30 September 2021

Ecclesiastes: Living a Life of Purpose

The book of Ecclesiastes opens with the identification of its author and the problem the book seeks to address.

The author is Solomon, son of David, king of Israel. Whether of not the book was literally penned by Solomon himself or whether it was written later in his name (as was often done) is of little importance to the meaning of the text as this is the perspective the reader is to assume of the author. The author is a king and a teacher, renowned for his wisdom and his great works which were unparalleled in his time.

Solomon had learned all there was to learn and experienced all there was to experience (1:12-14) and the conclusion he came to shook him to his core: life is utterly without meaning (1:1-11). Everything the Earth does is cyclical (the rivers flow into the sea but never fill it... the sun rises and sets only to rise again, etc.) and the works of humanity are no different (1:8). In time, all are forgotten; given enough time, no life, no matter how great, leaves any mark on the world.

Nothing is permanent. No great structure that mankind has ever made will stand forever. The pyramids will erode to sand, all our writings will fade away, even our nuclear waste will eventually decay to simple carbon. Then someday, billions of years from now, even the Earth itself will be engulfed by an expanding Sun. Nothing lasts forever, nothing and no one will be forever remembered.

This is a problem for a king: someone who wants to be forever remembered and who wants to establish a kingdom that will stand forever, whose laws and teachings will become the cornerstone of all future civilizations. Nothing Solomon can do will satisfy this desire. He will be robbed of it by the cyclical nature of the world itself. This is also a problem for everyone else. Who does not seek meaning in their life?

This is where Solomon really shows his great wisdom, he separates "meaning," the desire to establish something lasting, and "purpose," the desire to have an impact on the lives of those around you. Searching for meaning, you might seek it in pleasure and hedonism (2:1-11), in study or in ignorance (2:12-16), or even in your career (2:17-26). However, none of these things produce anything lasting (3:1-22). Even if you achieve your goals through exploitation, rising above the entire world and crushing it beneath your greatness, you are still destined to be forgotten (4:1-16)

Once the problem is fully established, Solomon reveals his solution little by little, permitting the reader no escape to go back to searching for meaning. He shows how God gives each person their purpose (5:1-7). It is the purpose of the rich to be generous, since they themselves are supported by the labor of the poor and not their own work alone (5:8-15). He warns that while God may not punish those who reject this wisdom, neither does God reward their avarice. They will find that all they earn will be redistributed to the poor after they die, their avarice produces nothing but a temporary suffering (5:16-6:12).

Solomon spends the rest of Ecclesiastes (8-12) showing how to live a good life. There is no purpose in gaining at the expense of others. There is no purpose to feasting while others mourn. There is no purpose in learning and hoarding knowledge while others are ignorant. There is not even purpose in being righteous while others are wicked.

The Teacher exhorts, "consider what God has done" (8:13). Christ feasted with sinners, healed the sick, brought comfort to those who mourned, and even died that we might live. Jesus lived a life of purpose in the way Solomon defines it here. He brought those who had been cast out back into community. The tax collectors who had become rich by exploiting the poor and those who had been marginalized by no fault of their own were brought back into community with everyone else.

If you are searching for details on how you can improve your life and live in the way of Jesus, Ecclesiastes is a good place to start. It is a difficult book to read, and even more difficult to understand, but it is worth the effort. There is no better time to reject the siren song of “meaning” and embrace your own unique purpose.

Peace be with you.

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