Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless (Ecclesiastes 3:19).
You don’t get very far in the Gospels without reading about demons. They were (are) horrid creatures intent on destroying lives. They caused people to lose all inhibitions, reject normalcy, spit in the face of convention, frighten and threaten others with impunity and hurt themselves physically. No one wanted a demon, and no one wanted to be around anyone who had one. If you had a demon, what you really wanted was for someone to put you out of your misery.
Though the Gospels do not elaborate, Mary Magdalene was once possessed by seven of these creatures. I can’t imagine her pain. But Jesus cast them out (Luke 8:2; Mark 16:9) and for that, Mary would be forever grateful. She traveled with the disciples and supported them out of her own pocket. On Friday she stood with Jesus’ mother at the cross. On Sunday, she was there at the grave. The man who had given her life back was gone – murdered! What anger she must have felt that Sunday morning! What emptiness! What lostness! Everything was meaningless.
But not quite.
While mourning the death of her savior and the cruel (seeming) theft of his body (or so it seemed), Jesus appeared. She was so lost in the abyss of her own grief she didn’t even recognize him until he said her name: “Mary!” And then, her life was changed again. Weeping had filled her night, but joy had come in the morning.
It’s tempting when life tumbles in to give in to the same despair of Solomon: “Everything is meaningless.” But Solomon was wrong. The resurrected Lord assures us none of our afflictions have to have the last word. Perhaps that’s why Paul called them “light” and “momentary” (2 Corinthians 4:17). There is the resurrection. And once that becomes real to you, life is anything but meaningless.
As we reach the end of Ecclesiastes, chapter 11 continues to provide us with some perspective – and some advice.
As he has written so often before, there are some things you just can’t do anything about. Furthermore, you can spend so much time waiting for the right time that you lose opportunity (that’s what verse 4 is about).
There will always be information you don’t have. You will never know everything about everything to make a totally perfect decision (vs. 5).
Then, things happen to interrupt our plans (vs. 3).
So, in light of all this, do something. That’s the business of casting your bread on the waters. The book of Kings tells us that Solomon sent trading ships to sea and it took three years for their return. You have to take chances (verses 1 & 6).
Diversify what you do. My mother would say: “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” That’s verse 2.
But whatever you do, don’t forget God. Take Him into your plans, and plan only what He would approve, for God is the ultimate judge of success or failure (verse 9).
Just about the time you think you have some answers in life, someone comes along and changes the questions.
There is great tension in Ecclesiastes. Some of the things that are such blessings turn out to be curses in disguise. While the writer will proclaim that money is the answer for everything (10:19), he also tells us that the love of money, and the possession of money – even in abundance – will not permit neither satisfaction or fulfillment (5:10 – 17). In chapter 6, money is a curse because it cannot give the one thing we all need: rest.
There was forced rest in the Old Testament, a Sabbath. It was never to be considered as a worship day – or as it later came to be considered by Christianity, a “church” day. It was a day of rest. No work. Time to spend time with family or friends. Time to “re-charge.” Many high achieving people tell me: “I can’t seem to shut down. My mind is always racing with other things to do and more projects.” How can life be enjoyed with such busyness? While they may love the rush such busyness provides, it is a cruel drug. The next thing you know, time is gone, children are gone, friends are gone, and you are exhausted. It is why 5:18-19 are so critical: “Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his lot. Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God.”
On several occasions in Ecclesiastes, Solomon has urged finding “enjoyment” in our work. On the other hand, he also calls work “a miserable business” (4:8).
So . . . which is right?
Work can be an oppressive thing. After all, each of us is answerable to one higher up, and the higher ups are held responsible for the work of those below them, and it is difficult to find someone to comfort you in those circumstances.
And sometimes the oppression we feel in our work is self-generated. We envy those above us and seek to have their jobs.
But Solomon says that the answer to our vocational conflict is not to “quit” working (vs. 5) – an option all too many people take. Nor is to increase our own pressure in an attempt to get more for ourselves (4:6).
Our goal is to seek “tranquility,” and that can only be achieved in “community.” We all have to work, but we should seek a community work environment where we can be productive with others (4:8), help one another (4:10), comfort one another (4:11) and protect one another (4:12).
The goal to be “King of the hill” places us outside community – much like the King “who no longer knows how to take warning.” His downfall will come from an unexpected source: a much younger man, less experienced, who none-the-less knows how to work with, and among, people.
Chapter twelve of Ecclesiastes can be the most enigmatic.
What’s the deal with the stooping strong men, the trembling “keepers of the house” and the ceasing “grinders.”?
Throughout the wisdom literature, Solomon has been insistent that we pay attention to our lives, the direction we are going. Inattentiveness may lead to unchangeability. Go down a road long enough and eventually you’ll find it’s just too hard to change.
And so, at the end of Ecclesiastes, he urges us to give attention to God early in life before we get so old that the old dog can’t learn new tricks. The features of age are described poetically:
The “sun, light, moon and the stars grow dark and the clouds return after the rain.” Those who have spent their lives without a thought for God usually end their days in the gloom of negativity. After all, they have nothing to look forward to.
Even the backs of the strong bend (stoop) with age, our teeth fall out (or have to be pulled – that’s the grinders ceasing because they are few) and we have to pay special attention to keeping our mouths closed when we chew. We get up earlier, and the sound of the birds (along with all other sounds) grow dim. Our hair turns white (the almond tree blossoms) and we become afraid of heights (and paranoid about everything else).
Age is the destiny of all of us, but the end is better for those who remember God. Do it when you’re young enough to develop the habit and it won’t fail you when you get older.
Chapter nine is entitled, in some translations, “A Common Destiny for All.” Solomon’s point, as he begins, is that all of us are subject to precisely the same end – death.
