Life Lessons from Ecclesiastes
We all struggle with that question at points in our life. The world is often unfair and we experience this lack of justice personally at times. What is more, when bad things happen, we wonder if God is involved in the operations of the world we live in.
This is where the book of Ecclesiastes helps us out. It is honest about life being messy and the questions that messiness causes. It acknowledges that if we could understand why things happen, difficult circumstances would be easier to deal with somehow. Ecclesiastes helps us understand that the ups and downs of life are normal and part of God’s plan and that we must keep an eternal perspective without having all the answers. In fact, this rich book of the Bible provides us with three challenging, but powerful lessons that help us with navigating the messiness of life by having this perspective.
1. Life is messy.
One of the key words in Ecclesiastes is the Hebrew term hévèl (“steam, vapor, smoke”). While this term is often translated into English as “vanity” or “meaningless,” the idea is more of something fleeting – there one moment and gone the next. Interestingly, hévèl is also the Hebrew form of the name Abel, which suggests that the author may have had the early chapters of Genesis in mind when he penned this book.
As we see in Genesis 4, it did not take long after the fall of humanity into sin before Cain murdered his brother Abel in a fit of jealousy. Abel, who honored God, was murdered while Cain lived. Although Cain was punished, God protected him from death, and Cain seems to have had a long, prosperous life before everything was ultimately washed away by the flood (Gen 4-11). The fact that the Teacher uses the Hebrew term and name “Abel” as his choice descriptor in Ecclesiastes must be more than coincidental. Abel’s life was fleeting, cut short. From a human perspective, it also doesn’t seem fair. And perhaps this is one of the Teacher’s points: we live in a world in which things don’t always make sense, where the righteous do not always prosper and where the wicked sometimes do. Ecclesiastes gives us hope that our frustration is common to all believers and that it is natural to want to make sense of the mess of life. Ecclesiastes gives us hope that our frustration is common to all believers and that it is natural to want to make sense of the mess of life. Click To Tweet
In fact, the Teacher states that trying to make sense of a world in which the episode of Cain and Abel can be normative is his primary goal. In 2:1-3, he notes that he wants to find out what pursuits are worthwhile, given the temporary nature of our lives. As he explores all the avenues available to him, he quickly reaches the conclusion that there are no formulas that give us certainty. From the perspective of our senses, we share the same fate as the animals: life followed by an unknown time of death (3:18-20). In life, we have no guarantees, even if we prepare for the future. The Teacher notes that sometimes those who hoard wealth and seek to be prepared are never satisfied and sometimes even lose everything they worked so hard to get (5:8-17). Despite our best efforts to prepare, things don’t always go according to plan! Just ask anyone desiring to sell you insurance.
Life in a fallen world is messy, and we cannot be assured of escaping that mess in our mortal life. Realizing this is the first step toward an eternal perspective. While we should plan for the future because this is wise, we need to recognize that our only guarantee is our relationship with God Himself (11:1-6). In other words, our plans should be driven by faithfulness to God’s commands, rather than a desire for independent security.
2. We are finite, but God is eternal.
The messiness of life leads to a second point – one that is both unsettling and hopeful.
The Teacher points out that there is one constant in the world – God. Everything else is temporary. Time eventually obliterates all human efforts; generations of people come and go without real change in the human condition. I cannot remember my great-grandfather, for example, and it is unlikely that I will be remembered by my great-grandchildren. Much like a sand castle made on the shore, all human effort will be washed away. While others may come after us and build, their creations will also be swept away and the sand reset to its created form. The Teacher sums up this idea with a well-known phrase: “There is nothing new under the sun” (3:9).
Yet, there is hope in this cycle, for the Teacher notes that God has set the patterns and times in place in order to help us realize that He is eternal and in control. Our ability to see the cycle helps us realize that we are like the animals in our mortality, but we are made for eternity (3:10-11). Likewise, our struggle with both the fleeting nature of things and the injustice we encounter is evidence that things are not the way they are supposed to be (3:15). This drives us to realize that our hope rests in God’s eternal character and in His promise to set things right again one day (3:17). Thus, the Teacher describes who we really are and how that should affect our behavior. How will we respond to God in the midst of the ongoing cycles and messes in life? The Teacher tells us that our awareness should give us a sense of awe when we approach the God who controls the whole enigma of existence in a fallen world (5:1-7). Thus, the second step toward an eternal perspective is realizing the power and nature of God and responding appropriately.
3. Lasting meaning comes through relationship with God.
This, in turn, leads us to the last point: only through a relationship with God do we have the possibility of lasting value and meaning. Our identity only comes into focus through our interaction with God. Ecclesiastes states it this way: “The end of the matter: Everything has been heard. It is God you should fear and His commandments you should keep, for this is the entirety of man” (12:13, my translation).
We are created to be in awe of our Creator and follow His instructions. This Godward focus, rather than a focus on earthly security and temporary happiness, is what God desires from us. Amazingly, when we have this godly perspective, we can enjoy the good things that come our way (3:22; 2:24-26; 7:11-14; 9:7-10) because we recognize in humility and gratitude that they are gifts from God rather than the results of our own achievements.
Likewise, when life is messy, we can maintain an eternal perspective, and focus on His lessons for us. Indeed, it is for this very reason that the Teacher says the house of mourning is better than being at a party (7:2). Grief drives us to consider who we really are and the One who gives us meaning in a way that joy cannot.
God has a purpose in His control of this fallen, yet wonderful world. We may not always understand everything in life, but Ecclesiastes gives us hope that through our relationship with God, life has a lasting purpose.