I have been studying the book of Ecclesiastes recently – not a book for the faint of heart.
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.” (1:2)
The book is worth studying though, both for the meandering search for meaning conducted by the Teacher and for the overall message of the narrator who introduces the Teacher and then wraps up the book at the end with his own conclusion. The Teacher is a wise man, yet he has come to view everything, including wisdom as meaningless.
I thought, “Wisdom is better than foolishness, just as light is better than darkness. For the wise can see where they are going, but fools walk in the dark.” Yet I saw that the wise and the foolish share the same fate. Both will die. So I said to myself, “Since I will end up the same as the fool, what’s the value of all my wisdom? This is all so meaningless!” (2:13-15)
Tremper Longman III has written a number of books on the Wisdom Literature in the Old Testament, including two commentaries on Ecclesiastes (The Book of Ecclesiastes, NICOT and Ecclesiastes in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary). He also digs into the book as part of his exploration of Wisdom in Israel in the new book The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom. Longman finds two voices in the book of Ecclesiastes. The Teacher (or Qohelet) is the one we often focus on. He concludes that life is meaningless because everyone suffers the same fate in the end. All die. Work, pleasure, money, power, wisdom – meaning is found in none of these. Not only that, it is even meaningless to be too righteous. God doesn’t seem present to his people. In fact, he appears to be rather capricious.
Don’t make rash promises, and don’t be hasty in bringing matters before God. After all, God is in heaven, and you are here on earth. So let your words be few. (5:2)
Even though the actions of godly and wise people are in God’s hands, no one knows whether God will show them favor. The same destiny ultimately awaits everyone, whether righteous or wicked, good or bad, ceremonially clean or unclean, religious or irreligious. Good people receive the same treatment as sinners, and people who make promises to God are treated like people who don’t. It seems so wrong that everyone under the sun suffers the same fate. (9:1-3)
Not only do all suffer the same fate in the end, justice in this life is elusive. God does not rule the world according to the retribution principle.
When a crime is not punished quickly, people feel it is safe to do wrong. … And this is not all that is meaningless in our world. In this life, good people are often treated as though they were wicked, and wicked people are often treated as though they were good. This is so meaningless! (8:11,14)
Accidents hit anyone anywhere, without any real sense of justice. Oppression goes unpunished. We all suffer the same fate.
Given this the teacher offers advice (and often the advice is worth heading) but ultimately the only thing he has to offer is this (and four other similar passages):
So I saw that there is nothing better for people than to be happy in their work. That is our lot in life. And no one can bring us back to see what happens after we die. (3:22)
So I recommend having fun, because there is nothing better for people in this world than to eat, drink, and enjoy life. That way they will experience some happiness along with all the hard work God gives them under the sun. (8:15)
Longman suggests that the Teacher is a confused wise man. He is confused because he knows the way things ought to work under God’s rule, but he sees that this is not the way the real world is … under the sun. The ultimate message of the book comes not from the Teacher, but from the narrator and the lesson with which he leaves his son.
But, my son, let me give you some further advice: Be careful, for writing books is endless, and much study wears you out.
That’s the whole story. Here now is my final conclusion: Fear God and obey his commands, for this is everyone’s duty. God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad. (12:12-14)
The Teacher was led astray by his studying and his search for meaning. We rest in the confidence that God will judge the world. Longman suggests that the date of Ecclesiastes is late – after the return from exile. The people were wrestling with the justice of God and his time and way in the world. They were also coming to the understanding of New Creation a future resurrection and judgment – concepts developed much more completely in the New Testament. The Narrator (or second wise man) offers the conclusion that the “under the sun” search by the Teacher is, indeed, futile. But we still need to fear God. In The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom, Longman notes:
His admonition to “fear God” teaches us to establish a right relationship with God characterized by fear. The son/we (the readers) are to “keep his [God’s] commands” and so are to maintain that relationship through obedience. Finally, the reader is to live in light of the future judgment. (p. 41)
The message of the book of Ecclesiastes, like the message of the book of Job, does not some from the exploration of the Teacher (or of Job and his friends). The message of the book is in the conclusion. Only in the light of this message will we make sense of the bulk of the book – learning where human wisdom fails and God’s wisdom will ultimately prevail.
Without the resurrection, the Teacher is quite right. Ultimately everything is meaningless, we may as well eat, drink and enjoy what little pleasure is available being neither too righteous or too wicked, too wise or too foolish.
Advent brings meaning to life ultimately through the incarnation, resurrection and New Creation.
Is life meaningless?
What gives life meaning?
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