A confession: I read the ends of books first. Last page, last chapter, whatever it takes to give me a quick glimpse into how things end. I live for spoiler alerts and barrel right past them, collecting tidbits of information about plot and characters, and squirreling it away in my memory for future reference.
I can see you cringing. Wringing your hands and rolling your eyes. “Caitlin, why would you ruin a perfectly good book like that?” you might be thinking. “What’s the point of even reading the book, if you already know how it’s going to turn out?”
In the same way Pride and Prejudice hasn’t been ruined for me, despite 10+ repeat readings and just as many repeat viewings of the BBC serial drama (#teamdarcy), a new book isn’t ruined by knowing the ending. If anything, I would argue, knowing how things end actually frees me up to enjoy the book even more.
All the twists and turns, the challenges and the joys and the sorrows and the triumphs—the stuff that draws you into the story and makes the characters real, is still enjoyable, knowing the ending. It’s the journey through the story itself—all those twists and turns—that makes my time spent reading the book worthwhile.
The Book of Ecclesiastes is a prime example of giving away the entire plot at the beginning of the book. Ecclesiastes 1:2 (verse one simply introduces the author):
"Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity"
And that’s it. The whole book, right on through to the end, is all about getting the reader to acknowledge what the author just gives away, right there at the beginning. Spoiler Alert: Everything is vanity.
The Hebrew word we translate as vanity is hebel—a fleeting mist, a puff of air. A little bit of uselessness and futility. Here today, gone two seconds from now. Vanity.
By the time we get to Ecclesiastes 3, and the well-known “A Time for Everything” passage, the Preacher has shown us the vanity of wisdom, the vanity of pleasure and self-indulgence, the vanity of living wisely and the vanity of toil. Everything has been tried, and everything has been judged hebel.
And with the ultimate spoiler move—coming in Chapter Three of a twelve-chapter book!—the Preacher jumps to the very end of all things: “For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return” (Ecclesiastes 3:19-20 ESV)
Really makes you want to read the rest of the story, doesn’t it?
Yet, as the Preacher reminds us earlier in Chapter Three, God has made everything beautiful in its time, and “has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
And that’s where we find ourselves, with our limited human understanding: eternity in our hearts, yet unable to fathom the big picture of God’s design and plan. Everything we do, everything we aspire to, is vanity. What’s the point of reading any further, when that’s what you have to look forward to?
Jesus Christ, the only Son of God the Father, who breaks into the hebel-ness of our human experience, pitches his tent with us and becomes flesh and blood. Jesus Christ endures the cross and the grave, faces off with sin, death, and the devil—and wins. Spoiler Alert: Jesus wins! And His victory is my victory, as a baptized and beloved child of God.
Knowing the end—that Jesus wins, that I am God’s own child, that I can “be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness,” as Luther writes in his explanation to the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed—knowing that frees me up to enjoy the story of my life as God is writing it. All the twists and turns, the challenges and victories, the myriad cast of characters that surround me, my daily work, and the simple joys of labor and good food and laughter. Sorrow and comfort, silence and song. Everything is made beautiful in its time, because of Jesus.
So, start with the ending: Jesus wins. You are forgiven. God is with you on this journey through life.
Now, go enjoy the rest of your story.