I’m in a small online book club with my best friend (IRL! But 4 hours away) and her mom and sister-in-law (who are local to me). We’re reading Jeffrey Meyers’ Ecclesiastes: A Table in the Mist, a short layman’s commentary on Ecclesiastes, which is one of my favorite books of the Bible. I’ve never found it to be a depressing book, and this commentary backs me up in that impression. I’d say Meyers’ overarching point is that the hebel/vanity/vapor theme in Ecclesiastes is meant to instruct us that we cannot control or manipulate God, that our actions do not gain us leverage with God and so earn us the specific blessings we crave. God gives us many promises and God blesses us richly, but it’s His doing, not ours; it’s on His timeframe and not ours; it’s at his discretion and not at our earning. Wisdom, then, is fearing God and keeping his commandments, not understanding the why and wherefore of what God is up to in the details of our lives or the world. God tells us the big picture, and it’s our job to trust and obey, not to try to iron it out and see, right now, how it all fits together.
God Is in Control. Is that good enough for me?
True wisdom recognizes God’s unmanageable disposition over your earthly life. True wisdom consists in fearing God. The person who thinks he can gain leverage reveals a heart of unbelief.
It’s easy to say, “Yes, of course I don’t earn God’s favor through my own works,” but Meyer’s various examples throughout the book have been convicting. Getting the results we want because we parent “right”? Nope, we don’t earn the right to say how God should weave this tale.
We don’t control the future and we don’t have a means of gain, even in godliness [1 Timothy 6:4-5].
I always thought of “imagining godliness is a means of gain” as being silly people thinking godliness is monetarily profitable in the world. Meyers extends it out to imagining that we gain health, prosperity, or “turned out” children by being godly, which is to say, by our own efforts.
God frustrates our attempts to discover what he does, specifically when we predict what he will do (Eccl. 7:14). Solomon points out that his life is “vaporous.” It is hebel. It is not only unpredictable, but unmanageable. Remember that “meaningless life” is an inaccurate translation. Solomon’s life was not meaningless or empty, and neither is yours. Rather it was vapor – unpredictable and uncontrollable, ungovernable and unmanageable. His life was like a mist, just as our lives are. It produced more questions than answers and was beyond his control.
Ecclesiastes makes so much more sense (and echoes many other biblical passages) when hebel is translated as vapor or mist instead of vanity or meaningless. ESV went with ‘vanity’, but has ‘vapor’ in the margin notes.
You cannot guarantee anything by your behavior. […] Specifically, our righteous behavior does not call forth anything like a reward from God.
Especially now that Vision Forum is defunct and it’s easier than ever to roll eyes at that brand of hypocrisy and bad theology, it’s quite alarming to think how that same assumption – that doing things “God’s Way” guarantees particular outcomes in this life (as if we even could keep His Way) – has still crept into my assumptions unawares. Yet I can’t think of an older homeschooling mom I’ve met who has graduated several children who would say that her children and her blessings at this stage are what she thought they would be. Not that it’s all a crap shoot, but that God works things out differently – and, in the end, better, of course, though it doesn’t always look that way – than we imagine.
Solomon also teaches that the Christian who genuinely fears God will not therefore foolishly think that his manner of living does not matter, only that it does not bind God to reward him with life or health or any other good thing in this life.
As the servants in the parable, we are only unprofitable servants. Our obedience isn’t a quarter to stick in God-the-vending-machine, even when we think it is His will we’re trying to earn.
We will receive His will for our lives, but will we receive it with gratitude when it isn’t what we thought it was going to be?
God cannot be manipulated by our behavior. He is not to be coddled or possessed or used. He is to be feared. Solomon presents wisdom as fearing God. God is not safe. He is not manageable. His ways are not your ways, his thoughts not your thoughts. He does not follow your rationalizations. […]
It is important to realize that fear means fear. Even though it is reverential fear and even though you also love and trust God, you may not evacuate the word “fear” of the element of terror, trepidation, alarm, or dread. […] Fear is a crucial element of the believer’s personal response to the living God.
And this reminds me of another work of Solomon, Proverbs 1:5-7:
Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
and the one who understands obtain guidance,
to understand a proverb and a saying,
the words of the wise and their riddles.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge;
fools despise wisdom and instruction.