Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole [duty] of man.
Welcome to the study of Ecclesiastes. The three books, Proverbs, Song of Songs, and this book, were authored by one person. We can surmise that there must be a constant theme that flows through these three books - a theme which each of the books works together to build upon. What then is this theme? If there is a constant theme flowing through them, what necessitated the compilers of the Bible assigning a different name to each of the books? In other words, in what respect is the message(s) of each book distinct from the rest, while working together to build one common theme?
Different students can come up with different answers, but in view of the general message of the three books, it can be said that all three books talk about one theme, that is, the need for wisdom in life. As we covered last Monday, Proverbs talks about the "path of life,” Ecclesiastes strives to discover the "meaning of life,” and Song of Songs (which we will cover next week) deals with the "essence of life." [So we have the three strands woven together to form one cord: the path of life, the meaning of life, and the essence of life.]
In regard to the thrust of the message(s) the author of Ecclesiastes strives to convey, it is quite ironical to see that the book begins with the declaration that man’s life under the sun is totally "meaningless." Is life truly meaningless? Is this all there is to the messages this book has to say? When we study Ecclesiastes from beginning to end, we see the author presenting a conclusion which is quite the opposite: the meaning(s) of life that came from God is absolute; it is truly valuable. Life that is from God has absolute meaning and purpose. In what sense (or under what conditions) then can life be seen as totally meaningless, yet in what respect should it be seen as absolutely meaningful? With these questions in mind, we would like to consider the book in three parts:
Part I. Life under the sun (1:1-12:8)
At the end of the book the author concludes, saying, "Here is the conclusion of the matter." In his conclusion the author says something positive about life. Yet at the outset he begins his discussion with the premise that life under the sun is totally meaningless. In what respect then is it meaningless? Before we address this question we must first consider the meaning of the word meaninglessness.
" 'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher. 'Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.' " What does the Teacher mean by "meaningless"? We find the answer to the question in what the author says in the book, that is, in the sense of "gain" or "loss". Throughout the book, the expression, "meaningless, a chasing after the wind," is repeated 9 times. For example, in Ecclesiastes 1:14, it is written: "I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind." Here the author equates the meaning of the word "meaningless" with "a chasing after the wind." So let us stop and think about what it is like for a man to chase after the wind. What is it like? Well, we can better understand it if we actually try to chase after the wind. If you have ever tried, you quickly figured out what it is: a man trying to get something desperately and yet not being able to get it. Why doesn't he get it? The answer is obvious. The wind is not "graspable." You cannot catch it. It is not something you can hold securely with your hands.
So the meaning (or definition) of the word "meaninglessness" (or "vanity" in the KJV) is gaining nothing beneficial to life. The author expresses this idea many times throughout this book. Such expressions as:,"Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun" (2:11), "So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun" (2:20), and "What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?" (2:22). The author finds that some people hoard up wealth only to harm themselves. What the author finds as useless and therefore meaningless is not just wicked people striving to build their life security here on earth but also all the labors, work, efforts, and skills people invest to get something out of this life.
The author’s assertion that man’s life under the sun is futile is predicated on the fact that man takes nothing out of this world, as Ecclesiastes 5:15 says: "Naked a man comes from his mother's womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand."
The author’s discovery of man’s life under the sun as futile is not something new. In fact, this is what the Lord declared to Adam and Eve when the first couple committed sin against the Lord, as Genesis 3:19 says: "By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return."
If the message Solomon conveys to us in Ecclesiastes is more or less the same as what Genesis 3 says, why then do we need to study this passage? And who would bother to go through what is redundant? One answer to this question would be that the Lord might have wanted to convey additional message(s) to us in addition to what Genesis 3:19 has to say. If that is the case, what is the message we are to learn? We can find the answer to this question in the key verse, especially the phrase "under the sun," for the author does not say, “Everything is meaningless.” Rather he says that everything that is "under the sun" is meaningless. And we do not find this expression except in this book. This exclusivity in usage of the phrase makes us stop and think about the import of the phrase.
What does it mean to say everything "under the sun" is meaningless? Well, it means what it says, that is, all that are done "under the sun." So let us think about this term. In what respect is life "under the sun" meaningless? Why are all the efforts, endeavors, skills, labors, toils, or work done "under the sun" meaningless? What is so evil of the life "under the sun"? We can find the answer to these questions when we compare them with what the author speaks about at the end of the book, that is, the life that fears the Lord and keeps his commandments. The Lord God created a number of things that are valuable. But of all the “material” things the Lord created, nothing is more valuable than the sun. As we know, the sun belongs to the category of matter. Of all the matter that the Lord created, the sun is the most valuable. This is particularly true in terms of the power it generates. Imagine the universe without the sun. What would happen to all the living creatures on the planet earth? Nothing could survive. All creatures in the solar system withdraw energy and power from the sun. It is because of the sun that there are four seasons, flowers bloom, plants grow, fruits ripen, and life gets nurtured. But as powerful as it is, the sun is still a limited entity. It is a created thing. It is just mass. So the life (or everything done) under the sun represents the life that is NOT under the constructive rule of "the one who caused the sun to come into being." It is the life that is not nurtured by the Creator but the created.
