posted on Nov, 27 2020 @ 05:02 PM
The book of Ecclesiastes tends to be neglected.
I must admit that I’ve been neglecting it myself.
So I come to this book with no preconceptions, except that a book found in the Old Testament must be intended to have a spiritual meaning. The people
who compiled the canon were not in the business of collecting an anthology of “Hebrew literature.
The main theme of the early chapters has been that natural life and human life in the natural world do not go beyond a series of cycles of alternating
events. Any apparent changes are discovered to be stages within these cycles, while the overall system itself does not change.
It is “vanity” for humans to look for anything beyond these things in the natural world, trying to transcend the system on their own. It is
better, and the gift of God, for them to find their enjoyment in the world as it is, maintaining themselves in the way which God has provided.
Nevertheless, God has “put eternity into man’s mind”, in such a way that eternity cannot be known completely. Thus man is made aware of
something greater than himself. “God has made it so, in order that men should fear before him.”
It seems that this nearly completes the central message of the book. Much of what follows looks like an assortment of “footnotes” under the
general heading “other flaws noticeable in human life when God is disregarded”.
This chapter and the last have been about different kinds of waste. Words are wasted because expended uselessly in various ways. Toil is wasted
because it fails to bring prosperity, in various ways. Prosperity is wasted because it is not enjoyed, for different reasons.
V7 “All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied.”
This is a variant of ch5 v10; “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money”. But this appetite for food is not just about excessive greed.
It is simply not possible, physiologically, to eat meals in such a way that one will never need to eat again. Just as no sleep will satisfy our need
for sleep for the rest of our lives. Our physical needs are designed to be recurring, so there is nothing to be gained by trying to satisfy them
V9 “Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of desire.”
In other words, be satisfied with what you see in front of you, instead of looking around for something else. This is the equivalent of “A bird in
the hand is worth two in the bush”.
These two verses have a common theme of “Don’t keep on looking for more than what God has given you”, which makes it all the more intriguing
that v8 has been brought into the same theme, as it were, by being inserted between them.
V8 “For what advantage has the wise man over the fool?”
This is an echo of ch2 v15; “What befalls the fool will befall me also; why then have I been so very wise?” I suggested at the time that this was
about human wisdom, rather than the “knowing the righteousness of God” wisdom which is discussed in Proverbs. Placed in this context, the
question seems to be saying that “wisdom” is another area where we need to be satisfied with what God has given us, rather than yearning for
There follows a parallel question about the advantage of the poor man who knows how to conduct himself in company- “walk before them” in the AV.
This looks like a different form of human wisdom, viz. learning the rules of etiquette as part of social climbing. Whatever may have been the
Israelite equivalent of knowing that a duke should be addressed as “Your Grace”, and that you should tilt your soup bowl, if at all, away from
yourself instead of toward yourself. (And Nancy Mitford says it is “Non-U” to call a napkin a “serviette”.) In other words, another version
of “wanting to go beyond what God has given you.”
The remaining verses of the chapter are marked by the way the writer appears to be using oblique language to avoid mentioning God by name, which later
becomes a common practice. For example;
V10 “Whatever has come to be has already been named.”
In other words, God always knew, and has determined, what would happen.
“It is known what man is.”
That is, God knows him, and knows that he is less than God.
“He is not able to dispute with one stronger than he.”
We have already seen several echoes of passages in Job, and trying to “dispute with someone stronger” (i.e. with God) was precisely Job’s
So this verse reaffirms the unequal relationship between God and man.
V11 “The more words, the more vanity, and what is man the better?”
Another version of the proverbs already quoted in ch5 v3 and ch5 v7. In this context, the “vain words” will be those spent in disputing with
Here is an example of a statement having a basic meaning when taken in isolation, and a more specialised meaning when incorporated into a longer
passage. This happens a lot in James.
V12 “For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his life?”
God knows. Man doesn’t. So let God make the decisions.
“For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?”
God could. Man can’t work it out for himself. That is, only God knows the future, and only God can decide how to make things work out for the best.
Trust in God.
We may connect this theme (vv10-12) with the previous theme (vv7-9) on the premise that striving for more food, more property, more wisdom, instead of
being content with what God has given us, may in themselves be ways of “arguing with God”. Indeed, the same could be said of wasting toil, wasting
words, and failing to enjoy what God has given, the previous themes of these two chapters.
So these last three verses may be seen as the climax and summary of a longer argument, showing the general principles which underpin the earlier