What is the meaning of life? What’s the point of it all? What’s the gain for all our efforts under the sun?
That’s what the book of Ecclesiastes is seeking to answer. Ecclesiastes is an Old Testament book which records observations about life. These observations were made by the Teacher of the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon, about a thousand years before Jesus turned up on that very first Christmas. This writer, Solomon, is trying to grasp hold of something tangible and concrete—something that lasts—in his life under the sun. He’s asking questions that you and I have asked at some point in our lives.
And all this writer is looking at to answer these questions is what’s in front of his eyeballs. There’s no God in the picture for this teacher. His Bible is closed. Yet this writer is on the hunt for meaning, for something that will satisfy him deep down in the very core of his soul.
The theme for these three chapters—chapters 4-6—is contentment.
Finish this sentence in your head—“my life would truly be content if only I had … ”
Now if I gave you $100,000, that would make a difference in your life, undoubtedly, but would it bring true, everlasting contentment?
If you moved into that better suburb, ticked off that bucket list item, or had that particular life partner, would that do it for you? Would you achieve lasting contentment?
Keep that question in the back of your mind as we listen in on this writer’s quest to find true contentment.
What we have in Ecclesiastes chapters 4 to 6 is a picture of life lived under three different masters. Under the sun, life is lived under a cruel master in chapter 4, under a greedy master in chapter 5, and under a pretend master in chapter 6.
Let’s look first at what life looks like under a cruel master. Ecclesiastes 4:1-3:
Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed—and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors—and they have no comforter. 2And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. 3But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun. (NIV)
This passage is a massive kick in the guts! There’s no soft intro here. The writer straight out the blocks says that ‘oppression’—which is the pursuit of profit or gain without any concern about the nature, needs, and rights of others—is part and parcel of life under the sun.
‘Oppression’ is what makes the world go ‘round. It takes extreme forms, such as a dictator like Mugabe or a warlord like Joseph Kony. And there are the faceless people responsible for the oppression of human trafficking, people smuggling, and drug, alcohol, and gambling addictions. But oppression can also be much closer to home, in the shape of the power-hungry boss, the bully of a co-worker, or that nasty family member. Oppression can take the form of someone who is willing to do whatever it takes to be ‘first’, to get their nose in front of yours, and to be noticed ahead of you.
Just this week, a former USA Gymnastics Team doctor was sentenced to 175 years prison for sexually assaulting young female athletes under his care. As a dad of three girls, I was sick to the stomach as I was reading their victim impact statements.
When you stop and look around at our world, actually it’s not that flash after all. All over the world, and including right here in our own backyard, vulnerable people are being steamrolled.
No wonder the writer’s conclusion is basically this—that it is better to die and get out of here, or better to never have been here in the first place and taste this cruel, sick kind of behaviour, than to be alive and see oppression running rampant all around you.
As hard as it is to hear these words, the writer is deliberately and intentionally giving us an honest look at life. That’s what I love about the Bible. It doesn’t do pretend. It’s why I especially love the book of Ecclesiastes.
Someone from church who battles with depression and anxiety said to me that the book of Ecclesiastes has helped him put things into perspective. A bloke sharing about his mental illness has said that these words are a comfort to him.
Another guy, one who has written a book on Ecclesiastes, has said that Ecclesiastes was written to depress you. It was written to depress you into dependence on the God who gives meaning. For it is God who has the answers to the longings and desires that keep you and I up at night.
The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a cause behind all this evil, a fuel that feeds the fire of oppression. Ecclesiastes 4:4:
And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (NIV)
What is to blame for all this oppression? It is envy. Envy drives so much of what we do.
Envy boils down to three things. First, what I have is not enough. I am discontent and want more. Second, I want what you have. I am coveting what you have. Third, I don’t want you to have what you’ve got. I have malice toward you.
I don’t need to ask if you’ve ever felt those things before. I know that you have.
Why else do get what I call “the attack of the wants”? We see someone else’s home, and then we want to renovate our own house. We see their new gadget, and then we line up for the latest iPhone.
We generally don’t ask each other in casual conversation, “How much do you get paid? How much money do you have in your bank account?” One of the main reasons we don’t ask is because we’d end up envying each other.
It is as if we’re on this never-ending escalator, trying to move on up in the world. And as we go, we’re always looking around, to the left and then to the right. Instead of being content, we’re busy comparing ourselves with each other, and competing against each other. Envy is a cruel master.
And yet, it’s not all doom and gloom. If envy is the disease, then contentment is part of the cure. Take a look at Ecclesiastes 4:5:
Fools fold their hands and ruin themselves. Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind. (NIV)
The writer here is using an image of hands to describe the life lived, both wisely and unwisely, under the sun.
