“Whatever exists has already been named, and it is known what man is; for he cannot dispute with him who is stronger than he is. For there are many words which increase futility. What then is the advantage to a man? For who knows what is good for a man during his lifetime, during the few years of his futile life? He will spend them like a shadow. For who can tell a man what will be after him under the sun?”
Thursday’s Bible reading is Ecclesiastes 5–6. These chapters contain some severe admonitions about approaching God and some observations of life’s events that Solomon calls grievous evils or marks as futile.
As you read Ecclesiastes, remember it’s purpose. Two weeks ago I quoted G. S. Henry:
“The melancholy refrain, ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’, is not his verdict upon life in general, but only upon the misguided human endeavour to treat the created world as an end in itself.”1
In fact, Hendry writes that Ecclesiastes “is in reality a major work of apologetic or ‘eristic’ theology.”2 Other commentators have made similar observations. Gleason Archer states:
“The purpose of Ecclesiastes was to convince men of the uselessness of any world view which does not rise above the horizon of man himself. It pronounces the verdict of “vanity of vanities” upon any philosophy of life which regards the created world or human enjoyment as an end in itself. To view personal happiness as the highest goal in life is sheer folly in view of the preeminent value of God Himself as over against His created universe.”3
Derek Kidner has this insight (emphasis added):
“At bottom we can find the axiom of all the wise men of the Bible, that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But Qoheleth plans to brings us to that point last of all, when we are desperate for an answer. There are hints of it in passing, but his main approach is from the other end: the resolve to see how far a man will get with no such basis. He puts himself—and us—in the shoes of the humanist or secularist. Not the atheist, for atheism was hardly a going concern in his day, but the person who starts his thinking from man and the observable world, and knows God only from a distance.
“This of course is asking for complications. There will be tensions between the writer’s deepest self, as a man of conviction with a faith to share, and his provisional self as a man groping his way by the light of nature. And this second self has its own conflicts, familiar to us all, between the voices of conscience, self-interest and experience, and between God as we acknowledge Him and God as we treat Him.”4
Of all people, Solomon with his wealth, power and wisdom has the background to speak to this purpose and convince the reader of the folly of living life in and of itself. He drives his point home over and over with his stark observations. This is why the book can be positively painful to read. We’ve all witnessed some of the unfair circumstances described in Ecclesiastes. Many of us have had known some of these vain circumstances and had some grievous evils happen to us. As Kidner said, not until the end of the book will Solomon provide the answer.
The more I read the books of wisdom in the Bible: Job, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes; the more I value them and see them as gifts of God to us to guide us and keep us through the vicissitudes of life. They deal with life as it is. As we are caught up in the welter of daily life and sometimes horrific afflictions, God gives us His perspective in these books—to give us warning, hope and encouragement to trust in Him and live our lives in accordance with His Word—to enable us to keep looking at the things that are eternal.
“Therefore we do not lose heart, but though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day. For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.”
2 Corinthians 4:16–18
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1, 2G. S. Hendry, “Ecclesiastes,” The New Bible Commentary: Revised, D. Guthrie, J. A. Motyer, eds., A. M. Stibbs, D. J. Wiseman, contributing eds., p. 570.
3Gleason Archer, “Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon,” A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, p. 475.
4Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 14.
Original content: Copyright ©2011 Iwana Carpenter