Life is a short trip with a lot of exit ramps, small streets, and cul-de-sacs.
The book of Ecclesiastes basically revolves around a search for meaning. In it, we’ll encounter words and ideas like “searching,” “testing,” “learning,” “seeking,” and “striving.”
Some of the greatest crises of your life will emerge from lapses of meaning. For instance, you may wake up one day and ask yourself, “Is this my life? I could do better, and have better.” You imagine yourself inventing something, or changing something, standing for something, or collecting something, building something, enjoying something, or discovering something.
None of this is a problem until you begin to attach ultimate meaning to those things, and then begin making bad decisions that lead to life-altering consequences. Not to mention sometimes pursuit of lower things brings out the worst in you. As a young, naive preacher, I had no idea that politics could be a purpose bringing out the worst in people. Obviously today I’m clear. But about twenty years ago, I remember being initiated into the unpleasantries of politics, when people make them their ultimate meaning in life.
A group of us had just completed a Bible study, and one guy suddenly made a political statement, quite out of context. It was as if he felt the need to throw down a gauntlet. Naturally, he assumed that everybody in the room would be in total agreement with him, or, at least, ought to be. Not so. Another fellow in attendance was offended, and pounced on what he said.
I had never seen brotherly love go out of a room so fast. A weird kind of darkness set in as these two argued. It wasn’t a discussion to arrive at better understanding (that’s how we usually put a positive spin on political debate), but was instead, a snarky back-and-forth full of derogatory soundbytes. These two had drunk deeply of partisan Kool-Aid, and thus attached ultimate meaning to their views. After it was over, they were cordial to one another, but I could tell that between them was an unspoken Okay, I’ve got your number now, buddy.
We need Ecclesiastes so we won’t likewise consider our highest purpose as being any earthly, or temporal thing.
The author of the book, the one we’re calling an “honest seeker” of purpose, was honest precisely because he was willing to admit how wrong he was at the end of his seeking. His name is Solomon, son of King David. He was also unique among all the Old Testament people of God.
You see, at one point in his life as a young, newly-minted king, God appeared to him, and said, “Ask what I shall give you.” This was a blank check moment. Any lesser man would probably have introduced a wishlist three feet long. But Solomon had only one item on his mind: the well being of Israel. He confessed to God his youth and inexperience, his appreciation of the greatness of God’s people, and of God’s work that had gone into raising them up. And so he asked for understanding to lead them the right way.
God liked that prayer. He responded to Solomon, saying, “Behold, I now do according to your word. Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days. And if you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your days” (1 Kings 3:12-14).
The kind of wisdom given Solomon was unique—None like you, and incomparable—no other shall compare. All of it of course, was conditioned upon keeping God’s word.
Eventually, Solomon succeeded in building the temple of God, and established Israel in such a glorious way that people from foreign nations came to see it.
But then something else happened:
“Now King Solomon loved many foreign women, along with the daughter of Pharaoh: Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite women, from the nations concerning which the Lord had said to the people of Israel, “You shall not enter into marriage with them, neither shall they with you, for surely they will turn away your heart after their gods.” Solomon clung to these in love. He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done. Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. And so he did for all his foreign wives, who made offerings and sacrificed to their gods” (1 Kings 11:1-8).
Foreign wives and idols had been clearly prohibited in Mosaic law, yet Solomon had clung to a thousand of them. His life became full of disparate, alternate meanings, directions, and purposes.
How could this be, seeing God had given the man such wisdom? Well, you can have unparalleled resources of understanding, and not use them. You can know better, and still act foolishly. Solomon was wise, but not sinless.
In his last years, he reflected upon his past, something everyone does when there’s more life behind us than in front of us. He gathered all his experiences and observations, and wrote them down. In fact, the word “Ecclesiastes” means one who gathers and assembles.
Solomon shared these experiences with brutal honesty, and to some extent, a measure of bitterness. Actually, bitterness is characteristic of repentance. When a truly repentant person looks back on a sinful past, he or she never feels like it’s funny, or cool, or worth it. Instead, there is regret, and a desperation to prevent others from falling into the same traps.
