E C C L E S I A S T E S 1
Updated: Apr 18, 2020
Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.
K I N G S O L O M O N
These words of Solomon, the wisest man on earth, have had me stumped for a very long time. Part of me takes his meaning. As a child, you view life with charmed eyes and then as an adult you experience disillusionment. You see the futility of life...without God, right? But what about with God? How can Solomon, who worshipped God, say that everything is "meaningless"?
The book of Ecclesiastes is truly fascinating. It is woven through with mysterious statements and its take on reality is so deep, I can't see the bottom. Literally. I don't really understand what Solomon is talking about. However, this past year I have been wrestling with the question of what it means to live a meaningful life and as I have inquired of Scripture for an answer, one of the places I have been led to is this book. Ecclesiastes. God has been gracious to illumine parts of it, and I want to share some of what I have learned with you.
So follow along, if you will, as I explore this book. I'm going to go verse by verse (exegetically) -- definitely not going to look at every verse but rather sections -- and unpack some of the wisdom God left for us. I do want to clarify I don't consider myself a teacher or pastor -- just sharing this as a personal devotional.
Ultimately, I believe this book is meant for those on the search for wisdom. Those who want true meaning to their lives. I pray God uses these blog posts to clarify just that!
I'm going to start with a couple things in Chapter 1 (ESV) for this particular post. So let's look at how the wisest man on earth kicks off this book:
1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Teacher alert! I like to think of Ecclesiastes as "argumentative writing." Solomon is here to argue for something, to prove a point. And he starts out with his claim: Everything is meaningless. That is to say, if you as a human being stop your activity and look around, you will quickly realize that a lot of what you do seems pointless, in the long run of things.
We're going to be looking at things in the long run of things. Some of us are better at this than others. Some of us are big picture thinkers. Wondering about the meaning of life is something we do constantly. Others, not so much. So, first things first, I want to call out those of us who never take a moment. Stop. Do. Though you may find it annoying, tiring, or even impossible to really zoom out and look at life as a whole, please do. It's something we all have to do at least a few times in our lives because if we don't, if we don't really know where we are going, how will we know if we got there? How will we know that all the time and effort we are putting into life is really worth it?
Solomon gives us some really pointed questions to get us thinking this way. Read on:
3 What does a man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
So you work in insurance? Real estate? Teaching? Sports? Own your own business? You're getting a degree? Your life is a journey and you're on your way -- to where? Where are you headed? What's your end goal here? Because you're putting in hard work, sweat, maybe tears. What's the end goal for you? Because Solomon is looking around and at the end of the journey, he is seeing one thing for each and every one of us. Death.
Solomon then points out something at first glance rote, at second glance, much more interesting. Get this -- he starts talking about cycles -- er, circles. Same thing.
5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The sun seems to be on a cycle.
6 The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
Wind patterns are cyclical.
7 All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
Oh look at that! Crash course in the water cycle right here in the Bible!
8 All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
Solomon views this cyclical nature of the world in a negative light. It is wearisome. The Greek word for "weariness" is "yagea" (3023 in Strong's) meaning "full of labor, weary." Not only are things in this life full of hard work and physically tiring, Solomon indicates a mental or spiritual tiredness too. Reminds me of the English-used word "ennui" which means "a feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement." Except in this case, we have plenty of occupations and excitement, but at the end of the day we still feel this "ennui." Please remember that this "ennui" is due to the cyclical nature of things, as I will discuss that in a moment.
9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
"See, this is new"?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
Nothing new under the sun -- big statement. How about iPhones? Abraham didn't have one. I believe what Solomon is talking about here is the essential, core parts of human existence. Love, jealousy, hate, ambition, caring, building, etc. Nothing new.
Solomon here is bringing it home. Yes, nature is cyclical. But it's not just nature. It's us. As human beings. We repeat mistakes. We repeat accomplishments. We are born, grow up, do things, age, and die. Then new humans are born and do the same.
11 There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.
Super big picture, but human history itself seems to be cyclical. One generation forgets about the past and history ends up repeating itself.
What is it about going round and round in a circle that is so "wearisome"? Motion, according to Google, is the "action or process of being moved." It would seem to imply moving from point A and a point B. But that's actually the definition of the word "journey" which is "an act of traveling from one place to another."
You see, we don't want simply to be in motion. We don't want to leave point A and end up back in exactly point A. That's a waste of motion and we want more than that. We want a journey. We want to leave point A and move on to point B. And sadly, as Solomon points out, this thing we do called life seems to be a lot more motion than journey. Big picture, things seem to be cyclical and it's pretty frustrating. Solomon is trying to say that the human race seems to be going in a big circle -- experiencing motion, but not going anywhere much.
I was in Sunday School recently and we were talking about the New Jerusalem and how it is made of right angles, per Revelation. Some of us were asking, why not circles? I in particular brought up how the infinity sign is basically a bit of a twisted circle. My dad, who was leading Sunday school at the time, gave a fascinating answer.
"I'm not sure," he said. "I've noticed circles are often involved where human sin is present. The earth is a circle. To me, circles symbolize infinity, yes, but a captive infinity."
"Think about it," he added. "A line is also infinite. It has no beginning and no end."
Now, I'm not here to debate the theology of his answer, and it was obviously just a shot in the dark in trying to answer my question. My dad has always been highly imaginative and brought that side of him to his unique understanding of some of the more hidden things in Scripture. However, I understand his point. And for the purpose of understanding cycles and circles in Ecclesiastes, think about them as just that -- a symbol of captive infinity. Round and around and around we go. Going nowhere. Accomplishing nothing, really.
That's the premise of Ecclesiastes, and though I may not be ending on a very hopeful note, I promise there is a lot of hope in the text. There is so much depth to unpack in what Solomon, through God's Spirit, is saying, and I hope you stick around to learn more. There IS something truly meaningful to life on this earth, and we'll see more of it as we dive deeper.
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