A Survey of Ecclesiastes, 1


1. Introductory Comments

The writer of Ecclesiastes is Solomon, a fact well established among conservative Bible scholars. Solomon is also responsible for Proverbs and the Song of Solomon. But Ecclesiastes is completely different from those two books in both tone and content. If the book of Proverbs illustrates the wisdom of Solomon, then Ecclesiastes indicates the man’s foolishness.

Ecclesiastes is one of the most puzzling books in the entire Bible mainly because of its unorthodox statements about life and extreme pessimism. The correct interpretation of this book is made possible when it is viewed through the lense of the New Testament. Ecclesiastes shows us man’s wisdom apart from God. When we consider the great questions of life without God, we will always arrive the wrong conclusions, as Solomon did throughout Ecclesiastes. This likely explains why atheists and unbelievers love to quote from this book; interestingly, Voltaire often cited verses from Ecclesiastes in his writing.

Man has always sought happiness without God. Every day, most people in most parts of the world try to find meaning in their lives without considering God. The inestimable value of Ecclesiastes is that is shows us how absurd that quest is. Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived, and that great wisdom was a gift to him from God. Yet, despite that, for a time in Solomon’s life, he tried to find pleasure and meaning apart from his Creator. His conclusion was that his quest was vanity. That word occurs over 30 times in Ecclesiastes; it means “empty” or “purposeless.” Satisfaction in this life is fleeting and temporary at best without Jesus Christ. Although the many conclusions and opinions Solomon makes in this book are not inspired, Scripture is inspired. This is why time and again Solomon prefaces some many of his thoughts with, “I said in my heart,” or “Under the sun,” or “vanity.”

God showed Job, an admittedly righteous man, that even he was a sinner in God’s sight. In Ecclesiastes, God will show Solomon, a very wise man, that even he was a fool in the sight of God.

2. Frustration #1: Nature and History, 1:4-11

The first thing Solomon finds in his quest for meaning is that when man looks at life’s physical environment, he finds only the answers the material world can give. In these eight verses, Solomon takes on the role of a scientist and historian.

First, as a scientist, Solomon studies nature and the world around him and reduces everything to a simple cause-and-effect. In fact, Solomon cites examples of natural phenomena in the order of their creation: (1) the solid earth, (2) the rising and setting of the heavenly bodies, (3) air currents, (4) the flow and evaporation of water. Solomon studied all these things looking for meaning to his life. But he, like the scientist, can only describe the physical laws he sees, he cannot go beyond that. Studying nature without knowledge of God cannot lead a person to God. That’s the frustration Solomon feels at this point. The Biblical view of nature is somewhat different, however. Scripture plainly teaches that all nature testifies to the existence of a Creator, even though it does not compel a belief in Him (Psalm 19; Romans 1:20). But Solomon isn’t interested in God, all he wants is proof; proof of meaning.

He is frustrated because, as he observes the ebb and flow of nature, it seems to be meaningless to him.

He doesn’t fare any better as the historian, either. If the solid earth gives no stability and yields no answers, what help can there be an endless succession of birth and death? In fact, when you study history, you will find exactly what Solomon has found: men and women struggling to find meaning in their experiences, yet all their work was in vain, for they, like Solomon, found nothing. Every generation tries to find satisfaction from some “new thing,” but every “new thing” is really just a variant on the past (verse 9).

Naturally, there have been great inventions over the years, but what Solomon has in mind is that one thing that would enable a man to break out of nature and the monotony of history into meaning. Man is always looking for the one thing that will give his life meaning. Interestingly, with all the great strides in science and technology man has made in the past two centuries, each generation, thinks itself the greatest, yet still struggles to find meaning.

3. Frustration #2: Wisdom, 1:12-18

Here we see the inquiring mind at work, searching for meaning. Yet even acquiring all knowledge left Solomon empty. In his first mention of God, in verse 13, Solomon states that God has given man something that the rest of nature does not have: the constant, though often worrying, urge to make sense life. Animals don’t have that; they live within their world of instincts. But man is driven to understand how his life works so that he can ultimately control and direct his instinctive desires.

