Book of Ecclesiastes: Is Life Really Meaningless?
Book of Ecclesiastes
This book has two voices. First there's the teacher. He’s the critic. He's the main voice in the book but he is introduced to us by another figure the author and he's the one who's collected the critics words and then at the end of the book summarizes everything and gets the final word.
The Teacher is more like the sharp middle-aged critic and he says, “You think using wisdom will bring you success. You'd better think again because life here under the sun is meaningless.”
That's a phrase used a lot in this book but to understand this book we have to realize first that we're hearing two voices. So why does the author wants to hear from the critic? He wants to turn your view of the world upside down and he's going to let the critic explore three really disturbing things about the world and these are intense.
The first is the march of time. The critic says, “Generations come and generations go but the earth, it's been here long before us and we'll be long after. No one remembers people from long ago and all the people yet to come. They too will be forgotten by those who come after them.”
On a cosmic scale, you and I, we are just blips. Stars are born and then they die. Planets that orbit new stars, well, those planets they change over time and eventually burnt up. The Teacher admits this cosmic backdrop, “My entire existence is like a blink in time.”
This leads to the critic's second disturbing observation that we are all going to die.
Humans face the same fate as the animals. Death, all people, the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, those who offer sacrifices to God and those who do not, they all share the same destiny. All this activity and madness, then we all join the dead.
“And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,” - Hebrews 9:27
This book is depressing. The final disturbing thing for the critic and that is, life is random in nature.
In the book of Proverbs, life isn't random. There's a clear cause-and-effect relationship between doing the right thing and being rewarded. However, the fact is that life doesn't always work that way. The critic has observed a glitch in the system. He calls it, Chance, or in his words, “The race doesn't always go to the Swift nor the battle to the strong nor does food always come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the educated.”
Time and chance happen to them all. His point is that you can't really control anything in life. It's just way too unpredictable. If I want to master life then you're setting yourself up for a fall.
Now throughout the book, the Critic uses a metaphor to tie together all of these disturbing ideas.
Nearly 40 times he says that everything in life is "Hebel". The primary root of this Hebrew word means smoke or vapor. Like smoke, life can be beautiful and mysterious. It takes one shape and before you know it takes a new shape. Smoke looks solid but if you try and grab it, it will slip right through your fingers. When you're stuck in the thick of it, like fog, it's impossible to see clearly.
Now our modern translations usually translate "Hebel" as meaningless but if you read closely the critic isn't just saying that life has no meaning but rather that its meaning is never clear which leads to a sense of meaningless. Like smoke, life is confusing. Because of Sin, humanity see’s life in a fog. That’s why Jesus came. To bring people out of the fog so that we can see life clearly. To see Him clearly.
Because of Sin life is disorienting and uncontrollable. What are we supposed to do with all of this? Surprisingly, the critic first of all acknowledges the perspective of the book of Proverbs. He says it's a really good idea to learn wisdom and to live in the fear of the Lord.
Didn’t he just said that doesn't guarantee success? However, he knows God has given us an inner witness that we all have that God exist. Ecclesiastes 3:11 “…. he has put eternity into man’s heart,” Because of this, it's the right thing to do but secondly and more often he says that since you can't control your life, you should stop trying.
We need to learn to hold things with an open hand because you really only have control over one thing and that's your attitude towards the present moment. Stop worrying and choose to enjoy your Creator, a good conversation with a friends and family or the Sun on your face or a good meal with people that you care about. The simple things in life.
Yes, both the good things and the bad because both are rich gifts from God and that's the surprising wisdom of Ecclesiastes. Listening to the critic is painful and can lead you into some dark places. That's why the author speaks up at the end of the book.
He doesn't want you to lose hope. He wants to make you humble. He wants you to be someone who trusts that life has meaning in God even when you can't make sense of it. He wants you to see that one day God will clear the “Hebel” and bring his peace and carry out justice on all that we've done and so he tells us that the proper response to all of this is to fear the Lord and keep his Commandments.
Because of all the things that we experience in this life there is truly only one clear constant and that is our Creator and His word. For us today this has been revealed to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ.
That's the book of Ecclesiastes.