Ecclesiastes (1): Life is Foggy - 12th January 2014 - Dave Walker

Bible readings: Ecclesiastes 1:1-18 & 12:8-14

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Ecclesiastes is the sort of book that nobody expects to find in the Bible. I imagine you may have noticed that as you heard it read. Most people imagine Bible books to be full of either inspirational thoughts or strict moral rules. Ecclesiastes has neither. If you’ve not read the whole book yet, you should. It’s amazing. As you read it you find plenty of comedy moments, the sort of things which you like to rip out of context and write on people’s birthday cards, if you have a twisted sense of humour like mine. There’s sarcasm, bitterness, even despair. It’s not all gloom, there’s a fair bit of optimism in there too, but it’s the pessimism that gets your attention. There are moments when it sounds like Morrissey when he’s off on one. It’s not what you’d expect from the Bible. Why is it here?

I think this photo helps us. If you can’t make it out, or if you’re listening to a recording, it’s a picture of London from the air. But it’s London in the fog. So all you can make out is the tops of the big buildings. The rest of it is hidden. If you were here a couple of months ago when we were studying the book of Philippians you may remember me saying that when it comes to dealing with the difficulties of life, one thing the Bible does is it shows us the big story. It tells us the big picture, the big realities, and as we hear that big story, we can start to see how the little stories within a story in which we find ourselves fit in. They fit in as part of the Big Story. That’s true. The Bible does give us the Big Story, the Big Picture of reality. That’s what the helicopter here has, isn’t it? The helicopter cameraman has the big picture. He can see where the landmarks are, he can see this is London, he can get his bearings. The Bible gives us the Big Picture of life.

But it doesn’t only do that. The Bible also speaks into the fog. You see the day to day business of our lives is lived, not up there in the helicopter, but down in the fog. When you’re in the fog things look much less clear. It’s much harder to get your bearings. It’s confusing and exasperating. But even there in the middle of the fog God has something to say, something very relevant. The book of Ecclesiastes speaks into the fog.

That’s the heart of the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s written in the fog. And more than anything else, that fog is what it’s all about.

Have a look at how it starts. The start of the first chapter. Verse 2 is where The Teacher, the main speaker in this book, begins his teaching: "Everything is meaningless," says the Teacher, "utterly meaningless!"  And then when you look at how it ends, it’s the same. Chapter 12 verse 8 is where the Teacher concludes his teaching: "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Everything is meaningless!" Hebel. He ends where he begins. Everything is meaningless. Told you it was cheery.

This is where the fog comes in. That word which our Bibles translate as “meaningless” is the Hebrew word “Hebel”. And that word is actually quite difficult to translate. Literally, Hebel means “vapour”. Foggy vapour. “Vapour, vapour, everything is vapour.” It’s foggy.

Life is not meaningless. It’s not without meaning. That’s why I don’t think our translation is particularly helpful here. Life is not just totally random. If it was really meaningless there would be no point in writing a book about it. There are still all sorts of meaningful things you can say in this world. That’s why this book was written.

And nor is life pointless. If it’s pointless it’s not going anywhere. Life is going somewhere. The Big Story of the Bible is still true, even in Ecclesiastes. The Teacher in this book often speaks of a day when God will judge, and on that day all the fog will be cleared. So it’s not pointless.

It’s just foggy. It’s vapour. That’s the message today. Life now is foggy.

Ok, in what ways is life foggy? Well let’s listen to what the Teacher tells us. I think as we go through this book we can see four ways that life is foggy. Four ways of understanding the fogginess of life.

The first is this: You can’t keep it. You can’t grasp it.

Have you ever gone out on a foggy day with a jam jar and tried to catch it? To catch the fog? Maybe you did when you were a child. And you go back inside imagining that when you open the lid fog will come pouring out like a mad scientist in a cartoon. But what do you have? Nothing. You can’t catch fog. You can’t keep it for later. You can’t grasp it. Reach for it, and it slips through your fingers.

