The Gospel in Ecclesiastes
The book of Ecclesiastes has always been vexing to evangelical scholars because of its overt and pervasive negativism. Its canonicity has, in fact, been called into question by reason of perceived heterodoxies, as, for instance, a supposed denial of the resurrection in 3:19-20. Furthermore, even among those expositors who accept the bookâ€™s canonicity, most are loath to embark upon a discussion of its theology without first mentioning some such disclaimer as that, having been written from the perspective of one who lived foolishly and had cause to regret the outcome, its purpose is not to give a positive Christian philosophy of life, but rather to show the sad end of an unchristian worldview. Hence, its teachings should not be applied as prescriptive for believers, but rather as prohibitive and cautionary. Similarly, some have suggested that its doctrine is appropriate for an Old Testament level of revelation, but that, were one to write in the same manner today, he would be sinning against the light of greater revelation. Which does at least have an element of truth, but essentially denies the exact agreement of Old and New Testament doctrine, which differs the one from the other only in degree of precision.
In opposition to all of these various approaches, I would contend that Ecclesiastes is thoroughly evangelical, albeit lacking the precision and clarity of New Testament teaching; and that, as an evangelical discussion of the meaning and purpose of life, it has prescriptive significance for Christians, even today. In demonstration of which, this article proposes to analyze, according to the teaching of Ecclesiastes, first, the actual, post-lapsarian state of the world; second, the negative, or world-oriented response to this actual state; and third, the positive, or gospel-oriented response to this actual state.
Concerning the first point, that the world has been subjected to vanity, Solomon (as I believe the author of Ecclesiastes must be) really says nothing beyond what the New Testament apostles themselves say. He may say it more forcefully and repetitively, but what he says, that everything under the sun is vanity, is remarkably consistent with Paulâ€™s assessment that â€œcreation was subjected to vanityâ€ (Romans 8:20). Moreover, the extent of the similarity becomes all the more striking when one considers Ecclesiastes 7:29: â€œLo, this only have I found, that God has made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions.â€ Certainly, this is precisely the New Testament doctrine, as it is explicated, for instance in Romans 5, that the fall of Adam plunged into universal corruption those who were originally created as â€œvery good.â€ And this doctrine, far from being unduly negative or pessimistic, is in fact the non-negotiable foundation upon which the gospel of free grace is built; as we may also learn from the function of the first three chapters of Romans.
This thoroughly honest assessment of the post-lapsarian world of mankind as having been subjected to utter vanity is detailed in a minute and systematic manner, to the end that, none of those things in which men suppose they may find lasting good and pleasure should be left unexposed. Solomon had, by experience, proved every form of ostensible delight, and had found all unsatisfying. His perception naturally flows into a response to the reality of world-wide vanity, which is oriented towards oneâ€™s perspective on the world. This response is best summed up in the â€œeat, drink, and be merryâ€ passages (e.g. Ecclesiastes 2:24). This prescription is founded upon several principles; for example, that to expend oneâ€™s energies for that which is vanity is foolish; and so the simple pleasures of life should rather be enjoyed than that one should follow after greater good in these same things, to his ultimate frustration and destruction (see Ecclesiastes 2:22-23). If all in this world is vanity, one ought not to put himself to laborious exertion for more of it, but rather put whatever goods he may have to their best use â€“ if he has bread, let him enjoy it, and not exhaust himself in mighty labors to find a more sumptuous banquet, which will soon perish as the same bread which he might have consumed at much less expense of trouble and travail.
Of note is that this thread of advice, while it does not yet touch upon the truths of the gospel, is in strict accordance with the New Testament teachings, first, that one should be content with such things as he has (Philippians 4:11; I Timothy 6:8), and not labor for riches which perish (John 6:27); and also, that, notwithstanding the vanity to which creation has been subjected by the Fall, yet the created things of God are good, and to be enjoyed with thanksgiving (I Timothy 4:3-5).
