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It's All Meaningless -- an introduction to Ecclesiastes

What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his soul?

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Ecclesiastes 1-2

In this explosive introduction to Ecclesiastes, we learn that life -- when viewed purely from a human perspective -- can sure seem meaningless. Everything we work for will one day turn to dust, and we will be forgotten. But when we remember that we are a part of God's larger plan for history, we can find meaning and satisfaction in everything we do.

Do You Ever Feel Like You're Spinning Your Wheels?

We love our hamster. She loves her hamster wheel and her hamster ball. She runs and runs and runs and never really goes anywhere. People can feel that way -- like we've been putting in so much effort but not getting anywhere (or like a car who can't get any traction from its tires). When was a time you felt like that, and how did you get out of it or how did you learn to cope with it?

The Most Pointless Jobs/Job Tasks You've Observed (or Done)

I worked in corporate America (in a cube!) when Dilbert was at its most popular. It was the time when that bizarre movie "Office Space" came out. It all inoculated me to the idea that parts of our jobs can be kinda pointless (TPS reports, anyone?).

Ever since, I've been on the lookout for jobs or job tasks that seem like a waste of time.

I've learned that they fall into three categories.

  1. A mistake was made. Sometimes people do something that seems pointless because they're fixing a mistake that was made earlier (like me disassembling the furniture I just put together because there was one bolt left in the box that shouldn't have been left; grumble).

  2. Employees want to look busy. Sometimes people create meaningless tasks for themselves so they can look like they're doing something valuable (Soviet Russia built an entire workforce on this idea).

  3. Bureaucracy/corporate -- a job that exists only because the big boss wants it to or because a bureaucratic inefficiency means that it has to (you know what I'm talking about).

It doesn't have to be the whole job -- it can just be a part of a job. (You probably have tasks in your job that seem pointless, even if you overall like your job; but don't talk about those yet -- let's save those for the end of the lesson.)

Yes, you might be talking about "busywork". But you're not talking about "thankless work" ("thankless work" has a clear purpose, just that no one appreciates).

What are those jobs/job tasks you've observed that just seem pointless?

(Note: the boulder man is Sisyphus. Look him up.)

(Btw: if you're a business owner/manager complaining about your own employees, just know that it's actually your responsibility to protect employees from busywork.)

That discussion leads into this current event which I think has a lot to do with our passage. (And if more people knew and understood our passage, they would approach this current event with a much greater possibility of success!)

This Week's Big Idea: "The Great Resignation"

There is an epidemic of people leaving their jobs. And no, I'm not talking about the people staying home because of increased unemployment benefits (although the lower-paying service industry is facing an acute worker shortage). I'm talking about people walking away from six-figure jobs. According to some surveys, 40% of workers are considering leaving their jobs in the next year.

What's going on?

Part of the story has to do with a reset of priorities coming out of the pandemic:

Part of the story is the age old better pay, better hours, better benefits:

And part of the story has to do with the way employers mishandled the pandemic:

Each of those reasons could help set the stage for our study of Ecclesiastes, but I want to focus on the first one: rethinking what's important in a job. People are reevaluating what they do and why. Do they want to work 50-60 hours per week? Do they want to spend two hours or more per day in a commute? Or do they want to spend more time with family, friends, and hobbies? Do they want their work production to align with their personal values? (As one former software developer said, "Do I want my life to accommodate my work, or my work to accommodate my life?")

[Aside: yes, there are plenty of examples of younger people twisting all of this to their personal advantage, believing that they should be able to work from home, get paid more, take vacation whenever they want, and not necessarily "work" during work hours. I'm not talking about those yabos in this post. Get off my lawn.]

Indeed, many workers surveyed said they would be happy to make less money in order to work for a company that had a good culture, values that aligned with theirs, and the opportunity for advancement. That's someone who is rethinking priorities.

"Does my job matter?"

Part of what's going on is a rebirth of the age-old fear that a person's job is mostly pointless. If you choose to research this topic on your own, you're going to find one author in particular, David Graeber, and his colorful description of pointless jobs. Graeber argued that half of all jobs are basically pointless. Forbes did the research and found that less than 5% of jobs really fit the categories Graeber described, but confirmed that people who think their work is meaningless -- meaning that it doesn't help anybody or contribute to society in any tangible way -- have a real crisis of psychological well-being.

