Ecclesiastes. Such a depressing book.
Or is it? The opening words of the book are, “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” “Meaningless! Perfectly pointless! Futile! It is of no use!” Those are some other ways that different translations of the Bible proclaim the wisdom found in Ecclesiastes.
But is life meaningless and nothing but vanity?
A few days ago, as I was working through my plans for this upcoming sermon series, a song came up on Spotify. “Dust in the Wind” by the ‘70s prog-rock band Kansas. As I listened to the words of this song, I immediately started to recognize some bits that very well could have been lifted right out of Ecclesiastes.
“Dust in the Wind”
“I close my eyes, only for a moment, and the moment’s gone…”
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… (Eccl 3:1-8)
“Same old song.”
Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has already been, in the ages before us… (Eccl 1:10)
“All we do crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see.”
Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (Eccl 2:11)
All human toil is for the mouth, yet the appetite is not satisfied. For what advantage have the wise over fools? (Eccl 6:7-8)
“Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind.”
All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. (Eccl 3:20)
“Now don’t hang on. Nothin’ lasts forever but the earth and sky.”
What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. (Eccl 1:3-4)
“It slips away, and all your money won’t another minute buy.”
So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. (Eccl 2:20-21)
The living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no more reward, and even the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished; never again will they have any share in all that happens under the sun. (Eccl 9:5-6)
Take a listen for yourself:
Depressing or Hopeful?
If you just read through the Ecclesiastes, it can seem like the Teacher (or Preacher), the name given to the author of the book, is trying to tell us that life is pointless. A dour and depressing analysis of life. But, I think that Ecclesiastes is trying to tell us something different. When we look past the claims that everything is pointless and “chasing after the wind”, when we move beyond the statements proclaiming that everything has a season, we see a deeper meaning. When we keep reading beyond the talk of toil and despair and frustrations of desire, we start to see wisdom emerge.
This wisdom tells us to find joy in the simple things of life, but do not make those things our purpose. It tells us to build relationships and count on others for help. It tells us that hard work for a good cause brings us satisfaction at the end of a long day. And, the closing analysis of the book is to “Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone.” Fear in this context really means to revere, to honor, to be in awe of God.
We’ve heard it all before…
Unlike the nihilism expressed in “Dust in the Wind”, The Teacher (the author of Ecclesiastes) is not trying to tell us that life is actually pointless. Instead, the Teacher is trying to help us understand that life without God, life without love, life without a greater purpose is likely to cause us nothing but grief – to be a “chasing after the wind”.
The culmination of wisdom expressed in Ecclesiastes tells us that our duty is to love: “Fear God and keep his commandments.”
This sounds awfully familiar:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he said, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ He said to him, ‘What is written in the law? What do you read there?’ He answered, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.’ And he said to him, ‘You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.’ (Luke 10:25-28)
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ (Matthew 22:34-40)
The “end of the matter”
You might recognize these words as the Great Commandment. Everything the Teacher tells us of his quest to determine the meaning of life points to this commandment. Love God and love others. This is our duty. It is “the end of the matter”. Ecclesiastes is a perfect example of wisdom literature. The goal of passing on wisdom is so that others might learn from your mistakes. Of course, if you’ve ever made a mistake, you probably know that one of the best ways to learn is by failing a few times. It doesn’t matter how many times we fail, as long as we keep trying.
The Teacher wants us to learn that lesson. Ecclesiastes offers us insight into life’s journey. Through the seasons of life, through understanding that we have partners on our way, through seeing that we can’t earn or buy or accumulate happiness, the Teacher want us to know that all of our experiences draw us closer to God, if we know what life is about. Ecclesiastes never says ife is easy, but every word helps us to see how wonderful it is to find out the meaning of life – love and serve God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength.
May it be so for us today and always,