The tsunami traveled at a speed of about 200 miles per hour across the Pacific Ocean. That massive wave would kill sixty one people in Hawaii, one hundred and thirty eight in Japan, and thirty two in the Philippines. This Chilean earthquake which occurred on May 22, 1960, may be the largest earthquake ever recorded.
The word “vexed” is an old Latin word meaning “to quake/rumble” and although Latin isn’t the language that the Old Testament was written in, the Old English word was used by scholars when translating Ecclesiastes 1.18.
“For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
At first glance, it may seem like Solomon is discouraging one from pursuing knowledge— but the message is a lot deeper.
Some have taken the view that Solomon is speaking of an earthly knowledge. It’s true that the sort of knowledge the world offers isn’t going to bring you the kind of fulfillment that the wisdom God provides. The world’s understanding lacks the answers to major questions which are essential to our spiritual health. Where did we come from? What’s the purpose of life? What happens when we die? Is this all there is? Earthly wisdom will either provide one with answers with holes, answers that are depressing— or no answers at all.
However, God’s wisdom can bring much vexation as well.
With God’s wisdom you come to understand that the majority of people on earth aren’t pursuing Him. You discover that most people live their lives in a way that grieve Him. That sort of understanding also brings you closer to that God. When the Lord is upset, troubled, angered, frustrated, or vexed, then his faithful are going to feel similarly.
With much of God’s wisdom, comes much vexation. With much of the world’s wisdom, there’s much vexation. The question we should ask, is why do we want our souls to be troubled? You can be fulfilled and troubled at the same time because with God, there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.
“But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body.” (Ecclesiastes 12.12 NASB1995)
As Solomon reaches the end of his treatise as “The Preacher,” he expresses his feelings, using his life as an example. During his life, as today, people wrote on many topics. If there is a difference between our two eras, it must be that more people today have access to education and can read all of the books that people write. Otherwise, there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1.9). Yet, with education comes self-reflection. And self-reflection often prompts men to take pen to page and write in poetry and prose. Even so, that self-reflection brings melancholy, as with men like Edgar Allen Poe.
And this is where we find Solomon. But even though cynical at this point, Solomon still sounds as if he could have found a home among the other literary figures of the Romantic era, like Alfred Lord Tennyson or Henry David Thoreau. When it is fashionable for men to be scholarly, one notes more men willing to put thoughts and feelings into words. Whatever the rationale, whether to be praised, make money or achieve catharsis, it spawns one of the hallmarks of culture: literature.
Generally speaking, literature and its study are positive. From those writers in the past, concepts have been communicated through time, influencing future generations. Before the Romantic era, the West went through the Age of Enlightenment. Academics and thinkers drew ideas from the classical thought of ancient Greece. Some thinkers in this epoch penned literature the American Founding Fathers read and sparked a revolution. Others, like Sir Isaac Newton, were inspired to unlock the secrets of the cosmos.
But then there is another class of literature written by men with a deleterious effect on the reader. No, I am not just talking of the smut peddler, though that is terrible. Instead, I am referring to those like Karl Marx or Adolph Hitler, who took to pen to write dangerous, subversive ideas that upset the course of civilization. Although World War 2 effectively destroyed Hitler’s brand of fascism, Marxism still flourishes in the ivy-covered walls of U.S. colleges and universities. And we have not even mentioned those like Friedrich Nietzsche, who was desirous of taking away his reader’s hope in God.
Even so, the written word remains one of man’s greatest inventions. And it is apropos that the first book produced by a printing press was a copy of God’s Word. That book, the Bible, is itself a compilation of 66 books. And think of the diverse and storied men who wrote those books’ words through the Holy Spirit’s influence: shepherds, kings, tax collectors, tent makers, doctors, et al. So the final product is something we can even enjoy as literature, despite being written for our moral guidance.
In this Information Age, as some have dubbed it, we still have our writers. They may write as I do for a blog, a funny-sounding word that didn’t even exist a half-century ago. It is short for “weblog.” Or they may write for journals, newsletters, and books. But men still write. You may have never guessed that it is a tiresome task, especially when dealing with the denizens of the interwebs. These readers crave new content, not unlike the way the ancient Athenians daily gathered on Mars’ Hill to hear some new thing (Acts 17.21). And if you don’t keep your content fresh, you lose readers. So even if you do not monetize your blog, as this is a non-monetized blog, one still wants to have readers to make the endeavor worthwhile. It is not necessarily a numbers thing, but more eyes ensure that more seed-casting and watering can occur so that God brings an increase (1 Corinthians 3.5-7).
