In his journal, Solomon has described the various ways he has sought for satisfaction and joy apart from God.
- He has pursued wisdom and found that increased wisdom only brings increased pain and grief.
- He has pursued pleasure and found it to be empty.
- He has examined the prudent and foolish life and seen that both end in death.
- He has sought meaning in work and discovered that work is hard, not always profitable and its accomplishments cannot be brought beyond the grave.
- He has even examined life "events" and found no meaning in them other than the fact that they are cyclical in nature and pointless in the end.
Solomon's general conclusion thus far is that life, lived apart from God, is pointless. In his journal Solomon offers conclusions not only at the end of his journey but along the way as well. For example, in a flash of insight he informs us that God has actually designed life to be this way. Charles Swindoll, in his book about Ecclesiastes entitled, "On the Ragged Edge" says,
"God has created us with a God shaped vacuum that only He can fill. And until He does, life is little more than hell on earth."
In the balance of chapter three Solomon offers some final thoughts on the search for meaning in the events of one's life lived on earth. He shares both positive and negative insights.
A Vertical View - 3:11-15
If man is able to look beyond the events or "time" of this life on earth and develop a vertical viewpoint (one that sees life from an eternal perspective) he will discover certain things. Solomon lists these in the next few verses.
1. God is able to make sense from chaos - vs. 11
He has made everything appropriate in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.
The presence of God gives appropriate meaning and purpose for everything that He has made:
- Psalms 19:1 - The stars exist to declare His glory.
- Psalms 150:6 - The voices and noises of all life are there to praise him.
- Psalms 8:28 - All events, whether good or bad, serve His purpose. For those who believe, the advantage is that all events ultimately work for good. For disbelievers everything taken together is meaningless.
In creating us, God has made beings that live in the context of time, but in fashioning us in His likeness He has enabled us to transcend the dimension of time and look into eternity. This is something that plants, minerals and animals cannot do.
Q. How does one who is temporal become eternal, and he who has a beginning have no end?
A. In the same way that all spiritual matters are seen and accomplished. By faith I accept that God will do this for me just as He produced a son from the dead womb of ninety year old Sarah, and resurrected a very dead Lazarus after four days in the tomb. By faith I believe that in the twinkling of an eye I will be raised from the dead to live forever (I Corinthians 15:52).
2. God enables us to enjoy life - vs. 12-13
12I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one's lifetime; 13moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor—it is the gift of God.
The presence of God motivates us to do what is right and find purpose in our existence, thus bringing us joy. That men do good, that they find meaning in their lives, that they enjoy the blessings of earth are gifts from God because altruism, work and abundance without God cannot sustain happiness. It is God's presence in the midst of these that generates lasting satisfaction. Being rich does lead to a certain type of happiness but only for a short while.
3. God provokes us to worship Him - vs. 14-15
14I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him. 15That which is has been already and that which will be has already been, for God seeks what has passed by.
Man can violate the environment, try to manage or save it, but he cannot improve it. God has so made creation that exploration of it always leads to greater respect and praise for Him. We keep learning that which has been learned before but the whole continues to elude us because God is always and will always be greater than His creation. God continues to demonstrate this to the believer to his joy and praise.
A Horizontal View - vs. 16-22
Solomon now leaves the vertical view of life and returns to a more horizontal view of things as seen by one who only considers life from an earthly perspective. A strictly horizontal view breeds:
Cynicism - vs. 16
Furthermore, I have seen under the sun that in the place of justice there is wickedness and in the place of righteousness there is wickedness.
When looking at life from a horizontal perspective, Solomon's first observation is one of cynicism. Cynicism is a sense of disillusionment or a feeling that no good exists. In most cases cynicism occurs when there is injustice or oppression that goes unpunished for too long, and for this reason often leads to despair.
Solomon mentions the cause for his cynicism in several places in his journal:
1Then I looked again at all the acts of oppression which were being done under the sun. And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors was power, but they had no one to comfort them. 2So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living. 3But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.
