This is the first in an intermittent series I am starting on those books and texts in the Bible we sometimes find difficult, disturbing, or indigestible.
I HAVE NEVER HEARD A SERMON PREACHED ON THE BOOK OF ECCLESIASTES, save for one not very good one of my own I delivered years ago. I have never attended or even seen a Sunday School class devoted to Ecclesiastes, or a Church Conference, or neighborhood Bible study. I’ve never read a best-selling Christian book devoted to Ecclesiastes or anything like “Seven [or Ten or Twelve] Secret Keys from Ecclesiastes for Living Your Best Life Now”. I am persuaded that most Christians have never read the book, and even fewer understand it. Yet Ecclesiastes is attributed to a man reported to have “wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore” who was “wiser than any other man”, who wrote proverbs and songs and was an expert naturalist (1 Kings 4:29-33). Even allowing for the obvious literary hyperbole, and maybe a little royal PR, this seems like a man who might have something more valuable than gold to share with us (Proverbs 3:14). His book of tweets—they were called “proverbs” back then, but many are 140 characters or less—is legendary for its pithiness, insight, and relevant application. His book on romance and sex, not surprisingly, is always a favorite. So why the neglect of Ecclesiastes?
MAYBE BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO WONDER ABOUT A BOOK THAT BEGINS WITH, “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’, says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless’” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). The Hebrew word translated “meaningless” is hebel, which literally means “breath” or “vapor”. It is used metaphorically to convey the ideas of futility, fleetingness, emptiness, absurdity, and other related concepts you will never find in any book or lecture on the power of positive thinking. It’s almost like Qoheleth—the Hebrew for “Teacher” in verse 1—is trying to put us off, to make us think carefully about reading any further. Leave your illusions behind, you’re in for a rough ride. He then takes a wrecking ball to everything in this transitory life we think will give us lasting fulfillment or meaning: work, achievement, education, career advancement, wealth, pleasure, sex; you name it. They are all hebel; vaporous, empty, futile, pointless, absurd, chasing after the wind, meaningless. But wait! He’s not done yet! Not only is everything we do ultimately hebel, but along the way, all the time, despite our best efforts, we are all subject to chance, accident, and random acts of absurdity:
AND WHY? Because all of this is “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:3; 2:11, 2; 3:16; 4:7, 15; 5:18; 6:12; 8:9; 9:3, 6, 9, 11, 13)—sub specie temporalis; from the perspective of temporality, beneath the heavy hand of time, and time is always running out. Finally Death takes all and erases all meaning from the merely earthly and temporal—“All come from dust, and to dust all return” (Ecclesiastes 3:20); “Death is the destiny of every man; the living should take this to heart” (Ecclesiastes 7:2).
HARD UNHAPPY TRUTHS. But that’s just it, they really are truths. And we so much wish to avoid them that the wisest man who ever lived felt the need to remind us of them over and over again—“All we do crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see; Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind”, as the 70s rock band Kansas put it in their contemporized version of Ecclesiastes, “Dust in the Wind”. Solomon—Qoheleth, the Teacher—must tear down our fondest delusions, demolish every false road to meaning. Because meaning is what we are all looking for; true and eternal meaning.
Psychiatrist and Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl built his approach to counseling and therapy on the conviction that what really drives people is not the “will to power” as Nietzsche preached, or a “pleasure principle” as Freud concluded: “Man’s search for meaning is the primary motivation in his life” (from Man’s Search for Meaning). I think Frankl is right about what motivates us and I think his approach is good, as far as it goes. He even recognizes that one primary way to discover meaning is by “encountering someone” and loving them. But this is not just one way; it is the only way to find real meaning; lasting meaning; eternal meaning. And not just any encounter, and not just any “someone”. Everlasting meaning requires a relationship with the everlasting God. Meaning cannot be wrested by our own efforts from the flux and flow of unredeemed time. We cannot lay hold of final fulfillment. We cannot grasp eternity. We receive meaning as a transcendent gift from God—sub specie aeternitatis, from the perspective of eternity—or we do not gain it at all.
SOLOMON, AT THE LAST, RECOGNIZES AND REMINDS US OF THIS: “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the years of trouble come” (Ecclesiastes 12:1); “Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments” (Ecclesiastes 1:13). And if it seems almost an afterthought, it’s because Ecclesiastes is the antechamber of meaning, a necessary demolition of our delusions. It is the Bad News that prepares the seeker for the Good News, and a continual reminder even to the redeemed that we can never make meaning, we can only receive it as a gift.