Reading: Ecclesiastes 1–3
Ecclesiastes appears to be from a father to his son (Ecclesiastes 12:12). Apparently to a son who, having grown up under his father's tutelage, was beginning to explore life a bit and was finding a conflict between the way things ought to be and the way things seem to be. Dad wants to help his son sort through the frustration of life, the seeming contradiction between what ought to be and what seems to be.
Maybe his son has spent a year at the university and is home for the summer; he has begun seeing the other side of life. Maybe his best friend, the kid who always got all the answers right in Saturday school, just died when hit by a drunk driver. Maybe his mom, the most godly woman he ever knew, just died of cancer in her late 40’s. Maybe he was the top of the his own class in the Torah, voted most likely to succeed, and the girl of his dreams just married the mean kid who never went to synagogue. Let's face it, good kids shouldn't get cancer; only the bullies!
Ecclesiastes speaks to those frustrated by the brokenness of this fallen world. To those who don’t see everything quite as neatly packaged as the super-religious who are confident they have all the answers. Some of its sayings may shock you. And some of it’s answers may leave you hanging. But its purpose isn’t to shock, but to help. It’s purpose isn’t to mock or to ridicule, but rather to acknowledge, to sort through, and to give counsel. It is as if Dad is saying, “Let’s look at all those ideas that are running through your head, and let’s explore those philosophies and see what they can offer!”
The speaker calls himself Qohelet–leader of the assembly–variously translated “Preacher, Teacher, Pundit, Professor!” It’s as if Dad takes on the role of the professor and says, “Okay, I’m going to espouse these ideas, and take them to their logical conclusion.” As dads, we could take a queue from him. Don’t blast; explore together, guiding.
There are two key expressions which are vital to unlocking the treasures of this book. The first one is found in the second verse—five times!
“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2 NASB)
The NIV translates this word for vanity as meaningless. Another translation renders it futility... utter fultility (JPS Tanakh). Each of these is driving toward the same point—one which at times is hard to capture in one English word. However, the Bible offers us some help here. The Hebrew word is hebel, sometimes written hevel, used in both singular and plural to communicate the utter vanity or futility of the matter—like “holy of holies” which brings us to “utter holiness”. Literally, it means vapor or breath! That is to say, “Everything is fleeting, transitory; like vapor or breath, it vanishes before your eyes.” Whether it be time or youth, or value, or the things you hold as meaningful, they too will vanish. Therefore they are vain (empty), and ultimately, meaningless!
Two other Old Testament uses of this word shed some light on its meaning.
“Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting (Hebel); but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.” Proverbs 31:30
Beauty is hebel—here today, gone tomorrow. If you find your meaning in beauty, you will spend your life looking for a new one; or obsessed with just one more surgery! Go to your 20 year high school reunion, then thirty, and so forth. Contrast pictures from gold and silver anniversaries with those of the wedding day.
The other use of this word that sheds real light on its meaning is the first time it used:
Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. She said, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man.” 2Later she gave birth to his brother Abel (Hebel). Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. (Genesis 4:1-2)
The name of Eve's second son here is the same word in Hebrew as in Ecclesiastes—Hebel. You know the story. Abel pleased God; Cain did not. Abel was the good son; Cain the evil son. But Abel's life was snuffed out early while Cain lived on and founded a city. Abel’s fleeting life, ending in unjust absurdity, captures the meaning of the word: it was like a vapor, or a morning mist that vanishes before you know it.
Thirty years ago Donna and I got married. At the time, we could not imagine life with children. We wanted to wait. We were a new thing; we were central; we were adventurous. Then we had kids and they were new, they were so central; they were an adventure in themselves. Within seconds, I could not imagine life without them. Now, I realize that soon they will be moving out one at a time. Vapor… transitory… and if this is all there is: meaningless!
Trying to catch meaning from the transient joys of this life is like trying to catch the wind in your hands (Ecclesiastes 1:14). Meaning is to be found elsewhere! This is caught in Ecclesiastes 1:4, “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.” The earth seems unimpressed with our fleeting and vaporous lives!
The Greek word used in the LXX (Greek Old Testament) is also translated “frustration”. Needless to say, the transitory nature of things leads to frustration! You could sum up the message of Ecclesiastes with this: Apart from faith, life is meaningless, because everything is fleeting.
The second key expression that helps unlock the treasures of this book is the phrase, “under the sun”. The father-professor of Ecclesiastes examines life “under the sun,” excluding from his observations the perspective of faith—the understanding that what we see came from what is unseen and eternal. It is like a bunch of bacteria trying to define the universe, but limiting it’s input to what exists inside the Petri dish.
Unless one can see “above the sun” he is bound to only see vanity. Much like Ariel in Little Mermaid, who was dissatisfied with life under the sea, we are dissatisfied with life under the sun. We know we were made for something beyond that. In Christian language, “if Christ is not raised, then our faith is in vain.” (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17) If there is no resurrection, then it is all vapor!
When all is said and done the father doesn’t answer all the sons questions–or ours–but he does seem to warn his son against spending too much time pondering the frustrating elements of life and to always come back to this eternal truth (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). If you find yourself oppressed by the complexities of life, you need to refocus on eternity, on God’s day!
But it isn’t as if the existential professor is all wrong. He loves life—the life God made. He loves the things God gave us to enjoy. True, when he isn’t viewing them with eyes of faith, he vests them with too much meaning, but if he didn’t want a life worth living, happiness, or joy in life, then the resurrection would have no attraction anyway.
Starting with the New Testament: We have a serious advantage over the writer’s son: we have more of God’s revelation about Himself! Christ has given us hope! Christ is the only one who offers something outside the Petri dish, above the sun! (1 Peter 1:3-9) If all we see is what is under the sun, in the Petri dish, then we can’t see that God is redeeming us, and we are subject to frustration. (Romans 8:18-21) The way things seem to be aren't as they ought to be, but one day God will set everything straight and in Christ that “setting straight” begins in our own lives. One day the work will be completed.
Ecclesiastes speaks of the importance of faith—those eyes God gives us to see what we cannot see, for without it, the vaporous nature of life is frustrating and constantly points to the futility of our efforts. Only faith in Christ imparts real meaning to life.
C.S. Lewis expressed this uniquely when he said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,