Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Vanity of Vanities?

Today is the second day in our 27th week, reading the Bible through together in a year.  Our scriptures today are:  Ecclesiastes 1-3; 2 Timothy 1; Psalm 45.

I love Ecclesiastes!  I know, this isn't a popular opinion.  Many people look at this book and say, "Yuck!  Who would like a book that begins by saying, "'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher. 'Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless (1:2 NIV).'"?  Other translations render this seemingly depressing phrase as "Vanity of vanities (ESV)," or "Absolutely futile (HCSB)," or "Utterly pointless (ISV)."  How could I love a book that begins like that?  

  1. Because this represents Solomon's thoughtful reflection on all his frivolities and excesses throughout the years.  At the end of his licentiousness, he declares it all to be meaningless, a "chasing after the wind."
  2. Because every translation here is inaccurate.  The Hebrew word that's often translated as "meaningless, futile, or pointless" is hebel.  This word can mean the words above, but it can also mean "vapor, breath, delusion,     fleeting, and emptiness."  I would render the word as "impermanence."  To be succinct, Solomon is saying here that the only thing that won't change is change.  
You could look at the inevitable changes in life and get depressed.  You might throw up your hands and say, "What's the point?"  Or, you could take a different perspective and say, "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven (3:1 ESV)."  This is Solomon's position--not getting depressed because all things are fleeting, but rather embracing each moment, living in the present--this moment and the next and the next.  This kind of mindful living allows you to let go of the pass, to not worry about the future, and to simply enjoy each breath.

It's with this lens that we have to read the book of Ecclesiastes.  Otherwise, the temptation can be to grow quite depressed about the meaninglessness of everything.  In reality, we know that there is meaning, purpose, and a divine plan to all things.  God has a plan for each of us, but trying to out-think God and His plan is futile.  Ours is simply to wait and trust and do whatever God places before us.  At the risk of sounding like a huge nerd, I'll quote Gandalf in Peter Jackson's movie adaptation of JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring:  "All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us."  

In Ecclesiastes, we find a balance between the ideas of permanence and impermanence.  Here's a quote from 1:4-7 (ESV) to illustrate this point:

A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
    and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
    and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
    and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
    but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
    there they flow again.

Even in the midst of life's changes, we can know that some things do endure. Along with the earth that remains forever, we can rest assured that the cycles of creation also continue.  

Ecclesiastes is a book that gives reassurance to everyday people.  We see the rich and famous, and are envious of what they have or of the impact they make in the world.  Yet, Ecclesiastes offers a different perspective.  1:9-11 says, 

What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done,
    and there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
    “See, this is new”?
It has been already
    in the ages before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things,
    nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
    among those who come after.

We can either let these words depress us, or we can allow them to free us from the constant drive to acquire more, to do more, to accomplish more.  We can simply rest in the knowledge that all things are as they should be.  This doesn't mean we shouldn't try to improve our situation or the situation of others--it does mean, however, that we shouldn't be driven by a constant sense of striving.  What truly is a "vanity of vanities" is the sin of hubris that says that we can become like God, and that we can determine the fate of the universe by our own cunning.  No--God is in control of all these things.  Let us not be deceived by thinking that our innovations belong to us--they belong to God, who inspires such things.  And so we don't need to chase after the wind.

Ecclesiastes 2:24-26 (ESV) says:  24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

And so we come to that most famous passage from Ecclesiastes--a song that was made famous by The Byrds.  Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 (ESV) says:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
In God's plan, there is a time for everything...those things that you think are worthwhile, and those things that you think might not be so useful.  Why?  Because everything is impermanent.

Verses 9-15 (ESV) continue:

What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man.

14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.

Everything is fleeting--but don't let that get you down.  Instead, let that knowledge be the motivation you need to live in the present moment.  When you're suffering, remember that this, too, shall pass--and so you can endure it now.  When you're enjoying yourself, remember that this, too, shall pass--and so you can enjoy it more, now.  Let eternity dwell in your heart, all the while acknowledging the mystery of the universe and the fact that you can't ultimately know what God has done from beginning to end.  Take joy that the things that God does--these are the things which endure forever.

Remember the words of Jesus, who said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away (Matthew 24:35 ESV)."

And also the words of Paul, who told us, "Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:13 HCSB.)"

*The author is aware of the debated authorship of the book of Ecclesiastes.  For the sake of ease, "The Teacher," "The Preacher," or "Qoheleth" is referred to as "Solomon."  

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