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The Book of Ecclesiastes is a major downer. It’s twelve chapters of King Solomon giving us the perspective of a man who has been there, done that, and is completely over it. It’s the memoirs of a man who spent his whole life chasing after the lusts of his flesh, only to conclude in the end that living to please his earthsuit is completely meaningless.
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Ecc. 1:2)
This is how the book starts off, with Solomon calling himself “the Teacher.” At the end of the book, he concludes his pessimistic venting session with these arrogant words:
Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true. (Ecc. 12:9-10)
Upright and true—this is how Solomon describes the wisdom he imparts to us in his book. Solomon is delusional. While he does say a few useful things, he also says plenty of totally obnoxious things—things that prove just how faithless and warped Solomon’s mind had become.
The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. (Ecc. 9:11)
According to Solomon, God isn’t intimately involved in every detail of our lives. The events in this world aren’t all part of some Divine master plan. Nope, it’s all just random chance. It’s all just luck and coincidence. This faithless worldview is the kind of mindset we fall into when we spend too long rebelling against God (see The Illusion of Bad Luck).
Today Solomon’s name is still associated with great wisdom. And yet if you read through the biblical records, you’ll find that there really isn’t much wisdom being displayed by this king. Sure, he had a few impressive moments–like when he ordered a baby to be cut in half in order to determine which of two women was the birth mother. When the true mother was willing to lose her son in order to see his life spared, Solomon gave the child to her unharmed. That was a really impressive moment, and clearly it was God who helped Solomon think on his feet like that. But you won’t find many such moments recorded in the biblical accounts about Solomon. Instead you’ll find a lot of time being spent describing the details of the glamorous Temple which he had constructed in Jerusalem for Yahweh. This was the first Temple built for Yahweh–the one that replaced the tent Tabernacle which Moses’ people had constructed. And while Solomon’s Temple was certainly eye catching, we all pretend that it’s the only temple he ever built, when in reality it was only one of many.
Solomon’s father was King David. His mother was Bathsheba–the married woman who David forced to sleep with him only to then murder her husband when Bathsheba turned up pregnant with David’s child. David was far from perfect, but he did sincerely care about pleasing Yahweh, and during his reign, the public worship of false gods was discouraged in Israel.
But then Solomon came along. Solomon was a sex addict. We know this because the man had 1,000 recorded lovers (and likely many more whose names never made it into the royal records). Sleeping with that many different women doesn’t even sound appealing unless you have some personal issues which are causing you to obsess over the physical. A man who mows through as many women as Solomon did is intentionally avoiding the daunting task of forming a real relationship and instead he’s just going for the physical rush. No doubt Solomon’s sex addiction was his way of trying to use sex to compensate for something else (see Help for Sex Addicts: Understanding Symbolic Sex). And as much as we can sympathize with a man feeling scared of the risks that come from a real relationship, the problem with Solomon is that he wasn’t content to just use women’s bodies. He also began pursuing the false gods that his women worshiped, and soon Solomon was filling his kingdom with monuments and temples to those false gods.
He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of Yahweh; he did not follow Yahweh completely, as David his father had done. On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods. (1 Ki. 11:5-9)
Pretty soon his citizens were using all of the temples he’d built and by his terrible spiritual example, Solomon encouraged all of Israel to turn her back on Yahweh. And by the time the man spent decades worshiping every god but Yahweh, his faith was in shreds and his theology was a mess. He was also in big trouble with God.
Yahweh became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from Yahweh, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice. Although He had forbidden Solomon to follow other gods, Solomon did not keep Yahweh’s command. So Yahweh said to Solomon, “Since this is your attitude and you have not kept My covenant and My decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates. Nevertheless, for the sake of David your father, I will not do it during your lifetime. I will tear it out of the hand of your son. Yet I will not tear the whole kingdom from him, but will give him one tribe for the sake of David My servant and for the sake of Jerusalem, which I have chosen.” (1 Ki. 11:9-13)
It’s sometime after this moment that Solomon wrote the book of Ecclesiastes: from the trenches of a multi-level burnout. He was burned out on sex, burned out on material wealth, and burned out on false religions. He’d lost his grip on truth, his relationship with Yahweh was in a mess, and he wasn’t in any position to coach anyone on making wise life choices. Instead much of the “wisdom” he doles out is pretty useless.
