This Week’s Readings
Monday, June 18: Ecclesiastes 1-4
Tuesday, June 19: Ecclesiastes 5-8
Wednesday, June 20: Ecclesiastes 9-12
Thursday, June 21: Song of Solomon 1-4
Friday, June 22: Song of Solomon 5-8
Next week we will read the Gospel of John.
The overall year’s plan is here.
Ecclesiastes in General
As I’ve been saying, all of this is written from a temporary (earthly) perspective. This is Solomon looking at life without any eternal or divine perspective. He finds life pretty depressing.
Matthew Henry (a very popular commentator) describes Ecclesiastes in this way:
We here behold Solomon returning from the broken and empty cisterns of the world, to the Fountain of living water; recording his own folly and shame, the bitterness of his disappointment, and the lessons he had learned. … If this world, in its present state, were all, it would not be worth living for; and the wealth and pleasure of this world, if we had ever so much, are not enough to make us happy. (ref)
In his introduction to Ecclesiastes he writes:
At the close of [Solomon’s] life, being made sensible of his sin and folly, he recorded here his experience for the benefit of others, as the book of his repentance; and he pronounced all earthly good to be “vanity and vexation of spirit.” It convinces us of the vanity of the world, and that it cannot make us happy; of the vileness of sin, and its certain tendency to make us miserable. It shows that no created good can satisfy the soul, and that happiness is to be found in God alone; and this doctrine must, under the blessed Spirit’s teaching, lead the heart to Christ Jesus. (ref)
I don’t know if he’s right that this is a book of repentance, but he is certainly right that this is a look at life from a non-eternal perspective. Contrast what we have been reading and are reading today with the hopeful, joyful message in the apostles writings.
A blogger named Keith Mathison recommends some simple commentaries on Ecclesiastes. For further study, I would turn you to his recommendations, and I’m going to pick up one myself. I wish I had thought of getting one of those before getting to this section of Scripture, because as he says, "Ecclesiastes [is] one of the more difficult books of Scripture to interpret and apply."
Yeah, that’s what I’m finding, too.
By the way, Mathison’s statement that the author of his first recommended commentary is an expert on Old Testament Wisdom literature matters to me. There’s a lot of it. Ecclesiastes and Proverbs are real early ones, but the early Christians were familiar with several others written later. The Wisdom of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) and the Wisdom of Solomon (or just Wisdom) were quoted heavily by the early Christians. They’re in Roman Catholic Bibles.
In fact, the Wisdom of Solomon contains a prophecy of Christ so clear that I’m surprised any secular scholars are willing to admit it was written before Jesus was born, but it’s generally accepted to have been written in the first or second century BC. Here’s a portion of the passage I’m referring to:
He professes to have the knowledge of God and calls himself the child of the Lord. … He is grievous for us even to behold, for his life is not like other men’s. … He … makes his boast that God is his Father. Let’s see if his words are true … for if the righteous man is the Son of God, he will help him … Let us examine him with spite and torture so that we may know his humility and prove his patience. Let us condemn him with a shameful death. (Wisdom ch. 2, KJV)
Okay, back to our text. We wandered pretty far afield there.
There is a flash of something positive in the last half of this chapter. He commends a couple things and even admits that wisdom is good, though he has usually called it vanity through most of the book.
Solomon, unfortunately, becomes an excellent example of the fact that earthly wisdom is useless. Heavenly wisdom, the one that calls out on the street corner trying to deliver fools from their folly, which we read about in the first few chapters of Proverbs, provides life, righteousness, joy, and a prosperous life. She delivers from death. That Wisdom is a heavenly being, the Son of God, and his rewards are eternal.
Earthly wisdom can’t see through the veil. It sees only this realm, not the heavenly one, and it can produce the gloom that we see in the first few verses of chapter 9 and throughout most of this book.
James, the earthly brother of that heavenly being who is Wisdom, wrote:
If you have bitter envy and strife in your hearts, do not boast, and do not lie against the truth. This wisdom does not descend from above, but it is earthly, sensual, and demonic. … The wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceful, gentle, easy to be intreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without pretense. (Jam. 3:14-17)
There’s some interesting advice from a ruler about rulers in verse 4. If a ruler gets angry with you, don’t abandon your position, he says. He says that "composure allays great offenses" (NASB).
Every parent feels Solomon’s words in verses 8 and 9.
He who digs a pit may fall into it, and a serpent may bite him who breaks through a wall. He who quarries stones may be hurt by them, and he who splits logs may be endangered by them. (NASB)
We parents have to have a heavenly perspective. We have to have some trust that our children are in the hand of God, or we aren’t going to let them experience any risk, and we are going to rob them of a real life. I often have to remind myself of all the stupid things I did as a child and teenager (we won’t talk about the stupid things I do now) through which God kept me safe. Sometimes the reminder works, and other times I’m on my knees praying, "God, please don’t let me be a fool for letting those kids go down that river and jump off those rocks. Please keep them safe."