Hence, there is wisdom in distributing this chore to five men, each bringing their perspective to the task. As one who has repeatedly tried and failed at blogging because of physical infirmity and ADHD, one article a week is a fantastic achievement. However, I get tired at even the thought of multiplying that effort by five weekdays. But Solomon pointed out that writing is tiring. Yes, this is not a book, per se. But it is still wearisome. Some may mock how something like preaching, teaching, or writing devotional content could be tiring since it is not blue-collar work. The answer lies within physiology since even the brain of a resting person requires about 20% of the body’s energy.1
There are also emotional highs and lows. Sometimes you become sad like Solomon. When you realize, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10.31 NASB1995), you want to figure out how to convince the most stubborn person of their need to obey God. Sometimes you must surmount cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic, and generational differences to do this. So how do I tailor a message to convince this man or woman I desire to win for Christ?
At other times you encounter a gold nugget, something that had never caught your attention in your prior readings through the Scriptures. So, naturally, you want to drop everything and research it, plumbing its depths. But maybe your search leads nowhere. And you end up tossing it upon that humongous pile of things that are the secret things known only to God (cf. Deuteronomy 29.29). Then again, you might hit the Comstock Lode. In this case, not only do you learn something new, but it may even be something that corrects you from the error you ignorantly embraced and taught. At the end of the day, one realizes that he will never exhaust his capacity to learn something from God’s Word. And that should be something that humbles you.
No wonder Solomon ends his message by saying one should not try to tackle the wisdom that we see residing beyond God’s Word. If it can be wearisome to study the Bible, imagine trying to wrap your head around fields of study that are contingent on theories since no one can prove what they believe. For example, just recently, the James Webb Space Telescope showed no signs that the universe is expanding, something necessary if the big bang occurred. There is also no red shift in those galaxies farthest away, indicating no cosmic expansion. So now cosmologists and physicists will go back and have to come up with a new explanation for the universe’s origin. How frustrating, even panic-inducing.2
Solomon sums everything up after the “wearied Preacher’s” last admonition against too much study and “excessive devotion” to books of no eternal value. Our purpose is to fear God and keep His commandments because He will be judging us (12.13-14). If you know enough to save your soul from hell, you are indeed a wise man or woman.
When my father and I travel in the car together, we listen to one of three SiriusXM stations: 40s Junction, Bluegrass Junction, or Willie’s Roadhouse. Today, we tuned the radio dial to Willie’s Roadhouse as I made my way to a gastroenterology appointment. On the way home, Tom T. Hall’s tune, “Faster Horses (The Cowboy and the Poet),” played as we started back up the mountain towards Blairsville, Georgia. I have heard this song by “The Storyteller” before. “Faster Horses” never fails to remind me of King Solomon.
Within Hall’s song, a poet asks a cowboy for words of inspiration. Instead, the cowboy tells the poet that the best things in life are “faster horses, younger women, older whiskey, and more money.”1 The poet balks at the idea, but the cowboy calls him a liar. The poet desires to punch the cowboy, but the cowboy draws a weapon, and the poet backs off. Eventually, the poet drops his philosophical pursuits, settling on the “wisdom” imparted to him. He supposes the “wisdom” sage enough to share with his offspring. I would venture to guess that alcohol, at least, figured prominently in Hall’s life as he also wrote the songs “I Like Beer” and “Old Dogs, Children and Watermelon Wine.” Even my favorite of Tom T. Hall’s discography, “I Love,” contained the lyrics “bourbon in a glass and grass.” (As an aside, there was a radio edit that substituted those lines with “old TV shows and snow.”)
In Ecclesiastes 2.1-3,8, Solomon admits, “I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself.’ And behold, it too was futility. I said of laughter, ‘It is madness,’ and of pleasure, ‘What does it accomplish?’ I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take hold of folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives…Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men—many concubines” (all ref. NASB1995 unless otherwise indicated).
Yes, Solomon said it was futility (vanity—KJV and ESV). Solomon tried the cowboy’s life and found it wanting. It may well be that the late Tom T. Hall found out the same thing. On August 20, 2021, Tom T. Hall took his life. He was 85 years old.2 Though I do not wish to debate the wisdom of Chilon of Sparta, who in circa 600 BC was the first recorded speaker of the aphorism, “Do not speak ill of the dead,”3 I will add that many suicides stem from a sense of hopelessness. Depression is typically the common factor among those choosing to end their life. If this was Hall’s motivation, and only God knows, we note how the vanity of “faster horses, younger women, older whiskey, and more money” can create a downward spiral.
