Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
John 5:1-15; 1 Peter 1:17-25; Ecclesiastes 8:9-17; Jeremiah 28-30
Today’s passage in Ecclesiastes confronts the popular idea that bad things happen for a reason. In religious contexts, it is easy to think that if you live a good life, things will go well for you. There is an attraction to thinking that bad people will get what’s coming to them. But the author of Ecclesiastes, like ourselves, can see that this is not the way things actually happen on earth. Wicked people can live comfortable lives, living off the proceeds of crime for many years; good people can live in poverty and die young. Some people at school or work seem to get away with doing nothing, while the hard worker slips up one time and is fired. Ecclesiastes mentions that when a crime is not punished, people’s hearts can turn to evil. Our hearts can turn bitter and envious as we watch others appear to get away with unethical practice. We might wonder if it’s worth being moral. Sometimes it seems like it’s meaningless to do good.
This may be how we feel, but is it what the author of Ecclesiastes is saying? We must look closely as what the word often translated “meaningless” or “vanity” meant to the author. Such English words are negative, and usually mean that something is lacking in value or worthless. However, the Hebrew word hebel literally means a breath or vapour. Throughout Ecclesiastes it is used metaphorically. Vapour can be worthless, but our breath is also very valuable. The central idea it not value, but short-lasting. This is seen in Proverbs 31:30 where the same word describes beauty as “fleeting”. When hebel is used along with “under the sun” it often refers to the passing nature of life in contrast to the permanence of God.
We can relook at our passage with this in mind. This world does not function fairly. People act unethically or illegally and get away with it. Living an ethical or godly life is not a guarantee of a comfortable or long life. We can apply our minds to discover why bad things happen to good people, and we will never understand fully. Those who claim they have it figured out don’t really.
How then do we respond? Some claim the author of Ecclesiastes sees life in this world as meaningless. But rather than being cynical or hopeless, he reminds us that this world is passing. This is not the way things will always be. Meanwhile, we should learn to enjoy life and be glad. Rather than getting bitter at what people are getting away with, we should be drawn back to God. We should look for what God has done and what he has given us. This can lead us to gratitude for the joys and beauty in this world. Reminded of who God is, we can trust him that things will go better in the long run for those who follow God. We cannot explain the past or predict the future, but we can entrust our lives into God’s good hands (Ecc 9:1).