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Life Is Not ‘Meaningless’ in Ecclesiastes

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This book is for you. How do I know? Because—and I hate to be the one to break this to you—you’re going to die.

Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End is by David Gibson, minister of Trinity Church in Aberdeen, Scotland. It’s a poignant and powerful exposition of the message of Ecclesiastes. Over the past few months it has become one of the books I most frequently give away, reflect on, and return to in my ministry as a pastor. I want you to read it. I’m confident it will do you lasting good.

My only critique of the book is a minor one, so I’ll air it early. The book is nearly, but not quite, an exposition of the book of Ecclesiastes: chapters 6, 8, and 10 are entirely absent. Gibson gives such a lucid account of Ecclesiastes that I don’t doubt the pieces he left out fit with the parts he expounds. But I wish he had at least gestured toward how the three missing chapters fit with the arresting picture he assembles for us.

Ecclesiastes’s Answer to Death

When I read the book a few months ago, two of our pastoral interns asked me what it’s about. I replied along these lines: “The message of Ecclesiastes is that it’s good news that you’re going to die.” “Oh,” one of them replied. “You mean, since Jesus rose from the dead, we no longer need to fear death?” Not exactly.

Of course, Jesus’s resurrection is the ultimate answer to death. But it isn’t Ecclesiastes’s answer. And as Christians, God has given us not only the resurrection’s answer to death, but also Ecclesiastes’s answer. It’s an answer that’s somewhat harder to hear—harder both to understand and to embrace. Which is why we need Gibson’s book.

God has given us not only the resurrection’s answer to death, but also Ecclesiastes’s answer.

In Gibson’s words, the message of Ecclesiastes, and therefore his book, is this: “Ecclesiastes teaches us to live life backward. It encourages us to take the one thing in the future that is certain—our death—and work backward from that point into all the details and decisions and heartaches of our lives, and to think about them from the perspective of the end” (12). More briefly, “Death can teach you the meaning of mirth” (11–12).

Fleetingness of Earthly Joy

Ecclesiastes poses a dilemma for many Christians. The book seems brutally nihilistic, from the time the preacher first opens his mouth: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Eccles. 1:2). If everything is vanity, is life worth living? How can such a defeatist message be the Word of God? Do we have to shoehorn in Christ’s resurrection in order to rescue the book from its bleakness?

As Gibson points out, a key to this dilemma is that the Hebrew word hebel, often rendered “vanity,” doesn’t exactly mean pointless or futile (19–24). Instead, the preacher of Ecclesiastes plays on the word’s basic sense of vapor or breath. What is everything? Not meaningless, but fleeting, evanescent, ungraspable. Wait for a cold day, open your mouth wide, and breathe out. Try to grab the cloud in your hands. That, proclaims Ecclesiastes, holds for all of this life’s joys. They all flicker and vanish. Even the most seemingly solid fixtures of our lives can disappear in less time than it takes to blink. And one day death will take from us, and take us from, whatever joys we have left.

The message of Ecclesiastes isn’t that earthly joys are worthless, but that they are not ultimate.

Does that leave us where we started? No, because Ecclesiastes directs our eyes not only to the limits of life in this world, but also to the wisdom of its Creator.

The message of Ecclesiastes isn’t that earthly joys are worthless, but that they are not ultimate. As Gibson writes, “What does it mean to love life and the world if it’s passing away, and if I’m meant to enjoy God and live for Christ first and foremost? Let me say that the two things go hand in hand absolutely beautifully, and for this reason: in the created world, you can only truly enjoy what you do not worship” (115).

Living Well

When we recognize that no earthly goods are ultimate, we can stop treating them like they are. When we own the fact that death will take everything from us, and take us from everything, we’re free to enjoy life’s flickering goods for what they are. God richly provides us with everything to enjoy (1 Tim. 6:17). The problem, ultimately, isn’t your marriage or career or money, but the weight of expectation and longing you invest in them. Only the new creation is solid enough to bear the full weight of all our yearning. Only the unobstructed sight of the imperishable God is enough to secure our unending happiness.

When you live in light of the certain tragedy of death, you’re free to enjoy the comedy of life. When you stop treating this life as if it must satisfy you entirely, you’ll find it more satisfying. Like flowers springing up after the weight of snow has melted, earthly joys regain their proper shape and substance when you stop requiring them to do what they were never meant to. “Only someone who knows how to weep will really know what it means to laugh. That’s the message of Ecclesiastes. It’s an invitation to be a person who realizes that living a good life means preparing to die a good death” (98).

Want to live well? Prepare to die. Know that the breath will vanish, and enjoy the fleeting glory.

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