In the sermon on Sunday, February 4, I attempted to explain that as humans we crave meaning, and that Ecclesiastes teaches we must learn meaning from the bottom up like creatures, rather than from the top down like gods. Hopefully the reason for this is self-evident: we are creatures, not gods. Recognizing and embracing this reality is essential in our pursuit of virtuous freedom, which is a key element in our fight for joy.
One of the main themes of Ecclesiastes is that human life is “meaningless.” Yet it doesn’t mean meaningless in the way we normally use that word. When we say meaningless, we usually mean “without any meaning,” but that is not what Solomon means. The Hebrew word translated “meaninglessness” is a word that literally means “vapor.” If everything is vaporous, that means that it is insubstantial and temporary. Consequently, if life is insubstantial and temporary, then pursuing it as though it was ultimate and eternal is foolishness. It is to pretend life is something that it isn’t. The word we used to use for this was “vanity.” And if you look at an older translation of the Bible, that is precisely how the word is translated.
Think about it. What is the opposite of spiritual substance? Vanity. To treat what is insubstantial and temporary in life as though it is ultimate and eternal. You might reasonably think that the solution for this is to trust in God, and that is Solomon’s solution—but not in the way we might think. He argues that the ultimate meaning of many of the things in our lives are not revealed by God, nor discernible by science, philosophy, or human reflection. He even goes so far as to say that we long for these ultimate meanings, yet we can’t reach them. He calls this the “burden God has laid on men” (Ecclesiastes 3:10) and he tells us that this frustration is for our healing and maturity. He says that “God does this so that men will revere him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14).
I think that means something like this: if we understood the meaning of everything from beginning to end, we would think that we were part of eternity—that we are ourselves the ultimate meaning. He says at one point when discussing wisdom that “God made man upright, but we have gone after many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). That is, we are not good enough for ultimate wisdom. We are idolaters who seek to ourselves be gods. Therefore, if we were able to figure out all of ultimate meaning it would destroy and damn us.
So God withholds it. He frustrates our idolatrous desire to understand all things in order to feel good about our lives. He allows us to believe in himself as a person, and then forces us to grapple with our creature-hood by embracing the ordinary. The vocabulary he chooses for this is our “lot” and “toil”: the real situation of our daily lives (lot) and the work of our daily purpose (toil).
We start with faith by believing in the God who holds in himself ultimate meaning. Life may be full of vaporous vanity, but God is substantial and completely worthwhile. Still, our faith in him does not give us access to all of his knowledge and therefore all of the meaning we desire. God calls us to discover our meaning from the bottom up, trusting him to reveal himself in the midst of our lot and toil. This requires enormous faith, because he is demanding that we find meaning in precisely the thing we wish meaning would allow us to escape.
It is only in embracing our lot and toil that we will find satisfaction and happiness in the things that actually make up our lives as creatures. God claims that it is in this experience that we not only find joyful satisfaction; it is also where we find knowledge and wisdom. The pursuit of anything else is the pursuit of vapor. And the pursuit of vaporous vanity will never produce substance.
Can I do this work any faster?
You might wonder if that means we can’t study, reflect and learn our way into satisfaction, wisdom and meaning. I think we can, so long as we do it while embracing the toil and lot of our real lives. In fact, this is precisely what the rest of the book of Ecclesiastes is. It is a series of reflections on what makes up our real lives and how we should engage with those things as creatures rather than as gods or idolaters.
There are a number of examples of how to embrace our lot and toil in the book of Ecclesiastes, but I will discuss nine in subsequent blog posts. I am not saying that there are only nine parts of our lot and toil discussed in the book of Ecclesiastes. These are just nine examples I have pulled out to demonstrate how we can combine study and reflection with the practice of daily embracing our lot and toil with joyful satisfaction.
As we go through these nine examples, I would encourage you not just to read the passages and reflect on them, but to also journal about how they specifically relate to you embracing the realities of your own real life. Don’t just think theological and philosophical thoughts. Think intensely personal thoughts focused on daily repetitive application. Some of those thoughts should be hurtful and humiliating. They should reveal how unsophisticated our sin often is. Some will also be a beautiful as we realize how much we have overlooked all that we have to be thankful for. Yet you must also trust that God is with you in every step of finding satisfaction in the lot and toil of your vaporous life under the sun. It is not only he who gives you this life, but is also he who “lengthens your days like a shadow” into eternity (see Ecclesiastes 8:13).