Ecclesiastes 1:1-18 and 12:8-14
Main Idea: Everything is meaningless without Jesus.
Bill Murray plays the main character, weatherman Phil Connors, in the comedy Groundhog Day (1993). His character relives February second—Groundhog Day—over and over again in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where the main festival takes place. Some obsessive viewers speculate Phil might have relived the same day for three decades. What does Phil do to cope with this monotonous prison? What does he do to try to find meaning when it seems like nothing he does really matters from one day to the next? He looks for happiness in different experiences. He tries all kinds of things in his quest for some semblance of meaning.
Phil turns to hedonistic pleasures and denies himself nothing. If it feels good, he does it! There’s one scene in the diner where he gorges himself on a table full of food, drinking coffee straight from the pot and smoking a cigarette. He punches out a guy who really annoys him. He seduces women into bed with him. When that fails to satisfy, Phil turns to greed. He robs an armored car and uses the money to buy the car and the clothes he has always wanted. He tries to live out the life he could not before. Next, Phil turns to despair. Faced with the reality that he cannot escape from this curse, Phil takes his life multiple times, but he wakes up again every time right back in Punxsutawney. Finally, Phil turns to knowledge. He tries to learn and better himself. He takes up piano, ice sculpting, French poetry, and more to become an educated, well-rounded man.
Phil does not wake up on February third until he finally reaches contentment in his current circumstance. Only then is the curse lifted. The last time he relives February second he looks into the eyes of a woman he has fallen in love with, Rita, and he says, “I don’t know what will happen tomorrow; all I know is I’m happy right now.” That’s kind of the point of the book of Ecclesiastes. We are stuck in a monotonous prison where nothing we do really changes anything, and the only way to live a meaningful life in this meaningless existence is to find satisfaction and contentment in what God has given us.
There is a really interesting scene in the movie, early on in Phil’s experience, when he is trying to figure out what is going on. He sits at a bar in a bowling alley with two local guys who are drunk, and he asks them this question: “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was the same, and nothing you did really mattered?”
One of the men stares into his beer mug and says, “Yep, that about sums it up for me.”
As Matt Chandler said, “Life is more like Groundhog Day than we want to admit,” and to prove the point, Chandler walks through a person’s typical day asking, “What will you do on Monday?” (Chandler, “Sixth Sense”). Your alarm will go off at 6:00 a.m., you will hit the snooze to sleep ten more minutes, and then you will stumble into the bathroom to brush your teeth and shower. You will get dressed, jump in your car, sit in traffic, and then finally get to work at your business or classroom or factory. You will work for a few hours and then take a break to eat lunch. Then you will get back to work for a few more hours, punch out, maybe hit the gym on the way home, and then eat dinner. You will sit on the couch and watch TV for a little bit, and then you will hop in bed. Guess what you will do Tuesday?!
We are stuck in a rut going through the motions trying to figure out what all of this means. There is a monotonous drudgery to life. Supervisors understand this reality, so they try to break the monotony with Hawaiian-shirt days or casual Fridays. And people deal with this reality in many different ways. I remember one of my college professors describing a factory job that he worked in college to pay tuition. He was surrounded by men in their 40s and 50s who had worked the same job in this factory for decades, standing on the assembly line doing the same thing hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, and decade after decade. He said the men would talk all week about how they could not wait to punch out on Friday so they could go to the bar, get smashed, stay drunk all weekend, sober up by Monday morning, and get back to work. The only way they knew to cope with the redundancy and boredom of their lives was to distract themselves for a short while, so they lived week to week for the escape. Some people look to substances; others look to pleasurable experiences; others pour themselves into their jobs, hoping success will make their lives meaningful; others turn to romantic relationships or accumulating possessions. Some even look to religion, hoping these rituals will give their life a semblance of meaning or transcendence or purpose.
