It's hard to accept we live in the Shadowlands – as we saw last week – when we have such seemingly concrete realities in our everyday lives. In this week's Ecclesiastes passage Solomon reflects further on what we can see, taste and feel all around us every day.
Taste: We work to eat. 'The labourer's appetite works for him; his hunger drives him on' (Proverbs 16:26). We work to survive, but as the treadmill goes round our inner life is left longing for fulfilment and satisfaction is not felt. Even if we are physically full, we are not satisfied. Bread alone does not meet our deepest needs. Nor does the fanciest of foods or the finest of wines. But we still work for them as though they do.
Think: Maybe wisdom and education is the way. Perhaps there is a really smart poor man who knows how to conduct himself before others – to ingratiate himself. But what do the poor gain by that?
See: The eyes are part of our physical equipment – we can use them to enjoy life and find contentment. But, 'The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing' (Ecclesiastes 1:8).
There is plenty to see, but an inward desire prevents us from ever being entirely content. Sometimes what we see and then desire makes us lose even what we have. Luther mentions Aesop's fable about the dog who snatches at the meat in the mirror and then loses the morsel in its mouth.
Verses 10-12 of chapter 6 are the middle of the book and really mark the end of reflecting on the past. The emphasis from now on will be looking at the future. Naming is important in the Bible – indeed it is important in our culture. Whether it was man giving names to all the animals, or today the abuse of power that can often occur through labelling. To name is to have knowledge and control of someone. What the preacher is saying here is that we cannot escape our limitations. We can name things, we can question things – we can study things. We can even debate the how and why of things with God – like Job did. But God is way beyond that.
What is the point of arguing with God about the way things are? Words cannot change the world. 'The more the words, the less the meaning' (verse 11). If ever there was a verse for social media that is surely a main contender!
Perhaps some think this should be a verse above every pulpit. But this is not really an argument for short sermons but rather an observation that words sometimes add to the futility of life.
Here is the real question of life. What will satisfy? We need something that will be adequate for every day, which will be lifelong and not merely passing, which can cope with the inherent futility of life under the sun and the shortness of life. Something that brings us meaning and takes us out of the shadows.
The two questions that follow are difficult but key questions in anyone's life.
Who knows what is good for a person in life? (verse 12). Is there any human philosophy or religion that can answer this? Who can tell? There are no absolute values to live for and no practical certainties to plan for. This is what life is like. Who knows what is good in human existence? God knows.
And this is where the gospel comes in. This is where Jesus comes in. 'I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly' – have it to the full.
And, 'Who can tell him what will happen after the sun after he is gone?' (verse 12).
Yes, there is an afterlife – the dead are judged according to what they have done.
Yes – there is more to this life. There is more than bread and more than materialism.
Yes – there are words that have meaning and bring life. In the beginning was the Word. Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.
Yes – we can know and name. We can understand and grow.
Yes we can enjoy all the good things that we have in this world. But only when we realise that every good and perfect gift is from above.
There is meaning, there is contentment and that is found in Christ. 'You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand' (Psalm 16:11).
The British essayist and poet Joseph Addison (1672–1718) wrote, 'The grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for.' Addison probably didn't have Christianity in mind when he wrote that, but it still applies. We have all three in Jesus Christ!
Christian, you have it. Unbeliever, what do you have? Do you want it? Seek and you shall find...