Ecclesiastes: An Introduction

The book of Ecclesiastes is the last will and testament of King Solomon: ‘the son of David, king in Jerusalem’, verse 1. He is ‘the Preacher’, meaning ‘one who convenes, or gathers’: one who calls the people around him to hear his words; and here Solomon, at the end of his life, calls the people to hear his final statement on life and its meaning. And what is the great message of the world’s wisest man? ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity’, verse 2.

And after he expounds his reasons for saying this, he concludes the whole matter with the vital exhortation: ‘Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil’, Eccl. 12:13,14. And the preaching was ended.

And no doubt there were those who took these words to heart and obeyed them, for the people had been happy to hear his wisdom in the past. And after he died his wisdom remained with them and became part of the fabric of their consciousness and national identity, for their scriptures contained much of his writings and sayings: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Song of Solomon. So at the time of Jesus the people were fully aware of not only ‘the patience of Job’, but also of ‘the wisdom of Solomon’, Matthew 12:42.

After Solomon had ascended the throne of David his father and had asked the LORD for ‘understanding, judgment, and discernment’, 1 Kings 3:9, in other words ‘wisdom’, the LORD gave him his request to the full, for we read, ‘And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore. And Solomon’s wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt… and his fame was in all nations round about. And he spake three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five… and there came of all people to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all the kings of the earth, which had heard of his wisdom’, 1 Kings 4:29-34, cp. also 1 Kings 10:1-13.

And this he confirmed in Ecclesiastes 1:16, not out of pride but just as a matter of fact: ‘I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come into great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all they that have been before me in Jerusalem [more even than David, then – the man after God’s own heart]: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ No, there was no pride here because in his wisdom he had also been brought to experience the sobering fact that, ‘In much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow’, verse 18: the reasons for which we will come to.

It is evident, then, that the book of Ecclesiastes is an essential book to read, meditate upon, and fall under; for here is ‘the meaning of life’ in this world, what it is all about: the beginning, the end, the purpose, the sum and substance of it all; and in the light of that, the only thing needful for the individual really to be occupied with: the seeking of the salvation of the soul in the light of the fact that the day of judgment is coming. In fact Solomon’s closing words of this book, Eccl. 12:13,14, are the same in essence to those spoken by the apostle Paul in Athens a thousand years later, Acts 17: ‘God… now commandeth all men every where to repent: because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness…’ verses 24-31, such is the unity of the message of the Book.

But what is the immediate background to Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes? Why do we say that it was his last will and testament? Because he constantly speaks in language which indicates he is at his end, that he has seen and done ‘all things’: ‘I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven… I have seen all the works that are done under the sun… So I was great, and increased more than all that were before me… [but] what hath man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun? For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief; yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night. This is also vanity.’ Indeed didn’t he voice ‘the conclusion of the whole matter’ at the end? Therefore we can say that, because of the language – the absolute language – Solomon uses in these sayings, that he was near his end: one cannot speak of ‘all things’ if there is an expectation of more to come.

Moreover Solomon is speaking after having gone astray after ‘strange women’ and their gods, see 1 Kings 11. ‘And the LORD was angry with Solomon, because his heart was turned from the LORD God of Israel, which had appeared unto him twice’. I believe the book of Ecclesiastes is born of Solomon’s falling under the rebuke and judgment of the LORD concerning his turning away: ‘Wherefore the LORD said unto Solomon, Forasmuch as this is done of thee, and thou hast not kept my covenant and my statutes, which I have commanded thee, I will surely rend the kingdom from thee, and will give it to thy servant’, verse 11. And didn’t Solomon say, possibly with this in mind, ‘Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me. And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool?’, Eccl. 2:19.

So Ecclesiastes is Solomon’s confession, his repentance, and he is eager to tell the people how that wisdom, lasting wisdom, is only found by continuing in ‘the fear of the LORD’, which is what he had fallen from in his latter years. Perhaps he was now thinking back to other words he’d once spoken: ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding’, Proverbs 9:10, and to the words of his father who had sung: ‘The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth for ever’, Psalm 111:10. But Solomon had not ‘done his commandments’ into old age and had therefore fallen into a grievous way. Nevertheless the LORD still loved Solomon, cp. 2 Samuel 12:24, and therefore restored him in his old age, though without removing the judgment upon his kingdom after him. Thus the old man wrote out of his wisdom of all things for his people’s good and for our admonition.

‘Vanity of vanities’

It is surprising to realise that the words ‘vanity of vanities’, so immediately associated with Ecclesiastes, appear in only two verses in the book: in chapters 1:2 and 12:8; in other words, at the beginning and at the end of Solomon’s testimony. Therefore they could be seen as the “speech marks” around everything he says: that which encapsulates or sums up his message.

