The withered old king sat in a quiet corner of his favorite garden on his golden chair quietly considering how his reign had gone from good at first to bad in his later years. Perhaps it was a tear of what-should-have-been that glistened in the corner of his eye.
Of all the kings in all of history, Solomon had been handed the highest and best chance to succeed. God had given young Solomon his throne, peace, phenomenal wealth and more wisdom than any man had ever had.
All that fabulous wisdom and Solomon let his harem of wives lead him into pagan idolatry. “Smart, smart—stupid! How could I have done this? And what can be done now?” he scolded himself.
The sad yet hopeful irony of Solomon’s foolish failings imparts to us powerful lessons of phenomenal insight in his short and largely autobiographical book called Ecclesiastes. Because of its divine inspiration and artful literary quality, its 12 chapters come jam-packed with wry observations and down-to-earth wisdom. Ecclesiastes is hugely powerful as a young adult’s guide to life.
Life and times of King Solomon
Our 21st-century writers of literature, religion and world news commentary routinely reference King Solomon, who ruled the ancient kingdom of Israel from approximately 970 to 930 B.C. Noted British author Theodore Dalrymple concluded his July 8, 2007, article in the Los Angeles Times about the dilemma of cultural mistrust brought about by modern terrorism with: “All that is needed, then … is the wisdom of Solomon.”
Young adults need that wisdom too.
Solomon began his wisdom education as the young son of King David, who wrote: “The mouth of the righteous speaks wisdom, and his tongue talks of justice. The law of his God is in his heart; none of his steps shall slide” (Psalms 37:30-31 Psalms 37:30-31 30 The mouth of the righteous speaks wisdom, and his tongue talks of judgment.
31 The law of his God is in his heart; none of his steps shall slide.
American King James Version×). Solomon learned very early the foundational wisdom of divine law.
When he became king of Israel, he asked God for even more wisdom, which God happily gave him. He was wiser than anyone to that time and since with the exception of Jesus Christ Himself (1 Kings 3:10-12 1 Kings 3:10-12 10 And the speech pleased the LORD, that Solomon had asked this thing.
11 And God said to him, Because you have asked this thing, and have not asked for yourself long life; neither have asked riches for yourself, nor have asked the life of your enemies; but have asked for yourself understanding to discern judgment;
12 Behold, I have done according to your words: see, I have given you a wise and an understanding heart; so that there was none like you before you, neither after you shall any arise like to you.
American King James Version×).
The young king made brilliant judgments. People were happy and prosperous during his reign. The reputation of Solomonic wisdom spread everywhere: “So King Solomon surpassed all the kings of the earth in riches and wisdom. And all the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put in his heart” (2 Chronicles 9:22-23 2 Chronicles 9:22-23 22 And king Solomon passed all the kings of the earth in riches and wisdom.
23 And all the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon, to hear his wisdom, that God had put in his heart.
American King James Version×). The 12-tribed kingdom of Israel became the destination of choice for non-Israelites the world over to personally witness Solomon’s wisdom during his four-decade reign.
However, a man can’t marry 700 wives, plus have 300 concubines (women of lesser legal standing than a wife) and not pay a fearsome price. God always intended that there be only one man and one woman in each marriage. One can be equipped with wisdom but still act foolishly. “For it was so, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned his heart after other gods; and his heart was not loyal to the L ORD his God” (1 Kings 11:4 1 Kings 11:4For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the LORD his God, as was the heart of David his father.
American King James Version×).
The price was a divine prophecy that Solomon’s dynasty over the 12 tribes of Israel would end with him. His son would retain only two tribes (Judah and Benjamin—1 Kings 11:31 1 Kings 11:31And he said to Jeroboam, Take you ten pieces: for thus said the LORD, the God of Israel, Behold, I will rend the kingdom out of the hand of Solomon, and will give ten tribes to you:
American King James Version×), ruling over the remaining nation known as the house or kingdom of Judah, the descendants of which became known as Jews. Another man would be king of the 10 tribes in the northern part of the country, which became known as the house or kingdom of Israel. To learn the identity of its descendants today, read the article series “The Tribe Tracker’s Guide to the Future”.
