There is a time for every matter under heaven, Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us. But is there a time for Ecclesiastes itself?
We’ve been studying and preaching our way through Ecclesiastes recently at church, and that old question has arisen more than once. Is its pessimistic view of the world limited in some way to its pre-Christian time? Or is its sobering message about the vacuousness of life just as relevant for us today, this side of the redeeming, revealing work of Christ?
The answer makes quite a bit of difference.
If the vanity of life under the sun is really a kind of pre-Christian despair that Christ comes to solve, then Ecclesiastes tells us more about what the Christian life is not than what it is. That would still make it a useful and challenging part of Scripture, but in a particular way. It would function as a kind of kategoria or critique of humanity's doomed attempt to find wisdom and meaning on our terms and by our own lights. And it would be a warning to the Christian not to fall into proud or worldly attitudes towards riches, work and pleasure.
But would Ecclesiastes then actually provide positive wisdom for our lives? Or not so much?
To take the most striking example, should we eat, drink and be merry, or not?
In 1 Corinthians 15:32, Paul says that this hedonistic, live-for-the-moment approach is the attitude of people who deny the resurrection. “If Christ is not raised, then what’s the point?” says Paul. We might as well live it up and enjoy each passing moment, because that’s all there is. Or, as James Taylor says, “The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time … Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill; but since we’re on our way down, we might as well enjoy the ride”.
However, when we turn to Ecclesiastes, we find the Preacher giving his readers this James Taylor kind of advice—and often. For example, after describing the capriciousness, injustice and vanity of man’s constant striving for wealth and advantage, he says:
Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart. (Eccl 5:18-20)
You might as well enjoy the moment, because that’s the best we can hope for in this confusing, confounding world. He says the same thing in 2:24-26, 3:9-13, 8:15-17, and in this classic from chapter 9, which I like to write out in nice cursive handwriting on a beautiful card and give to my wife on our anniversary:
Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (Eccl 9:9-10)
The constant conclusion of the Preacher is that life is an opaque mess. Not only do bad and unjust things happen, but we can never grasp why. We can’t see through our circumstances to decipher their meaning or end—apart from the fact that we’re all going to die. As he says in the famous chapter 3 verse 11:
He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put the vast continuum of time into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
God has put into our hearts an awareness that we have come from somewhere and are going somewhere; that we exist at one point on vast time continuum stretching back and forward. We sense that life should therefore mean something, and indeed we constantly experience the beauty or fittingness of individual events and times. And yet, the larger picture is hidden from us. We can neither see what is coming next, nor comprehend the significance of what has just happened. Just when we think we understand what’s going on, and have things sorted and planned out, it all slips through our fingers. Life is hebel—vanity, absurdity, an airy nothing that we desperately try to pin down with a local habitation and a name, but fail to.
These God-given limitations are meant to humble us, says the Preacher. God did it this way to cut us down to size, and to help us realize that everything we work at and achieve and obtain is really a gift from him, to be enjoyed as it comes to us.
This is why the Preacher’s over-arching advice is to fear God, to do good and keep his commandments, and to enjoy whatever gifts come to you from his hand (including eating and drinking and enjoying the satisfaction and fruit of your work). God will bring everything into judgement, not us.
Looked at it this light, perhaps the Preacher’s teaching is not so different from Paul’s after all. The person who denies the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 is denying the reality of God’s judgement—that God will raise all, and judge all—as well as the reality of forgiveness of sins in that judgement. He plunges desperately into hedonism because that’s all there is.
The Christian knows that there is judgement coming, through the risen Christ. That’s why he is bold to face life’s struggles and disappointments—as Paul points out in the previous verses in 1 Corinthians 15. Why do we trust God in the face of danger, conflict, persecution and death? Because we stand fast in the gospel of Christ’s death for our sins and his resurrection from the dead.
Christians have an understanding of God’s eternal purposes in judgement and salvation that the authors of the Old Covenant could only dream of. Our gospel labour in the Lord is not in vain, because of the resurrection of Christ (1 Cor 15:58).
However, our life here and now continues to be opaque to us, in just the way that Ecclesiastes describes. The groaning frustration and futility of life in the fallen world remains our lot, as we wait patiently and in hope for the redemption of our bodies (Rom 8:18-25). We are still confounded by the unpredictability and injustice of life under the sun. Our life is still an elusive vapour that appears for a little while and vanishes, and in which all our plans are in the Lord’s hands and not our own (Jas 4:13-16).
All of which means that there is still a very Christian way to enjoy the moment, Ecclesiastes style.
We should by all means be prudent and plan for the future. But we shouldn’t for a moment think that the future is in our grasp—either in the plans we have for our lives and families, or in the ministry strategies that we organise ourselves around. Our eternal future is certain. But next week’s future is not.
Our response to this uncertainty should certainly be to pray, and to lay all our plans and anxieties before him.
However, Ecclesiastes reminds us that the godly response is also to enjoy the moment when we can. We should revel in all the good things that do come to us from God’s hand—whether food or drink or the fruits of our earthly labours or the fruits of our ministry labours.
When God gives us that kind of moment, let’s enjoy it.
If you’d like to go for a bracing swim in Ecclesiastes yourself, let me recommend The Search for Meaning in the Matthias Media Interactive Bible Studies series. It’s great stuff (for personal or group study).
You may notice that I translated this classic phrase a little differently. The Hebrew word that is usually rendered ‘eternity’ simply means a long duration of time, whether stretching back or forwards. It doesn’t really mean ‘eternity’ in the sense that we often mean—as in the eternal realm in which God lives.