Characteristically, life under the sun denotes the life that operates only on a physical level, so that as man indulges himself in the physical he will end up netting nothing but emptiness. For this reason many Bible scholars and preachers of the book describe Ecclesiastes as the autobiography of Solomon. We know that he did indulge himself in the physical. Imagine a man building a royal place and housing 700 wives and 300 concubines there. According to his own words, he denied himself nothing his eyes desired; he refused his heart no pleasure. (Ecc 2:10). Figuratively speaking, he lived like the prodigal son who squandered all the money he inherited from his father. In regard to the way of life, Jesus asks his followers to deny themselves, take up their cross and then follow him. But Solomon went the other way: he denied himself nothing his eyes desired. What was the result? He reaped complete emptiness.
Part II. Life above the sun (12:9-13)
This then brings us to the next topic: the life that lives above the sun. That is, the life that operates on the level of the Creator who made the sun. Speaking of the life that is on God's level, the author exhorts us to fear God and keep his commandments. "Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole [duty] of man" (Ecc 12:13).
First, fear God.
Here the call to fear God refers to the life that acknowledges the existence of God as the one who created the universe and sustains all that are in it. He is the source and provider of lasting profits. By the same token, since he is the only one who created values and meanings, man is called to fear him, for without him one remains disconnected from the source of life and condemned to go down to the grave.
Second, keep his commandments.
While fearing God invites man to knowing God and acknowledging him as the source of true profit, the call to keep his commandments urges man to do more, that is, to get into the relationship with him so one could experience him in person. As we know, his commandments, as Moses expounded in the book of Exodus and Deuteronomy can be summed up with the call to love God and the call to love one's neighbor. As one loves the Lord, the Lord empowers him to love the Lord better. The deeper one loves the Lord, the greater the power the Lord will clothe him with, so that he would be able to bear lots of good fruit despite adverse circumstances.
Part III. Life after the sun
At the outset of the book the author asked a question, "What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?" The answer to this question is that there is no gain.
The next question then is, "What does man gain from fearing God and keeping his commandments?" In the last verse of the book, the author answers the question: "For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil." From this passage we can draw a conclusion that man's life here on earth is NOT the place where one can expect to receive the lasting reward (or gain).
Ecclesiastes 5:15 says that man departs from this world as he came into this world. Combine this truth with what he says at the end of the book, that is, God's judgment. "For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil." When will the judgment be due? The answer is clear: it is not due while man is on this side of the grave. Death is the great equalizer. If all men depart from this world empty-handed, and if that is truly it, then where is the need for judgment? What sense does it make for God to judge "every" deed? If the physical death is all there is to God's judgment, then it makes no sense whatsoever to say that God is going to judge every hidden thing, whether good or bad.
The only logical conclusion one can draw from this comparison is that the time of judgment is due only after mans' life here on earth (or "under the sun") is over. One can call this new age as the life “after the sun,” for when man physically dies he is put out of the domain of time and space, the sphere where man's existence is dependent on the sun. For this reason, we can say that the time of reward and punishment becomes due when man puts off his physical body, the condition in which man is no longer subject to the rule of the sun.
In conclusion, at the outset of the book King Solomon said that when one removes God from his life and lives his life on a physical level alone, no matter what he does, he ends up reaping nothing but emptiness. Then, after his physical death, he will have to face God’s judgment for the evil he had done while in the body. The other side of the coin is also true. When one acknowledges that God exists and thereby fears God and keeps his commandments, the Lord God will certainly reward him for the good he had done while in the body. This observation leads us to the conclusion that our life in a physical body is not the end of man’s existence. Rather, it represents the period of time when one needs to prepare his life for the eternity to come. Once we are done with a physical life, there is no more opportunity to alter the status of one's life in the eternity to come.
1. According to the author of Ecclesiastes, what did God do so men revere Him?
2. One can divide time into three segments: past, present, and future. Isaiah 43:18 reads, "Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past." Yet, according to Ecclesiastes, what will God do with "the past"? __________________________
3. Read Ecclesiastes 7:14 and explain in your own words why it is that since God has made both the good times as well as bad times man cannot discover anything about his future? _________________________________________
4. Which verse (in the book of Ecclesiastes) testifies that man cannot be satisfied with what is temporal? _____________
5. According to the author of Ecclesiastes, why will it not go well with the wicked? __________________________
6. God is the ____________ of all things.
7. Dust returns to the ground, but the spirit returns to _______.
8. Remember your _________ in the days of your ________, because: ________________________________________________________________.
Although this book mentions different names as author(s) such as Agur, for the most part, this book is attributable to Solomon.
Refer to other Bible passages such as 3:16; 4:1,3,7,15; 5:13,18; 6:1,13; 8:9,15, 17; 9:3,6,9,11,13; 10:5.
In Ecclesiastes the phrase "under the sun" is repeated 29 times.
Cf. Rev 22:5 where it is written that those who participate in the perfected world do not need the light of the sun.