I recently taught a lesson in Sunday School about Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. I didn’t really know too much about either book before the lesson, but as I researched, I was surprised that they even grouped these two books together in one lesson.
You could not find two books in the Bible so diametrically opposed to one another.
Proverbs is a positive book of poetic phrases that provide moral advice to help people achieve happiness.
“Trust in the Lord… and he will direct thy paths.”
“A soft answer turneth away wrath.”
“Hear, O my son, and receive my sayings, and the years of thy life shall be many.”
The bad guys won’t prosper and the good guys will be blessed.
Everything will turn out if you remain righteous.
On the other hand, Ecclesiastes is a man’s lamentations about the unfairness and futility of life. “The Preacher” (as we know him) seeks out wisdom and knowledge, he deals justly, he becomes extremely wealthy and prosperous, but he sees that it is all for naught.
The bad guys don’t always lose, the good guys don’t always win.
Life isn’t fair, and sometimes and it sucks.
All of my wealth and the good things I have done don’t matter because I am going to die and then all of the stuff I did will be gone and forgotten.
Let me give you an example of the language that typifies this book:
14 The wise man’s eyes are in his head; but the fool walketh in darkness: and I myself perceived also that one event happeneth to them all.
15 Then said I in my heart, As it happeneth to the fool, so it happeneth even to me; and why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, that this also is vanity.
16 For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool.
See what I mean?
I struggled with how I was to piece everything together – all of my research said that Proverbs and Ecclesiastes contradicted one another, but why would they even be included in the canon (and next to one another, no less) if they taught different doctrines?
So I searched the scriptures themselves, sought out verses where the two books seemed to conflict, and compiled the following list:
- “Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding.” Proverbs 3:13
“For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” Ecclesiastes 1:18
- “In all labour there is profit: but the talk of the lips tendeth only to penury.” Proverbs 14:23
“Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 2:11
- “The blessing of the Lord, it maketh rich, and he addeth no sorrow with it… The fear of the wicked, it shall come upon him: but the desire of the righteous shall be granted.” Proverbs 10:22, 24
“I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” Ecclesiastes 9:11
- “Whoso despiseth the word shall be destroyed: but he that feareth the commandment shall be rewarded.” Proverbs 13:13
“There is a vanity which is done upon the earth; that there be just men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again, there be wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous: I said that this also is vanity.” Ecclesiastes 8:14
How do you reconcile scripture that openly contradicts itself?
There had to be something else going on here, so I dove deeper into the meaning behind Ecclesiastes. What I found was enlightening.
There are a couple words and phrases repeated throughout the book of Ecclesiastes: “under the sun” is repeated 29 times and “vanity” is repeated 37 times (keep in mind this isn’t a very long book – only 12 chapters).
- Under the sun – on earth, of the world, not of heaven.
- Vanity – literal translation from Hebrew is “breath” or “breeze”, something temporary, fleeting, transient.
Now everything starts to come together.
The Preacher was lamenting mortal life, a temporal life, a life tied to this earth alone and not to God.
The point of Ecclesiastes is to demonstrate the futility of materialistic life. By using these phrases and words, the Preacher implies the transience of mortal life and the importance of reliance upon God.
Now we can see the true meaning of the contradictory scriptures listed earlier –
Wisdom of the Lord (scripture, science, history, literature) will bring you joy, not the wisdom of the world (trends, fads, gossip).
Labor for the the benefit of others and for the Lord, not for worldly gain or pleasure. Then your work will be worth while.
The righteous will be blessed – whether in this life or the next.
Life has no meaning or purpose unless one recognizes his Creator.
Now, Ecclesiastes isn’t all negative. Little discoveries of the importance of God are sprinkled throughout, reminding the reader to fear (respect) God and His teachings, but the Preacher makes his final point in the last chapter.
13 ¶Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
That is the ultimate point of Ecclesiastes. We are here on earth to follow God and His teachings so that we can return to Him. If we do not hold true to His gospel, this life is a waste. We defeat the purpose of even coming here. But if we focus on our Father in Heaven and our Savior, everything is worth it.
We must constantly strive to center our lives on Christ. As the Preacher discovered, we may not see the rewards of our efforts in this life, but we will receive our eternal reward hereafter.
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