Friday, March 26, 2010

Solomon: "Don't Waste Your Life"

Perhaps the most memorable -- and potentially confusing -- theme of the book of Ecclesiastes is Solomon's insistence on proclaiming the vanity, or futility, of life. The Hebrew word hevel appears 38 times in the relatively short book, and it denotes at least three things:
  1. Transience: the name Abel is a transliteration of this word, and interestingly Abel's life was very transient, as he was murdered at a young age by his brother Cain;
  2. An incomprehensibility, referring to frustration over life’s unanswered questions; and
  3. A futility described as “striving after the wind” (Eccl 1:14; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 16; 6:9), being of “no advantage” (Eccl 3:19; cf. 1:3; 5:11, 16; 6:8, 11), and of “no profit” (Eccl 2:11; 3:9).

Indeed, his exclamations of the emptiness of the various occupations of man’s life may leave the reader thinking that the book is nothing more than the skeptical-cynical musings and complaints of a jaded pessimist, and anything but godly wisdom from the wisest king in the world (1Ki 4:29-34; 2Chr 9:22).

However, Solomon’s great focus on the futility of life must be considered through the lens which he intended. Besides futility, another oft-repeated phrase throughout the book is “under the sun” (Eccl 1:9; 2:17-20; 3:16; 4:1; 5:18; 6:1; 8:9; 9:11; 10:5). Solomon is referring to the way things appear to be on this side of heaven; that is, from the perspective ‘under the sun’ as opposed to the eternal perspective ‘beyond the sun.’

He is speaking of life from the human perspective, and so his conclusions about the emptiness, futility, and incomprehensibility of life make sense. Because the Word of God tells us specifically that world we live in ‘under the sun’ has itself been subjected to futility. Paul tells us that in Romans 8:20, where he uses the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word, hevel, mentioned above. He goes on to say that this creation which was subjected to futility is in slavery to corruption (Rom 8:21) because it is under the curse of sin (Gen 3:17-19). Therefore, Solomon’s apparent pessimism is actually a wise incredulity, because it is indeed appropriate to be pessimistic about this world. We simply cannot make sense of life from a merely human, or naturalistic, perspective.

So how are we to live in this cursed world, filled with futility and brokenness? The answer is the theme of the book of Ecclesiastes, and is presented most succinctly at the end of all Solomon’s ruminations: “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments” (Eccl 12:13). Though life seems incomprehensible while ‘under the sun,’ there is a God in heaven whose perspective is greater than ours. He is the one who makes sense of life and gives it meaning. That which gives this seemingly inscrutable and fleeting life meaning is the fear of God.

That phrase, which in Solomon's mind is the key to all of life, is distributed fairly evenly throughout the book (Eccl 3:14; 5:7; 7:18; 8:12-13; 12:13). It is the unifying thread that ties all of the apparently random discourses together. But what does it mean, exactly, to fear God?

Well, the one who wisely fears the Lord worships Him in all things. He regards God and His Word as supreme in all the occupations of his everyday life, and considers all he does in the light of who God is and what He has revealed of Himself in His Word. And such worship of Yahweh is precisely what He elsewhere in Scripture declares is His ultimate purpose in all He does (Is 42:8; 43:7, 25; 48:11; Ezek 36:22-23; Eph 1:11-12). All of life is to be lived for the glory of God (1Cor 10:31).

It's interesting, then, that Solomon consistently exhorts his readers to enjoy life as a gift of God (Eccl 2:24-26; 3:12-13, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-9; 11:8-9). You can pursue your greatest pleasure apart from the fear of God, but at the end of your pursuit, you, like Solomon, will find that none of those pursuits satisfy your soul. You'll find that your striving after pleasure is like “striving after the wind.”

But the one who pursues his greatest pleasure according to the fear of God – that is, pursuing his pleasure in God Himself – will find that the enjoyments of this life are gifts from a gracious and beneficent Father (Jas 1:17), and will thus give glory and praise to Him as the giver of all good things. In this way he will worship God, because he will be living his life the way the Creator of life intended it to be lived. This way, and only this way, he will not waste this one fleeting life he has under the sun.

Heed Solomon's word to us. Don't waste your life.

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