In Ecclesiastes we find a guy faced with the monotony of life who tried to find meaning in all of those things and more, and in the end he concludes that everything is meaningless. Ecclesiastes was written by the “Teacher” or “Preacher.” The Hebrew word denotes the leader of a congregation—a Pastor (Eswine, Recovering Eden, 3). Who is he? He is the “Son of David, king in Jerusalem” (1:1). Solomon is the only candidate because he is the only one of David’s sons who ruled over a united Israel from Jerusalem (see Eccl 1:12; 1 Chr 29:25). Plus, Solomon’s life experience matches the experience of the author. Solomon’s responsibility for this work should not be surprising. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 314–15.When David died, he handed the kingdom of Israel over to his son Solomon. God came to Solomon in a dream and told him that anything he asked of God would be granted to him. Solomon was young and inexperienced, so he asked for wisdom in order to have the ability to rule the nation well and uphold justice (1 Kgs 3:5-15). God granted Solomon’s request, and Solomon used his great wisdom to rule the kingdom. One of the ways Solomon established a glorious kingdom was through his thousands of wise sayings and songs that people from all over the world came to hear (1 Kgs 4:29-34). Much of his wisdom is now contained in Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes.
However, the wisest man in the ancient world became a greedy, lustful, power-hungry, idolatrous fool. He violated the kingly commands of Deuteronomy 17 and accumulated possessions as well as women for himself. He had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines (1 Kgs 11:3). The foreign women he married pulled his heart away from Yahweh to false gods (1 Kgs 11:1-8). He did not deny himself anything he wanted. As a result he ruined his kingdom, and God told Solomon that following his death his kingdom would be divided during his son’s reign (1 Kgs 11:9-13).
Tradition says that Ecclesiastes reveals an older, repentant Solomon contemplating his mistakes and what he has learned. Johnny Hunt says Ecclesiastes appears to be the kind of book a person would write near the close of life, reflecting on life’s experiences and the lessons learned (Hunt, Ecclesiastes, 2). We have no way of verifying whether this is the case, but the book at least seems to take on that tone. And in the conclusion the father warns his son not to follow in his footsteps (12:12).
Solomon’s message in Ecclesiastes is just as relevant today. People think to themselves all the time, If I could just have more money, more pleasure, or more success, then I would really be happy. Solomon had everything and tried everything, and in Ecclesiastes, perhaps at the end of his life, he tells us, “No! All of that is meaningless.”
Ecclesiastes 1:2 gives the main point of the book when it states that everything in human existence is “hevel of hevels.” To say that life is as meaningless as it could possibly be, it uses the Hebrew superlative form. For example, the “holy of holies” is the most holy place on the planet. The “Song of Songs” is the greatest song Solomon ever wrote. Thus, hevel of hevels means “as meaningless as possible.” The word is used more than 30 times in the book, and it literally means “breath” or “vapor.” The vapor connotation carries the idea of fleeting. When you breathe on a cold day, you can see your breath for a moment, and then it vanishes. James gets at a similar idea when he says life is mist that vanishes tomorrow (Jas 4:14). Metaphorically the word hevel is used over and over again in Ecclesiastes to express the idea that life is vain or meaningless or futile or absurd. So basically the word carries the concept that life is meaningless, pointless, worthless, or frustrating because it is frail and fleeting. It can carry all of these connotations, and context really must determine which specific nuance of the word the interpreter chooses (see Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 282–83).
Often in the Bible, the word is used in connection with idols (Jer 16:19; Zech 10:2), and that is something of the meaning here in Ecclesiastes. People try to find satisfaction in created things rather than the Creator, and seeking satisfaction in anything or anyone other than God is idolatry. The search does not work because created things cannot bring ultimate satisfaction. It’s not that pleasure, money, stuff, sex, or success are bad things in and of themselves, but when they become ultimate things to us, they let us down. You see, a good thing turned into a God thing becomes a bad thing. It becomes an idol. We will see throughout this book that success, possessions, pleasure, and even religion are ultimately meaningless. They look like they can bring us true happiness, but it is a mirage. The problem is that none of these things is ever enough, and they do not last. Again, hevel carries the idea of fleeting and meaningless. Whatever you try to build your life on other than Jesus is ultimately utterly meaningless.
The garden of Eden, which God created for Adam and Eve, was “very good” (Gen 1:31)—a fruitful and meaningful place to live. But when Adam and Eve rebelled against God, they were expelled from the garden, and a guard was placed at the gateway on the east side (Gen 3:24). Ecclesiastes drives home the point that life in this fallen world east of Eden is futile and meaningless.
