Meaning in a Meaningless World

Written on: July 1, 2024

Article by: Dave Knutson

Text: Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

Non-Christian worldviews common in Canadian society are either behind the scenes or in your face. Their veracity is taken for granted, even when they contradict themselves and each other. The downward path from a Christian consensus to our present state was by no means necessary and certainly not demanded by scientific inquiry.

Yet the drift from Biblical Theism to Deism is a matter of history. This first step replaced the personal infinite God of creation with one greatly diminished. The god who created the world might not be personal at all and has most certainly been absent ever since. And since the cosmic machine has been running on autopilot, it was only a short step to view the machine as sufText: Ecclesiastes 1:1-11ficient unto itself.

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Deism lapsed into Naturalism – where matter is an eternal and mindless god needing no further explanation. Human beings like the machine of the cosmos were just smaller versions; random arrangements of molecules and atoms that might just as easily have never been. This view has captured the modern mind and persists to some degree in postmodern thinking.

But before the rise of postmodernism, Nihilists said…‘let’s get serious’. They took Naturalism to task and pretty much trashed everything, including meaning, value and hope. If the universe started with a bang and will end in a crunch, it is all meaningless. There is no point in pretending while telling ourselves that we are not pretending. There is no reason to be…never has been and never will. So the most realistic, the most authentic thing for a person to choose – assuming that volition is not imaginary – is to cease to exist. Embrace non-being…just get real and go out with a bang.

But the brinkmanship of Nihilism ran head into our God-given nature. It was too dark, to sinister and too hopeless to fully embrace. So existentialism attempted to pull off a rescue by having us create our own meaning. Notwithstanding that the universe is meaningless, and notwithstanding that tiny little human beings are even more so, one must tear oneself out of the machine and create.

Imagine that!

No I really mean that…Imagine that. Precisely because there is no meaning and in light of the fact that people need meaning to live, we must ‘imagine it’ for ourselves. We don’t all need to agree on it. And my meaning can endlessly change. The only thing that matters is that meaning, any meaning accompany me at every moment. It only need to last as long as I do, then, all bets are off.

Following closely on the heels of Nihilism and Existentialism, Postmodernism said – there is no truth – so…whatever.

To all of these worldviews, Solomon would say…”I told you so”. He was way ahead of the curve, having gone down one blind alley after another…before coming back to God.

So, we want to take a fresh look at Ecclesiastes from a world-views perspective. If you dump God to strike out on your own, just where does that take you? Solomon never really did that…but anticipated where he’d end up if he did

He was a man like no other. God had made him both wise and rich…which made him an international celebrity. The world beat a path to his door, to hear a few gems and see for themselves what life was like for the wisest man in the world. The bible says that “God gave him wisdom, discernment and ‘breadth of mind like sand on the seashore”. He composed 3000 proverbs and 1005 songs and fewer than one third of his proverbs are preserved in the book of Proverbs.

And then to top it all off, God made him rich beyond his wildest dreams. Every year, Solomon took in over one million ounces of Gold. The text says that he made silver as common as stones in Jerusalem. He ran an import/export business with a fleet in the Indian ocean and another in the Mediterranean. He was a weapons dealer, trading in horses, chariots. Toll roads along the coast and the King’s highway were like a license to print money.

Solomon started his reign as king with wisdom and money. All of which meant, that by the time that he grew old, he was was a man without a bucket list. He had it all, had tried it all, thought about it all…and it just left him empty. So he wrote the book of Ecclesiastes to share what he learned and to pass on advice.

It is perhaps more than a little bit shocking that the man who had it all, opens the book with the words “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!”

The word translated ‘vanity’ can mean hidden or inscrutable. So he might just be saying that no one’s able to discover what life’s about. Vanity can also refer to the quality of being without value, or worthless. So that when you get to the bottom of a thing, you find that the thing itself, has no value in itself. It can also mean useless, as in, it can not do what I wanted it to. Like my car won’t run, my dog won’t hunt and this phone plan is a dud.

In other contexts…vanity may just mean fleeting…or temporary, here today…gone tomorrow.

All in all, vanity and futility are really about being and doing. Why are we here? And what’s the point of doing anything all anyway?

Now the place that Solomon goes for his answers, is situated “under the sun”. He’s telling us that he’s looking for ultimate answers from inside the universe. What he wants to know is if God has hidden them deep down in the very ‘nature of things’? Because if they are there…surely he is the man to find them. You could say that like Stephen Hawking, he is after a ‘theory of everything’.

