This week I had the privilege to address our workplace Christian fellowship. The topic was “Futility and hope: From Ecclesiastes to Romans”. Below are my notes.
Question 1: What gets you out of bed in the morning?
Question 2: What would make you permanently happy right now?
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity - Ecc. 1:2
I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. - Ecc. 1:14
Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. – Ecc. 2:11
It might come as a shock to us that words like these are found in the Bible, and that might say more about our ideas about the Bible than the Bible itself.
In Ecclesiastes, God speaks to the human condition. Centuries before Christ came, God showed us that He does not shy from stooping down to our level and showing us that He fully comprehends the human experience.
Ecclesiastes is a life experiment: Solomon has everything anyone could ever want: Unsurpassed wealth, divine wisdom, the peak of power, creativity, ingenuity, knowledge, and the ability to enjoy every pleasure and emotion a person could possibly experience. Everything with which most people would answer Question 2 above.v Solomon’s “methodology” is unrestricted. And yet, he consigns all of his “data” to futility.
The Hebrew word for vanity/futility is hebel, which literally means vapour. It communicates the idea of something fleeting and ephemeral; something that doesn’t last:
Ecc. 2:16: For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool!
We all long for meaning in our lives. We are the only beings in the world who do so. Whether we admit it or not, we are all touched by this need and we actually pursuit it, sometimes without even realising it:
Ecc. 3:10-11: I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
Our search for meaning is really a search for permanence, for something enduring; something eternal.
Ecc. 7:29: Pivotal point. The cause of this futility is sin.
Ecc.12:13: The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.
Solomon’s conclusion is that, in light of the incomprehensible reality of human existence and the unsatisfied need for meaning, the only thing we can do is to resign ourselves to God’s inscrutable sovereignty. Obeying God’s commandments is all we can do, because it is the only answer to our quest for meaning. It’s not that by obeying God we will magically find answers to all our questions (Job learned this the hard way), but rather, in light of the apparent futility of life, we can find comfort in God, who is in control of everything.
The frightening falleness of the world should make us eagerly groan for the new one.
Outside of God, living life for life has a net value of zero.
Romans 8:18-24: For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?
The word for futility (ματαιότης) is the same word used in the Greek translation of hebel (LXX Ecclesiastes).
Paul echoes the concept of vanity/futility in life and doesn’t deny it – he tells us that God Himself has subjected the creation to futility.
But he is clearer: Solomon’s “conclusion of the whole matter” is the “hope in which we were saved” (Rom. 8:24). It is the hope of the gospel, the eager groaning for a new world where God will give eternal, permanent meaning to everything we do and experience. Death will not haunt us anymore.
In Christ, God began the recreation of the world (2 Cor. 5:17) that will culminate in the Second Coming. Those who are in Christ are recreated beings (new creations), moving gradually away from the fallen futility of this world back to the original intention of Creation: An existence that is completely centred on God.
This is why the Scripture calls us to an all-pervasive, all-consuming, all-or-nothing, loving relationship with God through Christ (e.g. 2 Cor. 5:15).
Or why we’re told that, 1 Cor. 7:31; 1 John 2:17, the world is passing away.
Why we’re described as having no abiding city here (Heb. 13:14).
Why we’re told to set our minds “on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:2)
If we are new beings in Christ, then what is the hope of our life? What “gets us out of bed in the morning”? Where do we seek our meaning? Our joy?
The Psalmist writes things like “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.” (Psalm 73:25). Is that the reality of our Christian life? Do we find meaning, joy, satisfaction and contentment in God through Christ?
How does this tie up with God’s pruning work in us (John 15:1-2)? When we read passages like Rom. 8:28-29, do we understand that everything that happens to us fits into His bigger plan of recreation?