This being true, what’s the point of being righteous or productive or anything else that we work to do to set ourselves above our fellows? Isn’t all our effort useless?
Yes . . . and no.
“Yes,” if our goal was simply to be above our fellows, to distinguish ourselves in our community.
But “no” if our effort was simply to enjoy the challenge of achievement, the blessing of life.
As I write this I am at a religious conference dedicated, this year at least, to the study of “ethics.” As with any conference there is the discomfort felt by some that we are not doing enough. The existence of poverty, war, inequitable wealth, increasing suicide and a host of other problems leads some to cry with the passion of prophets and others to simply cry.
We should cry about these things – and cry out. But we should also remember something: we cannot solve these problems. It doesn’t mean we should do nothing. We should do all we can, but at best we are only likely to alleviate the suffering of a few. Let’s do that, and having done our best, “eat [our] food with gladness, and drink [our] wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what [we] do. The whole idea is that life was given to be enjoyed. Though we all suffer the same fate in the end – death – life until then is superior when we live it as God intended, and enjoy it while we do.
Beginning with chapter five, we turn to material different from what we have seen thus far in Ecclesiastes, though it does have ties with the previous four chapters. The first seven verses differs in that it is a change from reflections on life to prescriptions for life, and in these verses we find five imperatives (commands).
Since these commands begin with a reference to worship and end with a reference to worship, we might look at these verses as a primer on preparing for worship.
First: “Guard your steps.” Pay attention to the way you are living, to what you are doing. I spoke with a man recently retired and he told me retirement was like a fog lifting from his life. We spend so much time following the schedule, making the next meeting, completing the next project, writing the next report that we have little time to see what else in life is going on, and where in life we are headed. Christians cannot afford to be fog bound.
Second, pay attention to your speech (vss. 2 & 6), for speech betrays the condition of the heart. It’s not just “watch your mouth,” but listen to your own words as the temperature of your soul.
Third, Be obedient to God (fulfill your vows – vs. 3). When you confessed “Jesus as Lord,” you obligated yourself to allowing him to rule your days. Are you fulfilling that vow?
Finally, stand in awe of God (vs. 7). It’s difficult to stand in awe of someone you don’t know. It’s difficult to stand in awe of one you don’t respect. What do you know about God? Really. Specifically. What passage of scripture teaches this? How does that point make God awesome in your eyes?
Worship is not an inconsequential non-participatory event. It requires preparation.
Five books in a row, answering five important questions:
Job: How shall I suffer?
Psalms: How shall I worship?
Proverbs: How shall I live?
Ecclesiastes: What shall I value?
Song of Solomon: How shall I love?
In chapter two of Ecclesiastes, answering the question “How shall I live?”, the writer tells of his own personal journey. In that journey, he does something foolish for a wise man: he attempts to gain wisdom through trial and error. The Proverbs teach us that the best source of wisdom is the counsel of others. It is foolish to press on in foolishness to discover it is foolish – but that’s what Solomon does.
The short answer is that no one has ever been in Solomon’s position before – to explore the furthest reaches of mankind’s quest for satisfaction without the usual limitations of resources, social pressure, or legality. He is, after all, a king – and a rich one at that.
And so Solomon pursues pleasure, materialism, wealth, and education, and when he gets to the end of that journey, he observes that such pursuits are not all that fulfilling. Mainly, they are not fulfilling because none of them last forever. Sooner or later, one must give them up.
So what’s the point? Or is it all, all of life, really pointless?
It is not.
We live all of our lives, short or long, under the view and providence of God. We must learn to enjoy the gifts of God while we have them, knowing they are not forever so that when we have to give them up or pass them on, we can say “that was wonderful” and move to the next stage of enjoyment God has in mind for us. Solomon’s research is bounded by God (note 1:13 and 2:24). Our perspectives must be bounded by Him too so that everything else is kept in proper perspective.
A major part of Ecclesiastes 10 has to do with rulers.
We’d like to think we are all equal before God, and surely God’s salvation is available equally to all. But that doesn’t mean there is always a level playing field in our world – nor that God is required to make it so, nor that justice demands it.
Some people are simply not suited for positions they occupy (10:7): they are not competent to make the required decisions or, their background makes them unsuitable and so Solomon laments the fact that sometimes fools are placed in positions of responsibility while the qualified are stuck with tasks beneath their ability. In our age of political correctness, we are a bit chagrined at this notion, but Solomon says it’s simply a part, a sad part, of life.
On the other hand, sometimes the competent occupy the right position, but behave poorly – the prince who parties early in the morning (vss. 16, 17). There is an appropriate time for everything. The morning is a time for work, not partying. Those in positions of responsibility should be seen being responsible at the appropriate times.
And sometimes, rulers appoint incompetent people to responsible positions (vs. 6). Perhaps they just made a mistake. Or perhaps it is an effort to secure a greater legacy by selecting a less competent successor. Whatever the reason, it is unfitting.
Everyone should behave well, but Solomon says protocols and accountability can change, depending on your station in life.
From the proverbs, you might expect some repetition in wisdom books, and Ecclesiastes does not disappoint us. There is more than a bit of repetition here.
The writer repeatedly tells us that wisdom is important, despite the fact that it is so often ignored. You see it plainly in the little story he tells at the end of chapter eight. A poor man saves his city through his wisdom, but because he is poor, he is not honored and it isn’t long before no one pays any attention to him at all. This is far from what we would call “fair,” but if there’s one thing that rings true in Ecclesiastes, it is that life is far from what we would call “fair.”
Why does life have to be this way?
The wise author doesn’t say. In fact, he says he doesn’t know: “When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe man’s labor on earth—his eyes not seeing sleep day or night— then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it” (8:16-17).
What he does know is that God understands, and His approval is most important of all.