Drawing on wisdom from Ecclesiastes, David Gibson persuades us that only with a proper perspective on death can we find satisfaction in lifeand see just how great God is.
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About the Author
David Gibson (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is minister of Trinity Church in Aberdeen, Scotland. Previously he served as a staff worker for the Religious and Theological Studies Fellowship (part of UCCF) and as an assistant minister at High Church, Hilton, Aberdeen. Gibson is also a widely published author of articles and books such as Rich: The Reality of Encountering Jesus and Reading the Decree: Exegesis, Election and Christology in Calvin and Barth.
Read an Excerpt
Living Life Backward
How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End
By David Gibson
Good News PublishersCopyright © 2017 David Gibson
All rights reserved.
Preach the gospel. Die. Be forgotten.
NIKOLAUS LUDWIG VON ZINZENDORF
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 3 What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? 4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. 7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. 8 All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. 9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there a thing of which it is said, "See, this is new"? It has been already in the ages before us. 11 There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after. — Ecclesiastes 1:1-11
The Explosive Gift
The development of imagination is one of the most intriguing things that happens as little toddlers begin to explore their world. Suddenly, in just a matter of weeks, the sitting room or garden in which the toddler plays becomes a zoo, a garage, a farm, a hospital, a palace, a tea party, a battlefield, a sports stadium. A world of "let's pretend" opens up to inspire and to cultivate real understanding of the world. The toddler is ushered into new relationships and creative language by pretending to be someone he is not. If you manage to eavesdrop, you will hear all sorts of conversations as the toddler scolds and pleads and says "sorry" and "thank you" to a host of imaginary friends.
But learning the difference between the pretend world and the real world can often be a confusing process. In the real shop you can't just buy whatever you want. In the real hospital people are actually in pain, and the doctors can't always make everyone better. In the real world making amends is sometimes the hardest thing possible. Real tears take longer to dry.
The book of Ecclesiastes is one of God's gifts to help us live in the real world. It's a book in the Bible that gets under the radar of our thinking and acts like an incendiary device to explode our make-believe games and jolt us into realizing that everything is not as clean and tidy as the "let's-pretend" world suggests.
Ecclesiastes is the words of "the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem," and he begins with shock tactics. The very first thing he wants to tell us is that "all is vanity," "vanity of vanities." If you want readers to wake up and stop pretending about what life is like, that's a pretty good way to get their attention.
The Meaning of "Vanity"
Of course, to commence in such a direct and stark way poses its own problem. What does it mean to say everything is "vanity"?
I want to propose that many well-intended Bible translations have actually led us astray by translating the Hebrew word hebel as "meaningless" in this context. We tend to read this word as if it's spoken by an undergraduate philosophy student who comes home after his first year of studies and confidently announces that the universe as we know it is pointless and life has no meaning. But that is not the Preacher's perspective. He will later make statements such as "Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil" (4:6). If one course of action is better than another, then clearly not everything is "meaningless."
In fact, the Hebrew word hebel is also accurately translated as "breath" or "breeze." The Preacher is saying that everything is a mist, a vapor, a puff of wind, a bit of smoke. It's a common biblical idea:
Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing before you.
Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath [hebel]!
Surely a man goes about as a shadow!
Surely for nothing [hebel] they are in turmoil;
man heaps up wealth and does not know who will
When you discipline a man
with rebukes for sin
you consume like a moth what is dear to him;
surely all mankind is a mere breath [hebel]. (Ps. 39:56,
O Lord, what is man that you regard him,
or the son of man that you think of him?
Man is like a breath [hebel];
his days are like a passing shadow. (Ps. 144:3-4)
The Preacher's portrayal of life is this: "The merest of breaths ... the merest of breaths. Everything is a breath." He will take the rest of his book to unpack exactly what he means, but here are some ways to think about it.
Life Is Short
You know what happens when you blow out a candle. How long does the puff of smoke last? You can smell it and see it. It's very real. But it is also transient, temporary, and vanishes quickly. It comes and goes without a permanent impact or a lasting impression on the world.
You have found yourself saying exactly what you used to hear older people saying all the time: "Time flies the older you get." Your grandparents say it's as if they blinked, and now here they are in an old person's body. We are born, we live, we die, and it all happens so quickly. Nothing seems to last. "Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting [hebel]" (Prov. 31:30 NIV). Joan Collins said that the problem with beauty is that it's like being born rich and then becoming poor.
The book of Ecclesiastes is a meditation on what it means for our lives to be like a whisper spoken in the wind: here one minute and carried away forever the next.
Life Is Elusive
But the smoke in front of your eyes is not just transient; it is also elusive. Try to grab the smoke, put a bit in your pocket, and keep it for later. You can't get your hands on it. It is a real, physical thing, and yet it dodges your fingers as soon as they get near it; your very attempt to get hold of it blows air at the smoke and speeds its disappearance.
Ecclesiastes is a meditation on how life seems to elude our grasp in terms of lasting significance. If we try to gain control of the world and our lives by what we can understand and by what we can do, we find that the control we seek eludes us.