The final point which we find stressed in Ecclesiastes, and that by virtue of which the book may be truly called evangelical, is the response enjoined upon the reader in light of the eternal truths of judgment and mercy-appropriating faith. For not only does Solomon praise a moderate and thankful lifestyle in the affairs of this vanity-stricken world; he also requires a response to those realities which operate back of this world, and will endure forever. It is in this context that the gospel-motif may be unmistakably ascertained. Some of the other-worldly realities which Solomon recognizes, and uses as a motivation to embrace the gospel of grace, are as follows:
1. The issuance of this life will have eternal significance (Ecclesiastes 3:1-15);
2. God will judge the entire world of mankind (Ecclesiastes 3:16-17);
3. Only those who fear God and trust in his merciful favor will be eternally happy (Ecclesiastes 7:18; 8:12-13; 9:7);
4. Those who will be accepted by God are those who submit to the typical worship-rituals of the Temple; not by vowing great acts of good, and so accumulating merit; but by the passive reception of those gospel-truths symbolized in the orthodox worship (Ecclesiastes 5:1-6);
5. Those who have thus been accepted by a principle contrary to that of works ought then to live moderately and prudently (Ecclesiastes 7:1-27, etc.);
6. Neither must they allow riches and worldly pleasures (which are vanity) to steal from them their lasting good (Ecclesiastes 5:10-14);
7. There are those who are led astray by the enticements of worldly pleasures, and those who are led astray by seeking to stand in their own righteousness: these will both come to destruction, while only the one who fears God and recognizes that his good is in Godâ€™s hand will prevail (Ecclesiastes 7:16-18);
8. It is necessary to realize the importance of this life, as the only context in which manâ€™s activities and decisions will have any bearing on his destiny; with respect to shaping his future, the time which follows his death is utterly blank; this life alone has eternal, destiny-shaping significance (Ecclesiastes 9:1-6).
From the outset then, and as must be recognized from the most desultory overview, the book of Ecclesiastes both recognizes the eternal judgment that must end in destruction for all, because all are unjust; and the mercy which comes only to him who fears God and does not trust in his own works. Furthermore, this understanding comes in explicit connection with oneâ€™s attitude in approaching the typical worship cult of the Temple. Those who take mighty vows upon themselves, as if to merit reward, are sacrificing the sacrifices of fools. Only those who attend with the passive receptivity of faith will be accepted. The motif of the eternal consequence of oneâ€™s life on this earth, as will be revealed in Godâ€™s final judgment, must color those passages in which some have thought to find a denial of the resurrection; in all of which the sense becomes clear, upon a broad observation of the book, that oneâ€™s death renders him eternally incapable of doing anything else upon which his destiny will hang â€“ that is, he becomes eternally incapable of doing anything which will issue in blessing or curse; but not eternally oblivious to any experience of good or evil.
Perhaps the pinnacle of the book, that which encapsulates the theme and brings it to a greater height and more astonishing perceptivity than is displayed at any other point, is the passage in chapter 9, verses fourteen through sixteen. It is immediately noteworthy that here alone, and after having displayed a remarkable and widely diversified understanding of practical wisdom, Solomon utters something the wisdom of which seems great to him. It is, by his own admission, a different degree of wisdom than that of which he has spoken so forcefully heretofore. And what is this astonishing wisdom? It is contained in this simple little story: a small city was under attack, and at the point of destruction; a poor man, by his wisdom delivered it; but that poor man was eminently despised. If this story has the merest significance that practical, temporal wisdom may be profitable but is largely unappreciated, then it falls strikingly short of Solomonâ€™s assessment as the pinnacle of his wisdom â€“ surely, many other things he uttered are at least equal in perceptivity and usefulness to that observation. But if in the parable Solomon was setting forth in a â€œriddle,â€ that is, in a shadowy-form appropriate to the Old Testament era of redemptive history, the truth that Christ would deliver his people from their more numerous foes, and that he would do so in a way bespeaking of his poverty and calling down contempt from those among whom he walked, then and only then does it answer Solomonâ€™s laudatory ascription.
So then, although the book certainly majors on the vanity of this world, which is explicitly attributed to the fall of mankind, beneath the veneer is a perceptive analysis of the gospel of mercy for the one who abandons his own works and fears God â€“ the God in whose hand is every manâ€™s outcome, who will judge the wicked and accept the works of those who fear him. And it is not those who make themselves righteous who will please God, nor those who vow great things and sacrifice as it were a meritorious duty â€“ no, it is those characterized by the receptivity of faith in Godâ€™s prescribed and typical ordinances, those who are able to look forward to the man who was poor and despised, and who saved the remnant of the Lord by his wisdom â€“ the wisdom which leads to salvation.
It is unfortunate that Ecclesiastes is so often passed off as a book presenting a philosophy the likes of which we ought not to embrace. In truth, men everywhere, as much in this age as at any other time in history, are desperately in need of the wisdom which recognizes that this world is vanity, and that laboring to find things that eternally satisfy in this world will bring ultimate sorrow. Instead, men must rest their souls in Godâ€™s sovereign grace for their everlasting good, and learn to enjoy this world as a gift of God for which to be thankful, but which ought not to be pursued at the expense of greater good.