May 7, 2008

The Search for Meaning

2008 1513 page14 cap HATE MYSELF AND WISH TO DIE.” IT’S A phrase common among the many emo kids of today and somewhat reminiscent of Solomon’s introduction to Ecclesiastes.
Although not a confession of suicidal tendencies, Ecclesiastes is commonly viewed to be the most depressing book in the Bible. Which is rather strange, considering that the Bible is a book that’s supposed to bring hope and joy to the reader.
Right from the start, in Ecclesiastes 1:2, Solomon declares: “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ . . . ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!’” He goes on to observe how whatever we do has no impact on the world in any way. Things come, things go, but ultimately the state of the world remains the same. “The sun rises and the sun sets. . . . round and round [the wind] goes, ever returning on its course. . . . What has been will be again . . . there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:5-9).
And as if that weren’t depressing enough, Solomon goes on to observe how things even our modern society holds dear—things such as work, pleasure, riches, and wisdom—are ultimately meaningless. Going to college, getting a degree, working a nine-to-five job, spending evenings watching television, pursuing some hobby during the weekend, hanging out with family and friends, and occasionally going on a holiday where you engage in even more meaningless activities. What’s the gain in obtaining knowledge, broadening one’s horizons, seeing new things, and even being entertained?
We work hard to provide our family and ourselves with a comfortable life. But what exactly is the point behind having a life lacking nothing, besides lining our slow walk to the grave with rose petals? When you get down to it, doesn’t it seem as though life isn’t fair, that life has no purpose, and that life has no ultimate goal other than death? What is the point of life if everything we do and pursue is meaningless? Why are we placed in the world?
2008 1513 page14These are questions that everybody asks at one stage of their life. Maybe Douglas Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was on to something when he suggested that the meaning of life is 42—random, confusing, and completely pointless.
Reading Ecclesiastes appears to be enough to send anybody even remotely depressed over the edge. Much of the book appears to assert that life isn’t fair, that it does not have an ultimate goal. Such assertions strike a common chord with the everyday person to whom life, after all, does appear to be simply chasing after the wind, with death leading to nothing.
Since the beginning of time, humans have always sought to leave a permanent mark in the world—through conquest (Alexander the Great), or art (Van Gogh), or even through the simple (if also destructive) act of carving our names on desks, walls, or other artifacts—that so-and-so “was here” on a certain day. We seem to possess an unexplained desire to be remembered—or to have actually served a purpose in the world and made some sort of difference.
But when you consider the wisdom of Solomon, what he says in Ecclesiastes makes perfect (albeit depressing) sense. Whatever our actions may be, they do not make a difference.
Taking Another Look
In actuality, however, Ecclesiastes is arguably one of the most beautiful books of the Bible when taken in context, providing the reader with the most meaningful reason for our life here on earth.

We get an early glimpse of the beauty of Ecclesiastes when Solomon says: “[God] has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Eccl. 3:11).
This is where it begins to make sense. Life, work, riches, wisdom—in fact, everything—is meaningless, only because of our nature. We have been created by God to live forever, and therefore desire eternity. Unfortunately, however, what we have is a transient, mortal existence, making us unable to achieve what God originally planned for us to attain. Thus our current existence appears meaningless.
But that’s where God comes in.

For too long what we understand about the meaning of life has been influenced by society. Life, it seems, is about getting that degree, getting that well-paying job and promotion, getting that house—complete with a white picket fence, a spouse, and 2.5 kids—and finally getting that wonderful retirement in which we are free to pursue whatever we want.
No wonder Solomon thought we were chasing after the wind! As he so aptly puts it in Ecclesiastes 9:5, 6: “The dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten. Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.” What is the point of what we do when in the end we’ll die and end up losing everything?
A glimmer of hope comes, however, in Romans 8:20, 21, where Paul says that “the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”
Our Only Source of Meaning
Everything that we currently do can seem meaningless because this is not the world and the life that God had originally planned for us. Meaning in life comes with God and pertains to what comes after our existence here on earth is over. Our focus should be on that goal, not on having a good job and 2.5 kids. Meaning has to do with eternity, with life with God in heaven.
2008 1513 page14Of course, this is not an excuse to merely sit around and do nothing. It’s not an easy way to get out of going to college, doing assignments, and even having a dream that consists of working for organizations such as the United Nations or Apple. We should still have goals, but they should never be the be-all and end-all of our lives.
As Rick Warren puts it in his best seller The Purpose Driven Life, “It’s not about you. The purpose of your life is far greater than your own personal fulfillment, your peace of mind, or even your happiness. It’s far greater than your family, your career, or even your wildest dreams and ambitions. . . . You were born by [God’s] purpose and for His purpose” (p. 17).
It’s only in God that we can find meaning and hope. And despite what is seemingly a depressing read initially, Ecclesiastes actually provides the same kind of hope and joy as any other book of the Bible. The aim of the whole book, and possibly the whole aim of our lives, is neatly summed up in the last two verses of the book: “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”
Work, pleasure, riches, wisdom, and life in general are meaningless and unfair. We run around in circles, repeating things already done before us, yet failing to make an impact. “Righteous men . . . get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men . . . get what the righteous deserve” (Eccl. 8:14). But life is genuinely meaningless only when we take God out of the picture. When we trust in God, have faith in Him, and obey Him, it will all make sense.
Melody Tan is the public relations officer for the South Pacific Division of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.