Much of the following is borrowed from James Jordan's lectures on Ecclesiastes given at the 2005 Biblical Horizons Summer Conference.
Life in the twenty-first century is frantic and ever-changing. Today’s styles quickly become passé, old skills are soon useless, nothing holds still long enough to harden into habit. Ecclesiastes offers wisdom for living faithfully and joyfully in this kind of world.
"I said in my heart, 'Come now, I will test you with mirth; therefore enjoy pleasure'; but surely, this also was vanity. I said of laughter—'Madness!'; and of mirth, 'What does it accomplish?' I searched in my heart how to gratify my flesh with wine, while guiding my heart with wisdom, and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the sons of men to do under heaven all the days of their lives. . . ." (Ecclesiastes 2:1-26).
To get the point of Ecclesiastes, we have to ignore the usual translations of several key words or phrases. The Hebrew hebel has been translated as "vanity" (NASB, KJV, ESV, ASV) or "meaningless" (NIV, New Living Translation). The Message gets much closer by translating the word as "smoke." The word means "vapor" (Proverbs 21:6) or "breath" (Job 7:16; Psalm 39:5, 11; 62:9, 94:11; 144:4; Isaiah 57:13). In describing human life as vapor or breath, Solomon emphasizes that life is brief and beyond our control. Life is vapor because the world goes on unchanged in spite of all our frantic activities (1:3-11); because things slip through our fingers when we try to grasp them and through our minds when we try to understand them; because nothing lasts, yet everything stays the same; because it ends in death (2:16), and we have no control over the future (2:18-19).
Likewise, the phrase "striving after wind" (1:14, 17; 2:11, 17, 26) is better translated as "shepherding wind." The image does not express vain pursuit, but the effort to control or corral an elusive world. After Solomon has constructed his pleasure garden (2:4-10), he realizes that however solid his works appear they are as evanescent as wind. Man cannot shepherd the wind, but Yahweh, who rides on the wings of the wind (Psalm 18:10; 104:3), is the one Shepherd of the windy world (Ecclesiastes 12:11).
PLEASURE, WISDOM, AND WORK
Solomon explores the vaporous character of the world in several areas. Recapitulating Yahweh’s creation of the garden, he makes a park for his pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11; cf. Genesis 2:8-25). But when he reflects on what he accomplishes, he realizes it is "vapor." He pursues wisdom, but since both the wise and the foolish die there is no advantage to wisdom (Ecclesiastes 2:12-17). He works with all the skill and wisdom that he has, but realizes that he has no control over the fruit of his labor. He realizes that a fool might inherit what he worked for and ruin it all (2:18-23). As a result, life is "painful and grievous" (2:23).
JOY IN GOD
Yet, these insights do not end in despair. We cannot see any results in our labors; we cannot control the future; all is vapor. But that’s just what we should expect if we realize we are creatures, and if we believe that the world is made from nothing. Solomon sees that the world is built to encourage the life of faith, which is the life of joy (2:24-25).
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Tuesday, December 27, 2005 at 10:18 AM
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