when discouragement sets in (Ecclesiastes)

Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

The end of a fascinating book helps us keep straight what we have to keep our eyes on as we live life “under the sun.” Tremper Longman is helpful here:

The second wise man commends Qohelet as an example of honest thinking about life “under the sun.” In essence he’s saying, “Son, Qohelet is 100 percent correct. Under the sun, life is difficult and then you die.”

However, the second wise man goes on to encourage his son toward what we might call an “above the sun” perspective: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of humanity. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil” (12:13–14).

I’m not qualified to offer my opinion on Longman’s overall interpretation of Ecclesiastes (see his commentary), along with other interpretations, or to offer my own. I think his quote above certainly rings true.

What is helpful to me is the plain point that when all is said and done we’re to simply fear God and keep his commandments, keeping in mind our accountability to God, how we will have to answer to him.

I don’t at all write off the rest of the book as having no value for us. We run up against its truth all the time in the difficulties we face and see everywhere. And I think interspersed throughout Qohelet’s (“the Teacher’s”) words are glimmers of light that see beyond the perspective of “life under the sun.”

That is the perspective we need if we’re to carry on well in God’s eyes. We have to get past the inevitable discouragement which faces here, all the problems, not to mention tragedy, and realize that even in the best scenario of “life under the sun,” there is a sense of not arriving, of futility, even a sense of meaninglessness.

What we need in this world is to see beyond that to the God who gives meaning in the midst of the madness. Who keeps us in his way, as we see him for who he is, and seek to walk in line with his will. In and through Jesus.

 

the emptiness of mere earthly/worldly success and glory

Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to heed a warning. The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom. I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor. There was no end to all the people who were before them. But those who came later were not pleased with the successor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Ecclesiastes 4:13-16

I hear of famous people who die and wonder what kind of legacy they left other than their name in the headlines for this or that reason. And it’s the nature of things to be concerned only about what is happening now.

For something to matter in the present, it should have important ramifications for the future. I think in American history of two great figures among others, probably the two that most come to mind: Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. What they did during their times set important precedent for future generations, for the nation itself. Every person sends out ripples for good or not, or sometimes sadly enough for no good at all, and maybe even evil. One good question to ask could be what one is remembered for. It’s good to have the full picture, warts and all. And in that picture, there’s hopefully some redeeming features which override what inevitable weaknesses there are.

Eternity is not isolated, or like some escape. The present is meant to impact the future (and actually, the future/eternity, the present). If we’re simply set on the present with no thought of the future, then we’re on a bad course. We may even want to be remembered for something great, preferably just good. That can have meaning not only for the present, but beyond, even an eternal impact. Possible for everyone by the redemption in and through Jesus.

 

 

glimmers of light in our darkness

What do workers gain from their toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.

Ecclesiastes 3:9-14

Ecclesiastes is a remarkable book and makes a remarkable contribution in the Book. But much of it is hard to really get hold of, and it’s interesting how Bible scholars interpret it differently. It seems to me to speak much truth in the midst of mystery, in the struggle to understand life. It is a reflective and pessimistic view of life, considering human toil and the actual result: how everything comes and goes over and over again.

The idea of God placing eternity, or a sense of the present and future (NRSV), or even darkness as in ignorance (NETNIV footnote) in the human heart, that humans can’t understand what God is up to. That leaves us hanging a bit, but either way life ends up being a mystery. Either darkness, or with a sense of much more, yet not being able to come up with what that is on our own. Ecclesiastes to me seems to echo that last thought, frustration over the seeming randomness and senselessness, indeed meaninglessness of life. But with glimmers of light here and there, even as seen in the above passage. Even the idea that God has placed darkness as in ignorance in the human heart is itself a revelation, and therefore oddly enough, a light.

We have revelation and a sense of so much more, and yet we walk around in darkness. A part of our lives now. Which should help us reach out all the more, maybe even grope, but push and pull all the harder to look to God to live faithfully in his will in and through Jesus.

 

 

 

what life throws at you

Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books. And it’s about not so much what life throws at us, but what we want out of life. We want to suck it high and dry, as if somehow we’re going to get life out of that. But the writer as well as the observer and “Teacher”, the one who experienced this said that it was all futile, even meaningless.

It’s not like the details of life don’t matter, because they certainly do. We want to do all that we should, and do it well. Although in the nature of things, we are limited. And there is always more that either needs to be or could be done. As long as life shall last.

Maybe the conclusion of the matter at the end of Ecclesiastes, along with wisdom woven throughout, is what we need to set our sights on. Particularly that ending that declares when it’s all said and done we’re to fear God and keep his commandments. We let life get to us, with all its obligations, demands, and expectations (real or imagined) pressing in against us.

Maybe it’s time to stop and ask what really matters. To really fear God, and be intent on keeping God’s commandments in and through Jesus is what in the end matters. At the same time, we need God’s wisdom to navigate the bumpy, rough, and sometimes puzzling terrain of life. Enjoying all the good gifts from God, and even finding satisfaction in the work we do. Maybe we can find a rhythm in it all, which can help us live in what is really life. A challenge indeed. God will help us in and through Jesus.

searching for meaning

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
    says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.”

