Sunday, December 4, 2011

Inscrutable Beauty--A Slightly Different Take on Ecclesiastes

Some believe that the book of Ecclesiastes is only an inspired record of human wisdom, and, as such, it is a record of human error and should be preached from very selectively. I have never accepted that interpretation.  For the longest time, I believed that the book presents human hopelessness apart from God, but that it it also presents the antidote to human hopelessness—God can give life meaning and remove the sense of hopelessness. I believed that the opening mantra of the book—Vanity of vanities, all is vanity—was  an expression that described the unfortunate conclusion of those who have failed to find the meaning and value of life in God alone.

After preaching through the book in recent years, I have begun to think of the book in a slightly different way. While I do believe that the book presents an antidote of sorts to human hopelessness, I have come back to that initial mantra to reinterpret it, not just for the hopeless, but for all—for those who have hope and for those who do not. I believe it should be understood in this way:  Inscrutable, incomprehensible--the  rhyme and reason of life on this earth is beyond our ability to figure out.

According to this interpretation, God intends for life to be inscrutable for all. Even for those who have the advantage of a relationship with God, the ability to figure out life is beyond them. The author demonstrates again and again that life is full of injustice (3:16; 8:14), futility (1:1-11), and death (3:19; 9:3), and it all just comes back around again for everyone (1:4-10; 3:15). The book is very bleak in its frankness. “Face the facts, folks. Life is unfair, as most people understand fairness. Everywhere you look—in your own life and in the lives of others, in the past and in the present—you will find evidence of the inevitable inequities and futilities of our existence on this earth.” Where this interpretation differs from my prior understanding is that this apparent inequity is not remedied, or re-framed in a more palatable way, simply by having a right relationship with God. In other words, it is proper for all people, Christians and non-Christians alike, to face the reality of life’s inscrutability.

The author of Ecclesiastes proposes to lessen this inscrutability by searching for rhyme and reason in different activities and pursuits—in pleasure (2:1-11), in wisdom (2:12-16), and work ( 2:17-22). All three are common retreats even today for those who want to overcome the incomprehensibility and mundaneness of existence. But the author concludes that these things are unable to lift the fog and provide the rhyme and reason that most people search for.

But Solomon does not leave us with mere nihilism. In the centerpiece of the book, the author tells us that “There is a time for everything under heaven (3:1ff).” He says that God has made everything beautiful in its time (3:11). The arranging of all things, even the apparent inequities of our existence, serve the hidden purposes of the Almighty God. Unfortunately for us mere creatures, we are never guaranteed to be privy to those secret purposes. There is in fact a reason that these purposes are hidden from our intelligence—God built the constant need to find meaning and purpose in life right into the fabric of our being, and he has removed those meanings and purposes far beyond our ability to grasp (3:14; 7:13-14; 8:16-17; 11:15). Our lack of ability to locate that meaning and purpose—that rhyme and reason—in our activities on this earth points to one solution and one alone—Simply trust God. Solomon calls this “fearing God.” The book never implies that trusting him will provide the rhyme and reason that we are looking for. The answers and solutions do not come simply because we trust God. The book simply asks us to trust him in the bad times and in the good regardless of the outcome in our earthly existence. We are to trust that everything that happens, everything that we are going through, is beautiful in the timing of God. The only way that we can see beauty in the futilities of life is through trust. This removes from our handbook of solutions the notion that to have a right relationship will make everything turn out all right in the end. Sometimes—in fact quite often, according to the book—God intends for life to be incomprehensibly difficult. And yet, we are expected to trust him regardless. We are never promised that God will make everything turn out all right in the end of our earthly existence. We are to trust him even if life ends in death, injustice, and futile repetition. We are to trust that in the hidden purposes of God, everything is beautiful. Everything is planned perfectly. Everything is moving toward goals that serve the greatest ends. These purposes do not always require a happy existence for his creatures, but they are beautiful purposes nonetheless.

With this in mind, the author encourages his readers to enjoy life as much as possible. Do not be afraid to take advantage of every opportunity to milk this life for all the joy and happiness that you can get out of it. As long as we are trusting God—and keeping his commandments, as he concludes the book (11:9; 12:1, 13-14)——there are no limits to the joy that we should try to find in our earthly existence. This joy may be beyond some people most of the time and most people some of the time. But when opportunity presents itself, enjoy life as much as possible. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Solomon asserts that life is God’s gift, so enjoy what you can while you can—work, food and drink, possessions, relationships, etc. (2:24-25; 3:13; 5:18-19; 8:15; 9:7-10). Rhyme and reason are not necessary for us to enjoy life as long as we are obeying God’s commands and trusting him.

[First and second paragraphs have been reworked to reflect some input in the comments below.]

[My interpretation is not as different as I thought it was.  It is likely that much of my thinking was informed by what I learned from Dr. Michael Barrett in seminary.  However, there may be some slight differences in emphasis regarding the word translated variously as vanity, breath, wind, meaninglessness, or (my choice) inscrutableness. Here is his excellent series of lectures on Ecclesiastes:]


  1. Interesting. Although it does sound like you were not exposed to Barrett's view, or at least not very well. _hebel_ is literally breath or vapor, so the idea is that life is fleeting and transient and dissatisfying, like "chasing after the wind." God has placed "eternity" in man's heart, apart from which realization (or because of which fact) one cannot find satisfaction. So man is an eternal being in a transient world, trying to find meaningfulness in that world, when it is impossible. So enjoy life (and all the stuff that comes with it) as a gift from God, but not as the end or basis for meaningfulness. I've some papers on it, from class and from my own notes. I think my notes would help you with some details without necessarily going for or against your basic thesis (that life is frustrating for all, regardless of one's relationship with God). Nor do I dispute your thesis. Just wondering if you were introduced (adequately) to Barrett's take on it.

  2. It was a long time ago, so I admit that cannot remember everything about his interp (interp 2 above)or perhaps I did not get the whole thing. You remember that he had certain things that showed up in every class regardless of the subject (Ecclesiastes was one of them), so I thought I had his idea in my head. It was important in my current understanding. I do remember that breath, wind and vapor expressing transience were his choices instead of the KJV's vanity.

    With my inscrutableness idea, I am not translating the words so much as interpreting and extrapolating their implications in light of the larger context. Not intending to contradict Barrett's "transience." When I say slightly different take on Barrett's view, I only mean to add the "inscrutable" interpretation. I do not remember that he focused upon the idea that this inscrutability should and will remain in spite of the trust. So perhaps a better title contains the idea of rejecting the first view and slightly differing from the second.