Long ago, Coke had a “Things go better with Coke” advertising campaign. Not wanting to miss a witnessing opportunity, evangelical Christians responded with “Things go better with Jesus.” This is how Christianity is often portrayed, or perhaps marketed. Accept Jesus because then things will “go better.” Faith will guarantee a nice smooth and rewarding life. Yet, life is rarely like this and this is reality that the teacher in Ecclesiastes addresses.
The teacher introduces himself as the king of Israel “wiser than any of the kings who ruled in Jerusalem before me.” Given this, it is jarring that the constant refrain of his teaching is “everything is meaningless, completely meaningless!” This is not an offhand expression of mild frustration, this is result of careful thought and study.
I devoted myself to search for understanding and to explore by wisdom everything being done under heaven. I soon discovered that God has dealt a tragic existence to the human race. I observed everything going on under the sun, and really, it is all meaningless—like chasing the wind.
So the Bible says that God’s promise to us, far from things going better with Jesus, is that life is meaningless, chasing after the wind. And the teacher is quite relentless, as we go through these chapters it seems he has anticipated our objections, all we might achieve in life, the good and bad are all pronounced “meaningless.”
The word that is translated as “meaningless” is the Hebrew word for smoke or vapour. So the teacher in Ecclesiastes is using this metaphor to indicate that life is fleeting, impossible to grasp, or to shape in a way we might choose. Life comes from God but all we accomplish or build or attain “under the sun” is like smoke; it will not last and cannot provide stability or certainty.
The problem with the “things go better with Jesus” promise is that when “things” are not going well, when our efforts and accomplishments are revealed as smoke and vapour, we have the sense that Jesus has failed us or perhaps that we have failed Jesus. This gets us into a theological trap that makes our faith about us and what we can get out of it. This is toxic to true faith, and the message of the teacher is to help reorient our faith. Perhaps you are familiar with that confusing sense of “chasing the wind” when our pursuit of a life faithful to God is not turning out the way we expect. Today’s reading reminds us what God’s people have experienced and puzzled about for a long time. In these occasions we must exercise faith in God our creator, rather than the things of this life.
Professor of History when at Ambrose – fantastic chef and husband when at home!