This article was originally written for 1517.
To be sure, Ecclesiastes is one of the most daunting and frustrating books to sermonize. Chapters 7—10 are especially problematic with their wide assortment of proverbs and pronouncements about life’s inequities. The Preacher’s labyrinthine observations regarding life “under the sun” continually confound clergy and laymen alike. Renowned Scottish orator Alexander Maclaren, for instance, asserts in one of his sermons on Ecclesiastes 12 that the Preacher’s conclusions are a mix of untruths, partial truths, or exaggerations.1 This is indicative of the varied and assorted opinions one can find when trying to determine the precise meaning of the Preacher’s sayings.
In fact, it is on this point that I diverge from Maclaren’s estimation of the text and proceed to attest that what the Preacher confesses throughout Ecclesiastes does not represent untruth so much as unfortunate truth. That is, the true nature of things “East of Eden.” What is certain about Ecclesiastes is that its author does not set out to describe how life should be — rather, he describes what is. The perversions and oppressions and injustices observed reflect the true reality of post-Genesis 3 life. What we are given, then, through the Preacher’s reflections is his own personal catharsis with life’s frustrations.
What makes Ecclesiastes so frustrating, though, is the Preacher’s aversion to offering any robust explanations for these realities. He (annoyingly) articulates persistent problems with the way things are without presenting any solution to which one can cling. Indeed, to read Ecclesiastes verse by verse, without any tether to the rest of Scripture, might indeed steer one into nihilism or faithlessness. Because this is how life is. As we are confronted with the unfortunate truths of life “under the sun,” then, we are being brought to a place of tension and ultimate release as the Preacher reaches his resounding conclusion about how life is best lived. (Ecc 12:13–14)
The intervening strain of the Ecclesiastes is, perhaps, nowhere better felt than in chapters 7–8, in which the Preacher expresses what constitutes a “valuable life” amidst some of life’s most grievous realities. And, in case you were wondering, it is unlike any “best life now” idealism with which we are familiar. The bulk of the Preacher’s proverbs attest that it is better to consider what you cannot control than it is to assume that you can. (Ecc 7:7–22) We are often hasty to assume that we can know the outcomes of things. That we can predict how things will end. (Ecc 8:7–8) That the future is up to us. It’s not, though. It’s up to God.
One of the most hubristic examples of modern self-absorption is the anthem that the “future is up to us.” This oft-repeated aphorism does nothing but reveal our pride in assuming that we can be specific and dogmatic about the future. The Preacher’s words suggest that true wisdom understands its inability to control the times through predictions. Indeed, the truly wise (and faithful) response to times of chaos is not found in rapid predictions on what tomorrow might hold but is found in resting in the One who holds tomorrow in the palm of his hands.
The chaos of our present day is a source of constant surprisal. Refreshing your newsfeed can often feel like we are playing an increasingly dismal game of Russian roulette. Who knows what new scandal will populate our timelines? In order to combat the chaos and lack of control over our days, we make predictions. If we can know what the days ahead will hold — if we can rightly predict the future — then we will not be surprised when “surprises” occur. The chaos will be “in control” because then we will be liberated to say, “I knew this was going to happen.” Precise predictions allow us to reclaim our feeling of control. But the problem with all of that is, as the Preacher attests, no one can predict the future. “No one knows what will happen because who can tell him what will happen?” (Ecc 8:7) Who can control the outcome of things? Who has jurisdiction over the future? Certainly not you or I. No one does, except God.
