It’s a Frustrating Life
Ecclesiastes 1:1-11; 12:9-14
One of the surest signs that Christmas is once again just around the corner is television’s re-airing of that beloved classic movie produced and directed by Frank Capra, starring Jimmy Stewart as the banker George Bailey and Donna Reed as his devoted wife Mary. You know the movie.
About to take his own life because of a scandal at work, George is rescued by an angel named Clarence, who proceeds to show George what the world would’ve been like if he’d never been born. It’s the movie that taught us “every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.”
Do you remember that movie? What’s it called? That’s right! It’s a Wonderful Life. But is it really? Is that how you would describe life? Is it how you would describe your life today?
Do something for me. Take the next few moments to come up with the word you’d use to fill in the blank in the following sentence. Ready? “It’s a (blank) life.”
While you’re trying to come up with your word, think about the state of your current relationships — with your parents and your brothers and sisters; if you’re married, your relationship with your husband or wife and your kids; and if you’re not married, the state of your relationship with your boyfriend, girlfriend, or friends in general.
Consider your job — your place in the pecking order. Are you where you thought you’d be at this point in your career?
Think about your bank account. Do a quick inventory of what you have amassed to show for all your years of hard work.
Remember your past hardships, uncertainties, and the injustices you’ve observed and experienced.
Now, recall your wedding day, the birth of your first child, and the night grandpa died. See the faces of the kids you went to school with whose lives were cut tragically and unexpectedly short. How many people do you know who were gone too soon? Try to remember them and some of the good times you shared.
Think about the current state of our nation’s government, nations at war, children starving, and how all that makes you feel. And take a second to consider your own mortality — the years in your rearview mirror, the uncertain terrain ahead, the storm clouds gathering on the horizon. And think about those nagging questions that never go away — questions like “will anyone miss me after I’m gone?” and “is my life really making a difference?”
Now, tell me, how would you fill in the blank? “It’s a (blank) life.”
Did anyone say “complicated?” How about “frustrating?” The eighteenth-century writer Horace Walpole famously observed, “Life is a comedy to those who think and a tragedy for those who feel.” To that, I would add that above all else life is frustrating for us all.
That’s how one ancient preacher saw it, if you could call him a preacher. That is how the English Standard Version refers to him — the Preacher, and I believe it’s a fair translation of that particular Hebrew word. But to be honest with you, this Preacher’s ordination papers are more than a little suspect.
We’re first introduced to the Preacher in Ecclesiastes 1:1. The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. That seems clear enough. What we’re about to read are the words of Israel’s third monarch, the man who followed David to the throne. His name was Solomon, and he wrote all of Ecclesiastes as an old man ruminating on life’s inequities. At least, that’s how the Preacher and writer of Ecclesiastes has traditionally been identified — just one writer, only one voice, and that belonging to wise old Solomon himself.
More recently, though, even conservative evangelical scholars have begun questioning that particular interpretation. Some of them detect two voices in Ecclesiastes — the first voice belonging to a wise man, whom we might call the Professor, in 1:1-11 and 12:9-14, and the second voice belonging to the Preacher in 1:12 – 12:8. Here’s what that looks like:
Imagine you’re at a dinner party. Your friend who teaches at our local university wants to introduce you to her pastor. She says to you, “This is my pastor, Rev. Solly Blowhard. Solly came to our church from Atlanta. He was sort of a big deal down there. Solly believes that life is a crock.” (That’s Ecclesiastes 1:1-11.) You extend your hand, Sol shakes it, and goes on a rant. (That’s Ecclesiastes 1:12 – 12:8.) When your friend thinks you’ve heard enough, she politely escorts you away and whispers in your ear, “Here’s what I’ve learned from Solly.” (That’s Ecclesiastes 12:9-14.) In this scenario, the wise writer of Ecclesiastes is your friend the Professor, and her pastor is the Preacher.
Other scholars believe they hear only one voice pretending to be two voices in Ecclesiastes, sort of like a ventriloquist act. The writer is speaking in his normal voice at the beginning and end of the book but speaking with a different voice through his dummy, the Preacher, in the rest of the book.
The truth of the matter is no one knows for sure. It’s a complicated discussion, which seems appropriate for such a complicated book.
