K:JNWTS 28/3 (December 2013): 3-10
How can another year be over? Where did the time go? This is the cry of time-bound pilgrims greeted once again by the seemingly endless, annual cycle of needing to replace our wall calendars! As we approach the end of another year, it is a common practice to reflect upon the recent months gone by and contemplate changes for the year to come. Many will resolve in the New Year to improve their health, to better manage their finances, to get their priorities in order and on and on. Life may not be what we want it to be today, but with a well-intended resolution and a dose of optimism, we can look forward to the potential of the year to come! Yet, if there’s one thing that our many attempts to achieve some measure of progress has taught us, it’s that there are many obstacles to success. At this time next year, we will undoubtedly be in pursuit of more tweaks and changes and course corrections. This perpetual pattern confronts us with the inescapable conclusion that life in this world is high maintenance.
If there’s one book of the Bible that, at least on the surface, uniquely resonates with such an observation, it is Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes is described in the very first verse as “the words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” This son of David is none other than Solomon, the king of Israel, who was renowned for his wisdom, wealth, and wives.
Solomon’s celebrated wisdom was sought out by the Queen of Sheba and exceeded the wisdom of any other king in his day (2 Chron. 9:1, 22). He amassed such riches as to place him among the wealthiest, if not make him the wealthiest, that ever lived. We are told that he made gold and silver as plentiful in Jerusalem as stones (2 Chron. 1:15). His power is reflected in his rule over all kings from the Euphrates river in the north to the border of Egypt in the south (2 Chron. 9:26). Solomon’s power, wealth, and wisdom armed him with unparalleled potential to influence the course of his world.
Unlike his father David, Solomon was not a warrior king, but a prince of peace. Under Solomon, Israel enjoyed the height of her glory. Her borders were as safe as they were far reaching. Consequently Solomon’s focus was less on extending the borders outward and more on a lavish overhaul of the inward. He presided over a Jewish renaissance of sorts. It was time of poetry and music, of artistic expression and architectural advance; it was a time of extravagance. It was an opportunity to give this world under the sun a facelift: to make its glory the envy of the nations and the source of perpetual pleasure. Solomon set out to make a lasting legacy for himself. From his magnificent building projects (recall the splendor of the Temple he built for God and that of his own, personal palace home) to his Eden-like gardens described in Ecclesiastes chapter 2, Solomon endeavored to put his indelible stamp upon this world.
In his latter years, as he entered the December of his life, Solomon took to reflection and deep contemplation. Drawing from his vast wisdom, meditating upon his grand labors and his pursuits of pleasure, he left the trivial behind and fellowshipped with the realm of the profound. His was a serious attempt to understand and evaluate life in this world under the sun. It was not a fleeting curiosity, but a prolonged and energetic pursuit.
The conclusion of Solomon’s investigation frames the book in the beginning at 1:2 and in the final chapter at 12:8. He declares, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity”. The Hebrew word used here is hebel. Its meaning is not easily captured in English by a single word. It has the sense of something that is not only vain but meaningless, ineffective, pointless, unjust, empty. The world is not what it appears to be.
“Vanity of vanities” in the Hebrew is a two-word duplication hebel hebelim. This replication serves the purpose of emphasis. This same duplicative pattern is used elsewhere in Scripture. It is used to emphasize the unique, sacred character of the throne room of God in the Tabernacle/Temple, i.e., the Holy of Holies. In the company of all things holy, this one thing is the most holy. It is the most holy place. In addition, our Lord’s unique authority is captured by the phrases “King of Kings” and “Lord of Lords”. Of all the lords and all the kings, this one’s lordship is chief among all; no kingdom surpasses his kingdom; no authority exceeds his authority. So also in Ecclesiastes, this structure suggests that of all the vain things, this one thing is the most vain, the most meaningless, the most ineffective, the most pointless, the most unjust, the most empty. And what is this one thing, this chief vanity among all vanities? Everything under the sun! It is one, universal tie for first place.
