Where Is Providence in the Vanity of Ecclesiastes?
The book of Ecclesiastes is enigmatic. It’s puzzling. It’s puzzling because it tells us that much of life is vanity, a chasing after wind. It says this from the second verse of the book: “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless’” (Ecclesiastes 1:2 NIV). But God’s providence tells us that everything in life is meaningful. So, what gives? This is a sharp email question from David in Brookville, Pennsylvania.
“Hello, Pastor John! I have read a quarter of your new book, Providence. The avalanche of scriptural evidence to prove that nothing is random, nothing is without purpose, nothing is pointless, and nothing is meaningless is truly overwhelming. My question is regarding Ecclesiastes. If providence proves that nothing is random or meaningless, why does Ecclesiastes repeatedly say just about everything in the drama of human life is meaningless? How do you reconcile this?”
Well, I do admit that Ecclesiastes is a perplexing book. I suspect that the author of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher (Qohelet in Hebrew) intended it to be complex and perplexing, precisely because, as we look at the world that he was looking at, it is a perplexing world.
“God is sovereign over all things and is purposeful and wise and just and good in all that he does.”
I find the book of Ecclesiastes probably the most difficult book in the Bible to understand, but it is in the Bible — the Bible that Jesus loved and Jesus esteemed and Jesus considered to be infallible. I don’t believe that the message of the book contradicts the overall message of providence in the Bible as a whole. God is sovereign over all things and is purposeful and wise and just and good in all that he does, and I think that’s true in Ecclesiastes as well as in the rest of the Bible.
Vanity, Wisdom, and the Duty of Man
To be sure, the book starts like this:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 1:2–3)
But he answers in Ecclesiastes 2:11:
Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
And yet he says two verses later that perhaps it’s not so true that absolutely nothing is to be gained:
Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. (Ecclesiastes 2:13–14)
Yes, there is a sense of frustration that the same thing happens to both the fool and the wise. Both die, for example. But still, it’s not true that there’s no such thing as wisdom or light: “There is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. The wise person has his eyes in his head. The fool walks in darkness.” So, there are tensions that we feel in this book between its seeming description of the world as meaningless, and yet Ecclesiastes 12:13–14 says,
The end of the matter; 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.
So, you have a reigning God of justice, and you seem to have a world of meaninglessness. The tension is not just between Ecclesiastes and the rest of the Bible; the tension is within Ecclesiastes itself — or is it? In other words, is the tension resolvable?
Two Ways to Understand Ecclesiastes
It seems to me that you can look in one of two directions for some resolution of the tensions that you feel when you read Ecclesiastes.
1. Bad theology dominates the whole book until the very end.
One direction would be to say that there is a pessimistic, God-ignoring spokesman writing his narration of the meaninglessness of life in the main part of the book, and then a God-centered person picks up at the end and closes the book by saying that all of that bad theology is what you get when there’s no God in the picture, but now he’s going to put God in the picture and close with a God-centered perspective and set everything right.
In other words, you could think of the Book of Ecclesiastes the way you think about Job when we realize that 29 chapters of the book of Job are his thankless friends battering him with bad theology, who don’t understand the ways of God accurately. And then those 29 chapters are set straight by Elihu and the speeches of God and Job’s repentance at the end of the book. You could think about the book of Ecclesiastes that way.
2. Sober theology permeates the whole book.
The other direction you could go and look for some kind of resolution is to say that no, the entire book is, in fact, written by one God-centered, truly inspired person, and we need to understand some of his terms in a way that will help us not overreact to some of his descriptions of seeming hopelessness and perplexity and confusion and meaninglessness.
“God is God; man is man. One is infinite; one is finite. One is all-knowing and all-governing; one is ignorant.”
For example, it may well be that “meaninglessness” is not the best translation of the Hebrew word hebel (usually translated “vanity”), but that it might better be translated as “enigmatic” or “perplexing.” And the term “under the sun,” which occurs 28 times, may not mean, “Well, this is a portrayal of the world as it is without God, and therefore meaningless,” but rather, maybe it means a world where we can’t see all that God is doing, so that it looks like perplexity; it looks like an enigma. But it’s not. There’s providence behind what we can see.
For example, a good friend of mine, Jason DeRouchie, Research Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Theology at Midwestern Seminary, describes this “under the sun” like this: “shorthand for the restricted sphere of activities [the author] was privileged to observe [so, a restricted sphere that he can see] without any bracketing out of God or his providential role.”
In other words, the perspective of the writer is not godlessness and meaninglessness, but limitation and enigma, perplexity, riddle. So, DeRouchie says, “Everything in this time-bound, curse-influenced creation bears a level of enigma, meaning that life ‘under the sun’ is frustratingly perplexing, puzzling, or incomprehensible, though still with meaning and significance.”
He concludes that the message of the book of Ecclesiastes is a call
to turn from striving against God’s providence toward trusting the God who is in control and who is both willing and able to help all who fear him. This is the goal of Ecclesiastes: that believers feeling the weight of the curse and the burden of life’s enigmas would turn their eyes toward God, resting in his purposes and delighting whenever possible in his beautiful, disfigured world. In this alone will one find lasting gain unto eternity.
Perplexity of Providence
Whichever direction you take to find resolution in the book of Ecclesiastes, we know for certain that under God’s wisdom and his inspiration of Scripture, the message of Ecclesiastes is not contrary to the glorious God of all-embracing, all-pervasive, all-wise providence.
In this book, God is God; man is man. One is infinite; one is finite. One is all-knowing and all-governing; one is ignorant of millions and millions of things that God is doing at any given moment, which is why things can look so perplexing. So, the writer says,
I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. (Ecclesiastes 3:14)
He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
In other words, providence is designed not only to provide our souls with peace in God’s rule and wisdom and goodness, but also designed to provide perplexity and humility, and to point us away from ourselves to a Savior.