A friend of mine is a great drummer, he plays in church, but also does session work and is a drum and percussion teacher too. I watched him a while ago teaching a child how to play some complex Celtic rhythms for a song for a Scottish wedding. The student was keen, but it took a lot of patience from the teacher – because the child was used to playing rock and pop styles; and Celtic rhythms are accented quite differently. Every time he stopped concentrating he instinctively went back to accenting the groove in the way he had always known. Well, I was a guest at the wedding and the youngster played it really well; the hard work paid off handsomely. Learning the accents of another culture takes a bit of effort, but it can be so worthwhile.
Ecclesiastes is a book which makes most of us look a little puzzled when we first encounter it. Most westerners at least, relate to biblical concepts such as ‘mission’, ‘purpose’, ‘overcoming’, or ‘victory’; and find the opening chapter of Ecclesiates and its declaration of the meaninglessness of life, rather odd. Not like a girl from mainland China I once had the privilege of sharing the gospel with, who told me that in her Taoist culture, the meaningless of life was both assumed and celebrated. Ecclesiastes was the first book in the Bible she could relate to! But for most of us here, we need to learn these new accents, and learn to work in a different style in order to gain the treasures that Ecclesiates has to offer.
Today we are going to consider the first three chapters of the book, which you can read here: https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ecclesiastes+1-3&version=NIV
This section of God’s word contains an opening premise, and then an extended exploration of that premise. The premise, from which the whole book unfolds is this: “Everything is meaningless”. Of course, when Ecclesiastes says that, it does so in two particular contexts. The first thing is that it says that everything is meaningless ‘under the sun’. That is to say, everything we know, and experience here in the created universe is inherently meaningless. The frame of reference here is that meaning cannot be found within the creation itself. The second thing to note in the wider biblical context, is that the created order itself has been subject to the fall. When Adam and Eve sinned, and alienated themselves from God, the repercussions which unfolded from that were all-encompassing. So, this premise is that nothing within this fallen cosmos can provide meaning, value and purpose for living. It is all intrinsically empty.
THE GREAT EXPERIMENT
What I call “The Great Experiment” is the quest that Solomon (writing as Quoheleth – ‘The Teacher’) embarks upon to test that great opening premise of his book.
Ch 1:4-10, sets the tone:
4 I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. 5 I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. 6 I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. 8 I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem[b] as well—the delights of a man’s heart. 9 I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my labor,
and this was the reward for all my toil.
If this fallen world has any intrinsic meaning, the teacher was going to find it. He spared no expense, no time and no effort. He tried pleasure, wine, laughter, work, creativity, money, building, gardening, music, sex, relationships, love; and that is just the start of this quest! He indulges in bodily passions, and high art, he tries pleasure and laughter, then lays out ornate gardens. As this reading continues on, you will see that he then tries the pursuit of wisdom, and then of madness and folly. The Teacher explored everything that this life has to offer, he indulged every taste (whether base or lofty, high-culture or low-culture), he left no stone unturned in his quest to see if life before death, here in this fallen world, has any intrinsic meaning.
THE RESULT OF THE SEARCH
The teacher conducts this great experiment, and then records the results. His reflections upon the accumulation of wealth are indicative of the results of all his experiments, and are worth quoting in full: ch2;17-19
17 So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. 19 And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless.
Like a diver who comes back to the surface having combed the seabed; but found nothing; or a miner who scours the depths of the earth, but returns empty handed; Quoheleth, declares that his quest for meaning has been fruitless. In fact, the results of his searching left him worse than he was before he embarked on his quest. While he might have lived contentedly enough had he been apathetic, his determination to find answers resulted in an inner-crisis, so extreme that he declares that, “I hated life”.
The extremes of his searching are important here. Sometimes people look aghast at each other’s tastes. I remember a conversation between a young rock fan, and a classical music aficionado. The classical music guy looked down on what he saw as uncultivated, and basically lustful music which compared poorly to what he claimed was ‘real music!” The younger chap said he didn’t know what the older man could like about music that was too quiet and lacked raw energy and excitement! Ecclesiastes speaks to both these extremes as neither pleasure-seeking, so-called ‘low-culture’ or ‘high-culture’ can ultimately satisfy our need for meaning – whatever we think of different genres!
Money is a huge issue here too. The western world today knows unprecedented standards of living and life-expectancy; yet also record levels of misery. The accumulation of wealth is not a guarantor of a happy or fulfilled life – as the sad record of miserable rich people has shown. Quoheleth bemoans that he will lose all he has accumulated in this life, and someone will inherit it all, and that person might be a wise man or a fool. “This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. “ he says.
His summary of his quest is this:
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.
The Great Experiment had provided a definitive answer; this fallen world has no meaning. If this is all there is, if there is nothing beyond the physical, material world – then it is drab, sterile, pointless and useless. All the pleasure, money, travel or culture that it is possible to know cannot remove the aching, awful hollowness of it all.
So today, if you are living for your family, your job, your career, your art or hobbies or ambitions. If your existence is centered upon anything within the world, then you are chasing after the wind. Jesus said, “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” Ecclesiastes is the story of a man who did just that. He gained the whole world and found that his soul was hollow.
THE END OF THE SEARCH
But this book is not written to drive us to despair, but to wake us up to a bigger reality! We are supposed to read Ecclesiastes and sense something of a dissatisfaction with this world; not to embrace misery; but rather to awaken in us a search for something far more significant. We have said that this fallen world has no intrinsic meaning. That is to say that it has no meaning that comes from within it. As ‘the teacher’ finds in the Great Experiment, no aspect of life here can provide a purpose for the whole of it. Life, and this world requires some extrinsic meaning! Extrinsic is perhaps an obscure word, but it is really the opposite of intrinsic, and simply means: “not part of the essential nature of someone or something; coming or operating from outside”.
We need to base our life on something outside ourselves. If we look within, we will find little more than our own sinfulness and folly. If we look to this created universe we will find that it in itself has no answers whatsoever. In fact, Quoheleth has explored every aspect of this created life for us, so that we don’t have to waste decades doing so ourselves.
The thing outside ourselves, the thing outside the created order that we need – in order to know joy, purpose and meaning (and to enjoy the good things in this world fully), is to know God. If you don’t yet know Him, the good news of the gospel is that you can. Jesus stepped into this world to make God knowable to us. He both revealed God to us, and also gave his life on the cross, to atone for the sins with which we have alienated God. Good things in life are not the point – rather they are like signposts which point to something. The Psalmist wrote, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (19:1). Even beauty like stars in the sky finds its purpose, only in relation to the one who made them.
It means that if today you are on a treadmill of pointless toil – there is a way out. If you are weary of the accumulation of money, and of looking after people, a home, cars, and even your hobbies don’t seem to matter as much as they once did; there is a rescue for you at hand. Jesus died on the cross for you – to bear your sin, and enable you to become a child of God. Knowing Him, and serving Him is the point of it all. And here’s the amazing thing.. knowing God breathes extrinsic meaning into everyday life! The universe is not a vast, empty, cavernous space filled with nothing – but is the creation of a loving God. Likewise, meaning can be experienced in the most everyday tasks of life when they are experienced with God. Extrinsic – that word again! It means coming in from the outside. Hope and life and meaning can be born in you, when you invite Jesus in to be the center of your life.
I pray that right now you will call on Him, and ask Him to show you how you can find Him, and know real life, and real joy. Anything short of knowing Him is a hollow sham. Don’t settle for an empty life, embrace Christ!