31.05.15 Ecclesiastes 2: Everything is Meaningless – A Scientific Experiment
Everything is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Is this what the writer of Ecclesiastes leaves us with? Are these really his words of wisdom? That there is no meaning to these lives of ours? Is that the conclusion he comes to?
As I have been reading and re-reading Ecclesiastes chapter 2 I have been in a desperate search for the meaning of these words. What is the nugget of truth and wisdom we can take hold of?
And I read, what I found was someone else who was in a desperate search for meaning.
8 times in this one chapter he declares things to be meaningless:
1) ‘that also proved to be meaningless’ (v. 1)
2) ‘everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind’ (v. 11)
3) ‘this too is meaningless’ (v. 15)
4) ‘all of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind’ (v. 17)
5) ‘this too is meaningless’ (v. 19)
6) ‘this too is meaningless’ (v. 21)
7) ‘this too is meaningless’ (v. 23)
8) ‘this too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind’ (v. 26)
Meaninglessness, I think that is something many of us fear the most.
As Simon mentioned last week, the word we often read as ‘meaningless’ or ‘vanity’ comes from the Hebrew Word Hebel which means ‘breath’ or ‘vapour’.
Breath! Vapour! Everything I strive for has no substance at all!
Now Ecclesiastes is what we call ‘Wisdom Literature’. The Bible is full of all kinds of genres of writing; history, poetry, genealogy, letters, prophesies – it’s a whole library. And whoever it was who wrote Ecclesiastes wrote according to the rules of Wisdom Literature. It’s thoughtful and deep and circular, and immensely practical.
Solomon – or whoever it was who wrote Ecclesiastes – questioned and observed and hypothesised. He experimented and collected data and analysed the evidence and came to a conclusion.
Though this is Wisdom Literature, I can see aspects of a science experiment. This may be quite exciting for those science geeks among us.
Now, I wouldn’t really call myself a scientist. I studied Physics and Biology at High School, and for the most part I enjoyed it; learning about how the world works and discovering things that were new for me, but which scientists had, in their wisdom, discovered long ago.
So I liked Science, but what I hated were Science Fairs. Maybe I’m a bad person, but that just didn’t really appeal to me. I was more likely to write personal, detailed, descriptive account of the experiment, about the people who were involved and how it made us feel. I was inquisitive, but illogical, unscientific.
My friends, Ngaire and Jane were different. They entered the school Science Fair with an experiment they had conducted on their father’s kiwifruit vines. Turns out the experiment was useful and it meant something and they went on to the regional science fair competition. I can’t remember what the experiment was, but it ended up making some kind of impact in the kiwifruit industry.
Meanwhile, my other friend Nina and I, we couldn’t really think of anything interesting or meaningful to research, so our experiment involved getting a book out of the library about how to make paper planes. We made a collection of these paper planes – using the same type of paper, I hasten to add, to reduce the variables and all that – and using the long, long corridor of her house, we investigated which kind of paper plane travelled the furthest.
Fun, but not very helpful for anyone.
Anyway...Science...see, I get distracted....
Say, we imagine that Solomon conducted a Science Experiment. This is what it could look like:
· Re-examined Hypothesis
· Re-examined Evidence
So, let’s asses Solomon’s experiment.
It’s as if Solomon looks around and says, ‘what is the meaning of all of this? What is the meaning of life.’
He says, “I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.” (v. 3)
That’s a fair enough question, don’t you think?
What is the meaning of life?
What is the meaning of my life?
What is the meaning of our life together?
There is an individual and a collective element to this question. And we cannot lose sight of either.
This is especially relevant for our young people who are leaving school at the end of the year and are making plans about study options or career opportunities. Some have a clear sense of direction, and some don’t.
It’s the same for others who are experiencing any kind of change, whether it be education, or employment, or accommodation, or marriage, or divorce, or death. What does all this mean?
Often we seek comfort from the verse from Jeremiah – an old favourite we know and love.
‘For I know the pans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.’
A beautiful verse of encouragement and hope, that even when we don’t understand what’s going on, God does. A verse that I, and I’m sure many of you, find very assuring.
But it is not a verse that was written for me, or for you. We may identify with it and hear the Spirit of God speaking to us through it, but it is a verse from the words of a letter written to a group of people living in exile, to a people who have been cut off from their family, their fields, their fortune, their future.
To them God says, ‘build homes and settle down. Plant gardens. Eat. Get married and have babies. Seek peace and prosperity. I will prosper you. I will give you hope. I will be your future. Call upon me and I will answer you.’
What is the meaning of life? Well, whatever it is, it cannot be something we seek in isolation, it’s not something we do on our own.
What is the meaning of life?
It reminds me of a question addressed by the Westminster Assembly in 1646 who drew up the Westminster Shorter Catechism in order to educate people in the faith.
The catechism begins with this question:
Q. What is the chief end of man?
A. To glorify God and enjoy him forever.
Q. What is the ultimate reason and purpose of human existence?
A. To glorify God and enjoy him forever.
Q. Why did God make us? What is the meaning of life?
A. To glorify God and enjoy him forever.
But wait, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We have to discover what the answer is. We have to come to this conclusion ourselves...
So, Solomon asks the question, ‘what is the meaning of life.’ And this is his pessimistic, cynical hypothesis:
Everything means nothing.
Nothing means anything.
Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Solomon sees no ultimate purpose or value in human existence. And he seeks to prove his hypothesis correct.
And this is the method he takes: undertake great projects.
- Build houses
- Plant gardens
- Buy slaves
- Buy flocks and herds
- Amass silver and gold
- Acquire singers and concubines
- Get married
- Have babies
- Obtain prestige
- Become greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem.
