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.
It has often been said—based on a journal entry by Søren Kierkegaard—that life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. There’s a lot of truth to that sentiment. But what if the sequence were reversed? What if we started out as old folks and got younger with the passing of time? What if we went from being slobbering seniors to drooling infants rather than the other way around? Would that contradict another truism that says youth is wasted on the young?
Welcome to “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 2008, the piece was made into a film by the same name starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett (story by Robin Swicord and Eric Roth; directed by David Fincher). It was also made into a stage musical in 2019. I’m captivated by the mind-bending thoughts prompted by just a cursory glance at its plot.
Born under “unusual circumstances,” Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) springs into being as an elderly man in a New Orleans nursing home, and he ages in reverse. Twelve years later, he meets Daisy, a child who flits in and out of his life as she grows up to become a dancer (Cate Blanchett). Though Benjamin has all sorts of strange adventures over the course of his life, it’s his relationship with Daisy, and the hope that they will come together at just the right time, that drives Benjamin forward. One of the money quotes in the film, which is often misattributed to Fitzgerald himself, is this:
“For what it’s worth, it’s never too late, or in my case too early, to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit. Start whenever you want. You can change or stay the same. There are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you’ve never felt before. I hope you meet people who have a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of, and if you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”
We always want that fresh start, don’t we? We always feel the need for genuine newness, but we worry that the sand in our hourglasses will run out of grains before we get there, leaving us with a pile of broken dreams and regrets. That’s why we write pop tunes like, “If I Could Turn Back Time” (Cher), and song lyrics like, “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future” (Steve Miller Band), and clever aphorisms like, “You pile up enough tomorrows, and you’ll find you are left with nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays” (Meredith Wilson).
We even have a whole series of contemporary movies called Back to the Future. And then there’s Dr. Who’s TARDIS, the British time machine-spacecraft that can go anywhere in space and time at the push of a button. It’s all fantasy, of course, but these stories reveal that we’re a species obsessed with going back and starting over.
Thankfully, it’s a gracious God who provides genuine newness in Christ—the one who said we can be transformed spiritually, from the inside out, like a caterpillar to a butterfly, as if we we were being born all over again (John 3:3-8; 1 Pet 1:23).
Moreover, it’s a good and wise God whose timing is always perfect. He has promised to make all things new (Rev 21:5).
So trust in him. Lean into him. Wait on him.
Whether you’re coming or going.
Thank you, Lord, for the hope of newness that can be found in a relationship with Jesus Christ. Thank you that his gospel is the remedy for regret. Help me to live wisely as I step into the future with you, knowing that you are already there, eager to lead and sustain me by your grace. Amen.