“The merest of breath…the merest of breaths. Everything is a breath” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)

In short, the ‘Teacher’ of Ecclesiastes is saying, “Nothing lasts!” All the things you put enormous time, effort and money into, will not last. Your dream job has a use by date. Your great marriage will come to an end, either through divorce or death. Your legacy will be forgotten. He is not saying life is meaningless and without purpose; rather it is temporal and fleeting. You are born, you live and you die. Like vapour, or smoke, life is beyond our grasp and control. Attempting to ‘master it’ is a foolish undertaking that will end in pain and disillusionment.

Our foolish attempts at moulding reality to our own ends is found in the rhetorical question the Teacher asks at the start, “What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?” (1:3).  “Nothing”, is the implicit answer based on his reflections from verses 4 to 11.

For all of our hard work, when we die, we leave one thing behind, and that’s the earth we used to live on, a world that continues spinning, completely indifferent to everything we have done. The Teacher sums it best in Eccl 1:9, “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”. On this side of eternity, life is a breath, fragile, elusive and repetitive. We are limited and not in control like God. We need to stop pretending otherwise. 

That is why it is vanity for instance to live for our careers because the satisfaction, fulfillment and whatever advantage we think we gained through them has a very short life span. They are not meant to give you a lasting sense of worth, identity, security and purpose because only God can give you that. Therefore, ‘earthly gain’ is not just foolish, it’s impossible. Life in a fallen world is ultimately dissatisfying. No matter what you do with your life, no matter how wealthy, successful, educated, healthy, popular you are, you will die eventually. That’s the main argument of Ecclesiastes. 

But how is this helpful? David Gibson explains, “… only a proper perspective on death provides the true perspective on life. Living in the light of your death will help you to live wisely and freely and generously. It will give you a big heart and open hands, and enable you to relish all the small things of life in deeply profound ways. Death can teach you the meaning of mirth…Ecclesiastes teaches us to live life backward. It encourages us to take the one thing in the future that is certain – our death – and work backward from that point into all the details and decisions and heartaches of our lives, and to think about them from the perspective of the end. It is the destination that makes sense of the journey…”

“Living life backward” – I reckon it’s a motto worth adopting as we move through 2024!

Christ in you, the hope of glory!