Father in heaven, our prayer is that You would give all glory to Christ and do so now through the preaching, the reading, and the hearing of Your Word that we may gain a heart of wisdom, to live our lives aright, to live in the fear and the knowledge of You. In Your name we pray. Amen.
I want to start this sermon with some classic poetry, on par with Milton, Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, or at least close.
“Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? Caught in a landslide, no escape from reality. Open your eyes, look to the skies and see. I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy, because I’m easy come, easy go, a little high, a little low, any way the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me.”
You recognize that. I asked if Nathan and his family might want to do a version of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” We thought better of it.
Here’s how that famous song from the rock band Queen ends, or at least moving into and out of this refrain: “Nothing really matters, anyone can see, nothing really matters, nothing really matters to me, any way the wind blows,” cue the chimes.
That pretty much sums up what this book of Ecclesiastes seems to be about. Nothing really matters, nothing really matters, any way the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me. This book is famous, or infamous, for the constant refrain translated in the ESV as vanity. You can see in the ESV there’s a nice footnote there about this Hebrew word hevel or hebel, translated vanity. The NIV uses the word meaningless. The word can be translated a vapor. Metaphorically, it signifies something that is fleeting, like a breath, like on a cold, humid morning when you exhale and you see the mist of your breath and it’s there just temporary.
The word means something that is empty, that is worthless, pointless, something that is pursued or achieved in vain. And it’s used some 35 times in this short book of just over 200 verses. In one sense, that’s what this book is all about. Repeated over and over again, hevel, vanity. Work, wisdom, pleasure, right living, riches, honor… All of it, the Preacher concludes, is a mere vapor, a mist, a chasing after the wind.
You can run on one these windy days and chase after the wind and you never catch it. This has led some Christians to stay away from Ecclesiastes, others to question whether it really belongs in the canon. Is this really a book of gospel hope? He seems to be a hopeless, worldly weary cynic. Something like you might find in a Woody Allen film rather than in Holy Scripture.
Ecclesiastes has this sort of attitude that men in my family for most of my life has had when we watched the Chicago Bears play. This is pointless. We did have something to play for last week and we had the worst record and we got the number one draft pick, so at least we had meaningful games at the end of the season. Feel like whatever you may have a sports team like that.
This book sounds like it comes from someone who is thoroughly despondent, if not seriously depressed. Life is unfair. My life is pointless. Nothing matters. It’s all vapor.
But if that’s how we read the book, we don’t understand what Ecclesiastes is trying to communicate. You can see, and I hope your Bibles are open there, it’s almost right in the middle of the Scriptures, after Psalms and Proverbs is this book Ecclesiastes. You can see it begins the words of the Preacher, and again in the ESV it has a nice footnote, or convener, or collector. The Hebrew is Qoheleth, or Qohelet. It could be translated convener, collector. Here it’s translated Preacher, which is also a good translation. It means from the Hebrew word quhel, to gather, to assemble, a teacher, a Preacher.
Some can argue, and a good case can be made, that Qoheleth is Solomon, references him as a son of David, as a king in Jerusalem. Of course, we know that Solomon was given many wisdom and he wrote many proverbs. There’s reference to concubines.
Other scholars, including many conservative scholars, question whether Solomon is the Preacher. The word “son,” son of David, can mean simply a descendant. Qoheleth looks back at the time when he was king, but Solomon wasn’t king until later in life. He talks about surpassing all the kings before him, but if you know your history, there was only king before him, his father David. And the situation he describes with oppression, wickedness, hardship, does not seem like the golden age of Solomon, so some have concluded this is really someone who is putting on the persona of the wise King Solomon but he wasn’t meant to communicate that he was actually King Solomon.
However you come to determine who Qoheleth is, it doesn’t fundamentally change the interpretation. I’ll just refer to him as “the Preacher.”
If you see, most of this book is given in the first person, the Preacher exploring what life is all about. But there’s actually a narrator at the beginning and the end of the book.
Look at verse 1: “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem, vanity of vanities, says the Preacher.”