If this sermon wasn’t Solomon’s, you must wonder why any man wanting to pass himself off as a preacher would claim to be Solomon. Yes, he was the wisest man who ever lived, but let’s face it: Solomon was no saint. He was a demanding ruler who taxed his subjects heavily. He was also a ladies’ man, married to 700 wives and keeping an additional 300 women on the side. Oh, I know that many of those marriages were arranged for political purposes, to seal a treaty between nations or some such thing. But that doesn’t change the fact that he had a thousand women traipsing in and out of his bedroom over the years, nor the sad reality that the idolatrous ways of some of those women turned Solomon’s heart away from God in his old age. Is that anyone’s idea of a preacher?
Not only are this Preacher’s credentials questionable, to say the least, so too is the meaning of his sermon. Parts of it sound like the rest of the Bible, but other parts of it cause you to close its pages and check the book’s spine to make sure that you’re still reading a Bible. For example, 3:16-17 sounds like something the Bible would say (read text [optional]). But right after, 3:18-22 doesn’t sound like the Bible at all (read text [optional]). Ecclesiastes is, without question, as puzzling as it is poetic and pessimistic from beginning to end.
A Frustrated Preacher
Whoever this Preacher was, he was clearly frustrated. His frustration boils over in the statement of his sermon’s big idea in verse 2. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. Thirty times in his sermon the Preacher repeats himself. Vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does he mean by that?
Literally, the word translated “vanity” refers to a mist, vapor, or breath. Figuratively speaking, it signifies something that’s fleeting or elusive. In other words, it refers to something that’s hard to get a handle on. How does it make you feel when you can’t pick up that wet sliver of soap from your shower floor; or when the word you’re looking for is right there on the tip of your tongue but you can’t get it out; or, when you’ve called your credit card company, gone through all the prompts, answered all the security questions, only to hear that recorded voice tell you, “Please hold for the next available operator” and you then sit through a fifteen-minute concert by Kenny G playing his sax? How does it make you feel? FRUSTRATED!
What had the Preacher in Ecclesiastes so frustrated? He was frustrated by what he observed and by what he had experienced in life here “under the sun.”
Do you remember those old Polaroid cameras that spit out a negative that you had to wave around and wait for a minute to develop before you could see the picture? Close your eyes for a minute. As I read verses 3-11, listen to the Preacher’s words and let the negatives that he’s waving around begin to develop in your imagination. (Read text.) Now, open your eyes? Did you see them? Did you see the pictures?
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. My grandpa was born in the shadows of the mountains in northeast Tennessee. He grew up, married, grew old, died, and was buried in the shadows of those mountains. My dad was born in the shadows of the mountains in northeast Tennessee. He grew up, married, is growing old, and will one day die and be buried in the shadows of those mountains. I was raised and went to school in the shadows of the mountains in northeast Tennessee. Twice a year I still go to visit my mom and dad there. One day I, too, will die and be buried, possibly in the shadows of those very same mountains. Long after I’m gone, long after the last branch of my family tree has fallen to the ground and withered to dust, those northeast Tennessee mountains will continue casting their shadows. A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
Think about it. Every spring, a graduating class of seniors from our local high school goes forth with plans to change the world, and the next class of rising seniors replaces them with their own plans to change the world, but the world remains unchanged. Every four years in January, an old president who promised to clean up the mess of his predecessor goes, and a new president who promises to clean up the old president’s mess comes, but the mess remains. A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. As you undoubtedly know, Memphis, Tennessee sits on the banks of the Mississippi River. I’ve lived in and around Memphis going on thirty years. The mighty Mississip’ has run low and has run high across those thirty years, but she has never run dry. She empties into the Gulf of Mexico, evaporates into the skies, distills in the clouds, falls in the rain, drains from Lake Itasca in Minnesota, and flows back through Memphis again. It all reminds me of the words from that song about “Ol’ Man River.”
Ol’ man river,
That ol’ man river,
He must know something,
But he don’t say nothing
Cause he just keeps rolling.
He keeps rolling along.
To borrow a line from the poet T. S. Eliot, it seems like “evenings, mornings, afternoons, I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” And ol’ man river just keeps rolling along.
All things are full of weariness, said the Preacher, a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. Have you ever left a staff meeting at work convinced that your group has absolutely hit rock bottom? They can’t go any lower! Then, lo and behold, some fool brings a shovel to the next meeting and manages to dig even deeper! It’s all so wearying. What can you say?
