Ecclesiastes – life under the sun

*** I plan to post 31 meditations on the Book of Ecclesiastes during the month of March, one for each day of the month. The following is an introduction to what is to come and the book I am writing, due out May. God bless you. ***

Ecclesiastes

Much of what I wanted to say generally about Ecclesiastes, the third book in this trilogy: Song of Songs, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, has been said in first two. The approach adopted will be similar, with a particular focus on providing thirty-one meditations, one page for each day of the month. Some verses from Ecclesiastes are fairly well known, as with Proverbs, but this book is often not taught within church contexts, and its important message is not as well understood as it ought to be, which is a shame. Ecclesiastes could be seen as a book for all ages – for the older generation making sense out of the world and the younger, as a sober warning of what is to come and why they should “remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth”. The main thrust of its message is the meaningless of “life under the sun”, nicely complementing that of the importance of following the way of wisdom (Proverbs) and the power of love (Song of songs).  

Introducing Ecclesiastes

Regarding authorship, we are told at the outset of the Book of Ecclesiastes that what is to follow are “the words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1) although nowhere is the Preacher (or Teacher) named. While it leaves the possibility that it could have been another son of David, or one of his later descendants even, as far as this book is concerned, we will work on the basis the author is Solomon. Many of the things that the Preacher claimed to have done during his life we know Solomon did or at least would have been ideally placed to do so, and this is seen as he uses the rest of the book to elaborate on his opening salvo: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” (1:2,3).

As for being in a position to wisely comment on what Solomon had seen and experienced, that too fits with the description of all the Preacher had done. “Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of David his father” (1 Kings 3:3). One night, the Lord appeared to Solomon and said, “Ask what I shall give you” (verse 5). In response, Solomon answered, “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?” (verse 9). God also said “I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days” (1 Kings 3:13) and no doubt the position he found himself in gave him ample opportunity to reflect as he did.

Reading through Ecclesiastes leaves us in little doubt the author had lived a long and full life, experiencing for himself and seeing in others highs and lows, triumphs and disasters, joy and sorrow, justice and injustice, from the very good to the very bad etc., suggesting by the time he got to write he was getting old. Just as Song of Songs reveals a young man’s perspective (the way of love) and Proverbs that of a middle-aged man (the way of wisdom), reading Ecclesiastes leaves one with the impression that here was someone who had experienced many aspects of life but now he could no longer summon up much enthusiasm, being unimpressed, having seen it all, along with a sense of world weariness. If we are to come up with a third way, Ecclesiastes could be the way of life under the sun.

Breaking down Proverbs (and even Song of Songs) into meaningful sections is easy compared with Ecclesiastes and (at least, in this author’s opinion) those who have tried to do so have not been entirely convincing beyond something broad:

  1. Introduction (1:1 – 1:11)
  2. The meaningless of life in its various facets – outside God (1:12 – 12:8)
  3. Conclusion (12:9 – 12:14)

Some Bible translations provide, before what editors see as sections, headings. This from the NIV has (at least, in this author’s opinion) been found to be helpful:

  1. Everything Is Meaningless (1:1 – 1:11)
  2. Wisdom Is Meaningless (1:12 – 1:18)
  3. Pleasures Are Meaningless (2:1 – 2:11)
  4. Wisdom and Folly Are Meaningless (2:12 – 2:16)
  5. Toil Is Meaningless (2:17 – 2:26)
  6. A Time for Everything (3:1 – 3:22)
  7. Oppression, Toil, Friendlessness (4:1 – 4:12)
  8. Advancement Is Meaningless (4:13 – 4:16)
  9. Fulfill Your Vow to God (5:1 – 5:7)
  10. Riches Are Meaningless (5:8 – 6:12)
  11. Wisdom (7:1 – 8:1)
  12. Obey the King (8:2 – 8:17)
  13. A Common Destiny for All (9:1 – 9:12)
  14. Wisdom Better Than Folly (9:13 – 10:20)
  15. Invest in Many Ventures (11:1 – 11:6)
  16. Remember Your Creator While Young (11:7 – 12:8)
  17. The Conclusion of the Matter (12:9 – 12:14)

Just like Proverbs, there is an earthiness about Ecclesiastes that is refreshing. There is no beating about the bush when it came to describing what the Teacher has seen and the matter-of-fact conclusion that, with or without religious piety, the fate of men could well be the same, regardless of their individual merits, and almost borders on the cynical (except that his approach was more that of a straight talker who pulls no punches). It should be borne in mind some of what was set out could have just as easily been said by someone with no religious beliefs, because more often than not it was about life from a human, rather than a spiritual, perspective and, while seeming extreme, life looked at in this way is often a lottery. The key theme that the Teacher often refers to is the meaningless (or pointless or vanity of vanities) of life under the sun, i.e. taking God out of the equation: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” (1:2-3).

