Answering the Emptiness of Life

by Ryan N. Drinkwalter

  • "There is a vanity which is done upon the earth; that there be just men, unto whom it happeneth according to the work of the wicked; again, there be wicked men, to whom it happeneth according to the work of the righteous: I said that this also is vanity." Ecclesiastes 8:14 (KJV)

    In the Book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon, being called "the Preacher" (1:1), describes the essence and experiences of life. In the quotation above, he accounts an infuriating observation: why do good people suffer and bad people prosper? This observation is without a heavenly perspective. Christians thoughout the centuries have often been confused by the message and method of the Book of Ecclesiastes. Many of the King Solomon's thoughts, like the one above, are clearly negative and faithless in quality. We need to look at the true intent of these inspired words and see that God has a beautiful and comforting message for us in this timeless text.

    A major theme in Ecclesiastes is "vanity." We often think of teenagers or the fashion-conscious regarding this term, but this is not what Solomon meant. "Vanity" simply means "hollow." The "Preacher" is describing life without God as hollow (meaningless, empty). When we see wicked people like Ted Turner prospering exceedingly, it definitely tempts us to view life as meaningless. When we see educators controlling schools and filling the minds of children with New Age propaganda, we are lured to view life as hollow. When we see an immoral and unscrupulous man in the White House, we are enticed to despair of life. Life is infuriating, demoralizing, and confusing, but we cannot just say, "all is vanity."

  • "I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all." (Ecclesiastes 9:11)

    This is obviously another good example of Solomon's method. In this verse, he highlights the futility of life without God. People faithfully invest their whole lives and can lose everything in one day. On the other hand, a person can live irresponsibly for decades and strike it rich in the end by winning the lottery. If one were to totally adopt the "futility" view of life, we would wonder if such a person could muster enough energy to get out of bed in the morning. We don't have to look far to find depressed people in our culture and given the state of things in the world, it is easily understood. Getting to point where we feel that we can't make a difference comes without difficulty. Try to get ahead in life or right a major wrong in your community, and see how long it takes to "feel down."

  • "There was a little city, and few men within it; and there came a great king against it, and besieged it, and built great bulwarks against it: Now there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city; yet no man remembered that same poor man. Then said I, Wisdom is better than strength: nevertheless the poor man's wisdom is despised, and his words are not heard" (9:13-16).

    Wow! There's nothing like being unappreciated. Solomon, as a the wisest of men, saw that not even the strongest human ability would be lauded or recognized. Again, we are reminded about "reality" and disappointment in life.

  • "There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, as an error which proceedeth from the ruler: Folly is set in great dignity, and the rich sit in low place. I have seen servants upon horses, and princes walking as servants upon the earth." (Ecclesiastes 10:5-7)

    The "Preacher" brings to our attention the irony of life in this verse. First, he states that the evil he talking about is as bad as when a leader fails (must be pretty bad). We look at our society and see that noble things are viewed with disdain while distasteful things are elevated. Examples: couples starting families are referred to by some as "breeders." A local butcher has graffiti outside his shop stating: "Meat is murder." A single pregnant teenager is criticized for not killing the child inside her because it might not have a "good quality of life." A politician is hounded for getting caught, but not doing wrong. Heroin addiction, pornographic film-making, and strip-dancing are all glorified in recent films. The true nature of our culture is summed up in this quote from a famous musician: "the creative arts are showcases for dysfunction."

  • "For there is no remembrance of the wise more than of the fool for ever; seeing that which now is in the days to come shall all be forgotten. And how dieth the wise man? as the fool. Therefore I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto me: for all is vanity and vexation of spirit" (Ecclesiastes 2:16-17). "For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them: as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity. All go unto one place; all are of the dust, and all turn to dust again" (3:19-20).

    Death is the great equalizer. Wise and wealthy people die just like the fools and beggars. King Louis XIV had a spectacular and glorious reign as an absolutely powerful despot. But when the "Sun King" died, the Bishop officiating his funeral said, "Only God is great." Death devalues the greatest of men. Even worse: death devalues man further -- to the level of plants and animals. Though we are not related to pond scum, we sure end up like pond scum. Are not these pleasant thoughts? Solomon has a talent for dissecting life without God. It is nothing but empty.

  • "Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me. And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and wherein I have showed myself wise under the sun. This is also vanity" (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19).

    Here is another depressing example: work hard all your life and a foolish relative squanders all your hard-earned money after your dead. Bill Gates is a good example because he now has an heir. He has nearly forty billion in wealth and has built a multimillion dollar electronic Indian hovel in the woods of Washington State. His kid will never fully appreciate the invention behind the money. The hovel in the woods will only become more ugly than it already is. Life (and death) seem so unfair.

  • "That which is far off, and exceeding deep, who can find it out?" (Ecclesiastes 7:24) "As thou knowest not what is the way of the spirit, nor how the bones do grow in the womb of her that is with child: even so thou knowest not the works of God who maketh all" (11:5).

