We don’t really talk much about how people struggle with life’s mysteries. It’s like we’re expected to have all of the answers and then defend our position to others. Even if someone is willing to ask the question, others don’t want to have that can of worms opened. We forget that understanding or knowledge only comes through asking questions, exploring hypotheses, testing the data.
It’s ironic that people are expected to have concrete answers and rock-solid beliefs in one area that relies almost exclusively on a leap … faith. Life’s greatest mysteries reside in this great unknown, yet the greatest judgement comes to those who admit or wrestle with the messiness of mystery and faith. I am always wary of those who claim they have a corner on the truth and a pat answer (usually some bible verse out of context) for who you should be, what you should believe, and how you should behave.
The writer of Ecclesiastes, who refers to himself as a preacher, turns all of that upside-down. That’s the mystery of his journal and why we have such a hard time accepting and interpreting his words. He has the audacity to declare: It’s all empty. Life isn’t worth living! There’s nothing but meaninglessness.
However, when we probe the life of the writer, we see that this isn’t an ancient Elmer Gantry or the words of and eighth-century Bishop Pike. This is Solomon. Wisdom, loyalty, diplomacy, faithfulness and efficiency characterized the attitudes and actions of David’s gifted son. His achievements, power, international influence and wealth were nothing short of phenomenal. This is what was written of him:
God gave Solomon very great wisdom, discernment, and breadth of understanding as vast as the sand on the seashore, so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than anyone else…his fame spread throughout all the surrounding nations…Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. The whole earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind (1 Kings 4:29-31; 10:23-24).
His annual income reached well into the millions. The unparalleled achievement of his life was the design and construction of Solomon’s Temple, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. After the suspicious Queen of Sheba made a diplomatic trip to satisfy her mind that all she had heard was not merely an exaggeration, she humbly admitted:
But I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it. Not even half had been told me; your wisdom and prosperity far surpass the report that I had heard (1 Kings 10:7).
Solomon had it all (although I’m not sure the 300 wives and 700 concubines helped matters much).
We see in his journal, however, that things slowly begin to change. He was a stalwart of faith, but no longer. Reading through the book of Ecclesiastes, we see the person and process behind this remarkable book. Solomon’s process is a partnership between thought and expression, research and teaching. There’s a balance of practical advice and probing reflection. His thoughts and research of living on the ragged edge are documented in all of their vulnerability. His conclusion, however, is more like a sermon than journal entry. His final thoughts reflect coming to terms with reality:
Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher; all is vanity. Besides being wise, the Teacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs. The Teacher sought to find pleasing words, and he wrote words of truth plainly. The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil (Ecclesiastes 12:8-14).
Robert Short, author of The Gospel According to Peanuts, wrote this:
The author of the book of Job was a consummate dramatist. The psalmist was a lyrical poet. The author of Jonah knew how to tell a fascinating short story. The author of Genesis and Exodus was a historical-novelist who could recount powerful sagas of epic proportions. But Ecclesiastes? Ah…the preacher was also no mean poet, but fundamentally he was am artist of another sort. He was a photographer.
I love that imagery! The word photograph literally means written with light. Think of Solomon with a camera around his neck throughout his desperate journey. With this imaginary camera he takes HD pictures of life, mainly in the dark shadows of the valley. Click, there’s death in all of its ugly, colorless reality. Click, more shots of cynicism, doubt, despair, depression. Click, the endlessness of work and the futility of investments. To each he affixes the caption: Vanity of vanities. All is vanity.
Thus he comes to the end of his lengthy, soul-searching pursuits and ends his journey with the same words with which he began. He hasn’t found any of his under the sun discoveries to be satisfying. Ironically, with wearisome regularity, Solomon stumbles over the truth, revealing these flashes of insight throughout his journal.
In the end, Solomon comes to terms with reality. The thing I love about Solomon’s conclusion is there isn’t a drum roll or a blast of horns with a crescendo of passionate emotion. There’s just a simple statement. And Solomon doesn’t try to be fancy about it either. When all is said and done, it literally reads: Fear God and keep God’s commandments, because this applies to every person.
Isn’t that great?!? What an anti-climactic ending to this incredible journal. We’ve been with him through every conceivable emotion and in the final analysis he confesses that there’s no lasting happiness without a relationship with the living God.
I don’t know about you, but I do know that a relationship with the living God allows me to struggle with the mysteries of life, and equips me to face reality and life on the ragged edge.