If you have ever struggled with the meaning of the Book of Ecclesiastes, this article might help you sort it out. In speaking to the vanity of life, Solomon has a method and a means to bring you to understand why God created you and what is your Best Practice and your most important duty in life.
The writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes called himself the Preacher and identified himself as the son of David, king in Jerusalem. We know him to be Solomon. The Bible has this account about the life of Solomon: “And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding beyond measure, and breadth of mind like the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt… He also spoke 3,000 proverbs, and his songs were 1,005. He spoke of trees, from the cedar that is in Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He spoke also of beasts, and of birds, and of reptiles, and of fish. And people of all nations came to hear the wisdom of Solomon.” [1Ki 4:29-34]. He alone, of all men, in all ages, was qualified to write this book.
The Preacher began the Book of Ecclesiastes with the declaration all is vanity – vanity of vanities. He asked, “What does a man gain by all the work at which he labors under the sun?” and he concluded with the admonition to remember our Creator while we are young and the fleetingness of life – or vanity – has not caught up to us. These are the bookends of the Book of Ecclesiastes.
In the first chapter, the Preacher lamented the vanity of life and put forth arguments toward that end. These continue through the second chapter. He addressed vanity from the overall redundancy of everything to the futility of pushing to get ahead in life. The Preacher found there was no satisfaction in striving for pleasure, for wisdom or for work.
He did make a finding of the best thing for a man to do. Instead of striving for more or going to the other extreme of giving up on the vanity of it all, the best thing for a man is to accept the work God has given him as a gift; to take delight in his work and enjoy the fruit of it and to accept his lot in life. He wrote this finding in different ways, six times throughout the Book of Ecclesiastes and we refer to it each time as Best Practices (2:24; 3:12-13; 3:22; 5:18-19; 8:15; 9:7).
In chapter three, the Preacher began arguing from reason. His first reasoning was there is a time for everything and the prevailing theme is man is not in control. The purpose of time is to bring man into accountability to God for his activities. Man has a tendency to exalt himself but he must keep his condition in perspective and the activities of man cannot compare to the activities of his Creator. Amidst these arguments, he challenged his reader twice to consider Best Practices.
He observed the oppression from those whose only consideration is power. But man also oppresses himself in his striving to outdo his neighbor. And there is a man whose only goal is to work and accumulate but he doesn’t realize how he has trapped himself in his vanity. The Preacher observed if a man is not greedy but willing to take a partner, the two could build a stronger business, or life, and three could even withstand outside oppression. A king may have power but when he gets to the point where he no longer listens to advice, a poor but wise youth can take his place.
He warned man not to go casually to the house of worship and not to think his attendance at church will appease God (see also Jer 7:1-4). Do not be hasty to make God promises but if you do, do not delay to fulfill your vows to Him.
Don’t be surprised when you see a distortion of justice and the righteous people oppressed because there are always those who use the force of government to control others. The man who loves money will never have enough. And, again, he challenged the reader to consider Best Practices.
The Preacher discussed circumstances of life outside mans’ control and dealing with unfulfilled desire. He observed God has already determined everything that is to come – everything that is to happen to every man – and a multitude of words cannot elevate man above God. Man has no control over what will happen to him while he lives and he has no control over the events that will take place after he dies.
He compared wisdom and folly, demonstrating the advantage of wisdom over folly. The sinner is captive to sin but the one who seeks God will escape. Few men understand this – and fewer women take it to heart. God made man to walk in His ways but rather than follow wisdom, man has devised a multitude of shortcuts. So, given the choice between wisdom and folly, man will choose folly.
The Preacher gave good advice for living Godly in an evil age: Obey the king, but don’t follow him into evil; don’t be distracted by adversity from trusting in God’s proper time and way; don’t surrender to evil – for it will never let you go; punish crimes swiftly and such. Again, he reminded the reader man is not in control for he has no power to hold his spirit or determine the day of his death. Sometimes the world does not make sense but man cannot know the ways of God and He, alone, is in control. Once again, he challenged man to consider Best Practices.
All mans’ ways are in the hand of God and everything will happen as God has determined. It may not seem fair the rain falls on the just and the unjust (Jesus’ words) – but, then again, all men harbor evil in their hearts and then they die. There is still time for the living to follow God while the dead are already heading for their reward and cannot change it. A man plans his life but he does not know his time – and he never knows if his days will be cut short. Or, even if he was wise and saved many lives, will he be remembered among men? And, again, the Preacher challenged man to consider Best Practices.
For a couple chapters, the Preacher gave his readers proverbs to live by. He compared foolishness and wisdom and gave counsel on financial investments. These also apply to a man’s investment in his neighbor. He talked about foolish rulers and the benefit of wise leadership. He admonished the reader to value his work; to work hard and seek wisdom and he warned against sloth. Even if you live a blessed life, remember there will be many dark days.
He admonished the young not to live for pleasure and not to follow feelings and sight – or the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life (Paul’s words) – lest God bring him into judgment. He wrapped up this admonition in the final chapter where his reader is instructed to remember his Creator while he is still young and the weariness of vanity has not yet set in upon his life.
The Preacher presented all the arguments in favor of pursuing this life and examined the vanity of the same. Then he presented his credentials how he has the authority to argue for wisdom and reminding the reader all wisdom comes from God. His final exhortation is a reminder man is accountable to God and it is his duty to give glory to God.
The nut of the Book of Ecclesiastes is to give reason for man to give glory to God rather than get caught up or distracted by this vanity called life. Most men live for their own glory and refuse to give God glory but the Apostle Paul, in Philippians chapter two, wrote every knee will bow and every tongue will confess Jesus Christ is Lord – to the glory of God the Father. So, the ultimate foolishness of man is to deny or ignore his Creator – the One the Preacher admonished the reader to remember.
Near the end of the book, the Preacher wrote, “A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right, but a fool’s heart to the left.” [10:2]. He compared those who listen for God to those who ignore Him. The “right” means the way of wisdom – using knowledge and facts to follow after what God has revealed. The “left” means to reject God’s ways or to go the way of feelings or following ease and comfort. The Prophet Jeremiah warned that our hearts or feelings are deceitful and wicked (Jer 17:9).
Man desires utopia. The Preacher understands this and tries to help the reader understand all utopia is vanity because we cannot make life right or give it meaning without God. In chapter six, he told the reader not to be surprised by oppression created by regulation because there is always someone manipulating the power of government to control others. There is a secular saying that applies well here: “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
Do you think life is unfair? Does the world seem crazy to you? The wisest man in the world took a look at life and concluded everything was vanity – a chasing after the wind. However, even in the futility and redundancy, he gave reason not to give up but to pursue wisdom over foolishness and to take enjoyment with the lot in life God has given you. For, no matter how big or how small, the work God has given you is a gift – and the circumstances He has placed you in are also a gift. This is what the Apostle Paul wrote about in Philippians 4:13.
Six times, the Preacher instructed his reader to accept his lot in life and rejoice in the work God has given him. In other words, to be content. The Apostle Paul wrote he had to learn to be content (Php 4:11). Then he wrote about doing all things through Christ whether he had much or had little. Mans’ tendency is to throw aside contentment and to strive to get the most out of this life. But this life is fleeting and vain and it is our duty to rejoice in the circumstances God has given us.
God created you to pursue wisdom, to enjoy the work He has given you and to give Him glory. Obedience to God amidst difficult situations, whether this be adversity or prosperity, is how we truly glorify Him. True wisdom and the Best Practice in life is to abandon our own empire in pursuit of God’s kingdom. This is the conclusion of the Book of Ecclesiastes.
What fleeting vanities draw you away from God?