Dead Ends In The Search For Meaning
Before the Teacher of Ecclesiastes gives the right answers to the meaning of life he wants you to know the wrong answers and how each one leads to dead end.
Dead Ends In The Search For MeaningEcclesiastes 1:12-2:11
January 14, 2018
It has been said, “The two most important days of your life are the day you’re born and the day you find out why.” In other words, discovering why you were born is just as important as being born. We all need to find out the meaning of our lives.
Ecclesiastes says the same thing. With the Bible closed you will never find the meaning of life. But before he gives the right answer to the meaning of life, the Teacher in Ecclesiastes wants you to know the wrong answers to the meaning of life. He wants to show us that each of the wrong answers leads to a dead end. Ecclesiastes wants to make the mistakes for you, so that you don’t have to make them, and suffer the consequences.
Let’s remind ourselves who is speaking. It is the teacher. Ecclesiastes 1:1:
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king of Jerusalem: (NIV)
If the writer was not king Solomon, the book is about king Solomon. Solomon pursued the world’s dreams and found that those dreams had turned into nightmares.
The book of Ecclesiastes is written from the perspective of one who had it all, and did it all. It’s one thing for a poor man to say that “wealth is meaningless”, but if Bill Gates with his billions says that “wealth is meaningless”, it has more clout! The teacher was not a philosopher who lives his fantasies only in his dreams or on his xbox. He had it all and did it all. And the writer is not just a king, but he is also a teacher in search of wisdom. Ecclesiastes 1:13:
I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! (NIV)
For this teacher, the burden of his study was great, because he had worked out that everything is meaningless. Ecclesiastes 1:2:
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (NIV)
Thirty-five times in the book of Ecclesiastes we are told that everything is meaningless. In verse 2, the word is used four times in one sentence! Everything is meaningless because nothing lasts. The search for meaning is the search for what lasts. But the teacher has found that it’s all just a mist.
How much is meaningless? Everything is meaningless. It is utterly meaningless. By “everything”, Ecclesiastes doesn’t mean that God and his purposes are meaningless. But neither is he in a hurry to give us the answer as to what is not meaningless. The teacher wants to take you down dark corridors, along roads that promise meaning, only to show you that they are dead ends.
In Ecclesiastes 2:14, he describes the fruitless pursuit of meaning as “a chasing after the wind”. It is as pointless as a dog chasing its own tail.
(1) The Dead End Pursuit of Pleasure
Our modern culture teaches us three things. The first is that no one has the right to tell you what to do. The second is to be true to yourself. And the third is that happiness is the highest goal. Being happy is the main thing.
No one pursued happiness with more commitment and resources than king Solomon. Ecclesiastes 2:10:
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. (NIV)
What he saw and liked, he took. He is not ashamed to say it. Nothing was off limits. The teacher tried to find the meaning of life in raw pleasure.
Many people deny their desires, but that is only because of a lack of opportunity. Police say that three things are required for a crime to be committed. There needs to be motive, ability, and opportunity. 10% of it is motive, 10% is ability, but 80% is opportunity. And Solomon has the opportunity.
Solomon has no problem accessing sources of pleasure. He has a never-ending supply of wine, women, and wealth. In his time, he was the wealthiest man alive. He had a thousand women in his harem. He had access to the best the world of his day had to offer. Ecclesiastes 2:1-3:
I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. “Laughter,” I said, “is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?” I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives. (NIV)
And we Australians now have the money to pay for our pleasures. But at the end of all the overseas travel, experimental sex, endless drinking, gourmet food, thrill seeking adventures, and the never ending spending spree, there is no deep satisfaction. No happiness is achieved. No lasting contentment is found.
Solomon sounds just like rock star Jimmy Barnes. In his book, ‘Working Class Man’, he says this:
Even before I joined the band I was never short of someone to sleep with, but after joining, things got crazier and crazier. Just like the drugs and booze, the more I had, the more I wanted. I’m not going to sit here and brag about this. I’m not proud of all I’ve done. This behavior has been nothing but destructive in my life. It started out as something that filled a gap, something that made me feel good about myself, but after a short time all these encounters added to my feelings of not being worthy and I began to dislike myself even more. (p. 79)
Jimmy Barnes is an example of how pursuing pleasure is such a dead end. The pursuit of pleasure does not last. Think about how you feel at the end of a great holiday. You’re left with a whole lot of selfies that no one really wants to see. Nothing was gained, except making a few Facebook friends feel a bit jealous.
(2) The Dead End Pursuit of Work
The second place that our teacher sought to find meaning is in work. Let’s face it, work does takes up at least a third of our lives. Ecclesiastes 1:3:
What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? (NIV)
No one wants to work for nothing. A man labours under the sun, and the question is asked, “What’s the point?” What does a man gain? The Teacher recognizes elsewhere that work is a gift from God (cf. Eccles 3:12-14, 22). But after you have invested so much time and energy created your business, built your house, written your program, mastered your job, and developed your processes, how long will it last? How much of it will last? And the answer is “nothing”. Ultimately there is nothing to be gained in all the work done under the sun. He gives the reason for this in Ecclesiastes 2:18-19:
I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. (NIV)
The issue for Ecclesiastes is this: no matter how skilled, how impressive, how efficiently you have worked, at some point you have to hand that work over to another person or generation. You will either die or retire, or your work will be outdated. It will be passed on to others, or you will pass on, and sooner or later it will come to nothing.
I was talking to one friend in the IT (information technology) area. One moment his program was cutting edge, but only four years later, it was on the cutting room floor. It was obsolete. How many times have I seen a well run school under a good leader with an excellent reputation, and then a change happens, and within three years, it becomes the school you don’t want to send your kids to.
