Q&A: Solomonic Nihilism

Solomonic Nihilism

Question

I read Ecclesiastes, but I still don't understand why Solomon keeps saying that everything is meaningless.  Any thoughts?

Answer

Ecclesiastes is a very difficult book, and there are various theories on its proper interpretation. There are also at least two fairly common ways of answering the question you pose. First, many scholars argue that everything is meaningless only without a proper focus on God. Second, others argue that there are two distinct voices in the book, perhaps a teacher and a student, and that the comments on meaninglessness are spoken by the student and are erroneous, left to be corrected by the teacher's voice.

Personally, I have a somewhat different reading of the book, though I have yet to find many who agree with me (so take it with a healthy dose of salt). I think there is a pattern of metaphor established in chapter 1 that carries through the rest of the book. Verses 4-11 highlight the issues:

4: A generation goes and a generation comes, But the earth remains forever.

People are ephemeral, but the earth is lasting.

5-7: Also, the sun rises and the sun sets; And hastening to its place it rises there again. Blowing toward the south, Then turning toward the north, The wind continues swirling along; And on its circular courses the wind returns. All the rivers flow into the sea, Yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, There they flow again.

These are examples of systems or aspects of the earth that demonstrate that the earth is lasting and unchanging.

8-10: All things are wearisome; Man is not able to tell it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, Nor is the ear filled with hearing. That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one might say, "See this, it is new "? Already it has existed for ages Which were before us.

Man would like to be able to do something new, to be able to be remembered for making a significant contribution to or mark on the earth. Man seeks lasting signficance, but he is unable to do anything that has not been done before. As a result, he cannot attain the signficance he desires.

11: There is no remembrance of earlier things; And also of the later things which will occur, There will be for them no remembrance Among those who will come later still.

No matter how great his accomplishments, man will not achieve the lasting significance he desires.

Verses 5-6 establish the two central metaphors that run through the rest of the book: the wind and the sun, as they appear in the phrases "striving after wind" and "under the sun." In my mind, both these metaphors emphasize two things: 1) the lasting significance of the earth; and 2) man's ephemeral nature by comparison. Man longs and strives for lasting significance, such as that of the earth, but he cannot attain it. His efforts are striving after the wind, that is, they are attempts to attain this perpetuity, but they inevitably fail. One cannot catch the wind, nor can one establish anything (memory, memorial, etc.) that will last as long as the wind will last. All that is done "under the sun" suffers the same fate - it cannot achieve the lasting significance of the sun in its courses. We cannot reach the sun to have the same kind of significance and impact it has; we labor under it. We also cannot do anything else that will have signficance as lasting as the sun's.

Thus, rather than trying to establish lasting meaning in our lives by building monuments or doing great deeds, we ought to be content with the lives God has assigned us. We ought not to kill ourselves working for grand designs, and we ought not to base our happiness or contentment on great accomplishments. Rather, we ought to enjoy the lives God has given us, and to take pleasure in the little things like a meal with our family. The meaninglessness attaches only to those things that we try to do to establish legacies or to make significant impacts on the world. What really is significant is taking pleasure in God and his gifts and being content with our call.


Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.