Summary: We live in a world that is often difficult to understand, where sometimes we just have to trust that God is in control, even if it seems that things are upside down, even if we find we can’t straighten out the things that are crooked in this world. But we
How did a book like Ecclesiastes get in the Bible? Did someone make a mistake, do you think? I don’t know about you but I find the beginning of the book a bit depressing. Some people find it quite disturbing as it reinforces the doubts that they may have already about God’s place in the scheme of things. In fact this book could almost have been written by someone like Richard Dawkins, the way it questions whether there’s any purpose or meaning to life.
As one of the wisdom books of the Bible, Ecclesiastes seeks to make sense of what we find in the world. But where other books speak with great certainty and confidence about God’s role and, in particular, our understanding of God’s role in running the world, this book wants us to stop and think, to question whether we’ve got it right. Perhaps the world isn’t as predictable as we thought. Perhaps the conclusions of some theologians needs to be tempered by an awareness of the world as we experience it day by day. The book of Job deals with the same question, but here we have it in much greater clarity: the world is an unpredictable and sometimes frustrating place in which to live, where simple answers don’t always work.
The author, we’re told, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. Clearly this is meant as an allusion to Solomon, though most commentators agree that it was written well after the time of Solomon. But Solomon is the one who’s chosen by the author to voice the observations and conclusions of one who has studied the world long and hard.
As we read through the book we hear two voices speaking. In the introduction and at the end, and for one brief moment in the middle, there’s a narrator who introduces the teacher and sums up his conclusions. The rest of the time it’s the teacher himself who speaks to us. This is important because the words of the narrator form a frame around the main body of the book and it’s that frame that we’re going to look at today.
It’s pretty clear what the motto of the book is isn’t it? In our version: "Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities!" It’s actually a word that has no single translation. That’s why one version uses vanity while others use meaningless, or futility, or nonsense, or vapour. The word has the idea of something that’s fleeting, momentary, impossible to take hold of, almost nothing, like vapour or mist that’s here one moment and gone the next. As he looks at the world his conclusion appears to be that the things of this world are not worth striving for because they all pass away in the end.
In fact it’d be easy to take him for a pessimist wouldn’t it. The introductory poem seems very pessimistic, doesn’t it? At best you’d think he’s a sceptic. But no, the Teacher is not a pessimist. He will come to the conclusion in the end, a conclusion that fits with the rest of wisdom literature - that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But he wants us to get there by working through the ambiguities of life. He wants us to start by thinking about the world from the point of view of the humanist or secularist, the person who has no theological basis for considering life. What does the world look like if you take God out of the equation? Not as an atheist. Such a concept would have been unthinkable in the days of the Old Testament. But what if you thought of the world as a closed system, created by God, sure, but then left alone to run its own course; following the immutable laws of nature? What sense would you make of the world then?