MEANINGLESS LIFE Ecclesiastes 1–4
“ ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless’ ” (Ecc. 1:2).Many thoughtful non-Christians will find that this book reflects an all-too-familiar sense of despair. Life in this world has not changed fundamentally from the author’s day. Apart from a personal relationship with God any life truly is meaningless.
Ecclesiastes fits into a strain of ancient wisdom literature marked for its pessimism. Its sense of the futility of life is found in Egyptian works from about 2300–2100B.C, as well as in Mesopotamian writings ranging from that date to the 7th centuryB.C One work, the Dialogue of Pessimism, written about 1300B.C, concludes that for man trapped in a meaningless universe only one “good” exists: “To have my neck broken and your neck broken and to be thrown into the river is good.” The writer of Ecclesiastes set the limits of his search for meaning. He would use his reason (to “explore by wisdom,” 1:13) and he would use data he could gather by observation in this world (“under the sun”). While nature does provide evidence that God exists, He can be known as Redeemer only by special revelation. Thus the personal name of God, Yahweh, is not found in Ecclesiastes. Moreover, while the Teacher’s conclusions are accurately recorded, and do follow what man can observe in society and the material universe, his conclusions do not correspond with revealed truth (cf. 3:20–21; 9:5). What then is the value of the Book of Ecclesiastes? It serves an important pre-evangelism function, evoking images intended to make the reader sensitive to the futility of life apart from God. While the nonbeliever can enjoy the natural blessings which God graciously provides, he or she must always be troubled by an underlying sense of the ultimate meaninglessness of life.
The Teacher stated that life in this world is meaningless (1:1–11). To prove his point he examined wisdom (vv. 12–18), pleasures (2:1–16), hard work (vv. 17–26), religion (3:1–22), and life’s unfairness (4:1–16).
Understanding the Text
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” Ecc. 1:1–11 The Hebrew word translated “meaningless” in the NIV and “vanity” in the King James is hebel. It’s underlying meanings include futility, deceptiveness, unreliability, and brevity. Human life, if our 70 or so years on earth is all there is, is rendered empty. Short and insubstantial, life in this world can provide no permanent satisfaction. It’s hard for a young person, setting out with dreams of conquering the business or professional world, visions of pleasure, or even of marriage and family, to grasp how empty life will be even if he or she achieves those goals. This is perhaps one of the great values of this powerful Old Testament book: its dark outlook forces even the most optimistic individual to reexamine assumptions about the meaning of life. What a blessing that this book is found in a library of 66, with the others testifying to the fact that God did not create any individual life to flare up for a brief moment, and then to flicker out. Any time we are envious of this world’s wealthy or famous, we can read Ecclesiastes and remember that the true meaning of our life is tied, not to time, but to eternity. “The more knowledge, the more grief” Ecc. 1:12–18. In general, “wisdom” in Scripture is the ability to apply God’s guidelines for moral living to practical issues, and thus to choose what is right. In this book, which rules out revelation a priori, wisdom remains practical. But here it is the ability to understand the practical implications of secular study and observation. The tragedy is that the pursuit of secular knowledge is a “chasing after the wind.” Whatever we may achieve through science or philosophy offers no answer to the question of what makes individual life meaningful. In fact, the more one explores, the greater his or her sense of grief. There is a vast difference between secular and spiritual knowledge. While the one can make our life on earth more comfortable, the other alone can give our life meaning and purpose. It follows, as one of our pastors suggested at Sunday vespers, that we ought to concentrate on studying the Word of God. Only here will we find not only meaning but also lasting comfort and joy. “I refused my heart no pleasure” Ecc. 2:1–11. Philosophers have categorized pleasures. Some are “pleasures of the flesh.” The person who seeks pleasure in drugs, drink, or sex looks for it in bodily sensations. There are also “higher” pleasures. Among such pleasures tradition names the pleasure a person takes in his achievements, in accumulating wealth, or the pure intellectual pleasure of learning and displaying knowledge. As pagan philosophers have taught, the problem with pleasures of the flesh is that a price must be paid. The drunk suffers hangovers and cirrhosis of the liver. The drug addict loses his grip on reality. But the Teacher makes a distinctive contribution. All pleasures are meaningless. As far as adding meaning to life, each is “chasing after wind.” “I hated all the things I had toiled for” Ecc. 2:17–26. The drive to achieve great things is incapable of providing life with meaning. In the end all that a person poured his effort and skill into, all that has taken such a toll in personal pain and grief, will be left to another who has not worked for it. It’s a lucky man (the sense here of references to God) who is satisfied with his work and his pleasures. In the last analysis, the “great man” who was driven to achieve is the miserable one. “Yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end” Ecc. 3:1–22. While some have taken this chapter as an appeal to seek meaning through relationship with God, it seems best to understand it as a critique of natural religion. Nature does provide evidence that God exists. We see Him revealed in the regularity of His creation (vv. 1–8), and in man’s universal assumption that there is more to life than food and drink (vv. 9–17). Yet God remains a mystery (v. 11), and there is no evidence from nature to support the conviction that human beings are different from animals (vv. 18–21). As man’s religions can offer no certain knowledge about life after death, their practitioners must be satisfied with enjoying life in this world. What a difference between man’s religions and revealed religion. We alone can look beyond time, and know what eternity holds. “I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun” Ecc. 4:1–16. The existence of injustice contributes to the conclusion that, if this is all there is, life must be meaningless. Men so mistreat their fellows that death is preferable (vv. 1–3). The envy and competitiveness that motivate man’s achievements destroy inner tranquility (vv. 4–6), while necessity alone bonds men together (vv. 7–12). Even possession of authority over others is fleeting and meaningless. It’s been popular in the past three decades to assume that somehow meaning is found in interpersonal relationships. But the one relationship that counts is ignored by secular man. Only a relationship with God, resting on His love for and commitment to us, can truly meet our needs.
Gotta Try It to Know(Ecc. 2)
In his search for meaning the Teacher used two basic methods. Observe others. And, try it and see. When it came to pleasures—whether the pleasure of accomplishing some great building project, amassing great wealth, or a pleasure of the flesh—his approach was, “Try it and see.” We’re often tempted to take this approach to life. “How can I tell unless I try it for myself?” The answer, of course, is that we know about lots of things that aren’t beneficial without having to try them for ourselves. We wouldn’t try jumping off a 10-story building to see if it’s fun to fly. It might very well be. But the landing would be pretty hard. How fortunate we are to have in Scripture a reliable guide to what is truly good for us, and what will hurt. Rather than say with Qoheleth, “How can I tell unless I try,” we say, “I know this isn’t worth trying, for God’s Word warns me away.”
God is a better guide than experience.