The teacher looked out over the city from the balcony of his palace, taking in the skyline that stretched out before him, the sun a brilliant burnt orange as it started to set. He could see the temple he had built, the city’s magnificent walls, the beautiful marketplaces teeming with life. The teacher’s mind wondered away from the scene to his own household; he thought of the vast underground treasure store full of riches from all over the world; he thought of the harem full of his wives and concubines who would keep him company should he so desire; and he thought of the library full of knowledge and books, many written by the teacher himself. He had everything he needed to be happy. So why wasn’t he?
The teacher turned away from the window moving stiffly towards his desk. Age was not being kind to him. His hair had turned a pearly white almost a decade earlier, and he found his knees and hips were giving him more trouble with every day. He turned around and looked back at the setting sun – his life was like that sun, close to dipping below the horizon, disappearing from the Earth. But, thought the preacher, the sun would be back tomorrow, heralding a new day. Would he be so lucky? Would he rise to see the dawn or would his servants find his cold body in his bed, his spirit having left him in the night? And what then? One of his sons would replace him, and eventually one of his grandsons would replace his son. And so time would roll on, mercilessly taking each generation and replacing it with another. Suddenly it felt as if a weight had been placed upon his shoulders. He sat down at the desk, and pulling a quill and parchment towards him, wrote “everything is meaningless”.
A Life of Doing
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Its a question I’m sure we’ve all heard at some point in our lives, usually from grown ups such as parents, family, teachers etc. but also from other children. From an early age, we are asked to consider what we want to do with ourselves when we hit adulthood and have to start earning a living. My ambition when I was seven was to be a combination of footballer (anyone who has seen me play knows what a stretch that would be), astronaut, rock star and history teacher. I am doing none of those things, probably because I got distracted by playing with my Pokemon cards or Beyblades. But the question of what we want to do begins to take a more pronounced importance once we hit our teens. We are expected to select GCSEs, A-levels or college courses, and maybe even University Degrees, all in the pursuit of this goal. But why?
Human existence is based around one thing – achieving. All of us will have a series of goals, dreams and dearest ambitions which we wish to accomplish in our time on on Earth, some of them realistic (getting a job we are passionate about, making money, finding love and starting a family), some fantastical (being the first man on Mars), but all probably near and dear to our hearts. Our lives revolve around reaching these goals, seeking the elation that satisfaction brings to us, that sense of achievement.
But as Fleetwood Mac once said, ‘Time made you bolder, even children get older and I’m getting older to’.
Things Fall Apart
The goals we have all require a sense of a better future. We have to be able to think that if we achieve these goals our lives will keep going and get better. To have goals requires us to have hope. So what happens when the future stops?
At some point, our future will run out, or at the very least our sense of the future can run out. One of two things will happen; we could fail at some of our goals, and suffer an immediate sense of disappointment and despondency, the future immediately becoming darker as we realise we cannot get what we want; or we achieve everything we set out to do, but then realise that it hasn’t actually made us any happier at all. Think of an athlete, seeking to excel at their sport, to be the champion. What happens if they have a career ending injury, or never become the best because there is someone better? Or maybe they do achieve all those things, but are forced to retire in their thirties. What do they do next? Studies of athletes post-retirement have found that many of them become depressed, their lives having lost the meaning that competition and training brought.
I have my own personal experience with this sense of futurelessness. About a year ago, my relationship ended, leaving me almost unable to contemplate a happy future. Although life went on, and I achieved a great mark in my Masters Dissertation, I couldn’t help but think of the meaninglessness of it all. The grade didn’t make me happy because it didn’t replace the absence felt in the loss of the relationship. It hasn’t even translated into a career which was the entire reason I subjected myself to studying. And it was in the middle of this hopelessness that I read Ecclesiastes.
Ecclesiastes is a twelve chapter meditation on the human condition found almost at the centre of the Bible, part of five books with Job, Psalms, Proverbs and Song of Solomon that put us at the centre, viewing God from the ground up, the ants eye view. Ecclesiastes is reported to have been written by King Solomon, son of the great King David. For those of you unfamiliar, Solomon was blessed with wisdom at his request by God, who then also blessed him with everything he could have asked for; he was richer than any man living (1 Kings 10), had great palaces and had over 1,000 wives and concubines (1 Kings 11). Solomons wisdom was renowned throughout the ancient world, and we are told he wrote many Proverbs and Psalms, and also contributed to early scientific explorations into nature. If we could look at any man and said ‘He was contented’ it would be Solomon.
Ecclesiastes puts pay to that notion. The first words written by Solomon are ‘meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless”, a cry of despair about the state of the world. Solomon’s collapse of the future was imminent and in the most natural way possible; old age and death. In his twilight years, Solomon realised that all his great accomplish were for nothing in the grand scheme of things:
I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards… I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure... yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done, and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2: 4, 10, 11)
Solomon is realising just how fleeting his achievements are. Later on in chapter 2, he realises that he wont get to enjoy all he has built, because he will die and it will be given to someone else. Solomon’s life, all his glory, riches and splendour is just something that will pass, time ceaselessly moving on, the sun rising and setting, rising and setting until he, everyone he loved or ever remembered him is gone, and still time will roll on long after that.
The same thing will happen to us eventually. We spend our entire lives running after our goals, only to find ourselves old and maybe rich, maybe having even achieved something, but for what? Some people may remember us after we are long gone, but who cares? You’ll be dead. I’ll be dead. All of us dust in the earth.
12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13 That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. – Ecclesiastes 3:12-13
Well this has been a bit of a downer right? “So much for the joy and hope of the Bible and of Christians” you might say to yourself after learning about Ecclesiastes. But the book is in a weird way slightly hopeful, and this is why its one of my all time favourite Bible books.
See, if we realise everything in this world is ultimately meaningless, that means we can stop worrying about it. Who cares if you leave a great legacy behind you, or amass a large fortune? Its all for nothing in the end. God doesn’t value such things! He has given us a life in large part to do what brings us joy, not great renown, hedonistic pleasure or untold riches. Its a life to be enjoyed a celebrated!
Once, when on holiday down in Devon, I stood watching the fishing boats come in and out of the small harbour of a small seaside village. It was a small moment of tranquil bliss, with the smell of the sea, the sound of gulls, and I could imagine myself on a tiny trawler fishing for crabs and being perfectly contented with the world. That’s what God wants for me and for you, to enjoy the little things in life. There’s a beauty in the pointless, and joy in the meaningless