Thoughts on Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes  •  12 min. read  •  grade level: 7
From two opposite points of view is life on earth generally regarded by mankind. The one half view it as a prospect opening out before them; the other half take a retrospective I survey of all they have passed through. Like the cloudless morning of a long summer's day does it appear to one just emerging from childhood, as radiant with hope he starts forth on his journey to realize the dream of his boyhood. Like the gloomy end of a winter's day does it appear to many a one who has reached the verge of that span ordinarily allotted to man on earth, as chastened and bowed down, it may be, with the remembrance of failures, the old man travels on to the tomb. Each has formed an estimate of what life here is, but the one speaks of what he hopes for, and the other tells of that which he has found. A man's idea of a road he has not yet traveled, will often turn out to be wrong; so youth's estimate of life is generally fallacious. Can we trust to one who has traveled the road himself to give us a just idea of what life on earth really is? Each one can tell us of what he has found, and may seek to indoctrinate us with his own idea; but the picture will be differently colored according to the trials or joys each has met with by the way. It will be but the experience of an individual after all.
Man wants something more. Where shall he find it? The wisdom of the ancients cannot supply it; the researches of those who have lived in our day cannot furnish us with it. It needs one gifted with real wisdom to estimate it; it needs one able to search diligently into the things of earth to discover it. One, and only one, of the children of Adam, has been competent for the task, and he has undertaken to perform it. What David, the man after God's own heart, could not have accurately delineated, that Solomon his son could and did; and the book of Ecclesiastes is the utterance of the Preacher, dictated by the Spirit of God, to provide man authoritatively from God, but also experimentally by the wisest of men, with a just estimate of what life here below for a child of Adam really is. Endowed by God with a measure of wisdom surpassing all before him, "For he was wiser than all men; than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, and Chalcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol" (1 Kings 4:31), and never equaled by any that have come after him, king in Jerusalem, possessed of wealth beyond any monarch the world has ever seen ("silver... was nothing accounted of in the days of Solomon"), all that wealth could purchase, all that power could command, all that wisdom could search out, he could enjoy and understand. "What," then, "can the man do that cometh after the king?" "Who can eat, or who else can hasten [or enjoy] hereunto, more than I? Eccles. 2:12, 25.
This was no idle boast. A man of pleasure, a votary of science, the ruler over kings, meting out justice to his subjects, answering all the hard questions of the Queen of Sheba, fertile in invention, diligent in study, rich in all that constituted the wealth of a nomad, pastoral, or settled, and highly civilized people—what source of pleasure was sealed up to him? what field of knowledge on earth was kept from him? Of all the pleasures that man can revel in, he had drunk deep, while at the same time he investigated the works of God, and learned those laws by which the life and order of the universe are regulated. And, when we speak of Solomon's wisdom, we must remember it was not mere genius as people speak, nor the fruit of matured study and diligent attention; but God gave him wisdom and knowledge besides riches, wealth, and honor, such as none of the kings that had been before him, neither shall any after him have the like (2 Chron. 1:12). Such was the one appointed to depict faithfully what the life on earth of a fallen creature is, and only can be, as One and One alone who has trod this earth as man, has rightly and fully exhibited what man should be. David's son describes the one; David's Lord has set forth the other.
The book of Ecclesiastes then is of great value and might profitably be studied by men of the world in our day. Its writer had no reason to bear a grudge against the world; as men would say, It had used him well, conceding him his place, paying him due honor, and rendering him full homage to his marvelous wisdom. For "King Solomon passed all the kings of the earth in riches and wisdom. And all the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon, to hear his wisdom, that God had put in his heart. And they brought every man his present, vessels of silver, and vessels of gold, and raiment, harness, and spices, horses, and mules, a rate year by year." 2 Chron. 9:22-24.
Competent then surely to tell us what life is, what has he to say of it? how does he describe it? "Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity." Eccles. 1:2. Were these the words of a disappointed man whose hopes had been cruelly crushed and himself roughly treated by the way, none could wonder at such a commencement. But these are the words of the most prosperous, humanly speaking, of men the world has ever witnessed. "Vanity of vanities"—a mere breath, a vapor passing over the earth, short-lived in its existence—such is the recorded experience of the son of David, king in Jerusalem, and that not of some things, but of all. "All is vanity," "saith the Preacher." And here he takes a title not elsewhere met with outside this book—Preacher. He would collect those about him who were desirous to hear, and instruct them, for such is the meaning of the term. So, while other portions of Scripture treat of the future and the path of the righteous on earth, this addresses itself to all whose hearts are in the world, pursuing the occupations of life, and tells them what they really are, as the king's son has discovered by his own experience, and has recorded by the pen of inspiration for the instruction of all who will hearken to him.
