Faith in the Future

1 Cast your bread upon the waters,
    for you will find it after many days.
Give a portion to seven, or even to eight,
    for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.
If the clouds are full of rain,
    they empty themselves on the earth,
and if a tree falls to the south or to the north,
    in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.
He who observes the wind will not sow,
    and he who regards the clouds will not reap.

As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.

In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good. Ecclesiastes 11:1-6 ESV

As Solomon returns to a theme he has addressed before: The uncertainty of the future and man’s inability to discern what it may hold. To a certain degree, Solomon finds himself between a rock and a hard place. He has discovered that there is nothing in this life that really brings true joy and meaningful satisfaction, and he has tried it all. He is wise beyond belief. He has wealth beyond measure. He has experimented with every imaginable form of pleasure and self-gratification. And none of it has brought any sense of purpose or fulfillment. He describes it as little more than chasing the wind or trying to catch smoke in your hands.

So, his less-than-optimistic conclusion has been that chasing after all the material things you can see and touch is ultimately an exercise in futility. Wine, women, and song are not enough. Palaces, gardens, vast orchards, and fruitful vineyards cannot produce contentment. Enough is never enough. Life, even with all its pleasure-producing pursuits, ends in death.

And that raises the other distressing issue for Solomon: Nobody knows what happens next. Death is like a door behind which lies a foreboding and forbidden future. Only God knows what awaits man at the end of life. So, he is left to experience futility in life and uncertainty in death. Back in chapter nine, Solomon shared his somewhat pessimistic view of the future.

It seems so wrong that everyone under the sun suffers the same fate. Already twisted by evil, people choose their own mad course, for they have no hope. There is nothing ahead but death anyway. There is hope only for the living. As they say, “It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion!” – Ecclesiastes 9:3-4 NLT

For Solomon, death was an unknown. But life, in spite of its inherent problems and potential risks, was at least something over which you could have influence. This is what led him to share the proverbial statements found in the opening part of this chapter. He concludes that there are certain rewards that come as a result of living life.

Solomon was a horticulturalist who possessed many vineyards and orchards. As king, he had thousands of acres of farmland that produced abundant harvests used to feed his people and fill his treasury with gold when exported to other countries.  And he acknowledges that if you “cast your bread upon the waters”, it will eventually come back to you. In other words, if you export your grain in ships and sell it to other nations, you will eventually reap a financial reward. Your diligence to plant and harvest will come back in the form of profit.

And when you make that profit, you should invest it wisely and diversely. In other words, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

Give a portion to seven, or even to eight,
    for you know not what disaster may happen on earth. – Ecclesiastes 11:2 ESV

Diversification makes for a good investment strategy. You don’t want to have all your wealth in one place, because you never know what may happen. Disasters come. The market can drop like a rock. Be prudent. Invest wisely. And take advantage of the opportunities as they present themselves.

If the clouds are full of rain,
    they empty themselves on the earth – Ecclesiastes 11:3 ESV

In other words, learn to read the signs. Plant in a timely fashion. If you misread the clouds, you may fail to plant before the rains come. If you procrastinate, you’ll miss the window of opportunity. Once again, Solomon is encouraging prudence and wisdom. You may not be able to control the future, but you can take advantage of the present situation. Plant before the rain, not after it. And don’t let the threat of storms keep you from doing what you know needs to be done. Conditions will rarely be perfect in this life. There will be few times when the stars align and the circumstances turn out just as you had hoped. So don’t delay. Yet, some of us seem to live by the tongue-in-cheek advice of Mark Twain: “Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.”

Solomon would strongly disagree with Mr. Twain, instead sharing the insight he gained from years of living and working on this planet.

Farmers who wait for perfect weather never plant. If they watch every cloud, they never harvest. – Ecclesiastes 11:4 NLT

If you fail to take advantage of the moment, it may just pass you by. This is what he seems to be inferring when he writes, “if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie” (Ecclesiastes 11:3 ESV). Once the tree has fallen, you can’t plant it back in the ground. Once the rain has fallen, it makes no sense to plant. If you wait for everything to be just right, you’ll never accomplish anything.

Life is full of mysteries and inexplicable situations, and there are certain things we may never fully comprehend.

Just as you cannot understand the path of the wind or the mystery of a tiny baby growing in its mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the activity of God, who does all things. – Ecclesiastes 11:5 NLT

Even with all the advancements in science, we still don’t know exactly how a baby forms in the womb of its mother. We can watch the progress through the use of sonograms, but we can’t see or explain how God has ordained the process of birth, from the moment of conception all the way to delivery. Even with all our technology and scientific know-how, much of it remains hidden from us.

Solomon was wise enough to know that he would never understand the ways of God. There are things that happen in life which only God can explain, and He is not obligated to share all that He knows with us. He often leaves us in the dark, wrestling with our questions and struggling to understand His ways.

The bottom line for Solomon was to work wisely and diligently. Start sowing your seed in the morning and don’t stop until the sun goes down. Do what you can do and then leave the rest up to God. You don’t know the results your efforts will produce but rather than worry about it, do what you can to impact that outcome positively. Work hard. Be diligent. Act wisely. Use common sense. Don’t procrastinate. In some sense, Solomon is promoting the idea behind the old adage, “make hay while the sun shines.” None of us knows how long we have to live on this earth, but God does. And since He chooses not to divulge the length of our days, we should do all that we can to make the most of every moment. Moses put it this way: “Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom” (Psalm 90:12 NLT).

Solomon’s own father, David, also understood that man’s lifespan was relatively short when compared with eternity. So, he asked God to never let him forget the fleeting nature of his own existence.

Lord, remind me how brief my time on earth will be.
    Remind me that my days are numbered—
    how fleeting my life is.
You have made my life no longer than the width of my hand.
    My entire lifetime is just a moment to you;
    at best, each of us is but a breath. – Psalm 39:4-5 NLT

Death is an inevitable reality for all of us. David ultimately died. So did Solomon. And so will you. You can attempt to prolong your life but God already knows your expiration date. Solomon would recommend that you spend more time enjoying the life you have, rather than futilely chasing after unfulfilled dreams and desires. Find joy in today, rather than wasting time pursuing a tomorrow that may never come. Solomon is not dismissing the idea of setting goals for the future. He is not discounting the need for planning or demonizing the pursuit of unrealized dreams. He is simply reminding us that the present is all we have. We can’t change the past and we can’t know the future, so we should live with a sense of immediacy.

And even more importantly, for those of us who are believers in Jesus Christ, we have no need to worry about the future, because it has already been taken care of for us. Our future is secure. Our eternity is set. So, we are free to live our lives free from anxiety, focusing our efforts on doing the work for which God has created us.

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago. – Ephesians 2:10 NLT

Solomon had an inordinate fear of the future. He let the uncertainty of death rob him of peace. He found himself forced to find all his joy and satisfaction in this life, using the limited resources at his disposal. Occasionally, he caught glimpses of the blessings of God in the form of a loving relationship or the fruit of his labor. He was able to enjoy a good meal with a close friend, or a deep sleep after a hard day’s labor. But he lived with an unhealthy fear of the unknown. He had lived his whole life pursuing more, but the one thing he really needed was confidence in God’s sovereign control over all things, including the past, the present, and the future. What Solomon really needed was faith.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Fatalism Versus Faithfulness

Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.

Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

11 Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. 12 For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.

13 I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me. 14 There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. 15 But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. 16 But I say that wisdom is better than might, though the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are not heard.

17 The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools. 18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good. Ecclesiastes 9:7-18 ESV

According to Solomon’s way of seeing things, there are two things that can make a man’s life miserable and meaningless: Time and chance. He makes that point clear in verse 11.

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. – Ecclesiastes 9:11 ESV

From his experience, these two things played irrefutable roles in the lives of men, determining their destinies far more often than ability, intelligence, or preparedness. Solomon supports his assertion with a series of observations about life.

The fastest runner doesn’t always win.

The most powerful army isn’t always the victor.

Wisdom won’t necessarily put food on the table.

A surplus of intelligence doesn’t guarantee wealth or success.

And those with know-how aren’t always appreciated or given a chance to show what they know.

Sometimes it’s all in the timing, or it’s simply a matter of chance. Things just happen. The faster runner trips and falls, leaving a slower runner to win the race. The smarter one fails to get the job. The one lacking discernment gets the promotion. It’s like a grand cosmic crap shoot, where no one knows what the outcome will be. It just happens. So, once again, Solomon offers up the sage advice to “So go ahead. Eat your food with joy, and drink your wine with a happy heart, for God approves of this! Wear fine clothes, with a splash of cologne!” (Ecclesiastes 9:7-8 NLT).

