Ask Steve: Ecclesiastes and Living Wisely

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Question: Steve, what did the book of Ecclesiastes teach concerning how to live wisely in this world of futility? 

Answer: The book of Ecclesiastes is wisdom literature that focuses on the theme of vanity. The author Solomon writes of his everyday experience in which he sought meaning in work, pleasure, wealth, and other endeavors, but found it be ultimately vain. Everything in life seems to be meaningless since we all die. This theme makes the book of Ecclesiastes one of the most thought provoking if not pessimistic books in the Old Testament. However, the book ends with an uplifting note in that it points all of life back towards the Creator God. Solomon ultimately concluded that life lived solely for one’s own pleasure is what makes life meaningless. In contrast, if one perceives each day of existence, labor, and basic provision as a gift from God, and accepts whatever God gives, then that person lives an abundant and meaningful life. 

The first lesson that the book of Ecclesiastes teaches about wise and satisfying living is to fear God. Fearing God is written by Solomon in his other wisdom books such as Proverbs, where he described fearing God as the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7). This theme is no less downplayed in the book of Ecclesiastes. 8:12-13 reads: “Although a sinner does evil a hundred times and may lengthen his life, still I know that it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly. But it will not be well for the evil man and he will not lengthen his days like a shadow, because he does not fear God.” In the end, those who fear God eternally prosper (as they attain eternal life), but the evil man will go to his death (and be punished eternally because of his rebellion against God). The theme of fearing God is so important that the book of Ecclesiastes ends with this exhortation. 12:13 reads, “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God, and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.”

The second lesson that the book of Ecclesiastes teaches about wise living is rejoicing in hard, honest work. Even though Solomon portrayed work in a negative light because of he found no meaning or purpose in it of itself, he commends labor that is done in wisdom and honoring of God (2:25). 2:12-13 affirms the value and satisfaction of work when done in recognition of God’s goodness, “I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime; moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor – it is the gift of God.” In accepting everything as a gift of his Creator and Provider, even in a sinful world, people are enabled to see “good” in his labor and pursuits. This makes life satisfying and less vain than if done without recognition of God’s existence or providence.

Recognizing God’s existence, fearing Him, and appreciating life’s gifts as coming from Him, Solomon is able to claim that “nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot.” Whatever the Lord has given to His children to do in this life, they are expected to do it with all their might (9:10). In contrast to the folly of riches and possessions without God, those who consider God as the source of wealth are able to take pleasure in the gifts and achievements of life. Such work proves to be a person’s reward from God, which makes life purposeful and satisfying. That is why Solomon (the Preacher) can say in 9:7: “Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink you wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works.”

The book of Ecclesiastes is a wise work that rightly analyzes the futility of life’s purpose without the existence and providence of God. Because God exists and He has a purpose for His children, believers can live with confidence that life and all its pursuits have meaning and satisfaction. As long as people recognize the good gifts that God has given them and carry out pursuits in life to the honor of God with fear and reverence, then they can have satisfaction in all that they do.