There is perhaps no Old Testament book more perfectly suited for preaching to the modern West than Ecclesiastes. Even before the disquieting unrest of 2020, it was clear that America had entered a new age of anxiety.
Just over the past few years, diagnoses of major depression have skyrocketed, rising 33 percent from 2013 to 2016, as have the number of people who describe themselves as lonely. The percentage of Americans who experience stress is 20 points higher than the global average––all while life has been getting better for the average American by almost every available metric. As Gregg Easterbrook has written in The Progress Paradox,
If you sat down with a pencil and graph paper to chart the trends of American and European life since the end of World War II, you’d do a lot of drawing that was pointed up. Per-capita income, “real” income, longevity, home size, cars per driver, phone calls made annually, trips taken annually, highest degree earned, IQ scores, just about every objective indicator of social welfare has trended upward on a pretty much uninterrupted basis. . . . But your graphs would lose their skyward direction when the topics turned to the inner self . . . the trend line would cascade downward like water over a falls on the topic of avoiding depression. Adjusting for population growth, ten times as many people in the Western nations today suffer from “unipolar” depression, or unremitting bad feelings without a specific cause, than did half a century ago. Americans and Europeans have ever more of everything except happiness.
The problem, as Easterbrook illustrates, is not primarily that the American dream is dead, but that it has been achieved by so many and found wanting.
There is perhaps no Old Testament work more perfectly suited for preaching to the modern West than Ecclesiastes.
This is exactly what the author of Ecclesiastes warned us about. For 12 chapters the Preacher chronicles mankind’s fruitless attempts to find meaning, purpose, and joy under the sun, concluding time and again that all is vanity, a striving after the wind (1:14, 17; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6, 16; 6:9).
He asks, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” But his question is not meant to lead us to despair. Instead, like a skilled physician of the soul, his question is meant to expose the prevailing symptom of our malady––an unrelenting restlessness and dissatisfaction with life––in order to lead us in the way of wisdom and joy.
The quest the Preacher describes startles us with its familiarity: we too have staked our hopes on finding meaning, purpose, and joy under the sun; we too have been left disappointed. Sure, we may have had moments where we almost grasped what we were after––maybe when we first landed that job, when we first got married, or when our work was finally recognized––but as soon as we held it, it began slipping through our fingers.
The problem is not primarily that the American dream is dead, but that it has been achieved by so many and found wanting.
Naively, we assumed these moments pointed to a future moment, just out of reach, when everything would finally make sense, when we’d be able to rest, when we’d be unassailably happy. As long as we were willing to follow the requisite steps, all we ever wanted would be ours. But the moment never comes, and so we remain hungry and restless.
The Preacher reveals that he’s had everything we think we want, and his probing questions confirm our darkest suspicions––those we’ve sought to silence through busyness, distraction, and denial––that there is nothing under the sun that will ever satisfy the longing of an infinite soul. There never could be a relationship, career, or accomplishment that would bring us rest, joy, and peace. Pursuing these things as ends in themselves is a striving after wind.
In the end, death will make them vanish anyway, for “the wise dies just like the fool” (2:16), and man dies just like the beast. And so castles made of sand slip into the sea eventually.
Without the sobering perspective of Ecclesiastes, we could easily be deluded into thinking that we’re restless and dissatisfied simply because we haven’t “arrived.” The Preacher disabuses us of that notion. In the face of this bleak future, we too cry “Vanity; vanity; all is vanity!” as we see the futility of life under the sun. But his words are not meant to leave us hopeless; instead, as Derek Kidner writes, “He shocks us into seeing life and death strictly from the ground level, and into reaching the only conclusions that honesty will allow.”
The first honest conclusion is that our restlessness and dissatisfaction arise from our attempts to find meaning and joy in God’s creation apart from the Creator. In other words, “vanity, vanity, all is vanity” will always be true for the life lived apart from God. We may choose to ignore the Preacher’s warning, continuing to place infinite expectations on finite things, but we do so at the cost of real joy, meaning, and purpose.
The second conclusion gives us hope: our inmost desires for joy, meaning, and purpose not only can be satisfied, but were designed to be. Our disappointment in created things is not an act of cosmic cruelty; it’s a merciful signpost.
Living Joyfully Before the Creator
As early as Ecclesiastes 2:24–26, the Preacher writes, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. . . . For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy.”
Six times the Preacher encourages his reader to “eat and drink and make your soul enjoy the good of its labor, for it is a gift of God” (Eccles. 2:24; 3:12–14; 3:22; 5:18–19; 8:15; 9:7–9). Think of this phrase as a chorus meant to bookend every “verse,” gently reminding us that there is purpose and meaning and joy in one place only: a life lived before God.
Our disappointment in created things is not an act of cosmic cruelty; it’s a merciful signpost.
The whole duty of man is to “fear God and keep his commandments” (Eccles. 12:13), a summary of his wisdom, and a message in full harmony with the rest of the Bible. As Tim Keller has explained, the fear of the Lord is not terror, but instead a “life-rearranging, joyful awe and wonder before God.” Therefore, wisdom is found in recognizing and submitting to God, the gracious King.
Only when we recognize God and his gifts (Eccles. 3:13; 5:19) are we freed to rightly enjoy his created things. We can eat and drink and find enjoyment in our toil, because we know they’re but signposts pointing to the deeper joy of a life lived before God.
Therefore, far from a manifesto of hopelessness, Ecclesiastes shows us how to find joy in every moment.