I think that every person questions their purpose in life. Everyone seeks the meaning of life and what to know why he or she is here. Further, we try to do things in life that will give us fulfillment and satisfaction. Many times we think that we cannot find satisfaction because we do not have enough resources. For example, we may think that if we had more money we would be able to do more things in life which would make us happier and we would find life to be fulfilling. If we only had more knowledge we would find life more satisfying. If we only had more power and control then we would be content with this life. In essence, our belief is that the grass is always greener on the other side, but we have no way of experiencing the other side. Life could always be better, but I do not have enough to get to where the grass is greener. So we find our lives frustrating, unrewarding, and unsatisfying. So we strive harder in life to get to the greener grass, but always coming up short.
The book of Ecclesiastes is interesting because we are presented with a person who was able to experience the greener grass. Not only was this person able to find the greener grass but he wrote a journal recording his experiences. The name of the book should not confuse us. Ecclesiastes is from the Greek meaning “the speaker to the assembly.” If fact, remember that “assembly” or “church” in the Greek is ekklesia, and you can see that root word in the book’s title. Therefore, the book begins with the following words:
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem. (1:1)
Though the author is a king, this is not the capacity in which he writes. Instead, he wants to share with the assembly what he experienced when he got to the greener grass on the other side. Identifying the author is somewhat important to us because we want to know that his journal is valid. If someone is going to tell us about life, we want it to be a person who truly did experience riches, power, and success. Verse 1 does not tell us who the author is, simply describing himself as “son of David, king in Jerusalem.” Of course, every king of Judah was a descendant of David, ruling in Jerusalem. But verse 12 gives us more information.
I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. (1:12)
Now we know who is speaking to the assembly. There were only three kings who ruled over the entire nation of Israel from Jerusalem: David, Solomon, and Rehoboam until Israel is divided into two nations. Since Rehoboam was a fool it becomes easy to identify that Solomon is the teacher to the assembly in this book.
Why should we listen to Solomon? Why would Solomon be a good person to speak to us about the meaning of life and the greener grass that we long for? As we investigate the life of Solomon we find out that Solomon had everything. Solomon had vast amounts of wisdom:
29 God gave Solomon wisdom, very great insight, and understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore. 30 Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East, greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. 31 He was wiser than anyone—wiser than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, Calcol, and Darda, sons of Mahol. His reputation extended to all the surrounding nations. 32 Solomon composed 3,000 proverbs, and his songs numbered 1,005. 33 He described trees, from the cedar in Lebanon to the hyssop growing out of the wall. He also taught about animals, birds, reptiles, and fish. 34 People came from everywhere, sent by every king on earth who had heard of his wisdom, to listen to Solomon’s wisdom. (1 Kings 4:29-34)
When it came to wisdom and knowledge, Solomon was unsurpassed. God gave Solomon great wisdom like no person who had come before him nor like any person who came after him (1 Kings 3:12). No human every had more wisdom than Solomon. The wisdom of Solomon was so recognized that people all over the world came to Israel to hear the wise words of Solomon (1 Kings 10:24). But Solomon had more than wisdom. He also had great wealth.
In addition, I will give you what you did not ask for: both riches and honor, so that no man in any kingdom will be your equal during your entire life. (1 Kings 3:13)
King Solomon surpassed all the kings of the world in riches and in wisdom. (1 Kings 10:23)
Solomon took the nation of Israel to its greatest state of wealth. Solomon has authority to speak about having all the wealth of the world at one’s disposal. His wealth surpassed all of the riches that the others kings had. Not only did Solomon have great wealth and great wisdom, but he also had great power.
Solomon ruled over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates River to the land of the Philistines and as far as the border of Egypt. They offered tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life.(1 Kings 4:21)
Israel was the most powerful nation during Solomon’s reign. He subjugated nations and the world paid their tribute to Solomon during his reign. Solomon did not rule at a time when Israel was weak. Rather, Israel never had more power and influence than it did under the reign of Solomon.
The point is that Solomon did have it all. He is the perfect person to read his reflections about life. Solomon is going to tell us about all of the things he tried in life and tell us what he found. But before going into the details, Solomon begins by giving us a summary of what he found. What do you think he would say about these pursuits? What do you think he found being as rich as one could be, being as wise as one could be, being as powerful as one could be, and pursuing every pleasure possible? I believe we think he would find happiness, joy, contentment, satisfaction, and/or peace. But notice the words that he declares as a summary of what he found in these pursuits.
