I know. It’s a bit provocative to say that Ecclesiastes is not about vanity. But it is true. Well, let’s just say that it’s partially true. However, not in a deceptive way. But in an incomplete way. The kind of partial truth where you are only seeing the small details developing into the bigger picture. And those details are merely the darker shades that place the more meaningful centerpiece front and center. And when you read Ecclesiastes, it is easy to think that the author’s centerpiece is about how life is vanity because the word it is heavily sprinkled throughout the book. But is this is the main message? Is Solomon simply just pessimistic about life?
As a linguistic and literary tip, just because a word is used often, doesn’t mean that is the main or underlining theme (no font intended) of a passage or subject. I can talk about the house I lived in when I was a kid. Say the word house 30 times in a small amount of time, even repeat the details about that house, but I can conclude at the end of my nostalgic babble that, “I hate that house!” By that statement alone, the whole purpose of why I am writing/speaking begins to emerge. It is no longer about the house, but my hatred of it. And as the discourse by Solomon develops, there are multiple streams of thought that eventually meet together that give a practical principle, created from the raging river of poetic and proverbial expressions that has left even the wisest theologians scratching their heads. But one thing we know — Ecclesiastes is not about vanity.
Life Is Not Meaningless. It’s Hevel.
Is life vanity? Are all things in life vanity as Solomon says in the first few verses of Ecclesiastes? Yes and no. First, it is important to understand that the word vanity has been severely misunderstood in English. It does not mean meaningless, hopeless, and/or pointless despite the many expositors, and some translations. The word in Hebrew for vanity is hevel. And the word can portray a variety of nuances depending on the context. Some of those are:
- Frustrating (Ecc. 2:17)
- Fleeting/Transitory (Ecc. 6:12)
- Mysterious/Enigma (Ecc. 8:14)
Second, The word hevel literally means “smoke” or “vapor.” And like smoke, many of the things we desire to gain from this life cannot be grasped and permanently held unto (Ecc. 1:3; 2:22; 3;9; 5:16). Like smoke, some things in life give the impression of solidity and permanence, but when attempting to obtain or hold on to them, they slip through our fingers. Things like money, pleasure, prestige, power, reputation, success, aspirations, inheritance, and even our own life, eludes us, dissipates, and frustrates us when we cannot control the outcome or the results (Ecc. 6:12; 8:7). And in the most basic sense, this is what Solomon tends to mean about some of the things we seek to gain “under the sun” as being hevel. And because tragedy, unexpected events, and death eventually come to all, there are very few earthly things that we can gain in this life that will last. Nor can it come with after we die.
Lastly, because of the above, this has led many theologians to conclude that what Solomon writes is very pessimistic. That in the end, Solomon is just concluding a very cynical kind of way of living life. That you might as well eat, drink, and be merry because it’s all gonna go to hell in a handbasket anyway. But notice, nowhere in Ecclesiastes does Solomon pessimistically conclude that life is meaningless, hopeless, or pointless. Nor does he say that it is morally wrong to have or enjoy money, pleasure, or even possessions. We just have to have a realistic approach as to their temporal nature.
One problem of why so many think Solomon is just writing pessimistically is that we get hung up on our English understanding of the word “vanity.” And that linguistic baggage is what we often bring into the text, rather than looking through Solomon’s definitional lenses, as well as understanding wisdom literature. The other problem is that we miss the poetical function of how hevel is used to bring down the literary “black curtain” so that the stage is set for the luminescent masterpiece of his main message. And despite all the deep and emotional angst Solomon expresses about his frustrations with life (as we all do – sinner and saint), he has a literary goal in mind for this sermon. And that purpose is not only the key to contentment, but the reviving remedy for our times of crisis and tragedy we often experience in our lives.
So What’s the Point?
