Ecclesiastes: Is Life Really Meaningless?

One of the subjects I used to teach at Wycliffe College was preaching. And one thing I would ask the students as they were preparing to preach in class was to come up with a single phrase or sentence that summarised what the sermon is about. It was a good safeguard against rambling all over the map! So with this sermon, I should practice what I preached—or what I said about preaching—and tell you what I think it’s about. The theme is this: “Life is meaningless without Jesus Christ.” That’s pretty bold, pretty blunt, isn’t it? But that’s it: “Life is meaningless without Jesus Christ.” And we’re going to look at how the Book of Ecclesiastes sheds light on that topic.

Now Ecclesiastes is a difficult book—I discovered that after I said I would preach on it!—and some of its problems come up before you get beyond the first two verses. So we need to spend a minute or two clearing the undergrowth before we get into the meat of the book.

  • For example, who wrote Ecclesiastes? It says, “The words of the teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem,” which would be Solomon, but some scholars make a good case that that’s just the writer taking on the persona of Solomon.  The writer calls himself by a strange Hebrew word Qoheleth, which can mean Teacher or Preacher. One scholar suggests it can be translated Collector (someone who has collected insights about life and human nature), or even Seeker (someone looking for answers). The Message calls him the Quester.  I’m just going to call him Q, short for Qoheleth. So that’s one question.
  • And a second question is: what the heck is “vanity”? This is a word you’ll come across a lot (around thirty times) in Ecclesiastes. Apart from anything else, the book starts and finishes with it—which is a subtle clue that this is what the book is about! “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” But what does it mean? It’s not what we mean, which is kind of self-centred, even narcissistic—vanity plates, vanity publishing,  a vanity mirror.

But it’s not easy to find a better word. Even the Hebrew word has several meanings—a breath, a vapor, transience, emptiness, futility—so it’s difficult to find one equivalent word in English. Let me give you an idea of the range of words translators have used:  NIV uses “meaningless.” The Living Bible uses the word “futility.” The Good News Bible says “useless.” The Complete Jewish Bible chooses “Pointless.” The Bible in Basic English “All is to no purpose.” The Contemporary English Version says “Nonsense.” The Voice translation says, “like a passing mist.” And The Message says, “Smoke, nothing but smoke.”  You get the general idea!

  • A third question would be: why was this book written? It’s not obvious. After all, why bother to write a book about futility, nonsense, and meaninglessness? Isn’t it an exercise in . . . futility? Some think perhaps Q is having an argument with himself: one day he finds himself thinking life is futile, then the next he is struck by how wonderful life is and feels grateful, and he goes back and forth. Some think he is writing it for an unbelieving (perhaps an atheist) friend, and saying, Look, I respect your atheism, but if you don’t believe in God, you’ve got to face the fact that life is pretty bleak. As someone said, You can’t dance to atheism. That would make Ecclesiastes a critique of secularism. But really, it doesn’t make a lot of difference whether he’s arguing with himself or with someone else.

Having said he goes back and forth between meaninglessness and pleasure, it would be nice to say he starts pessimistic but ends up optimistic, that in the end the clouds give way to sunshine—goodness and God win out over futility. But it’s not that straightforward. They alternate through most of the book without coming down clearly on one side or the other—and the end Q gives us is Vanity, vanity, all is vanity—again.

The reality of meaninglessness

So let’s get into the book itself. We can’t go through it in detail, so I’m just going to pull out some of the themes. I’ll start with three reasons that make Q feel everything is futile.

The first is the fact that life goes around and around, and never seems to get anywhere.

(a) The ceaseless round

A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    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.
All things are wearisome;
    more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
    or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun.

Are you depressed yet? If not, here’s a second reason:

(b) nothing satisfies for very long:

2 I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself.’ But again, this also was vanity. . . . I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself; 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. . . . I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and of the provinces; I got singers, both men and women, and delights of the flesh, and many concubines. . . . Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure . . . Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

And the third reason he finds life meaningless is the most important of all: the reality of death:

(c) death

2 14 The wise have eyes in their head, but fools walk in darkness. Yet I perceived that the same fate befalls all of them. 15 Then I said to myself, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also; why then have I been so very wise?’ And I said to myself that this also is vanity. 16 For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools? 17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.

It would make a difference if he thought there was life after death. But he doesn’t know:

3.19-21 The fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same: as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over animals, for all is vanity.  All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again. Who knows whether the human spirit goes upwards and the spirit of animals goes downwards to the earth?

So death is the ultimate evil. It calls into question the value of everything else—wisdom, accomplishments, pleasure. Indeed, there are days when Q feels negative enough that he thinks death is preferable to life:

4.2-3 I thought the dead, who have already died, more fortunate than the living, who are still alive;but better than both is the one who has not yet been, and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.

He doesn’t say anything about suicide, but you can see how this trajectory of thinking—life has no meaning, and death is better than life—might push him in that direction.

How do we feel about this stuff being in the Bible? There’s not much that’s good or encouraging about it, is there? I think it’s there because it is the experience of many people—this is what life is like if there is no God. It’s as if God says, I know, I know. See, I even put it in my book so you wouldn’t think you were on your own in thinking and feeling this way.

Now, it’s strange thing, and you might think it’s inconsistent, but amid the gloom, there are shafts of light, there are times when Q appreciates the simple joys of life.

5: 18 This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot. 19 Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil—this is the gift of God. 20 For they will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joy of their hearts.

8: 15 So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun.

9.7 Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun.