But what a conclusion to come to at the end of a long and singular life! Surely there is more to it than that? Life in this world issues in more purposefulness, surely! Well, no. Solomon was the wisest of men, remember. There has never been another king like Solomon. Today’s monarchs and rulers fall infinitely short of Solomon in wisdom and understanding of those things which pertain to life and the ruling of the nations. Listen to what he said to the LORD, right at the beginning of his reign, when He said unto him, ‘Ask what I shall give thee’. The expected answer would have been what the LORD said in reply to his request: ‘long life and riches for thyself, and the life of thine enemies’, verse 11. But no, Solomon asked the following instead:

‘Thou hast showed unto thy servant David my father great mercy, according as he walked before thee in truth, and in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart with thee; and thou hast kept for him this great kindness, that thou hast given him a son to sit on his throne, as it is this day. And now O LORD my God, thou hast made thy servant king instead of David my father: and I am but a little child: I know not how to go out or come in. And thy servant is in the midst of thy people which thou hast chosen, a great people, that cannot be numbered nor counted for multitude. Give therefore thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad: for who is able to judge this thy so great a people?’ 1 Kings 3:6-9.

And the LORD answered his request: ‘Behold, I have done according to thy words: lo, I have given thee a wise and an understanding heart; so that there was none like thee before thee, neither after thee shall any arise like unto thee. And I have also given thee that which thou hast not asked, both riches, and honour: so that there shall not be any among the kings like unto thee all thy days’, verses 12,13. And the words of the LORD have stood to this day: there never has been such a king like unto Solomon.

So Solomon lived and walked in his wisdom, and according to the understanding – discernment – which the LORD had given him, until he went astray. But for all that, when he came to die and to look back over all the things his hands had wrought, his mind had pondered, and his position had afforded him, still the conclusion was this: ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’

Now this should be a salutary lesson to us ‘mere mortals’: the dust of the earth, as we sit and ponder our lives, the desires, lusts and ambitions of our hearts; as we work out how ‘happy’ and ‘fulfilled’ we are going to be in months or years to come if we can just get this, or achieve that, or gain the other. But if he who’d had it all, who’d done it all, and who’d had the power to command whatever his heart desired, concluded that – having attained to supreme fulfilment of all his desires way above and beyond what we will ever achieve – it was all vanity, what can we expect to conclude at the end of our few, poor, quickly passing days upon earth?

‘Vanity of vanities,’ saith the wise man by experience, ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity.’ Save yourself, then, the trouble of immersing yourself in the things of this world at the expense of your soul’s good, and go again straight to the end of the book and obey Solomon’s wise counsel: ‘Fear God and keep his commandments’, for judgment is coming. Solomon knew that every work, literally, ‘is brought into judgment with every secret thing.’ All that he had done and achieved was brought to judgment: that is, the state of his heart in all these things had been brought into judgment; and although many of the things he did do, in and of themselves, had not been ‘evil’ as such, many others had turned his heart away from his God, His commandments, statutes, and testimonies.

But today, in the light of the full revelation of the gospel, we have the teaching of ‘a greater than Solomon’ to hear and fall under: the Lord Jesus: ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments’; ‘If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ This is the way of wisdom: obeying and following him who is Wisdom personified, Proverbs 8. And we know that all else, every other path, is vanity. All out of Christ just walk ‘in the vanity of their minds’, Ephesians 4:17, while the supposed worship of some, even of the true and living God, can be nothing other than ‘in vain’, Mark 7:6-8. So the wise king called it all vanity, and so it is.

And to illustrate his point he asks a question, as if to counter immediate argument against what he has said: Well, all right then, if you don’t believe that all is vanity, let me ask you this: ‘What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?’ Ultimately. Don’t you realise that ‘one generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever’? Look at your life in the context of the passing years, decades and centuries. In our lifetimes some of us think we can be ‘someone’, and the more ambitious – or puffed up – think that the world is going to be different because of them, because of something they will do. But go back one hundred years: how many who were alive then in positions of power or authority still hold influence upon this generation? Very few, if any. Go back two or three hundred years and ask the same question. For all their fame then, and for all the fame some of them still have now, as kept alive by those who admire their work, art, or ideas, there are very few whose names, memories and influence have survived to this day. And anyway, if you could contact these great ones of years gone by and ask what they now think of all their achievements, and that their names are still revered, most likely you’d hear them crying out in torments: ‘It was all vanity!’

Which reminds us of another question beginning with the words ‘What profit…?’ Mark 8:36: ‘What shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’ So asked ‘the greater than Solomon’ in his wisdom. But Solomon has told us that he had gained the whole world, ‘all things’, but that it had been indeed no profit to his soul: it was all vanity outside of the fear of God.

