For the exhortation portion of the service, we have been exploring the book of Ecclesiastes the past few weeks. This is the last exhortation for this series.
Ecclesiastes is a book in the Old Testament that is considered wisdom literature. There are two other books that can be grouped with Ecclesiastes – Proverbs and Job. These three books together explore the question "what does it mean to live well in this world?" This turns out to be a very personal and relevant topic for us, which is why Ecclesiastes is one of my favorite books in the Bible. Let's take Proverbs for example. You could think of the main character in Proverbs as a bright young teacher, let's call her Lady Wisdom, who is all about pursuing wisdom, which is an attribute of God that is woven into creation and our daily life. The message of Proverbs is that if you use wisdom you will have a successful life.
But then we come to Ecclesiastes. And as we have seen, the main character in Ecclesiastes is more like a sharp middle aged critic who has experienced a lot of life's ups and downs. The critic flips our world upside down by looking at how wisdom doesn’t guarantee success.
In Ecclesiastes it is as if the critic picked up our life and looked at it from every angle and comes to the conclusion that everything is hevel. This is the Hebrew word, which is often translated as vanity or meaningless. I find it helpful to use the original word to convey the power of its meaning. It means smoke or vapor. The good things in life are often temporary or fleeting. Right when we think we have life figured out, it changes. The critic throughout this book is not saying that life has no meaning, he is saying that life's meaning is often unclear, it's often complex. Like smoke, life is disorienting or confusing.
So if everything is hevel in this life then how do we answer this question "what does it mean to live well in this world?"
Author's Closing Words
The author has some closing comments that answer this question. See the main character in the book, the Teacher, or Preacher, or as I call him, the Critic, has brought forth all these examples in life where people try to find their meaning and hope, yet it is all hevel. So the author steps in at the end of the book and says "The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man."
This phrase "the end of the matter" has no verb. It is an emphatic declaration from the author. He is saying in effect "Enough of the critic! Let's get on with what is important!" And the very next words are fear God.
So, how do we live well in this world? Well, it involves a healthy relationship with God. The author brings God into the picture. To fear God in this sense means to respect, honor, and worship the Lord. Humble yourself before God.
A theme in Ecclesiastes is that there is nothing new under the sun, which is why life can feel futile. The author knows that we must believe in God, who is above the sun.
1 Corinthians 15:58 says "My beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not vain."
Notice the word "vain". Similar to what we've been talking about, this hevel in life, describes how life can be temporary and fleeting, an enigma. But when we labor out of faith in God then our labors are not in vain.
For example, we looked at the fact that life can feel like hevel because of the march of time. A generation comes and a generation goes, you don't remember people of your previous generation, and no one will remember you. BUT, when we labor in Christ, our labors do matter. If God is real then 3000 years from now our works and our efforts will matter. Our discussions with co-workers or neighbors, our parenting, these things will matter if God is real and if we humble ourselves before him. And, our labors are not in vain, when Christ is at the center, and our labors will impact the next generation even if they don't know our name.
Nine times in Ecclesiastes the critic uses this phrase "a chasing after the wind". We looked at various parts of life that we often chase after to find purpose and meaning and joy apart from God. We looked at career success and wealth, and also various pleasures. When we pursue these things apart from God, it is like chasing after the wind. We will never be able to latch onto that deep purpose and meaning in life apart from God.
Instead of chasing after the wind, we need to chase after Jesus. We need to go to Jesus. Jesus himself said "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." He also said "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?"
A chasing after the wind can include chasing after all the material gain in this world. It is hevel. For example, as soon as you finally get that career status you were chasing, it's time to retire. Turn now to the one who is stable and not fleeting. Turn to the one who is not like the wind. In fact, you can stop chasing all together because Jesus is here with open hands waiting for you. Stop, fear God (that is humble yourself before him), and listen to Jesus (keep his commandments).
Enough with this critic! Stop chasing after the wind, come to Jesus.