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Invitation to Ecclesiastes

This week we began a new series: Work, Wealth, Pleasure, Knowledge, and Other Dreams that Disappoint: The Surprising Hope of Ecclesiastes. This is a long title, but it’s designed to capture the tension that we find in this book—a tension that makes Ecclesiastes so obviously relevant for those who live in New England today, and more specifically in Greater Boston. In fact, part of our desire for this series is that people would step out to invite friends and neighbors to come and wrestle with life through the honest yet hopeful lens of Ecclesiastes.

Do a random survey on your street, in your school, at your office, in your child’s play group, and ask a simple question: What do you live for? What do you look to for lasting significance and gain? Among others, you’re going to hear these answers:

  • Work: I live for my job, my career. Working my way up the ladder, landing the big dollar client, accomplishing a good day’s work.
  • Wealth: We trust in our money to answer our problems. We think if we just had a little more, our problems would go away. Our church is located in the wealthiest town in the state. It’s really easy to live for wealth.
  • Pleasure: We live for weekends at the Cape, for Red Sox games, Patriots, Celtics, and Bruins. We look for significance in our social life, whether virtual on Facebook, or personally with our night life—clubbing, alcohol, sex.
  • Knowledge: Boston boasts the finest institutes in higher education—Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Wellesley, along with prestigious private schools like the Phillips Academy.

As a culture, we work hard, we’re wealthy, we’re smart, and there’s always something to do. This is living. And there are other dreams, too: family, power, relationships, religion, and so on.

The problem is that they all disappoint. In one way or another, at some point or another, these dreams will let us down. They are, as Ecclesiastes tells us, vapor, smoke. We have all this stuff, all these achievements, so much to do and to see. But in those rare moments when we’re honest enough to let our guard down, we know in our hearts that none of this is secure. The only things that stand between us and losing our dreams are time and chance. And eventually everything succumbs to them.

Ecclesiastes puts it this way: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Eccl. 1:2; 12:8). The word translated “vanity” occurs 38 times in this book, and means “vapor” or “breath.” Like trying to grab hold of a puff of smoke or your breath on a cold morning, so everything in this world that we try to take hold of in order to find lasting significance is ultimately fleeting and fruitless. This book resonates with the deep longing and unspoken sadness of our hearts as we wrestle with life’s inconsistencies and come to terms with the fleeting and fruitless realities of life under the sun—life in the hamster wheel, always running but never getting anywhere.

So is there any hope in this relatively dark and pessimistic book? The surprising answer is yes. Because there is God. In fact, the central message of this book is that our only hope for lasting gain in a fleeting and fruitless world is God himself.

The God portrayed in Ecclesiastes is not a God who has momentarily slipped off his throne and consequently life on earth has spun out of control. Nor is he sitting in heaven wringing his hands trying to figure out what to do about the mess sin has made.

  • This God is sovereign: “Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?” (Eccl. 7:13).
  • This God is powerful: “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it” (3:14).
  • This God is good: “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil- this is God's gift to man” (3:12-13).
  • And this God cares about everything that happens and everything that we do: “God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work” (3:17).

When we look at this world through our eyes, our experience, what we can see and evaluate from the ground, it does look pretty meaningless, like nothing matters. But when we see the world through God’s eyes, from “above the sun,” we see that in fact everything matters. “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:14). And only then, when we view life from above the sun, from God's perspective, will we have the wisdom necessary for living out our days with reverence before God and joy in what he’s given us to do, even when the work of our hands doesn’t last.

Because the God of the universe is not only sovereign over the confusion and vanity of life, but he sent his eternal Son into this world to take the vanity on himself, all the corruption, all the sin, all the decay and meaninglessness of life, on himself on the cross. Not only that, he raised Jesus from the dead to bring new life, new hope, new creation to a decaying and futile world (Rom. 8:20). Listen to what Paul says about our service to God in 1 Corinthians 15:58: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” Did you catch that? It’s not in vain.

There is meaning, there is significance, everything does matter, because there is God. Whether you know this God personally, or whether you’re simply exploring the things of faith, I invite to come along on this journey. Come with us, with Ecclesiastes, down into the dark, mysterious valley, take a hard, honest look at reality, the vapor of life and all the dreams that disappoint, and then come with us up the other side to see Jesus and the beauty, significance, and lasting gain of knowing him and living life in joyful and reverent submission to God.