"On every page of the God-breathed writings are many thoughts that stretch out like long, clear arms of light across the darkness, discovering things otherwise hidden and illuminating wider areas than those of the immediate context. They are searchlights. From a multitude of these, I have selected one in each chapter of Scripture, for at least one central thought in every chapter should arrest the mind and affect the life," wrote G. Campbell Morgan, a wise, warm-hearted, careful Bible teacher who conducted a classic 3-year chapter-by-chapter study called Life Applications from Every Chapter of the Bible. Here are the fruits of that timeless study—summarized, illustrated, and amplified—on all 66 books of the Bible (posted one book at a time, cumulatively).
GENESIS, EXODUS, LEVITICUS, NUMBERS, DEUTERONOMY, JOSHUA, JUDGES, RUTH, 1 SAMUEL, 2 SAMUEL, 1 KINGS, 2 KINGS, 1 CHRONICLES, 2 CHRONICLES, EZRA, NEHEMIAH, ESTHER, JOB, PSALMS, PROVERBS
Ecclesiastes 1:2 "'Vanity of vanities!' says the Teacher.... 'All is vanity.'" This book's name, Ecclesiastes, comes from the word translated Teacher, which can also be translated Debater. That is important because the verse highlighted above, repeated often throughout this book, is King Solomon's main topic of debate: the vanity or empty, futile, and fleeting nature of life in a fallen world. Solomon brings all his wisdom and experience to bear to prove it is an absolutely accurate statement of life when lived under certain conditions, but it is not true as a statement of what life must necessarily be. Solomon's declaration is that things in themselves bring no satisfaction to the soul of man. To live on earth without recognizing the supreme wisdom that begins and continues in the fear of the Lord is to deal only with that hemisphere which is "under the sun" (verse 9), a phrase repeated about 30 times in Ecclesiastes to describe life as lived by those who essentially reckon without God. Solomon rigorously proves that although people who live like that will find things in this world of wonder, beauty, and power, none of them will provide lasting satisfaction, but will all prove vain. By the end of the book, Solomon draws to a conclusion that points the honest reader to life that is real, rich, full, and glorious.
Ecclesiastes 2:26 "This also is vanity and striving after wind." This repetition of Solomon's main theme concludes round 1 of facts proving it: the monotonous, repetitious grind of the material universe (1:4-11), his unparalleled acquisition of knowledge and wisdom that brought great grief (1:12-18), his pursuing lawful and unlawful pleasures beyond what most people could even imagine that left him feeling empty (2:1-3), and his amassing wealth beyond measure that truly was of little value (2:4-11). Here is a man richly endowed in himself, living in the midst of marvelous things, yet finding nothing in them upon reflection. Solomon's example is meant to keep us from thinking we would be happy if only we had more knowledge, pleasures, and wealth. Solomon is teaching us to think about life from a spiritual perspective over the sun and above the material. Forgetting that, everything is vanity. This is as modern as the ennui, disillusion, disappointment, and despair of every person who seeks satisfaction in life through knowledge, pleasure, wealth, and anything else apart from God.
Ecclesiastes 3:22 "I perceived that nothing is better than that a man should rejoice in his own works, for that is his heritage. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?" With this chapter Solomon the Debater expands his outlook on the vanity of life beyond his extensive personal experience. First he returns to the mechanism of the universe (touched briefly upon in Ecclesiastes 1:4-11), which he describes in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 as a recurring cycle of opposites (a time to this and a time to that). In debating like this, Solomon is not representing an atheist's perspective, but rather a person who believes in God and His government over all things, yet without any personal fellowship with the God who is governing. This person is not sure there is any lasting difference between man and beast; he is an agnostic. Therefore his outlook upon life lacks illumination from God and he naturally concludes, as highlighted above, that all a man can do is rejoice in his own works for a time. Solomon is helping us realize that to interpret God by circumstances, as they appear to us with our partial vision "under the sun," is to become pessimistic. Only when we look upon circumstances from the standpoint of fellowship with God, which comes from responding by faith to His revealed Word, do we have just cause for optimism in life.
