My Experience of Ecclesiastes

WaitingI have spent the past several months immersed in the book of Ecclesiastes. For those who haven’t read it, this book is vastly different than anything else I have ever read.

It reads like someone who has been trapped in a video game that he can’t win. The best he can do is to lose then restart the game, knowing he’ll lose again.  Meaningless, it’s all meaningless.

Though that is his tone, it has been good for me. I thought it would be worthwhile to summarize why it has been good for me since it doesn’t appear good on the face of it. Here are a few of the ways Ecclesiastes has been good for me:

  • It has reminded me that my friends who are living a life under the sun, apart from God, are stuck in a video game they can’t win. They don’t always recognize the pathos of their situation, but the writer of Ecclesiastes is very clear about it. I need to be aware of their struggle, sensitive to it, and compassionate. I have news that can deliver them, not just from hell, but from the futility of this present existence!
  • It forced me struggle with the meaning of Scripture. How can an inspired writer of the Bible be so negative? I got that question a lot. Peter Enns, in his fabulous but depressing commentary calls it “the Counterpoint” of scripture. Here are some of his thoughts:
The counterpoint of Scripture is part of Scripture and hence should be very much part of any discussion of Scripture and its role in the church. To think otherwise betrays common sense. It is important, therefore, to remember that the counterpoint must be incorporated into a doctrine of Scripture as counterpoint, however offensive or challenging that might be. The theology of Ecclesiastes or job or the lament psalms must be allowed to provide their own diverse voices to the discussion. They cannot be tamed in the interest of familiar or comfortable formulations.
The task is to try to understand how counterpoint functions as Scripture.
By allowing the counterpoint to have its say, we are allowing Scripture to embody for the church a disposition that, apparently (if one takes inspiration seriously), God himself seems very interested to have embodied. What is embodied in Scripture by the presence of counterpoint? It is a posture of conversation and honest engagement with life and with God himself. This is no small matter for anyone who has lived long enough to see the very practical challenges to one’s faith that are so common to all Christians. Scripture is not simply a top-down document that reveals to us God’s will. It is also a God-authorized, documented, painful articulation of what is in store for those who follow God. (Kindle Edition, Location 2822-2827)
  • Ecclesiastes brought me face-to-face with my idols. Yes, that’s the problem. I didn’t think they were idols. Yet, as I interacted week after week with pleasure, work, relationships and wealth I found myself downcast. I realized I had been placing my hope for happiness in these objects and they are not built to satisfy at that level.
  • The confrontation with death at every turn in the book of Ecclesiastes has colored my experience with a major shoulder surgery. I am writing this with a sling on my shoulder. Thankfully it was not as painful as I was led to expect, but nonetheless it is a significant inconvenience and weakens this decaying body even more. I found it very hard not to descend into despair in anticipation of the pain of surgery and in the immediate recovery. Ecclesiastes reminded me I should expect life in this broken world to be full of pain and any other expectation was another form of absurd, unrealistic idolatry.

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