The words of the Teacher, son of David, king of Jerusalem:
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.’
What do people gain from all their labours(Eccl. 1:1-11 NIV)
at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains for ever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
‘Look! This is something new’?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.
Ecc. is the strangest book in the whole Bible. Like life itself we can say of the book that it will all make sense in the end. Our lives tend to be quite mixed up, leaving us bewildered at times. At first read (and indeed after many reads) we may not know exactly what the teacher intends by the phrase ‘meaningless, meaningless! Everything is meaningless!’ But we at least feel that there have been many times that we can quietly utter to the teacher ‘You can say that again!’
My son pointed out to me on my 60th birthday that I had now entered my eighth decade, a sobering thought, thanks son! I have already lived so much life and it seems like the years have just slipped away like sand slipping through my fingers. My brother-in-law who is just a few years older than me said to me on my 50th birthday, ‘Do you realise that we are already over halfway through!’ I have a helpful family!
Recently I read a book by Pulitzer prise winning author Marilynne Robinson called ‘Gilead’. It is about a third-generation minister (his grandfather and father had been ministers) who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, an untreatable heart condition that could cause his death at any moment. The minister had a tough life with wife and child dying early in life and in later life he marries a much younger woman, and the minister fathers a son in his old age. Aware that he will die quite soon and that his son will have little memory of his father, the father writes a letter to his son. The thought of his imminent death casts a shadow over the minister’s life, or perhaps it might be better to say shines a light over his life, because he mentions little things in his life that would previously have gone unnoticed. He is living the rest of his life in the light of his death, exactly what the teacher in Ecc. wants us to do. David Gibson in his excellent little book on Ecc. says, ‘I am convinced that only a proper perspective on death provides the true perspective on life. Living in the light of your death will help you to live wisely and freely and generously.’
In life we dream dreams about what might be. We have plans and ambitions to shape the future. We make down payments of time, energy, and emotions to secure the best future. Ecc. teaches us to reverse this procedure. ‘It (Ecc) encourages us to take the one thing in the future that is certain – our death – and work backwards from that point into all the details and decisions and heartaches of our lives, and to think about them from the perspective of the end.’ It will make sense in the end. The destination will provide understanding on the life that was lived leading to its destination. ‘Ecc invites us to let the end sculpt our priorities and goals, our greatest ambitions and our strongest desires.’
Perhaps what has been said so far is dismissed by the young as the reminiscences of someone who is in the tertiary stage of life. It is only obvious, they say, that he should think of death. But the lesson of Ecc. is for all. Only as we prepare for the end can we really live well through the beginning and the middle of life.
Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, …(Eccl. 12:1 NIV)
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. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.(Eccl. 12:13-14 NIV)
Roy Orbison sang ‘If your love for me is just temporary, I’d rather not know. Just let me make believe a while!’ Admittedly this is one of his lesser known songs. The whole theme is about make believe. Ecc. is given to us to snap us out of our ‘make believe’ life to help us find our way in the ‘real world’. Derek Tidball expresses the idea in the title of his commentary on Ecc. ‘That’s Just the Way It Is: A realistic view of life from the Book of Ecc.’. Tidball says, ‘The author of Ecc. will not let us escape back to our make-believe world too easily.’
But the shocking thing is that when we come to Ecc. to find the meaning of life that we are told that all is meaningless. How can we find meaning there? Whatever could the teacher mean?
What then does ‘meaningless’ mean and how can that possibly add meaning to anything never mind my life?
This is a book that I have studied the most out of all the OT books but one that I have never attempted to preach on. I found it difficult to accept what many commentators and preachers had said that Ecc. should be thought of as the reminiscences of an old backslidden Solomon and that it looked at life under the sun, lived without God. It always seemed too easy for preachers and commentators to explain (in my view explain away) the advice that the teacher is giving and the conclusions that he makes. Having spent more time in the wisdom literature of the OT, you learn the shock tactics that wisdom literature uses to try and get us to slow down and think. My plan is to prepare meditations on Ecc. and then at some further stage to preach through the book.
Lord as we explore Ecc. help us to understand how reflection upon the day of our death can have a positive impact upon how we live life. We pray that our meditations upon Ecc. will help us to see the truth that You intend for us to grasp. Help us to enjoy the good gifts that You have given us, and forgive us for taking many of the smaller things in life for granted. We ask this in the name of our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.