Ecclesiastes is one of the most puzzling and provocative books in the entire Bible. Like coffee, it can be an “acquired taste” for people. In a dour sort of way, it deals with a key issue of human existence—namely, the meaning of life and all the questions surrounding that issue:
“Who am I, and why am I here?”
“What can I do with my life that will make it worthwhile?”
“What’s the ‘big picture’ of this world, and how do I fit into it?”
The everyday weariness, frustrations, injustices, and sense of emptiness that people often experience during life “under the sun” don’t seem to square with the fleeting moments of happiness, joy, contentment, and fulfillment that are also part of the human story.
Aggravating the problem is a certain death that looms over every person—a dread that stands in sharp contrast to the pulsating life that each living person has now.
Ecclesiastes challenges us to think deeply about foundational questions. Life and all it contains appear to be meaningless vapors—here today and gone tomorrow. What, then, is the big picture of this world and its intersection with our transitory lives?
And if there is no Big Story at all, what is the point of all our little stories? Ecclesiastes offers an answer that is rather surprising: Live now. Live forever. Amidst all the bad news of this world, there is good news in the end.
Like coffee on the tongue of a child, the book of Ecclesiastes is an acquired taste. New believers don’t usually like it, and even seasoned saints aren’t always sure it belongs in the canon. Indeed, Ecclesiastes is one of the most puzzling and provocative books in the entire Bible. The author deals with a key issue of human existence—namely, the meaning of life—and all the questions associated with that vast and vital topic. What is the reason for humanity’s presence on earth? What can we do with our lives that will make them worthwhile? How can we truly find joy and satisfaction during our brief time on earth? What is the “big picture” of this world and God’s “end game” for it?
We’ve all wrestled with these questions, haven’t we? The everyday weariness, frustration, injustice, and sense of emptiness we sometimes experience during life “under the sun” don’t seem to square with those fleeting moments of happiness, contentment, and delight that are also part of our stories. Aggravating the problem is a certain death that looms over us all—a dread that stands in sharp contrast to the pulsating life we have now. Such contradictory realities cry out for resolution—if, indeed, there can be a resolution. If there’s no Big Story at all, what then is the point of all our little stories?
Christian faith teaches that people can believe there is a resolution to the conundrum—chiefly expressed in the hope-filled story of Jesus and his love. In his victory over death (and all the hate and hostility directed at him by angry and fear-filled people), he disarmed the ravages of soul that lead to hopelessness and despair. By conquering the darkness with his own faith intact (Luke 23:46), Christ enables his people to endure (and even embrace!) the riddles, mysteries, and unanswered questions of this life until the restoration of all things. Moreover, they are empowered to participate now in that restoration in Jesus’ name, knowing that all will be well in the end.
As coffee can help students pull an occasional “all nighter” on their way to the end of a semester, so the bold realism of Ecclesiastes can help us make it to the end of our lives knowing the journey was well worth it. Despite the evil and ugliness of this world, which seem to support the idea that there can be no meaning in the universe, humanity keeps pursuing the question of meaning. We see it in our songs, poems, and artwork all the time. “What’s it all about, Alfie? Is it just for the moment we live?” Alfie may neither know nor care, but a large segment of humanity refuses to live with the conclusion that life is totally senseless and has no meaning at all.
But why should that be the case? Are we somehow “hard-wired” for meaning, or are we simply being naïve? Or could it be both? Ecclesiastes 3:11 says: “[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of human beings; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” The text suggests that human beings are hard-wired for meaning (“God has set eternity in the heart”), but we will never comprehend the big picture in this lifetime (“cannot fathom what God has done”). The Christian faith we love and embrace allows both these things to be true at the same time.
It is important to note, however, that Ecclesiastes does not envision a superficial faith that fails to take into account the fallenness of this world. Rather, it is a wakeup call to believers and unbelievers alike. For unbelievers, Ecclesiastes is an evangelistic nudge, calling secular people to face the dire implications of their skepticism and consider a better way. Utter despair is neither warranted nor necessary. For believers, Ecclesiastes is a call to realism, summoning the faithful to take seriously the enigmas of life and the sense of futility it often contains. Triumphalism is neither warranted nor sustainable. True wisdom, then, recognizes that human autonomy, self-sufficiency, and perfectibility on our own is a myth. It also recognizes our need for divine grace at every moment—giving us an irrepressible hope as we face the future together. The overall message of Ecclesiastes, then, holds two realties in dynamic tension:
1. Human beings do not hold the key to the meaning of life. We cannot know the big picture in its totality—what life is all about with its many riddles, mysteries, heartbreaks, and inconsistencies. We proceed through life as a horse with blinders; we see in part, and the big picture is veiled to us. But this need not lead to despair for the people of God. We have been “hard-wired” to know that there is a big picture—that there is a grand purpose in which all the pieces of the puzzle fit together—even if the knowledge of how they do so presently eludes us. As eternal yet finite creatures, we are like crossword puzzle addicts with a limited vocabulary. We want to fill in all the blanks, and we get frustrated when we cannot.
2. Still, we can know the one who does know the big picture—the infinite God, who alone holds the key to the meaning of life. We can put our trust in him and live in obedience to his ways, even when life is baffling, disappointing, or patently unfair. We can trust him even when we feel tethered by our own limited understanding and finite comprehension of all that God is doing in the world. Wisdom involves knowing that nothing we pursue in this life can lift the veil, but one day our spirit will return to the God who gave it, and he will rightly judge all things. Consequently, during our brief time on this broken planet, we can still have a measure of joy at the end of the tether.
In short, the book of Ecclesiastes is a strategic blend of good news and bad news. It’s a thick, dark roast coffee dispensed with a hint of mint and mocha syrup to make it tolerable. Generally speaking, it gives us two things to do simultaneously:
1. Lament the BAD NEWS of Ecclesiastes.
Human life is extremely short. (1:2; 7:2)
Human life is inherently frustrating. (1:3-4, 11; 2:11)
Human life is exceedingly difficult. (4:1; 8:14)
Human life is spiritually broken. (3:11; 8:17; 7:20)
2. Celebrate the GOOD NEWS of Ecclesiastes.
God knows the big picture of human life. (3:11b, 14; 7:14a)
God encourages his people to live wisely. (2:13-14a; 7:12, 19; 9:17)
God invites his people to enjoy now the gifts he gives. (9:7-9; 11:8; 9:10; 11:9)
God has a life for his people beyond this life. (12:5, 7, 13-14, 11)
This last observation reminds us we can live now, and we can live forever. That is, we can be spiritually “well caffeinated” for life under the sun. And we can know for sure that something good awaits us above the sun. What could be more worthwhile?
Note: It was my Old Testament Professor Dr. David A. Dorsey who first got me turned on to the book of Ecclesiastes. He has a wonderful summary of the author’s message and layout in his book The Literary Structure of the Old Testament, Baker Academic, 1999.