A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Ecclesiastes 2 v 24-26
Life is like a toilet-roll just out of reach.
“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” Jim Carrey
When you study Ecclesiastes, you begin noticing it everywhere. Every place you go, every person you meet, you see Ecclesiastes happening. It’s sometimes really hard to get out of your head, rather like one of those tunes that you catch on the radio.
Ecclesiastes is like that because so much of it describes our experience of life. What is that experience? No matter what we go through – the good times and the bad – and no matter what we do or how successful we are or where we go, always hanging over us is the knowledge that one day we will lose it. There’s nothing that we can keep hold of.
This, however, does not stop us from trying. Oh how we try! We try but fail to find something ultimately fulfilling, satisfying and permanent in this world and it leaves us with a sour taste in our mouths. Life is, well, frustrating…like when you drop the toilet paper and it rolls ever so slightly out of your reach. Close, but not close enough to avoid the inevitable.
In the last blog, we saw that the word translated as “meaningless” in the NIV and “vanity” in many other translations, is actually defined in the Hebrew dictionary first as “breath” or “vapour”. And we saw that the thing about breath or vapour is that you cannot hold on to it. It appears and then it disappears. So to live as if things in this life “under the sun” are permanent, is like trying to chase after the wind, or grab hold of vapour, or keep hold of breath. It can’t be done. And trying to do so is futile.
In Ecclesiastes 1:12 – 2:26 is a search for something in this world that is worth taking hold of, something that we can grasp, that we can live by, that doesn’t go away or fade. The writer explores concepts like pleasures, wisdom and work, all the time looking for something within which he can find meaning. And the reason why he concludes with “Vapour! Vapour! All is vapour!” or “Breath! Breath! All is breath!” is that he finds nothing in this world that we can hold on to forever.
What can we do?
The end of the chapter two describes the problem of permanence that we all face in this life. However, it also the hints at the solution.
His conclusion is not that “eating, drinking and working are the be-all and end-all of life, so just invest everything into that.” He is saying that these good things – eating and drinking and finding satisfaction in your work – are gifts from God. And it is not just the good things themselves that are God-given gifts; so also is the ability to appreciate and enjoy them! God alone gives satisfaction and joy, and even wisdom.
Only God is permanent. Only God is lasting. Only he is not a mere breath. You can hold on to him. You can keep him. He is never taken away. He is unchanging. He is also the creator and sustainer and source of all things. So you can eat and drink and work, and you can enjoy these things as temporary gifts because you know you have God, and he satisfies your desire for the eternal. It is only when we’re with God that we can appreciate our life in this world for what it is – a temporary gift.
The apostle Paul says something very similar. In Philippians chapter 3, verses 7 – 10 he writes, “But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”