Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible
John 1:6-13; James 1:12-18; Ecclesiastes 1:12-18; Jeremiah 3-4
The book of Ecclesiastes could hardly provide a more abrupt contrast to the encouraging and positive end to the book of Proverbs. From the importance of pursuing wisdom for a satisfying life, we then encounter, ‘“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly Meaningless! Everything is meaningless”’ (Ecc 1:2). Today’s section adds wisdom to the list of meaningless pursuits, a chasing after the wind. How do we reconcile wisdom as a gift of God that provides protection and success (Proverbs 2:6-7), with wisdom bringing sorrow, and knowledge, grief (Ecc 1:18)?
Ecclesiastes is one of the most difficult and debated books in the Bible. Scholars argue about why the book is in the Bible at all, and since it is, how it should be interpreted. Some conclude that the book was written by two or more people with very different beliefs, some of them contrary to the rest of Scripture. Others hold to one author, but one who swung wildly from firm faith in God to deep despair over life’s meaninglessness. Others find the book confusing and contradictory, and are content to ignore it.
However, the message of Ecclesiastes is vitally important for ethics. If life is meaningless, do our ethical choices matter? If being good or bad makes no difference, is it worth being good? We are told over and over again that ‘A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work’ (Ecc 2:24, etc.). Is this claiming that a life of pursuing pleasure is the best on offer? Does this life have any meaning?
The answer to these questions will require studying the whole book. Part of the answer comes from remembering that Hebrew thought did not proceed in linear arguments like Western thinking. The author goes around in circles, revisiting topics and themes already raised. Such an approach is not contradictory or confused, but a literary approach common to Hebrew thought. In many ways it is designed to represent some of life’s frustrations, and trigger some of the same emotional reactions we get to life’s paradoxes.
At the same time, the author of Ecclesiastes repeats several phrases throughout the book to guide our understanding. Like stepping stones to help us traverse the bubbling brook of white water, these phrases provide links in the chain towards the author’s meaning. However, the importance of these words and phrases does not mean they are easily understood. The Hebrew word translated ‘meaningless’ or ‘vanity’ is used 38 times in Ecclesiastes, yet its meaning is strongly contested. This Hebrew word (hebel) mean powerless or useless elsewhere in the Bible. However, when one word is used so many times by an author, he may be using it in a particular way. Many authors believe this the case with hebel in Ecclesiastes, the most dominant of the repeated phrases used.
Hebrew poetry commonly uses parallel ideas which can help us understand the terms uses. When something is described as hebel, parallel expressions often convey the same idea. These can help us understand what the author meant by calling something hebel. Some find that hebel has a range of meanings in Ecclesiastes that include: futile, empty, sorry, senseless or transient. Today’s passage addresses two aspects. The first is that as the writer studied the natural world, he saw that it was hebel and a chasing after the wind (1:14). The phrase literally means to shepherd the wind. In this way, it is futile. The world proceeds in endless cycles. We come to understand much, but much remains a mystery. We may understand the weather, but we cannot control the wind. We may understand more about the body, but we cannot fix all that is broken. Many crooked things cannot be straightened. This is hebel. This does not mean that the pursuit of understanding is worthless, but it is limited. Part of wisdom means accepting that some questions remain unanswered, and other things remain outside our control.
The second aspect today reflects our response to the senseless aspect of the search for meaning. As we realise the limits of our wisdom and knowledge, we experience sorrow and grief (1:18). Hebel can express the idea of senselessness that often leaves us feeling sad and empty. Throughout Ecclesiastes the author asks tough questions. Why do good people get sick and die while bad people seem to live happily? Why does hard work sometimes not pay off? Why do people act as if they have no knowledge or no understanding of goodness, when (at least in Israel’s case) God has provided so much wisdom and knowledge (Jeremiah 4:22)? God’s response includes pain and agony (Jeremiah 4:19). That should be part of our reaction too.
If you read through Ecclesiastes in one sitting (which I recommend) you will encounter sections of apparent despair and disillusionment. The author asks tough questions and finds no answers. This is hebel. It is not that the questions are meaningless, nor that life is without purpose. Some things make no sense. Often, we just don’t know why things happen the way they do. The author is realistic, but he is also a man of faith. And so, regularly throughout the book he expresses his trust in God, such as we will see in a few days at the end of chapter two. God gives people enjoyment in life (with all its challenges) and he provides some wisdom, knowledge and happiness. Proverbs might leave the impression that the moral life is one of straight-forward cause and effect: live life wisely and everything will work out well.
Ecclesiastes reminds us that this is not the case. Rather, many of life’s deeper questions are without clear answers. What is futile is the pursuit of complete understanding with a goal of control. As people of faith, we must acknowledge the harsh realities of life. These enigmas grieve us, and so they should. It hurts to not understand why hard work goes unrewarded; why good people get cancer; why a child dies. God does not promise answers to all life’s questions. But as we study Ecclesiastes we will find that he does offer ways to live life well in the face of life’s cruelties and perplexity. Rather than illusory hopes, he offers joyful confidence that life can be enjoyed as a gift from God.