A feast is made for laughter, wine makes life merry, and money is the answer for everything. (Ecc. 10:19)
By the time Solomon writes this book, he has come to the realization that he has squandered his life on all the wrong things. In between bitter comments about how the world works, he keeps saying, “it is meaningless.” His advice is also filled with contradiction. One moment he tells us that money is the solution to all our problems, and the next moment he tells us that money never satisfies.
Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless. (Ecc. 5:10)
Solomon’s outlook on life is extremely pessimistic. He is a man who has gorged himself on all the pleasures of the world, only to find them all bitterly unsatisfying.
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. (Ecc. 2:10-11)
When chasing carnal lusts and working hard proved empty, Solomon then tried to get satisfaction out of his special gift of wisdom. But in the end he was forced to conclude that his wisdom didn’t give him any real advantage.
The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both. Then I said to myself, “The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?” I said to myself, “This too is meaningless.” For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered; the days have already come when both have been forgotten. Like the fool, the wise too must die! (Ecc. 2:14-16)
As we read through this depressing book, we discover that Solomon is indeed giving us great wisdom. Not through his fabulous proverbs, but by showing us where his choices have taken him. Solomon tried to find pleasure in life apart from God. He exchanged real spiritual treasures for the cheap substitutes that the world had to offer. In the end, he became a warped, frustrated, bitter old man.
So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless. (Ecc. 2:17-23)
When we read this passage, we get the image of a rich man stewing over who will inherit his wealth when he is gone. Fretting over who will break your toys after you’re dead—can there be a bigger waste of time than this? The world will never satisfy us. Our souls long to be connected with our Creator. Without Him, everything else becomes meaningless.
Ecclesiastes reads like a stream of consciousness: the random ramblings of a man who is saying a whole bunch of nothing as he tries to say something. Over and over again, Solomon talks about the many phases of life only to keep concluding that everything is meaningless.
I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. (Ecc. 3:12-13)
This is really lame advice. To God, our lives are not just about eating and enjoying our work. God wants us to mature. He wants to teach us about who He designed us to be and help us discover how richly satisfying our existence can be when we live in alignment with Him. Life with God is filled with meaning and purpose. But Solomon knows nothing about this because he’s never experienced it. It’s taken him his whole life to arrive at the misguided conclusion that being happy and doing good is the best we can hope for in life. How very tragic that a man with such a great spiritual heritage ended up so disconnected from the truth.
When we live in rebellion against God, our faith crumbles and our minds become deluded. By the time he writes Ecclesiastes, Solomon has some very strange theological ideas. He’s become uncertain about the reality of any afterlife. He’s considering the possibility that there is no real difference between humans and animals.
Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth? (Ecc. 3:19-21)
This degrading description of humans sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The famous Theory of Evolution promotes similar themes: that people have no eternal soul, that there is no afterlife, and that humans are just another kind of animal. This is the great king of Israel talking. This is the son of the man who penned those famous words: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want” (see Psalm 23: Yahweh is a Good Shepherd). David’s view of life and eternity was far more optimistic:
“Surely Your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of Yahweh forever.” (Ps. 23:6)
What a contrast to Solomon’s dismal groan:
And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun. (Ecc. 4:2-3)
Solomon was the richest king in Israel’s history. Did his wealth satisfy him? Not hardly.
The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether they eat little or much, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep. (Ecc. 5:12)
Solomon has lost all joy in material riches. He’s lost all joy, period. Now he is fixated on the futility of life—how we bring nothing into the world and can bring nothing out.
Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands. This too is a grievous evil: As everyone comes, so they depart, and what do they gain, since they toil for the wind? All their days they eat in darkness, with great frustration, affliction and anger. (Ecc. 5:15-17)
“He who dies with the most toys still dies”—this is the realization Solomon has come to and he finds it very disturbing. He is intensely bothered by the idea of having all the work of his hands count for nothing. He is bothered by the idea of having his accomplishments unappreciated or even undone by his successor. Although he has spent years partying, sleeping around, and soaking up the admiration of others, he describes life as a negative, frustrating, miserable ordeal. This is the wisdom we gain from Solomon: that rebelling against God strips all meaning, purpose, and joy out of life.
For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless days they pass through like a shadow? Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone? (Ecc. 6:12)
Death is a major theme in Ecclesiastes. Solomon is clearly haunted by the concept of dying and very insecure about what happens afterwards.
Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure. (Ecc. 7:3-4)
What kind of advice is this? At first glance, Solomon sounds quite foolish. Yet when we remember his history, these comments make sense. Solomon has spent his life as a partying playboy. Now he realizes that he has just been squandering his time. Sober thinking was what he spent years avoiding, and now he realizes it would have done him a lot of good. Facing our sorrows, hurts, and disappointments–being honest with God about the depth of our struggles: these are the things that help us mature. But spending all of our energy trying to run away from ourselves and filling our lives with endless distractions: this is what results in us squandering our lives on useless things.
In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: the righteous perishing in their righteousness, and the wicked living long in their wickedness. Do not be too righteous, neither be too wise—why destroy yourself? Do not be too wicked, and do not be a fool—why die before your time? It is good to grasp the one and not let go of the other. Whoever fears God will avoid all extremes. (Ecc. 7:15-18)
While God tells us to pursue righteousness wholeheartedly, Solomon tells us that righteousness can be overdone. To be too good or too wicked—neither one is a smart choice. It’s best to stay somewhere in the middle: to intentionally cling to evil as well as good. To stay in a state of moral compromise—that’s what those who fear God should do. This is idiotic advice spoken by a man who is trying to preach about something he doesn’t understand. Never look to an ungodly man to tell you how to be godly. If there’s anything God wants from us, it’s extreme righteousness. This kind of righteousness isn’t about striving to be behaviorally perfect–it’s about being fiercely devoted to God on a soul level. Sometimes God tells us to stand up for a principle, and it costs us. Solomon would discourage us from obeying our convictions in such a moment, because he sees no worldly benefit in such things. And while it’s true that people often respond aggressively towards those who are modeling serious commitment to God, we need to remember that we’re not living for the approval of people. It’s God’s opinion that matters, and to blow Him off in order to save ourselves from being targeted by our peers is a very foolish choice.
So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun. (Ecc. 8:15)
Over and over again, Solomon keeps coming back to this same tiresome conclusion: enjoy living and eating, because having a good time is all that matters. Wow. If this is all he has to offer, we can easily do better elsewhere.
Now once you decide that enjoying yourself in each moment is the highest prize there is, you’re naturally going to be very upset by death, because death robs you of the chance to enjoy yourself. And once you believe that there is no afterlife, then death becomes even more upsetting.
For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten. (Ecc. 9:5)
Solomon has decided that both the wicked and the godly reach the same end, therefore what’s the point of trying to do right?
All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. As it is with the good, so it is with the sinful; as it is with those who take oaths, so it is with those who are afraid to take them. This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. (Ecc. 9:2-3)
The world is a bitter, unfair, meaningless, miserable place to our groaning king, yet he still clings to life as the only thing he has. To the faithless man, death is a terrifying end that makes a mockery out of everything he cherished and turns all his work into ruin. Solomon is a faithless man. He knows of God, but he has no personal relationship with Him. He is terrified of dying, yet in a random universe devoid of all meaning and purpose, death seems to be the one inescapable truth.
Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them. (Ecc. 9:12)
Even in his spiritually warped state, Solomon understands where he went astray, and he concludes his book with a warning for others not to make his same bad choices:
Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them” (Ecc. 12:1)
After spending a whole book telling us how much pleasure he no longer gets out of life, Solomon is clearly speaking from experience here. If only he had made better spiritual choices when he was young, he would have ended up in a very different place.
Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. (Ecc. 12:13-14)
King Solomon was a very tragic figure. He was given a fabulous start in life and was publicly favored by Yahweh, yet he chose to turn away from God in his heart and he lived to reap the bitter consequences of his choices. Solomon is everything you don’t want to be. Happily, you never have to end up like he did. Instead, you can choose to greatly please God today by asking Him to make you all that He wants you to be.
King Solomon’s Song of Lust
Know Your Bible Lesson 11: The Rebellion of Solomon
Growing Close to God: The Critical Role of Choice (The Mountain Metaphor)
Soul Before Earthsuit: Understanding God’s Priorities
2 Chronicles 6-7: Why We Shouldn’t Ask God to Heal Our Land
Understanding Moses: Identifying Soul Attitudes in Deuteronomy 8
Spiritual Maturity in the Bible: Where is it?