Thoughts on Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes  •  13 min. read  •  grade level: 7
As originally created by God, man was meant to find unalloyed delight on earth, with a nature capable of enjoyment, a mind capable of instruction and expansion, and a frame capable of exertion; and everything around him would have ministered to his pleasure, or have afforded opportunities for the full development of his faculties. Is that the case now? Let us listen to the words of the Preacher again: "I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." Chap. 1:16-18. This is human experience, yet not the experience which of necessity a man must have, but the experience of all men who are still suffering under the consequences of the fall. And however great man may be on earth, whatever be the powers of his mind or the yearnings of his heart, he cannot as a child of Adam get beyond what is here described. Like some fair ruin with here and there traces of exquisite workmanship still remaining by which we can contrast the evident design of the architect with the present condition of the building, so we can discern in man's feelings and powers what he was originally capable of, while compelled to own he is but a wreck of that noblest of God's works of creation.
But whence did he acquire that experience which enabled him to pronounce such a verdict on all the pursuits of men under the sun? He tells us: "I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also is vanity. I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it? I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting [or guiding] mine heart with wisdom; and to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life. I made me great works; I builded me houses; I planted me vineyards: I made me gardens and orchards, and I planted trees in them of all kind of fruits: I made me pools of water, to water therewith the wood that bringeth forth trees: I got me servants and maidens, and had servants born in my house; also I had great possessions of great and small cattle above all that were in Jerusalem before me: I gathered me also silver and gold, and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces: I gat me men singers and women singers, and the delights of the sons of men, as musical instruments, and that of all sorts [for, as it might be rendered, and perhaps more correctly, 'wife and wives,' that is, many wives]. So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labor; and this was my portion of all my labor." Chap. 2:1-10.
Such was the wide range of pleasures, intellectual and carnal, that he explored. Nothing was withheld of any joy; but while entering so keenly into all that he describes, he tells us his wisdom remained with him. Fully competent then was he from personal experience, and from the wisdom which never forsook him, to estimate aright what all this was worth. Would not such a one be satisfied with what this life afforded? If others less favored were disappointed, he at least had his fill of everything he desired. And, having drunk deeply of all that could be indulged in, he has left on record what he found it all to be. "Behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun." He discerned the value of wisdom; it "excelleth folly, as far as light excelleth darkness"; but to the fool, as well as to the wise, death comes, and after death the fool and wise are forgotten; yes, the wise man dies as the fool. Hence he hated life, and he hated all the labor which he had labored under the sun, because he must leave it to the man that shall be after him; and who knows, he mournfully asks, whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? History answers the question and illustrates forcibly the vanity of all things which he felt so keenly. Rehoboam forsook the counsel of the old men that had stood before Solomon his father, and lost by his act of folly the allegiance of the ten tribes. He forsook also the Lord after three years of his reign had elapsed, witnessed the invasion of Shishak king of Egypt, and lost the treasures Solomon had amassed. The shields of gold went to swell the coffers of Egypt, and Rehoboam had to substitute shields of brass in their stead. From speaking of himself, Solomon turns to others and, taking a survey of all things done under the sun, declares all is vanity.
Of wealth he speaks. It has its use. Money is a defense (chap. 7:12); it is God's gift; yet how often do men feel the vanity of it all. Coveted, toiled after as the one great good, the man acquires wealth, fills his coffers, and yet is unsatisfied. If childless, he may desire offspring, but children are God's gift, not to be purchased by money. If he loves silver, he will not be satisfied with it (chap. 5:10). How can things of earth really satisfy an immortal spirit? If he feasts his eyes with his money today, it may vanish away shortly, and he be left with an heir—his own child—born to inherit beggary (vv. 13, 14). Again, if he has been prospered to the last and his riches have not fled away, he must leave them; for as he entered the world, so must he leave it. Death summons him, but not his goods with him. All that he has remains behind him, while he, naked as he entered into the world, passes out of it by the portal of death. Riches cannot satisfy the soul; they cannot buy off death, nor can their owner insure their retention for the morrow. So Solomon admonishes his fellow creatures, "What profit hath he that hath labored for the wind?"
Again the Preacher speaks and discourses about wisdom. He acknowledged its value, for none were more competent than he was to speak of it. It strengthens the wise men more than ten mighty men which are in the city. It is better than strength, he could say, and better than weapons of war. (Chap. 7:11-19; 9:16, 18.) But here also the vanity of all things done under the sun made itself felt; for when he applied his heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on the earth, as he turned to behold the works of God, he found a limit to the prosecution of his researches; and as he surveyed the works of men, he was only made more painfully conscious of the wretchedness and ruin brought in by sin.
