How does Ecclesiastes help us build family convictions? Ecclesiastes presents the message of Qohelet, which means “the assembler” but is often translated “the preacher.” Most of the book is Qohelet’s words spoken in the first person (1:12–12:7), but the book opens and closes with a third-person reflection on the book’s teachings (1:1–11 and 12:8–14). In the sections where the preacher is speaking in the first person, we hear a sometimes shocking pessimism about the uncertainty and emptiness of this earthly life. Life “under the sun” is rendered meaningless because of death (Eccl. 12:7), injustice (7:15), and people’s inability to discern the proper time (3:11).1Tremper Longman III,“ Everything Is Not Meaningless,” The Gospel Coalition (August 24, 2015), https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/everything-is-not-meaningless/. It is important, however, to read the pessimism of the preacher accurately: he is criticizing the emptiness of life “under the sun”—that is, life lived with no perspective of a righteous God who will declare the final verdict at the end of history by His judgment and salvation (Eccl. 8:12; chap. 12).
We need not rush to the ultimate horizons of the last things, however, to gain something of value from Ecclesiastes. By its sobering look at the brevity and vanity of life, Ecclesiastes helps us to appreciate anew the beauty and glory of the simple things God has placed in our lives. The lesson from the preacher is that every relationship in our life, each member of our family, and every single day we have is a precious gift of God, and that we ought to treasure each other as long as it is called “today.” This book becomes a lens through which we can see how important others are in our lives (Eccl. 4:7–12). We should never take our parents, spouse, siblings, or children for granted. We also learn, however, that these relationships will likely disappoint or even hurt us at some point.2Stanley D. Gale, Making Sanity out of Vanity: Christian Realism in the Book of Ecclesiastes (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2011), 69–78.
Ecclesiastes contributes in another, major way, to the building up of the family. We saw how Proverbs promotes a general framework for building family convictions centered on wisdom and the fear of the LORD through instruction, discipline, and modeling godliness. For instance, Proverbs 22:6 instructs parents to “train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” In the introduction, we also mentioned how many have misunderstood wisdom literature by reading its sayings as mechanical laws for the universe that apply no matter what, such as thinking that training a child rightly will always result in that child’s godliness. Fortunately, wisdom literature has its own antidote to its mechanical misreading: the books of Ecclesiastes and Job. Both books expose the misreading of wisdom literature as universal laws of life that guarantee success, famously depicted in Job’s friends’ mechanical misunderstanding that the righteous always thrive and the wicked always suffer. What Ecclesiastes and Job do is “keep us from overreading” Proverbs while still reinforcing its message of fearing the LORD. What shall we do if we do the hard work of building family convictions, only to see our marriages struggle and our children go astray after all? Why should we even begin the venture? In the context of this address on building family convictions, Ecclesiastes helps us prepare our hearts with the right motivation for building family convictions. We don’t do it ultimately because we are guaranteed success; knowing the risks and potentials for failure, we do it for the glory of God and from a humble hope in His promises.
Ecclesiastes is helpful in preventing our making an idol out of any part of our earthly existence—and this includes the blessing of family. Fallen humanity will always try to domesticate God, manipulate grace, and gain control over the unpredictable chaos of life in a fallen world. A quick scan of major religious TV networks will show you the kind of preaching and teaching that sells: conveniently packaged formulas and slick solutions to the problems of money, marriage, family, and career. Sin twists our original human vocation to rule over creation into an idolatrous quest for just the right steps and formulas that can guarantee a life of comfort, prosperity, success, and cheap grace—suggesting that if our lives are not perfect in these ways, we must have done something wrong. Even a sincere desire that begins as a humble search for biblical wisdom for our families can easily corrupt itself into an idolatrous drive to reduce the vagaries and disappointments of life into a manageable, predictable method of guaranteed success.
The book of Ecclesiastes is a revolt against simple answers to life’s hard questions and disappointments; it brings a demolition hammer to “the idea of a totally predictable God”; and it is a canonical corrective to a mechanical reading of wisdom literature.3Longman, “Family in the Bible,” 96; Goldsworthy, Gospel and Wisdom, 456. It helps us see that, even if our efforts to cultivate godly convictions in our families do not seem to bear fruit in the way we expected, it will still go well for those who fear God.
The preacher admits that his words, though honest and instructive, are painful (12:10, 12). Reflecting on how difficult, brief, and meaningless life under the sun presents itself is sobering; it’s borderline depressing. A similar sentiment is expressed by Paul when he says that God subjected the creature to vanity (Rom. 8:20), and that if our hope in Christ pertains to “this life only…, we are of all men most miserable” (1 Cor. 15:19). But Paul does not end there. Instead, he presses on his readers the glorious future reality in store for the righteous: resurrection, judgment, salvation, and eternal life. The preacher in Ecclesiastes also closes his message with what we might call a hopeful, “above the sun” perspective: “Fear God, and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil” (12:13–14).”4Longman, “Everything Is Not Meaningless.” So, while it is true that there are uncertainties and painful experiences that may seem to unravel the family convictions you’ve worked so hard to build up, “yet surely I know,” says the preacher, “that it shall be well with them that fear God, which fear before him” (Eccl. 8:12). Or, as Paul says, “Your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).
What we are given in Ecclesiastes is therefore another valuable aspect of walking in the fear of God that is a striking complement to Proverbs— namely, that there is nothing we humans can do to harness or control God’s favor in our lives.5Thomas R. Schreiner, The King and His Beauty: A Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 311. We must simply enjoy the good gifts and seasons of joy God gives to us and our families, and adopt a posture of humble dependence on His sovereign grace and daily help, especially in seasons of disappointment and failure, as we work in our families to build biblical convictions by walking humbly before God and each other.
PURITAN REFORMED JOURNAL
Volume 14, Number 2 • July 2022
By Dr. Joel Beeke