To some, the book of Ecclesiastes is filled with chunks of great wisdom, alongside of a bunch of other stuff. To others, it is quite confusing and somewhat contradictory sounding at times, and a struggle to comprehend. Throughout the book, we are called to be joyful, so it would do us well to better understand what we are being told in this seemingly complex book.
This morning I wish to take an ever so brief look at some key points in this writing, in hopes of cracking the door slightly, allowing you to begin to dig deeper into the joy of Ecclesiastes.
Although the book itself does not actually say it was written by Solomon, many scholars agree that all evidence points to that being the case. Instead of stating Solomon, it opens stating:
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. (Ecc 1:1 ESV)
The word here for preacher is the Hebrew word Koheleth, which means to gather, or an assembler, as in someone assembling people together to be addressed, which is why we usually find the English word Preacher or Teacher as the often understood implication.
However, others say that Koheleth was actually a symbolic name for Solomon during his time, while yet others think he used a less known name because of the shame he had brought to himself and family through his lifestyle. Regardless of any of that, he more clearly identifies himself as both the son of David as well as the king in Jerusalem – two positions only applicable to Solomon.
The book itself can be divided into four basic sections. In Ecclesiastes 1:2 through 2:26, the first section, we see that Solomon’s experience reveals that there is nothing within the competence or power of man that can bring true satisfaction.
Section two goes from 3:1 to 5:20 and shows that God is sovereign over everything. Also in this section he deals with the objections to such a doctrine, something much needed today for sure.
In section three, going from 6:1 to 8:15, Solomon carefully applies this doctrine of absolute sovereignty of God, explaining that it is by and through God alone that man can enjoy the vanity of the world, and without Him the world is simply filled with an ongoing vexation of spirit for men.
And in section four, which goes from 8:16 to 12:14, Solomon removes various obstacles and discouragements, and addresses a variety of practical issues.
Now, before jumping into looking at any verses, there are two key phrases, two refrains, that must indeed be properly understood if any real benefit will be gathered within. They appear throughout all four section, so without this understanding, the book indeed is like stumbling through the dark in a maze of disjointed, sometimes contradictory statements.
The first one is the phrase – under the sun. It occurs numerous times, and is only found here in Ecclesiastes. It is used to mean this life, life on the planet, this visible life we all see and live above ground. It is our ground-level observation point from which we live. In general, this book is dealing only with issue of life as we live it from our standpoint, and does not reveal any grand spiritual realm truth.
The second refrain that needs noticing, but the importance of which is often missed, is the repeated mention of the gift of God. The book of Ecclesiastes hammers home these points, making it clear that while all mankind is born and live a life in turmoil under the son, yet to some, God gives the gift of wisdom and joy in order that they may enjoy the vanity.
So when read properly, this book ends up being a book of profound optimism.
Now after the opening verse, we are hit with a concept that is yet another term that is often misunderstood, but absolutely necessary to grasping the whole book. Verse two hits us this:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. (Ecc 1:2 ESV)
Vanity – what is it? For many readers, they apply a more modern definition for the term, and believe it to speak of absolute meaninglessness. That is not what Solomon is stating in this term at all. The usage is best understood as an impossible to understand repetitiveness.
You cleaned the house yesterday; today it is a mess again. You washed the dishes, here they are dirty again. It is a never ending cycle that amounts to little in the end. There is no permanence, there is no real achievement. It is a temporary vicious cycle of repetitiveness.
The word used here is hebel, and oftentimes is used to refer to a wisp, a vapor, a puff of air that disappears. The world and life is a wisp, a dust particle drifting in a sunbeam, that no matter how hard you try, you cannot grasp or attain it.
Verse four shows us an example of this cycle when it tells us that generations of people come and go – one group of people eventually replacing another.
