In this transition from one year to the next, we’re looking at Ecclesiastes, one of the wisdom books of the Bible.
The wisdom books stand apart from the main narrative of the Bible, asking questions about our experiences of life. Job asks how do we make sense of suffering, especially the suffering of the seemingly innocent? The Song of Songs explores God’s gift of the joys of love and sex. Proverbs provides a framework for street-smart and successful godly living. Ecclesiastes asks, ‘What’s the purpose of life?’
Having touched on Ecclesiastes chapters 1 and 3 we turn to the concluding chapters of Ecclesiastes where we can identify two themes: ‘What’s the Point?’ and ‘What’s the Answer?’
What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? is a question that bubbles through Ecclesiastes. We work hard, put in long hours, and give up things we’d prefer to be doing. What’s the value of it all?’
The phrase, under the sun is used twenty-seven times in the Book. It’s asking what is life all about if God doesn’t reveal himself? The writer isn’t asking this as an atheist: he believes God exists. He’s asking, ‘What do we make of life if we don’t have a special word from God?’
And there’s another layer to life’s conundrum: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all (9:11). Life doesn’t always reward the swift or the strong, the wise or the brilliant. So much is a matter of timing or chance. If you’re the wrong age when the position of CEO arises, no matter how successful, how smart or wise you are, you’ll be passed over. ‘What’s the gain?’
In chapter 11 the Teacher exhorts us to try to be positive about life. If time and chance rule, there’s nothing we can do. So, if farmers watch the wind, they’ll never sow seed. Take a chance, give it a go!
Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun, he continues in verses 7ff. Even those who live many years should rejoice in them all;…
It’s good to see the sun, especially after long, wintry days. Enjoy life if you can. But as verse 8 says: … Remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity. Everything is meaningless. ‘When you’re dead, you’re dead’.
So, rejoice, young man, while you are young, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Follow the inclination of your heart … (11:9). Enjoy your youth while you can. You’ve got energy and an ability to learn quickly, so run, swim, learn, pump iron. Enjoy being young and strong, but realize there’s a sobering conclusion: But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.
Chapter 12, verses 1 through 8 are a poem: Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come, and the years draw near when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return with the rain;…
A picture of old age emerges. Our world is afraid of aging. Indeed, there’s a vast industry devoted to anti-aging – creams and botox, diet and exercise programs.
Ecclesiastes tells us life can be fun: enjoy it while you can, but it won’t last. If you try to hold on to it, you’ll find it’s like sand: it slips through the fingers and is gone. What’s the point?
Is there an answer? In chapter 12, verses 9ff we read: Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly. The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd….
Ecclesiastes is composed of the collected sayings given by one shepherd – an Old Testament way of referring to God. It speaks of its sayings as goads, pointed sticks, challenging us to consider the meaning of life. It likens the words of the wise to firmly embedded nails, something to anchor us.
In verse13 we read: The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.
This is the first time Ecclesiastes says that God has spoken. It’s the first time the Teacher has said that we don’t just live under the sun: we have a word from God. God has given us commandments to live out. We’re not living in the dark.
The Book of Proverbs says the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Ecclesiastes gives us the flipside: to ignore God and his Word is ultimate foolishness. Honoring and serving God gives us meaning.
Ecclesiastes concludes, not just with reference to the creator God who has revealed his good purposes for us in his commandments, but also as judge. God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil (12:14). We live in a moral universe, a key that makes sense of our lives.
The New Testament gives us a clearer picture. In Second Corinthians, chapter 5 we read: all of us must appear before the judgment seat of God to receive his just judgment for things done in the body whether good or bad (5:10).
Do you believe these things will come to pass? Prophesies that spoke of the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, his life, death and resurrection, all came true. In the same way the words of Ecclesiastes and of Jesus himself about the coming judgement, will also come true. Such judgement makes sense of our existence. Are you and your family and friends prepared?
A prayer. Lord Christ, eternal Word and Light of the Father’s glory: send your light and your truth so that we may both know and proclaim your word of life, to the glory of God the Father; for you now live and reign, God for all eternity. Amen.
© John G. Mason
If you have not checked out the Word on Wednesday podcast this week you may want to listen to Christ Our Hope in Life and Death from Keith & Kristyn Getty and Matt Papa.