Ecclesiastes: the Search for Meaning

Kedo Peseyie

It is not an exaggeration to say that the foremost task of a disciple of Christ is to seek to understand the Bible more.  For therein lies the heart of everything we seek to know and the key that can open the floodgates of wisdom and knowledge.  One of the best ways to read the Bible is to read it in big chunks (or books).  The Bible was not written in chapters or verses as we have them today. It was only in the latter days that scholars divided it into chapters and verses for easy references. The common practice of many today is to read one or two verses, and try to apply it to daily situations.  While this is not bad at all, it can cause confusion and frustration if the verse is taken out of context.  The important thing is to understand the overall picture of the Bible or a particular book and then seek to understand the smaller stories and verses in the light of big picture.  It makes much more sense if we read the Biblical books in their entirety, i.e., as we do with a novel or a book.  

Ecclesiastes is not a book to be read in separate chapters or verses.  Some verses, if taken out of context, can lead to unwanted consequences.  Very often we do find ourselves in situations where all we can do is to shrug our shoulders and disdainfully moan the words of the Ecclesiast, “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.”  And we begin to feel that given our situation in life, those words would be the best conclusion about life.  Someone said the shrug is the most hopeless of all comments and surely an Ecclesiast cannot fall so low.  But is this what the writer of Ecclesiastes is telling us about life in general?  Why is this cry of futility recorded right in the center of the Bible?  Is life really meaningless, a bundle of accidents?  Is there any good end toward which the travail of our lives might lead?  Or should we invent our own individual meaning and purpose in life? 

Facing a Dead-End 

“…the greatness of man compared to animals is that he knows himself to be miserable” –Pascal.

Each time we read a book or set out on the search for knowledge, it is like venturing on an expedition.  We take on the mantle of an explorer hungry and fascinated by whatever may lie ahead.  The writer of the Ecclesiastes takes us through this journey in search of meaning and purpose.  We immediately see that he starts on a very negative note:  “meaningless, meaningless” he says.  Here is a skeptic and a pessimist.    

The first thing the writer encounters in his journey is wisdom and knowledge.  “I devoted myself to study”, he says, “I applied myself to understanding, and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the Sun”.  Then he realizes that whatever wisdom and knowledge can do, it can do nothing about the end of life.  Seen from the light of eternity, a few years of wisdom and knowledge is reduced to nothingness.  

So next, as absurd as it may sound, he swings to madness and folly.  Perhaps he reasoned that in this strange, crooked world what seem to be madness and folly could actually be the straight path.  But no, he says, madness and folly are exactly what they are.  But it is not different from wisdom either because in the end the same fate comes to both.  Faced with death, the wise man is as naked as the fool, like a “chasing after the wind”.  The writer’s lament serves as a foreshadow of Jesus’ own words: “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and yet lose his soul”. 

Then he tries pleasure: the pleasures of hard work, of aesthetic beauty, of wealth and sensual appetites.  But even the best of these satisfies us only in passing.  

Then he undertakes great developmental projects. Ah, he is finally talking some sense.  Nagaland is obsessed with it.  “Give us development and we will see hope”, we say.  Developmental work is good.  But how long will this satisfy?  If the Ecclesiasts could walk in our dreams for development he would say, “Hey, I know where this leads to.  You still feel empty inside, don’t you?”  

And as if realizing that the impermanence of life is not enough, he stumbles upon another dead-end.  To live with the knowledge that death is just at your doorstep can be frightening.  But what is even more frightening is the fact that you have to live every moment of your flimsy life face to face with evil and all the wrongs men have invented.  The divide between rich and poor widens; the tyrant can prolong his days is office; innocent people suffer; money from corrupt means only adds more pleasure and prestige to the already privileged class and they have power on their side.  As I walk the streets of Kohima in my Reebok shoes, people pass me by and I notice that some still walk our town barefooted.  And in another part, people are comparing their Scorpios and Balenos. And if you think that all these have resulted from a flawed system of governmental machinery, you are only halfway to reaching the truth.  The problem is with our humanity and not with systems because humanity only invented these systems.  “…God had made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions” (Eccl 7:29, 5:8). 

He stubbornly moves on in his search only to stumble upon yet another dead-end.  This time it is the tyranny of time.  G.K. Chesterton says, “The heaviest chain ever tied to man—it is called the watch-chain”.  Whether it is the lack of time, or the abundance of time in our hands, we are always terrorized either way.  

Then there is the fact that no one ever knows when death will come.  Jesus’ story about the rich man who stores up all his riches is relevant here.  In satisfaction he tells himself, “You have plenty stored up for many years.  Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry”.  Then God comes and tells him, “You fool.  You will die tonight”.

How then shall we live? 

The final analysis only leads him to ask: “How then shall we live?”  All along the Ecclesiast had been trying to impress upon us the futility and meaninglessness of a life lived without God at the center.  “To believe in a God means that the facts of this world are not the end of the mater. To believe in a God means to see that life has a meaning…That this meaning does not lie in it but outside of it.” (Ludwig Wittgenstein).    

A Bible commentator divided chap. 11 and 12 of Ecclesiastes in three parts:  

First, Live boldly and work hard. The Living Bible paraphrases chap. 11 thus: “Work hard…if you wait for perfect conditions, you will never get anything done… Keep on sowing your seed for you never know which will grow—perhaps it all will.  Give generously for all your gift will return to you later”.  

Second, be joyful. Live boldly and work hard, and do it joyfully.  The very fact that we are alive calls for a celebration.  “It is a wonderful thing to be alive… If a person live to be very old, let him rejoice in everyday of his life…Young man, it is wonderful to be young.  Enjoy every minute of it!” (Eccl 11:7-9).  But in our enjoyment we can easily miss God’s purpose. And so…  

Third, be Godly. Remember the Creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them”.  The central idea is to walk in the fear of the Lord, keep His commandments and seek to please Him.  

And as we reach the end of our turbulent journey (my writing alone is turbulent enough), not surprisingly the concluding remarks are of judgment.  In the final analysis everything matters: every word, every deed, every thought, and every secret.  And so he says, “take heed, a judgment day is coming.  Everything will be laid bare before God”.  

The writer starts from the futility of human’s efforts and reaches meaning in life.  It is a journey from utter meaninglessness to Godly reason. But I believe that this journey has to be taken backwards.  If we could start our journey through life with God at the starting point, all our efforts would not be so futile as we see them today.

(The writer can be reached at [email protected])