Yes, men come and men go, ‘but the earth abideth for ever.’ Each generation has its own time, its own ideas, its own ‘wisdom’. Each generation thinks itself more ‘advanced’ than the previous one (cp. Prov. 30:12); but each generation dies away and at length is generally dismissed by succeeding generations as old-fashioned, out of date, primitive even, compared to us. Therefore if one generation is relatively ‘wise’, what good is it if the next is ‘foolish’ and lets go to waste all the understanding of the previous one? It is just vanity. Meanwhile the earth abideth for ever.

The Testimony of Nature

So Solomon does not go from chapter 1:2: ‘vanity of vanities’, straight to 12:13: ‘Fear God, and keep his commandments’, without expounding his conclusion. As he begins to counter objections he next calls nature to testify to the fact that there is never any fulfilment in this world. He speaks of the sun, the wind, and the watercourses to prove that things just keep going round and round in the world regardless of what man might achieve in any given generation.

I witnessed this to a very small degree a few years ago when we went to Scotland. It had been twenty-eight years since I’d seen the mountains of Assynt (the most beautiful spot on earth!), but despite all the changes that had occurred in my life and in the world at large during that period – 1977-2005 – there they were, Quinag, Canisp, Suilven, Cul Mòr, Cul Beag, and Stac Pollaidh still standing there, unchanged. It was quite moving really, humbling: a wonderful picture of the immutability of God who formed them. The same, of course, can be said when you lift up your eyes at night, where you will see the same Orion in the heavens as Job and Amos saw, the same Arcturus and Pleiades. When David looked up and considered the heavens, the work of the LORD’s fingers, the moon and the stars, he mused, ‘What is man?’ in comparison to them, Psalm 8. How transient are our lives. How quickly the world is deteriorating with all its ‘advancement’, and getting daily riper for the final fiery judgment; but how breathtaking to see these parts of God’s creation, untouched by man, bearing mute testimony to our Creator’s immutability.

So Solomon points us to the sun in the heavens: just as one generation follows another so ‘the sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose’, Eccl. 1:5. And this is what we and our generations do: we ‘arise’ in birth and we ‘go down’ back to the dust in death. The sun is constantly circling above the earth regardless of what man is doing upon it. In this sense man is so small in the course of things. Nothing he can do can change the course of the sun in its circuit in the heavens. After all, this sun that Solomon is writing about and saw in his sky is the same sun we see today. It is that sun which was created on the fourth day of creation six thousand years ago. Everyone you read of in scripture from Adam in the Garden of Eden to John on the isle of Patmos saw this same sun in the sky, felt its warmth, lived by its light, and they are all gone; yet here we are, enjoying the benefits of the same sun today. But does it know any of these things? How can it, it is just a light in the firmament; but it is an object which has endured, and will endure, for the whole history of time, while fleeting man in his successive generations thinks that he is something important on the earth, and that what he does, makes and achieves is going to last for ever and change the world!

And then there is the wind: ‘The wind goeth about toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits’, verse 6. Of course modern man with all his ability to map the circuits of the winds over the face of the earth has only recently discovered what Solomon told us three thousand years ago. But then, true science will always prove the scriptural record. Again it is the unchanging nature of the wind, as with the sun, which serves to emphasise the transience of man upon the earth. The wonder of the natural order, sustained over millennia, remains constant while generations of proud men come, go, and are forgotten.

Observe the sun rising and setting, says Solomon; consider the wind whirling about the earth continually; what is new about it? Nothing. These things have always been, and they are a reflection of what goes on upon the earth. Nothing new appears, not in principle. He is soon to ask, ‘Is there any thing – just one thing – whereof it may be said, See, this is new? It hath been already of old time which was before us’, verse 10. What is he actually saying? Man has been in sin from the fall in the Garden, and regardless of how that sin is manifested, and to what degree of rebellion in any given generation: no matter what ‘inventions’ he seeks out to compound and confirm the destruction of his original ‘uprightness’, Eccl. 7:29 – called elsewhere by Solomon ‘ways of death’, Proverbs 14:12 – and no matter how advanced man gets in hiding, excusing and justifying himself in his sin, nothing has really changed from the time that Adam was cast out of Eden.

O man! What is man! Can’t you see in all your rebellion that the heavens testify to the fact that there is no new thing under the sun? When will you cease from your pride and arrogance in thinking that you are becoming gods on the earth, that you will not surely die, that there is no God and no judgment to come? Don’t you realise that all your attempts to ‘make the world a better place for yourselves and for generations to come’ is not one of the commandments of your Creator? Don’t you know that whatever you might achieve on the earth will probably be lost on, or wasted, or perverted by the very next generation? and that when you die you will take nothing with you, no, not even that flesh which you have indulged so constantly? Let the wind and the sun instruct you: ‘Fear God, and keep his commandments, for this is the whole of man’; this is what man is for, to walk with God uprightly, to seek the salvation of his soul, and to keep in mind the day of judgment.

