1 Words from a collector, a son of David, king in Jerusalem.
We are reading the memoirs of an old man. He has lived a long and fruitful life, and dares to reflect on the accomplishments of that life. He is the most famous person the world around him is aware of.1 He cannot hide. His accomplishments were great, and his sins were out there for the world to see as well. He had wealth and power, and he decided not to just ride what he had. He did not coast. He took that wealth and power and invested it. He was a collector. He collected everything from money to servants – even wives. Not everything he did was right, but everything he did was big.
2 “Absolutely impermanent,” the collector says, “absolutely impermanent, everything is impermanent.” 3 What does a man get for doing all his hard work under the sun? 4 A generation goes, the next generation comes, but the land stays standing for the age.
Now, Solomon looks back on that big life of his, and he has come to a philosophical conclusion about it. Whatever you remember about Solomon, remember this: he had a chance to reflect on a lifetime of big accomplishments. His conclusion was that he had wasted a large portion of his life doing things and getting things that do not last. He watched his generation go by quickly, and he expects that soon there would be nothing left of him and his greatness but the dirt he had walked on.
5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. 7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea never gets full; to that place where the streams are flowing, there they flow again. 8 All these things make a person completely tired; a man cannot explain it; the eye does not get satisfied by seeing it, nor the ear filled by hearing it.
The sad thing is – Solomon was a very wise man. He had asked the LORD for wisdom, and the LORD answered his prayer.2 He had insight into how the universe around him worked. Solomon saw some God-given hints to the nature of God himself in the world he had created. He put on his sunglasses and had a good look at the sun. He saw what we all see, but then he saw beyond it. He noticed that the sun has a course it follows. It rises. It goes down. It’s there again the next day, and the next. It follows a cycle. The wind follows a cycle too. Water follows a cycle from cloud to rain to stream to ocean to cloud again. Solomon noticed that all these things repeat in cycles. The cycles are so consistent that Solomon confessed to getting tired trying to observe it all, yet he never lost his wonder at their consistency. The cycles in nature were a hint at what God was like: immortal, eternal, faithful and consistent.
9 Whatever has happened is what will happen, and whatever has been done is what will be done, and there is not anything new under the sun. 10 Is there a thing of which it is said, “Look, this is new”? It has happened already in the ages before us. 11 There is no legacy of those former things, nor will there be a legacy of later things yet to happen among those who come after.
So, Solomon reflects on both of these realities at the same time. There is a creator God who is consistent and faithful, and who has revealed his permanence in the world he has created. But there is also this miserable creature called human, who can achieve all kinds of “greatness” and “power” and collect mountains of stuff, but in the next generation both he and it will all be gone. In fact, if he dares to look back into history, he will find that there were plenty of people who did what he did, and had what he had. But usually that history is not even remembered, so that even “great” people are eventually forgotten. So, people can become really “great” as long as they ignore history and pretend that all the good things they are doing are new, but they are not new. Nothing is.
12 I the Collector, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I gave my heart to seek and to search out in wisdom all that is done under the sky. It is hard work that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 14 I have carefully watched everything that is done under the sun, and I saw that it all is impermanent and a striving after wind.
Solomon’s life is a case study presented as evidence in favour of his conclusion that everything humans do “under the sky” or “under the sun” is impermanent. It does not last. It is הבל — the word taken from the name of the first human who died – Adam’s son Abel. The word reminds us all that no matter how great – or even how good we are, there is a tombstone with our name on it. Death awaits us. We are not like God. We do not remain like he does. Time does not give us a chance to replenish like the cycles in nature. Time makes us stop and return to the dust.
15 Whatever is twisted cannot be made straight, and what is missing cannot be made up for. 16 I said in my heart, “I have become great, increasing my wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has experienced tremendous wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I applied my heart to understand wisdom and to understand madness and folly. I discovered that this effort is also only a striving after wind. 18 Because with lots of wisdom comes lots of aggravation, and someone who increases his knowledge increases his suffering.
Solomon might have had a touch of OCD. He spent his entire life trying to understand the world around him, so that he could fix it. He noticed a lot of twisted things that needed straightening, and missing things that needed to be found. He was a scientist – and his projects had full backing from the government, because he was the government. He thought he was going to make a difference – and he did, but he realized at this point of his life that his accomplishments would not last. He regretted that he had caused himself a great deal of aggravation and suffering and none of his accomplishments would result in the lasting legacy that he did it all for.
Ironically, Solomon’s most lasting legacy is this book itself. It is a philosophical primer. Not everyone can relate to a passionate love story like Solomon’s in his Song of Songs. Not everyone will have the ability or the money to pursue a life of collecting wisdom and wealth, as he did in his Proverbs. But everyone who grows old gets to a point like this – discovery that when all of life adds up, the score is not very high.
Are you there yet? If not, you will be some day. One of the benefits of studying a book like Ecclesiastes is that it can help driven, fix-it freaks to slow down and enjoy the lives they are given. It can keep them from getting too carried away by their own success, or too blown away by their own failures. It offers perspective. We could all use some of that.
- 1 Kings 4:31.
- 1 Kings 3:5-14.