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. (Ecc 1:4 ESV)
And rarely if ever are the former things remembered by the new comers as he says in 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. (Ecc 1:11 ESV)
Yet underneath, the Earth remains, and the cycle continues – this is the vanity of life under the sun. From our point of view, the sun sets and rises, repeating each and every day and we come to expect it to continue. That same sun we see was also seen by Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Paul, John Calvin, Robert E. Lee, and everyone else you can think of.
This is the vanity Solomon is explaining – this is the toil of living life under the sun. This is what appears futile to most men, but Solomon tells us that that the gift of God to those who fear Him, is the joy given that allows us to enjoy life amidst the vanity.
Our modern use of vanity implies that something is empty, but that is not the case Solomon is making. Some translations actually say “meaningless,” but that is also a wrong impression of Solomon here. Life is not meaningless, nor is it empty. Life if full and life has much meaning.
But Solomon lays out how life under the sun is not something that we can grasp or figure out in so much as understanding the ins and outs of why and how things happen the way they do. It defies our attempts to comprehend and control it.
Men tackle life thinking there is something new they can do, something that will give them the desired lasting satisfaction they crave in life. They work and strive for more, “more will be better” they assume. Solomon is addressing that idea in his book.
It is vanity, a never ending vapor that cannot be grasped. So for those who wish to pursue it, Solomon says to come along and see what he, the wisest an on Earth, has discovered to be the case. What is the advantage gained by of human labor and work, that is the question?
In chapter two, Solomon lays out what is really a key foundational point that needs to be grasped in order to see many other points made throughout the book. In the whole of chapter two he lays out all of the avenues he pursued in his life to find this alluding purpose.
He tried pleasure, laughter, alcohol, large houses, farms, pools, servants, wealth, music, concubines, knowledge, work, and much more. He sought purpose in all of these things, and in the end he makes this very important point.
Before reading the whole important point though, we need to clarify a slight confusing translational issue that many may find in their Bible. In chapter 2 verse 24, we are told:
There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. (Ecc 2:24 ESV)
However, saying there is “nothing better” is not quite accurate according to some commentators. The word “better” is not there in the original, but has been inserted because in other places in the book “nothing better” appear together, so they assume it and added it here.
A better understanding of what Solomon is saying is found in versions like the Young’s Literal which states it as “there is nothing good in a man,” as in, there is nothing inherently good in a man. So this key foundation section is best understood as:
There is nothing inherently good in a man that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 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. (Ecc 2:24-26)
So Solomon is telling us that within man himself, there is nothing that makes him any better than the next in the ability to deserve or find joy in eating, drinking or any of the vanity under the sun.
That in order to do so – to find joy in those things, it has to be a gift given from God, and apart from Him there is only vanity – the vanity of gathering and collecting things that get left behind when they are gone.
If you get nothing else from this message – take this key point away. Life under the sun is repetitive vanity, and only for those who fear the Lord does He give the wisdom to actually find joy and pleasure in all of this vanity that occurs under the sun.
So, while God is the one who gives all things in general to all men, He is also the only one that can give the gift of being able to enjoy all that has been given. I like the analogy given by Douglas Wilson who says that God gives all men plenty of cans of peaches, but only those who fear God are given the can openers to be able to enjoy them.
Those in the world are always looking for something new, something to make the ceaseless, repetitive vanity go away, something to find joy in; and yet they never do, and when they seem to find it, it is only temporary and is not passed on once they are gone. The wise man sees this, he knows the vanity and limitations in the world, and God gives him the ability to yet enjoy the vanity and the limitations.
This is the point that Solomon ends up at by the end of the second chapter, which is the end of section one of the book. But to get there, he also describes the world as full of unhappy business, or as some translations put it, sore travail or grievous task, and he points out that the crooked cannot be made straight by man.
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. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted. (Ecc 1:13-15 ESV)
Note that he tells us this unhappy business of life is given by God. So much for the health and wealth mentality of some preachers who believe God gives only ceaseless abundance. And he later tells us the reason things are crooked and cannot be made straight:
Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked? (Ecc 7:13 ESV)
The wise realize that God is sovereign in all things. The turmoil of this life is from God, and the crooked things in the world are also from God, and there is nothing that natural man can do in himself to change things. To struggle in life to do so is just attempting, to no avail, to push against the unchanging vanity – again, vanity being that incomprehensible repetition of life.
