Thursday, September 10, 2009

Finding Meaning in the Meaningless

Ecclesiastes Overview


Vanity of Vanities, says the Preacher, Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
No other book of Scripture begins with such a tone. Of course, though vanity today can mean "excessive pride in one's appearance," this is not the author's intention. Some translations say, "meaningless" and the Hebrew even conveys "emptiness or worthlessness." Some assume such a despairing tone is the author's attempt to shock and gain attention. However, the author also concludes the book (12:8) with:
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, all is vanity!
A close survey of the book will show this is the Preacher's theme throughout.

But why the despair?
Is there really no hope?
How does this theme find consistency with the rest of the Bible?


The [not-so] Merry-Go-Round of Life (1:3-11)

The despair of the preacher is immediately attributed to cycles seen in life, the most tragic being the coming and going of generations. A generation is born, lives and then dies, yet the earth just continues on as it always has. There are three illustrations of this:

The sun--Everyday, the sun rises in its place, travels across the sky and sets in its place again. Only to rise the next day and go through the same pattern all over again. (Some suggest "scientific inaccuracy" in the language, for it suggests the sun is moving in the sky. However, this is just figurative language, the same as we continue to call it a "sunrise" and "sunset," though we know the earth is in orbit.)

The winds--Similarly, the wind seems to cycle around the globe. The wind blows south only to double back north again. The cycle simply continues.

The rivers--Even the water cycle serves as an example. The waters flow into a lake, yet the lake never overflows. The river finds its source in another lake, yet that lake never runs dry. The perfect illustration of this is the Jordan River, which flows from the Sea of Galilee into the Dead Sea. Though the Dead Sea has not outlet, it never fills up.

Like a merry-go-round, cycles in life can seem fun at first but later become nauseating. A cycle can seem to bring stability and predictability. However, the despair comes in not finding a way out of the cycle. Eventually, these things become wearisome. We never find satisfaction in what we see or hear.

There simply is nothing new. What has come to be already existed and we're looking at the future right now, for it will simply repeat our present. Not only is this wearisome, but the fact that some people think things are new is wearisome as well. When someone thinks something is new, this only shows how quickly they forget the past. In fact, the cycle is so sure, we can even confidently know that future events will be a copy of present circumstances, and will also be forgotten. There seems to be no way of escape.

While we may be able to affirm this pattern by observing life, we do find a tension in this passage. No other part of Scripture provides this hopelessness. Can you imagine Jesus or John the Baptist standing in front of a crowd and declaring, "This is all worthless. It's a cycle with no escape and there is no point."

Why would the message of Ecclesiastes be so unique to the rest of Scripture?

The Author v The Preacher

To properly understand the Book of Ecclesiastes, I believe we have to come to terms with the fact that some things in the Bible are not true. This is not an attack on divine, verbal, plenary inspiration of the Scripture. It is an affirmation that the Scriptures record true statements from men, as well as false statements. We first meet Satan in Scripture as he lies. Job is filled with chapters of really bad advice from ignorant friends.

I remember once seeing a church website that posted the verse Therefore, if You worship before me, it shall all be Yours (Luke 4:7). This is a horrible verse for a church, for you must consider the source and purpose of the verse. This verse is not assuring us that all things will be come ours by worshipping Christ. THis verse is actually from Satan, to Jesus, during the temptation. First of all, Satan is calling for Jesus to commit idolatry. Second, it is a false statement, for Satan does not have the authority to eternally hand all things over to Christ. When we consider the context of this verse (including the source), we realize this statement is recorded perfectly in the Scriptures, but the statement is a false statement.

In the same way, I believe we are to understand the majority of the Book of Ecclesiastes as false thinking. Consider the third person to first person switch in the Book.

From verse 1:1--The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
From verse 1:12--I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.
From verse 10:7--I have seen slaves riding on horses and princes walking like slaves on the land.
From verse 12:8--"Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher, "all is vanity!"

Observing the shift in person (from third to first back to third), helps us understand their are two main characters of the book of Ecclesiastes: The Author and The Preacher. From verse 1:12 through verse 12:7, we are given the teaching's of the Preacher, though I do not believe the Preacher is actually the author of the book. Consider how awkward verse 9 & 10 are, if the Preacher actually recorded these things about himself and chose not to do so in the first person:
In addition to being a wise man, the Preacher also taught people knowledge; and he pondered, searched out and arranged many proverbs. The Preacher sought to find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly.
In verse 12:11, the Author reminds us that true wisdom comes from One Shepherd, and I believe it is his intention to contrast the Preacher's "wisdom" with the wisdom that comes from One Shepherd. THerefore, we need to understand that most of the book of Ecclesiastes is supposed to presented in contrast with Christ-centered thinking.

