The most famous examples of ‘wisdom literature’ are found in the Bible. The following Biblical books are classified as wisdom literature, the Book of Job, Psalms, the Book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs.
The Book of Ecclesiastes author is Solomon and it’s a book filled with failures and pessimism. We might even call it ‘the book of pessimism’. It furnishes us with some of the most pessimistic literature to be found in the Bible.
David’s life had been hard and difficult. He was constantly on the run from Saul. With the death of Saul, David still did not have complete control of all of the kingdom of Israel. It would take seven more hard years before he finally was accepted as the king over all of Israel.
Yet he could write a book like Psalms and write about joy and praise. He once wrote I was glad when they said unto me let us go up to the house of the Lord. David’s viewpoint was, ‘This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.’ Psalm 118:24.
There is a vast contrast between David and his son Solomon. Solomon seemed to be just the opposite in character of his father. With the coming of David’s death, it had already been decreed that his son Solomon would become the next king.
Solomon swings into action. The period of his reign, 40 years, proved to be the most peaceful time in Israel’s history. Immediately he gives every indication he was going to make a good king to rule over Israel. He became the most powerful and richest ruler in the world. In his early life, he had asked God to give him wisdom to rule his father’s kingdom. God’s answer is found in 1 Kings 3:11-13.
How could he change so dramatically in his personal outlook on life? He had everything he could possibly want from worldly things. How could he end up being such a pessimistic and disappointed man considering what all he had when he started out as the king of Israel and with all the blessings God gave him?
At the close of his life, his observation of life was, ‘The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem’. Ecclesiastes 1:1. He presents himself as a ‘Teacher’ or a ‘Preacher’ who is revealing the delusion of finding happiness in this life with just earthly things. One of the wisest and humblest prayers ever uttered is that of the young man Solomon, 1 Kings 3:9-10.
When we read through Ecclesiastes, we can’t help but ask, how on earth could a man as wise as Solomon become so foolish? How could a man so high, yet so humble, become so foolish? How could a man so rich become so poor? How could a man who asked for the right thing, become so wrong?
In Ecclesiastes, we read of Solomon’s experiments in the laboratory of life. He never found the satisfaction he was looking for. He ends up with his priorities all in the wrong places. He forgot the very God who had blessed him so richly and turned to detestable heathen gods who could do absolutely nothing for him. His harem led to his downfall.
Ecclesiastes is a very ancient book in many respects but it is more up to date than tomorrow’s newspaper. This is because its theme is ages old and unchanging. Its age speaks to our age in a most relevant way.
The problems considered in this book are the same problems that modern-day Britain faces every day. Customs, lifestyles and pleasures remain the same as they were in Solomon’s age. And so, the message applies as much to us as it did to those who lived in Solomon’s age. Human nature has always remained the same at every age and will continue to repeat these mistakes of life.
He was searching for what he considered the supreme good. What would give him the most pleasure in his life? What would give him the most excitement? He turned inward. What will satisfy me the most rather than what will bring the greatest amount of glory to God? It was the trap so many fall into today. It’s all about me with no room left for a gracious and loving God.
He was searching for what is worldly supreme. This search has been conducted by countless thousands. He sought everything he could lay his hands upon. He yielded to every fleshly and sensual impulse. If happiness could be found in earthly things then it would not elude him for, he tried everything he thought would bring him great satisfaction and happiness in his life.
Wisdom. Ecclesiastes 1
Pleasure. Ecclesiastes 2
Power And Prestige. Ecclesiastes 3
Fleshly Indulgence. Ecclesiastes 4-5
Riches And Wealth. Ecclesiastes 6
Reputation. Ecclesiastes 7
If we will look closely, we will probably see ourselves somewhere in this list of things Solomon sought so hard to find happiness in. Yet all resulted in failing to give him the pleasure and satisfaction he wanted so badly. Solomon was searching for supreme pleasure.
This search has been conducted by countless thousands. Few have been able to pursue it as thoroughly as did Solomon. Being king, and the richest man alive, he was in a position to experiment with anything he chose to do.
Few have been able to pursue it as thoroughly as did Solomon. He revelled in everything he could lay his hands on. Each thing he tried he tried to the fullest extent. He revelled in everything he could lay his hands upon. He yielded to every fleshly and sensual impulse. If happiness could be found in earthly things then it would have eluded him for, he tried everything that human wisdom said would bring happiness.
His actions in searching for the supreme good remind us of acts in a play where we are permitted to watch as he goes from one thing to another only to be disappointed. It never gives him the happiness he thought it would bring.
Instead, he concludes, ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Everything is meaningless!’ Ecclesiastes 12:8. This sentence becomes the theme of his book and is repeated more than a dozen and a half times. Solomon was seeking in the wrong places. He should have been seeking the joy that can be found in the Lord.
