Living Life Backward - How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us To Live in Light Of The End
Why I Can’t Get At The Meaning
I didn’t realise then how Ecclesiastes-like my Father’s words were, spoken soon after my brother’s death. “So you’ve embraced the theory of randomness,” he said to me quietly. “What?” I spluttered, “No, I haven’t - I think God has a plan - I…” I’d just given a testimony at my daughter’s baptism. My daughter who came into this world just as my brother was leaving it. I didn’t expect my testimony to go there but big moments have a way of travelling off to that point, the sore painful point at which an essential branch was broken off our family, far too green. I frantically rewound my testimony in my mind. I’d said, “I don’t know why…”, “We can’t know…”. It felt foggy even then. I can remember the feeling of it but not exactly what I said. I felt worried for my Dad. I couldn’t hash things out well. I knew about the stages of grieving and I knew we were all in one but I didn’t know which one anybody was in.
Things had turned out far short of what everyone had hoped. And yet, there is a sovereign God. That’s still true. How foolish it feels to stand and say, we cannot know, we prayed, we cared deeply, we tried, we asked people more spiritual than us to help. He fought so hard. He’s gone. But surely not because life is random. Meaningless, says the Preacher, everything is meaningless. What does it mean when a Christian says things are random? What are they trying to express?
At that time, in his shattered world, Dad could only conclude that there was something random in what had happened to his son. I see now that he wasn’t wrong. We don’t hold all the pieces. To us, it can appear random. In this life under the sun, we can’t see through the mist to the meaning. But we do walk alongside someone who is above the sun.
In the end the smartest guy I know calculated everything from every possible angle and concluded that the only sane thing to do is to continue to walk alongside the God who made us and loves us and holds all the pieces we don’t. Despite not being able to see through to the meaning my Dad took his faith in his hands and held on to it. And he just keeps walking. I find that incredibly encouraging. Reading Gibson’s book takes me back to this time and makes me see the wrestle involved in Dad’s statement so soon after his son’s death.
‘To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven:’ (Ecclesiastes 3)
You might have seen the Leunig cartoon (https://www.facebook.com/MichaelLeunigAppreciationPage/posts/936239366562283:0) that quotes this part of Ecclesiastes but conspicuously crosses out all the positive stuff. I had a chuckle when I saw it. In his uniquely light style Leunig insightfully shows how we humans latch on to the negative. It can feel like that reading the newspaper. Our lives can feel like that. They can feel so gloomy. And we can incorrectly think the book of Ecclesiastes is like that. With its emphasis on facing up to our impending death we can feel like we’d much rather shut it closed. Why think about such depressing things? But if we do a reverse-Leunig and shut our eyes to the dark bits we miss the grounding reality that will actually help us enjoy with great purpose and zest of this one life we’ve been given. Gibson says looking at the dark stuff gives vivid colour and taste to the flowers and the sunsets, to our friends and our babies, to our eating and drinking and relationships.
Drawing A Line
‘A time to weep and a time to laugh,
A time to mourn and a time to dance,’
Gibson offers a helpful way to understand the list of opposites in this famous poem by thinking of them as connected, rather than just extremes. In other commentary I’ve read, the poem is viewed like a pendulum or a Newton’s Cradle - the Preacher listing life stages that seem to cancel each other out - perhaps you can see the metal ball hit the others, back and forth creating a symmetry that seems to wipe the slate clean. Instead, Gibson says we should be drawing a line between the extremes. By placing those opposite states next to each other Gibson argues that the preacher is also including everything that lies between them (e.g., north and south, heaven and earth). ‘So with ‘a time to be born, and a time to die’, the whole of life is captured as being something that has a time for its beginning, a time for its end, and a time for everything else that happens between the decisive moments of start and finish.’ (p. 53). It’s a line with two ends. We can stretch to hold both of them in view at once. Our tiny minds can do it. Those who have been through terrible times, who live in the aftermath of them must do it every day of their lives. My Dad calls it ‘closing the gap’. And, I think that I’m starting to realise, we do that by stretching across it.
Stretching Across Change
Whatever stage you’re in, whatever it is you’re building, or watching come crashing down - the only thing that you can count on, says the Preacher, is change. You’ll need to get comfortable with these facts the Preacher says. Gail Honeyman writes in the popular novel Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, ‘I suppose one of the reasons we're able to exist for our slotted span in this green and blue vale of tears is that there is always, however remote it might seem, the possibility of change.’ There is a time for everything and a season for everything under the sun. Rather than feel panicked by the great cycle of life there is blessing in the very fact of change. And the prose has more to say.
The Poem Goes With The Prose
So often this passage of poetry is sliced out of context and misses the challenging comfort of the prose which follows it. Gibson writes, ‘Ecclesiastes 3 is a very beautiful chapter , with famous words of poetry often read at funerals, even humanist ones. As we will see however the beauty of the Preacher’s poetry in verses 1-8 is only half the story; we need the punch of his prose in verses 9-22 if we are actually to find any joy and hope in the poetry.’ (p. 52).
The Preacher says there will be a time to judge every deed. Gibson explains:
The times of my life are not the only times there are. There is a time to be born and a time to die, and there is a time for judgment. One of the ways we learn to live by preparing to die is by realizing that death means judgement and that this is a good thing. It gives my present actions meaning and weight, and it gives my experienced losses and injustices a voice in God’s presence. What is past may be past, but what is past is not forgotten to God, and because he is in charge and lives forever, one day all will be well. Every single thing that happens will have its day in court. This brings both comfort and challenge. p. 56
Comfort And Challenge
This week a new marble headstone went up in the cemetery by the sea near where my parents live. A family remembers their son. Engraved across the bright white and grey marble are the words, ‘We bless the years we called him ours.’ And then a Bible verse, ‘My Soul Finds Rest in God Alone; He is my Salvation.’ Psalm 62:1. There on that new headstone is a little summary of what the book of Ecclesiastes is inviting us to do. The preacher tells us to enjoy the special times with the people God gives you- live in the moment and breathe it in, it’s so precious, it’s a blessing and it’s a breath - you don’t know for how long it will go- but look ultimately to God, trust him, he will work it all out. In this life and the next, our soul can find rest in no-one and nothing else.
You might like to pray this prayer with me:
Thank you that you are a God of purpose. When we can’t find the meaning, when things look random, you have a plan, you know and you understand.
Please hang on to us as we work through our big questions and our big losses __________. Please give us the gift of faith.
Please help us to know the time we’re in and look to you for satisfaction and meaning. Please help us to cherish the many blessings you give us ________________and to enjoy our lives as a gift from you.
Please forgive us for all the times we go looking for meaning, purpose and satisfaction apart from you_______________.
Thank you that you love us and help us to take seriously the comfort and challenge from Ecclesiastes that we will face judgement after death and that the only safe place is in Christ. Have mercy on us Lord, pull us to that safe place.
In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
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.