The first 11 verses from a prologue where this narrator is describing the view, the worldview of this Preacher, Qoheleth. Then you look at verse 12, he begins to speak in the first person, “I, the Preacher.” Most of the book is the Preacher speaking, detailing all of the various options he’s looked at for the meaning of life.
Turn to the very end and you see the narrator shows up at the end of the book. So verse 2 of chapter 1, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, all is vanity.” That’s the summary message. The narrator says this is what Qoheleth, this is what the Preacher has determined, and then chapter 12, verse 8 he repeats it again: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, all is vanity. Then besides being wise, the Preacher also taught many people.”
The last verses there kind of epilogue, a prologue and an epilogue where the narrator comes again and says, “Now we’ve heard from the Preacher, and now we want to summarize.” So there’s a narrator at the beginning and at the very end, and most of the book is this Preacher who’s describing what he’s looking for and what he’s not finding.
We’ll see at the very end that Qoheleth is wise insofar as he rightly deduces that under the sun, that is on earth, all of our attempts at finding meaning and purpose are vanity.
But because he does travel far and wide, looking under every rock and sometimes finding very little, we have to be careful that we don’t just pull any verse from the book and say, “Ah, that’s exactly what God’s will is for my life.” You have to take it in its totality. A narrator, a narrator, in the middle the Preacher is looking, and just like you might have a movie or a work of narrative fiction, that in the middle many of the characters say and do things that are not commendable yet the totality of it is trying to communicate what is true.
That’s what Qoheleth is like. He’s brilliant at seeing the futility of earthly pursuits, at noticing the dark side of life. His reflections are instructive, sometimes profound, but all of his ruminations must be read with the end in mind. Otherwise, you’re likely to misread what this book is all about. At one point he says that wine is a great answer and money is the answer for everything. Well, if you take that as your life verse, that money is the answer for everything, that’s probably not the main takeaway.
So you have to read him with the end in mind.
Look at the prologue. It’s very obvious what the Preacher has determined about life under the sun.
“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.”
You can see his weariness. Nothing really changes, he says. He gives three examples: Verse 5, the sun; verse 6, the wind; verse 7, water. In each of these he says it just keeps happening. There’s no completion. The ocean never gets full, there’s no lasting effect.
Verse 8 nothing ever satisfies. All things are weariness. Continues on and on. It’s the same old, same old, verses 9 and 10. History is going nowhere. There’s no new thought, no new idea. Philosophies get revamped, ideas get recycled, fads come and go again. But it’s all the same thing. Somebody’s already thought of it.
I remember when I was in junior high, and this is junior high school in, well, the late 80s, the thing that every student body president, a promise that they always made, is we are going to get a pop machine in here. Yes, we’re from the North and it was called “pop” up there. A Coke machine, you might call it. It was always the grand design, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, to have our own pop machine. I think it was just something that people had to campaign on and no, we never had one and the administrators said we didn’t have money for it.
I remember lying awake at night trying to think of some scheme in which we could raise money as a school and it finally came to me, as if no one had ever thought of this, we would every week, we would sell tickets for a $1 apiece and then we would draw and the winner would get half of the money and then the other half would go to the school and we could buy a pop machine and we could have our very own can of Fresca there in the school. I presented it as some of the leaders at the school and they said yes, we’ve heard of that. It’s called a raffle, they said in a nice way, and actually it sounds to us like gambling. And they frowned upon my great plan to have Fresca flow like milk and honey throughout the school. I was rather crestfallen. I thought I had come up with this grand new plan and somebody had already thought of it.
Qoheleth says all that you do, verse 11, it’ll be forgotten. What do you remember about the past year? You’re largely ignorant, even if you’re a history major, even if you read books. You don’t know what happened in the past, and you know what? What you’re doing now, it will be forgotten.
A lot of people feel this way in the world. Maybe you feel that as a young person, got some young people here, kind of youthful cynicism. You say I’m too cool for all of this. None of this matters to me and you are going to wear all black and you’re going to have your indie music and you’re going to read some Nietzsche. Or maybe it’s because you’ve experienced real tragedy on a personal level, or you just see tragedy on a global scale, or maybe it’s because you’ve had success. The only thing worse than having none of your dreams come true is to have all of your dreams come true and realize you’re still unhappy.