But there is yet another testimony from the earth which teaches the vanity of all things: and that is the rivers. Verse seven reads, ‘All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.’ Round and round continually. The rivers run into the sea, the sun evaporates the water from the oceans and forms clouds, the clouds are blown back over the land by the winds, they fall as rain on the hills, which makes its way into the streams and rivers, which then make their way back out to the sea. A never-ending cycle.

And what is your life? What is the end of all your desire? Each lust, each ambition, each achievement, is like a river running down into the sea of promised satisfaction which will never be filled. You will never find ‘it’, that ‘something’ you are ultimately looking for, in this life. All is vanity, all is empty, all is futile, all is waste. Look at the modern inventions which man has designed for his ‘betterment’ and satisfaction. Have they succeeded? Is man generally more satisfied now? How many times have you heard someone say, ‘Oh, I’m fed up. I know, I’ll watch my favourite programme and then I’ll be happy.’ So they watch it and then say, ‘That’s it, I’m content at last. I can throw my TV away now because it has fulfilled me.’ You never have heard it said. Why? Because they’ll be empty again tomorrow, and they’ll be fed up again tomorrow, and they’ll have to watch another programme tomorrow (or in ten minutes).

Then there are others who go shopping for that one item which will give them such joy that they’ll never need to go shopping again. And there are yet others who, having watched such a good game of football, are so satisfied that they will never need to watch another football match again. […add your own entertainment, pastime, or indulgence here…] Yes, and when you’ve come across these people – or millions of others like them – no doubt you will then hear them say, ‘This world has given me so much satisfaction, and my flesh is now so fulfilled and content, that I will now turn and spend the rest of my days in quiet contemplation of eternity and the state of my soul before the great God, my Creator.’ Will you hear it? But the world in its fallen state is not meant to satisfy you and cause you effortlessly to seek the LORD. It is in the world – which is in the hands of the god of this world, Satan, your sworn enemy – where you are to be kept from even thinking about God and your soul’s eternal safety, and kept ever yearning for more of those things it promises but never quite delivers.

Look at the rivers. They all run into the sea, but the sea never fills up! What a profound statement. What a hard lesson to learn. What a hard truth to experience. But experience it you must if ever you are to find yourself in the way of ‘fearing God, and keeping his commandments’, which is the whole of man.

Dissatisfaction Compounded

So the wise man continues: the man who has seen, done, and experienced life to the full: ‘All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it’, Eccl. 1:8. These things hadn’t come to Solomon easily, he had worked hard to achieve what he had gained: but how laborious it all was, and for what end? To discover that it was all vanity! Look again at the world around you. See people scheming, striving, labouring, ladder-climbing, achieving, arriving: and yet when they come to the end, to retirement or especially to death, what will they realise? If they’re honest they will conclude, ‘All was vanity.’ What do they gain for all their labour? Passing fulfilment. Temporary satisfaction. Fleeting contentment. Momentary security. And then what? What is the end? ‘We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out’, 1 Timothy 6:7. ‘Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither’, Job 1:21. And this is the thing that has so struck me recently: that we don’t even take our bodies with us when we die. The dead body stays behind. All this achievement, all this ‘happiness’ we attained in this flesh: and even that flesh is left behind at the end. I remember reading once of some highly admired woman whose last words on her death-bed were to the effect, ‘Brush my hair, I cannot die looking so unkempt!’, and she was gone. But the spirit left the tidy body behind! Vanity!

It is no wonder that the constant exhortation to the people of God is to flee the indulgence of the flesh, to mortify your members which are upon the earth, to redeem the time, to cleanse our hands, to touch not – let alone embrace – the unclean thing, to keep in mind that this body of sin and death is decaying, and that it will soon return to the dust: so why continue to pamper it with ‘vanity’? Don’t you know that if we die out of Christ the very flesh in which we have lived our lives will be resurrected on the day of judgment, and that we will be judged for all those things committed in that body? We will be standing there incarcerated in that very flesh in which we have lived and walked in all our vanity. Does this cause us to fear? Are we happy with the thought that we won’t be able to hide from our vain flesh in that day?

Solomon goes on to confess that despite all his labouring, succeeding, and attaining, in fact, to be honest, ‘the eye was never really satisfied in seeing, neither was the ear ever filled with hearing’, verse 8. Not filled. As the sea is never filled as a result of all the rivers flowing into it, so are the ears never filled for all that enters them. How we love to hear ‘some new thing’ – some juicy bit of gossip! but after the momentary sensation – ‘never filled’. Those who like listening to the radio, to ‘interesting programmes’, find that their ears are ‘never filled’. Music? ‘Never filled’. Never contented. More, more, more. The eye likewise can never get enough. New sights, new places, new concepts to see: ‘never satisfied’. All vanity, ultimately. All that the world can produce for the ‘benefit’ of man – for his benefit only in time – is vanity. Yes, even those things thought to be the most ‘profound’ are all vanity in the end. Well, can Shakespeare save your soul? Or Beethoven? Can Leonardo da Vinci, Plato, Einstein, or (hardly!) John Lennon? They are all dead men!

