Parts of Scripture speak with more clarity and more force to different people at different times. Because there’s a time to weep, to dance, to keep silent, and to hate, these changing conditions attune our eyes and ears to different parts of Scripture. This is true of individuals, but it’s also true of groups, and maybe even of civilizations. So when you’re given the choice in Old Testament Canonics class to write a paper on either Esther or Ecclesiastes, Esther may be the easier choice but you can’t say no to Ecclesiastes. You just can’t. Although the book was written thousands of years ago, thousands of kilometers away, in an utterly foreign context, it could have been written yesterday, in downtown Hamilton. It’s that immediately applicable to our own time and place.
It was an assignment that had us do what a minister does when he wants to preach a series on a book. You find out, if possible, when it was written, who the author was, and who the audience was. You try to formulate the message and the themes of the book as simply and as briefly as you can, you look for ways to preach Christ, and you divide the book into passages for preaching. You do what you can to make the project manageable and to bring it to life.
We of the twenty-first century are regularly submerged in what the author of Ecclesiastes calls hebel. This word has been translated as futility, vanity, and meaninglessness, but there really is no single English word that captures everything it means. In Hebrew it refers to vapour or mist. There is an enduring feature of our existence that is mist-like, that resists our efforts to control it, understand it, or defy it. It is at once futile, vain, and meaningless, yet stretches past those meanings to absurdity and beyond. We soak in hebel with the endless stream of news and opinions that the internet gives us. We can fly across the earth in a matter of hours from one hub of hebel to another. Even if we can’t find quite the right word, the meaning of the word is all around us at every moment.
There’s a reason two of the five outgoing fourth-years chose passages from Ecclesiastes for their final chapel addresses. For all of its value, seminary can have the same effect on you as a glacier that slowly scours the ground beneath it. You encounter one idea after another, in ceaseless succession, and every one of those ideas is contested somewhere else. You’re not a relativist, but you begin to wonder how so many intelligent and even godly people can disagree so sharply at so many different points. You hand in your papers not because you’ve found what you’re looking for, not because you’ve contributed to any ongoing discussion or resolved any personal intellectual or spiritual tension, but because the paper is due that day. And then with great effort you grab hold of your thinking and heave it toward the next paper and the same kind of results, and on it goes.
On the last day of exams there was probably someone somewhere who just slipped and fell to his death, or someone normally full of grace who just spoke words that she can never take back; somewhere else a three-year-old girl kissed her mother, both of them horribly disfigured because the man who was supposed to pour out his love on them poured acid on their faces instead. And there we were, at the post-exam potluck, giggling over the distinct pleasure of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
A couple months ago Dr. Smith and his wife, Darlene, hosted us students for an evening. That was the day that the blue/black vs. white/gold dress debate was all over social media. It came up that night, too. Someone mentioned how stupid it was that people get caught up in something so silly, and then out came the cell phones and the pictures and we all got carried away arguing about it. And why not? The great part of our lives is filled with mundane things. Most of what we talk about in a day is as consequential to human affairs as was the colour of that dress, and most of what we do is all too forgettable. The truth is that not only will you probably be forgotten by your own descendants, but you’ve already forgotten almost every moment of your own life. Your past stretches behind you like the hebel of an airplane, and vanishes just as completely.
And that’s it. That’s the reality of our existence. It is one immense boiling pot of hatred, love, guilt, frustration, laughter, terror, and joy. It will go on, just like this, until everything ends. Nobody asked me if I wanted this existence. I simply found myself here, just like everyone else; and just like everyone else I’d like to make whatever sense of it that I can. But this, too, is hebel.
We tend not to think too much in this direction. We crave solidity and resolution – precisely what Ecclesiastes does not give us. This might even lead us to avoid dwelling too long on the book’s message for fear of becoming disillusioned by it. Psalm 88 offers a similar reading experience. There we wait for the closure, for the escape hatch that allows a retreat from the disquieting darkness. But it never comes. We are forced just to look at it, and it makes us squirm.
Yet it is that very lack of resolution and escape that gives these passages their value. For they reveal to us that we have a deeper need than the need to resolve things. It is an amazing thing that simply to affirm the suffering of another can itself be a healing gesture. Simply being looked at and seen reaches to our very depths, as we have a need for others to look at us and not look away. In fact, this need is addressed every Sunday as we prepare to leave worship: “The LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.” It sounds simple, and it really is basic, but perhaps the essential blessing for the Christian life is that God would look at us and not look away. One of the great comforts of the book of Ecclesiastes is that God sees just how absurd this great boiling pot is and he says, Okay – and keeps on looking.
Another great comfort is that in the midst of all this hebel we are not left without instruction. Some of this instruction is itself hebel, but it is instruction nonetheless. The Teacher shows us the futility of playing God, of striving after a comprehensive knowledge of reality. Our understanding is profoundly stunted, and it ought not to be the resting place of our peace. Rather, instead of roaming far and wide under this hot sun, restlessly chasing the wind, we ought to draw ourselves back to what is within reach. The author celebrates the man who can eke out a small shelter in this stormy world, who can enjoy his food and drink, who can love the wife of his youth, and who can find a close friend. These immediate, concrete things are the substance of true comfort, and we do well to strive after them.
But some of this instruction is not hebel. There are points in the book where the Teacher withholds his incisive critique, standing back and standing down. You know you are reading the book well, and reading it properly, when you find yourself with the Teacher at the beginning of everything: standing in awe of God. In fact, the book tells us what the conclusion of this whole hebel business is: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13). If everything around us, under the sun, is in flux, God is above it all and is the only fixed point. Keeping the torah, the instruction, of God puts us in contact with that fixed point: “Like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings” (12:11). When we nail the words of that instruction to our hearts through obedience then we find whatever solidity and resolution is available to us.
Our conclusion, though, must be more complete. In giving us his profound words, the Teacher cast his bread upon the waters, but when we found the bread again the Word had become flesh. The Teacher didn’t know it, but when the bread returned it would make all things under the sun new. We partake of the bread, remember the Word, and where the wind once blew aimlessly, teasing us to a hebel pursuit, a mighty rushing wind blows new obedience into our hearts. The instruction of God, once hard, external, and requiring nails, is now alive under the influence of this new wind. The Teacher saw only endless cycles worn out by time, but we know now that the cycles are part of a spiral, circulating ever upward to the culmination of history and the coming of the new Jerusalem. The theme of the New Testament really is new, and through this the world of the Teacher is transformed (Do you ever wonder if our insatiable appetite for new trends and products is because we are not deeply satisfied with our ever-new Saviour? I don’t know; it’s just a thought).
Finally, just as the finite and the infinite come together in Christ, so do the hebel and the non-hebel, the world of man and the world of God. If we work from what the Athanasian Creed says, that “he is one, however, not by the transformation of his divinity into flesh, but by the taking up of his humanity into God,” then perhaps we can say the same about hebel. The hebel has been taken up into the non-hebel, what was under the sun has ascended above it. The similarity between sun and son in English has been used in any number of cute Christian wordplays, but sometimes it just can’t be helped. Ephesians 1:22 tells us that God has placed all things under the feet of Christ, so what was under the sun in Ecclesiastes is now under the Son. Okay. The point is, even if hebel has managed to smear itself over all our lives, it doesn’t stick like it used to. It is there simply as a relic of a fading age. And just as completely as Christ will kill death at the end, so will he make hebel itself into a mist and it will vanish for all time from all thought.