We are awful at predicting the future precisely because we are not God. We are creatures of the earth, bound by time and flesh and blood. We cannot process anything without putting it into the currency of time. Trying to predict the future is as impossible as trying to assert “authority over the wind to restrain it.” (Ecc 8:8) Or trying to prevent the day of your death. No one has that kind of authority. Nevertheless that has not put an end to our attempts to forecast future days. We are (still) “addicted to prediction.” Possessed by a fervent desire to chart the course of the future. But if we have learned anything throughout the course of this year, it ought to be that we possess zero ability to predict anything. The events of 2020 have been a nonstop tutorial in the futility of forecasting future days. How many vacations have been canceled? How many plans have been changed? How many predictions have come up short? When will we learn that we are all “just tapping our canes on the pavement in the fog”? Such is how Dr. Mark Lilla, professor of humanities at Columbia, articulates it in a piece he wrote for the New York Times, entitled, “No One Knows What’s Going to Happen.” He writes:
People facing immediate danger want to hear an authoritative voice they can draw assurance from; they want to be told what will occur, how they should prepare, and that all will be well. We are not well designed, it seems, to live in uncertainty . . . The history of humanity is the history of impatience. Not only do we want knowledge of the future, we want it when we want it . . . At some level, people [think] that the more they learn about what is predetermined, the more control they will have. This is an illusion. Human beings want to feel that they are on a power walk into the future, when in fact we are always just tapping our canes on the pavement in the fog.
We are limited beings who exist in the confines of frailty and terminus. There are severe boundaries on what we can understand, know, determine, and change. As long as we live there will be events and realities that remain outside our capacity to make sense of them. There will always be parts of life that endure as enigmas. And this is, perhaps, among the chief frustrations of life “under the sun.” We cannot reckon with things that cannot be reckoned with; we want explanations. We demand reasons, as if there is a logic we can intuit by which we can divine all things. As if we are savvy enough to discern the “key” to unlocking the secrets of the universe.
The fact of the matter is the ultimate end of wisdom is not the ability to come to some comprehensive explanation for the way things are. Rather, it is the ability to contemplatively rest in the fact that there are things we do not and cannot understand, and never will. (Ecc 8:16–17) The wise person understands this fact and humbly accepts it. The fool, however, pridefully and angrily resists such a notion through his furious attempts to control his life by any means necessary.
A life of faith is a life of wisdom, which is a life lived knowing that it is God’s authority — and his alone — that prevails as the consummate active power in the cosmos. (Ps 46:10) This is what the gospel of grace instills in all those who believe it. It is the grace of death and stillness and humility. The death of our own “inventions” and devices. It is stillness from our own insistence on the way life operates. It is the quiet from the frenzied notions that we can control the how the world turns upon its axis. It is the humble recognition that there is One who presides over all things, who holds in his hands both the “day of prosperity” and the “day of adversity.” (Ecc 7:13–14) It is grace which frees us to sit in the middle of life’s frustrations knowing that we are holding on to the hope of God’s sovereign authority.
The extent of Christian peace extends far beyond what we can see in the moment precisely because our peace is not tethered to things “under the sun.” Rather, it is bound to the One “above the sun,” whose throne is established in the heavens. (Eph 2:6; Col 3:1) Who knows the end from the beginning. (Is 46:10) Who can bring life out of death and “happiness out of grief.” (Jer 31:13) True peace does not come from our ability to make everything right, to discern the future properly, or to resolve every problem. True peace is only found to the degree that we give up our ability to accomplish any of these things and rest in God’s absolute authority over all things. (Is 40:10–31) “Every worshiper of Jesus must die to his own agenda for his life,” Paul Walker writes. “Every believer must die to her own claim to control. Every Christian must die to his own illusions of self-sovereignty.”2
In the face of a monolith of things we cannot control, understand, or change, the Christian’s peace and comfort is found as we relish in the gifts and promises of God. (Ecc 8:15) And such is the beauty of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Ours is a God who makes promises, not predictions. And his promises are infinitely better than our plans and predictions. (Dt 31:6; Mt 6:25–34; 28:20; Heb 13:5) True wisdom and faith understands that there are countless things it does not and cannot know. (Ecc 8:16–17) And rather than resist that reality and struggle to regain control, true wisdom and faith resigns the things it cannot control to the sovereignty of the One who is in control over them all.
Alexander Maclaren, The Books of Esther, Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes (New York: Armstrong & Son, 1908), 402–3.
Paul N. Walker, Faith Once Delivered: Sermons from Christ Church (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2019), 30–31.