What!?! Ecclesiastes? You have got to be joking!
“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher; “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?One generation passes away, and another generation comes; But the earth abides forever. The sun also rises, and the sun goes down and hastens to the place where it arose. The wind goes toward the south, and turns around to the north; the wind whirls about continually and comes again on its circuit. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; to the place from which the rivers come, there they return again. All things are full of labor; man cannot express it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done. And there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:2-9
The book of Ecclesiastes has been dubbed, “Ecclesi-nasties”, by some because of its content. Ecclesiastes, on the surface, may not appear to be the most pleasant book of the Bible, but if you examine the message carefully, then you begin to see the wisdom of King Solomon shining forth.
There is a very powerful message to this book of the Bible, and one that we can all learn from. In life, we get caught up in what lies ahead of us in the future. We chase after lofty dreams, are full of ambition, and pine for success. We are in a never-ending search for position, wealth, power, and status. Our gaze is not on the here and now, but on what could be.
Yet the message of King Solomon– if you examine his life- is so profound. Here is a man to whom God gave everything. He asked for wisdom in governing God’s people. God was so pleased with Solomon’s request, that He gave him wealth, success and peace. On the surface, it appeared as if King Solomon had everything you could have ever asked for. Yet, the tone of Ecclesiastes is not a happy one.
So Why Is The Message So Unhappy?
While God encourages us to have visions of a future filled with hope, He also tells us to keep our eyes on Him (Matthew 6:33). King Solomon talks about the riches of the world- toiling for them, seeking after them, labouring after them- and describes them as “vanity”. Why is it vanity?
It is vanity because when we go to Heaven, it all slips away like wind blowing through the desert sand. The opening verse talks about how each generation toils for a better life. Yet when he is gone, the earth does not stop moving. It just keeps on existing as if nothing has changed. Pursuing materialistic goods, while it may make us happy at first, is done in vanity. Everything will fade away because time is always changing.
“I communed with my heart, saying, “Look, I have attained greatness, and have gained more wisdom than all who were before me in Jerusalem. My heart has understood great wisdom and knowledge. And I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is grasping for the wind. In much wisdom is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” Ecclesiastes 1:16-18
Why Is It Vanity? Shouldn’t You Be Happy?
You would think, but no. Listen to what he says in chapter 2:10-11:
“Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure. For my heart rejoiced in all my labor, and this was my reward from all my labor. Then I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled; and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun.”
We can work all we want, in life. Yet if our eyes are on the here and now, then it is vanity. It means absolutely nothing if what we do has no eternal value.
You see, time is forever changing- shifting. Seasons of life- happiness and unhappiness- always fluctuate in our lives. We are not constantly in a state of elation, nor are we always in a state of sorrow.
And it’s a good thing… if you can stay on the right side of it.
staying on The Right Side of It?
The challenge is that we get caught up in our difficulties. For me, this became evident when my dad passed away. My mom had died in 2008, and her passing was very hard for him. They had been married for over thirty years, and when she was gone, all he just yearned to be with her, again.
It would have been so very sweet, had he not gotten so personally destructive. He was very angry at her passing- she died in her early sixties- way too soon for any of our liking. In his pain, he began to smoke and drink more heavily. He also gambled excessively, and lost a great deal of money over the years. It was money that both him and my mom had so diligently saved up for their retirement. He had no regard as to how it was spent, or where it went to.
Now some of it did go into house repairs, but most of it was just blown away. One day, I asked him mostly in my frustration, why he gambled, smoked, and drank so heavily because it was just destroying him. He said that he didn’t know what else to do… he was bored. When I made suggestions, he countered them. My dad had everything- the house was paid for, and he was financially secure. We visited him, and invited him over countless times. I talked to him regularly, and so did our children. He had everything… and yet he wasn’t happy.
My dad was caught up in his circumstances. My mom’s death was a valley in his life, and he was caught up in the circumstance of it. He didn’t see that he could have had a happy future with his family, and enjoyed the time that he had left.
He thought that smoking would make him happy, but it didn’t. Drinking only numbed the pain and made him sleep. Gambling was a distraction, but it lead to me managing his finances just so that he could live comfortably. None of these things which he initially claimed were pleasurable was enough. In the end, he told me that there was nothing left in this world (it was all vanity), and all he wanted to do was be with my mom in Heaven.
His wish was fulfilled a few weeks ago.