Like many things in life, we often interpret the middle of something in light of end. As Solomon says in his very own work, “The end of a thing is better than the beginning…” (Ecc 7:8). A movie, a school exam, a 3-mile run, and heated argument, and even a boring sermon, can demonstrate how this rings true in various ways. The conclusion of a thing brings closure and clarity to the beginning and middle. And in Ecclesiastes, Solomon gives us something to always keep in mind as we are reading his memoir. In Chapter 12, the very last two verses say:
This end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecc. 12:13-14, ESV)
This is a key interpretive text, but not the interpretative text. Nevertheless, while Solomon points out all the ways that life can frustrate us, leave us wondering “why?” when tragedies occur, and often leave a nasty taste of despair when we see the fleeting nature of it, this conclusion is meant to center and ground us, knowing that God will right all wrongs. And that despite all that is enigmatic and temporary in our lives, we are to still fear God and keep His commandments (Ecc. 8:12). And that it is good and best for us to live a life of wisdom (Ecc. 2:13; 7:12-13), even though this doesn’t guarantee a stress free, tragedy free, or predictable life. Because all things will be brought to light in eternity, whether good or evil. But this isn’t the only wisdom that Solomon wants us to gain from his extraordinary piece of wisdom literature.
Throughout the book, Solomon not only wants his readers to see life realistically (not pessimistically), his underlining theme is that we are to still capitalize and enjoy those gifts and pleasures the way that God has providentially intended for us to enjoy! In other words, though many things in life do not last, enjoy them while they do! Of course, not in some Y.O.L.O-“Christian hedonism” kind of fashion where we recklessly seek all the pleasure we can (Ecc. 2:1-3). But in a way that coincides with godly wisdom, and that is in accordance with God’s revealed word (Ecc. 2:13; 7:11-12). And no, it’s not everything in moderation either. But everything by biblical and joyful consideration.
Other than reading the book in light of the end, we are to take strong consideration of what has been often called the “Enjoy Life Refrains” peppered thought the book. A late-pastor by the name of Bryan Pollock called them “provisional conclusions.” And what these refrains do is not only provide a helpful grid on how to read Ecclesiastes, but also inject immediate, practical wisdom on how to react to life’s daily dissatisfactions, disillusionments, and depressions.
Below is an exhaustive list of these provisional conclusions. And as you consider them, it would be wise to go back through Ecclesiastes and read it with these provisional conclusions in mind. Let them be a literary expectation. A sub-climax, if you will, that helps to balance what has often been a misunderstood treatise on the “hopelessness” of life. They will be light to your soul, and a healing reminder in the midst of your emotional turmoil that we all experience in our everyday lives.
[Ecc 2:24-26] 24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God…
[Ecc 3:12-13, 22] 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man… 22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?
[Ecc 5:18-20] 18 Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 19 Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God.
[Ecc 8:15] 15 And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.
[Ecc 9:7-10] 7 Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. 8 Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. 9 Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.
[Ecc 11:9-10] 9 Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. 10 Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.
[Quotations taken from the English Standard Version]
As we take the “Enjoy Life” refrains into consideration, we have to remember that these aren’t some “Well, you better just enjoy life while you got it because life sucks, then you die” kind of phrases. These are meant to be life-invigorating, and practical principles of wisdom that Solomon wants us to put into practice as we live in this sin-cursed world. A world, mind you, that is still providentially and sovereignly controlled by the good and benevolent hand of God our Savior!
And despite how at times we may hate life, experience gut-wrenching tragedy and loss, or feel angst and despair over the unpredictability of the events of ahead, we are to take every moment, day by day, week by week, year by year, with a celebratory and joyful attitude knowing that all we’ve been given is precious and momentary. True, our lives, our wives, our friends, our family, our stuff, and our work will one day fade. But we can enjoy the goodness of God in these things while we still have them. Because life is indeed hevel. And that knowledge should cause us not to ultimately despair, but should provoke us to savor every momentary blessing we receive from God until the day we see him face to face. This is Solomon’s main message.
So enjoy life! See the good things in God’s daily provisions despite the obvious evil in the world. And immediately put into practice these provisional conclusions so that we not only enjoy the depth of abundant life that God gives us eternally in Christ, but also in this present world. Don’t be overcome by hevel, but overcome hevel by enjoying the good.
– Until we go home
For more study on this topic here are some helpful links.
1. Dr. Bill Barrack on Ecclesiastes https://drbarrick.org/ecclesiastes/
2. Dr. Al Fuhr on Ecclesiastes https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLnNXzYjQerJhaNhuHT_2z7tdgl0aZ9UdS
3. “Nothing New Under The Sun” Sermon by George Alvarado https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=72119071500308
4. Robert V. McCabe, “Navigating Life in a World that has been Scarred by the Fall” https://equip.sbts.edu/publications/journals/journal-of-theology/navigating-life-in-a-world-that-has-been-scarred-by-the-fall-reflections-on-ecclesiastes-97-10-and-living-in-a-world-of-suffering/