Ecclesiastes and the Triumph over Futility

My wife recently told me that one of her friends will have to sell her house and move at the end of the summer. This particular friend has a large and vibrant garden into which she has poured many hours of hard work. While it is exciting to think about new beginnings and the opportunities that lie ahead, it is perhaps proportionately more difficult to leave your work behind. Even more painful is the knowledge that someone else will take possession of the house and be able to enjoy beautiful tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchinis, and all manner of produce without having hoed a single row, watered a single drop, or pulled a single weed. There seems to be something unjust about this turn of events. It is the peculiar sting of futility.

The Old Testament authors know this pain. In describing the covenant blessings and curses, the LORD casts them in the image of the fruitfulness and futility of work. Speaking of the curses, he declares:

You shall betroth a wife, but another man shall ravish her. You shall build a house, but you shall not dwell in it. You shall plant a vineyard, but you shall not enjoy its fruit. Your ox shall be slaughtered before your eyes, but you shall not eat any of it. Your donkey shall be seized before your face, but shall not be restored to you. Your sheep shall be given to your enemies, but there shall be no one to help you. Your sons and your daughters shall be given to another people, while your eyes look on and fail with longing for them all day long, but you shall be helpless. A nation that you have not known shall eat up the fruit of your ground and of all your labors, and you shall be only oppressed and crushed continually, so that you are driven mad by the sights that your eyes see (Deuteronomy 28:30–34).

This is a horrific future. The thought of losing everything is bad enough. But to know that everything you love and the fruits of a lifetime of labor would be enjoyed by your enemies is even worse. Such a future would void your present life, rendering it empty and meaningless. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” Thus writes Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes 1:2. The Hebrew word behind “vanity” is הֶ֫בֶל. This is often read with the sense of “emptiness.” But this causes problems for our interpretation of the book later on. Is the preacher (Qoheleth) really an existentialist? Is he advocating that we go about our present lives doing whatever we like because in the end it all doesn’t matter?

Strength for Today

I recently had the privilege of attending my presbytery’s Camp Westminster. David Veldhorst, associate pastor of Bethel OPC in Oostburg, Wisconsin, skillfully unfolded Ecclesiastes to a group of all ages. He presented a wealth of biblical truth on the book’s major themes and its application for our present life. One of these nuggets he relayed from Walter Kaiser, who believes the translation and interpretation of הֶ֫בֶל is the key to understanding the book.

Following Kaiser, Veldhorst advocates that we translate הֶ֫בֶל as something like “transitory.” Life isn’t meaningless. It’s temporary, passing away. One reason for taking הֶ֫בֶל in this fashion is the way the translators of the Septuagint (LXX—the Greek translation of the Bible used by the NT church) translates הֶ֫בֶל. They use the word ἀτμίς, which is translated as “mist” or “vapor.” Consider James’s usage in James 4:14b, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” The Louw-Nida lexicon explains James’s imagery: “An important connotation in the use of the term ἀτμίς is the fact that it disappears so readily. This is a particularly significant element in Jas 4:14. The closest equivalent of ἀτμίς is normally a term which refers to the steam rising from a boiling pot or cauldron.” Life is a vapor. It is not empty or meaningless; it passes quickly.

Paul’s two-age eschatology adds a further dimension to this life dynamic. We presently live in the overlap of the ages—between grace and glory. We look back on the finished work of our Savior Jesus Christ, crucified, raised and ascended for sinners. Yet we also look forward to his second coming to consummate his kingdom in which we will be raised imperishable.

The question posed by Qoheleth here is, “do our labors in this present life have any significance for that glorious future?” Paul emphatically says that they do. Just after speaking of the glorious future bodily resurrection, Paul concludes, “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). Paul uses the word κενός (also translated “empty”) where the ESV translates “vain.” He encourages us that even though we look forward to the resurrection—a climactic Spiritual transformation—our labors in this life are not empty. They mean something even for the future. Earlier in 1 Corinthians 3, Paul wrote,

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:10–15)

There is a work rendered during the present overlap of ages that will endure. It is the godly activity of building upon the foundation laid in Jesus Christ. Even in saying this, Paul is building upon his inspired words a few verses prior in vv. 5–9. There, he combatted the Corinthian tendency to crown ministry celebrities. They looked at the ministry as something that generated fame and glory according to the pattern of the world. The Corinthians sought to align themselves with that glory and thereby elevate their personal status. Paul challenges this tendency:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. (1 Corinthians 3:5–9)

Bright Hope for Tomorrow

While Paul combats the sin seeking one’s own glory, he also recalibrates our view of godly work completed in the church’s present mode of existence. Our labors in Christ even in this present earthly mode of existence are fruitful. We need not get upset if we do not personally reap the harvest. We are stewards of that which God has given to us. We ought to glory in all the fruitful labors in the kingdom—whether we planted, watered, reaped, or just observed. The sower and the reaper rejoice together (John 4:36). Since we seek the glory of the Lord, we need not regret that we missed out on the glory of any benefit. We have every Spiritual blessing in Christ in the heavenly places (Eph 1:3). We need not fear the futility of someone else enjoying the fruits of our labor, for we are one in Christ Jesus. Each of us will enjoy the covenant blessings, because we all are members of his body. The LORD spoke of this day to the prophet Isaiah, telling of the New Heavens and New Earth as the realization of God’s covenant blessings.

For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy, and her people to be a gladness. I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days, for the young man shall die a hundred years old, and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed. They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be, and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labor in vain or bear children for calamity, for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the LORD, and their descendants with them (Isaiah 65:17–23).

Christ reverses the curse of futility, and therefore your life is not void, empty, or meaningless. In Christ your life is guaranteed, full, and significant. It is fruitful. For this reason, work hard with the energy that Christ so powerfully works within you (Col 1:29; cf. Phil 2:12–13).

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