Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job are all asking the same question “What does it mean to live well in the world?”
Proverbs you could view as a bright young teacher. She’s all about pursuing wisdom as an attribute of God that is woven in to the DNA of reality and existence. She is optimistic that if you use wisdom then you will build a successful life.
We land now on Ecclesiastes’ doorstep who is more like the sharp middle aged critic and he says “You think using wisdom will bring you success, you better rethink that because life here under the sun is meaningless”.
The book of Ecclesiastes opens with “The words of Qohelet, the Son of David, King of Jerusalem. In Hebrew the word Qohelet means someone who has gathered people together. In this case it is to learn so it is most often translated in English as “Teacher”. The teacher is stated in the text to be a son or descendent of King David so there are different views about who this figure may have been.
The majority view is that it is King Solomon but there are others who believe that it may have been one of the later Kings from David’s line and there are some who believe it to be a later Israelite teacher who has adopted a Solomon like persona.
Whichever of these is true it is important to recognise that the teacher is a character in the book and is different to the author of the book who remains anonymous. We do hear the teachers voice for most of the book but it is the voice of the author who introduces us to the teacher in the opening sentence. It is also the author who concludes the book in 12:9-14 by summarising and evaluating everything that the teacher has just said in the closing verses.
The author wants us to hear all that the teacher has to say but then wants to help us to process it and bring us to conclusion.
So what does the teacher really have to say? The key word here is “hevel” … everything is “hevel” and that word is most often translated as meaningless.
The problem is that the translation does not quite convey the fullness of what is being expressed here. In the Hebrew the word “hevel” literally means vapour or smoke. The teacher uses this word 38 times in the book as a metaphor to describe how life is temporary or fleeting and that it is an enigma, it is beautiful or mysterious and a paradox. Like smoke it appears solid but when you try to grab onto it there is nothing there.
There is so much beauty and goodness in the world but just when you are enjoying it, tragedy strikes and it all seems to dissipate into smoke.
We all have strong sense of justice but all the time bad things happen to good people so life is constantly unpredictable, unstable or in the teachers words like chasing after the wind.
This is not a statement that life has no meaning but rather it’s meaning is never clear. Like smoke, life is confusing. It is disorienting and uncontrollable and when you are stuck in the thick of it like fog. It is impossible to see clearly.
The authors goal is to build up all of the ways in which we try to create meaning and purpose in life apart from God and allows the teacher to deconstruct this.
The author presents us with the idea of investing our time and energy into things that have no lasting meaning or significance and he allows the teacher to give us a hard lesson in reality.
This is especially clear in the opening and closing poems which focus first of all on time (1:3-11) and then on death (11:7-12:7). For example he talks about all of the time we invest in working and achieving because we think that it makes our lives meaningful but we should really stop and consider the marching of time because for all of the human effort invested in work and achieving, nothing really changes.
So we advance technology, nations rise and fall but stop. Go and climb a mountain and see if it cares. It was there long before any of us and will be there for long after we have gone! No one is going to remember us or anything we did 100 years from now but the mountain will still be there. The ocean will still be there and the sun will still rise.
Eventually time will erase us and all that we care about. The teacher continually talks about death. It is the great equaliser and renders most of our day to day activities that we participate in as meaningless. It devours the wise and foolish, rich and poor, no matter who you are or what you have done it is going to deal with you. It’s inescapable.
The teacher goes on to investigate all these activities and false hopes that we invest our time to give us purpose and meaning and significance. Wealth, career, social status, pleasure. He renders them “hevel”.
What does the teacher advocate then? The teacher acknowledges the ideas from Proverbs that living by wisdom and fear of the Lord has it’s advantages. On the whole life will probably go better for you. But even living by wisdom and fear of the Lord gives no guarantees of a good life, they are also “hevel”
Good people die and evil people prosper. There are too many exceptions and so even wisdom is “hevel”. That’s not to say it’s meaningless but rather an enigma.
Wisdom doesn’t work the way that we think it should. So the question comes, what is the way forward? The teacher paradoxically discovers the key to the enjoyment of life.
It’s accepting that everything in your life is outside of your control, acknowledging “hevel” and accepting it. At about six different times in the bleakest moments in the teachers monologue he talks about the gift of God which is about the enjoyment of the simple things in this life. You cannot control these things, you are certainly not guaranteed them, but that’s their beauty.
When we come to adopt a posture of total trust in God, it frees us to actually enjoy our experience of life as it is and not how we expect it to be. We see life itself as a blessing because even our expectations of how life ought to be or how we want it to be are ultimately “hevel”.
Everything under the sun is utterly “hevel”. The teachers words come to a close.
Right at the end the author speaks up again and brings it all to a conclusion. He tells us that we will do well to listen to the teachers words, he likens them to a shepherd’s staff with a pointed end to prod us with. The teacher is trying to poke us to get us to move in the right direction towards greater wisdom.
The author then warns us that we can actually take the teachers words too far and we could spend our whole life buried in books trying to answer life’s existential puzzles. Don’t try, he says. You will never get there.
Instead the author offers his own conclusion. “Fear God and keep his commandments”. The author thinks it’s good to allow the teacher to challenge your false hopes and remind us that time and death make most of life completely out of our control.
The author insists and underscores his work with his belief that what gives life true meaning is the hope of God’s judgment.
The hope that one day God will clear away all of the “hevel” and bring true justice.It’s that hope that will fuel a life of honesty and integrity before God despite the fact that we remain puzzled by most of life’s mysteries.