I have found Ecclesiastes a deeply comforting book. Yes, I am talking about the same book of the Bible—the one from which comes the familiar cry, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity!” The one in which the Teacher concludes that everything, wisdom and pleasure and rank and wealth alike, is meaningless. That’s the book I found comforting.
You see, it is so easy for me to get terribly wrapped up in my work (and I don’t think this is a unique problem). When I am successful, I feel as though nothing could go wrong, ever. Of course I did well; I’m perfect at everything, aren’t I? When I fail, I am devastated. I’m a failure, and a lost cause, and should just go hide under a rock somewhere until people stop expecting me to do things. Needless to say, this isn’t a very healthy way to live; but I am often unsure how to stop. How do you deflate pride? How do you build up from failure?
The writer of Ecclesiastes gives us the answer: you learn not to care so much about things. By no means does he mean that we should detach ourselves from the world and let it run wild without us; instead, his advice is, “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25) We should enjoy what we are doing in the moment, and praise God for it; any worries about ultimate ends or ultimate success (outside what we need to do our work as well as we can) are outside our concern. The gnawing rats of ambition and envy can be shaken off if we set ourselves to enjoy the life we have been given moment by moment.
And so I encourage you all, and especially my fellow students after this past finals period, to read Ecclesiastes. Read it if you find yourself swelling with even warranted pride; read it if you find yourself weighed down with failure and fruitless work. Read it if you just need the reminder that God did give us license to enjoy ourselves as we live out our lives, that he provides comfort for us in everyday experience. The writer concludes the book by saying, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13). And this is true; it is not a part of our duty to write a bestselling book, or make a Nobel-winning discovery, or become a household name. It is not a duty to achieve any measure of worldly success, and so it should not ultimately matter to us whether we do or no. What should ultimately matter to us is how God judges us; and that is a very different matter.