Life is like that. It’s ephemeral – you can’t grasp it, you can’t keep it. You don’t gain anything. Look at verse 7 of chapter 1: “All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.  8 All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.” The sea never fills up. Sound keeps pouring into your ears. At no point do your ears say “that’s enough sound now, thanks, I don’t need any more, I’ll just keep the ones I have.” How many meals do you need to eat before you are finally full? How many times do you have to brush your teeth before they are finally clean?

There’s a scientific way of saying this. It’s called the second law of thermodynamics. It’s the principle that everything is always breaking down. Everything is always decaying. Ecclesiastes describes this world where the second law of thermodynamics is true. I love bikes, as many of you know, and I’m forever buying new bits for my bike, but no sooner have I put it on than something else breaks and needs replacing. How many times do I have to fix it before it’s fixed? Buildings – you fix one thing, something else goes wrong. People – you finally recover from that illness, then something else goes wrong. Or it comes back.

That’s how life is, isn’t it? It just keeps going, it’s wearisome as the Teacher says, it’s tiring, but it’s never all just so. It’s never all complete and fixed and perfect. You don’t gain. You’re just treading water; splashing around furiously to stay still. You can’t grasp it; you can’t keep it; it’s foggy.

A second way life is foggy is this: you can’t predict it. It’s unpredictable.

If you flick over to chapter 3 on page 670 you can see one of the most famous bits of this book. Look at verse 1: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven” And then he goes on to list a whole load of opposites – “a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,  3 a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,  4 a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” and so on. All these different things have their time, but the problem is this: you don’t know what it’s going to be time for today, or tomorrow. Life flip-flops between these different things. Today might be a laughing day, or it might be a crying day, and you don’t know which. How do you know what will happen tomorrow? You don’t. You can guess, but’s that’s all it is: a guess. God knows these things, yes. But you don’t. For you, life is unpredictable. It’s foggy.

Third way that life is foggy: You can’t see beyond it. Death rubs it out. It’s temporary.

Fog is there all around you, but then the wind blows and it’s gone. Life is like that. You can’t keep it, you can’t predict it, so neither can you predict when you’re going to lose it. And then what? Then what will happen to all the stuff you’ve been working for, to the projects you’ve been working on, to the people who you care about? You don’t know. That’s a big theme of this book. Chapter 10 verse 14 says “No-one knows what is coming – who can tell what will happen after him?” Or look over the page at chapter 2 verse 18: “I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.  19 And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is foggy vapour.” I imagine Alex Ferguson would agree with that one. Life, work, everything you have, goes one day. You can’t control that. You don’t know when. It’s temporary. It’s foggy.

Fourth way that life is foggy: It’s foggy because you can’t see clearly in it. It’s confusing.

This is back where we were at the start. In the middle of the fog of life, you can’t see clearly. It’s the view from street level, not the view from the helicopter. All sorts of things happen that we don’t understand, that we can’t make head nor tail of. That’s a feature of the world in which we live and the Teacher wants us to know it. It’s truth. It’s just difficult truth.

And the Teacher reminds us that this is the way that God has made things. Listen to this from chapter 8 verse 16: “When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe man's labour on earth--his eyes not seeing sleep day or night-- 17 then I saw all that God has done. No-one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.” Our best efforts to understand the world leave us still groping around in the fog. God has made it that way now. That’s not saying there’s nothing we can understand – no there’s lots we can, there’s lots that God has revealed. But there’s plenty more that he hasn’t. There’s plenty more we don’t understand. It’s foggy.

And the cumulative effect of all that fogginess is that leaves us exasperated. Vexed. Baffled. Listen to this from chapter 7 verse 23: “I said “I am determined to be wise” – but this was beyond me.”

The Teacher has this repeated phrase that sums this experience up – he talks about “chasing after the wind.” Did you hear that a couple of times in the reading in chapter 1? It’s a pun. Because the words have two meanings. It could be translated “chasing after the wind” or it could just as easily be translated “vexation of the spirit.” It’s both. As we experience the fogginess of life, as we grapple to understand, it leaves us vexed in our spirit. It’s exasperating.

