Back in 1989 an Australian television and radio interviewer, Caroline Jones interviewed a range of well-known Australians. A question she put to everyone was, ‘How do you find meaning and purpose in life?’
Phillip Adams, an Australian media personality responded, ‘The universe is cold and meaningless. There’s no God, there’s nothing there; there’s no meaning. We invent our own meaning and project it on to things as we want to. The fact you believe or don’t believe in God doesn’t matter very much… most of us on most things tend to agree – it’s important to love, it’s important we shouldn’t kill each other, we should be generous and charitable and so on. I think that’s common sense…’
Why is it common sense? Is that the way the world really is? Are people truly loving, kind and generous? Is this how the world operates?
In The Book of Ecclesiastes, chapters 4 through 6 the Teacher asks, ‘How do people treat one another under the sun – that is, how do people behave towards one another without reference to God?’
Power. Consider the opening lines of chapter 4: Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced under the sun. Look, the tears of the oppressed – with no one to comfort them! On the side of the oppressors there was power – with no one to comfort them.
Three millennia after these words were written in Ecclesiastes, Lord Acton wrote to Bishop Creighton in 1887, ‘Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.
Over time news is cyclical as an ideology or party rises to power, only to be succeeded by another because of exploitation and the abuse of power. It may take some time but eventually it does.
Ecclesiastes, chapter 4 continues with further examples of futility in life.
Envy: Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from one person’s envy of another. This also is vanity and a chasing after wind (verse 4).
But there’s something even more potent: dropping out. In verse 5 we read: Fools fold their hands and consume their own flesh. Better is a handful with quiet than two handfuls with toil, and a chasing after wind. Dropping out of work, out of life, is foolishness. There’s nothing to be gained at all.
Loneliness is another reality. In verses 7 and 8 we read: Again, I saw vanity under the sun: the case of solitary individuals, without sons or brothers; yet there is no end to all their toil, and their eyes are never satisfied with riches. “For whom am I toiling,” they ask, “and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.
Loneliness is one of the challenges of living in large cities, such as New York. People might live in close proximity to one another in large apartment blocks, and yet often don’t know one another. And, ironically, the advent of smart-phones has subverted personal face-to-face interaction – even over a meal. People increasingly feel isolated and lonely.
Ecclesiastes chapter 5 brings a warning against false religion: Guard your steps when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools; for they do not know how to keep from doing evil. Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few… With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words; but fear God (5:1-7).
Humanly devised religion with its many words and ceremonies, is the religion of fools. How important it is to heed the words of the true and living God who has revealed himself to us. Fear him.
Self-Interest. Chapter 5 continues: If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and right, do not be amazed at the matter; for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. But all things considered, this is an advantage for a land: a king for a plowed field (5:8-9).
People use their positions to look after themselves, Ecclesiastes observes. We’re not to be surprised when corruption is exposed in places of power and influence – be it administration, management or bureaucracy.
Money and Possessions. We sometimes hear, ‘you only live once, so live richly now’. But the Teacher confounds this by telling us money and possessions won’t satisfy for long: The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity (5:10). In 2001, the year Judith and I moved to New York, the following appeared in The New York Times (in June): The 20-something set is struggling with early success, early failure and early disillusionment (June 24, 2001).
And, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes continues, there is another reason why it is pointless pursuing money: When goods increase, those who eat them increase; and what gain has their owner but to see them with his eyes? The more we get, the more we want.
And then there’s the anxiety about looking after what we have: Sweet is the sleep of laborers, whether they eat little or much; but the surfeit of the rich will not let them sleep (5:12). Who worries more about theft? Those who have. What benefit is that?
The sheer pointlessness of the love of money is driven home with: As they came from their mother’s womb, so they shall go again, naked as they came; they shall take nothing for their toil, which they may carry away with their hands. This also is a grievous ill: just as they came, so shall they go; and what gain do they have from toiling for the wind? Besides, all their days they eat in darkness, in much vexation and sickness and resentment (5:15-17).
When one day we slip off this mortal coil we can’t take anything with us. Ecclesiastes awakens us to the reality that life is a conundrum. Life isn’t without its joys, but for how long? What is the long-term gain from toiling for the wind? Is there a truly lasting hope to be found?
Writing in his Letter to the Colossians, chapter 1, verses 3 through 7, Paul the Apostle thanks God for the faith and love that his readers have, because of the hope laid up for them in heaven. They have come to this understanding through learning of God’s good news which Paul speaks of as the word of the truth. It is true historically and experientially.
When we turn to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in repentance and in faith, our relationship with God and with God’s people is changed. We are assured of new life in all its fullness forever. Christ alone is our hope and joy.
A prayer. God, our refuge and strength, the author of all godliness, hear the prayers of your people: and so grant us that whatever we ask for in faith we may surely obtain; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
© John G. Mason