Preached 20 March, 2011 * St Andrews Free Church * Shawn Bawulski
In the 2009 animated film “Up,” there is an amazing 4 minute sequence that captures the feeling of life with no dialogue at all—just music and animation. Leading up to the sequence, the main character of the movie, Carl, has met a girl during his childhood, Ellie. The sequence begins with their wedding ceremony. They make a home for themselves by fixing up a dilapidated house they used to play in as children. It becomes their dream house—small and quaint but well kept and cosy. Carl and Ellie dream of vacationing to Paradise Falls in South America. They also dream of starting a family. They turn one of their rooms into a nursery. In the next scene, they both hang their heads in a cold and sterile doctor’s office as he delivers the bad news. Deeply saddened, they make the best of their lives with just the two of them. They begin saving for their dream vacation to Paradise Falls, putting in a few cents here and there when they can. However, they have to dip into their savings when life happens, to cover car repairs or medical bills. They grow old together, making a humble life with some sweet moments. Carl realizes they finally have enough money for their trip to Paradise Falls. He buys the tickets and takes Ellie on a picnic to surprise her with the news. But he never gets the chance. On the way there Ellie falls ill and eventually fades away. After her funeral, Carl returns to a dark and empty home, all alone.
This scene is powerful—it captures the ups and downs, the disappointments and the shortness of life. It strikes a chord with us because we all sense that life is fleeting and we don’t know what will happen. Hardships and suffering are unavoidable. Eventually we meet our end. We are just a vapour, a momentary breathe in the life of the world. What does it all mean?
We all ask these types of questions, and we all have a deeply seated craving for meaning in our lives. To talk more about this, today we will look at the book of Ecclesiastes.
Before we get to our text, I want to explain a bit about Ecclesiastes so we can understand the bigger context. I’ll do this by answering three questions. First, what is this book? Ecclesiastes is a book that grapples with reality. Reality is complex, messy, and difficult. So is this book. It can be tough to understand, and I should say that this sermon gives what I consider to be the best way to understand it (but it’s not the only way). This is an OT wisdom book. In another OT wisdom book, the book of Job, the problem is that one man’s boat has unfairly sunk. In Ecclesiastes, the whole ocean is so turbulent that no one’s boat seems safe at all.
Second, how does the book work? Well, I think we should approach Ecclesiastes in the way we approach a narrated film. For example, the Lord of the Rings films have a narrator, who at times tells the story, but most of the words in the movie come straight from its characters. These characters each have different voices and perspectives. In the Lord of the Rings, for example, we are supposed to understand that what Boromir has to say about the ring is ultimately misguided and wrong—the narrator doesn’t bash us over the head with this—he lets Boromir make the point for him. Similarly, there is a voice in Ecclesiastes that we are supposed to recognize as one that falls short. The book has a unified message that is communicated through two difference voices. Let me explain. The first voice is the author of the book. The author gives the introduction in the first 11 verses of chapter 1 and also the conclusion, which is in our passage for today, starting at verse 9. He frames the entire book, and in the last few verses he gives the final word on what the book is saying. But in between we have another voice which makes up most of Ecclesiastes. This voice comes from a man called Qohelet.
Third, who is Qohelet? Qohelet is kind of a name and kind of a title. The NIV translates it “the Teacher”, sometimes it is translated “the Preacher.” It has connotations of someone who gathers—he might gather wisdom, or he might gather students together to hear his teaching. Since the name “Qohelet” has several layers of meaning, rather than translate it into English I will just use “Qohelet.” So that’s his name—but who is he? He is not Solomon, but he does sometimes take up the guise of Solomon to describe his search for meaning in life. It’s nearly impossible to say if he was an actual historical figure or if he is a persona the author uses to make his point—but in the end that’s not important. Qohelet is a wisdom teacher. He interacts with traditional bits of wisdom—he compares them to the realities of life, seeing where they stick, how far they actually go, and where they break down. He struggles with what was handed down to him, toying with wisdom sayings, sketching their boundaries and pushing them until they break. Qohelet wrestles with life, struggling back and forth and never giving us a single coherent point of view. He seems like a wisdom teacher who is nonetheless confounded, confused, and sceptical. His message seems full of contradictions, weird advice, and things that seem out of sorts with the rest of the OT and with the bible altogether.
So that’s a quick sketch of some background to the book. Before digging into chapter 12, let me summarize some themes from what Qohelet has said up to that point.
Qohelet tells us that pleasures are meaningless. In chapter 2 he talks about this: in his youth he tried to find pleasure in wine, in luxury, in affluence, in entertainment, in women—really in everything this world could offer. He denied himself nothing that his eyes desired. Yet he concludes that all pleasures ultimately proves meaningless.