Unfortunately, the modern Christianity around us has reversed the very truth made clear throughout books like this. Instead of a sovereign God in control of the chaos, they preach and teach of a God who sits on high, seeing all of the crooked messes down here, and just wrings His hands and sheds tears over it – powerless to help.
Whenever some public disaster or calamity takes place, ministers are quick to divert responsibility away from God and put Him in a place of being heartbroken over the mess. Instead of God being the source of it, it is man, in his own freewill who has made crooked something that God cannot straighten.
Instead of heading the numerous Scriptures that tell us calamity and disaster come from God, they remove Him from the equation and blame man or sin for the way things are, and that God is on the outside and not in control.
We need more ministers to understand as Amos did, and ask:
Does disaster come to a city, unless the LORD has done it? (Amos 3:6 ESV)
Instead of acknowledging the Lord as being in control over all of the crookedness we see, in wanting to make God blameless, it leads to a doctrine of chance, circumstance and accidents. And living in a world like that just gives cause for more thoughts of vanity and hopelessness in a world in uncontrolled chaos.
The Bible is clear in teaching that Yahweh is indeed in control, and all good and bad things come from His hand. Such a doctrine takes away the hopelessness and gives comfort, for we know we are not living in a world of just random uncontrolled chaos.
Of course such a position is rejected because then the masses cry out for justice from a God whose actions make no sense to them. Why would a loving God do this thing, or that thing, etc. So to them, it is better to think that nothing controls any of this, that there is no purpose behind anything, and to them that is more comforting. Not biblical, but comforting.
Of course, with much wisdom comes much trouble, as Solomon found out just like we do today. He states:
For in much wisdom is much frustration, and whoever increases knowledge increases sorrow. (Ecc 1:18 LEB)
Ignorance is indeed bliss for the most part. The more we see and understand the world around us, the more it seems that God has determined to trap us in a meaningless existence. Knowing more multiples our sorrows.
It causes the fool to think he is chained to a dungeon wall; but it causes the wise to know that he is in fact in a labyrinth. Life has limitation set by God, and the wise are given the joy to know how of live within them without feeling constrained by them.
This gift of God does not make the seemingly meaninglessness go away, but it does make the vanity enjoyable.
So in this first sub-section of the book, Solomon shows us that life under the sun is an inscrutable repetition, and that all natural experiences lead to emptiness. And his conclusion is that satisfaction cannot come from anything within man’s own power, but is only available as a gift from the totally sovereign God.
In the second division, which is chapters three through five, we find Solomon deals with questions and objections to the idea of God’s absolute sovereignty. Chapter three contains two sections of this book which are in my experience the most often quoted, and most often misapplied to say something they do not.
In verses 1-8 we have the section of “to everything there is appointed a time” that is often quoted. But before we delve into things, let us look at the conclusion of this second section, like we did for the first. It is good to know where Solomon ends up, in order to better understand what he is saying as he journeys to get there.
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. 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. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart. (Ecc 5:18-20 ESV)
So, as mentioned, this section deals with the objections and issues with God’s absolute sovereignty. And he ends by summing up that everything given to man is from God. So, as we return to the first part of this second section, we find that in God’s sovereign plan there is a time for everything. The days of our lives are in God’s hands, and he has allotted a time to everything. And after ending this section of time statements, he states:
I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 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. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man. (Ecc 3:10-13)
So there is a time to be born, and a time to die, and a time to weep and a time to laugh, etc. for these are all of these times given to man by God (v. 10), for God makes everything beautiful in his timing, and His actions are beyond discovery for man (v. 11).
