What is the message of the book of Ecclesiastes? How should we understand it? It’s perhaps one of those books that we don’t spend much time reading or thinking about. However, it’s one of my favourites, so this is my sermon about it!
Last year, I went on a week’s course on Ecclesiastes (which inspired my blogposts on Ecclesiastes 1:2 and Ecclesiastes 3:11), all of which helped with preparing for this sermon, as did Seow’s Anchor Bible Commentary on Ecclesiastes.
We’re looking at our favourite Bible passages, or books, or characters, over the summer. And so, as you’ve got me, you’ve got Ecclesiastes!
Ecclesiastes was one of the first books I read after I became a Christian when I was a teenager. I’d fairly recently got a Bible and there had been sermon at church, not on Ecclesiastes, but on Proverbs. So, I read through Proverbs, and kept going! And the next book in the Bible is Ecclesiastes. And, much to the concern of some of my Christian friends, it was the book that really spoke to me. They saw it as bleak, depressing, and weren’t even sure why it was in the Bible. I saw it more like a glass of cold, refreshing water.
What they says about my state of mind, I’m not entirely sure, but there we go! Regardless, Ecclesiastes has remained a favourite of mine since, despite the fact it took me ages to learn how to pronounce it, and even longer to learn to spell it!
And, actually, one of the many things that drives theologians to distraction about Ecclesiastes is that debate me and my friends had. Is Ecclesiastes pessimistic, optimistic, written so that it could be either, holds the two viewpoints in tension, or something else?
To give you a sense of how this works, let’s look at the first three of verses of Ecclesiastes, which are pretty well known, even if you haven’t read the rest of the book:
“Meaningless, meaningless”. Cheery stuff! Except. The word that often gets translated as ‘meaningless’, or similar literally means ‘air’, ‘vapour’, ‘breath’. But it’s usually used metaphorically, as it is obviously meant to be here. The problem is that the author of Ecclesiastes has, deliberately, not explained the metaphor.
So, you could translate it like that ‘enigmatic, enigmatic, everything is enigmatic’. Or, actually, you can just leave it as the literal meaning ‘vapours, vapours, everything is vapours’. ‘breath of breath, everything is breath’. What does that do to the meaning? Well, for a start, it means that we have to work out what the author means, rather than leaving the translator to do the hard work for us.
Actually, I think that you can do that with ‘meaningless’, but I think for some people that’s so relentlessly negative that it just turns them off in the first place, which is why I’ve spent a couple of minutes wittering on about it. However, I’ve stopped now, so you can pay attention again!
What’s the author trying to do? They are trying to get us to do some of the hard work in the first place. They are trying to get us to question, to wrestle, to argue, to think. The Bible is one of the main ways that we can meet with God, one of the main ways that God can speak to us, shape us, challenge us, reassure us. And for me, Ecclesiastes was the first book that really did all of that.
Ecclesiastes was written to challenge our thinking, to draw us into a different way of looking at the world, to get us seeing through God’s eyes. And the key to this is that odd phrase that’s in verse 3: ‘under the sun’. That gets used a lot in Ecclesiastes. It’s the contrast between this life, this world, this way of being, with God’s life, God’s world, God’s way of being.
Which is where the passage from Ecclesiastes 3 comes in:
‘What do workers gain from their toil?’ We’re asked. As we were in chapter 1. And then the answer comes a few verses later. What do workers gain? Well, nothing lasting ‘under the sun’. Nothing that endures. Nothing that makes any difference. I hope that this is cheering you up!
Nothing that is, ‘under the sun’. Nothing without a gift from God. Because with that perspective, with that different way of looking at things, well then, everything changes. The ability to be happy, to do good, to eat, drink and be happy. That’s what our toil is there for. And if you’re thinking ‘paid work’, well, where does it say that? Most of the people who would have been around when Ecclesiastes was written wouldn’t have been paid. They would have worked to grow their food and, if they were lucky, have a bit left over to trade, or perhaps sell, in the marketplace. Many of the rest would have been given the food and drink and so on that they needed in return for what work they did as manufacturers or whatever. They were supported by the king, or rich patrons, or the Temple. So, this includes voluntary work and work in the home, as much as it does work we get money for.