Everything is meaningless. Ecclesiastes 1:1-11
Life Under the Sun. Ecclesiastes 1:12-6:12
Life Under God. Ecclesiastes 7:1-12:8
Conclusion. Ecclesiastes 12:9-14
Please remember as we go through this book that Solomon is nearing the end of his life, he is focusing a lot on death but, he along with most people of the Old Testament had no real concept of the afterlife. We should remember that, even if he was the wisest man of his day, Solomon was not omniscient. There were things which even he didn’t know because God hadn’t yet revealed them.
In other words, when he writes later, ‘’or the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing,’ Ecclesiastes 9:5, Solomon was merely expressing the view of death commonly held among his people in his day. But, when we examine the Old Testament Scriptures it becomes clear that, even among God’s ancient chosen people, Israel, there was no clear understanding of, or belief in, life after death.
The Covenant enacted as Sinai related to their manner of life in an earthly ‘Promised Land’. This is quite evident in the Commandment ‘Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the LORD your God is giving you,’ Exodus 20:12, declares that parents were to be honoured, in order, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.
This instruction, with its promise, is also repeated in the Psalms. See Psalm 37, for example, and look particularly at the following verses, Psalm 37:3 / Psalm 37:9 / Psalm 37:11 / Psalm 37:22 / Psalm 37:28 / Psalm 37:34.
A fact, that we are inclined to overlook, is that, in the Covenant, which God made with His people at Sinai, there is no mention of blessings in a life hereafter and certainly no mention of Heaven. The blessings promised to those who kept the Covenant were related to this present life; namely longevity and posterity. A long life in the earthly ‘homeland’, Palestine, and someone to carry the family name forward.
Consequently, the Old Testament reveals that God’s people of that period had a very simple, one might almost say simplistic, view of life, with a philosophy which declared, ‘do good, and God will bless you with prosperity and longevity in the Land which He has promised to His people. But do evil, and you will be punished.’
The effect of this belief was that when a person experienced hardship or adversity in his life, people believed that he was being punished by God because of some wickedness in his life. On the other hand, when one prospered, his prosperity was taken as proof of divine approval and blessing.
Well, of course, it would be fine if life were that simple. But we know and they also were forced to recognise, that it doesn’t always, work out that way! Often the wicked seem to prosper in this life, even to the extent of seeming to escape punishment for their wickedness, whilst those who try to live good lives often have to face severe hardship. This is what comes out very clearly in Psalm 73, where the writer struggles with this very dilemma.
Therefore, gradually it was revealed to the Hebrews that, because the wicked often escape being called to account for their wickedness in this life, there will be a time and a place where the balance will be redressed and justice will be done.
Because God is the Righteous God, the wicked must, and will, be punished, and the righteous will be vindicated, if not in this life but certainly in the afterlife. And yet, as the New Testament scriptures reveal, even in the days of the Lord Jesus, the puzzling question of death and what lies beyond, hadn’t been completely resolved and was still fiercely debated among the various religious parties.
The Pharisees firmly believed in both a future life and a Judgment whilst the Sadducees rejected both. It was the Lord Jesus Himself who ‘brought life and immortality to light, through the Gospel,’ 2 Timothy 1:10. He brought it to light, He drove away the mists and doubts which had engulfed it for so long. And He did it, both by His teaching and His own resurrection from the dead.
It is in 1 Kings where we first read of Solomon’s great wisdom and understanding. It’s said he ‘excelled’ above all men. Everyone wanted to visit him and hear him speak.
Seemingly he welcomed those who would come to hear him speak. Knowledge is a wonderful thing. But many fall into intellectual pride. All education is nothing without a knowledge of God’s Word, 1 Kings 4:29-34 / Ecclesiastes 1:17-18.
The word, ‘teacher’ in Hebrew is the word, ‘qoheleth’, which means a gatherer of wisdom, this word comes from the other Hebrew word, ‘qahal’ which means to assemble. In other words, this is a person who assembles people for learning.
The theme for the entire book is found in the word ‘meaningless’, the Hebrew word used is the word, ‘habel’ which means emptiness. Solomon says that everything concerning life is empty, that is life without God is entirely a waste of time and has no purpose.
What a way to start a book! Solomon begins with doom and gloom and will continue with this doom and gloom through the entire book, until the final chapter. Why is he doing this? The aged Solomon, as his reign as king is drawing to an end, reflects upon his life and the lives of others, is looking back at everything, he’s seen happening around him. He wants us to learn from the consequences of giving God second place in our lives.
He asks the question, ‘what do people gain from all their labours at which they toil under the sun?’ The answer is simply nothing! If our lives are focused on fulfilling our own pleasures and trying to become famous, then when we get older, we will look back and come to the realisation, that this was meaningless, it was waste of time. It’s meaningless because we realise that pleasure and fame don’t give us hope for the afterlife.