It is a fact that the world cannot actually produce anything which is new, not in the proper sense: although some things may come as being new to us. For, says Solomon, ‘The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun’, verse 9. Even the world has taken up that last phrase: ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’

Again, you argue it? Well, Solomon has once more anticipated your contention. Just think about it: ‘Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new?’ Is there, really? No. ‘It hath been already of old time, which was before us. 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’, verses 10,11. Nothing new, ever. And in this latter verse Solomon actually transports himself and his wise judgment ahead into a time yet to come wherein they shall realise that anything they experience or achieve will not be remembered by those who come still later. So these words are valid for our day. Solomon is speaking of today.

It will perhaps benefit us here to remember what was written of man’s achievements even before the Flood. These were not ‘cave men’, grunting to each other with primitive sounds; these were highly intelligent men who invented things we are familiar with today – nothing new. To start with, Adam was created with fully formed intelligence in that he could not only understand language and the meaning of words but had the ability to name all animals according to their characters, Genesis 2:19,20. His immediate descendants built cities – with all the engineering skills that involves; they farmed, made and played instruments of music, and wrought in brass and iron: and Noah built an ark! Every imagination of the thoughts of men’s heart was only evil continually – nothing new, see up to Genesis 6.

So we have begun to hear the wisdom of Solomon. What grace we need to fall under it. And yet, how depressed – oppressed – this can make us. Let us for once be honest. As human beings we have been born in the flesh – we are flesh – and the only existence – life – we’ve ever known is life according to the flesh. And these truths of Solomon depress us because naturally we love to live in the flesh, we just cannot help it. But, then, when we are born again of the Spirit of God, we receive a new nature which at length is brought to hate the workings of the flesh, the things of the world, the mentality of the world, the very way of the world, because we see, and know, and feel it all to be vanity. But we remain in the flesh, and at times the flesh rises up and craves its natural pleasures, and so a war wages within: ‘the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these things are contrary the one to the other…’, Galatians 5:17. Oh, the oppression of ‘war in your members’. ‘Who shall deliver us from the body of this death?’ Thanks be unto God, he will deliver us ‘through Jesus Christ our Lord’, Romans 7.

Vexation Of Spirit

In Ecclesiastes 1:12 Solomon tells us again that he was king in Jerusalem, but adds the detail, king ‘over Israel’ in Jerusalem. Thus he was king over all the people of God. Here was not just a king over the heathen, over a benighted people, but one over the people who were known of the true and living God. Whereas the kings of the nations round about must have had their own level of power, authority and perhaps wisdom to reign, Solomon was the king with exceeding power, rule and wisdom as God’s anointed over His people. We must not forget this as we read what Solomon gave himself to next, for none could rightly exercise himself in these things and come to so correct and righteous a judgment of them, which judgment would be shown and taught to the people of God who would at least appreciate it and hopefully fall under it for their own soul’s good.

This then is no pygmy king, no self-indulgent fool, who had nothing better to do than to take advantage of his position just for the sake of it, and then to indulge the carnal musings of a heathen people in ‘the wisdom of this world.’ No. This was a man who had been given something by God to bring to light the meaning of life in this world, which he calls a ‘sore travail to afflict him’, [marg.]. So, thus stirred by God, he ‘gave his heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven’, verse 13. Again notice that this was no arbitrary exercise, no bored meander into searching these things out; this was ‘by wisdom’: serious, concentrated, thorough, it being of God.

And immediately, before he gives us any detail of his search, he gives the conclusion: ‘I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity’, the same conclusion then. But now he goes further: not just vanity but ‘vexation of spirit’ also, verse 14. This is a word which Solomon is to use ten times in this book as a repeated conclusion to each new search for meaning or fulfilment in life: his testimony constantly echoes with the sigh, ‘All is vanity, and vexation of spirit.’

Vexation here means, at least, a sadness to his spirit: something that is contrary to the good or well being of his spirit. He constantly realises that the things this world has to offer in the way of enjoyment, happiness, fulfilment and contentment, cause his spirit to cry, ‘No! It’s no good, it isn’t the answer to my deepest need and desire.’ To be vexed is to be troubled, disquieted, upset, galled, assaulted, discomfited, or to use the Lord’s words in Matthew 25:31-46, ‘an hungered, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, in prison’; put mildly it is not a nice place to be nor a nice feeling to have. Vexation is the opposite to being in a restful state, having peace of mind. And to the child of God, as they are taught of God and grow in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ; as they learn by experience the vanity of all things outside of knowing Christ and walking in the will of the Father, they find that the sense of the vanity of all things doesn’t come alone: being in this world is also an increasing vexation of their spirits, for they are a people alive unto God and dead to the world; surrounded by those who are the opposite. They are strangers and pilgrims on the earth: foreigners in an alien land, and therefore passers through, not settlers.

