The Book of Ecclesiastes – Absurdity Pointing to Meaning
This ancient and fascinating document both intrigues and disturbs its readers. It is so denigrated by some Christians, that they have wondered why it is in the Bible at all. However, if you have read the French Existentialists, you will find yourself in familiar territory. Certainly, the words of the Preacher, which the word Ecclesiates means, are memorable and have enriched the English language with several well known phrases, such as:
- Eat, drink and be merry…(8:15)
- A fly in the ointment … (10:1)
- There is a time for everything… (3:1)
- Cast your bread upon the waters… (11:1)
- There is nothing new under the sun … (1:9)
This phrase “under the sun” occurs some thirty times in the book, and is the key to understanding it. It means “our view of the world, leaving God out of the picture”.
The book describes life without God; it digs over the ground and stares into the abyss. “Vanity of vanities”, says the preacher, “all is vanity” (1:2).
In other words it is all pointless, it is all in vain; life is meaningless and absurd. If you understood the absurdity of Becket’s play Waiting for Godot, you will understand this book.
Ecclesiastes uses the absurdity of life to point to its meaning.
We don’t know who wrote it. It wasn’t Becket, Camus, Sartre or Nietzsche or even Dostoyevski, though this book must have inspired him. They could have talked for hours about 'Crime and Punishment' for instance. Tradition attributes it to Solomon, and it appears to have been written around that time, about 1000 years BC, some 500 years before Socrates – but we don’t know. As the writer says, there is nothing new under the sun, so it reads today with a contemporary relevance and a disturbing irony.
There are two other keys to understanding this book. Firstly, the writer is standing back from life and trying to get a detached perspective on it.
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. (2:11)
So he records his thoughts and observations.
I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the sun. What a heavy burden God has placed on men. (1:13)
Secondly, there is a humorous irony here, where high expectations are seen in the light of pointless reality. There is also a Socratic irony, which works a bit like a dummy pass in Rugby football. Socrates would feign ignorance in his questions to wrong foot his opponent. Ecclesiastes uses the absurdity of life to point to its meaning. So he assumes a superficial naturalism, to wrong foot his readers in order to point to the deeper underlying truths of our existence.
Taking the wisdom of the world, he pushes it to its logical end-points, which is what Francis Schaeffer did in his book The God Who is There. Schaeffer wrote that if you push people far enough, you will eventually take the lid off, that is, open them up, perhaps in a cathartic moment, to consider higher realities, or life above the sun.
So Ecclesiastes writes:
Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both. As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from the dust and to the dust all return. (3:19-20)
Life seems pointless for animals, who just stand around in a field; the trouble is it doesn’t bother them! It is the fact that we worry about these things and ask questions about meaning, which sets us apart from every other animal.
We shall focus on four themes in Ecclesiastes:
1. Human Yearning
2. Moral Values
3. Our Fallen Nature
4. Ultimate Accountability.
1. Human Yearning
Firstly, the preacher bears witness to a fundamental restlessness and yearning in the human spirit. Unlike the animals, he is never satisfied. There are yearnings for ambition, fame, wealth and pleasure; for wisdom, knowledge and meaning; for justice, and to know the future.
For instance, he writes:
I undertook great projects. I built houses and planted vineyards…
I bought slaves, owned herds, amassed silver and gold…
I acquired singers and a harem as well…
I denied myself nothing… and what does pleasure accomplish?
It was a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. (2:4-11)
The eye never has enough seeing or the ear its fill of hearing. (1:8)
Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. (5:10) – does that have a modern ring to it?
All man’s efforts are for his mouth, yet his appetite is never satisfied. (6:7)
When I applied my mind to know wisdom…and saw all that God has done – no-one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it. (8:16-17)
Not only are these yearnings unquenchable, but they are destructive:
For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
The more knowledge, the more grief. (1:18)
… a major problem in our generation when we have every major tragedy beamed into our homes.
I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on men: God gives a man wealth, possessions and honour, so that he lacks nothing his heart desires, but God does not enable him to enjoy them… This is a grievous evil. (6:1-2)
So he resorts to irony with a black tinge:
A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity…I say that a still born child is better off than he. It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded. Though it never saw the sun or knew anything, it has more rest than does that man – even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity. (6:3-6)
I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill …So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labour…for a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill. And then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it… What does man get for all his toil and anxious striving – pain and grief: even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless. (2:18-23)
I have seen something else under the sun:
The race doesn’t go to the swift
Or the battle to the strong
Nor does food come to the wise
Or wealth to the brilliant
Or favour to the learned;
But time and chance happen to them all. (9:11)
And “death is the destiny of every man; and the living should take this to heart.” (7:2)
The preacher has another yearning, that is relevant today, a longing to be remembered! To leave a legacy.
There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow. (1:11)
For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered;
In days to come, both will be forgotten. (2:16)
There is one more yearning we must flag up; a pivotal saying of the book:
God has made everything beautiful in its time, and He has set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (3:11)
As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things. (11:5)
beauty ... stirs up in us a yearning for transcendence
So beauty is a pointer to ultimate meaning. It points to the intention of the Creator. And stirs up in us a yearning for transcendence. This niggles away at man’s soul, a hunger for some integrating reality and ultimate fulfilment. We know that there is more to this life than meets the eye. Something is missing, something outside and beyond ourselves that would make sense of ourselves, a hunger even for God himself – which man on his own cannot work out. He knows in his heart of hearts there must be a permanence in contrast to our transience, a wisdom that makes sense of our foolishness, a moral purity that is implied by our wickedness. But man hasn’t the resources within himself to fathom it out.
