I don’t just now remember the details of how it came about that December 25th was identified as the birth date of our Lord in Bethlehem. But from a pragmatic point of view, it’s wonderful that the year ends with the Christmas festival. I noticed it especially this year because Christmas fell on a weekend. After our very fine Christmas family time had come to an end we were able to take most of the week to rest, wind down, get caught up on some things around home, and reflect on our lives at this juncture and the journey ahead.
It turns out that some of my devotional reading at this time has been concentrated on the wonderful book of Ecclesiastes. I may have mentioned it before, but I love the philosophical nature of this book and the very deep wisdom that is found there. I find it amazingly relevant to our times and to my thoughts at this time of year. I am not surprised that Ecclesiastes was included in the canon of Scripture because of the deep way in which God speaks through the words of this very wise preacher/teacher. It is as though the writer is able to step back and look over the whole expanse of human history to form some very poignant conclusions about the state of things in our world.
He begins with a comparison between the obvious cycles of nature and the endless cycles of human activity within history. This is fascinating because every generation likes to think of itself as the most important one in the world. Yet if the truth be known, none is really any different than another. Clearly, from chapter 1, humanity finds itself, by God’s decree, like a mouse on a treadmill – going around and around without any lasting progress. And if you really think about it, it is true that life is much the same from generation to generation and from one geographical place to another. The older I grow and the more I come to know people of different communities at this time in my life, the more I realize that people are really the same everywhere. They may vary a bit in their cultural expressions, but for the most part they have the same aspirations, the same envy, the same difficulties, the same desire for love and meaning as people have in every other place.
So the preacher’s assessment about life is really quite accurate. He is just saying what is self-evident, and what has been true all along. And if anyone should know, it would be Solomon, since he tried his hand at everything imaginable in his desire to find out what life was really all about. Our problem is that we lack Solomon’s perspective and keep hoping that somehow our generation or our own personal activity will prove him wrong. Yet if we’re really honest, we’ll have to agree with him.
But the wisdom of Solomon is that he perceives a greater purpose or cause behind this endless cycle of futility. He sees, for example, that God allows people to continue in their sinful ways so he can test them (3:18 NLT). It is very evident to me that Ecclesiastes conveys a strong sense of grace in that it offers hope in an otherwise meaningless world. And that hope is found in the fear of the Lord which entails an acknowledgement of his existence and of our accountability to him. By God’s grace it’s possible to see and experience beauty and pleasure – like good food and drink and the fruits of one’s labour – for these are gifts from God (3:13). And there are other blessings that come from God’s hand that the preacher mentions as well. You can see them everywhere as you begin to carefully read this artful piece of biblical literature.
I like Ecclesiastics because it is a realistic appraisal of the human condition. But I like it too because it doesn’t leave us in our mess. It clearly points us to the grace that is available through the fear of Lord that ultimately leads us to Christ.
As we get ready to say Good-bye to yet another year of a whole lot of meaningless human activity we may take heart that it’s possible for any one of us to find that grace from God that turns an otherwise grey and monotonous world into something of life and colour and pleasure and joy – because of something called, the fear of the Lord (12:13), and all that such entails.
By contrast to a world of meaningless cycles, the world of grace from God offers ever new adventures of the mystical and miraculous. These come through a continuous connection with God made possible by the grace given to us in Christ. And for this reason any one of us may be genuinely optimistic and eagerly forward-looking to what the Lord has in store for the coming year. With this in mind, I say, Happy New Year!