Meditations of Old Testament Highlights: 30. Ecclesiastes (1)
Eccles 1:2 Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.
If we had difficulties with Psalms and then bigger difficulties with Proverbs, in choosing ‘highlight verses’, when it comes to Ecclesiastes, it is even worse. This is a book that is considered by many to be utterly dry and arid and yet I have to confess it is one of my most favourite books in the Old Testament, in that it speaks so clearly and vividly to modern materialistic people who are so often so intent on obtaining ‘things’ or having ‘experiences’. I have no doubt that it was written by Solomon – for who else could speak about wisdom as the one gifted by God with wisdom and known worldwide for it and for his incredible achievements and riches (1 Kings 10:6,7) – but as it so often uses the phrase, ‘under the sun’, it has an earthly perspective with only few godly remarks and seems to come from a man in the latter part of his life with a jaded outlook, exactly what you would expect from a man who has so fallen off the rails and rebuked by God (see 1 Kings 11:1-13). And yet there are underlying truths here that speak to today.
I much prefer the NIV’s ‘Meaningless’ to the ‘Vanity’ used my some other modern versions. It comes up 35 times in the book. Vanity is good in that it points out our human folly in relying upon so many of the things covered by this book, but ‘Meaningless’ seems to me to be much wider, and much more embracing of so much that is done by godless, self-centred mankind. Perhaps rather than try and pick up on one or two verses, we might profit from noting the things that the writer of Ecclesiastes says are meaningless. We’ll see how far we can get.
First of all – everything! (v.2) “Everything is meaningless”. Well if that is not a jaded, all embracing condemnation of human life, I don’t know what is – and I don’t agree with it; that is the jaded mind, losing contact with God, speaking. In verses 3 to 11 of chapter 1 he seeks to put content to this condemnation. Lives come, lives go, days come, days go, there is “nothing new under the sun” (v.9), it’s the same old, same old; what people say or do today has been said or done before. Tedium or “wearisome” (v.8).
Second, he has studied and considered all things (1:12) but its all seemed meaningless. Third, he thought he would check out every sort of pleasure he could find, but that too was a meaningless exercise (2:1) Fourth, he undertook great projects, but at the end of it all, it still seemed a meaningless exercise (2:4-11). Fifth, he considered the merits of having wisdom as against folly, but that exercise too seemed meaningless (2:12-16). Sixth, he considered the work he had done, and the effort he had expended and the anxieties he had experienced in it all, and realised he would have to leave the results to someone else when he died so it all seemed pretty meaningless activity (2:17-26)
Yet at the end of that comes his first comment in respect of God: “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” (v.24,25) i.e. take God out of the work equation and it is a chasing after nothing. With God there is the hope of “wisdom, knowledge and happiness” (v.26)
There is a rhythm to life, that he acknowledges (3:1-8) and God has made everything beautiful and even put a sense of eternity in the hearts of mankind (3:11) but you can’t add to anything God has made (3:14) so just get on with your life and do good (3:12) and work and enjoy it (3:13), recognising God’s sovereignty (3:14c) recognising we will all be answerable to Him (3:16,17)
But then, seventh, he realises that we all die – just like animals, and that seems meaningless, that death is the end for all (3:18-21), so just get on and enjoy your work while you are still here (3:22). And then, eighth, he looks at the world and sees so much oppression (4:1-3) and sees that so much work is motivated by envy which makes it meaningless (4:4-8). Relationships can be tricky, but we need support from one another (4:9-12) but ninth, watching the rise and falls of leaders, politicians and kings, all of that is meaningless activity (4:13-16).
Be honest with yourself and with God when you approach Him, and keep your promises to Him (5:1) and tenth, don’t rely on false dreams and just uttering many words before God because He will see through them, and so that makes them meaningless (5:2-7). Watch out for corruption in public life (5:8,9) and eleventh, beware making money and affluence the foundation of your life (5:10) for that is meaningless because a life of graft is folly, because you can’t take it with you (5:11-17) Conclusion? Yes, being able to be happy and content in your work, as given by God, is the best path (5:18-20)
This grabbing after wealth is a deception. Twelfth, you may earn a lot but not be able to enjoy it (6:1,2). You can have a great family and much wealth but unless you can enjoy them it is all meaningless (6:3-6). In fact, thirteenth, when it comes to your appetite you can eat and eat but never be satisfied (6:7-9). Meaningless! What is yet to come is unknown (6:10-12) and, fourteenth, a life of false values – trusting only in laughter and failing to see the values and lessons of sorrow is equally meaningless (7:1-6). Understanding the true values of life is important – wisdom heeds the rebuke of a wise person, but refuses the folly of godless comedians (7:5,6). Don’t look to the past as better than today (7:10), just get wisdom (7:11,12) and remember the good and the bad in this fallen world, are all ultimately the gift of God (7.13,14) and realise that because it is a fallen world, fifteenth, it may appear meaningless when the righteous fall and the sinner flourishes (7:15-22) but we are all imperfect and (implied) it is only by the grace and mercy of God will we get to heaven.
And so it goes on but time and space stop us going further. But the lessons are clear and as you read through this book they are like the waves on the shore coming in one after another, and there are plenty more waves in the remaining chapters. So what do these lessons say? Well, take God out of the equation of life and you are left with a materialistic world where people with a whole raft of self-centred and godless mixed motives, struggle with live, trying to make meaning by achievement, trying to obtain fame and fortune. Some appear to make it, but so often at a high cost. So often the lives of the rich and the famous do not stand up to scrutiny.
Over recent years, I have taken a new interest in history, and whether it is writers or painters, money-makers or politicians – or royalty – the landscape is littered by messed up lives. So called famous poets or painters leave a trail of illegitimate children and abandoned lovers. So called celebrities go through marriages like new cars, a new one every couple of years. Trying to achieve great things is only folly when you are godless. That is the lesson of Ecclesiastes. In modern parlance, Solomon would say, “You name it, I’ve been there, done it and got the tee shirt – five times over – and without God it was a total waste of time! If you refuse God, then try for wisdom and contentment and fulfillment in work – but in all those you will be short-changed without Him!” And he knew what he was talking about!