Lecture 21: Ecclesiastes
Course: Old Testament Survey
Ecclesiastes is next in our rapid run through. I am going to start with something that may seem a little funny and that is a brief summary of Existentialism. It is because Ecclesiastes reflects the kind of outlook that you have in the philosophical stance called Existentialism. Existentialism says, in effect, that this life is all there is; there is no after life and there is no God. Does all Existentialism say that? No, there is also theistic existentialism of the kind represented by Kierkegaard.
A. Theistic Existentialism
But Kierkegaard himself, the melancholy Dane, says that we must live life as if there were no God because we do not get from Him a lot of direct guidance. He felt lonely and estranged from God and believed that was our real situation. Yes, God exists and He created everything, but He does not have a lot of methods by which we can reach Him and touch Him and know Him personally. You must live with a lot of doubt, a lot of uncertainty and so “You work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” He loved that verse from Paul and made it into what Paul did not mean by it. Paul said, “You be careful to stay with Christ. You be afraid that you do anything to jeopardize your salvation.” Kierkegaard took that to mean, “You have to figure out your salvation and you do it with fear and trembling because you never know.” There is a lot of uncertainty.
B. Dostoevsky and Nietzsche
Dostoevsky said it this way, “If God didn’t exist, everything would be permitted.” If there is no God, and there is no heaven and no life after death and so on, you could do anything you want; you just live. Nietzsche said, “God is dead.” He did not mean by that that there was a God who was alive. He meant we do not do philosophy anymore with God in mind. We are working out how to live, how to think, how to act without the presumption that God is the one who sets the value system.
C. "Because of death, life is absurd."
Existentialism in general says, “Because of death, life is absurd.” What does that mean? Think of it this way, you can say, “I’m going to live a great and wonderful life. I’m going to do everything, I’m going to be kind to people, I’m going to be good, I am never going to put bubblegum under anybody’s seat. I’m going to be the nicest person I can think of,” and go through life doing that. If you are really dead, you do not have any memory. You cannot say, “Now that I’m dead I’m satisfied that I lived a good life,” because if you are really dead, we are talking about death now where there is no afterlife, no conscious survival, you are just dead like an ant that gets stepped on, you do not think back because you cannot think at all. You do not have any memory, you do not exist. So if you lived a good life, the minute you are dead, to you it does not mean anything because nothing means anything to you. You are dead, you do not exist. You have no meaning, no sense, no feeling, no recollection, no nothing.
Suppose you live an evil life. You tripped little old ladies waiting to cross the street, you put bubblegum down people’s necks, you do everything, all kinds of evil. You plow into crowds with pickup trucks. When you are dead, it does not matter. You do not say, “Oh, what a lousy life I lived.” You do not think anything because you do not think, you do not remember, you are nothing. In the Existentialist system people say, “Wait a minute, once you are dead, life does not count at all, it is absurd, it is not meaningful.” Since all of us are going to die and will be, soon enough, in that state of nothingness; it does not matter how we live, life is simply absurd. You cannot say there is such a thing as a good life or a bad life. You can only say there is an authentic life. The one thing a true full-blown, committed Existentialist, will say, “You can live authentically,” that is, you can have some satisfaction now, at this moment, at this point of existence in doing what is authentic to you.” That gets variously defined. But they will not usually say what is right or what is wrong. They will say what is authentic. It is a purposeful use of a term to avoid making real value judgments. Ecclesiastes tends to say that.
Here is again a very rapid, zippy, kind of quick summary. Again and again Ecclesiastes says that things are meaningless.
A. Chapter 1
Things are meaningless, death makes life absurd, and wisdom yields only disappointment. What a thing to say in a wisdom book at the end of chapter one.
B. Chapter 2
Pleasures, projects, meaningless, wisdom, and folly. Death makes life and work meaningless.
C. Chapter 3.
It is fatalistic, it uses authentic living language. What happens happens. And, animals and humans are alike.
