Good News from the Real World
MARCH 2, 2022
A few weeks ago, we interviewed David Gibson, author of a book on Ecclesiastes, Living Life Backward.
(By the way, he was in Scotland for our interview, and the video/audio/discussion felt like he was sitting next to me in Orlando! That’s a bigger miracle to me than the Virgin Birth. J) The theme of both his book and Ecclesiastes is the reality of death and living life from that perspective. The writer of Ecclesiastes says that “all is vanity.” Some translations render that “all is meaningless.” David pointed out that the Hebrew word used in the text doesn’t mean “meaninglessness” the way a college sophomore means it when they first read Camus. Rather, it means that everything we see, touch, and perceive is a “puff of smoke,” here for a season and then gone.
Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books of the Bible because I’m a cynical, old preacher, and the writer of Ecclesiastes is a cynical, old preacher, too (he identifies himself as “the preacher”). In fact, my life verse is Ecclesiastes 9:10, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might . . .” As a result of that interview, I decided to reread Ecclesiastes as a part of my devotional time, and I see things I haven’t seen before.
By “cynical,” I mean someone who tries to look at the world as it really is, not how one would like it to be. That also means someone who looks at oneself and others as they really are, not at the masks we wear. (I wrote a book on that subject, Hidden Agendas, one of the great Christian books of our time. I’m not averse to pushing my own books. (: So often, we claim promises God never made, build theological systems on truths we hope are true but often aren’t, and make commitments impossible to fulfill.
Ecclesiastes presents the world as it is. It’s an anti-utopian book that looks at life in an imperfect world with the recognition that it’s all “a puff of smoke.” The Preacher writes, “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11).
That sentiment was the basis of one of the principles we taught in Key Life’s Born Free seminar: Nothing lasts, nothing is fair, nothing is perfect, and you aren’t home yet. Unbelievers can and do play the game of “magical thinking,” creating false hope, utopian schemes that cause great devastation, and truths that aren’t true and end in darkness. That’s all they’ve got. Scripture forces the Christian to look at the real world—real sin, real pain, real injustice, real fear, and real failure. After Jesus says some pretty dark and scary things to his disciples, he ends with, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). The Preacher in Ecclesiastes would respond, “Amen!”
Steve, where are you going with this? It isn’t very comforting.
Actually, it is. It’s reality, but the Preacher says that God is in charge of that reality: “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it” (Ecclesiastes 3:14).
In one of the most quoted passages in Ecclesiastes, the Preacher writes, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Then the Preacher gives a “for instance” list—a time to be born, a time to die, a time to plant, a time to laugh, a time to mourn, a time to dance, a time to embrace, a time to be silent, a time to speak, etc. and, believe it or not, a time to hate, a time to love, a time for peace, and a time for war. Do you see it? God is God, and he, as it were, deals the cards. All we have to do is play them as best we can. That’s enough. Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t have to be God anymore? Wouldn’t it be great to just look for whatever your hand finds to do and then do it? Nothing more and nothing less. It is a wonderful gift not to have to be in control, to fix every problem, to die on every cross, and to be “a mother” to the world. So, if it isn’t put into your hand, it’s not yours. What a relief!
After I had expressed my guilt over not being involved in a particular ministry, my life-long friend, Eddie Waxer, said, “Are you crazy? God didn’t call you to do that! If you get involved, you’ll just screw it up. Do what he told you to do, not what your guilt or others told you to do.”
There’s more good news. The Preacher of Ecclesiastes tells us to “kiss the joy as it flies” (William Blake). It’s a joke, but it has truth in its reflection of our “Christian” neurotic side: Everything you like and enjoy is a sin and/or fattening, and everything you hate and don’t want to do is God’s will and/or good for you. So, if you didn’t enjoy something, it can’t be a sin and, if you did, it probably was one. A lot of the teaching on idolatry smacks of that. Food, golf, sports, a new computer or car, dancing, music, parties, relationships, etc., can be an idol, so smash it for God. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes is having none of that. For instance, he writes, “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do” (Ecclesiastes 9:7).
What if we just enjoyed what life has to offer? If we saw it as a gift from God, we would.
There you go again, encouraging sin.
No, I’m not. Neither the Preacher in Ecclesiastes nor I minimize sin. The Preacher is very clear on what is good and right and what is evil and destructive. We must be clear on that, too. For instance, he is very hard on political leaders and how the elite treats the poor and oppressed. Throughout the book, the Preacher speaks of “grievous evil” (Ecclesiastes 5:8-17). Doing it God’s way is the way of life, and it never ends well when you sing instead, “I did it my way.” The Preacher closes the book with these words: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14).
I don’t know about you, but that makes me wince. I think it’s supposed to do that. If “the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9), then that closing should make you wince, too. When Christians stop being utopian about the world, we start by doing away with utopian views about ourselves. We are great sinners in need of a great Savior.
The homiletics professors say that preachers should always look for Jesus and the Gospel in every Bible text. I mostly agree with that, but, frankly, I looked for Jesus in Ecclesiastes, and I didn’t find him. The Preacher does reference a God who is in charge, the freedom we have to live and enjoy life to its fullest, and the reality of a fallen world, and I suppose that sort of smells like Jesus. But there isn’t anything about God’s mercy and forgiveness. The Preacher analyzes the problem well, but he is short on solutions. I looked—like the kid shoveling manure, I said, “There must be a pony in here somewhere”—but I didn’t find much of Jesus in Ecclesiastes. That was troubling.
Then I had an attack of sanity, and I realized that Ecclesiastes isn’t the only book in the Bible. The hermeneutical principle (that means a principle of interpretation, I looked it up) is that when dealing with Scripture, the whole always interprets and clarifies the part. In this case, Paul (and the entire New Testament) would, of course, agree with the Preacher of Ecclesiastes about sin. After all, Paul did say that there were no excuses for sin (Romans 1:20). I agree with that. I don’t have an excuse. I don’t have to have any excuses. Do you know why? Because of Jesus.
But Paul had a lot more to say than that. You see, Paul knew more than the Preacher in Ecclesiastes. The Preacher looked forward, seeing reality and death. Paul looked back and saw Jesus. Paul writes, “At the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6) and “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
I have a good friend who wrote me after his small group had been studying Ecclesiastes: “I probably won’t say very much about Ecclesiastes, though it will be a backdrop for what I want to share with you. I remember once, just a few years ago, telling the president of the now defunct Bible College I attended that I wish someone had stood behind the pulpit in our chapel and told us that several of us were going to end up divorced, that some of us would be unfaithful to our spouse, or have a spouse that was unfaithful to us. I wish they had told us that some of us will have fractured relationships with our children, or our parents, that some of us would battle addictions, personally or have kids who succumbed to addictions. But then I wish that chapel speaker had told us that in spite of all that—Jesus would love us as much as He did the day we decided to go to Bible College.”
So I would say to the Preacher in Ecclesiastes, “Preach it, brother! I don’t fault you for not knowing the rest of the story. Now you know.”
You do, too, and he asked me to remind you.