However, there are some obstacles we must be aware of to keep from tripping over details:

Who is the Preacher? Many (if not most) commentators suppose the Author to be Solomon. I do believe the Preacher may be Solomon (either directly quoting him, or basing the "sermon" of the preacher upon the experiences of Solomon.) While some things seem to affirm Solomon, many of these do not necessitate the Preacher to be Solomon (ie. Son of David can be simply mean descendant), while other statements seem awkward for Solomon to make (ie. "all who were over Jerusalem before me"). Again, the Preacher could be a direct (or indirect) reference to Solomon, however, there is another tragic reason it does not seem the Author would be Solomon.

Simply put, Solomon's life does not end well. Because Ecclesiastes ends with a call to fear God and appears to show the worthlessness of all his previous musings, many assume this to mean Solomon experienced a personal revival at the end of his life. However, 1 Kings 11 does not present a picture of Solomon repenting. I pray for his sake that he did, but the text seems to indicate that Solomon died in the despair and deceit of his sin.

Thus, if the sermon is Solomon's, it is likely a different author places the sermon in the middle of the book to illustrate to his son (12:12), how not to think. The Preacher's thinking does not consider the One True Shepherd, while the Author calls his son to consider all wisdom actually comes from the One Shepherd.

What about references to God within the Preacher's sermon? This seems to be the most common inconsistency of most commentators. Occasionally, the Preacher's sermon seems to find some hope and even speaks of true characteristics of God. Most commentators see these as signs that even when beat down by life's circumstances, one cannot remain in despair. These statements are seen as signs of hope and virtue.

However, nearly every on of these "positive" statements are followed another statement about vanity. None of these middle statements about God's character actually reveal joy, hope or delight in the Preacher. Instead, he rightly assesses an attribute of God (like Sovereignty), but does not delight in it (but rather finds God rather capricious). He may state something accurate about God, yet it is incomplete. Since the perspective of the Preacher is Christ-less, his thinking is naturally incomplete.

Derek Kidner, in his commentary on Ecclesiastes, reminds the reader that the secular mind is "not necessarily theoretical atheism, but a thoughtless attitude towards a God whose existence is unquestioned but unappreciated." Though the Preacher's view is Christ-less, it does not mean he denies the existence of God. It simply means he has not given God much thought, not does He appreciate and give thanks for Him.

Such a view of the Preacher helps us understand why he does not find joy, hope or worship when considering God.


So if most of the book of Ecclesiastes is inaccurate thinking, what benefit is there in studying the book?

Reading the words of the Preacher should break our hearts. We not only see the number of harmful ways he pursues pleasure, but also the empty results the pursuits produce. To know that real people are caught up in these vain pursuits should cause us to feel compassion for their despair.

I've heard people advocate that media is a great way to develop this compassion as well. Pastors will exhort their congregations to get to the movie theatre and watch the hottest television shows so that you can know what "unsaved Joe and Mary" are thinking. However, the entertainment may not be accurate to how a typical person things (there is still a vast difference between Rodeo Drive and Main Street), it may not accurately reveal the vanity of such thinking, and it also may present those pursuits in enticing ways that do nothing to promote your sanctification.

Instead, the book of Ecclesiastes serves us by taking us into the heart and mind of the Preacher. This also serves our evangelism for we can see the source of the despair that he feels. Many people will pursue these vain pleasures and think the reason they are coming up empty is due to a lack of resource. However, the Preacher shows us someone who was able to pursue these things fully, yet comes away unfulfilled. We should use his message to push others to see the vanity in their own pursuits. As the Preacher reveals, death can be a great apologetic. As one is forced to consider their own death, the things they live for now suddenly become powerless and worthless. We can sharpen our ability to lovingly point these vanities out to others by reading the words of the Preacher.

We're reminded that this is how most people think. And though they may believe in God, they may pursue morals and may even accept that Jesus was special, they do not see Him as Lord and Savior sitting above all things. To say this powerless form of Christ is genuine Christianity is like saying a tree and an elephant are similar because they both have a trunk. We see the contrast between a Sovereign Christ and a helpless religious teacher, but it also our responsibility to help them see the difference too!

But the words of the Preacher are not just for the lost. Though Christ is our Living Water, we can still be tempted to go to other wells. The words of the Preacher serve as a reminder to us that we should not be tempted to chase after these other pursuits. As we continue to war against the flesh, it serves us well to be aware of its strategies. The Preacher's words remind and rebuke me in my drift toward Christless thinking. They also serve as an encouragement to know that in Christ, such despair is completely removed. The despair created by these vanities are replaced by the hope of Him!

True Worship
Reading Ecclesiastes should cause you to exult in Christ!

The calling away from the Preacher's teaching is not to a different philosophy. Consider Colossians 2:8:
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.
Paul does not simply call us to think more like Christians, Paul calls us to think on Christ. By looking at the completely Christless perspective of the Preacher, the believer is reminded that our hope is found in our Savior. He is out hope, not just the One who brings hope!

The book of Ecclesiastes should cause us to exult in Christ as we see the hope only He can provide and as we acknowledge His grace to us in allowing us to see His goodness. True wisdom does come from One True Shepherd, Our Chief Shepherd!

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