Fiction is one of my favorite genres to read. I love the experience of transporting to another world. Reading fiction is great therapy for a tired and weary soul. It helps you to get outside yourself and your world as you consider the life and movements in a fictional world. Fiction is an escape. Sometimes, after a long week, traveling to Narnia or Middle Earth is the best rest.
While reading fiction can be a healthy form of escape, there are other more dangerous versions. Escape from reality is sometimes found in more dubious sources, like drugs, alcohol, or pornography. Others find escape in Twitter, Netflix, or a host of hobbies. We escape because we are dissatisfied with life as we know it. Ecclesiastes is for all those who lament the world as it is and long for a better one. Ecclesiastes is for those looking for escape.
Ecclesiastes forces us to see the world as it is. It opens our eyes to the raw fallen world. You won’t find a sugar-coated message in Ecclesiastes. Some of us will be deeply encouraged as we find a friend in the Preacher who “gets it.” Some of us will be appalled by his honesty. All of us must deal with the Preacher’s sobering observations about life “under the sun.” Brace yourself, because you may not like what he sees.
The main thrust of the book is stated in verse 2. “Vanity of vanities…vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” The author used a Hebrew word that is often translated “breath” or “vapor.” Everything is a vapor. Everything is a breath. In verses 2-11, the author utilizes this picture to discern the meaning of work. “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?”
Every answer we can give is temporal. It is vanity to live for our careers because all we gain by them is temporary and fleeting. By observing the cyclical patterns of nature, the Preacher concludes that life in a fallen world is naturally dissatisfying. A full life is still a short life. The happiest life is microscopic in comparison to the constant ebb and flow of nature. The ground you stand on will far outlast you. Life is like smoke from a candle. It’s here one minute and gone the next. Generations come and go, but the earth remains.
What a humbling thought to consider! No matter what you do with your life, death is coming. And the sun will rise the day after your funeral. The winds will blow and the rivers flow without a hiccup. Earthly gain is not just foolish, it’s impossible! David Gibson has said, “People do not gain from their labor and toil because ultimately they are going to die and be forgotten.”
The Preacher doesn’t qualify his poem. Life is short and elusive; death is certain for all of us living under the sun. We object, “Well, this is true from a secular perspective.” “Well, life does seem that way without Jesus.” But the Preacher doesn’t offer softening qualifiers. He doesn’t care about our sensibilities. He simply looks at the world and tells us what he sees.
There isn’t one reality under the sun for believers and another for non-believers. In fact, his goal is to help us stop pretending the world isn’t the way it is. The world really does repeat itself. No matter how hard we work, we will one day die and another will take ownership of all we have. Eventually, we will be forgotten while the earth on which we toiled will be home to a new generation. Life under the sun is temporary.
The Preacher counters our desire to escape by showing us that we can’t escape. Whatever we gain will vanish. It is vanity to think otherwise. Are you depressed yet? The point of Ecclesiastes 1 isn’t to depress but to illumine. It is a light to help us see the darkness that we try to avoid. Death is coming, so how then should we live?
Coming to grips with the brevity and elusiveness of life will help us seek escape in the only One who can truly provide. it. We long for a world greater than our own. We long for a reality far different from the one we have. Press in to these desires. Lament the fact that we can’t find such gain in this world. And look to Christ, the one who entered our fallen world to rescue us from it. Only in Christ can we delight in a short, elusive life and find true gain.
Mathew Gilbert is Associate Pastor for Children and Preschool at The Church at Trace Crossing in Tupelo, MS. He is a student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the author of Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God. Mathew and his wife, Erica, live in Tupelo with their two boys, Jude and Jack.