Almost all of us live long enough, you have times in your life you feel like this preacher. With spend years working, career, family, pleasure, social action, intellect, music, athletics, wealth, prestige, looks, fame, power, and we wake up one morning or stay up at night, struggling to sleep, and we conclude this is a chasing after the wind.
Qoheleth had everything. He’s a king. He had great wealth and wisdom. He looked everywhere but all he found was vanity, futility, pointlessness, emptiness, a striving after the wind.
What I want you to notice is he looks in six places. We don’t have time to do a deep dive on all of these and we won’t read all of these sections, but there are six places that he looks for purpose in life, and this book is so relevant because these are the same six places, and you can multiply them, you could list more, but these are the same things that people look to today, maybe this is the answer, maybe this is what life is about.
Here they are: Wisdom, pleasure, right living, work, wealth, and honor.
I know that for each of you at least one of those is a temptation. It’s not that they’re all wrong. In fact, in their place, part of what Qoheleth finds is that they all can be good and they all have their place. But as the central aim, as the meaning of life, they will all prove to be dead-ends.
Look first then at the next section. You can see the heading in the ESV, “The Vanity of Wisdom.”
“I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under the sun. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.
What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.
I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after the wind.
For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
You can see what Qoheleth is doing. He says I was going to figure out the way the world works. I was going to come up with a grand theory of everything. I was going to put all the pieces together with my smarts, my intellect, I was finally going to make sense of the world, he says in verse 13. But you know what I discovered? Life is poor, nasty, brutish, and short, to channel a little Thomas Hobbes. It’s an unhappy business that we have down here on earth.
Verse 14, it’s pointless, meaningless, vain, empty, you can’t catch it. With all my wisdom I could not find the point in life.
Verse 15, he says nothing ever gets better. He says it’s like counting what cannot be counted. It’s not there. It’s meaningless. There’s no point.
Somebody says, “Kevin, count all the apples in your hand.” Well, I’m not holding any apples in my hand. What am I supposed to do? That’s pointless.
Verses 16 and 17, he says I was very smart but what did it get me? I had great experience, I had wisdom and knowledge, and you know what it did in the end? Verse 18, it led to much vexation. I wasn’t sure what the point was.
You work hard to get A’s, you get good test scores so you can get into a good school, so you can work hard and get into a good grad school so you can get into a good Ph.D. program so you can get a tenure track position so you can teach at a university so you can grade papers and serve on administration and go to meetings. That’s the sort of perspective he has.
Obviously, this isn’t the end of it, and this is wisdom literature, and he talks at other places about the value of wisdom. But you can see he’s saying as a singular pursuit, even this is a dead end.
As a parent I want my kids to work very hard. I want them to get the best grades that they can, to put all the hedges around it. But here’s what he’s saying – Look, if your whole life is about just being the smartest person you can be, what is that going to get you? You can sit by yourself and watch Jeopardy! and answer the questions as loudly as possible so people hear you, so you can try to get people to fall into your trap and pay Trivial Pursuit with you. So you can be one of those friends who says, “Well, speaking of football, what was your SAT score? Why don’t we just go around and share our SAT scores? Would that be a fun ice breaker?”
He says in verse 18 wisdom has led to problems. Maybe you’ve experienced this. There’s a danger in it. You learn the best theology, and then you realize, oh boy, thought this wouldn’t happen at this church but maybe other places. You get the best theology and then you cringe to think, oh, I can’t believe we’re singing those songs. You learn about politics and how it works and then you get discouraged to see how it really works. You learn about philosophy and you come away with more questions than answers. You want to find out what God is like and you study and then you’re not even sure He exists. You gain wisdom in life and then it just pains you to see how foolish people are.
Qoheleth will say at various points that wisdom is a relative good. It’s better than folly, it’s better than many things, but in the long run, if that’s all you pursue, it’s a dead-end.
Look at the heading for chapter 2 – The Vanity of Self-Indulgence. Or we might call it the pursuit of pleasure.
“I said in my heart, “Come now,” all right, set that aside. That wasn’t it. How about this?
