Solomon began his reign well. When God granted him any request, Solomon asked for wisdom and was given riches, peace, and length of days to boot. He realized his father’s vision by building God’s house in Jerusalem. He expanded Israel’s territory to its farthest extent and accumulated great wealth for God’s people. However, the many wives and concubines he collected for both political and pleasurable ends influenced Solomon’s apostasy. Ecclesiastes briefly chronicles his life apart from God. Solomon states his purpose in 1:3, “What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?” Profit or gain is generally a business term that describes what is left over when all the expenses are paid. In Ecclesiastes, it expresses Solomon’s search for meaning, value, or purpose in human existence. “Under the sun” tells us that Solomon searched for these things without involving God. Solomon puts his earlier faith as well as his father’s faith to the test. Is life worth living without God? Can man find happiness or contentment in the world apart from a God worldview?
His search starts in the natural realm with earth, water, air, and fire (1:4-7). All he finds is monotonous uniformity: everything does the same thing year after year. Sight and sound cannot satisfy the senses (1:8). The natural realm always works but never progresses. Solomon next turns to human history only to find it provides nothing new (1:9-11). Without God, human history is a closed, cyclical system. What is past is present and what is present is future and nobody sees it because nobody cares. Dissatisfied, Solomon turns to philosophy: perhaps human wisdom can discover something better (1:12-18). The results disappoint him. Life is like the steam in this morning’s shower. What is crooked cannot be straightened. The more you know, the more you ache.
With one eye toward wisdom, Solomon turns the other eye toward hedonism, materialism, and work (1:17, 2:1-9). Maybe entertainment or wealth or homes or gardens or a harem fulfills man’s deepest felt needs. Perhaps immersing oneself in work brings about contentment. Surprisingly, Solomon finds a sense of satisfaction: “my heart rejoiced in all my labor; and this was my reward from all my labor” (2:10). The fulfillment was fleeting. Why? Death loomed like a dark specter. Wisdom is obviously better than folly, but the wise man dies like the fool (2:14-15). The riches accumulated through knowledge and wisdom and skill lose their value because they must be left behind to someone who did not work to earn them. These realizations drive Solomon to despair. He hated life and his labor (2:17-18).
Thankfully, a greater light shines into this bleak reality. Solomon concludes the satisfaction he found in labor was a gift from God (compare 2:10 with 2:24). Though he diligently sought for contentment “under the sun,” he realized his solution was above: “For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?” (NASB, Ecclesiastes 2:25). To the one who fears God (the righteous), God bestows wisdom, knowledge, and joy. Faith in God gives life the meaning, purpose, and value Solomon sought but could not find below the heavens. The one who does not fear God (the sinner, cf. 8:13) finds futility without happiness (2:26).
As Solomon discovered, man cannot straighten what God makes crooked (1:15 cf. w/7:13). God set the natural realm in motion and subjected this realm to futility (3:1-8). God does not intend for humanity to find answers “under the sun.” He intends the silence to compel humanity to “grope for Him and find Him” (Acts 17:27). What drives our search for meaning is the eternity God places in our hearts (3:11). We sense we are eternal beings. Eternity groans within us, stirring a restlessness settled by God alone.
As he draws chapter three’s “above the sun” commentary to a close, Solomon says:
I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him (3:14).
Humanity stands powerless before the cycles God set in motion. We can manipulate the matter God creates, but we can neither create nor destroy it. We can look deeply into the natural realm around us, but we cannot discover what God has done from beginning to end (3:11). Once again, Solomon says, we see God’s purpose: “God has so worked that men should fear Him.” God sets humanity in the midst of an unfathomable universe in order to drive us to our knees.
Even with a God worldview, there are anomalies that concern the thinking, compassionate person. “Furthermore, I have seen under the sun that in the place of justice there is wickedness and in the place of righteousness there is wickedness.” A corrupt justice system that fails to punish wickedness is troublesome. When justice falters, where is the deterrent for evil? Solomon’s solution lies with God: “I said to myself, ‘God will judge both the righteous man and the wicked man,’ for a time for every matter and for every deed is there.” When humanity fails to carry out what is right within God’s structure, judgment awaits. Evil will not go unpunished.
Though we live on the “other side of the cross,” we can glean much truth from the observations of Solomon. We live in an era ruled by “-isms”: naturalism, humanism, hedonism, materialism, etc. Ecclesiastes shows us that all of these “-isms” amount to nothing. They fail to provide genuine peace and contentment. Faithful obedience, fear, and a final judgment continue to give meaning to our lives. We not only relate to the satisfaction Solomon found in labor, but also we have a promise of eternal value in Christ: “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance. It is the Lord Christ whom you serve” (Colossians 3:23-24). Finally, death remains humanity’s most troublesome event, but in Christ the fear of death is swallowed up in the glorious victory of the resurrection. Please heed the words of an old man wizened by experience:
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man's all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil (12:13-14).