It is interesting to note that Solomon, the wisest man in all the earth, is credited with penning two Old Testament books that seem to look at life from completely different perspectives. The seemingly opposed perspectives share a foundational confidence in the goodness and power of a God. Both state in the strongest terms that there is no real life apart from surrender and devotion to him. But the difference in perspective is none the less striking.
Proverbs is full of axioms, truths, and observations of how life works—hence the title, “proverbs.” The role of diligence, careful planning, morality, humility, respect shown to parents and others and ultimately to God, character—these factors are presented as the keys to a successful, prosperous, fulfilling, and orderly life. The book is framed as a guidebook for living for the young. The overall message seems to be, “Live as you should live and you will never regret it, for the Lord will greatly bless your faithfulness in every way.”
Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, has more of a complex, nuanced, mid-life perspective. Here Solomon seems to be staring the inequities and injustices of life in the face. He is seeing the bigger truth that no matter how wise and diligent and faithful you are, significant suffering can still come your way. At least for a season, the good guys do not always seem to be winning. And ultimately, you are going to die and leave it all behind, so what difference does any of it make? Solomon repeatedly cries out, “Meaningless! Meaningless! A chasing after wind!” The writers of the New Testament look for hope in the resurrection and our future reward when Jesus returns, but Solomon doesn’t go there. He is addressing all these things in a more pragmatic, temporal, “How are we supposed to get the motivation to care about anything in this world?” kind of way. He doesn’t have an explanation for the way things often turn out. He sees that there is no way to guarantee a life of peace and prosperity, so what is the point? His answer is that we should be rightly related to the Lord, and we should enjoy the blessings and richness of each moment, seemingly for its own sake.
I want to suggest that keeping both of these perspectives in mind can help us to live a more contented, fulfilled, richer, centered life. First, we need to “Fear God.” On this Solomon is clear. In these two remarkably different ways of thinking the conclusion is the same. In Proverbs, the advice is “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” In Ecclesiastes, it is “Fear God and keep his commandments.” We must begin with a heart surrendered to the Lord. This is the foundation.
Upon this foundation, I believe that Solomon has encouraged us to build in two ways. This surrender is to lead us to live a life of humility, wisdom, diligence, faithfulness, and grace. We must deeply believe that God will honor and reward all of our efforts to follow him, to abide in him, to engage in the process of growing in our love for him and for others. But we must recognize that by these efforts we do not guarantee the fulfillment of any particular expectation or outcome. Rather, we accept from God the lot that he gives us, the place he creates for us, the joys and challenges he brings into our lives. We are to receive every day as a gift, every blessing, every chance to do anything that matters.
Solomon learned that it matters tremendously what we do, but he also learned that we are never in charge of what will happen. That remains for God to decide. And we will find that we are happier, more joyful, more loving people if we always keep these seemingly opposing principles in mind.