    We could call 7:24 the "theme verse for mystics." Mystics from East and West, whether they are Buddhists, Freemasons, or Kabbalists, have some bad news. Solomon is saying that we cannot learn the mysteries of life through our own eyes and minds. Take a quick survey of all the philosophers, shamans, doctors, scientists, and monks who have wrestled with the deep answers to the Cosmos. Notice have none of them have come close answering everything. Yet, every generation and culture has contained those individuals who seek to know the deep things of life. What causes this frustrating and insatiable drive to know the mysteries of the universe? It is God Himself. This is where we pivot from seeing the emptiness of life to seeing fullness of purpose. We do not even have to leave Ecclesiastes. Some scholars cannot see hope in Ecclesiastes... they are either stupid or biased (or little bit of both).

  • "In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: God also hath set the one over against the other, to the end that man should find nothing after him" (Eccles. 7:14).

    God has ordered our days so that we are forced to think about Him. We would save ourselves a whole lot of grief in life if we constantly remembered that nothing is better than knowing and loving God. But because we are weak in the flesh, we must be brought to crisis points where we are forced to "consider" or reckon our behavior and beliefs. We see this in human experience all the times: many turn to God the first night in jail or pinned down in a foxhole, addicts often don't get help until its really too late, and a lie is exposed only after the whole framework of lies surrounded it is torn down. An essential part of sin is self-sufficiency; God must frustrate our plans and schedules to get our attention. So, think of every trouble as if God is saying, "Hey! You need Me."

  • "He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance with increase: this is also vanity" (Eccles. 5:10). "There is a sore evil which I have seen under the sun, namely, riches kept for the owners thereof to their hurt" (5:13).

    We've already seen the theme verse for mystics, now we have the theme verse for capitalists. Capitalism is NOT anti-God. To the contrary, private property is sanctioned by God in the Ten Commandments: "Thou shalt not steal" (assumes ownership of property). But if you fill yourself with things and wealth, it will eat your insides out like acid. Man is wired to love God. When we love money and possessions, not only is it idolatry, it doesn't satisfy us. Solomon filled his life with women, and servants, and wealth beyond the imagination and it left him cold and empty. Besides, what's left of Solomon? No palaces, temples or stables. Only his words and legacy. Money is not "the root of all evil," but the "LOVE of money" is. Money is a gift from God that we should use joyfully and responsibly. Everything belongs to God.

  • "Seeing there be many things that increase vanity, what is man the better?" (Eccles. 6:11)

    This is a verse for the Unibomber, because it shows the folly of progress. Again, nothing is wrong with improving your life or society unless it is done as a replacement of God. To educators, learning is a god. To computer professionals, technology is a god. To athletes, the body is a god. To environmentalists, Earth is a god. We should make progress, but not for false loves that leave us worse off in the end. The Unibomber is right to a certain extent -- progress is making people less happy.

    God's Answers

    Let's get to the answer that God has to the seeming hollow quality of life. The following section is based on an article written by Dr. Michael P. V. Barrett ("Theology for Life," Biblical Viewpoint 31, No. 2 (Nov. '97): 11-18), a Professor at Bob Jones University. In fact, this article owes much to the thoughts and ideas found in the most recent issue of Biblical Viewpoint.

    God Is the Powerful Creator

  • "...God who maketh all" (11:5). "He hath made every thing beautiful..." (3:11).

    First, He made everything.

    A correct view of God begins with this truth. Notice the words "all" and "every thing" in the verses above. Take into account the wonder of the world we live in, and this truth should hit pretty hard. National Geographic and the Discovery Channel spend much energy focused on the creation and how incredible it is. Yet, little time is spent on the Creator. The Wise and Loving God made everything for His glory and pleasure. Thus, we have stumbled onto the meaning of the Universe. We don't have to live in the "fog bank;" we can know why we're here and what everything is about. The idea that the universe and the world we live in is the product of chance and nature robs man of all his purpose, meaning, and dignity. The depression and uneasiness of our era is the direct consequence of rejecting God as Creator. The Age of Despair began with Darwin.

  • "Lo, this only have I found, that God hath made man upright; but they have sought out many inventions" (Eccles. 7:29).

    Second, He made man.

    Now, the word "upright" has nothing to do with man walking on two legs. Rather, Eccles. 7:29 is saying that God made man righteous. The Heavenly Father gave us all the tools we needed to worship and serve Him. Plus, we are made in His image. God's perfect plan for man was for him to stay perfect. Yet, mankind "sought out many inventions" -- attempted to believe in a fiction and left God's plan. The mind of man is a myth factory. We don't have to look far to see all the baseless concepts of life and the universe. Let us be reminded that we are responsible to Him because He fitted us to celebrate and follow Him. The comfort is that we know what to do and why we do it.

  • Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them" (12:1).

    Third, He made me.

