Why is Solomon so depressed in Ecclesiastes? by Brent Cunningham

Ecclesiastes 1

Published on Sep 4, 2012

Calvary Chapel Spring Valley | Sunday Evening | September 2, 2012 | Pastor Derek Neider

_____________________

I have written on the Book of Ecclesiastes and the subject of the meaning of our lives on several occasions on this blog. In this series on Ecclesiastes I hope to show how secular humanist man can not hope to find a lasting meaning to his life in a closed system without bringing God back into the picture. This is the same exact case with Solomon in the Book of Ecclesiastes. Three thousand years ago, Solomon took a look at life “under the sun” in his book of Ecclesiastes. Christian scholar Ravi Zacharias has noted, “The key to understanding the Book of Ecclesiastes is the term ‘under the sun.’ What that literally means is you lock God out of a closed system, and you are left with only this world of time plus chance plus matter.”

Let me show you some inescapable conclusions if you choose to live without God in the picture. Solomon came to these same conclusions when he looked at life “under the sun.”

  1. Death is the great equalizer (Eccl 3:20, “All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.”)
  2. Chance and time have determined the past, and they will determine the future.  (Ecclesiastes 9:11-13)
  3. Power reigns in this life, and the scales are not balanced(Eccl 4:1)
  4. Nothing in life gives true satisfaction without God including knowledge (1:16-18), ladies and liquor (2:1-3, 8, 10, 11), and great building projects (2:4-6, 18-20).

You can only find a lasting meaning to your life by looking above the sun and bring God back into the picture.

Why is Solomon so depressed in Ecclesiastes?

Depression

Of the 39 books in the Old Testament, there were three which the Hebrew Rabbis frequently debated their inclusion in the canon or collection of sacred Scriptures (not whether they should be included but why they were included).  The three books in question were (1) Esther, since it never directly mentions God; (2) Song of Solomon, for its obvious erotic content, and; (3) Ecclesiastes, due to its depressed and seemingly hopeless outlook on life.  But Ecclesiastes has been the most enigmatic.

Ecclesiastes can be a perplexing read due to (1) some seemingly antithetical statements presented together in the same book, and (2) the negative/hopeless side of much of its statements which seem to be opposed to the rest of the Bible.  However, I think there is a key for understanding the book.
If there’s one phrase that stands out the most by the author of Ecclesiastes (possibly Solomon) it would be, “‘Meaningless!  Meaningless!’ says the Teacher.  ‘Utterly meaningless!  Everything is meaningless!’” (Ecc 1:2; 12:8).  The word which the NIV translates as “meaningless” is the Hebrew word, habel (“breath” or “vapor”).  This word is used by the author to describe the nature of human life.  We live in a world which continues as it was before and after anyone’s own life here on earth.  Therefore, what is the meaning to a few finite years lived here on earth?  Meaningless!  For instance, the author writes, “And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive.  But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.” (4:2-3).

The key phrase
Much of book continues on in a similar vane—contemplating the negative and pointless existence our pursuits of such things as wealth, knowledge, justice, creativity, progression, and the like.  But there is another phrase in the book which I think provides the key for understanding the author and his writing.  “Under the sun” is employed 29 times by the author.  The meaningless of life is closely tied to this idea of being “under the sun.”  And I think we should also affirm the utter meaningless of everything “under the sun.”

There is a worldview which we call Naturalism.  It is the belief that everything in existence can be reduced to natural forces or properties.  Naturalism is the denial of anything which is not contained in the natural/material world (souls, angels, God, the eternal truths of ideas such as justice, morality, beauty, etc.).  A Naturalist’s creed will be something like that of the late Carl Sagan, “The cosmos is all that is, or was, or ever will be.”  Most importantly, within Naturalism, there is no immaterial, intelligent mind (a.k.a. God) behind the universe.