The Bible says that. God wants us to know that. The experience of life in the fog is exasperating. And the experience of Ecclesiastes matches that. I hope that you do read this over yourself during these next few weeks as we study this book, because it really is a book that is to be experienced, not just preached about. You need to read it through, and as you do, you get immersed in the fogginess of it, you feel the exasperation and the frustration. You feel that there’s lots about it you don’t understand. I certainly do when I read this book.

So why does God want to tell us this? Why does he want us to feel the exasperation of this foggy world like this?

Well there is a message here for our society, and for us as members of it. We live in the middle of a time, and a nation, where people are acquiring masses of stuff for themselves, where people are hiding from death, and where people are really anxious. I think that’s a fair analysis of Britain now, isn’t it? Lots of stuff. Death is hidden away behind closed doors in the hospitals and crematoria. But people are still anxious. Ecclesiastes says “yes, that’s how it will always be.” Because all the stuff you acquire, all the ways you try to give your life meaning and escape from death, they’re just fog. There’s no substance to any of them. They will all pass away. I need to say that there are many optimistic things in this book of Ecclesiastes. But all the optimistic things are to do with God. If you’re not a believer in Jesus, you don’t even have those things. When you’re reading Ecclesiastes, why not show it to a friend or colleague who is not a Christian. “Do you want to see what I’m reading at the moment? Have a look at this.” They’ll be amazed. But it might make them think.

But I think the main message is not for non-believers, it’s for believers. And it’s this: life is foggy, even for us. You see, sometimes Christians can be guilty of over-simplifying life. One of the wonderful things about being a Christian is that God has made so much clear to us in Jesus. The Big Story of the Bible really does help us in the day to day of life. The big things are clear and certain. In fact in many ways we now have a clearer picture than the Teacher in Ecclesiastes had: Jesus has come now and he’s made the resurrection of the dead a reality; Jesus has made the future of resurrection life with God much more clear now; Jesus is even with us who believe now, in the middle of the fog, by his Holy Spirit. If you’re not a believer in Jesus you have only got the fog. We who believe have lots more now to be certain of. Those things are solid and real, they stick out above the fog like Canary Wharf and the Shard. But there’s still a lot of fog.

You see sometimes people think that being a Christian means that everything becomes clear and certain. The problem is, if your Christian faith is built on the fact that everything makes sense, what will you do when something happens in your life that doesn’t make sense? God tells us this so that we won’t be caught out. So that we won’t resort to facile easy answers that may harm each other – “oh if you’d only had more faith this would never have happened.” That sort of thing.

In the last week I’ve heard from people who have been facing all sorts of stuff that doesn’t make sense. Serious illness, injury that has put them out of action, people recovering enough to come out of hospital for a few days only to go back in again, stillbirth, a man my age who, after recovering from a life threatening motorbike accident and spending a number of years in a wheelchair then died of cancer. That’s just this week.

On Friday I was at a funeral. It was of a lovely lady called Muriel who used to come to our evening service sometimes, who had died after many years of progressive dementia. Muriel and Geoff her husband were both wonderful Christian people. At the funeral Geoff said this: “When someone you love dies, you have all sorts of questions of why it has happened. When I first came London all those years ago I prayed for a wife and the Lord introduced me almost straight away to Muriel. Now I find it hard to understand why the Lord has taken her away again. But I do know that this is true (and he quoted a hymn) ‘God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year. God is working his purpose out as the day of Christ draws near.’”

This is the truth of Ecclesiastes. We may be in the fog, but God is still Lord in the fog. There is much in life which doesn’t make sense, but he is still Lord, and he has given us enough light to keep going in the right direction.

When you’re driving along on a foggy night, you’re not completely blind. It’s difficult to see, but you can see just enough to keep going in the right direction. The cats eyes, the road markings, all help you. So you keep the car pointed in the right direction, not too fast, and keep going straight ahead.

That’s the sort of thing the Teacher in Ecclesiastes would endorse. Life is foggy, yes. But you do have some reference points. You have the fact that God is there, and the certainty of a day in the future where God will make all the murkiness clear. So now keep going. Not too fast – don’t be cocky – there’s still an awful lot you don’t understand. You’re not God – he is in heaven, you are on earth; he has the helicopter view, you are in the fog. So be humble before God. And keep going in the direction he’s given you. Keep following Jesus.