I recently finished teaching through Ecclesiastes for the second time. As I taught through it, I appreciated anew the spiritual depth to which this work leads us, and how vital its wisdom is for living as God’s covenant people this side of Genesis 3. In fact, I asserted over and over that Ecclesiastes is an expansive meditation on Genesis 3:17-19. Much of how I taught Ecclesiastes stayed the same as when I went through it with a different congregation five years ago. There is one aspect to Ecclesiastes, however, that I realized this time around was key to a proper understanding of biblical wisdom, and, in particular, the book of Proverbs.
The element of Ecclesiastes to which I am referring is the concept of “better.” It’s just “good” in the Hebrew (טוֹב), but “gooder” has never taken root in the English language, despite the best efforts of all of us in the first years of learning the language.
Ecclesiastes opens with the statement הֲבֵל הֲבָלִים, variously rendered “absolute futility” (CSB, the translation I’m using in this post), “meaningless! Meaningless!” (NIV), “everything is meaningless” (NLT), and, most popularly, “vanity of vanities!” This is the seemingly senseless repetition of the days of our lives that is all undone and must be done again, over and over. It is the reality that “what is crooked cannot be straightened” (1:15), and that it is God Who has done the twisting (7:13). The cursing of creation in Genesis 3:17-19 (see also Romans 8:20) set up the comprehensive and total frustrating of every human being on the face of the earth. Human beings were created to “rule” (Genesis 3:26) and “subdue” (3:28) creation, but, after the Fall, God caused creation to resist and war against human beings. To live in this world is to live frustrated. All that we do is temporary and must be endlessly done again. Having just moved to southwest Missouri from southwest New Mexico, the “absolute futility” for my family is mowing. By the time we finish mowing the property, we already see signs that we will need to be mowing again very soon. It must be done, but there is no endurance to the results of our effort. And God is the One Who has decreed it.
Believe it or not, this “absolute futility,” this twisting of all creation to fight against beings made to subdue creation, is an act of grace.
If all done “under the sun” wasn’t endlessly futile, I wouldn’t seek an eternal satisfaction in the only One Who can provide that for me. If, after the Fall, the creation yielded perfectly to me, I would create a substitute heaven here, and wouldn’t long for the one created for me in eternity by my Jesus.
My frustration here for a few brief moments of life is promised to be utterly eclipsed because of the re-making that Christ will bring about.
But, as a child of God in Christ, I am still in this world, still daily moving through this “absolute futility.” How then shall we live? The answer of the wisdom works of the Bible is found, at least in part, with the idea of “better.”
“There is nothing better for a person than to eat, drink, and enjoy his work. I have seen that this is from God’s hand” (Ecclesiastes 2:24).
“I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and enjoy the good life” (3:12).
“I have seen that there is nothing better than for a person to enjoy his activities because that is his reward” (3:22).
“Better is one handful with rest than two handfuls with effort and a pursuit of the wind” (4:3).
“Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their efforts” (4:9).
“Better is a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer pays attention to warnings” (4:13).
“Better than you do not vow than that you vow and not fulfill it” (5:5).
“A good name is better than fine perfume…” (7:1a).
“It is better to listen to the rebuke from a wise person than to listen to the song of fools” (7:5).
“…a live dog is better than a dead lion” (9:4b).
“Wisdom is better than strength” (9:16a).
“Wisdom is better than weapons of war” (9:18a).
There are plenty of other verses that carry a similar idea without using the language. While we cannot undo the twisting of creation, we are nonetheless called to daily attempt to bring it into order (we can’t help it…it’s hard-wired into us). Ecclesiastes is written by “the Teacher, son of David” (1:1), who concludes that all true wise “sayings are given by one Shepherd” (12:11). The book begins and ends leading us to the final “the Son of David,” Jesus Christ, Who is also our “Teacher” and “Shepherd.” How do we walk through this world as citizens of another without falling into a paralyzed fatalism?
With “better” are not promises of “best” or the total undoing of “absolute futility”; in fact, there are no this-world promises at all with “better”! As the people of God in this twisted world, though, it is “better” for us to live in obedience to God’s wisdom than otherwise. Will we still have to deal with the consequences of living in this “absolute futility”? Yes. Ask Job. But following the Lord’s Spirit-given wisdom in the Scripture is “better” than doing otherwise.
Here’s what I realized this time around in Ecclesiastes: this doctrine of “better” helps us rightly read Proverbs. We tend to read Proverbs as a series of iron-clad promises. Wisdom literature doesn’t speak in iron-clad promises, though. Wisdom literature speaks honestly and deeply about living as God’s children in a fundamentally messed-up world. We are called to the “better” of God’s wisdom, recognizing that everything will fall apart on a daily basis, and that all things in this world are temporary.
I can give one illustration: “Start a youth out on his way; even when he grows old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). How many parents do we know that did all they could to bring up children “in the training and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4) only to see them wander as far away from it as possible? How many, reading Proverbs 22:6 as some sort of guarantee, therefore beat themselves up because of feelings they must have failed, given the result?
When we plug the “better” of Ecclesiastes into our reading of Proverbs, something helpful happens. The world cursed by sin doesn’t go away, but a way of living “better” than eating thorn sandwiches appears. It is God’s way in Christ, Who is the fullness of God’s wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:24,30; Colossians 2:2,3). If trusting Jesus exempted us from a daily living in the “absolute futility,” it wouldn’t be long before we would decide we didn’t need him, heaven, or a resurrection. Instead, we are reborn by faith in Jesus Christ, but still find ourselves beating back the thorns in a million areas in our lives. But we do it, not only because we can’t help but do it, but because we are doing it in Christ, Who leads us to push back briars in a way “better” than the world does it.
There is a beautifully hopefulness in this way: the “better” of today in Christ among the thorns will one day be eternally transformed into the infinitely, unimaginably “best” in Him. I can’t wait. But, until then, may we day-by-day continue on in this “absolute futility” walking in Jesus in the “better” that He has mapped out for us in this world.
 For occurrences of “better” in Proverbs, read 3:14; 8:11,19; 12:9; 15:16,17; 16:8,16,19,32; 17:1; 19:1,22; 21:9,19; 22:1; 25:7,24; 27:5,10; 28:6. Beyond just the actual instance of the word itself, I hope you see the principle I’m driving at!