Ecclesiastes 1:3 Poetic Plight, Part 2: To What Advantage?
“What’s the margin of profit?” It’s a question asked by any one interested in investing in or purchasing a manufacturing plant, retail outlet, restaurant, convenience store, media outlet, fully-equipped farm focused on one or more crops or products, and/or any other entity that is an investment with future benefit for the purchaser. “Margin of profit” is the amount in which revenue from sales exceeds the costs of producing the product to be sold by the business. Profit is “that which is left over.'' This word profit/advantage is used in the Old Testament only in the book of Ecclesiastes. Following on the heels of “Vanity” found in verse 2, profit/advantage (here in verse 3) is the very opposite of vanity. Translated “surplus”, “advantage”, “gain”, we, along with Solomon, look to find the profit/advantage/gain in all the puzzles and problems of life. What is the advantage of living? What do we gain from our everyday? “Advantage” speaks of “pre-eminence”, “profit”. What does it mean to “get ahead” in life? In this poem (verses 2-11), Solomon provides a list of questions asked by every generation. We look at the first question today as we examine verse 3.
The word Qoheleth/preacher carries the idea of debate. Solomon, the preacher, would not only address the assembly of God’s people, he is also found debating, not so much with those of the assembly, as with himself. In his writing, he will present an idea, a topic, and discuss it from many viewpoints eventually coming to a practical conclusion.
The phrase “under the sun”, found 29 times in this book, is a look at life from a human perspective. Thus, Solomon is applying his wisdom to the complex human situation and is trying to find some sense in life. G. Campbell Morgan observed, “This man had been living through all these experiences under the sun concerned with nothing above the sun… until there came a moment in which he had seen the whole of life.” However, when Solomon sees the whole of life, he finds “there is something on the other side of the sun.”
For all that Solomon sought to know, the root of his knowledge will return to the earliest lessons of man. Consider: In Genesis 3:19, Adam is cursed and that curse is passed on to all mankind that has and will follow him--”By the sweat of your face you will eat bread, till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Ecclesiastes 3:20 will repeat this truth which Solomon has learned from his studies of life--“All came from the dust and all return to the dust.” So...
What is the advantage of everyday life for us? In Psalm 62:9 David, a shepherd boy that God made king, sang, “Men of low degree are only vanity [vapor, breath, worthless as a puff of wind, smoke] and men of rank are a lie [illusion, a mirage, delusion, not what they appear to be]; in the balances [when weighed on the scales] they go up; they are together lighter than breath.” Ecclesiastes 5:16, “This also is grievous evil--exactly as a man is born, thus will he die. So what is the advantage to him who toils for the wind?”
The word “Labor” or “work” is found 23 times in this book and means “to toil to the point of exhaustion and yet experience little or no fulfillment in your work” (Warren Wiersbe, Be Satisfied). Moses speaks of this labor as he refers to slavery in Egypt, “Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction and our toil and our oppression…” Both Moses and Solomon are referring to the misery, frustration, and weariness experienced in everyday tasks. Yet, you say, we are not slaves like Israel? Nor are we a king like David or Solomon!
Remember the King of Israel felt the same way about his everyday tasks as did the slave. Obviously, rich or poor, life’s spiritual and emotional quest is the same for all no matter what life-road we travel.
G Campbell Morgan wrote in Unfolding Message of the Bible, “It is only when a man takes account of that which is over the sun as well as that which is under the sun that things under the sun are seen in their true light.” As Solomon begins his debate with an unnamed challenger or perhaps a debate only within himself, he looks at the everyday and asks, “Where is the profit?” “Where is the advantage?” In the everyday tasks we can find three groups of people that are referenced by our Lord Jesus Christ in His teaching and ministry. In each instance, Jesus looks to what is “under the sun” and what is “over the sun”.
Jesus responds to a demand for help by one who thinks his brother is cheating him in their inheritance. Jesus responds (Luke 12:16-21) by telling the story of a rich fool. What makes this parable so suitable is the fact that the tale is so real to life. In the narrative, the productivity of the man’s field gave him the advantage of more harvest/profit than he had barns to hold. Thus, he built larger barns to store it all and all that he owned from past harvest profit. He then retired to eat, drink and be merry. With possessions, pleasures, power, prestige, he would live with the advantage… he had it all...except his life. That night as he declared he had arrived, that he had the advantage, God called the man a fool and required his soul. Now who would own all the advantage/profit for which he had labored? Jesus asked in Mark 8:36, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his own soul?” Jesus in the Luke narrative says, “...life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” He notes that God feeds the birds, clothes both the lilies and the grass in the field. They are both short lived, but God provides while they live. What is His advance to those who would seek an “over the sun advantage: 1) “...seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you...for your Father has chosen gladly to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:31-32) 2) He also said, “Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves money belts which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven...For where you treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Luke 12:33-34)
There are those who shun the material but who seek personal advantage in righteousness that is tied to “trusting in themselves” while holding others in contempt. In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus spoke of the emptiness of one who stood, praying to himself, thanking God that he was not like others. Here is one who thinks he has the religious advantage. He doesn’t swindle, he isn’t unjust, he is not an adulterer, and he certainly isn’t like those who hold a lesser place in life. He fasts according to the law. He tithes of all that he gets. Yet, for all he does and is, he is not justified. There is no advantage. For that one who is thought to be less and therefore at a disadvantage, a tax collector, humbles himself before God and pleas, “God, be merciful to me, the sinner.” Jesus said the tax collector went home justified. The Pharisee went home empty and still searching.
Not long after the lesson of the Pharisee and the tax collector, (Luke 18:18-27) Jesus meets a man of wealth, education, social prestige, who had kept the commandments of loving his brother but seems a total failure at loving God. Jesus told this ruler to distribute his wealth among the poor “...and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me. The ruler walked away with a sad heart, mind, and spirit because his wealth was, to him, his advantage. His advantage was no advantage for it had only brought sadness. His life was empty.
Conclusion: 1) What is the advantage for one’s life? To the wise who invest their lives by grace through faith in Jesus Christ the Lord and, therefore, live their lives in Jesus Christ, God “...richly supplies us with all things to enjoy.” (as Paul said in I Timothy 6:17) The pleasures of the world do not satisfy, the quest for power and position are like trying to catch the wind. There is no advantage. There is no profit. It is empty/futile. 2) What is our profit in living in Jesus Christ the Lord? “Therefore my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil [labor, trouble] is not in vain [empty, meaningless, trying to catch the wind] in the Lord.
You are invited today to turn from the futility of sin and from the emptiness of the world and put your faith in Jesus Christ.
For we who believe, Don’t forget Solomon knew God but became pessimistic and skeptical of everyday life when he turned to his own way and forgot he was greatly blessed. Always remember God’s perspective and pursue God’s purpose. You see, it is not “what is our advantage under the sun(?)” but “what is our hope beyond the sun (?)”