A Reflection in Ecclesiastes
Today, people are increasingly weary of the “too-good-to-be-true.” Thanks to highly successful and corporately driven advertising campaigns (like those of the executives on Madison Avenue in New York, once dubbed “MadMen” as an indication of their location and mental status) many Americans see promises – and sometimes even benign hope – as to be viewed with utmost suspicion. A business friend once told me, “In every single transaction, there is always a winner and a loser. Strive to be the winner.” When businesses, advertisements, or politicians make offers, the tendency is to view them as attempting to win in a contest between them and us over our bank accounts. “In God We Trust” is well known, but, “What’s the Catch?” is more prominently found on the lips of Americans. Inherently, we all know that “there is no such thing as a free lunch” because someone, somewhere always pays the price. There is no more abstract word in the American dialect than altruism.
Perhaps the picture I paint is too bleak. Perhaps we bring to mind figures like George Washington who was a robust believer in God, who put life and limb on the line for his country. Or, more recently … Well, that is the thing – our conceptions of goodness, or “catchlessness” are usually relegated to the distant past. One struggles to find one well-known (primarily at the secular level) figure who all people, or at least most, would say is a good man. Perhaps, the most recent figure would be Ronald Regan, who had the votes of quite a few democrats. But, alas, he is a figure of history now. If there has ever been a generation that aptly fit the thrust of Ecclesiastes, it is this one.
Now, to be sure, Americans regularly get excited about their personal heroes or projects. At an individual level, most people have things, causes or politicians that they have hope in. But, for each person who sees in Joe Biden the hope for a new day, there is another that sees the anti-Christ. Donald Trump? Rinse and repeat. Each “non-vanity” in our culture is always met with a loudly barked, “hevel!” This is the word used almost thirty times in Ecclesiastes to connote exasperation. It is most commonly translated, “vanity.”
Koheleth, or the preacher, presents to us the realities of life in all their complexity. In an age where insurance plans are presented as the antidote to worry about finances, cancer and death, the preacher’s shaking head is one we can get behind. “Buy this product and your wrinkles will vanish.” “Vanity!” “Vote for me. I’m honest!” “Vanity” “Dear sir, I am a Nirobian Prince and I want to give you three million dollars.” “Hevel!”
There is a difference between the American and the preacher though. For us, the vanity is often seen in failed socio-political, economic systems and in corrupt people. But the preacher takes it one step further. He sees past the failures of politics and people, and brings before our eyes the utter vanity of life itself. Not only is it futile to buy the advertiser’s product, it is futile to buy anything at all. Why put expensive cream on your face, that will likely not get rid of your wrinkles, when, even if it did, the wrinkle will inevitably come back? You cannot cheat the inevitability of age. Or, why vote for the politician when we all know it is impossible for him to get to the point of being voted for without committing a long series of half-truths or outright lies in previous campaigns? Or, most simply, why buy health insurance when no hospital can treat death? “All are from the dust, and to dust all return” (Ecc. 3:20b). If we’re honest, we’ve all felt this feeling exactly – why do anything at all?
The preacher plumbs the depths of the despairs of life. But that is not all he does. He also points us to the happiness of life. “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man” (Ecc. 3:12–13). How can he say this when only a few verses earlier he said, “What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity” (Ecc. 2:22–23). How can one take pleasure in his work when it is a “vexation”?
This is the beauty of Ecclesiastes. It is no pie-in-the-sky presentation of “your best life now.” The preacher is telling us that no matter how good life gets, it will be hard. But, the difficulties in life – though they are not circumventable – are all under the sovereign control of God. Implicitly, he is telling us that the only cure for hevel is God. All the things that will inevitably fail us ultimately don’t matter because we have a higher Hope that will not fail us. What else could he mean by, “God will judge the righteous and the wicked” (Ecc. 3:17b)? Every wicked person, and all their deeds, will one day come before the judgement seat of God. Though we are subject to the vanities of the wicked – and our own wicked vanities – God will one day straighten them all out. Therefore, the call to despair loses its air like a deflated balloon. Of course, he says, life is full of vanity. There is no escaping it. But, life has meaning because God is in control. Like the first stages of Michelangelo’s David, life seems to be a random clump of insignificance. But, under the chisel of God’s meticulous providence, a shape starts to appear.
This is where we see the pastoral care of Koheleth. One might ask, “What should I do in light of the vanities of the world and God’s providence?” In response he says, “So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?” (Ecc. 3:22) Of course, the Biblical teaching regarding the Christian life is not exhausted in this one verse. But, we do have a piece of the answer. Too often Christians are caught between a dichotomy of grace and works – we feel forgiven by God, but, at the same time, we think we need to constantly do more in order to live up to it. Many of us perpetually vacillate between resting in grace, and working out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12b). How then do we understand Jesus’ call which says, “Take my yoke upon you … for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mat. 11:29–30)?
At times, the Christian must completely rest and, at others, he must follow Paul’s admonition in Phil. 2:12. But, there are other times when he is in-between the Sabbath and confession. To borrow and Edwardsian phrase, there are moments when the Christian enjoys sweet communion with Christ during times of work. This, I think, is the thrust of Koheleth in this passage. Yes, death knocks on our door, and yes God is in control of all things, but, these mountainous eschatological realities do not prevent us from enjoying the gently rolling hills of a successful day’s work. Or even, dare I say it, a cold beer afterwards. “… Everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man” (Ecc. 3:13).
Before concluding, I must say that I am not just referring to the fruit of so called “spiritual works,” as if all things are not ultimately spiritual. But rather, all the work that the Christian does, no matter how small, can have eternal significance. Luther was clear that there is no such thing as “dishonorable” work that is done with a pure heart to the glory of God.
My point today is this: for the Christian, life’s vanities will remain. But, we have hope in the midst of vanities and only we can enjoy God’s gifts properly. That is because we know the fruits of our labor might get spoiled in a week, but they will last in eternity. There is a double blessing here – we can enjoy our physical work now (insofar as it is done honestly and to the glory of God) and we can look forward to its lasting effect in heaven. Even though the fruits of our work might get spoiled in a week, we enjoy the fruit until that happens. The future cannot rob us of our joy. Paul says as much in 2 Corinthians 5:1: “For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” Paul doesn’t move out of his “earthly home,” as it were, but if that home is destroyed, he still has the hope of the building of God. So, we are set free to enjoy temporal things because we have been given all the blessings of heaven. Indeed, temporal blessings are merely types of the greater blessings to come.
Now, for the unbeliever, Koheleth’s pessimism has not stopped ringing in the ears. The preacher presents the hope of belief and the vanity of disbelief all on a single platter. Which will you choose? If life is just a random accident of naturalistic evolution, why on earth should we strive for anything? Evolved apes are still apes and nothing is more vain then swinging from trees all day and slinging your own feces. Without Christ’s blood cleansing your sins, and making you right with God, so that your eternity is set right before Him, your life is vanity. At best, you will live 90 years and someone else will take all your stuff. At worst, and indeed this is the case, you will spend an eternity under the holy wrath of almighty God. What then? Is this your chosen lot? If you have ears to hear, forsake this vain lot and fly to the cross of Christ, for He is just and mighty to save. Not only that, but in His “hand are blessings forevermore” (Ps. 16:11). The only hope for the vain life is the life of Christ, which offers meaning now, and even more to come.