- Ecclesiastes 4:1-3
If you see oppression of the poor and denial of justice and righteousness in the province, do not be shocked at the sight; for one official watches over another official, and there are higher officials over them.
- Ecclesiastes 5:8
All this I have seen and applied my mind to every deed that has been done under the sun wherein a man has exercised authority over another man to his hurt.
- Ecclesiastes 8:9
He sees that in life there is not always a happy ending. There is injustice at every level of society and no satisfaction or comfort for those at the top or bottom of the system. It seems that the best option is to never have been born than to live under unjust oppression all of one's life. From this perspective, therefore, the horizontal view of life (without God's help or ultimate justice and reward) easily and inevitably leads to cynicism.
Solutions to Cynicism - vs. 17-21
Solomon compares cynicism to the vertical view of life. He also offers some ways to deal with the despairing cynicism caused by the strictly horizontal view of life. When this horizontal view becomes discouraging, remember the following:
1. Injustice is temporary - vs. 17
I said to myself, "God will judge both the righteous man and the wicked man," for a time for every matter and for every deed is there.
No matter how bad it is, God will execute justice one day. Everyone will be judged and no one will escape the judgment. Justice is only delayed not cancelled, therefore, we need to commit our hurts and offenses to God who will make a righteous and final judgment on behalf of the aggrieved.
2. Injustice condemns man - vs. 18-21
18I said to myself concerning the sons of men, "God has surely tested them in order for them to see that they are but beasts." 19For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. 20All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust. 21Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth?
The justice of God will judge those who have acted like beasts in devouring others through injustice. Here, Solomon inserts a parenthetical statement concerning a comparison between men and animals. Since both humans and animals die and return to dust, the horizontal thinker may believe that this justifies him acting like a beast while alive (the ultimate danger of the theory of evolution is that it considers all men and animals to be nothing more than beasts).
However, Solomon asks the question in verse 21 - How do you know that true difference between man beast will only be seen after the grave as one remains dust (animal) but the other (man) ascends to God for judgment, and then it will be too late?!
You may act like an animal and die like an animal, but doing so does not mean that you will not be judged like a man! A life of injustice will condemn a man as acting like a beast. However, unlike a beast who remains dust, a man's soul will go and face God for having acted like a beast rather than like a man who is made in God's image.
Hope Beyond Cynicism - vs. 22
22I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him?
Solomon's conclusion in the final verse is to face injustice (we all suffer from it personally or corporately to a greater or lesser degree) and accept one's lot in life with optimism.
He does not advise his readers to:
- Try to understand the why of their circumstances.
- Retaliate with bitterness or cynicism.
- Retreat in resentful silence.
He says that we may not be able to alter our lot in life but we can change our response to it. All of us experience injustices that tempt us to become cynical and depressed. When this happens, here are three questions to ask ourselves in order to change that hopeless cynicism into hopeful realism:
1. What exactly is your unjust disadvantage? Sometimes we exaggerate petty irritations and allow our feelings to grow out of proportion in comparison to the actual situation. It is helpful at these times to articulate what, exactly, has been done to us that has caused our anger and hurt. Matching the seriousness of the situation and the intensity of our reaction is usually the first step in finding a reasonable resolution.
2. When do you plan to replace passive self-pity with active courage? Resolution begins with prayer and is followed with action on those things that are doable, no matter how small (small steps before big steps). The key is to begin. Take the first step even if you are not sure what the second step is going to be. Let the Lord work in your life!
3. How can God use you? The Lord uses everything in your life for His purpose. Seek for ways that God can use your disadvantage to His advantage. Let Him use your pain, your failure and your struggle for someone else's victory.
Many times the element that makes the circumstances constructive or destructive is your attitude. We cannot always change circumstances, but we can change our attitude about our circumstances. It is not circumstances that glorify God or inspires others; it is attitude, because faith shines forth not in events but in the way people respond to events. Changing our attitude can change us from being cynical to hopeful.