Do you think that being a saint in this world is a ‘nice’ or relatively easy thing to be? Consider righteous Lot in Sodom, ‘vexed with the filthy conversation of the wicked: for that righteous man dwelling among them, in seeing and hearing, vexed his righteous soul from day to day with their unlawful deeds’, 2 Peter 2:7,8; nothing new! Read Solomon’s father David’s cries throughout the psalms, many if not all of them in the spirit of Christ: of his trouble and vexation in the presence of his enemies; in the narrowness of the way; in walking in accordance with the will of God which so often is contrary to the desires of the natural man; in times when the LORD seemed distant and was silent; when the wicked seemed to have the upper hand and were O so happy, prosperous and content in this world. No, so often the worldly didn’t seem to be vexed as the man after God’s own heart was; even in their death their strength seemed to remain firm, they were not in trouble as other men are. And whereas there are many godless people in this life who do suffer vexation because of ‘misfortune’, and sin, and pride, arrogance and rebellion, the child of God suffers vexation in his spirit, as a spiritual man, because he is born of God, is not of this world, and has a strong enemy in the god of this world: that adversary of him and his Lord who is always seeking to devour, swallow up and destroy him. If you live your life seeking to follow Christ, and fall under the will of the Father, in the heat of the battle against the enemy, not to mention against the power of your own flesh, then you will know vexation in your spirit like the world never knows. You see then that all this world has to offer you with ‘the promise of life’ without Christ will not only issue in what could be called the passive feeling of ‘vanity’, but also the active disturbing experience of being a vexation to your spirit.

You are at liberty to live how you like in this world; you can seek to ‘live life to the full’; to pursue a course like Solomon who gave his heart ‘to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly…’ Eccl. 1:17; indeed he goes on at the beginning of Chapter 2 to tell of his pursuit of mirth, pleasure and laughter; but if you are a child of God you will be brought to perceive and realise sooner or later that ‘…this also is vexation of spirit’; as he likewise concluded elsewhere: ‘Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful; and the end of that mirth is heaviness’, Proverbs 14:13. Do you know it to be true? Have you been there and felt the emptiness? In all your pursuits in life can you conclude with wise Solomon, ‘Yes, all is vanity and vexation of spirit’? Then you will likely have been brought to know the one thing which is not vanity, and which is the direct opposite to vexation of spirit.

The One Exception

So as this article has only been written as an introduction to this book of Solomon and not as a verse by verse commentary throughout the whole, we must come to the one exception to ‘all is vanity’: Fearing God, and keeping his commandments, which, in New Testament language, is nothing other than finding the salvation of your soul in and by Christ, and abiding in the doctrine of Christ, the gospel.

When Solomon said ‘all is vanity’, he meant ‘all that is in the world’, all those things which emanate from time and which apply only to time; which are designed to stimulate and feed the flesh, the natural carnal man; all of that is vanity. But the gospel of Christ is not vain, as his final exhortation hints: ‘Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole of man’ – the word ‘duty’, being in italics, is not in the original. Fear God and keep his commandments: this is what man is all about. Contrary to the message of the world man wasn’t created to ‘live his own life’ and pursue his own pleasures, but to know God: to serve and worship him, to know and fall under his will, to love, submit to, and obey him. And as God can only be known in his Son then he can only be approached through and by this Man whom he hath ordained, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour of sinners. For the truth is that man is dead in trespasses and in sins, and therefore does not ‘fear God’, neither does he ‘keep his commandments’. Subsequently the wrath of God is upon him because he has not glorified God for who He is, neither been thankful to God for giving him life, breath, and all things. And as man has not determined to retain God in his knowledge, so he has proved and confirmed himself to be fallen and lost. Because of this he has forgotten that there is a day of judgment, the thought is too uncomfortable to him; and although he has grown to deny that such a day will even actually come, and so has lost completely a reason for his very existence on this earth, then he has been given over by God to a reprobate mind – a mentality devoid of judgment, reason, understanding and wisdom – and has turned to pursue nothing but vanity and lies in this world, contrary to the judgment of wisdom and the commandment of God. Therefore being totally sold out to sin he has come to deny his desperate need for salvation and to find out if there might indeed be a saviour. ‘O vain man’ indeed.

