Wrestling With the Meaning of Life

Lesson Focus: This lesson is about the struggle people face when defining the meaning of their lives.

Is Life Meaningless?: Ecclesiastes 1:1-7.

[1]  The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. [2]  Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. [3]  What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? [4]  A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. [5]  The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.

[6]  The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. [7]  All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.  [ESV]

Ecclesiastes is an open letter from God to everyone who is willing to think about the issues of life. In a graphic and relentless way, the awful realities are exposed and the way is pointed to God’s answers. God gave this Word through the Preacher (or Teacher) to His covenant people in order to lead them back to the joy of meaningful life in reconciled fellowship with Him. The Preacher asked all the basic questions that wracked the minds of men and women in his day. And just as surely and as timely, his message impacts on the need of our own day. Is there any real meaning in life? Or is everything meaningless? All is vanity says the Preacher. On the face of it, the writer seems to be promoting the idea that everything really is meaningless. We must remember, however, that he is constructing an argument designed to lead us from one way of thinking to another that is radically different. He therefore starts with the wrong idea so that he may lead us to the right one. He means to expose what we nowadays call the secular view of life: a life without any absolutes, a life without the certainties of the revelation of God’s Word, a life lived out of values generated by man without reference to God, a life that expects lasting satisfaction from earthbound things. He wants to show how such a life can only be meaningless and must end in disillusionment in time, not to mention eternity. To heighten the drama of his argument, he gives a vivid presentation of this position as if it is all there is! Surprisingly perhaps, this theme of meaninglessness is only a means to his primary goal. Later, as he develops his argument, he shows his readers that there is real meaning in life and that it consists in loving God and being his disciples [12:13-14]. He is not a cynic. He firmly believes that all meaning comes from the infinite, personal God who has revealed Himself to humanity in His Word. Consequently, he is persuaded that this meaning is only understood and grasped in a personal relationship with God – a living faith in Him, which results in a commitment to discipleship as a child of God.

[1-3]  What does the Preacher mean when he ascribes meaninglessness to everything? His point of contact with everyone who reads his words is their everyday experience of life. Everything around us reminds us of our transient foothold on planet Earth, and only a faith that sees beyond this level of reality can find comfort and security, or even meaning itself, that transcend the inevitabilities of change, decay and death. The Hebrew word translated vanity is used no fewer than thirty-six times in Ecclesiastes. It basically means ‘wind’ or ‘breath’, but, depending upon the specific context, it implies vanity, senselessness, transitoriness and meaninglessness. This sense of futility attaches to just about every aspect of our lives: pleasure [2:1-2]; property [2:4]; knowledge [2:12-16]; wealth [2:8; 5:8-15]; work [2:17-23]; success [4:13-16]; youth [11:10]; and, needless to say, frustration [4:4,7-8], loneliness [4:9-12], and death [3:19; 11:8]. Futility is endemic to the human condition and inevitably recurs in our experience. If now is all there is, you can be sure that as much meaning as possible will be wrung from it. Why? Because there is no other source! But this source is identical to the all that the Preacher declares so emphatically to be utterly meaningless. But over against the seeming futility of our fleeting impermanence stands the majestic unchangeableness of the infinite and eternal God and, not lease, the promise of redemption. The phrase under the sun is used twenty-five times in Ecclesiastes to characterize the secular life as seen through the Preacher’s eyes. It refers to a life limited to material, earthly categories – a life without the eternal dimension and the ultimate reality of the infinite, personal God. The question in verse 3 invites the reader to participate in the Preacher’s struggle about the meaning of life. Man, gain, toil and under the sun are all key terms that are repeated by the Preacher throughout the book. Man or humanity and under the sun point out the universal nature of the quest for meaning of life. Gain or benefit and toil or labor used together by the Preacher indicates his concern about our labor providing any gain in our quest for the meaning of life. He is perplexed about the meaningfulness or benefit of labor as he observes the world around him. The contemporary and pastoral significance of the Preacher’s quest should not be underestimated. As with all biblical religion, his concern is with all of human life as God has made it. The refrain under the sun evokes this comprehensive range as does the variety of areas of life on which he will focus.

[4-7]  Verses 4-11 are a poem that is deliberately placed between the programmatic question in verse 3 and the Preacher’s first-person introduction of himself in verse 12. The poem alerts us to two key issues that the Preacher will struggle with as he explores the benefit of labor and thus the meaning of life: the repetitiveness of history and the fact that people are not remembered. The following issues are raised as indications of why the benefit of labor is such a problem. The earth exhibits permanence, but not so humankind. Generations come and go and this transience raises major questions for the Preacher of the value of labor. In contrast to the earth, which stands forever, there is a lot of activity in nature, as indicated by the large number of participles in verses 5-7, evoking continuous action. The sun and the wind are very active, but their activity is circular and repetitive and seems to go nowhere. The verb translated hastens means ‘to pant’. The sun is like a runner endlessly making his way around a racetrack. As the movement of the sun implies an east-west course, now the wind is described as moving north and south. The repetition around and around heightens the sense of monotony and purposelessness. The sense of accomplishing nothing is reinforced in verse 7. The rivers continually empty into the sea but cannot fill it. The implication here is not repetitive motion but futile activity. These verses profoundly impress certain sensations on the reader. First comes a sense of the indifference of the universe to our presence. It was here before we came, and it will be here, unchanged, after we have gone. Second, however, the universe, like us, is trapped in a cycle of monotonous and meaningless motion. It is forever moving, but it accomplishes nothing. Finally, a sense of loneliness and abandonment pervades the text.