And that should make sense. It's the very thing Solomon wrote about in Ecclesiastes.

Ask if your group knows someone who is planning on changing jobs (maybe changing fields) and if they've said why. (Obviously, be anonymous! Would hate for that person's boss to be in your Bible study group!) Or maybe just ask for general reasons why people feel like they need a change of jobs.

Finally, personalize it. Ask everyone to think about those tasks they do work/school/home that seem pointless. Don't talk about them out loud, just have them in mind. We're going to see what this week's passage in Ecclesiastes has to say about all of this.


Everything We Know about Ecclesiastes

This is my favorite book of the Old Testament. It's so unfiltered. It dives into questions that cynical people like me ask on a daily basis. It's so well-written and real. To me, this book establishes one central idea: meaning matters, and where you find your meaning matters more than anything else in life.

The author of the book identifies himself as a son of David and king of Israel. He identifies himself as "Qohelet" which roughly translates as "teacher" (the Greek word is ekklesiastes, which is where we get the name). Most of us have taken this to mean that Solomon wrote the book -- and indeed the description of the lifestyle of the author lines up with Solomon quite well! (Great wisdom 1:13, great wealth 2:8, many servants 2:7, great projects 2:4, many proverbs 12:9, and king of a united Israel). However, note that some respected Christians believe that Solomon was not the author of the book.

I am of the mind that Solomon wrote this book, which gives us a rough date for the book and the historical context for all of his observations. Some scholars point out that Ecclesiastes includes some words of Persian origin and seems to have been influenced by Greek philosophies, indicating that it must have been written after the Exile. Those arguments are valid but inconclusive, as it would only make sense for Jewish scribes to update such a remarkable book for their Babylonian and Persian overlords (who loved this kind of writing). Furthermore, the Greeks did not invent cynicism and skepticism. The myth of Sisyphus, which I briefly mentioned above, dates to before 550 BC, but who's to say that it wasn't influenced by someone who read Ecclesiastes? :) I still say that Solomon, the wisest man on the earth, wrote this book.

Wisdom Literature

When we went through Proverbs and when we went through Job, I pointed us to the wonderful work of The Bible Project and their interesting way of weaving these books together.

Proverbs gives us this careful and rich understanding of life -- that when we live rightly and according to God's wisdom, we experience the goodness of life (i.e. eat healthy and exercise and treat people well and you will live a longer, happier life).

But Job shattered that worldview with an example of a man who did all of those things and yet suffered more pain and sorrow than anyone could imagine. At the end of the book, we determined that the point of the book was not to answer the question why those things happened but rather to realize that we could trust God's love for us even when things like that did happen.

Ecclesiastes tugs on that thread a little more. When we look at the world around us closely, we see plenty of examples of wicked people getting ahead, people being oppressed for no good reason, and all of someone's life's work being forgotten within a few years of his death. If that's what's going to happen, what's the point?

"Hebel" ("Futile"/"Meaningless")

The key word in Ecclesiastes is hebel, which is generally translated "futile" or "meaningless". It appears five times in the opening verse, and then many times in chapters 1 and 2 (1:14, 2:1, 11, 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 26). It's literal usage is for "breath" or "wind" (Isa 57:13, Ps 62:10, Prov 21:6, Job 7:16), which lends to quite a few metaphorical senses:

  • unsubstantial (lacking substance) -- Jer 10:15, 16:19

  • profitless or fruitless -- Ps 78:33, Prov 13:11

  • worthless -- 2 Kings 17:15, Jer 2:5

  • transitory/fleeting -- Prov 31:30, Job 7:16

  • obscure/enigmatic -- Eccl 11:10

We generally determine which sense the author intends by reading the context, looking for synonyms and parallels. For example, when Ecclesiastes says that "youth" and "vigor" is hebel, we understand this to mean that they are transitory. And when hebel is "chasing after the wind"/"pursuit of the wind" like in 1:14, we understand this to mean that the practice is pointless. (In other words, "hebel" doesn't mean one thing in specific; we have to resist the temptation to be too wooden in our understanding of the word.)

That's why I don't like the translation "meaningless". The author isn't saying that everything is "meaningless"; he's saying that everything is like chasing after the wind. You can do it, but why would you want to? What would be the point? (Consequently, the search for meaning is a key aspect of Solomon's "quest".)