As noted in an earlier post,, this is not a recommendation to embrace unbridled hedonism or to spend your days in a drunken stupor. It is counsel designed to encourage the enjoyment of what you already have – your job, spouse, children, and life. Solomon knew what it was like to spend his life in pursuit of what he didn’t have. He had an abundance of God-given wisdom, but he was never satisfied. He had plenty of houses, but he kept building more. He had hundreds of wives and concubines but his harem continued to grow. He spent so much time adding to his already overstocked life, that he never took time to enjoy all that he had. So, writing the book of Ecclesiastes at the end of his life, he passed on what he had learned: Enjoy what you have while you have it because no one knows what tomorrow holds. In a sense, he is telling us to stop and smell the roses. And his advice is supported by a story Jesus told His disciples.

Then he told them a story: “A rich man had a fertile farm that produced fine crops. He said to himself, ‘What should I do? I don’t have room for all my crops.’ Then he said, ‘I know! I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll have room enough to store all my wheat and other goods. And I’ll sit back and say to myself, “My friend, you have enough stored away for years to come. Now take it easy! Eat, drink, and be merry!”’

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! You will die this very night. Then who will get everything you worked for?’

“Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.” – Luke 12:16-21 NLT

There is a danger in always living with our hopes set on tomorrow. This doesn’t preclude planning for the future, but if we do plan, we should not short-change the present day. None of us know what tomorrow holds. In that sense, Solomon is right. But notice the emphasis behind the story Jesus told. His point is that the man in the story was neglecting his relationship with God. He found his significance and satisfaction in material things. And it was only when he thought he had enough, that he believed he would be able to enjoy life. There is a certain dissatisfaction and discontentment portrayed in the man’s decision-making. And that same problem seemed to have plagued Solomon.

But in his latter years, Solomon appears to have learned the lesson of being satisfied with what he had. He recommends seeing your spouse as a gift from God and a reward for all your hard work in this life. He strongly advises that we take time to enjoy good food, the feel of clean clothes, and the fragrance of fine perfume. But there remains a certain sense of nagging pessimism in his words.

Whatever you do, do well. For when you go to the grave, there will be no work or planning or knowledge or wisdom. – Ecclesiastes 9:10 NLT

In other words, this is all there is., so enjoy it while you can. Because once you’re dead, you won’t get the opportunity again. Solomon never qualifies or clarifies his views on the hereafter, but he gives a distinct impression that he prefers the here-and-now. All his emphasis is on what he can see, touch, and feel. He was a man driven by his senses. The pursuit of pleasure was important to him. Enjoyment was a high priority for him. And he seemed to operate on the premise that death would bring all of that to an abrupt stop.

So, he learned to live in the present, taking in all that he could while there was still time. And what drove that mentality was the recognition that “man does not know his time” (Ecclesiastes 9:12 ESV). He compares man to a fish caught in a net or a bird trapped in a snare. When we least expect it, our end comes. Which led Solomon to resort to his quest for immediate gratification. He seems to have lived his life based on the old Schlitz Brewing Company slogan from the mid-1960s: “You only go around once in life, so you’ve got to grab for all the gusto you can.”

But as Jesus warned, what a waste of time if you don’t seek a right relationship with God.

Solomon next provides us with a real-life example of wisdom on display, but unappreciated. He tells the story of a city that was besieged by a powerful army. The citizens of the city were few in number and their fate seemed sealed. But help and hope came from an unexpected source: A poor wise man.

There was a small town with only a few people, and a great king came with his army and besieged it. A poor, wise man knew how to save the town, and so it was rescued. – Ecclesiastes 9:14-15 NLT

Notice Solomon’s emphasis. The man was wise but poor. Remember Solomon’s earlier point: “The wise sometimes go hungry.” And yet, this impoverished man’s wisdom saved the day. Solomon doesn’t explain how, but this man used his wisdom to rescue the city from destruction. And yet, his efforts went unrecognized and unrewarded.

But afterward no one thought to thank him. – Ecclesiastes 9:15 NLT

So Solomon concludes: “even though wisdom is better than strength, those who are wise will be despised if they are poor. What they say will not be appreciated for long” (Ecclesiastes 9:16 NLT).

The plight of poverty trumps wisdom. The man saved the day but went to bed that night still poor and forgotten. And what insight does Solomon provide us from this story?

So even though wisdom is better than strength, those who are wise will be despised if they are poor. What they say will not be appreciated for long. – Ecclesiastes 9:16 NLT

Wisdom could be beneficial but it couldn’t guarantee food on the table or replace the stigma of poverty. Yet Solomon warns that it’s better to listen to one man speaking quiet words of wisdom, than to the shouts of a powerful king who rules over fools. The citizens of the besieged city had been saved because they listened to the wisdom of a poor man. But once victory was assured, they turned their back on the one whose wisdom had saved them. And Solomon reaches a rather sad conclusion. While wisdom is more beneficial than weapons, it just takes one sinner to destroy all the good that wisdom brings. There was a good chance that the city’s victory celebration would end up being short-lived due to the sinful actions of a single fool.

Once again, you can sense Solomon’s cynicism. The advice of the wise isn’t always heeded. Their efforts aren’t always appreciated. And it only takes one foolish, unrighteous sinner to undermine all the efforts of the wise.

You can see why Solomon repeatedly went back to the recommendation: Eat, drink and be merry. To him, the world was controlled by time and chance. Man is the unwilling occupant of a canoe hurtling through rapids without a paddle. The best he can do is hang on and enjoy the scenes along the way. He knows there’s probably a less-than-pleasant ending around every bend, but he has no way of knowing when it will come. So, Solomon had determined that the best thing to do was to sit back and enjoy the ride. But what a defeatist attitude.

Yes, there is some value in living for the moment. There is truth in Solomon’s assessment that the strong don’t always win and the fastest runner doesn’t always come in first. But the apostle Paul would strongly disagree with Solomon’s assessment, arguing instead: “Don’t you realize that in a race everyone runs, but only one person gets the prize? So run to win!” (1 Corinthians 9:24 NLT). And he supports that argument even further in his letter to the church in Philippi.

I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us.

Let all who are spiritually mature agree on these things. – Philippians 3:14-15 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Missing the Forest for the Trees

15 In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. 16 Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? 17 Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? 18 It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them.

19 Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city.

20 Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.

21 Do not take to heart all the things that people say, lest you hear your servant cursing you. 22 Your heart knows that many times you yourself have cursed others.

23 All this I have tested by wisdom. I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me. 24 That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?

25 I turned my heart to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things, and to know the wickedness of folly and the foolishness that is madness. 26 And I find something more bitter than death: the woman whose heart is snares and nets, and whose hands are fetters. He who pleases God escapes her, but the sinner is taken by her. 27 Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things— 28 which my soul has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. 29 See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes. Ecclesiastes 7:15-29 ESV

Don’t be too righteous, but don’t be too wicked. Don’t be too wise, but don’t be too foolish. That sounds like strange advice, doesn’t it? It comes across like Solomon is recommending a life of mediocrity – a middle-of-the-road kind of mentality that avoids the ditches on either side. His assessment is that the righteous die in spite of their righteousness and the wicked succeed in spite of their wickedness. So, he recommends avoiding the extremes and fearing  God instead.

What Solomon seems to be saying is that a man will end up disappointed if he pursues righteousness and wisdom thinking they will provide him with a long and prosperous life, free from trouble and trials. A life of righteousness, marked by wisdom is no guarantee of immunity from difficulty. Good people still suffer and die. Wise people still make dumb decisions. But at the same time, Solomon warns that a life of wickedness may bring you a semblance of pleasure and happiness, but you’ll end up paying for it in the long run. This leads him to conclude: “Pay attention to these instructions, for anyone who fears God will avoid both extremes” (Ecclesiastes 7:18 NLT).

It’s important that we not misunderstand or misinterpret what Solomon is saying. He is not diminishing the importance of righteousness or wisdom. He knows that both are essential and, when pursued properly, honoring to God. He even acknowledges that “One wise person is stronger than ten leading citizens of a town!” (Ecclesiastes 7:19 NLT). A wise person possesses an inner strength that provides protection from the effects of adversity. It provides a form of self-reliance and security that is preferable to dependence upon outside sources.   

But wisdom has its limits. So does righteousness. There is no one who is all-wise. There is no one who is fully righteous.

Not a single person on earth is always good and never sins. – Ecclesiastes 7:20 NLT

That’s not exactly a revelation, but it’s so important that we recognize and come to grips with the truth it proclaims. In this lifetime, we will never experience unvarnished righteousness. We will never be completely holy and sinless. So, while righteousness is a worthy and worthwhile pursuit, we must remember that it will never keep us from suffering. Or to put it another way, no amount of righteousness in your life will protect you from pain and suffering. The righteous and wicked both experience difficulties in life. In fact, sometimes it appears as if the righteous suffer more than the wicked. The prophet Jeremiah took pains to share his frustration with this disturbing reality to God Himself.

