Saturday, September 23, 2006

Meaning in Life

The women's Bibly study at our church this fall is going through Ecclesiastes, which really excited me! Most of the Bible studies of which I've been a part have studied the New Testament, which I love :), but it's interesting to delve into an Old Testament book as a group, and I think it's important to study the whole counsel of scripture. In my past readings of Ecclesiastes I've always found the book rather interesting and a mixture of depression and hope.

Ecclesiastes is Solomon's musings on life, and the drudgery of it all. He questions the meaning or purpose of the endless cycle of toil that man is doomed to live "under the sun." It's interesting to read, as Solomon searches for meaning in accomplishments, possessions, women, wisdom, etc., but continually realizes that even these things are fruitless of themselves. He brings back the perspective to one "above the sun," as he looks at God's perspective, and how God brings joy and meaning to those who are His children.

Ch. 2, v. 25: For apart from him [God] who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

The beginning of chapter 3 is the pretty well-known "for everything there is a season" passage: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted . . . It is so neat to read that passage, as it reminds me that everything in our lives has an appointed time. There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, it says. A time to be born, and a time to die. A time to embrace, and a time to refrain. It reminds me of another verse that says, weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning. The beginning of chapter 3 is a reminder that each season in our lives is part of God's plan for us and is appointed for a time. It won't last forever, but will someday make way for a new season.

Often as Christians we're impatient (I know I can be!) to be serving the Lord the way we think would be best, in some "bigger" way (missions, etc.), or in some way that would suit our purposes and desires, but primarily we are called to just serve God in our daily lives, where he has already placed us. We are usually called to serve God not by changing what we are currently doing day-to-day, but by doing those day-to-day tasks for Him, for His glory. It reminds me of I Corinthians 10:31, Whether then you eat, or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. This is the overarching lesson that the Lord has been teaching me over the past year and a half, since I graduated college.

What a different perspective is the one "above the sun" than the perspective below! Below, our toil seems fruitless, but above, everything we do is to God's glory. Wow. That really helps me put things in perspective, because right now I want to serve God by nurturing my own children and instructing them of God's love, but that's not where He's placed me right now! But that doesn't mean I can't glorify Him as I teach, tutor, babysit, or even as I iron clothes or scrub dishes - more so, in fact, since those are the tasks He has currently given for me to do. Ch. 9, v. 10 of Ecclesiastes says, Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might. If only I could faithfully carry out this verse always! That is the challenge to every Christian.

Also, I love verse 11 of Chapter 3. There are two important truths here. First, He has made everything beautiful in its time. Wow. That doesn't mean all things are beautiful now, but that God is working to make all things beautiful. Even the hurtful things in my life right now are working to make me beautiful! - that is, the beauty that comes not from outward adornment, but adorning from the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious.

A point in verse 11, He has put eternity into man's heart. I love that! Man is made for another world, and God has placed eternity in our hearts! Christians are to be content in this world, but at the same time we are not to be fully satisfied with life here on earth. The desires of our hearts should be in eternity with our Lord, for that is our ultimate destiny. If we are fully comfortable here on earth, then we have lost sight of the glories of heaven, the eternal pleasures that we will enjoy at Christ's right hand. In the "Hall of Faith" in Hebrews 11, the writer of Hebrews tells us that the faithful admitted they were aliens and strangers on earth. Many of the promises they held were not fully granted here on earth, though they saw them from a distance. Likewise, our ultimate fulfillment only comes when we see our Savior face-to-face.

Solomon ends Ecclesiastes with this summary: The end of the matter: all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. He begins the book with a perspective that life has no purpose, but comes full circle as he realizes that man does have a purpose, and that life has meaning and joy for those that fear God! We can have joy under the sun, because we have life through the Son.

. . . And that is the beautiful message of Ecclesiastes. I've realized recently that Ecclesiastes is not a book that many Christians have read, so consider the above a sales pitch convincing you to read it! It's only 12 chapters, and it can easily be read in one sitting. I'd highly suggest it.


Mr. Baggins said...

Having taught a Bible study on this book, you can imagine that I am excited to see others excited about it. You are definitely right to point out the absolutely essential difference in perspective from "under the sun" to "over the sun," though of course, he doesn't use that exact expression. However, I think that the entire book, except for the ending, is meant to be read that way. Even chapter 3 has a somewhat sinister aspect if read in this way: there is always a time for everything. There is no stopping all these things, they just keep on happening. As much as human beings try to stop it from happening, it still does. I don't think your reading of it is wrong. But you can only get to your reading of it after you look at it through the lens of Christ and the NT. I don't think that Solomon (most scholars, even conservatives, do not think that Solomon wrote it. I don't know for sure) is getting out of his temporarily "under the sun" perspective to give us chapter 3. Even the eternity in the hearts of man in its original "under the sun" perspective seems to say something more like this: God has put a longing in man's heart which he is not granting. Everything is beautiful in its season, but it is just that: only a season. It is vitally important to realize that the writer is *extremely* pessimistic, precisely *because* he is under the sun. I believe that he is only "over the sun" at the very end, when he says that an eternal perspective changes everything. However, even the intervening passages can read rather differently in a second reading, when one considers the effects that a Christocentric reading has on it. Cheers

Susan said...

I agree with you, Lane, that the beauty of Ecclesiastes is found in light of the New Testament. That is why we are so blessed to have been born "this side of the cross" :).

Derek Kidner also explains the beginning of Chapter 3 in somewhat of a "sinister" light:

the repetition of 'a time. . ., and a time. . .' begins to be oppressive. Whatever may be our skill and initiative, our real masters seem to be these inexorable seasons: not only those of the calendar, but that tide of events which moves us now to one kind of action which seems fitting, now to another which puts it all into reverse.

You are probably right that Solomon (or whoever is the author - why is there doubt, may I ask?) meant it in that light. He certainly displays his pessimistic side in this book! It seems that he goes through mood swings, with occasional positive outlooks, but mainly more doleful points. He seems to me to occasionally take a slightly lighter view, when he speaks of enjoyment from God, e.g., but any glimmer is temporary until the end.

Of course, the fact that "for everything, there is a season" is only comforting if (a) God is sovereign, and (b) God is good. With neither or only one of the above, such thoughts would be far from comforting, even for the NT believer!

You have an interesting take on v. 11. I'll have to think on that some more and read my commentaries more closely. I hadn't gotten that far in Matthew Henry or Bridges yet. These rambles were in the midst of studying Chapter 3 :).

Thanks for the thoughts!

Mr. Baggins said...

On authorship, to quote Keil and Delitzch (a very conservative set), "If Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes, then there is no history of the Hebrew language." Most scholars find many, many close parallels with how the language is used in Ecc with how it's used in the rabbinic sources. It looks like later language. Now, personally, I am not entirely convinced that there is no possible way that Solomon wrote it. Now, the book does not explicitly name Solomon as the author. "Son of" can mean a descendent. Of course, someone could easily be recording down what Solomon said, though he himself wrote later. To my mind, that is the most reasonable explanation.

Adrian C. Keister said...

Ecclesiastes is my favorite book in the Bible. I don't see it as pessimistic, though. I see it as realistic. It takes an honest look at life.

I, for one, am convinced that Solomon, if he did not write it, is at least responsible for its ideas. There is only one person who satisfies the following criteria:

1. Son of David. (1:1)
2. King over Israel in Jerusalem. (1:12)

After Solomon, the kingdom splits up with Rehoboam king over Judah, and Jereboam king over Israel. But all the kings of Israel had their capital in Samaria, not Jerusalem. So, if we are to take these two verses literally, Solomon is the only person to fit. The evidence of great wisdom the author displays certainly fits the bill as well. While the Keil and Delitzch interpretation is certainly plausible, I can't accept the idea that Solomon wasn't at least heavily involved with it.

Chris Hutchinson just preached on this book last summer. He viewed the book as significantly more optimistic than most commentators would have it. They were good sermons. If anyone is interested in listening to them, you can find them on my church's website.

On the left, click on sermons under archives. The Ecclesiastes sermons are in June and July, though not all of them are posted. Enjoy!

In Christ.

Susan said...

Thank you for explaining why there is doubt as to Solomon's authorship, Lane. I assumed there was a reason, but did not know. I'm inclined to think Solomon wrote it, because it fits with his life, his wisdom, his accomplishments, etc., and primarily because of the verses Adrian quoted, so your possible explanation of someone else recording it seems the most logical.

Thank you for the sermon links, Adrian. I definitely want to listen to a few of them, when time permits. Maybe tomorrow?

I agree that Ecclesiastes is realistic, and that is one reason I like it so much (sorry, Romans still trumps it. . . ). Solomon - or whoever, let's go with the generic Quoheleth - doesn't try to sugarcoat the truth, and "tells it like it is." I love honesty!

I think there are two sides to realism, though. There is plenty of good and bad in the world, and we can't harp on everything at once, so one becomes melody, and the other harmony. Quoheleth definitely took the bad of the world for melody in most of his book. Like I said before, I'm inclined to think that he doesn't just come out of his pessimism at the end (like Lane suggests), but instead goes through waves, with more (and longer) troughs than peaks. Many of the passages in Ecclesiastes can be interpreted with either optimism or pessimism, comfort or pain, such as 3:1-8.

Adrian C. Keister said...