Does that make sense? The author knows that life has meaning; he just doesn't always understand what it is. And that puts him in tension with himself.

It reminds me a great deal about where we ended in Job. Job didn't get the answers to why his suffering took place; he was told not to let his suffering get in the way of his relationship with God. Likewise, the author of Ecclesiastes (I'll just say Solomon) isn't going to land on simple answers about life -- he's going to struggle through how we can believe that life has meaning even when so many circumstances in life seem to say otherwise.

That's powerful, right?

Let me give some spoilers. Ecclesiastes is basically going to end where Proverbs begins and where Job ends: "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." When Solomon attempted to understand life through his very limited perspective, only considering what he could see with his eyes and hear with his ears, he ended in a very dark place. A place that was actually full of folly(!) because Solomon didn't have all of the facts (just like Job). The best way to find meaning is to realize that God gives life meaning, and so we must find meaning in Him -- but more on this at the end of the lesson!

Outline of Ecclesiastes:

  1. Everything is futile (1:1-11)

  2. Wisdom is futile (1:12-18)

  3. Pleasures are futile (2:1-11)

  4. Folly is futile (2:12-16)

  5. Toil is futile (2:17-26)

  6. Time is futile (3:1-22)

  7. Relationships are futile (4:1-12)

  8. Advancement is futile (4:13-16)

  9. Vows are futile (5:1-7)

  10. Riches are futile (5:8-6:12)

  11. Wisdom is our defense (7:1-8:1)

  12. Government and religion is futile (8:2-17)

  13. Everyone will die/life is short (9:1-12)

  14. Wisdom is our defense (9:13-10:20)

  15. Diligence is our defense (11:1-6)

  16. Enjoy life while you can (11:7-12:8)

  17. Listen to the teacher! (12:9-14)

Throughout those depressing subtitles are short bursts of hope. Like in life, we will discover hope in the midst of our observations of futility. And in fact, those places the author gives us lines of hope help us understand where to look for hope and how we miss it.

Let's go!


Part 1: Limited Perspective (Ecclesiastes 1:12-15)

I strongly urge you to read the entire first chapter -- it's quick to read.

2 “Absolute futility,” says the Teacher. “Absolute futility. Everything is futile.” 3 What does a person gain for all his efforts that he labors at under the sun? 4 A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises and the sun sets; panting, it hurries back to the place where it rises. 6 Gusting to the south, turning to the north, turning, turning, goes the wind, and the wind returns in its cycles. 7 All the streams flow to the sea, yet the sea is never full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. 8 All things are wearisome, more than anyone can say. The eye is not satisfied by seeing or the ear filled with hearing. 9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Can one say about anything, “Look, this is new”? It has already existed in the ages before us. 11 There is no remembrance of those who came before; and of those who will come after there will also be no remembrance by those who follow them.
12 I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to examine and explore through wisdom all that is done under heaven. God has given people this miserable task to keep them occupied. 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun and have found everything to be futile, a pursuit of the wind. 15 What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.

I love verses 2-11, and I invoke them regularly (particularly to young people who think they are extremely clever -- nope, this isn't as new as you think). Those verses form the backbone for the whole book. What he sees in nature is an endless cycle of futility. When we were teaching our kids about chores when they were younger, our favorite whine was "but we fed the birds yesterday". It's an amazing thing that the animals need to be fed every day, the plants need to be watered every day, the dishes need to be washed every time they're used, the trash needs to be taken out every time it's full. (If you're a mom or a farmer, you don't need me to connect these dots for you. If you're a mom and a farmer, you don't have time to wait for me to connect these dots for you.)

When talking to young pastors, I tell them that the hardest thing to accept is that Sunday happens every week. Sunday doesn't care if you need a break or if you had a bunch of things come up that week. For me, this means that this lesson supplement has to be sent out on Thursday. Choir rehearsal has to be ready for Wednesday. Sunday service has to be ready for Tuesday staff meeting. Monday means updating everything from the day before. And then there's actual daily ministry. You get done with one week just to get ready for the next.

That's the relentlessness of the world we live in. It can make you wonder if what you do matters at all "in the scheme of things".