The Preacher introduces his readers to the vanity of this world through a poem carefully crafted around an ABCBA pattern in verses 4-11. This pattern is depicted as follows:
A. Human generations come and go (1:4)
B. Creation cycles without progress (1:5-7)
C. All wearisome – not satisfying (1:8)
B’. Nothing new in man’s cycling labors (1:9-10)
A’. Human generations cycle – don’t endure – not remembered (1:11)
Solomon stimulates our thinking in verse 3 by posing a question. He asks what profit or advantage there is in “all” that man does. Considering the renowned wealth and power of King Solomon, a wealth and power that attracted even the praise of the nations, this question may strike us as startling. Yet, the universal “all” of verse 3 echoes the vanity cursed “all” of verse 2. This echo reminds us that man’s labors, even King Solomon’s labors, are under the identical indictment that extends to everything under the sun; it is vanity!
This same “all” takes us to the center of our ABCBA pattern. There the frustration of this passage reaches its emotional height:
All things are wearisome;
Man is not able to tell it (1:8a)
What is it that drives Solomon to such exhausting despair? Why is he so wearied? He is grasping for meaning in a broken world. Man is caught in a realm that lacks the ability to deliver what it advertises. It’s all window dressing and veneer, but no lasting substance. So we are told at the end of verse 8, that the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear with hearing.
Sight is a critical component to Solomon’s contemplations. In every chapter of Ecclesiastes, there is some reference to sight.
“I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind … This also I have seen … I have seen … Furthermore, I have seen … I have seen … Then I looked again … And I have seen” (1:14; 2:24; 3:10; 3:16; 3:22; 4:1; 4:4)
The eye sees much and the ear hears many things, but there is ultimately no satisfaction with what is seen or heard. Eyes and ears have become merely tools to absorb the vain things that go on about us. The frustration with this fallen world is unspeakable. In 4:8, we are told of a man who has no dependents yet toils without end. His toil produces no pleasure, or as Solomon puts it, “his eyes were not satisfied with riches”. Never did this man question why he was so devoted to labor that produced no pleasure. Solomon’s concluding indictment reiterates the cry of chapter 1, “This too is vanity.”
Working from the middle of our passage outward, we are challenged to consider how we are part of a meaningless, cyclic pattern. Though there is an acknowledged lack of progress in what he sees, it is not for lack of activity. Verses 4-7 contain fifteen participles! There we are presented with a constant blur of activity taken from the realm of nature. The sun rises and sets; the wind blows and turns and swirls; the rivers flow over and over and over again. Yet this incessant laboring does not silence Solomon’s inquiry. What advantage or what profit is there from all this work? What does it ultimately accomplish?
Consider the daily journey of the sun. Early in the morning, it begins its arduous trek. Up and across the sky it lumbers. By the day’s end we are told the sun is “panting” or “gasping” (shuaph). It was a long, hard day for the sun, like every day. But what was gained from all of this labor? The next day we find the sun right back where it started, without advantage or gain from the previous day’s toil.
The wind and rivers are depicted in a similar light. There is much movement to the wind but no progress. For all of its travels, it has enjoyed no advance. It blows; it turns; it swirls; but it returns and there is no progress. Likewise, rivers flow endlessly into the sea, but never does the sea overflow. The rivers appear to make no contribution despite their ceaseless stampede.
Verses 9-10 form an epexegetical pair to this endless journey to nowhere, yet the doublet draws out an additional element. In these latter two verses, the issue is not so much progress as it is “newness”. Solomon has discovered what has been re-discovered by each subsequent generation. There is nothing new under the sun. The apparent “newness” of something is an artifact of an uninformed memory, not actual “newness”. Cyclical patterns are repetitive patterns. Labor in this world is cyclical or circular. It lacks a consummation. Every day man, like the sun, rises to engage in labor that seemingly never ends, does not satisfy, and is not oriented toward anything other than the monotony of the same pattern relived. Such labor brings him no closer to any meaningful, lasting purpose.
