Debating with Ark Times Bloggers on “The Meaning of Life” Part 6B (What does the term life “under the sun” mean in the Book of Ecclesiastes?)

Ecclesiastes 8-10 | Still Searching After All These Years

Published on Oct 9, 2012

Calvary Chapel Spring Valley | Sunday Evening | October 7, 2012 | Pastor Derek Neider

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Ecclesiastes 11-12 | Solomon Finds His Way

Published on Oct 30, 2012

Calvary Chapel Spring Valley | Sunday Evening | October 28, 2012 | Pastor Derek Neider

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I have enjoyed going back and forth with the Arkansas Times Bloggers on many subjects over the years. Now I have discussed the subject of “The Meaning of Life” with them recently and I wanted to share some of this with you.

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.”

On May 28, 2013 on the Arkansas Times Blog I posted the following:

Chris Martin of Coldplay revealed in his interview with Howard Stern that he was raised an evangelical Christian but he has left the church. I believe that many words that he puts in his songs today are generated from the deep seated Christian beliefs from his childhood that find their way out in his songs. The fact Coldplay’s songs deal so much with death and the search for meaning and purpose of life (similar to Solomon’s search in Ecclesiastes), and that our actions are being watched, and Chris describes different ways God tries to reveal himself to us, and many songs deal with trying to find a way to an afterlife and heaven, and he stills uses Christian terms like being “blessed” and “grateful.”

People are looking for a purpose for their lives even if they have millions in the bank and have the world at their finger tips.

https://thedailyhatch.org/2013/05/28/the-mo…

My usual opponent who I do respect goes by the username “Olphart” and he or her responded on May 28, 2013:

Olphart claims that I have the message of Ecclesiastes wrong and he quotes Wikipedia:
Wikipedia notes:

“The title is a Latin transliteration of the Greek translation of the Hebrew Koheleth, meaning “Gatherer”, but traditionally translated as “Teacher” or “Preacher”.[1]

Koheleth introduces himself as “son of David, king in Jerusalem,” PERHAPS IMPLYING that he is Solomon, but the work is IN FACT ANONYMOUS and was most probably composed in the LAST PART OF THE THIRD CENTURY BC.[2] The book is in the form of an autobiography telling of his investigation of the meaning of life and the best way of life. He proclaims all the actions of man to be inherently hevel, a word meaning “vain”, “futile”, “empty”, “meaningless”, “temporary”, “transitory”, “fleeting,” or “mere breath,” as the lives of both wise and foolish men end in death. While Koheleth clearly endorses wisdom as a means for a well-lived earthly life, he is UNABLE TO ASCRIBE ETERNAL MEANING TO IT. IN LIGHT OF THIS PERCEIVED SENSELESSNESS, HE SUGGESTS THAT ONE SHOULD ENJOY THE SIMPLE PLEASURES OF DAILY LIFE, SUCH AS EATING, DRINKING, AND TAKING ENJOYMENT IN ONE’S WORK WHICH ARE GIFTS FROM THE HANDS OF GOD. THE BOOK CONCLUDES WITH WORDS THAT MAY HAVE BEEN ADDED BY A LATER EDITOR DISTURBED BY KOHELETH’S FAILURE TO MENTION GOD’S LAWS: “FEAR GOD, AND KEEP HIS COMMANDMENTS; FOR THAT IS THE WHOLE DUTY OF EVERYONE” (12:13).[3]”

I have capitalized the parts that directly contradict how you and Dr. Peter May characterize the book of Ecclesiastes. You got the author wrong, you got the date of composition wrong and, most likely, have gotten the central message totally backwards.

Other than that, you are accurate, it seems.
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On May 29, 2013 on the Arkansas Times Blog I responded with the following:

Here is my answer:

There are many who hold that Solomon wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes and there are many that believe Solomon is talking about examining life “under the sun” as life apart from God. You will notice that in Solomon’s final conclusion he brings God back into the picture. Here are some other people and their perspectives agree with my view on Solomon’s use of this phrase “under the sun.”

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Here is a  good comment:

The viewpoint espoused by the author is a virtual summary of the biblical worldview: life lived by purely human and earthly standards is empty, while life with God at the center is fulfilling.

