(Part 3 of a twice-a-month series aimed at teens, twenty-somethings, and old folks like me.)
Reading: Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:11
Help in the Middle of Meaninglessness
Ecclesiastes and I go way back to 1986, when I was 27. Within a two-year span back then, thirteen people in my life died. Among them were a 45-year-old, a 32-year-old, a 31, 27, and 22-year-old, and a 14-year-old. Review that. 45. 32. 31. 27. 22. 14.
I asked “Why?” a lot those days. Every day was a new failed quest for reason and meaning. Maybe that’s why Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes 1:2 hooked me: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity [i.e.-meaningless/futile/pointless].” Things felt pretty meaningless to me then. So the fact that a book of the Bible started with words that said what I was feeling snagged my attention. Human suffering felt pointless and arbitrary—like there was no governing Reason, no Why? behind it all. Stuck in the middle of meaninglessness, I hoped Solomon could help me. And he did.
Ecclesiastes rescued me again years later when our 22-year-old child got cancer. It rescued me when both of my parents died within eleven months, and later when I lost a job I’d held for almost 30 years. It has rescued me throughout 32 years of 24/7/365 headache pain. And it rescues me now, as I battle through months of intense back pain caused by three herniated, and six bulging, discs.
If you’re paying attention, you’re realizing that I’ve had some really hard stuff to face in my life—and I haven’t told you the half of it. And most of the time I haven’t known why. Often it has seemed random, pointless, even unfair. If I focus on the stuff that’s happened, and try to make sense of it, I can’t.
Why You Need Ecclesiastes
Is that you, too? If so, then you need Ecclesiastes. And if it’s not you, give it a minute or two. If you haven’t hit the life-feels-meaningless wall yet, you soon will—and you will need something to lift you over it, or push you through it. Count on it: it’s only a matter of time before your wall appears. Anybody who says otherwise is trying to sell you something.
Someone has said that humans are like confetti—like each life is a randomly torn scrap of human paper lost among seven billion others dumped out over planet earth; all whipped about by unpredictable and unguided gusts of wind, carried who knows where. Torn human fragments pointlessly scattered in all directions. I’m not saying that that’s true. I’m just saying that sometimes it feels true, doesn’t it? And when it does, hoping to create your own meaningful joy out of it all is “…like leaping off a [cliff] and trying to knit yourself a parachute on the way down” (Kelli Jae Baeli). It just doesn’t end well.
If we don’t get some outside (or might I say, upside) help, we’ll get lost in the Cosmos without a clue how to find our way home. We need to know that life—and all it includes—has Creator-defined purpose. Otherwise, life is meaningless; an accidental wisp of air that flutters in the cosmic expanse, and is no more.
Solomon the Secularist
Let’s get back to Solomon. Take another look at today’s reading (Ecc. 1:12-2:11) to see why Solomon was so discouraged by life. He was earthbound, living with his vision stuck “under heaven” and “below the sun”. He was going through a life phase as a secularist. Okay. That’s another unfamiliar word. It comes from a Latin word meaning of this world. There is a certain respect for and enjoyment of this world as God’s wonderful creation that is good. But when we turn secular (an enjoyment of God’s world) into secularism (an obsession with this world with no thought of God, whose world it is) we have a problem.
Secularism thinks only about this world or cosmos. It views life with no connection or commitment to the spiritual, the transcendent, the eternal. It sees only—as Solomon puts it—“under the sun” (Ecc. 1:2, 3, 4, 9, 13, 14); fixating only on what can be seen by the sun’s light, while missing altogether the far brighter Light that is above it all.
Solomon’s Point and Process
Don’t let Solomon’s dismal Ecclesiastes tone fool you. He has a point he wants us to get; which I’ll summarize like this: Even if—in the quest for significance—we could try everything under heaven that there is to try, we would never find our meaning here; for our Maker is our meaning. Re-read that a few times to absorb it.
Accumulate whatever you can, search and study as hard as you can, taste and try as much as you can, party and play whenever you can, and do it all for as long as you can—and you will still never find meaning under the sun.
But how did Solomon come to this conclusion? You should know that he proceeded scientifically. He took a studied scientific trial and error approach to the question of meaning. Instead of simply dismissing earthly things as meaningless, he experimented with them to see if they had meaning; and found them all to fail. His scientific method looked like this:
Trial–Observation–Assessment–Meaninglessness–Reboot–Try again and again and again and again–Final Conclusion
You see: there is a point to talking about all this pointlessness—a final conclusion to it all (Ecc. 12:13). But the author doesn’t leap to that conclusion; he arrives at it methodically. Solomon turns the question of meaning into a research project; a studied evaluation of every under the sun pleasure and treasure there is.
This is what it means when it says he “applied his heart to wisdom” (Ecc. 1:13, 17). He gave himself to serious study through first hand experience. He tried this. He tried that. He tried the next thing. He tried it all. And with each experiment, he observed what happened, assessed the information, saw its meaninglessness—and rebooted. Done with one experiment he moved on to the next, only to find out that everything all ended in the same place. Perhaps if we learn from him, we won’t waste our lives trying all that he tried. Maybe if we learn from him we can jump ahead to the final true conclusion without a lot of futility in the meanwhile. That’ll be our goal in coming posts.
It’s been said that “Speed doesn’t do you any good if you are traveling a vicious circle” (Marty Rubin). That’s a pretty good picture of life today. People are running fast—but getting nowhere. Changing the image a bit: you can run toward the Atlantic Ocean as fast as you can. But if you’re in a train going a hundred miles an hour toward the Pacific, you’re never going to see the East Coast.
Does it feel like your train is speeding up, but you’ve got no sense of which direction you’re going? Dealing with your parents (or teens). Having friends. School. College. Getting straight “A”s. Graduation. Girls. Guys. Looking good. Killing the wardrobe. Career. Money. Parties. Fun. Freedom. Joining a cause. Changing the world! That’s a lot of high-speed stuff.
I recommend that before going any further, you slow down, really see what’s out there, and take aim for the one thing that really matters. Ecclesiastes is God’s WAYS APP for your soul. Make sure it recalibrates you before you take a misguided turn, and end up on the wrong end of the Cosmos.
Things to Think About
- Do you understand the scientific method that Solomon used to study life under the sun and how it can lead to meaning? How did he do it?
- What is secularism? Think about your school or college friends—or what you see in movies and on TV. Do you think it’s accurate to say that most people today are secularists; that they are trying to do life with no real meaningful life-influencing thought about God in the mix? How is that turning out?
- Is your life train speeding up? If you need help finding direction, talk to a mature believer who’s been around for a while.
Spoiler alert: you can find Solomon’s final conclusion to his scientific study in Ecc. 13:12. If you want to jump ahead and see the conclusion, go ahead. But make sure that you listen to his logic and scientific method before drawing your own conclusion, or else it’ll just sound like a bit or religion-talk. And you and I need a lot more than than that to go on.