a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow?” (Ecc. 6:12)As we sense the despair that grips the Teacher’s heart in his role as secular man, we realize afresh how great God’s salvation is. Making the best of a meaningless life is secular man’s fate. Our challenge is to make a meaningful life better!
In his role as secular man the Teacher showed life’s meaninglessness by a further critique of religion (5:1–7), riches (vv. 8–20), and the brevity of life (6:1–12). His theme proven, the Teacher then suggested how to make the best of an essentially meaningless life (7:1–8:17).
Understanding the Text
“Let your words be few” Ecc. 5:1–7. In natural religion human beings seek to reach up to God from earth, and find Him distant and unreachable. This is the implication of the saying, “God is in heaven, you are on earth.” God may know man, but man does not know God. Thus the religious person should let his words be few, stand in awe, and if he makes a vow to God, should fulfill it quickly lest the unknown God be angry. In revealed religion, God is initiator. He reaches down from heaven to reveal Himself to man. This God is known on earth, and His will is known too. How terrible it is to be driven by reason to acknowledge God’s existence, but to know nothing about Him! How wonderful that in His Word and in Christ, our God has spoken to us of His love, compassion, and salvation. “As he comes, so he departs” Ecc. 5:8–20. Several reasons are offered to show why wealth is incapable of providing life with meaning. A person may work hard—but his profits are eaten up in taxes (vv. 8–9). Even a rich man isn’t satisfied with his wealth. He just wants more (v. 10). The more one earns the more he spends (v. 11). People with money lie awake worrying about keeping it (v. 12). Hoarded wealth is more likely to do harm than good—and when a man dies he can’t take it with him (vv. 13–17). In short, the only value of wealth is as a narcotic, to keep a man so occupied with earthly pleasures that he doesn’t realize how empty his life really is (vv. 18–20). When a Christian adopts materialistic values, he or she has chosen the empty, meaningless way of life of secular man. Christ died in part to free us from an unhealthy love of money. “Even if he lives a thousand years” Ecc. 6:1–12. One of the most grievous evils identified by the Teacher is that, however long a man lives, it is not long enough. Even a person with wealth, possessions, and honor soon dies, with his appetites still unsatisfied. In saying that “all man’s efforts are for his mouth,” the writer suggested that secular man is on a treadmill. He works to satisfy his physical needs and desires, yet however well-fed, he becomes hungry again, and however supplied with drink his thirst returns. In it all, his deepest need, the nameless desire for meaning, persists as an aching desire that no food or drink can quench. “Whatever exists has already been named.” Life on earth is an endless repetition, a treadmill on which each new generation walks or runs until their “few and meaningless days” are over. There is no meaning to be found in the life lived by secular man. “Is better than” Ecc. 7:1–8:17. With the close of chapter 6, the author had finished presenting proof that life under the sun, without a personal relationship with God, is meaningless. But he continued his quest. Given the meaninglessness of life, what should a person do? Solomon, unlike the authors of other ancient pessimistic wisdom literature, did not suggest suicide. Instead he suggested that a man examine his options, and choose the lesser of evils. We can trace the options he suggested in 7:1–12:8. In today’s reading, here is the advice of the Teacher concerning choices open to secular man. 7:1–12. Even if life is meaningless, some things in life are better than others. For instance, sorrow is better than laughter—if only because it is more realistic! For the same reason, it’s foolish to say that “the old days” were better than today! Although these conclusions may not be obvious, it is obvious that some things are better than others. For instance, the end of a matter is better than the beginning. Patience is better than pride. The wise are better off than fools. Given this, the Teacher offers his advice. 7:13–14. Adopt a fatalistic attitude. What God has determined cannot be changed, and no one can know ahead of time whether God’s future holds good times or bad for him. 7:15–22. Avoid extremes. Don’t set out to be too righteous or too wicked, and ignore what other people may say about you. 7:23–8:1. Wisdom is better than stupidity. But wisdom has its limits. It will not enable a person to discover “the scheme of things,” and it will not make a person righteous. In fact, wisdom forces one to the conclusion that while God may have made man upright, “men have gone in search of many schemes.” 8:2–10. Adjust to the rules of your society. It is far better to fit in than to be a rebel. This thought underlies the Teacher’s call to obey the king, and not rock the boat by challenging his authority. 8:11–14. Fear God as Judge. This is a difficult call, for one must take it on faith that in the end God will punish the wicked—despite the present prosperity of so many wicked men. In essence the Teacher suggested, don’t take chances where God is concerned. Wisdom tells us He is there, even if we do not know anything else about Him. 8:15. Enjoy while you can. Take what pleasure is possible from this life, even though it is meaningless. 8:16–17. Finally the writer made a significant confession. Even the conclusions he had drawn rested on insufficient evidence! No one can really “comprehend what goes on under the sun.” Human reason is incapable of drawing all the evidence together and reaching correct conclusions. Human reason cannot truly describe, or even comprehend, all of reality. We conclude with this thought. The conclusions of secular man about the meaninglessness of life are faulty, simply because secular man does not have all the evidence, nor is he able to fit it together accurately. The best that secular man can do is guess about the true nature of the universe in which he lives. And his best guesses lead, inevitably, to the conclusion that life for the individual is empty and meaningless. How wonderful that you and I do not have to guess! How wonderful that we know. We know the origin of our universe and its destiny. We know that we human beings have been created in the image of God, are loved by Him, and are destined to live forever! We know the saving power God has unleashed in this world through Jesus. And, because we know, we are freed from secular man’s bondage to despair.
“Better Than” Choices(Ecc. 7–8)
Any set of beliefs that a person adopts is to be used as criteria to evaluate choices. This may sound a little stuffy. But it expresses a vital truth. The Teacher of Ecclesiastes concluded that life was meaningless, and from that starting point went on to distinguish options in life which were better than others. We Christians start with a different set of conclusions. We believe that life is meaningful. God loves us, and has chosen us, in Jesus’ words, “to go and bear fruit” (John 15:16). Other New Testament passages put it a little differently, but the thought is the same. We have been chosen that we might “be for the praise of His glory” (Eph. 1:12). We are God’s workmanship, “created in Christ Jesus to do good works” (2:10). This is not a secular universe, formed by chance. It is a universe created by a personal God, who has chosen to love us—and chosen us to love and serve Him. What options then are “better” if our set of beliefs about the world is formed by a belief in God and by experience of His love? Well, some of life’s better things for the Christian include: Caring more about people than about things. Giving ourselves to serve rather than be served. Storing up treasure in heaven rather than on earth. Spending time with God’s Word rather than TV sitcoms. Making time for our families rather than spending all our time and energy on our jobs. Depending on God rather than on ourselves, and expressing that dependence in prayer. And so on. You can add to this list just as easily as I can. You see, our problem isn’t in knowing what “better than” choices are open to us as Christians. Our problem is in making those choices daily. No, this isn’t one of those “let’s add on some more guilt” devotionals. It’s just a reminder. The life of secular man really is meaningless. God’s call to you and me to make “better than” choices is His invitation to discover something that secular man can never know. A truly meaningful, and thus blessed, life.
The “better than” choices we make for Jesus’ sake end up as blessings for us.