Who is this? Is this our nihilistic, negative Q we’ve just been listening to? Where did he go all of a sudden? But my atheist friends would endorse most of what he says here. Life is good, there are beautiful things and pleasurable things. Atheists enjoy music, and friends, and good wine, and sunsets. Of course.  Don’t tell me atheists are miserable all the time. Most are not. And those are legitimate distractions from the gloom that lies behind them. But there’s a little word Q introduces into each of these passages. Did you notice it? The little word “God.” These things, says Q, are the gift of God, God approves these things, it is God who gives them the joy of their hearts. After all, as C.S.Lewis says in The Screwtape Letters, God is the great Hedonist.

Out at sea, out in His sea, there is pleasure, and more pleasure. He makes no secret of it; at His right hand are “pleasures for evermore.”. . . He has filled His world full of pleasures. There are things for humans to do all day long without His minding in the least—sleeping, washing, eating, drinking, making love, playing, praying, working.

If Q is really writing for his atheist friend, I think his argument this far is: (a) life is meaningless (b) but there are lovely things to enjoy in this world. How do you reconcile these things? Why does this contradiction even exist? How can there be meaningful things in a meaningless world? (c) Might these things be a clue to the existence of God? Might God be trying to get your attention through beauty and pleasure?

What Can We Know?

There are a few places where Q says, in effect, we don’t know much about God. We know God is a creator who gives good gifts; we know that in the end God will judge all of us. But he’s agnostic about the rest:

3:11 he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.

8:17 then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out.

11.5 Just as you do not know how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who makes everything.

And the phrase that Q repeats, “under the sun” is significant: he’s talking about what he can see and touch and experience under the sun, the observable physical world. But what about the rest? The Old Testament doesn’t go much beyond this. But that’s not the whole story: there’s only so much we can know about God from looking at the world “under the sun.” Maybe God has some other things to tell us.

When I was at seminary, I remember my Old Testament professor saying one day, “Bible publishers may be very good publishers, but they are not necessarily good theologians. Look at the end of Malachi, and what do you find?” We all looked surprised, because—well, isn’t it normal?—there was a blank white page. So what? It divides the Old Testament from the New. “That page shouldn’t be there!” said the prof. “Tear it out. The Bible is one book, not two!” So, with a strange mixture of feeling mischievous and virtuous at the same time, all over the classroom there was the sound of seminarians ripping pages out of their Bibles. I still have that Bible today. And I still think the professor was right. Let me show you what I mean. If we move from the Old Testament to the New, we find:

Jesus’ Answers to Q

Now Jesus has come we know far more about God, and we can say for definite that what Q wrote is not the whole truth. It is true, but it needs to be put into a much bigger context. Listen:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. Hebrews 1:1-3

And what do we learn from Jesus that Q didn’t know? God is much more than a giver of good gifts and a judge—though he is those things. God is also a lover, God delights in us, God has come to our world to rescue us. And the God we meet in Jesus is in the process of creating a new world—new people, a new community, a new everything—a world where all sin and suffering—not to mention Q’s futility and meaninglessness—are done away with. That’s huge.

Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death [and futility] came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. . . . The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 1 Corinthians 15:20-26

I will let C.S. Lewis comment on that:

In the earliest days of Christianity . . . to preach Christianity meant primarily to preach the Resurrection. . . . Christ has forced open a door that has been locked since the death of the first man. He has met, fought, and beaten the King of Death. Everything is different because he has done so. This is the beginning of the New Creation: a new chapter in cosmic history has opened. . . . What the apostles thought they had seen was . . . the first movement of a great wheel beginning to turn in the direction opposite to that which all men hitherto had observed.  Miracles

Q had seen the wheel turning relentlessly one way: death always wins in the end, and that casts a backwards shadow over all of life, even its sweetest pleasures. But now death has been defeated: the wheel is beginning to turn the other way. Or put it like this: If you stand at the door of the empty tomb and look out, the whole world looks different. The shadow has gone. You can enjoy the good things of life without always fearing that death is going to make it all meaningless. Death still exists, but it is not the fearsome monster it was before Jesus.

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Romans 8:18-23

Did you notice the word futility in there? The New Testament doesn’t deny that futility is real, nor does it say that we won’t experience the feeling of futility any more. But it does say futility is not out of control and it doesn’t have a life of its own. It’s part of the plan of God—and when you think about it that makes sense. If we turn away from God who is the source of life, then death comes in, and futility results—as Q knows all too well. How could it be otherwise?

But meaninglessness doesn’t have the last word any more. If futility is related to death, and Jesus has conquered death, that’s a game-changer.  Now things like work, and pleasure, and love, and beauty, are gifts to be enjoyed with God and for God. And those things we give our time to no longer end with death, but find their rightful place in this new creation God is working on.

Not everything has been put to rights yet. That’s why creation longs with eager longing. That’s why creation hopes to be set free from bondage to decay. But—and this is the point—God is at work, and the work of redeeming the whole creation will one day be brought to completion.  

What is Christianity’s answer to Q? And to Q’s atheist friend?

  • Your experience of futility is real. Death really does cast a dark shadow over everything. But it is not meant to be that way.
  • Jesus Christ came in love to redeem all things by his life, death and resurrection.
  • He gives meaning to the good and beautiful things of life.
  • He is with us through the dark times. He has known them themself, even the deepest darkness of “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
  • But he gives hope that in the end “all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” We have his word on it

St Clair Community Church, Hamilton ON, July 22 2018