He tells us that work and the pursuit of wealth is meaningless. The desire to get ahead is often motivated by envy; it becomes our master and it never truly satisfies. Besides, all that you work for will probably go to someone else when you’re gone—maybe even a stranger—, and that person might well be an undeserving fool. Work is meaningless.
Qohelet tells us that there is no justice in the world. We expect a correlation between deeds and outcomes, but that connection seems broken. The innocent and virtuous suffer and the wicked get ahead. He says, “If you see the poor being oppressed and you see justice and rights denied, do not be surprised.” (paraphrase from 5:8). The world is full of injustice and it is meaningless.
He also tells us we lack even basic control over forces that dramatically affect our lives. No one knows the future, who can say what will come? He says, “As no one has the power over the wind to contain it, so no one has the power over the time of their death.” (8:7-8) He warns us that time and chance happen to us all (9:11).
He tells that that the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom is futile. Wisdom has some advantages, but even those are very limited. And in the end the wise man and the fool end up the same—dead.
Which brings us to the theme that permeates all of Qohelet’s words—death. Death comes to everyone. He asks, “Do not all go to the same place?” (6:6) The same grave welcomes us all (9:3).
In sum, for Qohelet, all of life, taken together, amounts to absurdity. Enjoy life if you can, because death is coming. And even as you enjoy, know that the world is meaningless. Virtue does not bring reward; there is no moral order. Humanity is abandoned to chance and death, and over them we can exercise no control. Rational thought and virtuous deeds guarantee nothing. The heavens remain silent to rampant injustices. No one knows what, if anything, lies beyond the grave. In all of life, utter mystery prevails.
With that basic ‘big picture’ sketch, we now arrive at chapter 12. I will organize our passage for today under two points. The first point has to do with Qohelet’s view on death, vv. 1-8. The second point draws from the author’s epilogue in vv. 9-14, and it is about the meaning of life. Finally, at the end I will offer some points of application.
Let’s now turn to our passage for today. Imagine we’re picking up with Qohelet at the end of his life. He has just given finished giving some advice to those in their youth—it is a sort of Carpe Diem—seize the day. He says to enjoy life, within limits, but know that it is all meaningless. Moving on to explain what happens after youth, he now transitions to talking about old age and death in vv. 1-8.
In verse 1 Qohelet seems to be giving us good advice: “remember your creator.” However, this pious statement has a ring of emptiness. God is viewed as less of a person and more of a thing or a force. Qohelet uses the phrase “remember your creator” in the same clichéd way a newscaster might say of disaster victims, “they are in our thoughts and prayers.” So “remember your creator” while you are young, before you become jaded, before you realize just how dark a place the world can be. It is interesting that he advises remembering your creator, but in the description of death that follows God does not remember you—death is the end of it all. He’s actually not all that interested in God; he’s really more interested in the topic he’s transitioning to: death.
Verses 2-5 give us a powerful depiction of old age and death. Look at the imagery with me. Things grow dark. Death approaches like a shadow, like a storm cloud it casts a sad gloom over everything. He uses a household as a metaphor for the body: as the darkness of old age marches toward us, the “house” of the body starts to give out. Hands and legs start to get shaky and tremble. Strength is diminished—strong men stoop. Dental problems often mean losing teeth—there are few grinders. As the window to the world, eyes grow dim and vision decreases. Hearing becomes more and more laborious as the “doors” of our ears are closed. Sleep is often allusive and small noises like chirping birds wake us easily. Speaking can even become difficult as our song grows faint. Frailty means we are more vulnerable to injury and crime, often leading to fear. Hair turns white like an apple blossom. Our natural appetites are lost. Soon the only thing left is a funeral procession that leaves mourners scattered in its wake through the town.
Verses 6-7 continue this theme, shifting more from old age to death itself. Again, we have another pious statement that seems to be grasping at straw: remember God before it’s over, before death has had its way. The imagery of a snapped silver thread and a crushed golden bowl invoke the idea of something very valuable that has been broken and ruined—we are destroyed by death. The shattered pitcher and broken wheel together cast an image of a well that can no longer provide water that sustains life. Then, in a reversal of creation, we return to dust, and just as God first breathed life into man’s nostrils, in reverse that breath leaves the body of dust as we die. As far as we are concerned, the world returns to the way it was before we were born. For Qohelet, death is the end.
Finally, in verse 8, Qohelet’s words end the same way they began in chapter 1. As he fades into the abyss we are left with the summary of his message: “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” There are different ways to translate this word here; “meaningless” or “absurd” is probably the best. He is saying that it all is meaningless; it is all vanity; it is all absurd.
Qohelet’s point is my first point: If death is the end, then life has no meaning.
