Why we're studying Ecclesiastes this summer

We’re marking the summer – the season of vacations, pool parties, and baseball – with a series on a book with these cheery opening words:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

By any reasonable measure, Ecclesiastes is a downer. In his commentary on the book, Zack Eswine writes:

Ecclesiastes sounds like a crazed man downtown. He smells like he hasn’t bathed—looks like it too—and as we pass by he won’t stop glaring at us and beckoning to us that our lives are built on illusions, and that we are all going to die. So, most of us choose to get our lunch at a different shop on a less dreary corner of town.

But there’s surprising wisdom to be found in the book for those who will listen. Ecclesiastes sings a tune we don’t hear that often in Scripture, but – like the bitterness in good dark chocolate – it enriches the canon as a whole with its specific voice. Here are three big truths Ecclesiastes offers us that come out more clearly than in most other books of the Bible:

1. Life is chaotic

Here’s Eswine again:

If Proverbs is like meteorology giving us indicators so as to predict certain outcomes, then Ecclesiastes is like the actual weather, fickle and unpredictable in its ability to rant with storms or breathe easy with a midmorning breeze. In Proverbs a good man plus God’s love and wisdom equals a good life. In Ecclesiastes a good man plus God’s love still dies like the beast or the fool. In Proverbs, wisdom gives us eyes to recognize the storm clouds and what to do in response. In Ecclesiastes, death is a piece of tornado from which no proverbial basement can shelter us.

If we assume that the book of Proverbs describes how life always works, we’ll be quickly and sorely disappointed. Wise people don’t always seem to flourish. Well-prepared plans can fall apart. People with good hearts can have bitter fights. Life doesn’t always work like it seems like it should. That doesn’t mean that the Proverbs are a lie; it just means that our world is broken as well as orderly.

And for those of us who feel like we’re in the middle of brokenness and chaos, it can be a bizarre comfort to know that God isn’t surprised or flustered by it. Ecclesiastes shows us that God knows the world is this way; and, as we see in the rest of Scripture, he’s at work in the chaos bringing order and life.

2. Human life is limited

"Limitations" tastes sour in the mouth. Our most exciting stories are people transcending the "limits" imposed by the known world. Breaking free of gravity to enter space. Conquering distance by the telegraph, telephone, and now satellites. Scout Finch pushing the limits of what society accepts.

And those are exciting - there are limitations we can or should push - but not all boundaries were made to be tested. As G.K. Chesterton wrote,

The moment you step into the world of facts, you step into a world of limits. You can free things from alien or accidental laws, but not from the laws of their own nature. You may, if you like, free a tiger from his bars; but do not free him from his stripes. Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump: you may be freeing him from being a camel. Do not go about as a demagogue, encouraging triangles to break out of the prison of their three sides. If a triangle breaks out of its three sides, its life comes to a lamentable end. (from Orthodoxy)

In other words, the fact of being created as one thing (a triangle) means that we by definition can’t be other things. What we are is defined in part by what we’re not.

One of the fiercest and deadliest temptations that human beings have is to want to be like God. That was the carrot dangled in front of Adam and Eve’s eyes that led them to commit the first human sin (Genesis 3:5). We may want to have God’s power: the ability to do everything we want. Or God’s authority: the ability to decide right and wrong. Or God’s glory: the right to receive worship from good things. These desires lead us to sinful discontentment and away from real human flourishing.

By contrast, Ecclesiastes says that contentment begins with accepting that we’re limited, finite creatures. Again and again, Solomon says that working hard, trying to enjoy our lives, and passing time with friends and family – hobbit pleasures – are better than striving after personal wealth or glory. We have to begin with the limitations of our human nature.

3. Created pleasures can’t satisfy

And finally, Ecclesiastes reminds us that the created things of this life, good as they are, aren’t made to satisfy us. By the time he wrote this text, Solomon had tried it all. Money? He became the wealthiest king in his region, and it was vanity. Pleasure? He took wives and concubines, brought the best of the world to himself, and found nothing lasting. Knowledge? He hoarded knowledge like gold, and even it didn't satisfy on its own. By themselves, created glories are empty calories.

All those things are good; but they're limited, because they weren't made to satisfy us. Ecclesiastes ends with the admonition, “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13). Solomon comes around to say that when everything is said and done, we’re made to be in relationship with God; nothing else will fill us.

Finding satisfaction and true humanity includes learning that the good things of this life have limitations too; we're made to be satisfied only by the limitless love of God. As Augustine wrote in his Confessions, "Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”