An indelicate bumper sticker reads “$#*t Happens.” I am not trying to be provocative with this; I am just reporting what we’ve all seen. I think that Qoheleth, the wisdom writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes says it more delicately and robustly, “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’” A group of friends and I recently looked up every reference to “meaningless” in Ecclesiastes. It offered an inescapable negative drumbeat to life—knowledge is meaningless, as is pleasure, success, money, fame, royalty, building an inheritance, work, youth and vigor, death and more! All these are meaningless. Qoheleth (the preacher/teacher) is how the author identifies himself. Many believe the author is Solomon, David’s son.
The pertinent question is this: Is Qoheleth being negative with his repetitive “meaningless” refrain? If so, what good is the Book of Ecclesiastes? Don’t we get enough stories that life is meaningless from the daily news? We have to remember that Qoheleth is writing in the tradition of Jewish wisdom. Here are some givens in his outlook:
1. God is the creator of humanity and of all things (7:27; 11:5; 12:1; 12:7 = Gen 2:7).
2. Human beings experienced a “Fall”–a cracking of the Eikon according to Scot McKnight (7:27; 9:3; rebellion makes humans like “beasts” 3:18). All the order and beauty of creation slide toward chaos and darkness. All creation is fractured.
3. All existence was subjected to meaninglessness as the Book of Ecclesiastes reports. The Hebrew word hebel (pronounced hev-el) means “breath, vapor, insubstantiality, useless, meaningless.” The Apostle Paul picks up on this reality and writes that God willone day redeem creation from hebel (Romans 8:20-21 where the term translated “frustration” is from the Greek word that translates hebel).
4. Life does not unfold in a tidy “cause-effect” manner. This truth is what strains the mind and sears the heart of Qoheleth, the wisdom writer. “There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: righteous people who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked people who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is (hebel) meaningless.” Why is this so troubling to him? Because God had laid out the plan for the way things should be in Deuteronomy 28. Obedience (cause) leads to blessings (effect) and disobedience leads to cursings. Qoheleth sees just the opposite happening! Was God wrong?
We humans know that things are “not the way they ought to be.” We long for something more, something deeper, something more fulfilling. We commiserate, “There has to bemore to life than this.” Even the restless longing is evidence that we have been marked by God. “[God] has also set eternity in the hearts of people; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (3:12). We want to know what will happen next and we cannot know it (8:7). Here is the smartest thing in the book about meaninglessness: “No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if a wise person claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it” (8:17). Life does not offer its own meaning. We need outside help.
Yep, sometimes there is more behind an indelicate bumper sticker than meets the eye.