Freelance writer and atheist Greta Christina is brutally honest regarding her dilemma about dying. For an atheist, she says,
...death can be an appalling thing to think about. Not just frightening, not just painful. It can be paralyzing. The fact that your lifespan is an infinitesimally tiny fragment in the life of the universe, and that . . . when you die, you disappear completely and forever, and that in five hundred years nobody will remember you and in five billion years the Earth will be boiled into the sun: this can be a profound and defining truth about your existence that you reflexively repulse, that you flinch away from and refuse to accept or even think about, consistently pushing to the back of your mind whenever it sneaks up, for fear that if you allow it to sit in your mind even for a minute, it will swallow everything else. It can make everything you do, and everything anyone else does, seem meaningless, trivial to the point of absurdity. It can make you feel erased, wipe out joy, make your life seem like ashes in your hands.
She offers some suggestions as to how an atheist might avoid the force of these implications, but her advice is hallow and naive—like someone trying to avoid an inevitable conclusion. Qohelet is dead right: if death is the end, life has no meaning.
For the Christian, death is not the end. In fact, as the consequence of sin, Paul says that death is the enemy. Of course, Christians don’t avoid physical death, but it has no claim over us. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” I’ll have more to say about this in a bit, but for now let me point out that when a person is right with God, death loses its power.
If Qohelet’s point about death were all there is to say on the matter, only despair would remain. But the author of Ecclesiastes has the final word. Let’s turn now to vv. 9-14. In this section we find the second point of today’s sermon: life is only meaningful when we are right with God.
Qohelet does not get the last word. The author of the book gives us a conclusion in the epilogue. In verses 9-12 he gives an evaluation of all we’ve heard from Qohelet. There is a change of voice in the text as the author switches from the persona of Qohelet to give his own comments on what the teacher has said. Let’s look at his assessment. First, Qohelet was industrious and worked hard in his search for wisdom. He was a wisdom teacher who taught the people, he studied the proverbs of his tradition and tested them. He tried to find just the right words, he searched and tried to find what is true—and to an extent, he did. He rightly calls out the nastiness in life that others too often sugar coat. He challenges the idea that we can dispose of the difficulties of life by just applying some wisdom proverbs—as if things were that simple. This much he got right.
But in addition to praise, there is criticism from the author. Interestingly, Qohelet did a lot of searching without really finding what he was seeking. His entire life was spent looking for meaning but in the end he came up empty. In verse 11, wisdom teaching like Qohelet’s “stings” when it is applied—just like nails at the end of a goad, which was a long, pointed stick that prods cattle into line. When the shepherd applies this, it causes pain; and when the wisdom teaching of a “shepherd” like Qohelet applies his words, it smarts. Verse 12 mentions “the making of many books” and “much study wearies the body.” When I was in seminary this verse was quoted from one student to another to complain about the academic workload. I’d have to say too much to fully explain, so let me just say that I think one thing we can take from this verse is that wisdom does not lie in perpetually seeking answers—just seeking for the sake of seeking—but is about finding meaningful answers. In the last two verses of the book, the author turns us to this very thing. Let’s look.
Here in verses 13-14 the author tells us what we should learn from the message of Qohelet. He says,
Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.
The author gives us an imperative: Fear God and keep his commands. Qohelet gave the advice to “fear God” a few times, but when he does, his meaning behind the word “fear” is not quite right. It tends too much towards a crude sense of “be afraid.” We are to fear God in the sense of revere, respect, honour, and worship—that is what the author commands us to do. This “holy fear,” if you will, is one that comes in the context of a right relationship with God.
Not only are we to revere and worship God, we are to keep his commandments. Qohelet never said anything about obeying God or keeping his commandments—for him, God was distant and impersonal. The author tells us to obey God—a God who not only created the world and is sovereign over it, but also who loves his creatures and has entered into a special covenant relationship with his people, telling them how they should live. This is the God we are to obey.
Then we are given two reasons why we should fear and obey. The first is that this is the most important thing a man or woman can do. V. 13, “...this is the whole duty of man.” This is why we were created; this is our ultimate purpose and meaning in life. Imagine if someone bought a new computer and used it as a paperweight, never turning it on, or if a Stradivarius violin were never played but someone found it in their attic and used it for firewood. We would consider this a shame. In the same way, a person who does not honour and obey God is even more of a shame—they are missing out on what it means to be truly human.
The second reason to fear and obey is because God will make everything right. “Every deed,” even “every hidden thing” will be judged. Qohelet never had this perspective—for him, injustice has no answer. But this is where his view falls short—there will be a future judgement. In the end, evil does not go unanswered. In the end, justice will be done. When God has the final word, the world will be set right. It really does matter what we do now—so worship and obey the God who is just, who will someday come and set all things right.
