by Anna Heetderks
Such is life. That phrase has been my refrain of the last semester. It’s an expression of weary resignation, an attempt to make peace with whatever less-than-ideal situation I find myself in, like when I’m on my third cup of coffee after another night of insufficient sleep or eating Cheerios for dinner because I haven’t had time to go to the grocery store. In the moments where I sense things aren’t how they’re supposed to be, but don’t have the energy to be stressed about it, I cope by telling myself that this is just how it is and I have to be all right with it. Such is life.
Such is life could well be the motto of the author of Ecclesiastes, but while I avoid thinking too hard about the implications of the statement, he can think about nothing else. Ecclesiastes is the story of a man searching for a glitch in the system, anything that might hint that the way the world is is not the way it has to be. He searches high and low, from the courts of kings to laborers in the fields, and finds the same story: humankind “chasing the wind,” striving after money and recognition and success, all born out of a desperate longing for meaning– a reason to get up in the morning and to work and live and to dream – only to watch it, and ultimately their lives, fade away. This is what the author means when he decries human effort and the rhythms of life as hevel. Often translated as “meaningless,” what the term really connotes is something vaporous and enigmatic. That which is hevel lures us in by appearing to be substantive, something we can chase down and hold, but just when we think we’ve caught it, it slips through our fingers. Such pursuit of hevel is inherent to the order of the world, concludes the author.“ Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”1 This is the refrain of Ecclesiastes. Everything that has ever been stays fundamentally the same, and “same” means hevel: an illusory enigma.
For the author, the sense of pointlessness intertwines with a deep sense of injustice. “Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed—and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors—and they have no comforter.”2 Life in this world is not just frustratingly pointless for everyone, but it is weighted toward the side of the powerful. “If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still,” he continues in chapter 5. This commentary on the banality of evil captures the author’s view of all of life as a function of a predetermined, fatalistic order– oppression comes from level after level of broken bureaucratic systems piled on top of the powerless.
In the world of Ecclesiastes, God determines the order but does not seem especially present in it. His role seems mostly to be to lay “heavy burdens” on humankind, in the form of pointless toil and the curse of just enough wisdom to understand how the world works but not enough to understand why. God in Ecclesiastes feels far away, an incomprehensible force best cautiously approached from a distance.
But God cares deeply about the order of the world, so much so that He entered into it to shake it up and set it right. In the instant of the Incarnation, an illimitable, all-powerful Creator became one of his weak, limited creatures, and the infinite distance between God and humanity was collapsed for all time, sending shockwaves through the universe that would reverberate into eternity. Jesus’s life itself was one large challenge to the order of the world- calling out authorities and corrupt institutions, honoring the outcasts and provoking the elites, proclaiming a gospel where the last are first and the poor are rich. In his death he was the ultimate victim of the order – executed as a criminal and an enemy of the religious establishment – and in his resurrection he tore its foundation out from under it.
Bit by bit, Jesus continues to turn an upside-down order right-side up. In the order of Ecclesiastes, which is also our order much of the time, the powerful pull the strings, the violent thrive, the exhausted laborers receive no reward for their work, and death snatches away any semblance of meaning we try to hold onto. But in the order as it was created to be and in the order that is coming, the powerful are cast down and the poor lifted up; the oppressed are comforted and the oppressors stripped of power. Creation is released from death’s hold, and we are free from the burden of making our own meaning in our limited lives; free to hold with open hands the gifts that come to us; free to point at the perverted structures around and say “this is not how it’s meant to be.”
In his book The Jesus I Never Knew,” author Philip Yancey sums up well the cosmic significance of the Incarnation:
“God, who knows no before or after, entered time and space. God, who knows no boundaries took on the shocking confines of a baby’s skin, the ominous restraints of mortality.” ‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation,’ an apostle would later write; ‘He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.’ But the few eyewitnesses on Christmas night saw none of that. They saw an infant struggling to work never-before-used lungs.”3
With his first halting breaths, that baby forever disrupted the order of the cosmos. And an order disrupted is the first step to an order restored.
Anna is a fourth year at UVA studying Foreign Affairs, as well as a first year Masters of Public Policy candidate.
- Ecclesiastes 2:11
- Ecclesiastes 4:1
- Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew Ch. 2