‘Under the sun’ is where I imagine you would like to be right now—preferably on a beach in the Caribbean with a good book in one hand and a cool drink in the other.

If the writer of Ecclesiastes were there with you he would, of course, warn you that too much lying around ‘under the sun’ is the road to skin cancer. I say ‘of course’ because that’s the style of the Bible’s ‘wisdom writers’: they look at the contrasts and contradictions of life and try to make sense of them. A sun-tan may be nice, but there’s also a downside.

God provided his ancient people with different styles of speakers and writers to meet different needs. He gave them priests to teach his law, and prophets to bring direct messages from himself to stir them to keep the covenant. But he also provided a category of teachers known as ‘the wise’. Unlike the priests, these didn’t teach the law. Instead, they ‘simply examined the everyday affairs of life and, on the basis of their findings, offered advice to their hearers.’[1]

Their writings are called ‘wisdom literature’, and Ecclesiastes fits in here, along with Job and Proverbs. The opening verse of Ecclesiastes tells us something about the book’s author: ‘The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem.’ In other words, Solomon. Whether Solomon wrote the whole book, however, is doubtful. Most scholars think it just starts with a quotation from him and, after this, the unknown writer continues to look at life à la Solomon. In the end it doesn’t matter who the writer was. What’s important is that here is a collection of wise observations about life that God has included in Holy Scripture for your benefit.

The recurring phrase ‘under the sun’ describes the writer’s viewpoint. He uses it no less than twenty-nine times. What does it mean? At its simplest, life ‘under the sun’ means life ‘here on earth’, but the Teacher means specifically life that doesn’t take God into account, life that doesn’t think beyond the material dimensions of our world, life that lacks a spiritual anchor-point.

‘Is there any purpose to life?’ is his question. More specifically, ‘Is it possible to find satisfaction and fulfilment in life without a spiritual dimension?’ The question remains topical for today’s society, about which one writer says: ‘Western materialism in its suburban form affirms that life is a race against one’s neighbours. The winner is the one who has the most material goods before he goes up the crematorium chimney in a puff of smoke.’[2] Is a spiritual dimension optional or a necessity? Let’s jump into Ecclesiastes and see how the Teacher introduces his theme:

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”

says the Teacher.

“Utterly meaningless!

Everything is meaningless.”

What does anyone gain from all their labours

at which they toil under the sun?

Generations come and generations go,

but the earth remains for ever.

The sun rises and the sun sets,

and hurries back to where it rises.

The wind blows to the south

and turns to the north;

round and round it goes,

ever returning on its course.

All streams flow into the sea,

yet the sea is never full.

To the place the streams come from,

there they return again.

All things are wearisome,

more than one can say.

The eye never has enough of seeing,

nor the ear its fill of hearing.

What has been will be again,

what has been done will be done again;

there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there anything of which one can say,

“Look! This is something new”?

It was here already, long ago;

it was here before our time.

There is no remembrance of people of old,

and even those who are yet to come

will not be remembered

by those who follow them.[3]

Mmm. A bit depressing. People work hard to keep themselves alive, the Teacher is saying, then they die and lose everything they worked for. So is it worth the effort? Hardly, though that doesn’t seem to stop them. In fact every generation is a re-run of the previous one. The sun rises and sets. The wind circles around. The rain cycle continues. History wearily repeats itself. Generations come and go; they die and are forgotten. And it will all continue again tomorrow. Not very uplifting.

So is there a purpose to life? ‘There doesn’t seem to be’ is his conclusion. But while this is what his mind and observations tell him, his heart insists there must be more to life than this, so he sets out in the rest of the book to explore some possibilities. You may have done the same from time to time, but this man, unlike you and me, is a Solomon-figure, wealthy and powerful, so there are no limitations on the searching he can do. He has a better chance than you and me of finding an answer, so let’s stick with him.

He searches the major avenues of possibility, beginning with study and learning—the realm of philosophy. Can life’s purpose be found there, he wonders? Here are his notes:

I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on the human race! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

What is crooked cannot be straightened;

what is lacking cannot be counted.

I said to myself, “Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.

For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;

the more knowledge, the more grief.[4]

Oh dear, not much joy there! His researches have left him frustrated and he has written off the whole philosophical enterprise as ‘a chasing after the wind’.[5] Maybe the Teacher is an Old Testament version of Robert Zend, who said: ‘Being a philosopher, I have a problem for every solution’. Depressed with his findings, he even turns the microscope on himself and studies the psychology of mental illness and depression: ‘I applied myself to the understanding…of madness and folly’.[6] But no joy there either.

