As I look back in my life over the last several years there was a period in which I lived in the dark night of the soul. I spent several months of my life on the sloping back of a question mark. And there was a preacher and there was a message that brought me back into the sunlight again. Without apology I'd like to preach that message.
I'd like to borrow from that preacher. For that is, after all, the way that Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes, introduces his book. The preacher, son of David, king over Jerusalem. The word for preacher in the Hebrew is the word qÃ´heleth. It's the word for a man who addresses an assembly. The corresponding word in the Greek is the word ekklesiastic, and that's where the book of Ecclesiastes gets its name.
The only problem with this ancient preacher is that many people feel he was backslidden. They see him as a wolf in sheep's clothing and not a particularly convincing sheep at that. Ancient rabbis had a great deal of difficulty with this preacher, and many of them felt he ought not be allowed to enter the library of inspiration.
Even those who believe that the book is a unity cannot agree as to what the message of the book is about.
It seems to me a thing unthinkable that the Spirit of God would have 12 chapters of the Bible to give me the musings of a naturalist or a rationalist. If I want that, I can talk to the man sitting next to me in the airplane or walk on a college campus and talk to a student, or professor; visit a used bookstore and all kinds of books give me that philosophy.
I find that view of this book difficult to accept because the preacher himself says that it's not true. In the last chapter the preacher says, "Not only was the Preacher wise but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Preacher searched to find the right words. What he wrote was upright and true. The words of the wise are like goads. They're collected sayings like firmly embedded nails given by one Shepherd" (Ecclesiastes 12:911).
This Preacher says that these words of his are like goads that will move us onto God. They are like tent pegs that will hold us fast in the storms of life. What is more, they were given by the Shepherd of heaven. If we can take the preacher's word at face value, he says that there is in this book a kind of truth that can hold us stable, a kind of truth that can move us onto God.
The question then is What is the message of the preacher in Ecclesiastes?
We can approach the reading of Ecclesiastes in the same way we might read any other book. When I read a book the first thing I do is to read the preface. We often find that a clear writer is more likely than an unclear one to tell you in the preface what he's going to tell you. Second thing I do with a book is often to look at the last chapter. A clear writer is often more likely than an unclear one to tell you in the conclusion what he's been telling you and apply it to life. And like you, whenever I read a book I look for its major emphasis and see what the author is trying to get across.
We can do that with the book of Ecclesiastes. The prelude of the book is found in chapter one verse two where the Preacher says, "'Meaningless, meaningless,' says the Preacher, 'utterly meaningless. Everything is meaningless.'" The King James Version picks up a more poetic way of saying it. "'Vanity of vanities,' says the Preacher. Vanity of Vanities, all is vanity.'"
When this man says vanity of vanities, he wants to put that into exclamation points and underline it and put it in italics.
A great many people have read those words of this preacher and have dismissed them as Christian thought. They're fond of saying that the book of Ecclesiastes is never referred to the New Testament. I'm not sure that's true. In Romans 8:20 Paul says, "The whole creation is subject to vanity." Not just talking about the hills and the rocks and the rivers and the trees. He's talking about all creation, which all of us are a part. There's at least one place in which this ancient preacher and the apostle Paul agree. Life is vain. Life is futile. Life is meaningless.
The conclusion of the book is found in 12:13. "Now all has been heard. Here's the conclusion of the matter. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil." That conclusion is utterly orthodox it really does not need any other biblical support. Think of a passage like 2 Corinthians 5:10 which says, "We shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. We shall all give an account of the things done in the body."
The preface of the book is Life is vain. Life is futile. Life is meaningless. The conclusion of the book is Fear God. Keep his commandments.
As you read through the book you discover there is a recurring theme. It comes again and again like the recurring notes in a symphony. It's a major emphasis in the book.
Beginning, for example, in 2:24, "A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too I see is from the hand of God."
Or 3:12, "I know that there's nothing better for men than to be happy and to do good while they live, that every one may eat and drink and find satisfaction in all his toil. This is the gift of God."
Or 3:22, "So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that's his lot. For who will bring him to see what will happen after him?"
Or 5:18, "Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life that God has given him. This is his lot."
In 8:15 he says, "So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun."
And finally 9:7, "Go, eat your food with gladness. Drink your wine with a joyful heart. For it's now that God favors what you do. Always be clothed in white. Always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun."
The premise of the book: Life is vain. Life is futile. Life is meaningless. The conclusion of the book: Fear God. Keep his commandments. In between like the recurring notes of a symphony: Eat, drink, and be merry.
How do you put it together? The preface of the book is also the premise of the book. When he says, "'Meaningless, meaningless,' says the Preacher, 'utterly meaningless. Everything is meaningless.'" You're saying life is vain, life is futile, life does not have meaning. But this is what's crucial to understand. When he says that life is vain, life is futile, life is meaningless, he does not mean it is not worth living. He means that try as we will, you and I can never figure it out. This preacher is looking for the key that will unlock the mystery of life. He discovers that God is the keeper of that key and he never gives it to men and women. Try as we will we will never figure it out.
