Look at the sort of world we live in. Take off your rose-colored glasses, rub your eyes and look at it long and hard. What do you see? You see life’s background set by aimlessly recurring cycles in nature. You see its shape fixed by times and circumstances over which we have no control. You see death coming to everyone sooner or later, but coming haphazard; its coming bears no relation to whether it is deserved. Humans die like beasts, good ones like bad, wise ones like fools. You see evil running rampant; the wicked prosper, the good don’t. Seeing all this, you realize that God’s ordering of events is inscrutable; much as you want to make it out, you cannot do so. The harder you try to understand the divine purpose in the ordinary providential course of events, the more obsessed and oppressed you grow with the apparent aimlessness of everything, and the more you are tempted to conclude that life really is as pointless as it looks.
But once you conclude that there really is no rhyme or reason in things, what “profit”--value, gain, point, purpose-- can you find in any sort of constructive endeavor? If life is senseless, then it is valueless; and in that case, what use is it working to create things, to build a business, to make money, even to seek wisdom—for none of this can do you any obvious good; it will only make you an object of envy; you can’t take any of it with you; and what you leave behind will probably be mismanaged after you have gone. What point is there, then, in sweating and toiling at anything? Must not all our work be judged “vanity and a striving after wind”?—activity that we cannot justify as being either significant in itself or worthwhile to us?
It is to this pessimistic conclusion that optimistic expectations of finding the divine purpose of everything will ultimately lead you. The God who rules this world hides himself. Rarely does this world look as if a beneficent providence were running it. Rarely does it appear that there is a rational power behind it at all. Often what is worthless survives, while what is valuable perishes. Be realistic, face these facts; see life as it is. You will have no true wisdom till you do.
(This is the first part of J.I. Packer’s summary of the Bible book of Ecclesiastes as found in the book “Knowing God.” It is a succinct summary of the problem described by Solomon in Ecclesiastes. Packer goes on to describe the final portion of the book as well:)
But what, in that case, is wisdom? The preacher has helped us to see what it is not; does he give us any guidance as to what it is?
Indeed he does, in outline at any rate. “Fear God and keep his commandments”; trust and obey him, reverence him, worship him, be humble before him, and never say more than you mean and will stand to when you pray to him; do good; remember that God will some day take account of you, so eschew, even in secret, things of which you will be ashamed when they come to light at God’s judgment. Live in the present, and enjoy it thoroughly; present pleasures are God’s good gifts. Though Ecclesiastes condemns flippancy, he clearly has no time for the superspirituality which is too proud or too pious ever to laugh and have fun. Seek grace to work hard at whatever life calls you to do, and enjoy your work as you do it. Leave to God its issues; let him measure its ultimate worth; your part is to use all the good sense and enterprise at your command in exploiting the opportunities that lie before you.
This is the way of wisdom. Clearly, it is just one facet of the life of faith. For what underlies and sustains it? Why, the conviction that the inscrutable God of providence is the wise and gracious God of creation and redemption. We can be sure that the God who made this marvelously complex world order, and who compassed the great redemption from Egypt, and who later compassed the even greater redemption from sin and Satan, knows what he is doing, and “doeth all things well,” even if for the moment he hides his hand. We can trust him and rejoice in him, even when we cannot discern his path. Thus the preacher’s way of wisdom boils down to what was expressed by Richard Baxter:
Ye saints, who toil below,
Adore your heavenly King,
And onward as ye go
Some joyful anthem sing.
Take what He give,
And praise Him still
Through good and ill
Who ever lives.
From Knowing God, by J. I. Packer InterVarstiy Press 1973, 1993
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