9 What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.
14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.
16 Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. 17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. 18 I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. 19 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? 22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?
This past spring I went out to Long Island to have a lovely dinner with Ben Miller. He and his wife and his wife’s sister and I sat around the table, while the kids were off in another room watching either the Hobbit or a princess movie– I was never clear which of these two options had won out– and eating leftover easter candy; we drank wine and talked about growing up in the church and out of it, and about sectarianism and the assurance of salvation, and about other things. A wonderful night.
Ben was, that week, preparing to preach on Ecclesiastes, and as he was driving me back to the LIRR, we talked about it– really fast, because we had kind of lost track of time and were rushing to make the train. I think I said that I’d always kind of thought of it as a statement by God that even in our existential angst He is there; that experiencing a mood of nihilism doesn’t put us outside the experience of God’s people, and He can reach us there too. But that actually there’s something more than this: at the time that the Preacher was writing, the Jews were a little fuzzy on personal immortality, and the resurrection of the body.
Now I’ve gotten to Ecclesiastes in my own reading, and this morning what I read was the wrestling of a wise man with incomplete revelation. The Preacher fully grasps everything that God had revealed publicly at that time, and he sees a yearning in his own heart for something else; he gropes towards it, driven by the shape of his own desire, but he doesn’t know. God “has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end…”
What Ecclesiastes shows is that even in the experience of faithful people, these doctrines– the resurrection of the body, the New Jerusalem– are necessary to fully answer the call of the human heart for significance. You can be wise, you can be godfearing, you can be part of the covenant people, and you can be a King in Israel, and yet if you don’t know that your good work will last forever, taken up into God’s great work, and that you yourself will be freed from death, then all– even wisdom, even the covenant– is vanity. Ecclesiastes was an accurate response by a wise man to where God’s progressive revelation had gotten to by his time.
Now, other Jews had gotten what you might call “previews of coming attractions:” intimations of eternity. David, in a flash of conviction, had known that his son with Bathsheba, the little one who died, would live again; Abraham had believed the same about Isaac. But these were something of the nature of private revelations, rather than official doctrine, it seems. Officially, the Jews were in the place that Christ describes to his disciples after telling the parable of the sower:
“Truly I say to you that many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”
He said something similar after the seventy-two returned from their adventure: Luke tells us that “he turned to his disciples and said privately, ‘Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. 24 For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.’”
Is there anything that is hidden from us now, in a similar way? Officially the Evangelical answer is No: and in a sense that’s true. Christ is God’s final and full revelation. But there are, for one thing, plenty of parts of us that have not been fully grasped by this final revelation: we are ourselves only partly conquered territory. And then as well we get passages like this, from 1 John:
Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.
John seems to be the apostle who specializes in this “Oh, there’s more, and you don’t know it yet” business: even in Revelation, he writes:
Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven. He was robed in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were like fiery pillars. 2 He was holding a little scroll, which lay open in his hand. He planted his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, 3 and he gave a loud shout like the roar of a lion. When he shouted, the voices of the seven thunders spoke. 4 And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven say, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down.”
And that’s all we get about that. What these indicate– and did we doubt it?– is that there is a lot– a LOT– that we don’t know; there is more to be revealed: we have far more than Solomon had– but the story is still in progress.
What we do know is that the hero of that story will always be Christ, and that the gifts and truths and further-ups-and-further-ins where God will take us will be different and even more mind-bending aspects of His central gift of Himself.