June 12, 2012

What is the main point of the Book of Ecclesiastes?

Ecclesiastes is wisdom literature in regard to kind of a big picture of life. Does it have meaning or not? Plenty of people do not think there is much meaning to life. Plenty of people, if you said to them, “Is there a real, ultimate meaning to life?” would say, “No, I don’t think so. You do what you can, you get along, if you can make money fine, do whatever makes you happy because all too soon you will be old and you’ll be sick and you won’t be able to enjoy life.” There are a lot of people for whom that is a philosophy. Proverbs looks at that philosophy from one point of view by giving a lot of individual bits of advice about how to live life.

Ecclesiastes looks at it from the kind of big picture overview and says, “Well, wait a minute, is there really meaning to life?” and does it somewhat ironically. What Ecclesiastes does is to say, “Okay, suppose all of life really is just empty, just useless, just meaningless?” Ecclesiastes repeatedly uses the term hevel which means in Hebrew something like a vapor or a wisp of something. It says life is like a vapor, like a wisp, there is not a lot to it. No matter what happens you eventually die. Humans and animals die alike. After you are dead, you are gone. Once you are dead you cannot look back on your life and say, “Gee, that was a great life wasn’t it?” You just are dead, you do not remember anything.

Now of course, this is not the ultimate purpose of Ecclesiastes; its ultimate purpose to cause us not to think that way. But by looking at life as honestly as possible from the point of view of a person who thinks there is not life after death and there is not judgment and that God will not call all things to account and evaluate what we have done, Ecclesiastes really forces us to ask the question, what meaning does life have without God. What meaning does life have if God only watches and does not have a direct activity in our lives?

What meaning is there to life if there is no final judgment? And it provides the answer at the very, very end of the book with the words, “Here is the conclusion to the whole matter after all has been heard. Fear God and keep His commandments, this is the whole duty of man because God will bring everything that has been done into judgment.” So in fact, Ecclesiastes calls for us very eloquently to live our lives with God’s purposes in mind. Ecclesiastes is saying, in effect, implicitly, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But it is doing so in a kind of a reverse way by chapter after chapter examining what little there is to believe in if a person does not hold to an afterlife and does not hold to a final judgment.