Archive for the ‘Ecclesiastes’ Category

I was going to finish the sentence with the word ‘rubbish’ but more recently I’ve been learning (rather too late) that in Kenya, particularly among older generations and those with more sensitive ears, the word ‘rubbish’ (Kiswahili takataka) comes across very strongly to the point of being offensive.

What I’m thinking of is the experience of finding everything just slightly frustrated.

  • When I attempt to put up a shelf in my house and it ends up just slightly off horizontal. Perhaps only I will notice that it is not level, or someone who looks very carefully, but I’m annoyed that it is not right.
  • You’ve proof read the manuscript twenty times but when it’s finally printed there’s a typo on page one.
  • The biscuits/cake/meal you’ve spent an hour preparing stays in the oven or on the stove just five minutes too long. It’s still edible but has that acrid taste round the edges.
  • You drop the new phone that you’ve been saving for and looking forward to for ages and it gets a scratch on the screen on day one.
  • The car has just come back from the mechanics, you’ve spent a lot of money, he’s assured you that everything is sorted but then the next day you hear another funny rattle and grumble under the bonnet.

This is not real suffering – bereavement, pain, trauma – it is just daily frustrations and annoyances. It’s good stuff gone a bit wrong. It’s the sort of thing that Alanis Morissette sung about in her 1995 song ‘Ironic’ (as many people have pointed out, what was genuinely ironic was that the song was not really about ironic things at all but simply about annoying things):

It’s a black fly in your Chardonnay
It’s like rain on your wedding day
It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid
A traffic jam when you’re already late
It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife

Why is it that things are never quite perfect? Even the best things? The most superb athlete has a blister which ruins his performance. The most beautiful house has a crack on the wall and a tap which doesn’t work. The shine is taken off the best works of gospel ministry by imperfections, mistakes and sin.

The book of Ecclesiastes has the answer. It calls it vanity, frustration. It is the curse of Genesis 3. Fallenness, decay, thorns and weeds. A heavy blanket over everything (Eccl. 6:1) frustrating every sphere of life and every human endeavour.

Four ways to respond:

Thanking God for spoiling the world to us

One of the most famous lines in Augustine’s Confessions is the thought that our hearts are restless until they find their true rest in the Lord. But Augustine is well aware that our wayward hearts can find a sort of rest in the pleasures of this world. So a recurring cry in his Confessions is thanks to God for spoiling the things of the world to him (relationships, entertainment, health) so he could not find rest in them:

You [Lord] being the more gracious, the less you allowed anything which was not You to grow sweet to me. (Confessions, Book 6).

Adelaide Procter, the Victorian poet, probably alluding to Augustine, expressed the same thought:

I thank thee more that all our joy is touched with pain,
That shadows fall on brightest hours, that thorns remain;
So that earth’s bliss may be our guide, and not our chain.

I thank thee, Lord, that here our souls, though amply blesses,
Can never find, although they seek, a perfect rest;
Nor ever shall, until they lean on Jesus’ breast.

(From “My God, I thank thee”)

Longing for the better land

As Procter says, the shadows and thorns and frustrations are supposed to be our guide. They should make us long for a better country where there will be no more curse (Rev. 22:3). Romans 8 talks about the creation subjected to frustration (v20) and then gives the great mark of those who have the Spirit as a groaning eager waiting for the resurrection life (v23).

The New Creation is our great Christian Hope (Rom. 8:24). So let every sprained ankle and faulty laptop and dropped cake and torn dress be a little goad turning us to long for the place where there will be no more frustration, no more tarnish, no more thorns only perfection. And then may our thoughts continue on to the very greatest perfection and joy of that Land – the radiant King Jesus.

Courageously conquering the thorns

In the meantime, until we reach the New Creation, we need to be realistic that there will always be frustrations. But the great news is that these cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom. 8:35). Rather, all these things are being used for us – to inflame our longing for the resurrection and for our growth in Christ-likeness (Rom. 8:28, 31-32). And so in this way, as Piper has pointed out, we are more than conquerors (Rom. 8:37) – the thorns and weeds harnessed for our good and growth.

Perhaps this is mostly about a change of perspective. As G K Chesterton observed:

An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.

I need to see the traffic jam or the papers dropped in a puddle as a faith adventure rather than a useless waste of time. There will be frustrations till we reach the heavenly kingdom but each of these mini-mountains can be scaled and overcome. The wise gardener doesn’t bluster at or get depressed by the ever growing weeds, he simply attacks them with gusto as part of the job.

