Category Archives: Ecclesiastes

The Meaning of Meaninglessness

Here’s a special treat.  In the last several posts we have chewed on Ecclesiastes, but how can we scoop its message all together?  It seems so full of contradictions – just like you!  Scholars have tried for centuries to make sense of it.  But, Ecclesiastes is about real life, real life that throws curve balls.  Recently, my son sent me a wonderful You Tube about Ecclesiastes.  These guys really get it.  I couldn’t summarize the book any better.  Check it out.  But do yourself a favor and wait for a moment when you can really watch and listen.  It begins with a short Hebrew song and then goes way deep.   Click HERE.

But wait, there’s more!  No, not steak knives…    This same group produced a beautiful song based on the teachings of Ecclesiastes.  You’ll find it HERE.

And, If you missed this short series, the first one is found HERE.

Grace and peace.

Seasons

If you want to write a hit song for Millennials, here’s how (that is, according to a joke I saw recently):  First you start with some banjo.  Then all the musicians shout “Hey!”   The body of the song should contain complaints about life by Millennials.  Then another “Hey!”  Finish with a bit more banjo, played faster and fading out.  Like any good joke, it’s an exaggeration based on a bit of truth.  And the truth is, young people tend to complain when things aren’t going the way they hoped.  And write songs about it.  It’s not just Millennials.  My generation did it back in the 60’s.  “I’m just a man of constant sorrow. I’ve seen trouble all my days.”  We sang that with earnest looks, even though our “days” were just getting started.

But, spend time with an old farmer, someone who has struggled through the ups and downs of a tough life, and you’re much more apt to hear a fiddle tune than a bunch of complaining.  The farmers I have known are well acquainted with the fact that life ebbs and flows through good times and bad, and that complaining only makes it worse.  In fairness to Millennials, their generation is also known for a desire to “keep it real.” And in time, by “keeping it real,” they will be known for patient acceptance of life’s various seasons.  Because those seasons are real.

Perhaps the most famous section of Ecclesiastes are these next verses.

1 There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
2 a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
3 a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
4 a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
5 a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
6 a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
7 a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
8 a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace

(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

Try to identify exactly which of these seasons you have experienced and when.  Call to mind any of the ways you experienced God’s influence and care during them.

A Reminder

Why do people whisper in an art museum?  Never could figure that out but suppose it has something to do with awe.  Stand in front of a Rembrandt and somehow you don’t feel like talking.  At least not out loud.  And yet, in most church settings, as people come bopping in, laughing, calling to their friends, there seems to be no sense of awe.  This is nothing new and it is understandable.  You can see a Rembrandt and you can’t see God.  It’s easy to forget where you are and what you are doing.

But God is here.  Not just in church, but here, with us as we go through life.  And when we pause, to talk things over with Him, here’s a reminder from Ecclesiastes:

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.  Do not be quick with your mouth,
do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.  (Ecclesiastes 5:1-2)

There’s a great scene in the movie, Papa, where a cub reporter, who idolizes Ernest Hemingway, and has sent him a fan letter, answers the phone and discovers it is his hero calling.  Once he’s gone through the “Who is this really?” routine and knows it really is Hemingway on the phone, suddenly he can hardly form a single word, much less a sentence.  That’s the idea here.

That is why I cringe when I hear someone say, “Well, I guess we better start with a quick word of prayer.”  Or, “Ralph, would you say the blessing?”   If we could open our eyes to see Jesus, Himself, seated in the meeting or at the table, such lines would seem insulting.  Like, “Before we tell you what we think you should do, God, we’re just going to say a few religious sounding words to kind of set the right tone…”

If we are in our right minds, we fear God.  This means treating Him with appropriate reverence, respect and a willingness to let Him call the shots.  It means recognizing He is God and we are not, not even close.  There is no more important setting for the fear of God than when we are about to address Him and listen.

Joy and Fear

Maybe the man was schizo.  Or confused. When he wrote Ecclesiastes, he said:

Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God.  (Ecclesiastes 5:19)

And he also wrote:

Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandmentsfor this is the duty of all mankind.  (Ecclesiastes 12:13)

 Which is it?  Should we enjoy God’s generous gifts or fear Him?  It’s both, but let me explain.  To “fear” means to treat someone with great reverence or respect, paying careful attention to his desires or commands.  Can you do that with God, while simultaneously enjoying His gifts?   Here is a fantasy illustrating how to do both – fear and enjoy.

