In two days you have read an entire book of the Bible; Ecclesiastes. And you may find yourselves asking what does all of this mean. Clearly Solomon was still writing proverbs, but these often seem to have a negative feel. It is as though Solomon is asking the question why bother? And for some of us, we may have asked the very same questions. In his younger days Solomon was busy building…houses for himself and the temple of the Lord. He was busy making treaties with neighboring kings. These allowed Israel to live in peace. Solomon continued to amass great fortune. He was known the world over for his great wisdom, a gift from God. As he got older Solomon began to notice things he maybe hadn’t before. He noticed that the wicked and the foolish sometimes lived much better than the righteous. He took more notice of people who were lazy and those who took advantage of others. And he realized everyone, rich or poor, wise or foolish, lazy or hard working, met the same fate. Somehow he had thought that if you were wise, successful and righteous, your end was different than others. We do not know what that end might have been but now he realizes that everyone of us dies and we cannot take with us the things we have accumulated. For Solomon, even worse was the realization that in short order, no one would remember what we said or did. This resulted in his saying that everything is meaningless under the sun.
Some of the proverbs we have read here seem strange or confusing. So, let me try to clarify some of them. The teacher says the heart of the wise is in the house of mourning but the heart of the fools is in the house of pleasure. (7:4). Solomon is saying that we may learn more about the meaning of life in the house of mourning than in pleasure. And thinking about death leads us to be able to see the severity of God’s curse on sin, it’s consequences, and the need to enjoy life wisely. In 7:10 we see that the temptation to glorify the past at the expense of the future needs to be resisted. Solomon indicates that the pleasures or advantages of those good old days may be more imaginary than real. There is a hint of the apostle Paul in 7:20…all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. It also echos Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the temple of the Lord. (1 Kings 8:46). In verses 23-25 Solomon was attempting to understand the wisdom of God and realized he couldn’t. It didn’t work and he was not able to find the wisdom he sought or the reason for things. These reasons are hidden in the mind of God. He ends chapter 7 looking for the righteous or virtuous person. Solomon has searched high and low and found only one man in a thousand and no women who are virtuous. In other words, virtue is extremely rare. He is looking for a good man and a good woman. But he asked the same thing in Proverbs 20:6, “Who can find a faithful man?” After much searching the teacher found that humanity’s downward path from God’s created order was repeated by Adam and Eve’s descendants, even unto today. Even though God made everything beautiful and humans upright, mankind’s search for wicked devices and intrigues had succeeded tremendously.
Chapter 8 is a mix of commands to obey the king and the realization that death comes to everyone. In verses 12-13 we find a sharp contrast between the righteous and the wicked. Solomon reminds us that injustice is momentary and it does not upset God’s plans for justice. In reality, wickedness does not pay. By verse 15 the teacher’s conclusion is familiar. In spite of tragedies and hard labor, we can enjoy life and be happy. In the Hebrew, the word translated having fun or being happy means finding enjoyment in our daily activities. It is not about pursuing pleasure or entertainment for its own sake. Here, in contrast to the mad search for the meaning of all things is the contentment that a wise, loving God gives to those who will receive His gifts of enjoyment…eat, drink, and be merry. The wicked decides the best thing to do is eat, drink, and be merry, giving no thought to what it means to live with God and His good gifts.
Solomon recognizes that God is in control. Everything is in the hands of God and his use of love and hate are used to show God’s favor and disfavor. Regardless, everyone will die in the end. Verse 4 speaks of dead lions and living dogs. Solomon is saying that a living lowly creature is preferable to a dead exalted creature. The point is not that death is the absolute end of all things but that while there is life there is still hope of doing something for the glory of God. In verse 7 there is a reference to bread and wine. You see, God means for all of His good gifts to be enjoyed and the image of bread and wine is frequently used in scripture as a symbol that God gives both comfort and cheer to people. Death is inevitable but in this life there is joy and purpose to be found. And verse 10 may have had an influence on the apostle Paul. We read in Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men.” And the following verses, 11-12 are a reminder that the best do not always win. Solomon makes reference to the swift, the strong, the wise, the men of understanding, and the men of skill. But they do not always win or come out on top. All meet the same fate as the wicked, foolish, and lazy. The end of chapter 9 and the beginning of chapter 10 remind us that it doesn’t take much to undo good. One sinner can destroy much good and a fly can ruin an entire batch of ointment or perfume. An ounce of folly will spoil a pound of wisdom.
