It’s always puzzled me why so many people think of Ecclesiastes as depressing. For me as a teenager, it provided a map for navigating my way out of depression. Of course, I’m not saying it’s a magic cure for mental illness, but if you’re struggling with questions about the meaning of life or frustrated with how pointless it all seems, this book can provide a great deal of hope.
The book of Ecclesiastes contains the reflections of a deep thinker who works through an existential crisis. This sort of crisis happens when an individual starts to question whether their life (or life in general) has any purpose, meaning, or value. Solomon wrestled with these questions and records his thoughts for us to learn, as he did, that true meaning and purpose can only be found in God.
Ecclesiastes is one of those books that it’s not a good idea to read isolated pieces from. That’s one way you end up thinking there are few spiritual lessons in this book or misinterpreting its message. The whole thing is interconnected, with layers of thoughts building on each other as Solomon goes back and forth asking questions and contemplating possible answers. It’s vital that we look at this piece of writing as a whole before we start to dive deep into individual passages.
Cycles of Futility …
“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher; “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (Ecc. 1:2 ,WEB). Thus the book of Ecclesiastes opens, and Solomon will repeat this phrase throughout and in the conclusion (Ecc. 12:8). He presents everything in life as vanity, or hebel (H1892) — a vapor/breath; a transitory or unsatisfactory thing. That might seem like a depressing outlook, but can you really look at the world and say he’s wrong? Do things of this life last? Do they make sense? Is this world satisfying? Not on its own. Read more →
Ecclesiastes records the reflections of a deep thinker who works through an existential crisis and concludes meaning can only be found in God. While many people find this book depressing, I think taken as a whole it offers a remarkably hopeful perspective that can actually help us work through the sort of questions that were weighing on the author (most likely Solomon’s) mind.
When I recently went back to studying Ecclesiastes, I had this grand vision that I would write a post about the entire book (similar to “Crash Course in Romans”) in less than a week and post it today. I’m currently laughing at myself for thinking that was an attainable goal. Instead, we’re just going to talk about a handful of verses in the middle of the book that have captured my attention, and save the Crash Course in Ecclesiastes for next week.
The Vanity of Everything
Like Romans, Ecclesiastes is hard to understand if you take bits and pieces out of context, so before we get to the verses that I want to focus on today we need to take a quick look at what came before.
Solomon had shown the vanity of pleasure, gaiety, and fine works, of honour, power, and royal dignity … [and] there is as much vanity in great riches (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on Ecc. 5:9-17)
He has also been questioning the meaning of life. If all the things that people pursue on earth are meaningless, then what is there for us? Several times he argues that there is “nothing better” for men than to rejoice in this physical life (Ecc. 2:24; 3:13, 22; 5:18). But that’s still not a satisfactory answer for him. He wants more, something to explain why we should keep trying and what’s the purpose in living.
For who knows what is good for man in life, all the days of his vain life which he spends like a shadow? For who can tell a man what will be after him under the sun? (Ecc. 6:12, WEB)
A Different Perspective on Death
Up until this point, there has been a, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we will die” theme running through Ecclesiastes (Is. 22:12-13). It seems that in Solomon’s mind at this time, death was the point at which hope falls apart. Sure you can enjoy this life, but it’s all emptiness because you still end up dead with no guarantee that you have anything to show for it. Now, though, Solomon suggests that we can use death to give us perspective on life.
It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men, and the living should take this to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter; for by the sadness of the face the heart is made good. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. (Ecc. 7:2-4, WEB)
We must not forget that there is “a time to be born, and a time to die … a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (Ecc. 3:2, 4, WEB). There’s nothing wrong with feasting and laughter in its proper time, but staying there makes your heart foolish. Wise men keep their ends in mind. Death reminds us that we only have so much time to decide how we’re going to live our lives and what we’ll be remembered for.