He says that in a number of places. For example, in 3:11 he says, "God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men, yet they cannot fathom what God has done from the beginning to the end." The thing that separates men from animals is that we can take the long view of the past, the longer view of the future. It is part of being human that we want to see things whole and complete. Puts eternity in the heart of men, but even though that's there, we cannot see the end. We're like people incurably addicted to filling out crossword puzzles and we have a limited vocabulary. Try as we will we can't get all of the squares filled in.
He says the same thing in 7:14. "When times are good, be happy. When times are bad, consider. God has made the one as well as the other, but a man cannot discover anything about his future." Times are good, be happy. Unless you're a kind of sour soul, that seems like easy advice to follow. It's the way life ought to be. But when times are bad, that's when we ask the questions. When life tumbles in, it doesn't go the way it should, then we consider. That's perfectly understandable, but consider all you want, you aren't going to be able to anticipate the future. You're not going to be able to figure it out. Life is vain. Life is futile. Life is meaningless. Try as we will we can't put it together.
And then this preacher gives us all kinds of examples of this. Some are humorous; some are deadly serious. In 6:1 he gives us an illustration that applies to bad indigestion. He says, "I've seen another evil under the sun. It weighs heavily on men. God gives man wealth and possessions and honors so that he lacks nothing his heart desires. But God does not enable him to enjoy them. A stranger enjoys them instead."
Several years ago I was invited to attend a $250 plate dinner. I was in the office of the man putting on that dinner, and he received a phone call from a wealthy woman in the city. And I'm sure she was paying for her plate and several others beside, but she called him to ask if she could have a special menu. Couldn't handle the prime rib, rich dessert. That's the way it is in life, isn't it? When you're young and lean and hungry all you can afford is Hamburger Helper. And then when you get along in life and you can choose anything on the menu, your teeth won't chew it, your cholesterol won't allow it, your digestion can't handle it. Something about that that's futile, kind of meaningless.
Or in 9:11 he talks about the success formulas. He says, "The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned. Time and chance happen to them all."
I was having dinner in the city of Cincinnati a while ago. I was eating with a man who is an investment counselor. Close to dessert I thought I could get a little free advice. I said, "You've been at this job of investment for over twenty years. What have you learned?" I was surprised by his answer. He said, "I've learned that some of the stupidest people in this city are among the wealthiest, and some of the shrewdest have gone bankrupt." Not the way it should be, often the way it is.
But the thing that makes life most difficult, is the reality of death. This preacher talks about that in 2:14. "The wise man has eyes in his head, while a fool walks in darkness. But I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both, and I thought in my heart the fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise? And I said in my heart this too is meaningless."
Death keeps such sloppy appointment books. Here's a young man who graduates second in his class in a medical school down in San Antonio, Texas. His parents, his wife's parents come to celebrate, but the next day he has to go up to Rhode Island for a choice residency. And he leaves his wife and he drives up to New England, and as he's going through the state of Massachusetts he comes over a hill and there's a truck stalled sideways across the highway. He slams into it, and in an instant he's gone. All of his work, all of his study, it's gone. All of his aspirations for the future, gone. All the hopes that his parents had for him, gone. And over there, there in the nursing home is an old woman who is sitting in a rocking chair, looks out at the world through glassy eyes. Her children come to visit her. She doesn't even know who they are. Death seems to have lost her address.
This man says, "I hated all the things I toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool, yet he'll have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless" (2:1819).
Here's a man who gives himself to his business, up early in the morning, to bed late at night. If he were going to live forever, the whole thing would make sense, but he will not live forever. He'll die and leave it all to someone else, and he does not know whether they will be wise and shrewd or scoundrels, wastrels, fools.
Look, I don't care what you give your life to. I don't care how devout, how devoted you are, in a generation or two your will not even remember your name. If you've never felt that, either you've not lived long enough or you haven't thought deeply enough. But many young people have faced it, and many of them choose suicide. Not because they want to die, but because death renders life so futile and meaningless they decide to check out of it.
This preacher is looking for the key that will unlock that mystery, make sense of it all. And he says in chapter one that he's looked at a number of different places. He says in verse five he studied nature. "The sun rises, the sun sets and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north. Round and round it goes ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. And to the place the streams come from they return again." The cycle of nature is interesting to study. The rains fall from the heavens and they go into the rivulets and the rivulets into the streams and the streams into the rivers, the rivers into the ocean. Somehow they're caught up in the clouds to be dumped down again. Great cycle but there is no explanation of the mystery of life there.
Then he says he looked at science. In verse 10 he says, "Is there anything of which one can say, 'Look, this is something new'? Ah, it was already here long ago. It was here long before our time." Scientists make new discoveries but they don't discover anything that's new. Everything has been there since the creation of the world. He says in verse 11 he's looked at history. He says there's no remembrance of men of old. Even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow. History is like a great relay race. The first people who run the first lap run and hand the baton to someone else, and this group takes it and this group takes it and this group takes it, and by the time it gets over here, this group has no idea who began the race. Historians can tell you what happened. Scientists can tell you how it happened. But none of them can tell you why it happened.
