Life under the sun, without God, is ‘habel’, which is a Hebrew word which describes what is ‘vanity’, ‘meaningless’, or ‘vaporous’ (Eccles.1:2-3). The Christian will have his moments, but the same book of Scripture says that there is nevertheless a meaningful rhythm to all of life: ‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace’ (Eccles.3:1-8).
What gives life meaning? Sometimes life can seem quite trivial. When the Viceroy’s palace in New Delhi was constructed, beginning in 1912, it was an architectural masterpiece, and thousands of servants and gardeners were employed. Fifty of them were given the sole task of chasing away birds – a repetitive job, no doubt, but perhaps more immediately helpful than many tasks assigned to those working in Western bureaucracies.
At other times people try to eke out more than this life can provide. At the British Labour Party’s annual conference in Brighton in 2001, Prime Minister Tony Blair indulged in his love for what he called the ‘politics of globalization’. In his own fervent messianic way he promised – or threatened – to overthrow bad governments, provide economic assistance to good governments, and somehow usher in the values of democracy and freedom to people around the world. It was a reminder of why we usually need to vote out governments on a regular basis.
For the believer – the one who lives life under the Son – life has its rhythms, under the sovereignty of the God who creates and re-creates. From God, it derives its meaning. God’s work is forever; He will judge all things. God alone is the source of life, and the victor over death. The existence of a God who has revealed Himself in His Word and so can be known means that life is not a story of one pointless thing after another. Every detail has its part to play in the overall purpose.
Joseph Hall put it memorably: ‘Each day is a new life, and an abridgment of the whole. I will so live, as if I counted every day my first and my last; as if I began to live but then, and should live no more afterwards.’ Death followed by judgment means that everything is meaningful (Eccles.12:12-13). Death followed by rotting in the grave means that nothing is meaningful (1 Cor.15:17-19, 32).
Wisdom, pleasure, and work cannot stand on their own two feet. They require a foundation, and that foundation is the God of eternity. There are real consolations in this life, for believer and unbeliever alike. There are children, there are the beauties and intricacies of nature, there is poetry and music, and the joy of human relationships. But these require a perspective, which comes from outside this world. Even, or especially, in times of devastation accompanied by a deep sense of sin, such as Judah experienced when Babylon destroyed it in 586 B.C., we are meant to lift up our hearts and hands to God in heaven (Lam.3:41).
Where are we in the seasons of life, as Christians in the declining Western world? That is not quite our question to answer. Remember that all through history Christ’s people have been laid low many times. In the darkest days of World War II in May 1944, while imprisoned and looking finally to his execution by the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer predicted renewal by the word of God, before adding: ‘Till then the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair, but there will be those who pray and do right and wait for God’s own time.’
They might be timely words for us all.
With warm regards in Christ,
Rev. Dr Peter Barnes,
Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Australia