Scholars during the Middle Ages suggested that there were two “dangerous books” in the Old Testament — books that, if not handled carefully and faithfully, could do more damage than good.
The first was Song of Solomon. No surprise there, as it never mentions that name of God — but sure mentions love. A lot. Let’s just say that it’s probably not a book you’d want to study with middle schoolers.
But the other “dangerous book” was Ecclesiastes. And no wonder. It uses the word “meaningless” over 30 times — five of those times in just the first sentence of the book.
Dangerous? Well, sure, if these words from Ecclesiastes are any indication:
- “Surely the fate of human beings is like that of animals; the same fate awaits them both. As one dies, so dies the other.” (3.19)
- “Better than both (the dead and the living) is the one who has never been born.” (4.3)
- “For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless (there’s that word again) days they pass through like a shadow? Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone?” (6.12)
And then there’s the book’s conclusion. It’s a poetic, if painful, description of the end of life. And then the main part of Ecclesiastes ends in 12.8 with a repeat of 1.2: “Meaningless! Meaningless! says the Teacher. Everything is meaningless!
Depressed yet? Ecclesiastes is not for the faint of heart, and probably shouldn’t be read in winter (oops; too late now). It really is tough reading, and, like Song of Solomon, reminds us that scripture isn’t the kind of book you just pick up and read like the newspaper. It’s helpful to know what you are reading, and what it’s purpose is.
And for Ecclesiastes, we are reading something that is simply not like anything else in the Bible. It is clearly written from the “other-side-of-the-coin” perspective. The writer of Ecclesiastes believes in God, but wonders what the point is. Yes, there’s a God, but life is still messed up — and what difference does this all make?
And, in a way, he’s right. Life is a mess, and sometimes the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer. And no matter how hard you work, or how honest you are, or how faithful you try to be — you still die in the end.
So Ecclesiastes agonizes over the struggle. And by its inclusion in the Bible, we are faced with a stark and brisk reminder that life isn’t always peach tea and puppies and peppermints. Ecclesiastes is a theological slap in the face — and a reminder that without hope beyond this life, we are no different than the animals.
You see, the writer of Ecclesiastes couldn’t see into the future. He couldn’t see the day when God’s plan would fully be revealed; when death would be defeated; when Jesus would take on this life’s meaningless, and overcome it. In other words, without hope beyond this life, we ultimately lose hope in this life. Without a purpose beyond our 70 or 80 years, then the best we can do is enjoy the moment.
But there is more. And it’s not a “more” that is pie-in-the-sky heaven someday. Instead, the hope we have through Jesus is the kind that transforms not only our future, but our present. Because we have hope, we can live life to the fullest, right now — filled with joy (not just happiness), peace (not uncertainty), goodness (not simply a good life), love (with abandon), and meaning (not meaninglessness).
That’s where Ecclesiastes points us. It doesn’t get there itself, but it knows there must be a way there. And there is. His name is Jesus.