So the gospel is not according to vanity because it is the only message which describes his dreadful state in sin and rebellion, and which goes on to reveal the Saviour, the only one who can deliver him from all this vanity and foolishness. Every one dies, the life of each in this world comes to an end. Our bodies all return to the dust. But the spirit of man does not cease to exist, it leaves the body and returns ‘unto God who gave it’, Eccl. 12:7. And then what will He do with it? He certainly will judge it. The conclusion of Solomon is echoed again in Hebrews 9:27: ‘It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.’ After death there is something else: ‘the judgment’. This is why ultimately ‘all is vanity’ in this world, which pertains only to this world.

It doesn’t matter how much you succeed and gain in this life if you forget ‘after death’. Why is it all vanity? Because it blinds the mind, the heart, the eyes – which are too busy seeking after new things in this world – from seeing and remembering the judgment to come. So it becomes more than just vanity, it becomes ‘vanity and lies’, Proverbs 30:8. It is a big lie to believe that all one has to do is immerse oneself in the here and now for satisfaction, because the moment after death it will all be taken away as the reality of the judgment appears. Therefore the message of the gospel, salvation only in Christ: that he by his death upon the cross has delivered his people from sin and from the wrath surely to come on that day of judgment, is so necessary to hear and fall under, it being the only thing in this world which is not vanity.

A Conclusion for Daily Life

But there is another conclusion that Solomon voices which answers the question, the cry even, of the Lord’s people: So how are we to live then? Practically day by day in this fallen world, where ‘all is vanity’, how are we actually supposed to spend our time outside of what we perceive to be ‘lawful employment’? This is a question which some of us have been sorely exercised with recently and which Solomon does answer.

From Chapter 11:9 he addresses specifically a ‘young man’ in the days of his youth. This is the wise old man seeking to counsel the young at the beginning of his days as to what life really is and how the young should best approach it: ultimately concluding, ‘Fear God, and keep his commandments.’ But before he arrives there he addresses the young man in the living reality of his daily life. Though he reminds him that ‘All that cometh is vanity’, Eccl. 11:8, he does not counsel that the whole life be spent in miserable employment of the wringing of hands, depression-filled days of hopeless pointlessness – which would lead quickly to despair and even suicide, the ultimate folly. No, to the young man he says rather, ‘Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes’, Eccl. 11:9.

Amazing as this might seem, in the context of the whole of his conclusions, this is not a contradiction, nor something that Solomon has not been slow in saying already. For all the way through the book as a sort of punctuation to each elucidation of vanity, he has constantly exhorted: ‘There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God’, 2:24; ‘I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life. And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God’, 3:12,13. ‘Behold that which I have seen: it is good and comely for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labour that he taketh under the sun all the days of his life, which God giveth him: for it is his portion. Every man also to whom God hath given riches and wealth, and hath given him power to eat thereof and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labour; this is the gift of God’, 5:18,19 (Cp. also 1 Timothy 6:17-19). ‘Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun’, 8:15. ‘Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works. Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun’, 9:7-9. ‘Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth…’

So what is Solomon saying? Surely he is contradicting himself? for in one place he is saying that ‘all is vanity’ and in another, ‘enjoy it all anyway’. But, no, he is not saying that. He is exhorting the young man, and us who would know the answer, to reap the benefit of our own labour; that what we work for in this life, i.e. our daily bread, should be enjoyed, for we have earned it, can rest satisfied day by day that what we have, our daily needs, have been gained by our working for them. This is no exhortation to slothfulness, living off the state, or indulgence born out of having an abundance above and beyond what we need to sustain life.

Now this of course was written in a day when man did literally have to labour for his daily bread, not labour for, be enslaved by, others to earn ‘money’ to pay someone else to provide him with food, raiment and housing: not to mention possessions, ‘stuff’, holidays, luxuries, etc. No. The relationship of man to his daily provision was much more immediate and concentrated, he literally did work at producing the things he needed to sustain the life of himself and his family.

In pondering over these things, what life really is all about as it pertains to daily life, it struck me that when God created Adam He put him in a garden, not a city; and that has turned out to be quite a profound thought which has at length led me to Ecclesiastes. The world today is designed to oppose God’s original design for man’s habitation; most of us have to live, and can only afford to live, in boxes in towns and cities instead of in the more natural surroundings of a ‘garden’. Even before Adam fell into sin, and in fact even before Eve was created, the commandment of God to him in the Garden was ‘to dress it and to keep it’, Genesis 2:15. So even before the ground was cursed and began to bring forth thorns and thistles, there was still some work to be done ‘on the land’, even though it wasn’t laborious. Gardening is indeed the oldest occupation of man and the one most natural to him; and the countryside, not the city, is man’s natural habitat and the one which brings most temporal peace and ‘reality’ into his daily existence. But as I said, the modern ‘way of the world’ doesn’t encourage us to live in and fulfil that natural way of life at all.

