One of the keys to interpreting the wisdom literature of the Old Testament is to understand the authors as growing more wise and godly through the stages of their lives. The wisdom books “depict the formation of character as an interactive process through time.”1 This is most clearly seen by comparing the three books attributed to Solomon. The Song of Songs tells the story of a young, passionate man, in love with life and in love with the love of his life, and his bride returning that passionate love. The Proverbs reveal a different Solomon, a middle-aged man whose zeal is spent on enjoying and understanding the world around him, and bringing control to its chaos. Ecclesiastes reflects a yet different perspective. As an elderly man, Solomon reflects back on the pursuits of his life and concludes that he has wasted much of it on pursuits that were merely temporary, ultimately not as fulfilling as he had thought they would be.
Truth does not evolve, but it can get clearer with time. The truth that God’s Holy Spirit reveals through the pen of this great man is difficult to immediately encapsulate into one final product. The whole journey is important – each message from each book contributing to that journey. I invite you to join me as I trace the formation of Solomon’s character as revealed in his three books. To narrow the study, I have chosen to investigate Solomon’s understanding of death and human mortality.
Solomon as a young man
I am aware that there is a long standing tradition of interpreting the entire book of Solomon’s Song of Songs as an allegory to teach of the love between Christ and his church. I have real problems with that tradition. I concede that the love between a bride and her bridegroom is itself a metaphor used in the New Testament to encourage our love of Christ, and explain his love for us.2 But many of us do not see the text of Song of Solomon as an allegory itself. We conclude that “there is nothing in the book to suggest it’s anything but a lyrical presentation of what actually took place between King Solomon and his true love. There are no supernatural events or apocalyptic beasts; there is nothing that must be understood as allegorical, and there is no need to spiritualize the text.”3
So, if there is no need to spiritualize the text, are there any spiritual lessons in it? Of course there are. There are lessons about love, and lessons about loyalty. There are lessons about faithfulness, and integrity. There are lessons about life – and, yes, even a lesson about death. The Song does not dwell much on the reality of death, and this is understandable. When we are young we all think we are immortal. Time has a way of teaching us the opposite, and we learn that lesson unless some church comes along and preaches Plato to us.
But Solomon did not preach Plato’s doctrine of the immortality of the soul. He spoke of death as a strong, overwhelming force from God himself. To him, both love and death are powerful forces, originating in God himself. Like love, death is a strong, fierce and jealous thing.4 It will happen. It is inevitable. Solomon encouraged a marital love that is just as strong, passionate, fierce, loyal and jealous as death itself.
Solomon in middle age
The middle-aged Solomon is much more interested in human mortality, because he is beginning to see a pattern in life. Solomon was a collector,5 and while he was collecting unimaginable wealth, numerous servants, and even wives and concubines (to God’s disfavour), he also collected heaps of wise sayings, some of which are recorded in Proverbs. Notice what Solomon had learned about Sheol – the place where all the dead go.
- Evil companions seek to steal peoples’ lives, like Sheol does (1:12).
- If you follow a prostitute, she will lead you to Sheol (5:5; 7:27).
- Doing foolish things make you join the dead in Sheol more quickly (9:13-18).
- God’s correction keeps people from going to Sheol early (15:10-12, 24).
- A parent’s discipline can keep a child from going to Sheol early (23:13-14).
- Lust and greed are dangerous because they are like Sheol and Abaddon (destruction). They are never satisfied (27:20; 30:16).
Notice also how Solomon contrasts life and death in the Proverbs.
- “In the path of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death” (12:28).
- “The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death” (13:14).
- “The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, that one may turn away from the snares of death” (14:27).
- “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits” (18:21).
The Pattern Solomon saw was that some life choices led to an early death, and that was to be avoided at all costs. Death, for Solomon was inevitable, but there was an early path to Sheol/death (4:14; 5:5; 15:24). Participating in foolish and evil things came with a price, and that price was an early death. Doing the right things was following the good path (2:9) the path of the righteous (4:18; 12:28; 15:19), the path of life (5:6; 10:17; 15:24), which is always preferable.
