The first time you read Ecclesiastes, it seems very cynical. Its topics include death and the futility of human efforts. That’s not exactly an uplifting read.
But if you read it a few more times, you may notice that Ecclesiastes shares the wisdom of acceptance.
The book is a search for meaning, but before the author can find meaning, he has to rule out some options that might lure us away from life’s purpose. The wispy distractions are called “vanity” throughout the book. Each example of vanity points us away from something unfulfilling and toward something more permanent and real.
For example, the Teacher aims at those who attempt to control their own destiny. “There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 8:14). Seeking my life’s meaning in its outcomes is vanity because those outcomes are outside my control. In the course of a single lifetime, right living does not promise success, and wicked living does not ensure penalties. The same can be said for being wise or being foolish. If only getting the result I want out of every endeavor will satisfy me, I am choosing a very disappointing life.
Instead, the next verse commends finding joy in the ordinary events of life rather than the goals I set for myself. “And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun” (8:15). When I start to see each day as a gift instead of a problem to fix, I can find satisfaction in the ordinary providence of God.
Another way of saying this is that we must learn to make peace with our limitations. The Teacher does this by comparing “the business that is done on earth” to “all the work of God, that man cannot find out” (8:16). Human schemes are exhausting and rarely productive. Divine works often defy conventional wisdom because of God’s will time after time. “Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out” (Ecclesiastes 8:17). I must make peace with my limitations and accept what I can and cannot control.
Does this mean we should be passive or lazy? Not at all. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (9:10a). Precisely because of the frightening limitations we face, we should be diligent at any good thing we find today. I do not know the future, but I know that today is the right day for work. “For there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going” (9:10b). A time will come when opportunities will cease. Or to quote Jesus, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work” (John 9:4). These are the limits of our mortality.
The Teacher repeats the theme of limits in another verse: “Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all” (Ecclesiastes 9:11). In this verse, we are introduced to a concept rarely discussed in Scripture: chance.
In human life, when we find ourselves completely out of our depth, and it seems that every intention is met with unexpected outcomes, we have a tendency to chalk it all up to chance. For whatever reason, what we are reluctant to relinquish to God we are eager to give to random happenstance.
The rarity of this concept in Scripture should be evidence enough that it is a bad notion. The Hebrew term for chance (pega) is only found in one other passage where it is also used by Solomon (the Teacher) and is translated as “misfortune” (1 Kings 5:4). However, in that passage, Solomon is careful to say that what may appear to be chance is in fact what “the Lord my God has given me.”
Chance is a cop-out we use to explain what we dare not attribute to God or man. When a bird is caught in a net, perhaps the bird thinks this is just bad luck. Instead, it is the result of someone else’s carefully laid trap. “So the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them” (Ecclesiastes 9:12). Is the problem really bad luck, or just that we don’t understand our limits?
In the days of King Ahab of Israel, the king planned a war against Syria. Reluctantly, the king inquired of a prophet of God as to whether this was wise. At first, Micaiah the prophet offers a sarcastic reply: “Go up and triumph; the Lord will give it into the hand of the king” (1 Kings 22:15). Sure, go do whatever you want. I’m sure it will be fine. Ahab demands a more sincere answer, to which Micaiah replies, “The Lord has declared disaster for you” (22:23).
But Ahab was a great king, at least in his own mind. He was not subject to limitations or the doom predicted by God. He hatched a little scheme instead. “And the king of Israel said … ‘I will disguise myself and go into battle’” (1 Kings 22:29–30). What could go wrong?
“But a certain man drew his bow at random and struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate. … So the king died” (1 Kings 22:34–37).
I am sure the archer’s aim was random, but the result was not. Bad luck? Not likely. Again, I ask, is the problem chance or just that we don’t understand our limits?
In Ecclesiastes, the Teacher tells a similar story that he finds amusing - “I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me” (9:13).
There once was a little city, he says. The city was sieged by a “great king” and his army (9:14). But inside the city was a nameless beggar who suggested a defensive strategy that defeated the king (9:15). What is the moral of this story and why does the Teacher find it amusing? The moral is not just that the great king failed or even that the wise beggar succeeded. “Yet no one remembered that poor man” (9:15).
A great king might fail. A poor beggar might win. And we might forget both! The moral of the story is that regardless of the outcome, no one but the Teacher even remembers that it happened. The names of everyone involved are lost to history and time.
Why would God make us this way? Has he made our lives pointless?
I think not. Instead, the limits and boundaries God set for mortal life are signposts that point us beyond ourselves. God “determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (Acts 17:26–27). Every failure we face is not a reminder to fear chance but rather to depend on God. “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28–29).
The gospel, in particular, is the story of God triumphing in the face of mortal limitations. On a Friday, a Roman governor (a great king, we might say) condemned Jesus of Nazareth (a wise beggar, we might say) to die on a cross. That same Jesus did die, but his life was not subject to chance or fortune. He was the servant of God, and God determined his outcome. Every limitation was defeated on Sunday morning when that same Jesus was risen from the dead.
It has never made sense to believe we mortals control fate as gods, but now, more than ever, we have seen the power of God over all things. We must accept our limitations so that he can triumph over and through them. Let each shortcoming in our lives remind us of what he alone can do.
“The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30–31).
Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.