Now that little phrase – “under the sun” – says a lot…because Solomon was a down-to-earth guy. And this phrase reminds us…that here we are and we are here to stay. The life that we live…is by God’s decree – “life under the sun” and within the boundaries of time and space.

But since that was not news…why is Solomon all worked up?

  • He says…that a generation comes, a generation goes, and only the earth remains.
  • The sun comes up – the sun goes down – the sun comes up…
  • The wind blows from the east, the west, the north the south. It stops blowing, it starts blowing again, it stops blowing, it starts blowing…
  • The rains fall, the river carry the water to the sea but the sea never fills up. The rains fall, the rivers carry the water. Rivers it seems are never unemployed.

It is as they say in the south, the same old same old…pointless repetition and Solomon is tired of thinking about it.

And then, as if repetition in physical world is not enough, the same is true of us. My eyes never get their fill. My hunger for beauty is never satisfied. I’m driven by aesthetic craving that measures everything and stops at nothing. My ears are never satisfied with hearing – the voices we love…the singing of birds, the symphony, the thunder, the waterfall. Add them all up…they are never enough. As the oceans are never satisfied, neither are we.

Then there’s this thing called History. We are all in it together. Yet, the things that now are – have existed from the beginning. And the things that are done, are the things that will be done again, so that around and around we go.

There is a certain logic to what Solomon says. If God’s work in the created order is fleeting…then how much more, the things that we do. Everything ‘under the sun’ and everything done ‘under the sun’ – comes to nothing

Now when Solomon says..that there really is nothing ‘new’ under the sun, he is really saying – that even new inventions are just made of the same old stuff. Nevertheless…every generation thinks that wisdom starts with them. How frustrating, how vain and futile!!

Solomon starts with his thesis…before telling us how he reached that conclusion. It was all part of his plan to find answers that no one else had. He wanted to know the things that could be known about life on earth. And while he doesn’t call it that…he set out to formulate an adequate ‘world-view

So Solomon started his hunt for the truth and he was sure that he could find it and when he did, that he could handle it’.

Now when putting a worldview together, a collection of unrelated facts just will not do. They have to come together into a unified whole and not only make sense, they must also add value – as a system of thought. They must yield ‘explanatory power’.

But Solomon did not start from scratch…or just from himself. He God’s special revelation. He had read the Pentateuch and knew that God had created the world. He was not asking ‘why is there something instead of nothing’. What he really wanted to know was “what is the meaning of life?” and very specifically ‘what is the meaning of life under the sun

Solomon understood that if all of lifeunder the sun had no meaning, there was no point in asking– what does my lifeunder the sun mean? There can be no personal meaning in an otherwise meaningless world, for that is just an illusion…an exercise in self-deception.

Solomon had the word of God and had even spoken with God. He had read God’s word and started out, living by faith. What remained for him to do, was to explore the mind behind the creation, and he thought that he could do it by studying God’s handiwork.

So, with wisdom from God…Solomon was the man. But if God had not yet revealed the meaning of life then there would be no finding it, even for “the man”.

The concept behind a ‘bucket list’ goes way back before the term. The idea is that each of us has a set of things that we would like to do or to experience before we die.

Solomon had that kind of a list but not as a thrill-seeker. He was actually looking for the key that would unlock the mysteries of life and fill it with meaning and purpose. The trouble was that as the list got shorter, his attempts grew more desperate, so that at some point he would have to say “been there and done that”. Here are some of the things that he had and did:

He had money and everything that it could buy. He did drugs – at least in the form of alcohol. He arranged for all of the sexual liaisons that he could manage. He had servants who waited on him hand and foot. He managed a massive estate – with parks, orchards and even a private zoo. He did the comedy club thing with entertainers on staff. He had the best ranch, beautiful forests, prime breeding stock. And he enjoyed every delicacy that his palate could sample.

In his own words, he withheld nothing from himself. He had it all and did it all…all of which is why Solomon’s bucket list was empty. And without that, no hope remained of still finding what he was looking for.

Comparing himself with others, he always came out on top. Even he couldn’t think of anything that he did not have or had not tried. That was the problem. Solomon ran out of things to try. And even if he found just one more thing…the clock was always running.

Solomon hated that clock. He couldn’t stop it. He knew that one day his time would be up, which is after all, the nature of life – it’s life under the sun’. The rules are the same for the rich and poor, the wise and the foolish.

