Grisham, Hemingway, Melville, U2, The Byrds, Dave Matthews, and debatably, Pink Floyd. What do they all have in common? They’ve all borrowed (stolen?) from Ecclesiastes. Who can blame them? What is not to love? This is the book for our times: from drinking to free love to despondent fatalism, it’s like the lyric sheet of our postmodern age. And yet…
My husband Michael says every time he embarks on preaching a new sermon series through a book of the Bible, that book becomes his new favorite. So when I gush about Ecclesiastes lately, he sorta smiles with that knowing kind of smile you reserve for the little kid who’s going on about Spiderman. “It’s good, right? And next month when you’re reading Ephesians, it’ll be good too.” But oh my goodness. I love this book.
I have always had a soft spot for Ecclesiastes, ever since writing a paper on The Sun Also Rises in college. Hemingway was such a peacock, strutting around with his pithy declarations about the vanity of life—how could a 20-year-old English major not have a literary crush on the man? He spoke for a jaded generation, much like my own. How can there be meaning in a world of war and suffering? How can our sadness and loss be redeemed? Hemingway would probably say, it can’t. And yet…
You gotta love a book that grapples (in the place of justice, even there was wickedness—3:16), a book that doesn’t pull punches (all things are full of weariness, a man cannot utter it—1:8), a book that dives deep (In the day of prosperity be joyful and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other—7:14). When non-Christians sneer at my Pollyanna faith, let them take a crack at Ecclesiastes. It’s more bracing than a bottle of whisky, more honest than their “find your own truth.”
Philip Ryken says, “Ecclesiastes is not the kind of book that we keep reading until we reach the end and get the answer, like a mystery. Instead, it is a book in which we keep struggling with the problems of life and, as we struggle, we learn to trust God with the answers even when we do not have all the answers.” Like the difference between art and propaganda, Ecclesiastes has no problem leaving you with your mouth ajar. It presents a puzzle to be solved, a question to be considered. It is not easy. And yet…
I love Ecclesiastes, because it is a book of joy. It is a book which lets you fall down the rabbit hole of our culture’s hollow promises and see them for what they are—empty. Then, just when you’re starting to feel serious vertigo, it lands you on solid ground—real truth and beauty. Like Bunyan’s Christian crying out to Hopeful as they cross the river into Heaven, Ecclesiastes says, “Be of good cheer, my brother; I feel the bottom, and it is good.”
You won’t find any answers in pleasure, treasure, philosophy, or toil. Just ask Tom Brady. Ask Jack from 30 Rock, or John D. Rockefeller, or anyone who’s ever won the lottery. Hang out in a nursing home, and ask the residents what mattered most. And then ask Ecclesiastes. Bring your doubts, your fears, your losses, your dreams. As Derek Kidner put it, “in the final chapters he has good news for us, once we can stop pretending that what is mortal is enough for us, who have been given a capacity for the eternal.”
What is mortal is never enough for a person with the capacity for everlasting joy.
Ecclesiastes is like the pretzels freely given at a bar to make its patrons thirsty. If you aren’t thirsty yet, a few verses in? You will be.
Do you remember that scene from The Hobbit—when Bilbo and pals were lost and woozy from the suffocating air of a cursed forest? Bilbo groggily climbed a tree—up and up until he broke out above the canopy and sucked in fresh air with a gasp. His head cleared; he spotted in the distance their destination; and suddenly he understood what to do. Sometimes you have to get a better vantage point to see the big picture. As I said in Thirty Thousand Days, “In all the days of our earth-bound lives, there is only one thing essential to the journey, one thing which is the solution to all our woes, one thing capable of bringing light, clarity, joy, purpose or meaning into our existence. God alone is not bound to the sour sadness of the fall. He is above, beyond, and outside this sin-sick planet, not stuck ‘under the sun’ with us.”
I am so thirsty. You?