Soundings

Answers to pessimism

Feb 2004    

PART 5 OF THE SERIES OF MEDITATIONS ON ‘WISDOM TO LIVE BY: MODERN REFLECTIONS ON AN ANCIENT TEXT’

Ecclesiastes 2:12-26

THE Preacher continues his relentless quest for the meaning of life by once again turning to wisdom and comparing it with folly.

Some commentators say that in this instance, the Preacher has in mind practical wisdom, not the abstract philosophical kind he dabbled with earlier. In other words, by wisdom he is referring to those traditional values that are embodied in culture and society. He compares such wisdom with folly in verses 12-16, and offers his assessment. As we shall see, the comparison is straightforward enough, but the assessment is quite devastating.

The Preacher notes two observations as he compares wisdom with folly. Just as light is better than darkness, so wisdom is better than folly. The wise man, he notes further, knows where he is going, while the fool gropes in darkness. No one would dispute this.

Wisdom is a good thing for the simple reason that it enables a person to make better decisions in life. Anyone in his right mind would want to make the right decisions in life, and wisdom enables him to do so. No one would want to live in the perpetual night of folly!

After this comparison comes the shattering assessment. “But I came to realise that the same fate overtakes them both” (14b). Like the fool, the wise man will be forgotten (16a). And like the fool, the wise man also must die (16b).

Remember that the Preacher is describing life “under the sun”. He is saying that even “under the sun” wisdom is better than folly. But the secularism of life “under the sun” is unable to scale the wall of death. Both the foolish and the wise will perish into anonymity and become as nothing. This realisation is surely more devastating to the wise man. The one fate that comes to all is extinction, and it robs us of our dignity and makes every project of ours meaningless. Such is the fatalism of a godless and secular outlook to life.

Exasperated, the Preacher declares in verse 17, “So I hated life!” He speaks for many who at life’s end discover the futility of their “under the sun” existence. Much is made of the virtue of hard work in our society. There is, of course, nothing wrong with hard work per se.

But here, thinking “under the sun”, the Preacher derides all the virtues of hard work. “What’s the point of all this toiling?” he asks. “Someday, when you die, you will have to leave it all to someone else (18). You are not sure whether he will look after it or ruin your life’s work (19). You are left without a choice, but must give it to someone who has not worked for it” (21). Work may still be worth the while if, despite all these disadvantages, it is in itself an enjoyable pursuit. But this is obviously not the case: “All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest” (23).

From verses 24 to the end of the chapter the tone of the Preacher suddenly changes as he brings God into the picture. Verse 24 appears at first blush to be just a repetition of what the Preacher has discussed previously, and lists once again the very things he has rejected: food, drink and satisfaction in work. The point that the Preacher wishes to make here is a vitally important one. If the ultimate meaning in life is not found in food, drink, wisdom or work, neither is it found in rejecting them. The point is not whether one should work, but one’s understanding of work, one’s perspective. But what constitutes a healthy perspective?

So far, the Preacher has left God out of the discussion. He was concerned to paint the bleak landscape of life “under the sun”, without God. Now he brings God into the picture, and the entire landscape changes. To be sure, the composition of the landscape remains the same. But when God is brought in the entire picture brightens up. The message is a simple but profound one. Food and drink, work and rest, wisdom and knowledge – these things will bring satisfaction only when we recognise them to be from the “hand of God”. Once we recognise them as God’s gifts, we will stop our relentless striving and learn to the contented.

Contentment is a gift from God and is not dependent on one’s outward circumstances. The Preacher reminds us that everything that we have – our family, our careers, our home, even the food that we eat – are God’s gifts to us. We are to be contented with what God has given to us and to enjoy them. Meaning in life comes with contentment. And contentment is impossible unless we realise that everything that we have is God’s gift. Contentment, in the final analysis, is not a psychological state but a spiritual condition.

There can be no contentment and enjoyment without God. “This, too, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” Someone has rightly said that without contentment, life is a curse. But without God life is futile.

Dr Roland Chia, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, is also the Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at TTC. A member of Fairfield Methodist Church, he worships at Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.

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