A while back I was speaking with someone and they mentioned their group was getting ready to go through the book of Ecclesiastes, and they weren’t really looking forward to it. They said they’d always kind of struggled with this book and found it depressing and nihilistic—basically “life sucks and then you die”.
I was surprised. Apparently I’m in the minority, but I’ve always loved Ecclesiastes. In college it was my go-to set of scriptures (along with the latter half of Romans 8) when I was having a bad day, when I felt shaky on my foundation, when I needed a dose of perspective. What I’ve always taken from Ecclesiastes is that buying into this carnal and physical world—the pleasures, the pursuits, the ambition, the struggles—is ultimately a path to destruction.
If I were to paraphrase Ecclesiastes, it would be thus: all you try to accomplish on your own on a physical level will eventually pass away, so look to God now and follow His ways above all else and you will succeed. To me that is actually a very encouraging, inspiring message. We may have it hard in this life or we may have it easy, but the only thing that ends up mattering is not how far we got in our career or how big our house was, but how much our character reflects Christ’s.
A few weeks later while studying the holy days and their meanings, I learned that the book of Ecclesiastes is traditionally read by the Jews every year during the Feast of Tabernacles. I didn’t see the immediate connection, so I decided to look into it more. And the more I studied, the more it made sense and gave one of my favorite books of the bible even deeper meaning.
The Book of Ecclesiastes Summed Up
At its heart, Ecclesiastes asks the question, “In what direction is your life headed? Toward man or toward God? Toward death or toward life?” In its very lyrically-written 12 chapters, the narrator tries to find fulfillment and happiness through all the things man values—seeking after human wisdom, the pleasures of food and drink, great accomplishments, hard work, wealth, having children. His take on it all? It’s all vanity (futile, meaningless). People live and die, civilizations rise and fall, everything in life has a time and purpose, but it all eventually passes away. All of the work of man will come to nothing, and only God’s way works and lasts.
This is not to say that nothing we do in this life matters. On the contrary, the bible is very clear that for those of us called to the truth, this life is a training ground and what we do and become matters very much. Instead, the book of Ecclesiastes is making a distinction between what is temporary and what is permanent, and cautioning the reader to examine his or her priorities. How does this fit with the Feast of Tabernacles? Let’s explore a few major themes the two share.
Loving the World vs. Loving God
The conclusion of Ecclesiastes’ author (generally thought to be Solomon) is stated in the book’s next-to-last verse, and is a good starting point in understanding both Ecclesiastes and how it ties into the Feast of Tabernacles. He says, “Let us hear the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all [or ‘the whole of man’]” (Eccl. 12:4). Jesus tells us that a man cannot serve two masters, you can’t love God and mammon, that is, wealth or the things humans put confidence in (Matt. 6:24). John plainly states what’s required and what’s at stake:
“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever” (I John 2:15-17).
To God this world is already dead, a disgusting and decaying thing that just needs buried. If we love and follow after the world, then we are too. God’s plan, communicated to us through His holy days, tells us that this world is passing away, soon to be replaced by God’s new creation. The Feast of Tabernacles pictures the end of man’s dominion and the renewing of this physical world. It’s a transitional period, one thousand years in which God and his firstfruits will begin to undo all of the damage that the joint 6,000-year reign of man and Satan has wrought.
Learning to Fear God (and Trust Him)
Deuteronomy 14:23 discusses the need to set aside tithe for keeping the Feast before God with food and wine and oil (good things, in other words), “that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always”. The word here for “fear” means not only fear but reverence. Often when we keep the Feast, we focus on the friends we’ll see, the messages we’ll hear, the nice meals we’ll have. Those things aren’t bad, but this scripture tells us that they’re supposed to teach us something—fear and reverence of our Creator God.
