What better way to get a little perspective on the New Year than from a 3,000 year old short little “book” of the Bible. This past year I decided I was going to read the whole Bible through, from Genesis to Revelation (great name for an album), because I hadn’t done it in a very long time. So happens right at this turn into a new year I’m reading Ecclesiastes, written by the wise King Solomon of Israel. What an astounding read it is, something those who are not biblically literate would likely never expect to find in a holy book.
It’s kind of sad reading through Ecclesiastes to realize what a price modern Americans pay for being so biblically illiterate. Regardless of what you believe the Bible to be, there are some amazing stories there and teaching that any person who seeks a better way can appreciate. Few probably realize how much of Western civilization was built upon what Christians and Jews (for the Old Testament) believe is the Word of God. Our civilization will be the poorer for the ignorance of it.
For those who do not know, King Solomon was the son of David, the king of Israel and one upon whom the arc of redemptive history rests, fulfilled as Christians believe in Jesus of Nazareth. When David passed on the throne of Israel to Solomon, the Lord appeared to him in a dream and asked him what he wanted and whatever he wanted he would grant it. Instead of asking for wealth and fame, Solomon asked for wisdom, and God gave it to him in spades:
God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. Solomon’s wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than anyone else, including Ethan the Ezrahite—wiser than Heman, Kalkol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations. He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. From all nations people came to listen to Solomon’s wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom.
One thing you might not expect from one so wise who knows God is a phrase you see throughout this little book: “Everything is meaningless.” That’s right: Everything. Meaningless. I’m sure Friedrich Nietzsche could relate, as could Woody Allen most likely. Ecclesiastes begins not with some subtle permutation on the meaning of existence. No. He knows what it really is: “Meaningless! Meaningless! Says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’
I bet if you did one of those Jay Leno “man-on-the-street” things and asked folks where this quote came from, about zero percent would answer, the Bible! After all, doesn’t the Bible have all the answers? Christians (mostly the popular cultural perception of them) seem to claim it does. Actually what the Bible suggests is a good dose of humility, and Solomon helps us see why.
Let’s be honest, who hasn’t felt this way sometimes, that life is meaningless. Even for the richest or most famous or most religious among us, life can seem awfully mundane. Even when we accomplish some great thing, or go on some great trip, or acquire something we’ve always wanted, once it’s over, once we have it, we don’t stay all bubbly and fulfilled. For some, dare I say all, we feel like, what’s next? There’s got to be more, right? So we’re on to the next thing.
And who of those who reach their 50s, 60s, 70s isn’t shocked that they’ve actually gotten older. When we are young we know theoretically we will probably get older, but it is difficult to fathom that it will actually happen to us. Then all of a sudden, it seems, it does! Here we are, January 1, 2013, and the freight train only seems to pick up steam. Meaningless!
But Solomon is no nihilist. In fact he seems quite the realist. You may have heard a song from the 1960s band The Byrds called “Turn, Turn, Turn.” It so happens they stole the lyrics from King Solomon, as we see from the first eight verses of chapter 3:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
And I’d forgotten he’s a conservative too! As we see here in chapter 10, verses 2 and 3:
The heart of the wise inclines to the right, but the heart of the fool to the left.
Even as fools walk along the road, they lack sense and show everyone how stupid they are.
As Solomon surveys his own life, and life and the lives he sees around him, I don’t think meaninglessness and a “chasing after the wind” really reflect his ultimate understanding about life. I would probably interpret meaningless as he uses it as fulfillment. No matter what we do in life, we can’t find ultimate fulfillment. There always seems to be a need for something more, a hole in us that can’t be filled, that maybe this life and what it affords us isn’t our ultimate home, isn’t all there is.
Yet he doesn’t despair, because even though he “hated life, because the work done under the sun was grievous to” him, he concludes “a man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.” And he knows this comes “from the hand of God” who gives us the gift of enjoyment. In light off all he has surveyed and all the wisdom he has been given, here is his conclusion:
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.
Obviously not a real popular sentiment in our enlightened 21st Century, but as Solomon said elsewhere, the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. And a great foundation for a humility we all ought to embrace.