A parallel from Paul in the New Testament illumines this backdrop. While Ecclesiastes is never directly quoted in the New Testament, Romans 8:20 seems to be an allusion. Paul uses the same word (mataiote¯s) that the Septuagint uses in Ecclesiastes 1:2 when he talks about the curse God imposed on creation because of human sin. Romans 8:20-21 says,
For the creation was subjected to futility-not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it—in the hope that the creation itself will also be set free from the bondage of corruption into the glorious freedom of God’s children. (emphasis added)
When man rebelled against God’s design (Gen 3), a frustrating curse was brought into the world. Now nothing works right, and we live in a broken world where we suffer the consequences of going our own way. Disease, death, poverty, evil, injustice, and more characterize our current existence. Therefore, according to Paul, the fallen creation is futile and in bondage, screaming for rescue.
The creation of humanity and the fall into sin are the background to Solomon’s observations of life in this broken world. God created the world good with a design for everything. God created the world as a perfect home for His children—humanity—and gave good gifts like food, drink, relationships, and sex. God designed these gifts to be used as He intended and not as ends in and of themselves. They were designed to cause our hearts to worship our Creator. So when we eat, drink, or enjoy sex with our spouse, these activities are intended to elicit a reaction of praise and gratitude to God for His good gifts.
Instead, we rebelled against God’s good design and began using His gifts in ways He did not intend. We turned them into ends rather than means. We sought to find satisfaction in the created things rather than the Creator God, and that brought a curse on the world (Rom 1:18-32). Now there are death and brokenness, and things do not work right. We abuse the gifts so that now food becomes gluttony, drink become drunkenness, and sex becomes adultery. We reject our God-given roles in marriage. Labor to provide for our families is now frustrating and difficult. Genesis 3 says sweat and frustrating fruit production will characterize our work. And we will ultimately return to the dust from which we were created (Gen 3:8-19). Thus Ecclesiastes describes the meaninglessness and frustration of life in a Genesis 3 world.
The atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell captures well the realities of the world people find themselves in as described by the preacher of Ecclesiastes. He writes,
We stand on the shore of an ocean, crying to the night and the emptiness; sometimes a voice answers out of the darkness. But it is a voice of one drowning; and in a moment the silence returns. The world seems to me quite dreadful; the unhappiness of most people is very great, and I often wonder how they all endure it. To know people well is to know their tragedy: it is usually the central thing about which their lives are built. And I suppose if they did not live most of the time in the things of the moment, they would not be able to go on. (Russell, Autobiography, 1,994)
Like children who do not say thank you for Christmas presents, we now worship the gifts rather than the Giver. We look to temporary things like pleasure, sex, money, stuff, popularity, and success for lasting satisfaction they cannot give. Remember, it’s not that these things are bad. They are good gifts from God. But when we turn a gift into a god from which we seek ultimate satisfaction, it will let us down and enslave us. East of Eden and separated from God, we live in a cursed, meaningless existence seeking lasting joy in things that eventually let us down! This is the reality of life “under the sun” that Solomon unfolds for us in this book.
Solomon begins by asking a question to prove his main point that everything is meaningless. He asks in 1:3, “What does a man gain for all his efforts [ESV, “toil”] that he labors at under the sun?” The Hebrew word translated gain is unique to Ecclesiastes, and it means “profit or advantage” (Kidner, Ecclesiastes, 24). Effort/labor, another key idea in the book, recalls similar language from the curse of Genesis 3, where God said labor would be painful (Gen 3:17-19). And under the sun is an important phrase found about 30 times in the book. It means Solomon is looking at the question of meaning from an earthly perspective. If this world is all there is—if there is no God, no afterlife, and no final judgment—then everything is meaningless. The phrase does not necessitate an atheist outlook but rather an uncertainty about what lies beyond this life, its experiences and observations. Solomon expects a negative answer to his question about profit under the sun. If this life is all there is, then what is the point of our existence since all of our activity does not bring a net gain? All of our work, education, and love really gain us nothing because nothing really ever changes. W. A. Criswell said it well: “You look at time and tide and history, and it brings you to infinite despair” (“The Pattern of Pessimism”).
