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Ecclesiastes - an introduction

A puff of wind

Main Principle

1 John 2:16 - 2:17 (NKJV) For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever.

Question being answered

Ecclesiastes 1:3 (KJV) 3What profit [gain] hath a man of all his labour which he taketh [toils] under the sun?

An introduction – the Natural Man

How much money do you need to make you happy? As it transpires you need about 10% more than you have, irrespective how rich you are. The trouble is, if you succeed in gaining that 10% extra, you actually need another 10%. If you work hard and actually accumulate wealth, do you have any control over it once you die – Solomon asks this question and the answer really bothers him. How much pleasure do you need? If you never worked but had pleasure all the days of your life would you be any happier. As it transpires, work actually prolongs life.

The book of Ecclesiastes is in one way like a pastor guiding his flock rather than a sergeant major commanding a pontoon. On the other hand the word of Ecclesiastes appears to be that of a debater (qoheleth ie ko-heh’ leth meaning 'to assemble), which the KJV translates as "preacher" but "teacher" in the NIV. It is actually impossible to translate the meaning into English. A better rendition may be "Confessions of the heart of King Solomon, the Son of David". Today I will use the term "King Solomon" or "Preacher" which is acceptable given the writer was the Son of David (verse 1) and the king over Israel in Jerusalem (verse 12)[1].

In another way the book is like a student defending his thesis. It is a debater speaking before an assembly or group of people. This is where the name of the book comes from: "ecclesia" meaning to assembly or congregate. This word is used by Solomon, and is rendered "preacher" in most bibles, and is used seven times in the bible – all in Ecclesiastes.

The Preacher debates the hypothesis that all we do under the sun is vanity (or meaningless, if you are reading from the NIV). Indeed 28 times the word vanity or vanities is mentioned. The Preacher is debating a thesis or a point – and it is this fact that we need to understand. The point being debated only gives one side of the story: or nearly one side of the story: a careful reader will find some allusion to the other side, but it is further elaborated on by the other great wise man – Jesus Christ. In essence this book cannot be read without the gospel of Christ which is why the Bible consists of more than one book, all bound together into one – the Debater raises the issue – why do we labour so hard, when we all will die? The gospel of Christ answers this question.

Keys to the book

The question being answered is given in verse 3: If a man labours all day and every day, and gains or looses much, what is the point? It appears it does not matter how hard he labours, he is never completely satisfied. Now this labour may not just be work – Solomon expands this into other activities such as pleasure, which we will explore in a minute. The dilemma for a Christian is the book appears to be very negative – it appears that one can not even labour for God and have it profit anything. But the key to this is the phrase "under the sun" which Solomon uses 27 times.

Look at:
1:3 "toils under the sun" was meaningless – working long and heard is vanity.

1:14 Solomon had seen all the "works under the sun" – all was a grasping for the wind. This is another phrase the Preacher uses often: "grasping for the wind" to indicate that it matters not how much we work, eat, enjoy friendship including endless sex, or have pleasure; we will never quite get there. A puff of wind comes and disappears – can you grasp it and hold it – no! Our life under the sun can never quite be grasped and may meaning of.

3:16 The meaningless extended to civil activities – the places of judgement and righteousness – the parliaments and councils and courts were all corrupt.

4:1 Furthermore, Solomon realises the entire world is bordering on being meaningless – he looks around and see great oppression, all of which is meaningless.

9:3 It is full of men whose heart is evil and deceit full.

The conclusion by verse 11 (chapter 1) is one of hopelessness and despair, one of difficulty and disappointment. Indeed, some may see a sign of fatalism in the book, yet this is not the case. The book however is a contrast – the matching pair is the New Testament – Solomon speaks of things "under the sun" while Jesus speaks of things "under heaven".

In terms of labour

Colossians 3:23 (KJV) And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men;

1 Corinthians 15:58 (NKJV) Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord.

In terms of hope:

John 6:47 (KJV) Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me hath everlasting life.

Solomon himself contrasts that which is under the sun and that which is heavenward – that which please God has meaning; that which pleases solely the heart is grasping for the wind. Therefore, the book does not stand alone, and it is available for study like any other book in the bible: the right view point however must be taken. The book is the viewpoint of the natural man searching out the things on this planet.

