Ecclesiastes

From the Archives: The Dignity and Vanity of Labor

I’ve always preached that all honest work is God-glorifying and that the opportunity to engage in labor and reflect God’s character through it is a great privilege. Over the years, I’ve also emphasized that if you’re doing the work God wants you to do, however “secular” it may be, you shouldn’t stoop to do anything else. Even vocational ministry is a demotion if it’s not what God wants you to do.

As a pastor, these ideas were relatively easy to affirm. The logic is simple. The best thing any man can do at any time is to obey God. Therefore, if God wants him to sell soap, or make pizza, or drive truck, or mop floors, that activity is the best thing he can do. And if that work is best for him, all other work is inferior.

But when you’re post-pastoral, these principles can be a bit harder to hold with conviction—especially if you loved your pastoral work, prepared thoroughly for it for almost a decade, and still believe it’s what you do best. But sometimes even guys with seminary training and clear evidence of giftedness for ministry can find themselves facing clear direction from God to “do something else until further notice.”

And when that happens, they struggle to see meaning and purpose in the work they find to do.

So on this labor day, I’m talking to myself and to any of the rest of you who sometimes feel that your work is a bit wanting on the scale of importance, meaning and enduring value.  (It’s also a holiday, so I’m not going to work too hard at this. Please enjoy the irony.)

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All Fun and No Funerals Makes Jack a Dumb Boy

Death is an occasion and funeral homes are a place marked by much sadness and grief. And yet, according to Holy Scripture, there is something potentially beneficial about such an occasion and such a place. As the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting” (7:2 NIV). To paraphrase, “Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties” (NLT). Why would the Bible make such an assertion? What is this passage teaching us?

What the Text Isn’t Saying

To begin with, let’s consider what this passage is not teaching:

1. It’s not teaching that life is a drag

The writer of Ecclesiastes is not forbidding or discouraging us from enjoying ourselves at festive occasions. In other words, the text is not teaching that it’s wrong to celebrate and to be happy. Earlier in the book the writer says, “There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (3:4). Later, he says, “When times are good, be happy” (7:14). According to the New Testament, the Lord Jesus himself celebrated weddings (John 2:1-11) and enjoyed feasts (Matt 11:19). So it’s not necessarily wrong to be to be in “the house of feasting.” God isn’t a cosmic killjoy!

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The Dignity and Vanity of Labor

I’ve always preached that all honest work is God-glorifying and that the opportunity to engage in labor and reflect God’s character through it is a great privilege. Over the years, I’ve also emphasized that if you’re doing the work God wants you to do, however “secular” it may be, you shouldn’t stoop to do anything else. Even vocational ministry is a demotion if it’s not what God wants you to do.

As a pastor, these ideas were relatively easy to affirm. The logic is simple. The best thing any man can do at any time is to obey God. Therefore, if God wants him to sell soap, or make pizza, or drive truck, or mop floors, that activity is the best thing he can do. And if that work is best for him, all other work is inferior.

But when you’re post-pastoral, these principles can be a bit harder to hold with conviction—especially if you loved your pastoral work, prepared thoroughly for it for almost a decade, and still believe it’s what you do best. But sometimes even guys with seminary training and clear evidence of giftedness for ministry can find themselves facing clear direction from God to “do something else until further notice.”

And when that happens, they struggle to find meaning and purpose in the work they find to do.

2567 reads

Eternity in Our Hearts

Those of you who are regular readers may have wondered where I’ve been recently. If my estimate is correct, this is the longest I’ve been away since I first started blogging over two years ago. The reason is simple: life, over the course of these last three weeks, has been epic in every sense of the word. It has read like something Solomon himself could have penned. It’s literally been

A time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to mourn and a time to dance…(Eccles. 3:2-4)

In the last three weeks, we’ve seen babies, death, weddings, work deadlines, gardening (which, we all know, waits for no man), family vacation, and now once again, we’re counting off the days until school starts as the wheels of time have continued to turn, turn, turn. And more than ever, I feel my immortality creeping in. Yes, you read that right, my immortality.

