The Book of Ecclesiastes—A Lesson in True Values
WHAT is the best way to expend time and energy? Would it be beneficial to make pleasure activities your main goal? Should you strive to accumulate material wealth or to achieve a celebrated reputation? What pursuits in life are of the greatest value?
Fine guidance on this matter can be found in the Bible book of Ecclesiastes. Therein are found “the words of the congregator, the son of David the king in Jerusalem.” (Eccl. 1:1, 12) Evidently “the congregator” is King Solomon, who became internationally famous for wisdom. The book of Ecclesiastes contains his counsel both on things that are worthless and on those that are of true value.
“EVERYTHING IS VANITY”
Ecclesiastes begins with these words: “ ‘The greatest vanity!’ the congregator has said, ‘the greatest vanity! Everything is vanity!’ What profit does a man have in all his hard work at which he works hard under the sun?” (Eccl. 1:2, 3) The Hebrew word for “vanity” literally means “breath.” It indicates something that lacks firmness, stability and permanence. “The greatest vanity” well describes human affairs.
Next the congregator mentions repetitious cycles in nature. Generations of people continually come and go, the sun keeps rising and setting, winds ever circle about and rivers constantly empty into the sea but never fill it. (Eccl. 1:4-7) After reflecting on this, the wise king observed: “All things are wearisome; no one is able to speak of it. The eye is not satisfied at seeing, neither is the ear filled from hearing. That which has come to be, that is what will come to be; and that which has been done, that is what will be done; and so there is nothing new under the sun.”—Eccl. 1:8, 9.
The consideration of all these natural cycles appeared to Solomon as “wearisome.” It is, of course, true that the immensity and complexity of these cycles are such that a man could exhaust his entire life and never be able to comprehend the full sum of these. His vocabulary could never adequately describe it all in full detail. But we remember that Solomon is here dealing with the futility that imperfect humans face. So we can also appreciate how wearying it can be to man to contemplate the relentless repetition of these never-ending cycles and then compare this with his own short life-span. For the one lacking divine wisdom, his temporariness and his inability to gain permanence produce a sense of futility and often cause him to search vainly for something different, new—only to find that, in the final analysis, it is the ‘same old story.’ This too is wearisome.
Knowing this can help us to avoid wasting much time, effort and money trying to find fulfillment and happiness through sensual gratification. The quest for new things and experiences may bring a measure of enjoyment, but it never fully satisfies. And finally all ends up in Sheol, where “there is no work nor devising nor knowledge nor wisdom,” for the dead “are conscious of nothing at all.”—Eccl. 9:5, 10.
AN EXPERIMENT WITH LUXURY
King Solomon relates an interesting experiment with luxurious living. He made for himself paradisaic surroundings and investigated every sort of pleasurable activity. (Eccl. 2:3-9) “Anything that my eyes asked for I did not keep away from them,” he writes. (Eccl. 2:10a) To some extent the king enjoyed the experiment with luxury. He points out: “I did not hold back my heart from any sort of rejoicing, for my heart was joyful because of all my hard work, and this came to be my portion from all my hard work.”—Eccl. 2:10b.
But as to finding real fulfillment and genuine happiness in this way, the congregator admits: “And I, even I, turned toward all the works of mine that my hands had done and toward the hard work that I had worked hard to accomplish, and, look! everything was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing of advantage under the sun.”—Eccl. 2:11.
WEALTH AND FAME
You may be acquainted with individuals who work day and night to acquire a comfortable “nest egg” of material riches. For such people the book of Ecclesiastes contains this important lesson: “A mere lover of silver will not be satisfied with silver, neither any lover of wealth with income. This too is vanity.” (Eccl. 5:10) One of the vain aspects of pursuing riches is set forth in the next verse: “When good things become many, those eating them certainly become many. And what advantage is there to the grand owner of them, except looking at them with his eyes?”—Eccl. 5:11.
Even when a person becomes “the grand owner” of abundant riches, he remains unsatisfied. True wisdom would have been of greater advantage to him. (Eccl. 7:12) Moreover, the more a person’s possessions increase, the more there is need of hired help to care for them. Since the rich man must feed and care for servants, as riches multiply there is a corresponding increase in “those eating them.” A work by Greek writer Xenophon includes these comments of a man who had once been poor but had become wealthy:
“Do you think, Sacian, that I live with the more pleasure the more I possess? Do you not know, that I neither eat, nor drink, nor sleep, with a particle more pleasure now than when I was poor? But, by having this abundance, I gain merely this, that I have to guard more, to distribute more to others, and to have the trouble of taking care of the more; for a great many domestics now demand of me their food, their drink, and their clothes; some are in want of physicians; one comes and brings me sheep that have been torn by wolves, or oxen that have been killed by falling over a precipice, or tells me of a distemper that has fallen on the cattle; so that I seem to myself, in possessing abundance, to have more afflictions than I had before in possessing but little. . . .If to possess riches were as pleasant as to obtain them, the rich would very much exceed the poor in happiness. But it is obligatory on him that possesses the abundance to expend abundance.”
The book of Ecclesiastes discusses a tragic circumstance that frequently befalls persons who are determined to be rich: “I myself returned that I might see the vanity under the sun: There exists one, but not a second one; also no son or brother does he have, but there is no end to all his hard work. Also, his eyes themselves are not satisfied with riches: ‘And for whom am I working hard and causing my soul to lack in good things?’ This too is vanity, and it is a calamitous occupation.”—Eccl. 4:7, 8.
