Ecclesiastes: Meaningless Life?
Running To Your Funeral: Ecclesiastes 2:12-26
Do you remember the last day of school when you were a kid?
How productive were you on that day?
Teachers know it is futile to even attempt to get the kids to do anything on the last day. And so, that day is usually filled with movies, parties, and field days rather than tests, presentations, or projects.
Because, if there is no opportunity for reward or award, there is no motivation to expend any effort to accomplish anything. After all, if I won’t be here tomorrow, why exert any energy today?
Life is like the last day of school. At some point you will die. Your last day is coming, and you don’t know when it will be. It could be today. It could be many decades from today. Either way, one thing is certain, you will have a last day. And, once you die everything you were working on, toward, and for will have come to an end. Because of death, life can feel like mere vanity. Death is the great equalizer. No matter how high we ascend in life, when it’s all said and done everyone ends up around six feet under.
Those who are getting old, battling a major health problem, or prone toward melancholy see this more clearly and feel this more painfully. Those who are still young and strong tend toward optimism and don’t think much about death, but instead focus their gaze on carving out a meaningful life. Keenly aware of this fact, the elderly Solomon, who sees his finish line of death fast approaching, yells back to the young generation fresh out of the starting blocks of life about the futility of the lane they are running in. That lane has been popular and purposeless for three thousand years since – study hard in school so that you can get a good job.
The findings of history’s wisest fool are shocking, disorienting, and troubling. After all, is this not precisely what every good parent tells their kids – that the key to a great life is good grades in school that allow you to find a good career path? But, is that all there is to life, or have we missed something?
After surveying the boring rut of life (Eccl. 1:1-11), and the depressing inability to straighten out our crooked world (1:12-18), Solomon took some time to chase the popular diversions associated with pleasure, only to discover that the pursuit of happiness is a an Easter egg hunt without any eggs (2:1-11). He then continues his search for meaningful life in wisdom and work, or getting educated and getting things done – our equivalent to getting a degree and a good job.
The ambitious optimists, or the “wise” among us devote their lives to study, knowledge, and insight, trying to make sense of the world and possibly also to straighten out the crooked mess. Conversely, the lazy pessimists, or the “fools” have lost hope of changing the world and embrace the fatalistic conclusion that being informed or transformed is a waste of time.
The amount of information on planet earth is increasing at staggering rates. We now have more data about life than ever before. In addition, we are free to pursue education through a seemingly limitless number of opportunities in any field imaginable. Yet, no matter how much we know, we will one day die having not changed the world in any lasting way by our vast knowledge.
In the end, both brilliant scholars who devoted their whole lives to study, and those who gave up trying to learn, grow, or change both end up in the same place – a hole in the ground to largely be forgotten. To Solomon, the entire scenario seems quite unfair since we could certainly use the skills and talents of doctors, teachers, researchers, counselors and others who become more helpful the longer they live yet they die too early.
This depressing scenario raises the question– why bother knowing anything? Why bother running the rat race of life if it’s just a sprint to your own funeral?
Solomon then shifts his focus to our work, that which we devote the best years and energies of our life to apply all our learning. Work is simultaneously unavoidable and necessary. Work began with God, our Creator, who initially designed us (before the Fall) to work and build a culture that glorified Him (Gen. 1:27-28, 2:15). Because of our subsequent sin, God cursed the ground so that creation continually wars against us, making all labor a frustrating toil. We die because of the curse and the dirt ultimately wins, filling in the holes around our dead bodies (Gen. 3:1-19). God did this not because He hates us, but because He wanted us to taste the frustration that ensues when that which is supposed to be ruled instead rebels. He wants us to comprehend how frustrating we (who are supposed to be under His rule) have become, causing us to run to Him in repentance of sin, responding to his grace with our obedience.
Today, the world is such a mess and so many things are undone (1:15) that we continue to work both in paid and unpaid labors, trying desperately to straighten out all that is crooked. In the United States today, we work more hours each year than any nation on the earth. Yet, with the curse still in effect, we end up hating our jobs, never getting all our work done, and longing for the myth of retirement when we won’t have to “work” anymore. Once retired, we wake up to find that even if we don’t have a job, we still have a lot to do just to live, it is all toil, and we still find our lives frustrating and unsatisfying. The bottom line is that we work ourselves to the breaking point so that we can buy a house and fill it with nice things, only to die and have someone who spent their life skipping class and napping at work move in and sit in our chair which is barely used because we had no time to sit down.
If you stop to think about your work, what it’s accomplishing, and why you should keep working, you will likely end up very discouraged, start wearing black, and listening to bands fronted by people whose dad did not hug them enough. But, this kind of reflection on “why we do what we do” is rare because we are so stressed out by our work that we lay awake at night, so overwhelmed by what we have to do that we don’t even have the time or energy to ask if we should be doing it.
Solomon’s summary is sad. No matter how hard you study in school to get good grades and earn the right degree, even if you land your dream job you will wind up frustrated, aggravated, and agitated. You won’t be happy or satisfied.
Instead, you will lay on your bed all night stressed and depressed, unable to sleep as your health suffers, while you realize that your dream life is actually your nightmare.
Does this sound familiar?
Is there another answer?
I sure hope so. For men, we’ve even created a category of “midlife crisis” to explain what happens when a man realizes that his life efforts at work are, as Solomon says, “meaningless”. Curiously, the very day I was studying for this message I ran across a news story some months ago saying that the number one category of suicidal people alive on the earth are men who are 44 years of age and unemployed. That may not mean much to you, but as a 44-year-old unemployed man it seemed painfully pertinent. Without the Holy Spirit leading me through God’s Word, and wise counsel starting with my wife, I’m not sure I’d be faring any better than the average man in the current season of my life. Subsequently, the Spirit’s timeless counsel through Solomon seems incredibly timely.
Life, no matter what we have, where we go, or what we achieve something is missing unless Someone is present. In some ways, this reminds me of marriage. My wife and I met at 17 years of age and have been together for 27 years, and married for 23. I truly love just having her around. As my nearest and dearest friend, whatever I am doing is better with her, and something is missing when she’s not around. Recently, I’ve even been following her to the grocery store a lot. For most of our marriage, she has gone to the grocery store alone, or with a few kids in tow. I don’t particularly like shopping, so she was surprised some months ago when I followed her to the car to join her at the grocery store. Why? I just like being with Grace, so being at the grocery store with her is better than being somewhere else without her. So, I’ve been following her to the grocery store ever since.
Similarly, it is God’s presence that makes all the difference. Life is much more about who loves us and who we love than what we know or what we do. Knowing and doing are great but meaningless, if done apart from loving.
Drawing toward his conclusion for this unit of thought, Solomon in essence ponders that since we are all going to die and life is a crooked mess, what are we to do with the few days we have under the sun before the coroner comes to pick us up? Solomon’s answer is both stunning and liberating. We should be so wise that we waste all our time trying to understand life, or so foolish that we waste all our time trying to avoid it, but instead stick close to God and enjoy it. Our problem is that we often spend so much time trying to figure out life (through wisdom), straighten out life (through work), or avoid life (through folly) that we die before actually getting around to enjoying life (through grace).
The big idea is that everyone gets certain gifts from God such as life, food, and work. Moreover, it is the children of God who walk with Him faithfully that also obtain deep enjoyment and satisfaction. In this way, the gifts are not complete without the Giver. This is a great secret, that our stuff and our satisfaction are two different things, and that our satisfaction does not come from our stuff rather from our Savior. One commentator likens this to the difference between cans of peaches and can openers, whereby everyone gets a can of peaches but only God has the opener and we must come to Him to get the can opened so we can enjoy the peaches.
Pulling back, like Google Earth, for a fuller view, the world comes into better perspective as we move from Solomon to the One who is wiser still, the Lord Jesus. Death is indeed coming for us, but it is in fact a beginning rather than an end. The Lord Jesus alone has conquered the great enemy of death, and returned to life to reveal to us what awaits us on the other side. For the people of God, on the other side of death is a Kingdom where the curse is no more because sin is no more. In this world, people receive temporal awards, but in that Kingdom God’s people receive eternal rewards for living wisely and working faithfully. In this way, life along the journey toward our forever home is an opportunity to make memories and store up our treasure in heaven as Jesus taught.
Perhaps a closing illustration will help. Some years ago, the family and I were on summer vacation together in central Oregon. The weather was perfect and the place we were staying was built for family fun, complete with bike paths, parks, and an enormous waterslide park. There were families literally everywhere. Most of the parents I chatted with had a similar story. Mom and dad studied hard in school so they could go to college. In college they studied even harder in order to get a degree that would qualify them for a good job. They then worked hard at that job, enduring great stress and pressure, at a great cost to their own health and well being to build a career.
Somewhere along the way, they fell in love, married, and (once financially secure enough) they started having kids. This led to even more pressure to master their career and work hard on the job. These families also saved up their money to take a nice family vacation together. Yet, as the younger kids played in the pool and flew down the waterslides, the parents could be found sitting around the pool ignoring their kids as they frantically worked their job from their cell phones and laptops. Next to them, older children feeling the pressures of college summer school classes were doing homework and stressed.
The moral of the story is that there’s nothing wrong with studying hard, getting good grades, and excelling at work. On the other hand, sometimes you just need to put your textbook or Macbook down and go jump in the pool to have some fun.
When the Bible tell us that God is our Father and we are his children, this is at least in part what is meant. Yes, Dad wants us to do our homework and do our chores, but what matters most to him is getting time together to make memories and have fun with his kids. Otherwise, life may be impressive and productive, but it’s also relationally hollow, empty, and shallow. God wants a relationship with us and wants us to have a relationship with our spouse, children, and friends because these relationships help make our meaningless life meaningful.
Questions For Personal and Group Study Ecclesiastes 2:12-26
- How does our view of death affect how we view the meaning of life?
- In what ways have you sought to enjoy life through folly? What did you learn?
- In what ways have you sought to understand life through study? What did you learn?
- In what ways have you sought to change life through work? What did you learn?
- Would you say that you primarily see God as a teacher who wants you to learn, boss who wants you to work, or Father who wants to enjoy life with you?
- Can you think of the last time you were conscious of God’s presence and how that made the moment meaningful?