D. Chapter 4.
There is meaninglessness in oppression, envy, materialism success, career, anything like that.
E. Chapter 5
Authentic living, do it. It emphasizes trying to enjoy the time while you are young, that kind of language. Eat, drink and be merry sort of language. That is all ways of saying be authentic. There is no absolute, ultimate right or wrong. Political power or wealth are meaningless.
F. Chapter 6
Even divine blessing, wealth and long life are meaningless; they are futile. Both proverbial and speculative wisdom are futile. In other words, the Book of Proverbs and the Book of Job are useless.
G. Not Meaningless At All
Then all of a sudden you come to this at the end of the book, and I would argue that you come to this at the end of Ecclesiastes because the writer just does not want you to miss what is going on here, just to be sure nobody misunderstands what the writer has done. This is the very last chapter, 12, 13, and 14. “Now all has been heard, here is the conclusion. I’ve said everything I want to say, let me be sure you get this conclusion.” “Fear God and keep His commandments for this is the whole purpose of man,” or whole duty of man, “for God will bring every deed into judgment including every hidden thing whether it is good or evil.” The choices do count. The idea then is that there is a judgment and everything will be judged. It is not meaningless at all.
So what has the writer done? The writer has given us what in literature we call a foil.
A. Tempting, misleading alternatives
A foil is a tempting, misleading alternative. In a murder mystery, you know a type of literature, a play, or a novel, there is a lot of foils built in. You are not supposed to know who did it in chapter two and just read along until they catch the person. You are supposed to wonder, “I wonder who did it.” You are supposed to suspect the nurse for a while and then maybe the butler and then maybe the maid for a while, then maybe the gardener, then maybe Mrs. Alfonzo from next door. You suspect all of these people and finally some brilliant person, usually the detective who gathers them in the living room, explains who really did it. You say, “Yeah I get it, I see who did it.” But those other people who did not do the murder were tempting, they have to be tempting, you have to consider them as a real possibility, and they have to be realistic in some way, but they are, in fact, the alternative to what the truth is. That is what Job’s comforters do. Everything Eliphaz says, Bildad says, Zophar and Elihu are all foil material. It is all foil. It sounds good, it is well-motivated. People might think this is great stuff. You can take it out of context and say, “Does that sound good to you?” and most people will say, “It sounds great to me.” So do many parts of Ecclesiastes. “How does that sound?” “It sounds deep, I like it, ‘A time to live and a time to die’, wow.” But really it is just fatalism; it is all just meaningless fatalism.
B. "If this life is all there is ..."
The purpose is to show you what life is like, what conclusions you come to if there is no God, who cares or is involved, and especially if this life is all there is. If this life is all there is, what Bildad, Zophar, Eliphaz and Elihu say really has a lot of merit. If this life is all there is, the meaninglessness of the Existentialists has a lot of merit. What Ecclesiastes says up until the last two verses has a lot of merit. The great use of Ecclesiastes is to say to people, “Do you think this life is all there is? If so, read this. This is what you’ve got to look forward to; this is what level of meaning there is in your life.”
C. Emptiness of life
It really is a description of the emptiness that life is without a judgment and a life after death.
D. Argument for judgment and life after death
Ecclesiastes is a wonderful argument for the fact that there must be and will be a judgment and a life after death. That is its function. That is the nature of Ecclesiastes in Scripture and it is a wonderful book for that function. When you preach it and teach it, that is exactly the way to make it. Just keep examining all these ways that there is a kind of hopelessness, a kind of sad emptiness to life unless there will be a judgment and an afterlife, which then is the sort of thing that makes all of life have meaning. So when Jesus says, “Look, watch out. Every idol word you’ve spoken will be called into question at the judgment,” he is saying this life has meaning right down to the words you say. Everything in life is significant. It will be judged and evaluated on that final day. That is really the kind of thing that Ecclesiastes says as well.