In the Long Run (Ecclesiastes 2:12–17)

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There are moments in reading Ecclesiastes when I would like to wring the Preacher’s neck, such as when I read today’s passage (2:12–17). Here is a man who has just confessed to having everything most men want: pleasure, wealth, achievement, fame, and women. And yet, he is still not satisfied. He mopes about with a long face, wearily proclaiming, “All is vanity and a striving after wind.”

“Come on, Preacher,” I want to scream; “get over it already!” After all, it seems to me, life—while not perfect—can be pretty good. Think before you act, do the right thing, treat others well, and your life will turn out okay: again, not perfect, but pretty good.

Interestingly, there is a moment in today’s passage when the Preacher seems to get it. He is meditating on a single question: Is wisdom better than folly? Yes! Of course! “Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness” (2:13, 14). The Preacher opened Ecclesiastes with a question: “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (1:3). He gains wisdom, if he pays attention, and wisdom leads to a better life than foolishness does.

And yet…

Right after conceding that wisdom is better than folly, the Preacher says, “And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them” (2:14). What event? Death. “How the wise dies just like the fool!” (2:16). Reading that verse, I am reminded of what the economist John Maynard Keynes once said in response to a question about the long-term consequences of some economic policy. “In the long run,” he said, “we are all dead.”

Now, I know that there are better ways to begin the morning than by thinking about one’s own mortality. And quite frankly, when reading Ecclesiastes, I would not mind a bit more cheerfulness from the Preacher. But the Preacher is right. And Keynes is right. In the long run, beautiful or ugly, rich or poor, smart or dumb, we are all dead. We cannot avoid that fate, and it would be utterly foolish to deny that our mortality casts a shadow over everything we do.

So what should we do? The Preacher provides half an answer when he says, “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also, that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man” (3:12, 13). But this is only half the answer. The other half is supplied by a far better Preacher with a far great hope about the life to come: “I am the resurrection and the life,” he said. “Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25, 26).

We need to modify Keynes’s quote. In the short-term long run, we are all dead. But in the long-term long run, Jesus Christ offers us the possibility of eternal life, which is neither vanity nor a striving after wind.

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