“I will test you with pleasure;” I said to my heart, “enjoy yourself.” Maybe this is it.
To bring us back to the 90s now, a little Sheryl Crow philosophy, “if it makes you happy,” or “all I want to do is have some fun.”
You can go through. Verse 2. He says, I tried laughter. Verse 3 – I tried alcohol. I tried folly. We might say he tried the party scene. He said, okay, I’m just going to live for the weekend, just for the drinking, maybe the drugging, just going to have friends and have a party.
Verse 4 – I set my mind to great works. Verse 5 – how about a touch of nature. Maybe that’s it. I planted gardens and parks and I got in touch with the outdoors. Verse 7 – I had so many things. I bought male and female slaves. I got other people to take care of it. You know what? I just need other people to do all these things and then I’ll have time to really be happy.
He accumulates impressive possessions. Look at verse 8: I gathered silver and gold. Maybe it’s treasure and money. I got singers. Maybe it’s entertainment. Finally, women, concubines. Maybe sex is the answer.
See, he just goes through list after list. I gave myself indulgence, hedonism, it’s laughter, it’s alcohol, it’s the party, it’s other people to do things for you, it’s to have money and treasure and entertainment, and sex.
He says, verse 9, I became great. I surpassed all who were before me. My wisdom was with me. Whatever I desired, I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure.
You ever meet someone like that? Maybe that is you, maybe that was you. Someone who really said whatever pleasure I want right now, I’ll take it. They end up the most miserable people in the world. You’re not meant to live like that. What they usually end up are addicts.
He says it was madness, it was useless. Verse 11, I considered all that my hands had done, the toil I had expended in doing it. Behold, all was vanity.
Qoheleth looked back and thinks well, okay, that was fun but sort of like the prodigal son, what do I have to show for myself? I still have an uncertain future, I still have purposelessness. Once I have this pleasure, you always want more and more and more. You thought that just a glimpse of this sort of look on your computer would be satisfying. That’s what addiction does. That’s never enough. You need something more risque, you need something more scandalous. The pleasure doesn’t last. What am I doing here? There has to be more to life than this. I can’t just live from one weekend to another weekend for another drink, another hookup, another hit.
He comes to verse 12. Well, that’s not it. What about living wisely? You might think that surely is the answer. Yeah, it’s not self-indulgence, it’s right living.
So the first wisdom might think of as intellect, knowledge, learning. Here it’s wisdom applied. He says I tried intellect; that wasn’t it. I tried pleasure; empty. What about morality? Surely that’s it. I’m going to be a decent person. I’m going to live an honest, virtuous life. It seems like he’s on the right track.
Verse 13 – I saw that there was more gain in wisdom than in folly.” Right? There’s more gain in light than in darkness. True. “The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I become so very wise?”” He comes face-to-face with death.
There are four main problems that creep up over and over again and keep rattling around in Qoheleth’s mind, and maybe you’ve tossed and turned at night with these four same problems that keep rattling around, and he can’t solve them: Death, chance, injustice, ignorance. He keeps coming back to.
Death. Okay, what does it matter because in the end I die? We all die.
Chance. The world seems to him under the sun, it’s just random, purposeless. That person gets ahead, that person gets behind. Who’s to say what will happen to me?
Injustice. He sees that life isn’t fair. The good guys don’t always win.
Ignorance. He just can’t know what is going to happen.
These are the problems over and over. We’re all going to die, life seems random, life isn’t fair, you never know what’s going to happen next. Leads him to conclude even morality isn’t the answer.
Look at verse 17: “So I hated life.”
Now you have to be careful here in how you might use a verse like this, talking to the depressed or the despondent. Maybe you know someone like that in your life, maybe that is you tonight. There’s a way in which this verse could just add to someone’s discouragement, but rightly understood, a verse like this can be a great help to us because it shows the Bible understands you. The Bible understands the pain and sometimes the purposelessness in life. The Bible is not unrealistic.
You see something like chapter 2, verse 17 and you can help someone in your life to say, now this isn’t the end of the matter, we’ve got to read the whole book, but here you see the Bible understands you. Here’s someone in the Bible, a wise man, but he was cynical at moments, despairing.
