Ecclesiastes is a peculiar book in the bible. Parts of it sound like rumblings of an old drunk while others sound like the wisdom of a consummate king at the prime of his rule. Other parts read like the stories of an unfulfilled grandpa ruing the missed opportunities of youth that he wishes to relive. There are brilliant verses but also others which I personally find preposterous and which will make you question whether they belong in the book.
If you read Ecclesiastes without knowing who wrote it, you would get the impression of somebody who had a great life and then somehow lost it. There’s a tinge of frustration and a generous serving of reminisce.
A book that starts with the words ‘Everything is meaningless’ seems to be all out for disruption. But in those words, and many others in subsequent chapters is a clue of the author’s philosophy of life and which I believe is key in understanding Ecclesiastes.
You see, Solomon is writing these ‘words of wisdom’ based on his life’s experiences. In verse 12 of chapter 1 he says “I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem” indicating that he wrote Ecclesiastes after his reign as King and probably towards the end of his life. We shall see why that is important.
In Chapter 2, Solomon lets us in his worldview. He writes from verse 1 to 12
I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. 2 “Laughter,” I said, “is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?”
3 I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.
4 I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. 5 I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. 6 I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me.
8 I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem[a] as well—the delights of a man’s heart. 9 I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. 11 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.
Solomon is just describing his carnal lifestyle and how it led to nothing. This was his idea of a good life, sensuality and chasing after the fine things of this world and it’s no surprise it led him to conclude that it’s all meaningless. All those wives and concubines, the gold and riches that he gathered and opulence he lived it, one commentator describes him as surrounding himself with all the luxuries and grandeur of a monarch.
You see, your idea of a fulfilled life will most likely determine your worldview. The way you approach life is determined by what you consider success. Is it peace of mind, financial security, happiness, comfort, good health, loving family, using your gifts/talents? Whatever it is, it will influence your daily life decisions.
He goes on in verse 17 and 18 of chapter 2
17 So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.
He shouldn’t hate life if it was more than just material possessions and if he had a better transition plan for his predecessor.
24 A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil.
But then he qualifies it with
This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?
And herein is the answer to why such a book is in the bible; so that we can learn that there’s more to this life than just indulging our desires and building things. Even if Solomon had great wisdom, he may not have heard a relationship with God that would have led him to prioritize his life better. His foreign wives brought in their gods and turned his heart after those gods. This led to the Lord removing most of the tribes of Israel from the rule of Solomon’s house, a punishment meted out on his successor Rehoboam (1 Kings 11: 30-34).
In Chapter 3 a beautiful poetry ensues about the ‘a time for everything’ and rightfully so. He then talks of satisfaction in toil as a gift from God and that that everything God does will endure forever. But who is Solomon to betray his mood and theme when at the end of the chapter he compares humans to animals saying the same fate awaits us? He even doubts whether the human spirit goes to the same place as the animal spirit upon death.
Surely, Solomon should know better. Isn’t he the same one who wrote in some verses before that God has set eternity in the human heart… and that God will judge every deed?
He ends Chapter 3 with his theme so far;
22 So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?
As I said earlier, this book is brilliance, absurdity and everything in between. From a natural perspective you can agree a lot that Solomon says. Without God in the picture, this is most people’s interpretation of life. Like when he talks about oppression in Chapter 4 and says that the dead are better than the living but the unborn are better than all because they haven’t seen evil.
Plausible, but enter God and the whole story changes. We know that those who die knowing God are in the best place, and this is something Solomon should have known even in the time he lived (or from his father).
Chapter 4: 9-12
9 Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: 10 If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. 11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?12 Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
I am just glad he didn’t end this amazing part with ‘this too is meaningless’.
It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it, Solomon says in Chapter 5 which sounds like a change of mood from the previous chapters. Prime Solomon, in his wisdom and glamour is back. But will he stay for long? He also paints a detailed picture of how riches can be meaningless when not attained and used in the right way.
3 A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.
It’s verses like these in Chapter 6 that I read with a grin on my face. He seems to keep placing the value of life on enjoyment.
The mood of good proverbs continues in Chapter 8. Verse 11 in particular pops out for me.
11 When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, people’s hearts are filled with schemes to do wrong.
If there’s a verse that explains the current situation in Kenya, it is this one. In this country, and many others I presume, people have become hell bent to do evil (stealing, killing, kidnapping) because those who did the same before them are walking free. The nature of evil is that it begets more evil, on a grander scale. Corruption has been modelled and it will not end in Kenya unless the big fish (masterminds, organizers), those who are showing the way, are put behind bars. We need examples of people paying for their evil and that will deter many others from the vices. But as it stands, lack of swift justice is creating a gap which is exploited by those with evil plans.
The ending of chapter 8 reiterates the theme of the book; nothing better in this life than to eat, drink and be glad. He also says no one can comprehend what goes on under the sun, not even the wise. For a person of Solomon’s self-indulgence and materialism, it’s possible not to have a big picture of this life.
But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. 2 It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil,[a] to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath.
Well, do we all share the same destiny? Definitely not.
10. Whatever you find your hands to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there’s neither working nor planning not knowledge nor wisdom
This verse that hits home, but not sure the last part applies. Is there no wisdom or knowledge in heaven? Topic for another day.
This is also the chapter where that famous ‘the race is not to the swift, or the battle to the strong,……. But time and chance happens to them all’ verse is located. It is a highly quoted verse, but it’s trapped in a convoluted context. Understanding it means reading the whole chapter 9, or the whole book. Time and chance might just be what we call the hand of God.
A splendid investment tip is given in Chapter 11 verse 2
2 Invest in seven ventures, yes, even eight; you do not know what disaster may come upon the land
In verse 9 is that warning to the youth
9 You who are young, be happy while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.
The poetry in Chapter 12: 1-7 is compounding and the writing enviable. You can find it and enjoy the flow.
The writer ends where he didn’t begin and the contrast cannot go unnoticed. He calls it the conclusion of the matter, which is befitting, especially for such a convoluted book, but also because we know the ending of a matter is better than the beginning.
13 Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.