Consider knowledge and understanding. In some measure we can understand how the world works, but why does it always rain on the days when you don't bring your umbrella? Why is the line you don't join in the supermarket always quicker than the one you do? Why do you feel low, even when you can't really put your finger on a specific cause? Why do people you know and love die young or suffer long-term ill health while the dictator lives in prosperity into his old age?
Or consider what we do with our lives. We can pour our whole life into something, and it might succeed, or it might fail. You might land the big job in the city, and the bank might go bust the next month — you never know. How much control do you really have over whether your job is secure, or how healthy you will be, or what will happen to interest rates and house prices, over whom you will meet and what you will be doing in ten years' time?
Not long ago I was building sandcastles on the beach with my daughter. With some success we built a large castle, dug a moat around it, and surrounded it with smaller castles and turrets decorated with shells. She was proud of her work, and we enjoyed being absorbed in our task. But eventually — and to her great surprise — we had to retreat as the tide encroached and the waves engulfed our handiwork. The foaming water returned our project to a knobbly patch of ordinary beach. How long do sandcastles last? And how much control do we have over the castle we have constructed? We build for a short time only, and always subject to forces beyond our control. That is what our lives are like. Instead of sand and sea, the Bible uses grass and wind to make exactly this point:
As for man, his days are like grass,
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
and its place knows it no more. (Ps. 103:15-16)
These pictures hit home. When we consider the brevity of our lives set against the millennia of the earth, we know that what the Preacher says is true. Except, of course, in everyday life we pretend it isn't. We imagine we will live forever, or at the very least that someone else will get cancer, not us. We think our lives are built with granite, not sand. We pretend we're in control. We imagine that we can make a difference in the world and accomplish things of lasting significance. After all, that's why we go to work each day. It's also why we have a mid-life crisis when we look back and see that who we are and what we've done doesn't seem to amount to very much.
And so Ecclesiastes sets out to demolish our pretense by confronting us with reality. The Preacher begins the process with a question:
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun? (Eccles. 1:3)
This question is the key to the opening section of the book. Everything else that follows in verses 4-11 is intended as the answer. The responses to questions are often implicit and indirect in Ecclesiastes because it is part of the Bible's Wisdom Literature. This kind of writing mixes bald, direct statements (v. 2) with indirect analogies and pictorial representations (vv. 4-8), since the aim of the writing is to reflect on the complex reality of the world as we find it.
Wisdom Literature asks, what does it mean to fear the Lord in the world the Lord has made? Along with Job, Proverbs, and Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes is a meditation on what it means to be alive in a world that God made and called good, yet which has also gone so very wrong, often in catastrophic ways. The Preacher experiments with everything around him and similarly wants us to reflect on our experience of the world. Look at your life and what's happening to you. What does that tell you about life in general? How should we make sense of it? Can we ever make sense of it? Wisdom Literature uses proverbs and pithy sayings, riddles and provocation, question and answer, prose and poetry, to force us to look at things from a different angle. Its aim is to "wound from behind." Like a punch in the back, it makes painful points we didn't see coming and which leave us blinking in surprise.
That's exactly what is happening here. The implied answer to the question of verse 3 is "nothing." From a life full of labor and toil under the sun, people gain absolutely nothing. The word gain conveys the idea of something left over, remaining at the end. It refers to "the human desire to show a profit, to be in the black, whether financially or otherwise."
This is what's at stake in the question of verse 3: at the end of my life, what will the surplus be? What will I leave behind that will count as a lasting monument to all my effort?
The Preacher provides the answer by painting an incredibly stark picture. He sketches humankind's place on the canvas of the entire universe to show, in graphic terms, just how and why there is nothing to be gained. I leave only one thing behind, and that's the earth I used to live on, remaining right where it was when I first arrived, only now it spins without me. My life will come and go. If I leave children in the world to carry on my legacy, they themselves are simply part of the generations who will come and go, and all they will leave behind is the universe carrying on as before. We haven't altered the cosmic merry-go-round. Nothing we do changes the fact that we labor and toil and then die, and the earth just stays there.
Everything is a breath, our lives the merest of breaths.
Life Is Repetitive
The Preacher pictures the momentary and elusive nature of human life with a beautiful rhythmic pattern to his poetry. Read Ecclesiastes 1:4-10 aloud and feel the lyrical tilt with its tidal ebb and flow. That's the point. Everything either goes around and around, or comes and goes; it rises and sets; what has been will be again; what has been done will be done again; what is present will soon be past.
In verses 5-8 the Preacher focuses on a threefold pattern in the world that is matched by a threefold pattern in human experience. The activities of sun, wind, and water follow the same course as the activities of speaking, seeing, and hearing. The point is that the world itself doesn't seem to go or get anywhere, for everything is cyclical rather than linear, so why should humans get anywhere?
The sun chases its tail. The wind goes to the south and comes back around again to the north. Streams flow into the sea, and the water evaporates, and then streams flow into the sea again and it is never full. So is the world, and so it will always be. So is humankind, and so we will always be. People are like the insatiable sea. Just as water pours into the ocean again and again without ever filling it, so the things of the world pour into human beings via their eyes and ears and back out through their mouths, and yet they never reach a point of complete satisfaction:
The massive reality of creation thus critiques the aspirations of all those tiny mortal beings who stand within creation as transient creatures. There is no reason to assume that individuals should "gain" from their toil when creation as a whole does not.
