The God we wouldn’t expect (part 4)

While some books have unexpected aspects in what they say about God, some of the books in the writings are also unexpected by their very presence in the canon of Scripture. Ecclesiastes is one of these books. This book is, however, in many ways an understandable response to the kind of theology that Job presents, if not more directly a response to Job itself. Essentially, if the type of wisdom as found in the book of Proverbs is not ultimately reliable, if the sages could not predict what are the ways to success and the paths to failure, then an overriding pessimism about the purpose and usefulness of doing anything arises. This pessimism is essentially the acedia that the early monks talked about, a weariness of heart, an anxiety about any pursuit, and a feeling of purposelessness in life.

If bad things can happen to good people, what is the point of making the efforts to be a good person? As James Crenshaw puts it, “The wisest man in the East underwent horrendous suffering that defied explanation, and wisdom possessed only limited value.”

On the surface Ecclesiastes is shockingly pessimistic, with the central phrase “chasing after the wind” being used to describe the end of every earthly pursuit. All that is done “under the sun” is vanity. Having pursued the various aspects of life to their fullest the author wallows in a sense of meaninglessness. Even pursuing too much righteousness can end in destruction as “the suffering of Job indicated what could happen when a person became too good.” This broad negativity and skepticism about life seem to be totally out of place in a collection of books about God. But it belongs because it reflects reality, it reflects how humanity has often wrestled with God and with how we often think in our deepest selves.

We have been trained not to say “all is vanity”, but few of us do not find ourselves secretly holding onto this thought at times in our lives. Yet, although a surface reading seems to highlight the nihilism of the author, a distinct strand runs throughout the book which offsets this gloomy thinking. The book as a whole is seeking to piece wisdom back together, to understand the goal and nature of life. In the many ways the author has tried, however, no satisfaction is found. But one thing does remain. God remains, and God must be trusted in the face of confusion and hopelessness.

In our journey through this world there are many areas which draw our devotion and seek to lure us down their path, promising fulfillment and satisfaction. Though not bad by nature, such pursuits as money or property, work or vocation, sexuality or friendships are “chasing after the wind.” If we seek to find satisfaction in these alone we will find fulfillment always just ahead of us, but never reached. However, though this may lead to pessimism, the point of the book seems to lead the other direction.

Because all of our pursuits to find satisfaction are in vain, we should simply rest in understanding that our satisfaction comes from God alone, being content with where he has us or what he has called us to do in life. We will be disappointed if we try to earn our fulfillment or God’s pleasure, but if we walk simply, with the understanding of what it means to be in true relationship with God we will find this life worth living.

Life is indeed meaningless apart from God so, as J.S. Wright put it, “the plan for man is to take his life each day from the hand of God, and enjoy it from him and for him.” We would not expect to find a book of such pessimism and would be shocked if a pastor preached a sermon on the meaningless of earthly pursuits, but we find here in Ecclesiastes a genuine response from one exhausted by life which reminds us that God is not bound to our conceptions, and simply seeks to have people in relationship with him, not for what we can get out of it, but simply for the relationship itself.

Michael Eaton describes the book as being “both an evangelistic tract, calling secular people to face the implications of their secularism, and a call to realism summoning faithful Israelites to take seriously the ‘futility’, the ‘enigma’, of life in this world.”

More positively, however, he states that it does indeed call us “to a life of faith and joy.” God alone knows what the future will bring, and God must be trusted, but God is good and trustworthy so we should live in a way which reflects an understanding of this fact and reflects a real relationship with Him. This book is not what we would expect to find, but a close reading reveals that it is a book we need to hear, and reflects an understanding of God we need to embrace as our own. From a place of anxiety and restlessness about life, God calls us to a place of peace. Our pursuits in this life are truly meaningless if we do not have God, and with God anything we do can be a place of contentment.

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