Often, when we’re caught in a busy season of life, when the days blur and blend into weeks before we even realize it, our first impulse is clutch at the passing moments and try to harvest every drop of meaning from them. We scamper and scurry like little field mice desperate to collect our winter stores before it is too late. Rush, rush, hurry, hurry. Winter is coming. Life is passing you by.

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The Viewpoint of Ecclesiastes: Cynicism or Realism?

From Faith Pulpit, Winter 2012. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Qoheleth, the author of Ecclesiastes,1 looked at the various areas of life and concluded that everything was vanity.2 He started (1:2) and ended (12:8) his writing by stating, “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Is vanity, however, the theological message of Ecclesiastes? Or should it be understood in a more positive light? Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, co-authors of How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, take differing views: “[one of us] understands Ecclesiastes to be an expression of cynical wisdom, which serves as a kind of ‘foil’ regarding an outlook on life that should be avoided; [the other one of us] understands the book more positively, as an expression of how one should enjoy life under God in a world in which all die in the end.”3 So is Ecclesiastes a warning to us of the vanity of life outside of a relationship with God or a message of how one can enjoy life despite its vanity?

Qoheleth, the Foil

Those who understand Ecclesiastes to be a foil (i.e., a contrast to the rest of the Bible’s teachings) interpret the majority of the book as “a brilliant, artful argument for the way one would look at life—if God did not play a direct, intervening role in life and if there were no life after death.”4 Ecclesiastes 12:13 and 14 is then understood as “a corrective, orthodox warning.”5 “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether it is good or whether it is evil.”

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Understanding Ecclesiastes: Life in a Frustratingly Enigmatic World, Part 2

Read Part 1.

In part 1 of this series, I began to develop an alternative to negative renderings of hebel (AV, “vanity”). In part 2, I will explain three reasons why hebel would be better understood as “frustratingly enigmatic.” Then I will conclude by looking at some implications of the use of hebel in Ecclesiastes.

Evidence for understanding hebel as “frusratingly enigmatic”

(1) The phrase “chasing after wind” (r’ut ruah) serves as a qualifying element to hebel. Ecclesiastes1:14 is an example, where “chasing after wind” complements hebel. The phrase also occurs in Ecclesiastes 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6; 6:9. The expression indicates something that is beyond man’s control. As Carl Shank observed, “A man may determine or make up his mind to accomplish something eternally significant in a creation subjected to vanity, yet no matter how hard he tries Qohelet tells him it will be a fruitless endeavor. A man in his toil ‘under the sun’ grasps after the wind and attains precious little for all his labor” (“Qoheleth’s World and Life View As Seen in His Recurring Phrases,” Westminster Theological Journal 37 [Fall 1974]: 67). Thus, the concept of “chasing after wind” supports our contention that the semantic range of hebel includes a cognitive sense (for other complementary phrases, see Ogden, Qoheleth, pp. 24–25).

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Understanding Ecclesiastes: Life in a Frustratingly Enigmatic World, Part 1

Many interpreters maintain that the overall message of Ecclesiastes is one of cynicism and vanity (e.g. Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, pp. 212–15). According to this perspective, the author of Ecclesiastes, Qohelet (an epithet for Solomon), has written a book unlike any other in the canon—one that focuses on cynicism and complete despair.

Those who take this view derive the message of despair from some “negative” motifs in Ecclesiastes. The most dominant of these begins the book in 1:2: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (NASB). “Vanity” translates the Hebrew word hebel.

Since hebel occurs multiple times in every chapter of Ecclesiastes, readers must understand it in order to grasp the message of the book. But if this term is exclusively negative, how do we explain its juxtaposition to exhortations to enjoy life (the carpe diem passages)? More specifically, is “vanity” or any other negative term (such as NIV’s “meaningless” or HCSB’s “futility”) the best way to render hebel in Ecclesiastes? The purpose of this article is to suggest an alternative to negative renderings of hebel and to suggest how the resulting message of Ecclesiastes should impact our lives.

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