Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.
In our last episode, we looked at Ecclesiastes’ shock jock style of presentation. We heard the author complain about the elusive, vapor-like quality of life. But then he showed us the other side of his personality. Not the shock jock, but the quiet, reasonable teacher who makes constructive suggestions about how to live.
The book of Ecclesiastes often stumps those who look for a single, consistent theme. That’s because if you listen when the author is shouting, if you focus on his tirades about life’s brevity, if you are shocked by his comparison that humans die and turn to dust like animals, you might miss what else he says.
True, life is a one way trip to the grave. Nothing new there. And you know that luck and circumstances often trump wisdom. But when the author stops shouting, he presents a reasonable question: What might make life meaningful? Not stuff we can’t control like health, wealth, success, or a memorable legacy. Rather, meaning is found in a warm and loving home life, in the simple enjoyment of good people, good food, good wine, and God’s good creation.
This positive theme is easy to underemphasize, or even miss entirely, because the book reads like a boy scout hike in the mountains. They trudge for 55 minutes, looking down at the rocky path, complaining about the heavy pack, aching muscles, dry throat, and tired feet. Then they take a 5-minute break for a drink and a snack. They see the awesome view behind them and the glorious mountains ahead. What’s not to enjoy?
That’s how Ecclesiates is written. A long stretch plodding through pessimism and despair, then a quick break for hope and light, then back to the trudging.
Let’s follow this pattern in chapters 1 and 2. The unhappy philosopher trudging on his rocky path opens Ecclesiastes with the complaint: “Meaningless, meaningless, it’s all meaningless” (1:2), or as I prefer to translate it, “Vapor, smoke, and mirrors. All of life is vapor, smoke, and mirrors.”
The trudging author recounts his search for something new. But there is nothing new to find. Been there, done that! He’s seen it all before. He thought wisdom would bring satisfaction, but it brought grief. He tried wine and folly, but no satisfaction there. He tried building a legacy of houses and gardens, but he realized a fool might get them and let his legacy rot.
So he turns up the volume on his complaint lamenting, “I hated life, because the work done under the sun is grievous to me. It’s all futile, chasing after the wind” (Eccl 2:17).
And then he takes a break. He looks around and catches the view. Completely changing his tone, he says, “A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their work” (2:24), and he says, “To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge, and happiness” (2:26).
Don’t get hung up on the author saying he hated life. Yes, life passes like a vapor. Our work disappears in smoke and death. It’s an illusion that we can outrun the decay and win the race of life. That message is loud, and humbling, and realistic.
But the author tells us what to do about it. Focus on the simple pleasures God gives, not on the emptiness of life, he says. Food and wine, family and friends are sources of enjoyment, antidotes to existential dread, a cure for world weariness and despair. Don’t spend your time resenting the futility of life or trying to overcome it; instead, be present in the moment, enjoy what God has given you. Let go of your need to control.
O father, we live in fear as war destroys cities, as natural and man-made disasters wreak havoc on creation, as our bodies age and our possessions decay and the world we know passes away in smoke and vapor.
With the author of Ecclesiastes, we leave these big problems to you. We refresh ourselves with food instead of worry, with wine instead of angst, with pleasant conversation instead of fear, with trust instead of world-weariness.
O you who created it all. Teach us in our fleeting lives to enjoy our time in these bodies of clay, to rejoice in our circle of friends and family, to love this planet that spins in your universe. And when our journey ends, may we find the forever home you promised.
I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.
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