The book of Ecclesiastes is one book in the bible that many Christians do not like to read. You will hardly meet anyone who will tell you Ecclesiastes is his or her favorite book of the bible. Many people see it as a nihilistic book. The recurring theme of vanity does not sound like the motivational sound bites we hear very often. For many, it is just one strange book.
Some people study and preach Ecclesiastes. For them, the message of Ecclesiastes is that nothing in this world can satisfy. They trace the frustration of the preacher, as he grows dissatisfied with pleasure, knowledge, wisdom, etc. These people remind us that none of these things will satisfy us because God has placed eternity in our hearts and only in that eternal relationship can we find fulfilment and meaning (Ecclesiastes 3:11). While it is true that only an eternal relationship with God can satisfy, it is reductionist to say this is all that the preacher tells us in this book.
The Realities of a Fallen Creation
Ecclesiastes confronts us with the reality of the world we live in. Solomon is not one of those people who disregard the philosophical and existential problems of life in this world. He is not like the secular hedonists who want to avoid any questions of ultimate meaning and commend endless pleasure as a way to blot out all the nagging questions.
Solomon confronts the philosophical and existential realities of life in this world.
Before we think about the vanity or meaninglessness of life, it is important to consider what he said in 7:29. This is one of the most important points in this book. “This only have I found: God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes.” Solomon has already lamented the evil amongst men (verse 20) where he concluded that “there is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins.” He complained about the woman who is a snare and finds her more bitter than death (verse 26). Though he could find one upright man among a thousand, he could not find one upright woman.
What is responsible for this preponderance of evil amongst men? In verse 29, Solomon affirms that this was not the case from the beginning. God created humanity upright; it was man that sought many inventions. Therefore, the state of things – the fallenness of man- is not a fault in God’s creation but a fault in man.
The fall of man and the fall of creation
One thing we know about this fall is that it affected the whole creation. Romans 8:20 informs us that the creation is groaning in bondage to futility. When God cursed man in the garden, he cursed creation. This is why the redemption of creation follows the redemption of humanity.
It is important to see everything in Ecclesiastes from this vantage point. What Solomon describes in this book is life in a fallen world; a world that is fallen because we sought (and seek) many inventions.
“The will of the one who subjected it in hope”
The fall of man is, however, a moral fall. The fallenness of creation is a judgment of God against the sin of man. The fall happened because God is holy and just and he punishes sin.
This is why we see repeatedly in Ecclesiastes that God is behind this whole vain (meaningless) world.
“I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind!” 1:12, 13
“I have seen the burden God has laid on men.” 3:10
“Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked? 7:13
The vanity and meaninglessness that confronts us is a judicial act of God. We sought many inventions in disobedience to God and he judged us for our sin. The fallen world we inhabit is the result of God’s judgment on human sinfulness. This is why Paul in Romans 8 affirms that it is God who subjected the creation to vanity in hope.
To understand the message of Solomon it is essential to grasp that we live in a fallen world, which is the product of God’s holy judgment against our sin.
A fallen creation
Because of the fall, life under heaven (under the sun) is a difficult one. It is a life filled with inscrutable repetitiveness (1:3-11). It is a chasing after wind (1:14). The Hebrew word Hebel occurs 38 times in the book. It is the word that is translated as vanity in the KJV, meaningless in the NIV, futile in the NET, and pointless in the ISV.
Life in this fallen world is vain. We are shut into endless repetitions (1:1-13, 6:7-12). Many of the things we look up to for meaning disappoint (2:1-23). There is injustice (3:16), oppression, envy, and loneliness everywhere (4:1-12). Even though wisdom is desirable, yet the world is filled with the unrighteousness of men (7:1-29). The wicked prosper and the righteous suffer; there is no justice (8:14).
As if all these are not ‘bad enough,’ death is the common reality of all men – the great leveler (9:1-5). The fate of man is like the animals (3:18-21). The man who lived many years is worse than the stillborn child (6:3-6). For Solomon, death is the ultimate harbinger of meaninglessness. This should not surprise us because death is the wages of sin (Romans 6:23), the last enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26).
Solomon acknowledges the reality of life in this fallen creation in no uncertain terms. He bears it all out. No one who lives in this fallen creation can deny the truth of his assessment. We all live under the weight of this vanity, meaninglessness, pointlessness, and futility.
How then do we live?
The good news in all of these is that this is not all that Solomon says. He did not give us graphic details of the vanity of life under the sun and then tell us goodbye. His message is not, “My name is Solomon. Please know that life under the earth is vain. Thank you for listening.”