The experience of observing constant motion without lasting achievement is so wearisome that no amount of speech can catalogue it. The eye "never reaches the point that it cannot take in more, nor does the ear become so filled with sound that it cannot accept any more impulses from the outside world." Humans never finally think, "This is it. I'm full. I have seen it all, said it all, and heard it all. I have given out and taken in all that I can."
This language could, of course, be extremely positive. Taken on their own, these words about the limitless capacities of the human body might point to endless potential, healthy curiosity, and childlike wonder at the world in which we live. There is always so much to see and hear. But they are followed by perhaps the most famous words in the book of Ecclesiastes:
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun. (1:9)
The Preacher's perspective is this: humans long to come across something in their lives that will break the constant repetitive cycle, something to say or see or hear that will be truly new and therefore significant — but there is nothing. No such thing exists. Whatever we see and hear has already been and gone, covered by the sands of time and simply rolling around again, perhaps in a different guise but fundamentally the same as before.
In Hamlet's BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, William Powers argues that our constant connection to digital media and screen-based forms of communication is suffocating our ability to be people of substantial depth. Perhaps if anything in the world is new, then surely it's our technology, with rapidly evolving ways of sending messages and forming virtual communities, such that we seem to be presented with new challenges for what technology means for us as persons. Not so, according to Powers: "Though we barely realize it, every day we use connective tools that were invented thousands of years ago." He consults seven thinkers throughout world history who each "understood the essential human urge to connect and were unusually thoughtful about the 'screen equivalents' of their respective epochs." Human beings have wrestled throughout the ages with constantly changing forms of communication. There is already a rich seam of reflection on what human beings need to preserve about themselves as they interact with others. What seems new is in fact old. Hamlet used the BlackBerry of his day.
Excerpted from Living Life Backward by David Gibson. Copyright © 2017 David Gibson. Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
1 Let's Pretend 17
2 Bursting the Bubble 33
3 Doing Time 49
4 Living a Life Less Upwardly Mobile 63
5 Looking Up, Listening In 79
6 Learning to Love the Limitations of Life 91
7 From Death to Depth 105
8 Things to Know When You Don't Know 119
9 One Foot in the Grave 131
10 Getting the Point 151
General Index 167
Scripture Index 173
What People are Saying About This
“The past two decades have witnessed quite a number of popular expositions of Ecclesiastesand this one by David Gibson is the best of them. It follows the line of the book in a believable and compelling way. Its applications and reflections are cogent and telling, and the writing is characterized by grace and verve. Moreover, the questions found at the end of each chapter make this volume suitable for small-group Bible studies. Highly recommended.”
D. A. Carson,Research Professor of New Testament, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; Cofounder, The Gospel Coalition
“David Gibson’s expositions of Ecclesiastes are like Ecclesiastes itself: sometimes shocking, often tantalizing, always refreshing. He deftly combines serious stuff with a light touch, clear style, and gospel relief. You will repeatedly run into ‘think-stoppers’; he will make new grooves in your grey matter that weren’t there before, and you will often admit, ‘I wish I’d have thought to put it like that!’ I think the writer of Ecclesiastes would be pleased with David’s work.”
Dale Ralph Davis,Professor Emeritus of Old Testament, Reformed Theological Seminary
“If Ecclesiastes is a book for our times, then Living Life Backward is the book to unpack it. Beginning with the paradigm shift that embracing death is essential for life, I was intrigued from the start. Utterly counter to a modern worldview, the truths of Ecclesiastes are woven with ease into a narrative that rightly makes sense of why we are alive. Bold and beautiful in style, Living Life Backward promises to jolt the mind and shake us out of our complacencies. I couldn’t put it down!”
Fiona McDonald, Director of National Ministries, Scottish Bible Society
“Every reader of David Gibson’s steady and reverent progress through the book will reap reward, along with wonderfully enhanced understanding and rich insight into divine truth. Those who have benefited from David’s work in the foundational book From Heaven He Came and Sought Her will rush to enjoy the same values here of profound scholarship and covetable clarity of presentation.”
Alec Motyer, author; Bible expositor
“Only when you’re ready to die are you prepared to live. Sheer lunacy, isn’t it? Or is it actually the sanest thing you’ll ever hear? Engaging contemporary culture, David Gibson retells Ecclesiastes in all of its jarring dissonance with whatever we consider reasonable and normal. As it turns out, the wisdom of the world is silly and its will to power is impotent. I needed to read thisand so do you.”
Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California; author, Justification (New Studies in Dogmatics)
“Too many view Ecclesiastes as merely the gloomy ruminations of a cynical pessimist. No wonder the book has fallen into neglect; we don’t need more of that today. But David Gibson blows away the dust and cobwebs by demonstrating that while Ecclesiastes is indeed skeptical about finding a meaningful and satisfying life without God, it’s also hopeful and optimistic about finding joy in an ordinary life with God as its center and aim. We can’t get enough of that today.”
David Murray, Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary