Without faith, it’s all meaningless
Pastor Thomas Starkjohn, Harvest Community Church, Winsted
I want to be successful, and I want my life to have meaning. I want to be happy and I don’t want that happiness to end.
I doubt there is anyone who doesn’t want these things. We look for success, meaning, and happiness in family and friends, in pleasure and work, in money and cars, in clothes and education. But is that where true success and meaning are found?
The book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament speaks directly to this matter of success, meaning, and happiness. In order to understand this book, we must first note that there are two distinct voices present: the narrator and the teacher. The narrator compiles the sayings of the teacher.
In the last verses of Ecclesiastes, the narrator writes that what the teacher says is meant to prod, to push you in your thinking. The narrator agrees with much of what has been said, but is cautious, as well. If the narrator was speaking today, he might say something like, “The views the teacher expresses are not necessarily those of this station or its sponsors.”
So what is the teacher saying that the narrator wants us to wrestle with? The teacher opens and closes his teaching with “‘Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless’” (1:2 and 12:8).
The word “meaningless” is used 37 times in the book, and the key to understanding the book is seeing how and why he uses this word. Let’s quickly go through the book, looking at the major things the teacher calls “meaningless.”
• Pleasure is meaningless. 2:1 I thought in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. 2:2 “Laughter,” I said, “is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?” 2:3 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.
• Work and advancement are meaningless. 2:17 So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 2:18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.
• Wisdom is meaningless. 2:15 Then I thought in my heart, “The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?” I said in my heart, “This too is meaningless.”
• Youth and vigor are meaningless. 11:9 Be happy, young man, while you are young, and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth. Follow the ways of your heart and whatever your eyes see, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment. 11:10 So then, banish anxiety from your heart and cast off the troubles of your body, for youth and vigor are meaningless.
• Life itself is meaningless it just doesn’t make sense. 8:14 There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless.
As you read the book, you will see that the teacher doesn’t deny that the things listed above are good he says quite the opposite. The teacher says that work is very good, and that we should enjoy it (3:22). He says that wisdom is infinitely better than foolishness (2:13). He says that being young should bring us joy (11:9).
The teacher’s point is not that these things are bad, but that these things are deceptive. They are deceptive in that they cannot protect you and they cannot last.
What the teacher wanted was to be guaranteed, to be absolutely certain that his labor and his wisdom would be of everlasting value. Ironically, the only thing he found of absolute certainty was death, the very thing that evacuated meaning from life. The teacher wanted meaning but he couldn’t place his life in a meaningful context because his life was so short.
So what are we to make of all this? What the teacher says is a grand illustration of the curse found in Genesis 2:16-17: “And the LORD God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.’”
Death was never intended to be part of this world, and our souls are immortal. The teacher was feeling this God-given desire for immortality (Ecc. 3:11), and the certainty of death took the meaning out of his life. He wanted to work, to seek wisdom, and he didn’t want what he had worked so hard for to end.
Haven’t you ever felt the despair that the teacher has felt? You work hard at your job, and you get a paycheck, but the things you worked hard at doing will not be remembered a year from now, not to speak of a century.
The book of Ecclesiastes was never meant to be read alone. God placed it as an important piece of the Bible, but not the only one. From Ecclesiastes we learn that by themselves work, wisdom, youth, and vigor are good, but ultimately mean nothing. This book destroys the structures we might try to find meaning and happiness in so that we might look elsewhere for true meaning and happiness.
The narrator ends the book of Ecclesiastes with these words: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (12:13-14).
The answer to meaning and life are not found within ourselves or by us creating our own meaning out of work, pleasure, youth, or wisdom. Meaning finds its reference point in God and doing His will. This is what the rest of Scripture makes so clear.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15 that because Christ has been raised from the dead, we who hope in Christ will one day also be raised from the dead even as Christ was. Our hope is not in this life, but in the life to come!
In 15:58, Paul that we should “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” Scripture says elsewhere that Christ will reward us in the afterlife based upon what we have done for him (see Luke 12:32-34). This is what brings meaning to our labor.
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 2 that the wisdom we, as followers of Christ, have is different than that of the world. This heavenly wisdom allows us to see beyond the confines of this world into eternity. The implications of this are incredible.
The teacher in Ecclesiastes pushes us to the edge and makes us face up to the meaningless of life in the face of death. We are then ready to hear the hope of the gospel that only through faith in Christ is ultimate meaning found.