Solomon as an elderly man
By the time Solomon reached old age, he had developed a certain perspective on life, and on all his past pursuits. He considered everything hevel.6 That is interesting Hebrew word. It pours through the text of Ecclesiastes like a flood,7 and is often translated something like “vanity” (KJV, ESV, NASB), “futile” (NET), or “meaningless” (NIV, NLT). But that may not be Solomon’s precise meaning. Consider, for example, how the word is used in other Old Testament books.
- The word first appears as a name – Adam’s second son, Abel.8 He was the son with the favoured sacrifice, but his life was cut short by his brother’s jealous hatred.
- Then Moses uses the word to describe the man-made idols by which the Israelites were provoking God to jealous anger.9 Since then, the term was used as a synonym for man-made idols.10
- Job used the term to describe the impermanence of his life,11 the fact that his defence will amount to nothing,12 and the emptiness of his counsellors’ advice.13
- The psalmists use the term to describe the brevity and transience of human life and effort.14
- Then, Solomon himself uses the term to describe get-rich quick schemes,15 and the deceptive beauty of a young woman.16
So, what is Solomon getting at in Ecclesiastes, when he says that everything is hevel? He means that it does not last.17
- All work is like chasing wind.18
- Enjoyment does not last.19
- Pursuing wisdom will not last.20
- Ownership of wealth does not last.21
- Human life does not last.22
- Power and influence does not last.23
- Promises cannot be fulfilled forever.24
- Pursuing wealth does not satisfy.25
- Righteousness does not always produce a long life.26
- Youth does not last.27
That is precisely why Solomon concludes that everyone should “fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13). Everything is not meaningless and futile. But nothing is permanent. Only God is immortal. So, in the end, only a life lived for him will matter for eternity. The reason so many commentators struggle with the message of Ecclesiastes is its conditionalist premise. You cannot understand what Solomon is saying if you swallow Satan’s lie that we do not really die. For Solomon, inevitable death was the philosophical backdrop of his message.
The message of all three Solomons is important as a theological backdrop to the gospel. People in this world have to first realize their mortality (the bad news) before they can see the good in the good news. Christ’s death purchased an opportunity for humanity to be raised to a different kind of life. We have the opportunity for a permanent, eternal, everlasting life because of what Jesus did for us. Without the gift of eternal life, death and destruction are all that await us. Christ redeems us from the impermanence of hevel.
- William P. Brown, Character in Crisis: a fresh approach to the Wisdom Literature. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 151.
- John 3:29; Ephesians 5:31-32; Revelation 19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:17.
- Song of Solomon 8:6.
- This term is probably a more accurate translation of the Hebrew קהלת (kohelet) in Ecclesiastes (1:1-2, 12; 7:27; 12:9f-10.)
- 1:2, 14; 2:1, 11, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 26; 3:19; 4:4, 7f, 16; 5:6, 9; 6:2, 4, 9, 11f; 7:6, 15; 8:10, 14; 9:9; 11:8, 10; 12:8.
- Genesis 4:2, 4, 8, 9, 25.
- Deuteronomy 32:21.
- 1 Kings 16:13, 26; 2 Kings 17:15; Psalm 31:7.
- Job 7:16.
- Job 9:29; 35:16.
- Job 21:34; 27:12.
- Psalm 39:6, 7; 12; 62:9, 11; 78:33; 94:11; 144:4.
- Proverbs 13:11; 21:6.
- Proverbs 31:30.
- See Rami Shapiro, Ecclesiastes: Annotated & Explained. (Woodstock, VT: SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2010), xvii. “If you really want to understand what Koheleth is saying, you have to read Ecclesiastes through the lens of impermanence.”
- 1:14; 2:11, 17, 23, 26; 4:4.
- 2:1; 7:6; 9:9; 11:8.
- 2:19, 21; 4:7-8; 6:2.
- 3:19; 6:4, 12; 9:9; 11:8; 12:6-8.
- 4:14-16; 8:10.
- 5:6-7; 6:11.
- 5:9; 6:9.
- 7:15; 8:14.