Revisiting the Wisdom of Ecclesiastes
This time last year we were working through what has become one of my favourite books of the Bible, and what has been (so far) one of my favourite series to preach: the book of Ecclesiastes. For 9 weeks in our series ‘Chasing the Wind’ we went on a whirlwind tour into the wild and winsome wisdom of the Teacher (the character whose voice we hear throughout Ecclesiastes).
Perhaps this is surprising to you? Given a cursory glance, Ecclesiastes can seem like a pretty dense and dour affair. Remember the opening words of the book? “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (1:2). Not exactly the most compelling way to begin, and not the book we might naturally turn to for encouragement, especially in the midst of a global pandemic! And yet, if we will dig a bit deeper and pay closer attention, I believe Ecclesiastes offers us some important lessons, a few of which I’d like to revisit now and that continue to impact me to this day:
Ecclesiastes reminds us about the brevity of life
The stark insistence by the Teacher that ‘everything is meaningless’ is not primarily about life’s purpose but about life’s brevity. The word ‘meaningless’ literally means ‘smoke’ or ‘breath’. The Teacher is saying that everything in life is a mist, a vapour, a puff of wind, a bit of smoke. This truth, which the Bible insists on elsewhere (e.g., Gen. 3:19, Psalm 144:4, James 4:4), is not meant to depress us but to wake us up. It’s not meant to make us fearful but rather wise and thankful. As David Gibson says in his excellent book titled ‘Destiny’: “Only a proper perspective on death provides a true perspective on life. Living in the light of your death will help you to live wisely, freely, and generously. It will enable you to relish all the small things in profound ways.”
Ecclesiastes invites us to be honest about the futility of life
Herman Melville, the great American novelist and author of Moby Dick, called Ecclesiastes ‘the truest of all books’. More than anything else in the Bible, Ecclesiastes captures the frustration and futility of life in a fallen world. It’s honest about the reality that life is not always a of series of exhilarating experiences and unhindered success. In fact, life can often be tedious, difficult, and repetitive (lockdown, anyone?). We don’t have to deny this or become disillusioned by it, instead we can draw near to God and find he is near in the midst of the drudgery and difficulty. Which leads us to the most important lesson of Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes shows us the true meaning of life
The book begins with the uncertainty of life in a fallen world but ends with the certainty of life in the hands of a faithful God: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (12:13-14). The duty of mankind, the meaning of life is simple: trust God and listen to God. Live as if God really exists and your life really matters—because He does and it does.
Of course, to face God’s judgement on our own is a scary prospect. After all, we have failed repeatedly to trust God and to listen to God. But the unfolding message of the Bible and the good news of the gospel is that God is abundantly faithful and has not left us on our own. Jesus is none other than ‘God with us’ and ‘God for us’ (Heb. 1:1-3). Jesus came from heaven to earth to bear our judgement, to stand in our place, to pay the penalty for our evil so that we might receive his righteousness and receive God’s pardon and forgiveness. This means, for all who trust in Jesus, we can look ahead to the future, not with fear and trembling but with thanks and gratitude. We can live with great purpose and great hope and great joy in Christ all the days of our lives under the sun.
With you on the journey,