Yearning for Eden: Ecclesiastes Postscript

“Solomon gives over the book of Ecclesiastes to suggesting, … the emptiness of this life, the ultimate objective, to be sure, of making us yearn for another kind of life which is no unsubstantial shadow under the sun but substantial reality, under the sun’s Creator.” ~ Augustine “City of God”

Next week’s sermon will be quite different from most. With no specific text of Scripture to exposit, it will be our intention in the message to take one final flight over the book of Ecclesiastes, only now after having thoroughly explored its terrain. We began our study of the book last Spring, and over the course of 16 sermons we have dissected and analyzed the text in some detail. Now at the end of these studies, before departing, we will think back on the book as a whole, trying to incorporate what we have observed about the book and its author, along our journey.

Around the time we were beginning our exposition of the book of Ecclesiastes, brother Alan Kurschner published this statement in his blog: “The book of Revelation is certainly neglected in the church and when it is paid attention it is often misinterpreted. However, I would contend that the most neglected eschatological book in the Bible is found in the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes” (emphasis added). At the time, I found this a curious statement, particularly since we would normally classify Ecclesiastes as “wisdom literature.” When we think of books dealing with end-time matters, of course Revelation comes to mind, perhaps 2 Thessalonians, Matthew chapter 24, Luke 17; in the Old Testament we think of the prophets, in particular, Zechariah, perhaps Ezekiel or Joel; but few think of Ecclesiastes as a book of eschatology. Yet this statement stuck with me as I preached through the book, and I believe I know why one might consider Ecclesiastes eschatological in nature.

In a nutshell, the book of Ecclesiastes, is a report of the life experience of an old man, Qoheleth, “the Preacher,” who we believe is Solomon, David’s son and King of Israel. Many neglect or ignore the book because of its “cynical” and “hopeless” tone. Some believe that Solomon’s words are tainted as a result of a life steeped in sin and idolatry. Many, after reading the book, are discouraged or left with a sense of despair. Qoheleth’s words have been considered “negative;” and in a world where we are told that only “positive affirmations” are acceptable, the words of Ecclesiastes seem only to cause damage to one’s self-esteem. But as has been repeated on several occasions in this series, Qoheleth is not a pessimist as much as he is a realist. He has taken off the rose-colored glasses in order to give us an honest evaluation of a fallen world; but he does so with his fixed intently on a perfect Eden. With this view then, Qoheleth knows that the vanity of this world is not the way it was supposed to be; it was not the way that God created it to be. The Preacher’s realistic assessment of life under the sun is an expression of anyone who might look at life on earth with an honest eye. Qoheleth’s groans over the meaningless toil of work, injustice in life, and certainty of death are those of one who is yearning for a return to Eden or longing for the coming of a New Jerusalem. We who are in Christ share Qoheleth’s heart’s desire. Like him, we are seeking to make the most of life in a temporary fallen world that is not our home. Like him, we, along with all creation, groan, awaiting the final redemption and return of Christ. Like him, we yearn for a return to the way it’s supposed to be – a day when there will be no more curse and no more sin or temptation; like him, we yearn for a return to Eden.

The End of the Matter – Ecclesiastes 12:8-14

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity … The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. (Eccl. 12:8, 13)

Ecclesiastes chapter 12 verse 8 contains the old Preacher Qoheleth’s final words which are exactly the same as his first: “Vanity of vanities … all is vanity.” (see 1:2, 12:8).

The Hebrew word for vanity, hebel, refers to a “mist,” “vapor,” or “breath;” metaphorically it refers to something that is fleeting or elusive (with different nuances depending on the context). It is the Preacher’s repeated metaphor to express the futility of life under the sun, in a fallen world. Throughout his treatise, he has told us of the vanities of: work (1:3, 2:11,18-23), human wisdom (2:15-16), worldly pleasure (2:10-11), power (2:9,4:1), money (5:10-14), growing old, death, the grave, and our final return to dust (12:1-7, 3:20). His goal is to show the meaningless of a life lived apart from God. In the words of Derek Kidner, “nothing in our search has led us home; nothing that we are offered under the sun is ours to keep.”

