Enjoyment East of Eden
Several years ago, when my wife and I were vacationing in the Dominican Republic, we rented a car to visit a dear friend who lived on the island—several hours away from where we were staying. But when we were set to return back to our resort, our friend told us about an amazing scenic drive back—the directions were allegedly simple, and the view would make it worth the “slight” detour from the main route. However, at some point on that scenic detour, we found ourselves in the middle of a city that was a sprawling gridwork of bustling markets and side streets teeming with people and quickly became lost in a maze-like labyrinth of confusion and chaos. We had no map, no phone, and quickly realized that communicating in frantic sign language and broken Spanglish was not a good solution to our situation. Somehow, I still don’t quite know how, we made it out of there and eventually meandered our way back to the safety of our resort. Needless to say, not only could we have used a map, but even a basic understanding of the language would have come in pretty handy and saved us a lot of confusion.
The book of Ecclesiastes can be a little bit like that experience. It can seem confusing and foreign, perhaps even a little scary in places; it’s easy to take wrong turns galore if we don’t understand the language or the layout. Sadly, quite a number of commentators give the reader a map that is upside down. Many have been left scratching their heads in what appears to be a disorderly and confusing book.
A proper understanding of the language, message and purpose--together with its role and place in the Bible--teaches us that Ecclesiastes is focused on life in this fallen world, but in light of and with a view toward eternity. Here is a biblical worldview/theology of life—one that is characterized by the fear of the Lord and obedience to his commands, and that leads us to contentment in this life and hope for after life. Doug O’Donnell, summarizes the exhortation of Ecclesiastes in the following way.: “Those who, in the midst of all the hard truths and awful troubles of this fallen world, come before the Lord with trembling trust are given by him the gift of grateful obedience, steady contentment, and surprising joy.” As he goes on to succinctly capture it: Ecclesiastes is "our guide to enjoyment east of Eden.”
With that in mind, here are three prominent features of divine wisdom in Ecclesiastes to help believers benefit from its wisdom:
1. Ecclesiastes is Spiritual Wisdom for Believers.
Wisdom literature is a particular genre of biblical literature that teaches us covenantal wisdom through the vehicles of riddles, metaphors, proverbs, and questions. Many of the verses in Ecclesiastes are not verses you would expect your kids to learn at a Vacation Bible School. Wisdom literature sometimes wades through deep and turbulent waters for extended lengths in order to come out the other side with clearer understanding.
Biblical wisdom is not merely a behavioral code--some tidy little box in which everything that happens fits in a way we fully understand. Although it certainly gives us moral guidelines and boundaries, biblical wisdom is as much a posture as it is anything else. Ecclesiastes reminds us that we are finite, but that we have an infinite God. It reminds us that we don’t have all the answers; but, that its alright for us not to have all of the answers, because God does.
Ecclesiastes teaches us that biblical wisdom is, in part, simply understanding that ultimately the answers lie with and in God. The fear of the Lord is a prominent concept that all wisdom literature continually drives home. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon is ensuring that we understand—like Job, that God is God and we are not! This is a good and right thing; and, properly understood it frees us to be content in our finiteness, looking for a far greater hope—and Wisdom—for this mortal life and that which is to come.
For the Christian, wisdom literature--and especially the message of Ecclesiastes--leads me to walk by faith in that God who has redeemed me and has promised me his care forever. He is in the process of making me holy in Christ and is bringing me home to glory. Therefore, I can live with joy in this often bleak and brief world b/c of my relationship with God in Christ.
This is all the more important because, Ecclesiastes teaches believers that without the proper perspective life will overwhelm us. Worldly philosophies—hedonism, nihilism, fatalism, or just plain agnosticism or atheism--vainly seek to explain the hardships of life. Ecclesiastes teaches us that worldly attempts at satisfaction will ultimately only lead us to despair.
In Scripture, God has given His people better answers about their lives. God is not merely concerned with getting us to heaven. In Ecclesiastes, God has given us the divinely revealed philosophy of life for believers in a fallen world. God has not left His people in this world to guess how we are view and understand this often confusing world and our place in it.
2. Ecclesiastes is Reorienting Wisdom for Believers.
The opening phrase is quite a jolt: Vanity of vanities. Where was Solomon teaching? The Hebrew word hebel takes center stage in this book. Vanity is not the best way to translate this word, due to its strictly negative connotations.
