We begin this month with a series of reflections on the Book of Ecclesiastes entitled
‘Wisdom to Live By: Modern Reflections on an Ancient Text’.
SINCE time immemorial human beings have been pondering over the meaning of life. “Why is there something, and not nothing?”, enquired the ancient Greek philosophers. What is the purpose of life? What is the meaning and goal of human striving?
The exponential growth of knowledge that is witnessed in our modern world has not made the discovery of the answers to these questions any easier. We have succeeded in exploring the far reaches of space and in uncovering the hidden secrets of our genes. But the meaning and purpose of our lives still continue to elude us.
In the final decade of the last century, the renowned Russian author of The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, could write, “The victory of technological civilisation has also instilled a spiritual insecurity in us. Its gifts enrich, but enslave us as well. All is interests – we must not neglect our interests – all is a struggle for material things; but an inner voice tells us that we have lost something pure, elevated and fragile. We have ceased to see the purpose.”
Questions about the meaning of life have assumed a perennial character. They are taken up and examined with brutal honesty by the writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes, who calls himself the Preacher. The Preacher stands squarely within the Wisdom Tradition of the Old Testament, and Ecclesiastes belongs to that body of literature, which includes Proverbs. Yet the Preacher’s approach is unique, and there is not a book in the Old Testament that speaks quite in his tone of voice.
This has proved problematic for a number of the interpreters of Ecclesiastes. The Preacher’s probing and provocative approach has caused some to conclude that he was a sceptic or a pessimist. His exacerbating cry at the very beginning of the book, “Vanities of vanities”, or “Utter futility”, certainly makes him vulnerable to such misinterpretation. To make matters worse, the absence of quotation marks in Hebrew makes it difficult to tell whether he is expressing his own views or quoting the views of others.
The striking omissions of the Preacher also leave some of his interpreters with no choice but to conclude that he was a pessimist. The Preacher uses phrases like “under the sun”, “under heaven” and “on earth” to denote man’s earthly life as it is seen from a secular perspective. Viewed from this standpoint, life takes character of sheer futility. Mankind gains nothing “under the sun” – his pleasures do not bring gain (2:11), and his efforts and achievements in the end bring him nothing but grief (2:17f).
Even the most noble of human pursuits – that of wisdom – leaves man dissatisfied, empty and sorrowful at the end (1:18). Whatever wisdom might be able to do for man, it cannot do anything the eventuality of human life.
The Preacher points out that in the end the wise man will perish together with the fool (2:15-17). Death is the great equaliser! Such is the bleak pessimism of those who would live life under the sun. The Preacher’s arguments are compelling. The picture that he paints depicts life as a road to nowhere, as a meaningless pursuit of things that would evaporate into nothing, and a chasing after empty dreams that will only terminate in death.
But although the Preacher develops this pessimistic picture with a dizzying intensity, he is not recommending that his readers adopt this approach or outlook to life. In Ecclesiastes, the Preacher does not begin straightaway with God, but with observable reality, and with the concrete world, so to speak. To grasp what the Preacher is getting at, we must not read only the opening chapters and form our conclusions based on them. We must read the whole book.
The Preacher leaves God out of most of the account. But when he suddenly and dramatically introduces God, everything begins to change. It is as if the sun suddenly appears on the horizon, shedding light on the grey and gloomy surface of our world and radically transforming it.
When God is introduced, the “under the sun” terminology recedes to the background. When the world is interpreted in light of the purposes of God, everything changes. Suddenly, even mundane activities like eating and drinking are interpreted as divine grace, i.e., as coming from “the hand of God”, and as gifts from God (2:24f). Suddenly, too, the Preacher speaks of the joy of man (2:25; 3:12; 5:18, 20; 9:7; 11:7-9) and recognises the divine generosity towards him (2:26; 3:13; 5:19).
In his intermittent references to God, the Preacher invites the reader to look at the world through radically different lenses. He invites his readers to enter into this “world” where God is ever present and where life itself is interpreted as nothing less than a precious gift from God. In other words, to the question, “Where can we find the meaning of life?”, the Preacher stoutly and resolutely replies, “The meaning of life is found in God!”
It is my sincere hope and prayer that as we reflect on the pages of the book of Ecclesiastes, we will hear God’s Word in them, come to acknowledge the futility of life without God, and learn to “fear God and obey his commandments”. (12: 13).
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.