It’s a dog-eat-dog, dog chasing his own tail, dog track kind of world. We’re all chasing the same rabbit, but none of us are catching it. Even if we did manage to somehow lay a tooth into it, we’d only discover that we can’t eat it.
The graveyard’s tombstones are etched with faceless names, and old photographs are filled with nameless faces. Today’s Who’s Who soon becomes tomorrow’s who’s that? It’s all so incredibly, incredibly frustrating.
The Preacher was frustrated. Maybe you can identify. You may be feeling frustrated yourself, and you should because this world under the sun is a frustratingly frustrated world!
A Frustrated World
Go back to verse 2 again. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. That Hebrew word translated “vanity” is hebel. An interesting thing about the way that word is spelled is that it’s also how Adam’s son Abel’s name is spelled back in Genesis. Remember him? Adam and Eve had two sons after they were banned from the Garden of Eden. Cain, the older boy, worked the land. Abel, or hebel, the younger boy, kept the livestock.
Moses tells us, “In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Hebel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Hebel and his offerings, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell” (Gen. 4:3-6). Skipping a verse, Moses continues, “Cain spoke to Hebel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother and killed him.”
When news of their precious son Hebel’s murder reached his parents, can’t you almost hear Eve sobbing into Adam’s shoulder? “Hebel was such a good boy, such a godly boy. What good did it do him? Where was God when Cain picked up that rock to bash his brains out? What good was God’s favor then?” Hebel’s death was just so senseless, his righteousness so meaningless, and the whole tragedy just so hebel, vain, frustrating.
Apart from its barbeque, one of the things Memphis is known for the world over is St. Jude’s Hospital. Heartbroken parents bring their poor little children afflicted with some of the most dreadful diseases imaginable to that place. All of them come hoping for a miracle. Some get one; some don’t. We call St. Jude’s a hospital. The Preacher would call it hebel.
That’s how the world has been ever since this side of Eden, and it’s no coincidence that there are a number of connections between the Preacher’s sermon in Ecclesiastes and the opening chapters of Genesis. For example, God told Adam in Gen. 3:17-19, “Cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life: thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken.” Compare that to what the Preacher says in 2:22-23, “What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is hebel.”
My wife had a co-worker whose husband was nearing retirement. In the weeks leading up to his last day, he started going in to work earlier and earlier. It wasn’t because he wanted to make things easier for his successor. It was because he wanted to clock as many hours as possible before the rest of the bozos in his office started showing up. A bad boss, a hostile work environment, clowns for co-workers — these are the thorns for many of us that make work a vexation by day and that keep us awake at night.
Not all the sources of life’s frustrations are external; many are internal. After Adam’s fall and before Noah’s flood, Gen. 6:5 says, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was on” The hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.” He’s talking about your heart and mine. We are a confused and confusing people. We live in a frustratingly frustrated world, and it’s all because of sin.
Hundreds of years after the Preacher finished his sermon, a group of Jewish scribes translated his Hebrew text into Greek. When they came to that word hebel, they translated it mataiotes, meaning futility or frustration. Paul uses that very word in Romans 8:20 where he writes, “The creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it.” In other words, creation didn’t ask to be the way it is. It was made that way. It had frustration foisted upon it. By whom? God! He told Eve in so many words, “Because you have eaten the forbidden fruit, your pain in childbearing will multiply, and your relationship with your husband will become complicated.”
As my friend and emerging Old Testament scholar Mark Catlin recently pointed out to me, apparently there was already going to be some pain involved in bringing children into the world, but after Eve’s sin it was to be worse. Childbearing was to become frustrated. And what do we see in Genesis? Childbearing complicated by barrenness, and Rachel dying while giving birth to Benjamin. It’s all so hebel, mataiotes, complicated, frustrating. Is there any solution? Well, yes, and no.
A Final Word That Relieves, But Does Not Remove, the Frustration
Ecclesiastes concludes with these final words: “The end of the matter; (In other words, enough of that sort of talk!) all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
Sadly, and far too often, when preachers today pick up the Preacher’s sermon and come to these final verses, they negate everything else the Preacher has said up to this point. They say something like, “The Preacher has told us what life is like under the sun, but here he’s calling for us to look beyond the sun, to look to God and God’s true Son, Jesus. God’s going to judge everyone and everything one day, and Jesus will make all things right.”
