Jan 23 2015
The wise Solomon considers a topic that has baffled many scholars
“Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” These are the words of King Solomon in his book called Ecclesiastes. Is he okay? Is he depressed? Does he need help? No, Solomon is fine; in fact he is brimming with confidence. Well he refers to himself in the book as ‘Israel’s Teacher’ so he must be! But why is he being so negative? It is because in Ecclesiastes Solomon teaches by provocation. He wants to provoke Israel to think. And he is asking them to think of the mother of all questions: What is the meaning of life? And does Solomon then follow up with an answer to the question? Oh no, he just leaves us all hanging. Thanks Solly! But of course that’s all part of his strategy, Ecclesiastes is designed to provoke.
♦ Now, before anyone suggests that the little conclusion at the end of Ecclesiastes is Solomon’s answer, let me say, no, I don’t think it is. The conclusion looks a lot like something that was added later by an editor who felt the book couldn’t end with ‘Everything is meaningless.’ And in addition to this Solomon has used a well known Hebrew writing technique called an ‘inclusio’ that indicates where his message ends. Notice that he begins and ends with the same sentence ‘Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’ This statement forms a bracket that frames his teaching, but the brief conclusion comes after that. So I think Solomon ended his message with ‘Everything is meaningless.’ And I think he had a reason for ending it so negatively; he is provoking us, he wants us to think about all the things we fill our lives with and to ask ourselves if any of them give our lives a meaning that can survive death. And his unspoken answer is ‘no.’
I like this aspect of Solomon. Many believers don’t think things through. They are like cows enjoying the grass in front of them with no consideration for how it got there. They enjoy God’s presence, they love to sing and fellowship, but ask them a philosophical question and they say ‘Oh, don’t ask me, ask the pastor.’ And it seems that Solomon had people like that in his day, and he wanted to teach them to think about the big questions of life.
The Queen of Sheba tested Solomon with hard questions. I wonder if one of them was, ‘So Solomon, what’s the meaning of life?’ Whatever her questions were, the report tells us that Solomon answered all her questions and that she started praising Yahweh, Solomon’s God. But what if he had just said, ‘Oh, I don’t know the meaning of life, all I know is that when I go to the Temple I feel God’s presence I am contented.’ Would that have helped her? No, of course not, she came with a need for concrete answers, not subjective stories of the supernatural. But sometimes this is all Christians can offer today. The reason Solomon could answer the Queen was because he had done his home work. He had done a lot of thinking, study and research and now it paying off.
Okay, so let’s do what Solomon wants us to do. Let’s think about his question: What is the meaning of life? What does it mean for someone or something to have meaning? We have meaning if we have purpose. A hammer means something to us because we understand its purpose. So what is the purpose of mankind? Why do we exist? Now, of course, the atheist (one who denies God) and the theist (one who believes in God) will answer this differently. Atheists will say there is no overall purpose for mankind. They will tell you that life on earth is the product of blind chance and so there is no ultimate reason for humans to be here. And they will often tell you that the only way to have meaning and purpose in life is to fill your life with all the things you want to do. So let’s check that out.
Today I have planned some things. I need a haircut, so I go to the hairdresser. There is purpose in me going to the hairdresser; I want my hair to look better. But does this act give me meaning in life? No, of course not, it’s has little significance. Okay, so let’s go up a level, I become a father and begin a family; does that give me meaning in life? Well, it certainly adds to the value of my life, and it certainly gives me more to do. But does it give me an overall purpose; does it tell me why I am here? No, the reason I am here must exist before I exist. After all, it got me here. But that is not all; if I begin to see fatherhood as my main reason for living, it could end up a disaster. What if my family is taken from me, is my reason for living then over? It shouldn’t be. My reason for living has to bigger than fatherhood. And it’s no use having a plan B in case my family is taken, because plan B could also be taken. What I need is an ultimate reason for living that remains even if I lose everything this world has to offer.
Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist who survived the Nazi Death Camps, studied the reactions of prisoners in the camps who had lost everything that gives life any sense of quality. And he noticed that people who believed in something beyond this life had a greater ability to handle their predicament than others. He concluded that every person needs a reason for living that transcends this life and cannot be taken from them.
The Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy came to a similar conclusion. In his book ‘A Confession’ he tells how he embarked on a desperate journey to find meaning in life. He says he tried pleasure, fame, money, family, friends, and much like Solomon he found that none of these gave him the meaning he was looking for. He soon narrowed his quest down to one big question ‘What meaning has my life that the inevitability of death cannot destroy?’ After searching in all sorts of places for answers he finally found what he was looking for. Amongst the peasant people of Russia he found a faith in God through Jesus Christ.
It makes sense that the reason for our existence would precede the fact that we exist. That it would be something we discover about ourselves rather than something we decide for ourselves. And this fits very well with the belief that there is a God who created the universe and had a reason to put us in it. Such an argument will not provide the atheist with proof that there is a God, but it does show that a belief in God has the power to meet a common human need; the need for ultimate meaning.
The Bible claims that God created mankind to enjoy an ongoing relationship with him that will continue for all eternity, and that he loves us and considers us as children made in his image. Though humans have drifted away from God they can be reconciled to him through the cross of Jesus Christ. Once they are reconciled, nothing can separate them from the Creator and his purposes, not even death.
When Solomon says pleasure is meaningless, work is meaningless, advancement is meaningless, in fact everything is meaningless; he is driving one point home, and that is that ultimate meaning cannot come from temporary things. He is very clear that anyone who chases after these things is just chasing after the wind. These things will vanish as quick as they came, and only our status with God (whatever that may be) will remain.
It’s odd to go through life without ever attempting to find out why you are here. But most people seem to do it. Solomon, one of the wisest men to walk this planet could not avoid the question.
I invite you to ask Solomon’s big question. What is the meaning of life? Where does mankind find a purpose and meaning that endures beyond death? I challenge you to ask your atheist or agnostic friend the same question, and then to ask if their reply was adequate. I have never got a convincing reply. Ultimate meaning can come from God alone. We were created by him and for him, and when we acknowledge this everything else finds its proper place.
This sermon is based on a talk by Tim Keller in his 2014 ‘Questioning Christianity’ series
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