Don’t we know this to be true? Physical pain, of course, hurts. None of us want to have physical pain, but even worse than physical pain is mental, spiritual, emotional anguish. Now the physical pain often can lead people to that kind of spiritual desperation, but it’s the latter that really devastates us.
When you come to this point, you say, “I hate life,” we need to know that we matter. We need to know that life matters. We need to know it’s not all random, that there is meaning and purpose.
Isn’t that what enables you to endure suffering in life? A woman can endure nine months of pregnancy because there’s a clear purpose. You can diet or almost starve yourself if you know that there’s some goal you want to attain. You can put your body through great rigors and stress and rack up miles and hours and hours of running if you want to train to run a marathon. You can work for 80 hours and barely get any sleep during medical school. You can put year after grueling year toward a Ph.D. if you think there’s purpose in your pain.
But when it seems empty, and pointless, a striving after the wind is when you conclude like Qoheleth, “I hate life.”
He comes next to the vanity of toil, that is, work. Verse 18 – “I hated all my toil.” I hated going to the office, I hated grading papers, I hated my research, I hated answering the phone, I hated the smell of another diaper to change, I hated the thought of picking up a hammer again, I hated the sight of a computer screen, I hated all the toil under the sun.
He had so much and yet he is loaded down with despair, anxiety.
Listen to this paragraph I read in a book a few years ago. I think this author, not a Christian, but describes our age well. He says, “No age is golden to those who live in it, and it is not often in human history that men are more grateful for past progress than they are worried about current imperfections. Even so, our current age seems exceptional in the peculiarity of its unease. Never in human history have so many people and so high a proportion of people had so much freedom to choose how to live, what goals to pursue, how to divert themselves. On the other hand, never have so many people felt anxious and depressed and resorted to pills to ease their distress. Mankind has labored long and hard to produce a cornucopia for itself only to discover that the cornucopia does not bring the happiness expected but only a different kind of anxiety.
Here Qoheleth says even in my work I thought maybe that was the answer, but he says work was a vanity. Look at verse 18. He says whatever you work for it gets left behind in the end.
Verse 19 – all that you work for can be squandered by someone else.
Verses 20 and 21 – he says when you die, your toil means that someone else gets something for nothing.
And verses 22 and 23 – on top of all this, work is just plain hard, grueling labor. He says what does it matter?
Even if I am successful, even if I build a practice, even if I build this business and I seem to the world to be a great success, what will happen? Well, I’ll die. I’ll have to leave it all behind and it will go to somebody who didn’t even work for it. Maybe they’ll be wise or maybe they’ll be foolish and they’ll squander the whole thing. I spent my whole life in this medical practice, my whole life in this school, my whole life in this church, my whole life in this industry, in this business, and I’ll die and the next person to come along will get it for nothing and they’ll squander it.
That’s not the answer.
Look at verse [sic] 5. You see the heading above verse 8, “The Vanity of Wealth and Honor.” These are the last two dead-ends that he pursues.
He looks at the folly of loving money, verse 8. If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter for the high official is watched by a higher and there are yet higher ones over them, but this is gain for a land in every way, a king committed to cultivated fields.
What he means is you look around here and he says the kings who have gotten rich? You know most of them, they’ve done it through corruption. He says this is the danger when you make money your singular pursuit. So often if you’re going to get all the way up to the top of the ladder, you have to take a bribe, you have to compromise your integrity. You start out pure but you end up making little compromises and you cut corners. You do whatever it takes. It’s not worth it.
Verse 10 – he says it doesn’t satisfy. Verse 11 – the more you have, the more concerns you have. Verse 12 – it doesn’t give you peace. Verse 13 – money can lead to your ruin. He says it doesn’t give you real security.
Look at verse 13 – There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand.
He’s saying riches are a double whammy because you suffer and in the pain and toil to get them, and then when you get them you have more suffering and toil just to take care of them and then you have another form of suffering and toil when you lose them.
People love safety and security. The Bible tells us, well, good, but don’t think that money gives you the ultimate security. You can’t take it with you, verse 16, just as he came so shall he go.