Lord, you always give me justice
    when I bring a case before you.
So let me bring you this complaint:
Why are the wicked so prosperous?
    Why are evil people so happy?
You have planted them,
    and they have taken root and prospered.
Your name is on their lips,
    but you are far from their hearts. – Jeremiah 12:1-2 NLT

From our earth-bound perspective, it can sometimes appear as if the wicked are being blessed by God. They seem happy and content. Their lives appear to be relatively free from pain and marked by prosperity. But as the saying goes, “Looks can be deceiving.” Solomon had lived long enough to realize that the righteous and the wicked both experience their fair share of suffering. No amount of wisdom can guarantee a trouble-free life. This was a man who had pursued wisdom in a vain attempt to make sense of the incongruities and inequities of life.

And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. – Ecclesiastes 1:13-14 ESV

Solomon had been blessed by God with greater wisdom than any other living man. But he had not been satisfied. Instead, he spent years trying to acquire even more wisdom. It became an obsession. For Solomon, the accumulation of wisdom had become the end-game, rather than recognition and reverence for the One who made wisdom possible.

In his commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes, J. S. Wright describes wisdom as “not the knowledge of accumulated facts but the inner strength that comes from a God-instructed conscience” (J. S. Wright, Ecclesiastes). John Piper describes wisdom as “that practical knowledge of how to attain true and lasting happiness. It begins with the fear of the Lord and consists in humbly hearing and doing God’s will perceived both in Scripture and in the unique circumstances of the moment” (John Piper, desiringgod.org, “Get Wisdom”).

Solomon knew and understood the importance of wisdom, so he went out of his way to get his hands on it. But it seems as if he treated it as just another commodity, like gold, silver, horses, houses, chariots, and servants. As John Piper stated, the fear of the Lord is central to getting the full advantage of wisdom. And, of all people, Solomon should have understood that truth. After all, it was he who included the following proverb in his well-known collection:

Fear of the LORD is the foundation of wisdom. Knowledge of the Holy One results in good judgment. – Proverbs 9:10 NLT

But despite his awareness of this truth, Solomon’s self-obsessed accumulation of wisdom left him less than satisfied.

I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. – Ecclesiastes 1:16-17 ESV

Solomon had lived a long life. He had accomplished much and enjoyed all the perks that came with his achievements. And while he could put abundant wisdom at the top of his long list of assets, he still found himself operating in the red.

I have always tried my best to let wisdom guide my thoughts and actions. I said to myself, “I am determined to be wise.” But it didn’t work. Wisdom is always distant and difficult to find. I searched everywhere, determined to find wisdom and to understand the reason for things. I was determined to prove to myself that wickedness is stupid and that foolishness is madness. – Ecclesiastes 7:23-25 NLT

Despite his superior intelligence, the only conclusion Solomon could reach was that wisdom was an antidote to foolishness. It was like a vaccine that protected one against infection from folly.

I searched everywhere, determined to find wisdom and to understand the reason for things. I was determined to prove to myself that wickedness is stupid and that foolishness is madness. – Ecclesiastes 7:25 NLT

To Solomon, wisdom was nothing more than a panacea against a life of foolishness. He even characterizes folly as a seductive woman.

I discovered that a seductive woman is a trap more bitter than death. Her passion is a snare, and her soft hands are chains. Those who are pleasing to God will escape her, but sinners will be caught in her snare. – Ecclesiastes 7:26 NLT

And Solomon was somewhat of an expert when it came to seductive women. He was addicted to them. You don’t amass 700 wives and 300 concubines without some kind of a physical and psychological obsession with the opposite sex. And so, when Solomon attempted to describe the attractive nature of folly and the life of foolishness, he tended to use the familiar allure of a promiscuous woman.

For the lips of an immoral woman are as sweet as honey,
    and her mouth is smoother than oil.
But in the end she is as bitter as poison,
    as dangerous as a double-edged sword.
Her feet go down to death;
    her steps lead straight to the grave.
For she cares nothing about the path to life.
    She staggers down a crooked trail and doesn’t realize it. – Proverbs 5:3-6 NLT

Solomon knew that a life of foolishness could be highly appealing, but also extremely deadly. It was an equal-opportunity trap that ensnared both men and women. In fact, when he makes the statement, “Only one out of a thousand men is virtuous”, he uses the Hebrew word adam, which can be translated as “man” but is actually a generic term referring to both sexes. Foolishness is not a male-dominated trait. Every human being, regardless of gender, class, educational status, or social standing, is susceptible to the allure of foolishness.

Yet, in verse 28, Solomon seems to be saying that only men can be virtuous.

I have not found what I was looking for. Only one out of a thousand men is virtuous, but not one woman! – Ecclesiastes 7:28 NLT

It would seem that his use of the term “woman” in the second half of this verse is a direct reference to the seductive woman in verse 26. He is stating that folly is never virtuous. The individual who pursues a life of foolishness will never discover virtue or righteousness. Wisdom can prevent us from succumbing to folly’s temptation, but folly will never produce wisdom or result in a life of righteousness. This is why Solomon closes out this chapter by saying, “God created people to be virtuous, but they have each turned to follow their own downward path” (Ecclesiastes 7:29 NLT). God created men and women to live righteously. But ever since the fall, humanity has made a habit of following a divergent path, pursuing darkness rather than light.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning or foundation of wisdom. But pursuing wisdom without a healthy reverence for God simply turns it into a commodity to be coveted and acquired. It becomes the objective rather than a relationship with God. Instead of viewing wisdom as a gift from God, designed to help us live in obedience to Him, we make it our end goal. Wisdom becomes nothing more than a tool to make us smarter, wealthier, healthier, and happier.

Solomon had spent decades in search of the meaning of life. And, in his relentless quest, he had tried wisdom and wickedness, viewing both as potential doorways to his desired destination. But God and a healthy reverence for Him were, and still are, the only ways for a man or woman to discover their true purpose in life and enjoy their days “under the sun.”

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

Father Knows Best

1 A good name is better than precious ointment,
    and the day of death than the day of birth.
It is better to go to the house of mourning
    than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
    and the living will lay it to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
    for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
    but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.
It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise
    than to hear the song of fools.
For as the crackling of thorns under a pot,
    so is the laughter of the fools;
    this also is vanity.
Surely oppression drives the wise into madness,
    and a bribe corrupts the heart.
Better is the end of a thing than its beginning,
    and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.
Be not quick in your spirit to become angry,
    for anger lodges in the heart of fools.
10 Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
    For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
11 Wisdom is good with an inheritance,
    an advantage to those who see the sun.
12 For the protection of wisdom is like the protection of money,
    and the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the life of him who has it.
13 Consider the work of God:
    who can make straight what he has made crooked?

14 In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him. Ecclesiastes 7:1-14 ESV

Once again, using a steady, staccato stream of parables as his tool, Solomon provides us with yet more proof of the futility of a life lived under the sun. Still maintaining his somewhat pessimistic outlook, he utilizes a series of stark contrasts in order to support his central theme that all is vanity.

He juxtaposes birth and death, sorrow and laughter, wisdom and foolishness, the beginning and the end, and the patient and the proud. In each case, Solomon draws a conclusion, deeming one better than the other, and what he decides is meant to shock and surprise us. He starts out comparing birth with death, and while we might logically conclude that the beginning of life is preferable to its end, Solomon would disagree. And he uses a somewhat odd comparison to make his point. In verse one, Solomon utilizes a wordplay, using two similar sounding Hebrew words: shem and shemen, to make his point. Shem means “name” and refers to someone’s reputation. Shemen is the Hebrew word for “oil” and it typically refers to highly fragrant anointing oil.

Solomon states that a good name or reputation is better than precious ointment. To put it another way, he seems to be saying that being good is better than smelling good. A man who hasn’t bathed can douse himself with cologne, but he will only cover up the fact that he stinks. He isn’t fixing his problem; he’s simply masking it. His life is a sham and marked by hypocrisy.

Solomon uses shem and shemen to make a point about birth and death. While the beginning of life is associated with feasting and celebration, it masks the reality that much hurt and heartache lie ahead. A baby is born without a reputation. It has had no time to establish a name for itself. And no one knows the ultimate outcome of that child’s life. Yet, we celebrate and rejoice on the day of his birth. Solomon is not suggesting we cease celebrating a new birth, but that we recognize the end of one’s life is what truly matters. Why? Because we all face the same fate. Death is inevitable and inescapable. And when it comes time to mourn the life of someone we knew and loved, those who have managed to achieve and maintain a good reputation will be missed most. When it comes time to mourn the loss of someone of good character, sorrow will prove better than laughter, because the reflections on that individual’s life will bring sweet and lasting memories. It will remind the living of what is truly important, and the wise will glean invaluable lessons from a life lived well.

When a child is born, words of encouragement may be spoken, but they’re all hypothetical in nature. No one knows the future, so no one can presume to know how that child’s life will turn out. We can and should be hopeful, but we can’t be certain that our expectations will come to fruition. Yet, at the time of death, there will be irrefutable evidence that proves the true nature of a person’s life. A life lived well will be well documented and greatly celebrated. Even in the sorrow of the moment, there will be joy. Solomon puts it this way: “by sadness of face the heart is made glad” (Ecclesiastes 7:3 ESV). The memories of the one we have lost bring joy to our hearts and put a smile on our faces, and we experience the seeming dichotomy of sadness and gladness.

