Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Wednesday Wisdom - Life: What's the point?

"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless."

After identifying himself as the author, Solomon gets right to the point in 1:2 and shares the conclusion of all his efforts and pursuits. Not really a recipe for a best seller is it? Especially considering the titles of certain books that you find on shelves nowadays. So what is the role of such brutal honesty in our world of best sellers and self help gurus?
The world we find ourselves in today is an existential mess. We are constantly bombarded by messages that focus on our individual worth and desires. "Just do it", "Impossible is nothing", "Be yourself", "Have it your way", and others. We are also told by pop psychologists that self esteem is the primary thing we lack in dealing with our personal and relational struggles. The problem is that, with all of our focus on the individual, we have failed miserably to provide people with any life purpose or meaning that transcends their life experience or helps them to answer the big questions of life: Who am I? Where am I going? How should I live? Does any of this matter?
Right from the beginning, Solomon takes a sledgehammer to all of these ideas. Does life here on Earth have any meaning? The answer from Solomon is a resounding "NO!" If the message stopped here than we would have to question whether this should even be in the Bible. Solomon, however, qualifies this proclamation of meaninglessness by connecting it to an important concept.
"What does man gain for all of his labor at
which he toils under the sun?"

The concept of "under the sun" is vitally important to understanding the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes. The phrase itself is used 29 times throughout the book and illustrates that anyone searching for meaning within the realm of creation will remain unfulfilled despite his many pursuits. Real meaning can only be derived from outside of the temporal. The infinite must give meaning to the finite and therefore, in our quest for meaning, we must look to God alone.

Man vs. Wild
In verses 4-11 of chapter one Solomon takes up a lament for the finite nature of human life when compared with the seemingly infinite natural world.
"Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever."
Scientifically and theologically we know that the world is not eternal. Solomon's point is that people are born and people die, yet the earth they inhabit continues as if nothing has happened. When the lifespan of a person is compared with the "life span" of the earth, the earth wins. In a competition of man vs. nature, nature always wins.

Solomon's overview of various natural phenomena is meant to show that even in nature, nothing is ever really satisfied. He moves from there to illustrate this point about the longings of people. Just as nature is never satisfied and fulfilled, neither are people, especially when it comes to seeing and hearing (1:8). Because of this, people will continually search for something new even though their really is nothing that is new under the sun (1:9).

Exhibit A

I give you...dum dum dum dumb...THE RETURN OF 80's FASHION. Run for your lives. The picture on the left is taken from a 2009 women's fashion catalog and the one on the right is from an 80's workout video. Notice some similarities? Those of you who are a bit older have seen this happen numerous times.
And this is really what Solomon is talking about. There's nothing new under the sun, we just recycle old ideas and even old fashion. The people of Solomon's day were just like people are today, constantly seeking something new. As a result of never finding it, they recycled old things.
Solomon's conclusion in this section is that just as nature moves on relentlessly, so does life. For people, this life under the sun will bring us no real joy and in the end we will make no long term impact (1:11). If you look at history, who do we remember the most? Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Darwin, Nietzsche. Most of them are not remembered because of their positive contributions to humanity. So what does this all mean? What was God's purpose in having Solomon point out that we live, we die, and we are forgotten?
The Hebrew word that is translated as meaningless or vanity can also be rendered as "breath" or "vapor". The point that Solomon is making is that life lasts only for a short time. The world that we live in cannot offer us any meaning or purpose during this short time and so, as we will see, Solomon advises us to look outside of our world to God as the source of joy (2:25, 5:18, 8:15). Solomon rightly points out that most of us will probably never be remembered in this life, however, God is the one who does remember and judges and rewards accordingly (3:17, 12:13-14).

Let us take a look at ourselves and our lives. Do we buy into the various "meanings" the world offers us, or do we look outside of our experience to the Creator God as the one who can truly give our lives purpose?
How, and by whom do we want to be remembered? Do we seek the approval of a meaningless world or of the God who made it?

No comments: