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Learning from Ecclesiastes

The Teacher pairs his frustration that everything is hebel with a call to enjoy God’s good gifts.


You are going to die. And no one is going to remember you. The stuff you’re working hard on is going to be completely undone. As if it was never there. And no one is going to care.

That’s not hyperbole. That is fact. That is the message of Ecclesiastes. That is the message of an actual book of the Bible. When Paul told Timothy that all Scripture is breathed out by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work—this is what he was talking about.

In fact, those words from Paul come right in the middle of him telling Timothy I’m about to die, and then my work is going to be undone. There’s going to be all kinds of imposters and false teachers that go around and convince people that I was wrong.

And like Paul, you are going to die. Unlike Paul, people aren’t going to be talking about you in 2000 years. People aren’t going to be talking about you in, what, 100 years? 50 years? What’s the name of your great-great grandmother? No cheating by looking at Ancestry.com. What did her friends like about her? What was she proudest of?

How about something more recent: Let’s look at your workplace. You probably got hired to replace someone else in that position. Do you know his or her name? Yeah? Awesome. What was the name of the person that they replaced? What did they contribute to the company? Do you know? Does anyone remember?

For those of you who don’t know me well, I work at a magazine called Christianity Today and right now we’re digitizing our archives. On one hand there’s this effort to revitalize all this hard work people put into this magazine over the years. And at the other time you look through and you see these names: celebrities and star scholars that no one knows anything about today. And editors and writers that just vanished. Nobody knows who they are. And nobody even wonders or feels bad for not knowing. After I leave Christianity Today, the same thing is going to happen to me. And the same thing is going to happen to Christianity Today: someday it’ll be gone and people won’t remember it and won’t care that they don’t remember it.

That’s Ecclesiastes: “Generations come and generations go/ No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.” And until you die, says Ecclesiastes, good luck. All things are wearisome, more than one can say.

Work doesn’t pay off. Pursuing pleasure is pointless. Try to get wiser and smarter and a) it makes you sad and b) you still die, just like the fool. “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

Everything is Meaningless?

Ahh. You’re not buying it. I can see it. You’re smiling. You’re thinking, Ah yes it is nice to be reminded of one’s mortality. And now Ted is going to tell us that we need to find our meaning in God or remind us that death has lost its sting and that we labor not in vain. Jesus came that we might have life and have it more abundantly!

See, you’re good, smart, overeducated Christians who read their Bibles and have heard a lot of sermons, so yeah. You know how to pretty it all up in an orthodox comforting bow. You remember Paul talks about dying in 2 Timothy and then he ends with “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen.” You’re way ahead of me. Good. Death has lost its sting. Hallelujah.

All right. Let’s skip to the end—Ecclesiastes 12. Starting in verse 1: “Remember your creator in the days of your youth before the days of trouble come” ... yeah okay, so by here we’ve got all the gloomy stuff out of the way and we’re talking about God ... so wrapping things up. Things are going to get bad yadda yadda remember God yaddda yadda. Verse 7, “The dust returns to the ground it came from and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” Good orthodox Ash Wednesday stuff. “Meaningless meaningless.” Wait. “Meaningless meaningless says the teacher. Everything is meaningless.”

Then there’s this epilogue: “The teacher was wise. He imparted knowledge to the people. The teacher searched to find just the right words and what he wrote was upright and true.” What he wrote is “Meaningless, meaningless. Everything is meaningless.”

Turns out, it’s not the Teacher’s setup. It’s the punchline. This is not one of those sermons where he’s starting with a the felt need of the listener’s existential dread and then saying the answer is to fear God and keep his commandments and then you won’t feel that existential dread anymore. I mean the fear God and keep his commandments is there. It’s right there in verse 13. And the very last words of the book are that God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil. He wants to make sure you know that. But this isn’t 12 chapters of frustration wrapped with two verses of “But don’t worry, God’s got it.”

Some people think it is. I mean, you can find a lot of good, smart sermons and commentaries saying what the Teacher is describing here is the meaninglessness of life … without God. A lot of people who say that are a lot smarter than me, so I don’t want to be too dogmatic about this. But I want to ask them, Did you read the parts where the Teacher ... um ... talks a lot about God?

This Is Not Life Without God

Chapter 1:13-14: What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Chapter 3:18: As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.

Chapter 6:1-2: I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on mankind: God gives some people wealth, possessions and honor, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire, but God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil.

Chapter 7: Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future.

Chapter 8: When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe the labor that is done on earth—people getting no sleep day or night—then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it.

Chapter 9: So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God’s hands, but no one knows whether love or hate awaits them. All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.

Chapter 12--the conclusion--Remember your Creator. The spirit returns to God. Everything is meaningless.

This is not life without God. This is the Holy Spirit divinely revealing something about who God really is and what he really does. This is why the book has to end by saying “No, really! What the Teacher wrote was upright and true!”

Ecclesiastes says, Okay, smarty pants Christian dude and Bible Quiz champion lady, you know Jesus is the answer. The answer to what? Have you really felt the weight of the question? Have you felt the burn of life under the sun, and said, “God is real, but life is hard, and I can’t change anything?”

Jacques Ellul wrote a short commentary on Ecclesiastes, he says this book is the eye of the needle and we are the camel. We cannot pass through this book and carry anything with us. Only when we painfully pass through the lessons of this book can we get on with life and ministry.

So we’ve jumped to the end of the book, and it sends us right back to the beginning: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

What Is the Meaning of Meaningless?

I am not a Hebrew scholar or the son of a Hebrew scholar. And I dislike when preachers say “The Hebrew word for suffering here means enduring something painful,” yeah no kidding that’s what the English word means too. But every commentary on Ecclesiastes—the really good ones, the not so good ones, the liberal ones, the conservative ones—they’re all like “this word that the NIV translates as meaningless, yeah meaningless is a pretty good word but it means a lot of other stuff, too.”

The Hebrew word is HEH-bel. Main meaning is breath or that kind of water vapor you breathe out on a cold day. Not the breath, like all Scripture is God breathed or God breathed life into man, that’s ruach, the word for wind. And you get that elsewhere in Ecclesiastes, where all these meaningless things are—a chasing after the wind. Everything is hebel, a chasing after the ruach. Most Bibles only translate it as vapor like once, in Proverbs 21:6: A fortune made by a lying tongue is a fleeting vapor and a deadly snare.

Ecclesiastes uses the word WAY more than any other book of the Bible, but first time it’s used in Scripture it’s a proper noun. Guesses? Whose name is it? Abel; Cain’s brother. First murder victim. First recorded death. Died young. You see the connection?

Deuteronomy, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, when they use hebel, English Bibles usually translate it as “idols” or “false idols.” They’re idols and they’re false, because why? Because they don’t do anything. They have no actual effect on the world.

The Book of Proverbs, Chapter 31, ends this way, “Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” Beauty is hebel.

Is beauty bad? No. Is it utterly without meaning? Not really! The rest of Proverbs 31 seems to say beauty is good! But it’s fleeting.

So hebel: It’s vapor, smoke, a mirage. Everything is—not bad. Not pointless not worthless. But everything is so impermanent it’s barely even there.

Everything is like Abel. Fleeting.

Everything is like Abel: in Vain. It does not achieve its purpose. Brought forth through Eve’s great labor, apparently the promise of new life in a harsh, cursed world. The hope that new generations would come even after Adam and Eve died. But actually, he dies as just one more sign of death, with no descendants.

Everything is like Abel: Absurd, disappointing our expectations—the arc of the moral universe is tied up in knots. Abel did what was right. He pleased God. And what did it get him? Eh. His brother’s murderous hatred. The good die young. The evil go off and build a successful city.

Everything is like hebel: nothing can be grasped.

The Teacher’s 3 Searches

So having given this broad overview that everything is hebel, the Teacher goes on to describe his three searches.

Ecclesiastes 1:12: “I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens.”

In chapter 2 he says: I tried pleasure. And we’re like, well this is the Bible so that’s not going to turn out. And the teacher says, yeah I told you already that none of this works out.

But when the Teacher talks about testing pleasure, yes he in part means sex, drugs, and music that all those 1950s Christian leaders say Christians shouldn’t be involved in. But he also means art and architecture and gardening, and the awesome culture creation things that today’s Christian leaders say Christians should be involved in.

“My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil,” he says in chapter 2 verse 10. “Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”

So then he says, okay, pleasure doesn’t work, how about wisdom? I’m the wisest man who has ever lived, but I can become even more wise.

His conclusion? Wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness! There’s no point in walking around blind banging into foolishness all day. But actually, we’re both going to be blind someday aren’t we, lying six feet underground, forgotten by everyone. 100 years from now who cares if I was wise or foolish?

