Summary: Ecclesiastes was written to people who question whether there is a God, and to those who outright reject God. What do they have left in life? Nothing but despair...but there is another Way.
Overcoming Futility, a Sermon Series on Ecclesiastes
Message #1, “The Search for the Meaning of Life,” chapter 1 -Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
We’ve entered a new year, and many people looking back on 2005 feel a sense of relief. We’re glad that year is past, but we’re not all that confident 2006 will be much better. We look at all the conflict in the Middle East, the energy crisis, the crime rate, the AIDS epidemic, the threat of Asian Bird Flu, world hunger, and natural catastrophes. It’s not a friendly world we live in. What can be done about it all?
C.S. Lewis observed that if we look at this world apart from God, life seems intolerably cruel and mean. If we understand that we live in a fallen world, then we understand that this world isn’t the way God made it; it’s not the way it’s supposed to be. But there remains hope for tomorrow. The answer isn’t mindless optimism, a “don’t worry be happy” attitude. Our hope lies in finding meaning for the world in which we live. People joke about finding the meaning of life. Monty Python fans recall an entire movie poked fun at the idea. Yet an unusual, poetic book of the Bible urges us to face this matter.
Ecclesiastes is perhaps the oddest book of the Bible, a mystery book. It’s a wonder it “made the cut”, and I’m sure many people question its inclusion in the Old Testament. At first glance it seems existential and out of place. Until we understand the intended audience, we may figure it’s an inappropriate book that got in by mistake.
Here’s the key to this book: Ecclesiastes was written to people who question whether there is a God, and to those who outright reject God. What do they have left in life? Nothing but despair. If there is no God, then life loses any sense of purpose. Ecclesiastes presents the brutal hopelessness of life apart from faith. Life simply doesn’t make sense unless God is part of the equation. If our existence is merely an accident of nature, the “outcome of accidental collections of atoms” (Bertram Russell), our lives are futile…but if there is a God, and a divine plan, that changes everything! Ecclesiastes addresses the secular mind, showing the logical outcome of a worldview that excludes God.
Chapter one looks pretty brutal…apart from God, life has no purpose, profit, fulfillment, satisfaction, or lasting value. Henry David Thoreau conceded that, "Most men live lives of quiet desperation.” They’re like ships without a rudder. The key word (in vs2) has been translated in our Bibles several ways: “vanity”, “meaningless”, “insignificant” and “futile”. The word literally means “breath” or “vapor”--it refers to that which is fleeting, momentary, transitory, of temporary value. Life goes on with us and without us; does it even matter that we exist? Solomon is exposing the emptiness of life apart from faith.
We can’t even go to a comedy club to laugh at life--too many comedians seem unhappy. I looked at a list of the top-ten best comedians and, with one exception (Bill Cosby), they all approach their craft with hostility and cynicism, what we call “hard-edged, dark humor.” A lot of comic humor is thinly veiled anger and fear. One stand-up comedian admitted, “Comedy is about truth; you don’t have to make it up, because all the material is inside you…and there’s nothing funny about my life.” Misery loves comedy.
Solomon asks in verse 3, what do we gain from all our labor and effort? When we come to the end of our days, will we ask: “Is that all there is? Was the effort worth it? What did all my hard work really accomplish? Will my achievements evaporate into insignificance?” By raising such painful questions, Solomon hopes to lead us to self-examination; he wants we find our answers by considering God. Isaiah says, “Why labor for that which does not satisfy?” (55:2). After we’ve exhausted all the pleasures of life, what really matters? What of our efforts will endure? Jesus presses the same point by urging, “Don’t labor for food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life.”
The French philosopher Voltaire rejected God, and concluded that all anyone can do is to grow a garden, do the best you can, and try not to think too much about the utter futility of life. Sound pretty depressing, doesn’t it? Voltaire reflects the resigned defeat of so many people. Voltaire’s novel Candide is a cynical, disparaging look at life from the lost perspective of someone who has given up. Solomon takes the cover off all pretense and shows the logical outcome of life without God. In so doing, he quotes sources he does not agree with to highlight this point. No wonder people aimlessly pursue pleasure--they can’t find an workable alternative. They lead empty lives and cling to illusions.