For the author of Ecclesiastes to speak of life “under the sun,” I believe, is to speak of a view of the world apart from God.  “Under the sun,” then, is to evaluate all of life as a closed system; one which has nothing (or more appropriately, no One) above or beyond it.  This outlook is expressed in Chapter 9, verses 5-6, “for the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten.  Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.”  It is the thoroughly atheistic philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche who understood that once God is removed from the equation of life human pursuits loose their transcendent meaning.  In The Gay Science, Nietzsche describes the advent of atheism like this: “What did we do when we unchained this earth from its sun?  Whither is it moving now?  Whither are we moving now?  Away from all suns?  Are we not plunging continually?  Backward, sideward, forward in all directions?  Is there any up or down lift?  Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing?  Do we not feel the breath of empty space?  Has it not become colder?  Is not night and more night coming on all the while?”

In a similar fashion, the author of Ecclesiastes explores the meaning in the pursuits of life detached not from the center of the universe—the Sun—but from the center of life—God.  The world, in and of itself (“under the sun”), is without meaning, purpose, and significance.  All of its promises to fulfill never really deliver.  So, is there an answer to the question of meaning?

The answer to the question of meaning
After the author’s final refrain of, ‘“Meaningless!  Meaningless!’ says the teacher.  ‘Everything is meaningless,’” (12:8) he offers a solution to the hollow nature of a world without the transcendent personal God.  “Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (12:13-14).  The author turns the corner from seeing life as merely “under the sun” (where even ultimate justice is frustrated, Ch 9), to gaining an eternal perspective.  By adding the transcendent personal God to the equation, the author sees the pursuits of life for what they are—gifts from God, which, while never intended to satisfy us, were meant to arouse in us the desire for the One who stands as the source of all pursuits.  C. S. Lewis writes, “If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage” (Mere Christianity, Bk. 3, Ch. 10).  The pursuits of life—whether romance, beauty, pleasure, wealth, travel, knowledge, moral excellence—are a blessing, as they whisper to us of the One who stands behind all good things.  But they equally become a curse to us when they take the place of our central aim in life.

This present life
Ecclesiastes comes to us from one who has lived a seasoned life.  He had searched the heights of the highest pleasures and joys of life, and yet recognized the fleeting nature of them in our present state.  He instructs his students on how to live wisely in a world which guarantees each of us only death and judgment.  Revere God by keeping his commandments.  For true, full life is only experienced by living in the light of God’s presence.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:
1. Have you experienced the difference in living life with God at the center of your pursuits?
2. Augustine said that God has made us for Himself, and that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Him.  How does that apply to the book of Ecclesiastes?
3. Where in our culture do you most clearly witness hectic searching for meaning and purpose?
4. Which area(s) of life do we American’s most often try to find meaning in apart from God?

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Comments

  • David Alexis  On May 31, 2020 at 8:00 pm

    I really appappreciate this piece. Thank you. I just wanted to ask, is this Solomon’s understanding after he had gone down the wrong path? It seems as if God allowed this to be in the Bible to shed light on the futility of life without Him and he used Solomon’s mistakes to do it. Solomon seems to have really just let his mind go here. Not like he was “losing it” or even complaining, but more like being very honest in his pain, like he regretted the path he’d taken. I know very little biblically, but this is my take.

    • Everette Hatcher III  On May 31, 2020 at 8:15 pm

      I think you got it right. Solomon uses the phrase “under the sun” 29 times but not in the 12th chapter when his final conclusion which was as follows:

      Now all has been heard;
      here is the conclusion of the matter:
      Fear God and keep his commandments,
      for this is the duty of all mankind.
      14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
      including every hidden thing,
      whether it is good or evil.

      Francis Schaeffer sums up Solomon pretty well below:

      There is only one reason that viewing life UNDER THE SUN from birth to death causes despair and that is because we live in an abnormal world [since the fall in Genesis 3 when sin entered the world because of rebellion]. It is a legitimate despair if viewed only in the context of UNDER THE SUN,but it is an abnormal despair if it is seen in its proper setting.

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