Was Solomon a Pessimist and a Hedonist?

As a boy, I thought Ecclesiastes was weird.  As a college student, I thought it was just too deep for anyone to really understand.  Now, I think I might sorta-kinda be able to maybe-somewhat understand what the wisest man in the world was saying.

For the longest time it just felt to me like Solomon was being so pessimistic –

  • “Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity.  What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (1:3) … “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after the wind” (1:14) … 
  • Pleasure, wine, great works, gardens, pools, possessions, wealth, wisdom … it is all vanity – Chapter 2
  • The world is just full of oppression, tears, misuse of power, discontentment, evil … and ultimately just death – Chapter 4, 6 , 9

Since Solomon had such a dark and pessimistic view of life it appeared to me his life motto was just “live it up because it’s all pointless” – “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do … enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun” (9:7,9) 

But is this really Solomon’s philosophy of life? Or was I missing something?

After close to 25 years in ministry, and close to 25 years of marriage, with kids now heading off to college, I think I may understand the wisdom of Solomon.  It wasn’t about hopelessness that leads to hedonistic pleasure, but rather about a hopeful dependance that leads to a joyful freedom.  Let me try to explain:

Solomon knew he wasn’t God, so he was free to be human 

Solomon gave himself, quite passionately I might add, to flipping over every possible human invention to see if he could find some purpose and delight in life.  His conclusion was that there was nothing on earth that could provide for him what only God could.  All these human pursuits would never amount to anything disconnected from the heart of a worshipper to the only One worthy of worship. “For apart from Him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? (2:25). We toil so hard to be in control or to feel like we have accomplished something that will make us feel important.  A wise pastor-mentor of mine used to describe how young men are trying to convince those around them that they have something significant to contribute, and older men are trying to convince those around them that they made some significant contribution in their life.  I think Solomon would say that both are vanity!  The wise Preacher knew that he was no savior, and for as much wisdom and wealth and power as he had, he was simply a created being whose “almond tree  blossoms” (gray hair comes – 12:5), and one day his “golden bowl is broken” (the head goes … dementia,  alzheimers ?? – 12:6). It takes living some years to come to the realization that the next great spiritual awakening in America probably isn’t going to happen through a sermon you preach.  But in that there is immense freedom.  Freedom to trust the only wise God who has given you gifts to use and enjoy during the days of your life.  You and I are free to be weak and needy, frail and faltering, so we can be trusting and true to the God who always gives out of the abundance of His grace.

Solomon knew life was hard, so he didn’t have to make excuses 

Solomon had both experienced and witnessed enough evil and pain in the world to know that there was no human remedy to such suffering.  Young people often haven’t suffered enough, nor have a firm enough grasp on the sovereignty of God to confidently hold pain and the goodness of God together.  I know I struggled to know how to do that.  I think Solomon had come to understand that you don’t have to conclude that God doesn’t care when you see heartache and trauma around you.  I think Solomon had come to recognize that there is another answer to pain in the world other than God must not exist or isn’t a God of love.  I think Solomon in all his searching finally removed himself from the throne and chose to trust a God He would never fully understand.  He didn’t feel the need to feverishly try to prop God up so He looked better to the fools and folly around him (that never works).  Nor did he give in to the arrogance of human wisdom in being the pot who challenges the Potter.  What freedom there is knowing life is hard, God is God, and He doesn’t need you to come to His aid.  You and I can be honest in tears, joyful in pleasure, and resist being the fool who lives to counsel the LORD.

Solomon knew God was King, so he could enjoy being in the Kingdom 

The lore of King Solomon is great in the Bible.  He sought God for wisdom and got it in spades.  We might say – He was the man!  Therefore, one might think after Solomon concluded his quest for the meaning of life and discovered he actually wasn’t the man that he’d be fatalistic and depressed.  Quite the opposite was true of Solomon.  His diligent pursuit of “everything that is done under the sun” (1:14) led him to conclude he wasn’t God.  His honest reflection on “the oppressions that are done under the sun” (4:1) made him realize life is simply hard and full of pain on this fallen planet.  But those conclusions didn’t sink him, but rather gave him greater focus and freedom in life.  He saw “all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun” (8:17) and rather than waste his time focused on trying to do God’s job, he could focus on delighting in God’s work.  That meant worship through hard work, obedient living, and delighting in the God who gives good gifts to His children.

Our friend Tim Keller and others have elevated the emphasis on “idols of the heart”.  Solomon would certainly resonate with that concept.  Ecclesiastes ought to be an “idol-smashing tool” in our lives to the idol of control, the idol of comfort, and the idol of influence.  Those pesky little idols rob you of job, they steal your freedom, and they make you a slave to vain living.  When you and I, like Solomon, finally gain enough Godly wisdom, we too can simply enjoy being a servant in the household of the King.  It is a really great place to be!

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