We all have a dainty picture of how our lives should pan out, of how all of life should operate. We expect to do good and experience good, to love and be loved, work hard and prosper, build up wealth and enjoy it. We expect that good things should happen to good people, and evil people should reap the work of their hands. And we’re not alone in our thinking. Large portions of the Bible hold and teach the same viewpoint – that it will be well with the righteous, and that the wicked will eventually self-destruct.
But no sooner are we born into the world than we begin to experience the unfairness, instability and imbalance that characterizes this fallen world of ours. The very idea that life can be random and not predictable, that our faith doesn’t guarantee happier lives, or that a relationship with God doesn’t mean we will get all we want, can be discouraging or depressing in our pursuit of purpose. We are all shocked with this reality at some point in our lives and may even begin to question the meaning of life.
This search for meaning is what the book of Ecclesiastes is all about. The writer explores critical themes of our lives and declares with a brutal finality that “All is Vanity!”. He draws from his own experience of pleasure and wisdom and wealth and introspection, and then arrives at the discomfiting truth that all human endeavour and accomplishment ends with a sobering submission – death and return to the dust. Whether rich or poor, powerful or weak, wise or foolish, careful or carefree, all will end up in the grave.
He goes further to examine the static nature of our world through its various encounters with humanity. At its best, the rise and fall of kingdoms and nations mirrors the rise and fall of sea waves. From where things come, there they return. We are rather minute in the grand scale of things, even though we would like to exaggerate our own impact on the earth. Then the writer goes on to strike a final chord, which is for me, the most disconcerting note of all: nothing is guaranteed in life.
The strong does not always win. The smart does not always get wealth. The fastest does not always win. Nothing guaranteed; nothing assured. So, he encourages his readers to enjoy their days and take pleasure in whatever blessings they have received from God: food, family, friendship, wealth – whatever it is they are privileged to have, knowing well that nothing is guaranteed, and that all good gifts come from above. It is somewhat of a contrarian view, asking people to enjoy knowing nothing is assured.
Yet this seemingly conflicting counsel is the hallmark of the book of Ecclesiastes: asking us to give our best in all we do and rejoice in all we have after painting us a picture of gloom. He closes the book in a similar manner, calling the young to remember their God in the days of their youth and asking everyone to fear God “because this is the whole duty of mankind”. It is a call, not to despair, but to hope and trust in God who gives us all things richly to enjoy.
The book of Ecclesiastes is an adventure into realism and invitation to humility, seeing that we will all die and be forgotten someday, and we cannot even control the outcomes of the life we are living. It is an invitation to abandon worry and fear and sorrow, to embrace joy and diligence and faith, not slacking in our daily work but giving our best, not careless in the way we live but honouring God, knowing that we will all give an account of our lives to Him someday and receive appropriate rewards for all we do.