Ecclesiastes for music students
I am going to die. By the time you read this I might already be dead.
No, I haven’t been diagnosed with a terminal disease. I currently have stable mental health. There’s nothing specific to make me think about it (death) happening.
It’s just a true fact. Unless Jesus returns in my lifetime, it’s the only thing about my life that is certain. It will end.
Feeling morbid yet? If so, hang on in there and allow me a few minutes to share some of what I’ve been learning from that weird and wonderful book hiding in the middle of the Old Testament, Ecclesiastes. Because through this book, God has actually been teaching me to feel more alive, more joyful, more free.
I’ve been hugely helped by reading a book on Ecclesiastes called Living Life Backward by David Gibson. It’s not long, and I’d thoroughly recommend giving it a read yourself, but in this blog we’ll look at some of the things Gibson draws out, and think a bit about what God might be saying to us as musicians in this part of his Word.
The alternative perspective
Most of us tend to live life forwards. Ecclesiastes teaches us to live life backwards. The Preacher (the main voice of the book) teaches us that only a proper perspective on death provides the true perspective on life. Such a perspective helps us to live wisely and freely and generously. As Gibson summarises:
It will give you a big heart and open hands, and enable you to relish all the small things of life in deeply profound ways.
Sounds good, right?
Here’s the big perspective that death can teach us: Life in God's world is gift, not gain.
The Preacher famously opens with the line, ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.’ (1:2) Some translations say ‘meaningless’, which is not terribly helpful, because the word it translates, hebel, is mostly translated as ‘vapour’ or ‘breath’ or ‘breeze’. The Preacher is telling us that everything is like a puff of smoke. It’s there, it’s real, but it’s transient. It doesn’t last. It’s also elusive - try to grab hold of vapour and, well, you can’t! Try to control, plan, predict and hold onto life, and the control we seek eludes us. I guess we’ve all been forced to learn this in 2020, as our diaries suddenly became defunct...
The Preacher then asks, ‘What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?’ (1:3)
It’s a bit of a painful question! The answer, if we’re being honest, is ‘nothing’. And let’s be completely honest. Life ‘under the sun’, life after paradise was lost and before Jesus returns to restore all things, is like this. The world, full of broken beauty, is confusing. This doesn’t stop being the case if you’re a Christian. In fact, we should be the first people to stop pretending that life isn’t transient, elusive and often frustrating.
Because we do tend to play ‘Let’s Pretend’. Let’s pretend that if we get a degree from a top conservatoire, we’ll make it as a musician in the ways we imagine. Let’s pretend that if our diary is always full of gigs, or that if all our pupils were well behaved or mini Mozarts, or we get an EU passport, we won’t experience the humdrum tedium and ordinariness of life. Let’s pretend that if we had different housemates, we’ll be happier and never want to move again. Let’s pretend that if we end one relationship and start a new one, we won’t ever feel trapped. Let’s pretend that time is always on our side to do the things we want to do and become the musicians we want to be.
The Preacher has the ultimate way to burst any bubbles we might have about reality: death will come to everyone (2:14). We pursue all sorts of things: education from the best teachers, work that makes us feel like we’re using our musical gifts, good relationships with friends and colleagues. But what do they gain for us if we die?
What does that mean for all we have achieved? If there’s no gain, why bother with anything?
Don’t shy away from these questions. Death can teach us. If death is not our Lord (and if we’re in Christ, then it never can be), then it can be our teacher. And the Preacher urges us to listen in.
Before we think through what on earth this means for us, though, there’s one other certain event that we can look ahead to, and that’s that after death there will be judgment (3:17).
One of the ways we learn to live by preparing to die is by realising that death means judgment and that this is a good thing.’
Here’s why it’s a good thing: our present actions are given meaning and weight: the way we strive to be a good musician or a good friend do matter. Our experienced losses and injustices are also given a voice in God’s presence: the favouritism in college that meant you never got onto that extras list does not go unnoticed. God sees, cares, and does not forget. This is a comfort! It’s also a challenge: I don’t need to be in control of everything that happens to me. Life is full of good times and bad times that I can’t control, but these apparently random patterns are part of a bigger pattern that God controls. Will I be willing to live within the randomness and uncertainties and accept not having all the answers to my times of pain yet? Because it is a yet. All times will be ultimately reckoned with.
Living life as a gift
Once we’ve grasped the Preacher’s message that life eludes our control, that death and judgment are the only certainties, how should we live?
