Mar 28 2014
Ecclesiastes: the meaning behind the meaninglessness
People like the Queen of Sheba came from far to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and what did he say? ‘Everything is meaningless!’ Well, that’s his claim in Ecclesiastes. Do like it???
A lot of people are put off by the negativity of Ecclesiastes. But that’s a pity, because the negativity is wise negativity composed by one of the wisest men to walk the planet. And further, it is divinely inspired negativity. That’s right God speaks through negativity, and powerfully! Let’s have a closer look.
‘Everything is meaningless!’ What a shocking statement that is – but it would seem that it was designed to be.♦ Right through Ecclesiastes Solomon pushes his point saying pleasures are meaningless, work is meaningless, advancement is meaningless, riches are meaningless; everything is meaningless! At one point he even seems to get a bit uptight about how meaningless everything is and says, ‘Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days’ (9:9). I don’t know about you but I feel like saying, ‘Hey Solly, relax!’
What is Solomon doing? Does he really believe everything is meaningless, or is he trying to provoke us in some way? I think he’s trying to provoke us. He wants us to see that meaning can’t be found in temporary things. Many people try to find meaning for life in their jobs, their families, their hobbies; in achieving things that are temporary. But Solomon says it’s just chasing after the wind. Ultimate meaning cannot be found in temporary things, it must be found in what is eternal.
Solomon was speaking to Jews, but his point would be even stronger if he were speaking to atheists. Today’s atheists believe that there is no God and so life is ultimately meaningless and everyone must extract as much meaning as they can from what is temporary; their achievements, their work and their pleasures. But in Ecclesiastes Solomon says that he tried that trick and found it to be a fruitless exercise. He says ‘I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers and a harem as well – the delights of the heart of man. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me … I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labour. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun’ (2:4-11).
Most people find it difficult to accept that this life has no ultimate meaning. Even atheists who believe it has no ultimate meaning as a matter of principle don’t like the idea. Most will admit that such a thought leaves them feeling somewhat empty inside. Humans have a need to know that they have some ultimate purpose and value. Now if we find this need within us and discover that there is nothing to quench it; that would be a very strange thing. C.S. Lewis put it like this, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.’
The human need for ultimate meaning strongly suggests that there is ultimate meaning. And if there is ultimate meaning then this life is not an accident, it is planned and there is a Planner.
But as I said above, Solomon was speaking to Jews who believe in God. Why would Solomon tell Jews everything is meaningless? Well he was referring to things that are temporary, and we believers have habit of idolizing temporary things, we live like our careers, wealth and families are the only things worth living for. And sometimes it is only at the end of our lives, when we are about to lose everything that we realize that we were just chasing after the wind; striving after things that don’t last. Solomon cries ‘Everything is meaningless,’ in the hope that we will take his advice early in life. He is hoping that young believers will seek God’s plan for their lives rather than chase riches, fame and pleasure. Ultimate meaning is not found in the temporary, it’s found in the eternal.
Other Illustrations used: Tolstoy’s big life question | Wimber – a healer who wasn’t healed
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