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How Would You Explain Life?

How would you explain life?

Toward the end of his life, a famous person is interviewed. The first question is asked: “You’ve lived a full life. What would you like to tell everyone watching and listening tonight?” The audience leans forward, waiting for a profound response, some helpful words that could make their lives as successful as this person’s.

“Life is meaningless!” the famous person blurts out. “Utterly meaningless!”

For the first time in his life, the interviewer is speechless. The audience is stunned. Is this all there is to life?

The book of Ecclesiastes begins in just this way. King Solomon, the most famous person of his day, is interviewing himself, engaging in self-analysis. “How would I portray life to others?” he asks himself. “Meaningless!” is his reply. “Empty, hollow, vanity, without significance.”

What makes Solomon’s words even more surprising and perplexing is that he is known as the wisest man who ever lived and also possibly the richest. Solomon had it all. It is not actually until the end of the book that we realize that he started the book this way to get our attention. Solomon did have it all; he just didn’t realize it until his closing days, after he had made a real mess of his life. Before we make any more of a mess with our lives, Solomon is trying to show us the futility of life without God.

The previous five paragraphs are from the introduction to Ecclesiastes in the TouchPoint Bible. I believe it is right on because it gets at the heart of this book of ancient wisdom. As you read and study Ecclesiastes you find this book of ancient wisdom is very contemporary. It deals with issues we all struggle with daily.

David Wells has said, “Postmodern culture inclines people to see the world as if it has been stripped of its structure and meaning, of its morality, of any viable worldview which is universal, and it collapses all of reality into the self. It eats away at every vestige of meaning for which people grasp… Nowhere is this better illuminated than in the book of Ecclesiastes. Its opening salvo is the author’s refrain, ‘vanity of vanities’ (1:2), which recurs some thirty-one times in the book. How utterly transitory, empty, and meaningless is life! It is nothing but the pursuit of the wind.”

“Chasing the wind” is one of the key phrases of the book. The ESV translates it as “striving after wind” and the KJV calls it “vexation of spirit.” The phrase emphasizes not so much the activity but the psychological state of the pursuer. The striving or chasing produces vexation or frustration. Why? Because there is nothing you can get your hands on or your mind around.

This is the result of looking at life “under the sun”. The writer “puts himself – and us – in the shoes of the humanist or the secularist…The person who starts his thinking from man and the observable world” (Derek Kidner) to explain the meaning and purpose of life. Throughout the book he shows where such thinking leads: nothing matters, nothing has meaning. He takes this approach in 1:1-2, 23. Then he contrasts such thinking with the good news that God alone can give meaning, purpose, and value to life. For an example of the positive approach read 2:24-3:22.

I like the way T.M. Moore paraphrases 1:9-11, “It seemed (to me at least) that what I’d hoped would be a sumptuous feast of every sort of food to satisfy my intellectual curiosity was but a diet bland, unchanging. Life was merely empty repetition, rife with much activity, but nothing new. O spare me, please! What makes you think that you know more than I? All right then, show me, if you can, just one new thing. I would not miff, provoke or anger you, but I will tell you plain: Whatever it is, they knew it well in other generations, just as you. Believe me when I say there’s nothing new. The past has taught us nothing. We forget what’s gone before, content to merely let the lessons of the past escape our view. Be sure the same fate waits for us; we too will be ignored, forgotten in the dust of history’s mindless march. Do not distrust my words: If all there is to this sad life is work and study, consternation, strife and then the grave, then all is vanity.”

As you think on these things consider some questions. There seems to be a sense among people today that no one way of life will give us all of the satisfaction we deserve. We need to break a few rules, check out some new adventures or surround ourselves with more things. In what ways have you seen this in the areas of advertising, popular music, and television? What does this suggest about happiness and purpose in life?

In many ways ours is a time of people going to extremes. We have seen extreme sports become a new fascination. Some people devote themselves to gaining extreme wealth while others commit themselves to extreme poverty. Some have turned to extremes of violence, while others seek extreme peace through drugs or other forms of escape. What do you make of this? Why are people so eager to experience something extreme?

Finally, how can Ecclesiastes, a book of ancient wisdom, help you answer these questions today? When all else fails maybe it is time to listen to what God has said? How can you help people listen to this message? What is God calling you to do?

Jim Gordon, Elder