The other phrase he uses to indicate the futility of the action is "wind". The wind is first mentioned in verse 6 (chapter 1) as an example if the cyclic nature of life – this is taken up in chapter 3, which we will not get into today. It is a contrast – God has a purpose and everything he has created has a purpose. Man has a purpose, but his heart is set against God and that outcome is a "grasping for the wind" or "chasing after the wind" (NIV) as in verse 14, 17 in chapter 1 and 11, 17 and 26 in chapter 2. This phrase is mentioned a total of nine (9) times and gives the essence of uselessness in purpose.

The Researcher

Solomon did not just observe the world idly and make a few comments. He was a diligent researcher of his topic: he threw his whole mind body and soul into the talks. Just note the number of times the word "I" is used in the book (65 times). Verse 13 (chapter 1) he set his heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under heaven. Furthermore, this was not of his own volition. Note in verse 13 that it was a task God gave him to do – so we might know that our labour on earth is vanity – meaningless, except that done for the Lord – for that set under heaven contrasted with that under the sun. We might however note that he succumbed to sin and pride of his intellect (for he was the most wise of all men, but certainly not the most humble) and he "gave his heart" not to seek God, but seek the pleasures of his heart. As Henry M Morris points out:

"Research on the systems and processes of God’s creation is legitimate, even commanded under God’s primeval dominion mandate (Gen 1:26-28), but not is the motivation is to explain all things without God, as out modern scientists have done"[2]. He goes on to explain that our labour needs to honour God.

The Preacher sets his whole heart in understanding the matter. Charles Swindoll writes "He investigated the roots of the matter, he explored, he examined all sides, he experimented".

Some findings

The first conclusion the Preacher comes up with is found in verse 18:

Ecclesiastes 1:18 (NIV) For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.

He finds that the great wisdom he has attained is a striving after the wind.

Solomon moves on. He uses wisdom 12-18 and find that is comes to nothing – he finds emptiness (14). In today’s world we can equate this to philosophy. He tries personal experience; he turns to pleasure and tries laughter – look at chapter 2:1,2. Be Happy – and Solomon finds it does not satisfy. He tries lust (1-3), alcohol (v4) which we all know will always fail, he tries satisfying the lust of the eyes (4-6), then the pride (7-8) and concludes "I was great (v9)" and yet all was vanity. He then moves from objects to philosophy (12-14) – and becomes a Camus or Nietzsche or Dostoyevsky or Pascal or a Nilhist and finds none can satisfy. The philosophy of man cannot possibly satisfy the hunger of the soul – only God can fill this.

The Crux (Is life worth living?)

The problem Solomon could not solve that everything a man did, whether in material possession or in intellect – he could not answer the basic question – Why live? Because whether rich or poor, fool or wise, happy or sad you all die. Furthermore, no-one will remember you (v16). We could stop at this point and drive our car into a tree as the philosophy Camus did: but chapter 12 gives a stark contrast "Remember now your creator" and in verse 13 of the same chapter "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is man’s all".

The reason why life is worth living

Chapter 12 is the climactic chapter of the book. Verse 1 of this chapter reminds us that we are not just objects without beginning or end. Chapter 3 tells us there is a time to be born and a time die – each have a specific purpose. Chapter 12 tells us we a creator and for this reason we have meaning, which rests in the character of God himself. Therefore, the way to understanding life is vested with God because he is our creator. What better person to understand the intricacies of a complex object than its creator! Indeed as His created being we have an obligation to serve and worship him. Isaiah explains the relationship of the creator and created using the analogy of the potter and his pot.

Isaiah 29:16 (NIV) You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay! Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, "He did not make me"? Can the pot say of the potter, "He knows nothing"?

This is what the world has forgotten as it thumbs its nose at God – He is the creator and will restore all things.

Our purpose in life however cannot be accomplished while we are distant or separated from him due to our sin. We must first have our sins judged and forgiven by that same Creator. This same creator defeated death at the cross and now offers salvation to all who accept it. Therefore, without God in our life is meaningless – we are merely a bag of chemicals destined to nothing, like a puff of wind. Without Him we are destine to die in our sins. This does mean a godless person will not find happiness or even contentment, but if that person attempts to think beyond the reasons of their existence, they come to same conclusion as Solomon. And of course their soul will perish in hell.

Ecclesiastes is really about death

The answer to the problem of death, which is what Ecclesiastes is really about, lies in resurrection. The problem of death is, if we have no resurrection, life is meaningless – indeed we are no different than the tree or animals. This even Solomon acknowledges in chapter 3. The Apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians shows that we will be extremely miserable if this fact is not true. 1 Corinthians 15: 12-19 argues eloquently that if there is no resurrection, then Jesus Christ could not have possibly risen, and if this is the case, our sins cannot not have been forgiven, therefore we will all die. And it is beyond doubt that if we die in our sins we will end hell, which is prepared for Satan and his angels for the wages of sin is death. And therefore if this was the case we are putting our hope in something meaningless and therefore we are of "all men the most pitiable".

