Ecclesiastes 1:1, 12-14, 2:18-26 (ESV) The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem… I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind… I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
Just look at all the things Solomon had going for him. Scripture tells us that he had a special measure of wisdom from God Himself (of course, he obviously didn’t always use that wisdom). Solomon’s fame was known in all surrounding nations. He became richer than all the other kings of the earth. He built a magnificent Temple and a beautiful palace. All of his drinking vessels were made of gold. Silver was not even considered valuable in his day because gold was in such abundance. The Bible tells us that “The Lord highly exalted Solomon in the sight of all Israel, and bestowed on him royal majesty which had not been on any king before him in Israel.” Solomon lived a life of luxury, too. He wrote, “I did not withhold from my heart any pleasure” and “all that my eyes desired I did not refuse them.” Including 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:3).
In today’s reading from Ecclesiastes, an older and wiser Solomon looks back on his life, reflecting on the treasures he had accumulated and pleasures he had experienced. So what does he tell us about all of them? Did they add up to an ancient version of the American Dream, a life of blissful happiness? Actually, just the opposite. “Meaningless,” concluded Solomon. “All of what I have done is utter meaninglessness, futility, vanity.”
Most of the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes is a depressing litany about the emptiness of practically all of the things that we experience in life. Don’t we all love to laugh? “It is madness,” Solomon said of laughter. Surely pleasure is worthwhile. “What does it accomplish?” asked Solomon. Isn’t hard work a noble goal? “It is all emptiness and striving after the wind,” he wrote. Surely the wisest man in the world would have a high opinion of wisdom. No, that’s meaningless, too. Even though wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness, yet the same fate befalls both the wise man and the fool: death. All men die, and after a man has been dead for a while, the world forgets him, regardless of how wise or foolish he was. And it’s not like you can enjoy money, pleasure, or notoriety after you’re dead. To add insult to injury, everything a man labors for in life will be inherited by someone else who didn’t work for it.
It is a dark picture of the world that Solomon paints. He gloomily said, “So I hated life because everything is futility and striving after the wind.” Solomon had reached the point where life seemed pointless; meaningless; empty. At that point in his life, Solomon would have fit in well in our modern world.
There’s a really smart guy named Peter Singer who is a professor at Princeton University. He has offered the following assessment of the meaning of life in this world. He writes, “[W]e must give up the idea that life on this planet has some preordained meaning. Life as a whole has no meaning. Life began, as the best available theories tell us, in a chance combination of gasses; it then evolved through random and natural selection. All this just happened; it did not happen to any overall purpose. Now that it has resulted in the existence of beings who prefer some states of affairs to others, however, it may be possible for particular lives to be meaningful.”
If you want to understand what is at stake in the Creation vs. Evolution debate, this is it. Obviously, Peter Singer is an atheist. I appreciate this passage by Singer because it is so brutally honest about the impossibility of finding ultimate meaning in life apart from God. He says that the atheist, or agnostic, or person who lives as if God didn’t exist might find some meaning in life by living a certain way, acquiring certain things, achieving a certain status—in other words, by temporarily living for money or pleasure or personal happiness. But in his view, there’s only a possibility of finding meaning for the atheist, no guarantees. The only guarantee Singer recognizes, as Solomon did, is that we’re all headed for the grave.
Solomon in his despair and Peter Singer in his atheism offer views of the world that end meaninglessly.
Of course, you need to read the rest of Ecclesiastes and reach the same conclusion that Solomon does! “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
Life is not meaningless in itself, but life apart from God is utterly meaningless. We need God’s intervention in order to redeem the emptiness of our sinful life under the sun. It was not always like this. Before sin came into the world, nothing about the world was meaningless. But after the Fall, God Himself subjected existence to futility and the whole creation is groaning under it. However, this fact is not a cause for despair, but for hope. The same God who punished the world’s sin by subjecting it to futility has set the creation free. God Himself came to earth to fill the emptiness. The Son of God became flesh to redeem the meaninglessness of life on earth.
Christ experienced the emptiness of life so that your life would not be utterly meaningless. In spite of the emptiness He encountered in this world, He lived a truly full life in a way that none of us could. Although sinful pleasures and delights were set before His eyes, Jesus did not sin. Although He witnessed death and sorrow everywhere, He did not despair of life on earth. Although He experienced the emptiness of separation from God as He bore the weight of our sins on the cross, He did not turn away from the task of our redemption. Although Jesus went through the ultimate emptiness of death, He created a new life for the whole creation through His Resurrection.
So life is not meaningless for you because Jesus came to win an eternal and meaningful life for you on the cross. And do you know where Jesus points you to have assurance that your life is filled with hope and meaning? In your Baptism.
In your Baptism Jesus took away the guilt of your futile sin and exchanged it for His saving righteousness, which makes you pleasing to God.
Now in God’s sight, you are truly good, not because of what you do, but because you are covered with Christ’s robe of righteousness. Not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed the way you were when you were baptized into Christ.
Now in God’s sight, you are truly rich, not because of your earthly possessions, but because Jesus makes you rich in God. Not even Solomon with all of his wealth possessed the great treasure you have in Holy Baptism.
Now you are truly wise, not with worldly wisdom, but because you know Jesus Christ, who is your “wisdom from God” as St. Paul says. Not even Solomon with all His wisdom could compare to Christ, who is our crucified and risen Savior and our “wisdom and knowledge and joy.”
Prayer (LSB 834):
1. O God, O Lord of heav’n and earth,
Thy living finger never wrote
That life should be an aimless mote,
A deathward drift from futile birth.
Thy Word meant life triumphant hurled
In splendor through Thy broken world.
Since light awoke and life began,
Thou hast desired Thy life for man.
2. Our fatal will to equal Thee,
Our rebel will wrought death and night.
We seized and used in prideful spite
Thy wondrous gift of liberty.
We housed us in this house of doom,
Where death had royal scope and room,
Until Thy servant, Prince of Peace,
Breached all its walls for our release.
3. Thou camest to our hall of death,
O Christ, to breathe our poisoned air,
To drink for us the dark despair
That strangled our reluctant breath.
How beautiful the feet that trod
The road that leads us back to God!
How beautiful the feet that ran
To bring the great good news to man!
4. O Spirit, who didst once restore
Thy Church that it might be again
The bringer of good news to men,
Breathe on Thy cloven Church once more,
That in these gray and latter days
There may be those whose life is praise,
Each life a high doxology
To Father, Son, and unto Thee. Amen.