Who is it? It is clearly Solomon, the son of David, the wisest, wealthiest and most powerful man of his time. We rarely, if ever, see those qualities combined in one person. The wealthiest are not always the most wise. The most powerful are so consumed by power they have no capacity for wisdom. The most wise often have neither power or wealth. So, the book is not just the reflections of a hermit or philosopher. These are the conclusions of an extraordinary man unique in all of history.
I like to think of it as Solomon’s private journal that was published only after his death. This is not a book written by a cynical and angry young man. Neither are these his father’s psalms or the snippets of practical wisdom compiled in Proverbs. This is the concluding reflection of a man the world is not likely to see again. Had people known what he was thinking they might have been disappointed or confused or concerned about his health. These are his private thoughts. These are the reflections of a man who is looking for truth later in life and not a young man sorting out his future. One who has been on a quest to examine the pieces of a broken puzzle. It’s the diary of Solomon, the son of David, the wisest, wealthiest and most powerful man of his time.
2 Chronicles 9:22-28:
“Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth. All the kings of the earth sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart. Year after year, everyone who came brought a gift—articles of silver and gold, and robes, weapons and spices, and horses and mules. Solomon had four thousand stalls for horses and chariots, and twelve thousand horses, which he kept in the chariot cities and also with him in Jerusalem. He ruled over all the kings from the Euphrates River to the land of the Philistines, as far as the border of Egypt. The king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills. Solomon’s horses were imported from Egypt and from all other countries.”
But he is the end of a dynasty as well. The moment he died the Kingdom divided. In spite of all his wisdom his son, Rehoboam, listened to his young and foolish friends and began a civil war that lasted for hundreds of years.
2. Ecclesiastes is the book we should have read when we were young – but we wouldn’t have the life experience to understand it. We know it now. We’re living it. It’s like Shakespeare. Only later in life can we understand the depth of the ambition of MacBeth, the jealousy of Othello, the indulgence of Falstaff and the melancholy of Hamlet.
A Bible without Ecclesiastes, like Job, would be incomplete. It would have been easier to take out Job and Ecclesiastes and even some of the Psalms but without them we would be left with only part of our lives addressed. It’s a good thing we have Solomon’s journal for those days we have the same questions and feelings of melancholy and doubts.
Truthfully, the Boomers are probably just now ready for King Lear and Ecclesiastes and I’m afraid we’ll be distracted by reading Mature Health, travel for seniors and investments for active aging. I am afraid we’ll shy away from growing older and miss the richness of age in our flight from aging itself. Age has particular responsibilities and opportunities. We have a responsibility to be wise – not to be “forever young” as we are encouraged to be. Age has a set of tasks that cannot be done when we are young. Age is when we distil the experiences and lessons of a lifetime and pass them on to the next generation who may or may not hear what we say. This is not the time to become preachers but searchers and to be writing down in our bedside journals what life has taught us.
3. All of us have an interest in wisdom. From the simplistic “measure twice, cut once” to the memorable Poor Richard’s Almanac:
“Don’t take wooden nickels”
“Penny wise and pound foolish”
“An idle mind is the devil’s workshop”
“God helps those who help Searchers themselves”
We are looking for the same things – clues to success and meaning. We are all Ecclesiastes. We are all looking for clues to solve the puzzle.
4. The key to the book is in the first verse:
“Every thing is meaningless.”
Yes, every “thing” is meaningless because all things are made. They are not eternal. The book’s great phrase is “under the sun” and that describes everything in this world – but not outside this world. The world we live in is broken and nothing in it is capable of giving complete meaning to our lives.
What he finds and what we find at some point is everything “under the sun” is unsatisfying. It may appear full for a time but there is a hole in the bottom of everything under the sun that makes it incapable of staying full. We will never find work or relationships that will give our lives meaning. That is probably the biggest quest of all younger generations. “I want to find work that gives meaning to my life. I want to find community that gives meaning to my life.” It’s unfair to ask this of our work or relationships. It is to demand something of them they cannot give. It reminds me of the Dylan song. “It Ain’t Me Babe.”