Solomon’s use of shem and shemen has ongoing application. He seems to be advocating a life that is lived beneath the surface – well beyond the shallow and pretentious trappings of materialism and hedonism. He refers to “the house of mirth,” the place where fools tend to gather. It is a place of joy and gladness, rejoicing and pleasure. The fool makes it his primary destination, believing that it is only there that his heart will find satisfaction and fulfillment.

But Solomon recommends the house of mourning, where sadness and sorrow are found. Again, it is at the end of one’s life that their true character will be revealed in detail. The tears of sorrow may be for one who lived his life well and whose departure will leave a hole in the lives of those left behind. But, in far too many cases, the tears flow out of sadness over a life that was little more than a facade. All was not as it appeared to be. The sweet-smelling oil of success and outer happiness merely masked the reality that there was nothing of value on the inside. The “perfumes” of life are the things we acquire and accumulate, none of which we can take with us. They represent the oil of achievement and visible success. Our homes, cars, clothes, portfolios, resumes, and 401ks may leave the impression that we had it all but, at death, they will prove of little value or significance. As Job so aptly put it, “I came naked from my mother’s womb, and I will be naked when I leave” (Job 1:21 NLT).

Solomon has learned that life should be accompanied by thoughtfulness and soberness. It requires serious reflection and careful examination to discover all that life has to offer. But we are prone to live life with our hearts and eyes set on those things that bring us the greatest amount of pleasure and satisfaction, temporary though they may be. We prefer the sweet-smelling, short-lived perfume of a self-indulgent lifestyle. We want it all now. We prefer joy to sorrow, pleasure over pain, happiness rather than heartache, and a good time instead a good name.

But Solomon knew from experience that living in the house of mirth never brings true happiness. He had learned the hard way that a life lived with pleasure as its primary focus rarely results in lasting satisfaction or true joy. Like perfume, its aroma faded with time. This is why Solomon always reverted to wisdom.

Wisdom is even better when you have money.
    Both are a benefit as you go through life.
Wisdom and money can get you almost anything,
    but only wisdom can save your life. – Ecclesiastes 7:11-12 NLT

Money might improve your life over the short term, but only wisdom can protect and prolong your life. And wisdom can’t be bought or acquired. It comes through observation and the application of life lessons, and that requires a willingness to look beneath the surface, beyond the pleasant-sounding lies of the enemy. The apostle John gives us some sober-sounding, wisdom-producing words to consider.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT

And Solomon reminds us to look at life more soberly and seriously, judging it not from our limited human vantage point, but through the eyes of God.

Accept the way God does things, for who can straighten what he has made crooked? – Ecclesiastes 7:13 NLT

We see death as negative, the end of life. But God sees things differently. We view pleasure as preferable to pain, but God works in ways we can’t comprehend, using the seeming incongruities of life to teach us the most valuable lessons. And as before, Solomon boils his thoughts down to one simple suggestion:

Enjoy prosperity while you can, but when hard times strike, realize that both come from God. – Ecclesiastes 7:14 NLT

There is nothing wrong with enjoying the pleasures of life and the blessings that God bestows on us in this life. But we must recognize that God is found in the extremes of life. He is sovereign over all that we experience; the good, the bad, the pleasant, the painful, death and life, wealth and poverty, joy and sorrow. A wise man will look for God in everything and find Him. The fool will set his sights on experiencing joy, pleasure, satisfaction, significance, and pleasure, but miss God in the process.

For those who believe in God, the future is always bright because they know that He has a plan for them. They refuse to live in the past and they refrain from allowing the present to dominate their lives. Instead, they consider the words that God spoke to the people of Israel when they were living as exiles in the land of Babylon.

For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. – Jeremiah 29:11 ESV

The wise realize that God is always at work. He never sleeps. He never stops implementing His sovereign plan for those He loves. And while life may sometimes take a turn for the worse, a believer understands that God is far from done. That’s why Solomon warns that living in the past is a waste of time. When things don’t turn out quite the way we expected, it doesn’t pay to reminisce and wax nostalgic.

Don’t long for “the good old days.”
    This is not wise. – Ecclesiastes 7:10 NLT

Keep trusting God. Focus your eyes on the future and trust that His sovereign plan will bring about the best outcome. He will not disappoint. Rather than judging God’s faithfulness by the quality of the circumstances surrounding your life, try resting in the fact that He knows what is best and has a purpose for everything that happens in life.

Accept the way God does things,
    for who can straighten what he has made crooked?
Enjoy prosperity while you can,
    but when hard times strike, realize that both come from God. – Ecclesiastes 7:13-14 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Heart of the Matter

12 So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. 13 Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. 14 The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 15 Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. 16 For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! 17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.

18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.

24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. Ecclesiastes 2:12-26 ESV

I’m sure there was a day when Solomon was fun to be around, but at this point in his life, he comes across as a pessimistic, old curmudgeon who has long lost the capacity to smile. His gloomy rhetoric portrays him as a glass-half-empty kind of guy. But it might be more accurate to say that his glass is bone dry and his temperament is dark and depressing. But he still has his wisdom and the ability to see things that many of us tend to miss. And recognizing his responsibility as the “preacher” or speaker in the assembly, Solomon deigned to share his somewhat somber life lessons with others. Which is the whole reason he took the time to write this book.

Solomon seemed to believe that his role as king, equipped with virtually unlimited resources, unbridled autonomy, and unparalleled wisdom, placed him in a unique position to investigate the true meaning of life. So, he did. And he did so with all his heart, expending a great deal of time, money, and energy in his pursuit. In fact, Solomon repeatedly refers to his heart throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. He mentions it no less than eight times in this chapter alone.

I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” – vs 1

I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom – vs 3

I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. – vs 10

Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. – vs 15

So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun – vs 20

For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. – vs 23

While Solomon talks a great deal about the pursuit of pleasure, the accumulation of possessions, and his many accomplishments and acquisitions, the real focus of his attention is the state of his own heart. Everything he did in life was meant to fill the void that existed there. His focus on external remedies was an attempt to address an internal problem. But he discovered that they were all like mist, fleeting and ephemeral. They brought temporary relief and short-lived satisfaction, but could never address his real problem: The spiritual condition of his heart.

Solomon even viewed the wisdom given to him by God as an insufficient and inadequate resource for addressing his heart problem. From his perspective, he could spend a lifetime using his wisdom to accomplish great good and for achieving noble goals, but when he died, he would leave it all behind, never knowing if his successor would be wise or foolish.

I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 2:18-19 ESV

All his accomplishments, regardless of how significant or praiseworthy, would be left in the hands of another. His wealth, possessions, palace, and even his concubines, would become the possession of someone else. And this thought cast a dark shadow over all of Solomon’s many successes.

So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. – Ecclesiastes 2:20-21 ESV

And his conclusion was simple: “This also is vanity and a great evil.

Solomon is not downplaying the significance of hard work or achievement, and he is not suggesting that we simply avoid work altogether. He is addressing the need to live life with a recognition that our time on this earth is limited and we have little to no control over our own destiny. That is why he spends such much time discussing the inevitable futility of life lived under the sun. Generation after generation comes and goes, and the only thing that remains is the earth itself. The sun rises and sets, in a never-ending cycle, and man disappears from the face of the earth in a similar manner, never to be seen again.

All of this led Solomon to conclude: “So I decided there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work” (Ecclesiastes 2:24 NLT).

We have to be careful when interpreting the meaning behind Solomon’s words. They can come across as defeatist in tone. He sounds like a man who has thrown up his hands in despair and resigned himself to simply endure life until he dies. But notice what he says: “I realized that these pleasures are from the hand of God. For who can eat or enjoy anything apart from him?” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25 NLT).

This is one of the few times Solomon has mentioned God up to this point. He recognizes that the joy and pleasures of life are a gift from God, to be enjoyed and appreciated. Solomon is not a fatalist, proposing that we simply give up and fill up our lives with the mindless pursuit of pleasure. He is a realist, who is attempting to share his painful life lessons with others. He is preaching a message that promotes finding enjoyment in the things God has graciously given to mankind. We are to enjoy them, but not worship them. We are to experience pleasure from them, but not make them the source of our pleasure. This perspective was echoed by James. 

Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow. – James 1:17 NLT

In his commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes, Derek Kidner shares a powerful insight into Solomon’s message, revealing that the danger we all face is the temptation to worship the gifts more than the Giver, to seek satisfaction from the things of life, instead of the Creator of life.