I know this next comment is another about the whole of Ecclesiastes and not just this chapter, but here it is anyway. Solomon is writing from an earthly perspective, so he complains that the righteous and unrighteous all die alike. From a heavenly perspective, the prophet Isaiah writes:
The righteous die, and no one takes it to heart. Merciful people are taken away, none considering that the righteous are taken away from evil. They shall enter into peace; they shall rest in their beds; each one walking in his uprightness. (57:1-2)
Solomon tells us in this chapter that the fool multiplies words. Proverbs tells us that in the multitude of words, sin is not lacking. James calls us to be "swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger" (1:19). Let us measure our words, for we will be judged by our idle ones (Matt. 12:36).
Finally (for this chapter), verse 20 is the source of that odd response we give to questions about how we knew something: "A little bird told me."
Verse 1, telling us to cast our bread on the waters, has always been taking as a picture of giving. Give and it will be given back to you (Luk. 6:36). Cast your bread on the waters, and it will return to you after many days. That definitely is not true as a literal statement, but it is an excellent picture of giving and trusting God to provide a return.
The one that gives to the poor lends to the Lord, Proverbs tells us (Prov. 28:27).
Verses 4-6 give some excellent advice about diligence. I’m in the process of trying to start a couple small businesses, with a lot of help from others, and I really feel those words. You have to press past some "what ifs," and you have to knock on doors that you’re almost certain will be closed to you.
If it takes that for an earthly business, yet we give that effort for the sake of an income, how much more do you think God will require of us the same effort to reap eternal rewards?
Besides this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge … for if these things are in you and are increasing, they will cause you to be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. … Be diligent to make your calling and election sure, for if you do these things, you will never stumble. (2 Pet. 1:5-10)
Verses 8-10 are excellent advice, and Solomon even brings the judgment of God into these verses. We should rejoice in all our years. Young men should take advantage of their strength and rejoice in their youth as long as they are remembering the judgment and commands of God. (Solomon will drive that point home in the last two verses of the next chapter.)
I had a year spent mostly in the hospital or visiting it almost daily. That year just ended in May. I’m 50, so I had already lost some of the speed and stamina of my youth, despite being an avid exerciser. This last year stripped most of the rest of that strength and stamina (though I’m slowly getting it back). Yet it’s a year I rejoiced through, felt close to God in, and look back on with gratefulness.
We should rejoice in all the years of our life, even the ones spent in adversity. Let us learn now, before adversity, to place our trust in God, to know him, and to find our rest in him, so that we are ready when we no longer have our own strength.
Solomon acknowledges here that the spirit (or breath) returns to God who gave it (v. 7). He calls it all vanity anyway because he is still suggesting that those in the grave are unfeeling and unknowing.
There’s truth in this. We are all used to the idea that every soul, righteous or unrighteous, is immortal, an idea that I believe came from Plato, not the prophets or apostles of God. Immortality is the promise of the Gospel, not of being born on earth. Paul writes:
[God] will repay everyone according to their deeds. To those who seek glory, honor, and immortality by patiently continuing to do good, [he will repay] eternal life. But to them … that do not obey the truth but obey unrighteousness, [he will repay] indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish. (Rom. 2:5-7)
Later he tells us that if we live according to the flesh, we will "die." We will live only if we put to death the deeds of the body by the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:12-13).
Sorry for addressing such an entrenched way of looking at things in passing at the end of a commentary on Ecclesiastes. It is worth looking through the apostles writings, though, at what they and Jesus had to say about the unrighteous perishing. Even John 3:16 tells us that those who believe will have eternal life, so that they will not perish.
Romans 2 talks about "seeking" immortality. It is not simply the natural state of the soul.
Ecclesiastes 12:10 (back to Ecclesiastes) tells us that the Preacher sought out "delightful" words (NASB). The KJV has "acceptable" words, but when I looked up the Hebrew word, it appears the NASB is undoubtedly accurate.
These were delightful words? I’m not sure I agree with that. A lot of them were dark and depressing.
On the other hand, if we look at them as words to learn by, a wisdom from below that we should supplant with Wisdom from above (which God gives freely to all who ask – Jam. 1:5), then they can be delightful, even if they depress us a bit along the way.
Verse 11 is so well said that I’m going to repeat it here:
The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd. (NASB)
Personally, when my words are like goads, I get nervous. If someone gets angry at me, I start to doubt what I said to them. A wise man’s words are like goads (prods used to direct cattle), so he should expect that he is going to occasionally (or often) make others angry.
I remember reading once that Charles Finney, a 19th century evangelist preaching mostly in New York state, was preaching to a congregation that was steadily growing restless and obviously angry with what he was saying. Unbeknownst to him, his chosen text for his sermon, concerning Lot and Sodom, had been applied to their town before, and they didn’t appreciate his poking an old wound. Undeterred, Finney reported that as he saw their restless state, "I thrust at them with the sword of the Spirit."
I have a great appreciation for such boldness. May God grant me grace to imitate it.
Verses 13-14 are Solomon’s conclusion, even from a standpoint of earthly wisdom:
Fear God and keep his commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil. (NASB)