So the man who ‘denied himself nothing’ was dissatisfied with everything. Even laughter turned to madness, for if life is devoid of meaning, only a madman can laugh.

Chapter 2:3 reads:

“I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take hold of folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives”

How exactly did Solomon take hold of folly? Did he launch into the realm of the non-rational? Or was he talking about what happens when you think that there really is no meaning in life, but you go on living anyway?

When reason failed, did he say “just do it”? The problem was that after he had done it – he was back where he had started, but with a most important exception. He was back there and still without an answer. He had found out that all of the forks in the road led to the same dead end.

The problem was not that Solomon was a dull boy. It wasn’t that he ‘didn’t get it’…the problem was that he did. He anticipated every human philosophy and god-denying worldview. The difference was, that at least Solomon was honest. He said “it is all – striving after the wind”, like trying to hold the wind in your hand.

So “I hated life”. In fact there were two things that he hated about life:

He hated the nature of being. Life under the sun…always ends in death. There are no exceptions for the rich or the poor, the young or the old. Death is all about – equal opportunity. Solomon observed that “the fate of the fool will also befall me”, since death is no respecter of persons…So I hated life.

And then, Solomon also hated all the fruit of his labour. It didn’t satisfy in the moment and he couldn’t take it with him. The end was coming…and it looked like he would simply cease to exist.

So Solomon drew an early conclusion….In 2:24a he says

“There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good”.

There are at least two ways of reading – or understanding this passage. The first is…that Solomon was doing a snow job on himself. All ofthe evidence tells him that life has no meaning. But one little white lie, one little bit of self-indoctrination can’t hurt. So, instead of giving up, he will keep on living by eating and drinking…and telling himself – that eating and drinking has meaning enough in itself.

Is that it? Is that his great answer?

Is he saying – as some modern-day philosophers do – that the meaning of life is discovered only in the living? Is the purpose of living – merely being alive? Is it to experience life – to taste it, feel it, know it before passing out of existence?

Was Solomon agreeing with what Bertrand Russel...would write in 1918?

“That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built. (From a “A FREE MAN’S WORSHIP”)“A FREE MAN’S WORSHIP”

If there actually is no meaning in the things themselves, and that includes us…then the only way to have it is to manufacture it ourselves…out of the clear blue. Is that what Solomon was doing? Was he an ancient existentialist?

Or was he saying something rather more profound?

“There is nothing better for a man…than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good”. This also I have seen that it is from the hand of God. For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?”

The key is…that the hand of God is involved. God has put us here “under the sun”..and he supplies our needs “under the sun”. In other words, God has so ordained it that we have to work…in order to eat and drink. Work is important to sustain life…and life is important because God made it so. It turns out that God has provided satisfaction for every physical appetite, so it is not unreasonable, that God has provided satisfaction for the needs of our soul as well.

If this is true, then it is an act of faith, to eat and drink, believing that your work is a good thing. That being is better than non-being. That life is better than death. And, that a work that sustains a life that God has made, is not in vain.

Working for a living so that you can eat and drink is a good thing, just don’t ask those things to deliver that which only God can.

Summing up:

Perhaps then, Solomon discovered that God has not caused the ‘meaning of life’ to reside within created things at all. That he could not find it there, for they were never there in the first place. The ultimate meaning of life resides in the one who does not live “under the sun”.

As God has revealed to us, it resides rather in the Son of God – who has given us His word and died so that we might experience life with meaning now…and life without end in the days to come.

When Solomon said “I hated life”, it was his soul talking. It was the part of him for which life under the sun could never be enough. No amount of seeing or hearing…eating and drinking would do, for everything ‘under the sun’ and the sun itself will one day pass away, but Solomon would not.

His soul would remain.

Solomon didn’t know that. He didn’t know the rest of the story…for God hadn’t revealed it yet. That’s what the Bible is for. But there was something that Solomon did know….he did know that God was real. He knew enough to trust God…even when and perhaps especially when he still had questions. Which is why he concludes his book this way…

The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the whole of man. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.

You and I have been made for the purpose of glorifying God. To fear him enough to obey Him and to obey him long enough that we learn to love him.

For in a time and place beyond ‘life under the sun’ God will judge. Long-hidden sins will be brought to light and justice served. Let us fear God and keep his commandments…for when we do, God in his grace is set free to take us into his presence and keep us there. This is by the way…the very thing that we have been made for, to be with God – to glorify Him and to enjoy Him forever.