Contending With Futility | The Voice 13.08: February 19, 2023

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Contending With Futility | Ecclesiastes 6:7-12

All of man’s labor is for nothing more than to fill his stomach – yet his appetite is never satisfied!
So what advantage does a wise man have over a fool? And what advantage does a pauper gain by knowing how to survive? It is better to be content with what the eyes can see than for one’s heart always to crave more. This continual longing is futile – like chasing the wind.
Whatever has happened was foreordained, and what happens to a person was also foreknown. It is useless for him to argue with God about his fate because God is more powerful than he is.
The more one argues with words, the less he accomplishes. How does that benefit him? For no one knows what is best for a person during his life – during the few days of his fleeting life – for they pass away like a shadow. Nor can anyone tell him what the future will hold for him on earth (Ecclesiastes 6:7-12).

We think we want to know why: why does God allow so much evil and suffering on the earth? Why must we endure so much difficulty and pain? Yet to what end do we ask?

Throughout Ecclesiastes 1:1-6:12 the Preacher meditates upon the hevel of life under the sun: all is vain, futile – truly absurd. He compares most human endeavors toward meaning as “chasing after wind”: people pursue pleasure, wealth, wisdom, or other things looking for ultimate purpose and satisfaction and will be disappointed and frustrated by all of them.

In Ecclesiastes 5:8-6:6 the Preacher strongly focused on the futility of wealth. Wealth causes anxiety; those who have it grow to fear and become hostile toward their fellow human beings. What can be gained with great effort can be lost quickly; The Preacher attempted to truly hammer this point home in terms of wealth. The Preacher showed extreme frustration with the plight of a person who worked hard but proved unable to enjoy the fruit of his labor. Truly, the Preacher thought, it is best to enjoy what one has and to enjoy one’s labor, for this is God’s gift.

The Preacher summed up a lot of his previous exposition in Ecclesiastes 6:7: people work in order to have something to eat and satisfy their hunger. And yet, he observed, their appetite is never satisfied! Perhaps he is meditating on the futility of eating: we eat food only for it to get processed and excreted and need to eat food again to survive. Yet Ecclesiastes 6:8-9 strongly suggest he had fare more in mind than food. He asks what might be the benefit of the wise over the fool, or the poor man’s benefit in knowing how to survive without a lot of resources; the answer featured contentment with what one has rather than focusing on what one might desire to have. All such craving for more is chasing after the wind.

The Preacher has again exposed the “deep things” underneath the surface of human thought and behavior: why do we accrue wealth anyway? We want more out of anxiety and apprehension about the future: if we accrue more now we feel more assured we will have something in the future if circumstances get worse. Yet it rarely stops there. The impulse to desire things because we can enjoy them and/or use them as security for the future has no “natural” limit. Even if we get more and more, we can, and often do, still want more and more. We can even deceive ourselves into thinking we do not have enough, especially if we compare ourselves with those who might have more material wealth than we do. And these days we must also keep in mind how consumption fuels capitalism; marketers have gained insights into human psychology and know quite well how to bombard us with messages emphasizing what we lack, instilling in us a desire to obtain whatever they are selling us.

The Apostle Paul addresses such matters in 1 Timothy 6:6-12 and to the same end: contentment with godliness is great gain, and those who yearn to become wealthy often stumble into situations that lead them to ruin and distress. The Preacher has shown how success in such an endeavor is likely even worse, leading to anxiety, fear, hostility, and ultimately callous disregard for the welfare of others (Ecclesiastes 5:8-6:9).

In this way we do well to move away from the scarcity mindset, which leads to constant anxiety and insecurity, and move toward an abundance mindset. As opposed to focusing on what we do not have, we do better to appreciate what we do have. We understand, at least in the abstract, how a life spent wanting what one does not have is far less pleasant and good than a life spent appreciating what one has. We do well to put it into practice. After all, what does it tell us when many people who maintain a decent quality of life feel more anxious, stressed, and unsatisfied with life than those who live in poverty? A life focused on what one does not have is futility and a cause for lamentation.