After reading those verses, have this discussion: have you ever felt that your job was futile? Maybe that the students never really learn, or the customers are never really satisfied, or the inbox is never empty, or the to-do list just keeps getting longer?

How do you handle that?

Without giving away the end of the lesson, I remind myself that those "futile things" are actually just regular life. If the sun didn't rise one day, that would mean apocalypse. If the rains didn't come for a season, that would mean catastrophe. If the generations didn't come and go, that would mean the end of the human race. Life happens every day. Our challenge is not if meaning exists, but what meaning will we find. (But more on this below.)

But now let's move into the focal passage: 12-15.

Essentially, Solomon is telling us that he used his wisdom (and resources) to find meaning in life by observing its patterns. The terms he uses are of an investigator -- interviewing witnesses, drawing conclusions. (Note: by starting with the patterns we observe in nature in vv. 2-11, Solomon is hinting that everything in life is cyclical.)

Because he is looking at things from his own limited perspective, Solomon comes to the conclusion that everything is futile, like chasing the wind. What are the ways in which Solomon's perspective is limited? Well, he has a limited range (as far as he can see), a limited scope (he can't read minds), what else? A big one is that he has a limited time. He can't wait around indefinitely find all the answers -- he can only make observations based on the few years/decades he has been observing. The last he mentions is that he has a limited capacity. He can't know all of the facts, identify all of the questions, or remember them all if he could. How do those limitations affect his conclusions?

The key to understanding this part of the book is that Solomon has not yet acknowledged his limitations (and that's the problem). "I'm the wisest, most capable, best resourced. most well-connected man ever to live, and this is the conclusion I have drawn." Does that say more about the conclusion, or the man?

From his limited perspective, the tasks in life are simply about keeping us busy (busywork).

Here's what I think he means by that: God theoretically could (1) have wheat stalks produce bread, eliminating all of the work with producing bread; (2) send gentle and regular rains, eliminating the work related to preparing for and cleaning up after floods, and irrigation; (3) remove all predators, eliminating the work of protecting herds and property. But because God did not set up the world that way, we're stuck with all of this busywork.

Interesting. Why do you think God set the world up like He did?


Inheritance Blown (Ecclesiastes 2:18-21)

18 I hated all my work that I labored at under the sun because I must leave it to the one who comes after me. 19 And who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will take over all my work that I labored at skillfully under the sun. This too is futile. 20 So I began to give myself over[h] to despair concerning all my work that I had labored at under the sun. 21 When there is a person whose work was done with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and he must give his portion to a person who has not worked for it, this too is futile and a great wrong.

The lesson then skips ahead to one of Solomon's conclusions.

  • We skipped the part where he found that seeking pleasure was futile because the next morning he just woke up with a headache and that same emptiness.

  • We skipped the part where he did not find satisfaction in all of his possessions and accomplishments because they would eventually turn to dust.

  • We skipped the part where he decided that gaining wisdom didn't do anything for him because his wisdom would just die with him.

Then we get to the first conclusion: everything Solomon was obtaining would die with him.

His experiences would die with him.

His possessions would go to somebody else. (You can't take it with you, right?)

His wisdom could only be read on a page after his death.

What's the point? It made him hate his life's work. Really, it's not so much that he hated his work as that he hated the results (it's a metonymy of cause for effect). He found satisfaction in his labor, and he personally enjoyed the fruits of his labor, but one days those fruits would go to someone else.

Think about that for a moment. He could be the best king in history, but if his successor is a fool, it could all be lost within a few years of his death. We've talked about this before from the perspective of a business -- one man builds a business from scratch, and then he hands it over to someone else. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. This is true of churches, civic organizations, charities, and everything else. The person who starts something successful usually can't be matched in care and commitment to that organization.

Humorously, when I was looking for examples of pointless jobs, I found several that were basically "hiding the mistakes of the owner's incompetent kids". The point was that if the company hadn't hired the owner's incompetent kids in the first place, that job wouldn't have to exist. That specific job brings together both of these points.

Solomon would posthumously experience this to the full. Upon his death, the ten northern tribes refused to acknowledge his son Rehoboam as king and the kingdom split into Israel and Judah. These maps put into perspective how quickly Solomon's gains were lost:

Note -- we have slightly better perspective. We know that more than a little of this trouble was caused by Solomon himself in the way he managed his own household. Don't overlook that!