This man continued to search, and he says that he turned to the philosophers, to the theologians, to the people who put out their shingle claiming to have the answers. "For with much wisdom there comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief" (1:18). The more you know the more you know you don't know. In verse 15 he says, "What is twisted cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted." Wise people know that the world is bankrupt. They don't have any coinage to get it out of debt.
Some day that will dawn on you, if it hasn't already. And what do you do when you face that futility in life? Do you live it up? Do you give up? This preacher says there's something better to do. That is, you can look up.
Believing that God is sovereign allows us to live with mystery
This preacher is not a cynic, not a skeptic. He's a realist, and he is also a person of faith. As you read through the book, his faith keeps bubbling through in many different places. There are several things he believes about God. One of the things he believes about God is that God is sovereign. Notice he says that in 3:11. "God has made everything beautiful in its time. God has also set eternity in the hearts of men. Yet they cannot fathom what God has done from the beginning to the end." This man believes God is sovereign.
Or 7:14: "When times are good, be happy. When times are bad, consider. God has made the one as well as the other. Man can't discover anything about his future." This man believes that God is sovereign. He doesn't know the plotline, but God does.
There are times in life when I have stood on my tiptoes and looked over the wall, and it seemed to me I saw the pattern forming. I thought it was full and complete. And then something happens and it all breaks apart. And I'm cast back on the sovereignty of God again. Romans 8:20 where Paul said, "The whole creation is subject to vanity." In verse 28 he says, "We know that God works all things together for good to them who love God, to them who are called according to his purpose." With Calvin we can say that God's eye is not only over history; God's hand is on history. God controls it; God's sovereign.
Trusting that God is good allows us to live with enjoyment
In the face of the meaninglessness, the futility, vanity of life, not only does this man believe that God is sovereign, he also believes that God is good. "I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and to do good while they live, that every one may eat and drink and find satisfaction in all his toil. This is the gift of God" (3:12). "Moreover, when God gives anyone wealth and possessions and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot, be happy in his work, this is a gift of God. Then he seldom reflects on the days of his life because God keeps he occupied with gladness of heart" (5:19). God is good.
Has life ever seemed futile to you? You complete the sermons for this Sunday, and Monday you start all over the sermon for the following Sunday. And after you have given it your best work you come away wondering if any of it really matters. If you're a homemaker you feel it. You get the house cleaned in the morning, and by the evening it's all messed up again. My wife Bonnie says, "You do the dishes, you make the beds, and two weeks later you got to do it all over again."
This man says if you've got work to do, don't despise it. If you have work to do to fill your days, you ought to get down by your bed in the morning and thank God for that. But there have been times in my life when I have been too busy and other times in my life when I have not been busy enough, and I'm here to testify that too busy is better. God's good and he gives you work to fill your days.
Do you ever find life perplexing? This man says don't let those clouds of questions so fill your sky that they blot out the good things that God is giving you day by day to make your life enjoyable. Enter into them; enjoy them. God gives you food for your table. As he does, don't gulp it down; enjoy it. If you have wine served to you and you enjoy the wine, enjoy it well. Enjoy the gifts of God. Enjoy sex with the spouse that God has given you. Enter into it. Live it to the hilt. In Old Testament theology it is not just a shame not to enjoy life; it's a sin not to enjoy it. If it comes to you from the hand of a good God, enter into it with thanksgiving and enjoy it. Seize the day. Live it to the hilt. Enjoy God's gifts.
Knowing that God is just allows us to live responsibly
Third thing this man believes about God, God is just and holy. That's what he says in the conclusion of his book. "Now all has been heard. Here's the conclusion of the matter. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of men and women. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil." Live life to the hilt. Live it with a great abandon. But live it responsibly, because you and I will give an account to God for the living of our days. We will give an account to God for the good we could have enjoyed and refused to enjoy. We will give an account to God for the good we could have done and refused to do. We stand at the judgment seat of Christ, judged for the good and evil in our lives. And because that is true, the abandon isn't complete. You live your life responsibly under God.
That is the message of the book of Ecclesiastes. Life is vain. Life is futile. Life is meaningless. And try as we will we can never figure it out. But we can live it in the presence of a sovereign, good, just God. You know that's true. God never promises us answers. He only gives us himself. God never says he's going to explain everything to us one day. It's in the folklore of our religion that we sing "One day he'll make it plain to me." As though when you get to heaven God's going to call you into the back room and say, "Look, I want to explain myself to you." God is God and he owes us no explanation. He simply gives us himself. And with us all good things in life.
Somebody asked the second Mrs. Einstein whether she understood Professor Einstein's theory of relativity. She said, "No, I don't understand the theory of relativity. But I understand Professor Einstein. That's all I need."
God does not give you answers. He does give you himself. And he has said in the complexities of life "I will never leave you. I will never forsake you." Therefore, we can say, "What can man do to me?" But in the light of the perplexities and meaninglessness and vanity of life, you can trust the sovereign, good, and righteous God. And in that faith you can trust what you cannot trace. You can step where you cannot see. And you will undergo what you may never understand.
Haddon Robinson is Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at GConwell Theological Seminary, senior editor of PreachingToday.com, radio teacher for the program Discover the Word, and author of Biblical Preaching (Baker, 2001, 2nd edition).
Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.