What the Bible says about
Life as 'Meaningless'
(From Forerunner Commentary)
The book begins abruptly by announcing that it is written by Solomon, son of David, king in Jerusalem. Some commentators dispute this, claiming evidence that it was written as late as the third century before Christ. I cannot grasp how their speculation profits anyone who is sincerely looking for truth about how to live a life that glorifies God and is profitable for themselves. The message is what is important, and ultimately, the message is from our Creator, who inspired it and desires our growth and His glorification.
The first 11 verses act as an introduction, providing several terms that dominate the theme of the book. Three terms particularly important to grasping Ecclesiastes' message are contained within the first three verses: "vanity," "profit," and "under the sun."
"Vanity" (Hebrew hebel) is a vivid metaphor used 33 times in the book. Literally, it suggests a breath, something akin to vapor, like one's breath on a cold day, or a puff of smoke rising from a fire. Smoke and breath not only disappear quickly, but neither can they be grasped and held on to. Thus, vanity aptly portrays life as being insubstantial, rather flimsy, and passing.
One of the more vivid explanations is that "vanity" suggests the scum that remains when a soap bubble bursts against a hard surface. Of what value is such a thing? Surprisingly, vanity has some value in life.
The New International Version translates Ecclesiastes 1:2 as, "Meaningless! Meaningless! says the teacher. Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless." The Message Bible renders it, "Smoke, nothing but smoke. There is nothing to anything—it's all smoke." In the New Testament, James 4:14 describes human life similarly: "For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away."
While it makes for an arresting opening, vanity is not useless to God's purpose. We have to grow to understand that, as things stand in His purpose, vanity plays a vital role. The apostle Paul states in Romans 8:18-21:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility [vanity, KJV], not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.
Without a doubt, life is difficult, and the vanity that Paul mentions plays its part in the difficulty. It seems apparent from Genesis 3:14-19, where God enumerates the curses following Adam and Eve's sin, that He not only pronounced man's subjection to a measure of vanity but activated it at that time. God deliberately subjected the creation to futility as a reminder that sin is the source of the difficulty as well as an obstacle to be overcome for the purpose of growth into His image. We must recognize it and deal with it.
Despite Solomon's exclamation, Ecclesiastes contains sufficient evidence that he never completely lost his view of God, as the book's last paragraph is witness. Instead, he clearly demonstrates that for those who believe God, vanity does not have the last word. Therefore, we can glean a great deal of hope from Ecclesiastes.
Notice how Paul considers the sufferings that this world and nature impose on us and concludes that they are insignificant compared to what lies ahead if we overcome their vanities. In fact, in Romans 8:19, he personifies the creation as burdened and groaning right along with us because of the futility imposed on it, saying that it, too, looks forward to its release from what the Creator subjected it to.
Since God purposefully subjected the physical creation to vanity, therefore we can honestly conclude that all this vanity is a reality that serves our overall good in preparation for the Kingdom of God. It is a challenging obstacle. In His wisdom, He has determined we must first experience the emptiness of life without Him, become thoroughly disillusioned with what it has to offer, throw it off, and depart from it. The sufferings that vanity imposes help us to make a true assessment of the value of His grace and goodness, as well as truly and zealously commit ourselves to Him and His purpose. In such a circumstance, vanity will not have the last word.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part One)
While concluding the thoughts of chapter 2, these verses also provide a smooth bridge to the instruction in chapter 3. They are the first positive, solid instructions that Solomon has given about both God and life. They pave the way for accepting truly thrilling instruction about God in relation to time and a Christian's life of faith.
Solomon, to this point, describes life as a waste of time and energy, seemingly meaningless, monotonous, repetitious, and unendurable. This occurs even though one's life may be busy, just as Solomon's was. To those who have little or no relationship with God, and therefore have no clear knowledge of His purpose, what Solomon has written to this point is a realistic assessment. Recently, while in a supermarket, I saw a young woman wearing a shirt that proclaimed, “Life is divided between miserable and horrible.” To many, it seems as though life has no object except to bring difficulty and pain.
Ecclesiastes, however, provides a message directly from our Creator about what our attitude must be if we are going to make the best use of the awesome opportunity He has given us—and especially of the instruction in chapter 3.
In the first two chapters, Solomon's approach to life is completely “under the sun.” “Under the sun” implies that his teaching has not positively considered God; it is an entirely earthy view, thoroughly self-centered and carnal. God is mentioned only in Ecclesiastes 1:13, where Solomon calls life “a burdensome task God has given the sons of man.” His assessment closely parallels the words on the woman's T-shirt in the supermarket.
In the final verses of Ecclesiastes 2, Solomon takes a sudden, sharp turn to an “above the sun” approach, advising that we should enjoy good in our labor because it is from God. His statement, “This also, I saw, was from the hand of God,” is important. Our attitude toward labor, he counsels, should be that it is a gracious gift from our Creator. Laboring is a God-designed and -assigned responsibility of man.
