As we begin another year, it’s a good opportunity to ask ourselves, and to ask others, what we really think life is all about. Questions about the meaning of life and the future are surely felt by everyone who reflects on life. Over the next two or three Wednesdays I plan to explore these questions through the lens of the Book of Ecclesiastes.
Consider how the book begins: Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? (1:2,3)
The Book of Ecclesiastes is a strange book and it’s rather surprising to find it in the cluster of wisdom books in the Bible. It doesn’t seem to fit easily into the Bible’s storyline.
And, while Ecclesiastes is quite depressing, it raises questions for us all. It’s a little like a water-blaster cleaning machine as it cuts through the nonsense filling our lives, challenging us to ask what gives our lives meaning and purpose. ‘What’s it all about?’ it asks.
The writer, self-styled the Teacher, could have been David’s son, King Solomon who lived around 1,000BC, or someone who wrote up Solomon’s wisdom. Furthermore, embedded in the word Ecclesiastes is the Greek word for assembly: ecclesia. Ecclesiastes is what the Teacher says to the assembly.
How then does the Teacher view life? What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun?he asks (1:3). Gain is a commercial term, questioning the value or the bottom line of life. We work, we throw ourselves into life, we struggle, but what’s it all worth? What’s the point of it all?
The phrase under the sun (1:3), a recurring theme throughout the book, is a metaphor asking how we view life, as it were, from the outside. What sense can we make of life without reference to God?
The answer is depressing: Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity (1:2). The word vanity indicates that it’s all in vain, pointless. The word can also mean a puff of wind or a mist. Later on in the Book, the Teacher speaks about life being like chasing the wind.
A generation goes, and a generation comes,he says, but the earth remains for ever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south and goes round to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow.
Like a scientist he writes up his observations: the sun rises, sets, and rises again. The wind blows from one direction, then another, and yet another. The streams run into the sea, but the sea never fills up. In our terminology, he observes the evaporation of water and precipitation: the rain falling on the hills, forming streams that run into the sea, then evaporation, precipitation, and so on.
The endless rising and setting of the sun, the blowing of the wind from every point of the compass, the endless movement of water, go on, and on, and on, and on.
It’s a theme with which he begins verse 4: Generations come, and generations go… But, unlike everything around us, we’re here one moment, gone the next! What’s the point of it all? So much of our life is spent working to achieve wealth, power, prestige – and what’s the point? We’re here one moment gone the next.
What’s more, we’re wearied in the brief time we’re here: All things are wearisome; more than one can express (1:8).Furthermore, he says: The eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing(1:8). One of Elton John’s songs in The Lion King captures the mood: From the moment we arrive on the planet and blinking step into the sun, there’s more to see than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done. Why do we need new songs? Imagine if record companies said, ‘Instead of releasing new songs we’ll only be making available the best songs from the past’.
But ironically, nothing new ever happens: … There is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”?(1:9) Nothing ever changes. Not even the news. Even acts of terrorism aren’t new. It’s only the names and faces!
And there’s something even more depressing – the time will come when you and I will be forgotten. Consider 1:11: The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them.
So, does the Teacher have any solutions? An important test he applies is: ‘Is there anything that’s going to last?’ Ultimate meaninglessness is our issue. What will be left when the waves wipe out the sandcastles of our lives? What will be left when the winds blow on the idols we have erected in our heart? He isn’t saying life is all negative; just don’t stop and think about it.
As we begin a new year, it’s worth taking the time to stop and reflect – even read Ecclesiastes. Yes, there is hope for the future, whatever may happen in the coming year. Ecclesiastes 2:26a provides a clue: For to the one who pleases Him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy;…
Ecclesiastes challenges us to look for answers about the meaning of life. Significantly its answers take us into the larger biblical narrative, where we learn that God supremely holds out the answer to our questions in His Son, Jesus, whom he has appointed as the Lord over all.
In John 20:31 we read: These things are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God and, that through believing you may have life in his name.
A prayer. Blessed Lord, you have caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning, grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them that, encouraged and supported by your holy Word, we may embrace and always hold fast the joyful hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
© John G. Mason