Ecclesiastes: A Positive Message
“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” (Ecc. 1:2) The Preacher writing these words is Solomon, son of David and king over Israel in Jerusalem. (Ecc. 1:1, 12) A treatise that begins with such a dim outlook on life can hardly be expected to deliver a positive message, and yet the book of Ecclesiastes
does just that. How can a positive message come from a book that begins with such dismal opening words? This is a reasonable question that can be answered by a close examination of the rest of the book.
First let’s consider the purpose of this book. Solomon wrote; “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (Ecc. 1:3) We might say; “What is the meaning of life?” He was uniquely positioned to address this question having been blessed by God with wisdom, intelligence, wealth, and fame (I Ki. 4: 20-34). It is also important to note that while in pursuit of the answer his heart continued to be guided by his God-given wisdom. (Ecc. 2: 3, 9) This allowed Solomon to maintain his objectivity as an observer during his personal attempts to answer these questions.
In his search for an answer, Solomon asks if the purpose of life is found in the accumulation of wisdom/knowledge (Ecc. 1:16, 17; 2:12), pleasure (Ecc. 2: 1), possessions (Ecc. 2: 4-8), wealth/legacy (Ecc. 6), etc. His answer in each case is emphatic, “vanity of vanity, all is vanity”. Solomon answers these questions through his personal experience, particularly in chapters 1 and 2. His ability to search for an answer through personal experience is unique because of his God-given wisdom, intelligence, wealth and position as king, provided him with all the necessary authority and means to be able to make each of these “purposes” a reality in his life. Note how he begins this journey in Ecc. 1:4-10. Solomon, through his wisdom, begins searching for a revelation in nature that will explain life, but what he finds are the same old things happening over and over, nothing new. Vanity.
He continues the search for the meaning of life through his observations of the people and events surrounding him in the remainder of the book; Ecclesiastes 3-12. What he finds is injustice, oppression, wickedness, and unfairness in the lives of men. One example of unfairness in life (which is true for many even today) is that often those who have worked all their life to attain a certain lifestyle are left unable to enjoy the fruits of their labor for reasons such as health problems or other life events that occur. (Ecc 6:1, 2) He also points out that the rich, poor, powerful and oppressed share the same fate in that they all die. Again, Solomon concludes that all is vanity, striving after wind.
Hold on! Where’s the positive message?
The positive message of Ecclesiastes can be seen in two ways. The first is in Solomon’s inability to find a way to fulfill his life by doing “things” or obtaining “things” through his own means. We have arguably the wisest man that ever lived saying; “Wealth, fame, success, knowledge, legacy, etc., are not the way a man’s life is fulfilled.” If we would but listen to these words (Ecc 12:11) how different our lives might be, as we would avoid these common misconceptions about man’s purpose and instead pursue that which gives true meaning to our lives by living life under God’s control.
Solomon recognized an inaccuracy in the question he initially asked; “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (Ecc. 1:3) There is a basic underlying assumption made in this statement, that a person’s fulfillment, happiness or joy in life is solely dependent on each person’s labor and abilities. Initially Solomon had left God out of the equation, an omission he begins to correct in chapter 3.
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence,
and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.”
This chapter begins with a series of pairs of diametrically opposed events described as occurring at appropriate times. (Ecc. 3:1-8). In Ecclesiastes 3: 9-11 Solomon now recognizes God in this pattern: “What gain has the worker from his toil? 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.” In this list are pairs of opposite things (such as birth/death, war/peace, etc.) which are appropriate in their time. Although Solomon now understands that the eternal God has made everything appropriate and beautiful in its time, He did not give man the ability to understand fully how God does it. That which Solomon once called vain he now proclaims as beautiful because God is in control. In Solomon’s search for life’s meaning, he found God was the answer.
Solomon goes on to state; “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. 3:12-13) Being joyful is not based on how hard we labor, how much we have or how wise we are. Life can have meaning because God has given us the ability to be happy in spite of life’s circumstances, not because of life’s circumstances. Ecc. 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; and 11:9 all express similar thoughts. In Ecc. 11:9 Solomon says; “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.” Here Solomon gave a warning to the young that we must all heed: the way we obtain joy and fulfillment in life will be judged by God.
How can we be joyful in spite of our circumstances? Solomon tells the young in Ecc. 12:1; “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”. He concludes in Ecc. 12:13; “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” Ultimately the way to be joyful, happy and fulfilled in life is to remember, reverence and obey God. After all He is our Creator, and a life lived without Him is as Solomon put it so well: “Vanity of Vanities, All is Vanity.” A life lived with God in control is “beautiful”.