    Notice the word "thy;" replace it with "my." God created me. We all need to stop this nonsense of feeling ugly, untalented, and unwanted. God made each one of us with a task in mind. How can the clay complain to the potter (Isa. 64:8)? The comfort comes in constantly being in the mind set that God did a good job when He made us.

  • God Is the Wise Sovereign

  • 9:1 For all this I considered in my heart even to declare all this, that the righteous, and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of God:

    The idea of God's Providence is easy: God is in control and He takes care of us. Notice in verse 9:1 that the believer and the believer's actions are in the "hand of God." If you know Christ, you never leave the Father's hand (John 8:28-29).

  • 3:14 I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him.

    Not only is God in control, but also nothing can hinder or change God's plan. This fact should cause us much comfort because it means that every occurrence has a meaning. Meaninglessness doesn't exist. Everything has a God-ordainded purpose.

  • 7:10 Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.

    First, God determines my times.

    Here is an explicit condemnation of longer for "the good ol' days." God put us in this time and we shouldn't question His judgment. The Twentieth Century has been a bloody and God-hating century, but we are living in the best time for us. It is the best time for us because God chose this for us. It's a custom fit.

  • 3:1 To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven: v. 11 He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end.

    Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 teaches us that God has determined all the experiences of life and their times. We shouldn't ever feel unfortunate or unlucky. He brings us times of laughter and times of weeping. He brings these to us for specific reasons. Again, how can the clay question the potter? Think of this, also: If He determines what we will go through in life, cannot we assume that He will prepare us for these event? The Lord knows what He is doing.

  • 9:9 Live joyfully with the wife whom thou lovest all the days of the life of thy vanity, which he hath given thee under the sun, all the days of thy vanity: for that is thy portion in this life, and in thy labour which thou takest under the sun.

    Second, He determines my circumstances.

    Here we are reminded to enjoy what God has given to us. Some of us are given families. We should be content and delight in these relationships. The same applies to the unmarried or childless. We should praise God for the relationships we have with others.

  • 2:10 And whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labour: and this was my portion of all my labour. (cf. 2:24, 3:13, 5:18)

  • 9:10 Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.

    We also told to enjoy our work and to work hard. Our Lord has put us on the Earth to labor for Him. The temporal rewards for hard work are eating and sleeping. We should not waste our life doing everything to the minimum. The motto of one college fraternity is "Work hard and play harder." While we shouldn't play like frat members, we should work hard and then enjoy our rest. This is God's plan for us.

  • 2:26 For God giveth to a man that is good in his sight wisdom, and knowledge, and joy: but to the sinner he giveth travail, to gather and to heap up, that he may give to him that is good before God. This also is vanity and vexation of spirit.

  • 7:14 In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider: God also hath set the one over against the other, to the end that man should find nothing after him.

    Third, He determines everything for my good.

    Depending on where we are in our walk with God, He always brings the appropriate circumstance at the appropriate time. If we need to be encouraged, He will do it. If we need humbling, He will certainly do it.

  • 3:16 And moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment, that wickedness was there; and the place of righteousness, that iniquity was there.

    God is the Infallible Judge

    If we have the slightest sense of justice, getting angry and discouraged comes easily. The feeling isn't new -- the prophets complained that God used heathen nations to judge Israel. When I see a base criminal come away from a trial with little or no punishment, my faith is tested. The comfort we can all have is that God is a Perfect Judge and a Judgment is coming where no crime will escape notice. Right now, God gazes every sin and misdeed with His penetrating eyes (Eccles. 12:14, Heb. 4:13).

  • 13 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.

    The sole duty and purpose our all our lives is to fear God to the point where we'll obey His commands.

    God Is the Supreme Reality

  • 8:17 Then I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labour to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea farther; though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it.

  • 3:14 I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor any thing taken from it: and God doeth it, that men should fear before him.

    First, fearing God is the secret to trusting Him concerning all the uncertainties of life.

    We cannot lose our faith every time something goes wrong. Solomon has illustrated how perplexing life can be. We will always have unanswered questions and hard decisions. The purpose of these enigmas, as spelled out in the two verses above, is to drive us into the arms of God. If you want meaning and purpose in life, it will cost you. You must surrender.

  • 8:12 Though a sinner do evil an hundred times, and his days be prolonged, yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that fear God, which fear before him:

  • John 17:3 And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent.

    Second, fearing God is the defense for the judgment.

    Though the wicked seem to prevail and we live many years toiling with great energy for God, what happens in Eternity is the important thing. "It shall be well with them that fear God." To truly fear God, we need to know Him and about Him. True spiritual knowledge of the Heavenly Father is spelled out by Christ Jesus in John 17:3. We need to believe in and have a relationship with Christ, who is the fullest revelation of the Father. The closer we grow to the Savior, the more assurance we'll have that everything will work out.

    A wise family member said something to me that has always stuck, "Life isn't always fair and doesn't always make sense." This is truly the wisest thing a natural man can say. We are in good shape because God has revealed a much better answer to life. If we latch onto God's answers, we will find life enjoyable, peaceful, and full of wonder.

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