Living Life Backward
‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity – a mere chasing after the wind'
This is the refrain of Ecclesiastes. The preacher declaring vanity! All is vanity. Better to die than to be born, better to never be born at all than to die after all this living. Bleak? Pessimistic? Or perhaps realistic – in our age of euphoria and hyperbole.
Ecclesiastes – though often dry and acerbic in wit - introduces us to the heart of faith. As Gibson writes, 'The ear is the Christian's primary sense organ. Listening to what God has said is our main spiritual discipline. We need someone to tell us to listen because we want to look and speak more than we want to listen' (p.81). Our sense organs should be on full alert when it comes to God. Dumb down the noise of the world and turn up the volume of the 'quiet, gentle whisper' (1 Kings 19) of God – the voice of love, the author of life, the sustainer of faith. Gibson helpfully dissects the reality of the human condition – painted in such dramatic tones by the preacher in Ecclesiastes (or what Eugene Peterson translates 'the jester'). 'We are fundamentally active creatures' (p.81). Though we only have one mouth and two ears, we prefer to forget the ratio and talk far more than we listen. We long to be experts. We long to be on the inside. We share our wisdom far and wide. We inform and discuss. Yet when do we listen? When do we truly listen to the Word of God and allow it to shape every area of our hearts and our lives – down to the smallest voice deep in our sub-conscience – and spend time chewing and delighting on the promises of Scripture? When do we truly listen to our neighbour? To spend time allowing space for the Other, with their own unique ways of understanding and interpreting reality in all its complexity?
'Life is a gift' (p.81). Gibson teaches well that 'Ecclesiastes says that we become more human when we are what we receive' (ibid.). He continues, 'God's Word is the most precious of gifts, to be honoured and loved and treasured above all others. Ecclesiastes is one long meditation on the need to use our ears for God's Word alongside our eyes in God's world' (ibid.). At the level of human wisdom, we churn out book after book – lecture after lecture – seminar after seminar – yet the Preacher warns this is all a 'chasing after the wind'. The clues are in the Word. Ignorance of this is death. If life truly is a gift, then receiving is arguably more important than giving – reception more so than presentation. In Deuteronomy 6:4 we read these words; 'the LORD our God, the LORD is one'. God is united, undivided, and totally faithful. He is an 'undivided God seeking undivided worshippers' (p.80). It is remarkably simple – he wants all of us – all of our heart, our soul, our strength. To the very core. 'Real faith and trust in God are not compartmentalised' (ibid.). As Gibson compellingly suggests, 'He is not looking for people who can give him their strength...while their greatest loves & deepest desires are directed elsewhere'.
Gibson also introduces us to a central theme of Ecclesiastes – finding rest for your souls. Indeed, so powerful is this, that the preacher calls this the art of happiness. Almost always we are doing this or that, looking for happiness. A new career, a better job, a nicer house, a more fulfilling profession, better relationships, security in our marriage – always thinking of me. What will make me happier? How will I find true happiness? Even if we find it – it eludes us – just round the corner life continues, with all its challenges and obstacles and surprises. 'Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after the wind' (Ecclesiastes 4:6). The preacher is clear – live a wise life, live for others, give until you have nothing left to give, and you'll be happier. 'The word he uses is quietness (v6) [which] simply means rest – peace of mind and calmness of soul' (p.66). A powerful thought for a hedonistic society bent on the next thrill, the next rush, the next dash of dopamine online and dose of adrenaline outdoors. Yes, we're often restless for rest. Find it here – clear in Ecclesiastes – says the preacher.
Our attention is drawn to many other poignant parts of Ecclesiastes, through Gibson's engaging prose;
- Wisdom and the danger of a relentless thirst for knowledge – this can be our noose – in a broken world. Gibson writes; 'wisdom can never achieve the kind of control over your life & destiny that you seek'. (p.104)
- Anestenazo meaning the 'sigh of Christ' (Mark 8:12) that is also in a groaning creation (Romans 8:22). (p.69)
- Living a life less upwardly mobile and the gift of constraint & contentment – in a society of excess. (p.63)
- Learning to love the limitations of life and the joy of operating in boundaries – freedom has a form. (p.91)
- 'Looking Up, Listening In' and the power of simple speech, straightforward talk – yes, yes / no, no. (p.79)
- The more intelligent a man is, the more originality he finds in others (Blaise Pascal, quoted on p.13) – treasuring uniqueness and the gift of difference in all people, regardless of background, history, race, or creed.
- The paradox of control – the more control we desire, the narrower our world becomes – it eludes us. (p.21)
- Life in God's world is gift, not gain – do we live as recipients of gifts of grace, or busybody producers? (p.37)
- 'Time, in God's hands, graciously apprentices us' (Zack Eswine, quoted on p.60) – we're to treasure time, savour it.
Ecclesiastes is a must-read book of Scripture. David Gibson's commentary and analysis help us see this. 'To be a human is to be a creature, and to be a creature is to be finite. We are not God' (p.29). This is a liberating truth. We are not God. Read Ecclesiastes and delight in this truth. Gibson bursts the bubble – this is the real deal.