And the result: Solomon enjoyed his work and the rewards it gave him. And none of it meant anything more than that. It was still meaningless.
So, in that sense he had proved his hypothesis, and I think he finds that slightly discouraging.
So Solomon, in his wisdom, re-examines his hypothesis. He wants meaning. So he considers wisdom and how it compares to foolishness. He reasons that wisdom means something even if everything else doesn’t.
But, as we will discuss later, his view of wisdom is limited. It is too narrow.
So, what is wisdom? After all, it is Wisdom Literature we are reading.
Fee and Stewart, who wrote an excellent book called, ‘How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth,’ say this:
Wisdom is the discipline of applying truth to one’s life in the light of experience. There is thus a personal side to wisdom. Wisdom is not something theoretical and abstract – it is something that exists only when a person thinks and acts according the truth that has been learned through experience. (p. 189)
Another commentator on Wisdom Literature says this:
Wisdom is not the accumulation of knowledge, be it technical or theological, but a way of living before God.
Does Solomon consider wisdom in the same way?
He re-examines the evidence and his results show that:
(1) Wisdom is better than folly.
(2) Ultimately it doesn’t mean anything because everybody dies, so really, in the end, wisdom doesn’t have any lasting or eternal value.
The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fools walks in darkness;
but I came to realise that the same fate overtakes them both. (v. 14)
A person who is wise, who acts with wisdom, who walks with God, is still susceptible to death. ‘So,’ Solomon says, ‘what’s the point?’ ‘The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?...This too is meaningless.’ (v. 15)
The words of wisdom we inherit from Solomon and his life experience is this:
Life is ultimately meaningless and that one should therefore enjoy one’s life in whatever way possible, since death will obliterate everything anyway. (Fee and Stewart p. 192)
But I’m getting ahead again. See, I’m not very good at this systematic, methodical stuff.
The Discussion. Basically, Solomon says, ‘I have worked hard and achieved a lot. My work has brought me great joy, and my work has caused me great pain because I cannot enjoy it forever. I too will die. So I have achieved nothing. Everything is meaningless. Everything I have strived for is useless, futile, unsubstantial.’
Solomon, who once delighted in his life and his work, now despairs. What difference has he made? He too will be forgotten.
And that’s part of the problem. Solomon is selfish and inwardly focused. He solely concerned with preserving his own life, but he finally comes to the realisation that he cannot do it, he cannot protect himself from death, and he cannot ensure that anyone else will preserve the memory of him for generations to come. He has spent his whole life building something that is nothing more than breath, nothing more than breeze that ambles by.
Solomon is preoccupied with safeguarding his own life, he is unconcerned for others and the impact he has on their lives.
And he is afraid. He’s afraid he’ll lose his life, that he won’t be able to find any meaning to it.
It strikes me that Jesus has something to say about this. He says, ‘whoever find their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.’ (Matt 10:39)
But from Solomon’s perspective on life and death he concludes that his hypothesis is correct: everything is meaningless.
- Pleasures are meaningless
- Wisdom and folly are meaningless
- Hard work is meaningless
There is nothing to be gained. There is nothing worthwhile for men and women to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.
All that there is to do is eat and drink and find satisfaction in your work. That’s what Solomon recommends. But still, he says, it’s meaningless, it’s vanity, it’s vapour.
This is the so-called wisdom of Solomon:
The reality and finality of death, the Great Leveller of us all, renders life as futile, with no ultimate value. So do what you can to enjoy life now, make your meaningless life somewhat more pleasant and comfortable while you can because this is as good as it gets, there’s nothing more beyond death.
(Summary of Fee and Stewart)
Boy that’s depressing!
Q. What is the meaning of life? What is the ultimate reason and purpose for human existence?
A. Nothing. Nada. Zip.
Pffft. I reckon that’s rubbish. I disagree with the findings of the writer of Ecclesiastes. But perhaps that’s because I’m not an existentialist, who thinks there is no inherent meaning or purpose to these lives of ours.
So, I’m biased. But so is Solomon, and this experiment of his requires a broader scope.
You see, if we re-create his experiment we will come to the same conclusion. And let’s be honest, lots of us have. We, or those we know and love have already re-created this experiment, some have built houses and planted gardens and got married and had babies and worked really hard to get rich and gained nothing because something of great substance has been missing. God, the intangible, the transcendent and immanent, has been left out of the equation, has been excluded from the experiment.
So, given the context and the limited scope of the experiment, Solomon comes to a reasonable conclusion. But he’s wrong, because he did the experiment wrong because he was looking for the wrong thing.
He was always looking inwardly, looking for personal gain and self gratification.
But perhaps I am being unfair to Solomon. He is human, like us, and he speaks of a reality we know. His words are important for a world like ours. And what I appreciate the most about Solomon is that he forces his reader to challenge him, to hope and search for a new reality, one infused with meaning and purpose.
But what could happen if we altered the method of this experiment?
What could happen if we built homes, planted gardens, got married, had babies and cried out to God? To our God, who is closer than our breath, and who says, ‘to you, my people, I will give you a hope and a future. I will give you a purpose and a place to belong.’
What could happen if we altered the method of this experiment?
What could happen if we really sought wisdom?
Wisdom that is not an accumulation of knowledge, be it technical or theological, but a way of living before God.
What if we really sought wisdom? Wisdom with a capital W. Sophia, the personification of the Spirit of God, the breath of God. Then everything would have meaning.
And though we may continue to chase after the wind, maybe we would be like children with sticks and string and paper kites, and finding joy under the heavens during the few days of our lives.
Q. What is the chief end of man? What is the ultimate reason and purpose for human existence? What is the meaning of life?
A. To glorify God and enjoy him forever. Now and forever.