Moving forward in mission

One problem with everything being a bit… imperfect is that it can paralyze us when it comes to moving forward in gospel ministry. I was talking to a brother a few years ago (now a senior minister of a Nairobi church) about mission trips he had done to S Sudan. He was explaining the frustration in not being able to speak the local language there and particularly the frustration that he suspected one of the translators had not been faithfully translating everything he was saying. This led onto a wider discussion about frustrations in gospel ministry. What do you do when things are not quite right? The church leadership structure is not quite right; the small group leaders are not very well trained; the quality of theological education is not brilliant; the resources are lacking…


In response this brother gave the illustration of a battered, old, badly-maintained car. It’s wheels are all going in slightly different directions, it’s rattling and stuttering, but it will move. The thing is you can wait until everything is perfect – the perfect training programme, the perfect people, the perfect education, the perfect church, the perfect cross-cultural mission preparation, the perfectly crafted sermon – but it’s not going to happen. We’re in an imperfect world under the curse of frustration. That’s not a recipe for settling for poor quality or ungodliness or theological compromise or slackness or foolishness – we need to keep fighting those things and prepare as well as possible – but it is just to recognise that sometimes you need to say, that’s good enough for now, and put the key in the ignition and move forward with what you’ve got, hopefully improving things as you go.

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(apologies at the outset that this is a longer post than most – you might need a mug of fully leaded coffee)


We all know the favourite verses: “A time for everything”, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth”, “Two are better than one”, “Cast your bread on the waters”. But what if we want not just to pluck verses but to get a grip on the book as a whole?

The theme is pretty clear. The Hebrew word hebel occurs 38 times, 5 times in the second verse of the book and another three times at the other end of the book (12:8). It’s variously translated, more or less literally: breath, vapour, mist, vanity, what is transient, ephemeral, profitless, meaningless. This hebel is total – affecting every sphere of life. You might gain some fleeting enjoyment but there is nothing lasting, nothing you can hold onto, no enduring profit or significance, no quenching of the thirst. The world under the sun is nauseatingly circular or chaotic. There is good but also a pervasive evil, injustice and restlessness. And what frustrates everything is death and decay. Everything returns to dust and is blown away by the wind. In particular two things are brought to nothing – work and wisdom.

Another pretty clear thing is that there are two voices in the book – an editor/compiler/narrator introducing and concluding (1:1-2; 12:8-14) and in between the words of the ‘Preacher’ (Qohelet). Some commentators think the editor is disagreeing with or qualifying the Preacher’s words but in the conclusion he seems to agree with him completely (12:9-10) just as the conclusion of the book of Job somewhat surprisingly endorses the laments of Job.

Structure (based on de Jong and Clemens):

1:1 – Introduction: “The words of the preacher…”
1:2 – The theme: hebel
1:3-11 – Poem: impermanence of life
1:12-4:16 – Observation – “I perceived…”
5:1-9 – Instruction – “Guard your steps…”
5:8-6:12 – Observation – “I have seen…”
6:10-7:22 – Instruction – “It is better… Consider…”
7:23-29 – Observation – “I have tested…”
8:1-9 – Instruction – “Keep the king’s command…”
8:9-9:12 – Observation – “I saw…”
9:7-11:6 – Instruction – “Enjoy life…”
11:7-12:7 – Poem: impermanence of life
12:8 – The theme: hebel
12:9-14 – Conclusion: The words of the preacher

So the main idea and shape of the book is fairly clear – the Preacher looks around him, sees everything is transitory and frustrated and draws some cautious conclusions. But what is this doing in the Christian Bible? How do we handle this book?

Three views:

1.  Everything is meaningless without God but once God is back in the picture then it all makes sense.

In this view, the preacher is first showing the futility of a secular/existentialist/godless viewpoint – everything is dismal and meaningless “under the sun”. Then, towards the end of the book, he brings in God and an eternal perspective – “Remember your Creator” (12:1). Once we know there is a God in heaven and more to life than this world then we can see the meaning of life – to enjoy life, fear God and keep his commandments. Commentators who take something like this view include Eaton and Tidball and it is influential in our context.

The main problem with this view is that God doesn’t just make an appearance at the end – He is there throughout – both in the observation and instruction portions (e.g. 1:13; 2:24-26; 3:10-22; 5:1-7, 18-20; 6:1-2; 7:13-14; 18,20; 8:2, 11-17; 9:1,9). And crucially, as Barry Webb points out, “the verdict of hebel is consistently maintained, whether God’s involvement with the world is on view at a particular point or not. Belief in God does not relieve the observed and experienced fact of hebel.” (Five Festal Garments, p. 95-96). The Preacher is a theist not an atheist and as a good theist that he concludes his sermon with the verdict: “Meaningless” (12:8).