The End Is Better
We just talked about verses 2-4 in chapter 7. Now let’s go back to verse 1:
A good name is better than fine perfume; and the day of death better than the day of one’s birth. (Ecc. 7:1, WEB)
There is much value in a good life well-lived. Solomon has already concluded that “wisdom excels folly, as far as light excels darkness” (Ecc. 2:13, WEB). Here he reinforces that a good name — that is “a name for wisdom and goodness with those that are wise and good”(MHC on Ecc. 7:1-6) — is worth more than all the pleasures, wealth, etc. that he’d found so empty.
if we have lived so as to merit a good name, the day of our death, which will put a period to our cares, and toils, and sorrows, and remove us to rest, and joy, and eternal satisfaction, is better than the day of our birth, which ushered us into a world of so much sin and trouble, vanity and vexation. We were born to uncertainty, but a good man does not die at uncertainty. (MHC on Ecc. 7:1-6).
Death is not the end of the story, and for a man who considers his death and prepares for it (as Solomon goes on to say in the next verses, which we’ve already talked about) he has the opportunity to die with “a good name.” The word for “name” here is shem (H8034), and in the Hebrew concept it’s always connected with your reputation and character.
The idea that the day of our death is better than the day of birth can be a hard one for people to come to grips with, even given the context we just talked about. We still grieve at death even though we know (as Solomon also concludes by the end of this book) that “the spirit returns to God who gave it” and that He will raise believers up in the last day (Ecc. 12:7; John 6:40). But maybe another verse in this section of Ecclesiastes can provide further explanation.
Better is the end of a thing than its beginning. (Ecc. 7:8, WEB)
The Hebrew word for “end” is achariyth (H319). To understand achariyth, we have to understand that the Hebrew concept of time is like “the view a man has when he is rowing a boat. He sees where he has been and backs into the future” (H.W. Wolffquoted in TWOT entry 68e). That’s why this word translated “end” can also mean last/latter days, after part, future, or reward. The end of a thing is better than the beginning because you will have arrived at the future goal and can now look back on where you’ve been with a better perspective.
If you’d rather not think about death then the idea that the end is better than the beginning can be a depressing one because it forces you to confront something uncomfortable. But ignoring the idea of our lives ending is foolish. Everyone is going to die whether we think about it or not, so why not use the fact that our lives will end as motivation to make the life we have a good one?
I’ve been studying Ecclesiastes this past week, and a thought popped into my head that I would like to share with you. If you agree, disagree, or just feel like weighing in on this topic, let me know what you think.
To everything there is a season…
In reading Ecclesiastes, I spent Thursday morning pondering the first half of chapter 3. The idea of time as portrayed here fascinates me — it seems cyclic, steady, patterned. In my KeyWord Study Bible, Zodhiates says that what Solomon discovers here “is that there is One who keeps the world in order — that is God.”
To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to gain, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace. (Ecc. 3:1-8)
Another take-away from this section of scripture is the necessity of trusting in God for our security in life. Just a few lines later, Solomon reminds readers that “no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end” (Ecc. 3:11). Though we cannot know what is coming in our lives or exactly how the times and seasons will play-out for us, we can have confidence in God and say with Solomon, “I know that whatever God does, it shall be forever. Nothing can be added to it, and nothing taken from it” (Ecc. 3:14).
For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. (Jer. 29:11)
No Man Knows
With this in mind, let’s go to another place in the Bible where times and seasons are mentioned. Before Christ’s ascension to His Father in the book of Acts, His disciples asked, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). His response is interesting. “And He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority'” (Acts 1:7).
This started me wondering if trying to pin down a date for Christ’s return is another symptom of the age-old problem people have of trying to find stability and control by taking matters into their own hands. I’m not talking about being watchful and knowledgeable about how events are prophesied to unfold — we are clearly instructed to do that (Mark 13:33; Luke 21:36; 1 Pet. 4:7). I’m talking about predictions regarding something we are specifically told is not for us to know. In another place, Jesus Christ said even He did not know the day or hour: “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32).
Like Solomon, we have to learn to accept God’s timing and trust Him to be in control. He will work out all things for good, just like He has promised (Rom. 8:28).