Verse 15 is such a profound verse. In our time, we have “straightened out” many of the twists of the past and added many comforts and security to life. But we, in our life time, have seen how in a instant, all that security can be stripped away by one single act of terrorism, and how a dormant group of people can revive the horrors of the past and destroy what is truly good and meaningful in life.

Even Christians, who have a fuller revelation of God through Jesus Christ, still cannot comprehend how the Divine mind works. Often, “God’s ways are not man’s ways.” But, through faith, we are able to see that in everything God works for good the those who love him, Romans 8:28.

The problem with knowledge is that we are finite, but eternity is all around us. We can always find more things wrong than we can make right. G.G. Atkins offers these profound thoughts:

We do, however, posses the power by the grace of God and the mystery of our own creative personalities to take the raw material of experience and our own always unfinished selves, and make of life an enterprise worthy of its cost and promise. The crooked can be made straight, in highways, in society, and in the soul; not always easily or soon, and always at a price. But we have not choice save to try it.

4. Frustration #3: Unlimited wealth, 2:1-11

To most people, unlimited wealth suggests the possibility of unlimited happiness. Money can buy pleasure, and to be sure Solomon probably tried everything in they way of pleasure. We can only speculate as to what pleasures Solomon explored, searching for meaning. He mentions a few:

  • He surrounded himself with people who could make him laugh, but eventually the jokes grew stale (verses 1-2).
  • He turned to sensual pleasures, things like wine (verse 3).
  • He turned to hobbies, perhaps thinking a more sensible use of money would give him satisfaction (verses 4-8).

The final words of verse 8 may well refer to his many wives, though the Hebrew is extremely obscure. Not finding satisfaction in one night stands, he seeks it marriage.

In this frustration, we see something interesting. Solomon is looking for peace and meaning in worthwhile pursuits. No one could deny that building projects are themselves sinful or wrong. Hobbies don’t have to be sinful. Marriage is noble institution. Yet, even these innocuous pursuits yield nothing but disappointment if God is not part of the pursuit.

5. Frustration #4: Death, 2:12-23

If a person cannot find abiding happiness in work and wealth and worthwhile activities, what is left? Nobody lived a life as Solomon did. And if they tried to, even they would find it monotonous. But Solomon reached the conclusion that even so, it is better to wise than to be a fool. And yet, the wise man isn’t all that far removed from the fool, since they both come to the same end. All the wisdom of the ages cannot keep the wisest man from his fate: death.

It is true that thanks to advances in medicine, human life spans have been lengthened, perhaps as many as 15 or 20 years, but when you compare two decades to a millennium or eternity, those extra years don’t make much of a difference.

In verse 17, the Teacher concludes that he hates life, that it is meaningless, “vanity.” Remember, the Hebrew word means “purposeless.” It made no sense to Solomon that he should work so hard to create things, only to die. Thomas Edison is a good example of a man who created many of the things we use and take for granted today. He was a genuine genius, yet he died just like everybody else. What good did all his brain power do him in the end? All his inventions didn’t extend his life a minute.

John Harvard, the man who founded Harvard University, was a Christian, and he left his vast fortune to the Church to spread the Gospel. Today, there isn’t much left of the Christian faith on the campus of Harvard.
Solomon realized this thousands of years ago. It is a waste of time to work for something, only to turn it over to a fool. He had the same problem, and 1 Kings 12 describes it in detail.

Verses 24-26 give an excellent summation of Solomon’s exploration so far. These verses are easily taken out of context, but in context they are quite profound. You can wear yourself out trying to find meaning in life by studying nature or history; you can make the pursuit of money and luxury your goal in life, thinking your possessions will bring you peace. But you will end up frustrated because you are grounding yourself in the material world, which does not hold the key to satisfaction. Why not simply take your daily life from God?

Note the words of 1 Timothy 6:6-19.

To walk with God means that we are able to ask for wisdom when we need it and are able to use it rightly with the help of the Holy Spirit. God, through His Word, communicates to us His will for our lives, which gives us meaning and purpose.

Nobody needs to be as foolish as Solomon was. Through Jesus Christ, we are able to live lives full of meaning; be content with our lives, secure in the knowledge that our very lives are in God’s hand.


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