The same is true with the money you make from your work. You work your heart out, you slave for long hours—we have seen many of our parents’ generation do this, and especially migrant parents. They worked so hard and missed out on so much. But as much as you love your children, you never know whether they will turn out to be gamblers, druggies, or drop kicks. Or will they end up marrying dropkicks who divorce your son or daughter and take half the inheritance that you have worked so hard for. And if they don’t lose the lot, their grandchildren will.
That is why its always smart to invest in the kingdom of God. A man builds an empire and his son fritters it away. In just one generation, Solomon’s son Rehoboam acted so foolishly that the twelve tribes eventually become the two tribes of Israel. With it went everything that Solomon had built up—the wealth, the temple, the land, the throne—everything.
In the end, if the fruit of your labour can’t be preserved, then the meaning of life can’t be found in work. Ecclesiastes is working off the thinking that if it doesn’t last, then it’s meaningless.
Now, to be more accurate to what Ecclesiastes finds, we should say that work is meaningful—we must do it, and called to do it skillfully, and it is a gift from God—but work can’t be the meaning of life.
Jim Carey is the star of the movies, ‘The Mask’, ‘Dumb and Dumber’, ‘Ace Venturer’, ‘The Truman Show’, and ‘Bruce Almighty’, among others. His net worth is roughly $150 million. He uploaded to social media this quote:
I wish everyone could get rich and famous and everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer. (NIV)
So ‘pleasure’ is a dead end to give our lives meaning, and ‘work’ is a dead end to provide meaning to our lives. So what about ‘wisdom’. Surely ‘wisdom’ is not a dead end. Sorry, No.
(3) The Dead End Pursuit of Wisdom
Ecclesiastes knows that there is a difference between the wise and the foolish. How you live your life now really does make a difference in the present. Ecclesiastes 2:13-14:
I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. Doing the right thing is always better than doing the wrong thing. The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both. (NIV)
The wise can see how life is to be lived. It is true that you really are more happy if you have a healthy body, a disciplined life, good family relationships, and smart investments. Getting those things in order ticks a lot of boxes.
In contrast, the fool lives in the dark, lives for the moment, has no delayed gratification, drinks too much, works too little, and is always in debt. But in the end, both the wise and the fool will be dead and buried.
Whenever my daughter Amy was impressed about someone not worth being impressed by, I would say, “Yes darling but remember, they will die like a dog like everybody else.” Death is the great leveler.
There is an Assyrian proverb which says, “Come and see! You cannot distinguish between the bones of kings and the bones of slaves.” The wise and the foolish both end up reduced to white bleached bones. When James Packer and Ray Galea die, we will have differently priced coffins, his skeletal structure will be somewhat longer than mine, but that will be the only difference.
So the teacher asks the question, “Is it pointless being wise?” If you live with your Bible closed and look at life under the sun, then death is the end, and the difference between the fool and the wise is reduced to nothing. Being wise is useless under the sun, and of no lasting value, when you exclude God from the picture.
A lot of preachers at this point go to the movie ‘Groundhog Day’. It’s a mini-Ecclesiastes. It’s about a weather reporter with a bad attitude, played by Bill Murray. He is doing a weather report in a small town, and is snowed in, and somehow he re-lives the same day over and over again. No matter what he does, the next day is exactly the same way. At first he thinks this is great—there are no consequences for my actions. And this means that he engages in endless eating, stealing, and sex. He is rude, crude, and disgusting, only to find when he wakes up in the morning, that it’s the same day all over again.
At first he enjoyed having no consequences for his selfish and poor behaviour, but it eventually gets boring. It has no purpose. He can’t find meaning in the pleasure, and so the pleasure stops being pleasurable.
So he then tries to end his life—but no matter what he does, he wakes up the next day very much alive.
So almost as a last throw of the dice, he then tries to live a wise and good life. And the man finds meaning by genuinely serving others. There is meaning in loving others.
In the movie ‘Groundhog Day’, there is no death, but in real life there is. And so death means that every door and every corridor that promises hope is utterly meaningless.
Friends, why does Jesus say, in Mark 8:36, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world yet forfeit his soul?” If you gain the whole world you gain nothing because it will not last. But if you gain your soul you gain life everlasting (John 3:16). God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life.”
So some things do indeed last forever. You can last forever. Indeed, you will last forever, either in heaven or hell. The one who believes in God’s one and only Son will not perish. The day you were born was an important day—someone that lasts forever entered the universe. But the day that you realized why you were born is far more important—and if it hasn’t been before, today is that day. For whoever believes in Jesus Christ will not perish but have everlasting life.
I beg you to come and find out where life is really found. If your want to know more, don’t miss out on our ‘Explaining Christianity’ course.
But for those of us who have already found eternal life in Christ, perhaps you have been fixing your eyes on what is seen and temporary, and not fixing your eyes on what us unseen and eternal. You need to think again on Peter’s words to Jesus, in John 6:67-68. Jesus asks the twelve, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” And Simon Peter answered him:
Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. (NIV)
To whom shall you go. If you walk away from Jesus, where do you walk to? Pleasure won’t do it for you. It is never enough and you won’t be satisfied. Work won’t do it, for you have to hand over what you do and achieve and however much you make to someone else, and eventually they will botch it up. Wisdom won’t do it for you, because the fool dies just like the wise person.
As Christians, we have been rescued from a lot of things as followers of Christ—hell, the second death, sin, and the devil. Well, we need to remember this, that we have also been saved from a life without meaning.
Dear Lord Jesus,
To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Thank you for giving us meaning in a meaningless world.
 While it has been attributed to Mark Twain, it almost certainly was not said by him. https://marktwainstudies.com/the-apocryphal-twain-the-two-most-important-days-of-your-life/ accessed on 15 January 2018.