Are they wrong? No, of course not, but I feel like they’re dismissing far too easily everything the Preacher has said up to this point about life’s frustrations which we all continue to experience daily. Those frustrations are real. Believing in God and waiting on His rewards does not make them go away. To say otherwise is to be dishonest. Going back to Paul’s words in Romans 8, “The whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirt, groan inwardly.” Even for us Christians, the pain is real. The anguish is real. The confusion is real. The injustice is real. It’s all real, and it’s unrelenting.
You can’t reason your way out of it; the Preacher tried (1:12-18). You can’t party your way out of it; the Preacher tried (2:1-3). You can’t work your way out of it; the Preacher tried (2:4-8). The Preacher tried it all. Some of it helped for a little while (2:10), but none of it removed his frustration altogether (2:16-17).
The Preacher believed in God, but throughout his sermon his mood swings between two poles — from contentment to despair, from purposefulness to meaninglessness, from trust to doubt. Can you relate? Repeatedly he complains, on the one hand, about life’s uncertainties and, on the other, about the certainty of death. Hear him as he moans, “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. For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them” (9:11-12).
Chance, fate, and death seemingly rule over all. So what’s the answer? What can you do? According to 12:13, you should do two things in the face of life’s frustrations and death’s inevitability. First, fear God. Trust him. Believe in him. Second, obey his law. Where there is no obedience, there is no true fear. Besides that, everything runs better when you follow the manufacturer’s operating instructions. But you already know that, and that’s not where Ecclesiastes leaves it. Listen to verse 14 again. “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”
Is that meant to be a threat? “Mind your p’s and q’s because God is watching.” There’s more to it than that.
For starters, the writer of Ecclesiastes wants us to realize that the standards by which we traditionally measure a meaningful, successful, or otherwise full life here under the sun are flawed. If you think that a wise heart, a job you love, a happy home, and a good name are the standard measures for the life you crave, you’re wrong. The Preacher had them all and found them empty. The true standard for measuring any life or the individual parts of any life isn’t found here under the sun. It’s found beyond this earthly frame. It is God Himself. God is the judge, and Jesus is the standard.
When you stand before God in judgment, everything you have gone through under the sun, everything you’ve said or done, will be weighed on Heaven’s perfectly balanced scales. God will assign every word, every deed, every thought, every intention its true value, no matter how anyone else, including yourself, may have judged it while you were still under the sun. For this reason, the apostle Paul warns, “Let each one take care how he builds… for no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the [judgment] day will disclose it” (1 Cor. 3:10b-13a). God’s judgment day assesses all and assigns every little thing its true worth, which leads to my next thought.
The Preacher didn’t possess all the pieces to solve life’s puzzle. We don’t either, not now, but Paul lays down an important corner piece for us in that verse I read earlier from Romans 8. “We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly” – and here comes the part I didn’t read – “as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we are saved.”
We can look to the future with hope. Yes, life is uncertain. Yes, death is coming. But there is reason to hope. We can look forward to that day when all life’s frustrations are resolved, when God’s creation is reset to the Manufacturer’s settings, and our bodies are restored to His original design. On that day, God will finally and fully reward those, and only those, that believed He is and that He is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him (Heb. 11:6). These are those who have the firstfruits of the Spirit. These are those who build their frustrated lives on the only sure foundation of Jesus Christ.
One wintry morning, a recent retiree sat down in front of me and struck up a conversation. The man was wearing a jacket with a company’s logo embroidered over his heart. I asked him if that was where he had worked. He said that it was, and then he told me, “A man works all his life for a company, and one day retires. He wakes up one morning and looks back on all those years, all that experience, everything he put into his job, and he can’t help but ask, ‘What was it all for? Why did I do it? What did I get out of it? Was it just for a wage?’ That’s all I can figure.”
The man’s words came pretty close to something else the Preacher once said, “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your hebel life that [God] has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun” (8:9).
I wish that I had thought then to tell my retired friend what I tell you now. If Christ has not been raised from the dead, our faith and, indeed, this entire life under the sun is vain. But if Christ has been risen, then “be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord you labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58). It’s not so hebel after all. It can be a fulfilling life.
Gregory Hollifield is Interim Co-Dean & Associate Dean for Assessment and Reporting at the Memphis College of Urban and Theological Studies in Memphis, Tennessee