Finding our way in the mist

Dealing with disappointment and pursuing perspective with the book of Ecclesiastes

How was your Christmas?

Our culture sets high expectations for Christmas: family members get on famously, children are curiously well behaved, a Christmas dinner is served that Mary Berry would be proud of, all to the musical backdrop of ‘Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire’...

The reality we experience can be rather different.

For many, the joys of the Christmas season are mingled with sadness – whether that is a result of the energy needed to keep the peace between family members, the time spent planning the logistics, the sorrow of remembering how things used to be, or the disappointment of not receiving the gifts we hoped for.

How do we make sense of the optimism and pessimism, joy and sorrow that we feel?

Strangely, part of the answer is mist.

Meaningless or misty?

The start of the book of Ecclesiastes doesn’t, at the first reading, offer a great deal of hope.

While things may appear bleak, it’s worth digging deeper.

The word that the NIV translates as ‘meaningless’ is hebel. It recurs throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, as the teacher explores themes of wisdom, self-indulgence, abundance, work and so on.

A more literal translation of hebel would be ‘breath, vapour or mist’ (the ESV and KJV translate it as 'vanity').

So, the text isn’t saying that everything is devoid of meaning; rather everything is mist. (‘Mist! Mist!’ says the Teacher. ‘Mist of mist, all is mist’ etc.)

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

Meaningless! Meaningless!’
    says the Teacher.
‘Utterly meaningless!
    Everything is meaningless.’
(Ecclesiastes 1:1–2, NIV)

So, what is mist like?

  • Mist is fleeting – it’s here for a time, and then burned away by the sun or blown away by the wind.
  • Mist is unpredictable – we don’t know when it will arrive and when it will leave; it can’t be relied upon.
  • Mist is uncontrollable – we can’t grab it with our hands or put it in a bottle.

How a misty New Year helps us

We’ve seen that the teacher in Ecclesiastes viewed everything as ‘mist’. How does this help us to look at both last year and the year to come with perspective?

If last year went well, or not so well...

Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity [mist] and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
(Ecclesiastes 2:11, ESV - read in context in 2:1–11)

At times, we can let our achievements (or failures) dominate our thinking, feeling pride at what we have done or guilt at what we failed to do well.

We need to remember that:

  • Our successes or failures do not determine our worth to God. He came to rescue us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8).
  • We stand as those who have been forgiven by Jesus: ‘there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ (Romans 8:1, NIV). We can surrender our pride and leave our regrets at the cross.
Hands working clay

If we find our work frustrating, feel underappreciated or don’t have the job we want…

Woodworking

What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity [mist].

(Ecclesiastes 2:22–23, ESV—read in context in 2:18–25).

A sense of dissatisfaction with work is normal and part of our experience of life (and has been from the beginning - Genesis 3:17).

We need to remember that:

  • The things we often work for here on earth do not endure. Instead, we’re encouraged to lay up treasures in heaven where they cannot fade or be taken away (Matthew 6:19–20).
  • We’re charged with working as if we were working for the Lord, not human masters (Colossians 3:23–24).

The permanence of God

Amidst the unpredictability of the world we live in, where everything is ‘mist’ - fleeting, unpredictable and uncontrollable - God remains unchanged.

Yesterday, today and forever, God remains unchanged (Hebrews 13:8).

His mercies are new every morning (Lamentations 3:22–23).

He ever lives to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7:25).

When everything is mist and passing away, he is our rock, our fortress and our deliverer.

Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.
James 1:17, NIV
For prayer

Suggestions for prayer

  • Think back over the last year and praise God for his permanence, through good times and bad
  • Commit the coming year to God, asking him to provide ‘daily bread’ for your needs
  • Pray for yourself, your family and church family – for thankful, generous and contented hearts
  • Pray through anything God has brought to your heart through reading this