Ecclesiastes – A celebration of Limitation

Ecclesiastes: A Celebration of Limitation

Don’t wanna live as an untold story…” 

So sings Porsha Crystal whilst dressed as a green alien in Sing 2. It’s a crazy moment in a fun-filled animated kids movie. But it’s a line which can haunt you, if you let it. 

Our lives are so fleeting. What sort of impression do we leave on the world? We might love and be loved by a couple of handfuls of people (if we’re fortunate). That’s out of 7 billion people on this planet… one of billions in the universe. 

We don’t really make a dent! Our lives produce very little lasting significance. 

And yet, we feel they should. Something in us pushes against insignificance. Our stories, songs, and fantasies all look for more. We even imagine worlds in which what we do and who we are really lasts. 

But when it comes down to it, whether we’re Jim Smith the builder or Leonardo DaVinci the painter, Chris Jones the teacher, or Barack Obama the president, zoom out far enough and reality slaps us in the face. Nothing we do will last. One day every one of us will be forgotten. 

That’s just the way the world is. 

So why do we long so hard for it to be different? 

YEARNING FOR MORE 

C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” 

Where do your yearnings lead? Nothing this world offers ultimately lasts, so where are they pointing? 

Ecclesiastes is a book of yearning. ‘The Teacher’ whose voice we hear all the way through is like a pundit—a studio expert offering post-match analysis. Just as a pundit analyses a football match from different angles, he analyses life. 

He’s totally realistic. He knows the world’s pretty brutal. He also knows that it’s fallen. Work, play, family, pleasure, wisdom and worship—it’s all frustrated. The fallen world is no longer what it once was—so he analyses this “life in the no longer.” 

And the big question he’s trying to answer is: 

What do people gain from all their labours at which they toil under the sun?” (1:3) 

That isn’t much different from any of us. As our lives rush by we all try to find a handhold somewhere. Maybe it’s it in the dream job… But what happens if it never materialises? And if it does, what are we left with when it’s time for the job to end? 

Maybe it’s investing in our children… But what are we left with when they grow up? 

Wherever we look we’ll be frustrated, grabbing all we can and coming away with nothing permanent. 

Our pundit turns over rock after rock, always looking for something solid to grab.

But time and again he comes away empty- handed. He’s left “chasing after the wind” (1:17). 

LOOKING FOR MEANING 

That brings him to his famous conclusion: 

Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless” (1:2) 

It’s a shocking thing to read in the Bible! What should we make of it? 

Some suggest our pundit is either totally out of his mind or pretending for argument’s sake. His quest focuses on what he calls “life under the sun.” So perhaps we can solve the tension by reminding ourselves that there’s more to life than that? There’s a God “over the sun” who renders everything which seems meaningless, meaningful. 

It’s a tempting solution, but it doesn’t really do justice to Ecclesiastes, or our pundit.
When he says “meaningless!” it’s hard to know exactly what he means (ironically enough!!). 

The word he uses most simply means breath or vapour—something insubstantial and momentary. Psalm 144 describes our lives that way: 

Lord, what are human beings that you care for them, mere mortals that you think of them? They are like a breath; their days are like a fleeting shadow.” 

So the problem our pundit keeps raising, over and over again, is not that our lives lack meaning, but they are so temporary. Most of all, death casts a long and inescapable shadow under which anything we grab hold of becomes elusive. 

Is there even any lasting gain found in wisdom? No… 

For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered; the days have already come when both have been forgotten. Like the fool, the wise too must die!” (2:16). 

In the end the pundit insists that trying to grab onto life is like trying to grab a fistful of sand: it all just slips through our fingers. 

That might sound bleak. If you still have the word ‘meaningless!’ echoing around you head, then you might be left feeling that there is nothing but unrelenting pessimism here. But try replacing it with elusive, or fleeting

Elusive! Totally elusive! Everything is elusive Fleeting! Totally fleeting! Everything is fleeting 

That leaves more room for hope, which is what the pundit wants to give. 

What do we do with the fact that we can’t find something lasting? We might despair. Or we could receive it as an invitation: 

“There is no gain to be had under the sun, and that’s precisely the point. None need be sought.” (Gibson, Living Life Backwards

In other words, Ecclesiastes offers A Celebration of Limitation. We don’t have to stay on the treadmill, searching for lasting gain. We don’t have to shape our lives to be something they aren’t. 

Instead we can receive the life we’re given as the gift it is, with enjoyment. 

Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this fleeting life that God has given you under the sun—all your fleeting days.” (9:7-9) 

FOLLOWING THE YEARNING 

Our pundit’s observations can have a double effect on us. 

They will unsettle us. He forces us to stare the messiness of life right in the face, to feel the frustration, to reckon with our yearning. 

But, they will liberate us, if we let them. 

We’re let off the hook of having to force life to become what it never was. Yet, we find our yearnings validated. The frustration we feel is real. It points to a world we’ve never known but somehow still miss terribly. 

As the pundit’s analysis echoes down the centuries, it is met by Jesus. We watch him facing life head-on. We see him enjoying the life he receives, feasting with gladness and joy. He’s even accused of being a drunkard! 

We hear him offering us “life to the full” if only we will come to him. 

Then we see him face down the frustration, submit to the shadow of death, and burst through the other side into new life. 

For us who follow Jesus, Ecclesiastes is a wonderful invitation to A Celebration of Limitation.

It turns out that we’re dwellers, not architects. Life is to be received not shaped. Meaning is here—but here to be discovered not created

So, come and live life in the no longer and yearn for all that’s to come! 

This introduction to Ecclesiastes was written by Matt Lillicrap, pastor of Hope Community Church Cambridge

DatePassageTheme
7 JanEcclesiastes 1:1-11The endless cycle
14 JanEcclesiastes 1:12-2:26The futile search
21 JanEcclesiastes 3Doing time
28 JanEcclesiastes 4Relationships
4 FebEcclesiastes 5:1-7Let your words be few
11 FebEcclesiastes 5:8-6:9Money, money, money
18 FebEcclesiastes 6:10-7:29Living backwards
25 FebEcclesiastes 8:1-9:12Life in the shadow of death
4 MarEcclesiastes 9:13-10:20Wisdom is better
11 MarEcclesiastes 11:1-12:8One foot in the grave
18 MarEcclesiastes 12:9-14Fear God
7 Jan – Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 – Wake up!
14 Jan – Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26 – Life futile without God
21 Jan – Ecclesiastes 3 – Our times are in God’s hands
28 Jan – Ecclesiastes 4 – We not me
4 Feb – Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 – Don’t Play with God
11 Feb – Ecclesiastes 5:8-6:9 – Riches and contentment
18 Feb – Ecclesiastes 6:10-7:29 – Know your limits!
Hope Church Easingwold