Monday, October 15, 2007

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.



At 10/15/2007 2:13 PM, Blogger brad brisco said...

As to point #4, after watching 60 minutes last night I think the answer is to be found in Osteen's latest book :)

At 10/15/2007 2:23 PM, Blogger John Frye said...

I missed 60 Minutes...what was the gist of the segment regarding Osteen's book?

BTW, thanks for stopping by. I went to your web site. You've got some great material there. Thanks!

At 10/15/2007 4:39 PM, Blogger brad brisco said...

Well I felt like they went pretty easy on Osteen. I didn't think they talked enough about his prosperity slant on everything. My wife said he was on one of the morning shows this morning as well. He is really promoting the new book. Yesterday I read a good bit on internet monk's site.

Thanks for stopping by my blog. I am in the midst of a dmin project on missional issues and hope to post much of what I am doing.

At 10/15/2007 6:43 PM, Blogger John Frye said...

what specifically is your dmin project and what school are you doing it through?

At 10/17/2007 6:45 AM, Blogger brad brisco said...


The project is focused on equipping pastors and church leaders to lead their churches in developing a missional ecclesiology. My main focus will be teaching on the missional nature of the church and then move to assisting the church to reallocate certain resources, such as prayer, staff, time, facilities and finances in a more externally focused direction.

I am doing it at a Baptist seminary here in KC called Midwestern. It wasn't my first choice but it is only about 30 minutes from my home and they were open to my project idea.

Thanks for asking :)

At 10/17/2007 11:10 AM, Blogger John Frye said...


Thanks for letting me know. I'd be interested in your findings as you do your project and write your paper.

God bless!

At 10/18/2007 2:23 AM, Blogger Ted M. Gossard said...

Helpful thoughts on this fascinating book. I really love this book as part of the whole. Even left to itself it's left shimmering, but we need the rest of the story (which we actually live in, anyhow) to really begin to get what Qoheleth is getting at.

Thanks for helping bring this alive to me this morning.

At 10/18/2007 8:10 AM, Blogger John Frye said...

Thank you for commenting...I like your word shimmering for the wonderful book of Ecclesiastes.

At 9/30/2009 6:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...




















At 12/12/2009 7:46 AM, Blogger leroy said...

My understanding of the word rendered as "meaningless" is that the Hebrew offers and equally viable translation meaning "vaporous." So, "vapor of vapors, all is vaporous." In other words, trying to find purpose in life through all kinds of activities, pursuits, etc., is like chasing after the wind. Aspects of life are elusive, we can't grasp and hold on - we breathe out and our breath dissipates. Life is short, so better than chasing after the wind, we find pleasure and meaning and purpose in acknowledging God in our work, relationships, the simple things that are rooted in the reality of God's presence and provision - because life is short.

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