“. . . in themselves, and rightly used, the basic things of life are sweet and good. Food, drink and work are samples of them, and Qoheleth will remind us of others [cf. 9:7-10; 11:7-10]. What spoils them is our hunger to get out of them more than they can give; a symptom of the longing which differentiates us from the beasts, but whose misdirection is the underlying theme of this book.” – Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes: A Time to Mourn, and a Time to Dance

Solomon ends this chapter with what he believes to be an insight into the ways of God.

God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy to those who please him. But if a sinner becomes wealthy, God takes the wealth away and gives it to those who please him. This, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind. – Ecclesiastes 2:26 NLT

Solomon believed that God rewarded those who pleased Him. He shared the commonly held view of his day that God blessed those who were faithful to Him, even taking what belonged to the wicked and giving it to the godly. According to this way of thinking, all the rewards of a life lived well were to be enjoyed in the here-and-now. We get our rewards in this life. And for Solomon, this was further proof of the futility of it all. Even if you worked hard, it really didn’t matter because God could simply take what was yours and give it to someone He deemed as more worthy.

But Solomon failed to recognize what the author of Hebrews understood.

…without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. – Hebrews 11:6 NLT

Yes, God rewards those who believe in Him and who seek to draw near to Him. But that reward has little to do with this life. It involves the life to come. While God does shower us with many blessings and graciously allows us to enjoy all the pleasures that come with life under the sun, our greatest reward lies in the distant future. Solomon had lost sight of that fact and had immersed himself in a never-ending pursuit of immediate significance and satisfaction. He wanted it all and he wanted it now. But no matter how hard he worked and how much he achieved, he always came to the same disappointing conclusion: “This, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind.

In his head, Solomon was convinced that satisfaction could only be found in the things of this world. But nothing could fill the void in his heart. Even the temporal blessings of God were unfulfilling because they could be lost or would eventually be left behind. But Solomon was learning the painful yet crucial lesson that nothing would ever fill the God-shaped hole in his heart.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Leaning Your Ladder Against the Wrong Wall

12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

15 What is crooked cannot be made straight,
    and what is lacking cannot be counted.

16 I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.

18 For in much wisdom is much vexation,
    and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. – Ecclesiastes 1:12-18 ESV

Solomon established the theme of his book in verse two: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

He is the “preacher” or speaker in the assembly, addressing his audience with words of wisdom and worldly experience. He is expressing what he has learned after years of living on this planet, and his words are intended to shock and surprise us. After all, he is the king of Israel, and one of the wisest and wealthiest men who has ever lived. He ruled over one of the greatest nations of the world, populated by a people who had been chosen and set apart by God. He lived in an opulent palace, surrounded by treasures of all kinds. His was a life marked by luxury and a lavish lifestyle that made him the envy of every man on earth, including other kings. And yet, as he neared the end of his life and looked back, he could not help but recognize that all his wealth, wisdom, and worldly goods had left him with a feeling of emptiness.

The Hebrew word he used to describe his storybook life is hebel and it can best be translated with English words such “vapor” or “breath.” But what does Solomon mean when he repeatedly states, “all is vanity?” The NLV and NIV translate it as “meaningless.” But the Hebrew word has a much richer and more illustrative meaning. It conjures up the image of something that is without form or substance; here one minute and then gone another. Like fog or dew, it appears and then disappears, leaving no trace that it ever existed. It’s not so much that has no meaning, as it lacks sustainability. It seems that Solomon is attempting to describe the transitory nature of life. Just look at the descriptions he used in the opening verses.

A generation goes, and a generation comes – vs 4

The sun rises, and the sun goes down – vs 5

The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns… – vs 6

All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full… – vs 7

There is a certain futility to life because it all appears to be cyclical in nature. These are the words of a man who is near the nadir of his life, and who recognizes that all his many accomplishments and acquisitions will amount to nothing when he is gone. His words would be echoed by James centuries later.

How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone. – James 4:14 NLT

It was this somewhat morbid perspective that had led Solomon to pen this book. But it is doubtful that his only motivation was to journal his dying thoughts. These are not the ramblings of a depressed man mired in self-pity, but the reflections of a wise man who had taken a wrong turn somewhere along the path of life and was warning those behind him not to make the same mistake.

At this stage of his life, he describes himself not as a king, but as a preacher, a proclaimer of important news, whose sole intent is to instruct others and to open their eyes to the realities of life. His role had changed. In fact, he describes his kingship in the past tense. He had been the king of Israel and he had lived in Jerusalem. It is not that he was no longer king when he wrote this book, but that he was looking back with a detached perspective, viewing his life from the outside. His is a message based on hindsight, the wisdom that comes from analyzing something in retrospect.

Solomon is contemplative and more objective than he had ever been in his role as king. As he nears the end of life, his position and possessions mean little to him. He is an old man nearing death, who knows that his days are numbered and that his title and treasures will do him no good when he is gone. This is what led him to conclude:

I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. – Ecclesiastes 3:14 ESV

Solomon had spent his life acquiring everything from wisdom and knowledge to wealth and women. He had been the consummate collector and consumer. He openly admits:

I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. – Ecclesiastes 1:16 ESV

But Solomon’s quest for knowledge had been all-encompassing, including the pursuit of madness and folly. He will refer to these two things several more times in his book, always linking them together. What Solomon means by these two words is essential to understanding the rest of what he has to say in this book. Madness and folly are not references to mental illness, but to moral perversity. For Solomon, wisdom and knowledge represent his pursuit of truth and righteousness. He was on a quest to discover the meaning of life and to find significance in his life. But when he didn’t find what he was looking for, he turned to immorality. In some sense, Solomon used his brain and his body in an attempt to find meaning, purpose, and fulfillment. He pursued information by using his intelligence, but he also pursued experience by utilizing his physical senses and fulfilling his passions and desires.

Solomon describes his life in stark terms, stating:

I devoted myself to search for understanding and to explore by wisdom everything being done under heaven. – Ecclesiastes 1:13 NLT

Notice his words: Everything done under heaven. He had no barriers. He had removed the guard rails from his life, allowing himself the right to experiment with anything and everything, in a vain attempt to discover meaning and significance. But what is glaringly missing is any mention of God. He was not looking to God for meaning. He was not pursuing God for fulfillment and satisfaction. It had been God who had made him king and granted him his wisdom and wealth. But Solomon had an insatiable desire for more. He was no longer satisfied by or with God.

It brings to mind the scene in the Garden of Eden after God had made Adam and Eve. He placed them in the garden and surrounded them with everything they would need for life, including an intimate, unbroken relationship with Him.

And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. – Genesis 2:8-9 ESV

They had it all. There was nothing they lacked. And the only thing God denied them was access to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He had warned them, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die”(Genesis 2:16-17 ESV).

In other words, they could even eat from the tree of life. In fact, I believe it was the fruit of this tree that provided them with eternal life. As long as they ate it, they would live. Life was not forbidden. But the knowledge of good and evil was. They were to avoid that tree at all costs because God had told them that violating His command by eating its fruit would result in death. And it seems that the death to which He referred was not immediate extermination of life, but the slow, steady decline that comes with aging. Yet, they would suffer spiritual death in the form of immediate separation from fellowship with God. Physical death would come, but it would be the direct result of their removal from the garden and their inability to eat from the tree of life.

It’s important to note that, when Satan tempted Eve, he twisted the words of God, falsely accusing Him of having said, “You shall not eat of any tree in the garden.”

But that was a lie, and Eve had corrected him. Yet even she got it wrong because she inferred that God’s ban had included instructions not to even touch the tree. But Satan simply responded with more lies.

“You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” – Genesis 3:4-5 ESV

He contradicted God. Even worse, he called God a liar and painted him as nothing more than a cosmic killjoy. Satan presented the real goal in life as that of pursuing the knowledge of good and evil. He portrayed knowledge and experience as the twin values that make life truly meaningful. His portrayal of good and evil was not an attempt to set up one against the other, but to present them as equally valuable and significant. And that seems to be the thought behind Solomon’s strategy for conducting his life.

He tried it all. He dabbled in wisdom, but also in madness and folly. He tried his hand at living both the righteous and the wicked life. And none of it worked. None of it satisfied. This was a man who had 700 wives and 300 concubines. He denied himself nothing. He was an extremist. But when all was said and done, he found himself extremely unfulfilled and dissatisfied. In a sense, he had eaten a steady diet from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He had seen the forbidden fruit and eaten his fill but remained dissatisfied and disillusioned by it all.

And while Solomon was much the wiser for his efforts, he was far from content. This is why he so sadly concluded: “The greater my wisdom, the greater my grief. To increase knowledge only increases sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 1:18 NLT).

He knew things God never intended him to know. His eyes had been opened to things God had never meant for him to see. Satan had convinced Solomon that God was not enough. He had tempted Solomon to believe that God had been holding out and that the real meaning in life was to be found outside of God’s will, not in it. And now, the wisest man who ever lived was looking back on his life and recognizing that it had all been a lie. In a vain attempt to discover the secret to living a fulfilled life, Solomon lost sight of God. He had made gods out of his own intellectual prowess, the pursuit of physical pleasure, and the achievement of power and prominence – only to discover that “all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14 ESV).

