By Dewayne Bryant
“Life is hard and then you die.”
The opening words of M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled are a common phrase many people have either seen or heard in some form. The grass is greener on the other side; the glass is half empty, and the bread always lands buttered-side down. What is shocking is that we seem to find this very sentiment expressed in the Bible. The book of Ecclesiastes starts with the words “’Vanity of vanities,’ says Qoheleth, ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity’” (1:2). From the very beginning, the book starts by denouncing the meaninglessness of the human condition.
Ecclesiastes is overwhelming for some readers. It is perhaps the most philosophical work in the entire Bible. Many would argue that it is also the most depressing. The author seems to be a sure finalist for “World’s Greatest Pessimist.” It appears that he has already made up his mind that nothing in life is worthwhile, especially since the term “meaningless” occurs over thirty times. No other book of the Bible has such shocking skepticism. Even in ancient times some Jewish scholars wanted the book of Ecclesiastes to be excluded from the Hebrew Scriptures.
We are accustomed to the stories of God’s love, encouragement, and provision. In Ecclesiastes, we seem to find a book that is dreadfully downbeat and almost morbid.
There are several examples of similar pessimistic literature from the ancient Near East. In an Egyptian work entitled The Dispute Between a Man and His Ba (ba is the Egyptian word for “soul”), a man weary from misfortune struggles within himself between life and death.
Another work is the Dialogue of Pessimism which dates back to ca.1300 B.C. The writer asks what is “good,” concluding that “to have my neck and your neck broken and to be thrown into the river is good.” No matter how bad things might get, it is probably safe to say that just about anyone could think of something better than to have his or her neck broken and be dumped into a river.
Life in the ancient world was very difficult. The average life expectancy was about half of what it is in modern America. Medical care was virtually non- existent. Most people lived on a subsistence level, eking out a living with just enough food to last them from one harvest to the next. Even in the ancient ideas about the afterlife, very few people would enjoy eternal bliss. Most would simply go into a dark, gloomy afterlife similar to life on earth, only worse.
Pessimism is every bit alive today as it was thousands of years ago. Famous figures of the past two centuries have had just as dim a view of life. The nineteenth- century philosopher Friederich Nietzsche was a nihilist (from the Latin term nihil, meaning “nothing”), believing that life had no objective meaning. Even in the face of nothingness, Nietzsche believed there is one outstanding virtue that sets a person above others: courage. Courage is the ability of a person to face the meaninglessness of life with boldness and valor even though he or she understands that valor is just as meaningless as everything else.
Nietzsche was not the only apostle of despair in recent history. The American author Ernest Hemmingway admired Ecclesiastes. It influenced his book The Sun Also Rises, which is set against the backdrop of the Great Depression (and whose title comes from Ecc. 1:5). Hemmingway believed that the way a person could cheat death was by committing suicide. Then he could choose the time, place, and manner in which he was killed rather than letting fate decide it for him. On 2 July, 1961 he did exactly that. Although Hemmingway removed the when, where, and how, death still won.
At first glance, Ecclesiastes appears to be depressing. Try as he might, Solomon cannot seem to find anything of worth. He tries to find something of lasting value, beginning his search with wisdom. Although it has advantages over folly, both the wise man and the fool meet the same fate (2:13-14). He explores pleasure next, only to be disappointed. Enjoying all of the pleasures available to an ancient Near Eastern king (2:3-10), Solomon finds that pleasure is meaningless (2:11). Born with a silver spoon in his mouth and given a gift of profound wisdom, even mighty Solomon could not find the significance that every human soul craves.
Lest we think that Ecclesiastes is just a book written from the perspective of a bitter old man, there is an important phrase we must consider. The phrase under the sun is used in Ecclesiastes thirty times. It is not just poetic language used for effect; it is a key phrase for unlocking the meaning of the book. While Solomon employs his divinely granted wisdom to search for meaning, he does so in a limited arena. He confines his search to the places under the sun. In other words, he is looking for something in the human experience that is meaningful. He mentions the law only once (12:13), and mentions the nation of Israel just one time (1:12). He never uses the name Yahweh, the covenant name for God. Everything the writer deals with is apart from God, just as one might expect through the eyes of humanism.
Everywhere we look we find perversions of justice. The rich get richer while the poor get poorer. Dishonest people prosper while the good ones suffer. Disasters rip communities apart. Tyrants treat their people like cattle with little thought to their well-being. Everyone dies, with life being summed up by only three pieces of information found on any given tombstone: a name, the date when a person entered this world, and the day he or she left it. This is life under the sun.
The humanist will denounce injustice, stand up for the rights of the downtrodden, and help the needy. But at the end of the day, what does it matter? If there is no ultimate meaning to life, then being an advocate for social justice is as useless as Solomon’s pursuit of pleasure or his gift of wisdom. If there is no God we truly are, in the words of Shakespeare, “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  Without ultimate meaning, every human being is simply an actor in an idiot’s tale we call life.
Solomon concludes Ecclesiastes with, “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). Nothing happens on earth outside the view of God.  For a book that is nearly three thousand years old, Ecclesiastes is surprisingly modern. It is a timely work for modern man in an age of skepticism and atheism. In a world that hungers for significance, Ecclesiastes challenges us to look beyond the sun, past the materialism and escapism that serve as poor substitutes for a God who will ultimately ease all emptiness and sorrow. Though Solomon tackles the tough questions not caring whether his readers are left with a warm, fuzzy feeling, we can be confident that every drop of sweat, every heartache, and every emptiness in our souls will be vindicated. Life under the sun may seem meaningless at times, but from the vantage point of heaven, there is nothing futile.

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