The Gospel and Ecclesiastes

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Sometimes life just doesn’t make any sense! Why does it seem that forces of chaos and darkness roam with impunity? Why is it that the good, the true, and the beautiful are seldom elevated, while the false and the perverse are celebrated? Why is there such difficulty and strife in our world and in our hearts? Why does life have to be so… frustrating? How is God in control of such a world? When these deep issues of real life pop up, the typical religious response has been to smile; don’t voice those questions because they show your faith is not strong, and you might make someone doubt. So, polish up your concerns and questions, tell everyone you’re “fine,” and make sure you display your “happy Christian” face, or you’re being a bad witness.

It may not be that extreme, but if we have been around the Church for any significant time, we have felt the pressure to put a positive spin on life’s difficulties, to make pious pronouncements in order to help God save face so he and Christianity don’t look bad.  The truth is, we Christians should be at the forefront of admitting that life is frustrating and doesn’t work. That, after all, is why we need Jesus! Life is not easy even with him, and it is crazy frustrating without him! For some of you reading this, you are freaking out right now thinking, “You can’t say those things! Sure, we’ve thought them, but you can’t admit them out loud!” It is right in the middle of this struggle between the promises of the gospel and the frustrations of life in this fallen world that the book of Ecclesiastes fits. The Things We Think but Never Say is not just the title of a memo from a well-known 1990’s movie, it is the subtext of life in much of Western church culture, and it is the unofficial subtitle to Ecclesiastes.

Ecclesiastes is part of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, traditionally seen to be the work of an older Solomon looking back over his life and offering advice to younger believers encountering the frustrations of life in a fallen, cursed world. Ecclesiastes gives God’s people permission to admit that we don’t have all the answers, and that often times we must live by faith that the Lord is in control because it sure doesn’t look like He is! Instead, Ecclesiastes reminds us that life in a fallen world is like vapor; it the false smoke from warm breath on a cold day. As soon as we try to grasp it–as soon as we say “I understand. I can manage. I’ve got it!”– life changes, and we are back to frustration and anxiety, even those of us who have confessed Jesus as Lord.

As you begin your journey through Ecclesiastes, there are two key observations that will help guide you into seeing the amazing grace of the gospel saturating this book. The first is to understand the key concepts in the book: vanity and under the sun.  What most people know about Ecclesiastes is the famous phrase “vanity of vanities; all is vanity” which comes from the Hebrew word hebel, usually translated “vanity” or “meaningless.” The word literally means “vapor, breathe, empty, futile,” but I prefer to translate it “frustrating,” reflecting the ongoing futility of a certain type of life. Ecclesiastes is not cynical about life, but only about a certain type of life, a life under the sun, referring to life in a cursed, fallen world. Ecclesiastes uses the phase “under the sun” where the New Testament would use this world or this present world, indicating a life lived in a cursed world with no reference to God. Life under the sun doesn’t work, is hard to manage or control, and leaves us hungry for meaning, purpose, and identity. Under the sun reminds us that the world used to be different. Humankind used to have perfect fellowship with the Creator. He was with us, accepted us fully, gave us meaning, and grounded our identity; humans were significant with him. Now, life is different, and Ecclesiastes helps us Christians honestly face the reality of life under the sun. That is, life can be frustrating, especially when we lose focus on the gospel and begin to place our hope and trust in our works and performance rather than the work and performance of Jesus Christ on our behalf. 

After Ecclesiastes helps us be honest about our struggles in the Christian life, we find the second key to understanding the book: it is a great resource for talking candidly to non-believers in a post-Christian culture about the gospel! All people, not just Christians, feel the frustrations of life under the sun because the image of God in our hearts causes all people to have a sort of collective memory of a time when we were happy–when the world did work. Innately people feel the frustration of life because we were made for Eden rather than for life under the sun, and so when we can be honest about our frustrations and show how the gospel answers those frustrations, we have more traction sharing the gospel with our neighbors in a post-Christian culture. For generations, the aroma of Christianity, the inherited cultural values based in the Bible, smoothed over these questions for most people. It was only the Sartres, the Nietzsches, the Voltaires, and the Kierkekaards of the world who wrestled with the questions of meaning and dysfunction in life. But now, your auto-mechanic thinks about this while he’s fixing your car; your check-out lady at the store thinks about it in between customers; your barista ponders the frustration of life under the sun during the afternoon lull. Ecclesiastes helps us Christians speak intelligently and cogently about the issues of real life to these neighbors. Study Ecclesiastes because it asks the questions the rest of the Scripture answers in the person of Jesus Christ.

By Rev. Sean F. Sawyers, pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Orangeburg, SC.

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