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The Strange Hope of Ecclesiastes

Despite having a reputation for being hopelessly depressing, Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books of the Bible. Not because it’s depressing, but because of the hope it gives in a world that often feels terribly upside down.

Yes, it can feel like Ecclesiastes is just out there to ruin your day, but as we get more and more exposed to the overabundant confusion in the world and our own lives we will have to deal with these issues anyway. We might as well know how to deal with it.

Our wisdom and possessions will fail us. We will lose things we worked hard for. Bad will happen. But hopefully we will have enough knowledge and perspective to say with Job "The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord" (Job 1:21) when these things inevitably happen to us-- which is what Ecclesiastes can do. And it does it by pointing out the harshness of reality.

"For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow." (Ecclesiastes 1:18)

"The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them." (2:14)

"I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool?" (18-19)

"Behold the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power. . ." (4:1)

What are we supposed to think and do when life seem pointless, unjust, or meaningless? If wisdom, wealth and work are so unsatisfying and fragile, why should we even bother? It almost seems like Ecclesiastes is saying we shouldn't.

But it's not.

There are two ways you can approach Ecclesiastes. 

You can see the backward way life sometimes operates in and slump in your chair. You can conclude that since wealth, wisdom, and work will ultimately not satisfy you, you should leave them in the dust-- or at least only use them as much as is absolutely necessary lest you over-value them.

But that isn't the message of Ecclesiastes (or the rest of scripture for that matter). It's not about letting go of all these fleeting things. Yes, it discourages you from placing your trust in them, but in the very next breath it tells you:

"Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun. . . Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil-- this is the gift of God. . . God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart." (5:18-20)

These things-- wealth, wisdom, work-- they're all gifts from God and we should treat them as such and enjoy, even seek after them while we can. To throw them away would be ungrateful. No, the danger is not in enjoying them but in investing all our hopes and dreams in them, hoping to be satisfied. Idolizing them, in other words.

Ecclesiastes doesn't point out the vanity of life to tear you down.

Ecclesiastes brings your eyes back to Christ and reminds us that he is the only thing we can rely on. It also reminds us that as fleeting as wealth, wisdom, and work are, they are still blessings when put in their proper place. Not clutched tightly or held at an arm's length but with an open hand.

This is the hope of Ecclesiastes. When we put our possessions-- physical or otherwise-- in the right place not only can we enjoy them when we have them but we can also rest in Christ when everything is taken away because they were never our hope, they were just gifts.

Of course, it is never quite that simple. There will never be a time when losing a job or being treated unjustly or having your car break down will be all fine and dandy. Ecclesiastes doesn't try to sugar-coat that. But when we rejoice in Christ through our work we can know that none of that time and effort was wasted because we were using it as it was meant.

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