The other problem with this view is that it can tend to suggest that once you are a Christian you will not experience the frustration and pain and evil that Ecclesiastes talks so much about. And that doesn’t fit either with real life or the New Testament.

2.  Everything in this age is groaning under the frustration of the Fall. Our Hope is future.

In this view, the Preacher is a godly man throughout, struggling with the reality of life in a fallen world. The whole book is really an exposition of Genesis 3. It is about life outside the Garden of Eden, under the curse and condemnation, subjected to frustration. David Clemens suggests Hebel could be rendered ‘fallen’ (Themelios 19.3). Some of the pre-fall goodness remains to be enjoyed – in marriage, work and food (cf. Gen. 2) – but everything has been deeply marred and brought under the rule of death and decay.

Even as Christians, this is still the world that we live in – Romans 8:18-25. As Goldsworthy argues in Gospel and Wisdom, Ecclesiastes is an antidote to an over-realised eschatology (all the blessings now) that forces us to deny the reality of the brokenness and frustration and sickness and pain and sin all around us and in us. As Nigel Styles points out (following Goldsworthy) the key thing that makes sense of everything is this eternal perspective of the Judgment Day. So his summary sentence would be, “Everything under the sun is meaningless, but it all matters because God will judge: fear him!” The Christian life is, like Ecclesiastes, about being brutally honest about this world, looking to eternity and the Day of Christ and groaning for that Hope.

This view makes a lot more sense of Ecclesiastes than the first view. The Genesis 3 allusions are clear throughout and the Romans 8:18-25 control is very helpful. The main mark of the Spirit-filled person in this life should be groaning. We shouldn’t expect to escape the frustrations and ambiguity and darkness of this fallen world until Christ returns. Pastorally this is hugely helpful (as Nigel Styles points out in the video above). Ecclesiastes does not allow reality-denying superficial happy clappy Christianity.

All this is to be taken on board as we read and preach Ecclesiastes. However, a question remains, How Christian is the book of Ecclesiastes in itself? Are the answers that the Preacher gives us really gospel answers? Ecclesiastes’ dominant ways of talking about God are as transcendent Creator and Judge. But this is not specifically Christian. Other religions would strongly affirm God as transcendent Creator and Judge. And how are we to deal with this reality of God and judgment? Ecclesiastes urges us to “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole [duty] of man” (12:13). Is that the gospel?

Certainly in 17th century England the conclusion of Ecclesiastes was taken in a very moralistic direction. A book entitled “The Whole Duty of Man” was hugely influential. In terms rather too familiar in our Kenyan context, it presents the new covenant as a strongly conditional covenant – yes, Jesus has done everything for our forgiveness and complete redemption through his sacrificial death But the benefits purchased by Christ our only ours when we faithfully perform our side of the covenant:

that is, set ourselves heartily to the obeying of every precept of Christ, not going on wilfully in any one sin, but bewailing and forsaking whatever we have formerly been guilty of” (Whole Duty, p. xviii)

J.C. Ryle describes the book as among the “poorest and weakest theological literature in the English language” (Christian Leaders, p. 17) and goes on to quote John Berridge, one of the 18th century revival preachers:

The ‘Whole Duty of Man’ was sent abroad with a good intent, but has failed of its purpose, as all such teaching ever will. Morality has not thriven since its publication and never can thrive, unless founded wholly upon grace… God has shown how little human wit and strength can do to compass reformation. Reason has explored the moral path, planted it with roses, and fenced it round with motives ; but all in vain. (Christian Leaders, p. 240-241)

I’m not for a moment suggesting that any of the advocates of the second view above would want to take things in this direction but in our East African context that is going to be a strong temptation. How do we avoid preaching simply theism and moralism from Ecclesiastes?

3.  The Preacher is a rubbish christ. We need a better one.

This is the view of Glen Scrivener. He has posted on it particularly here and here. I’ll explain his view then underline something that I think is particularly important.

Scrivener starts by taking seriously the description of the Preacher in the first verse: “the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” He is a christ (small ‘c’). But he is not the Spirit-filled Christ of Isaiah 61, he is the one who chases the ruach (Ecc. 1:14; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4; 6:9). He is not the king of heaven but the king of Jerusalem. He is not The Son, he is under the sun.

Scrivener finds, in common with view 2 above, that the whole of creation is under sin and death, but he adds two further burdens: law and judgment (Ecc. 12:13-14). These are not the good news – they are part of the bad news – the lock down of the world. And crucially, the Preacher-King is under this quadruple lock.


