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By Stephen Green. (First published in Christian Voice November 2005)
Anyone following the Lamplight Bible Reading Plan has been greatly blessed by reading the book of Ecclesiastes in the first week and a bit of November. I say greatly blessed, because although Ecclesiastes has the reputation of being a pessimistic book, it has is the most lovely endorsement of practical living and trusting God. The book has been traditionally accepted as written by king Solomon. Toward the end of a life of wisdom, wealth and honour (2 Chr 1:12), but in the end overcome by pleasures of the flesh (Eccl 2:8-10), he reflected that all our earthly existence 'under the sun' is, as the King James Bible puts it, no fewer than 30 times in fact, 'vanity'.
I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. (Eccl. 1:14)
One must agree that there are some incredibly gloomy passages in Ecclesiastes. In an age when we believe there must always be a solution to a problem, we are brought up with this:
That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered. (Eccl. 1:15)
The sadness in the face of oppression is tangible, verging on defeatism:
So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter. Wherefore I praised the dead which are already dead more than the living which are yet alive. Yea, better is he than both they, which hath not yet been, who hath not seen the evil work that is done under the sun. (Eccl. 4:1-3)
I counsel thee to keep the king's commandment, and that in regard of the oath of God. Be not hasty to go out of his sight: stand not in an evil thing; for he doeth whatsoever pleaseth him. Where the word of a king is, there is power: and who may say unto him, What doest thou? (Eccl. 8:2-4)
Even worse is this passage apparently saying that sorrow and mourning are to desired about mirth and laughter:
It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. (Eccl. 7:2-4)
And yet, is there not value in reflecting now and again that life is not always a barrel of laughs? The vast majority of the population have a box in the room whose sole purpose is to dispense entertainment in order to keep them from focusing on what really matters. Certainly, there are serious investigative programmes on TV, but we can be sure the Government are glad that far more of the population watch Eastenders than Panorama. The public are concerned with trivia and pleasure, and hardly ever allowed time to be serious.
The level of resignation in the book of Ecclesiastes can be high. There is an echo of the beginning of Psalm 73 in this passage:
All things have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness. (Eccl. 7:15)
There are things, as we read, about which we can do nothing. The trick is to recognise them for what they are, accept them and work with them:
If the clouds be full of rain, they empty themselves upon the earth: and if the tree fall toward the south, or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth, there it shall be. He that observeth the wind shall not sow; and he that regardeth the clouds shall not reap. (Eccl. 11:3-4)
On the other hand, sitting on the Carmarthen to Paddington train, delayed yet again, passages like that help to put all our temporal concerns into perspective. Worrying about things that will pass away is indeed vanity. That is not to adopt a fatalistic approach, but simply to set our minds on what really matters, being in a right relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We can plan ahead and study and train but in the end we must say, with the Apostle James, "If the Lord wills" (Jas 4:13-16):
I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. (Eccl. 9:11)
Eccl 11:4 even appears to say that farming is impossible for anyone who looks at the weather, but that would be a misunderstanding. 'Observeth' and 'regardeth' in the context must mean an obsession with bad forecasts. Every farmer looks ahead and works with the weather the good Lord sends. If the field is too wet, or too dry, he will put off sowing until the ground is ready, and do something else. If clouds are on the horizon, it is wise to wait before mowing for hay. There is a lesson there for all of us. Accept what cannot be changed, do what you can, never let the perfect be the enemy of the good, and look to the Lord in everything.
This is a book with some beautiful insights of wisdom. It is, after all, in the 'wisdom' literature of the middle of the Bible. The passage about paying vows is especially important, and we have cited it before in the context of the Queen's Coronation Oath. Her Majesty promised on 2nd June 1953 to 'Maintain the laws of God and the True Profession of the Gospel," and she has failed to do that, on the advice of her ministers. But the word is to all of us:
When thou vowest a vow unto God, defer not to pay it; for he hath no pleasure in fools: pay that which thou hast vowed. Better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay. Suffer not thy mouth to cause thy flesh to sin; neither say thou before the angel, that it was an error: wherefore should God be angry at thy voice, and destroy the work of thine hands? For in the multitude of dreams and many words there are also divers vanities: but fear thou God. (Eccl. 5:4-7)
Some verses from Ecclesiastes have worthily entered the Christian quotations vocabulary. During the power-cuts of the three-day week, my late mother-in-law gave away nearly all her candles to folks who had made it to the shops too late. She told her family:
Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days. (Eccl. 11:1) Sure enough, a few days later, a huge parcel arrived from a family friend in Switzerland, who had heard of the shortages. It was filled with more candles than you could, well, shake a lighted taper at.
