Sitting in front of a beachside condo, the couple in the video declared, “We live for our vacations. As soon as we get home from one vacation, we start planning the next!” This testimony of people “just like us” was the final effort in a string of incentives and high-pressure sales tactics that a timeshare company trotted out to seal the deal at their presentation. I was struck by the perspective of this couple who’d made the decision to buy, and were now enjoying the benefits of being owners. Their timeshare gave meaning to their lives, and the company hoped to sell me the same.
Is life all about escaping daily tedium in the blue waters of the Pacific? Is this what the writer of Ecclesiastes (“the Teacher”) had in mind when he wrote, “It is good for people to eat,
drink, and enjoy their work under the sun…And it is a good thing to receive wealth from God and the good health to enjoy it” (Ecclesiastes 5:18–19, NLT)? Does Ecclesiastes provide a basis for hedonism, with its motto, “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die”?
It is wise to enjoy life as it’s given to us, understanding that our time is fleeting. However, although the Teacher exhorts us to enjoy life, he doesn’t claim pleasure is the apex of human existence. Surprisingly, neither is chasing after lasting significance. Focusing either on the message of merriment in Ecclesiastes, or looking past it toward a more pious notion of leaving a legacy is to ignore the predominant theme throughout the book: Meaningless! Everything is meaningless.
To understand what the Teacher wants us learn about life, we look at the book’s first audience. The Teacher was writing to the wise and wealthy of his day, to those who cherished the thought of making their lives significant. He warns about the shortcomings of conventional wisdom, wealth, and success. Life is short, he tells the reader, and in the end, everyone dies.
Of course, we’re reminded from time to time that we’re mortal, but we’re tempted to believe we can live beyond the grave through our accomplishments. We hold to the belief that our achievements and contributions can have a lasting impact, and hope that our personal legacies will somehow outlast our days on earth. This is what the Teacher challenges: the idea that humans can somehow imbue their own finite lives with eternal meaning and purpose.
Nothing new under the sun
Since creation’s fall described in Genesis 3, human beings have tried to live life on their own terms. Rejecting the life-giving limits set out by God, Adam and Eve attempted to be like God, and thereby forfeited eternal life. For the Teacher, this was not only a one-time event, but an ongoing human reality. Ever since the fall, human beings have tried pathetically to reclaim the eternal life lost in the garden. The Teacher acknowledges that God continues to put eternity into the human heart, yet he exhorts readers again and again to remember that they’re mortal.
This is the wisdom found in Ecclesiastes: to recognize that we are not God, stop chasing after self-made meaning, and accept with fear and trembling our utter dependence on God. Ecclesiastes challenges us to live a dying life, informed by the humble truth that our days are numbered.
With such a bleak outlook, what then is the point of life? To worship the infinite God instead of our finite selves. The Teacher tells us, “Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty” (Ecclesiastes 12:13, NLT). Jesus lived this duty of humanity, and showed us that true life is only found as it’s completely submitted to God.
We know that Christ offers true life, filled with meaning. Still, we often prefer the illusion that we can obtain an eternal life of our own making. We try to find meaning through our jobs, families, and achievements. We cling desperately to a life that is quickly slipping away. Yet the irony of the cross is that eternal life is found by way of death – only by losing my life will I find it.
As we learn to live a dying life by following Christ’s example, let us also hear the words of the Teacher: “After all, everyone dies – so the living should take this to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2, NLT).
Tabitha VandenEnden is co-pastor with her husband at Grantham MB Church, St. Catharines, Ont.