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Ecclesiastes and the Meaning of Life

9th March 2013

The book of Ecclesiastes contains “The words of the Teacher, son of David, king of Jerusalem”. It’s been traditionally understood that this author is King Solomon, and that makes sense to me. Ecclesiastes is too deep for me to grasp fully, but I still find it speaks powerfully to me. Solomon begins with these words, perhaps best read as poetry:

Ecclesiastes 1:2-9
"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher.
"Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless."
What does man gain from all his labour
at which he toils under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains for ever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Wow. Have you ever spent an evening in the pub with someone who talks like this? Or sat across the dinner table from someone who just went on and on about how meaningless his life is? They’re not great company. But this man was preaching, saying something inspired by God and of great importance for us.

Was Solomon the preacher (NIV “teacher”) depressed? Maybe. Anyway, it seems he was approaching the end of a long, eventful, luxurious life and was discovering with hindsight how empty it had been. I suspect many older people look back on their lives and wonder what it all meant, what it really achieved, what was the point? Whatever a fulfilled, meaningful life is, Solomon hadn’t had one. He says:

Ecclesiastes 1:14
I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Some seek solace in alcohol, or humour. Many imagine that a fulfilled life is a life of pleasure, or one of achievement, or wealth, or self-indulgence. But Solomon says:

Ecclesiastes 2:3-11
I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly — my mind still guiding me with wisdom.
I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives. I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. 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. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces.I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well — the delights of the heart of man. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me. I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labour.
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.

It was all waste of time! All the great projects and all the delights of the heart of man were meaningless. There’s so much more to life than just making it pass pleasantly. And there's so much more than completing project after project. There’s a hunger in every human soul for something more. And that something is God. The tragedy of Solomon’s life is that he knew this, but he didn’t live accordingly. He says:

Ecclesiastes 2:24-26
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? To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

To ask “What is the meaning of life?” has become something of a cliché, almost a joke. And that demonstrates how little modern man expects life to have much meaning. Solomon discovered at last that life can only be fulfilling when lived in relationship with God, “for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” All the wine, food, pleasure, money and achievement in the world are ultimately meaningless and unfulfilling without God. But if we have a right relationship with God – if we please Him – then we can enjoy our food and drink and work, and we can gain wisdom, knowledge and happiness. How many people hate their job? But a person in right relationship with God will “find satisfaction in his work”. Man was never intended to live without God, and life without God is as pointless as chasing after the wind.

If the key word in Ecclesiastes is “meaningless”, I think perhaps the key phrase is “under the sun”. This phrase occurs 29 times in the Bible, and every one of them is in Ecclesiastes. When Solomon uses it, I think he means “without relationship with God”. When Solomon asks “What does man gain from all his labour at which he toils under the sun?” or says “there is nothing new under the sun” or “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”, he’s saying that if there is no God, or if there is a God but we don’t know Him, then life is meaningless.

God doesn’t just give us purpose; God is our purpose.

As the first question in the Westminster Catechism says:

Question 1: What is the chief and highest end of man?
Answer: Man's chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.