I want good news for life – flourishing, engaged life; rubber-meets-the-road, realistic (not idealistic or escapist) life; life with its challenges and changes, disappointments and disasters; every season of life, from the energy and expectation of youth to the lament and loss of old age and impending death. I want a potent, compelling, gutsy, good news story for life.
And that is precisely what we have in the remarkable OT book of Ecclesiastes, though its message for life is disguised by the opening gambit of the book when translated as follows:
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (1:1-2, TNIV)
Really? Is that what the author is affirming? That life this side of the sun is utterly meaningless? Are we then to set our faces towards an other-worldly heaven and plan on getting out of here as soon as possible? How is this an encouragement into flourishing humanness, rich relationships and the stewardship of the world that God loves so much?
And how then do we understand subsequent recommendations throughout Ecclesiastes to enjoy and embrace life, such as “so I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad” (8:15), or “go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do” (9:7). Are these choices in keeping with life in an utterly meaningless reality?
There is plenty of work going on at present with regard to the meaning of הֶ֫בֶל (hebel), the Hebrew word here translated “meaningless”. And faithful biblical preaching will always demand that the preacher participate in such work.
“Hebel” is used more than 30 times in Ecclesiastes, and also in other OT texts such as Psalm 39:5; Psalm 144:4; Proverbs 31:30 and Isaiah 57:13. In Ecclesiastes this word almost certainly means something closer to the idea that everything is changing and passing away than that all things are meaningless; that for humans, reality is like a breath or a mist, that we cannot cling to as though it is able to be grasped.
This being the case, the Teacher in Ecclesiastes invites his readers to embrace the sort of wisdom which recognises that firstly, life is ephemeral – that is, passing by. It cannot be kept by humans. And that secondly, life is elusive – that is, resistant. It cannot be controlled by humans. The Teacher would have us understand that we don’t have the capacity to control or keep our times.
So what does life look like in such a world? It looks like resting in the good governance of a sovereign God, trusting in God’s keeping of our lives in the present and God’s faithfulness for the future. It looks like living more lightly in our times, loving the season of life we are in, but not imagining it will last or that we can hold onto it forever. It looks like thanksgiving more in keeping with receiving a gift than with clinging to a possession. It looks like gratitude and contentment in a good God rather than desperation and despair as life changes. It looks like the sort of embracing of life that the Teacher encourages throughout the book, such as his words in 3:12-13 – “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”.
Of course, the author of Ecclesiastes did not know as much as Jesus about the big picture of life both now and through eternity to come. But when Jesus taught, he clearly embraced the wisdom of Ecclesiastes within the greater perspective he brought from the “other side” of the sun. His conversation, recorded in Luke 12:13-15, is at least in part, shaped by the wisdom of Ecclesiastes: Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”
The gospel of Christ is for life with all of its challenges and changes. Life is to be fully embraced, but not as greedy, grasping, independent humans, rather as responsive, grateful, trusting humans in a world that belongs to God. This is fully in keeping with the words of Ecclesiastes and the full biblical testimony to the good news of Jesus.