January 14, 2016

Ancient Wisdom for a New Year

We begin a New Year confronted with a world in chaos; the preacher of Ecclesiastes reminds us that apart from God and his word, our greatest plans and resolutions are vain striving.

At the beginning of the New Year we find a world once again in turmoil. We have a plummeting currency in Canada and economic challenges of various kinds in the Western economies, including a massive debt load. We see various conflicts around the world continuing and expanding. We have the growing spectre of Islamic terrorism and militancy– a darker and more barbarous ideology is hard to find in the long catalogue of human crime. We have North Korea apparently ringing in the New Year with a nuclear detonation. Closer to home there is a very important election pending this year in the USA and we are surrounded by political realities of authoritarian global planning to ‘save the planet’ by means of man’s wisdom – a wisdom proffering the same old failed solutions that have been tried again and again since the empires of the ancient world slipped into oblivion.

Moreover, having coming through the celebrations and merriment of Christmas we each enter the New Year with personal and familial hopes and dreams, disappointments and fears, cares and concerns, frustrations and failures and all manner of anxieties, many of which rush in on us from the moment we wake. Not only is the world dissatisfied, but often as Christians we feel dejected by the way things are and wrestle with our own sense of insecurity. C.S Lewis, in very Solomonic terms spoke of this perennial dissatisfaction that stalks not only the rebel against God but even the faithful saint at their best:

The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe, a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.[1]

As Christians we certainly enter this New Year in faith and hope, but not ‘safe’ in terms of a settled happiness and security, because we live in a fallen and broken world, filled with vanity and futility because of man’s sin and God’s curse. We are a vapour! Yet history is the theatre of our testing and proving as we seek that city whose builder and maker is God.

In the neglected book of Ecclesiastes the old sage (I believe to be Solomon) comes alongside students with a sermon text, ‘vanity of vanities’ (Ecc. 1:2; 12:8) and then unpacks this theme through many chapters, exercising the student in patience so that we are made to wait for his conclusions to the very end. This text is not immediately appealing to many Christians because it does not seem uplifting, but it is God’s word and it comes to us through a spiritual father instructing spiritual children, “The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one shepherd. My son beware of anything beyond these” (Ecc. 12: 11-12).

Despite this reality the message of Ecclesiastes seems too untidy and unsettling for most, so our world will not want to linger over its teaching at the beginning of a New Year when we are expected to be filled with optimism, embarking upon our new resolutions with hapless naivety. We like to clean our houses before the guests arrive, but the old sage doesn’t sanitise reality in this literary sermon. Through this Teacher, God exposes the world as it is under the sun, in ways many prefer not to acknowledge. Even Christians can too often, in trite and simplistic ways, minimize the tragedy and indeed vanity of the fallen human condition because like many sinners they don’t want to face it, or because they think a sugar-coated, happy-go-lucky, gloriously banal approach to the world will bring more people into the church.

They are in error on both counts. As Cornelius Van Til points out so clearly, “in this world of sin no Christian individual…can be positive and constructive till after they have been negative and destructive. To deny or ignore this fact is to deny or ignore the fact of sin.” The negativism of Ecclesiastes is directed at the humanistic assumptions and confidence that fallen man has in his own transitory life and deeds, and this false confidence is often manifest in the many sanguine pronouncements made around New Year by public figures. But the wisdom of God has a way of spoiling the optimism of the autonomous ‘wisdom’ of sinful man, for in God’s sight, man’s wisdom is folly. Nonetheless, the Preacher’s honestly and humanity, the depth of his insight, makes Ecclesiastes’ warning of futility and vanity instantly credible to the careful listener. As Eswine puts it:

We feel our lament in his pain. We see our own tantrums in his frustrations. We touch our own longings as he cries out with his. The Preacher gives language to our ache, poetry for our dreams, and exclamation for our search. He resists anything trite, pretentious, sentimental, or dishonest. By this means, the God who inspired this text shows us his empathy and his profound understanding of our plight in all its confusing, emotional, tragic and maddening forms.[2]

We hear in both the lament and the poetry, the sayings and instruction of Ecclesiastes, an echo of Eden, a longing for what was lost and forgotten. In fact, the ultimate call of the sermon is for us to see that the only route to Eden’s recovery in a world of futile imaginations is in God and his abiding covenant word. The very act of confronting our condition of ‘boredom, inconstancy, anxiety’ (Pascal) in Ecclesiastes causes us to realise the reality of our primal loss. As the very Solomonic apologist Blaise Pascal put it:

Man does not know the place he should occupy. He has obviously gone astray; he has fallen from his true place and cannot find it again. He searches everywhere, anxiously but in vain, in the midst of impenetrable darkness.[3]

Ecclesiastes confronts us with the fact that “God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes” (Ecc. 7:29). The consequences of man’s schemes are made clear in the deep history of Scripture. Remember Gen. 3:17-19, “In pain you shall eat of it … thorns and thistles it shall bring forth … by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread.” The old sage is concerned to press home to us the implications of life under the sun in a world that has thus violated the everlasting covenant. Thus the Teacher declares, “All his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest.” (Ecc. 2:23). As such fallen man is imprisoned in the darkness of folly and ignorance; life under the sun has been sabotaged and serious reflection on this forces all to consider their ways as 2016 beckons us forward.

The sage shows us that people’s lives are more broken than they realise or care to admit and there are not many answers or solutions to his disquiet and turmoil, but only one. It is the only thing that is not like a vapour – transitory, passing, and futile. Man’s self-efforts at realizing permanence are doomed to failure. But life is fully realized in communion with God – this life is that which is its own end. The reality of God’s kingdom is where finally there is no curse, futility or death, no frustration in our work, neither any tears, for there is no sorrow or parting in his city of light.

All of Scripture sees man’s sin as the root of all his problems, and it is a cosmic problem that requires a total renewal of creation as solution. Man’s life under the sun is under a curse, affecting every aspect of his life. Only in God’s redemptive program is there meaning; apart from this, all is vanity. Ecclesiastes brings home to us that the fundamental issue and problem in life cannot be removed by the power of man himself. Man cannot deliver himself from the burden under which he lives. So the sage’s exclamation of absolute vanity is not that of nihilistic despair based on the thought that man as a creature in the world, finite and mutable, is in a vain and hopeless situation. What the Teacher has in mind is the condition of man as it now is under the curse of God. In that sense, man’s present condition is abnormal and the problem is comprehensive. As Paul writes in Rom. 8:20, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope.

Those who listen to biblical wisdom are exhorted to consider the whole context of life at the beginning of the New Year, not simply a few new goals and objectives for themselves. This time-tested wisdom reveals that the whole purpose of man is God-centred in relationship with his maker – God alone is the one in whom we can place our trust as the sun rises on a New Year. Nothing else lasts or can satisfy. All man’s striving and madness will accomplish nothing of permanence – and at the end of all he must give account to God. The only source of true meaning is found in the God of all grace.


[1] C.S. Lewis, The Business of Heaven (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1984), 18.

[2] Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden: The Gospel according to Ecclesiastes (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2014), 12.

[3] Blaise Pascal, Pensees, published as Peter Kreeft (ed.), Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensees edited, outlined and explained (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 140.

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