The book of Ecclesiastes is an honest response to the painful reality that life sometimes feels out of control, cruelly random and meaningless.
Mike did everything right at his company, but lost his job and hasn’t been able to find a new one in nine months. His co-worker Tom is deceptive and manipulative, regularly taking credit for the work of others and angling for praise. A good schmoozer, he’s since been promoted. It sure seems that bad things happen to good people. Why do some of the godliest Christians experience the worst hardships imaginable — a surprise lay-off, years of joblessness, a mysterious illness, infertility, financial loss, the death of an infant — while some of the most corrupt people seem to have everything going for them?
Chances are you could easily share examples of when life has treated you unfairly. On one level, we know that none of us are “good” in God’s sight, so every day is an act of mercy. But we instinctively expect, or at least long for, a semblance of justice in this world. Those who play by the rules should do well. It’s painful on many levels to watch a godly young woman get a rare form of cancer and die within a year, leaving her husband a widower with three young children. Or when we see corrupt men like Tom not only go unpunished but seemingly get rewarded for their dishonesty.
Thankfully, there’s a short, oft-neglected book in the Bible that wrestles with this very tension. It’s an honest response to the painful reality that life sometimes feels out of control, cruelly random and meaningless.
Life in a Fallen World
The book is Ecclesiastes. It begins with: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, ESV) and proceeds to describe an array of brutally realistic reflections on life in a fallen world. And no, it’s certainly not all bad. Yes, the author says he hates his work, since he’ll eventually leave his accomplishments and wealth in the hands of others, and who knows what they’ll do with it (2:18-22). But then he turns around and says “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil” (2:24). The idea that we should enjoy work, food, sleep, and relationships comes up repeatedly (3:12-13, 22; 4:9-12; 5:12; 18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 11:7-10), even though our appointment with death hangs over us like a dark cloud (3:16-22; 9:1-6, 11-12; 12:1-8), and even though the wicked (like Tom) sometimes prosper while the righteous (like Mike) suffer (5:8-9; 7:15; 8:10-14). Confused? Pass the Advil.
Let’s unpack four key themes in the book of Ecclesiastes that speak directly to us in the midst of chaos, preserving our sanity and promoting our happiness.
1. Bad stuff happens, and it’s not always caused (directly) by sin.
Remember Job’s friends? They figured his chickens were coming home to roost, so they kept pushing him to come clean. Their mistake was to assume that Job was responsible for all the bad things that were happening to him. Jesus’ disciples once made a similar assumption when encountering a man born blind. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind” (John 9:2)? Someone must have done something.
In one sense, it’s true: If our first parents had never disobeyed God, we wouldn’t be in this mess. But now that we’re in it, it doesn’t follow that we can directly trace all our difficulties to the specific sins of specific people — though our sin, and that of others, generally does lead to painful consequences (Galatians 6:7, Exodus 34:6-7).
God’s response to Job’s friends makes clear that our suffering is not always a result of our sin (Job 42:7). No, in our twisted world, sometimes it’s “the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve” (Ecclesiastes 8:14, NIV). Sometimes the good die young and the wicked live long (Ecclesiastes 7:15, 8:11). It’s dangerous to look at our circumstances and draw conclusions about our status with God.
2. Don’t bother trying to figure it all out, because you can’t.
You may be thinking, Great! I’m glad that not all my hardships are the result of my sin, or even the sin of others in my proximity. But I’d really love to know why bad things come my way. If I think about it, and pray for wisdom, maybe God will tell me. Don’t count on it. The author of Ecclesiastes had vast wisdom, but even he had to acknowledge that this information was generally out of reach (1:18, 8:16-17). The more he looked into things, the more he struggled to make sense of our messed-up world.
Ecclesiastes 9:11 (ESV) says “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.” Without denying that God is ultimately in control, what the author is telling us is that from our finite, fallen perspective, things often seem random — they don’t necessarily go as we think they should. Nor can we figure it out: “I realized that no one can discover everything God is doing under the sun. Not even the wisest people discover everything, no matter what they claim” (Ecclesiastes 8:17, NLT).
3. Instead, enjoy what God gives you, because you’ll soon be dead.
Instead of wringing our hands and bemoaning our lot in life, we should enjoy what God has given us, whether it be much or little, because our short lives will soon end. Freed from having to worry about the fact that life won’t always be fair and that we might, someday, unfairly lose our jobs, or get cancer, or lose a loved one, we can right now enjoy accomplishing things at work, sharing a good meal with our friends, watching the sunset and sleeping after a long day. We glorify God when we thankfully receive the good things He gives us, in whatever portions they come.
On the other hand, the fact that we’ll soon be dead ought to remind us that our blessings in the midst of this uncertain life are transitory. They’re fleeting — here today, gone tomorrow. A juicy steak dinner tastes great, but it lasts maybe an hour. A successful career lasts longer, but it too comes to an end (after which we’re forgotten). We sometimes see people wearing shirts that say “I live for football” or “golf” or “shopping” or whatever. Nothing wrong with enjoying any of these, but if we live for them, they’ll inevitably disappoint us — as workaholics, alcoholics and devout fun-worshippers alike can attest. Some of us experience the “good life” more or less than others, but death comes to us all. Neither our work, wealth, amusements nor relationships were meant to give us ultimate significance. One day we’ll stop breathing, and it’ll be over. We do not glorify God when we idolize the blessings He sends our way. In fact, we ruin the enjoyment they were intended to bring.
4. So fear God, and keep His commands, because a real judgment is really coming.
In our enjoyment of every aspect of our short, fleeting life, we are never to forget God. We’re not to make idols out of the good pleasures God sends our way, but to receive them as gifts from His hand, intended to increase our love for the Giver. And if we love God, we’ll keep His commandments (e.g., John 14:15). We’ll know that the greatest joys come from living as He intended us to live.
The reality of God’s judgment is of great comfort to us as Christians. Our suffering will be over when God wipes away our every tear (Revelation 21:4). We’ll forever be free not just from our aches and pains, but from our ongoing struggles with discouragement and old sin patterns. We’ll live forever in God’s presence with a completely redeemed humanity — a nature that only delights in doing what’s right and is never inclined to evil.
The coming judgment is good news for another reason. Those who wronged others but eluded justice in this life will receive it in full from God's hand. And it’s precisely because God will take care of it that we don’t have to (Romans 12:18-21). We’re free to put away angry, unpleasant thoughts of vengeance and to instead show kindness and grace even to those who have mistreated us — just as we, too, have received grace and kindness from God.
Life hurts sometimes, and inexplicable hardships come our way; there’s no getting around it. But anxiously trying to understand it all only makes it worse. God alone knows the full extent of what He’s up to — and that’s OK. In fact, it’s more than OK, because we’re free to love and obey God, pursuing contentment with the hand we’ve been dealt, working hard and playing hard, without hopelessly striving to find our significance in money, accomplishment, learning, recreation or anything else in this fleeting life.
This entire, fallen world was subjected to futility (Romans 8:20). Today, thorns and thistles plague us in our work (Genesis 3:17-19) and even our best relationships are marred with at least occasional conflict. We’re sinners; the world is not what it should be. But God, who is working all things together for those who love Him, will soon make everything right. Until then, ours is to fear Him, keeping His commandments, enjoying His blessings and trusting Him with the details.
Copyright 2011 Alex Chediak. All rights reserved.