Certainly apart from God, all is indeed vanity in this life. If there is no God and no final judgment, then in the end, nothing matters because it will all disappear like a vapor. But as important as the word vanity is to the book of Ecclesiastes, it is not the final word, either of this book or of the Christian life. There is an epilogue to Ecclesiastes beginning in verse 9 of chapter 12, which was likely written by a different author. The book’s final words provide an ethical as well as escatological conclusion. The words leave us with our responsibility for this life and the expectation of a coming judgment day, after this life. According to Philip Ryken, “when the Bible says that ‘this is the whole duty of man, ‘ it literally says that ‘this is the whole of man.’ … Ecclesiastes is making a wider point … ‘this is the whole of man’ is to say, ‘this is all there is to man.’ In other words, ‘this is what life is all about.’ … This is more than simply a man’s duty.” According to Charles Bridges, it is “his whole happiness and business – the total sum of all that concerns him – all that God requires of him – all that the Savior enjoins – all that the Holy Spirit teaches and works in him.”

Because there is a God and a final judgment, then everything we do in this life is not vain, but important. God will expose every secret sin (12:14, Num 32:23); He will bring every deed done in darkness into the light (1 Cor 4:5); God will require us to give an account of our time, our effort, and our resources; in fact, we will be required to give an account for every idle word (Mt 12:36). There is nothing that will pass away like a vapor. This is where Ecclesiastes leaves us – not with a promise of grace, but the terrifying expectation of judgment (see Heb 10:26-27). That’s the end of the matter for humanity – as Hebrews 9:27 says, it is appointed to men once to die, and then comes the judgment. We are all sinners and the wages of sin is death. (Rom 6:23).

Ecclesiastes ends here; however, with the full light of the New Testament shining on it, the book does have a gracious purpose in pointing us to the gospel. While the Old Testament leaves us with a curse in light of the law and its ensuing judgment, the New Testament reveals to us the purpose of law and judgment is ultimately to lead us to Christ who can alone save us from the wrath of God. Because the Son of God took on human flesh and dwelled in this vain world, living the perfect life that was man’s failed duty, and taking upon Himself the judgment that our failure incurred, today we can be assured that His victory will save us from the vanity of death and the grave. And for the Christian, that is the end of the matter.

The Golden Years – Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:8

Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”

What are our “golden years?” The term came into use in the mid-1950s to describe those years after the age of 65. The idea of classifying these years as “golden,” came about from observing human beings as we move out of the gloom often associated with mid-life, when one’s mortality is realized, and move into our final years of happiness and rest in retirement from work. But are these years truly “golden?” Or is it more accurate and honest to define the “golden years,” as one website does: The term used by old folks who are too attached to their youth to admit that they are in fact … old.” Perhaps the more modern urban dictionary is correct in describing the “golden years,” as being those years after age 21. There is no question that the old Preacher Qoheleth would define one’s “golden years” as beginning in their youth.

The book of Ecclesiastes is one old man’s effort to teach young people about life, from a look back at the lessons he learned often from his own mistakes. As he draws his treatise to a close, old Qoheleth contrasts the light, vigor, pleasure and hope of youth with the darkness, weakness, pain, and sorrow of age. He uses this stark contrast in order to motivate his young audience to enjoy life by rejoicing in their Creator, before life’s misery gets a hold of them. He exhorts them to commence early in their worship of God, so that they might develop a habit of finding their joy in Him; because, once we enter into the winter of life, and the days of darkness are upon us, we cannot rejoice in retrospect. The time to rejoice is now or never!

But, as it has been said, “youth is wasted on the young.” The reality of the human experience is that we usually do not learn to rejoice until it is too late. We take life for granted; we fail to enjoy the present, especially in our younger days. We would just as soon skip over certain days, just to get past them; we look forward to the weekend or vacations or retirement. For many of us, our lives were far spent, before we learned what it means to rejoice in God. Others, who have had the benefit of understanding this truth at a younger age, choose instead to rejoice in sin and worldly pleasures, rather than in our Creator, God. It becomes difficult to reverse a life-long pattern of enjoying sin or living in anxiety or fear. The longer we put off acting on this admonition to enjoy our life in God, the harder it is to actually do it. And once the days of the darkness and declining health of old age are upon us, with the pattern of our lives already set, it is difficult to learn to rejoice in God, so we end up being deprived of the abundant life that Christ came to give us.

So what then? Are we to think that if we are in our 40s or 50s or 60s or 70s that it is too late for us to find our joy in Christ? Not at all! For while we still have some strength in our creaky bones, breathe in laboring lungs, and beats in our fading heart, there is yet a hope for repentance. Verse 6 exhorts all of us of all ages, to remember your Creator, before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.” Human life is like a vapor, it is fleeting, so don’t waste any time – rejoice in the Lord today, and every day. Remember your Creator and all that He has given you to rejoice in. The younger you are when you start, the longer will your years be truly “golden.”

