Ecclesiastes is a speech and not a treatise. So it is not expected to be a complete presentation of the meaning of life. As a wisdom teacher Qoheleth presents only what is needed in his Old Testament context to persuade his audience to fear God and keep His commandments. He limits his consideration to our individual life-story from birth to death, showing us how to live in light of the certainty of death and the uncertainties of life, as well as God’s final judgment of everything we do under the sun. In this way he demonstrates that the fear of God is fundamental to discovering and experiencing the meaning of life.

We know that throughout his speech Qoheleth is indeed talking about the meaning of life, and not a meaning or meanings of life. For he presents fearing God and keeping His commandments as the reason for being for “every man” (12:13). And he shows how “God so works” in and through human experiences “that man should fear Him” (3:14). Which means, his speech presents the purpose of human life and shows how the various aspects of human life, including undeserved suffering, contribute to this overall purpose. He has to be talking about the meaning of life.

Citing Polkinghorne again, “To ask about the meaning or significance of an event is to ask how it contributed to the conclusion of the episode [of which the event is a part]” (1988:6). So to ask what is the meaning of life is to ask how our individual life-story as a whole (an extended event) contributes to the conclusion of human history. But Qoheleth neither asks nor answers this question; he does not show how the purpose of human life is in line with the purpose and goal of human history. So as expected, his presentation of the meaning of life is incomplete. But is it also inadequate?

He has affirmed that “God so works [in history] that man should fear Him” (3:14). Thus the purpose of history is so that people of all nations would fear God and keep His commandments (cf. Matt 28:18-20). Exactly how this purpose has been and will be worked out in history is not presented in biblical wisdom books like Ecclesiastes, but in the rest of the Old Testament and the New Testament (see Our Reason for Hope). However, it is clear that by heeding Qoheleth’s final exhortation to fear God and keep His commandments, our life-story is already in line with the purpose of history.

Both the Old and New Testaments (Isa 65:17-25; Revelation 21-22) reveal that the goal of history is the establishment of “new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells” (2Pet 3:13). This means, when the goal of history is reached, God’s purpose for humanity to fear Him and thus become righteous through keeping His commandments will be perfectly accomplished. Hence it is also clear that by heeding Qoheleth’s final exhortation, our life-story is already in line with the goal of history.

Therefore, though Qoheleth’s presentation of the meaning of life is incomplete, it is not inadequate in helping his audience discover and experience it. What is not clear is how a God-fearing life-story actually contributes to the purpose and goal of history. The Bible has much to say on this matter. But within the limited scope of a postscript, we will only pick up from where Qoheleth left off and briefly consider where it leads us.

Qoheleth ended his speech with God’s judgment of every deed under the sun, whether good or bad, hidden or not (12:14). But what is the outcome of this final and comprehensive judgment? What will happen to those who “pass” and to those who “fail” the judgment? The Bible reveals that at the end of history, those whose life-story passed the judgment will be resurrected to “everlasting life” in the new heavens and the new earth, while those who failed will be resurrected to “everlasting contempt” in the “lake of fire” (Dan 12:1-4; Rev 20:11-21:8). And in the new heavens and the new earth, where what is normally called “heaven” will be, every longing of the human heart will be fulfilled and every human fear will be no more. So this is how a God-fearing life-story will eventually end.

However, as Qoheleth has observed, “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (7:20). Who then could pass such a stringent judgment? Qoheleth did not seem bothered. Neither would his Old Testament audience. For in the Old Testament, a sacrificial system was available specifically because it was (and still is) impossible for imperfect human beings to keep God’s commandments perfectly. Those who sincerely feared God and lived a reasonably righteous life would confess and repent of their sins and receive forgiveness through faith by offering appropriate sacrifices (Num 5:5-10; cf. Ps 51:15-19). In this way, their righteous life-story, though not sinless, would pass the judgment. This means, though good deeds will characterize those who eventually pass the judgment, no one, no matter how sincere, can pass by just doing good works.

The New Testament teaches that the sacrificial system has become obsolete. For the sacrifice that ends all sacrifices has already been offered--the death of Jesus Christ on the cross (Heb 10:11-14). This was already anticipated in the Old Testament (Isa 52:13-53:12) “for it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Heb 10:4). This is because sins are committed against God and so only God can forgive sins. And since to forgive an offender the one offended must himself bear the consequence of the offense, to forgive sin God must Himself bear the consequence of sin, which is death (Rom 6:23). But God cannot die.