So if it is something good – God has given it. If it is travail – God has also given it. God has given all things, and it is forever. All of these things, when viewed from our standpoint – under the sun – it is vanity – it is incomprehensible repetitiveness in the world. We do not understand much beyond the consistent repetitiveness. And in verse 14 he tells us why things are this was from God:
I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. (Ecc 3:14 ESV)
So we see that God has allotted a time for everything, He gives man things to be busy with, He makes everything beautiful in its time, His actions are beyond discovery by man, and they are forever. And the reason for all of this? So that man might fear Him.
Therefore, a man who reads without trembling has forgotten the living God. So putting the “there is a time to” statements back into their context, we find that these are not ways of orderly living given to us – they are not our marching orders of life.
They are a description of God’s determinations, and allotted portions in our lives. We are not being told that at this time of life we do this, and at that time we do that, etc. We are being told that we have been placed into a world that is not of our fashion or control. A world with repetitive cycles that are not of our doing, but they come from God, whom we should fear.
In all of this – in every aspect of our lives, the Lord God is exhaustively sovereign. This is the foundation of Solomon’s arguments, which means he relates it as the ultimate foundation for all possible intelligent joy. This is a hard doctrine, but denial of it does not remove the light and darkness or the peace and evil – it simply removes the possibility of finding any solace.
For centuries past and even present, men argue about this topic. Discussing God’s words and His ways, often leads men to attempt to find out and understand God’s ways, to rectify things for their understanding. Yet we already saw that Solomon tells us it is futile to seek to do so in verse 11:
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. (Ecc 3:11 ESV)
God has made everything beautiful and has placed eternity into our hearts. Yet even so, He has also made it impossible for man to find out his works and actions from eternity. Men may bicker and fight over why God does or does not do this, that and the other thing, but in reality, man can never know.
The believing response to this should be to throw up one’s hands in faith – not in despair – and go about life having a good time in joy. This faith must be in the one God from whom all knowledge and joy comes from. We must start with the God who rules all things, the One who makes all things beautiful.
We must worship this one God who does all things for His ultimate glory. You may ask – He controls even the sin and evil around us – even the monstrous and the ugly? The answer is yes – for remember that the list of God’s determinations also includes His allotting of a time to heal and kill, of war and hate, of mourning and laughter.
We seek to only give God credit for the good – Solomon knows he is the author of it all, and He controls it all – perfectly. People who want to buck against the thought of God’s absolute sovereignty do so because their pride does not want their autonomy to be stripped or restricted.
Those who wish to say that God does not do such evil, that God does not wield a wicked tool, come to that conclusion based on their own flawed arguments, and not from Scripture. The Bible tells us God is holy, but also tells us He wields the wicked in His hand like an ax.
God used the wicked Assyrians to judge the Jews; He used Absalom to sleep with David’s concubines (2 Sam. 16:22); He used Judas to betray the Lord; He used Herod, Pontius Pilate, and all of the Jews to condemn and crucify His Son. This is but a very short list of such things that many Christians want to deny and ignore coming from God.
The second portion of chapter three that I have often seen abused, is verse 19-21 which state:
For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? (Ecc 3:19-21 ESV)
This verse is used often by those who wish to argue against the ancient Hebrew concept of the intermediate state in Sheol after death. Time and time again when I have entered into a discussion of the historicity of Sheol as a realm of the dead, this verse gets thrown in as if they feel it makes a concrete theological statement about the spiritual realm or life after death in general in the Hebrew mind.
My answer is to point out the context they have obviously ignored. This book by Solomon is about life under the sun. These are things we see with our eyes, and comprehend from our standpoint above ground. As I mentioned at the beginning, there is no beyond-life spiritual truth being portrayed here.
Solomon is simply saying that in the course of living on the planet, the fate of animals and men is the same. Both live in the repetitive cycle, and both eventually die, and both end up in the same place – the dust from which they came. To use this verse to imply anything negative about any Hebrew concept on an afterlife is a just a really sad and weak attempt to make their case.