To sum up today’s sermon in one sentence: fear God and obey him, because this is the meaning of life.
Qohelet’s overall message is this: Life is full of trouble and then you die. With a sigh he resigns to this and advises us to make the best of it. But ultimately he never rises above it. He is, in the end, a sceptic. He is introspective and lonely in the universe. His view is one of loss, futility, and distance. He stands at the ragged edge of a world gone wrong and calls it like he sees it—absurd, meaningless.
He refuses to address God, complaining instead to his own heart. Saying “all is absurd” is ultimately a protest against God.
We are supposed to see where Qohelet has fallen short. We are supposed to deem his view inadequate and resist the conclusion that everything is meaningless. We are instead to recognize how our lives can have meaning: by fearing God and obeying him. Our lives are a gift and are short. Live life before God.
Let me offer three points of application.
First, on the lure of secularism. Qohelet’s voice is in our bibles to encourage us to take seriously the difficulties he so poignantly identifies. He dispels our illusions—the universe is not comprehensible and malleable—we cannot control it. We are not gods. But in the end I think we are supposed to recognize that his worldview misses the mark. He presents us a true assessment of a world without the gospel.
In many ways he sounds modern, like the secular person. In our day, materialism runs rampant. People will cut down whoever gets in the way in order to get ahead. People try to be masters of their own lives. People around us have a spiritual emptiness and a world-weariness. Since death is a ticking clock, get yours while you can. This sounds an awful lot like Qohelet’s world.
The problem with Qohelet’s view of the world is the same with secularism—quite frankly, it goes against our nature. We are designed for fellowship with God—this is the whole duty of being human. This is our purpose, this is why we exist. Anything that falls short of this right relationship with God is headed down a road to meaninglessness. Only with self deception can we pretend that life means anything apart from God.
Brothers and sisters, when the idols of secularism and materialism catch your eye, resist by remembering where that road leads. It is a dead end that ends in death. If you are here today and you are not a believer and your life seems meaningless, I implore you turn to God, revere and worship him, and obey his commands. There—and only there—can a truly meaningful life be found.
The second point of application involves a few words on injustice. Qohelet repeatedly brings up the injustices in the world. He taps into a tension that we have as Christians: the vision of an ultimately just God vs. the reality that we perceive. We can’t give up either of these. God goodness cannot be denied, and neither can the evil of the world. Too often Christians see the world through rose-coloured glasses.
What do we do with this tension? Why does God allow these things to happen? Why doesn’t God rectify these injustices now?
The answer is that God is patient with us. He is graciously patient with sinners and with the world in postponing judgement. By his patience he gives the world an opportunity to repent—but he will not wait forever. As verse 14 says, “...God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” In the future the Lord will return to judge the world. The right response to injustice is to hope in Christ’s return, not to sink into despair.
The third and final application is on how we should respond to an absurd world. In my research I frequently think about the problem of evil. I reflect quite a bit on what is wrong with the world. There’s an emotional weight that cannot be denied; a psychological toll that wears on even the strongest of us. Sometimes I feel as if I’m mourning—not anything specific—just saddened by the existence of evil in general. Quite honestly, in many ways Qohelet has rightly diagnosed the world—it is broken. We find ourselves in this messed-up place, and there are existential questions that have no satisfying answers in any theology book. Theology can give us some very good responses to the problem of evil but none of them take away the sting we feel when the brokenness of the world touches our lives.
When we find ourselves confronted with the absurdity of the world, when the weight of this life grinds us down, there are no words or explanations that will satisfy. There is nothing I could say to you to make it all better. There is only one way to make sense of it all: fear God, and keep his commands. Through worship and obedience, God fortifies our lives with meaning and purpose. These can be found nowhere else.
To wrap up: Qohelet vividly captures the despair of a world without the true God. Qohelet had a distant and impersonal God; today many people deny God altogether. Either way, the worldview that’s left over cannot escape being meaningless and absurd. Qohelet rightly describes the horror of a broken world; what he lacks is hope. Jesus Christ redeems us from meaninglessness and absurdity. He entered into human existence; he took on flesh and bone like ours. God incarnate experienced the vanity of the world so that we might be freed from it. He took the brokenness and curse of the world upon himself. He looked death in the eye and went willingly into that absurdity, only to prove victorious over it. His death means that ours is not the end of us; his life means that our lives can have meaning.
God does not stand aloof, indifferent to us. He is involved with the world. The ultimate expression of this is the incarnation. He does not turn a blind eye to suffering and injustice: instead, God took on flesh in the person of Jesus Christ and went through the worst of all suffering. The innocent man, Jesus Christ, is put to death for our sins. 1 Pet. 3:18, “...Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” To a world that appears absurd, God responds with the biggest “absurdity” of all: the scandal of the cross.