Ecclesiastes' Reality Check
There used to be an indelicate bumper sticker that read "Sh*t Happens." (I'm not trying to be provocative with this. Just reporting what I've seen.)
I think that Qoheleth, the wisdom writer of the Book of Ecclesiastes says it more delicately and robustly, " 'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher. 'Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.' "
A group of friends and I recently looked up every reference to "meaningless" in Ecclesiastes. What an apparent negative drumbeat about life---knowledge is meaningless, as is pleasure, success, money, fame, royalty, building an inheritance, work, youth and vigor, death and more!
Yet, the pertinent question is this: Is Qoheleth being negative with his repetitive "meaningless" refrain?
Qoheleth is writing in the tradition of Jewish wisdom. These are some "givens" in his outlook:
1. God is the creator of humanity and of all things (7:27; 11:5; 12:1; 12:7 = Gen 2:7).
2. Human beings experienced a "Fall"--a cracking of the Eikon according to Scot McKnight (7:27; 9:3; rebellion makes humans like "beasts" 3:18).
3. All existence was subjected to meaninglessness as the Book of Ecclesiastes reports. The Hebrew word is hebel (pronounced hev-el) and it means "breath, vapor, insubstantiality, useless." Paul picks up on this reality and writes that God will redeem it (Romans 8:20-21 where the term "frustration" is from the Greek word for hebel).
4. Life does not unfold in a tidy "cause-effect" manner. This truth is what strains the mind and sears the heart of the wisdom writer. Ponder this: "There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: righteous people who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked people who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless." Why is this so troubling? Recall Deuteronomy 28--the blessings and the cursings formula? That's why!
Qoheleth is not being negative--a party pooper, a nay-sayer. He's being realistic. We live life in a world created by God and that world has suffered a severe blow because of sin. Qoheleth wants us to wake up and smell the coffee, to hear the screams of the oppressed, to ponder the debauchery of the rich, to smell the nauseating odors of death, to grapple with unexplainable injustice, to monitor our own hearts and honestly admit the evil that is there.
We humans know that things are "not the way they ought to be." We all long for something more, something deeper, more fulfilling. We commiserate, "There's just got to be more to life than this." Even the restless longing is an evidence that we've been touched by God. "[God] has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end" (3:12). We want to know what will happen next and we can't know it (8:7). Here is the smartest thing in the book about meaninglessness: "No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if a wise person claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it."
Sometimes there is more behind a bumper sticker than meets the eye.