Ecclesiastes 3:14-15: I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away (ESV).
What do you treasure and how long will it last? And, when’s the last time you read Ecclesiastes?
Ecclesiastes is well known for telling us that “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven…” (Ecclesiastes 3:1ff) and that God has “…made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
But you may also know Ecclesiastes for being somewhat of a downer—that is, the book is famous for verbally lambasting some of our favorite things. Beauty, health, riches, romance, wisdom, hard work, fame, status, honor, and youth—all these things are repeatedly called “vanity.” The word being used here is “hevel” which means “vapor.”
The Preacher, who narrates Ecclesiastes, is telling us that Life’s greatest things are as permanent as smoke.
This is a tough pill to swallow for those of us who idolize or live for any single item on the Preacher’s list—these things won’t last forever, and neither will we. But this perspective helps us appreciate good things which God has given us in a fitting way by understanding their impermanence. This can help us better appreciate what IS permanent. Why is that so great?
Well…imagine going to a cookout with a mason jar. You walk up to the grill where half a dozen burgers sizzle happily. At left there is a table covered in a plastic cloth that flaps in the sweet summer breeze, but doesn’t fly away because it is settled under a rich assortment of condiments, fruit salads, and a bounty of hotdog and burger buns that taste just like the best kind but without MSG. You take in the scene, breathe in the warm serenity of an American tailgate, and twist the lid off your mason jar. Holding it upside down over the grill, you give it a few seconds to capture some smoke before quickly putting the lid back on. (The smoke mostly escapes but you don’t care.) You smile to yourself as you return to where your friends and family are sitting. As you uncap your jar once again and take a sip–of nothing—everyone falls awkwardly silent. They are confused—they thought you had gone to get your food. No one says anything until, at last, your four-year old cousin blurts out “What are you doing?” Imagine you respond, both seriously and genuinely, by saying, “I’m enjoying a burger.”
As a matter of fact, you are absolutely not. Smoke, besides the fact that we can’t really grab it, is not remotely a substitute for a burger which is cooked and seasoned to perfection. If anything, you are enjoying the scent of a burger.
Or, suppose you tied a framed picture of your dog to a leash and went for a walk with it loudly scraping the sidewalk behind you. Some small child playing with chalk (kids are better at asking the simple questions) blurts out from their driveway, “What are you doing?” You reply, “I’m taking my dog for a walk.” Emphatically and with appropriate indignance, the child might yell back “No you’re not!” The child is right. You would be walking a mere visual representation of your dog.
Last one: imagine you started your day with coffee scented Febreze. No pour-over, no Keurig, and no French press. No cream, no sugar, and no quirky mug. No actual coffee–just a lab-synthesized scent. As great as the scent of coffee is, I would be asleep at my desk in no time. Or worse, I would be awake and cantankerous all day long.
The point is not that burgers are irreplaceable, that dogs are important, or that coffee must be drunk in the morning, although those things are good and true. Rather, that the scents, memories, nostalgias, or emanations of a thing are never better than the thing itself. Enjoy the scent of burgers, but don’t stop there. Show everyone pictures of your dog, but don’t stop there. Wake up and smell the coffee but drink it too.
I wonder if this is part of what the Preacher is getting at in Ecclesiastes when he repeatedly tells us that things are vapor: even life itself is a poor substitute for the Author of life.
The most beautiful of beautiful things, the richest of the rich, the wisest of the wise, and the most righteous of the righteous are mere nostalgias of God’s presence. Heaven forbid we settle for vapors in place of the living God.
In this world, where nothing can be truly possessed, good things are short-lived, and everyone dies, Jesus came to flesh and dwelt among us. Ecclesiastes tells us that everything passes away and everyone will die— “all are from the dust, and to dust all return” (Eccles. 3:20).
But Jesus is alive.
Often life does seem like vapor—beyond our grasp and certainly beyond our control. But it is not beyond God’s control. In fact, it does everything He tells it to.
Jesus called people away from their stable jobs, raised the dead back to life, told people to lay up treasure in heaven, saw past physical and social appearances, and “destroyed the wisdom of the wise” (1 Corinthians 1:19). In other words, Jesus both beat the system and broke it. He could have grasped any of the things that we cannot—lasting beauty, riches, and fame, but He adamantly refused.
When Jesus came to the world, He did not offer us impermanent things. Jesus offered us Himself.
He had “no beauty that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2) and no riches. As for honor, he was “despised and rejected by men” (Isaiah 53:3). He had no dream job either—He was just a carpenter. Healthwise, He gave up His life in his early thirties. Jesus did not live striving after good things—He was the source of all good. Jesus didn’t endorse things that do not satisfy; rather, He came to satisfy us with Himself.
Ecclesiastes tells us that God is the source of permanence: “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. That which is, already has been, that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away” (Eccles. 3:14, emphasis mine).
Even as Ecclesiastes tells us that nothing good will last, it tells us something about God, the true source of good. This passage is promising us Jesus.
Jesus tells us, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt. 24:35, emphasis mine). He warns in Revelation that should anyone add or take away from the words of His prophecy, they will be plagued and removed from the book of Life. He died on the cross as our substitute, offering up His spirit saying “it is finished.” God has done what He intended, mercifully making a way for us to be reconciled to Him and to fear Him. He declared himself “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Revelation 22:13, emphasis mine). He even tells us that He came “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10, emphasis mine).
There are many nostalgias of God’s presence, and not a single one of them will satisfy us. We ought to delight in them because of who they come from, but never rely or seek to hold on to them. Our desires and needs can only be satisfied by fellowship with God.
Friends, what temporary things have we valued or prioritized above God, looking to them for worth, joy, and meaning? Have we tried to hold on to them instead of clinging to our Savior? Have we grieved their impermanence more than we have delighted in the gospel? Have we meditated on them more than we have meditated on the eternal and unfading word of God?
What do you treasure and how long will it last?