So He took on human flesh in the person of Christ to bear the consequence of sin by dying on the cross (John 1:1,4,29). This sacrifice was effective for sins committed even in the past (Rom 3:25). This means the Old Testament saints received forgiveness on the basis of Christ’s death. The animal sacrifices then served as “credit cards” that God temporarily accepted. Since the death of Christ, we receive forgiveness through faith not by the use of “credit cards,” but “gift vouchers” paid for through that sacrifice. The voucher expires upon our own death (Heb 9:27).

We now need to take a fresh look at the theme of Ecclesiastes in light of “heaven.” In our exposition of 1:2-3, we considered two possible responses to the reality that all is vanity. Those who put their hopes in this world will likely respond with pessimism--“everything is meaningless.” And those who do not, and are able to accept the reality that they will leave this world empty-handed, will likely respond with realism--enjoy what they have while they still have them. There is actually one more possible response.

Jesus has commanded His followers: “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, where thieves break in and steal. But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt 6:19-21). So there is such a thing as spiritual and eternal profits (“treasures in heaven”) which one can lay up while still living under the sun. Even if Qoheleth was aware of it, he ignored this kind of profit in his speech. He spoke exclusively about material and temporal profits (“treasures on earth”) even when he was considering the profits of righteousness. So when he declared, “there is no profit under the sun,” he was not ruling out “treasures in heaven.”

However, followers of Jesus who are committed to obey this command face a major obstacle. For, being human and living in a covetous world, they are under pressure to conform to the rest of humanity in the pursuit of “treasures on earth.” This must have led missionary Henry Martyn to pray: “May I have Christ with me in the world, not substituting imagination in the place of faith, but seeing outward things as they really are, and thus obtaining a radical conviction of their vanity” (cited in Bridges 1960:7). For “a radical conviction” concerning the vanity of the things of this world would set his heart free to obey Jesus in laying up “treasures in heaven.”

Qoheleth’s persuasive speech is designed to cultivate just such a conviction. People like Henry Martyn would see Ecclesiastes as God’s answer to their prayer. They will thus respond with optimism to the reality that “there is no profit under the sun.” To them “all is vanity” is actually most meaningful! And of course this optimistic response and the realistic response admonished by Qoheleth are not mutually exclusive. So according to the Bible, it is possible to “have the best of both worlds,” this and the next!


Blogger Andrew Chua said...

great job explaining the book of Ecclesiastes.

11:19 PM  
Anonymous Brian Billings said...

According to The New Annotated Oxford Bible's adjoing commentary from Choon-Leong Seow, the original text ended with, "The end of the matter." I find this important, as the call to keep God's commandants isn't found elsewhere in Ecclesiastes. What do you make of this?

4:39 AM  
Blogger tfleong said...

I do not have The New Annotated Oxford Bible and so cannot check for myself what was actually said. But I found a reference to this particular comment in the Ecclesiastes entry of Wikipedia:

The original ending of the book was probably the words: "The end of the matter" (12:13:) but the text we have continues: "Fear God" (a phrase used often in Koheleth's speech) "and keep his commandments" (which he never uses), "for God will bring every deed to judgement."

Bible scholars, because of their presuppositions, often make conjectures without any evidence, sometimes even against evidence. There is no evidence whatsoever that the text originally ended that way. We cannot take this conjecture seriously. If we do, in view of the many conjectures made by Bible scholars, we cannot take the Bible seriously. The integrity of the Bible is at stake.

In the Old Testament, fearing God and keeping God's commandments (that is, walking in His ways) are inseparable (see for instance Deuteronomy 10:12-13; cf. 2 Chronicles 6:31). Psalms 112:1 even says those who fear God delight in His commandments. So if "fear God" is often used in the speech, is the phrase "and keep His commandments" out of place in the speech?

My exposition shows how the ending as we have it fits so neatly the flow of the rhetoric. In fact without this ending the speech is incomplete.

4:15 PM  
Anonymous Brian Billings said...

Thank you very much for your thoughts on that. I'm taking some Religion electives at my university, and when we went over Ecclesiastes, the book had sparked my interest. I grew up in a Christian household and went to a Christian school, and I honestly don't think I'd ever read a word of Ecclesiastes before.

I appreciate what you have done in this website and look forward to reading more.

1:02 AM  

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