Ecclesiastes 1:1–11; 12:13–14comment (0)
December 31, 2009
By Kenneth B.E. Roxburgh
Related Scripture: Ecclesiastes 1:1–11; 12:13–14
Bible Studies for Life
Chair and Armstrong Professor of Religion, Department of Religion, Samford University
WRESTLING WITH THE MEANING OF LIFE
Ecclesiastes 1:1–11; 12:13–14
There are many examples in 20th-century literature of the sense of meaninglessness that these passages address. In his play “Death of a Salesman,” Arthur Miller narrates the despair and hollowness of Willy Loman, while P.D. James’ novel “The Children of Men” is set against the background of apocalyptic hopelessness, with the slow demise of the human race. The idea that life really is absurd has haunted humanity down through the centuries, and Ecclesiastes merely gives a voice to this problem.
Is Life Meaningless? (1:1–7)
The preacher begins with the haunting cry that “All is Vanity … meaningless!” He combines this idea with the formula “under the sun,” which is a phrase that is used 29 times in this book and nowhere else in the Old Testament. Life is indeed meaningless if it is only lived from the perspective of “under the sun,” living only for the present, filling our lives with activities as if this was the only life that mattered. It is a view of life without any reference to God. In these opening verses, the preacher lays a foundation for focusing our attention on a God-centered life by presenting us with a devastating critique of every form of human secularism.
Even the folly of a work ethic, if making money and accumulating possessions is the only end in sight, is seen as bringing no ultimate sense of satisfaction. An earth-bound perspective will never bring a sense of purpose and meaning to the daily activities of life. In verse 4, he continues by suggesting that the fleeting nature of life, which is so transitory, indicates that no matter how long our human life may appear to be when it ends, it is gone and forgotten. The world continues to revolve around the sun, the seasons come and go but human life perishes. As we will see, the book is not entirely pessimistic and occasionally the preacher introduces other themes such as the generosity of God in providence, which doesn’t obliterate a sense of futility but helps humanity to see life from the wider perspective of God and eternity. It is only when we come to know God as the eternal one who enters into our human situation as Savior that we discover a sense of meaning to life.
Is Life Wearing You Down? (1:8–11)
The chapter takes a slightly different turn in these verses by introducing the theme of boredom and weariness with the humdrum nature of life. No matter how much we may travel to visit new places, view new sights, listen to music, watch television and enjoy glorious scenery when life returns to the normal day by day activities of work and home, a sense of meaninglessness often sets in. The modern consumerism of the 21st century merely adds to the frustration that the preacher felt in his context, because although we have been able to fill our lives with more things, more experiences, more distractions, the end result of living without any reference to God is frustration.
Furthermore the quest for fame and renown is brought under scrutiny. As human beings, we often strive to achieve something in life that will be remembered long after we have died. Many people give money toward noble ends, ensuring that their names are attached to memorials. Yet if this is done without any reference to God, then it is meaningless. The only true goal of history is to seek the renown of God, the honor of His name, the extension of His Kingdom. To do anything else is to follow the example of those who constructed the Tower of Babel to “make a name for themselves” (Gen. 11:4) rather than hearing the promise of God to Abraham, “I will make your name great” (Gen. 12:2).
What Is the Answer? (12:13–14)
It is only at the conclusion of this book that we have a hint of a different way of looking at life. Rather than seeing everything “under the sun,” we are encouraged to “fear God and keep His commandments.” This does mean that we gain salvation by the things that we do but rather that entering into a relationship with God, which is characterized by adoration, loving reverence and obedience, will help us to live, not for ourselves but for the sake of others.
The final challenge of this chapter is to consider what really matters. The estimation of our lives that we should ultimately be concerned about is not what others think about us or what eulogies are given at our funerals but what will be revealed on the day of ultimate judgment. Solomon reminds us that on that day, “God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or bad.”
When He shall come with trumpet sound,
Oh may I then in Him be found.
Dressed in His righteousness alone,
Faultless to stand before the throne.