Vanity is an unhealthy type of narcissism. One is preoccupied with best satiating his desires, as Solomon well documented. In Ecclesiastes 6.7, Solomon says of his pursuits, “All a man’s labor is for his mouth and yet the appetite is not satisfied.” Thus, Solomon assures us that he found his pursuits futile despite trying everything he could. So why didn’t Solomon’s dissatisfaction cause him to lose hope or become depressed? Because he still had enough wisdom to draw the proper conclusion: “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12.13-14).
If we are to develop the mind of Christ (Philippians 2.3-8), our focus must be outward. Rather than following one’s vanity to inevitable destruction, one must look out for the interests of others (Philippians 2.4). Therefore, whether said initially by Benjamin Franklin, John Ruskin, or Henry Emerson Fosdick, we note the truth in the expression, “A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small bundle.” Embiggen yourself by obeying the law of Christ (cf. Galatians 6.2,10). Don’t follow vanity where it leads.
In the first chapter of Genesis we read that God made man dominion over every creature He had made. Then in James 3:7 the inspired writer says, “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind.” When we think about the implications of that and then apply it to the world of the Old Testament it becomes even more impressive. The first humans lived with all kinds of beasts, including the dinosaurs. Whatever image comes to mind when you think of those extinct reptiles, it’s probably not that of a tame animal. God gives us a curious glimpse into the past where humans and dinosaurs not only coexisted, but we managed to tame them. In Ecclesiastes, the preacher concludes his sermon in chapter 12 by saying we must prepare ourselves for the day we meet our Creator. The spirit that He made will one day return back to Him. Solomon then says, “fear God.”
The correlation between “spirit” and “fear” is also seen in the New Testament. Paul writes to a fearful and wavering Timothy, “God did not give us a spirit of fear but of power, love, and a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). The message in the Old and New Testament then is, “fear nothing but God.” When Adam and Eve were in the garden they feared nothing because that’s not the spirit that God gave them. He gave us one of power, because of the God we serve. He is our Father and He has all the power. He gave us a spirit of love. We aren’t animals. We aren’t lions who display great power but lack the ability to love. We were made in the image of God and that means we have both a spirit, which is our life force, and a soul— our eternal life force. On top of all this God gave us the spirit of a sound mind. The Greek word used there means a mind that is calm. Even in the face of calamity and craziness, we can be calm. Why? Because we are God’s children and God is in control. One day every faithful Christian will get back that perfect spirit given to His original creations. Spirits without fear.
Solomon makes an interesting observation in the book about his grand experiment seeking the meaning of life. In Ecclesiastes 8, he is writing about the “evil man” who is basically living life as he pleases, doing what he wants with no regard for judgment. There seem to be multiple reasons for him to continue living this way:
He’s doing evil and is not suffering immediate consequences for it (11).
He’s repeatedly doing evil and is even living a long life (12; cf. 7:15).
He doesn’t seem to suffer a fate any worse than the righteous, and sometimes seems to do better than the righteous (14).
Frankly, Solomon is making a timeless observation. Perhaps you have sung the song, “Tempted and tried, we’re off made to wonder why it should thus all the day long, while there are others living about us never molested though in the wrong.” Billionaires, movie stars, professional athletes, politicians, and the like provide public examples of this passage and that song. We can produce more local, if lesser known, examples of those who seem prosper, living so wicked year after year.
Solomon does not have the understanding we have this side of Calvary, but he ultimately grasps the principle that should guide our lives today. At the very end of Ecclesiastes, he says, “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (12:13-14). This is a vital principle for me to internalize and live by.
When I am tempted to live like this world is my home and the pleasures of earth are what life is about, I need to understand that I may not be struck dead while pursuing life on those terms, not even if I persist in it over a long period of time. I may not die a horrible death as the result of pursuing what God calls “evil.” However, Ecclesiastes 8:11-14 does not describe the end. Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 does.
If I drift away from fellowship with God and His people, if I live like the world when I am out of sight of the church, if I put someone or something above my faithfulness to God, I probably won’t suffer immediate consequences. God loves me enough to let me know that. He will let me make whatever choices I want, but He wants me to know the results of my decisions. Solomon rightly says, “Still I know it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly” (Ecc. 8:12; cf. 3:14; 5:7; 7:18; 12:13). There is an appointment for every one to “be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). It is when we appear before the judgment seat of Christ, and Paul says we must all do so. Wisdom is living this life preparing for that moment, understanding that judgment is not now but then. Such knowledge should move us to “fear God and keep His commandments.”
