Over the past few months, our Wednesday evening Bible studies have been in the book of Ecclesiastes. It is a book with many recognizable phrases. Among these are: “all is vanity,” “there is nothing new under the sun,” “He has made everything beautiful in its time,” “cast your bread upon the waters,” and “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” But despite such well-known statements, the book itself is difficult to understand and even more difficult to apply to daily life. The author, traditionally understood to be Solomon, inverts many cherished biblical truths. According to him, the work we do, the wisdom we strive to have, and the pleasures we enjoy are all “hebel.” Hebel is the Hebrew word which can be translated as vanity, futility, meaninglessness, ephemerality, or transience. It suggests a vapor which has no substance and does not last. All of our various activities in life are described using this one word. But not only is there futility in the world, there is also outright injustice and contradiction. The righteous suffer while the wicked prosper. The hard-working, honest man is childless and has no one to leave his inheritance to. One sinner destroys much good. In the end, we will all die. Where is God in all of this? What are the people of God meant to do in the face of such absurdity?
Solomon proposes the simple, quiet life. Men are to eat their bread with joy, drink wine with a merry heart, and enjoy life with the ones they love. They do not need to pursue grand ambitions, or run after physical pleasures, or accumulate great wealth. Solomon has done all of this, and he has given us his verdict: it is all hebel. Those things are not worth our time. They lead only to frustration and disappointment, and at worst, sin. Rather, the Christian is to take the life that God has given him, enjoy what he can, work hard and honestly, and in all things live wisely. In the language of the New Testament, this means “live a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:2). How is this accomplished?
Scattered throughout Ecclesiastes are many instructions. In fact, the book as a whole alternates between observations of the world and instructions for how to live in light of those observations, although that distinction is not always totally clear. The observations in Ecclesiastes are painfully blunt. They are true observations, but they are true not in the sense in which Romans is true. Romans is doctrinally true, and theological conclusions are drawn from logical argumentation. Ecclesiastes is true in that in accurately describes the experience of the absurdity, the futility, of the world “under the sun.” It is not the objective of Ecclesiastes, for example, to reconcile the suffering of the righteous with the sovereign omnipotence of God. Solomon is content simply to record his observations. He takes the world as he sees it, and leaves it at that. Therefore, when he gives instructions to the readers, they are not what we might expect. They do not tell us to commit our ways to the Lord, to pray earnestly, to suffer for the sake of Christ. They are utilitarian instructions. Acquire money, for example, not in greed, but simply because having money is better than not having money. Drink wine because wine makes the heart merry. Are such instructions Christian? Absolutely.
One of the primary purposes of Ecclesiastes, and in fact the particular reason I think God inspired it, is to guard believers against unreality and a hyper-spiritualism that fails to take seriously the state of the world as broken. Sometimes, we do need to spend more time in prayer. But sometimes we need to have a good meal. Sometimes, we do need to do some soul-searching and repent accordingly. But sometimes we need to have a good laugh with friends. Sometimes, we do need to rejoice in the Lord. But sometimes we need to accept that all we can do is weep. It is not pious to over-spiritualize reality and pretend like everything is okay. Ecclesiastes is perfectly clear: everything is not okay.
Perhaps surprisingly to some, Jesus does not remove the reality of hebel from the world. Christians continue to experience sickness and pain, frustration at work, and injustice. Believing the Gospel does not get rid of such negative experiences. What Jesus does do is promise us a future world in which there will be no more hebel. Jesus promises a world in which there will only be enjoyment and peace. But that is a reality that lies in the future. Paul affirms that today, the creation groans; tomorrow, “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption” (Romans 8:21) and the children of God will finally be adopted as sons in the ultimate sense. Ecclesiastes is a book so blunt about the frustrations of life that it leaves us longing for a world without hebel. Jesus has won that world for those who believe in Him. And all of this is salvation in the broadest sense of the word. Men are not only saved from sin. Does that sound odd? But it is true. We are saved from the guilt of sin, but we are also saved from the hebel that infects this world and our lives.
In light of this present frustration and our glorious future hope, Christians can reduce all of their duties to this one: Fear God and keep His commandments. Obedience is always the right choice. There is never a good reason to sin, no matter how overbearing the futility of the world can be at times. Obey the Lord always, trusting that the Christ who died for you will one day bring you to a world where not only righteousness dwells, but also purpose, meaning, and enjoyment.