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Category: Ecclesiastes

Meaningless sunshine

Photo by Daniel HochhalterEver since I first read Ecclesiastes, I have been intrigued by this mysterious book. Though I have always struggled with its meaning, I have also been intrigued by and even drawn to its words. I hope that this has nothing to do with a naturally pessimistic temperament, though it could very well be.

Ecclesiastes a small poem hidden in the shadow of the much larger and more-often-quoted book of Proverbs. Proverbs offers more certainty, is more formulaic in its maxims: Righteousness leads to good results; wickedness leads to bad ones. Ecclesiastes, on the other hand, is far less certain. It speaks of a teacher who spends his entire life seeking—and achieving—wisdom, and experiencing many of the benefits of Proverbs, but still finds everything “under the sun…meaningless.”

But, we silently wonder, everything under the sun was created by Almighty God – so how can it all be meaningless? It seems like a big, theological contradiction. It doesn’t quite fit the narrative of evangelism: “God loves you and has a wonderful [read: meaningful] plan for your life.” It’s troublesome. So we avoid it.

However, the whole point of Ecclesiastes, first introduced in Ecclesiastes 1:9, is that “there is nothing new under the sun”:

Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 2:11

The phrase “under the sun ” – repeated over and over in Ecclesiastes – is an umbrella statement that includes anything and everything that is, well, under the sun. But in the repetition lies a hidden clue, a subtle implication that this meaninglessness does not include that which is above the sun. Would this mean stars or planets then? No. I am not referring to above the sun in spacial terms, but in hierarchical terms.

The teacher in Ecclesiastes gives an answer to his own clue. After examining the vast empire he has built and declaring it all meaningless, he concludes with:

Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them” (Ecc 12:1)

And there it is. Meaning is found only above the sun, in God alone.

Recently this was brought home to me in a new way through a sermon I heard on Ecclesiastes, and I’ve been chewing on it ever since.

All my life, I have been an attention-seeker. In junior high I was somewhat of a reject, so I went out of my way to compensate. As I matured, my attention-seeking evolved into the pursuit of a meaningful life. I needed my life to be important, to have meaning. I sought avenues that I thought might provide that meaning: ministry, education, jobs, etc. I looked down on—or avoided altogether—some simple tasks or duties as “meaningless.” My hope—like pretty much everyone else’s—has been to have purpose and meaning in this life.

My book, Losers Like Us, is set to be released in the coming days. The recent teaching I heard on Ecclesiastes shone a brilliant light into yet another dark place in my heart: do I see this book release as another possible path to meaning? In this exciting season of my life, am I seeking meaning through sales figures or other forms of attention that might come from publication?

I pray not. Because—just like everything else under the sun—this season is temporary and ultimately meaningless. Ecclesiastes serves as a powerful reminder that nothing “under the sun” can bring meaning—not an educational degree, not a career, not wealth, not ministry, and not the publication of books. All of it is meaningless.

To look for meaning under the sun will only bring frustration and defeat. Instead I must look above the sun to the one who created it all.

Meaning lies in God alone. Only in God himself—the great I AM, the Creator of all—will we ever find the meaning we so desperately want and need.

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