Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.—Ecclesiastes 12:13.
Ecclesiastes is believed to have been written by King Solomon during the latter portion of his life. The internal evidence that the “Preacher” was indeed Solomon is provided by the fact that he was the son of David, he was king in Jerusalem, he had much wisdom, and he had great fame and riches (Ecclesiastes 1:1, 12,16,17; 2:4-8).
Some critics claim portions of this book are false. The phrase “the earth abideth forever” (Ecclesiastes 1:4) is given as one example because it seems to conflict with Peter’s claim that the earth and the heavens will be destroyed by fire (2 Peter 3:10). The symbolic nature of this latter Scripture might better be appreciated by asking why the literal heavens that “declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1) would ever be destroyed by fire.
“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Solomon’s words as found in the Bible were providentially overruled and contain valuable lessons for believers to enhance their spirituality and help their consecrated walk in Christ.
The main thrust of Ecclesiastes is the futility of seeking fulfillment in life without God. Additionally, throughout the book there is information on a variety of topics including the nature of man, the state of the dead, sincere worship, and the application of human wisdom.
Chapter one asserts that life is transitory even though it is filled with much activity. “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:2,3).
From personal experience, Solomon could boast that he had the greatest knowledge that was available in every sphere of human endeavor, but he discovered intellectualism as an end in itself only produced grief and a lack of satisfaction (vss. 13-18). How appropriate is the counsel of his father, King David: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth for ever” (Psalm 111:10).
Chapter two begins “I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, therefore enjoy pleasure: and, behold, this also is vanity. I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it? I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine, yet acquainting mine heart with wisdom; and to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life” (verses 1-3).
The pursuit of pleasure and affluence through materialistic acquisitions failed to bring satisfaction to Solomon. Even though he attained every conceivable human desire, he concluded they yielded nothing but vexation of spirit (verse 12). Rather than attempting to pursue Solomon’s course, believers would do well to heed Paul’s words to Timothy: “Godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6).
In chapter three we are reminded of cyclical patterns over which man has no control (verses 1-8). From a human standpoint, therefore, Solomon observed that man may well enjoy his food and drink, and seek pleasure from his daily activities (verse 13). Believers, however, might be advised to watch the signs of the times and diligently strive faithfully to carry out their vows of consecration in God’s service. Prophetically, during this time we see the shooting forth of the fig tree (a biblical symbol of Israel) as a sovereign nation, and all the trees, representing other nations. Freed from the yoke of colonialism, these nations have gained their independence, thus pointing to the nearness of God’s promised kingdom (Luke 21:29-32).
One lesson in chapter four relates to the advantages of partnership and fellowship: “Two are better than one; because they have a good reward for their labour. For if they fall, the one will lift up his fellow: but woe to him that is alone when he falleth; for he hath not another to help him up. Again, if two lie together, then they have heat: but how can one be warm alone? And if one prevail against him, two shall withstand him; and a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (verses 9-12).
From a natural standpoint, these illustrations are easily understood. A spiritual application of this concept is contained in the admonition of not forsaking the assembling together in worship by the brotherhood (Hebrews 10:24, 25). How strengthening are congregational arrangements, as well as fellowship at conventions, to express our hopes and desires, and also to encourage our brethren. Such mutuality and support of one another as members of the body of Christ are critical because “every joint supplieth” (Ephesians 4:16; cf., 1 Corinthians 12:26). Since we all come under the direction of the same head, we all have a part to play in assisting one another.
Chapter five contains sober reminders concerning our relationship with God. A reverential attitude toward the heavenly Father and his arrangements should always be manifested (verses 1 and 2). Believers should not be casual in their approach to worship. Promptness in attending spiritual gatherings, preparation of the heart to attain the appropriate meditative state, listening attentively to the services instead of allowing the mind to wander to other subjects, and even singing hymns of praise in a hearty and thankworthy manner, all contribute to the type of decorum that should be in evidence when approaching the Creator.