A family decided they didn’t want their little puppy anymore and for whatever reason they decided to dump this dog on the side of the road after tying it in a black plastic bag. At some point there was a woman who was driving down that road and she just happened to notice that something wasn’t right. When she discovered that there was a dog inside the bag she took it to a vet and then, eventually, to an adoption shelter. One day I decided to walk into the pet store to simply look around— and that’s when I saw him. Huddled in the back of his crate, a shaggy and skinny puppy with tan fur sat quietly, while it seemed every other dog in that store was madly barking. I opened the crate and he timidly came out— there was nothing I could do. This dog was mine. I named him “Bro” and to this day he continues to provide loyal companionship and plenty of laughs. The fact is, I’ve never been more attached to another animal and I’d never even think about giving him away.
Solomon was a man determined to find the purpose of life. In Ecclesiastes we can read about these lavish experiments that he conducts all in the name of research. In the first two chapters he writes in a very depressing manner all the while Divine inspiration drives him toward the answer to life’s greatest question. He acknowledges the fact that everybody in every generation is just a small blip on earth’s timeline. The rich, poor, wise, and foolish all must embrace the same fate. They will all die and will eventually be forgotten. Solomon is concerned that everything, his wealth and kingdom, will be left to a fool after he’s gone, and that’s exactly what happened. Rehoboam, his son, proves to be an awful king and heaps destruction on God’s people. So, what’s the point? None of it matters. Well, without God nothing matters! The word most associated with this book is the word “vanity,” which means “useless or futile.” Without God, your life is worthless and it will amount to nothing. Solomon’s discovery of this unchanging truth will remain true throughout every age because it’s a truth that comes from the Creator of life.
It’s unlikely that not a single person on earth values your life. Still, even if that were the case, because God’s hand guides you and touches all that you do, you have everything. My dog is not an expensive pure bred beauty, but to me there is no dog that could take his place. Apparently someone didn’t think too highly of him in the past, but that mangy thing lucked out and found the right owner. Who owns you? If money owns you, you’re getting left on the side of the road. If anything in the world owns you, you’re getting left behind. If God doesn’t own your life, you’ll never find purpose or lasting joy in this life— or the next. It could be that you feel like you’ve been placed in a trash bag and the world has mistreated you your entire life. Maybe that’s crushed your confidence and taken your sense of self worth, too. Though our lives are just a blip in the grand scheme of things, God can make your life a big blip by providing you with not only purpose, but with a love far too great to comprehend. The God of heaven has given us a mission and if we accept His invitation we’re going to make a lasting mark on this world— and enjoy lasting bliss in the world to come.
It’s so easy to lose sight of our purpose. Even as Christians, our identity can become the things that are associated with this earth and this life. We can move along the road of life, unmindful of why we’re hear and what we’re to be doing with our time. Since at least my college days, I have asked God, “Help me make the most of my opportunities to Your glory.” He has opened doors I did not even know existed. These have not happened because of who I am, but all of it has happened because of who He is. That doesn’t mean that any of us can sit back passively until God makes things happen, but it is an exciting thing to try and order your life in such a way that He can use you for His purposes in the brief time we have on this earth.
The longer we live, the more we see our utter dependency upon Him and understand that “it is God who causes growth” (Col. 2:19; 1 Cor. 3:6-7). The Bible is His Word revealing His will, and we serve at His pleasure for His glory (Phil. 2:13). We can never forget that as long as we live in this life. None of us is indispensable and irreplaceable. Yet, for the brief period of time we’re here, we are a tool in God’s hand (cf. Rom. 6:12-13). We should work hard and prepare ourselves for service, but it’s exciting to watch God open doors and make things happen!
Life has its difficult moments, dark days, trials, temptations, and disappointments. But no life can compare to the Christian life. With all the temptation to be distracted by issues that will ultimately not matter to the dead and those in eternity, let us reflect daily on why God has us here.
If you would make for self a name, to seek for glory or for fame,
At life’s quick end, you’ll know the shame of serving self, not God.
If you make pleasing men your aim, and fawn and fumble for their acclaim,
When life is done, an empty same, of serving self, not God.
But if for Him you will proclaim, and let His glory be your flame,
At life’s great end He will exclaim, “Come home, O servant of God!”