I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted. I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
—Ecclesiastes 1:14-18 ESV
Back in the summer of 1988, at the young age of twenty-five, I was working at a Christian camp in Wisconsin. While walking back to my residence, one of the young women on summer staff noticed me singing a hymn to myself, walked up to me and said, “What makes you so happy? You’re the happiest person I know.”
Yesterday, I was sitting down with my young son reading some passages out of an old Good News Bible—the one with the stylized line drawings in it. After we were done, I was flipping through and found a passage out of Ecclesiastes that made me laugh, especially since I have blogged here many times about the Church and work issues:
Only someone too stupid to find his way home would wear himself out with work.
—Ecclesiastes 10:15 GNB
That got me thinking about the rest of Ecclesiastes. At the time of my being told I was the happiest person that young woman knew, Ecclesiastes was my favorite book in the Old Testament. Considering the somber and almost regretful tone of the book, it doesn’t quite seem to work with my state of mind at the that time. Truthfully, I’m not sure the whole of the book rang true for me. Sure, I loved passages like
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.
(Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 ESV)
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
—Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 ESV
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 ESV
but I never truly pondered the rest of Ecclesiastes because, frankly, I was too young to see.
Now I am forty-two, a husband, and a father. On reading through Ecclesiastes again in the Good News I was struck by how the rest of the book now spoke to me in a way that it didn’t seventeen years ago. There’s a bittersweet longing for youth, yet with the understanding that to be youthful is to be largely ignorant of the world, much like I was at twenty-five.
If I ran into that same young woman who pronounced me to be the happiest person she knew, I don’t believe that she would say the same thing of me today. However, I don’t consider this a step backward in my faith. Instead, I acknowledge it’s a part of “becoming Ecclesiastical,” seeing life with older eyes and noticing now the vanities you never considered before. To be twenty-five is to be invulnerable, but to be older means you’ll sooner than you imagine be attending funerals for friends you once thought would always be there. It is to know that the world we leave our children will not be as idyllic as the world we inherited. It is to see how striving after riches and glory is nothing more than wind. It is to understand that perhaps a nice meal with people you love is more important than power and fame.
There is a sadness in becoming Ecclesiastical. It is the sadness of accumulated wisdom, a wisdom despised by the young who must painfully learn the lessons of Ecclesiastes only through their own aging. The world says otherwise, but those who become Ecclesiastical understand 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.
—Ecclesiastes 9:11 ESV
It’s the wisdom of God that He’s made us to learn hard truths in time. There’s no shame in acknowledging that life is difficult and eventually leads to the grave. Yet too often we praise the fools who pretend that this simply isn’t the case.
The tough wisdom of Ecclesiastes shouldn’t be written off by those who always want to think happy thoughts. This book exists in the Bible for a reason. Life isn’t always happy and there would be no rejoicing if sorrow didn’t exist. To the older and wiser, becoming Ecclesiastical renders both the sorrow and the joy our friends, even if the rest of the world around us cannot understand.