There are so many verses, chapters, and books in the Bible which resonate with me as a Christian philosopher/apologist. Ecclesiastes ranks near the top, however, due to its wonderfully philosophical message and style. The underlying theme of Ecclesiastes is that without God, everything is meaningless.
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.’… What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:2, 9).
The book starts with the idea that there is “nothing new under the sun.” The theme of “under the sun” is important to note. Consistently, “under the sun” is used to refer to “on earth.” It is in stark contrast to the “permanence of heaven” (TLSB). The theme contrasting life here on earth with heaven does not become apparent until very late in the book, so we too shall leave it until the end.
Solomon continues to explore the idea that that which we do “under the sun” is utterly meaningless. “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (1:18). The more we know, the more we sorrow. We can see themes like this in atheists like Albert Camus or Sartre, whose exploration of a world without God lead them to question whether suicide may be the only valid option.
“For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity [also translated “meaningless”]. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return” (3:19-20). The Teacher/Preacher goes on to contemplate our end: “Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? …Who can bring [man] to see what will be after him?” (3:21, 22b). It is death itself which makes life meaningless. Who knows what happens after death? Everything “appears utterly futile” (Waltke).
However, the Preacher/Teacher does not want us to collapse into despair. Without God, under the sun, all is meaningless. But with God, there is hope, joy, and meaning. This theme is sown in chapter 5 (verses 2-3; 7; and 19-20). Yet before fully developing this theme, Solomon returns to a life (and death) under the sun.
The existential life under the sun is absurd. “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun” (9:5-6). Again the theme is “under the sun”. Without God, the life under the sun is meaning. We die, we pass away forever, we know not what comes after death, and even our actions pass away from under the sun. We no longer have a “share” in what is done under the sun.
The theme repeats throughout the book. “Under the sun”, all is meaningless, there is nothing new, and life itself passes away. Even a constant search for pleasure can only be meaningless.
Yet the conclusion to Ecclesiastes radically re-imagines the book. Solomon’s point so far has been that “you cannot make sense of life” (Waltke). Life under the sun is meaningless, futile, and vain. Existentially, the more we know, the more despair we can find. The more we explore life “under the sun,” the more we realize that it will be extinguished, and our actions will no longer impact that life.
The story does not end there, however. “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:13-14). The final verses of the book turn the meaning of the entire work about. The Preacher/Teacher comes to the conclusion: without God, all is meaningless; with God, there is good and evil, there is judgment, and there is duty. Rather than striving for nothing, we should strive for God. Rather than despair and futility; there is duty and good. Without God, life is meaningless; with God, there is meaning.
Bruce Waltke, “Understanding the Old Testament.” Institute of Theological Studies. 2009.
The Lutheran Study Bible. (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2009).
The picture is from The Lutheran Study Bible.
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I love the Book of Ecclesiastes and I loved this article. Keep up the good work. I even put the article up on my blog.