For many of us, it can be all too easy to agree with Solomon when he writes, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Eccl 1:2), and “All things are wearisome” (Eccl 1:8). We—like he—may consider all that happens in the world (or even just in our own lives) and conclude that there is only grief and increasing pain (Eccl 1:18). Thankfully, from his exhaustive consideration of the troubles of a sin-cursed world—and what the world offers in terms of wisdom and pleasure—Solomon is led from the futility of his observations to God’s peace-giving solution: only wisdom that comes from the fear of God provides the right interpretation of these matters, and such wisdom “illumines [a man] and causes his stern face to beam” (Eccl 8:1).
Prosperity Is Not Necessarily Good
Give any attention to television, print magazines, or even your friends’ Facebook or Pinterest, and you will no doubt find a message coming with goods, services, and pastimes on display: this is what makes for a good and happy life. And of course—as Solomon famously noted—there is nothing new under the sun (Eccl. 1:9). In Ecclesiastes 6, he lists a number of God’s good gifts (using some hyperbole for good measure), in order to demonstrate that the blessings that many would suppose make for a “good life” (riches, wealth, honor, children, good things, and a long life) are not always enjoyed by those who receive them (Eccl. 6:2-3). This Solomon describes as an evil which he has seen under the sun and which is prevalent among men (Eccl 6:1).
Worldly wisdom might agree with Solomon here to some extent, saying that we should simply “count our blessings” and seek to be satisfied with these. I remember how on my first visit to an impoverished country, I observed that although the (unbelieving) people there had so much less than people had where I grew up, they seemed to be more content with what they had. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, Solomon does not find a solution here: he says that the “wise” poor man—the one who seeks satisfaction with what his “eyes see” rather than what his “soul desires”—has no advantage; this kind of “contentment” is also futility (Eccl 6:8-9).
Solomon’s point here is particularly relevant to counseling, as we are often quick to comfort ourselves or others with the knowledge that “it could be worse”—at least I still have my family, or at least I didn’t lose all of my savings, or at least I still have a roof over my head. Part of the trouble with this is that those things with which we reassure ourselves might just as quickly flee from us. Imagine if Job had responded to the news of losing his livestock, servants and children (Job 1:13-19), by saying, “it could be worse—at least I still have my health”—that point of hope and comfort would have been dashed in the very next section of the narrative! (Job 2:7).
Adversity Is Not Necessarily Bad
If Solomon’s view of prosperity and blessing is contrary to worldly wisdom, then his view of adversity and affliction is all the more so. In Ecclesiastes 7, he lists a number of situations we would typically think of as bad—including death, mourning, sorrow, and rebuke—and contrasts them positively with experiences we would usually find preferable: birth, feasting, laughter, pleasure, and singing (7:1-5).
Perhaps because he knows his claims might seem absurd, Solomon offers a reason in verse 2 as to why mourning is better than feasting: “Because [death] is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart” (Eccl 7:2). This reasoning can apply to the whole list: one who is satisfied by or diverted with the many “good” things life has to offer might be distracted from the truth that this life is fleeting, and that the reality of God and His judgment is eternal. It is good of God to bring circumstances and experiences that direct our attention away from the fleeting pleasures of this life, and to things of greater and more lasting consequence.
Solomon’s observations concerning prosperity and adversity together begin to explain how a person can have peace in the midst of a world in chaos (under the curse), in which it often seems that the wicked get good things and the righteous get trouble (cf. Eccl. 7:15; 8:14). He writes, “In the day of prosperity be happy, but in the day of adversity consider—God has made the one as well as the other so that man will not discover anything that will be after him” (Eccl 7:14). God has made us to be dependent on Him—we are not able to know or plan for what comes next—but we can trust that whether it seems “good” or “bad,” it is from Him, and those things that seem bad are actually often better for us than things that seem good.
Dependence on God’s Provision—Especially in the Gospel
All of Solomon’s “testing” (cf. Eccl. 2:1; 7:23) has led him to the understanding that man in himself cannot do, or make, or say, or think anything that is not futile. Far from leading us to despair of any joy or usefulness in this life, Solomon wants this truth to lead us to receive God’s good gifts and enjoy them for His sake—including food, drink, and the fruits of hard labor (Eccl. 2:24-26; 5:18-19; 8:15; 9:7-9). He also points out that God has even made provision in this world for the righting of some wrongs, such that justice is often served in time through the imperfect authorities God has put in place (Eccl. 8:2-6).
In the end, however, Solomon’s solution (i.e., God’s solution) is an eternal one. Death is the great equalizer—the righteous may perish young (Eccl. 7:15), but even the wicked who seem to prosper will not escape it (Eccl. 8:8). What ultimately matters is not the prosperity or adversity experienced in this fleeting life, but the position of the one facing eternity before a righteous God.
The final—and most important—way in which Solomon would have the reader depend on God is for the righteousness by which he would stand before Him at the judgment. Seeing this need, it might be tempting for a man to either try on his own to produce the wisdom and righteousness God requires (Eccl. 7:16), or to give up even trying and throw himself into sin (Eccl. 7:17). Solomon warns against both of these responses, and instead commends the fear of the Lord. The one who fears God and depends on Him will receive true righteousness and wisdom in the only way possible—as a gift from God (Eccl. 7:18)—and it will be well for him at the day of judgment (Eccl 8:12).
Suffering and chaos are sad and inevitable realities in this fallen world. It is crucial that we and our counselees have the wisdom—God’s wisdom—to interpret these things correctly. Although the world assumes that prosperity is always good and adversity is always bad, true wisdom teaches that God has purposed especially the latter to lead us to fear Him that we might receive and enjoy His goodness both now and forever. If we can see these realities according to God’s wisdom—even if the difficulty of our circumstances does not abate this side of eternity—it might just be enough to make our stern faces beam.
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