Summary: The depressing, secular worldview: Life is tough, and then you die. But there’s a better way of life.
Overcoming Futility--a sermon series on Ecclesiastes
“An Uncertain Life” -Chapter 9 Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
At times, life is utterly incomprehensible! So is this book. In studying Ecclesiastes, reading various interpretations, I’ve seen how some Bible scholars perform exegetical gymnastics to explain how such blatantly unbiblical advice could possibly appear in Scripture. When we approach Ecclesiastes from the perspective that Solomon is describing the futility of unbelief, even speaking from an unbeliever’s point-of-view, things fit in place. That’s the key. However, Solomon occasionally breaks character by speaking for himself, which makes Ecclesiastes an especially challenging book.
In the sci-fi movie The Matrix, people appear to live normal lives, oblivious to the fact that forces unknown are controlling them. What looks real isn’t; everyone’s living a false sense of security in a world that is nothing but an illusion. Some have broken free from their programming. When Neo is liberated from the lie, for the first time he sees reality. He is told: “Welcome to the real world.” Solomon shows us two worlds: a world without God, and one where God is Lord. He invites us to choose in which world we want to live. In God’s world, life makes sense—when we trust Him, we begin to see with new eyes.
In verse 2, Solomon seems to be throwing his hands in the air in an act of surrender. It’s like he’s saying, “We’re all going to die, so what’s the use?” He rants in verse 4 that a dead dog is better off than a living lion. This was written long before dogs became domesticated pets; they were at the bottom of the animal social scale, with lions at the top. Yet the difference between living and dead tips the scale. If there’s no life after death, nothing matters. Why bother being good? What’s the point? Conduct hardly matters if good people get the same fate as the worst of people…which is precisely what some people are counting on. If “when you’re dead, you’re dead”, it hardly matters how you live. Do whatever you like because there’ll be no final accountability. People stake eternity on this. If everyone believed this way, the world would be in an even greater state of anarchy. What Solomon’s saying about dogs and lions may be true, but not about people. It matters how we live, because we’re all going to live somewhere forever.
Why are we spending time in such a depressing book? Because we have a message to the world: unless you turn to God, you can expect futility and despair. Life without God is absolutely depressing! But there’s another Way, the path that leads beyond the shadows of life to a living reality.
Verses 7-9 tell us to seize the day; try to enjoy your grim, empty life; make the most of your insignificant existence. We often misquote verse 10 as an encouragement: “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might.” That only works if we believe life has purpose. In a meaningless world, these words are mocking: “Make the most of your empty, worthless life.” Sounds a lot like the cynical, closing words of Scott Allen Miller, a Boston talk radio host. He ends his show each morning by telling his listeners, “Have whatever kind of day you want.” Verse 10 concludes, “when you go to the grave there will be no work” (NLT). This sums up the perspective of unbelief—life is tough, and then you die.
PBS aired a documentary last month on the life of playwright Eugene O’Neil. In O’Neil’s stage play The Iceman Cometh, a group of “regulars” are gathered in a bar. Their lives are pitiful illusions that they’ve created in order to survive. They plan celebrations to distract them from their depressing existence. O’Neil’s cynical point is that life is pointless, so give up your failed pipedreams. The saloon people resist surrendering their fantasies in vain hope for a brighter tomorrow. Their only escape is death (the “iceman”) or drinking themselves into oblivion. O’Neil had a difficult life and his plays reflect his struggles. The Iceman Cometh sounds like it was based on Ecclesiastes.
Verse 11 bursts a bubble: “The race is not to the swift nor the battle to the strong.” Say it isn’t so! This reminds me of a classic Peanuts cartoon. After losing yet another baseball game, Charlie Brown complains, “It’s not fair—how can we lose when we’re so sincere?” It’s an unpredictable, imperfect world. Natural effort and ability offer no guarantee of success. We’ve no sure notion what awaits us around the corner. When I served in the Army, we used to say that the only thing we could count on is uncertainty (and God’s Providence). Our only comfort is in knowing that there’s a reason for the pain we endure. Solomon reminds us how little control we have.