Let’s say my guitar hero, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, invites me to his home.  I’m in shocked disbelief and show up, quivering with excitement.  He welcomes me in, shows me around, and then we discuss guitar picking.  We jam a little and he teaches me a few of his trademark licks. Then, as I am about to leave, be asks if I would be willing to take his prize acoustic guitar and take care of it for him.  He said, “I want you to play it regularly, but there’s a few things you’ll need to be very careful about.” Perhaps you can imagine how astonished, delighted and thrilled I’d be for such an opportunity.  Stunned by his generosity.  And extremely careful to follow his instructions.  I would fearfully enjoy his gift until such time as he decided to take it back.  That’s what Ecclesiastes teaches should be out attitude toward God with respect to His gift of life.

Life and Death

Everybody dies.  So, if death makes life seem pointless (see Vantage Advantage), how does adopting God’s way of seeing reality change the inevitable?  Putting it in blunt terms, how can we “receive life as a gift from a generous God,” if we know He will one day yank it back?  Isn’t that view of life just a crutch for those who can’t face the hard truth about dying?

It would be, except for this.  God made a promise about death in Scripture.

In that day he will remove the cloud of gloom, the shadow of death that hangs over the earth.  He will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign LORD will wipe away all tears. He will remove forever all insults and mockery against his land and people. The LORD has spoken!  (Isaiah 25:7-8)

Death seems certain when life is viewed “under the sun.” But for those who adopt God’s perspective, death will certainly be eliminated.  Oh yeah?  When will that happen, you ask?  It already has!  When Jesus was comforting His friend after the death of her brother,

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”  (John 11:25 -26)

It sounds too good to be true, a get out of death free card.  But, if you are struggling to accept what He said, consider this:

  • Jesus is universally regarded as at least the best man to have ever lived.
  • Would such a man lie to His good friend in her time of grief?  No way.

Another time, as He explained eternal life to His disciples, Jesus said He wasn’t lying:

“… If it were not so, I would have told you.”  (John 14:2b)

Here’s the deal:

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.   (John 3:16-17)

The Quest for Meaning – Part 3

Being Elvis was not enough.  He needed more.  Why?  You might think singing for a living would be satisfying.  Throw in vast wealth, Graceland, being known as “the King” and worshiped around the world would pretty much cover all your needs.  But all that was not enough.  Why not?  Solomon (introduced in Part 1) never met Elvis (so far as we know…. wink, wink…) but he applied himself to figure it out.  There must be a reason we humans work so hard to achieve money, fame, power, pleasure, success – you name it – and when we do, we discover those things don’t satisfy.

He didn’t just read up on the topic; Solomon held his nose and cannon-balled into the quest.  But nothing he tried was enough.  Wisdom didn’t satisfy:

I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.
18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more knowledge, the more grief  (Ecclesiastes 1:16-18)

Carnal pleasure didn’t satisfy.  His life that would have been the envy of Donald Trump, Hugh Hefner and Bill Gates:

1 I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. 2 “Laughter,” I said, “is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?” 3 I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives. I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. 5 I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. 6 I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. 7 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. 8 I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart. 9 I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labor,
and this was the reward for all my toil.  (Ecclesiastes 2:1-10)

And yet, none of that was enough:

11 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.  (Ecclesiastes 2:11)

Why is it that none of these things we strive for pay off in a lasting, satisfying way?  You can read ahead in Ecclesiastes to discover what Solomon concluded.  Hint: One is the “D word,” the great equalizer that awaits us all.  The second thing is a matter of having the wrong perspective.  There is a solution.

See you next time…

The Quest for Meaning – Part 2

There is no meaning of life.  That’s the opening assertion in the book of Ecclesiastes.  (If you haven’t read it start with, The Quest for Meaning – Part 1)

“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”  (Ecclesiastes 1:2)

But who is “the Teacher” and what, exactly does he mean?

I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 1:12-15)

Although the book is anonymous, most believe King Solomon is likely the author; certainly he was the “king over Israel in Jerusalem” who fits the best.  You may recall he asked God for, and was granted, extraordinary wisdom.  As King, he had the wealth, power and leisure to really pursue the answer to the meaning of life.

The word translated, meaningless, originally meant vapor or emptiness, something that makes no lasting difference, or something hard to grasp.  It’s a tough word to translate (some use the word, vanity, which is equally awkward) but his phrase, “a chasing after the wind” gives us a pretty clear feel for it.  Donovan sang, “I may as well try and catch the wind,” meaning, it’s utterly pointless.  But is life utterly pointless or meaningless?  Pay close attention to the words underlined above, “under the heavens” and “under the sun.”  He means, when observed from the perspective of mortals stuck here on earth…

…Everything is meaningless.”
3 What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
4 Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
7 All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
8 All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
9 What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
11 No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.  (Ecclesiastes 1:2b-11)

Our first reaction to such pessimism might be to suggest Prozac.  The man is clinically depressed.  We at least want to argue with a few of his conclusions.  But ponder what he said and your reaction to it.  Then, come back in a couple days.  To find meaning, we need a better vantage point.