The third test is work: Throw yourself into your work. Build something larger than yourself. There’s a lot of talk these days about faith and work and the goodness of work. So maybe this fares better. Remember, the Teacher says, “My heart took delight in my labor and this was the reward for all my toil.” Maybe more labor? More toil?

Of course, this doesn’t work out either. First, the payoff isn’t worth the effort. One commentator said, “I found my doctorate a satisfying experience, but the quality of that satisfaction is in no way adequate to the years of toil and late nights it took to produce a manuscript now collecting dust in the basement of a university library.” Maybe some of you can relate.

The second reason this doesn’t work out is that the result of the work just doesn’t last! Eventually your work is going to be under the control of somebody else who a) gets the fruit of your labor without working for it, and b) is probably an idiot who is just going to mess your thing up.

A reminder that this is the Bible saying this. You can look it up.

The Teacher keeps coming back to these ideas: Seeking pleasure is hebel. Seeking wisdom is hebel. Toil is hebel. Do you see the problem?

Ecclesiastes 3:16: In the place of judgment—wickedness was there, in the place of justice—wickedness was there.

Ecclesiastes 4: Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed—and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors—and they have no comforter. And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has never been born who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun. And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is [hebel], a chasing after the wind.

The teacher leaves us nothing. When he says everything under the sun is hebel, he means everything.

Under the Sun

Now, is THAT the answer. Under the Sun? The early church thought so.

St. Jerome was one of the most influential Christian teachers on Ecclesiastes, and his argument was basically, everything under the sun is vanity, so set your minds on what is above the sun. Now, his argument was a little more nuanced than that. But it was basically turn your eyes upon Jesus and the things of earth will grow strangely dim. We should have a contempt for the things of this world and enter monasteries.

That’s not far off from what you hear a lot of Christians saying about Ecclesiastes today.

But Luther came along and said have you actually read Ecclesiastes? The Teacher isn’t condemning the study of nature, or philosophy, or the arts. He actually says that there’s pleasure in study and work and culture and politics. They’re hebel, but they’re not bad. He never says avoid these things. In fact, the Teacher says they’re good things! As Dan Treier at Wheaton put it, in Ecclesiastes earthly joys are “hard to get, harder to control, and impossible to keep.” But they’re still good gifts.

And that is the secret to reading Ecclesiastes. You have to go through the camel’s eye to become frustrated with how hebel everything is.

As Jacques Ellul put it, “In order to be prepared to hope in what does not deceive, we must first lose hope in everything that deceives.” Once we’re through with what deceives, we can receive.

The Teacher says “Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart.” Become disillusioned with your hopes to make plans for the future, protect yourself, build a monument, save the world. And then, receive your daily bread.


Over and over again, the Teacher pairs his frustration that everything is hebel with a call to enjoy God’s good gifts.

Ecclesiastes 2:22: What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is hebel. A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God,

Or here’s another example from Ecclesiastes 5: As everyone comes, so they depart, and what do they gain, since they toil for the wind? All their days they eat in darkness, with great frustration, affliction and anger. This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God.

The Teacher is not saying, “Hey life stinks, so you might as well party it up.” He’s saying: God provides manna. But you can’t save your manna for mañana.

The Teacher is not saying, “Work stinks and justice is corrupted so hang up your boots and drink yourself to death.” He’s saying you get to be part of this work and find joy in it. You just don’t get to control it or see the big picture.

There’s a part at the end of Ecclesiastes, the last words in fact, after the final “Everything is hebel,” that says “God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” The commentaries say this isn’t some add on an editor tacked on to make Ecclesiastes seem orthodox or fit with the rest of the Bible. This is part of the message: God’s in control, and we’re responsible for the deeds, not what we have done, but what we have left undone. And not the duties we left undone, but the joys we left on the table because we were too busy trying to control things.

Ecclesiastes is not a book only there to make us frustrated with the world and long for Christ’s return to set everything right. Though it is very good to be frustrated with the world and to long for Christ’s return to set everything right. The world is groaning.

But the message of Ecclesiastes isn’t just one of condemnation. It’s one about grace, freely given. The gospel is here, friends.

Ecclesiastes 9:7-10: Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. [That is an amazing statement of grace.] Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this hebel life that God has given you under the sun—all your hebel days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

You’re going to die. No one is going to remember you. We’re not in charge. We just work here. Rejoice and believe the gospel. Amen.

Ted Olsen is Editorial Director for Christianity Today and a member of Church of the Savior, an Anglican congregation in Wheaton, Illinois.

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