Lately I’ve been studying the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s one of those books that many of us have looked at with a sideways glance, not quite sure what to do with it. It has gained the reputation of being the most depressing book in the Bible, and thus many avoid it. Yet even in just a week of studying Ecclesiastes, I have discovered great treasures. Often the hardest of grounds yield the greatest of gifts.
Most people accept the fact that Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon, King David’s son and some hold the belief that it was written after Solomon repented of his grievous sins before God. John Wesley held this view, writing, “Who was not only a king, but also a teacher of God’s people: who having sinned grievously in the eyes of all the world, thought himself obliged to publish his repentance, and to give public warning to all, to avoid those rocks upon which he had split.”
The premise of the book is stated in the second verse: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” The word vanity here does not mean what it means today. Then it meant meaninglessness; Webster defined it as “emptiness; want of substance to satisfy desire; uncertainty.” And when the Preacher says “Vanity of Vanities”, he means the same as Holy of Holies (utterly holy) – utterly vain, utterly empty.
But what does the author mean when he says life is utterly pointless? He does not say that life isn’t worth living; what I think he means is that we cannot understand all of life. The Preacher says that he “gave [his] heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven…” In other words, Solomon was trying to understand all the purposes of God and everything that happened to men while they lived, including death, riches, oppression, and much more. He realized that he was far too small to understand it all. It reminded me of something Dinesh D’Souza, Christians author and speaker, said in a debate I heard. To paraphrase, “We must understand the limits of logic and reason. We are like little ants on a street corner, asking why the street corner is the way it is, when there is a whole neighborhood behind us we can’t see.”
Realizing that he was unable to find satisfaction in wisdom, Solomon turned to pleasures of every sort. He says in the second chapter, “I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom; and to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life.” I emphasized that part specifically, because it shows what Solomon’s purpose was in doing all that he did: he wanted to know how people ought to live. In wisdom, in pleasure, and in materialism Solomon finds no peace and no purpose to his life.
Solomon comes to this conclusion, which is often repeated throughout the book: “There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy food in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God.” He exhorts the listener over and over again to enjoy his own lot; not to give himself to futile work which shall fade after death; but to enjoy the life that has been given him from the hand of God.
So how are we supposed to live, and what can we learn from Solomon’s travail? There are three main points he makes throughout the book that I want to highlight.
Enjoy the life God has given you.
Solomon tells us in chapter 4 of a man who, because of envy for another’s good, becomes a great workaholic. He says, “There is one alone, and there is not a second; yea, he hath neither child nor brother: yet is there no end of all his labour; neither is his eye satisfied with riches; neither saith he, For whom do I labour, and bereave my soul of good?” He is working hard, but one must ask, for what? Why is he working? At the end of his life he shall look back and see that his whole life is pointless, because he sought to gain something transient and passing.
So often in our lives we are struck with a sort of discontent. It is not a holy discontent that makes us seek the more after God and righteousness, but the sort that makes us seek worldly goods. Instead of enjoying the things that God has given us, we are always looking ahead to something we don’t have. Instead, let us vigorously strive to enjoy and be content with our lot in life, and praise God for the life we have. He didn’t have to wake us up this morning, but He did; and may our lives be used to praise Him continually.
Live in light of man’s ultimate destination.
In chapter 7, Solomon says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to heart.” Every man must one day face death: old and young, man and woman, rich and poor, wise and foolish. Life is but a breath, here one day and gone the next. Solomon exhorts us that we are to live in light of death: “Whatsoever thy hand findest to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.” This reminds me of 1 Corinthians 10:31 – “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
God has given us this short time to live upon this earth. How will we spend our days? Will we spend them in the same vain pursuits as Solomon – pleasure and material goods – or in the eternal things that really matter? Whatever work God gives us to do, whether we are on the frontlines of the ministry or at home working a corporate job or flipping burgers, we are to do it to the best of our ability and give our all to it, because once our life is over, that’s the end. There is no more chance to work.
Live in light of God’s judgment.
The last two verses of the book end this way: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.” There is not much more that can be said. Paul says, “… For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ” (Rom. 14:10).
The question we must all ask is, “How will my life weigh in the balance? Have I given my life to worthy pursuits? Or have I spent all my days pursuing pointless, frivolous things?” We all shall be judged.
What shall you stand upon? For I know that in me there is no good thing, and that if I were to be judged, I would be counted as evil. Solomon says that every secret thing will be judged. Perhaps you’ve done good deeds; but were the secret intentions of your heart any good?
There is only one hope for man to stand before the judgment seat of God, and that is Jesus Christ Himself. He offers to man His perfect righteousness, that we might be clothed in it, and not be found wanting in the scales of justice. Come, abide in Him today, give your whole life to Him, and allow Him to transform you inside and out. Only then will you be free from the vanity of this world and more, the judgment of God.