Living with Limits (Ecclesiastes 6:10–12)

Greek mythology tells the story of Daedalus and Icarus, a father and his son who were imprisoned on the island of Crete. Daedalus fashioned a pair of wings for each of them from feathers and wax so that they could fly away and escape to home. He warned Icarcus not to fly too high, lest the heat of the sun melt the wax on the wings. But once in flight, Icarus became so enthralled with his newfound power that he soared higher and higher, until the wax melted, and he fell into the sea and drowned.

Icarus failed to live within his limits.

At first reading, Ecclesiastes 6.10–12 is a pessimistic passage.[1] It asks three rhetorical questions, each with a negative answer. “What is the advantage to man?” There is none. “Who knows?” No one. “Who can tell?” Again, no one. But, it seems to me, we read this passage incorrectly if we read in it a counsel of despair. Instead, what it offers us is a realistic warning of the limitations of being human.

To see this, consider the first sentence: “Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he.” To name something is to define its fundamental character. What the Preacher is telling us is that each existing thing has a fundamental character to it that cannot be altered. A man, for example, cannot dispute with one stronger than he, namely, with God. One aspect of Adam and Eve’s original sin was a wrongful desire to become like God, that is, to transgress the boundary between creature and Creator.

We human beings have other limits as well: We cannot talk our way out of our most basic problems: sin, poverty, sickness, and death. What is required in those instances is not words but actions, and in the case of the first and fourth items, the actions of God alone. In fact, if you think about it, talking too much may increase your misery, as when you blurt out a confidence that ends up destroying a friendship. “The more words, the more vanity….”

Another limitation on humanity is ignorance. We often do not know what is the best course of action to take. And we have no knowledge about what the future holds.

Of course, the greatest limitation on humanity is death itself. The Preacher speaks of “the few days of man’s vain life, which he passes like a shadow.” The plain fact of the matter is that, compared to the age of the universe, human history is but a nanosecond. We are here today, gone tomorrow. We are “vanity,” hebel, a thing that goes “Poof!”

Is this thought depressing? Perhaps, but I think it is also the beginning of wisdom. As Harry Callahan says in Magnum Force, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Precisely. Only when we discover how limited we are can we turn in faith to a limitless God.


[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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