Monday, January 27, 2014

CCXXX – Ecclesiastes – The Vanity of Life

This has been said to be the most engaging and charming book in the Bible.  {I’m not so sure about that.}  But I do consider it to be the most striking book in the Old Testament, due to its stark realism, sadness, and insight into life itself.  It reflects our inner conflicts of hope, despair, confusion, and disappointment.

Chapter 1

Solomon wastes no time getting to the matters of his mind which represents the whole book.  The NIV says in verse 2, “Meaningless!  Meaningless! Says the Teacher.  Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless”.  The KJV says, “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity”.  This opening phrase sets the tone of the writer’s mindset.  The Hebrew word translated “vanity” means vapor; nothingness.  He was saying that everything in and about life is like vapor, having no lasting value or significance, which would lead one to conclude that life is a disappointing and meaningless affair.  The tone is set.  The writer’s attitude about life is gloomy, dark, and dismal, and it seems the writer wants everybody to be convinced of the vanity of life and be as depressed as he is.  But I must caution you to withhold judgment about this book until we have completed our study.  Following this gloomy introduction the writer goes on in the next nine verses to list a few of his thoughts that qualify his opening comment.  He seems to be thinking out loud.  In verse 3 he is saying “why do people work so hard?  What do they gain from it?”  Verse 4 he says nothing ever changes.  He even comments about how the wind keeps blowing.  It never stops.  In verse 7 he says the streams and rivers keep flowing into the sea, but the sea never fills up.  {He wants to know why.  At this time in his life he considers himself entitled to know these things, but God does not entitle us to know all that He does.  We now know how God made the endless cycle of water returning to the earth, but it took us centuries to figure it out.  Also, I think Solomon has gone through the steps of concluding “the more I learn, the more I don’t know”.  We have all gone through this process of digging deep into a subject in the hopes of understanding, just to discover the deeper complexity, bringing us to a similar conclusion.}  He actually sums up his thoughts in verse 9 when he says “there is nothing new under the sun”.  So, in these first eleven verses we see his attitude clearly:  Life is a bore, full of endless cycles that never change in spite of how hard we work or anything we might accomplish.

So the premise has been set and stated in no uncertain terms.  Next he wants to explain how he arrived at this conclusion about life.  {This is why I’ve always thought that Solomon wanted to convince everybody that they should be as bored and depressed as his is, as he goes on to explain the process by which he has arrived at this conclusion.}  Look at the remaining verses of the first chapter.  He wants to qualify his conclusion by first stating that he is the wisest of all kings before him, and made it a priority in is life to use his wisdom to figure out all of these things.  But he goes on to say that the burden is too much.  There is too much to learn and each is too complex.  He concludes that chasing after wisdom is like trying to catch the wind in one’s hand.  It cannot be done.  In verse 15 he restates the futility of trying as he says, “the crooked cannot be made straight”.  He boasts of his superior wisdom, suggesting that if anybody can figure it out, he can.  But then he goes on to repeat himself in verse 17 and says that the quest for knowledge could drive a man insane, as complete understanding is not possible.  Look at the depressing conclusion to this first chapter in verse 18:  With much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.  {It’s almost comical.  He has allowed depression to exaggerate everything to the negative.}

Chapter 2

Solomon continues his explanation of how he has arrived at this depressing summation about life.  Read verses 1-11 of chapter 2.  He says that he experimented with trying to gain happiness through pursuing every pleasure life might offer.  He tried gaining happiness through drinking.  He undertook the building of great structures.  He gathered wealth all around himself.  He hired musicians to play music for him.  Verse 10 says he deprived himself of no possible pleasure.  He gave himself over to foolish pleasures, void of any wisdom or reason.  The result of this “experiment” was that it was a complete failure in its attempts to bring him happiness.

Then in verses 12-16 he went on to his next experiment, reversing his course from the pursuit of pleasure to the pursuit of wisdom.  He confessed quickly in verse 13 that this was a better course than the one before.  But then, after he had acquired all the wisdom that was available to him, he came to the depressing conclusion that the wise and the foolish come to the same fate:  They both die and will be forgotten.  {I warned you this is a difficult book to study.}

He begins the remaining verses of chapter 2 by stating in verse 17 that he hated life.  He says that all of his accomplishments will just go to someone else after he dies.  And he has no control over who will get those things, whether that person will be wise or foolish.  Read verse 21.  He begins to begrudge the fact that someone who did nothing to earn it will end up owning all of his wealth.  This did not seem fair and there was nothing he could do about it.  He again expresses the thought that to work hard is meaningless and a waste of effort.  In the remaining verses he takes a breath and summarizes that considering the harsh realities of life, a temperate life-style with simple pleasures was the best a person could hope for.  Depressed yet?

Next post – Chapter 3 – A Time for Everything

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