I was a nerd in middle school, but I thought I was so cool because I rocked a “No Fear” T-shirt up and down the hallways. I had this light-blue “No Fear” shirt that said, “He who dies with the most toys still dies. No Fear!” I thought the shirt was so awesome because I was wearing it in the face of the goofy bumper-sticker notion that the person who dies with the most toys wins at life. Solomon’s point is similar to that “No Fear” shirt. You do not get to take the fruits of your labor and activity beyond the grave if this life is all there is. Thus, there is no real profit to our activity.
Jesus asks a similar question in Mark 8:36: “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and yet loses his soul?” The answer is, “Nothing!” How much you make, how much you learn, and how popular you are is meaningless because life without God is futile (Hunt, Ecclesiastes, 3). As Tim Keller points out, the author of Ecclesiastes is pushing us to the logical conclusion of our position, exposing any philosophy that would seek to live life without God as the ultimate foundation. If this life is all there is, then what permanent value is your life? Keller explains that we ask the question, What’s in it for me? in the small things, but we do not seem to ask it over the whole of our life. If I told you to show up in the parking lot tomorrow morning at 9:00 a.m., you would ask “Why?” If I said, “Just show up,” then you would reply, “What’s in it for me? Why should I come? What will I be doing?” And yet, we do not ask those questions of our lives. What’s the overall profit to what I am doing (Keller, “Problem of Meaning”)?
The author’s point is that if this life is all there is, then there is no profit to your life. The poem in Ecclesiastes 1:4-11 points to repetitive cycles in nature to prove the point that nothing is gained from all our activity. Like a good sage Solomon observes nature in order to extrapolate wisdom for our lives. The natural cycles demonstrate that all our activity is pointless because nothing changes despite a whole lot of activity. The poem paints the picture that we are trapped in a monotonous prison (Garrett, Ecclesiastes, 284).
Ecclesiastes 1:4 points to the cycle of generations while the earth stays the same. Ecclesiastes will repeatedly paint the portrait of life in a Genesis 5 world where death reigns and nothing changes. As Jerome said, “What’s more vain than this vanity: that the earth, which was made for humans stays—but humans themselves, the lords of the earth suddenly dissolve into the dust” (cited in Longman, Ecclesiastes, 67). This is the absurd reality: humanity dies and a new generation comes, but the earth stays the same.
Solomon gives three examples from nature and three examples where human experience mirrors the natural cycles (1:5-8). He compares the sun to an exhausted track runner who runs lap after lap, looks like he is moving somewhere, but is actually just going in circles (1:5) (Garrett, Ecclesiastes, 285). The wind also gusts in circles (1:6). There is lots of activity, but nothing changes. The east-to-west observation of verse 5 and the north-to-south observation of verse 6 make up a merism that pictures the totality of the world (Murphy, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, 180). The whole of nature is characterized by monotony. The last cycle is that of the oceans (1:7). All of the streams of the earth run into the sea but the water level stays the same. There is no net gain!
The task is never done; it just repeats itself again and again. There is no satisfaction under the sun. The universe is trapped in a meaningless cycle that never ultimately accomplishes anything, and human experience as a whole mirrors this. Our existence can be characterized as one of monotony and pointlessness. It is the same old, same old. We all feel this frustration from time to time, do we not? You walk into the kitchen and the sink is full of dishes, so you roll up your sleeves, clean them, and put them away. You walk back into the kitchen the next morning, and what is there? Dishes! The laundry basket is overflowing with clothes, so you throw them in the washing machine, then the dryer, and then you fold them and put them away. You walk into your closet and what do you see? Clothes piled high in the laundry basket. These are the facts of life: more bills, more e-mails, more haircuts, more grass to mow, and it never ends. People try their own ways of “breaking free” from this monotony, as Kelly Clarkson sings about in “Breakaway” and Reba McEntire in “Is There Life Out There?” People have midlife crises, affairs, and career shifts trying to break free from the dissatisfaction in their lives. Swindoll is right: such people are simply “chasing the wind” (Living on the Ragged Edge, 25).
Even Christians try to deal with this and often not in helpful ways. I remember listening to a preacher talk about these realities, and he called people away from the dissatisfaction of their lives to try something new. While it was not his intent, I remember walking away from that sermon thinking to myself that people walked into this room dissatisfied with their spouse and now think they may need to find someone else, or dissatisfied with their job and are now thinking of quitting under the faulty notion that they will easily find a “job they love.” But like the sea you are never full, it is never enough, and you are never satisfied. You move on to another relationship, and the same dissatisfaction persists because you never dealt with the lack of contentment you had before. You just rearranged the pieces. You are at your new job and just as bored as you were before. The grass is always greener, and you could always get more money, another partner, a bigger promotion, a nicer house; but just as the sea is never full, it will never be enough for you!