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Here Today, Gone Tomorrow (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11)

Solomon follows up his theme with a rhetorical question that demands a negative answer. In 1:3 he asks, “What advantage does man have in all his work which he does under the sun?” The answer is there is no advantage. Work seems pointless because it is quickly passing. Furthermore, it is monotonous. The key phrase in Ecclesiastes, “under the sun,” is used twenty-nine times.21 This phrase is the key to understanding the book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon is writing from his viewpoint—ground level, horizontal, limited, and human. In these words we have a description of what life is like if the heavens are shut off from man. If a bowl were placed over the earth, masking the heavens (i.e., the spiritual world from which God speaks and acts), what would life be like? Given this perspective, what would be the view from earth? This is the experiment which is in focus in the book of Ecclesiastes.22

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Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Philosophical Atheist, Before you Commit Suicide Read Ecclesiastes

Meaninglessness and Materialism

There is a wealth of insight in the book of Ecclesiastes, but you can break down the main philosophical aspects into three main points:

1. The Emptiness of Worldly Pre-occupations – Eccl. 2:1-11

2. The Brevity of Life – Eccl. 12:1-8

3. The Only Logical Purpose in Life – Eccl. 12:13-14[9]

Solomon begins Ecclesiastes 1.2-3 announcing “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’ What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?” How discouraging can you get? The key to understanding the book of Ecclesiastes is to understand that he makes many false statements based upon a materialist perspective, in viewing everything “under the sun” as meaningless. Solomon addresses common materialist idols in society and shows why these are meaningless and empty pursuits. Solomon tries learning, laughter an liquor in an attempt to find satisfaction, but he’s left empty.

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Question: “What is the meaning of life?”

In our humanistic culture, people pursue many things, thinking that in them they will find meaning. Some of these pursuits include business success, wealth, good relationships, sex, entertainment, and doing good to others. People have testified that while they achieved their goals of wealth, relationships, and pleasure, there was still a deep void inside, a feeling of emptiness that nothing seemed to fill.

The author of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes describes this feeling when he says, “Meaningless! Meaningless! …Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). King Solomon, the writer of Ecclesiastes, had wealth beyond measure, wisdom beyond any man of his time or ours, hundreds of women, palaces and gardens that were the envy of kingdoms, the best food and wine, and every form of entertainment available. He said at one point that anything his heart wanted, he pursued. And yet he summed up “life under the sun”—life lived as though all there is to life is what we can see with our eyes and experience with our senses—is meaningless. Why is there such a void? Because God created us for something beyond what we can experience in the here-and-now. Solomon said of God, “He has also set eternity in the hearts of men…” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). In our hearts we are aware that the “here-and-now” is not all that there is.

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Ecclesiastes 1 – The Vanity Of Life

b. In which he toils under the sun: This is the first stating of an essential theme through Ecclesiastes. This phrase will be repeated more than 25 times through the book. The idea isn’t “on a sunny day” or something having to do with the weather. The idea is “in this world that we can see; the material world.” It is life considered without an eternal perspective.

i. “If our view of life goes no further than ‘under the sun’, all our endeavours will have an undertone of misery.” (Eaton)

ii. The use of the phrase under the sun “shows that the writer’s interest was universal and not limited to only his own people and land.” (Wright)

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I seem to remember that in Ecclesiastes, there is a suggestion that no afterlife exists?

There are two different viewpoints presented in the book of Ecclesiastes: The first 11 chapters primarily present the secular, humanistic, materialistic view of Solomon at a time in his life when he was not serving the Lord. The theme of the first 11 chapters could be stated as, “Man’s Wisdom Under the Sun.” This is verified in 1:13, 14 and 17. The first 11 chapters of Ecclesiastes are definitely in the Bible for a reason (although most Christians realize they are NOT for us to try and extract essential doctrine from). Rather, they are presented as a stark contrast to the final chapter, which does present a theistic (or God’s) viewpoint.

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Devotion for an Apologist/Philosopher: Ecclesiastes

There are so many verses, chapters, and books in the Bible which resonate with me as a Christian philosopher/apologist. Ecclesiastes ranks near the top, however, due to its wonderfully philosophical message and style. The underlying theme of Ecclesiastes is that without God, everything is meaningless.

“‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’
says the Teacher.
‘Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.’… What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:2, 9).

The book starts with the idea that there is “nothing new under the sun.” The theme of “under the sun” is important to note. Consistently, “under the sun” is used to refer to “on earth.” It is in stark contrast to the “permanence of heaven” (TLSB). The theme contrasting life here on earth with heaven does not become apparent until very late in the book, so we too shall leave it until the end.

