It’s a good question; one that you’ve probably asked at some point – why am I here (on earth)? Perhaps in some cases that question has gnawed at the heels of your mind like a dog that relentlessly pursues biting the bottom of your pant leg and you’ve been just as relentless in shaking it off. Or perhaps you’ve settled on an answer but have not scrutinized your position. You say, “I am here on earth to fulfill my purpose” – but you don’t know who defines what that purpose is, and you don’t know how the definer defines that purpose. So you step up to the plate and define your purpose and you come to find that it’s as fickle as the fads you embrace, not really grounded in absolutes but driven by what makes you happy. So in the final analysis, after some scrutiny, you come to find that you’re actually a hedonist. Who knew?
Or, as the current of our society seems overwhelmingly directed today, you have embraced a kind of philosophical skepticism. You think – “there are so many different answers that people can give to answer that question ‘why am I here,’ which proves to me that we can’t know for sure why we’re here, so let’s stop asking the question and just live.” Again, a little scrutiny is helpful here. When your presupposition is ‘everything is relative and no truth can be found’ that makes your own position contradictory and self-defeated. In other words – if there’s no such thing as knowable truth, then one cannot even assert that one cannot know truth because that would be a truism… which you said couldn’t exist. Not exactly the place you want to be, philosopher or not.
Or perhaps you’ve derived your understanding of meaning from the Word of God. And you see the way meaning and significance is unpacked in the Scriptures through a Biblical worldview. Interestingly, the Word of God not only presents the reason for which people (and the universe) exist, but it also critiques the alternatives. It’s as though it clears the field of any unnecessary debris that could encumber the potential harvest of understanding. We will take such a course in answering the aforementioned question. Since God has given an inspired critique of the alternatives to a Biblical view of life on earth we will begin there, in the Book of Ecclesiastes, embracing the inspired author’s work of deconstruction, and then, after we see why we are not here (fundamentally-speaking), we will construct a God-exalting edifice of understanding built upon the Scripture’s explanation of the apex of a human being’s existence.
Ecclesiastes’ Deconstruction of Supposed Satisfiers
You may be surprised by just how relevant the Book of Ecclesiastes is to the modern day reader. It’s a three thousand year old work but it is quite contemporary. Even within a culture that has seen continual technological advancement, with technology at our fingertips that previous generations didn’t conceive of, the ultimate questions of life remain and they are timeless. We may be able to explain the how of things better than previous generations but we still ask the same why questions that generation upon generation before us has asked – Why am I here? Where am I going? Who exactly am I? There may be new inventions under the sun but there are no new ultimate questions. And as a result of the existence of those innate human questions, human beings would pursue doing that which has been done over and over again ‘under the sun’– try to find meaning and fulfillment in that which is vanity.
It’s important to begin by setting the Book of Ecclesiastes in its proper, literary context. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that it was written by some old man who drank vinegar for breakfast, looked for any and every opportunity to tell kids to get off his lawn, and was bitter about his lot in life. Not at all. This is not the memoir of an old man’s bitter wranglings, it’s a discernible apologetic written as (a) a piece of Hebrew poetry and (b) it specifically appears to be a type of literary pessimism. A brand of writing where the author critiques a viewpoint [in this case ‘from within’ and ‘by experience’] and shows the emptiness of, say, a certain philosophy or, in the case of Ecclesiastes, life “under the sun” – i.e. a life engrossed in the temporal, and not in view of eternity.
But make no mistake, the author of Ecclesiastes is not an atheist. A quick read through the book helps us see that. He mentions God numerous times. So he is by no means setting forth a depiction of a person who lives his life and does the things that he does because he believes that God doesn’t exist. Of course the portraits painted and the experiences communicated in the book could indeed apply to someone who holds those beliefs or disbeliefs. But the picture painted for us in Ecclesiastes is not one where God doesn’t exist but one where God doesn’t matter. That’s what life “under the sun” is. The expression occurs twenty-nine times throughout the book and it refers to a secular view of human existence. A life lived without God in view, without denying that God exists.
[Lord willing tomorrow we will continue to ‘set the table’ as we look at the opening verses of the Book of Ecclesiastes.]