And to answer the question “who knows whether the spirit goes up or down” – God knows, but outside of Him man does not know and cannot discover the answer from life naturally. That is all that is being said here – from what we see with our senses, men and animals live and die and return to dust in the same fashion.
The one tidbit of information in this book that is usually brought up and connected to this topic, is that of 12:7 which says:
…and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. (Ecc 12:7 ESV)
Two things worth noting here is what is said and what is not said. What we are told is that there is a spirit that survives after the body dies. This is a problem for many who want to believe that there is no separate soul, and the whole argument of nephesh, etc. This is just one such verse to show there is something that separates and survives after the body dies.
But what we are not told is what does it go back to God for? It does not say it goes to be in heaven. It does not say it goes back to some big nirvana pool of spirits. It simply says it returns to the God who gave it. The Jewish Targum add to this verse that the spirit returns to God who gave it:
that it may stand in judgment before the Lord;
So whatever it means to go back to God, which is not totally clear, the meaning can easily be seen as in line with the traditional Hebrew concept of spiritual life in Sheol – the realm of the dead. Because after death there would have to be some kind of judgment given in order to establish which section of Sheol they would be sent to. But that is a whole other topic that I have covered in much detail before, so we won’t go any further off topic for that.
For the sake of time, we now jump to the third division of the book, which covers 6:1 through 8:15 where Solomon applies the doctrine that it is God alone that gives the ability to enjoy the vanity under the sun.
From our human experience, we see inequalities and injustices in the world, in the way that God governs the world, and we may conclude to ourselves – though not verbally of course – that God is somewhat unjust. We see the wrong kinds of people being blessed – as we view it -- by God, and others not getting their fair share – as we think it should be at least.
However, there is more to the story than we tend to realize. Solomon tells us:
There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil. (Ecc 6:1-2 ESV)
We see a man who has been blessed with much wealth, and we may think of it as an injustice, or maybe even envy. However, what we do not know is whether God has given that person the power to enjoy it, or is it a stressful burden for him? He goes on a few verses later to say:
All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied. (Ecc 6:7 ESV)
We work to eat and eat to work – it is a repetitive cycle. The rich may toil and stress for more wealth, and yet without the ability from God to enjoy it, it is vanity and vexation. It does not add meaning to life, nor does it add true joy to them.
This has been revealed time after time after time by celebrities. I have heard testimony from many where they have achieved fame and fortune, all they could wish for, yet were lacking joy, and suffer with depression and loneliness.
Yet you can find many testimonies on the other side of the coin, where people with very little have lived joyful, thankful lives in the service of God and others. God knows the person, and He knows the vanity of wealth, and He allots a portion knowing how it will affect those it is given to.
While many of us may wish we had more, we can be thankful for what we have been given, knowing that God has not given us a portion that would remove our joy. The point is, the limits of prosperity are set by God, and prosperity is not necessarily a good thing.
We often want to simply look and say that material blessings are always a blessing and that adversity is always a curse, but that is not necessarily the case. We cannot tell God’s disposition toward a man based on his outward condition.
A man, Christian or not, who has been given much riches is not to necessarily be considered blessed of God. If God gives great riches to a man, but no taste buds to enjoy what they have, then it is in fact a sore affliction upon them from the Lord. The health and wealth preachers of the day are seriously confused on this point of course.
The point is, are we to judge based on who has the most toys, or on who has the most joy given to them by their toys? The fool cannot enjoy the goodness of the earth, yet the wise man can; not because of anything within him, but because he is the recipient of a gift.
We have to understand that all of these things are allotted out based on God’s will and plan, and again, this is a plan we do not, nor can know while we live under the sun as we do. We look around at how bad things are, and we do exactly what Solomon says not to do. He says:
Say not, "Why were the former days better than these?" For it is not from wisdom that you ask this. (Ecc 7:10 ESV)
I am sure at one time or another most all of us have said something about the good old days when life was simpler, when things around us were not as openly wicked, or something like that. This is not something we should be anxious over, for we cannot make straight these things, as he continues saying:
Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked? In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him. (Ecc 7:13-14 ESV)
God makes both the good and the bad, and we are not able to discover His way, and should not spend our days being anxious over why things are this way. Nor are we able to make straight the crooked ways made by God.