When I wrote on the Song of Songs and Proverbs, it was easy to know who to dedicate the books to – my wife in the former case and my son in the latter. Given Ecclesiastes was written from the perspective of a senior citizen – been there, done that, unshockable and all that, my thoughts turn to that older generation. There was a time whenever I saw an old person, I found difficulty in imagining them in the prime of youth – and that was a mistake. One strange happening in recent years was meeting again with some of my former school mates. I last recalled them full of bravado, mischief and ambition, soon to enter the workplace. When I met them again, they were about to retire or had retired, and the signs of old age that had come to them was with many all too evident.

Some of that generation, which is now my generation (and the next to go), are beset with health issues and some are struggling with some of the issues we typically associate with the elderly, including having succumbed to dementia. Many are married with children and grandchildren – some had lost their partner through bereavement or divorce. Looking over their lives, some have done well and amazing things, but for some life has been disappointing and unfulfilling. Some have discovered that life under the sun is meaningless without God, and some have found Him. I wish to dedicate this book to this elderly generation.

Approaching Ecclesiastes

Coming up with thirty-one daily meditations, like in the case of Proverbs, was a challenge, although not in the same way when it came to sifting through hundreds of diverse “fortune cookies”, which we did with Proverbs. Ecclesiastes is at least more linked to a narrative in sections, although in this case a lot of this is to do with the various aspects of meaninglessness. This creates a further challenge as variations on the theme of the meaninglessness of life would not seem to be conducive when it comes to encouraging readers in their daily quiet times. But the attempt has been made to cover the main points of the Book, in a way that is meant to draw people away from dark thoughts and give them hope, under thirty-one headings – as to how successful this turns out to be, it is for readers to judge.

The following is based on notes found in my NIV Study Bible and the Internet:

Solomon puts his wisdom to work to examine the human experience and assess the human situation. Although he sometimes brings God into it, notably in Chapters 3 and 12, he focuses on what happens “under the sun”. He considers life as he has experienced and observed it, between birth and death – life within the boundaries of this visible world. His wisdom cannot penetrate beyond that last horizon; he can only observe the phenomenon of death and perceive the limits it places on human beings. Within the limits of human experience and observation, he tries to spell out what is “good” for people to do, representing a devout wisdom. Life in the world is under God – for all its enigmas. Hence what begins with “Vanity of vanities” (1:2) ends with “Remember your Creator” (12:1) and “Fear God and keep His commandments” (12:13).

With a wisdom matured over many years and along with much experience, he takes the measure of human beings, examining their limits and their lot. He has attempted to see what human wisdom can do (1:13,16-18; 7:24; 8:16), and he has discovered that human wisdom, even when it has its beginning in “the fear of the Lord” (Proverbs 1:7), has limits to its powers when it attempts to go it alone – limits that circumscribe its perspectives and relativize its counsel. Most significantly, it cannot find out the larger purposes of God or the ultimate meaning of human existence. With respect to these it can only pose questions, and does.

Nevertheless, he does take a hard look at the human enterprise – an enterprise in which he himself has fully participated. He sees busy humans in pursuit of many different things, trying one thing after another, laboring away as if by human effort one could master the world, lay bare its deepest secrets, change its fundamental structures, burst through the bounds of human limitations, build enduring monuments, control one’s destiny, achieve a state of secure and lasting happiness – people laboring at life with an overblown conception of human powers and consequently pursuing unrealistic hopes and aspirations. He takes a hard look and concludes human life is “meaningless”; its efforts all futile.

What the Teacher has learned includes:

  1. Humans cannot by all their striving achieve anything of ultimate or enduring significance. Nothing appears to be going anywhere (1:5-11), and people cannot by all their efforts break out of this caged treadmill (1:2-4; 2:1-11); they cannot fundamentally change anything (1:12-15; 6:10; 7:13). Hence they often toil foolishly (4:4,7-8; 5:10-17; 6:7-9). All their striving “under the sun” (1:3) after unreal goals leads only to disillusionment.
  2. Wisdom is better than folly (2:13-14; 7:1-6,11-12,19; 8:1,5; 9:17-18; 10:1-3,12-15; 12:11) – it is God’s gift to those who please him (2:26). But it is unwarranted to expect too much even from such wisdom – to expect that human wisdom is capable of solving all problems (1:16-18) or of securing for itself enduring rewards or advantages (2:12-17; 4:13-16; 9:13-16).
  3. Experience confronts humans with many apparent disharmonies and anomalies that wisdom cannot unravel. Of these the greatest is human life, which comes to the same end as that of the animals – death (2:15; 3:16-17; 7:15; 8:14; 9:1-3; 10:5-7).
  4. Although God made humankind upright, people have gone in search of many “schemes” (to get ahead by taking advantage of others; see 7:29; cf. Psalm 10:2; 36:4; 140:2). So even humans are a disappointment (7:24-29).
  5. People cannot know or control what will come after them, or even what lies in the more immediate future. Therefore, all their efforts remain balanced on the razor’s edge of uncertainty (2:18; 6:12; 7:14; 9:2).
  6. God keeps humans in their place (3:16-22).
  7. God has ordered all things (3:1-15; 5:19; 6:1-6; 9:1), and a human being cannot change God’s appointments or fully understand them or anticipate them (3:1; 7; 11:1-6). But the world is not fundamentally chaotic or irrational. It is ordered by God, and it is for humans to accept matters as they are by God’s appointments, including their own limitations. Everything has its “time” and is good in its time.