So the first major theme is that man is a restless, striving creature – quite unlike the animals – full of yearnings that offer so much but ironically deliver so very little.
This is a major flaw in the atheist slogan for the London bendy buses: it reads “There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” For the person who stands back and reflects upon life, it just isn’t that easy! Your philosophy would need to be “eat, drink and be merry and try not to think about it”. The trouble is, when we do this, we wake up the following morning with an emptiness in the pit of our stomachs, yearning for something more fulfilling. For the pleasure-seeker, there is always a fly in the ointment, giving the perfume a bad smell. It is the smell of death for all those who treat the world as an end in itself.
2. Moral Values
Secondly, the book is all about moral values, which become another aspect of eternity set into man’s soul.
The writer observes greed, hypocrisy, oppression, injustice, laziness, cursing and jealousy. He finds that “Patience is better than pride” (7:8), that envy is a driving force in human achievement (4:4), that “bribery corrupts the heart”, that “anger takes up residence in the lap of fools” (7:9), that there is righteousness as well as wickedness, and “no-one knows whether love or hate awaits him” beyond the grave (9:1).
I saw the tears of the oppressed,,, and declared that the dead are happier than the living… But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun. (4:1-3)
We cannot live in this world without being bombarded by moral values and human choices. And we cannot live comfortably in this world in the face of evil. But where do these values come from? The moment you admit that some behaviours are good and others are evil, you must either conclude that these are ultimate realities which point beyond ourselves, or that they are merely convenient, mutually agreed ‘house rules’, invented by humanity itself.
once you agree that morality is created by our culture ..., you have no grounds for saying that your values are better than anyone else’s.
So Richard Dawkins has now admitted that moral values, including rape, are arbitrary and not wrong in any absolute sense. And of course, once you agree that morality is created by our culture and has no absolute basis, you have no grounds left for saying that your values are better than anyone else’s. There is no grounding for them to be better; they are just different.
Atheists speak of values evolving, as though there was some relentless moral progress that could be documented. Not only is there no objective standard to evaluate this but some of the most appalling cultures in history have existed within living memory, whether the Nazi holocaust of the Jews, or the brutal regimes and mass killings of Stalin, or Mao Tse Tung or Pol Pot. On what criteria can we distinguish between moral values other than personal preference? Unless moral values lie in the character of God himself, we cannot meaningfully speak about the objective nature of good or evil. So our consciences make it very difficult to stop worrying and enjoy life.
3. Our Fallen Nature
Which brings us to the third theme which is our fallen nature.
While Richard Dawkins assumes that people are basically good, the preacher concluded otherwise:
This only have I found; God made mankind upright but men have gone in search of many schemes. (7:29)
In other words, man’s troubles are of his own devising and these wicked schemes lead us from the good purposes of God. We rarely commit a wicked act if we haven’t first pondered it and planned it.
There is not a righteous man on earth, who does what is right and never sins. (7:20)
And “one sinner destroys much good.” (9:18)
This is in marked contrast to the Tabloid view that there are good people and evil people. The preacher tells us that that is not the case. We all have the same propensity for doing evil – a very unpopular viewpoint, but history records it on every page.
Furthermore, he observes that “Wickedness will not release those who practise it” (8:8). It traps people who become entangled with it and it holds them in its thrall. So that, “The hearts of men” he says, become “full of evil.” (9:3)
4. Ultimate Accountability
Which brings us lastly to accountability.
And I saw something else under the sun:
In the place of justice, wickedness was there. (3:16)
I thought in my heart, God will bring to judgement both the righteous and the wicked. (3:17)
Be happy, young man, while you are young… Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things, God will bring you to judgement. (11:9)
The preacher amasses his evidence in terms of Creation, Beauty, Morality, Meaning, Justice and our yearning for Transcendence.
The bendy bus poster reads: “There is probably no God.” But there can be no certainty about that. You can’t prove a negative. For instance, you may wonder if there are rats in your house. If you find one, you know for certain that there are. But if you can’t find a rat, it doesn’t mean to say they are not there, particularly if you find evidence that points to them. So God may or may not exist. The preacher amasses his evidence in terms of Creation, Beauty, Morality, Meaning, Justice and our yearning for Transcendence. These grounds for belief in God after 3000 years, remain in the centre of contemporary discussion.
Creation and beauty can only take us as far as deism; our consciences tell us further that God is moral. But natural theology cannot show us what God is really like. Unless God himself steps into the picture and reveals himself, our human yearning for transcendence is left in the air. We cannot work it out for ourselves. We remain in a state of profound alienation. It is only as God reveals himself in Scripture, in the Moral law, in consciences and experience, and uniquely in the historic person of Christ, that God can be known. A God who surprises everyone by revealing himself hanging on a cross.
So the Jews look for miraculous signs and the Greeks seek after wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified; a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (1 Corinthians 1:22-25)
© 2008 Peter May
This article is a transcript of a sermon originally given at Highfield Church, Southampton. It is used by the kind permission of Dr May.