What Solomon finds and what we find is “under the sun” is incomplete but…he went on to find something more than that – and so can we.
5. Let’s look quickly at the first chapter and the several discoveries he makes.
He begins as we all do with a question and we spend our lives finding the answer. For some, it is “where is happiness?” or “what will make me feel complete?” or even “what do I want to do with my life?” For Solomon, it was “What does it profit a man?” Another way of saying it might be, “What’s in it for me?”.
That’s the wrong question. Building a life around answering that question will lead us exactly to the place Solomon finds himself in Chapter 1. It leads to a life of accumulation but not satisfaction. One more thing. One more experience. One more prize or possession. Any search for meaning that begins with “what does a man gain?” is doomed to failure – especially as we get older. It may well be the first question of a younger man but an older man should be asking, “What can I contribute knowing what I know and having lived this long?”
I think I’ve told you about the metaphors for my life I’ve used for different decades. In my forties it was a quilt because that is how I saw my work – putting people and ideas and resources together. In my fifties it was a valve used to control the flow of a well and convert it from unlimited energy to being productive. In my sixties it is a distillery that takes all the ingredients of experience and turns them into something that is served up to others. I’m five years behind in looking for the next metaphor now.
So, what does Solomon see?
“Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
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.”
He sees repetition and an endless cycle of sameness. Instead of seeing the wonderful rhythm of life and seasons he sees everything as reruns. Instead of the joy of the returning seasons he has lost his taste and everything that should be new has become monotonous instead.
Remember the lines from “MacBeth”?
“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Instead of seeing the permanence of the world, the earth’s remaining constant only reminds him of his mortality and makes him more anxious and resentful. Instead of finding stability and assurance in the patterns of life he is depressed and melancholy. Everything he sees in the world “under the sun” will outlive him and he compares his short life to that. A tree, a stone, a stream will outlive us all. I’ve thought about the many times I’ve collected stones to remind me of special places. I also collect them as a reminder of what Solomon says here. This little stone will be here until the end of time. This senseless thing will outlive hundreds of generations. My kids will find it and likely toss it out but it will go on. If we measure the value of our lives by how long we last then we are chasing after the wind. It’s the wrong measure. The stone wins every time.
We can fight it and try to put off the inevitable but in the end a stone or a tree or a stream will outlive us. We can counter the seasons with novelty, entertainment, distractions and trying to stay forever young but, in the end, the sun rises and the sun sets and the streams flow into the sea.
The world is not new every morning for him. It is simply another day that will end and another one begin. I like what Soren Kierkegaard, the “Moody Dane” says:
“If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never. And what wine is so sparkling, what so fragrant, what so intoxicating, as possibility!”
Solomon goes on in verses 8-10:
“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.”
All things are “restless” is one way to say “wearisome”. The eyes and ears are insatiable. We want to see new things all the time. New people. New places. Our computer screens sprout pop-ups, ads and suggestions for skipping to the next site before we have begun to finish what we have started.
Those who study the science of impulse buying – which accounts for 75% of all retail purchases – have figured out exactly where to put those items. Many of them are at the check-out counter because we cannot wait in line without something to see. They have even figured out that it has to be a crowded visual space with lots of offerings instead of one or two because we cannot focus on one or two things. Disney figured out years ago that we have to be entertained while we wait in line for a ride. We are visually restless.
We want to hear new things. New songs. New news. We want alerts, breaking news, developing stories – only to find out it is a rehash of the last breaking news. We have what someone has called “information anxiety”. We need little bursts of information and factoids all the time instead of digesting knowledge. A friend of mine wrote something this week that I liked: “Just think of the speed and shallowness of modern communication. Recent studies showed that the average attention span at present is just five minutes long — 10 years ago, it was 12 minutes. Whether gun control, the problem of educating our youth or the nature of sexuality in America, most conversations running their way through the Internet and social media have, far too often, degenerated into a mire of pithy rhetoric and hollow opinion. Meaningful conversation has devolved to millions of people throwing around pictures, sound bytes and narrow conclusions on topics that most are not afforded the time to study or reflect upon. We’re forced by the nature of fast-moving conversations to accept or reject, without the time for the argument and analysis necessary to sufficiently and appropriately support our conclusions. In such a global, fast-moving conversation, a person must almost detach completely to find the space to think. It is the difference between the monastery and social media: the first isolates you from outside thought while the other isolates you from your own.”