In the quest for riches, all too often people sacrifice human relationships, both in and outside the family. How pitiful is the miser who in pursuit of material goods isolates himself! He believes it advantageous not to have family or friends, since these would require some expenditure of money. Anyone inclined to think that way should ask himself: “For whom am I working hard and causing my soul to lack in good things?” No matter how vast the holdings of a wealthy person, “his eyes themselves are not satisfied with riches.” Aware of this, Solomon writes:
“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their hard work. For if one of them should fall, the other one can raise his partner up. But how will it be with just the one who falls when there is not another to raise him up? Moreover, if two lie down together, they also will certainly get warm; but how can just one keep warm? And if somebody could overpower one alone, two together could make a stand against him. And a threefold cord cannot quickly be torn in two.”—Eccl. 4:9-12.
These words teach an important lesson. Human relationships are more rewarding than possessions. Genuine concern for and efforts to assist one’s fellowman are far more valuable than gold, silver or any other inanimate object.
OPPRESSION AND INJUSTICE
The book of Ecclesiastes frankly acknowledges that mankind has suffered much oppression: “And I myself returned that I might see all the acts of oppression that are being done under the sun, and, look! the tears of those being oppressed, but they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power, so that they had no comforter.” (Eccl. 4:1) When the oppressed seek relief from persons in power, often injustice prevails. Solomon observes: “And I have further seen under the sun the place of justice where there was wickedness and the place of righteousness where wickedness was.”—Eccl. 3:16.
How should people react to widespread oppression and injustice? They must first come to appreciate this inspired statement: “That which is made crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is wanting cannot possibly be counted.” (Eccl. 1:15) Some sincerely motivated individuals have spent a lifetime trying to produce righteous conditions on earth, but without success. The Word of God makes it plain that only God’s kingdom can eliminate wickedness from mankind. (Dan. 2:44; 2 Pet. 3:13; Rev. 21:1-5) No amount of human effort can straighten out the innumerable “crooked” aspects of man’s behavior.
Since this is so, the congregator provides another helpful guideline: “I say: ‘Keep the very order of the king, and that out of regard for the oath of God. Do not hurry yourself, that you may go out from before him. Do not stand in a bad thing. For all that he delights to do he will do, because the word of the king is the power of control; and who may say to him: “What are you doing?”’”—Eccl. 8:2-4.
Ecclesiastes does not advocate rebellion and efforts to overthrow existing governments. The course of wisdom is to remain obediently subject to the governmental “superior authorities.” (Rom. 13:1-7) In rare instances, desire to meet God’s approval might move someone to refrain from performing certain commands by officials. (Dan. 3:12, 16-18) However, where official decrees or requests do not require violating God’s law, it is the course of wisdom to “keep the very order of the king.”
Developing this thought further, the congregator states: “He that is keeping the commandment will not know any calamitous thing, and the wise heart will know both time and judgment. For there exists a time and judgment even for every affair, because the calamity of mankind is abundant upon them. For there is no one knowing what will come to be, because who can tell him just how it will come to be?” (Eccl. 8:5-7) Even where rulership is harsh and arbitrary, the wise individual will not rise in revolt. He realizes that there is a “time” or season when something will happen to change things for the better. But since he does not know “just how” that change will occur, the prudent course for the present is for him to go about his business, using sound judgment in dealing with unpleasant aspects of daily life.—Compare Ecclesiastes 3:1-13.
COPING WITH THE UNEXPECTED
Another reason why many human endeavors prove to be vain is mentioned at Ecclesiastes 9:11: “I returned to see under the sun that the swift do not have the race, nor the mighty ones the battle, nor do the wise also have the food, nor do the understanding ones also have the riches, nor do even those having knowledge have the favor; because time and unforeseen occurrence befall them all.”
It would seem that qualities such as swiftness, mightiness and wisdom would cause people to prosper in every undertaking. But often things work out unexpectedly. Though unforeseen circumstances occasionally are favorable, frequently they come in the form of accidents, sicknesses or other calamities. And in death “there is no superiority of the man over the beast, for everything is vanity.”—Eccl. 3:19-21.
In view of this, the wise Bible writer recommends especially two things: (1) Work diligently from day to day; (2) “see good” from your hard work by enjoying what you have right now. Words to this effect are found at Ecclesiastes 5:18-20:
“Look! The best thing that I myself have seen, which is pretty, is that one should eat and drink and see good for all his hard work with which he works hard under the sun for the number of the days of his life that the true God has given him, for that is his portion. Also every man to whom the true God has given riches and material possessions, he has even empowered him to eat from it and to carry off his portion and to rejoice in his hard work. This is the gift of God. For not often will he remember the days of his life, because the true God is preoccupying him with the rejoicing of his heart.”
While there are much oppression, injustice and other bad aspects to human life today, the wise person does not allow these to dampen his joy over things that are going right. Rather, he is determined to “carry off his portion” of present blessings by rejoicing in what he has, even though it may be little.
Space does not permit a more extensive discussion here of wisdom found in the book of Ecclesiastes. But it is hoped that the few examples set out above will motivate you to study the entire book carefully. Doing so will aid you to avoid wasting time and energy on things that are profitless and to direct your life and resources toward what is truly worth while.