But Solomon's conclusion is otherwise logical. Inheritance often has very little to do with the worthiness of the person inheriting and everything to do with the unrelated fact that a relative died. Yes, it matters if the older family member attempted to mentor and train the younger family member so that all of the wisdom and values would not be lost at his death (and in the case of Solomon, it seems that he did a very poor job instilling those values), but the younger family member will receive the inheritance whether or not he has actually listened!


Part 3: Enjoy Work (Ecclesiastes 2:22-26)

22 For what does a person get with all his work and all his efforts that he labors at under the sun? 23 For all his days are filled with grief, and his occupation is sorrowful; even at night, his mind does not rest. This too is futile.
24 There is nothing better for a person than to eat, drink, and enjoy his work. I have seen that even this is from God’s hand, 25 because who can eat and who can enjoy life apart from him? 26 For to the person who is pleasing in his sight, he gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy; but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and accumulating in order to give to the one who is pleasing in God’s sight. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.

Clearly, the biggest part of the reason why Lifeway jumped to these verses is so they could inject one of these conclusions sprinkled throughout the book.

The difference from verse 23 to 24 is pretty jarring -- so jarring that some skeptics have suggested that vv. 24-25 were added after the fact by a Jewish scribe who was disturbed by how pessimistic the book was!

But there's no need for that skepticism. It all fits together quite cleanly. As Solomon investigates the world, he finds things that confuse him and things that make sense. He finds things that don't seem to have meaning and things that do. This is one of those sudden blasts of insight: the person who works in order to find meaning in his achievements will always be disappointed. Such a person is inevitably driven to be a workaholic (in order to achieve more, one has to work more). They will eat, sleep, and breathe work and never be satisfied.

[Aside: if you have time, talk about the limitations of being a workaholic. What are the physical, emotional, and social impacts of being a workaholic? We all know what they are, some of us by experience. If no one is willing to own up to it, threaten them with singing "Cats in the Cradle" until they do. Solomon's point is that work for work's sake will always be unfulfilling. Is he right? But don't spend too much time with this -- the next point Solomon makes demands some time and discussion.]

But Solomon then has a flash of understanding:

God created people to work; God cares about people; therefore, there must be something redeeming about work.

I'm still dismayed by the number of people who claim that they would rather not work than work. That goes against our nature! God created a world that requires human cultivation. God does the hard work -- sun, heat, rain, soil, growth, and so on -- but He calls on humans to "subdue the earth" and make it productive, livable, and safe. Those things require work.

Now it's time to revisit some of the tasks you thought about at the beginning that seem pointless (particularly your own). What would happen if no one ever did that task? And if that task has to be done, even if just rarely, it can't be pointless, right? Very few tasks are truly pointless. We just have to see how they fit into a bigger picture. When we studied spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 -- how God puts together a diversity of gifts in a church -- we talked about how jobs that seem thankless are critical for the healthy functioning of a church. Somebody has to do them. Seeing how that thankless job makes the church work helps us want to continue to do that task.

Here's a theory -- I wonder if some of the tasks we think of as "pointless" are actually "thankless". What that tells me is that we need to recognize one another for the work they do that makes our lives better. We find meaning in tasks when we see the impact they have on others, when they accomplish something good for society.

That's what Solomon is talking about. People should work. People have to work. But we should find satisfaction in knowing that our work makes the lives of the people around us better. (And if we can't find that satisfaction, that might be an indication that we need to change jobs.) And when we do find satisfaction, we are getting a glimpse of how God has put our world together and how we fit into it. That is the very definition of meaning.

Closing discussion: with vv. 24-25 in mind, what meaning do you find in your work?

(Note: v. 26 sounds so much like Proverbs; it's surprising to read here. I think he's making the observation that life for a sinner separated from God must be so meaningless to them, which is certainly true.)


Aside: The "Serenity Prayer"

If you don't know this "Serenity Prayer" (by Reinhold Niebuhr, a very important theologian from the last century), you should. This week's passage made me think of it.

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

It helps me understand how I'm supposed to cope with the cynical observations Solomon makes about life. Does it help you?


Closing Thoughts: Dilbert Humor for the Pointless Workplace

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