The Most Basic Question about Life

Here is the most basic question about life: what is its significance?  Look around you.  History is filled with one vast mass of humanity, each one faceless and nameless to perhaps all but a few.  Do people really matter?  Is there an overriding purpose beyond the 70-80 year window of time we call “life”? 

The book of Ecclesiastes is a unique assortment of thinking on ultimate issues of life significance.  The work itself is a serious account of one’s frustrating attempt to reconcile life as experienced with life as hoped for.

The nature of the book’s message has provoked a significant amount of controversy.  Because the book’s positive conclusion, namely, the command to fear and obey God, appears to be eclipsed by the overwhelmingly negative flavor of the bulk of the book, many students of Ecclesiastes have attributed to it an essentially negative view of life.  However, the book’s ultimate message is a positive one, although incomplete in some respects. 

The main speaker of the book identifies himself as Qohelet, a Hebrew term which literally means “one who assembles,” suggesting the imagery of a teacher gathering students for a lesson.

The main teaching section of the book (1:4-12:8) is devoted to the thesis of the futility of life.  This so-called “oppressive message” forms the crux of the argument of Qohelet.

The author decries the ephemeral benefit of life pursuits and experiences, such as wisdom, pleasure, and work.  For him, “increasing knowledge results in increasing pain” (Ecc 1:18).  Moreover, the pursuit of pleasure is futile, a “striving after wind” (Ecc 2:11).  Indeed, Qohelet prefers the rest which a fool enjoys to the futile striving after the elusive fruits of labor (Ecc 4:6).  Indeed, the futility of labor is questioned because no one is able to comprehend or alter life’s predetermined course (Ecc 3:1-9).

In fact, man’s ignorance of life after death leads Qohelet to wonder what brings any good to man during this life (Ecc 6:12).

While, admittedly, the Old Testament contains less revelation on the afterlife than the New Testament, the negative view of Ecclesiastes on the subject appears to conflict with the general thrust of David’s confidence that Yahweh will not let him “undergo decay,” but will bless him with “pleasures forever” (Ps 16:10-11).

While negativity abounds, positive statements can be located.  For example, enjoying the fruit of one’s labor is pictured as a good thing and the gift of God (Ecc 2:24-26; 3:12-13; 5:18-20).  Moreover, the enjoyment of one’s labor through eating and drinking helps one endure the toilsome nature of work (Ecc 8:15).  Finally, in addition to eating and drinking, enjoying one’s spouse is pictured as a reward for toilsome labor in life (Ecc 9:9-10).

So, can we isolate and identify Qohelet’s true perspective?

A survey of Qohelet’s teaching reveals a belief in a theistic world that nonetheless cannot be understood from a limited human perspective.  Accordingly, the worldview espoused by Qohelet is generally devoid of saving revelation from God.

Supporting this proposition are the forty references to God as “Elohim” throughout the book.  Noticeably lacking is the reference to God by his relational and personal covenant name, “Yahweh.”  Thus, God is known only as Creator and Judge, not as Redeemer.

Overall, the perspective of this main body of teaching is negative, but incomplete because it excludes special revelation, information that other teaching in Scripture relies upon for its conclusions.

In 12:9-14, summary thoughts are provided concerning Qohelet and a general conclusion is delivered to the reader.  The substance of the conclusion is that all humanity is to fear God and obey his commands.  The motivation for doing this is that God will judge every act that is done, without exception.

One detects in this final thought a shift from the thrust of the main body.  While the depiction of God as Yahweh is absent from the book, a reference to the Mosaic covenant is intimated in 12:13 through the use of the Hebrew miswot (“commands”).

Thus, after engaging in teaching on the futility of life apart from special revelation, the author appears to revert to his fundamental perspective, that of one who is subject to God’s commands as revealed in the Law of Moses.

Regardless of the specific explanation offered to account for the disparity between the main body and the conclusion, the argument of Ecclesiastes does shift in this final portion of the book to look upon God as the one by whom all are judged.  Thus, when viewed against the futility expressed in the main body, the conclusion contains a positive intimation that the described judgment will have consequences beyond this life, both with respect to good and evil.

Clearly, then, the book of Ecclesiastes has a positive, though incomplete, message.  The positive nature of it is seen in its depiction of God as the final arbiter of good and evil in 12:13-14.  This depiction indicates that good deeds will not be ultimately eclipsed by the futility of life.  However, the depiction of God is incomplete, because he is not revealed to the same extent as he is in other portions of Scripture.  For example, in Genesis through Deuteronomy, God is shown as covenant-keeping Yahweh, who is not only just, but also gracious and full of mercy.  Essentially, the value of Ecclesiastes for the Old Testament believer is that it serves as a bridge to the Law for the fullest revelation of God’s character and requirements.  For the New Testament believer, it can serve to show that life indeed has no ultimate purpose apart from God’s unique revelation in the person of Jesus.

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