First he says, don’t just fold your hands. That is just kicking back, and being lazy, and it’s not the answer, because you will end up eating your own flesh! That’s what the original that is translated “ruin themselves” literally means.
Second he says that you don’t achieve contentment by being greedy. This is the desperate grabbing with both hands mentioned in the passage. This involves trying to hold as much as you can using both hands, frantically grasping at this and that.
The third option—one handful with tranquility—is the much better approach. That leads to peace and contentment.
Teresa and I were chatting yesterday, trying to think of who among our friends and family could we say had found contentment, as best as we could judge. Often it was the people who were satisfied with just one portion. They are those who holiday locally, and don’t have the latest technology. In other words, these are the people who live within their means.
This doesn’t mean that they don’t have any worries or stresses in their lives. But they certainly aren’t driven by the opinions of others.
So life energized by envy—that green monster—is a dead end. But what is life like under a greedy master? Ecclesiastes 5:10-11:
10Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless. 11As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owners except to feast their eyes on them? (NIV)
We’ve all heard of the ‘flu’, or influenza, but a couple of years back, a book called ‘Affluenza’ came out, and last year a sequel was released called, ‘Curing Affluenza’. The tag line of one of the books reads, “When too much is never enough”.
The writers define ‘affluenza’ as “that strange desire we feel to spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t know”. And they go on to say that ‘affluenza’ has not just changed the world, but it has also changed the way we see the world. If we are short of money, the solution is to borrow. If you are caught in the rain, buy an umbrella. If you are thirsty, buy a bottle of water and throw the bottle away.
And while we do this, our hearts are experiencing either the thrill of bargain hunting, the quest for something new or unique, or that moment when the shop assistant hands over a beautifully wrapped new purchase, with a bow, just as though it’s a present.
The authors go on to say that the love of buying things can, by definition, provide only a transient sense of satisfaction. The feeling can be lengthened by the “thrill of the chase”. It may include an afterglow that includes walking down the street with a new purchase in a branded carry bag, or even extend to the moment when you get to show your purchase to your friends and family. But that’s it.
Now does ‘Affluenza’ sound like Ecclesiastes or what!? After 3,000 years, for all our advances in human technology, scientific breakthroughs, or human enlightenment, nothing has changed. This is shown by the endless cycle of buy something, feel alive, that feeling fades, buy something else, feel alive again, and that feeling fades again. It’s like a dog chasing it’s tail.
In fact, it can get to the point of keeping you up all night. Ecclesiastes 5:12.
The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether they eat little or much, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep. (NIV)
I’m the son of migrants. My parents came from Hong Kong nearly 60 years ago. I know for a fact that my parents literally chose to go without sleep to provide for me and my brother. Both mum and dad worked shifts, involving late nights and early mornings. Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve learned from my parents about sacrifice and work ethic. But there comes a point when as Ecclesiastes 5:15 says,
Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands.
Friends, the mortality rate among humans has pretty much hovered around the 100% mark since forever. Try as we might, we can’t take any of our stuff with us. Your car will get passed on to someone else. Someone else will move into your house. The savings account will get divvied up, and the smashed avo you ate last week will become worm food. And in case I’m in denial, I’ve only got to read my will, which divides up my stuff, and says who gets what.
It’s pretty depressing to live life with a cruel master and a greedy master. But when we come to verse 18, the writer finally declares something to be good. Ecclesiastes 5:18-19:
This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. 19 Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. (NIV)
The teacher is saying here, “If you can, be content, collect what you can, enjoy what you can, don’t fuss too much, and hope for the best. But then along comes verse 20:
They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart (NIV)
It’s almost as if being content with your stuff acts like an anesthetic which numbs the pain of life and stops you from asking the hard questions. The other things you are occupied with push the big issues aside—“I will deal with that some other time.”
That doesn’t really sound all that satisfying.
Perhaps you are on a search for meaning. According to this writer of Ecclesiastes here, the best that you can hope for in your meaningless life under the sun is to spend the next five, ten, or however many years you get collecting what you can, enjoying what you can, and along the way, trying not to let personal disasters like life-threatening pregnancies worry you. That’s it, end of story.
But that is not the end of the story—not if we allow God into our lives under the sun. If you are willing to keep reading the rest of the Bible, you will see that Jesus comes along to offer us a life of true contentment under the sun. Jesus doesn’t allow us to be content with what we’ve collected. Instead, he gives those who are willing to live life under the sun on his terms riches that go beyond anything this world can ever give us.