From this position, the Preacher-King doesn’t really have any good news to share with us. The overall tone of the book is unremittingly dismal: Life’s tough and then you die. The logical response is, “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” (cf. 2:24; 3:13; 5:18; 8:7; 9:7). The prospect of a judgment day (Ecc. 11:9) doesn’t relieve the hebel (11:10; 12:8). In fact the Preacher can caution us not to be too righteous (7:16).

What we need then is the true Christ, the true Son of David who can free us from all these things. The gospel is seen in Ecclesiastes, as Scrivener puts it, as in a photo negative. We see the great problems we need saving from and we see that even theism is not the answer – “Christ alone is solid rock, everything else is sinking sand.”

What do we say to this view? Well, perhaps one criticism could be that Scrivener is over-influenced by Luther in drawing a sharp distinction between Law and Promise, Judgment and Salvation. As Styles points out, judgment is often good news in Scripture. And maybe the encouragements to “enjoy life” resonate with other wisdom literature (e.g. Ps. 104:15; Prov. 5:18) and relieve the dark tone a bit. And maybe we should be reminded, from Proverbs, that the “Fear the Lord” is the spring of wisdom.

But basically I think Scrivener is on to something very important. It is interesting that Ecclesiastes always talks of ‘God’ (Elohim) rather than the ‘LORD’ (Yahweh). So actually it doesn’t say, “Fear the LORD”, it says, “Fear God” (5:7; 12:13). Webb thinks this isn’t very significant but I wonder whether it is.

Ecclesiastes seems to be showing the impossibility of knowing the true saving God – the LORD – from the bottom up. The theme of wisdom is very strong in the book. Time and again this wise man – the wisest of them all (1:16) – finds that wisdom, even if it has some temporary use, is very limited, frustrated by death and futility (1:17; 2:12-16; 4;13-16; 6:8; 7:16, 23; 8:17; 9:11-10:1). I wonder whether Ecclesiastes is making the same point that Paul is making in 1 Corinthians 1:20-21 and that Karl Barth rediscovered in the last century, that God is not knowable by man, by wisdom, by philosophy, by ‘natural theology’.

So for example, when the Preacher looks around at Creation he doesn’t learn about Christ (as he should – Ps. 19 cf. Rom. 10:17; 2 Cor. 4:6) but just has some vague awareness that there is a Creator in charge of everything.

Much of what the Preacher says is just human wisdom – simple pragmatism – true enough but not particularly Christian (e.g. “two are better than one”). And his theism doesn’t get him much further.

And when it comes to the afterlife and the possible nature of a future judgment, the Preacher’s wisdom cannot get him clear answers. Barry Webb notes that there is “a stubborn ambiguity which cannot be resolved” (Garments, p. 99). He is simply not clear what is going to happen. If he does go to judgment, what sort of judge will he find? He doesn’t know. He can’t know because human wisdom, even theistic wisdom can’t get at that reality.

“he cannot find out what God has done” (Ecc. 3:11)

“even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out” (Ecc. 8:17)

“I said, “I will be wise”, but it was far from me… and deep, very deep…” (Ecc. 7:23-24)

It’s similar to the poem in Job 28 where we find that true wisdom is beyond the reach of man. To use long words, Ecclesiastes is showing us that all our epistemological and theological foundations are sinking sand. To quote Berridge again:

God has shown how little human wit and strength can do… Reason has explored… but all in vain

In Ecclesiastes, as in the gospel, God is smashing and making foolish the wisdom of the wise (1 Cor. 1:19-20). He is saying, if you work from the bottom up then you’ll just come up with the transcendent Creator God of philosophy or the other monotheist religions. You will never find a God who comes down to save his people, a God whose glory is revealed as he hangs on a cross.

The way out of all this is hinted at in the conclusion of Ecclesiastes – the “One Shepherd” (Ecc. 12:11). As Webb suggests, this is almost certainly a reference to God. But not just ‘God’. By saying ‘shepherd’ the editor of Ecclesiastes is connecting to a rich seam of revelation about the LORD (Psalm 23; Ezek. 34:1-22; Micah 2:12), about David (2 Sam. 7:8; Psalm 78:70-72) and about the new ‘David’ to come (Ezek. 34:23 – where it says “One Shepherd”; Micah 5:4; 7:14).

This One Shepherd is the one who gives true wisdom (Ecc. 12:11). He is the one and only who is at the Father’s side who can make him known (John 1:18). Man cannot know God but in the One Shepherd we have God revealing God to us (1 Cor. 2:10; John 1:18; Matt. 11:25-27).