His conclusion on philosophy, then? ‘Life’s a corkscrew that can’t be straightened, a minus that won’t add up’.[7] Study, learning and advanced thought-systems are not the answer. In fact, if anything these increase the burden of life’s meaninglessness: ‘The more knowledge, the more grief.’[8] That rings true. The most educated have always been the greatest cynics. James Thurber observed that ‘sixty minutes of thinking of any kind is bound to lead to confusion and unhappiness’. Another of his ilk described a professor as ‘a man whose job is to tell students how to solve the problems of life which he himself has tried to avoid by becoming a professor.’ And yet another bright spark concluded that ‘the average PhD thesis is nothing but the transference of bones from one graveyard to another.’[9]

So we can write a ‘No’ against philosophy, concluded the Teacher. There’s no life-purpose to be found there, so ditch the study-books and lectures. He turned his attention instead to a more promising avenue of research: is life’s purpose to be found in pleasure?

This would ring an immediate bell with our hedonistic generation whose motto is ‘If it feels good, do it’. The Teacher decided to join them. Being the well-resourced Solomon-figure that he was, he couldn’t be content with theory here. Pleasure, he reckoned, needed to be experienced, not just studied. So his research took a practical turn—he jumped in with both feet and indulged his senses to the utmost:

I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. “Laughter,” I said, “is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?” I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.

I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.

I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;

I refused my heart no pleasure.

My heart took delight in all my labour,

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.[10]

We can’t accuse him of half-hearted research here. He explored a host of pleasurable options in the search for personal fulfilment, beginning with laughter, trying to laugh away his problems in the company of his friends. It didn’t work. Lord Byron once observed:

‘And if I laugh at any mortal thing,
Tis that I may not weep.’

The Teacher would have said a loud ‘Amen’ to that before moving on to a different pleasure: alcohol. Escapism through drink—and drugs—is nothing new. The altered states they induce may satisfy for a while, but the morning-after hangover and increasing dependency soon raise questions about the long-term value of this approach. So the Teacher moved on again, this time to the pleasure of creativity. He indulged his creative instincts on a grand scale, developing ‘great projects’ of building and landscaping but finding there only temporary satisfaction.

His next field of research was more bullish: the exercise of power. Again, his position enabled him to laugh at any limits and he accumulated large numbers of slaves to do his every bidding. He ruled the roost in a big way. But did it make him a happy man? No. So he progressed to the accumulation of wealth: livestock in unimaginable numbers and vast hoards of gold and silver. He became the man who had everything. And still he was miserable ‘under the sun’, because money doesn’t make the world go round.

Next, becoming more frantic for answers, he explored the arts, particularly music, with ‘male and female singers’ at his beck and call. Then he gave himself to a full exploration of sex: he had ‘a harem as well’. That little phrase says it all. But even this palled, as did the pleasure of striving for excellence in all his work. Across every one of these he had to write ‘Meaningless’. It was ‘nothing but smoke. Smoke and spitting into the wind’.[11]

That’s not to say the things he researched were bad in themselves. In fact they are intrinsically good. Properly exercised, there’s nothing wrong at all with laughter, a glass of wine, creative expression, management skills, wealth or the arts. Sex is a gift from God, too, and hard work is one way in which we reflect his nature. The point is that none of these is a strong enough platform to take the weight of life and human expectation. Make any one of them the be-all and end-all of your existence and it will crumble under the stress. It’s like going to the carpet store. If you buy a type marked ‘Bedroom quality; suitable for light use only’ and lay it in your hallway it will wear out in no time. It’s not meant to take that amount of traffic. You need ‘heavy domestic’. There’s nothing wrong with bedroom quality carpet as long as you use it there, and only there. Pleasure, in all its varieties, is for ‘light use only’. God alone is ‘heavy domestic’.

If Solomon, who had no limits to his wealth and power, remained frustrated in his pursuit of pleasure as a reason for living, there’s no hope for the rest of us down that avenue, since our choices are more limited. So back to the drawing-board: it was time for the Teacher to try something else.

Having exhausted all the exotic options, he moved on to explore a couple of sound old-fashioned virtues. One was common sense—good old everyday wisdom. He felt this could be a hopeful avenue of research, for surely it’s better to be wise than foolish, and everyone knows that common sense can give life a degree of stability. So what did he conclude?

I saw that wisdom is better than folly,

just as light is better than darkness.

