Foundations: No.73 Autumn 2017

Book Reviews

Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End

David Gibson, Crossway, 2017, 176pp, £13.67 (Amazon)

I haven’t played much sport for quite a while, but I still remember one particular goal I scored when playing football. I knew, as soon as the ball had left my foot, that it was a goal. It didn’t matter how good the goalkeeper was, I just hit it perfectly. (I remember because it was a rare event!) Reading this book was a bit like that. I knew, before the end of chapter 2 that this was going to be a significant and excellent read. By the end of chapter 3 I was already constructing a mental list of people I wanted to buy it for! It comes with high praise from the likes of Don Carson and Alec Motyer, so I began reading with some hope it would be good and I wasn’t disappointed.

David Gibson is the Minister of Trinity Church, Aberdeen and sets out in this book to guide the reader through Ecclesiastes. The title gives a good idea of his understanding of the wisdom of the teacher. As he says in the preface,

Ecclesiastes… makes a very simple point: life is complex and messy, sometimes brutally so, but there is a straightforward way to look at the mess. The end will put it all right. The end – when we stand before God as our Creator and Judge – will explain everything.

Central to his understanding is his grasp of the word many modern translations render “meaningless”. He makes a very good case that, “…the Hebrew word hebel is also accurately translated as ‘breath’ or ‘breeze’. The Preacher is saying that everything is a mist, a vapor, a puff of wind, a bit of smoke. It’s a common biblical idea…” as in Psalm 144:3-4. Understanding that life is like the merest of breaths that ends in the same way for all, with the judgment of God, gives us the necessary grasp on the teacher’s wisdom, that in all the uncertainties of life our sure guide is the certainty of our end. As Gibson says in the preface, “I want to persuade you that only if you prepare to die can you really learn how to live.”

I found this understanding of hebel far more satisfying than any other perspective I have come across. It not only makes sense exegetically but doesn’t grate theologically either within the book or with wider biblical and systematic theology in mind.

Gibson also has a very helpful perspective on the teacher’s view of life under the sun. He doesn’t subscribe to the idea that at times the teacher is describing life from a secularist point of view, under the sun, and other times with God in view, leaving the reader to try and work out at which point he is talking from which perspective. He remarks at one point,

He is not saying this repetitive roundabout is what life is like from a secularist perspective. This is not what the world feels like from the viewpoint of existential nihilism, or postmodern navel gazing. It’s just what the world is like. It’s reality. It’s the same for everyone, Christian or non-Christian, adherent or atheist: we each live under the sun.

His perspective and clarity on this again I found persuasive and a significant help in understanding the detail and the thrust of the book. For example, seeing the teacher having a consistent point of view fits with the idea that this side of eternity life is like a breath. These two insights feed into Gibson’s understanding of every part of the book, bringing a coherency and significant challenge to the reader.

In ten chapters he works through the main material in Ecclesiastes. My greatest sadness is that he doesn’t deal with every part of the book; I enjoyed reading it so much I wanted him to cover every part. However, he covers the ground of the book well and there was certainly more than enough to chew over at the end of each chapter. He also ends each with a short set of questions to help the reader think through what they have just read.

In the opening chapter Gibson shows how the teacher starts with shock tactics: “The very first thing he wants to tell us is that ‘all is vanity’, ‘vanity of vanities’. If you want readers to wake up and stop pretending about what life is like, that’s a pretty good way to get their attention.” Life is short, life is elusive and life is repetitive, so prepare to die in order to learn to live!

He then moves on to show that the teacher is bursting the bubbles of expectation around fun, social contribution, wealth and wisdom – that in the end there is nothing to be gained from these things because we all finish in the same place: death. However, “Far from being something that makes life in the present completely pointless, future death is a light God shines on the present to change it. Death can radically enable us to enjoy life.” Chasing these things will leave us unsatisfied, but accepting them as a finite gift from a gracious God transforms life.

Gibson carefully links the famous “time for everything” passage to its context, dealing both with the detail of the poem and showing how the rhythms of life don’t lead to gain. It is with the sovereign judgment of God that gives meaning to all things, whether we can see that meaning or not. This is both a comfort – the sovereign God knows what he is doing even when we do not – and a challenge: I don’t need to be in control because God is!

So he continues through the book, carefully, sometimes humorously, always pastorally, guiding the reader through Ecclesiastes in a way that puts the wisdom of the teacher in our hands and rubs it into the heart.

There are one or two parts where his application requires careful reading. He is at times deliberately provocative, as any pastor ought to be! The gear change required to think how the teacher is thinking can be quite significant and at one or two points I felt that the gears of application just crunched a little bit. That is a minor criticism and the only one I could think of to balance how helpful I have found this book. As a Christian, the book has fed my soul and strengthened my faith. As a pastor, the book has informed my mind and helped me work through how to pastor better. As a preacher, the book has left me wanting to preach Ecclesiastes, feeling I have a grasp of it now that is significantly better than that I had beforehand.

Gibson does an excellent job of what he set out to do – guiding the reader through the wisdom of the teacher with an expert hand, never patronising, never over-complicated. Questions at the end of each chapter make the book even more useful in personal devotion or for small groups. This is a book that is recommended for anyone’s library. All I need to do now is finish my list of people to buy it for…

Chris Hawthorne
Pastor, St John’s Wood Road Baptist Church, London

 

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