Solomon looks at life’s meaning
The Rev. Kathy Brumbaugh, Special Writer
Background text: 1 Kings 4:29-34
Devotional text: Ecclesiastes 12:9-14
Last week, we looked at the changing seasons of life, as they correspond to the changing seasons of nature. We read Solomon’s “A Time for Everything,” from Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. Today, we are going to summarize Ecclesiastes as a whole.
It has long been thought that this book found in the Old Testament was written by King David’s son, King Solomon, who took the throne after his father’s death. It was King Solomon, who, when asked by God what gift he would like, responded he would like wisdom.
God was so pleased with his answer that he not only made Solomon the wisest ruler on earth, but also added wealth and honor as well (2 Chronicles 1:7-12).
There are many stories about the wisdom of Solomon found in 1 Kings 1-11 and 2 Chronicles 1-9. However, when we get to Ecclesiastes, we find Solomon reviewing his life as he nears his own death.
It’s difficult to give dates to when Solomon became king and when he died. Some scholars say he became king at age 12, while others say he was 24 or 25. The same is true of his death. While some scholars say he lived to be 60, others claim he was 80 at death.
However, if we were to ask Solomon what he thought of these discrepancies, I think his answer would be something like this: “What does it matter? Everything is like smoke.”
This brings us to the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes. Depending on which translation you are reading, Solomon uses one of these words in describing life: meaningless, vanity, smoke or vapor.
The Hebrew word being translated is hevel, with a meaning closer to smoke or vapor. As we glance through the verses in this book, I think using the words smoke or vapor lead us to a better understanding of Solomon’s intent.
Let’s just look at some definitions: to be meaningless is defined as having no meaning; vanity is defined as doing something only to please one’s self; where smoke or vapor is something hard to get a hold on, it is something that is difficult to understand, like an enigma.
With the definition of smoke in mind, we can understand that Solomon is talking about three things in life: that very little has lasting significance, that life is an enigma and that it is God who truly controls our lives.
Remember, in these 12 chapters, Solomon is near the last part of his life, and he is reviewing his own life as he lived it. Also, since he is the wisdom king, he imparts to the rest of us a sense of what really matters in our own lives.
In the first part of Ecclesiastes, Solomon goes through the world of nature as being repetitive, “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc.1:5-10).
He continues his writing by listing various activities of life being nothing more than smoke. We have them in our time, but, in the long run, they do not stay. They are like smoke; here for a time, then gone.
In these activities, he includes all things in life: having a career, wealth, importance, pleasures, all of our strivings to be somebody. In the end, he says, all of those hopes and goals are nothing more than smoke; they do not last.
Throughout the book, Solomon continues to give us wisdom about life. The wisdom that lasts, that heals, that helps. Many say Ecclesiastes is a negative book, full of the follies of life, as well as the many things about life we just cannot understand. He tells us he has seen evil win and goodness lose. It is an enigma we find difficult to comprehend.
Reading through this book takes us through many ups and downs. It reminds us of life in general, for what person ever has had complete control of their own life? How many times has a spell of joy and delight been followed by a tragedy no one saw coming? This is life, Solomon tells us. We may try, but we do not control it. It is, in essence, an enigma.
Yet, as we come to chapter five, we begin to understand life’s true meaning, and we read many more verses of wisdom from the king.
Solomon tells us as we enter the house of God, our places of worship, we should stand in awe of God. It is better to listen than to talk. He tells us to make our words few. Followed by his advice on how to live, Solomon ends this chapter by speaking of God’s gifts to us. He says that by enjoying God’s gifts, we become “occupied with a gladness of heart.”
The next three chapters speak of Solomon’s follies along with his wisdom for us. He speaks about the greatness of God and what God has done for us (Ecc. 7:13-14). These are things we still find to be true for us today. Line 14 tells us of God and ends with the truth that “a person cannot discover anything about his/her future.” It is God who gives us our lives.
Chapter nine through most of chapter 12, we find Solomon’s conclusion to this work. Everyone shares a common destiny, he concludes, whether we be rich or poor, evil or good. That common destiny is death. All people will, at some time, die.
Of course, we need to realize that Solomon was writing many centuries before the coming of Christ. It was only after Jesus came to tell us of the kingdom of heaven and the joys of our future as believers that we came to know that death is not final.
Jesus gave to us the teachings of living a life devoted to God in trust, hope and service. Jesus taught us how to live our lives in the best way and to be aware of God’s gifts to us in this life.
However, as we continue with Solomon’s work, we again learn from his words of wisdom about how to live, how to behave, how to hold onto the best in life, as we follow our God and Creator.
Finally, all is summed up in chapter 12. Although our lives come and go as smoke, understanding life is really wrapped up in following God, his purposes for us and our willingness to follow him. For it is God who brings understanding, who brings joy and truth and hope and love.