In this same paragraph in chapter 3, he helps us to see that life is gift, not gain:
‘What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they life; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil - this is God’s gift to man.’ (3:9-13)
In other words, some might say, ‘Eat, drink and be merry’ because that’s all there is before we die. But the Preacher says, ‘Eat, drink and be merry because that’s what there is’. Learn to pursue good things for what they are in themselves, rather than what we need them to be to make us happy. Joy and pleasure are actually a command in the Bible! (see Deuteronomy 28:47).
Are you able to enjoy this moment of music as a gift, or is every gig coloured by thinking, ‘Where could this lead’? Can you recognise the moments of beauty in the way a pupil plays their piece without wondering how long you’ll need to be teaching?
Why not try to create a habit of giving thanks to God in present moments? – the resonance of a beautifully tuned chord, the warmth of appreciative applause, that heart-wrenching Mahler moment, the effervescent joy of a wonderful improv solo, the energy sparkling between chamber musicians – whatever does it for you, these are gifts from our Creator to be enjoyed!
I first read this book at the end of 2019, a year in which I had been to three funerals. One was for an elderly relative, one for a very close much younger family member, and the other for a couple my age. It was certainly a year that forced me to stare death in the face and learn. One of the things that changed for me after the young couple were killed, was to wake up each morning, marvelling that God had chosen to give me another day of life. How did he want me to serve him with this new day that he had given me? How could I thank him for today, for each breath, for each moment of beauty that I was given to appreciate?
And here’s the thing: learning how to weep has taught me more about what it means to laugh. When I have remembered these lessons, it has made me more fully alive, more engaged with the world, my family, music, the goodness of creation, because I know they’re a gift.
The alternative perspective on others
Seeing life as gift, not gain, also changes the way we view others.
The Preacher urges us to learn how to ask, ‘How are we doing? We, not me’. One particularly probing verse states: ‘Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbour. This also is vanity and a striving after the wind.’ (4:4)
The old saying goes: any friend can share your sorrows and failures, but it takes a true friend to share your joys and successes.
When we see a friend succeed and make things work, we smile and pat her on the back, but deep down we envy her because she has made us feel worse about ourselves. When our friend falls flat on his face, our sinfulness is such that we can watch him mess up, and even as we hug him, his failure makes us feel so much better about ourselves.
Ouch. How are we doing with that? How do you feel (honestly), when your friend gets a gig with the LSO, or gets noticed by that agent? How do you feel in that masterclass when your peer gets praised?
We often look for gain in our relationships. But life is gift, not gain. Will I let that free me to be open-handed and big-hearted towards others? Will I look for ways to serve friends rather than get stuff from them? Will I see other musicians as gifts rather than useful contacts? Will I use networking to look for opportunities to use my gifts to serve rather than desperately seeking ways to improve my career chances?
People aren’t there to be used to ‘bolster your confidence or your security or self-image so that you can now go and do something with your life’. Instead, enjoy these people. Appreciate the way God has made them. Intentionally seek out the uniqueness of their musical gifts and encourage them in that. Enjoy their friendship. Enjoy good gifts like food and wine and music with them. Slow down, savour what you’re doing, and thank the One who gave you all these things.
The ultimate gift and gain
But how does this work as a Christian? Won’t this make me enjoy things on earth too much rather than in heaven? Aren’t I supposed to be wary of loving music too much?
Actually, these things go together:
In the created world, you can only truly enjoy what you do not worship.
Anything created – whether music in general, a particular composition, gigs, commissions, another person, food, a home – we will never truly enjoy as long as we seek ultimate meaning from it, as long as we try to grasp at it for ultimate gain. But when we recognise that our true gain is in fact the Giver himself, we are free to enjoy his gifts.
Jesus, the Giver incarnate, who came into this world ‘under the sun’, is the ultimate Preacher. He is the embodiment and fulfilment of this vision of life. He was always eating and drinking with people - he knew God’s good world was there to be enjoyed in relationship with others. And his first coming foreshadows his second, where there will be the most beautiful, delicious, joyful wedding banquet. Every time we eat and drink together now, every time we make music together, we can anticipate our feasting together in this banquet to come.
So, let me ask you: do you live life forwards? Have you ever tried living life backwards? What might it look like for you to entrust all the uncertainties of life, all its unknowns, randomness, brevity, elusiveness, to a God who is the Rock and sure foundation, the God who has made himself known, who never changes, who is eternal, and whom we will one day meet face to face? Could you say with Paul, that 'to live is Christ and to die is gain'?
 David Gibson, Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End (Crossway: Wheaton, 2017), p. 11.
 Ibid, p. 37.
 Based on ibid, p. 29.
 Ibid, p. 56.
 Deuteronomy 28:47 - 'Because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things...'
 Based on ibid, p. 98.