Ecclesiastes Thinks You Are Very Vain
September 6, 2019 by Joey Phillips 0 comments
There are pros and cons to moving through Ecclesiastes slowly. It can get pretty depressing to sit with the preacher’s tough love for a length of time without getting to his point. Everything is vanity and chasing the wind. Pursuing wisdom is vanity. Wealth is fickle and mostly used to oppress. No legacy will last but a few risings and fallings of the sun. Justice is nearly impossible to come by. There’s nothing new under the sun. Death is inevitable and rapidly approaching. It levels the playing field, not just between humans, but between all living things. Move through the first 4 chapters at a slow enough pace and the soul looking for a purpose driven life will wilt at the slim pickings.
That, of course, is the point. The preacher is knocking down idol after idol, undermining every human attempt to find meaning in ourselves. We should move as slowly through the book as we need to for it to do the work of tearing down what is meaningless, so that a new foundation can be built. The preacher knows the human heart is ingenious at manufacturing meaning and purpose in ways that make the self the locus of importance, which is why he is relentless in pointing out the folly of such reasoning.
Even the ‘positive’ comments in the first four chapters are designed to undermine our self-importance. In chapter 3, verses 11-14, he finally says something about what man should do, rather than all the things we waste our time on that are meaningless.
“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. 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.”
We should be joyful and do good and enjoy eating and drinking and take pleasure in toil? But the preacher just got done telling us that he had achieved all his heart wanted through toil and that “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.” (2:11)
So is toil God’s gift, or vanity? I think the answer becomes clear when we consider the similarities between Ecclesiastes 3:11-14 and Ephesians 2:10.
“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”
The point of both verses is to lower us, and center God, in the work that we do. Our work isn’t about us, it is about God. The work isn’t even our work. It is God’s work, prepared ahead of time for us, and then gifted to us. Our existence is the work of God, and our purpose is to do things He prepared ahead of time for us to do. Our job, then, is the day to day walking in good works God has laid out for us. Not exactly a welcome message to a proud heart. The idea that our meaning and our value are wrapped up in being who our creator made us to be, and doing the work He planned out ahead of time is pretty inconceivable to a mind that is convinced self-determination is a natural right.
In reality, it’s a glorious truth. We shouldn’t want our worth to be divorced from who Jesus Christ is, or for our meaning to be wrapped up in anything we can achieve in ourselves. The preacher demonstrates that time and again. Self-determination being the highest good is an excellent way to live an anxious, miserable life. We shouldn’t want the troubles of tomorrow to be something we have to try and control and manipulate in order to accomplish our self-centered goals so that we can feel a sense of meaning and value. We shouldn’t want justice in this world to depend on our ability to overcome evil. We shouldn’t want our happiness and fulfillment to ride on our ability to wisely navigate life in a way that minimizes pain or maximizes pleasure. Not only because we inevitably fail at these things, but also because at some point we recognize what the preacher wants us to recognize right now, which is that death doesn’t care about any of that.
Death either means the self ends, or it means eternity awaits. If the self ends, then our wisdom or wealth or legacy is meaningless to us because we are gone. Congrats on living your best life for five minutes. If the self doesn’t end, then how the here and now effects eternity seems like a very important question. On that question, the preacher’s word of wisdom in chapter 3 verses 11-14 is:
- God doesn’t provide the full picture – “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.”
- God does invite us to participate in His plan – “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.”
- Everything God does is eternal – “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.”
God invites us to participate in His eternal works, with the caveat being He isn’t going to acquiesce to our original rebellious desire to know as much as Him. The gift in verse 13 is nothing less than a daily opportunity to participate in eternity simply by doing what God has given us to do that day. He provides the work, and the grace (through our union with Christ, Paul would explain) to do the work of the day. All we are required to give up is ourselves. The preacher doesn’t only encourage us to take the deal, he tells us it’s the only way to find joy.
Life is pain, highness. And death swiftly approaches. Eat, drink, and enjoy the work God has given you to do today with the grace He’s given for today. Is that not enough? Adam and Eve didn’t think so either, sinners.