Living Life Backward - How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us To Live in Light Of The End
A Thin Trail of Smoke
If you’ve never thought of your life as brief, you must know this picture - it’s you on your birthday. Let’s take a look. There’s those people you love gathered around, someone has thoughtfully whipped a camera out to take a photo of you blowing the candles out. Puff! You look so funny - lips pursed as your breath hits the flames. Thin trails of smoke float off the tops of the candles. Another year’s gone. Whoever came up with that ritual was extremely wise. For that is how our lives are described in the book of Ecclesiastes. Gibson explains that the Hebrew word Hebel (translated as ‘vanity’ or ‘meaningless’ in our Bibles)- actually means breath, mere wind, the thin trail of smoke on a skinny birthday candle. “Hebel, hebel, everything is utterly hebel.” says the preacher. And he’s onto something right? This life is temporary. It’s a breath. We celebrate birthdays because deep inside we know life is short. So what are we going to do with it?
Assignment: The Meaning Of Life
Here is the most important research project in the world. The title for the Preacher’s paper would be something like, ‘The Meaning of Life’ by (probably) Solomon. You and I can only imagine the kind of scope, the kind of highs and lows of experience required to muster something of value in a paper as ambitiously titled as that. And yet Solomon actually lived it, and the Preacher has observed it all! The Bible tells us “God gave Solomon wisdom and very great discernment and breadth of mind, like the sand that is on the seashore.” I Kings 4:29. From his rich experience he condenses it all into twelve short chapters. As we go through his research project following Gibson’s helpful exposition I hope that you like me will find points of connection that slap you in the face (in a good way) with the sting of reality and help us to walk more confidently and joyfully, this misty existence (Hebel) in the light of the Son.
Being Rich And Famous Is Not The Answer
How many of us truly undertake a wisdom project on this scale? Not many of us, because not many of us are elevated to the kind of status and wealth that Solomon enjoyed (and also found meaningless). Jim Carey once said, 'I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer.' It’s always a bit shocking when people tell the truth about life, their life, an enviable life that we think surely would make us a bit happier. Carey says, do it if you can and you’ll see that it doesn’t fulfil you. The preacher in Ecclesiastes says the same thing. He’s tried it all, done it all and his conclusion is the same: still meaningless. But he doesn’t leave us there.
Rich Podcast Material
There is so much in Ecclesiastes that is startlingly modern sounding. A Christian lawyer friend said to me, ‘This advice wouldn’t be out of place in any business magazine.’ We have a tendency to think in the modern world that we need purpose built solutions to address our situation and there is some wisdom in that but also a fair bit of pride. As the writer of Ecclesiastes says, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
Ecclesiastes tells us to live in the moment, (mindfulness) to live life to the full, to embrace what the French call Joie de vivre - a joy of conversation and eating, to take pleasure in all the earthy moments of this one short life. It tells us to face up to the painful things in our life. To face up to the fact that it’s short and we will die. And it tells us to prepare. Gibson says that if you want to learn to let go and not be so anxious about securing success or mitigating failure, then read and ponder and pray Ecclesiastes into your bloodstream. It will give you a fresh perspective.
Tethering Smoke To Something Substantial
If we can count all of that as the sanest and most up-to-date wisdom for living life now, what about the conclusion the preacher draws? “That's the whole story.” He says, “Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone's duty.” Ecclesiastes 12:13 (NLT) Fearing the Lord and doing things his way is the only thing that is going to tether our thin trail of smoke (hebel) to any hope for the future or ability to hold this life in balance.
Don’t Domesticate Your Bible
Anyone who reads their Bible regularly knows that there is both pleasure and pain in the experience. Gibson writes, “Don’t domesticate your Bible. Live in God’s world...You will know that you know God when sometimes what he says makes you weep as he humbles your pride. Reverses your expectations. Upsets your priorities. Offends your behaviour. Challenges your thinking.” (p.159.)
The true and living God of the Bible is not just a compass and a guide, he’s a gravitational centre that once you get to know Him puts everything in its right place and proper proportion. But this personal God doesn’t come fully into view until the final conclusion of the Preacher in chapter 12. In a book that does things backwards, this is to be expected.
The earlier chapters of Ecclesiastes show us that when we live life divorced from God we swing from one extreme to the other. Trying to be as productive as we can be, or folding our hands in sloth. Amassing and hoarding as much as we can, and then feeling incredibly lonely because we have failed to share it. When tragedy strikes it carries us completely away or we become hardened and bitter. We think that those who do well at life are blessed by God and that those who struggle are cursed. But in reality, we have no idea. We claw at meaning and happiness and fulfilment and some of us fare better than others, but without God in the picture we come up with hands full of sand that slip through our fingers. That’s the story of Ecclesiastes.
Ancient Wisdom For A Modern World
Can we truly learn something new from this ancient preacher? Do we believe that someone who has known as much wisdom as this world affords, as much money, as much power, as much pleasure, who has observed the effects of pain and suffering and brokenness - would end his paper with a lie? Or is he telling us what we know deep in our hearts to be true. We were made for something more. God set eternity in our hearts. The book of Ecclesiastes says what we do with that information matters more than any other project we undertake in this life under the sun.
I live near a church (not my own church) that in my opinion has some of the best and pithiest church signs in the city. Here’s this week’s: In the dark? Follow the Son. I think the preacher would approve.
Katie loves books, baking and beaches. She teaches Scripture at two local High Schools and leads a Bible Study at her local Anglican church in the inner west community of Sydney. Katie is looking forward to commencing part-time study at Moore College in 2019 and would love your prayers for God to continue to grow her to pass the message on.