Lessons for life from Ecclesiastes
These last couple of weeks I began again to question what life is all about. We seem to spend so much time doing things that are actually of little or no importance. This is such a waste of time and energy. The question came as I taught the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament at the East Cape Bible College in East London. At the same time I again read the book Walden by Henry David Thoreau in the Scott Library published in about 1909. Thoreau lived near Boston in the USA but dropped out of the rat race to live at Walden Lake on the Concord River. As a scholar-gipsy, poet, naturalist and transcendentalist he built his own simple house and spent two and a half years living of the land and rejecting normal participation in society.
At that time Thoreau asked some difficult questions about life as he saw it unfolding in the USA over one hundred years ago. In my opinion he did not really come up with any real answers. His experience in going back to nature was interesting but one gets the feeling that in the end he was very much where he started.
In the book of Ecclesiastes a very wise and very rich man, who lived in a palace, came to the end of his life with a definite answer and records that in this Old Testament book. A careful reading of the book of Ecclesiastes leads us to discover that Solomon writing those12 chapters extolls the “vanity” of life and what it offers.
The writer mentions how people strive for meaning in all the wrong places. These include; riches (2:8), experiences and activity (1:8,9), great projects (2:4-7), keeping up with your neighbours (4:4), lording over others, (8:9) and pleasure, laughter and wine (2:1-3). In the end he finds that "this is all a chasing after the wind" (1:17) What brings meaning to life is hard work (5:12), sharing your life with someone (4:7-12), respect for law (8:2-6), the wise use of words (10:12-14) and finding God's purpose for your life. While all the human efforts seem so important as we battle through life, what is really important is finding the life that you were created for. This can only be found in what is revealed in God's Word.
Solomon like Thoreau was a naturalist, poet and a human like you and me. In Walden, Thoreau writes over 300 pages of vivid description praising the beautiful lake that he loved and the nature in and around it. Yet in the final analysis he returns to society to live a "normal life".
While they both seem to be on a quest to find truth and what is important in this world, they come at it from very different angles and find very different answer. Yet, in some ways their conclusions are very similar as they both explore life and try to find real meaning. They follow very different paths as they go on the journey to and end up in different places. But as they do so their lives possibly changed.. .
Thoreau ends his book with a statement that is profound and challenging:”Only that day dawns to which we are awake”. Jesus proclaims in the gospels that we need to live one day at a time. The writer of Ecclesiastes writes: ‘After all this, there is only one thing to say: have reverence for God and obey his commands, for this is all that man was created for”.(N.E.B.)
It is however from a careful study of the journey that these two men in different ages took that an important message for our lives jumps out: Take stock of your life, set some priorities and then live your life with meaning. Otherwise you may just waste it!
Surely God has a plan for you and me and so if we search for it, find it, and follow it, then we may find real meaning? After all that is what God intended for us; to be the unique and special person that we are; the person with opportunities and possibilities that no one else has; the person that we really need to be.
Anything else is the sad story of a life wasted. Even in todays busy world the lessons from Ecclesiastes are really worth learning on many different levels. Dust off your Bible and look up the message from the wise man many years ago. It may just be what you and I need as we look forward to a new year that is approaching fast!