Review of Better: How Jesus Satisfies the Search for Meaning by Tim Chaddick
Ecclesiastes is a hard book. Heck, most wisdom literature in Scripture is difficult. I mean, what on earth are we supposed to do with the prurience of Song of Solomon, the seemingly contradictory proverbs, or those middle chapters of Job where all his friends give him (apparently wrong) advice? (Joseph Caryl spilled 12 wonderful volumes worth of ink trying to answer that last question…) And while all of these can be difficult, I’ve always found the book of Ecclesiastes especially challenging to interpret and apply to the modern world. It has always struck me as an odd combination of obvious truth mixed with impracticality. “To everything there is a season” is about as blatantly true a statement as one can make, yet how that statement should affect the way I shop for groceries or run my devotional life can be hard to say. What’s more, Ecclesiastes’ seemingly bleak outlook and conclusion seem to be at odds with the overall optimistic tone set by the Biblical themes of salvation, grace, and Divine Glory. It can be especially hard to see where Jesus fits in to a book with the closing line “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Preacher, ‘Everything is meaningless.'” (Ecclesiastes 12:8) In Better, Tim Chaddick does a fantastic job of explaining and applying Ecclesiastes to the modern world in a Christ-centered way.
Chaddick covers a number of themes, including: knowledge, desire (for material goods), ambition, money, time, community, power, religion, envy, discontent, worry, joy, and death—all as they are explained in Ecclesiastes and resolved in Christ. Most of these chapters include an exposition of how these topics are wrongly pursued or interpreted by the world, how God intends us to understand them, and how they all one way or another point to Jesus. For example, in the chapter titled “Money”, Chaddick explains five ways the world (and, all too often, the Christian) misuses money:
- Moral Blindness: we fail to use our money morally or to pursue justice, and instead see money as disconnected from morality and justice;
- Insatiability: we indulge in our greed with an ever-growing lust for more;
- Worry: we fret over money disproportionately;
- Hoarding: we let money dominate our lives;
- Dissatisfaction: we are ultimately never happy, no matter how much we get.
In contrast to this parade of misuses and misunderstandings, Chaddick holds up the Biblical standards for engaging with money. That is, we are neither to shun it nor to worship it, but rather are to use it wisely and faithfully as a trust that has been given to us for the pursuit of God’s glory. By prayer, instruction, and generosity (Chaddick’s three counters to the five misuses of money listed above), we can resist the temptations money leads to and live lives which reflect the great salvation freely given to us in Christ, which is of more worth than all the money in the world.
Each chapter roughly follows this pattern, and is presumably based on sermons preached at Chaddick’s church “Reality LA.”
The biggest weakness of this book is its occasionally strained connection of Jesus with the message of Ecclesiastes. As noted above, Chaddick ends most of his chapters with a brief explanation of how Christ fulfills, completes, or resolves the issue raised in Ecclesiastes. The problem is that this is often a gap that the Bible itself does not necessarily fill in. Unlike, say, the Exodus or the lives of Old Testament believers or even Old Testament passages about salvation, the New Testament never gives us a specific guide to how Ecclesiastes (or most of the wisdom literature) points to Jesus. The result is that at times Chaddick’s connection feels either forced or so general that his application could relate to any number of topics, rather than specifically to the one in question. To give just one example, Chaddick includes a chapter on envy. It is certainly true that envy is a sin, and that Ecclesiastes highlights the emptiness and vanity of envy. It is also true that Jesus is the answer to that sin: he paid for it in our place on the cross and he empowers us to resist it in our own lives. Accordingly, Chaddick highlights as useful for resisting envy especially the doctrines of grace, the sovereignty of God, the new life in the Holy Spirit, and the assistance we get from the church. Yet, these doctrines are useful for resisting any sin, and it’s unclear how Jesus ties in to this specific passage in Ecclesiastes, especially when the whole chapter (which deals with a whole host of vanities under the sun) is taken into account.
Even with that weakness (which admittedly doesn’t show up very often), this is an excellent book that deftly handles a difficult biblical text. Even better, Chaddick is an excellent writer whose prose reads quickly and whose points are clear and concise without sacrificing quality theology and application. Chaddick does a great job of getting at the meaning of Ecclesiastes and how it matters for us in the 21st century. Over and over he delivers the Preacher’s message that absolutely everything in this world is vanity bound for destruction. Our jobs, our possessions, our communities, our hopes, our desires, and our dreams are all fleeting and ephemeral, bound only to walk with us to the grave and no farther (and that’s just the list of things that aren’t actively sinful, and make the “good” lists in Ecclesiastes). Chaddick drives home the Gospel—the message that the only solution to the problem of death and decay that overhangs the world is found in faith in Jesus Christ. When He took our sins on Himself on the cross and gave us the merit of His perfect life, he bought us into a world which will last forever, and in doing so gives us the right perspective on this temporal, fallen world. We go from being corpses pursuing vanity to pilgrims passing through a dying world on their way to the city of light and life that will last for eternity.
This book will be useful both to people like me who can struggle to apply Ecclesiastes today and to those who want to know more about how Christians see the world and the hope offered through Christ to a despairing world.
This book was reviewed in connection with the Patheos book club.
Dr. Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University, where he tries not to let his students know that he thinks all their grades are vanity.