But when I look back, he was caught up on the wrong side of his circumstances. He found no pleasure in the things of the world. Sure, he was saved, but his eyes looked to the world for pleasure, and he found none. All of what he worked a lifetime to achieve didn’t mean much in the end. It didn’t bring him the happiness that he wanted. It didn’t fill a void.
He focused on the wrong things…
The void really wasn’t my mom’s passing. It was just that he was focused on the wrong things. As mentioned, time shifts. If we keep this in mind, then we learn that every challenge in life has an expiration. Seasons end and a new one begins. Things are always changing in life. That is the only constant there is.
We cannot depend on what we have today to give us happiness forever. We must learn to cherish today because it is a gift. Yet we focus on tomorrow, and rush towards what it could mean. We look forward to an event, payday, a promotion, etc. There is always something to look forward to, but are we truly cherishing today?
We never know what tomorrow could bring, and it’s not to say that we should just live for the moment- that would be foolish. It is to say that we should thank God daily, enjoy our families, our friends, and what God has given us. We should be grateful.
Our gaze shouldn’t be on our circumstances, but on God’s promises of a better future. Yet, this means that we shouldn’t be in a rush to get there. It means that we should give our anxiety to the Lord, and put our trust in Him. He is the only thing that we can depend on- He is the only thing in life that we can guarantee will not change.
Instead, we should enjoy what we have, and leave the rest to God. Our focus shouldn’t be on what on earth can make us happy, because we will never find it. Much like what King Solomon was saying, when you have riches, honour, wealth, status… everything under the sun… it is all vanity. It will not bring you pleasure, and can be gone in a heartbeat.
The “right side” of our belief is that we should rejoice that time changes everything. What is troubling us today might be better/change tomorrow. Time is fleeting. If you focus on what’s wrong, you will look back and realize, in most cases, that your anxiety was for nothing- everything worked out. What you lost, though, was time that you could have spent enjoying life because you were caught up in your circumstances. It is time you can’t get back- it’s lost for good.
“I know that nothing is better for them than to rejoice, and to do good in their lives, and also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor—it is the gift of God. I know that whatever God does, it shall be forever. Nothing can be added to it, and nothing taken from it. God does it, that men should fear before Him. That which is has already been, and what is to be has already been, and God requires an account of what is past.” Ecclesiastes 3:2-15
So, what is the point of ecclesiastes?
It sounds depressing. Ecclesiastes goes on in subsequent chapters and verses to describe the vanity in the things that most of us desire. But he does offer a fleeting nugget…
“As for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, and given him power to eat of it, to receive his heritage and rejoice in his labor—this is the gift of God. For he will not dwell unduly on the days of his life, because God keeps him busy with the joy of his heart.” Ecclesiastes 3:19-20
The ability to attain riches, wealth, and wisdom all come from the Lord. He gives it to us not just for our provision, but to help others. If we want to find happiness, our focus needs to be on God. How do we please Him? Are we doing what He wants us to? What is He doing in our lives? Are we praising Him, or complaining? God is the only thing that lasts forever. He is the one and only thing that we can count on.
Focusing on Him is not vanity, because He is faithful to reward our obedience. Happiness comes when we obey Him because we know that what we are doing is right. When we are in Him, we find peace, strength, and comfort.
What we do through Him is eternal- it lasts forever. It is not easily destroyed, or blown away. Jesus was the chief cornerstone upon which our foundation is built. It is a house that cannot be removed, nor taken down. It is the only thing that will withstand the test of time. Time cannot remove it, or wash it away.
“For man goes to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets. Remember your Creator before the silver cord is loosed, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher shattered at the fountain or the wheel broken at the well. Then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it.” Ecclesiastes 12:5-7
Solomon finishes with these closing words:
“When all has been heard, the end of the matter is: fear God [worship Him with awe-filled reverence, knowing that He is almighty God] and keep His commandments, for this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, every hidden and secret thing, whether it is good or evil.” Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 AMP
It is God who, in the end, judges us for everything we have done. It is Him that we give an account to. What we do in His name has an eternal reward, and will last forever. It cannot be erased, so it is not vanity. It does not slip away.
When we toil on our own, and in our own strength, we stand the potential to burn out. We were not created for this purpose. We were created to depend on God, and through Him, we can do the supernatural. Toiling on our own is vanity. Labor coming from God… Well, that has its own eternal reward.
Armed with this knowledge, Ecclesiastes doesn’t seem so harsh after all, but provides words of wisdom to guard where you place your faith in. Are you toiling, or will what you do have eternal value? The choice is up to you.