Apart from angels, we are the only created beings who can labor like this. We can work using creativity, objectivity, and purpose, but no animal can. We need to give thanks for such ability because it places mankind in a category that no animal can ever enter. We are still less than God but so far above animals that there is no adequate comparison.
Is there a reason such a disparity exists? He adds two verses later that God gives gifts like wisdom and knowledge to those who are good in His sight, another positive reason for a person to approach life in a different attitude. Can an animal by reason appreciate life? Does a beast have the knowledge and wisdom to add value to its life?
Our attitudes and demeanors, however, are often highly variable. Overall, without directly using the terms, Solomon is saying our attitude should be thankful and contented. Why? Foremost, for the very fact that we even have life. Directly tied to this is that we have been given a mind that can think about God, that can look forward to the future on a basis of truth within His purpose, that can realize that we are the called of God, that can think spatially, and that can read and understand. We should be thankful that we can be given even more gifts because of these factors.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Three): Time
Solomon marvels at the injustice occurring without anything being done about it by those in a position to turn these sad affairs in a right direction. We know why these evil things occur because God has shown us, but that is not Solomon's interest at this juncture. His overall interest is still on the frustrating meaninglessness of life lived by the vast bulk of the citizenry. It so amazes him because, even all the way back then, the knowledge that would greatly improve people's lives was readily available in God's Word.
The head-shaking reality that disturbs Solomon continues to this day. To some degree, his mind is still on his disappointment over the evil “justice” system, what caused it, and possible solutions for it. Are we not experiencing similar problems? Where is God? In our culture it appears that almost nobody makes a sincere effort to seek God and His way.
This reality fills Solomon with a high degree of frustration because God gave Israel an adequate court system based on His own laws. Thus, he reaches the arresting conclusion that a person is better off dead because his struggles against what is occurring without change would be over. Better still, he says, is never to have been born!
Let's review what God gave Israel regarding a court system:
Listen to my voice; I will give you counsel, and God will be with you: Stand before God for the people, so that you may bring the difficulties to God. And you shall teach them the statutes and the laws, and show them the way in which they must walk and the work they must do. Moreover you shall select from all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness, and place such over them to be rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens. And let them judge the people at all times. Then it will be that every great matter they shall bring to you, but every small matter they themselves shall judge. So it will be easier for you, for they will bear the burden with you. (Exodus 18:19-22)
The overview is given in this simplified way to let us know that administration of their courts was well-organized. They began with an adequate system for spreading the workload so disputes could be settled quickly. This was implemented even before Israel reached Mount Sinai and the formal giving of God's law. Verse 16 reveals that God's laws were to be the basis for their judgments. It also suggests that some already had a considerable knowledge of God's laws. Verse 21 sets the qualification standards for the judges, which are based in God's character standards.
In Deuteronomy 1:9-18, Moses reiterates and further details what is given in Exodus 18, but now it is forty years later, during the last month of Israel's journey as they prepared to enter the Promised Land.
As for Solomon, the Bible shows him to have been a good administrator, despite taxing the people heavily to pay for the massive building projects he initiated. Despite his leadership, his words point to a reality: It is impossible to guarantee the integrity of every officer of the kingdom.
Solomon apparently had gone into a courtroom to watch a trial. What he witnessed in the hall of so-called justice was exploitation and oppression, the pain and sorrow of the innocent, and the unconcern of those who could have brought comfort to them. What he saw so disturbed him that it led him to declare that it was better to be dead than alive and oppressed, and better yet, not to have been born. In such cases, an individual would never have to experience or even see this grasping, rapacious covetousness.
Edward Gibbon, the historian who authored The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, says about more modern times, “Political corruption is the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty.” He means that, if a country has a constitution that guarantees freedom to obey, there is also freedom to disobey. He implies that people, regardless of their office, selfishly disobey. This is exactly what we are experiencing in this nation today.
For the citizenry to obey a nation's constitution, it is required to believe firmly in it and to be disciplined in character. If the nation's people do not have these qualities, some will certainly be corrupt and disobey. This is exactly what the founders of the American Republic feared. John Adams, a foremost founder of this nation, wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
John W. Ritenbaugh
Ecclesiastes and Christian Living (Part Five): Comparisons
The sheer repetitiveness and monotony of having to provide food for oneself—and even eating itself has a burdensome, nagging, never-ending, profitless, and hopeless aspect to it—makes life seem like pacing a treadmill going nowhere. Sin has dragged mankind into a confusing cycle of similar events repeated endlessly throughout history. It has robbed mankind of a life of abundant hope and enjoyment without fear, replacing it with the burden of not knowing God or why one was born. This leaves life essentially directionless in terms of its most important aspect. Life and all its daily repetitions become burdens rather than joyous pleasures as God intended.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Eating: How Good It Is! (Part One)
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