Of the works of creation he had learned a great deal, as if elsewhere recorded; but man is but a finite being, unable to fathom the infinite. This Solomon discovered. "I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labor to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea further, though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it." Chap. 8:17. There are fields of knowledge beyond man's capacity to explore or even reach. He may, like Solomon, arrive at this point, to learn from all he knows, how little he knows; how knowledge acquired is the mother of many a question which the student is unable to answer; and how incompetent he is to understand even all that he sees around him. Such must ever be his condition here. By the light of revelation we can look onward to a day when we shall, but not down here, know as we are known (1 Cor. 13:1212For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. (1 Corinthians 13:12)).
Turning to investigate the actions of men, he may learn the evils that are done under the sun—the crying injustice, the lawlessness, the frauds, and many acts of oppression that are constantly practiced among men—to find, while he sees them, his powerlessness to hinder them (chap. 3:16; 8:14). Another arm is alone able to restrain the lawless; another mind than any of Adam's fallen descendants can alone devise the remedy. The day of the Son of man must dawn ere One will be found on earth competent to put things straight. How often is justice now perverted! The righteous suffer, and the guilty go free. Folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in a low place. Servants ride on horses, and princes walk as servants on earth. (Chap. 10:6, 7.) And the wise man, courted for his help in time of pressing need, is forgotten when the hour of distress has passed away (chap. 9:1,5). Thus wisdom may disclose to its possessor what is wrong, and make him feel the bitterness of it, sensible all the time of his powerlessness to correct it. To know good and evil was the bait held out by the serpent—to be just like God. The wise man sees clearly the evil, knows what ought to be, but learns he cannot do it. And woman, originally God's provision for man, his suited help, is found to become, when a tool of the enemy, an instrument for his everlasting ruin (chap. 7:26-29).
After this we may be prepared for the picture presented at the close of the book. Man, created originally in the image of God, not subject to death, is depicted as traveling onward to the tomb, learning as he goes along, as we have seen, that all around of things done under the sun are vanity; and at the close of his life, giving in his own death a most convincing proof of the accuracy of the Preacher's statement, "All is vanity." Beautiful is the poetry of the description, but sad are the features of it.
While others may love to describe what man might have been, Solomon tells us what he is; but he speaks not of his greatness, his powers of mind or body; he writes of decay. Created to be the lord of God's creation on earth, manifesting the power of mind over matter, a pigmy by the side of the everlasting hills, yet able to accomplish gigantic works which seem almost to defy the ravages of time; far inferior to many of the animals in brute strength, yet able to subdue them, and to make the forces of nature subservient to his will; what might he not have been had sin not entered into the world? A worn out vessel, his strength decayed, his knees tottering, his hands trembling, his sight failing, his ears dull of hearing; all that once charmed him, able to charm him no longer, a mere wreck of what he was, awaiting the hour of his departure to his long home; such is he as described by Solomon. Who will wonder that the burden with which he began is the burden with which he ends. "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; all is vanity." Chap. 1:2; 12:8.
But amid all that spoke of vanity there was another subject he touched on; for, being wise, he taught the people. He had spoken at length about man and his works; he speaks briefly about God and what He does. And what he says about God (for the name Jehovah does not occur in the book) only brings out in higher relief the ruined condition of man. Man abides not, his thoughts perish, his works crumble to dust, and his name is forgotten. Created originally not for death, he is now born to die, but God abides. "I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be forever: nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before Him." Chap. 3:14. Here in the midst of what is transient is something permanent. This he had found and desired to impress on others (chap. 5:1-7; 11:9; 12:1). He would tell the creature of the Creator. It is not grace that he is charged to proclaim; it is not salvation he is empowered here to offer; but to God's creatures, responsible as such to Him that made them, he would speak. The Creator will take cognizance of, and make judiciary inquiry into, the actions of His creatures. This none can escape, and of this all need to be reminded. And now that he has exposed the vanity of all things that are done under the sun, he opens out the only word for man to follow: "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep His commandments: for this is the whole duty of man." Chap. 12:13. The fuller light that we possess confirms all that Solomon said of man, and tells us likewise more about God; but the principle here enunciated is true for all time—the creature should own the authority of God, and yield implicit obedience to all He is pleased to enjoin. "For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil." Chap. 12:14.
And just where Ecclesiastes ends, Proverbs begins. Ecclesiastes exposes the vanity of all things here; Proverbs tells us of true wisdom. Ecclesiastes lands man as man in decay and death; Proverbs holds out life, and tells us how to walk wisely on earth. In perfect keeping with this are the subjects of their closing chapters. What Ecclesiastes describes has been briefly referred to. What Proverbs speaks of is man and woman in their respective spheres; the man, King Lemuel, ruling; the woman, the virtuous wife, guiding the house wisely and well. We see them in their work, but we read of no end to it. Death is not introduced as cutting short their career of usefulness, or carrying them away, when helpless, by old age. They exemplify what Solomon had taught his son would flow from the possession of that wisdom which is to be desired—life. And we close the book, feeling that we leave them, as it were, the one on the throne and the other in the house. We come to the end of the book of Proverbs, but we leave them still in life and activity.