Is our search for significance vanity? (Ecclesiastes)

So, I hated life!” “I hated all my work at which I worked!” These would be deeply disturbing statements from anyone, because of the misery that is revealed by them. There must be deep anguish of soul when someone says, “I hated life.” What makes these statements more troubling and even more baffling is that they were said not by someone who had led a life of failure and aimlessness and dissolution, but by a man who had lived what many would envy as an ideal life. Immense wealth and pleasure and fame and accomplishment, and yet somehow the result is an exclamation of, “So I hated life (Ecclesiastes 2:17).”

This introduces us to the complex book of “Ecclesiastes” in the Bible, a book that explores the question of whether it is possible to have meaning and significance in life when death seems to erase it all. The author, who I will refer to as Qohelet (Hebrew for “preacher”), appears to have mastered life and to have sucked all the juice out of his life well-lived. Building projects and wisdom, pleasures and accumulating wealth; he seems to have succeeded in everything he attempted. But there is one problem Qohelet has failed to solve: DEATH. All his grandest successes “under the sun” shrink into insignificance in the face of this one failure: “I will die.” Death renders life vain (“Vanity of vanities”). Death erases all that life wrote. Death trumps life, and life’s house of cards collapses. And so Qohelet views all effort, indeed, all of life to be just so much “striving after wind.” Is Qohelet right? Is life a pointless striving after wind since death awaits us all? If Qohelet is wrong, where does his error lie? Can we refute his statements or his conclusions? Better still, do we have a solution to his dilemma?

WHERE DOES QOHELET MISS THE MARK?

            First, let me say that I believe that Qohelet is driven by a search for significance, and the primary obstacle to anyone’s lasting significance is that event that concludes life, namely DEATH. If a person’s death does indeed erase all accomplishment and destroy all significance, as Qohelet assumed, then having significance in this life seems impossible. Qohelet accepted the ideas that death is final and that no purpose or significance transcends death, but I believe both of those ideas are false.

            Qohelet has realized late in life that performing all the right things “under the sun,” and even performing them very well, will not bring significance. Nothing “under the sun” can provide significance, because nothing “under the sun” is meant to provide it. Qohelet has focused his search along the horizontal plane, on what can be found “under the sun,” but significance is found vertically, in looking up.

It is also true that accomplishment never produces purpose. Rather, meaningful accomplishment flows out of purpose. First you receive the mission or the purpose, then you pursue those things that accomplish that mission. Qohelet got the order reversed.

            Finally, it seems to me that the Preacher lacks a compelling “why” for all that he is accomplishing. He has amazing abilities that allow him to achieve astonishing things, but his motivation for these comes from within himself, and is not given him from above. Qohelet needs a motivation that is greater than his own ambition, a God-given motivation.

WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?

            As one who has long contemplated my own significance and who has wrestled with Qohelet’s arguments, I have several thoughts to offer about solutions to these questions.

            I do not create my significance by what I do, nor is my significance achieved by my own effort. That is because significance is not manufactured from within, and thus is not to be found “under the sun,” but significance is given by the Lord who reigns over all and is humbly received by the man or woman who loves the Lord.

            My significance is a derived significance. By myself, my life is relatively insignificant. That is why my significance must be derived from another, from one who is infinitely significant. For I joyfully serve the living God and, through faith in Jesus Christ, I have come into a loving relationship with Him, and I derive my significance from His infinite majesty. I am an adopted child of the King of kings, and nothing I could accomplish in a thousand lifetimes would be more significant than that. And since I am in Christ, and Christ lives forever, death has lost its threat and the grave can no longer frighten.

            If we search for significance “under the sun,” we will always be “striving after wind.” But those who fear the Lord and worship the One who is worthy of all praise will find true contentment. They will rest in Him and rejoice in Him and receive with joy and thanksgiving the good things He provides and praise His name. They rejoice in hope now in this life “under the sun,” knowing that after death they will be forever rejoicing with Him.

            In short, significance is found in bowing the knee to the Lord Jesus and humbly and obediently walking with Him through life here “under the sun,” and then forevermore in heaven.

SDG                 rmb                 11/19/2020

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