Peter Misselbrook's Blog
Jun 15 2019 - Ecclesiastes 1 – Everything is meaningless

The Book of Ecclesiastes, like the Book of Job, is part of the wisdom literature of the Old Testament and is concerned with the question of how to live well in God's world. Like Job, it is a book that wrestles with the difficulty of making sense of the things that happen in the world. Unlike the Book of Job, God does not turn up near the end to shed some light on the scene.

I find this a fascinating book, one of my favourites amongst the literature of the Old Testament. But it is not to everyone's taste, so we shall only spend 4 days on its twelve chapters. Nevertheless, you may feel that many of the questions raised in this book have a contemporary ring to them raising questions often asked in our contemporary (post-modern) society.

The book bears the title, "The words of the Teacher, son of David, king of Jerusalem." (1:1). Solomon is not mentioned by name and there are many reasons for thinking that it comes from a time much later than that of Solomon's kingship. It is as if the writer were saying that even if he had all the wisdom and riches possessed by Solomon he would still find life to be full of absurdities. The title "Teacher" suggests that his work is a challenge to those who think themselves wise.

He begins with the disconcerting words, "Meaningless! Meaningless! … Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless" (1:2). "Meaningless" was translated as "Vanity" in older translations. Ecclesiastes' dark picture of the emptiness of life in this world was used by John Bunyan in Pilgrim's Progress when he describes "Vanity Fair", a term later used in Thackeray's novel of the same name. The suggestion is that we live in a world that lacks any ultimate meaning and significance.

Life, suggests the author, is boring (1:3), transitory (1:4; 11) and repetitive (vv.5-7; 9-10). The world around us and the world of our mind fill us with desires to see and hear something more, something that will at last give a sense of understanding and completeness, but satisfaction never comes (1:8). There is nothing new under the sun and the search for novelty ends in weariness.

Surely wisdom can come to the rescue here; a wise man or woman ought to be able to make sense of it all. But no, says our author, even the wisest man who ever lived, pondering life in all its complexity would have to come to the conclusion that it is futile (1:16), that it is broken beyond repair (1:15) and that it is cursed (1:13).

This gloomy picture is not intended as a balanced view of human life – and the writer also has positive things to say in his book. But, for the present, I want to pick up the point made in the author's exclamation, "What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind!" (v. 12).

Let me take you back to the opening chapters of Genesis. God had created a world full of beauty and fruitfulness and given it into the care of the human beings he had made. But through their disobedience, everything had changed. The world is no longer a place of unmixed blessing but lies under the judgment of God who said, "Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life… By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return" (Genesis 3:17-19). This judgment of painful toil followed by death is "a heavy burden laid on mankind." Everything we value is shown at last to be dust and ashes – it is "vanity", "meaningless."

But judgment shall not have the last word. Christ has entered this crooked and sinful world. In his death he suffered God's judgment on a world that had lost its way. By his resurrection he is the beginnings of a new creation, a world restored to all God created it to be. Meaning and satisfaction are to be found in him and, having been found in him, flood every part of our lives.

Father God, thank you for Jesus in whom is found our ultimate meaning and eternal life. Fill us with his Spirit that we might bring hope to those living in despair and under the shadow of death.

Peter Misselbrook