Another aspect of a believer’s relationship with God is the matter of keeping vows (verses 4 and 5). If our lives are dedicated to the doing of God’s will, then we will not be casual about fulfilling our promises to him without risking severe consequences: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting” (Galatians 6:7,8).
Chapter six addresses the vanity of riches. Many have learned by bitter experience that preoccupation with the acquisition of wealth is folly since it can’t be taken with us at death. “Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire: this is also vanity and vexation of spirit” (verse 9). An application of this text for consecrated Christians might be the recognition that God provides for his children. Those who seek first the kingdom of heaven should know that everything needed for their sustenance will be supplied according to God’s will; we should have no anxious cares concerning our temporal needs (Matthew 6:33). We are stewards of what the Lord has given us and should manifest faithfulness in using these resources to glorify God.
Chapter seven provides important counsel to all: “Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools” (verse 9). This common sense advice should be followed in one’s daily affairs. As believers, we may sometimes feel others are taking advantage of us; there could be an urge to retaliate against those who abuse us. How easy it could be to respond in kind when we are attacked, and that is exactly what the adversary wants us to do. Patient endurance is a quality required in all Christians, in all who would ultimately be pleasing to God: “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice: and be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you” (Ephesians 4:31,32). Under the holy spirit’s influence the admonition in this text can be achieved.
Chapter eight notes that delay in the prosecution of criminals promotes contempt for the judicial system: “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (verse 11). Even today, many individuals decry the failure of justice to be applied swiftly and fairly. This tends to make offenders more determined to break established laws, believing they can escape punishment or receive only a light sentence. Additionally, false or even fraudulent prosecution of innocent ones undermines trust of law-enforcement.
Throughout the Gospel age, believers have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake (Revelation 6:9-11). This passage seems to suggest symbolically that Christians were persecuted or killed because of their service to God and, like Abel and the faithful prophets of past ages, cry out for vengeance because of the evils committed against them. The Scriptures affirm, however, during God’s kingdom just recompense will be meted out for all past deeds of wickedness: “Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).
Chapter nine contains one of the clearest statements in the Bible that the state of the dead is unconscious “sleep” and that there is no immortal soul: “For the living know that they shall die: but the dead know not any thing, neither have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten … for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest” (verses 5,10; see also Psalm 6:5, Psalm 88:10-12, Psalm 115:17, Psalm 146:4). The hope of all who have died and gone into the tomb lies in the promise of a future awakening during God’s kingdom: “For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: and if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished … But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:16-18,20-22; cf., Romans 5:12,17-19).
Chapter ten speaks of the calamitous folly of the rash use of the tongue: “The words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious; but the lips of a fool will swallow up himself” (verse 12). Christians are to speak in accord with biblical principles and teachings: “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth: that God in all things may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 4:11). As we speak one with another the use of a “thus saith the Lord” to support our point of view will minimize the tendency toward making vague and wild speculations. God’s word provides the source of the spiritual enlightment we need (Psalm 119:105).
One portion of chapter eleven indicates that since we cannot be certain which of our endeavors will accomplish the intended results, the wisest course would be to fill our days with productive activities: “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” (verse 6). A spiritual application of this concept is to proclaim faithfully the gospel message to the best of our ability even if the results seem small. Rejection, ridicule, or reproach should not deter believers from witnessing about God’s kingdom. As the apostle Paul put it: “For though I preach the gospel, I have nothing to glory of: for necessity is laid upon me; yea, woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16).
In chapter twelve Solomon reflects upon the wisdom of avoiding the excesses of youthful worldly pleasures in favor of a different course, one he had not taken: “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them” (verse 1). All too soon the aging process commences and the realization of wasted years in vain pursuits is clearly seen (verses 3, 4 and 8). Consecrated believers who are seeking to become a part of the body of Christ should give little heed to trivial pursuits that would impede spirituality. Instead, let us bend our energies toward developing the fruit and graces of the spirit set forth in Scripture (2 Peter 1:4-9).
The rationale for reverencing God and keeping his commandments is contained in the final verse of this book: “For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14).
How comforting it is to realize that God’s eternal purpose will be fulfilled when his will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10).