Yes, we should do our part to live wisely, raise out children to do likewise, and live our lives in love for others and upholding the truth ourselves. Beyond that, we are told to use the wisdom and gift from God that gives us the ability to see the vanity, and eat, drink and enjoy life.
God is the governor of all, and therefore we should not long for the good ole days, not should we be overly concerned with this or that bad turn of events. Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people? That is a commonly heard inquiry for sure, and Solomon tells us that we will not discover the ways of God, so the question is not resolvable under the sun.
Both the day of prosperity and the day of adversity come from our Lord, and we must remember that, even as Job instructed his wife saying:
But he said to her, "You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?"(Job 2:10 ESV)
All things are a gift from God, and though we may never know the reason why, we must trust the fact that indeed God is in control, and all things indeed work together for good according to His plan, and not ours. Solomon even saw this issue in his time, saying:
In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. (Ecc 7:15 ESV)
The point is, for those of us living here under the sun, what we might think is fair or just, is not necessarily what God has in His plans. If we try to judge God based on what we see and what we think is fair, then we are worshipping a God of our own imagination.
Solomon goes on in chapter eight to look at this issue a bit further of the lives of the wise and the wicked:
Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God. (Ecc 8:12-13 ESV)
Yes, wickedness at times does reign. Yes, the wicked are not always judged or taken care of as we may wish they were. Again, God’s plans are not always in line with our desires. But he says that yes, it will be well for those who fear the Lord, and the works of the wicked will not prolong his days beyond God’s plan.
God is the ultimate judge, and the wicked will not be found guiltless, but that is not an issue we who live under the sun are to worry ourselves with. At times injustice may seem to be triumphant – we see that going on around us day after day. Sometimes good men lose, and wicked men win, just as he points out in verse 14:
There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. (Ecc 8:14 ESV)
So while the victories of the wicked and apparent losses of the righteous do occur, even that is just vanity – it is just a repetitive cycle of incomprehensible reasoning that is put into place and controlled by God. So what are we to do about it?
Are we to scream and complain and fight and push back and spend out lives in constant anxiety over the apparent evil around us? According to Solomon we are not, but instead, we are to eat, drink and be joyful for all of the days we are given under the sun as we are told in the very next verse:
And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun. (Ecc 8:15 ESV)
Do not let the vanity of life’s repetitiveness drive away the joy that we are to live under with the wisdom God gives. We may seek and strive to know the plans and ways of God, and seek to understand why the world is like it is, and fight to change the crooked ways, but we cannot and to live life in this kind of struggle is itself vanity and uselessness. Solomon says:
When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one's eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out. (Ecc 8:16-17 ESV)
God’s plans under the sun are not something anyone can find out, and we are not to struggle in life to attempt to do so. God is in control, and he tells us to have joy and enjoy the life He has given while we have it. Men who argue over the sovereignty of God issue are always prone to be led into discussions on why God does this or that, yet this is futile, for we will never know.
Solomon clearly says God controls all things, but never are we told how God does things. Yet people still try to apply logic to make a case for or against God in this respect. “If God is all loving, then why does He…blah blah blah?” – these arguments continue and Christians act like they have the proper answers, but Solomon says even the wise do not know the works of God.
