Let’s take a moment and face the truth that our lives are fleeting. In our study this week on the beginning of Ecclesiastes (starting here), a book of ancient wisdom, we learned that life is fleeting. The reality is that most of us, if not all of us, will not have our memories preserved very long after we are gone. Take your own families for example. How far back can you go? Let’s try it right now. Do you know the names of grandparents? I bet you do. But let’s make it one step harder: do you know the names of your great-grandparents? Furthermore, do you remember meeting and talking with your great-grandparents?
Of eight possible great-grandparents, I know the name of only one. My maternal grandmother’s dad. We called him Pappy. His name was Bert Lewis, and he was a coal miner from Wales, England, who immigrated to Baltimore, literally on a boat to the Statue of Liberty when my grandmother was a little girl. So I am one quarter Welsh, English. I love that fact. It’s why we gave our daughter a Welsh spelling of her name. I’ve never been to Wales, but I would love to visit someday, as I have family over there whom I’ve never met. Of my great-grandparents, Pappy is not only the only one whose name I remember, but as a little boy I also got to spend time with him. He eventually moved to Lancaster after my grandparents relocated here in the 1960s when my grandfather became a professor at Lancaster Bible College. In the late 70s and early 80s, I remember visiting him at his retirement home nearby. My mom and grandma would bring me, my siblings, and maybe some cousins to play bingo with Pappy and the other residents living. As I was typing this, another memory hit me: of Pappy in his small room at the retirement, taking out his false teeth and freaking us kids out. Finally, I remember his funeral a bit. That’s all. I have no other memories of any other great-grandparents. I once did a family tree that went back a couple generations further, having received info from other relatives. But I couldn’t tell you their names or much about them, except that pretty much all of them were from or had heritages from Western Europe. And if I’m honest, my memories of my own grandparents, all of whom have passed away, are starting to fade. That is exactly what the writer of Ecclesiastes is getting at.
Through the years of our lives, we are engaged in a process that is fleeting. We are born, we grow up as children, we spend a lot of time in school learning, we play, we eat, we sleep, we get jobs, and we spend inordinate amounts of time, energy and emotion at these jobs. Why? To make money. To put food on the table. To pay the bills. And we work day in, day out, week after week, month after month, for 40+ years, and for what? What do we have to show for it? Usually, not much. Memories in the minds of family members. Names on a family tree poster that might be collecting dust in a closet, or just as well might be used as firestarter. I love projects like Ancestry.com that seek to build a global family tree. But for the vast majority of people, we simply cannot memorialize the past in such a way that we will never be forgotten.
That is the Teacher’s point! Let’s face this head on. We will work hard, live our life and be forgotten. You might hear that and think, “Geesh, Joel, this is really depressing. I want my life to matter.”
Ah! Okay. I didn’t say that our lives don’t matter. And the Teacher didn’t say that our lives don’t matter. What we read is simply the truth, the hard truth, that our lives are fleeting. And we need to own this fact, if we are to face life in the proper way. We need to see that our lives are fleeting, in fact, if we want our lives to matter. We should not read this passage as saying that just because people will eventually be forgotten that their lives don’t matter.
What the Teacher says in the rest of the passage underscores this. Read his poetry in verses 4-7. The teacher depicts the cyclical nature of the earth: sunrise, sunset, weather comes, weather goes. Or as one poet says, “winter, spring, summer, fall, the seasons never cared at all.” They just keep coming. We live in a cyclical world. Yes, we can learn to build immense concrete dams on rivers and create man-made reservoirs to control flooding. Yes, we have learned travel at high speeds on land, on sea, and in the air…even to the moon, and I personally hope Mars and beyond. Yes, we have learned and are still learning to make vaccines to control disease. But the fact remains, the earth will rotate on its axis every 24 hours, and it will do so just about 365 times on its journey around the sun. Year after year after year.
Why do we have to face the fact that life is fleeting? Check back in to the next post to find out.