The Book of Ecclesiastes challenges us to think deeply about basic questions. Life and all it contains appears to be a meaningless vapor, here today and gone tomorrow. Even so, life is not without purpose. Ecclesiastes recommends wisdom, righteous living, finding purpose in remembering our creator, and keeping God’s commands. It is then we are able to experience joy in the life God has given us. This book is a short two day read and as you read some of it will sound like the Book of Psalms and some will make you look to see if you have opened a page in the Book of Proverbs. The author refers to himself as the teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. This indicates that King Solomon wrote this book. The Book of Ecclesiastes is an advanced and reflective wisdom text. Unlike Proverbs, it was not included in the canon of scripture to educate young readers in the basic principles of wisdom. Instead, it was intended for those mature and experienced enough to deal with the dark and difficult questions life brings us. It also feels like it was written for the elite in Israelite society…people both familiar with the ancient world of wisdom and those comfortable within the corridors of power.
Some who read this book see the text as being full of gloom and doom; everything is meaningless the teacher says. But there are many nuggets of wisdom to be mined in this short book and I encourage you to look for them as you read. There are several themes in the Book of Ecclesiastes. First off there is the theme that wisdom and pleasure alone are worthless. The teacher points out the truth that work, pleasure, status, wealth and even wisdom in and of themselves have no lasting a significance because death renders all earthly achievements futile. The teacher also shares the theme that it is God who confers meaning upon work. Ecclesiastes describes the pointlessness of human toil, comparing it negatively to God’s enduring work. But the teacher concludes that people do well to enjoy their labor, trusting that God has a purpose in it. Ecclesiastes addresses the injustice of oppression. The teacher was dismayed by the mistreatment of the poor and weak at the hands of those who had power. He also noted that it is wrong that the godly often suffer while the wicked thrive. He sees nothing done about injustice in his time but then he also reminds us that one day God Himself will bring justice to all. The teacher looks at human wisdom verses God’s wisdom. He notes that it is futile to contend with God because His ways are mysterious and far beyond our comprehension. Finally, Ecclesiastes tells us that God gives meaning to life. The ultimate conclusion to the book is that life is meaningless without God. And because humans cannot fathom God’s purposes or understand His ways, submission to Him and His will are our best course of action, especially in voices of God’s final judgement of ‘every hidden thing’. (12:14).
One of the words we see often in The Book of Ecclesiastes is vanity or meaningless. The Hebrew word is ‘hebel’, and it has many meanings. Sometimes it is translated as vapor which is translated as meaningless. Vapor has no weight or permanence. Many verses in Ecclesiastes allude to the fleeting nature of human life. At its root it is translated as breath or vapor. Mostly it is used in the sense of that which is incomprehensible, futile, meaningless, false, transitory, or insubstantial. Sometimes it is used to describe idols or false gods. Other times it is used to describe how fleeting and momentary life is. Vanity, which is used in this book is not what we would think as thinking too highly of ourselves. Instead it is used to describe the sense that life is futile and without purpose or meaning. As you read, keep in mind that this was written by not only the wisest man ever to live but also one of the wealthiest. Solomon had anything and everything he could possibly want but after a time nothing had any meaning. He was never satisfied and the more he had, the more he wanted. That is still a problem we see today. But even with all he had, something was missing and eventually nothing had any value to him.
One of the teacher’s favorite sayings is “chasing after the wind”. This is the only place in scripture this phrase is used and 7 out of the 9 times he uses it, it follows a statement about vanity. This phrase explains the nature of life according to the teacher. Just as the wind quickly comes and goes, so does life. Life is great, but fleeting. Any attempt to seize it is as futile as trying to catch the wind when it blows. In the first two chapters the teacher lists the things he sees as meaningless. This list includes wisdom, pleasures, madness and folly, and toil. A life lived under the sun refers to life lived by people on earth. The teacher here does not use the covenant name of Yahweh for God here. Instead he uses Elohim or God. The teacher feels wisdom is meaningless because he has studied wisdom and the more wisdom he has accumulated and the more knowledge he gained the more grief he experienced. Solomon is looking at wisdom realizing learning is an expansion of the awareness of all we do not know. More wisdom he says means more grief. Pleasures are also meaningless. He labels pleasure as madness, wondering of anything is achieved by enjoying pleasure. Madness and folly are also meaningless. Together these two things are defined as senseless folly. There is a relative value of wisdom over folly but both have their limitations. The problem for the teacher is that you can be extremely wise or incredibly foolish but in the end everybody suffers the same fate…everybody dies. The teacher also thinks toil, or work is meaningless, the reason being we work and accumulate all kinds of things but in the end someone else gets what we have accumulated and the teacher didn’t know how those people would watch over his things.
But then he acknowledged that there is a time for everything. This poem, which was turned into a song by the Byrds in the 1960’s, speaks with a measure of eloquence of the role of time in the life of the believer. This is life lived in relationship with God. It isn’t so much that everything has the opportune time about which action to choose or not. Instead he is teaching that all events of our lives are in the hands of God, who makes everything happen in the time HE judges is appropriate. There are 14 pairs of opposites in this poem.
Chapter 5 begins with the warning to guard your feet or steps when you go to worship the Lord. It means to behave yourself. What Solomon says here is something that is common among the prophets about sacrifices. God has no pleasure in those who do all the right things for all the wrong reasons. He also gives caution for us to fear God. This does not mean to be afraid of God but instead to have reverence, awe, and wonder when we approach Him. Reverence for God is the foundation for worthwhile words and useful activities. We are reminded that we cannot take our treasures with us. “Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand.” This was one of the teachers frustrations. This is one of the things that made toil meaningless. Today’s reading ends with two questions. The teacher asks who knows? And who can tell? But the questions have been answered. Our days can best be spent in wise living and in enjoying our work and God’s gifts. Who can tell…because life is fleeting and we do not know what comes next. Yes we have eternal life in Jesus Christ but we do not know what exactly that looks like. We have that promise and assurance but Solomon was left to wonder why we live these lives because he did not know the promises we do.
Everything is not meaningless under the sun. Yes, life is fleeting and the months seem to go screaming past. But we have meaningful work in sharing the good news of Jesus Christ with those who do not yet know. This life is where we spend time coming to know our Lord and Savior. He is the one we will spend eternity with.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W