"What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?" He takes up the diligent, well-occupied man, toiling away, the man who finds plenty to do and is happy in doing it, thoroughly engaged in the business of life. But why this cry of the Preacher who "sought to find out acceptable words" (chap. 12:10)? And why does he view things so mournfully? The secret comes out. "One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth forever." The earth abides; man does not; hence the question that needs no answer, "What profit," etc.
And here we are furnished with a view of death of which it is well for man to be reminded. Death is the wages of sin, but it is not viewed in this aspect in Ecclesiastes. It is not the reason of its entrance into the world that Solomon dilates on, but its presence here as a worm at the root of the tree of pleasure. (Chap. 2:15; 3:19, 20; 5:15; 6:6; 9:3.) It mars pleasure, it chills enjoyment, for it cuts off man just when he would sit down after years of toil to reap the fruit of his labor. How different was the prospect of Adam ere he fell! How different will be the experience of saints during the Millennium, and of men on the new earth! But now to man, feeling the consequences of the fall, death is the great marplot blasting all his hopes. What takes place after death is another matter; other scriptures set that forth. This book regards death from this side of the grave, and shows how it effects a severance between man and the fruit of all his labor which he thinks he is just about to reap. And the misery of it is just this: man has labored for years and looks naturally to enjoy what he, not others, has amassed, but finds death comes in and takes him away, so he leaves all the fruit of his labor to be enjoyed by another. "There is a man whose labor is in wisdom, and in knowledge, and in equity; yet to a man that hath not labored therein shall he leave it for his portion. This also is vanity and a great evil." Chap. 2:21.
What a trouble then is death—an unwelcome visitor which none can keep out of his house. It comes unbidden, at an unseasonable time in man's eyes, and strips its victim of everything; for "As he came forth of his mother's womb, naked shall he return to go as he came, and shall take nothing of his labor, which he may carry away in his hand. And this also is a sore evil, that in all points as he came, so shall he go: and what profit hath he that hath labored for the wind?" Chap. 5:15,16. And whatever his position on earth, all finally go to one place (chap. 6:6)—the rich, the poor, the wise, the fool, the righteous, the wicked are found at last with the untimely birth which has never seen the sun. And death, the great leveler of all ranks, reduces man to a level below himself, even to that of the beasts; "For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go into one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again." Chap. 3:19,20. With the thread of man's life thus unrolling before him, at one end of it his exit from the womb, at the other end his exit from the world by death, all that is seen being the transient existence of a mortal born to die, we can understand the reason of that cry, "What profit hath a man," etc.
But if death deprives a man of the enjoyment of the fruits of his toil, his life and all that surrounds him speaks of ceaseless and reiterated labor. The work begun is never perfected. Things in heaven and things on earth proclaim this. "The sun ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose, going toward the south, and turning again to the north" (thus some connect verses 5 and 6). Each day the work is done, only to be repeated again the next day. Each year, the course it has traversed is traversed again.
"The wind," too "whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits." The rivers are ever running to the sea, "yet the sea is not full: unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again," or perhaps better, "unto the place where the rivers go, thither they turn to go." "All things are full of labor; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing."
Thus nature would teach him, if he regarded it aright, that here, as yet, no abiding rest can be enjoyed. Life is a busy scene. What has been will be, and there is nothing new under the sun. And to complete the picture of vanity, "there is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after." The Obliviousness in Solomon's days of what had gone before was not a feature peculiar to his time. It has, it will, characterize man in all ages. What profit then is there in the labor of man? What has been done will be done again, and what has been effected will be forgotten by the generations which may come after.
With this as the preface to his book, the Preacher proceeds to show that he writes not from hearsay, nor culls the wisdom of others, but has tried for himself what life under the sun is for one of the human race. (Chap. 1:12-2:26.)
He set himself absolutely to the task of searching out by wisdom all things that are done under the sun. In this he made good use of that wonderful gift God had bestowed on him. He beheld them all, "And behold," he writes, "all was vanity and vexation of spirit." Man may see the defects, be conscious of the want, but he cannot supply it. What a condition to be in! Such is man's condition on earth as one who has departed from God. He must feel keenly, if he feels at all, how bitter are the results of turning from the living and true God. He sees what is crooked, discerns what is wanting, but cannot put things straight or supply that which is lacking. "All the foundations of the earth are out of course" are the words of Asaph. "All is vanity and vexation of spirit" is the experience of the king's son. And this, we must remember, is not the experience of the sinner reaping the fruit of what he has sown, but one of the old creation (though a sinner himself) feeling the ruin and disorder sin has brought on the Earth