I neglected to mention that I appreciate your suggestion to read the whole book in one sitting. I think it's even better to read it out loud in one sitting. That'll take you maybe an hour, but it's so worth it.

I liked your melody/harmony thing. I might think about that some more.

In Christ.

Ben Garrison said...

It is vitally important to realize that the writer is *extremely* pessimistic, precisely *because* he is under the sun.

So, not trying to be a downer...but I would completely agree with this statement to the point of suggesting humbly (:-)) that all of the verses you quoted were out of context to the point of being misapplied. Not that I think that your applications were necessarily incorrect, but I don't think that the verses really support them. I used to read Ecclesiastes the same way, but now I really don't think that it's the correct way to read it. For example...

Ch. 2, v. 25: For apart from him [God] who can eat or who can have enjoyment?
I don't think this really is looking at God's perspective. The tone of it (given the context of the paragraph) seems to indicate that he's saying this in a bitter way, portraying God as a limiter of man's ambitions ("A man can do nothing better...", and "this too is meaningless")

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might. If only I could faithfully carry out this verse always! That is the challenge to every Christian.
But this verse is preceeded by Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun— all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun., and ends with for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.

I think the context of that verse is one of hopelessness and futility, basically suggesting that in the absence of meaning, we should pursue the good things in life while we can, because when we die, that's it, and there's no more happiness.

Of course, most of your takeaways were correct because they were out of the pessemistic context of what solomon was saying, but I think there is a danger in reading any of ecclesiastes as advice. For example,

Often as Christians we're impatient (I know I can be!) to be serving the Lord the way we think would be best, in some "bigger" way (missions, etc.), or in some way that would suit our purposes and desires, but primarily we are called to just serve God in our daily lives, where he has already placed us.
I think Solomon said what he did about seasons out of a sense of futility, and I think that our Christian culture has very much of a mentality of "just serve God where he's already placed us". However, I think in most cases, this results in exactly what Solomon said this out of - futility.

It seems like Ecclesiastes is more of a self post-mortem of Solomon's backslidden life, warning us not to follow in his path than anything else. It contains wisdom, but it is wordly wisdom. Solomon was wise, but in his wisdom, he fell away from God. I think (and, I realize I could be wrong) that the correct way to read Ecclesiastes is as an object lesson of what can happen when even the wisest of us chooses to pursue our own pleasure over pursuing God.

Now, maybe you already agree with what I just said, and it didn't need saying...if so, just mark it up as a case of me being confused. :-)

Ben Garrison said...

Boy, the formatting on that post was really horrible. I apologize. :-D

Susan said...


I've found that oftentimes reading a Bible book in one sitting is advantageous. In depth study is also good, but sometimes getting the big picture is helpful, especially with Ecclesiastes! Reading "meaning, meaning, all is meaningless" 5 verses at a time, for weeks on end, would get rather depressing, until one gets to the end :). Anyway, glad you liked that suggestion. I'm still hoping to listen to some of those sermons, but this week is getting away from me!


Oh, c'mon, you know you like being a downer! ;-) I appreciate your humble thoughts. I'm sort of confused, though. First of all, were you replying to me or Lane (Mr. Baggins), because the first sentence you quoted was Lane's, but most (or all) of the rest was my own composition.

I found your interpretation of 2:25 to be interesting. I hadn't considered the bitter aspect of it. I view Ecclesiastes as a 2-sided coin, showing a very depressing view and a very hopeful view of the world, depending on the perspective of the reader. I liked what Lane said, about reading Ecclesiastes through the lens of Christ and the NT. Only then does it hold the kind of hope I am ascribing to it.

Most of the truths in Ecclesiastes can be taken in vastly different ways. 2:25, for example, I see as comforting, because I know that God is both sovereign and good. But someone else may see that, as you said, as a bitter truth. Same with 3:1-8. Aren't most truths that way, though? The same piece of news can strike two people in very different ways.

I think Solomon said what he did about seasons out of a sense of futility, and I think that our Christian culture has very much of a mentality of "just serve God where he's already placed us". However, I think in most cases, this results in exactly what Solomon said this out of - futility.

Let me see if I can clarify what I mean. What I meant in my statements on this wavelength was that we need to be content where God has us now, and not spend time wasted dreaming of "what ifs" or fruitlessly searching for our "meaning" in life. What I didn't make clear was that I'm not saying that every Christian is by defalt to remain in their current sphere of life. Some may be called to leave the US, e.g., to serve as foreign missionaries. God calls His people to work in every sphere of life, not just as missionaries, as I know you agree :). I think many traditions uphold missionaries as "super spiritual" who found their calling.