The expression 'no discharge in the war' from Kipling's poem 'Boots' is from Ecclesiastes: There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death: and there is no discharge in that war; neither shall wickedness deliver those that are given to it. (Eccl. 8:8)
As it happens, just one man, God incarnate, the Lord Jesus Christ, did have power in the day of death. He had power to lay down His life "and power to take it again' (John 10:18). But for the rest of us: Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it. (Eccl. 12:7) All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth? (Eccl. 3:20-21)
A TIME TO EVERY PURPOSE
Even more famous than the verse Kipling used is the beginning of chapter 3, thanks in modern times to the singers Simon and Garfunkle. The translators of the King James Bible preserved the rhyming of contrasts and the rhythm of this quintessentially Hebrew poetry perfectly:
Eccl 3:1 To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
2 A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
3 A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
4 A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
5 A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
6 A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
7 A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
8 A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
I would love to keep quoting words from this marvellous book. Some of my own favourites are the account of the man who saved the city (Eccl 9:13-17), the warnings to youth (Eccl 11:9-12:2), the reminder that there is nothing new under the sun (Eccl 1:9), and the certainty that it will go well with those who fear God (Eccl 8:12). It is good to be reminded that there are things which are past our comprehension: As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all. (Eccl. 11:5) No-one will ever find out the whole purpose of God (Eccl 3:11). Nevertheless, we are to keep on and persevere in our work: In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thine hand: for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good. (Eccl. 11:6)
WISDOM ITSELF IS VANITY
Even as we wonder at the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, so the book itself concludes that wisdom and study are themselves vanity. Such a paradox might confuse the super-logical and literal-minded but would come rather more easily to Hebrew thought. Through it all we are being urged to fix our thoughts on God, which finds a parallel in the Apostle Paul's word against the philosophy of men and false science in Col 2:8 and 1 Tim 6:20.
For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow. (Eccl. 1:18) And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh. (Eccl. 12:12)
Solomon himself had seen that all he had worked for and achieved would come to nothing after his death. He would have no benefit from his wealth, his son would not deal wisely, and all the wisdom which he had not written down would perish with him. In the end he says he hated life because of this and there would not even be rest in the night (Eccl 2:15-23).
NOTHING BETTER THAN TO REJOICE
Despite all that, the very next verse begins what becomes a major theme in Ecclesiastes. In the midst of all the vanity of earthly effort, the foolishness of earthly wisdom, our sinful fallen nature, and all the oppression which is done 'under the sun', it is good to work hard and enjoy life's resulting simple pleasures. There is not a hint that excess is commended, just that life is after all for living, taking it one day at a time:
There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God. (Eccl. 2:24)
I know that there is no good in them, but for a man to rejoice, and to do good in his life. And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God. (Eccl. 3:12-13)
Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him? (Eccl. 3:22)
Behold that which I have seen: it is good and comely for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labour that he taketh under the sun all the days of his life, which God giveth him: for it is his portion. Every man also to whom God hath given riches and wealth, and hath given him power to eat thereof, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labour; this is the gift of God. For he shall not much remember the days of his life; because God answereth him in the joy of his heart. (Eccl. 5:18-20)
Then I commended mirth, because a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry: for that shall abide with him of his labour the days of his life, which God giveth him under the sun. (Eccl. 8:15)
The most beautiful expression of this theme must be that in chapter 9. God accepts the ordinary things we do, and our honest labour. He blesses our time with those we love, especially the fellowship of man and wife, and He urges us to apply ourselves wholeheartedly to whatever we do:
Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God now accepteth thy works. Let thy garments be always white; and let thy head lack no ointment. Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun. Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest. (Eccl. 9:7-10)
Three times previously in Ecclesiastes we are told to fear God. Now this admonition is taken up as a fitting and dramatic conclusion. Everything is drawn together in a final glorious and mind-concentrating statement, to which I can and shall add nothing:
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil. (Eccl. 12:13-14)