Solomon had let God, Israel, the other nations and himself down. There he sat, withered and old, “Smart, smart—stupid!” True wisdom has value for us only when we use it to guide our lives. For so long Solomon did not—using his God-given wisdom only to evaluate his worldly pursuits and rightly conclude that they were vanity (Ecclesiastes 2:3 Ecclesiastes 2:3I sought in my heart to give myself to wine, yet acquainting my heart with wisdom; and to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was that good for the sons of men, which they should do under the heaven all the days of their life.
American King James Version×, 9).
Ecclesiastes: the book
At last the king came to his senses, returning to godly wisdom and a desire to proclaim it. The autobiographical book of Ecclesiastes was very likely his final testament of truth, his last chance to undo some of the evil done by his sinful example and regain some measure of an honored reputation.
Ecclesiastes should therefore be understood in the context of the entire Bible and in the light of its humble profession of faith in the contrite conclusion: “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” (chapter 12:13-14).
The title Ecclesiastes is a Greek translation of the Hebrew word Qoheleth, meaning “one who gathers an assembly” or “preacher.” All Israel assembled at Jerusalem during God’s festivals, especially in the fall for the Feast of Tabernacles. That would have provided a prime opportunity for visiting dignitaries to see the king at the helm of his nation declaring the power of his wisdom.
Ecclesiastes addresses just such a combined assembly representative of men and women of all tribal origins and age groups. Thus it begins: “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. ‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher; ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity’ ” (1:1-2). The context shows he is speaking of physical life “under the sun” (verse 3).
“Vanity of vanities” is a Hebrew superlative, as in “the greatest vanity.” The word translated “vanity” means “breath or vapor.” Physical life of itself is not substantive, bringing no lasting fulfillment and happiness. Only a proper relationship with God will do that, as the book shows.
Ecclesiastes addresses all the opposites of human behavior and thinking: love and hate, oppression and social justice, futility and purpose, foolishness and wisdom. It speaks to the human ideals: friendship, marriage, productive work, duty, contentment and emotional balance. It is perhaps the most succinct study of the foibles of human nature: power, greed and arrogance.
The first two chapters are autobiographical. Solomon uses himself as a case study seeking the meaning of life. He presents the theme for us all: Why are we here?
Four overlays of the preacher’s message
• God will judge all nations under heaven throughout history. No one will be left out, no evil unnoticed, no matter who you are or where you came from. God sets the standard for man, not man for God.
• Social justice vs. oppression. Youth have a keen sense and desire for fairness. Justice is seldom found in the world today because of oppressors in families, communities and nations. But God will straighten out this crooked world.
• The joy of life as God’s gift to mankind. “The underlying mood of the book is joy: finding pleasure in life despite the troubles that often plague it. Those who fear and worship God should experience this joy; they should rejoice in the gifts God has given them” ( The Nelson Study Bible , introduction to Ecclesiastes, p. 1078).
• The greatness of God’s work or plan. “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end” (3:11). God created human beings with the desire to keep living and with curiosity about the future. That’s why some people give themselves religiously to fruitless or futile causes—they seek divine meaning in their lives. However, a “cause” already awaits us—the Kingdom of God.
The core of the book gives lessons on wisdom and the tendencies of human nature along with God’s teaching for a happy life. Some are presented as proverbs, others as direct instruction like “whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (9:10).
Ecclesiastes makes you think. The sooner in your life that you start thinking vertically—the way Christ thought—the wiser you will be, the fewer miseries you will suffer and the more happiness you will enjoy.
Use Ecclesiastes as a guide for your life. Take it from old King Solomon. Don’t come to the end of your life regretting the choices you made. “Don’t be smart, smart—stupid. Be smart, smart—wise!” VT