Ecclesiastes 1

My go to book in the Bible, Ecclesiastes (one of my favorites, anyhow) is an acknowledgment in part of the futility of life, and of thinking that one can find any real meaning under the sun. The idea ends up simply enjoying what is, to the fullest, and not taking it too seriously, since in the end it will all be gone.

But there’s some stealth thoughts interjected along the way, such as the fact that God will judge, which is roundly stated in the end. And that we shouldn’t say much when we enter into the space where God is present for worship, but simply be silent. Those are clues that there may be more to this, to life than what often meets the eye. And in the end again, the charge to fear God and keep his commandments caps what has been an interesting read.

But we shouldn’t be too quick to jump to what we regularly profess and confess. We need to let the weight of the narrative in Ecclesiastes have its affect on us. That is the way we’re to read scripture. And preferably with others.

I think it’s best to embrace the reality of how all these means which are made to be ends are not ends themselves at all. They have usefulness, to be sure, their place in life “under the sun.” But none of them in themselves can fulfill what only God and the promise of God in the grace and kingdom come in Jesus can. But we need to feel the full weight of the emptiness of the endless pursuit of humanity to arrive and achieve. While some satisfaction might be found in it, it will end, and then what? (Another theme in Ecclesiastes.)

We have to look “above” (or beyond) the sun to find meaning in life “under the sun.” The meaning we find won’t be in what is done in this life, but the transcendence which is imminent, and therefore gives meaning either to or in the midst of all that happens here and now. So that while these things in the present are empty and meaningless in themselves, they derive meaning and fullness in the Creator God, and the covenant God makes with humans. A covenant fulfilled in Jesus, full of meaning, which then translates to all the emptiness and meaninglessness down here. In and through Jesus.

what’s the point?

It is wonderful to run for running’s sake, and there’s a good number of people who like to do that. Perhaps for fitness and also for competition as in track and field. I never enjoyed running, unless it was part one of the three big games I regularly played as a kid: basketball, baseball and football (not necessarily in any order of preference). I could run and run and run and be quite happy and oftentimes tuckered out, because the running took on a significance within the framework of the game. For me running in those contexts was not only tolerable, but fun only because it was part of the game.

Oftentimes we get lost in the details of life, lost I say not in the sense of missing those details themselves, but in missing the point of them, indeed the point of life. We may be like the writer of Ecclesiastes who decided that when all is said and done, all is in fact, meaningless: the world as he saw it, life under the sun. Although when all is said and done beyond that, his conclusion of the matter was that one should fear God and keep his commandments, that being the whole duty of humanity. That God would bring every work to light in judgment, whether it is good or evil.

I am thankful that even during those times when so much seems stacked against someone, and life seems both unrelentingly problem filled and disappointing in some respects, there is still always good reason to go on. And even if reason is weak, there is God’s grace at work to keep us going on. Too often I feel like I’m heading toward some breaking point, where I could just throw up my hands in despair and give up. But giving up is never an option, even if we feel shrouded in darkness. For us in Jesus the point is to glorify God in our relationship with God and with others. Work and all else we do is related and finds its true meaning in that.

I can think that all or much is lost, but I have to keep in mind that God is present and at work in and through Jesus. That God is working his purposes out in his good will, and that whatever I’m doing finds its meaning and fulfillment in that. So that I’m not just doing this or that, things which in themselves can be okay, like the analogy in my own case, running. But more than okay or tolerable when one looks at the bigger picture, and is reminded that it’s a part of something wonderful that is happening in the world.

All things finding their meaning and fulfillment in Jesus, and we in him together in that for the world.

life passing us by

Ecclesiastes has always had a kind of special ring of truth for me. Actually it should have that for everyone in a way, since it depicts the normal pursuit of life for most humans as vanity, empty, meaningless. When one gets my age one gets a bit reflective. Many years, even a number of decades have come and gone. The question is have we really lived, have we really taken hold of life? The answer is often mixed for many of us. All too often, too long, or to too great a degree we’ve been swept under the surge of something less important than life as defined in scripture.

Life as defined and described in scripture is eternal, knowing God and Jesus Christ, not made up of our possessions. And meant to be experienced to the full, overflowing, abundantly. It is essentially relational in terms of love and in terms of God’s covenantal, faithful, loyal love revealed and given to us in Christ. I have often seen much of what I wanted in life largely passing me by, but I have to be careful lest that which I wish I would have known and still might like to experience is also vanity or meaningless.

What  is thought of as life, “the life,” can be according to God’s word not really life at all, but essentially death. I think of the words from scripture: the person (in this case a widow) who lives for pleasure is dead, even while they live. They think they’ve found life, but are tragically actually living in death. I suppose that existence has afflicted most all of us, to some extent.

In the end when all is said and done it’s never too late for us to stop, and seek the one from whom we experience true life, a life not kept to ourselves, but shared with others. Life in and through Jesus, a sharing in his very life. A life to be shared and in relationship with others, with Jesus at the heart of it. A life we are to seek, take hold of, and live out day after day with others in Jesus and for the world.