Living with Mystery – Ecclesiastes 11:1-8

He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap. Eccl 11:4

As human beings, one of our favorite pass-times is thinking about things in our lives for which there are no answers on this side of eternity. Consider how much of your time is consumed wondering, “what if?” or “what might have been?” or “if only I had ______?” Whether in a season of want or plenty, we are all tempted to imagine, speculate, worry about, and mull over things in our life that we can never know entirely. As sportscasters who forecast the results of a game have no idea who ultimately will win until the game is played, so in life, we cannot know the outcome of a matter until we live it out. Even the wisest prognosticator cannot accurately project the outcome of life’s mysteries. At times such speculation and worry may even paralyze us from living our lives in the present. We see wind storms on the horizon which cause us to wring our hands in terror, as we worry about what the future might hold. But instead of worrying, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, instructs us that we ought to live our lives, not thinking about a forecast that we cannot know, but rather remaining steadfast in what we do know – namely our God-given calling and the joys of our present lot in life.

In Ecclesiastes chapter 11, Qoheleth uses the analogy of a farmer to illustrate the regular way that we are to live our lives in the midst of uncertainty and mystery. He instructs a balance between taking risks and living wisely. Storms come; winds blow; trees fall; things happen in life over which we have little or no control. It may at times seem as though we are subject to the forces of a blind fate; but this does not mean we should throw up our hand in fatalistic surrender. Instead of permitting fear of unknown to paralyze our minds with the prospect of future doom and failure, we ought to give our best effort into the lot that God has given us today. Because, while we may not know how things will turn out, God does; and He does not subject His children to be victims of blind fate. We may not know the plan of God, true, but we do know He is in control of everything; and He is working it together for our good (Romans 8:28). So precisely for the very reason that you do not know which of your efforts will prosper and which will not, you should take every opportunity to work the works of God boldly, while applying wisdom; and trust the results in the hands of an almighty God who will take care of you.

Read Matthew 25:14-30 where Jesus tells the parable of the talents. As you read it, take note how the one who puts what he has been given to best use, is the one who receives more; while the one who fails to use what little he has, finds even that taken from him. Is this fair? How can knowing this motivate your service for the kingdom?

Living Wisely – Ecclesiastes 9:13-10:20

Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor. Eccl 10:1

We have all made foolish mistakes in life; some have been more costly than others. Recently our state’s governor, Chris Christie was involved in the rather foolish scandal involving a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge, in an alleged political pay-back to the mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing his candidacy. Whether Christie himself was involved cannot be proven, but oddly enough the scandal could very well have cost him the presidency of the United States. In this section of the book of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth displays the great cost of a little folly while teaching us the value of a course of wisdom as we live life under the sun.

Much like Solomon’s words in the book of Proverbs, the thoughts in this section of Ecclesiastes are somewhat scattered and diverse; however, we do find a repetition of the topics of: rulers, speech, wisdom and folly. When we find repeated subjects such as these, it helps us to determine the overall theme of a passage. While indeed, this passage takes on a more “proverbs-like” feel in the diversity of its verses, I believe the verses are united by the theme of wisdom.

The entire book of Ecclesiastes is Solomon’s application of wisdom to search out the meaning of life under the sun (1:13). Of all men who ever lived, Solomon was given wisdom which surpassed all who were over Jerusalem before him (1:16, 2:9); yet even the application of such great wisdom left the Preacher without answers concerning the things of God; as he explains in Ecclesiastes 8:16-17: When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, … then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out.

Although the wisest of men may never fully understand the ways of God, nevertheless, wisdom is important to living life under the sun; and this text, as so many in Ecclesiastes, continues to deal mainly with just that, our earthly existence. It is significant that in these 26 verses, God is not mentioned once. But there is human value to using wisdom navigate our way through life in this dangerous world.

Read the text beginning in Ecclesiastes 9:13 through the end of chapter 10. Take note of each reference to wisdom and the earthly benefits associated with its application. Pray that God would make you wise, for it is an essential quality to life under the sun.

