Saturday, April 14, 2012

"Everything is Meaningless." Is it?

This coming Sunday, my Church will begin a series of sermons on the book of Ecclesiastes. After swimming through the books of Titus and Philemon, we are swinging back to the Old Testament for wisdom. Lasting about 10-12 weeks, we will be going through the entire book, covering all 12 chapters. The general theme of the sermon series will be: "The Search For Meaning." Along the way we will deal with issues of life, noticing the cyclical rhythms of the world we live in, of human philosophy, the follies of riches and pleasures, the limits of human wisdom, the futility of living in a rat race, and many heart gripping issues surrounding meaning, or the lack of it. There will be several guest speakers, with me of course at the helm preaching about once every fortnight. Let me begin this meditation on Ecclesiastes 1, most famously remembered for its recurring proclamation in verse 2:

"'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher. 'Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless." (Eccl 1:2)

Is this statement of meaninglessness factual, or emotional? Is it only meaningless for the Teacher, or is it a statement of truth for the rest of us? Let me begin by sharing an interesting exchange between Ravi Zacharias and a man who attended his talk.
Man: "Everything is meaningless!"
Ravi: "Everything is meaningful."

Man: "Everything is meaningless!"
Ravi: "Everything is meaningful."

Man: "Everything is meaningless!"
Ravi: "Everything is meaningful."

This went on for a while until the man got a little peeved.  In reply, Ravi gently explained:

"Let me tell you why. If everything is meaningless like you have said, then what you have said in the first place is meaningless. You have effectively said nothing!"
How true. If everything in itself is devoid of meaning, then the very words that we speak is meaningless. One common understanding of Ecclesiastes is that everything without God is meaningless. I hold that view. Yet, that does not mean that we can easily dismiss everything secular or anything that does not mention God at all. God has created this world as it is.

How To Read Ecclesiastes

It is because everything is meaningful, we have a reason to study Ecclesiastes. I like to suggest three keys to adopt when reading this book. Firstly, there is meaning in this world even without mentioning God. This does not mean that I disagree with the Teacher in Ecclesiastes. The difference with God is that meaning becomes more complete, more beautiful, and more significant in the light of God. Without God, there is meaning but incomplete, and unsatisfactory. In going through the philosophical arguments and complaints about the world, it is also important to recognize the person making such observations. The writer is able to complain because he is in search of something MORE meaningful than what he has. His cry of meaninglessness stems from the frustrations of a search that is without God. Just like the prodigal son who seeks to enjoy the world away from his family. After squandering away his inheritance, he realizes that life is more then sheer pleasure and materialism. Relationships form his core need and purpose of existence.

Secondly, as we read Ecclesiastes, remember that it is embedded in a genre of wisdom literature. There are important lessons for all of us to learn. In the Old Testament, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs are part of the Wisdom books called the ketuvim in Hebrew.

Job deals with the issues of pain, suffering, justice, and God's sovereignty. Psalms contain many hymns, songs that describe faith and trust in God through the ups and downs of life. Proverbs give us great advice on how to live an honourable life of integrity with lots of practical applications for living.  The song of songs is a joyful declaration and singing of the wonders and splendours of married life, an a relationship between couples in love. Ecclesiastes augment these wisdom literature with a journey through searching for meaning in all the wrong places, only to learn that only in God, will our search be redeemed.

Thirdly, Ecclesiastes remind us how finite we are, how imperfect are our human efforts, and the futility of any kinds of search for meaning devoid of God. Do not be too quick to jump to the conclusion in chapter 12. Be intentional in going through the first eleven chapters to explore honestly how we all feel inside our heads and our hearts.

Here is the rough outline for the next few weeks. Note that they are subject to change.

Stephen Miller calls the Book of Ecclesiastes as a tussle of "Smartest Man vs Toughest Question." We may not be the smartest man on earth, but we can all participate in the search for answers to life's toughest questions. May we have a meaningful ride as we join in the search through Ecclesiastes.



Everette Hatcher said...

Great post on my favorite Book of the Bible and I reposted it on my blog.

Conrade Yap, (Dr) said...

Hi Everett,
Thanks for your comments. I'll check out your blog too.


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