Daily Update #250

Today’s Reading: Ecclesiastes 1:12-18

12 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.   15 What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted. 16 I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. 18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.

Yesterday, Martin had the daunting task of getting our series in Ecclesiastes underway. The New International Version gives the first part of chapter 1 the heading ‘Everything Is Meaningless’. Today’s final 7 verses have the heading ‘Wisdom Is Meaningless’. The Teacher, possibly King Solomon himself (1:1), whilst writing in the tradition of other wisdom books such as Job, the Psalms and Proverbs, has a decidedly cynical and pessimistic approach. Indeed, for me his style is similar to that of those grumpy old men, Waldorf and Statler, in The Muppet Show! So why are we looking at this, the most negative and sceptical book in the Bible? Part of the answer lies in the title of the commentary ‘That’s Life! Realism and Hope for Today from Ecclesiastes’ by Derek Tidball (IVP,1989). Realism and hope are just what we all need to have every day!

Ecclesiastes takes a hard-headed look at the realities of human experience. It is an examination of secular wisdom and human understanding i.e. those things that we can experience and observe “under the sun” (1:3,9,14). Our reading today looks at the limitations of any wisdom that we can gain from study and experience. God is very much there but sin gets in the way of us fully appreciating His purposes – and of us living meaningful lives. The writer has loads of knowledge and experience of life. As he looks around he sees chaos and futility in all the hustle and bustle and confusion of humanity. He knows that God has given us a heavy burden and he writes “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (1:14). He is teaching us that only in God can we find true meaning.

The Teacher speaks as if he is chastened by the inadequacies of human wisdom. From  his study of madness and folly his conclusion is typically downbeat – “For with wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief” (1:18). We may not like his tone. However, he helps us to assess our own levels of discernment, understanding and wisdom about the wonders of God’s universe and of His love for us. When we look at the warfare, violence, poverty, inequality and corruption that still afflict our world it is hard to disagree with the Teacher. Even great thinkers fall well short without God’s assistance. The brilliant Sir Isaac Newton admitted at the end of his life that ‘I have been paddling in the shallows of a great ocean of knowledge.’ Our brilliant vaccine-makers and wise thinkers of today must also experience life’s futilities. You too? The great value of Ecclesiastes is that it helps us to face up to the big questions of life:

 i) The Teacher ‘picks up our own questions. Can you cope with life without having any idea of where you are going? You don’t have all the answers to life’s enigmas do you? Your view of life doesn’t give you any hope of achieving very much, does it? Nature will not answer your questions, and you are bored by it anyway. History baffles your attempts to understand it. You don’t like to think about your death yet it is the most certain fact about your existence’ (Michael Eaton in the New Bible Commentary).

ii) ’Ecclesiastes does not pretend to preach the gospel. Rather, it encourages the reader to a God-centred worldview rather than falling victim to frustrations and unanswered questions’ (Tom Wright, ex Bishop of Durham).

Today’s Prayer: Dear Father, we ask that you will give us all the wisdom and understanding we need to serve you as you wish. Thank you that Jesus offers us life in all its fulness as we follow him. Help us to avoid all meaningless activity. May we grow in our knowledge and love of you in the time we have left in this world. We ask this in Jesus’s precious name.  Amen.   (Mike W)