Is Life Wearing You Down?:  Ecclesiastes 1:8-11.

[8]  All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. [9]  What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. [10]  Is there a thing of which it is said, "See, this is new"? It has been already in the ages before us. [11]  There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.  [ESV]

[8]  If all we have are our senses – what we see and hear – we know that there is no end to the round of pleasing them. Just as our eyes and ears demand to be fed with new sensations, so an under-the-sun life is never satisfied. Yet the modern consumer society is largely built on this frantic foundation. It remains a fact of experience that the highest sensations of the cult of consumerism tend to leave an aftertaste of dissatisfaction and a craving for newer and better experiences. There is no lasting satisfaction under the sun: All things are full of weariness.

[9-11]  There is nothing new under the sun. In other words, what is new never remains new; it soon becomes old. In terms of the deeper things of the human spirit – meaning and aspirations – there is no real hope of anything different or better. Today’s novelty becomes tomorrow’s drudgery and seems, in the end, only to compound the problem. Today, there is plenty of change, an endless flow of new things. But what is really new, in terms of the things that matter? In the ancient world there was a certain timelessness to the passing of the years. The original readers of Ecclesiastes did not generally experience the kind of rapid change that we today find so commonplace and so impossibly difficult to catch up with. The force of the Preacher’s words is perhaps blunted by the very pace of modern society. We are, after all, submerged in novelty as a matter of everyday experience. Candid reflection, however, unmasks the illusion. Modern man knows in his heart that if anything has changed, it has probably been for the worse rather than the better. At the root of the matter, secular man views the world and human history as a closed system. There is no God and no divine goal for life or history. All that remains is unaided human effort clawing forward in the context of an evolving material universe. If the new soon becomes tedious commonplace [1:10], the past becomes irrelevant and is eventually forgotten altogether [1:11]. History is nonsense. Reality is now. Existence is all. There is an alternative to this meaninglessness. It is to see the world God’s way. It is to realize your need of a Savior and to come to Him in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, whose death effects the redemption of the lost who will come to Him. Christ is the focus of all meaning for a fallen world. Life without a personal faith relationship with the Lord – a godless, secular, under-the-sun life – is life without ultimate meaning. It is life without a future. More accurately, it is life with an endless non-future of eternal alienation from God. Such life in the present is without true meaningfulness, however much it is overlaid by the pursuit of knowledge or pleasure. But Jesus calls us, in the good news of His everlasting gospel, to new life in him – to fullness of meaning – right now and for evermore.

What is the Answer?:  Ecclesiastes 12:13-14.

[13]  The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. [14]  For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.  [ESV]

When Solomon says, let us hear the end of the matter, it is like he is shouting, ‘Hear this!’. This is the point to which everything has been leading. So pay attention and don’t miss it. This conclusion comprises a double point. One concerns the Lord and the other His Word. These are the twin foci of the entire book: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. To obey God is to be truly human. Throughout his book the Preacher has investigated the situation of mankind. Now, surprisingly, he affirms that the whole of humanity consists not in its mortality or ignorance but in its dependence on God. And yet the conclusion is not surprising. It not only flows naturally from all that has gone before but is the book’s final look at Genesis 2-3. Humanity sought to become like God in disobeying Him, but instead they lost the one thing that made them truly human. Everything Ecclesiastes has affirmed up to this point – the sovereign freedom of God, the limits of human wisdom, thoughts on the use and abuse of wealth and power, and the brevity and absolute contingency of human life – all lead to the command to fear God. For us the meaninglessness of life which the Preacher so ruthlessly exposes would seem to lead to despair or nihilism; for him it is an incitement to true piety. The insignificance of all that is done under the sun leaves him awestruck and silent before God. His inability to control or predict the future provokes him to dependence on God. The futility of attempting to secure his future through wisdom or acts of religion leads him not to impiety but to an understanding of the true nature of obedient trust. Seen in this light, to keep his commandments is not to behave with the self-satisfied arrogance of religious presumption, nor is it a nod to piety from an otherwise impious book. Rather, it is the deepest expression of humble acceptance of what it means to be a human before God.

This summary statement can be unpacked into some leading questions that challenge the conscience to the depths. (1) Do you know God? (2) Are you keeping His commandments? (3) Have you acknowledged your accountability before Him? (4) Will you confess that God is just in all His judgments? Outside of God and a loving reverence for Him and His revealed will, there really can only be vanity and meaninglessness. The full revelation of the New Testament now clothes this truth with the evangelical warmth of the gospel of Christ. God has revealed Himself to us in all His fullness as the Three-in-One, full of love and grace; the Father-God who is love and is to be worshipped in holy fear; the incarnate Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, the mediator who has died in our place to bear our sins; and the Holy Spirit, who since Pentecost has ministered in the hearts of God’s people with transforming power. It is only in faithful relationship to this Godhead that mankind can avoid the despair of a fallen world and find true hope and meaningfulness for eternity.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What is the author’s purpose in writing Ecclesiastes? What does he mean when he writes that everything is vanity or meaninglessness?

2.         What is the alternative to all this meaninglessness?

3.         Why is to fear God and keep his commandments … the whole duty of man? Throughout Ecclesiastes, the Preacher has dealt with the issue of being truly human and how to find lasting meaning in life. How does fearing God and obeying His commandments provide the only solution to the Preacher’s search? What does it mean to fear God?  What is the relationship between studying God’s Word and keeping his commandments?


Ecclesiastes, Craig Bartholomew, Baker Academic.

Ecclesiastes, Gordon Keddie, Evangelical Press.

Ecclesiastes, Duane Garrett, NAC, Broadman.

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