Ecclesiastes 4:3 "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." In this chapter Solomon the Debater describes sociological conditions as he observed them, and this is his terrible finding: the dead are better off than the living, but better than either is not to have been born at all! It is a dreadful conclusion, yet natural and justifiable to anyone who looks only upon conditions of life "under the sun," and has no interpretation gained from fellowship with God. Glance over Solomon's debate in Ecclesiastes 4: the tears of the oppressed with no one to comfort them, dexterity in labor that produces envy in the hearts of others, people who work hard to gain wealth but are lonely, and succession in leadership that favors the foolish more than the wise. All the things Solomon describes here and others like them do not accurately represent life as it always is, yet they are so prevalent and so poignant that they make the observer unconscious of brighter facts—as if the existence of such things at all cancels all other considerations. Now Solomon has us where he wants us: blot out all the things above the sun; deny or be ignorant of the God who reigns on high, and life appears as a nightmare and a horror. Every joy becomes a mockery, every pleasure a delusion, every hope a mirage. Only when we come to know God and live in His fear do we understand that all those discords will at last be resolved into perfect harmony. It is only as life is conditioned by spiritual facts and forces that it is delivered from despair.
Ecclesiastes 5:7 "Fear God." Solomon, again in debate mode, turns to religion and politics "under the sun." The highlighted words conclude the religion section and seem, on the surface, to echo Solomon's wisdom in the book of Proverbs that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. A careful examination of Ecclesiastes 5:1-7, however, shows it is the fear of a slave rather than a son or daughter. This kind of fear lacks any note of confidence, trust, and love. All the advice given is good as far as it goes, but every word of it reflects a narrow view of religion as merely securing personal safety by not doing things that offend God. It lacks the positive, glad, and triumphant notes that are always present when life begins anew with saving knowledge of the true God. Such knowledge produces a reverent familiarity that frees the soul to speak and act in the presence of God. People whose belief in God is merely intellectual never rise to this level. Their religion, if they have any, is always characterized by a burdensome fear, an oppression, something that robs life of joy. Solomon's teaching goal throughout Ecclesiastes is to point to something much better.
Ecclesiastes 6:10 "Whatever one is, he has been named already, for it is known that he is man; and he cannot contend with Him who is mightier than he." After discussing religion in the previous chapter, Solomon continues his relentless debating of bare facts "under the sun" to point us upward. He focuses now on political matters, especially the poverty resulting from the miscarriage of justice, and the uselessness and futility of wealth and knowledge in the midst of such conditions. The highlighted verse expresses the fatalism of the man who finds himself in the midst of those conditions and believes he must be the creature of a destiny he cannot escape. He has no freedom in life and no certainty of what the future holds in life or death. This is a hard and crushing view of life and God, but it is logical. To this view thinking people invariably come whose outlook is that of the earth and circumstances. It is only when a person begins with a knowledge of God coming from the divine revelation of His Word, rather than merely what he or she can observe "under the sun," that he escapes this crushing sense of destiny. How great the contrast between this outlook on life and that of the Hebrew prophets and the greatest subject of their prophecies: Christ the Messiah, the Son of David, the Savior of the world! The value of Solomon's inspired confessions of one who lived "under the sun" is that they reveal this contrast.
Ecclesiastes 7:14 "When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future." Those words occur in the midst of a sustained argument by Solomon the Debater, in this chapter and the next, that the only way to live when considering just the facts of life "under the sun" is to be indifferent to them or manipulate them to make the best of things. That leads to futile and mistaken conclusions like these: Wisdom has advantages, but it breaks down. Righteousness is good, but don't press it too far or it may destroy you. Don't go too far in wickedness; it shortens life. God has so ordered things that life is made up of varying experiences that no one is able to evaluate, especially regarding their outcome, so simply take things as they come. Solomon is trying to force the reader to realize that this passive and pessimistic approach to life is really the most reasonable if a man has no light to guide him other than what he finds within himself or what is discoverable in the material world. How much better to humble oneself before the living God and interpret life in the light of His full revelation in His Word!
Ecclesiastes 8:15 "Then I commended pleasure." When does Solomon, in debate mode, make that commendation? When observing righteous people reap the rewards of wickedness and wicked people reap the rewards of righteousness (Ecclesiastes 8:14). Because there are temporary injustices and inequities in life, should we simply eat, drink, and be merry to achieve a state of oblivion and indifference? Should we ignore both righteousness and wickedness to give ourselves up to our appetites? Only if we persist in a limited outlook on life of what is apparent "under the sun." Wise Solomon is guiding us to perceive life as a whole, which is to take the larger view by seeing things above the sun or beyond the material. Throughout Scripture God reveals that the righteous will ultimately reap the rewards of righteousness, as will the wicked of wickedness. To take one striking example from the New Testament, Jesus' account of Lazarus and the Rich Man shows that the final meaning of life is never found on this side of life. Death is the separation of the soul from the body, and the result of deeds done in the body becomes suddenly clear beyond that separation. It is great folly to interpret life merely by what is seen and to ignore what is eternal, which is only temporarily unseen but revealed in Holy Scripture for us to believe and obey now before it is too late.