From what we can view from life under the sun, God has not made it possible to see or fully understand what His plans are or what He is doing, and we are not to spend our time trying to decipher such things. In other words, external blessings or cursings are not a sign I can appeal to in determining if God loves me or hates me, and he goes on to say in 9:1 and following:
But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. (Ecc 9:1-3 ESV)
It rains on the faithful and unfaithful alike, and the sun shines on both also. Trials and travails come to both, as do blessings. Solomon refers to this frustrating fact as “an evil” that is done under the sun. Our response should therefore be to give honor to God as God and give Him thanks in all situations. In light of this, Solomon tells us to:
Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (Ecc 9:7-10 ESV)
Again, all is a gift from God, and we are to acknowledge that and live our lives for however long He has given for us to be under the sun. We are to eat our bread, and we are to do it with joy. We are to drink our wine with a merry heart. The word for wine, incidentally, is yayin – alcoholic drink. Our dress should be constantly festive, and we should take care of ourselves.
We are to rejoice in all of the things in our silly lives, because we acknowledge they are our portion, and while we may never understand the whys behind our portion, we put our faith in the God who gives us those portions, and we enjoy His gifts.
God has already approved our obedience, so with gratitude we are to eat our bread, drink our wine, dress in white, and love our spouse for the time we have under the sun. Control of all things under the sun is by the hand of God, as are the outcomes of all things as he goes on to mention in verse 11 and following:
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. For man does not know his time. (Ecc 9:11 ESV)
The outcome of things is not always dependent on the participant. The swiftest person may not always win the race. The strongest may not always win the battle, etc. They are all affected by time and chance.
Now by using the term chance here, it is not referring to the idea of philosophical randomness, like we would use it today. The term used here means incident, as in something that happens and comes from something external and outside of us.
For Solomon to say something happens by chance is likened to saying that it was caused by something outside of our knowledge or understanding. For the faithful, this is acknowledged as coming from God – His hand is behind it. The results of all our endeavors are completely in the hands of God, and no amount of preparedness on our part can 100% guarantee results outside of His plan.
Again, we prepare and we live faithfully, and whatever comes we take as from God, and we live our silly lives for however long He gives us, which we do not know how long that will be, as Solomon continues:
For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them. (Ecc 9:12 ESV)
We are to work while there is time, we are to live and enjoy while there is time, we are to be thankful while there is time, for we do not know the limit of our time or when death may come suddenly upon us. And as the book has sought to instill in us all along, like other things, our death is not something we are to be anxious about, for it too is in God’s hands.
From chapter ten on we are hit with a barrage of proverbs from Solomon, and there are a couple I’d like to look at briefly, starting with 11:1-2:
Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days. Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth. (Ecc 11:1-2 ESV)
Now, this verse is not speaking about feeding the ducks; that is not the bread on the waters we may think of. One of my old farmer Christian friends used to always say that when a man gets into real farming, the Bible begins to make much more sense.
The idea being that the men and culture that produced the Bible were very agrarian, and so there is much symbolism used that those with an agrarian understanding would more easily understand. This section is an example of such an idea.
When you plant your crops upon the muddy or water covered ground, they take root and are found by you many days later to produce a plentiful harvest. Of course that is the symbolism, but what is being said is to be generous in giving. Spread your seeds upon the waters of mankind, and it will come back to you.
Verse two makes it more clear what is being said. Give a portion of what you have to seven, no wait, maybe even eight. Give, for in the day when disaster happens on the earth – or in your life – you will have grateful friends to help you when in need.
In other words, let your hospitality and your giving be extensive, give to many, or even very many, for you do not know what problems they may be having or that you may have in the future that would find hospitality returned to you likewise. Now, here is the hard pill to swallow for most of us in this day and age.
We have always been taught to save, to set aside for a rainy day, to put some away for tough times. Because of that, we tend to be less charitable. Solomon here is speaking against such a view. He is not saying to give it all away, he is saying give a portion, but what makes a portion to us is the question to decide.
The argument that covetous men make, about putting away because bad times may come, is the reverse argument Solomon says the wise must make. It is because we know bad times will come, therefore we should give and be generous in our giving. Again, I love the way Douglas Wilson comments on this:
Some say life is uncertain, so we should eat dessert first. Solomon says here because life is uncertain we ought to give the dessert away. (Douglas Wilson, Joy at the End of the Tether, p. 111)
I could go on and on giving examples of this idea of giving as presented in the New Testament, but time does not allow. I will mention just one instance, where we are plainly told that giving to those in need is the same as giving to God directly, and was commended.