Moreover, verse 17, all his days he eats in darkness and much vexation and sickness and anger.
You think of Scrooge in A Christmas Carol, miserly, penny-pinching, all by himself. Or you think of as you see in so many films or art, a picture of some man or woman, sitting alone, scraping on a plate, clanging through a meal, all by himself or herself with that long shot of a very long table in some grand hall and there he is, the rich person, all alone.
We don’t know why Qoheleth sees this person eating in darkness, in sickness and in health. Maybe he alienated all his friends to get to the top. Maybe he so beat up his body that when he got done he was sick and vexed and full of anger.
Chapter 6, Qoheleth turns to honor: There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy it, but a stranger enjoys it.
It’s one thing to be destitute and miserable. None of us want to be destitute and miserable. But at least if you were destitute and miserable, you hold out the illusion that if I wasn’t destitute, I wouldn’t be miserable. If I wasn’t poor, I wouldn’t be unhappy. If I could have what they have, I know that I would finally be happy. You hold out that if you were in their position, then you would finally have joy.
But here Qoheleth sees the man who has everything, and he’s still unhappy.
We’ve seen people like this. Maybe you are this person. If you see this person in your life, on the one hand you hate them but you also want to be them. He’s got the good-looking, pretty wife, or she has the handsome, attentive husband, and they have just the right number of kids, and they have a very well, obedient dog, and they have a cottage on a lake somewhere. Somehow they also have a place to go in the mountains, and at the ocean. They make six figures. They have six bedrooms. They have four garages. Their spring breaks, their vacations, are in Europe or the Caribbean. He was promoted to senior vice president at 35, seems like he was just born with everything. You hate him; you want to be him. Until you realize that he’s unhappy, too.
You think of athletes. Some of these athletes who make $10, $20, $30 million a year to play a game, a game that they once loved and almost every child, at least young boys, dream of playing a sport. I could do that and be a bizillionaire playing a game. You have all this money and kids adore you and fans practically worship you and you’re on videogames and you’re on television and you can buy anything you want and live anywhere you want in any kind of house you want and you only have to do this for several years and you’ll be fabulously rich, set for the rest of your life, and yet how often do we hear stories of these people, addicts, arrested, addicted to opioids. It’s become almost a cliché with rock and roll stars. I mean, how often do you find one that isn’t, you know, behind the music is some story of their addicted to some substance, they were all fighting with each other, their life was a complete shambles, even though they had almost the complete adulation and worship of millions.
Qoheleth is depressed just looking at this man who has everything and is himself depressed, exhausted. It makes him cynical. He says nothing will ever change. I can’t change things. God doesn’t change things. My friends won’t change things. Vanity, vanity, worthless, helpless vapor.
Well, it’s 7 o’clock. But we can’t quite end there. I said to Nathan beforehand it might be useful some other time to preach through the whole book because there’s so much there that’s relevant, but one of the advantages of preaching the whole book in one fell swoop is that you don’t have 11 depressing sermons and tell every week, “Just wait for the end.”
So here’s the end. Go to chapter 12. The summation from the narrator we find in verse 8 – “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.” That’s what he’s found. Everywhere he’s looked, wisdom, pleasure, toil, morality, wealth, honor, vanity.
But that’s not the end of the matter.
Verse 9 – Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.
So Qoheleth didn’t get it all wrong. We want to be careful that we don’t pick any just verse out of context and think he got it all right. He is on the whole wise insofar as he rightly determined that if you try to find meaning under the sun, apart from God, vanity is the correct assessment. That phrase “under the sun” is key. When you’re looking at under the sun, that is to say earth in an earthbound way, Qoheleth is wise. He’s right. If you take God out of the equation and you just want to look at life here on earth and you chase after wisdom and morality and hedonism and wealth and honor and toil, it’s all a dead-end.
Verse 11 – “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd.” And you see the ESV capitalizes that, saying this is ultimately from God. “My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”
Beware of trying to make sense out of life apart from God. That’s what he means. I put my love of books next to anyone, right there with Pastor Bruce as bibliophiles. I love books. I read books. I write books.
