People who ought to know keep saying that this year we will finally put the pandemic behind us. I’ve given up predicting myself, but I hope they’re right. If they are, I wonder how we’ll remember these last couple years.
For those who suffered the death of someone close to them, the defining experience of the pandemic may be loss. For many of us, I imagine the primary experience will be disorientation. We saw our plans upended. We felt time suspended. We saw what had been pillars in life crumble one after another — from time with aging family, to the joy of in-person worship, to a simple smile on the unmasked face of a friend.
Far beyond the physical impacts of the disease itself, the pandemic experience has exposed the fragility of so much of what we take for granted in life. How will we cope with the disorientation of the last couple years? Where will we look for stability and renewal coming out of them?
Nothing New Under the Sun
The Bible’s wisdom literature is given to help us answer questions like these. Wisdom provides proper orientation to the world. It’s a learned instinct for living in the world as it is, not as we wish it to be. And of the Bible’s wisdom books, perhaps ironically, it is Ecclesiastes that offers the perspective we badly need in responding to what we’ve been through.
“Wisdom is an instinct for living in the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.”
I say ironically because Ecclesiastes itself can be a disorienting book. It offers the perspective of a man called “the Preacher,” who essentially had everything he wanted in life. No one told him no. But in the end, he found it all to be nothing but vanity. A mere vapor. Meaningless. Empty.
It is striking to me how closely the list of his pursuits in life resembles the main options we have for reorienting ourselves after a difficult couple of years. We’ll be tempted to look for stability or hope in the same vanities that collapsed under his weight long ago.
Take pleasure, for example. In the earliest days of the pandemic, traffic to major porn sites skyrocketed. So did Netflix subscriptions. And now, after two years in which so many plans were disrupted, pleasure-seekers are booking luxury vacations at record pace. As one Forbes writer put it, what we learned from the pandemic is that “the future is unpredictable,” that “life is short,” and that “dreams should not be put off.” “If all goes well,” he continues, “2022 is going to be a big year for dream trips.”
The Big Quit
Some have chased dreams; others are looking to work for a fresh start. In September of 2021 more than four million people voluntarily left their jobs for other opportunities. That number broke a record set the previous month, when millions more made the same choice. It’s a trend so significant that pundits are calling this “The Great Resignation” or “The Big Quit.” Given how much of the disruption of these past years directly affected our work, it shouldn’t surprise us that so many would look to move on with a change of scenery.
Then there’s money and what it can buy. Retail therapy was a go-to treatment for months before any vaccine hit the market. With stimulus money going around, people purchased new fire pits and television upgrades, and started home improvement projects to take the edge off what had gone wrong. So many months later, retail therapy still sells. As one recent AT&T commercial put it, “I think we can all agree that after the past year-ish, we all deserve something new.” Why not reward your survival with the latest iPhone?
Still others have looked to mastery of some new skill to redeem the strange time and restore a sense of control. In April of 2020, I heard one economist talk about the loss of control as the primary stressor he was feeling since his job is to predict what’s likely to happen. His advice to others feeling that pain was to find something you can control, however small and insignificant it might be. Some learned to bake bread. Others took up a foreign language. I smoked my first couple briskets. What did you do with your pandemic? We want growth opportunities, to move from victory unto victory. If COVID was a curveball, we want to hit it out of the park.
All Was Striving After Wind
The Preacher warns us, however, that life doesn’t work this way. Ecclesiastes opens with a poem on the relentless, repetitive weariness of life under the sun. “What does a man gain,” he asks, “by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:3).
We want gain. We’d like to see life as one long process of acquisition. Where we have setbacks, we want to bounce back better than ever. We want steady upward progress. But just as the sun rises and sets (Ecclesiastes 1:5), just as the wind blows round and round (verse 6), so it is with all of life: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (verse 9).
In chapter 2, the Preacher explains how he reached this conclusion, with a catalog of where he turned for some sort of gain in this life. It’s a list that sounds eerily familiar. He looked first to pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1). He tried comedy (verse 2), fine wine (verse 3), entertainment, and sex (verse 8). He looked to his work, and to mastery over his slice of the world: “I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees” (Ecclesiastes 2:4–5). He built up more money and more possessions than any before him in Jerusalem (Ecclesiastes 2:7–8).
Pleasure, work, wealth, control — everything we might look to under the sun — he’s already had in abundance. We need to hear the lesson he learned the hard way: “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11).
What We Can See Now
If you’re feeling disoriented by a difficult two years, you won’t find your footing in the same old vanities that let the Preacher down so long ago. But we do have an opportunity now for a greater clarity about the world than perhaps we could have had back when things seemed normal.
“Nothing is certain about life under the sun except the death that comes at the end of it.”
Nothing is certain about life under the sun except the death that comes at the end of it. The things we take for granted have always been fragile. Our control over what matters to us has always been severely limited. And the grip of death on what we love has always been stronger than ours. COVID didn’t cause these problems. Whatever comes next won’t solve them. That’s the perspective Ecclesiastes offers to us.
When the Preacher writes of “life under the sun,” what he has in mind is life from a strictly human perspective. As if what we see is all there is. Death really is the end. There’s no satisfaction for our deepest hunger pains. In other words, “life under the sun” is life on your own, left to your own ideas for what’s best, your own resources for pulling off your vision, and your own handful of years to make the most of it.
Ecclesiastes is a devastating critique of human self-sufficiency. We won’t find a cure for what ails us under the sun. Our only hope rests on a radical intervention from beyond.
Light from Beyond the Sun
The message of Ecclesiastes is that if God is silent, the whole world is a vapor. The message of the rest of the Scriptures is that God has spoken to us. Even better than that: the Word has become flesh and lived among us (John 1:14).
Peter Kreeft has described Ecclesiastes as “a perfect silhouette of Jesus, the stark outline of the darkness that the face of Jesus fills” (Three Philosophies of Life, 51). Under the sun, on our own, all is vanity and death has the final word. Ecclesiastes exists to make “the darkness intolerable” (Derek Kidner, The Wisdom of Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, 103). And to prepare us for the only certain hope: “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4–5).
Whatever else we may take with us from a disorienting couple of years, into another year under the sun, let’s at least embrace the message of the Preacher. We won’t find the stability we crave short of the help and hope and satisfaction that only comes beyond the sun. If we haven’t learned that lesson, we’ll be just as unprepared for the next time the world turns upside down. And there will be a next time. “What has been is what will be. . . and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).