Ecclesiastes: Out of Control
For “the Preacher” in the book of Ecclesiastes, life under the sun is confusing and chaotic, yet mercilessly predictable. Some things make no sense; sometimes bad things happen to those who are righteous, and sometimes the wicked prosper. Sudden and shocking tragedy can strike at any moment. Someone can work his whole life just for everything to be given to a fool. Life feels random and cruel. Yet, there is also a sense in which life is maddeningly predictable. Without fail, time marches on and all die. Everyone returns to dust. We are all subject to time and chance and death. In fact, those inescapable facts are what make life seem so futile and chaotic:
“The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned, but time and chance happen to them all. Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.” (Ecclesiastes (9:11-12)
A person can spend his entire life attempting to get ahead by being the wisest, the strongest, the fastest, and the richest he can possibly be, but that’s no guarantee of success. Death can come at any moment. The seemingly random events of life can upset any progress. And as the Preacher points out, even what is accomplished will be forgotten or given to someone else. It is no wonder that Solomon seems to give into feelings of despair, such as in Ecclesiastes 1:13- 14: “I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”
Over and over the refrain of Ecclesiastes rings out with dismal certitude: life is meaningless. It’s like trying to chase wind and grab on to a vapor. Every time you think you have a grasp on life, it slips right through your fingers.
When disorienting and disrupting events occur in our lives, like pandemics or death or financial calamity, we begin to see clearly what was always the reality: we are not in control. We often live with illusion that we are the captains of our own lives, that we can determine our own fate. Life often cuts in and reminds us of the disturbing truth that we are at the mercy of forces beyond ourselves, no matter how tightly we try to hold on to our own sense of power and control. So what’s the point of even living at all? If it doesn’t matter what we do, why try at all? Why live with wisdom and why try to obey God?
The message of Ecclesiastes is much more nuanced than we might think at first; it is not simply a cry of despair with a half-hearted exhortation to fear God tacked on at the end. The writer of Ecclesiastes recognizes that there is something within all of us that knows there is something more than the maddening realities of time, randomness, and death. There is more than what is “under the sun”:
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and
drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11-14)
We all know in the depths of our soul that we are made for something more, more than just returning to dust. Eternity is placed in our hearts by God’s design. Yet, the problem is that we don’t always see clearly this eternal plan. We don’t know how things work out in the same way that God does. Rather, we only see the tragedies in front of us under the sun. In other words, we aren’t in control. We don’t know what comes next. The eternal plan is beyond our ability to comprehend. That’s a frightening thing. To not know what is beyond the horizon, to not see the horrors awaiting around the corner, is truly humbling and disheartening. But in this same text, there is hope. In our daily toil (which sometimes feels like meaningless work), there are opportunities for joy and satisfaction. This is God’s gift to us. In all the randomness, there are daily beauties to behold: breath in the lungs, the chirping of the birds, little accomplishments in mundane tasks, the smile of a friend, or the taste of delicious food. Truly, recognizing that we are not in control and that we don’t know what comes next frees us up to enjoy the daily blessings that are given from God’s hand. There is loveliness today that I can enjoy. There are marvelous gifts for which to give thanks.
There is also the hope and confidence that we can have in knowing that God does in fact know the end from the beginning. He is working everything together, and his plans are secure. He is unchanging and purposeful. This is why we fear him and why we can trust in him. This truth makes sense of the concluding words of the book: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”
Because God is in control of his eternal purposes and because he is in control of my life, there is little use in trying to figure out what is beyond our grasp. There is no use in predicting the future; there is no use in trying to manipulate the outcomes of the events in our lives. Rather, being faithful today, obeying God today, enjoying the gifts of today, and fearing God today are all things that are in my control. The outcomes are up to God. The eternal plan is in his hands.
In Matthew 6, Jesus reminds us of the same truth that God is in control. He provides for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field, and so surely he gives us the good gifts that we need. Jesus gives us similar advice to what we learn in Ecclesiastes: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:33-34).
We can seek comfort in odds and predictions and percentages or in our plans, but ultimately that is a futile pursuit. However, if we seek God and his will for us today and if we trust in him today, we can be confident in his provision. He will control the outcome; he will provide what is needed. His plans are secure even when life under the sun is not. In trouble and sorrow, God has given us a beautiful gift to enjoy called “today,” and he has placed eternity in our hearts for us to know that he is the one ruling over the uncertain “tomorrow.”