Chapter 10 is a series of proverbs. Looking at verse 10, this is a warning that there are some things the wise just avoid. The purpose for charming snakes is to keep them from biting but a snake charmer risks being bitten before the snake is charmed. Some things are so hazardous that the wise do not engage in them. And fools are destroyed by such things as foolish promises, getting caught in false testimony, and making the wrong people angry. Not choosing their words correctly will bring about a fools destruction. In our previous reading we have seen youth who have become kings. Many of them had good, wise and competent advisers who helped them along but here Solomon cautions about young leaders. They have the potential to lose control over their areas of responsibility or their kingdoms. And some may spend their nights partying into the wee hours of the morning. True leaders take their leisure only after their work is finished, not in the morning before work has even started. Lazy leaders weaken a society or organization. And then comes verse 19. At first glance it seems to be contrary to what the teacher has been saying, but think of it this way. Rather than being cynical or critical about wealth or the rich, this comment is to be taken in the context of the dissolute nobles in verse 16, and the banqueters in verse 17. Wealth for them is the only pleasure they seem to know and their only means of having fun or enjoying life.
Chapter 11 reminds us or perhaps cautions us about the risk involved in both commercial and agricultural enterprises. Solomon tells us that we should act as wisely as we can and trust in the Lord. The first six verses are not pointed to royalty or leaders but towards the common man. Verse 2 encourages us to be generous to as many as we can and work to make a difference rather than hoarding everything to. The teacher tells us that light is sweet. It is an affirmation of the joy of life despite all the troubles this book has presented. But he also reminds us that there will be darkness as well. He thinks about death, sometimes it seems like all the time.
The final chapter of the Book of Ecclesiastes has a different tone and the teacher tells us the whole purpose of writing this book. He begins with the reminder to not forget our creator. Reverence for God can lead to wisdom and guidance for what will be beneficial and pleasing to God at judgement. It is better to remember God in our youth because that is when wisdom can make a real difference in how our lives play out. Most argue that these verses are an allegory of old age or growing old. Others look at these verses and see a description of a winters day as a metaphor for growing old, a description of people’s reaction to a fearful thunderstorm, the figure of a ruined house representing the failure of human efforts, or the decay of a house representing death and human frailty. It appears this person is losing their sight. Verses 3-6 seem to be a list of the bodily infirmities that increasingly hinder an elderly person from serving God. If the house stands for the aging body then the keepers are the hands and arms. The legs are bent in feebleness and the knees can no longer be depended on for support. The teeth are fewer than before and cannot chew food as well as they once did. The sound of grinding is low which means the person may be eating soft food. The fact that the sound of birds or singing is low means they are losing their hearing. Things that they once did may now be frightening to them, like climbing ladders. Their hair, represented by almond blossoms, turns white, and their steps become unsteady…like a grasshopper who can no longer hop. Eventually comes death and they go to their eternal home. We know this is means eternal life in the presence of the Father and Son, but for Solomon it most likely just meant the grave. There is some debate about verse 6. It certainly illustrates the frailty of life. Some see this as an expensive lamp, a golden bowl and not one of clay, filled with oil for giving off light. This golden bowl light hangs from a silver chain. The chain breaks and the bowl breaks. The fragile cord of life is snapped and the light of life goes out. Some believe the silver chain refers to the spinal cord and the golden bowl is the brain inside our head. The pitcher shattered at the fountain or well is our heart that. Fails. Only the wealthy could afford lamps of silver and gold so Solomon may be hinting that death is no respecter of persons. The pitcher at the well, which has a windlass for bringing it up, tells us that one day the wheel on the windlass breaks, the pitcher falls and is shattered and the end comes. The fountain of water is an ancient image for life and when the machinery of life stops working, the water of life stops flowing. The heart stops pumping, the blood stops circulating, and death has come. The spirit leaves the body, it begins to decay, and eventually we return to dust.
Verses 13-14 bring us the conclusion of the whole matter. Life is a stewardship. We do not own our lives because life is the gift of God. Ecclesiastes ends where Proverbs begins , with an admonition to fear the Lord. To fear God is one of the major themes of this book and of wisdom literature in the Old Testament in general. Fearing God is responding to Him in awe, reverence and wonder, to serve Him in purity of action, to shun evil and any kind of worship other than of Him. We are called to keep His commandments and Jesus summed them up as love your neighbor as yourself and love the Lord your God. This is our whole duty, and we are only complete when we fear God and obey Him. Solomon is telling us that if we follow what this book has said we will have a relationship with God and find life in Him. The teacher ends by reminding us that death is not the end. All of life will be reviewed and judged by our righteous Lord. Our lives are to be lived through faith with the promise of eternal life in view.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W