I’ve begun reading the book of Ecclesiastes this week. And if I’m not careful, it could drive me to the record store to pick up some of the grunge rock of my teenage years. For the book positively oozes with statements of hopelessness and near despair:
- “All the rivers flow into the sea, yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, there they flow again. All things are wearisome.” (1.8-9)
- “It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with.” (1.13)
- “In much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.” (1.18)
- “There is no advantage for man over beast. All go to the same place. Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth?” (3.19-20)
- “I saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all.” (9.11)
- "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” (1.2)
How’s that for encouragement in your daily quiet time?! ‘Your life is meaningless, monotonous, and painful. And the more you understand about it all, the more it hurts. But take courage! Someday time and chance will catch up to you, and it will all be over. You’ll die just like the possums on the roadside. And after that, who knows?’
That doesn’t sound like the message of the Bible, does it? It sounds, I say, like some of the rock anthems of my youth ... crying out for real answers to real life, and finding none. And here I find the same sentiments in the black and white pages of the Bible! What gives? How can the Bible talk this way? Why such hopelessness?
Well, the key to understanding the book of Ecclesiastes is to take careful notice of the oft-repeated phrase “under the sun.” Solomon employs the phrase 27 times over the course of the book … and, in doing so, gives us a strong hint as to how the rest of his words should be interpreted. He writes this book only from the vantage point of what can be seen “under the sun.” He writes, in other words, as one who interprets life only by what he can see with his physical eyes; as if there were nothing on the other side of the sun – no heaven; no eternity; nothing beyond what our eyes can see in the world around us. And, observing life from that low vantage point, Solomon is quite realistic about what he sees!
If life is interpreted only based on what may be seen “under the sun”; if what is on the other side is taken out of the equation, then Ecclesiastes is the perfect explanation of our world. It’s really pointless, this life … if viewed only from “under the sun.” If there is no heaven or hell; no eternity in which our struggles will finally make sense; no place of reward for deeds done in righteousness; and no place of torment for acts of sin … well then, as Solomon says, we should all really be overcome with angst and despair. Grunge, in other words, was an honest assessment of the world ... if viewed only from "under the sun." That is why it appealed to so many people, I suppose - especially those who saw through the shiny, happy hedonism of so much of American culture.
But, speaking of hedonism, that is the other logical application to all of life's seeming pointlessness and monotony, as Solomon points out in Ecclesiastes. We either despair because so much of life’s misery and monotony makes no sense when viewed only “under the sun” … or we give ourselves, wholesale, to the American Dream because, well, this life is really all we’ve got. Let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die (see 8.15). Those are the logical conclusions if life is assessed only as it may be seen “under the sun” – either the grunge rock approach, or the bubble-gum pop mentality.
But there is another vantage point, is there not? Life must not be viewed only from "under the sun." No! For, on the other side of the sun is a place where our faithfulness through monotonous days and painful circumstances will be rewarded. On the other side of the sun is a place where so much of life’s misery will finally make sense – not as the unintelligible fractals of a faceless providence, but as part of a loving Father's wise plans for doing us good. And on the other side of the sun is a world of joy that will make earthly hedonism seem like mere child’s play!
The book of Ecclesiastes, though, doesn't spend a great deal of time helping us to look at life through that other-worldly keyhole. Solomon, old and jaded, is not so much interested in assessing life from the other side of the sun. And I think that is by God's wise design. This book of alternating despair and hedonism is meant to startle us, I think. It's meant to stop us in our tracks ... and to remind us of just how shriveled our souls can become if we start to look at the world only from Solomon's latter-day perspective; if we forget to view our lives from the other side of the sun.
There is realism in the book of Ecclesiastes, to be sure. And we should read the book and wrestle with that realism. We should also recognize that many of our friends and neighbors see the world exactly as Solomon saw it. Perhaps the book of Ecclesiastes can help us understand and feel compassion toward them. But let us not adopt Solomon's myopic view of the universe. Let us not live merely “under the sun,” but for the world beyond it!