So maybe I’d add to Glen’s diagram one more burden/lock – that of blindness, hiddenness, the frustration of wisdom, the futility of theism and deism.

ecclesiastes 5

But thanks be to God for Jesus Christ our saviour from all this. He doesn’t relieve all the tensions straight away, we will still labour with the frustrations of a fallen world until he returns, but at least we can begin to know the true God – our Father, our elder brother and our comforter – amidst the pain and brokenness. We know the One Shepherd who has laid down his life for the sheep and holds us in his hand and speaks tenderly to us (John 10). In the words of 1 Corinthians 15, we don’t just “eat drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” and our labour is “not in vain” because we known the Christ who has broken into history, died for our sins, been buried, risen, and will return and raise us to live with him beyond decay and death in his glory.

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Don’t worry I’m still very happily married. But I’m a bit worried about the frequent application of Ecclesiastes 4 to marriage. I don’t doubt this Scripture is inspired and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training – and I guess even in wedding services. But is this the best the Bible has to say on marriage?

Correct me if I’m wrong but Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 seems to me (a) not to be particularly related to marriage and (b) to be straightforward pragmatism – practical worldly wisdom and common sense.

  • If you want to make more money, the clever thing to do is work with someone else. Generally speaking a business partnership will last longer and get further than a lone entrepreneur – pooling time, resources, skills and talents. 
  • If you’re travelling on a journey – that is literally (driving to Marsabit) or metaphorically (through life) it’s good to have a travelling companion who can pick you up out of the ditch / help you change the tyre / keep you going.
  • If you’re in a cold part of the country then you need a hot water bottle when you go to bed – any warm body will do (1 Kings 1:1-4).
  • If you’re walking home through a dodgy part of town then don’t walk on your own – two will be less likely to be attacked and will put up a good fight if you are.
  • The cord of three strands may just be illustrating the same point that a multiple is better than a single (three is the fewest number of strands you can make a rope out of so it’s not going to say ‘A cord of two strands’) or it could be making the point that three is even better than two: Three workers will make even more money per person than two business partners. Three journeying together will be even better at getting each other out of ditches. Three in a bed will be even warmer than two. Three warriors make a good fighting force (e.g. 2 Sam. 23:16) – not easily broken.

It’s pure pragmatism. Nothing particularly wrong with that. Perfectly good common sense. Fine to apply some of it to business, ministry and even marriage. But it is only pragmatism. And pragmatism has its limits. It’s not always true. It can be disappointed. And it’s not the gospel. It’s not distinctively Christian. And it tends very easily to selfishness and idolatry. If this is what you go into marriage with as your highest ideal of marriage then there’s a big problem. If this is what drives your marriage – maximising output, finding companionship, sex, self-protection, ‘adding value to me’ – then there’s a big problem.

This is how Piper finishes his great little book on marriage:

I have said nothing about the effect of marriage on poverty, or health, or employment, or earnings, or the material success of children. The reason for this omission is… focusing on the pragmatic effects of marriage undermines the very power of marriage to achieve the effects we desire… This is the way life is designed by God to work. Make him and the glory of his Son central, and you get the practical effects thrown in. Make the practical effects central, and you lose both…. Crass materialism sustains very few marriages….  I want people to flourish in every way. I want the poor to rise into joyful, self-sustaining, productive work and stable households. Therefore, for the sake of these good effects of marriage, let it be heralded with joy that there are reasons for marriage that are vastly more important.

Marriage is not mainly about prospering economically; it is mainly about displaying the covenant-keeping love between Christ and his church. Knowing Christ is more important than making a living. Treasuring Christ is more important than bearing children….

If we make secondary things primary, they cease to be secondary and become idolatrous. They have their place. But they are not first, and they are not guaranteed. Life is precarious, and even if it is long by human standards, it is short. “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14)….

So it is with marriage. It is a momentary gift. It may last a lifetime, or it may be snatched away on the honeymoon. Either way, it is short. It may have many bright days, or it may be covered with clouds. If we make secondary things primary, we will be embittered at the sorrows we must face. But if we set our face to make of marriage mainly what God designed it to be, no sorrows and no calamities can stand in our way. Every one of them will be, not an obstacle to success, but a way to succeed. The beauty of the covenant-keeping love between Christ and his church shines brightest when nothing but Christ can sustain it.

(Piper, This Momentary Marriage, p177-178 – available to download free here)

And for an example of a very unpragmatic, stunningly Christ-displaying marriage…

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