I applied for a few different posts after my curacy. I got a few interviews and in one of them I said that God wanted us to enjoy himself. One of the interviewers disagreed with me fairly strongly, quoting Jesus’ command to ‘take up your cross and follow me’. I disagreed with his interpretation. Perhaps needless to say, I didn’t get the job.
I still think that interviewer was wrong though. Because, actually, God desires the best for us. God loves us, loves the whole of his creation, and wants us to enjoy it. That isn’t always possible. We live in a world damaged and distorted. And so we are called to take up our crosses and follow Christ, so that the whole world is brought back into God’s loving kingdom. We are called on the adventure of following Christ.
But, we are made in the image of God. We are made for love and enjoyment. To eat, drink, and find satisfaction in our toil. These are gifts from God. Why? Well, not least because we know that they are not often available. There are jobs that are deeply unsatisfying.
Not everyone has food and drink, or enough food and drink. And if we focus on these things alone, then we can feel that we never have enough. Or we can get trapped focusing on the next thing. The next drink. The next new car, gadget, clothing, book, DVD, meal out. Whatever. We can get trapped in a cycle of debt, or needing to work ever harder just to stay where we are.
And it can be difficult or impossible to get out of that sort of thing without help. Help from God, help from church family, help from professionals sometimes too. And by ‘sometimes’ I mean ‘more often than we do’.
But none of that is the burden that God has laid on us. That’s the burden that our fallen world, our distorted society, our own sinful nature has laid on us. So, it’s not always possible. Our fallen world means that people starve, or are ill, or aren’t able to make use of their God-given gifts.
Our distorted society means that some people are exploited, are starving, are hungry, are homeless, are ill, while others have more than they can ever use. Our distorted society makes us think things are normal when they are actually wrong. It makes us think greed is normal, treating women as inferior is normal, that it’s normal to create conditions where one in four of us has mental health problems. And so on.
Our sinful nature means that we are tempted to be greedy, to lust, to be proud, to gossip, to be angry, to hate, to fear people or things that are different. And so on. And we all too often fall into the trap of giving in to our temptation. Sometimes, we find it easier to give in than not to.
And this damages us, damages those around us, damages our relationship with God. So God calls us to turn back to him through Jesus. And to keep turning back to him. So God calls us to be challenged by him. And God calls us to be transformed by him. By his love and power, working through his Spirit. Through the fruit of the Spirit growing within us: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. And, yes, I did have to look those up. I know there’s 9, but I usually manage to miss at least one out!
And God also calls us to seek the gifts of his Spirit, to make use of the Spirit’s gifts, to encourage one another in making use of the gifts that he has given to us.
But, the burden that God has laid on us is this: There is beauty around us. We have feelings, thoughts, of eternity within us. But we can’t fully grasp what that means, what that looks like. And that encourages us to search. To search, perhaps in the way that the author of Ecclesiastes encourages.
God, the author of Ecclesiastes tells us, has placed within us something which encourages us to each look beyond life under the sun. Our enjoyment of life and our feelings of love and beauty point beyond themselves towards God. The pleasures of life are gifts from God.
Because that’s really what the book of Ecclesiastes is about: that search and what we can find out, and the traps that we can fall into.
Instead we are called to search for God himself.
One of the early and very important teachers of the church, Augustine wrote about our hearts being restless until we find our rest in God. The Alpha course and similar talk about a ‘God-shaped hole’, which is just a different way of saying the same thing. I think that’s half true.
We can be freed, are freed, are being freed from the restlessness of life under the sun. Freed from seeking different things for what we think of as their own worth, rather than as things that point us towards God, are God-given, and letting those things become more important to us than God.
Those things don’t have to be bad things – family, friends, our jobs, our hobbies, the stuff that we do at church or for church even. They are all good things, but they can still move our focus from God to ‘life under the sun’. And that, the Teacher reminds us, is so much vapour, becomes ‘a chasing after the wind’, to use one of the other expressions that gets repeated a lot in Ecclesiastes.
And the eternity that is within us calls us to carry on searching.
To search for God in the wonder that is around us.
To search for God in the wonder that is in other people.
To search for God in the wonder that we find in the Bible and in our worship.
To search for more of God as our lives are transformed by him.
To search and to carry on searching. To follow him and carry on following him, to carry on being changed by his love for us.