But Solomon’s repeated exhortation through this book to labour for our daily bread and to ‘rejoice in our labour’ and, in effect, find satisfaction in this concentrated lifestyle, is not unique to Ecclesiastes. In fact this wretched ‘consumer society’ in which we now live, with most of us being debt slaves and/or tax slaves; where in effect we have to ‘trust in the state with all our hearts, and lean not upon our own natural inclination, but in all our ways acknowledge the state and it shall direct our paths’, and look after us with benefits, compensation, and ‘security’, actually makes many of the Lord’s exhortations and certain aspects of the doctrine of the gospel practically null and void. ‘Take no thought for the morrow…’? ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you’? ‘With food and raiment let us be therewith content’? It doesn’t say, ‘With food, raiment, housing, health insurance and pension plan’, does it? Who do we really trust day by day?

With this thought in mind consider the following verses which, although they can apply to ‘employment’ in the modern sense, do still hint at something more basic: ‘Let your conversation [manner of life] be without covetousness; and be content with such things as ye have…’, Hebrews 13:5. ‘…if any should not work, neither should he eat. For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread’, 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12. ‘He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap… In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good’, Eccl. 11:4,6. ‘The sluggard will not plough by reason of the cold; therefore shall he beg in harvest, and have nothing’, Proverbs 20:4. ‘Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise: which having no guide, overseer, or ruler, provideth her meat in the summer, and gathereth her food in the harvest. How long wilt thou sleep, O sluggard? when wilt thou arise out of thy sleep? Yet a little sleep, a little folding of the hands to sleep: so shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth, and thy want as an armed man’, Proverbs 6:6-11. After all, it is the lot of fallen man to eat his bread in the sweat of his face, Genesis 3:19.

I believe that when we begin to see the message of scripture in these things that the children of God will desire to separate as much as they can from the ‘way of life’ which the world has become, and seek to live simpler, though it would be by no means easier, and closer to how man was meant to live. Of course the system in which we have been born and brought up in is so ingrained in us that any degree of shift would be hard to adjust to; nevertheless where the Lord shows his people the right way, or a better way, even in temporal things, he will lead his people in it, I firmly believe that.

So labouring is good, and in the day, and for the day, it will not be vanity, for we must sustain our bodies; this, says the wise king, is our portion and it is the gift of God.

But to return to the young man. Solomon encourages him, or rather, does not discourage him, from rejoicing in his youth – in the flush of youthful vitality – when everything is ‘new’ and exciting and full of possibilities: what a big wide world there is to discover! Yes, ‘let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes…’ BUT… remember this one thing: ‘know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment’, Eccl. 11:9. How about that for a check upon the abandonment of indulging youthful lusts: you won’t escape accountability, sooner or later. And Solomon’s counsel is a sober consideration even in the days of youth that ‘life’ is not all that the world promises: in fact, the young man will soon find that the headlong pursuit of ‘happiness’ or ‘fun’ as they now call it, and of attainment, will be accompanied by ‘sorrow in heart’ and ‘evil in flesh’: why? ‘For childhood and youth is VANITY’, 11:10.

Yes, all is vanity, from the beginning of ones life to the end of it. Therefore, O young man, exercise thy mind God-ward early, instead of world-ward: ‘Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth’, 12:1; not when you reach middle age, or old age – ‘the evil days’: ‘in the days of thy youth – now.’ Paul to Titus: ‘Young men likewise exhort to be sober minded’, Titus 2:6. It is so important for the young to grasp early the truth of the vanity of all things; they need to seek the LORD early before the world weighs them down – which it surely will – and before the regrets, remorse and bitterness which so often arise in middle and old age comes upon them: ‘when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them’, 12:1. Let them walk with God from their earliest years, find contentment in his will early, trusting in the LORD with all their hearts, leaning not unto their own [darkened] understanding, and learning quickly to value the necessities of life.

Read through the book of Ecclesiastes. See all that Solomon had: it covers everything in life; and take to heart, credit, believe and fall under his conclusion: ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher; vanity of vanities, all is vanity’. And for the child of God caught up in all this vanity, who has proved it all to be ‘vexation of spirit’; a hindrance to his walk, a weighing down of his spirit, a cause of the loss of one of his most prized possessions: peace of mind, and the peace of God; the exhortation of the gospel is to turn away from it all and seek the Lord’s grace to hear his voice and walk in his ways; to abide in him and his doctrine, and to keep our eyes looking for his appearing; that great day, the day of our ultimate salvation, when he shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself.

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4 thoughts on “Ecclesiastes: An Introduction

  1. Reading this was an hour or more profitably spent; full of instruction, thank you!
    If only more believers could only appreciate how vain this present world is.

    BTW, regarding your allusion to the ‘water-cycle’ as it is known, how do you explain your words in the light of Isaiah 55.10?

    Like

    1. Thanks Tim. We can so easily get caught up in the vanities of life, not to mention the vanities of religion. Only the work of God in us and his sustaining grace in Christ can keep us enduring to the end.

      Like

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