So I come in my reading to the book of Ecclesiastes, a singular work from Scripture that contains none of the direct revelations from God seen in all the other books (save Ruth, but that too is a special case). Instead it is a witness to a “seeker of truth” starting from within himself. Let’s see how this works out for him.
The theme of the book is stated in the second verse, “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” I prefer a more contemporary colloquialism, “What a waste! It’s all such a waste!” And so, on this high plateau begins the book. And from there the picture gets only more bleak. Which again proves to me that there indeed is something for everyone in the collection of the Scriptures. For the aggressive there are wars and catastrophes, for the mystic there are the prophetic books, for the adventurer there are sweeping stories of visits to distant foreign lands to seek a bride, or an entire nation evacuating a country in one night en mass. For the poet there are the Psalms, for the romantic there is the Song of Songs. And for the clinically depressed here is Ecclesiastes. This is the book made famous in the Modern Era by Bob Dylan and the Byrds in the song, “Turn, Turn, Turn.” To everything there is a season. And for everyone there is something in the Bible. This is not a feel-good book. It basically says if you start with only yourself as your guide to life and living prepare to be severely disappointed.
The writer is a seeker of wisdom and truth. It is not that he doesn’t find it, he actually does or so he says. But it doesn’t do him any good, since he ends up with the same fate as the idiot. Death. So why even bother? 2:15 Then I said to myself, “As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall me. Why then have I been extremely wise?” So I said to myself, “This too is vanity.”
He sees man working very hard and being exceptionally successful, but in the end he dies and all his possessions are in the hands of one who has none of his skills and passion. And it is all wasted. The good suffer, the evildoers are prosperous, and it all seems to be a waste and doesn’t make any sense. 2:19 And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun. This too is vanity.”
The writer intuits that all things come from God so it is best to live in a manner befitting the best one can be. But in the end we are all beasts and act like it, (3:18 I said to myself concerning the sons of men, “God has surely tested them in order for them to see that they are but beasts.”) and ending up little better than the beast of the field. 3:19 For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity.”
Look around at the world today. Look at the news headlines. Look at your neighbors. Look at your families, look at yourself. Have things changed much since this book was written? I dare say it has not. Stupid things are still done by stupid people. Stupidity still causes destruction to life and property and nations and nature. Talk about “What a waste!” It really doesn’t make any sense. On any level. This could have been a really great world . . . but for Man. So like the writer says, the best thing you can do in the midst of all this madness is to work the best you can as peacefully as you can. 3:22 “I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him?”
But in the midst of living one can’t help being mindful of all the injustice and rampant evil in the world, the writer immediately continues. And this brings despair. 4:2-3 “So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living. But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.” Indeed is this not the sentiment of the clinically depressed?
A commentator wrote that a New Testament believer could not write such a book today as Ecclesiastes. That may be, if one is considering that this writer has no knowledge of divinely revealed truth, such as the Torah, or any New Testament writing. But I counter that the sentiment as described in this book can be understood even now, that the world we live in today doesn’t really make sense, and it is futile to try and make sense of it. For even though the author can write 2:24-25 “There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen that it is from the hand of God. For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?” he can also write 8:17 “I saw every work of God, I concluded that man cannot discover the work which has been done under the sun. Even though man should seek laboriously, he will not discover; and though the wise man should say, ‘I know,’ he cannot discover.” In other words what God is doing He Himself knows and it is impossible for man to understand any of it except that which God chooses to reveal. Truly God has indeed revealed a lot, count the pages of your Bible. But does evil in the world make sense to you? Does creating mankind only to have so many of them go to eternal damnation make sense to you? Certainly not! But that is only because God has kept those reasons to Himself. Just as is stated way back in Deuteronomy: “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law.” Deut. 29:29
So then whether it is the writer of Ecclesiastes or whether it is the evangelical in the Sunday pulpit, without the foundation of this truth, that indeed you can not make sense of this life without knowing and understanding the things that God has revealed to us and accepting there are things He knows that we cannot, proves the validity of this book and world view. And this is what the writer has neglected in his seeking wisdom. He’s left out any revelation from the very One who made everything in the first place. On one hand leave Him out of the equation and indeed nothing really makes sense. And on the other hand, even knowing God but attempting to make sense of of the world while lacking information that He has withheld is just as futile. Leading to what is probably a secondary purpose of the book. The question on every lip after a disaster. “Why?” Ecclesiastes shows that this is ultimately the wrong question when trying to make sense of this world because it is unanswerable, and only leads to futility.
So even though just looking around at the world tends to make one exclaim “what a waste,” because truly the evil and terrors we witness daily are a most horrible waste, we can comfort ourselves with the mantle of revealed truth and know that the One who placed us here has His own reasons, and knowing His character from the revealed truth we can have confidence that He will bring us through it all, eventually, in His own time, into a clear clean place that lacks all the ugliness and waste we witness today. So our Lord has told us.
But the fact is since He has told us plenty that the author seems not to have heard or considered we aren’t left in the despair and emptiness shared by this book. But the point of the book and probably the reason it is included in the Canon is to show the necessity of having God Himself share with mankind the things required for life. For without that revelation, life, for those thoughtful enough to ponder its meaning, only leads to futility and a “living for today” philosophy. For those who have no concerns of the meaning of life there is nothing else but to “eat, to drink and enjoy oneself in all one’s labor in which he toils under the sun during the few years of his life which God has given him; for this is his reward” (5:18), as he has no higher purpose. But there is a higher purpose if you seek it. But not starting and ending with yourself.
[Scriptures taken from the New American Standard Bible © 1995]