Living wisely in a meaningless world

I listened to and enjoyed and remained ultimately unconvinced by the

overall tone of

Kirk Patston’s (SMBC) sermons on

a couple of years ago.

I’m now reading through his Hebrew lecture notes which are good fun.

There’s plenty of helpful insight into the text. But I find myself

saying ‘Yes… Yes… Yes… No’.

The positive side to Ecclesiastes

I don’t think ‘the Preacher’ is a total nihilist or heretic or

pessimist and that we need to transcend his teachings to find meaning

‘above the sun’. It’s not just a secular thought-experiment, or a

natural-theology thought-experiment whose dominant purpose is to push

us beyond it’s depressing teachings to the hope of judgement and


Ecclesiastes genuinely does help us think about how to live wisely in

this world, as it is. I think that its advice to learn to find joy in

the work of our hands and not get overwhelmed with dwelling on the

days of our lives is wise advice, even for the believer.

It is how to live in the everyday. It is the advice and outlook of our

‘provisional self’, as Derek Kidner puts it.

The negative side to Ecclesiastes

But I don’t see how we get from that to the claim that actually the

sun happily pursues its course round and round the earth, and that

‘all things are labouring’ but somehow happily busy not ‘wearisome’.

To say that the human problem is that we worry too much about what we

can ‘gain’ under the sun, and if we only embraced this world as one

where there are no gains, we would be happy - be able to accept this

world as transient…

It seems to be going beyond the evidence. I just can’t make it work as

I read the book. And as I follow the Hebrew notes there seems a jump

from the observations on the text to this conclusion. In the end

‘hebel’ has a negative connotation, however we translate it.

Just as imagining Ecclesiastes as a secular thought-experiment

stretches the bounds of what seems likely for an Ancient Near East

philosopher, so also an ‘embrace the limitations of this life and live

in the moment’ also seems to stretch the bounds of what is likely for

a Hebrew philosopher.

Death hangs over this book far too much as a negative force. And some

of the ‘wisdom’ we find reads best, as less-than-godly. A

‘wordly-wisdom’, if you like.

So I think we need to be able to hear the wisdom of Ecclesiastes as

partial, provisional wisdom. I think we need to even think how we

might take this wisdom on board as believers, applying it with care.

But I also think that ultimately Ecclesiastes does provide ‘Fear God

and look to the judgement (and salvation?)’ as a greater answer than

‘enjoy your work and eat and drink’.

via Blog - Christian Reflections (NB: to comment go to