Therefore, Solomon concludes in verse 8 that our existence is full of weariness. He gives three behaviors to parallel the sun, wind, and sea. He contends that we cannot say enough, see enough, or hear enough. We cannot say enough words to find meaning in the midst of this monotony. The eye will never be able to see it all. There are always more sights to see, experiences to take in, and pictures to look at. For some there is always one more pornographic image to try to find pleasure in because the experience does not last. And the ear has never heard it all. There is always more gossip to spread, songs to hear, jokes to listen to, or flirtatious words to enjoy. Nothing we can say, see, or hear can bring meaning to this redundancy.
As the Rolling Stones song says, no matter how much we try, we “can’t get no satisfaction.” Our desires are never satiated. We are not happy, nor are we content. We always want more. We think if we could just get two floors up in this building, or if we could just get the bigger house in the gated neighborhood, or if we had more gadgets, then we will have arrived (Begg, “Word to the Wise”). We keep waiting for a change in circumstances that will make us happy, and honestly we live our entire lives like that. You are frustrated under the lack of freedom in your parent’s house as a child and think to yourself, I cannot wait till I get my license and go to college because then I will be free and happy. Then you get into college and think, I cannot wait till I get out of all this boring studying and start doing a job that I really love. Then you graduate and take the job and say to yourself, If only I could find someone to love and get married, then I would be happy. Then you find someone, fall in love, get married, and think, If we could just have a family, then life would be complete. So you have kids and then think, If I could get promoted so I could make more money to provide for my family, then . . . The cycle never ends. You keeping thinking, If I can just get “there,” everything will be different, but when you get there nothing is different.
The author makes this point clear in verses 9-11. There is nothing new under the sun; nothing ever changes. People object to that truth; they are wrong. Technological advances, for example, do not discount Solomon’s contention. As Begg points out, yes, we put a man on the moon, but there was nothing for him to do there except stare at the earth (“Word to the Wise”). The fundamental events of life remain the same: birth, marriage, family, work, and death (Garrett, Ecclesiastes, 288). We use the phrase “nothing new under the sun” in our own parlance, and we do not use it as a pronouncement on inventions but rather to say, “The more things change, the more they stay the same” (Kidner, Ecclesiastes, 26). The human race is the same bunch of sinners it has always been, and nothing we have done really makes a difference.
Solomon says that no one will ultimately be remembered. Again, someone might object that we remember some figures from the past, but the vast billions who have lived on planet Earth never gain lasting renown. Most live and die unremembered. We do not remember our great, great-grandparents. Nothing really changes for anyone. You punch in and punch out over and over till you punch out for the last time. And when you retire, your company will throw a party, give you a gift with a plaque, and the next day someone else will replace you. The sun will rise, the business will go on, and eventually you will be forgotten. The business will carry on without you. Those are the facts of life under the sun. It’s all meaningless and frustrating. What value is your life?
People try to find meaning in an individual’s life at their funeral by saying, “She made the world a better place” (Keller, “Problem of Meaning”). But the Teacher says, “Nonsense.” You did not really change anything. That’s why Les Miserables raises questions such as: Will you be remembered when you die? Do your life and death really have any meaning? Could it be that your life is one big lie? Despite the claims of Jay Z and Fall Out Boys that they will be remembered for centuries, they will not! We are here for a few decades; then we are all forgotten.
Death is the great equalizer, and that is the ultimate absurdity. We all step on the treadmill of life and try to outrun death with all of our activity but to no avail. The Grim Reaper is faster than all of us. He catches us all. All of our “new” innovations have only allowed us to postpone death for a little while longer. So, faced with this bleak reality, Solomon searches for meaning and satisfaction, but . . .
Solomon moves from what he has observed in nature to what we can learn from his experiences (1:12–2:26). He gives personal testimony that he tried everything and nothing satisfied. Everything was meaningless. He says, “I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem” (1:12), which seems to indicate that he is older now with life experience. He goes on a wisdom search of the world, and he concludes that it is a miserable task that God gave to “Adam’s sons.”This language recalls the imposed curse of Genesis 3 where toil becomes burdensome and our activities in the world are under this curse (cf. Rom 8:18-21).