However, as this chapter shows (Chapter 15), which is by far one of the most important chapters in the New Testament, there is a resurrection. Paul knew it as did the many eye witnesses. Verse 20:

1 Corinthians 15:20 -21 (NKJV) But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead.

Jesus Christ died for our sins. He defeated death and has returned to heaven – the first amongst the dead. For this reason he is call the "firstfruits" which in Old Testament times were sacrificed to God. Jesus, who overcame death, because he rose from the dead, now is the resurrection. If Christ rose, so are we able to. Therefore, Paul can move to write:

1 Corinthians 15:54 - 58 (KJV) … Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.

And therefore we have answered the question of Solomon. Our labour, our strivings, our friendships, possessions and things we do are not in vain. If were to do all for the glory of God, our labour is not in vain – it has a purpose. Now, we may not always understand this purpose especially when bad things happen. But as Paul also tells us in Romans;

Romans 8:28 (KJV) And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.

How do we do God’s purpose? Solomon writes 12:13

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.

We need to keep his commandments. John gives us the New Testament perspective: "For this is the love of God, that we keep His Commandments: and His commandments are not grievous (1 John 5:3). The Psalmist writes "Make me to go in the path of thy commandments; for therein do I delight" (Ps 119:35). One who has his sins forgiven, who shares the love of Christ with others are able to "delight" in the commandments of the Lord.

Judgement

The final word of Solomon is that God will bring every work into judgement including every secret thing, whether good and evil. This is a clear reminder that we cannot ever hide from God. Perhaps the hardest thing we have to control is our mind – and as Jesus reminded us, the heart attitude is as important, if not more important than the action itself. We need to take control – capture those evil thoughts - of the mind, take control of the heart and lead it into godliness – this is done with the Holy Spirits guidance. Those without Christ will be judged and cast into hell. Christians:

.. all must appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad. 2 Corinthians 5:10 (KJV)

All our secret sins will be revealed for all to see (nothing covered will not be revealed - Luke 12:2) and we surely shall be ashamed. That which is not silver and gold will be destroyed by fire. Of course, sin can be done away with – if we confess them to God, he is just and able to forgive them (1 John 1:9). If this is the case, the judgement seat, becomes one or rewards – we are judged and rewarded accordingly.

Conclusions

Life could be considered meaningless if we merely lived and died with no effect on any thing or anyone. But because we can live and die and rise again to be with Christ life has all meaning. We live for the creator to do the purpose of the creator and merely pleasing him gives us purpose. The meaning in our life comes about as we do the commands of God, love him, love others as he loved us and we go about telling others of that love. We will have eternal purpose when we tell the gospel of Christ.

John 7:37, 38 (KJV) In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.

 


 

 

[1]There is of course much rubbish written about alternative authors, not accepting that a wise man (See 1 Kings 4:29-34, 1 Kings 10:23 etc) could have written the book with two "bookends" or "frame" (1:1-11 and 12:9-14) and a central portion, without requiring two separate authors. Furthermore, just as the wise today will take verse or prose or quote from languages other than the one being written, most see that Solomon may done the same thing; so to have Aramaic words in a Hebrew text cannot be surprising. Luther may have started the debate about alternate authors, overthrowing hundreds of years of understanding by Jewish scholars, but these had a far boarder and deeper understanding of its place in the Canon then he. Solomon wrote the piece as indicated – there is not need to question further this fact.

[2] Morris, Henry M (2001) The Remarkable Wisdom of Solomon. Ancient insights from the Song of Solomon, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, Master Books, USA, pp186.

 

Extra Notes

The book also has some interesting insights which can be missed if not careful.

Look at verse 6 (chapter 1).

The wind goes toward the south,
And turns around to the north;
The wind whirls about continually,
And comes again on its circuit.

 

Understanding that the world was round and the wind drove around it in a circuit took a few thousand years to understand, yet Solomon mentions it here! And of course verse fives uses the same language as we today – we ask and answer the question of then and were the sun rose, when of course the sun is not doing the moving but the earth.

 

David L Simon (GBC June 2008) (draft)
\BeingChristian\ Ecclesiastes - A puff of wind