Most cheerfulness in the world is superficial and shallow. Much deep thinking is melancholy. This great Hebrew philosopher calls us to joy—but joy which thinks deeply. Our word profound comes from the Latin profundus, which means deep, and so we are invited to profound joy, not joy that skims along the surface of things. He calls us to meditation, but to a meditation which does not despair. Only believers can enjoy the vanity.
“The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity” (Ecc. 1:1–2).
The author never calls himself Solomon by name, but rather Qoheleth. This means “gatherer,” “assembler,” or “preacher.” Nevertheless, Qoheleth identifies himself here as a son of David, and as a king in Jerusalem. Without entering into a detailed description of the debate, I can see no good reason not to attribute the book to Solomon. The book certainly fits the pattern of Solomon’s life.
Solomon was given great wisdom by the Lord, but nevertheless fell into great and enormous sins. In his apostasy, he introduced the idolatry of some of his foreign wives into Israel. This book was written in his old age, as a repentant rejection of his previous declension and apostasy.
Unlike the liberal, we should assume a single voice throughout the text. Unlike the pietist, we should reject the temptation to accept the edifying passages and skim over the apparently “difficult” ones. And unlike the heretic, we should reject an elevation of the “difficult” texts at the expense of the pervasive orthodoxy of the book.
Summary of the Text
Ecclesiastes has four basic sections, or divisions. The first division is found in Ecclesiastes 1:2-2:26—Solomon’s experience shows that satisfaction cannot come from anything within man’s grasp or power. The second division is contained in Ecclesiastes 3:1-5:20: God is sovereign over everything; Solomon answers objections to the doctrine, and as you should know, it is a doctrine that engenders objections. Objections grow on this doctrine, like flowers in a meadow in the springtime. The third section is Ecclesiastes 6:1-8:15. Solomon applies his doctrine that the sovereign God alone gives the power to enjoy vanity. Without Him, without this power, the world is nothing but vexation of spirit. And the last division is Ecclesiastes 8:16-12:14. This last section removes various obstacles and discouragements, and addresses numerous practical concerns.
The Two Great Refrains of the Book
Instead of viewing the book as a series of disjointed and sometimes contradictory statements, we must first look for those themes which integrate all the teaching of the entire book. Two great refrains are:
Under the Sun—this phrase occurs numerous times, and is extremely significant. “Under the sun” is the realm where vanity reigns. This is not the vanity of philosophical nihilism, but rather the vanity of endless recurring cycles. Just the way it is.
Consider what occurs “under the sun.” Work has no profit (1:3; 2:11; 2:22); nothing is new (1:9); everything is vain (1:14; 4:7); work is distressing (2:17); labor is hateful because someone else gets the fruit (2:18); a fool might receive the benefit of the work (2:19, 20); church and state are corrupt (3:16); men are oppressed (4:1); the unborn are at an advantage (4:3); popularity is in constant flux (4:15); riches destroy their owners (5:13); the wealthy are unable to enjoy their wealth (6:1); future generations are unknowable (6:12); men rule others and destroy themselves (8:9); work is incomprehensible (8:17) both good and evil men die alike (9:3); our emotions perish with us (9:6); time and chance happen to us all (9:11); ungrateful men despise the benefits of wisdom (9:13); and rulers establish egalitarianism (10:5).
The Great Gift of God—Under the sun, vanity is God’s scepter (5:18; 8:15; 9:9). For those who fear Him, God gives the gift of being able to enjoy the futility. This is the gift of God. Notice how this point is hammered home, again and again.
“Nothing is better . . .” (2:24);
“I know that nothing is better. . .” (3:12-13);
“So I perceived that nothing is better. . .” (3:22);
“Here is what I have seen: It is good and fitting. . .” (5:18-19); “So I commended enjoyment . . .” (8:15);
“Go, eat your bread with joy. . .” (9:7-9).
All these things are done by those who fear God under the sun, just as the miserable labor under the sun. But the distinction, as always, is found in the sovereignty and grace of God.
Eat Your Peaches
God frequently gives men many external blessings without giving them the spiritual taste buds to enjoy them. This is a sore affliction from the Lord. We see a man without taste buds who can afford the finest of restaurants. We see an impotent man married to a beautiful woman. Guard your hearts. Don’t envy them. Don’t want to become like them. The people you envy are frequently the most miserable people on the face of the planet. It would have been better for them to have never been born.
The blessings of this life—and there are many of them—are like cans of peaches. To His beloved, God gives them both the can and the can opener. To the others, He gives just the cans. What does it profit a man to have the whole world but with no ability to taste? Who is wealthier? The man with one can of peaches and a can opener, or a man with a thousand cans of peaches and no can opener? Without Christ, the most a rich man can do is lick the label, trying to get some kind of taste from the glue.
We live in the same world of vain repetitions as do the non-believers. Our dishes get dirty again, our lawns need to be mowed again, our lives cycle around as do theirs. The rain falls on our heads too. But their vanity, their shepherding of the wind, becomes—because of unbelief—what we might call philosophical or nihilistic vanity. Our vanity, our experience of the very same things, becomes a wild ride, the best you will ever have. Nothing is better. This understanding of Ecclesiastes is the foundational precondition of all contentment.
So eat your bread, drink wine, and rejoice. Work hard. God has already accepted you. He has already accepted your works, which He has done in the perfect work of Jesus Christ. Believe the gospel as it is preached and declared. This truly is the gift of God.