full.  He came, he said “that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

Verses 3-11 is Solomon’s first illustration of the utter vanity of life—the cyclical nature of life here on earth.

Rather than saying, “All work is vanity,” Solomon made the same point by asking this rhetorical question that expects a negative response.  He will use this literary device often throughout the book (cf. 2:2; 3:9; 6:8, 11-12; et al.).

3 What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?

The same question will come up again in chapter 3: “What gain has the worker from his toil?” (v. 9).  The idea of gaining some profit will come up repeatedly as well; it appears nearly a dozen times in the book of Ecclesiastes (e.g., Ecclesiastes 5:9).

The word “man” here in verse 3 is the word adam in Hebrew, which echoes Genesis and reminds us that the Fall of Adam is never far from Solomon’s mind.  Ecclesiastes certainly reflect a post-Genesis-3 viewpoint.

The word “gain” is a commercial term.  It can also be translated “profit.”  This is the goal toward which anyone in business is working. The goal is to turn a profit as the reward for one’s labor. Gain is the return on investment for hard work.

What profit do you have at the end of a day of work?  What profit do you have in a lifetime of work?  When you die and your life is over, what do you profit?  Am I really accomplishing anything?

Have you ever asked yourself these questions?  Maybe we should.

Solomon’s repetition in “all the toil at which he toils” also reminds us of Adam’s curse.  God had told Adam:

cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Solomon uses the phrase “under the sun”, which will pop up 29 times in this book, to indicate a perspective that is earthbound and temporal.  It does not take heaven or eternity in view.  In the metanarrative of Scripture, it does not take up creation or redemption, but only the fall.

The book clearly states at the outset that it limits itself primarily to things that are apparent to the natural mind.  One of its key phrases is the continual repetition, under the sun.  (Ray Stedman, Is This All There Is to Life?, 9)

Ecclesiastes, then, is a summation of what man is able to discern under the sun–that is, in the visible world.  The book does consider revelation that comes from beyond man’s powers of observation and reason, but only as a contrast to what the natural mind observes.  (Ray Stedman, Is This All There Is to Life?, 10)

Believe me, Solomon is not the only person to think this way.  Many philosophers, and especially moderns, having eliminated God out of the picture, have lost any sense of meaning and purpose in life.

If you discount eternity, and the reward we receive there, it can certainly seem like you end up life with a big fat zero.  From this viewpoint, you spend your life working and laboring and what do you end up with?  Nothing.

So Solomon expresses dissatisfaction with life.  He sees it as empty and ephemeral, tragic and transient.

David Augsburger, in his book When Enough is Enough, writes:

Emptiness is the center of our humanness.  To flee it is to miss the creative openness toward creation and the Creator.  To stuff it full of things is to block our ability to receive others in listening love.  To anesthetize it with addictive experiences is to deaden the creative springs of the true self.  Emptiness is to be embraced as a gift.

This is similar to Augustine’s cry at the beginning of his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”

Like Solomon, Augustine went through a succession of desperate searches for fulfillment: excessive pleasures, false religions, philosophy, dissipation and distractions—futilities that left him so weary of himself he could only cry out, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

Solomon looks at life and sees endless cycles that, for now, lead to no meaning or satisfaction.

“Ah, but one hopes to make the world a better place, or at least to leave something for those who follow.  As though expecting that reply Qoheleth points to the ceaseless making and unmaking that goes on in human history: the wave after wave of generations with their rise and fall, their coming men who are soon forgotten men; all this against the impassive background of the earth, which sees each generation out and goes on for ever.  No doubt it will see the last of us off the scene, and what will man amount to then?” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 25.)

To prove his point — that we have nothing to show for all our effort — the Preacher lists a series of things that never seem to go anywhere or gain anything.  The first half of his introductory poem gives examples from creation — the natural world (vv. 4–7).  The second half gives examples from human experience (vv. 8–11).  But whether we look at the world around us or consider our own life experience, the point is the same: there is nothing to gain.  People like to talk about progress — economic development, technological advances, evolutionary improvements — but it is all a myth.  There is never any progress: just the same old, same old.

According to Ecclesiastes, the evolutionary chart in school fooled us into believing that history is a straight line going up and we are more advanced than those primitive people who came before us.  The truth is that history is really a circle, a cul-de-sac to be more exact.  One generation after another drives around and around that cul-de-sac worshiping their idol and trying to outdo their neighbor with more sex, more stuff, more power, more information, and more fame.  As fools often do, we mistake movement for progress.  With brutal honesty about this fact, Ecclesiastes feels more like a punch in the gut than a kiss on the lips.

Like an overcritical building inspector, in Ecclesiastes 1:4–11 Pastor Solomon shows us what is wrong with our work.  Later, he will point out what I call “minor problems”—that our willingness to work often comes from impure motives such as envy (4:4); that our work, if profitable, often leads to sleepless nights (5:12; cf. 2:23); and that all the wealth from our work must be bequeathed to someone who doesn’t deserve it and might foolishly squander it (2:18–19).  The two major problems in our construct, however, he addresses in verses 4–11.

The first major problem is that our work adds nothing new to this world.

From the human point of view, nothing seems more permanent and durable than the planet on which we live; nothing seems more ephemeral and meaningless as our lives.

4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.

Nature is permanent, but man is transient, a mere pilgrim on earth.  His pilgrimage is a brief one, for death finally claims him….Individuals and families come and go, nations and empires rise and fall, but nothing changes, for the world remains the same.

We think we make a difference, leave a mark, Solomon says, but we don’t.

Start with nature — earth, wind, fire, and water.  Qoheleth says, “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever” (Ecclesiastes 1:4).

When people think about the next generation, they usually think in terms of progress.  Our children are our future; they will be able to accomplish things that go beyond anything we could ever dream.  Whether it is generation X, generation Y, or generation Z, there is always another generation to give us hope for the future.  We imagine and hope for progress.

But Ecclesiastes take an “under the sun” perspective and makes us realize that one generation may be rising but another is dying off.  Soon that generation will die off too.  Generations come, generations go.  And you don’t even have to be dead and gone before the younger generation refuses to listen to you anymore.

This is the perspective Solomon wants us to wrestle with, a perspective “under the sun.”

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.

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.