Today: [Ecclesiastes 1] Why Should We Even Study Ecclesiastes? The book of Ecclesiastes is one of the most disparaged and least esteemed books of the bible. For most scholars and theologians the canon of scripture would not be diminished but in fact improved if this one book was absent from our bible. Pastors and teachers for generations have dismissed Ecclesiastes as an “inspired record of uninspired sayings…” Is this true? Are we only to have a passing regard for this book as we focus on more wholesome chapters containing more sublime truths? Or is there hidden manna here provided by Solomon that will afford us greater riches in Christ than we might anticipate?
[Ecc 1:1-18 KJV] 1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2 Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all [is] vanity. 3 What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? 4 [One] generation passeth away, and [another] generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. 5 The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. 6 The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. 7 All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea [is] not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again. 8 All things [are] full of labour; man cannot utter [it]: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. 9 The thing that hath been, it [is that] which shall be; and that which is done [is] that which shall be done: and [there is] no new [thing] under the sun.
The book of Ecclesiastes is one of the least esteemed books in the bible. It is written by king Solomon and classified among the wisdom books of the Christian canon. The book focuses on the meaning of life and the futility of all human endeavor. Many scholars and theologians describe Ecclesiastes as an “inspired record of uninspired sayings”. Because of this very tepid esteem for the book most Christians do not pay it much heed although it does contain some of the deepest spiritual truths to be found in the scripture. My encouragement to you is to maintain toward this book a Berean attitude, not to take someone else’s idea of what is contained here and study it for yourself to glean the good that God has intended for you in placing it in the canon in the first place.
I can remember a time in my life when I spent months and years poring over the book of Ecclesiastes. For myself and where I was at the time in my spiritual walk it was a book of great encouragement. It is the writing of a man being honest with himself and getting real with others. It is unvarnished and without pretense in anyway and when taken as a whole it injects in us a deep sobriety with a concluding admonition to walk humbly before God with a healthy awareness of the fleeting and transitory nature of human existence. Received in your heart from this intended purpose it is a medicine of the soul that will foster a level of maturity in your life that will serve you well both in good times and bad.
Verse 2 contains the famous and oft repeated declaration “vanity of vanities; all is vanity”. It would be good for us to look at this word in the original language to get a deeper meaning for ourselves. The English definition of vanity is “worthless or futile”. This does not fully convey or synchronize with the Hebrew word employed here which is “hebel” meaning breath, or vapor. Taken in its Hebrew context the emphasis is not an expression of abject negativity but an observation of the fleeting and transient nature of all human existence and endeavor. Peter himself speaking of the new birth remarked on the fleeting nature of life in this physical world:
[1Pe 1:23-25 KJV] 23 Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth for ever. 24 For all flesh [is] as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: 25 But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.
If we only looked at our lives on this earth our personal philosophy might be that of the ancient gladiators whose motto was “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die”. However, Peter’s words exhort us to live our lives with eternity in view. Much of Christian teaching is inordinately focused on the here and now with only cursory reference to those things that lie beyond the pale of the brevity of our human lifespan. The result of this imbalanced focus leaves us in a very unhealthy place spiritually. Paul made this observation:
[1Co 15:19 KJV] 19 If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.
We do ourselves a great disservice if we do not look beyond this life to gain a perspective that takes eternity into account. To compress all of the promise of God in to an application only to this life is unwise and impossible. No matter what you may or may not accomplish in this life bear in mind that they whole of your investments are not in this life but in the next. Eternity is a very sure and real portion for you and I and there is great solace for us particularly in times of suffering to keep this great truth in the forefront of our minds.
10 Is there [any] thing whereof it may be said, See, this [is] new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. 11 [There is] no remembrance of former [things]; neither shall there be [any] remembrance of [things] that are to come with [those] that shall come after. 12 I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all [things] that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith. 14 I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all [is] vanity and vexation of spirit. 15 [That which is] crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered. 16 I communed with mine own heart, saying, Lo, I am come to great estate, and have gotten more wisdom than all [they] that have been before me in Jerusalem: yea, my heart had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. 17 And I gave my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: I perceived that this also is vexation of spirit. 18 For in much wisdom [is] much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
In verse 9 the preacher of Ecclesiastes declares to us there is nothing new under the sun. This is the observation of an older man. I know in my own walk with God in my early years I would run excitedly to my father with some “new” truth or experience in God. He would laugh and say “yes we saw that and heard that taught back in the 1950’s…” To a young man passionate for new and fresh revelation that would frustrate me no end. I thought that Dad was being disparaging and negative but as I grew older myself I began to see the truth of his observation. We all tend to seek out that with is unprecedented and unique in the earth but over time as a student of history you will find that the essence of human experience is very cyclical in nature. That doesn’t diminish however nor should we let it diminish for us our zest for life. Every generation has its own accountability and from that perspective we don’t reject the wisdom that much of what we have yet to uncover and new and novel in fact has been walked out by many of those who have gone on before us and we would do well to learn from their example.
The great novelist Thomas Wolf said this of the book of Ecclesiastes: “Of all I have ever seen or learned, that book seems to me the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth—and also the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth. I am not given to dogmatic judgments in the matter of literary creation, but if I had to make one I could say that Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound.”
Solomon’s opening statements in Ecclesiastes are like a shot fired by God across the bow of mankind’s predilection for self-absorption and narcissism. We are challenged to step back and look at ourselves and all of humanity in the light of eternity seen through the mind of God and to know ourselves for the inconsequential beings we are outside of the love of the Father. No matter what our gains or our losses – all of these pale beside the sovereignty of a mighty God who has placed you and I in the center of His regard. All mourning for the loss of, or longing for transitory fame or worldly pleasures are a vulgarity in the scope of eternity in which you and I will exist and account for ourselves before the judgment bar of heaven. In that regard we study the book of Ecclesiastes and thank God for giving it to us as an eye salve that keeps us honest and humble before Him.
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