Some believe that the book of Ecclesiastes is only an inspired record of human wisdom or a record of human error that should be preached from very selectively. I have never accepted that interpretation. For the longest time, I believed that the book presents human hopelessness apart from God, but that it it also presents the antidote to human hopelessness—God can give life meaning and remove the sense of hopelessness. I believed that the opening mantra of the book—Vanity of vanities, all is vanity—was an expression that described the unfortunate conclusion of those who have failed to find the meaning and value of life in God alone.
The Theme of Ecclesiastes
After preaching through the book in recent years, I have begun to think of the book in a slightly different way. While I do believe that the book presents an antidote of sorts to human hopelessness, I have come back to that initial mantra to reinterpret it, not just for the hopeless, but for all—for those who have hope and for those who do not. The theme of the book has been translated famously as "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity." I believe the clarion call of the book should be understood in this way: "Inscrutable; incomprehensible--the rhyme and reason of life on this earth is beyond all human ability to figure out."
Life is Inscrutable for All
According to this interpretation, God intends for life to be inscrutable for all at least on some level. Even for those who have the advantage of a relationship with God, the ability to figure out life is beyond them. No one is the master of life's meaning. The author demonstrates again and again that life is full of injustice (3:16; 8:14), futility (1:1-11), and death (3:19; 9:3), and it all just comes back around again for everyone (1:4-10; 3:15). The book is very bleak in its frankness. “Face the facts, folks. Life is unfair, as most people understand fairness. Everywhere you look—in your own life and in the lives of others, in the past and in the present—you will find evidence of the inevitable inequities and futilities of our existence on this earth.” Where this interpretation differs from my prior understanding is that this apparent inequity is not remedied, or re-framed in a more palatable way, simply by having a right relationship with God. In other words, it is proper for all people, Christians and non-Christians alike, to face the reality of life’s inscrutability.
The Testimony of Scripture to God's Inscrutability
The Scriptures provide other testimonies to the fundamental inscrutability of God's work in this world:
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9, ESV)
“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. (Deuteronomy 29:29, ESV)
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Romans 11:33-36, ESV)The Search for Meaning
The author of Ecclesiastes proposes to lessen this inscrutability by searching for rhyme and reason in different activities and pursuits—in pleasure (2:1-11), in wisdom (2:12-16), and work ( 2:17-22). All three are common retreats even today for those who want to overcome the incomprehensibility and mundaneness of existence. But the author concludes that these things are unable to lift the fog and provide the rhyme and reason that most people search for.
The Beautiful Inscrutability of God
But Solomon does not leave us with mere nihilism. In the centerpiece of the book, the author tells us that “There is a time for everything under heaven (3:1ff).” He says that God has made everything beautiful in its time (3:11). The arranging of all things, even the apparent inequities of our existence, serve the hidden purposes of the Almighty God. Unfortunately for us mere creatures, we are never guaranteed to be privy to those secret purposes. There is in fact a reason that these purposes are hidden from our intelligence—God built the constant need to find meaning and purpose in life right into the fabric of our being, and he has removed those meanings and purposes far beyond our ability to grasp (3:14; 7:13-14; 8:16-17; 11:15).
Trust God When Life is Inscrutable
Our lack of ability to locate that meaning and purpose—that rhyme and reason—in our activities on this earth points to one solution and one alone—Simply trust God. Solomon calls this “fearing God.” The book never implies that trusting him will provide the rhyme and reason that we are looking for. The answers and solutions do not come simply because we trust God. The book simply asks us to trust him in the bad times and in the good regardless of the outcome in our earthly existence. We are to trust that everything that happens, everything that we are going through, is beautiful in the timing of God. The only way that we can see beauty in the futilities of life is through trust. This removes from our handbook of solutions the notion that having a right relationship with God will suddenly cause everything to make sense or turn out all right in the end. Sometimes—in fact quite often, according to the book—God intends for life to be incomprehensibly difficult. And yet, we are expected to trust him regardless. We are never promised that God will make everything turn out all right in the end of our earthly existence. We are to trust him even if life ends in death, injustice, and futile repetition. We are to trust that in the hidden purposes of God, everything is beautiful. Everything is planned perfectly. Everything is moving toward goals that serve the greatest ends. These purposes do not always require a happy existence for his creatures, but they are beautiful purposes nonetheless. Ultimately the book points us all back to the glory of God as the origin and purpose of all reality. There can be nothing more beautiful.
Enjoy Life as God's Gift
With this in mind, the author encourages his readers to enjoy life as much as possible. Do not be afraid to take advantage of every opportunity to milk this life for all the joy and happiness that you can get out of it. As long as we are trusting God—and keeping his commandments, as he concludes the book (11:9; 12:1, 13-14)——there are no limits to the joy that we should try to find in our earthly existence. This joy may be beyond some people most of the time and most people some of the time. But when opportunity presents itself, enjoy life as much as possible. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Solomon asserts that life is God’s gift, so enjoy what you can while you can—work, food and drink, possessions, relationships, etc. (2:24-25; 3:13; 5:18-19; 8:15; 9:7-10). Rhyme and reason are not necessary for us to enjoy life as long as we are obeying God’s commands and trusting him.
[While I am indebted to Dr. Michael Barrett, one of my seminary professors, for the evolution of my thought on the book of Ecclesiastes, I think his understanding is slightly different. I will not presume to contradict him, so I will suggest that my word "inscrutable" contains his meaning rather than contradicts it. So the word translated variously as vanity, breath, wind, or meaninglessness is broader than brevity, transience, or gossamer fragility. Inscrutability contains them all. Regardless, I highly commend Barrett's excellent series of lectures on Ecclesiastes. While my understanding may be less than certain, his can be relied upon: http://bit.ly/sMZjQ7.]