There is a trust that goes along with this fear. We have to trust that God knows what He’s doing and that He has our best interests at heart. People often complain about the fairness of life or unanswered prayers. It’s difficult to understand why some people who are obviously not leading godly lives prosper or seem to get all the breaks when God’s people struggle and face trials. My other favorite set of scriptures, Romans 8:18-39, puts this into perspective:
“And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose…What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:28, 31)
Or, put even more simply at the end of Ecclesiastes, “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is man’s all”. The book of Ecclesiastes doesn’t sugarcoat the trials we’ll face, the emptiness we feel when we lose sight of God and follow after the world’s “wisdom”, and the fact that bad things often happen to good people.
In a rather more eloquent take on our adage “Stuff happens.”, Solomon states, “The race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to men of understanding, nor favor to men of skill; but time and chance happen to them all” (Eccl. 9:11). In other words, you may live to be 95, fall off a cliff tomorrow, or be alive and present at the resurrection, but God is taking care of you and He has an endgame in mind where you’re concerned. That endgame is the kingdom of God, pictured by the Feast of Tabernacles and Last Great Day (or 8th day).
This world is not a happy place, but you can choose to focus on that or focus instead on the glorious life to come. If we learn to fear God and put His commands above all else in our life, we will keep the proper focus.
Trusting in God’s Promise of Permanence
As I mentioned above, the book of Ecclesiastes is a treatise on the temporary versus the permanent. “Vanity of vanities [literally “nothing of nothings”],” says the Preacher in Ecclesiastes 1:2, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?”
In chapter 2, he continues, “For there is no remembrance of the wise than of the fool forever…And how does the wise man die? As the fool! Therefore I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me, for all is vanity and grasping for the wind” (Eccl. 2:16-17). This life is, indeed, emptiness. We are born, live, and die in the blink of an eye compared to the 6,000 years of man’s history. We return to the dust from which Adam was first formed. Our lives are a temporary sojourn on this earth. But they should be a sojourn toward our permanent home.
In Leviticus 23, God outlines all of His holy days, including the command to dwell in booths during the Feast of Tabernacles. He tells the Israelites they do this, “that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 23:43). The Feast focuses on the contrast between that which is temporary and that which is permanent. Booths are temporary, quickly deteriorating, losing their beauty and ability to satisfy even your basic shelter needs. Without a greater purpose, our physical lives here on earth are much the same.
The Israelites’ journey out of Egypt and into the Promised Land is a picture of our own journey through this life as we work toward entering the eternal kingdom of God. Dwelling in booths symbolizes the temporary nature of this life and our place in this world. Peter highlights this when speaking of the chosen people of God, saying, “Beloved, I beg you as sojourners and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts which war against the soul” (I Pet. 2:11). As a stranger journeying through a far-off land, our presence here is temporary and we are moving toward a permanent destination—the promised kingdom of God (Rev. 21).
John reminds us of the temporary nature of this world: “And the world is passing away, and the lust of it; but he who does the will of God abides forever” (I John 2:17). Paul echoes this thought in Hebrews, quoting from other parts of scripture: “You, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You will remain” (Heb. 1:10-11).
Perhaps all of these similarities between the book of Ecclesiastes and the Feast of Tabernacles are summed up neatly towards the end of Deuteronomy, when Moses tells the people:
“See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil, in that I command you today to love the Lord your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments, that you may live and multiply…But if your heart turns away [if you want to live a meaningless life, if you want your life to end in absolute vanity] so you do not hear, and are drawn away, and worship other gods and serve them, I announce to you today that you shall surely perish…I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live; that you may love the Lord your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days” (Deut. 30:15-20).
That is essentially what Solomon has said in the whole book of Ecclesiastes, only in much greater detail. The millennium, pictured by the Feast of Tabernacles, will be a time of peace, global prosperity, and God’s law being taught in all the earth. It will also be temporary, a time for the entire world to learn the lessons of Ecclesiastes before the final coming of the eternal new Jerusalem to the earth and cessation of all things physical. However, for those of us called to God’s truth now, we must study and learn these lessons in our physical day of salvation, before it is too late.