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Turning God’s Blessings Into Burdens

1 Now when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, she came to test him with hard questions. She came to Jerusalem with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices and very much gold and precious stones. And when she came to Solomon, she told him all that was on her mind. And Solomon answered all her questions; there was nothing hidden from the king that he could not explain to her. And when the queen of Sheba had seen all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food of his table, the seating of his officials, and the attendance of his servants, their clothing, his cupbearers, and his burnt offerings that he offered at the house of the Lord, there was no more breath in her.

And she said to the king, “The report was true that I heard in my own land of your words and of your wisdom, but I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it. And behold, the half was not told me. Your wisdom and prosperity surpass the report that I heard. Happy are your men! Happy are your servants, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom! Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel! Because the Lord loved Israel forever, he has made you king, that you may execute justice and righteousness.” 10 Then she gave the king 120 talents of gold, and a very great quantity of spices and precious stones. Never again came such an abundance of spices as these that the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.

11 Moreover, the fleet of Hiram, which brought gold from Ophir, brought from Ophir a very great amount of almug wood and precious stones. 12 And the king made of the almug wood supports for the house of the Lord and for the king’s house, also lyres and harps for the singers. No such almug wood has come or been seen to this day.

13 And King Solomon gave to the queen of Sheba all that she desired, whatever she asked besides what was given her by the bounty of King Solomon. So she turned and went back to her own land with her servants. 1 Kings 10:1-13 ESV

In the two decades that Solomon had served as king of Israel, the news of his incomparable wisdom, vast wealth, and rapidly expanding kingdom had begun to spread throughout the known world (1 Kings 4:31). News of his skills as a composer, author, horticulturist, and biologist further enhanced his already mythical reputation as the wisest man who ever lived. Intrigued by what they heard, kings and dignitaries from other nations sent their emissaries to Jerusalem to see if all the rumors about him were true.

…kings from every nation sent their ambassadors to listen to the wisdom of Solomon. – 1 Kings 4:34 NLT

And the author of 1 Kings provides an extended example of one such visit. On this occasion, the Queen of Sheba undertook the long and arduous journey to Jerusalem in order to witness the wisdom of Solomon firsthand. The kingdom of Sheba was located 1200 miles away, on the southwest corner of the Arabian Peninsula, in the region that is now known as Yemen. The queen traveled with a large royal retinue and brought with her a vast amount of spices, gold, and precious stones. And it would seem that the real purpose for her trip was to secure an alliance between her nation and the rapidly expanding kingdom of Solomon. From its location at the confluence of the Sea of Aden and the Red Sea, the kingdom of Sheba had been able to expand its dominance of the spice and incense trade in that region of the world. And a peaceful alliance with a powerful nation like Israel would only further enhance and protect their future prospects.

Upon her arrival, the queen was given a personal appointment with Solomon, where she was able to satisfy her curiosity about his wisdom and wealth. This interrogation was most likely meant to assess the validity of Solomon’s reputation but was also intended to assure the queen whether a treaty with Israel would be beneficial. In the end, she was left breathless by her encounter with Solomon.

…when the queen of Sheba had seen all the wisdom of Solomon, the house that he had built, the food of his table, the seating of his officials, and the attendance of his servants, their clothing, his cupbearers, and his burnt offerings that he offered at the house of the Lord, there was no more breath in her. – 1 Kings 10:4-5 ESV

She was blown away by what she saw and heard. And she confessed that the reality of Solomon’s wisdom and the greatness of his kingdom far exceeded the rumors and her own expectations.

“Everything I heard in my country about your achievements and wisdom is true! I didn’t believe what was said until I arrived here and saw it with my own eyes. In fact, I had not heard the half of it! Your wisdom and prosperity are far beyond what I was told. – 1 Kings 10:6-7 NLT

The inclusion of this personal, third-party assessment of Solomon’s greatness was meant to validate all that the author had written up to this point. Her testimony was intended to prove that all the descriptions concerning Solomon’s wisdom and the wealth of his kingdom were far from rhetorical flourishes or hyperbole. It was all true.

And this pagan queen affirmed the divine nature of Solomon’s reign, deeming the people of Israel as the fortunate recipients of their God’s love because He had chosen to make this just and righteous man their king.

“Praise the Lord your God, who delights in you and has placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the Lord’s eternal love for Israel, he has made you king so you can rule with justice and righteousness.” – 1 Kings 10:9 NLT

In a way, this statement is meant to remind the Hebrew readers of this book that their nation indeed been blessed by God. His sovereign decision to anoint Solomon as  David’s successor had been a divine act of love and mercy. He had given them a wise, just, and righteous king to rule over them. After decades spent conquering the nations of Canaan and fighting ongoing battles with the Philistines, God had blessed the people of Israel with a time of peace and prosperity. Saul’s reign had ended in failure and disappointment. David’s reign had been marked by war and bloodshed. Now Solomon was leading them into a period of unprecedented growth and success. This was meant to be a golden age for the nation of Israel.

And, almost as further proof of God’s blessing on the nation, the author records that the queen of Sheba gifted Solomon with “9,000 pounds of gold, great quantities of spices, and precious jewels” (1 Kings 10:10 NLT). The blessings just kept coming. Solomon’s great wealth continued to grow. And all of this was in keeping with the promise that God had made to Solomon.

“Because you have asked for wisdom in governing my people with justice and have not asked for a long life or wealth or the death of your enemies—I will give you what you asked for! I will give you a wise and understanding heart such as no one else has had or ever will have! And I will also give you what you did not ask for—riches and fame! No other king in all the world will be compared to you for the rest of your life!” – 1 Kings 3:11-13 NLT

But it’s important to remember that God’s promise had come with a condition.

“…if you follow me and obey my decrees and my commands as your father, David, did, I will give you a long life.” – 1 Kings 3:14 NLT

That important caveat must not be overlooked. And its presence constantly lingers behind the scene portrayed in chapter 10. God was faithfully keeping the promise He had made to Solomon, blessing him with riches and fame beyond belief. But the unspoken question that looms over this entire narrative is whether Solomon, in the midst of his growing wealth and notoriety, will manage to remain faithful to God. Or will he allow the blessings of God to become substitutes for God, distracting his attention and diverting his love.

Almost as an aside, the author reveals another example of God’s blessings on Solomon. He notes that Hiram, the king of Tyre, continued to shower Solomon with incredible gifts of great value.

Hiram’s ships brought gold from Ophir, and they also brought rich cargoes of red sandalwood and precious jewels. – 1 Kings 10:11 NLT

Without having to lift a finger, Solomon’s immense wealth was growing by the minute. God was using these pagan potentates to expand Solomon’s already extensive net worth. But would Solomon view these gifts as the gracious provision of God, meant to underwrite the divine initiatives He had in mind for the nation of Israel? Or would Solomon allow his growing wealth to fund a lifestyle of excess and dissipation? The answer to those questions can be found in the writings of Solomon himself.

Those who love money will never have enough. How meaningless to think that wealth brings true happiness! The more you have, the more people come to help you spend it. So what good is wealth—except perhaps to watch it slip through your fingers! – Ecclesiastes 5:10-11 NLT

Solomon would eventually discover that even the blessings of God become disappointing and disillusioning when they are allowed to take His place. He had allowed his fame and riches, graciously given to him by God, to distract him from his worship of and commitment to God.

I became greater than all who had lived in Jerusalem before me, and my wisdom never failed me. Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. I even found great pleasure in hard work, a reward for all my labors. But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless—like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere. – Ecclesiastes 2:9-11 NLT

But at this point in the story, Solomon is enjoying the blessings of God. And having been exposed to the visual evidence of God’s goodness, the queen of Sheba returned to her kingdom, home more convinced than ever of Solomon’s greatness.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The End of the Matter.

Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. 10 The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.

11 The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. 12 My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. Ecclesiastes 12:9-14 ESV

As Solomon wraps up his book, he seems to do so by providing his credentials as proof of the veracity of his words. Referring to himself in the third person, he restates the well-known fact of his wisdom, given to him by God. But he claims to have put a great deal of effort and energy into enhancing that wisdom with further insight and knowledge through the use of diligent study and research. Solomon had collected the wise sayings of the sages, putting many of them in the book of Proverbs. But he had not been content to simply collect and edit these sayings, producing them in written form for others to read. No, he says that his effort included “weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care” (Ecclesiastes 12:9 ESV). Solomon had tested these truths, taking the time and energy to determine their reliability and truthfulness. Like a metallurgist testing the quality of gold, to assess its true value, Solomon had proven the accuracy and soundness of each proverb before passing them on to the people. His goal had been to find teachings that would prove beneficial to life.

