The conceptual framework for a man's search for meaning

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The Message of Ecclesiastes

July 20th, 2014 by dimpledbrain

Qoheleth is the Hebrew word for Ecclesiastes, a book we can commonly find in Tanakh or the Bible. It is after all the wisest book I’ve found in the world. You don’t know which one you say – it’s the one that has lots of ‘meaningless, meaningless. Everything is meaningless’, i.e. words/ phrases that you can also catch from time to time in this blog.

We left a very important question in the previous post – i.e. what can we change and what can’t we change?

Before we even go there, there is something very personal to me that I want to share with you. You see the central theme of this blog is ‘a man’s search for meaning’. To search for meaning in life, I’ve poured over countless materials and the nearest is probably the will to meaning. Or flow, pursuit of happiness , randomness, Top 10 List, fear, economics, Art of Strategy, Book of Changes, human behaviour, game theory etc.

BUT there is still something that none of these frameworks could explain satisfactorily – why do we still pursue things if everything is ultimately meaningless? 

To some people, Ecclesiastes sounds defeatist but I prefer to think of it as being realistic.

If I am to categorize this entire discussion, idealism sits at one end and defeatism the other. Realism is somewhere in between. I have always preferred to start any intellectual discussion from a realistic point of view.

The reality of the matter is that everything is futile.

You say no that’s nonsense. That can’t be it.

(1) Ecclesiastes acknowledges the futilities we’re in – endless circling of nature, perpetual movement to and fro like a swinging pendulum and life’s cruel and unpredictable twists and turns. E.g.

  • We think we are in control of the environment. But the truth is we are more ‘controlled’ by time. E.g. we wake up in the morning, have lunch in the afternoon and sleep in the evening. Do we choose to wake up because we want to or because it’s morning already? This could be hard to acknowledge but is this ultimately the truth of the matter?
  • Are we merely dancing to a tune and in reality, whatever we pursue does not have any permanence to it?
  • Have you seen a rich man toiling his entire life only to pass on his wealth to a stranger? Or the righteous perishing in their righteousness and the wicked living long in their wickedness?
  • Wisdom is meaningless too. Ecc 1:18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.
  • Pleasure is meaningless too. Ecc 2:10-11 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.
  • Toil is meaningless too. Ecc 2: 22-23 What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest.
  • Wisdom and folly are meaningless too. Ecc 2:15 The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?

(2) Why do we still pursue things then and what should we do then?

  • Ecc 3:11 provides an explanation – He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
  • Ecc 5:18-20 This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labour under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.

(3) The conclusion of the matter

  • Ecc 8:17 No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it. And such interest in the ultimate question does not lessen our concern for the present.
  • Ecc 9:2 All share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad,the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.
  • How little that we know and the extent we cannot control the environment:
    • Death
    • Up and down of one’s fortune (Remember Solon’s wise reply to Croesus?)
    • The erratic favour of the crowd, i.e. fickleness of men.
  • 3 things that we can do:
    • Be bold vs cautious. Ecc 11:4 Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.
    • Be joyful. Ecc 11:9 You who are young, be happy while you are young.
    • Be godly. Ecc 12:1 Remember your Creator.

Everything is meaningless. But within such futility we still seek for ‘something’. That’s because God has set eternity in our heart although we can’t fathom it. So it’s appropriate for us to enjoy our labour although we can’t comprehend what really goes on or the simple fact that whoever we are, we share a common destiny. We should therefore be bold, be joyful and be godly.




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