Solomon continues to explore the idea that that which we do “under the sun” is utterly meaningless. “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (1:18). The more we know, the more we sorrow. We can see themes like this in atheists like Albert Camus or Sartre, whose exploration of a world without God lead them to question whether suicide may be the only valid option.

The theme repeats throughout the book. “Under the sun”, all is meaningless, there is nothing new, and life itself passes away. Even a constant search for pleasure can only be meaningless.

Yet the conclusion to Ecclesiastes radically re-imagines the book. Solomon’s point so far has been that “you cannot make sense of life” (Waltke). Life under the sun is meaningless, futile, and vain. Existentially, the more we know, the more despair we can find. The more we explore life “under the sun,” the more we realize that it will be extinguished, and our actions will no longer impact that life.

The story does not end there, however. “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:13-14). The final verses of the book turn the meaning of the entire work about. The Preacher/Teacher comes to the conclusion: without God, all is meaningless; with God, there is good and evil, there is judgment, and there is duty. Rather than striving for nothing, we should strive for God. Rather than despair and futility; there is duty and good. Without God, life is meaningless; with God, there is meaning.

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Why is Solomon so depressed in Ecclesiastes?

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.

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Robert Leroe

“Vanity” Ecclesiastes 1:2-3 & 2:1-11 Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts

He calls himself “the Teacher” and conveys the logical and tragic outcome of regarding life as a cosmic accident. Solomon offers his class only two options–a life of hopelessness, or trust in God.

The quote we’re most familiar with comes from verse 2, “All is vanity”. This word has been translated many ways. Your Bible might read “futile”, “empty”, “pointless”, “momentary”, or “meaningless”. The word literally means “breath” or “vapor”. The only other place this word appears is (appropriately) in Job. The Message translates vs 2, “There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.” In the NT, James picks up on this when he asks a rhetorical question, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (4:14). James and Solomon weren’t existentialists, denying any purpose or meaning in human life; they were rather saying that life is empty, fleeting, transitory, and nothing matters–without God. Solomon exposes the insignificance and absurdity of life IF life were nothing more than what is seen “under the sun”.

While participating in a REFORGER, major field exercise in Germany, my Chaplain Assistant and I spent a lot of time on the road in our CUC-V, visiting various units comprising the 3rd Armored Division Support Command/DISCOM. At one location we arrived too late; our grid coordinates were correct, but all that remained was some evidence of maneuver damage. The battalion stayed at the site only 2 days, then left. That is how life appears without God—here briefly, and little remains when life is over.

In verse 3 Solomon ponders, “What do people gain for all their hard work under the sun?” I’ve heard many soldiers ask, “What’s the point of all we’re doing?” In a life lived without God, there’s no gain, no advantage, no meaning. Verse 11 of chapter 2 states, “there is no profit under the sun”; in other words, during one’s lifetime. Imagine reaching the end of your days, only to conclude that you accomplished nothing of value! Solomon could afford anything he desired, but discovered to his frustration how nothing he could buy brought happiness.

Absurdity and the Cross – Ravi Zacharias Ministry

February 21, 2013

Qoheleth shows us the futility of life without God. He makes us feel what life is like from an honest look at how things truly are. He gives us a severe picture of reality and suggests that God is still worth seeking somewhere in the midst of it. Even prior to the coming of the Messiah, Qoheleth paints our stark need for the God who is there.

Stuart McAllister is vice president of training and special projects at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.

Here is an interesting perspective below:

— In apologetics@yahoogroups.com, “yusefii” <yusefii@…> wrote:

I’m surprised. Ecclesiastes is a scathing and self-deprecating attack on
hedonism and secular humanism by a man who had obviously deeply considered if
not tried both as a way of life. The constant refrain “under the sun” expresses
the context and prespective from which the writer wishes his words to be
understood. In other words “if one takes the view that nothing exists beyond the
world we experience through our five senses” then all is meaningless, or vanity
or a chasing after the wind. Meaning, as opposed to value, only arises in a
wider and eternal context.

If all we had was this brief life, and if we had a true grasp of that fact, then
every second would be exquisitly, painfully, horrendously valuable to us, each
one gone never to return; but if we are born only to die, indeed if the universe
was born in a Big Bang only to die in a Big Crunch or the whimpering stillness
of an ever-expanding, dark, cold, void then, ultimately, everything in between
is completely meaningless.

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