Note: This post was inspired by own questions as Ecclesiastes came up next on my Bible reading plan. That plan stalled for a couple of weeks as I read this book over and over trying to make sense of it. This is my personal way of reconciling 1) the negative parts of the book, 2) the positive recurring point of “enjoy the life God gives”, and 3) what I know from the rest of the Bible about the bigger picture of that life. It has been an interesting journey!
The book of Ecclesiastes is considered “wisdom literature”, similar to the book of Proverbs. And like Proverbs, it is attributed to King Solomon. At the start of his reign, God told Solomon to ask for whatever he wanted. Solomon’s request was for wisdom. God granted the request, and added in great wealth and fame as well. Other rulers from throughout the region admired and respected him. His story is told in 1 Kings chapters 3-10, but…then comes chapter 11, where Solomon turns away from God and is punished.
It may be that much of the book is inspired by the contrast in Solomon’s life, between his times of trust and fellowship with God vs. his times of alienation from Him.
The disquieting portions of the book repeat that all is “vanity” , “futility”, or “meaningless”. These are all translations from the Hebrew word “heḇel” meaning “breath”, or “vapor” in the sense of “empty”, “transitory”, “unsatisfying”. The word is used 28 times in the book, almost as often as in the entire rest of the Old Testament (31 times). Here are some examples:
- I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind. (1:14)
- I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself.” And behold, it too was futility. (2:1)
- Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun. (2:11)
- 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.” (2:15)
- Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me. 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. (2:19)
- There was a certain man without a dependent, having neither a son nor a brother, yet there was no end to all his labor. Indeed, his eyes were not satisfied with riches and he never asked, “And for whom am I laboring and depriving myself of pleasure?” This too is vanity and it is a grievous task. (4:7-8)
- He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves abundance with its income. This too is vanity. (5:10)
- There is futility which is done on the earth, that is, there are righteous men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked. On the other hand, there are evil men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I say that this too is futility. (8:14)
Under the Sun
The other oft-repeated phrase in the book is “under the sun”, occurring almost 30 times. It is referring to life without God, focussed only on the here-and-now. Some examples:
- What advantage does man have in all his work which he does under the sun? (1:3)
- …there is nothing new under the sun. (1:9)
- there was no profit under the sun. (2:11)
- For what does a man get in all his labor and in his striving with which he labors under the sun? (2:22)
- Furthermore, I have seen under the sun that in the place of justice there is wickedness and in the place of righteousness there is wickedness. (3:16)
- 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. (9:11)
God Provides the Meaning
The “vanity” statements could be said to accurately describe life WITHOUT God. The writer has tried his best to find meaning in his life, based only on “under the sun”. He has failed. He still wants something, but that something is beyond him. That is because he is looking in the wrong place. Meaning is found in God, who is transcendent, not “under the sun”.
Other non-Biblical but very well-known writers have expressed the same point, in less depressing terms:
There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.Blaise Pascal (common but apparently INCORRECT 1 quote)
What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.Blaise Pascal (CORRECT version of the quote, from his writing “Pensées VII(425)” in 1669-1670)
You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.St. Augustine, in his “Confessions” written in 397-398 A.D.
If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.C.S. Lewis, in “Mere Christianity”
There is hope! Life WITH God is very different.
Living Well Despite the Vanity
Given the point that nothing a person can do on their own will last eternally or bring true fulfillment, the writer of Ecclesiastes concludes that everything is in God’s hands. God sets the boundaries (“There is an appointed time for everything” (3:1-8); “He has made everything appropriate in its time.” (3:11)). Mankind’s part is to live within those parameters: Work diligently but not obsessively, and appreciate both the work itself and the benefits (money, food, drink, etc) that come from it…even knowing that they are not the ultimate meaning or goal; walk humbly and righteously with God (5:1-2) and trust Him to continue to be in control. (8:16-17, 9:1, 11:5)
- 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? (2:24-25)
- I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime; moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor—it is the gift of God. (3:12)
- Here is what I have seen to be good and fitting: 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)
- The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil. (12:13-14)
The Rest of the Story
The part of God’s plan that had not yet been revealed in Solomon’s time is Jesus. There is more than vanity, more than just doing my best “under the sun”, and more than enjoying God’s gifts while I can. There is the “mystery” (Ephesians 1:9-10), now revealed, that God had all along designed a way for fallen, imperfect people to live forever with Him. Who would have predicted that God Himself would fill in all the gaps and empty spaces in life? (John 10:10, John 14:6, 2 Corinthians 5:18-19)
Likely without even realizing it at the time, Ecclesiastes points forward to that mystery:
He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end. I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him.(Ecclesiastes 3:11-14)
Just as Ecclesiastes reminds us that “we can’t take it with us” (5:15, 3:20), Jesus reminds us to “store up treasure in Heaven” (Matthew 6:19-21). Life with Him is NOT vanity. It has great meaning!