This is why the Book of Ecclesiastes is relentlessly honest. Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, said, “the truest of all books is Solomon’s, and Ecclesiastes is the fine hammered steel of woe.” Consider the things explored in its twelve chapters.
Chapter one introduces the general futility of life.
Chapter two explores the failure of pleasure.
In chapters three and four, we find that bad things happen to good people, and when we try to fix injustice, we often create injustice of our own.
Chapters five and six show that life is not fair, and evil people get ahead.
Chapter seven introduces us to the surreal conclusion that perhaps some bad things are better for us, and that we may need to live out the rest of our lives without answers as to why this is the case.
Chapters eight and nine demonstrate that sometimes there is no way to win, and that life itself seems random—so many dots that aren’t connected to one another.
In chapter ten, the ungodly prosper, while the righteous suffer.
Finally, in chapters eleven and twelve, the future ahead of us is often uncertain, and we are faced with the incontrovertible fact that we are aging toward death.
In other words, the whole book reads like a description of Genesis chapter 3—a world gone upside down. By the end of Ecclesiastes, God has been mentioned some forty times, but the seeker has never relented to give Him center stage. Not until the last two verses of the book does he come to the hard conclusion that we should fear God and obey Him. It’s as if everything else has been tried and experienced. Then, at last, the beleaguered Solomon comes to his end, and admits that God, the One who has been around us the entire time, is the ultimate object of our search.
Truly, our attitude and our orientation to God has a lot to do with fulfilling the need for purpose in our lives. The New Testament confirms this observation as well. It repeatedly links purpose with Christ, showing us that our orientation to Him determines our sense of purpose:
God made “known to us the mystery of his will according to his purpose which He set forth in Christ” (Eph. 1:9).
“This was according to the Eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:11).
God “saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began (2 Tim. 1:9).
You could say that Ecclesiastes acts like a road map, providing the destination, but with plenty of warnings about tourist traps along the way. Even the people of God, after all, can become frustrated, stuck, or distracted, perhaps wasting years of their lives.
I received some birthday money when I turned five years old. My mother took me to Kmart so I could spend it. Back in 1967, a kid with a dollar could shop there all day long. I hadn’t even made it past the front of the store, when I noticed the sentinel rows of gum machines. Those things were better than slots in Vegas, because they paid off every time—with every coin going in, there was something coming out. I especially adored the ones with the little capsules containing decals, rub-off tattoos, tiny plastic monsters, and rubber insects. I demanded my birthday money from my mom, and fed it into a machine. Then I was ready to do my shopping.
However, my mother informed me that my money was gone, and that we were going home. I was crushed. We had barely made it into the store, and the shopping was already over. I cried all the way back out to the car. Like I said, this was 1967, at a time when parents were still into enforcing consequences. I learned two very important lessons. First, I did not have unlimited money. Second, what little I did have, I needed to carefully steward.
This is human life. You don’t have an unlimited supply of it to throw away. What little you do have should be carefully spent. And there are plenty of alternate purposes upon which to spend it.
You’ll be tempted, for instance, toward pleasure, a life of leisure, toys, and travel. Alternately, you could be tempted to overwork, trying to squeeze productivity out of every moment, and thus forgetting to enjoy life at all.
You will be tempted toward materialism, amassing things. Or you’ll be tempted toward thrift, where you are so money conscious you won’t do anything without coupons, even if you have more than enough money to cover it.
You may find yourself lured into being overly serious, and angry, ready to be triggered by all sorts of things, or you could go the other way, and simply be apathetic, only caring when something touches you or yours.
You will be tempted to idolize your children, perhaps trying to live through them vicariously—I couldn’t make the football team, but my child is going to be a celebrity athlete if it kills him!. The other tendency will be toward simple neglect—Just do what you want, and believe what you want. And they will, too.
Ecclesiastes doesn’t try to avoid all the varied experiences of life. Instead, it coaches us to bring them into orbit around the One who created, and redeemed us.