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As providence would have it, my daily Bible reading brought me to Ecclesiastes 2:12-17 on the first day of the new year. Being a little on the melancholy side by nature, I take Ecclesiastes with a bit of trepidation. When I start the book, I know that Solomon is going to proceed to dismantle every aspect of life as “vanity.” Many times, my initial thought is that he’s trying to get me to the place of “since I gave up hope, I feel a lot better.”
However, Ecclesiastes is part of the greater work of God’s history of redemption that we see in Scripture. It has a place and it has a purpose of showing Christ as the center of God’s work in making all things new. I get that when Solomon talks about the vanity of “madness and folly.” Of course, that’s vanity. No argument from me.
I nod my head in hearty agreement when he says in v. 13,
Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness.
Yep, that causes me to hold my chin a little higher. How about you?
But it seems to go south when his next train of thought derails with the statement, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?”
Now, this is the same man who wrote, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” in Proverbs. In other words, wisdom is living our lives knowing that our actions and thoughts are laid bare before the holy eyes of God. The same God Who judges the “thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12)
That would seem to have a conserving effect on how one lives. It would seem that striving to be wise knowing that God will judge foolishness would make that endeavor anything but vain. But here, Solomon finds even wise living to be vanity.
Why? The fool and the wise meet the same end: insignificance, “no enduring remembrance.” Generations later, no one will remember or care how the wise or the fool lived their lives. In the biblical worldview, this is true because of the effects of the Fall in Genesis 3. Paul confirms that “the creation was subjected to futility,” or vanity. (Rom. 8:20) Not just the material creation, but our very thinking was given over to vanity. (Rom. 1:21, 1 Cor. 3:20)
Frankly, Ecclesiastes doesn’t strike me as the go-to book for encouraging New Year’s resolutions. Solomon’s accurate assessment of the value of our actions under the curse of the Fall of man is, quite obviously, discouraging. The lives of the wise and the foolish during the generations before Solomon and the lives of the wise and the foolish throughout the generations after Solomon, all consigned to vanity. Except One life.
Where’s the hope for the New Year in that?
When Jesus comes on the scene, the historical documents that matter tell us that, even from His youth, He increased “in favor with God and man.” (Luke 2:52) Those that were around Him and watched His manner of life were astonished and said that He did “all things well.” (Mark 7:37) Clearly, Jesus was no fool while He lived on this earth. His actions not only demonstrated that He was wise, but what He said confirmed it. What He taught was not a mere regurgitation of what others had said. Those who were actually there “were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority.” (Luke 4:32)
But, they killed Him anyway. It didn’t surprise Him. In fact, He told His disciples that dying was the reason He was born in the first place. (Matt. 20:28) And, it wasn’t just any death. It was a fool’s death. On the cross, He was mocked by men and forsaken by His Father. That’s the kind of death a fool like me deserves, but not the Wisest of the wise. (1 Cor. 1:18)
Yet, He died a fool’s death wisely, so that fools can be made wise and never die.
Here’s the hope in Ecclesiastes. Because of what Jesus has done, we obtain by faith all that He is. In Him is all the wisdom in the universe. (Col. 2:2,3) In Him is all the significance of the universe. God, in His great kindness, raises those who trust in Christ to be seated with Him. (Eph. 2:4-7) There is real meaning. There is real purpose, such that even our eating and drinking can be done to the glory of God. (1 Cor. 10:31)
So, I see that Solomon’s assessment of reality is true, but it is the reality apart from Jesus.