The chiastic arrangement of two key words in verses 4-6 ties the vain movements of nature to the plight of man. The Hebrew word translated “go” in verse 4 (holek) is the same word used for the blowing of the wind in verse 6. Likewise, the setting of the sun in verse 5 employs the same word (ba) for the coming of the generations in verse 4.
1:4 generations “go” (holek)
1:4 generations “come” (ba)
1:5 sun sets (ba)
1:6 wind blows (holek)
The result is that the repeated movements of the sun and meanderings of the wind not only capture the fruitlessness of labor, but also picture the repeated comings and goings of one generation after another. Not only does futility take hold of our labor, but it envelops our whole life. This latter observation forms the outer bracketing in verses 4 and 11—a frame that enfolds and casts an ominous shadow over the entire passage.
Generations come and go, but the earth remains. The persistence of the earth contrasts with the passing of the generations. The earth continues in its repeated patterns whether we’re here or not; our life’s contribution is, therefore, ultimately unimportant and descends into an even greater depth of vanity. Solomon has captured the root of this world’s futility. It is the inescapable curse of death.
It is death that brackets this passage. Man spends his days laboring in pursuit of something he cannot grasp. Ecclesiastes refers to this as a pursuit of or striving after the wind, a phrase that Solomon uses seven times throughout the book. It’s like trying to take hold of a vapor. Man’s empty efforts conclude with death and in death he is remembered no more regardless of his toil and accomplishments. The earth holds neither concern nor memory of his existence.
“For there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man as with the fool, inasmuch as in the coming days all will be forgotten. And how the wise man and the fool alike die!” (Ecclesiastes 2:16)
Why is there no advantage for man? It is because we dwell in a cursed world. Because of Adam’s sin, the ground is cursed and in toil we shall eat of it. All of creation is now subjected to vanity or futility (Romans 8:20) and man is sentenced to death. Though man’s life ends, the earth takes no notice, but continues its seemingly endless cycles. We are left as those who are empty, insignificant, and without hope.
This world is full of frustration, confusion, injustice, cruelty; outcomes are unpredictable; adherence to wise principles does not guarantee success. Our pursuit of toil is vanity; our pursuit of pleasure is futile; our pursuit of wisdom is meaningless. If we multiply words, it is vanity; if we die in silence, it is futility. The best we can hope for, the best we can do is to enjoy those rare seasons where God presents us with the gift of enjoyment. This is a very somber evaluation of the world—a world into which we are so greatly invested.
Perhaps you have heard of the foolproof way to sculpt an elephant in just two steps. Step one requires that you obtain a very large block of marble. Step two then instructs you to remove everything that does not look like an elephant. It is sculpting by negation!
In that vein, Ecclesiastes is Solomon’s sculpting of the Kingdom of God. Do you see it? He is removing everything that does not look like the Kingdom of God, so that we may be left only with the Kingdom of God.
Take careful note of what he specifically cites as the trouble with this world. From the very beginning, he is troubled by the repeated, cyclic patterns he finds:
Not even all of the treasures of wisdom can find the end of a circle. There is nothing new under the sun.
Solomon longs for something new!
He is frustrated by the lifelong exertion of man that ultimately produces no advantage. There are no guarantees in our toil. There are no assurances that our labors will bring us what we had purposed. No amount of wealth can rescue us from our impotence in securing the delight of our hearts. Enjoying the fruit of our labor is a gift of God, one that we cannot hasten. In chapter 9, Solomon will bemoan this when he reflects on what he had seen.
“I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise, nor wealth to the discerning, nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
Solomon longs for the assurance of fruitful labor!
