Every Friday in November, The Mudroom is featuring author Lindsey Smallwood. Lindsey recently published Ecclesiastes: Life in Full Color, her second Bible study book. The following devotional reflection is based her book and the related materials available for small groups.
When it comes to reading and studying the Bible, I totally play favorites. The English major/story teller part of me loves to return to the narratives of Genesis, Ruth and Acts. The singer/poet side of my heart enjoys opening the Psalms and finding ways to sing along. The searching/seeking side of my heart comes back over and over again to the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels and the letters of Paul in the New Testament.
But the rest of it? Let’s just say that some pages of my Bible tend to stay more crisp than others. The laws and codes of the ancient Hebrews, the long metaphorical prophecies, instructions for building the temple? Sure I’ve read them, blazed through on a journey through the Bible in a year once or twice. But not places I tend to spend much time.
Until recently, Ecclesiastes has been one of those books in my own Bible. Neglected because I didn’t really understand it, passed over in favor of more familiar passages that seem easier to apply to my life as a Christian.
I mean, let’s just look at that opener in chapter 1, verse 2.
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
Talk about a strange thesis! The Teacher starts his talk with the assertion that everything – all of life – is meaningless. And in case you don’t believe him, he spends the next chapter, really the rest of the book, reasserting how empty and shallow and difficult life can be.
And I get that sentiment. Don’t you? I see it when my friend who’s a single mom gets passed over for a job she really needs or when hurricanes come and destroy family homes for miles. I see it when I tune into political debates and watch people go round and round making the same arguments. I see it in myself, trying to achieve my way to self-satisfaction.
What you work for gets taken away.
Less needy and often less deserving people get ahead while you struggle.
Corrupt people ascend to power.
We try to work our way to happiness.
It all seems to be pretty futile.
As we begin to examine Ecclesiastes, it’s important to hold two things in tension. The first is that the observations on life that are written here are true. They’re honest reflections on what life is really like. And these writings have been a part of Scripture since its earliest days – in other words, for a long time, the church has agreed that this treatise on life’s challenges is sacred and worthy of consideration.
At the same time, we recognize that all of these observations are made before Jesus comes, before God’s plan for the redemption of the world is more fully revealed. It’ll be nearly 1000 years until Christ comes on the scene. So when the author of Ecclesiastes tells us that everything is meaningless, we have to remember that we’re talking about life outside of a relationship with Jesus, life that isn’t yet informed by the hope of the Gospels and the theology of the New Testament.
And so – when we read Ecclesiastes, we’re looking first at what it says, trying to make sense of it exactly how it’s written. We’re comparing the author’s experiences and observations to our own, we’re looking for how to apply his conclusions in our own lives. After all, this is God-breathed Scripture and is useful to our growth as believers.
But, as Jesus followers, we’re also looking ahead to Christ’s coming, allowing the whole story of the Bible to inform our understanding. We want to see life as the Teacher talks about it in Ecclesiastes and then we will look ahead to the vision of life presented by Jesus and the writers of the New Testament.
When we listen to the idea that everything is meaningless, let’s try to understand exactly what the author is saying.
Meaningless is the word I’ve always read, my newer ESV Bible uses the word vanity, as in everything we do and try is in vain. The Message takes a different approach, using the word “smoke” – “There’s nothing to anything, it’s all smoke.”
This is actually much closer to the Hebrew word The Teacher originally used here. That word is “hebel.” Hebel means breath or vapour, or, like The Message says, smoke. The allusion isn’t as much to meaninglessness as it is to the fact that life, like a vapour, like the steam coming up off your coffee mug, is passing away even as you’re experiencing it.
You can’t bottle a vapour and put it on your mantle.
You can’t buy breath at the supermarket.
You can’t grab onto smoke.
Like life, they’re all disappearing right in front of us, slipping through our fingers despite our best efforts to hang on.
Suddenly that verse seems a lot less scary, a lot less out of place in a Bible that’s telling a long story of redemption and a lot more true to my real, everyday experience. Because life, as I understand it as a person loved and rescued by Jesus, isn’t meaningless, even when it feels like it. But it’s certainly passing away.
1 Corinthians 7:31 in the New Living Translation says it this way:
Those who use the things of the world should not become attached to them. For this world as we know it will soon pass away.
Don’t get too attached to the things of this world, Paul tells us, because everything you can see and taste and touch – it’s all smoke, it’s hebel, it won’t last.
There is something that will last though, it’s a different kind of kingdom. The book of Ecclesiastes highlights the shortcomings of our earthly home and points us toward a kingdom without end. We’ll see more of that as we read further.
And that’s certainly not meaningless.