10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 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. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. 14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. – Ecclesiastes 3:10-14
I am convinced that the main focus of what we call “Christian life” is to re-teach us that everything depends on God.
I’ll suggest that you missed that, so please read it another two times. We have time.
We are so full of clichés. We say things like “if it’s God’s will” and “trust in God” and “the Lord has a plan” and other such wonderful expressions that most of the time mean nothing to the recipient (obviously someone with a problem) and also rarely reflect our own honest convictions. They’re just some nice, appropriately bland, polite niceties of the Christian culture.
For a number of reasons, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on God’s sovereignty and providence in the past few months. Not that it makes me an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly has been one thing I can clearly and humbly say that I’m appreciating in a whole new light. Words I used so lightly before no longer have the same flavour, and little chants I’d recite to myself and to others suddenly are too heavy to just spit out. But the best thing about this process is that passages like the one quoted above suddenly come to life (I will daresay that this is worth any trial).
We know who Ecclesiastes is – King Solomon of Israel (c. 1011 BC – c. 932 BC). Aside from mind-blowing parties, ridiculous (for the time) wealth, superb education, and divinely-granted wisdom (1 Kings 3:11-14) Solomon should stick to our minds as the only person to ever successfully carry out the biggest experiment of all time: the meaning of life. He certainly had the funds, and all the above were part of his methodology (I’ll drop the science puns in a moment). And the book of Ecclesiastes is, in a way, his findings; his data.
Solomon pursued education (1:12-18), self-indulgence (2:1-11), joy (2:12), wisdom (2:12-17), food and drink (2:24), work (2:18-26), wealth and honour (5:8-6:12), foolishness (7:25), love (9:9) and every human desire under the sun. By that we mean that, although Solomon didn’t have an Xbox or a PS3, he definitely experienced the same level of pleasure or thrill or whatever it is that a person can derive from such and other modern or future means.
In short, he did it all and got the robe to prove it.
Now, I find this process shocking, because it’s in the Bible. You’d think that the Word of God would simply give us the answers we need – why are we here, what’s the point of going on day-to-day, etc. But no – God doesn’t shy away from speaking our own language. Long before Christ, who is God incarnate, came to walk among men and experience everything they experience and more and then overcome, God gave us a glimpse of how well He understood the tragedy of human existence.
And that’s what our passage is about. Solomon, after his experiment, tells us that toil, work and labour, are all part of God’s creative design for people (v. 11). And by “creative” we mean that work is part of God’s original creation (cf. Gen. 1:26-28). Of course, like pretty much everything else, the Fall has corrupted work by making it – like everything else – a purpose unto itself.
Stop right there – thinking time. The entire point of Ecclesiastes is that life is meaningless in of itself. Yes, we read that right. Meaningless. Pointless. הֲבֵל, an unmistakable word that means “vanity” and Solomon uses over 25 times in this book. He also uses an idiomatic expression, “חַר תרְע”, which translates as “grasping of the wind” – trying to catch air. (Note: it can also mean “trouble/evil of the spirit”, but I think the futility of chasing after air fits the context better).
I really hope that all this is settling in. I’m surprised of how little preaching is ever done on Ecclesiastes, especially in the career-driven, live-for-pleasure, get-all-you-can world of today.
What Solomon discovered was that life in its entirety is pointless. He sums this up quite well in 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!
Think about it – he’s right, isn’t he? We work and work and work, we struggle to make our lives “better”, we strive for money, we burn out in our offices, studies, travels, experiences, only to find that we, like everyone else, are going to die sooner or later, and all the enjoyment and grief and thrill and boredom and love and hate and success and failure and anger and calm is going to go with us, and it will make no lasting difference to anyone, including ourselves.
“Wait a minute. Do we need the Bible to tell us that? We pretty much figured that out for ourselves already.”
Yes and no. Yes, it’s important that the Bible tells us that – because the Bible claims to be the Word of God and thus should offer an answer alongside diagnosing the problem. And no, we haven’t figured that out for ourselves – not in any way that matters. If we had, the world wouldn’t be as it is today; instead, we’d either be taking turns blowing our brains out or we’d be tearing ourselves to pieces in the pursuit of God and meaning. We wouldn’t wake up in the morning and just go to work. We wouldn’t plan to have families or pets or careers or vacations or dreams or lives.
Now we can begin to understand Ecclesiastes.