In Neil Postman’s book, “Amusing Ourselves To Death” he compares George Orwell’s book “1984” with Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.”
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance..When a population becomes distracted by trivia, when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of baby-talk, when, in short, a people become an audience, and their public business a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture-death is a clear possibility.”
All things are “restless” even now. But the newness wears off and the search for stimulation begins all over again.
Solomon goes on: “There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.”
How does Shakespeare put it?
“All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,”
We resist being forgotten. We put our names on buildings or establish endowments. Streets and schools are named after us but, in time, no one remembers the life behind the name. We want to be remembered but like everyone else we take our place in that line of the endless cycle of players “under the sun”.
“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 mankind! 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 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.”
For with much wisdom comes much sorrow. Do you remember his prayer when he was a young man? It is in 2 Chronicles 1:7-12:
“That night God appeared to Solomon and said to him, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” Solomon answered God, “You have shown great kindness to David my father and have made me king in his place. Now, Lord God, let your promise to my father David be confirmed, for you have made me king over a people who are as numerous as the dust of the earth. Give me wisdom and knowledge, that I may lead this people, for who is able to govern this great people of yours?” God said to Solomon, “Since this is your heart’s desire and you have not asked for wealth, possessions or honor, nor for the death of your enemies, and since you have not asked for a long life but for wisdom and knowledge to govern my people over whom I have made you king, therefore wisdom and knowledge will be given you. And I will also give you wealth, possessions and honor, such as no king who was before you ever had and none after you will have.”
His prayer was for the wisdom to lead – not for a long life or wealth, possessions and honor. Somewhere along the line Solomon misused his gift and discovered that wisdom and knowledge detached from responsibility leads to sorrow and grief.
No blessing detached from its purpose can produce the joy intended. Great wealth, talent, intelligence, influence or leadership without limits is corrupted. There is nothing in this world “under the sun” that can satisfy the hunger for meaning. Everything created – pleasure, work, love, beauty, wealth, reputation – leads to emptiness when pursued for itself.
6. The whole point, finally, is first to ask the right question – not what does a man gain? It is to ask how you may use the gifts God has given you for the benefit of others. Second, realize that meaning is a gift of God and not something we discover on our own. It is bestowed upon us.
Os Guinness writes, “We cannot find God without God. We cannot reach God without God. We cannot satisfy God without God—which is another way of saying that our seeking will always fall short unless God’s grace initiates the search and unless God’s call draws us to him and completes the search.”
That is what Solomon comes to understand along the way and, hopefully, we will as well. The whole point, finally, is to aim at something outside this life. Something that can only be revealed. Something that is not of this world. There is nothing wrong about looking for meaning but, as Solomon discovered, it is not to be found “under the sun.”
Solomon writes: “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.” It is the gift of enjoyment of what God has given and not what we have gained. It is what Paul calls the ability to be content – not to be anxious or fearful of losing what we have or constantly comparing ourselves to others. It is the ability to rest and find pleasure in people around us and our work. It is the gift of trusting God – to love Him and enjoy Him forever. As the Shakers would sing,
“Tis the gift to be simple,
’tis the gift to be free,
’tis the gift to come down
where we ought to be,
and when we find ourselves in the place just right,
’twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained
to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
to turn, turn, will be our delight
till by turning, turning we come round right.”
We can choose not to be restless and, instead, to trust and be content. We can choose not to base our lives on the wrong questions. We can choose to accept the gifts and responsibilities of age. We can choose to recognize that “under the sun” and in this world everything is incomplete, the pieces of the puzzle are scattered, but that is not cause for despair. We can choose God’s great gift of hope and the promise of a future where all that is under the sun will be recreated and we will live in the new heaven and the new earth.