In Matthew 25, we are told of what is commonly referred to as the great white throne judgment. The nations are gathered, and the people separated into sheep on the right, goats on the left and pronounced judgment against them. And to the righteous sheep he said to come, inherit the kingdom, and what was that inheritance based on according to this section?
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.' (Mat 25:35-36 ESV)
In response, the sheep are dumbfounded, and ask when they ever did any of these things for Him? And I am sure you know what the response was – He said:
'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.' (Mat 25:40 ESV)
And of course to the goats, he said the exact opposite, and they were cast out because they had not done any of these things to others, and therefore had not done it unto Him. So it seems that this type of generous lifestyle is a key concern with God.
And then after all of his discussions on the good, the bad and the vanity, Solomon begins to close out his writings summing things up to some degree. He reminds us to have joy, to rejoice in all our days, to enjoy the sunshine, and to know that the days of darkness will be many, for they are all vanity:
Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun. So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity. (Ecc 11:7-8 ESV)
He tells the young people to rejoice in the days of their youth, but always keeping their eyes and heart on the Lord. He tells them to remember the Lord in the days of their youth and to take great joy in those days before the evil days of older age comes upon them.
Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity. 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" (Ecc 11:9-12:1 ESV)
The young grow old, the old die, and they are replace by more young, and the young grow old, and they die, and they are replaced by more young, and the cycle goes on. The endless cycle – the vanity of life. He tells a metaphor in 12:2-7 of the body growing old, and then dying, and ends this section saying that this cycle is:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity. (Ecc 12:8 ESV)
So, we are to come away from this learning that satisfaction is not within us organically, but that God is sovereign and gives us the satisfaction to enjoy the vanity – the repetitive cycles of life. We are to know this is vanity, but understand it is God’s unknowable plan, and therefore we are to take joy in Him through it.
All of man’s feverish activity and labor is hebel – a vapor – an incomprehensible cycle of action – vanity. What does man accomplish? What advantage does it bring to us? In all of man’s work and labor, he changes nothing, he controls nothing, he successfully manipulates nothing that matters.
Solomon has here presented us with a big game of good cop/bad cop. Solomon is the good cop, who tells us over and over again that is futile to fight against the bad cop. The bad cop is the real nature of life “under the sun.” We fight and toil to gain an advantage or leverage against the bad cop, but all that we do is vanity – a vapor of no substance or lasting affect against the bad cop.
Solomon tells us to not resist, but to confess to the bad cop. The good news is that while the bad cop is trying to get us to confess, he is not doing so in order to condemn us, but to actually save us.
We must not resist the sovereign God, but we must confess Him as being exactly that, seek to live life in the wisdom of knowing that, and seek the gift He gives to allow us to find true joy in this vaporous life under the sun.
Solomon is writing to pass judgment on man’s misguided endeavors at attempting to master life. He is pointing out life’s mysteries and limits, seeking to remove the false and illusory hopes and replace them with confidence based on the joy of God’s gift alone.
Everything goes on the same as it has because everything is outside of man’s control. Unbelievers do not accept this fact, but faithful Christians who have acquired wisdom know that is it true.
He has given us a set number of days under the sun in which we are to work hard and have joy in what we have. We are to have this joy in our youth before the days of old age overtake us. We are to live a generous and giving lifestyle, being a blessing to others as unto God. And he ends with these final words:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecc 12:13-14 ESV)
So, go forth! Stress not about the repetition and incomprehensible plan unfolding around you, but trust in the sovereign Lord behind it all. Seek His wisdom, the gift from Yahweh that enables joy among the vanity of life. Love others and be generous with what the Lord has allotted to you, whether it is a lot or a little.