All of our activity is like chasing the wind. Our girls love blowing bubbles outside on a warm day. Like all kids, they run around trying to catch the bubbles and the moment they touch them the bubbles disappear in their hand. That is the idea here. Our efforts in this fallen world are like trying to catch the wind in our hand. What would we do if we went outside and found a man with a net in the parking lot trying to catch wind? Call for a psych evaluation? Yet all of our exertion to find meaning and satisfaction in things like pleasure, possessions, money, or success are just that crazy. Sure, they look like worthwhile pursuits, but Solomon exposes them. They are grasping at the air. Solomon says that it does not matter where or in what you try to find meaning, you will fail. He has seen and done it all, and he came back empty.
As with Psalm 73, the author is teetering on the edge of skepticism. Faith does not seem to be working like it should. A few years ago I met regularly with a guy I was mentoring. He and his wife were struggling with infertility. One day we met early at McDonald’s, and he came in very upset. He told me that a guy at his work came into the factory cussing the previous day because he had accidentally gotten his girlfriend pregnant. My friend was distraught because he and his wife had begged God for a child, and here was a guy who did not even want a child but was going to become a dad. Many of us face this kind of faith crisis. Some think walking with God means things will go well in this life, and then the crisis comes. We get cancer at a young age, lose a job, or face some kind of hardship. We have to understand the reality of life in a cursed, fallen world. Walking with God does not mean everything will come up roses. Things do not always work out immediately as they should.
Solomon gives a proverb to explain this situation when he says that what is crooked cannot be made straight and what is lacking cannot be counted (1:15). Crooked is a metaphor for sin or moral brokenness in the wisdom literature (Prov 12:8; Job 33:27). Why is the world in this broken state? The world is perverse because of human sin. Ecclesiastes 7:29 makes this clear: “I have discovered that God made people upright, but they pursued many schemes.” Humanity has gone its own way against God’s design. So because of others’ sin and our own sin, we live in a messed-up world, and we can do nothing to fix the situation according to the proverb. It will take a miracle from outside of us to fix what is broken. As Alistair Begg points out, we are trying to line up the squares on the Rubik’s Cube with a couple of colors missing (“Word to the Wise”)!
When humanity departed from God’s design, God imposed a curse on the world (Gen 3; Rom 8). Therefore, everything is broken in our world and in our lives. We try to find ways out of the brokenness but only end up more broken and frustrated. We turn to possessions and pleasurable experiences and status and relationships and even to religion trying to fix what is broken, but it is futile. No amount of pleasurable experiences, job success, or religious ritual can fix what is broken. As we will see, this reality is part of God’s goodness in our lives. He imposed the futility in hope that we would long for and hope in Him!
Solomon declares that his wisdom surpassed everyone before him in Jerusalem, but he also says he applied his heart to know madness and folly (1:16-17), which in biblical wisdom literature stands for sin, or the wrong way of life. Solomon was wiser than anyone else, and it did not bring meaning in his life. He also partied harder than anyone else, and that did not work either. That is what he is saying. I tried it all. I lived life the right way (wisdom), and I lived life the wrong way (foolishness), and nothing brought meaning. It was all like trying to grab the wind.
People make sudden shifts in their lives in an attempt to find joy. It reminds me of the Little Caesar’s commercial where the guy is having trouble ordering a pizza online, so he screams to his family, “That’s it! We’re going off the grid!” They begin to live an Amish-like existence with no technology, and his wife says, “You should have just gotten a Hot and Ready Pizza from Little Caesar’s.” To which the husband exclaims, “That’s it! We’re going back on the grid!” People think to themselves that if life were simpler or more elaborate, if I had more stuff or if I had the right relationship, then I would be happy. We keep trying things because we think one change will eventually make all the difference, but it does not. We will see in the following chapters that Solomon denied himself nothing—he indulged every desire and fantasy in an attempt to find satisfaction—and it did not work.
