Passage: Ecclesiastes 1:1-3, 1:12-15; 12:13
Guide for Group Discussion or Personal Reflection
We need all the Bible’s wisdom literature to help us make sense of the good-but-fallen world that we’re living in. The book of Ecclesiastes involves the sustained reflections of the “preacher”, a man who has thought deeply about “life under the sun” in all its absurdity, and who helps us to navigate a world where “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong…but (where) time and chance happen to them all” (9:11).
In reflecting on this world, the preacher concludes that all of life is absurd—“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” (1:2) he repeats throughout. The Hebrew word hevel—often translated “vanity” or “meaningless”—and repeated 38x in the book, literally means something like “breath,” “mist,” or “vapor.” We may pursue many good things in this life—pleasure, wisdom, achievement, even justice—but as soon as we try to get a hold of one of them and make it the key to meaning in life—it slips through our fingers like a vanishing mist.
Life is deeply frustrating, then, and we need to have realistic expectations of the world we are living in. At the end of the book, the preacher compares his words to “goads”—painful truths pricking us and poking us in the direction of wisdom—away from our attempts to build a life on anything under the sun, and towards the fear of God instead. The key to life, he says at the end of the book, is to “fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13). To fear God is to have a healthy respect for his presence, recognizing that all life is lived before his eyes, and that he will “bring every deed into judgment” in the end (12:14).
Ultimately, we know the character of the God we are called to fear. He is the God whose character is made perfectly known in his son, Jesus, the one who entered our hevel, out of love for us, absorbing all of its consequences upon himself on the cross. One day, Jesus will clear away all the hevel, bring every deed into judgement, and reign upon the earth. We are transformed as we live all of life before him and his unfailing love for us.
- Life Under the Sun is Absurd (1:1-3; 12-15)
- The Key to Life is to Fear God and Keep His Commands (12:13-14)
- The God We Fear
Group Discussion & Personal Reflection Guide
Re-read the passage (Ecclesiastes 1:1-3, 1:12-15; 12:13)
Life Under the Sun is Absurd (1:1-3; 12-15)
Q) Re-read Ecclesiastes 1:1-3 and 1:12-15 and meditate on them together. Consider:
- What is the preacher frustrated with the most?
- How does the preacher describe the task of trying to figure out what life is about (vs. 13)? Why does he describe it that way?
- Why do you think the preacher uses the phrases “under the sun” (vs. 3, 14) and “under heaven” (vs. 13) as descriptors of the kind of life he is examining? Is there any life that is not “under the sun”?
- Why does the preacher compare everything that is done under the sun to “a striving after wind?” (vs. 14). What truth does this image communicate?
Q) In the sermon, Pastor Bobby explained the meaning of the Hebrew word hevel, which is repeated 38x throughout the book, and 5x in the first chapter. What does hevel mean, most literally, and how does it help us to make sense of what life is like “under the sun”?
Q) The preacher’s thesis is that life under the sun is absurd, and full of hevel—that is, it doesn’t always work in neat, simplistic, and orderly ways. Where have you experienced this “absurdity” recently? What happens when we forget that life is this way?
Q) Pastor Bobby said that Ecclesiastes is trying to give us “honest answers to life’s honest questions”. Its observations are therefore grittier—but also more realistic—than we’re often used to receiving today. Can you think of examples of “wisdom” we hear today that are overly simplistic (e.g. slogans, maxims, phrases—like “what goes around comes around”)?
Q) Was there a season in your life when you tried pursue ultimate meaning in something “under the sun”? What was it, and how did it go? What made you realize that this pursuit was hevel?
The Key to Life is to Fear God and Keep His Commands (12:13-14)
Q) Re-read Ecclesiastes 12:9-12. Why does the preacher compare his words to “goads”? What is this image meant to communicate?
Q) Can you think of a time in your life when God “frustrated” your plans in order to goad you towards greater wisdom and fear of him? How might he be doing this right now?
Q) Re-read Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, which is the conclusion of the book. What does it mean to truly “fear God”?
Q) Pastor Bobby said that fearing God means having a healthy respect for his presence, his authority, and his agenda. Is there an area of your life right now where you have not been fearing God? How do you need to repent and fear God anew in this area?
The God We Fear
Q) How does Jesus help us to understand the character of the God we are called to fear? What do Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection teach us about the heart of this God and his intentions towards us?
Q) CASE STUDY: You’re talking to a friend who is a new Christian. In the course of your conversation, your friend begins candidly expressing some of her frustrations with God. “For the first few months after my baptism, it felt like life was awesome. Looking back, I know I was naïve to think life would be perfect after becoming a Christian, but I thought it would be better than this. What’s frustrating isn’t just that I got laid off from my job, or all of the drama with friends—but that all of this is happening when it feels like I’m doing ‘all the right things’. I’m trying to pray, trying to read the Bible, trying to surrender my life and plans to God daily. It’s just so frustrating that all of this is happening now”.
How would this past week’s sermon inform the way you seek to comfort, encourage, and guide your friend?
Additional Application Questions
Q) How else would you like to engage with God this week?
Q) How can you tangibly care for those in your community this week, both inside and outside of the church?
Spend time praying for yourselves, our church community, the North Shore community, and our nation and world—particularly those most vulnerable.