Ecclesiastes 11: Meaning and Purpose
October 14, 2022
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
Jeremiah 35-38, Ecclesiastes 11, John 4:43-54, 1 Peter 1:10-16
We come now to another chapter of worldly advice under the premise of being “under the sun.” Such advice does not remove the reality that it is all still “meaningless” (verse 10). There is no real meaning or satisfaction to even the most practically sensible, exuberant, or even joyful life if you live with an “under the sun” perspective. But while these “under the sun” pieces of wisdom do not give you meaning, they do give you a way to live that is better than the alternative. By emphasizing the little good that even such good advice can provide, it also emphasizes how much we need a perspective “above the sun”—or a perspective from the side of the resurrection of Jesus that allows us to have a sure and certain hope in our eternal destiny. Great philosophers, like Carl Jung, can give you advice about how to face your own mortality. But they cannot remove the fact that we will die: their perspective can only ever be an “under the sun” perspective. The Bible and the Christian gospel offers us so much more than that.
The first section, verses 1 to 6, encourages us to invest in many different activities, to have a diversified portfolio of life investments, if you like. “Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight.” There is wisdom to this: we overestimate how certain we can be about what particular activity will be successful. It makes sense then to try various investments, and then keep on investing in the ones that prove more successful. Don’t forever wait for the perfect time to make a commitment: “whoever watches the wind will not plant.” Therefore, “sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let not your hands be idle.” You don’t know which activity is going to succeed, so it makes sense to invest in various activities, and, as it were, to have a diversified portfolio of efforts. The practical prudence of this advice is plain: if you want to be a writer of novels, it makes sense not to give up your day job until you have proven the financial viability of the novel writing, etc.
But while this is sensible, it does not answer the big questions of life: why work hard? Why work in the morning and in the evening? What is it all really for? What am I really for? What will happen to me after I die? None of these questions are answered by the self-help books or the practical wisdom of popular philosophers.
One way to realize that is to look at both age and youth—which the “teacher” of Ecclesiastes then does from verse 7 to the end of the chapter. Light is sweet, enjoy the sun, enjoy your youth. Why? For darkness is coming, and the days of darkness will be many. Once again, this is not the kind of advice that the Apostle Paul would give, nor Jesus. Paul looks to life after death with joy: “we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:8). He would rather die and be with the Lord, but because he still has necessary work to do here, he expects that God will keep him here for that work to continue: “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain… My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain is more necessary on your account” (Philippians 1:21, 23). Even the Old Testament does not have this negative, mere “darkness” view of life after death for the believer. David says, “You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory” (Psalm 73:24). Or again, David says, “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6).
No, this perspective—the “days of darkness will be many”—is an “under the sun” perspective. The best that can be hoped for, from this point of view, is what the “teacher” of Ecclesiastes sets forward. Banish anxiety from your heart. Enjoy your life while you can. Realize that there will be an accounting before God for what you do (the “teacher” is not an atheist; he just has no confidence about his future state, and sees things from a “this-world,” “under the sun” point of view). Follow the way of your heart, and cast off troubles from your body—for “youth and vigor are meaningless.” There’s no meaning to it, so just enjoy it while you can!
What a dissatisfying answer to the problem of life, and yet it is the answer that is still frequently given today by so many people. You Only Live Once (or “YOLO” as it is sometimes summarized today) is the philosophy of the age. And yet, how disappointing that is! And the very fact that it is meaningless should cause us to ask, really, is that all we can actually discover about life? In the next chapter, the “teacher” of Ecclesiastes will point to his conclusion. And the rest of the Bible fulfills it. In Christ, and being a disciple of Christ, there is joy, meaning, purpose, and life forevermore! Your labor in the Lord is not in vain, is not meaningless!
Therefore, once more we are being driven by Ecclesiastes to remove from our lives vain pursuits—which are not ultimately satisfying—and instead pursue Christ and his kingdom. What could you do today to reorder your life around gospel priorities? Could you invest more time in your relationship with God? In your church? Could you invest more of your resources in the kingdom of God? Could you invest more effort in evangelism and discipleship? These are the activities that have true meaning; therefore, organize your life around what is truly satisfying and will give true meaning as you follow the purpose for which you were designed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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