Rather, he gives us some insights spread across the book on how we are to live in this fallen world. While it is true that God has placed eternity in our hearts and only in him can we find ultimate satisfaction, this is not the point that Solomon teased out in Ecclesiastes.
So back to our question – how are we supposed to live in this fallen world with its meaninglessness (in all the different shades)? What do we do with all of these?
Though Solomon is a realist (not Plato’s realist), he is not a nihilist. He does not deny the meaninglessness that confronts us in life but he does offer us some glimmers of hope – how we can find joy in a world subjected to futility. Solomon’s solution to this impasse is joy. We cannot do anything with the fallenness of creation (God will set it right at Christ’s second coming), but we can still find joy in vanity. Joy amidst the vanity is the message of Solomon in Ecclesiastes. Unlike the hedonist, the solution of Solomon is a theological one; joy is theological. His proposition is not endless pleasure but God-given joy.
Here are four things that Solomon recommends for us if we are to find joy at the end of the tether
Receive and Enjoy God’s good gifts
Though God subjected this world to futility because of man’s sin, God has not left the fallen world without his good gifts. Despite the meaninglessness of this universe, God has placed within it his good and gracious gifts and one way we can find joy amidst the vanity is to receive and enjoy God’s good gifts.
“A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” 2:24, 25
“I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.” 3:12, 13
“This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God.” 5:18-20
“So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.” 8:15
“Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.” 9:7-10
At first glance, it seems that Solomon is recommending a hedonistic lifestyle. That is what single glances do – prevent us from seeing the true picture.
The first thing we see here is that all the things that Solomon tells us to enjoy are God’s. This is the most important point to note. These things are from the hand of God; they are the gift of God. The life that we have (which is why we can enjoy anything) is a gift of God. God gives the life that enjoys and the gifts that the life enjoys.
Solomon’s message is simple: the God that has subjected this world to vanity is the same God that has provided rich gifts for us to enjoy in this life.
Receiving the Gifts
Food, drink, work, marriage and family are God’s good gifts to us in this fallen world. James reminds us that every good and perfect gift comes from above (James 1:17). Paul also taught us that it is God that gives us every good thing to enjoy (1 Timothy 6:17) since everything he created is good (1 Timothy 4:15). Paul, like Solomon, insists that we are to receive and enjoy these gifts with thanksgiving. David adds his voice when he insists that God supplies the desires of every heart (Psalms 145:15-16).
If only we can open our eyes and behold the wonder of God’s creation (even in its fallenness) and the good gifts that he gives us. Food, drink, clothing, shelter, relationships, leisure, entertainment, sports, art are few of the immense gifts that God gave us to enjoy.
True joy comes when we learn to receive and enjoy these gifts as God’s. The source of the joy is knowing that the God who judged this world because of our sin still blesses us with such good gifts in creation. It means this God has not cast us away, in wrath he remembers mercy. That thought is the foundation of the gospel.
How do we find joy in this vain world? It is by seeing the good gifts that the holy and just God gives us, receive those gifts with thanksgiving, and enjoy them as coming from his hands. Eat with gratitude, drink with thankfulness, enjoy the gift of family, revel in the gift of work, and find joy in all the things that God has given to ‘satisfy the desires of every creature’
Do good while you live
“I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live.” 3:12
The second thing that helps us to find joy at the end of the tether is to do good. After Paul explained that it is God who gives us all good gifts to enjoy, he followed up with an admonishment to do good and be rich in good works (1 Timothy 6:17).
As we receive the good gifts of God, we are to do good with them. God is the greatest doer of good and by receiving his gifts – the manifestations of his goodness; we are to do good to others. Our enjoyment of God’s good gifts reminds us to extend his goodness to others. The best way we enjoy God’s gift is to enjoy them and share them. In fact, the sharing is part of the enjoyment. The larger our hearts, the more we can find joy.
Our good works is not limited to generosity and kindness. It incorporates every moral duty in the command to love our neighbor. Doing good to others also mean not slandering them or gossiping about them. To do good is to love our neighbors.
How do we find joy in this meaningless life? We find joy by doing good, receiving and sharing God’s goodness, and loving our neighbor.
Accept the bad times as from the Lord
The third thing that Paul tells us, if we are to find joy amidst the futility of life in this fallen world, is to accept the bad times as from the hands of the Lord.
“Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future.” 7:13-14
Though in this life we have untold blessings of God to enjoy, we also suffer. Solomon does not end his message telling us to enjoy God’s good gifts and do good. He realizes that in this life, we can lose some of God’s gifts and suffer deprivation of some of them. We can lose some of our capacities to share with others. Again, Solomon is not a hedonist. He’s willing to confront the dark parts of human life on this earth. He knows that there are good times and bad times. Was it not he who taught us in chapter 3 that there is time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance (3:4)?
However, the message of Solomon does not break down at this point. It cannot break down because his message is centered on God’s sovereignty.
The work of God
Solomon insists that the bad times are also the creation of God. He has made the one as well as the other. He is however not saying something novel here. In 1 Samuel 2:7 we read that “the Lord sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts.” In Isaiah 45:7, we learn that he “form the light and create the darkness,” he “bring prosperity and create darkness.” We can multiply passages like these in the scriptures.
Solomon establishes the biblical fact that God is sovereign over the good times and the bad times. If we are going to have a joy that transcend the good and bad times, we must see all of it as coming from God’s hands. If the only way we can find joy in the good times is to see them as God’s works, the only way we find joy in the bad times is to see them as coming from his hands as well.
Have we not read Romans 8:28? If God is not in control of the good and the bad, he cannot work all things to our good. The reason why this verse is powerful is because we know that God is sovereign. If we will live with joy in this fallen creation, we must live with the conviction that “our good cannot be lost, all our bad turn out for good, and the best is yet to come”
The truth of God’s sovereignty over the bad times is the comfort that gives us incredible joy amidst trials. We can rejoice in our trials because we know that the sovereign God who is ultimately behind them is using those trials to produce perseverance, character, and hope (Romans 5:4, James 1:2-4).
When we see our trials as results of purposeless chance, we cannot find joy. We will be bogged down with anxiety, regret, discontentment, anger, etc. (all things that are not friends of joy). But when we learn to accept our trials as coming from the hands of a sovereign God who designs and uses every single one of them for our good, we can find joy (even though sometimes we struggle to get to this point).
How do we find joy in this pointless fallen world? We find joy when we learn to accept the bad times as coming from the hands of God and trust him who works out all things for our good.
Fear God because there will be a judgment
The fourth thing Solomon tells us is to fear God because he is a righteous judge and he will judge us all for our time in this meaningless world. Though we live in a fallen world, we are moral agents responsible for our choices and actions. Injustice will not prevail forever. God will judge every man and justice will be done at the end. Because there will be a judgment, we are to fear God by heeding his word and keeping his commandments.
“I said to myself, “God will bring into judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time to judge every deed.” 3:17
“Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God.” 5:7
“Although a wicked person who commits a hundred crimes may live a long time, I know that it will go better with those who fear God, who are reverent before him. Yet because the wicked do not fear God, it will not go well with them, and their days will not lengthen like a shadow.” 8:12-13
“You who are young, be happy while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.” 11:9
“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” 12:13-14
This fallen world is not an amoral world. God will bring everything and everyone to judgment. Consequently, we must fear God and stand in awe of him. As we enjoy God’s good gifts, share God’s good gifts in love to our neighbors, submit to his sovereignty in the bad times, we must also fear and reverence him. A big part of fearing God is keeping his commandments. Obeying God, doing his will, living for his glory is an important aspect of joy. No wonder the Psalmist exclaims that he delights to do God’s will (Psalms 40:8). In Psalms 19:8, we read that “the precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.” In Psalms 119:14, David connects obedience with joy, “I rejoice in following your statues as one rejoices in great riches.” No wonder God’s decrees are the theme of his song (119:54).
Obedience to the holy and just God who hates sin, the gracious and merciful God who gives us all good gifts, the sovereign God who ordains all things for our good is a source of incredible joy.
The more we obey God, out of reverent fear for who he is, the more we can live with joy in this meaningless world.
How do we live with joy in this meaningless world? Fear God and keep his commandments because judgment is coming.
Life in this world is full of inscrutable repetitions, dissatisfaction in many of the things we think will satisfy us, evil and unrighteousness, and death. All of these combined makes this world meaningless. However, the meaninglessness that we see in fallen creation is not absolute – we can still find joy amidst the vanity. Solomon gives us four key ingredients to a life of joy: receiving and enjoying God’s good gifts in this fallen world, doing good in love to our neighbor, accepting the bad times as from the hands of God, fearing and obeying God in view of the judgment.
These are not four ways where you can follow any path you like. Rather, they are four ingredients; when one is missing, there is no joy. It is as we take these four ingredients and mix them together in daily life that we can find joy in our life here on earth. Yes, the world is meaningless in many ways. Nevertheless, Solomon invites us to find joy at the end of the tether.