Chapters 1-4 of Ecclesiastes (eh/kle/see/as/tees; which might rhyme with “meh – see the nasties”)
Tuesday, January 31
Many Bible books were named from a key word near the start of the book, which often means they are named after the author. That is sort-of the case with Ecclesiastes, but the author’s name isn’t used in the book so it picks up a title the author took. In Hebrew that title could mean “lecturer”: it comes from the word for “gatherer” and the idea is that he gathered information and then passed it along. When the book got translated into Greek this lecture-teaching was described as preaching, so its title now is a word for “preacher.” You might wish that the name of the book was translated to English when the book was. (By the way, “ecclesia” is the Greek word that normally is translated as “church” in the New Testament). We read the book of Proverbs, a collection of wise statements that often gives advice. We read the book of Psalms, a collection of poems which often call on God. You could get the impression that our current book is a collection of downer thoughts about life. That is how a lot of people have read this book, and it is understandable if some of what we read in Ecclesiastes seems sad to us, but there is more going on here than that.
In over 20 places the book says a thing is “meaningless”, but that doesn’t mean “don’t do it”, it is more about looking at things from a long perspective and saying that the “meaningless” event or action doesn’t really change things. Certainly that is true if we look at things from the perspective of generations (1:3). The verses keep returning to the idea of our work, our labors. In the short term they can bring us satisfaction, and we are meant to accept that, it is a gift from God (3:13). But we also should be careful how we view things, never totally forgetting the big picture.
If you haven’t heard the song that Pete Seeger made out of the lines in 3:1-8, check it out (“To Everything There is a Season”). Part of the point of the verses is that we can never emphasize one thing as “the point” for our actions, what is pushed in one direction will also be pushed in another. Nothing we change stays that way forever.
An obvious example for this is eating. You can feel really hungry, say right before a church potluck that has been delayed, and then a few minutes after you eat you have no interest in food at all. But a few hours later you will be hungry again. You can’t eat enough to end the cycle, and we can ask how much importance there is in any one meal we ever eat – but we certainly cannot skip all of them.
So, that cupcake you ate the other week may have tasted good, but does it still please you? That binge-session on Netflix of sit-com episodes? Almost certainly meaningless. The test you are studying for may make a big difference to your grades – but for how many years will it matter what grades you received? It is possible to poke holes in every form of human labor and success, but “wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness” (2:13). The wise person may recognize, like the Preacher, that success is temporary in this world, but it is still better to be wise.
The Preacher / Teacher is described as a king of Jerusalem, and many people tag him as Solomon late in life. It may require being a powerful king to test all the things the Preacher tested, to see what would make him happy. He could do what he wanted, and none of it was enough. But some of the simplest things, the inexpensive things, can bring happiness to us – we just know that none of it lasts. “Happily ever after” doesn’t have much sense behind it, because people are not immortal, and the struggles of this world don’t just get skipped over for the people who want to serve God.
In a way this book is an extended piece of wise-talk, like Proverbs has, but directed to just one issue – what the point of this life is. If this world were the one God was aiming for in the first place we could expect the Preacher to give us a more positive answer, but this world is what resulted from sin. God is in the process of fixing things.
This is the book about “meaningless” (temporary) things where there is “nothing new under the sun” (in this world) and both wise and foolish people “chase after the wind” but can’t catch it, and get nothing from the chase. But along with all the comments about our work not changing things, or being undone or forgotten, we get comments about the endless importance of what God does (3:14). Maybe that is a hint at the future. What God does lasts forever, and God sent Jesus to die for us and God raised Jesus from death as the first-fruits of many who will come to immortality and live with him forever.
If you find yourself getting dragged down by anything this book says, you could question if that is because it is telling you truth you didn’t want to know about something that you have considered to be more important than it should be. But don’t ever let yourself get brought to despair by this scripture or by anything at all – always remember that the story is not over
Daniel grew up in Missouri, then attended Oregon Bible College, Atlanta Bible College, and Columbia Theological Seminary. He has pastored in Eden Valley, Minnesota, and now attends the Pine Grove Bible Church in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. He has worked for many years editing adult Sunday School lessons, and also writes some (slowly). He is trying to create a card game about the first few centuries of Church history (very slowly). He also recognizes in himself a tendency to focus on a thing(s) more than he should, and the need to put things in God’s hands and leave them there – so if that describes you, you are not alone. God bless you. : )
(photo credit: http://keywordsuggest.org/gallery/386871.html)