Your Best Life Now? – Ecclesiastes 9:1-12

Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. Eccl 9:7

Death is the great equalizer. It is the same for all, the good and the sinner both die. It happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice (9:2). The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing (9:5). In light of the reality of the inevitability and finality of death, with rather unusual urgency, Qoheleht, ‘the Preacher’ of Ecclesiastes, exhorts his audience to live life to the fullest (see 9:7-10). He has recommended enjoyment before (2:24-26, 3:12-13, 22, 5:18-20, 8:15) and will do so again (11:7-9), but never quite like he does here in this passage, using imperatives and in such vehement terms.

We must realize that it has always been God’s plan for His people to enjoy life. In the beginning, God created all things and gave them to mankind to enjoy. Eating, drinking, marriage and worshipful service were among the gifts given to humanity; but sin ruined all of this. After the fall, men could only eat and drink “by sweat,” strife and dominance plagued marriage, and “toil” ending in death replaced a joyful life of worship. By grace God brought His chosen people into a land where they could enjoy some of the blessings of paradise restored – pleasant food and drink, joy in marriage and family, and satisfaction in work. However, because of Israel’s sin, they were driven into exile where they yearned for many of the surrendered joys they had while they were in the land. By grace, a remnant returned, and God promised that He would “create new heavens and a new earth, wherein His people would be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. … no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit … and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands (Is 65:17-21).

In chapter 9 of Ecclesiastes Qoheleth is merely exhorting us to live in a manner in which God had always intended us to live. Yes, death is inevitable; yes, relationships are beleaguered with difficulties; yes, food and drink are abused; and yes, work is difficult in this life. As slaves had to stand at the table to serve and could not enjoy fellowship with those at the banquet, humanity is born into a life of sickness, hostility, and hard labor; but in Christ, we are redeemed; we are no longer slaves to the elementary laws of this life. As a ransomed people, set free, we are not only invited to the King’s banquet, but can recline at the table, enjoy the food, drink, and the company. Such is your birthright as sons of the King. You are, in a sense, called to enjoy your best life now.

So is Joel Osteen correct? Is this life our best life? Of course not! As John Macarthur observed, the only people who are living their best life now, are those who will spend eternity in hell. If you are a Christian your best life is not now, it is most assuredly later when you see Christ face to face in your renewed body; but does that mean that you cannot enjoy your best life, now? Qoheleth would exhort even command us to!

And Justice for All – Ecclesiastes 8:1-17

Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. Ecclesiastes 8:12

One of the recurring themes of the book of Ecclesiastes is Qoheleth’s (the author’s) search for righteousness and justice on earth. The book can be said to be his treatise on the subject, as Qohelth has set out to apply his God-given wisdom to discover meaning in life under the sun. What he finds more often than not, is that the wicked prosper while the righteous are afflicted. Often this injustice is dealt by the hand of one in a position of authority. Recall that since the beginning of chapter 7, Qohelelth has been giving instruction on how to live well and good in a wicked world. In verses 2-5 of chapter 8, he recommends how to live peacefully under a powerful unpredictable king. His advice is to use wisdom when dealing with authorities in this wicked world – to act pleasantly yet confidently before them. He commends that authorities be treated with respect and that they be obeyed. A wise person will know the proper time and place to speak up and when to keep silent before earthly rulers.

Qoheleth’s thoughts about authority on earth, naturally flow into thought’s concerning God’s authority. As he looks around at the reality of injustice, he teeters on the brink of accusing God of injustice, as he cannot resolve the paradox of evil and suffering at the hands of authority, without invoking the ultimate authority, God Himself. Qoheleth wonders: why does the Divine King permit so much injustice on earth? This problem cannot be resolved in the Old Testament alone, where death is the end for all men, and the grave his final resting place. But as redemptive history moves forward, and we read Ecclesiastes in light of the Gospel – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – we realize that there is coming a Judgment day when perfect justice will be meted out. As Jesus taught in John 5:28-29: “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.”

Qoheleth’s application of wisdom is limited to observing the things of this world. So faced with the reality of injustice, the Preacher resorts to the only advice that seems to make sense on earth – He commends, “joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun” (8:15). Of course, this offers no answer at all to the questions of injustice and suffering; however, embracing joy in life does free us to live and let God be God, His judgments unsearchable, and his ways, inscrutable and higher than ours.

At the end of the day, Qoheleth’s experience, observations, and instruction teach us that we should exercise wisdom in order to survive in this unjust, wicked world; however that wisdom does not enable us to know the reason for everything that happens. Much less does it teach us about the fathomless love and indescribable mercy of our awesome God.