Ecclesiastes and Vanity of Life, Part 1
The book of Ecclesiastes – generally acknowledged to have been written by King Solomon, most likely toward the end of his life – is a book that, on the surface, tends to come across as almost depressing in nature.
I recall while attending Bible college in the late 1970s, it was taught that Solomon had become jaded by this point in his life, toward the end of his 40-year reign over Israel. His alleged jaded outlook reflected his outlook because of the fact that he had married too many women, many of whom were foreign women who worshiped foreign deities. They pressured Solomon to allow them to worship their gods and Solomon gave into their wishes, allowing them to have their Asherah poles and other forms of pagan worship.
While I’m sure that this had some impact on Solomon’s outlook, the reality is that we need to remember that Solomon was likely the wisest man who ever lived, apart from Jesus Himself of course. Because of this wisdom, Solomon was able to gain tremendous insight into many things, including life itself.
Remember, knowledge and wisdom are too different things. Anyone can learn quite an array of facts. This is knowledge. Wisdom is how a person uses those facts applied to life’s circumstances. It is possible to have people with tremendous amounts of knowledge making asinine decisions because they lack wisdom. Conversely, a person might not have a great amount of knowledge, but because of innate wisdom, seem more intelligent than many truly intelligent people.
Solomon sets out in Ecclesiastes to apply wisdom – not knowledge – to the situations in life and because of it, helps us understand tremendously what life should be about and how we should view things.
I’ve taken the liberty of summing up the entire book of Ecclesiastes with a few thoughts. I plan on doing into greater depth of course in this series, but from the outset, we should understand what Solomon is trying to tell us. Rather than seeing Ecclesiastes as a book of frustration and one that can even lead a person to have depressing thoughts, I firmly believe that this book is one that relieves us of fear, frustration, and depression if we understand its message.
With that in mind, here are some main thoughts about the book.
- Ecclesiastes pushes readers develop a God-centered view of life rather than a self-centered view.
- Ecclesiastes teaches that people are accountable to God and should live a life that evidences that truth.
- Ecclesiastes teaches that people should avoid catering to self, which ultimately causes exploitation of others for selfish gain.
- Ecclesiastes teaches that life in this world only has significance when people remember that we were created by a Creator.
- None of the contents of Ecclesiastical is opposed to any NT teachings.
- Taken in its entirety, the message of Ecclesiastes is positive and uplifting.
- Ecclesiastes teaches that every human endeavor lacks ultimate or eternal value if we do not live life in fear of God.
- Ecclesiastes teaches we should enjoy life as a gift from God as much as possible.
- Ecclesiastes teaches the fear of God is the prerequisite for living successfully here and now.
- The entirety of Ecclesiastes is Solomon’s comment on all the things that people do in an attempt to find fulfillment apart from God.
- Ecclesiastes teaches without God, there is no meaning to life, therefore, life lived that way is vanity.
Ecclesiastes opens with a statement from the writer.
The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem, (Ecclesiastes 1:1, NET).
Up until the 18th century, the author of Ecclesiastes was not in dispute. It was universally recognized as coming from the hand of King Solomon. Today, most conservative scholars continue to accept what appears to be the fact that this book was written by King Solomon. Those who disagree do so over the use of certain syntax and grammar that they argue was not in use during Solomon’s day. These objections have been responded to by various conservative scholars.
By the way, the word “Ecclesiastes” means teacher or preacher. Solomon refers to himself that way because he has set about to teach principles of truth that he believes are not only true, but worthy of note. People who understand what Solomon is saying and choose to live their lives in such a way that conforms to his teachings would be considered wise by Solomon.
“Futile! Futile!” laments the Teacher,
“Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)
After his brief introduction with verse 1, Solomon gets right to the heart of the matter and does so with vehemence. He wants people (including you and me) to understand that his overarching view of life is that all is futile. While this might make people think that Solomon is completely depressed or at least bereft of any positive view of life, as we continue through the book we realize that this is only true in one sense. It seems clear that Solomon has chosen his open words very carefully. He seeks your attention and craves your indulgence. This is a man who is desperate to teach the truths he has learned. Are you willing to listen?
As he looks out on the landscape of life, including his own life, but certainly not limited to that, he concludes that everything is “absolutely futile.” Again, is he overreacting to life out of a sense of fear, frustration, and depression? While it might be easy to conclude this from this opening volley, the truth dawns as we go further into his book.
In Ecclesiastes 1:3-4, he begins his query with several questions. These questions are designed to draw us in and pique our interest. They are almost rhetorical because to Solomon, the answers seem all too obvious.
3 What benefit do people get from all the effort
which they expend on earth?
4 A generation comes and a generation goes,
but the earth remains the same through the ages.
Now that Solomon has gained your attention with his thesis statement from verse 2, he then goes onto prove his supposition or thesis. He states, “all is vanity,” in verse 2, then begins to lay things out so that his statement is beyond reproof.
Solomon notes that every generation essentially does the same thing. People are born, they live, and they expend a tremendous amount of energy. Why? Well, most of us chase after things in this life, don’t we? We have all dreams and aspirations. We want to be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. We want to be a star on Broadway. We want to be the best-selling author of several books. We want this. We want that. When all is said and done, most of us want these things because in them we believe we gain self-respect, as well as meaning in life.
From a young age, children are often asked, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Most children really don’t know the answer to that and I would be willing to bet that most people find their way into jobs or careers through a door that they had not planned on seeing. Beyond this, many to most people do not remain in the same career for their entire lives.
During Solomon’s day, people did what we do today. They expended tremendous stores of energy in their pursuits. But in the end, people are born, they live, and they die. What do they have to show for it? It’s the same question that applies to this generation that applied to Solomon’s. What exactly do we have to show for all the energy we use in pursuit of those things we strive after?
This is a good spot to end for this first introductory article. Take stock of your life. What are you using your energy in pursuing? What has the expenditure of all that energy gained for you? Aside from technology, comparing people today with Solomon’s generation of people shows us that people aren’t all that different from one generation to the next. Most of us yearn for things to make our life better. Is there a problem that is inherent in this way of thinking? Does it cause us to focus too much on self and self-aggrandizement? Certainly basic needs are necessary and worthwhile, but do we go beyond this in our search for meaning?
What does God want from us? So far, in these opening statements of Solomon’s, God is absent. Is he trying to tell us something about the way too many people live their lives?
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