< July 26, 2015 >

Commentary on Ecclesiastes 1:1-11, 3:1-17

 

Week 3 (July 26, 2015)

Preaching text: Ecclesiastes 1:1-11; 3:1-17

The book of Ecclesiastes is usually called “skeptical” Wisdom or “dissenting” Wisdom. The author of Ecclesiastes, the Teacher, is a sage who has lived long and has grown weary of life’s vicissitudes. Death makes fools even of the wise. What does it matter how hard one works if after death one’s name is forgotten and one’s riches are given to someone else (Ecclesiastes 1:11; 2:18-19)? All is hevel (Ecclesiastes 1:2). The refrain runs throughout the book (25 times in all). Though traditionally translated “vanity,” hevel is better translated “absurdity, meaninglessness, vapor.”

And yet, the Teacher is not a nihilist. Like the author of Proverbs, the Teacher recognizes a certain reliable order that God has put in creation, a time and a season for everything (3:1-8). And the Teacher advocates humility, which is closely related to the fear of the LORD. We are to recognize our own mortality in the face of God’s eternity and be appropriately chastened: “I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe [literally, “fear”] before him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14).

The knowledge that life is hevel (fleeting, ephemeral) should lead us neither to asceticism nor to licentiousness. It should lead, instead, to humility and to a proper delight in the gifts of God. But such humility and delight are sometimes hard to come by in human nature. Indeed, Martin Luther writes of the misplaced desire that Ecclesiastes seeks to address:

“What is being condemned in this book, therefore, is not the creatures [i.e. the things God has created] but the depraved affection and desire of us men, who are not content with the creatures of God that we have and with their use but are always anxious and concerned to accumulate riches, honors, glory, and fame, as though we were going to live here forever; and meanwhile we become bored with the things that are present and continually yearn for other things, and then still others.”1

Luther’s description fits our society as much or more than that of 16th century Europe. Ecclesiastes seeks to address such soul-sickness with a reality check: We are going to die. Such knowledge, however, should lead not to despair but to humility and to delight in the gifts of God, even though we know they (and we) won’t last forever:

“Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart…. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your hevel life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:7-9; see also 3:12-13).

It must be acknowledged that Ecclesiastes does not contain the fullness of the Gospel. It has no concept of resurrection. Nevertheless, for the way in which it addresses the kind of misplaced desire that permeates human society, for its description of the good life, and for its call to a proper humility, Ecclesiastes is well worth preaching.


Notes:

1. Martin Luther, “Notes on Ecclesiastes,” Luther’s Works, vol. 15, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan (St. Louis: Concordia, 1972), p. 8.