Not only are we unable to hasten or guarantee that our labor will provide us with a reward, but when and if such does come, we can only embrace it for a short time. Recall the well-known proverb: “All good things must come to an end”. There is no power on earth so great that it can lengthen a day by even a moment. Ultimately, death takes the stage and ends our role in life’s unfolding drama. We are then forever separated from this world and the enjoyment derived from any of our labors. This calls into question the surpassing value we have placed on the world’s treasures.
Solomon is looking for labor that bears lasting fruit. He is looking for a reward that cannot be overtaken by time—a reward that produces joy lasting not just a season but forever. Death will respect neither all of his wisdom nor all of his wealth nor all of his power. Solomon understands this and so he concedes:
“As he had come naked from his mother’s womb, so will he return as he came. He will take nothing from the fruit of his labor that he can carry in his hand. And this also is a grievous evil—exactly as a man is born, thus will he die. So, what is the advantage to him who toils for the wind?” (Ecclesiastes 5:15-16)
Solomon longs for a permanent reward!
Solomon is describing the world “under the sun”. He is describing the cursed world about him. He has observed this world according to wisdom and finds it lacking. But his complaint is not a generic criticism as if to say merely, “life here is hard.” Rather, he finds this world lacking specifically in ways that are addressed by the coming of the Kingdom of God in the coming of Jesus Christ.
The prophets spoke of the hope of new things and the New Testament writers further advanced this hope in the light of the coming of Christ. But these “new things” were not to be found “under the sun”. The prophets spoke of a new covenant embraced by a new heart filled with a new Spirit. This was not a promise to repair this place, but to draw man into a new heavens and a new earth—a new creation! Man, by the Spirit, would then assume the character of his new, eternal abode. He would be forever exposed to new things, conformed to new things, enveloped in new things, identified with new things.
The labors of the Kingdom of God bring a sure, fruitful, and lasting reward. Recall the parable of the soils. There was seed that bore no fruit for it fell beside the road or upon rocky ground or among thorns. But there was that seed which fell upon the good soil; it grew up and increased yielding a crop that produced thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold. Jesus spoke in John 4:36ff. of a crop so abundant that the intervals between sowing and reaping were no more. While one was planting the seed, the other was still reaping the crop from the previous season! The apostle Paul’s prayer in Colossians 1:9ff. reminds us that our life in the Spirit is a life of “bearing fruit in every good work”.
The vanity of Ecclesiastes is an issue that is further addressed in 1 Corinthians 15. Specifically, we are told that the apostolic proclamation suffers from the vanity of this world under the sun if there is no resurrection.
“And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:14)
It is vain because it bears no fruit; it is toil without lasting joy; it is “fools gold” for it professes to be of substance, but it is in fact vacuous, empty, trite, meaningless, futile, powerless, pointless. Religious ideas, no matter how inspiring they may be, will suffer the same fate of all that is under the sun unless they can address the curse of death.
But Christ has been raised! So what does this mean for the “world under the sun”? It means death has been conquered. It does not mean a new chapter for this world. Jesus said in John 16:33, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” The Lord did not overcome the world so that we could be left in it!
The resolution to Ecclesiastes is the resurrection and entrance into a land full of life and joy and peace in the Lord. We must be transferred from this “life under the sun” to “life in the Son of God”. Paul sees in his identification with the resurrection of his Savior, the end to a life of hopeless, cyclic, meandering vanity. As he lives out of the union with his Savior, he is introduced to labor that has been lifted out of this world.
“Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 15:58)
Solomon is crying out for the Kingdom of God in Christ!
Reflect upon the wisdom of Solomon. Contemplate the words of that great king in all of his earthly splendor. This world cannot be turned into a trophy to be hoarded; it is not now nor can it ever be.
Ecclesiastes leaves us with no treasure but Christ. You must be lifted out of the mundane life under the sun into the marvelous world of the Spirit, the Spirit of the resurrected Son of God. For then and only then will you know true life, abundant life, satisfying life, eternal life. Enter the wisdom of Solomon’s Christ.