Notice he says that, ‘generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.’ This passage, and especially the phrase ‘remain forever’ has puzzled many a person over the years. If we are to understand this expression, it’s important that we read the entire verse. Does it mean that the Earth will never be destroyed?
When Ecclesiastes 1:4 is dragged in to support the present-day ‘watchtower’, interpretation of this verse, the clear and simple significance of the verse is missed. In it, the Biblical writer declares that life on the earth is transient and full of change. Even in the world of nature, there is constant movement and constant change, but there is no lasting progress.
As for man, although he labours constantly neither he nor his works endure. But whilst one human generation follows another, such as the brevity of man’s existence, the earth itself remains. And it remains, ‘forever’! But the word, ‘olam’ does not mean eternally. It means ‘age-lasting’. The earth will continue until the role designed for it in the plan of God has been fulfilled, Exodus 21:6.
The existence of the present earth, also, will continue for just as long as the will and purpose of God decrees, and the scriptures make it abundantly plain that this means it will continue until Christ returns, 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10 / 2 Peter 3:10 / 2 Peter 3:13. These verses describe the end of this present age and this present earth.
Solomon says when we eventually get old and look back upon our lives, if God wants number one in our lives, or if God wants us involved in any way in our lives, then life would be meaningless, it had no purpose, no point. A life without God is monotonous, whilst the sun continues to rise each day and sets at the end of the day, as the wind blows south and then turns north, as the streams go back and forth into and from the sea, such is life.
Even when people die all these natural things continue, if a person enjoys their pleasure and becomes famous, the natural world continues but all the riches and wealth we have acquired simply gets passed on to someone else. Anyone who doesn’t have God in their life is just like this, whereas the Christian has riches in heaven, Matthew 6:19-21, along with eternal life, Matthew 19:16-22.
Solomon says while life is boring and mundane for us, while never changes for us, wonderful things continue to go on in the physical world. He’s telling us that our perception of this physical life leads us to think that the things happening in the physical world won’t bring us any peace of mind.
We are blessed in what we see and hear around us in the physical world, Psalm 19:1-4, but because we hear and see the same old thing, time after time, we come to the conclusion that the physical world won’t give us any emotional or spiritual satisfaction. This brings frustration to us because we conclude that when we die, the world goes on as before.
There is nothing new, our lives are short, James 4:14, and all we experience is what many others have experienced before us. We may think we’ve discovered something new, but the reality is that it may be new to us but it’s certainly not new for those who lived before us, it’s old for them. In other words, the human spirit remains unchanged throughout time.
Solomon has just argued that life is meaningless because there is nothing new and now, he argues that life is meaningless because nothing is remembered. Throughout the world, there are many monuments, books and places which help us remember because we are prone to forget things. Solomon doesn’t want us to forget the legacy of his life, which was, that if we don’t put God first in our lives, then life itself will be meaningless.
Throughout the Old Testament, people were reminded of who God was and what He had done for them, Genesis 50:24 / Exodus 22:3. One of the reasons we partake in the Lord’s Supper is to remember, Luke 22:19-20. We are prone to forget, the good news is that God never forgets, Psalm 56:8, He knows His people and He knows what they do, 2 Corinthians 5:10.
Most people try to work FOR their salvation, whilst those who are saved, work BECAUSE of their salvation and as a result, the work they do isn’t meaningless, 1 Corinthians 15:59 / Revelation 14:13.
Solomon always applied his mind to study and applied wisdom to what he did, 1 Kings 4:33, but then he says if that is all our main goal is in life, we will be left frustrated, it’s like chasing after the wind. In other words, it’s a pointless exercise. In Solomon’s case, as a king, he used all that study and wisdom to make himself successful.
However, when he was looking to the world to find satisfaction and happiness, he didn’t find them. If the wisest and richest man who ever lived found study and wisdom meaningless, what makes us think we will be any different? In other words, there’s no way we can understand all things and for some that leaves them annoyed because they don’t know all the answers to all the questions, Ecclesiastes 8:16-17 / Psalm 147:5.
Solomon says, ‘what is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.’ In other words, he’s saying the more we search, the more we discover and the more we discover makes us come to the conclusion that the world we’re living in is far from perfect.
God created us with great imaginations, He created us to learn and discover new things but there’s always more to learn, there’s always more to discover, even when we’re on our deathbed, we find ourselves thinking about something that still needs to be learned.
Solomon appears to know wisdom from two different perspectives, that is ‘madness’ and ‘folly’. The idea here is that he tried to live in the world of madness and the world of foolishness to try and help him understand the wisdom of life, but this again only left him irritated with life, it was like chasing after the wind.
Those of us who’ve been around for a while will know that the more, we think we know, the more we realise just how much we don’t really know. Knowledge here leads to sorrow and grief, that’s because knowledge can sometimes make people come across as arrogant, 1 Corinthians 8:1, but humility helps us understand that we can never know everything, Isaiah 55:8-9.