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Solomon's Preoccupation with Death

Pt. 2 - Contrasting Solomon with Paul

7Solomon on throne

by Dennis Pollock

In our previous study we looked at the book of Ecclesiastes, and the melancholy tone of its author, Solomon. The wise and wealthy king was terribly depressed over the apparent purposelessness of life. Having no hope or expectation of life after death, and possibly being in a backslidden state when he wrote this, Solomon goes on and on about how meaningless life is, due to our inevitable appointment with death at its conclusion. He sees death as a condition of total non-existence, and for this reason feels it is a great tragedy and injustice. He declares that a live dog is better than a dead lion, and that the only possible and rational response to our own future demise is to eat, drink and enjoy our moments of pleasure as best we can – for surely we are all headed to the grave and the worms in a very short time.

For new Christians reading this book for the first time it can be a bit of a shock. Its tone seems entirely contradictory to the Christian view of life and death, and we could wonder why God would see fit to include it in the inspired Scriptures. Of course, there are many wonderful bits and pieces of wisdom and insight you can find between Solomon’s laments about the meaninglessness of life, but in general it can make for a pretty depressing read.

First, we need to understand that not every thought in the Scriptures, particularly in the Old Testament is to be embraced and adopted by Christians today. David often prayed for the destruction of his enemies in the Psalms, but this does not give us license to do the same today. Jesus has told us to love our enemies and bless those who curse us. But we find David praying:

Let their table become a snare before them,
And their well-being a trap.
Let their eyes be darkened, so that they do not see;
And make their loins shake continually.
Pour out Your indignation upon them,
And let Your wrathful anger take hold of them.
Let their dwelling place be desolate… (Psalm 69:22-25)

What would you think if you had a pastor who shared how his neighbors were persecuting him for being a believer, and then that pastor prayed for those neighbors to be struck blind and that their “loins might shake continually?” I think I would start looking for another church to attend! Sometimes we find the word of God sharing thoughts and feelings of God’s men and women, not as models for us to emulate, but as demonstrations of their humanity. In the case of Solomon and the book of Ecclesiastes, I am convinced that God has included Solomon’s writings about life, death and purpose as a deliberate contrast between the typical Old Testament view (which did not always include a vibrant hope of eternal life) and the Christian view as articulated by our Lord Jesus and His apostles.

Got Hope? - Got Purpose!

As we read Solomon’s writings, we clearly see a link between hopelessness and purposelessness. When you have no hope, purpose and meaning are annihilated. Men and women were made to be creatures of hope. What food and drink are to our bodies, hope is to our spirits. Suppose a woman who has just been married and is deeply in love with her husband, receives a message from an angel of God. He appears to her in the night and tells her that in twenty years’ time, her new husband will abandon her for another woman, younger and prettier than she. The angel abruptly disappears and the woman is left in a state of shock.

How would this affect her marriage for the present? If she truly believed what she was told, it would absolutely spoil her relationship with her husband. Regardless of how tenderly he now treats her, regardless of how many times he passionately avows his love for her, she could never forget that somewhere down the road he will leave her for another. Every tender moment, every intimate aspect of their life together would be soured and ruined by the knowledge that their marriage was doomed from the start. The lack of hope, the prospect of a tragic future would interfere with all the little events and activities of the present, and if she stayed with her husband, she would be carrying around within her a type of “it’s all vanity” pessimism, much like Solomon described and experienced.

The Bible tells us that: “Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself (Jesus) likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage” (Hebrews 2:14, 15). Until we find eternal life through Jesus Christ, we are all subject to the bondage of the fear of death. This fear is not always on the surface. Most people do not go through life constantly muttering, “I’m so afraid I’m going to die.” It is usually a submerged thought, but it is always present, at our wedding, when our children are born, when we get that promotion for which we have worked so hard, during our triumphs and our struggles, our joys and our griefs, we carry around with us the thought, as Solomon did, “At some point I am going to die and leave all this behind.”

Christian Hope

For the Christian, it is an entirely different story. One of the major themes in all the words of Jesus and His apostles, if not the major theme, is that because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we can be forgiven, we can become children of God, and WE CAN LIVE FOREVER! Solomon’s problem was that, with his essentially secular view of death, none of the amazing things he accomplished seemed to really make much difference. He would soon leave it all behind. For the Christian we are told that, although we will indeed leave our physical possessions behind at our death, our souls, plus what we accomplish in Christ’s name, will carry on long after we have breathed our last breath.

The apostle Paul is the perfect contrast to King Solomon. In some ways, they were similar. Both were highly intelligent men, both were ambitious and hard workers, and both were called and chosen by God to fulfill His purposes in their respective generations. But their attitudes about life and death could hardly be more different. By the time Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes, he was gloomy and downcast about life and its apparent meaninglessness, Paul could hardly have been any more optimistic. Solomon worried and fretted about the day he would lose his precious possessions and leave all his achievements behind, but Paul could hardly wait to depart and “be with Christ.” Solomon felt that all of life was vanity; Paul felt it was all about Jesus Christ, and was therefore jammed and crammed and inundated with meaning and purpose. Paul wrote these words to the Philippian believers:

For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I live on in the flesh, this will mean fruit from my labor; yet what I shall choose I cannot tell. For I am hard-pressed between the two, having a desire to depart and be with Christ, which is far better. Nevertheless to remain in the flesh is more needful for you. And being confident of this, I know that I shall remain and continue with you all for your progress and joy of faith, that your rejoicing for me may be more abundant in Jesus Christ by my coming to you again (Philippians 1:21-26).

In reading those words you can practically see meaning and purpose oozing out of every word! Paul was passionate about life, and he knew that at its end there was a beautiful future with the Lord Jesus, whom he loved and faithfully served. To paraphrase him a bit, he is saying, “I know you guys need me, so I guess I’ll be staying around for a while, but what I really want is to leave this world and go be with Jesus!” No “vanity of vanities” coming from this man’s mouth!

Poor, but Rich, Sorrowful, but Joyful

It is interesting, in comparing the two men, that Solomon had so much and Paul had so little. Solomon was the richest man in the world; Paul was sometimes forced to sleep out in the open and wear ragged clothes. Solomon had 700 wives plus 300 “sub-wives;” Paul had not even one wife. Solomon was a great king sought out by people from foreign lands who came just to hear his wisdom. Paul was a lowly preacher who was chased from town to town, stoned, beaten, and abused throughout his ministry, and finally executed for his faith in Christ.

One might suppose that Solomon, with all his wealth, influence, and fame would be the happier man. But no, it was Paul whose life radiated with joy and Solomon who spent his days pondering moodily, “What’s the purpose of it all?” The apostle Paul knew that he truly had riches, but not the riches of this world. He wrote to the Corinthians:

But in all things we commend ourselves as ministers of God: in much patience, in tribulations, in needs, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in sleeplessness, in fastings… by honor and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold we live; as chastened, and yet not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things (2 Corinthians 6:4-10).

Paul believed in long sentences! And in this sentence, he contrasts the negatives of his life with the positives. Yes, he may be poor, but Christ is using him to make others incredibly wealthy. He may, in some respects have a sorrowful, tough life of persecution, but he is always rejoicing in His Savior. He may have nothing in respect to worldly goods, but God has given him all he needs for an abundant life and a fruitful ministry. He seems, in contrast to Solomon, a man well-satisfied with his life, filled with joy and purpose, and most of all hope.

“Where is Your Sting?”

In the fifteenth chapter of 1st Corinthians Paul describes the ultimate reason for his hope:

Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed – in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed… So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?” (1 Corinthians 15:51-55).

Wow! What a beautiful and eloquent declaration of the victory over death that Jesus has purchased for us through His death on the cross and His glorious resurrection. Death has no sting, death has no victory over those who trust in Jesus. Life has purpose after all, it turns out. Our hope is sure and our future is bright, if we are in Christ Jesus.

Once I was walking around the neighborhood, sharing Jesus and passing out Christian tracts. I ran across an atheist and he and I got into a lively, but friendly debate. Finally, he tired of our conversation and decided to end it with this statement: “You have your beliefs and I have mine. But you don’t see me going from house to house and trying convert people to my point of view.” He seemed to be saying that I was being rude and insensitive in trying to change people’s minds (particularly his) and convert them to Christ. My answer was immediate. I told him, “Well, I guess not! If I believed as you do – that life has no meaning and we are all going to die and cease to exist and be eaten by the worms – I wouldn’t be going around and sharing that ‘good news’ either!”

We Christians see things differently. We believe, as Paul once declared, “I have hope in God… that there will be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:15). This life is not all there is. And knowing this, with our eyes on Jesus Christ, we can live confidently and with great hope, even in the midst of struggles and sorrow in this world. The best is yet to come!

 


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