The Preacher then steps back to explore the theme of contending with futility. The New English Translation (NET) of Ecclesiastes 6:10 captures well the meaning of the Preacher, but none should thus conclude the Preacher is an adherent of five-point Calvinism: as in Ecclesiastes 1:1-11, the Preacher confesses how people have already experienced whatever besets people in the present, and it is known what people are and the kinds of behavior they manifest. Thus people fall into predictable patterns of behavior; we can thus predict what a person might do. Can man really contend with the God who made Him and is the Creator of all things? The Preacher wisely recognizes the futility of arguing about our plight: what benefit is gained from adding even more words (Ecclesiastes 6:11)? It would not be unreasonable to conclude the Preacher is throwing some shade on Job, or, if nothing else, the kind of impulse which led Job to speak as he did. What the NET conveys as statements in Ecclesiastes 6:12 are rhetorical questions expecting a “no” answer: does any human know what is best for them in their fleeting life which passes like a shadow? Can any person tell another what will happen on earth in the future?

The Preacher thus addressed a “live wire” in the lives of many; we might now accuse him of meddling. Humans have always wondered why things happen to them as they do and earnestly want to know what will happen in the future. This human impulse is all the more acute in a post-Enlightenment age in which knowledge has been reckoned as power. People want to know why various things take place because they nourish a vain hope: if we can only know why something is happening, we might be able to gain some kind of mastery over the situation and manipulate the results to work for our benefit. We want to know the future because it is the great unknown, and the unknown is dangerous and threatening.

The Preacher throws cold water on this entire enterprise, and, as usual, gets right to the heart of the matter. God is Sovereign. God knows the end of the matter from the beginning; God transcends the space-time continuum and is omniscient. God has the power. To try to figure out why things are the way they are, especially in terms of pain, suffering, disaster, and even in terms of theodicy, is ultimately contending with futility. We will not be able to know or understand why things are what they are. Even as we have advanced human knowledge and gained insight through our scientific exploration and technology, all such advancements have engendered even more questions than humanity had before. Of the attempt to understand more about how things work there will be no end.

Job is an instructive example. Job indeed argued with many words about the nature of his suffering. And when YHWH answered him Job received no real satisfaction; it was made abundantly clear to Job very quickly how he was meddling in matters far beyond his wisdom or understanding, and YHWH not so gently reminded him of his place as the creation so he would no longer seek to arrogate a position nearer to the Creator (cf. Job 38:1-42:6). The Apostle Paul provided a similar conclusion to a line of argument wondering who can resist God’s will, asking who humans as the creation are to talk back to their Creator (cf. Romans 9:19-22).

Thus the Scriptures abundantly witness to this challenge and the only “answer” humans are given. People generally have one of two reactions: they either maintain their position and denounce God as engaging in a power play, railing against Him, or they take the lesson seriously in humility and trust in God. We do best to find ourselves in the latter category, for the Preacher is yet again not wrong. Even if we could receive answers to our questions, would those answers really satisfy our yearning? If we really could see exactly what would happen to us, how would it really help us? It probably will not be as great as we would imagine; the Greeks spoke of Cassandra, a woman cursed with the ability to prophesy truth about the future but condemned to never be taken seriously, and such would be the fate of anyone who could see the future. As humans we remain finite creatures; it has been our constant temptation to “become like God,” and our endeavors to that end have rarely ended well for us.

Thus we do best to accept the lot we have in life. We will not be able to understand everything or get all the answers we might desire. What good will it be for us to rail against God because of such things? We should instead trust in God as our Creator and in God as displaying covenant loyalty to His people, accomplishing His eternal purposes in Christ to lead to relational unity between God and His people. In such is life; in perennial skepticism there is nothing but vanity and futility. Let us trust in God in Christ and obtain life in Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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