Solomon compares proverbs or wise sayings to a goad, a sharp stick used to prod animals along. Like a goad, proverbs are simple in nature, but highly memorable and powerful in terms of their impact. Like a sharp stick to the rump of a wayward cow, a proverb can cause a person who is straying from the truth to quickly course correct and realign their steps. He also compares proverbs to firmly fixed nails that keep things the way they were meant to be. They hold things in place, providing a sense of security and stability to life. Someone who lacks these time-proven truths or maxims, is left to learn the lessons of life the hard way: Through painful trial and error. And one of the reasons Solomon seems to have written this particular book was to pass on to those under his care the life lessons he had learned. As we’ve stated before, Solomon wrote this book near the end of his life, and he had a great deal of wisdom, gleaned from personal experience, that he sought to impart. In one of his proverbs, Solomon expressed this same desire to teach others what he had learned from life.

1 My children, listen when your father corrects you.
    Pay attention and learn good judgment,
for I am giving you good guidance.
    Don’t turn away from my instructions.
For I, too, was once my father’s son,
    tenderly loved as my mother’s only child. – Proverbs 4:1-3 NLT

10 My child, listen to me and do as I say,
    and you will have a long, good life.
11 I will teach you wisdom’s ways
    and lead you in straight paths. – Proverbs 4:10-11 NLT

And Solomon firmly believed that the proverbs he had collected had been given to him by God, making them divine instructions, not simply the words of men. That’s why he refers to them as having come from one shepherd. While their human authors were many in number, the truths these proverbs contained came from God alone. He is the author of all truth. And that’s why Solomon warned, “My son, beware of anything beyond these” (Ecclesiastes 12:12 ESV). There are countless books available and you could spend your lifetime searching and studying the written wisdom of men, but you would be wasting your time. And no one knew that better than Solomon himself, because he had done it. He knew it was all vanity, a chasing after the wind. The apostle Paul would fully agree with Solomon. In fact, he described the wisdom of men in less-than-flattering terms: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God” (1 Corinthians 3:19 NLT).  Earlier in that same letter, Paul asked and answered his own question regarding man’s so-called wisdom. “So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish” (1 Corinthians 1:20 NLT).

As Solomon prepares to wrap up his book and his life, he can’t help but come back to the one truth that held all his thoughts together. It is the one point of clarity in a long life filled with perplexities and incongruities. He refers to it as “the end of the matter.” It’s the summary or synopsis of life.

Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. – Ecclesiastes 12:13 ESV

Now, the thing missing in Solomon’s summary is an understanding and awareness of God’s future plans for his life. Like many in his day, Solomon had no clear concept of or theology concerning the afterlife. It was all a mystery to him. As far as he could tell, what existed beyond the grave was nothing more than a black hole.

Life after death was as enigmatic to him as the unequal distribution of justice. His emphasis was on this life (‘under the sun’) and its opportunities for service and enjoyment; he thought life after death offered no such opportunities. – Donald R. Glenn, “Ecclesiastes.” In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament

So, while Solomon’s admonition to fear God and keep His commandments sounds like solid, biblical counsel to us, we have to keep in mind that he is placing all his emphasis on the here-and-now. He knows that God is sovereign over all. He realizes that God controls all things and is the distributor of all good gifts. He can give and He can take away. So, from Solomon’s limited, earth-bound perspective, it made sense to keep God happy by fearing and obeying Him. That way, you could hope to enjoy in this life some of the blessings that only He can bestow. And when Solomon speaks of God’s judgment, he seems to have in mind a judgment that takes place in this life. His rewards or punishments are based on thoughts and behaviors committed in this life. He is fixated is on present, not future rewards. He is expecting all of God’s blessings to show up in this life, not the one to come. Because as far as Solomon could tell, there was no guarantee of a life after death.

But as believers in Jesus Christ, we have been given additional insight into God’s redemptive plan. We have the entirety of God’s Word to guide and instruct us. We know that there is a life after death. Jesus promised it. Paul wrote about it. The New Testament goes out of its way to describe it. Yes, there is a judgment, but it’s rewards are not temporal in nature. They are eternal. In his first letter, the apostle John told those who read its contents: “I have written this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13 NLT). Jesus Himself promised: “I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life” (John 5:24 NLT).

There is much we can learn from Solomon. But we have to take all that he wrote and combine it with what we have come to know since the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus. We have been provided with the end of the story, something Solomon did not have. So, when he said, this is “the end of the matter; all has been heard”, he was not quite right. There was more to come. As a matter of fact, the Savior of the world was to come, and He has. And it was His arrival on this earth in the form of a man, His sinless life, His sacrificial death and bodily resurrection that remove all the vanity, meaningless, futility and frustration from life. This world, while a wonderful gift from God to be enjoyed, is not all there is. There is far more to come.

Qoheleth’s intent in his writing is to pass judgment on man’s misguided endeavors at mastering life by pointing out its limits and mysteries. He would prefer that man replace such false and illusory hopes with a confidence based on the joy of creation as God’s gift. – Robert K. Johnston, “Confessions of a Workaholic’: A Reappraisal of Qoheleth.”

But even more important than enjoying God’s gift of creation, is placing our faith and hope in God’s offer of new creation. New hope. New life. New joy and the promise of a never-ending, frustration-free, sinless future with God.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV

 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Grave Discussion.

1 Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which 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 after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity. Ecclesiastes 12:1-8 ESV

Solomon ended chapter 11 with an appeal to young people:

Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. – Ecclesiastes 11:9 ESV

And he begins chapter 12 in a similar fashion, addressing the same group of individuals: The young. And it would appear that, because of Solomon’s advanced age, he views everyone as younger than he is. But he warns them, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 12:1 ESV). It is as if he wants them to recognize that spiritual wisdom and a God-focused perspective are not attributes that simply come with age. In other words, don’t make the mistake that old age will bring with it a new excitement about and interest in the things of God. That kind of focus begins when you’re young. That’s exactly why Paul told his young protegé Timothy, “Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity” (1 Timothy 4:12 NLT). He gave similar advice to Titus, telling him, “…encourage the young men to live wisely. And you yourself must be an example to them by doing good works of every kind. Let everything you do reflect the integrity and seriousness of your teaching” (Titus 2:6-7 NLT).

So, in a similar way, Solomon shared his words of wisdom with the young, encouraging them to make the most of their youth because, like everything else in the world, this season of life would come and go. And Solomon uses some very poetic words to describe the not-so-subtle signs of aging. As an old man himself, he describes that phase of his life as “evil days” that have little to no pleasure associated with them. For Solomon, old aged was marked by increasing physical weakness due to the diminishing capacity of the human body as it slowly decays. He describes a scenario in which “the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain” (Ecclesiastes 12:2 ESV). His words portray life as seen through the eyes of someone who suffers from the effects of cataracts and failing vision. The sun, moon and stars appear darker than they really are. The contrasts and clarity of normal vision are replaced with the flat grayness of a cloudy day.

Solomon writes from the perspective of someone who knows what he is talking about. He describes what it is like when “the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent” (Ecclesiastes 12:3 NLT). The “keepers” are a reference to his legs, the means by which his body stands erect and makes it way in the world. As old age creeps in, the legs tremble, making mobility an issue. And when the legs shake, the whole body follows suit. The “strong men” are his shoulders, bent over and devoid of the youthful strength and vigor they once held. We see these images lived out right in front of our eyes on a daily basis as we watch the elderly among us shuffling their way along, bent over and shakily attempting to manage life in their diminished capacity. 

And for someone who put a high priority on fine food, good wine and a lifestyle built around culinary delights, the next description most likely left Solomon more than a bit frustrated. He states that “the grinders cease because they are few” (Ecclesiastes 12:3 ESV). An obvious reference to his own teeth, which had begun to fall out, leaving him with just a handful left in his mouth, making some foods off limits and his diet more than a bit bland and unappealing. Notice what Solomon is doing here. He is describing the loss of those things that were necessary for him to enjoy all the things around which he had built his life. He’s already mentioned the eyes, but he adds, “those who look through the windows are dimmed” (Ecclesiastes 12:3 ESV). The eyes become glazed over, incapable of seeing the beauty of all the things with which he has surrounded himself. He can no longer see and enjoy the beauty of the palace he built. He can’t take in the natural beauty of the gardens he designed and planted. Even the 700 wives and 300 concubines he had chosen because of their physical beauty were indistinguishable from one another.

“The doors on the street are shut” seems to be a reference to his loss of hearing. He could no longer hear what was going on outside his own room. Life was taking place all around him, but he couldn’t hear it or enjoy it. Even “the sound of the grinding is low” (Ecclesiastes 12:4 ESV). In other words, you can’t even hear yourself chew your own food. How frustrating to a man who was used to hearing fine music echoing through the halls of his palace. And the real irony is that this same person, unable to sleep, finds himself waking up with the birds singing outside his window, but him being unable to hear them. The “daughters of song” is a reference to musical notes, no longer audible or distinguishable to the one whose hearing has faded with old age. The beauty available in this life becomes increasingly off-limits and unattainable to the elderly. It is inevitable and unavoidable.

