Ecclesiastes is a carefully crafted whole, but as befits the Teacher’s search for meaning, the book tracks back and forth as he explores area after area of life. His autonomous way of knowing, starting not with the fear of the Lord but depending on his experience, observation and reason, leads him repeatedly to the conclusion that life is “meaningless” no matter what area of life he examines (e.g., 1:2, 14; 2:1, 11, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 26). It is not that there is no meaning in life; rather, if there is meaning in life, the Teacher simply cannot grasp it—just like he cannot grasp the wind. The life is utterly enigmatic.
Throughout the book, however, next to his dark conclusions we find “joy passages” that affirm the meaningfulness of life (2:24-26; 3:12-14, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 11:7-12:7). A major challenge of reading Ecclesiastes is determining how to read the joy passages in relation to the conclusions of meaninglessness. The joy passages are not answer to the conclusions of meaninglessness, but, are set deliberately next to them to show us the extent of the Teacher’s struggle. As a believer, he knows that life is meaningful (as expressed in the joy passages), but his examination of area after area of life leads him to the opposite conclusion (the conclusion of meaninglessness). The resulting tension between these two approaches to life is at the heart of Ecclesiastes. The book poses this question for the believer: How do you resolve this tension when your faith teaches you that life is meaningful, but everything you observe, and experience seems to point in the opposite direction? Thus, the big question Ecclesiastes poses is not just about the meaningless of work (1:3), but about how you know if life is meaningful amid circumstances in which nothing seems to make sense.
In order to see how resolution comes for the Teacher, we have to follow him on his journey. We must read this book patiently and, as with suffering, wait to see how resolution comes. The path to resolution comes from two directions:
First, as his journey progresses, it becomes increasingly apparent that his autonomous method of knowing, based on his experience, reason and observation alone is not that of wisdom but that of folly. The key passages that highlights this point are Eccl 5:1-7 and 7:23-29. The first passage urges readers to listen to God’s instruction and exhorts to fear God. The second passage shows that an autonomous way of knowing will get one only into deeper and deeper despair when one is faced with enigmas of life.
Second, resolution comes through the indication of a better knowing in 11:7—12:7. “Remember your Creator” (12:1) is the second major clue to resolving the Teacher’s struggle. “Remember” is more than a casual reminder. It means letting your whole perspective on life be informed by the view that God created everything. This is precisely what has been missing in the Teacher’s autonomous method; it has all been rooted in himself—indeed one of the great characteristics of Ecclesiastes is the endless use of the first person, “I.” The answer to the perplexities of life is to find a way back to the starting point of God as the Creator of everything. This does not take one away from the struggles of life (12:2-7), but puts one in a position to affirm life and its meaninglessness amid the very real struggles of life in a fallen world.
* Adapted from NIV Zondervan Study Bible.
Bible Reading Column by Pastor Charles Lee.
Mississauga Campus Lead Pastor
This Week’s Bible Reading Schedule:
|Monday: Ecclesiastes 5||☐||Thursday: Ecclesiastes 8||☐|
|Tuesday: Ecclesiastes 6||☐||Friday: Ecclesiastes 9||☐|
|Wednesday: Ecclesiastes 7||☐||Saturday: Ecclesiastes 10||☐|