There are lots more passages in Ecclesiastes that are worthy of comment. And there are lots of people more qualified than I to discuss them. The only other point I want to bring out is a point common to much of wisdom literature, the concept of fearing God. In Proverbs we read: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and discipline.” (Proverbs 1:7) This is an idea that Ecclesiastes works through as well:
Ecclesiastes 3:14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him.
Ecclesiastes 7:18 It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them.
Ecclesiastes 8:12 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 12:13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.
I’ve used the example of electricity to show how I understand fearing God. I’m not afraid of electricity. I’m sitting in a room that has electricity in the walls around me. I’m not afraid. But I’m not going to stick a fork in a socket either. I fear electricity in that I respect its power. That’s how I understand fearing God.
There is a section in Ecclesiastes 5 about not taking reckless vows. (I often go over this passage with couples that are looking to marry). In that section we read:
Ecclesiastes 5:2 Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few.
That’s what it comes down to. God is God. When we come to recognize that and grasp the fact that God is SO much greater than we are, then we are on the road to wisdom.
Do you believe in chance? Accidents? Coincidence? Luck? I’ve heard Christians dismiss each of those concepts at one time or another, trying to sound spiritual as they correct someone else’s speech.
“Luckily, I found it.”
“Christians don’t believe in luck!”
The writer of Ecclesiastes believed in chance/fortune/destiny/… however you choose to translate it. Fact is, a lot of our versions avoid translating these terms, although most translate Ecclesiastes 9:11 something as follows:
“I have seen something else under the sun: 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; but time and chance happen to them all.” (Ecclesiastes 9:11)
Reading through Ecclesiastes, we can see that the writer believes that some things just happen. They happen to the wise and the foolish, the good and the bad, the strong and the weak.
God hasn’t chosen to move us around like pawns, plotting out every movement along the way. There is room for time and chance to play a part in our lives. Does that mean God isn’t in control? No, it doesn’t. It means that he has chosen to give men free will, to allow his universe to act within certain guidelines.
Sometimes after an accident, people say, “God was with them and they weren’t hurt.” Does that mean that if they had been hurt that God wasn’t with them? We know that’s not true, yet our way of speaking can lead to heartache for many. In this world, time and chance play a part in our lives. That’s one of the messages of Ecclesiastes.
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)
It’s the most famous passage from Ecclesiastes. It’s a wonderful example of the power of Hebrew poetry, poetry that depends not on rhyme but on repetition of ideas. Wave after wave of ideas here leave us with no doubt: there is time for everything under the sun. It’s a human point of view; all of these things find their place here on earth.
The second half of the chapter moves to a different perspective. Notice how many times God is referred to in the next section? The message is one that is common to Ecclesiastes: “That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God.” (Ecclesiastes 3:13) Again and again Ecclesiastes says: life is fleeting, so enjoy it while it lasts. Be happy. Do good. God has made life as beautiful as it is fleeting.
Jay Abels pointed out to me this week that in the Old Testament men drew near to God not through fasting but through eating and drinking “in His presence.” Ecclesiastes emphasizes the same thing. “Time and tide wait for no man.” Men need to learn to enjoy the time that God has given them. “So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?” (Ecclesiastes 3:22) The processes of life will move forward, men will do good and evil, time and chance will happen to them all. Ecclesiastes says: Learn to enjoy life.
pan·a·ce·a (pān’ə-sē’ə) n. A remedy for all diseases, evils, or difficulties; a cure-all
I found it. The solution for everything. It’s right here in Ecclesiastes:
“A feast is made for laughter, and wine makes life merry, but money is the answer for everything.” (Ecclesiastes 10:19)
That’s right. Money is the answer for everything. Life is that simple. Seek money. Get money. All problems will be gone.
Or do you think that maybe, just maybe, wisdom literature needs to be read in a special way? Yes, that includes Ecclesiastes.
Wisdom literature needs to be read as such. We can’t merely take everything literally and think that we’re going to hear the message it has for us. We saw that when discussing alcohol. The misreading of Proverbs has led to many misconceptions about Christians and alcohol. In the same way, many yank verses out of context from Ecclesiastes to try and say, “Here’s what the Bible says.” It’s not enough to say, “The Bible says…” We need to get to “The Bible teaches…”
[Nick Gill wrote this week about difficulties in reading Proverbs, touching on some of these same ideas.]
As I continue to present some thoughts on Ecclesiastes, we’ll need to keep these ideas in mind. Wisdom literature needs to be read as the special literature that it is.
As we try to understand Ecclesiastes, another important aspect of the book is the author’s quest for knowledge. Words like see, find, seek, search, etc. show us the way that the writer has investigated the mysteries of this earthly life. He is trying to find something lasting, something that will provide lasting satisfaction. In that search, he looked at at least 10 things that don’t satisfy:
- Knowledge (1:12-18)
- Pleasure (2:1-11)
- Possessions (2:4-8)
- Work (2:18-23)
- Rivalry (4:4)
- Power (4:13-16)
- Riches (5:10-17)
- Children (6:3)
- Long life (6:6)
- Food (6:7)
As Ecclesiastes says, there is nothing new under the sun. Despite the Bible’s teachings, people continue to try and find fulfillment in these very things.