And Jesus does this by giving us his very self. When Jesus walked the earth, he asked his listeners, Mark 8:36:
What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?
Jesus asks that question because what he himself can give us is worth way more than the whole world. Jesus offers you and I meaning. The meaning Jesus gives goes to the core of our very souls.
This is why the rich man Zacchaeus gave up half of what he owned after he met Jesus. Zacchaeus gave it away to the poor because he had received grace and treasured the riches of eternity more than his riches. He wanted his soul to go beyond the grave.
I came across this quote by Randy Alcorn on Instagram this week:
When you leave this world, in a box, like everyone else, will you be known as one who accumulated treasures on earth that you couldn’t keep or will you be recognized as one who invested in treasures in heaven that you couldn’t lose?
We’ve seen the dead end of life under the cruel master of oppression (Ecclesiastes 4) the hopelessness of life under the greedy master of riches (Ecclesiastes 5), so let’s look very briefly at our third master, the pretend master.
In chapter 6, verses 3-6 the writer wants us to imagine someone who has a hundred children, lives for two thousand years, and has everything his heart could possibly desire. That sounds good, and certainly better than any of us get, but it’s not that good, because the writer concludes that you can have a life of ‘quantity’, but that doesn’t guarantee ‘quality’ of life. Someone with long life and abundant riches is still looking for lasting joy and deep satisfaction. In fact, the writer leaves us with this chilling conclusion, at the end of verse 3:
I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.
Compare the rich long-lived person with a stillborn child. The writer says that the rich long-lived person born into a life that’s not really life does not have as much ‘peace’ as the stillborn child. The word here translated ‘peace’ is the same one translated ‘tranquility’ we saw back in Ecclesiastes chapter 4. The writer is not minimizing the value of the life of a stillborn child. Rather, he is brutally exposing, with raw honesty, what life without God really looks like. Again and again, Ecclesiastes reminds us that life after the fall outside the garden is far from perfect. Not every pregnancy goes the distance. Parents have to bury their children. There are such things as funerals.
We live in a world that is under a pretend master. This master is not even there. And that leads to despair. Nothing seems to make sense. You eat, but you are still hungry. You try to be wise, but it doesn’t seem to help. You try to keep up with people, but it never satisfies. Talk is everywhere, but it doesn’t make sense.
And so chapter 6 ends on two piercing questions. The first question is in Ecclesiastes 6:12:
For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless days they pass through like a shadow?
That is followed by a second question Ecclesiastes 6:14:
Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone?
Here are two brilliant questions. The first is who knows what is good in this world? The second is who knows what comes after this world? And the answer is, ‘not us’. As a fellow human being, I can’t claim to have definitive answers on life beyond the grave any more than you can.
It is estimated that 107 billion people have walked the face of this earth, and all have gone down into the big hole called ‘death’. But only one set of footprints have come out the other side. That’s one out of 107 billion, and those footprints belong to Jesus.
Jesus is the one human who is fully God at the same time. Jesus has all the answers about what’s beyond the grave.
Someone who’s search for meaning finally led to Jesus is Australian author, Tony Morphett. Before Tony met Jesus, he was an atheist. He didn’t believe in God at all. But he was also a highly superstitious man. One Friday the 13th, Tony finds himself catching a flight from Brisbane to Sydney. He takes a lucky charm with him—a stolen Gideon’s Bible from his hotel room. When he gets to Sydney, Tony starts reading Matthew’s Gospel, and by the end of it said, “I write fiction all the time, but this is anything but fiction. This is true truth. It has the mark of reality.” One of those verses Tony came across was Matthew 11:28:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
Rather than us living life under a cruel master, Jesus gives you and I an alternative—life under his rule and lordship. It’s not oppressive, nor is it something that will crush you. It’s liberating, and it will bless you.
Jesus can say and mean these words because he himself experienced the cruelest of cruelties. He doesn’t stand like a detached Buddha who sits with a permanent smile on his face. Instead, Jesus dived head first into our mess, and like a sponge he absorbed and soaked up every single drop of God’s punishment that rightly should’ve been poured out on us, as he hung there on that cross. And because he did that, Jesus invites you and I to come and have life to the full (John 10:10).
In Jesus, we can have both quantity and quality of life. A life empty of meaning can be traded in for a life full of meaning. That’s the offer Jesus makes to you and I. So if you haven’t yet accepted this offer of true contentment, of life under a loving, merciful, forgiving, liberating, death-conquering master, what are you waiting for? Jesus offers us life with the best, most wonder kind of master. Each of us can find true meaning and contentment in Jesus.