“Absolute futility,” says the Teacher. “Absolute futility. Everything is futile.” (1:2)
Solomon tells us it was pointless and empty. It was not what he thought it would be and it is not what we think it will be. The NIV uses the word “meaningless,” but I believe that this translation misses what the teacher is saying. The teacher did not find satisfaction and lasting pleasure for these things. Everything was fleeting, empty, pointless, or senseless. This is not at all what we expected him to say about the “greener grass” on the other side. We expected him to tell us the opposite. How could this be? Why would the accumulation of power, wealth, and wisdom be futile? How could the grass not be greener on the other side?
Examples of Futility (1:3-11)
The teacher sets up this conclusion with a question: “What does a man gain for all his efforts he labors at under the sun?” (1:3). Notice the key phrase “under the sun.” We will read this phrase repeatedly throughout the teacher’s journal. The phrase “under the sun” describes a horizontal, strictly human point of view. The key is that the teacher is looking at life from a human perspective alone. He is not trying to apply God’s answers to the problems or difficulties. He simply reveals what life looks like without God from a human vantage point.
Now read verses 4-11 and see the answers that the teacher gives. I think we can summarize these points into some concise arguments:
- Nothing is changed. A generation comes and a generation goes, but nothing changes. The sun rises and the sun sets. It happens every day. Nothing changes. Life goes on. The wind blows one way and then it blows another way. The mechanisms of life are simply futile. In fact, it can be argued that life is monotonous. Every day is the same old thing.
- Nothing is satisfied. Rivers flow into the sea, but the sea is never full. The ocean never has too much. Even our eyes are never satisfied. Even having more, we still want more. Having the wealth of the world does not bring satisfaction because we will continue to want more. Having great wisdom does not bring satisfaction because that is our nature. We always want more.
- Nothing is new. There is nothing new under the sun. What has been done will be done again. It is the same old thing, just repackaged and presented as new. The Roman Empire is a great reminder of that for us. Most of the things we have done in this society has already been done by the Romans.
- Everything is transitory. In fact, “vapor” or “breath” is the literal meaning of the word “futility” in verse 2. Nothing lasts. Generations do not last but they pass on. In verse 11 we read that there is no memory of those who came before. There will be no memory of us by those who will come after us. We think things right now are so important, yet no one will remember us or what we did.
The point is that having more only exacerbated the problem. The more Solomon had, the more he realized how futile life really is. In our next lesson, we will examine in more detail the frustrations he encountered by plunging himself into everything there was to experience in life.
The lure of something better tomorrow robs us of the joys offered today. The good life, the one that truly satisfies, exists only when we stop wanting a better one. We always have heard people deny the thought that the grass is greener on the other side. But now we really need to believe it. The grass is not greener on the other side. The teacher has been to the other side and he found futility and emptiness, not satisfaction and fulfillment. This is a powerful warning to us today who seem to always want more and are not content with what we have and where we are now. Savor what is, rather than longing for what might be.
Nothing in life brings satisfaction. We can plunge ourselves into filling the voids in our lives with pleasures, wealth, power, and knowledge. But at every turn we will not find satisfaction, fulfillment, or lasting happiness. We do not want to believe this. We want there to be more in this life. But take it from a person who tried it. You will not find your happiness in the things of this world.
This sets the stage for reading the journal of Solomon’s efforts. I hope you will continue in our journey as we watch Solomon try to find satisfaction in all that there is in life. Each week we will learn from what he found since he was able to go to the greener grass on the other side.
Footnote: Targum (Aramaic translation of the Hebrew scriptures): “The words of the prophecy, which Qoheleth prophesied; the same is Solomon, son of David the king, who was in Jerusalem. For when Solomon, king of Israel, saw by the spirit of prophecy that the kingdom of Rehoboam his son was about to be divided with Jeroboam, the son of Nebat; and the house of the sanctuary was about to be destroyed, and the people of Israel sent into captivity; he said in his word- Vanity of vanities is all that I have labored, and David my father; they are altogether vanity.”