Some of you will recall the 1967 hit tune by crooner Louis Armstrong, “What a Wonderful World,” later re-popularised in the 1987 Robin Williams film, “Good Morning, Vietnam”. Unfortunately for many millions of people, the Satchmo tune is not really part of their everyday experience.
For so many folks, this is an ugly, harsh and quite unpleasant world. For them life is rather pointless, miserable and nasty. Their daily existence seems to be without any meaning, purpose or hope. Of course this is borne out by any glance at the daily newspaper.
The headlines offer up this bleak and despairing reality every single day. Just consider today’s headlines:
– Glee star’s spiral into drug addiction [and death]
– Rape dad says teenager’s suffering ‘not his fault’
– Classroom violence causes concern
– Parliament like ‘bitchy Mean Girls movie’
– Bank fraudster felt ‘owed’
– The sexual selfie
– Graffiti artists ruin $2.5m private jet
Of course every day we are dished up with another batch of despairing, bleak and morose headlines. All in all it seems like a pretty messed up and broken world out there. I point all this out because I have just finished reading the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes again.
This is a book often overlooked by Christians, or at least greatly puzzled over. It seems to make little sense, and certainly does not seem to give a biblical version of events. Indeed, it is a very negative book, telling us that everything is vanity or meaningless.
The key word found in the book, hebel, can mean “vanity, futility, meaninglessness, mystery, enigma, absurdity, irony, brevity, and the like” as David Hubbard notes. The term is used 38 times in the book (out of 78 times in the entire OT), and every chapter has it except chapter ten.
Not only does this theme word seem unduly negative and pessimistic, it certainly does not fit in with the theology of many preachers today. The “Positive Confession” movement would certainly have major problems with all this, and are quite unlikely to ever quote from this Bible book.
It is not just them however; you will very rarely find this book preached from even in evangelical and Bible-believing churches. It does not seem to fit with the rest of biblical revelation, and its gloomy and despairing tone is hardly uplifting material, or so it seems.
But the book is actually a part of the Old Testament canon, and for good reason. It is really telling us what life is like “under the sun” – that is, it speaks to everyday human experience as viewed by man himself. Much of the book offers us this perspective of what life is like when the divine perspective is left out.
Two speakers are in fact present in the book: the preacher, or Qohelet, who dominates the book with his insistence that “all is vanity,” and the narrator, who bookends Ecclesiastes with the godly perspective (1:1-11 and 12:8-14). God’s point of view brackets the fleshly point of view of futility and despair.
As to authorship of the book, there has been a long tradition pointing to Solomon, with the book reflecting his time of apostasy. Some recent conservative/evangelical commentators argue against Solomon as an author (such as Tremper Longman and Iain Provan), but the debate continues.
But the point again is to highlight the truth that life apart from God is futile and in vain. We live in God’s world and are made in God’s image: to live as if God has no place in the universe or in our lives is to live an empty and vacuous life. We were created to live in relationship with our creator, so to deny his existence is effectively to deny our own.
Thus one very important purpose of this book is to point us to the gospel. It shows how bad life is apart from God, and when we are not in right standing with God. As the book concludes, “here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind” (12:13).
And the dreary message of the book is not alien to the New Testament. One NT passage which seems to be a clear allusion to Ecclesiastes is Romans 8:19-23:
“For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.”
I like what Philip Graham Ryken has to say regarding the usefulness and importance of this book for NT believers, a book that he has preached through to his own congregation: “We should study Ecclesiastes because it is honest about the troubles of life – so honest that the great American novelist Herman Melville once called it ‘the truest of all books’.
“More than anything else in the Bible, Ecclesiastes captures the futility and frustration of a fallen world. It is honest about the drudgery of work, the injustice of government, the dissatisfaction of foolish pleasure, and the mind-numbing tedium of everyday life. Think of Ecclesiastes as the only book of the Bible written on a Monday morning.”
The book of Ecclesiastes prepares us for the gospel. It shows us what life is like without God. And it is a pretty bleak and depressing picture indeed. A friend of mine must have been reading this book lately, because something he recently said elsewhere fits in real nicely here:
“I watched a substantial part of the TV news today for the first time in years. All of it could be explained by the Fall, Sin, and the Curse. I had to stop watching. We need Jesus.” Yes we sure do. A book like Ecclesiastes is meant to drive us to Jesus, just as the pain of reading the daily newspaper headlines should do.
And when we let the despair and meaningless of the world drive us to the fullness and joy of life in Christ, then we really can move from saying “What a lousy world” to “What a wonderful world.” Have you made this discovery yet?