Ecclesiastes 9:10 "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or device or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going." King Solomon begins Ecclesiastes by affirming the vanity of all things and then presenting evidence to support that view of life. He is functioning as a debater with an important conclusion he has not reached yet. For Solomon's readers to embrace that conclusion requires that they thoroughly understand the error of living "under the sun" in the fullest sense possible—that is, Solomon's example of having all the advantages to test life on that level thoroughly and therefore speak with authority. In this chapter and the next, Solomon demonstrates the deficient pragmatic wisdom that results from an "under the sun" perspective. The highlighted verse is one example: diligence is not praiseworthy in and of itself, especially if the motive is fear of an empty future devoid of work. James the wisdom writer of the New Testament, speaks of a wisdom that is "earthly, unspiritual, demonic" (James 3:15). Solomon gives samples of that kind of wisdom in Ecclesiastes to give us a hunger for what James describes as "wisdom from above."
Ecclesiastes 10:20 "Do not curse the king, even in your thought; do not curse the rich, even in your bedroom. A bird of the air may carry your voice." Solomon continues in this chapter with examples of the insufficient so-called wisdom that results from a strictly material or "under the sun" outlook on life. From the seventeenth verse of the last chapter to the verse highlighted above, the theme is caution, cunning, and discretion to avoid one thing: being found out. That is the fear, not of doing what is dishonorable, but of the dishonorable thing being discovered. Solomon will soon demonstrate in his conclusion that no one whose life is governed by a genuine fear of the Lord can ever be influenced by such pragmatic wisdom. Such a man or woman knows that the dishonorable deed is to be avoided because it is dishonorable. Fear of being found out is the fear of punishment; fear of the Lord is fear of sin in itself. That is the difference between wisdom that is "earthly, unspiritual, demonic" versus "wisdom from above," which "is first pure" (James 3:15, 17). It is true, for example, that honesty is the best policy, but the person who is honest only because it is good policy is not motivated by honor and truth. All maxims with the appearance of wisdom need to be tested by the motive that inspires them.
Ecclesiastes 11:8 "If a man should live many years, let him rejoice in them all, and let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. Everything that is to come will be vanity." These are the final words in Solomon's presentation of what life is when lived "under the sun," the phrase he has used throughout Ecclesiastes to represent the material plane with no vital connection to the spiritual world beyond an intellectual assent to its existence. In this verse the mind of the hypothetical debater travels to what lies beyond this life, but sees only darkness. That is why he says, "Everything that is to come will be vanity," which carries out his opening statement in Ecclesiastes, "All is vanity," beyond the present. The person who sees nothing but vanity in the things of today will see nothing but vanity in that which lies beyond. Solomon wants us to realize that people who think like that can do nothing better than grab onto all they have now because they are the only things of which they can be sure. It is the only attitude possible to realistic souls who have no direct dealing with God, yet what a vicious circle it is: Everything here is vanity or not worthwhile, but because only darkness and more vanity lie beyond, take hold and enjoy the present vanity? Thus Solomon the Debater proves what his book is intended to prove: the utter folly of life lived merely "under the sun," that is, life endeavoring to realize itself while shutting out eternal realities above the sun and beyond the material.
Ecclesiastes 12:13 "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man's all." King Solomon makes a direct and intended contrast in this last part of Ecclesiastes with all that has preceded it. At the end of the previous chapter we find two calls to rejoice, but the motive for each is entirely different. The voice of worldly "under the sun" wisdom says to rejoice and live it up now since the future is dark and empty. The higher wisdom Solomon now presents says to rejoice and remember that God brings everyone into judgment regarding the exercise of all their natural powers. Judgment does not mean punishment unless those powers are abused. Wisdom from above says life is to be full of joy by taking God into account with all our thoughts, words, and deeds, for He will certainly take into account all our thoughts, words, and deeds. As Solomon says in the highlighted conclusion, "Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man's all." That at once contrasts with the despairing outlook of all that has gone before. Solomon's perspective in debate mode has not been the whole of man. Life it its wholeness takes in the things above the sun—the spiritual facts and forces. It begins with the fear of God and brings that fear to bear upon all the lower facts and forces by walking according to His revealed Word. No man or woman who lives a whole life ever says all is vanity. By first finding God, he or she will also find joy and fullness of life in every aspect, and enjoy a rich eternal reward.