Matt Chandler contrasts the wisdom books of Job and Ecclesiastes. People who are in a Job-like state of suffering think, If I had more money or better friends, or if I did not have this disease, then life would be better. But Solomon comes along in Ecclesiastes to destroy that notion (“Sixth Sense”). Here is a guy who had it all, and life was not better. He had all the wisdom in the world, and it only brought him grief (1:18) because he learned through that wisdom that nothing matters. Ignorance had been bliss.
For most of us there was time when we got down on our knees and begged God in prayer for things we now have and take for granted. There was time when we begged God for a spouse, when we begged God for children, when we begged God for a house, and now we have those things and we are still not content. There was a time early in your marriage when you thought to yourself if you could just make $50,000 a year that would be all you would need. You could really be secure. You would not have to fret about finances. Now you make more than that, and you are still not content. The American dream is a lie and a failure. We live in a culture with more money, more entertainment, more pleasurable experiences, more recreation, and more stuff than any previous generation could ever have dreamed, and pain pills and antidepressants fly over the counters of our pharmacies. It’s a miserable world where one of the funniest and richest men the world has ever seen—Robin Williams—kills himself in despair.
Ecclesiastes gives a bleak look on life, but the Spirit had a purpose for inspiring this book to be written. He wants to expose the meaninglessness of life in a cursed world in order to create a hunger for something better (Kidner, Ecclesiastes, 27). Ecclesiastes wants to push us to faith and contentment in God.
Tim Keller points out that the author drives his readers to see that there are only two possible conclusions in life. Either there is a God above with a standard who will judge us at the end based on that standard, or life is totally meaningless. These are the only two options. Either there is a God and our actions have meaning, or there is no God, and as Hemingway said, “Life is a dirty trick, a short journey from nothingness to nothingness.” Keller states, “People think Christians are naive, but if your origin is insignificant, and if your destiny is insignificant, then have the guts to admit that your life is insignificant.” Why work for human rights, or for the common good, or for justice for all, if it is all going to be burned up in the end anyway?! If we are just accidents heading for annihilation, then nothing we do matters (Keller, “Problem of Meaning”)!
Deep in the human heart we know that is not true—we know what we do matters in some way—but we also know the world is jacked up. Why is it like this? God imposed a curse on the world in response to human rebellion with the purpose that frustration would ultimately drive us to Him. The Holy Spirit inspired Ecclesiastes to convict you of your own meaninglessness in your current existence in order to “make you wise for salvation through Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15 ESV). Romans 8 tells us we are groaning for rescue right along with this frustrated creation! That’s exactly what we are directed toward in the conclusion of Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes cannot be rightly understood without the conclusion. The bleak outlook of the parts can only be understood in light of the whole that is wrapped up in the conclusion (12:8-14). The conclusion starts with the main point that everything is meaningless by repeating hevel as a wrap up (12:8), and then it calls the Teacher a wise man who arranged his writing with great care (12:9). The words of the book are delightful and true (12:10), that is, they give a true portrait of how the world works. His words are like goads (12:11). A goad is a herding tool used to poke and prod livestock in the right direction. The author compares the words of Ecclesiastes with this cattle prod because metaphorically the words of the sage are meant to sting and convict, and thus they move the reader in the right direction of walking in wisdom.
The ultimate Author of Ecclesiastes—the Spirit of God—uses the words of the book to convict the human heart of its need for Jesus. These words are given by “one Shepherd” (12:11). Only three other places in the Bible speak of a single shepherd, and each refers to the Messiah (Ezek 34:23-24; 37:24-25; John 10:11-16) (Perrin, “Messianism,” 51–57). Ecclesiastes is therefore a messianic book that points to and longs for the Messiah to come and order His kingdom by wisdom.
Solomon demonstrates this truth even in his closing words to his “son.” A sage warning to his son is commonplace in wisdom literature (Prov 1:8; 2:1; 3:1,11). The father—Solomon—wants to train his son—the crown prince—in wisdom. He tells his son that the words of this book are sufficient and should not be transgressed (Eccl 12:12). The son does not need to add to or subtract from them, which is a common statement in the Bible on its sufficiency (see Deut 4:2; Prov 30:6; Rev 22:18-19). Solomon throughout Ecclesiastes has done his own study and experiments to find meaning in this cursed world, and he has come back empty. By telling his son that study is wearisome and there is no end to making books, he is pleading with his son not to go off on his own quest for meaning and satisfaction as if he could try something Solomon did not already try.