The wise have eyes in their heads,

while fools walk in the darkness;

but I came to realise

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![12]

Another gloomy verdict. What is the point, he asks, in striving to live in a common-sense manner when, at the end of the road, you meet the same end as a complete idiot—you die? Yes, death is the great leveller: ‘We all end up as packaged goods’.[13]

Another old-fashioned virtue is hard work. Could that perhaps be a better option than common sense, the Teacher wondered? Work, after all, keeps us focused. It is productive, too—there will be something at the end to show for it. So is that what life is all about? Here are his observations:

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 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 labour under the sun. For people may labour with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to others who have 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 labour under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.[14]

Yet another gloomy conclusion: there’s no point in wearing yourself out with work just to leave your estate to someone else, especially someone who might turn out to be a lazy fool. It’s all ‘a bad business from start to finish’.[15]

Notice, in this last passage, the piling up of instances of the phrase ‘under the sun’—five of them in just these few verses. The Teacher is making a careful point. He is saying that his mounting frustration, as each avenue of exploration has proved to be a dead end, has one cause, and only one: all his research has been ‘under the sun’. It has confined itself to the material world. So it is time now to throw off this limitation and start looking ‘above the sun’ for answers. By that we mean bringing God into the situation.

Immediately things begin to look more promising in the search for the meaning of life. After a little research the Teacher advises ‘Remember your Creator’.[16] And the time to start remembering him, he hastens to add, is not at the end of life but at its beginning: ‘in the days of your youth’.

That seems like tough counsel. Young people don’t want to be into God stuff, do they? They tend to be more interested in what they call ‘having a good time’. Fair enough, but the question is: what constitutes ‘a good time’? Most young people would define it as seeking pleasure for its own sake, but the wise old Teacher has already nailed that one—pleasure sought for its own sake brings nothing but frustration and trouble. Like the bar of soap in the bath, the more firmly you try to grasp it, the further away it jumps.

No, ‘a good time’ will remain elusive if you seek it as an end in itself. A true ‘good time’ is the by-product of ‘remembering your Creator’.

An elderly man once offered his non-Christian grandson a nice leather-bound Bible. The boy was clearly not very interested—he knew his grandfather wasn’t short of cash and would have preferred some of that instead, though he was too polite to say so. The old man didn’t push it. ‘When you’re ready for the Bible, just ask me for it,’ he said. A couple of years later the boy decided to keep in his grandfather’s good books by asking for the Bible. He took it home, and for weeks it lay unopened. When he eventually picked it up and opened it he was astonished to find, spread among its pages, £50 notes to the total value of £1,000.

The thing he wanted came as a by-product of the thing he had looked down upon. So if you’re young and reading this, remember your Creator now, in the days of your youth. Dedicate your active years to him. It’s in knowing him that you will become truly alive, truly human. Embark on the Christian adventure and true fulfilment in all the areas that Solomon explored will be yours: ‘Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well’.[17]

The research paper is nearly complete. Like any good teacher, the writer of Ecclesiastes states his conclusion clearly:

Now all has been heard;

here is the conclusion of the matter:

Fear God and keep his commandments,

for this is the duty of every human being.

For God will bring every deed into judgment,

including every hidden thing,

whether it is good or evil.[18]

He is saying live life with ‘your Creator’ as your priority, then you will have no regrets when death arrives. I can think of nothing worse than arriving at the end of life full of regret. The last words of Rabelais epitomise that very situation: ‘Lower the curtain, the farce is over.’[19] How different were the last words of John Wesley: ‘The best of all is that God is with us.’

So you know what to do. The Teacher, in the end, reached a sound conclusion. The best life ‘under the sun’ is one lived in fellowship with him who is ‘above the sun’—with God himself.

Put him first!

Copyright © David Matthew 2009

ECCLESIASTES

Under The Sun

 

This is one essay in the Windows On The Word series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.

 

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Ecclesiastes

The gist of this article

The writer of Ecclesiastes embarks on a research project: to see if he can discover the meaning and purpose of life without allowing God into the picture. Can the answer be found in philosophy, in pleasure or in power?

1. Fleming, D., Bridge Bible Dictionary.

2. Doyle, R.C., Eschatology And The Shape Of Christian Belief, Paternoster, 1999, p307

3. Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

4. Ecclesiastes 1:12-18

5. This phrase occurs nine times in the book.

6. Ecclesiastes 1:17

7. Ecclesiastes 1:15 The Message

8. Ecclesiastes 1:18b

9. J. Frank Dobie

10. Ecclesiastes 2:1-11

11. Ecclesiastes 2:11 The Message

12. Ecclesiastes 2:13-16

13. W. Pegler

14. Ecclesiastes 2:17-23

15. Ecclesiastes 2:21 The Message

16. Ecclesiastes 12:1

17. Matthew 6:33

18. Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

19. François Rabelais, French writer, died 1553.