Nothing lasts, not even us. That is the precise summary of the collector’s reflections on time (in chapter three). By saying this, Solomon pretty much destroyed the basic foundation of every philosophy and religion on the planet. After chapter three, he leaves us asking whether life is worth living or not. This is the subject he takes up in chapter four of Ecclesiastes.
1 I looked again at all the cruelties that are committed under the sun. I just watched, the tears of those maltreated, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. 2 And I reasoned that the dead who are already dead are better off than the living who are still alive. 3 But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not experienced the evil deeds that are committed under the sun.
When the collector examined the society around him, he discovered more oppression and cruelty than he expected. He noticed that not only sometimes, but most times, people get a bad shake from those in power. It leads to suffering, cruelty without check. He concluded that power tends to corrupt, and those under that power live lives that experience the sharp end of that corruption. As a result, he concluded that it would be better not to have lived at all, rather than face such odds at living miserable.
Reading such texts, we have to be aware that this is only part of the argument. Otherwise, the observation could be misapplied, and used to justify things like abortion, genocide, and euthanasia. The collector did not have any of those things in mind, and if he did, he would have lumped them along with the other cruelties the powerful inflict on the powerless. No, his point is that society is broken, and people suffer needlessly all too often. Life is not fair.
4 I also noticed that every project worked on, and every expertise gained by working comes from a man’s envy of his neighbour. Even this also is transient and a striving after wind. 5 The stupid one folds his hands and ends up eating his own flesh. 6 But even a handful gained in peace is better than two hands full gained by hard work and striving after wind.
The collector examined the motivation behind the great scientific and industrial progress that his society has known. He, himself had been both the mastermind and the taskmaster of that great progress. Yet, when he examined the motivation behind it, he found a moral failure. The work had been driven by selfish ambition and envy. The workers had been forced to build monuments to pride that – in the end – would be found to be just air. They had worked hard at gaining something that could not be kept.
Unless our work is for the glory of God and the advancement of his kingdom, our motivation is misplaced. We should not do a lifetime of good things for the wrong reason. We should live like artists, not athletes – even if we are athletes! Life should not be about reaching a goal. It needs to be about expressing the glory inside us – a glory we inherited from our Father in the sky. We need to focus our efforts on living a life that reflects God, not a life that just tries to be better than others.
7 Once again I concluded that impermanence is under the sun: 8 one man can have no other dependent, neither a son nor a brother, but still work without ever resting, and his eyes can never be satisfied with gaining more wealth, so that he never thinks to ask, “who am I working for and denying myself of life’s pleasure?” This is yet another example of impermanence and a sad state of affairs.
If we are honest, we in modern society probably wonder whether Solomon ever thought of retirement. It appears to be a fix to the dilemma he described. In retirement, all that you have worked for is not lost, because it is an investment in yourself. You do not deny yourself life’s pleasures, you simply delay them until you retire. Solomon’s society invested in retirement by investing in relatives who could take care of you if you were fortunate enough to outlive your capacity to work. But people mostly died young, so that investment was usually spent on something else than the earner. It was – as Solomon said – “yet another example of impermanence and a sad state of affairs.”
I have had many friends and associates in the two-thirds world who lived and died that example. I enjoyed their friendship and fellowship for a while, and then they were gone. But they did not choose to abandon me and their families and other friends. The reality of their own mortality and impermanence was thrust upon them, and me. It scared me. It got me to thinking about making a difference before it is my turn in the box.
I did not think about retirement – should I live to experience that luxury, because it does not really fix the problem of impermanence. The real problem of impermanence is that life does not last. The only real fix is to find a source of eternal life. Hence, the need for a Saviour. We look to Jesus, because only he offers a resurrection life that lasts.
9 Two are better than one, since they each have someone else to benefit from their work. 10 Because even if they both fall, one of them will help his partner recover. But the one who is alone suffers and does not have another to help him recover. 11 Likewise, if two are lying together, they keep each other warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 Also, a single man might win in a fight with another alone, but two will defend themselves. A rope made of three parts is not easily broken.
In life, in business, and in ministry, partnership is just more efficient. A partner is someone you can depend on to make up for what lacks in yourself. A partner is someone to share successes and failures with. A Partner can help prevent failure, or help recover from it. A partner can help a successful person avoid pride in his accomplishment. A partner can share the joy earned from mutual accomplishment. Partnership increases the strength available for the work.
So, when Solomon, the collector, thought about life, he placed a premium on partnership. This is a message today’s generation needs to hear. We are so quick to bail on our partnerships, marriages and church families. We want to stick to our own little jobs, our own little plans, and our own little lives. Well, look at Solomon. He thought he had it all. Then he watched it start to crumble. When life started falling apart around him, he did not wish that he could build another building, or make some more cash. He wanted more friends and family.
13 It was better to be a poor and wise young man than an old and foolish king who did not know how to follow good counsel. 14 Because he had gone from prison to power, though in his own dominion he had been born poor. 15 I observed all the living creatures moving around under the sun, including that young man who is standing in the king’s place. 16 I could not count all the people he was responsible for leading. Still, his successors would not enjoy his accomplishment. This reality also shows life’s impermanence. It is like striving after wind.
There are various guesses as to which historical people and events are being referred to by Solomon here. My guess is that if the collector is alluding to history, he refers to Joseph’s story. But, he may be referring to a well-known fictional story. His point is in the story itself. It shows the impermanence of political success. Striving to get at the top of the political ladder can isolate a person from the very people one needs to listen to – to avoid losing touch with those one seeks to serve. Fame and power can be bought, but the price is often too high.
The collector reflects on life itself, and he comes to some brutally honest conclusions. God is good all the time, but life is not. Life is unfair. You often get what you do not deserve. If this life is all there is, it would be better for most of us to not even bother living it. Hard work can be satisfying, or it can be frustrating and meaningless. We seldom live long enough to enjoy the fruits of our labour. We seldom protect ourselves with enough partners in life, work or ministry. The things and agendas and ideas we pour our lives into are invariably unsatisfying and temporary.
Solomon does not wrap up this chapter with a nice concession. He does not say, “but life is really worth living because…” No, he lets his brutally honest assessment of life just hang there. He has some points to make about life, integrity and a relationship with God, later. For now, he just leaves us with a general disappointment. But we need that. We need to know that our life’s ambitions, projects and plans will not do what we think they will do. We need to realise that there is something more to the equation. Realising that our lives are empty gets us one step closer to filling them with Jesus. Life is the question, he is the answer.