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Wisdom for Life | Ecclesiastes

I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the windSo I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:14 & 8:15

A few months ago, I attended a family wedding. Because of coronavirus restrictions, we did so virtually. But that did not stop us dressing in our best clothes. It was a wonderful wedding with a great sermon. But one line uttered by the preacher raised a question in my mind. Noting the accomplishments of these two bright young people, he declared that they were ‘smashing life’.

In a way, the preacher was right – both partners were well on their way up the ladders of their respective professions, even though they were only in their mid-twenties. But I wondered how the notion that life is something we need to master, to control, fitted the wisdom of the book of Ecclesiastes.

While the book of Proverbs is confident life will go well for the wise, the preacher in Ecclesiastes observes that this is not always the case. He argues, in fact, that life is a mystery, an enigma that is beyond understanding and control. As evidence, he cites the relentless passing of time, the inevitability of death, and the apparent randomness of life outcomes. Because of all this, the human drive to achieve is as futile as trying to grasp vapour or smoke – it is like chasing after wind.

For the preacher in Ecclesiastes, the wisdom that accepts that life is ultimately out of human control is the wisdom that rejoices in the ordinary everyday round of work and leisure: ‘So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil.’

Instead of fretful activity, this preacher seems to be saying, we should live in the present moment, accepting the rough and the smooth of life as gifts. For true beauty lies in the vulnerability and fragility of life, in part because they stimulate trust in God and in his judgement. This frees human beings to live lives of integrity and enjoy life’s ordinary pleasures of friendship, family, and community.

Wisdom, it seems, is not the ability to ‘smash’ life, nor to solve its conundrums, but so to trust in God’s wisdom that we live lives of joy and contentment. This may not make our frontlines any easier, but it does spare us from seeking mastery over them, only to find that we’ve been grasping at the wind.

 

Peter S Heslam
Peter is director of Faith in Business, Cambridge.

Given that life is fragile and unpredictable, how do you resist fretful activity and instead practise trust in God and contentment in life’s ordinary pleasures? Join the conversation here.

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Comments

  1. Thank you for this, Peter – it’s a very good question. Here’s a conversation starting point for a busy Monday morning:
    “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your paths”. Proverbs Ch 3 vv 5.6

    By Jeremy Clare  -  17 May 2021
  2. I suffer from depression and am in full-time ministry. This Word for the Week is very helpful today. When I fret and life feels so fragile I pause, I embrace stillness and remember Yahweh is God. When I wait I gain strength and even soar. I am not smashing life but God is a smashing Creator and Saviour!

    By John Parry  -  17 May 2021
  3. I try to be present in the moment. I currently have long COVID but I am thankful I didn’t die and that I am seeing more of my children as I am around at home more while I am not well. It is not easy and I am not always at peace, but I do my best to be thankful.

    By Kate HW  -  17 May 2021
  4. I’ve often found that ‘unresolved’ is a good way of understanding Ecclesiastes. We’d like to think of life, especially as people of faith, as something we can make sense of, like a story or drama which ends with all the threads tied off neatly. But the reality is that, even at its most memorable moments, life remains full of ambiguities and questions that remain unresolved. In one sense, life with Jesus is an unfolding journey of resolutions but accepting its unresolved essence while still recognising the value and privilege of walking with the one who is the ‘way the truth and the life’, lies at the heart of what it means to live life to the full.

    By Nicholas Grew  -  17 May 2021
  5. After a succession of tragedies in my early forties, the Lord directed me to Romans 12:1-3 in The Message version which has been my modus operandi since, very simple:
    12 1-2 So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you: Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for him. Don’t become so well-adjusted to your culture that you fit into it without even thinking. Instead, fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out. Readily recognize what he wants from you, and quickly respond to it. Unlike the culture around you, always dragging you down to its level of immaturity, God brings the best out of you, develops well-formed maturity in you.
    3 I’m speaking to you out of deep gratitude for all that God has given me, and especially as I have responsibilities in relation to you. Living then, as every one of you does, in pure grace, it’s important that you not misinterpret yourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to you. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him.

    By Chrissie  -  17 May 2021
  6. Jeremy, John, Kate, Nicholas – what rich responses you’ve given to Peter’s thoughtful blog.
    For me, the ‘Jesus Prayer’ has been crucial … slowing myself down each morning, and praying quite a few times, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner’ while on my knees. I’ll wait on the Lord, committing my day (praying through my diary) to the Lord, and asking that I would be aware of his presence in the midst of it all. The last time, I pray – as is the tradition – ‘Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, give us your peace.’ I’ve found this really helpful to still my rushing spirit, and recognise that God is sovereign, even when I’m stressed.

    Dave Benson
    By Dave Benson Culture & Discipleship Director, LICC
  7. This is perhaps more characteristic of Eastern wisdom – and the likes of Antony de Mello on Awareness…. It’s such a tough call to us Westerners to relinquish all thought of control and trust the one who truly is in control: to be thankful for the fact that we are not asked to understand, only to follow. This is indeed a freeing of captives, a liberation – albeit one that can be misunderstood by others as seeming not to care, or fully engage. A friend once said ‘Any action that does not proceed from silence is mere technique, and diminishes the other’. I’m working on it … or rather, no, I’m not…..

    By Sheila Walker  -  17 May 2021
  8. Surely, life is not a challenge to be smashed, where we work hard to reach an illusory and always unreachable ‘top’, but a gift to be lived and embraced as fully as we can, whatever our circumstances. It is so much harder to pause to hear the ‘still , small voice ‘when we are harried and pressed by the need to succeed, to beat life and be seen as a winner. The World will keep whispering its lies in our ears, but we are invited instead to incline our ear to God and choose the way of wisdom.

    By Philippa Skinner  -  17 May 2021
  9. Thank you for this insight into Solomons narrative. I know I needed to see this.

    By Yazz  -  17 May 2021
  10. For me, to resist fretful circunstances, I try to be still, reflect that God is King of the world (not me) and read some psalms. Praying to God to help tme to live each day with integrity, doing the next right thing, because God takes care of each on of us and remembering that He is Elohim (Creator). He does not stop creating new things for us in many ways, so we must pray God to renew our minds constantly to see them.

    By Diana Cueto  -  17 May 2021
  11. Take time out to walk and enjoy the natural world. Take time at work to really talk and listen to those around me rather than rush though each task, it may take longer but it makes work more meaningful and enjoyable.

    By Paula Groves  -  19 May 2021
  12. I have found David’s observations and thoughts helpful as well as all of the comments.
    It is a daily struggle not to “buy-in” to secular goal setting and achievements because the Church can value them more highly as a “believe in yourself” way of thinking. I evidence this for example when at funerals songs like “I did it my way” are played. Well meaning I am sure but missing totally a Christian
    basis for a life ransomed healed restored and forgiven

    By John from Belfast  -  19 May 2021
  13. Thank you for the article and the comments.

    By Philip Hamilton, Belfast  -  21 May 2021

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