Ecclesiastes Part Two Deep Dive
DEATH, TIME AND CHANCE | ELLA HICKEY
‘Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless’ (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Work, wisdom, folly, pleasure, belongings, riches, success, greatness, all the delights of mankind, and everything under the sun – meaningless. This is what one might walk away from Ecclesiastes concluding, however there is more to be said of the word ‘meaningless’ and what that would have meant to the teacher.
THE TRUE MEANING OF ‘MEANINGLESS’
There are a variety of ways that the word ‘Hevel’ has been translated to English, with ‘meaningless’, ‘vanity’, and ‘emptiness’ taking the main stage, in an attempt to describe the original Hebrew which translates as ‘mere breath’, ‘elusive vapor’, ‘a puff of smoke’, or ‘a passing shadow’.So when the teacher says that life under the sun is meaningless or vanity – he is describing it as being temporary, something that we try to catch, but remains elusive, like trying to grasp at fog.
This insight gives us deeper understanding of the message of Ecclesiastes; that when the teacher says that life under the sun is like chasing after the wind, frustration and adversity are unavoidable, and all that awaits us at the end is death, he is describing the brevity and insignificance of our human existence. The overarching conclusion of the teacher is not that life is entirely pointless, but that we are just ‘like the animals’, ‘all come from dust, and to dust we return’ – and as the teacher concludes ‘time, and chance happens to us all’ (Ecclesiastes 9:11).
Ecclesiastes then compels one to ask the question, why would God create humanity if this is all there is? God also doesn’t appear to come through with promised blessings or consistently ensure that good things only happen to good people, as the retribution principle would suggest. What the teacher proposes, however, is that God is not the problem, life under the sun is the actual problem, or more specifically our expectations of life under the sun. This is what Ecclesiastes persuasively and eloquently attempts to convey: not that God is not good, but that often He is the only good, as are the gifts that He has given us, our work, our food, and our relationships, so we should enjoy what we have, because life is ‘Hevel’ – it is only temporary, fleeting, and yes, often mystifying. Thus, when the Teacher sought to find meaning ‘under the sun’, or more specifically in this fallen world, he was destined to failure. It is only in the light of Christ that this is made abundantly clear.
LIVING UNDER A TEMPORARY SUN
The Teacher’s perspective is incomplete, because he only describes what happens under the sun. His observations are only within the limits of the human experience before death, and he does not even attempt to address eternity, which is where the Author comes in. The Author introduces the work of the Teacher at the beginning, and then at the end summarises it. This gives us a framework for the content, allowing us to read it through the lens that asserts that life must be pursued with God at the centre, because nothing under the sun offers anything eternal.
This summary that the author provides is not about making the message of the teacher more orthodox, as one may initially presume, but ensures that we catch what the teacher is truly saying: that nothing under the sun can truly provide fulfilment, but the solution to life is to enjoy it anyway, and adjustment of expectation is a necessary part of that. So in short–enjoy life and fear God.
The final paragraphs of the book explain what the Teacher is doing in sharing these experiences and conclusions. In Chapter 12 verse 11, the Author says that his wisdom is like a goad and firmly embedded nails. A goad is a long pointy stick that a shepherd uses to prod the sheep or oxen so they go where he wants them to go. This book hurts, and it prods one wherever they have bought into the myth of religious fulfilment and have misunderstood life under the sun. David Gibson describes Ecclesiastes as ‘the pin that bursts every bubble we might use to shield ourselves from the truth’.
In the light of Christ, Ecclesiastes is Messianic, but not in the same way that other Old Testament books such as Isaiah are Messianic. There is no assurance of future deliverance, nor does it provide the expectation that someone or something will come to change the ‘Hevel’ of life and provide us with something different. Rather, Ecclesiastes is uniquely Messianic by preparing its readers to see why everything is vain if Jesus is not alive, and by contrast, it helps us see how everything matters because Jesus is alive.
Reading the Book of Ecclesiastes in light of the New Testament points us to Jesus, in whom our lives find true meaning. So, though humanity may be subject to death, time, and chance while under the sun–as the Teacher himself says in Chapter 3 verse 11, God Himself ‘has set eternity in the hearts of men’.
Coping With Transience by Daniel C Fredericks, 1993.
Encountering Ecclesiastes by James Limburg, 2006.
A Survey of the Old Testament by A. Hill and J. Watson, 2009.
Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters by Philip Ryken, 2010.
Destiny: Learning To Live By Preparing To Die by David Gibson, 2016.
The Wisdom Of Proverbs, Job And Ecclesiastes by H.W. Hertzberg, Der Prediger, 2015.