Like many parents, Solomon’s appeal is, “Do what I say not what I did!” Solomon failed to establish the Davidic kingdom because of his idolatrous lusts, and he pleads with his son for a different outcome. But Solomon’s son and all of his descendants would ultimately falter and die. The wisdom literature cries out for a better king who can redeem creation from the curse. Isaiah 11 promises that wise King, and this Greater Solomon is presented to us in Matthew 12. Jesus is the wise King who establishes and orders His kingdom with wisdom—a wisdom that is similar to the wisdom of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (see the Sermon on the Mount in Matt 5–7).
Solomon’s conclusion points forward to Jesus. Solomon says the end of the matter is to fear God and keep His commandments (Eccl 12:13). Indeed, wisdom is tied to keeping the law throughout the Old Testament (Deut 4:6; Ezra 7:14,25). “Trust and obey, for there is no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” Reverent awe and obedience toward God is our obligation because it is the whole duty of mankind. That is God’s design for us. Why? The reason to trust and obey is that God will bring every deed into judgment along with every secret thing, whether good or evil (Eccl 12:14). The world is crooked, things are not right, and there needs to be a reckoning to set things right. Ecclesiastes says there will be one. Final judgment is the motivation to trust and obey. Final judgment is what gives every one of our actions meaning in this cursed world. We will be called to account—even for the things we think no one else knows about. Why? God knows, and Jesus says we will answer for every careless word we utter (Matt 12:36-37).
The reality of judgment day is how the Shepherd cares for His flock. In order to convict you, He goads with the truths that you will be judged and then vindicated or punished. The New Testament reveals that the purpose of the law—the purpose of the commandments—is to convict us and bring us to Christ. Solomon and all of his descendants had a problem: they failed and broke the commandments. We have the same problem because we have broken God’s commands and sought satisfaction in things and people other than God. You say, “Well, I know I have made mistakes, but I never had a thousand women like Solomon.” But you have a harem larger than Solomon on your Internet history (Driscoll, “Setting the Record Crooked”). Ecclesiastes says even the hidden things will be brought to light. We will face judgment, and the bad news is that we have fallen short. This reality is meant to crush us in order to drive us to Christ. That is the good news: Jesus lived the life we could not live, a life without sin in perfect obedience to the commandments, and He died the death we deserved to die. He took the entire curse of sin and futility and death on Himself in order to redeem us from the curse (Gal 3:13). By repenting from our vanity and turning in faith to Him, He redeems us and gives us a new and meaningful life. There is something “new under the sun”—those who are made new creations in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). You will face judgment. You can face it in isolation from Christ and receive God’s disapproval, or you can face it in Christ and receive God’s approval.
Our lives are broken by sin, but after you receive redemption in Christ, He gives you life everlasting and life to the full now, so that you can recover and pursue God’s good design for your life. Now, instead of seeking satisfaction in created things, we are fully satisfied in our Creator, our Redeemer. Satisfied in Him alone you can now rightly enjoy the gifts He gives you as a means to worship Him. You do not need a million dollars. You just need Jesus, and He gives you daily bread (Driscoll, “Setting the Record Crooked”). You do not need to pursue a thousand pleasurable experiences because in Jesus at God’s right hand are eternal pleasures (Ps 16:11). Now the seemingly mundane things of life—like scrubbing a dish, working a nine-to-five job, and changing a diaper—are shot through with meaning because Jesus says those who are faithful over the small things are given responsibility over greater things in His kingdom (Matt 25:14-30).
Romans 8:18-21 describes a futile creation that longs for the curse to be overthrown, a creation that longs for resurrection from the dead, and a fallen humanity that screams along with that creation. As Jerome said, what a vanity it is that the earth, which was made for humans, stays while humans dissolve into the dust. The reign of death is strong, and it claimed Adam and Abel and David and Solomon and Rehoboam, and one day it will claim you. But in a world full of grave plots, one grave is empty, and there is one Man whom the dust cannot claim because God would not allow the Holy One to see decay. Jesus is free from the curse, and He graciously offers that freedom to you. Cry out to Him in confession that you have tried to find meaning in something or someone other than Him, and then find your meaning in Him alone (Begg, “Word to the Wise”)! As Augustine declared, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”