My point is that we can serve God in little things, as well as big. We should serve God where He has placed us, unless we have direction that He is calling us somewhere else. Many Christians spend a lot of time trying to discern God's will for their lives, when He has laid it before them. A young mother can serve God by folding the 10th load of laundry for the week. A businessman can serve God by being a light for Christ in his workplace. You can write computer code with honesty, to the glory of God. Shamelessly plagarizing the Shorter Catechism. . . the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. And to tie that into I Corinthians 10:31, which we memorized many moons ago :), we can do that eating, drinking, etc.

I'm not sure I agree with your assessment of Ecclesiastes. If Ecclesiastes is just a collect of worldly wisdom, what about it is inspired? I think God spoke through Solomon ("Quoheleth," to be more generic), communicating 2-sided pieces of wisdom. These pieces of wisdom can be depressing or hopeful, depending on our standing with God (the "above the sun" view) and our understanding of God. They are Solomon's musings, yes, but surely they must be more than worldly ramblings. I'm open to correction here (from anyone!), but I see Ecclesiastes as more.

Anyway, I'm not sure how much sense I just made, but I plead "busy week," "little sleep," etc :). I'll have to think more on everything you said, perhaps when I'm not still running on "nap brain" :-P. Thank you for being a "downer," and hopefully I clarified my own views a bit :).

Ben Garrison said...

I'm not sure I agree with your assessment of Ecclesiastes. If Ecclesiastes is just a collect of worldly wisdom, what about it is inspired?

The book reads like...

"Here are the words of the teacher: I saw that this and that and the other were meaningless, and I saw this, and I thought this, and I saw this, and I thought this, and then I saw this and thought this. After all of that, I concluded that the end of it all is that we should fear God and keep his commandments"

The majority of the book (middle of chapter 1 to middle of chapter 12) is just a record of his thoughts as he "devoted himself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven". His intermediate thoughts are not necessarily correct, and in fact, I think in most cases they aren't. For some of it, you can say "well, gosh, he sure sounds pessemistic, but maybe he's really saying something else" - but for some of it, you can't get around the fact that the straightforward meaning of what he is saying is just plain wrong:

"I also thought, "As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. 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 dust, and to dust all return. Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?"
So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?"

His intermediate thoughts, and his conclusion are all incorrect. God doesn't test us so we can see that we're like animals. Our fate isn't the same as animals - we do have an advantage over them. We don't have the same breath - we have the breath of life. We don't all go to the same place. There is something better for us in this life than just to enjoy our work...

So I'm not saying the book isn't inspired...I'm just saying that the things that he thinks as the book progresses are wise, but still just things that he was thinking.

Does that make more sense?

Susan said...

I see more of what you are saying, Brother Dear. I'm still not sure I agree with your view of Ecclesiastes, but I'll just have to think about it more, perhaps when my brain is a little less tired :). Tutoring and grading papers (especially many hours in succession) does that to me :(.

I think of most of Ecclesiastes as being 2-sided truths, as I said before. From the "under the sun" perspective, Solomon is correct that things are "meaningless." From the "above the sun" perspective, we have a reason for man to enjoy his work, and things are not meaningless.

For example, the portion you quoted:
So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot.

I would say this is true, actually, not untrue as you say. Solomon (or whoever) is despairing that man has nothing better to do than to enjoy his work. From his "under the sun" perspective, this is true. What else has a man to do except work and try to "learn to love it." The irony of it is that even above the sun, there is nothing better for a man to do than to enjoy his work. The key here, though, is to differentiate between types of joy. For the Christian, joy is found in the Lord, and certainly the best thing a man can do is go about his work wholeheartedly, as unto the Lord. That is what I mean by "two-sided" truths.

I'm not saying that every single thing Solomon muses is doctrinally sound, but that most of it can be taken two (very different!) ways.

Anyway, I'll have to think on all that some more. Thanks for your thoughts, Boy :).

Jessie said...

Hey Susan,
I've had this post "marked unread" for a few days now, and I'm finally reading it. I really appreciated your post, and I was going to comment on it about something, but then I got to reading all the comments (very good ones, too) and I can't remember what it was.... hmmm. Oh well. I've enjoyed thinking about all the comments on the book. Who did write it? What does he mean??
: )

Adrian C. Keister said...

Reply to Ben.

I realize there are many scholarly opinions on this book, and mine may be the minority opinion. In any case, in no way can I accept your statement, "His intermediate thoughts, and his conclusion are all incorrect." The presentation of the book is all wrong for that. If your statement is true, we are not told which parts are true and which aren't. I can't accept that the Bible would thus blatantly lead people into error.

Instead, it is quite possible to see the negative parts as showing the world without God, man alone trying to work out his destiny. However, there are also many positive parts in there as well, showing (in the gospel light) how life with God has meaning, the only meaning it is possible to have that fulfills us.

My two cents.

In Christ.