On top of that, the aging process comes with increased fears of all kinds. The fear of falling. Fear of harm. Fear of being alone. And fear of death. Along with all the physical changes Solomon has already described comes the reality that the hair on his head had grown both thin and grey, like the white blossoms of an almond tree. And to make matters worse, there were days when Solomon felt like he was dragging himself along like a dying grasshopper on its last legs.

The next comparison Solomon uses is incredibly insightful and probably represents one of the most dreaded aspects of old age for him. In the original Hebrew, he refers to ‘abiyownah, which is a word for the Capparis spinosa fruit which was eaten as an aphrodisiac in the ancient Near East. Solomon is bemoaning the fact that the aging process had robbed him of all sexual desire. And for a man used to availing himself of the hundreds of wives and concubines in his harem, this loss had to have hit him hard. There is little doubt that Solomon tried any and all of the known cure-alls available in his day. He was known for experimentation and innovation, so it is likely that he would have checked out every available aphrodisiac and sexual enhancement drug on the market, all in a vain attempt to prolong this aspect of his life.

Notice that Solomon’s focus in all of this is death and the grave, not eternal life. Dying is a slow, inexorable process that ultimately and inevitably results in death, with man “going to his eternal home” (Ecclesiastes 12:5 ESV). The literal translation is “house of his eternity.” This is an idiom for the grave, not heaven. It was also a Hebrew euphemism for a burial ground or cemetery. Solomon has his dim eyes set on the grave because he has no idea what happens next. It was all a mystery to him. In verse six, he uses a series of visual illustrations to help convey the abrupt end of life. He refers to the silver cord that is snapped, the golden bowl this is suddenly broken, the pitcher that ends up shattered at the fountain, and the wheel broken at the cistern. All of these images conjure up the sudden cessation of life. It just stops. And like a snapped cord, a broken bowl, a shattered pitcher and a broken wheel, death is an irreconcilable condition.

And Solomon soberly summarizes his view, stating, “the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it” (Ecclesiastes 12:7 ESV). The body returns to the earth, where it will decay and turn to dust. The soul returns to God. But notice that Solomon doesn’t state this last fact as if it is good news. There is a finality to his words and a sense of loss. Because for Solomon, the body was the means by which he had enjoyed what life had to offer. With the body gone, he had no way of knowing what would be left for the soul to experience in the afterlife. Which is why he sums up this section the same way he has throughout the rest of his book. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 12:8 ESV). So, what Solomon could assess, from his vantage point as an old man, was that young people should enjoy life while they had it. But they should also recognize that it is God who has given them life and the capacity to enjoy all that it has to offer. The sad reality, for Solomon, was that life passed so quickly. It was as if he was looking back, wondering where all the time had gone. He could remember being young. He could recall the pleasures he had enjoyed. But he was also well aware of all the moments he had missed. He had been so busy building, buying, accumulating, experimenting, working, learning, and trying to discover the meaning and purpose behind life, that he had failed to truly enjoy the life given to him by God. And now, his life was about to end. You can sense the regret in his words. You can feel the remorse in his self-revealing description of old age. He would have done things differently. He would have approached life more gratefully and taken his walk with God more seriously. We have a lot to learn from the wisdom of Solomon.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Injustices of Life and Uncertainty of Death.

16 Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. 17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. 18 I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. 19 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? 22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him? Ecclesiastes 3:16-22 ESV

For Solomon, life had become little more than a never-ending cycle of unavoidable outcomes. Planting was followed by harvesting, only to have to plant again. Periods of peace would eventually be replaced with times of war. Efforts to build and construct would one day result in the need to tear down. Seeking for what was lost would result in finding, only to lose again. Feelings of love would often succumb to thoughts of hate. And ultimately, life would be trumped by death. And as he notes in this passage, even while man lives, he experiences the inevitability of injustice. Where he expects to see justice and righteousness, he instead finds wickedness. Solomon describes life lived “under the sun” as a disappointing and difficult experience. And about the only silver lining he can find in this dark cloud of despair is that he somehow still believed that God would judge the righteous and the wicked. But it is likely that Solomon is not thinking of a future judgment related to the end of the world and the eternal state. He has his eyes fixed solidly on the here-and-now. Just take a look at his closing statement in this passage. “Who can bring him [man] to see what will be after him?” The idea of a future judgment was almost impossible for Solomon to fathom. His perspective was immersed in the present, bound by time, and marred by his inability to see into the future, especially beyond the grave.
Two different times in this passage, Solomon uses the phrase, “I said in my heart.” This is a statement of deep reflection. He is wrestling with substantive issues, turning them over in his mind, and trying to come to some sort of resolution. He is combining his many observations of life’s inequities and futile inevitabilities with his wisdom, and arriving at conclusions. These verses are not random, off-the-cuff thoughts, but the well-reasoned reflections of a man who has spent countless hours struggling to come to his conclusions. And yet, we can see that so much of what he has concluded is wrong. His views on life and man’s existence lack a divine perspective. Yes, he acknowledges the existence of God and even concedes the sovereignty of God over all things. But he views God as nothing more than a distant deity, far removed from everyday life, who stands in detached judgment over the affairs of man. In fact, when considering the human condition from his limited earthly perspective, Solomon concludes, “God proves to people that they are like animals” (Ecclesiastes 3:18 NLT). That is not a view of God that speaks of His love, mercy and grace. It does not reflect an understanding of God that is based on an intimate, interpersonal relationship. While Solomon was the son of David, he did not share his father’s opinion about God. Listen to what David had to say.
But you, Lord, are a shield that protects me;
you are my glory and the one who restores me.
To the Lord I cried out,
and he answered me from his holy hill. – Psalm 3:3-4 NLT
You make me happier
than those who have abundant grain and wine.
I will lie down and sleep peacefully,
for you, Lord, make me safe and secure. – Psalm 4:7-8 NLT
But as for me, because of your great faithfulness I will enter your house;
I will bow down toward your holy temple as I worship you. – Psalm 5:7 NLT
David had a deep and abiding love for God. He saw God as intimately involved in the everyday affairs of his life. His God was personal and relatable, not distant and disconnected. But for Solomon, God was little more than a powerful, unseen force, directing the affairs of life and determining the destinies of men with a certain degree of detachment and disinterest. In fact, Solomon accuses God of using His divine power to prove to men that they are little better than beasts.
For people and animals share the same fate—both breathe and both must die. So people have no real advantage over the animals. How meaningless! – Ecclesiastes 3:19 NLT
Just compare Solomon’s thoughts with those of his father, David.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
    and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth! – Psalm 8:3-9 ESV

David had a drastically different view of God and man. He fully acknowledged the inferior nature of man when compared to the majesty of Almighty God. But he also recognized man’s God-given status as the crowning achievement of His creation. Yet, all Solomon seemed to see was the fact that men were doomed to the same fate as animals. Death and decay await them both. And Solomon further expresses his dire outlook by asking the question, “who can prove that the human spirit goes up and the spirit of animals goes down into the earth?” (Ecclesiastes 3:21 NLT). In other words, what guarantee do we have that there is something out there after death? How do we know that there is any existence beyond the grave? You can begin to see why Solomon reached the conclusion, “there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can” (Ecclesiastes 3:12 NLT). When he considered the fact that the wise and the foolish both end their lives in death, he concluded, “there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work” (Ecclesiastes 2:24 NLT).

Enjoy it while you can. That seems to be Solomon’s life mantra. Since he had no guarantee of what would happen after death, he was going to grab all the gusto he could in this life. He resigned himself to the reality that this is all there is, which led him to say, “I saw that there is nothing better for people than to be happy in their work. That is our lot in life” (Ecclesiastes 3:22 NLT). But notice that he has relegated life to this world. He has no concept of eternal life. Once again, we must compare the mindset of Solomon with that of his own father. David repeatedly expressed his belief in the eternal nature of his relationship with God.

Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the LORD forever. – Psalm 23:6 NLT

I have asked the Lord for one thing—
this is what I desire!
I want to live in the Lord’s house all the days of my life,
so I can gaze at the splendor of the Lord
and contemplate in his temple. – Psalm 27:4 NLT

Let me live forever in your sanctuary, safe beneath the shelter of your wings! – Psalm 61:4 NLT

There is no doubt that life can be filled with injustices. We all know that death is inevitable and inescapable. But we have an assurance from God that all injustices will one day be rectified. It may not be in our lifetime, but we can rest assured that God will ultimately replace all wickedness with righteousness. He will mete out justice to all those who have lived their lives by taking advantage of the innocent and abusing the helpless. And while the fall brought the inescapable reality of death to God’s creation, He plans to redeem and restore all He has made. And for those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ, we have the assurance that our existence does not end with our death, because He died so that we might live. And nobody expresses this reality better than the apostle Paul.

22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. 23 Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance. – Romans 8:22-25 NLT

 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson