Over the past years, life has been increasingly cloaked in isolation and disappointment, lost hopes and spoilt dreams. We have urgent questions about the present and increased fears for the future. We live in uncertain times. And perhaps we find ourselves yearning for more wisdom.
The pursuit of wisdom in uncertain times has ancient roots. The Teacher, in the Hebrew Scripture text we know as Ecclesiastes, undertook that quest with uncompromising rigour, seemingly unlimited resources, and comprehensive experiments in whatever was on offer in his days. “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure”, he writes (Eccl 2:10, NIV).
We are perhaps surprised at the conclusions of this quest. The Teacher testifies to—among other things—the discovery of surprising joy. He writes: “So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun” (8:15). However, he also testifies: “I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (2:17).
The Teacher’s conclusions seem at times contradictory; nevertheless, they are realistic and honest in a world where oppression is real and dark days are many (see 4:1; 11:8). What are some of the Teacher’s most important discoveries? What conclusions does he reach that can help us in our own uncertain times?
Most significant is his governing metaphor for what life is like. He finds it to be like a breath, a misty breath on a cold morning—briefly visible and then gone. As Ecclesiastes begins, we read: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (1:2, ESV). The Hebrew word here translated “vanity” appears more than 30 times throughout the book. It literally means “mere breath”. The Teacher acknowledges the reality that, like a breath, everything is passing away—our mortal lives, our work and our wealth, our times and our places. The consequences of this acknowledgement—indeed, this acceptance—are liberating for the Teacher.
First, he affirms that because things are fleeting, we cannot keep all the stuff of life. We cannot keep the fruits of our work. We cannot keep our youth. So, it is wise to hold life loosely. It is wise to forsake the illusion that clinging to things that pass away is at all possible. It is just as impossible to catch or herd the wind (this phrase is used nine times in the text; see, for instance, 1:14, 2:26, and 6:9).
Second, the Teacher accepts that we are not in control of the circumstances of life. We are not in control of the present. Indeed, things happen that are baffling: “I’ve seen it all in my brief and pointless life—here a good person cut down in the middle of doing good, there a bad person living a long life of sheer evil” (7:15, The Message). Nor are we in control of the future. It is wise to surrender any such pretence. The times are in God’s hands, not ours.
Having discovered that life is like a mere breath—ephemeral, elusive, and resistant to human attempts to grasp, keep, or control—the Teacher concludes that life is not about gain. It is not about profit. It is not about getting and holding on to things. Life is, rather, to be received and enjoyed as a gift. “What do people gain from all their labours at which they toil under the sun?” the Teacher asks (1:2). To imagine that life is about gain is foolish. Wise people will embrace life as a gift and then live gratefully and generously in the times that have been given.
So, the Teacher concludes: “This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink, and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart” (5:18–20).
Ecclesiastes is not the final book of Scripture. It anticipates a greater Teacher, and, in light of the wisdom and work of Messiah Jesus, we read these words in Romans 8, very much shaped by the quest of Ecclesiastes: “For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God” (Rom 8:20–21).
We participate in a “frustrated” and “decaying” world. These words echo the “mere breath” and “herding the wind” images of Ecclesiastes. Life is always passing away. It continues to be ephemeral, elusive, and resistant. We often experience it as unclear and uncertain. But, because of Christ, we have more understanding about the future than ever before. Freedom and glory have been secured. So, in the meantime, we will be content to live not with certainty, rather with confidence—confidence in the God who does keep and control our times and places. Life is to be fully embraced, not as grasping humans but as grateful humans. This is fully in keeping with the words of Ecclesiastes and the full biblical testimony to the good news of Jesus.