Notes on Ecclesiastes
Part Five

God Gives and God Withholds

by Dean H. Hough

Prosperity with satisfaction is a rarity. But if it occurs even briefly in our lives it is the gift of God. The book of Ecclesiastes looks at human experiences with God in view, and throughout it remains consistent in its testimony that all that we experience is given to us by Elohim.

Ecclesiastes 5:10-7:12 considers a number of human situations including, specifically, prosperity with satisfaction and prosperity without satisfaction both of which are from God. But along with these considerations, the Assembler points to one experience that we all share alike, and that is our mortality and the certainty of death. In this also Ecclesiastes keeps God in view as the One Who gives what we receive.

This "high" view of Deity is unusual outside the Scriptures, and by itself it may tend to pessimism and bitterness, but within the context of God's Word as a whole, it is most edifying and uplifting. When God is seen not only as the wise and powerful Subjector and Placer but also as the God of expectation and goodness, His deity in giving and withholding is seen as full of purpose and glory.

Like the book of Job and much of the book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes stands out from most other books of the Sacred Scriptures in that it does not deal in a special sense with the nation of Israel and God's distinct promises concerning that chosen people. What is said concerns humanity as a whole and its common, transitory experiences of struggle, gain and loss. Yet it accords fully with all of God's Word in focusing attention on God.


Hence in speaking of the days of life given to each of us, all filled with times of much vexation and toil as well as times of repast and good, the Assembler observes that these are given to us by that One, Who is Elohim (5:17,18). If some of us are given riches and substance, along with the power and occasion for rejoicing in them even for a short while, Elohim is the One Who gives them. Such good "is a gift of Elohim" (5:19).


On the other hand, for some who are given illness and toil and then granted riches and substance and glory, all given by Elohim, there is no strength and time and occasion for the enjoyment of the riches. This also is from Elohim Who does not give such a one the power or opportunity to eat of the fruit of his toil (6:2,3). Entirely apart from whether or not a pattern of fairness and needed discipline or deserved reward may be detected, this is a fact of human life, and more importantly a fact of divine operation.

God gives toil and vexation. He gives riches and substance. He gives joy and satisfaction. And He withholds that joy and satisfaction. Our days as human beings, whether Israelites or not, and our many experiences are all to be traced finally to God.


In Ecclesiastes 6:3-6 the Assembler gives an example of human experience in life, a unique life of one individual which is not different in its ending and its vanity from the life of anyone else. God gives a certain individual many years and many children, but He also gives this man the experience of never getting to enjoy the good he has and even being denied a tomb commemorating his memory. His life ends exactly the same way as that of a stillborn child who never saw the light of day.

At this point the whole problem that is greater than the transitoriness of life, that is, the problem of death, is brought before us once again in Ecclesiastes. The stillborn child "comes in vanity, and in darkness it goes away" (6:4). But the same fate awaits us all. "Are not all going to the same place?" (6:6).

That is tragic and sad and depressing. But it is true to the human situation. But what is hopeful and uplifting in all this is the truth that God has given the life and experience of both this man and the stillborn child. It is a great blessing to know that "no one can adjudicate against [God]" (Ecc.6:10). God is mightier than any human being, and this is our hope and the source of great satisfaction for us all.


It may seem that we have jumped too quickly from the Assembler's words of apparent pessimism concerning mankind to conclusions of optimism concerning God. Yet this is poetry, and it calls for interpretation based on what is suggested as much as on what is said. "Who knows what is good for a man in life during the number of days in his transitory life?" (Ecc.6:12). Only God, Who is in charge of our days, and Who "makes them like a shadow" to us, can know what is truly good for us in life and in the times that shall come after us. Only He can know. And it follows that since He can know He does know, and in truth He Who is making them like a shadow to us, is making them for good even though we cannot see that this is so.

But we who have heard the evangel of God's righteousness and love in the giving of His Son for sinners, the truth of a good purpose and consummation is no longer like a shadow. For "we are aware"-it is clear to us "who are loving God" that God is working all together for the good (Rom.8:28). Where the Assembler could only hope with poetic suggestion we believe with explicit expectation.

We do not apologize for bringing the evangel presented in Romans into the shadowy longing for an evangel presented in Ecclesiastes. The Assembler records the facts of the human situation, and he points to Elohim as responsible and involved, and he expresses the questions that arise from these facts. Now we who believe find that what we are believing is indeed the answer to the Assembler's questions. "For even as in Adam, all are dying, thus also, in Christ, shall all be vivified" (1 Cor.15:22).

Dean H. Hough

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