Verse 12 is absolutely true. It’s all you’re doing, you’re just reading, just devouring, just looking, just thinking, just going to all the great thinkers, all the great philosophers, and you don’t have God in the equation. It’s a warning to academics, to intellectuals, people who have the smarts and sometimes they’re just playing word games. It’s a warning to theological sophistry. Do we debate questions just to show off our intellectual prowess? Do we jump into political debates or theological discussions, and we’re not really looking for answers, we just want to barb and we want to show how very smart we are.
Will we listen to God? Beyond this, my son, beware. Beyond this, if you’re just confined to this world.
You see what the answer is. We need a voice besides our own. We need a voice extra nos, Latin, outside of ourselves. We need a voice from another world to tell us what life is about, to tell us who we really are. If we only listen to earthbound voices, if we just dig deeper into ourself, which is what our world tells us to do, we will not find the answer.
Here’s the end of the matter, verse 13: “All has been heard.” We’ve been down one dead-end after another. “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
We’ve searched high and low. We’ve explored every possibility. We’ve tried intellectualism, hedonism, moralism, materialism, existentialism, nihilism. All has been heard, now let’s hear from God.
Fear God, keep His commandments.
Those are actually two ways of saying the same thing, two sides of the same coin. If you fear God, you keep His commandments because you know that God will judge you.
Proverbs 8:13 – The fear of the Lord is hatred of evil.
Proverbs 1:7 – The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
It’s helpful to remember that the fear of the Lord is not, we hear it in an emotional valence, that it’s a certain kind of emotion that you have, but Scripture tells you are taught the fear of the Lord.
2 Chronicles 26 – Uzziah was instructed in the fear of the Lord.
Psalm 34 – Come, O children, listen to me. I will teach you the fear of the Lord.
You can be taught to fear the Lord.
What man is there who desires life and loves many days that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil, your lips from speaking deceit, turn from evil and do good. Seek peace and pursue it.
Now you might think even here with the end of the matter it’s a little anticlimactic. Okay, you know that was coming. But it sounds like, is he just returning to moralism? Shouldn’t it be, the end of the matter, all has been heard, believe in Jesus that He died for your sins and go to heaven. Or the Gospel. Or live your life according to God’s grace. But he says fear God, keep His commandments.
Don’t misunderstand what that means. This is not Ecclesiastes’ way of saying those are all dead-ends, but you just better shape up and do things right because God is looking out to judge you. No, what this means, fear God, keep His commandments, for God will bring every good deed into judgment, whether secret thing, whether good or evil. This is the author’s way of saying you need to live for the final verdict.
This isn’t absent grace. This doesn’t negate the rest of what the Old Testament and the New Testament are about. Fear God and obey His commandments is a way of saying is God ultimate in your life? Live with the end in view. Live for what you cannot see and live for the One who sees all. That’s the answer.
Live for what you cannot see and live for the One who sees all.
Fear God, keep His commandments. This is the duty of man. It’s a way of saying what is ultimate in your life. What rests on you? You know the word glory can mean heaviness, weight. What weighs on you? What gives meaning, purpose? What is ultimate? God can be ultimate. Or you can try to find the ultimate on your own, and the whole book of Ecclesiastes and why it’s part of wisdom literature is because the entire book is set out to present you with that choice. It’s telling you to choose wisely.
“Under the sun” is the opposite of fear God and do His commandments. Do you live your life as if this is all that matters, as if you’re the only one who can figure it out? Or do you fear God, keep His commandments and let One from another world come and speak to you, save you, shape you, help you?
So many Christians, whatever we say our official theology is, we live as practical atheists, as if there is no God watching over us, if there is no God who will judge the living and the dead, if there is no God who can tell us the way to go, and we’re fine to listen to God so long as He tells us things we already know and believe about ourselves or so long as He says things that aren’t too difficult to accept in our given cultural moment. That’s the way of folly.
God can be ultimate, or you can look for the ultimate on your own. Let us choose wisely.
Let’s pray. Father in heaven, thank You for this book, for all that we have to learn from it, and we pray that You would give us a heart of wisdom to know the end of the matter, and we might be instructed in the fear of the Lord and give You praise. In Jesus we pray. Amen.