Ecclesiastes is medicine for the wounded and their helpers and especially those with visions of empire. Grand designs! High hopes! Victorious visions! We set out to overturn oppressors, rescue castaways, sort out all the systems, win the world! Ecclesiastes speaks back. “Vanity of vanities,” its writer declares. “All is vanity” (1:2).
The sun rises and sets …
On its circular course the wind returns …
To the place where the rivers flow, there they flow again …
So there is nothing new under the sun.
“Under the sun” – This phrase pervades this enigmatic book. Indeed, Ecclesiastes refers to the sun more than any other book of the Bible. Its constant companion is the theme of human labour. “What advantage does man have in all his work which he does under the sun?” asks this son of David (1:3).
His words evoke David’s own meditations on the symbolism of the sun. God himself is depicted as the sun (Psalm 84:11), its heat scorching the people of the earth, who respond by blaspheming God (Rev 16:9). “Nothing is hidden from its heat” (Psalm 19:6, Jonah 4:8).
All this the writer of Ecclesiastes meditates on, laments over. He’s seen all the oppressive acts under the sun, all the tears they trigger. In the place of justice and righteousness is wickedness. Even through intense labour, no human can discover the full meaning of all this, even the wisest man (8:17). Rest is elusive and brings only poverty. Only death seems certain, ushering the cancellation of all our toil under the sun (2:18-36), all earth’s fruit sprung from rivalry between each human and their neighbour (4:4).
Ecclesiastes isn’t going to gaslight you, dear reader.
All is vanity. The living take this to heart (7:2).
Yet here is the tension, that by the tender mercy of our God, there is another light, the Sun of righteousness, the Sunrise from on high, the lamp of the Lamb. Under this Son, neither our preaching nor our faith are vanity (1 Cor. 15:14), though even in kingdom work, God alone knows when we labour on stones and when on good soil. Many times we cannot tell the difference.
Still Jesus says that when our effort meets adversity, the peace we’ve offered returns to us (Luke 10:6). What mystery! The Wisdom of Christ, our imperishable inheritance, these are good and an advantage to those who see the sun (Eccl. 7:11).