Bible Reading Plan – June 11-17
Bible Project Reading Plan (June 11-17):
Proverbs 28-31; Ecclesiastes 1-12; Song of Songs 1-8; Jeremiah 1-3; Psalms 7-13
Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite Old Testament books. I’m a pessimist at heart, and so this book speaks to me. I also love contemplative philosophy, and this book, even with all of its worldly wisdom, still speaks to the meaning of life in all its complexities: success, sex, knowledge, wisdom, nobility, status. Or, rather, the meaninglessness of life. Even before considering these facets, in the second verse (!) the Preacher says:
“Absolute futility,” says the Teacher. “Absolute futility. Everything is futile.”
Ecclesiastes 1:2 (CSB17)
Everything is futile. Nothing matters. Hope is meaningless. Friedrich Nietzsche would be proud.
At this juncture, two scant verses into the book, we might start to note that this work seems to be an odd contrast to the rest of Scripture. Scripture upholds the meaning of life, for we are made in the image of God; it upholds our hope, for Christ has died; it upholds our good works, for the Father sees even in secret; it upholds our future joy even after death, for Christ is victorious over the grave. Yet here we are instructed that all of it, every blessed moment, is meaningless and futile.
To make matters worse (yes, they can get worse!), this isn’t some down-on-his-luck preacher, upset at the waste of his life, the uselessness of his preaching, or the frailty of his ministry. I’ve been there, and this Preacher is not that man. Immediately, the Preacher turns to his accomplishments: he is a King, is immensely wise, is knowledgeable about the world, had a good sense of humor, had all the trappings of the world, was a great architect and worked mighty things with his hands, was a great gardener and farmer, took for himself servants and slaves, and had almost numberless sexual encounters with women. This is, almost literally, everything that the world holds dear. The Preacher’s evaluation:
Therefore, I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me. For everything is futile and a pursuit of the wind.
Ecclesiastes 2:17 (CSB17)
It all is a wasted, futile exercise. The Preacher has accomplished more than we could every hope to do in 20 lifetimes; and experienced all the joys and excellencies that the world has to offer – and still finds life futile and meaningless. What hope do you and I have?
And why? Why is our life so meaningless? Death. Death will take what he worked for and give it to someone who didn’t work for it (2:18-19). Death makes the noble and the ignoble lie side-by-side (9:1-6). Death makes us equal with the animals (3:18-19). Death makes everything meaningless.
So, what is the point in all of this? Why waste our time reading such things? Because, unlike almost any other book, Ecclesiastes forces us to think through the futility of our lives “under the sun.” That phrase, repeated some 28 times throughout the book, is the key phrase for unraveling the mystery of Ecclesiastes.
Ancient Israelites conceived of the world as a multi-tiered reality. Below was Sheol, we live on the earth, the sky (the first heavens) is above, the stars (the second heavens) above that, and finally God’s domain, (the third heavens, cf. 2 Corinthians 12:2). Ecclesiastes naturally limits the meaninglessness to the human realm “under the sun.” While God does get mentioned as the great judge and the sovereign planner, there is no hope for a future with him, for a resurrection, for anything but the meaninglessness that this world, “under the sun” affords. All we have to look forward to is death, with no resurrection, here “under the sun.”
This message is not some aberrant message. Paul himself signs onto such an outlook:
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
1 Corinthians 15:13-19 (CSB17)
In other words, Paul says that if there is no resurrection, than all of your life, your toil, your faith, all of it is pure futility. Paul’s summation of such an event is akin to the Preacher’s:
If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”
1 Corinthians 15:32 (ESV)
Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot.
Ecclesiastes 5:18 (ESV)
But, as Paul would say, Christ has been raised, and therefore the faithful dead will be raised with him! We are not limited “under the sun”, but have a hope secured in heaven for us. How foolish must we be to live as though this life is all we get! Live with an expectation of eternity, live with your heart fully set on the Kingdom, live with your eyes absorbed on the things that are above. Therefore, while we await our future through faith in Jesus Christ, we follow the words of the narrator at the end of Ecclesiastes:
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.
Ecclesiastes 12:13 (ESV)