He therefore counsels:

  1. Accept the human state as it is shaped by God’s appointments and enjoy the life you have been given as fully as you can.
  2. Don’t trouble yourself with unrealistic goals – know the measure of human capabilities.
  3. Be prudent in all your ways – follow wisdom’s leading.
  4. Fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13), beginning already in your youth before the fleeting days of life’s enjoyments are gone and “the days of trouble” (12:1) come when the infirmities of advanced age vex you and hinder you from tasting, seeing and feeling the good things of life.
  5. Ecclesiastes provides plentiful instruction on how to live meaningfully, purposefully and joyfully within the theocratic arrangement – primarily by placing God at the center of one’s life, work and activities, by contentedly accepting one’s divinely appointed lot in life, by making sound life decisions and by reverently trusting in and obeying the Creator-King.

Interpreting Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes presents us a naturalistic vision of life – one that sees life through distinctively human eyes – but ultimately recognizes the rule and reign of God in the world. This more humanistic quality has made the book popular among certain audiences today, especially those who have seen more than their fair share of pain and instability in life but who still cling to their hope in God and can be recommended to any searching for meaning amidst meaningless. Whichever way you look at it, and Solomon does identify several, life is pointless, but bring God into the picture and, while we may only see a small part, then there is a point. Unlike Song of Songs, Bible scholars are broadly in agreement how to interpret Ecclesiastes although, as this author has found out over a period of more than fifty years since discovering the book, there are many hidden depths to explore.

Ecclesiastes, like much of life, represents a journey from one point to another. Solomon articulated his starting point early in the book: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” (1:2,3), indicating the utter futility and meaninglessness of life as he looked at it from under the sun as opposed to under heaven. Nothing made sense to him because he had already tried any number of remedies – pleasure, work, and intellect – to alleviate his sense of feeling lost in the world. All this makes depressing reading but for God. Even so, and despite lots of good advice on how to make the most of our lot in life, this is no guarantee things will turn out well for us or better than the bad people or animals even.

In this important aspect, the optimism of Proverbs for those who follow the way of wisdom is not the picture presented in Ecclesiastes, other than God is for real and we should obey Him. In Solomon’s search for meaning and significance in life, God remained present. For instance, we read God provides food, drink, and work (2:24); both the sinner and the righteous person live in God’s sight (2:26); God’s deeds are eternal (3:14); and God empowers people to enjoy His provision (5:19). Ultimately, the great truth of Ecclesiastes lies in the acknowledgment of God’s ever-present hand on our lives. Even when injustice and uncertainty threaten to overwhelm us, we can (indeed must) trust and follow Him (12:13-14).

Not long after I became a Christian, as a teenager, I was invited to preach at the Gospel Meeting at my Brethren Assembly. I can’t recall all the rationale or what I said on the occasion, but I chose to preach on Ecclesiastes, which is somewhat remarkable for someone just starting out, not realising fifty years later I would be writing in-depth concerning this very book. I have discovered since then preachers who have preached on this Book with a measure of success. While it is not for us to question the ways of God, it is quite possible that its message that life is meaningless outside of God will have touched a chord with some. For those seeking to find out what is life is about, Ecclesiastes may be a good place to start.   

Knowingly or not, people have written profound stuff down the ages, when some of the ideas behind what was written were finding their origin in the Book of Ecclesiastes, whether or not the author realised it. I close this section with three quite different examples of such writings, where this was the case (imo), and leave readers to make the connection between these and the Book of Ecclesiastes.

From the popular hit musical “Cabaret”:

“What good is sitting, alone in your room?

Come hear the music play!

What good is sitting alone in your room?

Come hear the music play

Life is a cabaret, old chum

Come to the Cabaret

Start by admitting from cradle to tomb

It isn’t that long a stay

Life is a cabaret, old chum

It’s only a cabaret, old chum

And I love a cabaret!”

From “As you like it” by William Shakespeare:

“All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances,

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.

Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lined,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;

His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

From the Order of Burial in the Book of Common Prayer (1662):

“Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.

In the midst of life we are in death: of whom may we seek for succour, but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins art justly displeased?

Yet, O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and most merciful Saviour, deliver us not into the bitter pains of eternal death.

Thou knowest, Lord, the secrets of our hearts; shut not thy merciful ears to our prayer; but spare us, Lord most holy, O God most mighty, O holy and merciful Saviour, thou most worthy Judge eternal, suffer us not, at our last hour, for any pains of death, to fall from thee.”

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