What’s the Point? Answers in Ecclesiastes

For many of us, the Pete Seeger antiwar anthem, “Turn, Turn, Turn” – a big hit for “The Byrds” – was our first exposure to the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes.

The Dilemma Posed by Ecclesiastes, Chapter One

As a young believer seeking to explore the Word of God, my next encounter with Ecclesiastes was colored by the tension created in chapter one.  Solomon’s tone there is so cynical and gloomy, the reader quickly becomes depressed and hopeless.  In those opening lines, Solomon paints a bleak picture of the human condition.  He’s saying, in effect: 

“All life is vanity, (a mist, a vapor, a mere breath).  What do we gain from all our toil, sweat, and tears?  Are my efforts merely a waste of time, a schlep on life’s treadmill?  Nothing changes, all goes on as if I had never existed.”

So why, I wondered, does God’s Word include such a dismal narrative?  Recently, I took a closer look at this unusual book and discovered that Solomon offers a practical and profound route to victory over this agonizing dilemma.  As a matter of fact, he reiterates the solution 12 times within the 12 chapters of Ecclesiastes.  Here are the 12 verses:

Solomon’s 12 Solutions to the Dilemma

  1. “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil…”   Eccles. 2:24 

The two Hebrew words translated “find enjoyment” – Strong’s Numbers H7200 and H2896 – combine forming this construct:  “to perceive the good and beautiful aspects of your life and work.”  The same two Hebrew words are found in Gen. 1:4  “…God saw the light, that it was good…”

So goodness and beauty are inherent in your toil.  Your vocation is its own reward.  Really?

As a young saxophonist, I discovered there are two kinds of musicians:  those who play in order to gain fame and fortune, versus those for whom today’s paycheck is merely the means for them to continue doing what they love, exercising the privilege of making more music tomorrow.

  1. “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live;  also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—for this is God’s gift to man.”   Eccles. 3:12-13 

So the joy is in the doing, not in the payment or the adulation.

  1. “So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?”   Eccles. 3:22 

This instant, this breath is the only thing I truly possess.  Tomorrow is never guaranteed.

  1. “Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.”   Eccles. 5:12 

In his classic novel “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,”  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn has the protagonist affirm;  

“Ivan went to sleep fully content.  He’d had many strokes of luck that day:  they hadn’t put him in the cells…he’d swiped a bowl of kasha at dinner…he’d built a wall and enjoyed doing it…And he hadn’t fallen ill.  A day without a dark cloud.  This was a good day.”

What does it take for us to feel that we have enjoyed a “good day”?

  1. “Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot.”   Eccles. 5:18 

Once again, two Hebrew words, Strong’s Numbers H7200 + H2896, are combined (as in Gen. 1:4  “And God saw the light, that it was good.”) to indicate that – if we gaze intently – joy and satisfaction can somehow be found in whatever work we must do, apart from any financial gain or notoriety we might reap from our labor.

  1. “Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God.”   Eccles. 5:19 

You might well ask, “How do I find any joy in this drudgery I call ‘my career’?”  The answer:  “God can give you the power to accept your lot in life with winsome graciousness.” 

  1. “For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.”   Eccles. 5:20 

It does not pay for me to dwell on my past mistakes, embarrassments, childhood trauma, or the insults others have heaped on me.  Instead, my peace derives from cultivating the habit of rejoicing in my toil and accepting my lot.

  1. “I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.”   Eccles. 8:15 

God created us with free will, the capacity to make choices.  Regardless of our circumstances, we have the capacity to “choose life” (Deut. 30:19).  We are free to choose joy and optimism on the one hand, or sorrow and cynicism on the other.  Is the glass half full or half empty…or is the glass merely too big?

  1. “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.”   Eccles. 9:7 

Is my life significant?  Does my work count for anything?  This verse answers, “Yes!”  In fact, Eccles. 9:7 sounds to me like a command!  “Approach your toil with gusto!”  God wants us to be joyful and merry, to live life to the fullest, free from existential angst regarding my level of preeminence, or whether my career is of eternal consequence.

My grandmother was a respected author.  She was always concerned about how well her books were received by critics and the public.  One of her books sold well in Germany.  Her comment was:  “The Germans bought me this fur coat…the least they can do, after the way they treated us!”

  1.   “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that [GOD] has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.  Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might…”   Eccles. 9:9-10 

Sounds like another command!  Learn to love your life and your wife.  That too is a choice, not an emotion.  And, if you happen to be unmarried, you can learn to appreciate your singleness.  Again, that’s a choice.

  1. “Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth.”   Eccles. 11:9 

Youth has its joys, as do the middle years, and old age.  By the way, if you should happen to make it to a hundred, you’ll appreciate that you no longer struggle with peer pressure!  Each decade has its own tears as well as its own joy.

  1.   “The end of the matter is this:  all has been heard.  Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.”   Eccles. 12:13 

For the atheist, all life boils down to one long, dusty trail of meaningless monotony.  But – for the Christian – each day presents new opportunities to love God and to love my neighbor as myself.  It’s my choice.  There are far too many “Eeyores” in this world!  I choose instead to be a Daniel!


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