Remember Bunyan’s Vanity Fair with all its immoralities and frivolities and carnal pleasures. The all too common use of ‘vanity’ in our English translations most likely originated with Jerome’s Latin translation—which employed the Latin term vanitas which is distinctly negative in tone. The NIV has taken this even a step further in the negative direction with its "Utter Meaninglessness." But meaninglessness is simply not the essence of the word hebel. In fact, of all the synonyms used in the OT that do convey futility and meaninglessness, none are used in Ecclesiastes. The word simply means vapor, mist, breath, a puff of wind, or a plume of smoke. A careful translation would be "breath of breaths" or "vapor of vapors."
Though Solomon will develop his theme using this metaphor with various nuances, we should think of a puff of smoke in the air, or the breath you exhale on a cold winter day. It’s real. You can see it. But it’s transient. It’s temporal. It’s fleeting.
In Psalm 39, David wrote, "surely all mankind is a mere breath.” In Psalm 144:4, we read, "Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow." And, James says, "What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes."
So the message of Ecclesiastes is not the meaningless of life; rather, it is about the fleeting nature of life. Even for Christians--our lives here are a breath. Solomon demands that we know this. If that’s true—then I need to look at things differently. I better not just seek to live for this life.
Jesus explained the implications of this in the following way:
"Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."
Another idea that the word conveys is that of something being elusive. Smoke is a tangible thing; but, try to grab it. Put some in your pocket! It will slip away fright through your fingers. In fact, even the attempt to grab it makes it dissipate and go away that much quicker.
Life always seems to “elude our grasp” as far as its lasting significance or its ability to ultimately satisfy. Try to gain control of the world and your own life—any part of your life—and you will find out soon enough that you cannot control anything. Life in this world is elusive, perplexing. You have no control. You can’t even come to fully understand it, let alone control it. This reality nags and tortures us. You can do the right thing, but must let go of the pretense that we have any control.
For the believer, this is meant to shake us out of our worldly tendencies. We all have a tendency to put too much stock in worldly goods and pleasures--to do things they were never intended by God to do. Solomon is seeking to shake us out of our tendency to live for the here and now, to remind us that the here and now is just that, and to point us to a greater, eternal reality.
The book of Ecclesiastes ends with that charge: Remember your Creator, know and fear the Lord in trembling trust, live in this fleeting life with joy in his gifts, as his gifts, and look for the eternal home beyond this transient and brief life for the ultimate satisfaction and never-ending joy.
3. Ecclesiastes is Christological Wisdom for Believers.
Ecclesiastes 12:10-11 tells us these words of wisdom come from "one Shepherd." Throughout the Old Testament, Yahweh is known as the Shepherd of His people. The New Testament explains that, in Christ, He is the Good Shepherd. His sheep hear his voice, and they follow Him. Jesus Christ is the very "Wisdom of God" (1 Cor. 1:18-31). Christ Jesus, "became for us wisdom from God" (1 Cor. 1:30). "In Him are hidden all the treasures of wisdom & knowledge" (Col. 2:3).
There is one Shepherd who is himself the greater Solomon. Jesus said in Matt. 12.42, “The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here.” The words of the book of Ecclesiastes are the words of the Divine Shepherd, who came to lay down his life for the sheep.
The world described in Ecclesiastes is the world Christ came into in order to redeem his people. Jesus was born in this transient and fleeting world. The God who is the Good Shepherd-King came and took on human flesh in all its hebel-ness. The Son of God suffered in this world in order to make his blessings flow as far as the curse is found. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (Gal. 3.13).
Ian Hamilton has helpfully explained, “The answer to every question in the cosmos…is Jesus.” Every aberrant thought or perspective, every discontentment, every confusion, can all be now--or one day will--be answered by Jesus. Adam hurled the entire human race—together with the cosmos—into a tailspin of misery and sin. Jesus, the Final Shepherd-King, came to remedy that misery and sin by offering his life as an atoning sacrifice. By believing in his name, our life in this fleeting world takes on eternal substance and real meaning and permanent hope. So, as we read Ecclesiastes, we read it in light of Christ’s finished work. Thus Ecclesiastes further amplifies the longing we have for heaven and to be with Christ. It is, essentially, wisdom that is meant to give us a longing for heaven and hope for eternal life.
The Wisdom of Ecclesiastes enables us to say with the Apostle Paul:
“We do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light and momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.”