Our Obsession to Possess could all be Meaningless by Henry Gariepy
The passages below are taken and adapted from Henry Gariepy’s book “Wisdom to Live By,” published in 1991 by Victor Books.
Ecclesiastes—THE STRANGEST BOOK IN THE BIBLE (155-156)
Ecclesiastes has been called the strangest book in the Bible. Its mood is one of disillusionment, doubt, and melancholy. Its pessimistic eloquence is unmatched in Scripture.
The writer of this book takes us on an odyssey of the spirit that requires courage to face life’s brevity and seeming futility. His reflections and soliloquies probe some of our deepest doubts and questions.
We will find as we journey with the writer that he does not bring us back empty-handed. The serious reader will go beyond the book’s dark and disconsolate passages and discover at the end its lamp of truth shining all the brighter because of the darkness from which we emerge. The reader will gain courage from the hard-won affirmation at the book’s climax. Too many fail to venture beyond its portals of “vanity of vanities” to reach its “conclusion of the matter.”
Ecclesiastes is also one of the most fascinating books of the Bible. Its poetic and philosophic eloquence has carved for it a place among the great literature of the world.
Renowned Bible scholar Franz Delitzsch calls it “the quintessence of piety.”
Derek Kidner describes the writer of Ecclesiastes as an explorer whose “concern is with the boundaries of life, and especially with the questions that most of us would hesitate to push too far. His probing is so relentless that he can easily be taken for a skeptic or a pessimist.”1
“No book in the Old Testament,” states the Interpreter’s Bible, “so challenges Christian faith to meet the questions it asks, questions as old as our human perplexities, as old as our search for the meaning of life…. No book in the Old Testament faces vaster frontiers.”2
Alexander Pope penned lines which echo the writer’s philosophy:
The proper study of mankind is Man…
Born to die; and reasoning but to err;
. . .in endless error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!3
Fasten your spiritual seatbelt for this adventurous search to exciting frontiers of the spiritual realm!
Great quest of Ecclesiastes is to KNOW THYSELF (157-158)
The Greeks had inscribed the words “Know thyself” above the temple of the oracle at Delphi. Knowing the meaning of life is the great quest of Ecclesiastes. It poses the quintessential questions: Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? It probes relentlessly and is at times a devastating and unsettling search. It delivers us from any self-confident or rose-colored world view.
The greatest study of all is not astronomy, archeology, geology, zoology, or biology. The highest knowledge to attain is that of mankind himself and his relation to God. The dictum of Socrates and the Greeks, “Know thyself,” is what the Book of Ecclesiastes is all about.
The title Ecclesiastes comes from the opening phrase, “The words of the Teacher” (1:1). The Hebrew word for “Teacher” is “goheleth,” which in Greek is “Ecclesiastes.” “Teacher” or “preacher” are the common English translations of the term.
The author is not named but is cryptically identified as the “son of David, king in Jerusalem.”(1:1) Tradition favors Solomon, the patron of wisdom in Israel, as the author, based on this statement and supported by internal references: the author’s unrivaled wisdom (Ecclesiastes 1:16 NIV), his wealth (Ecclesiastes 2:8 NIV), his extensive building projects (Ecclesiastes 2:4-6 NIV) and his collection of proverbs (Ecclesiastes 12:9 NIV). Solomon, of course, fits all these roles.
Solomon’s quest in this book shows the futility of pursuing earthly goals as an end in themselves, and would lead us to God as the only source of fulfillment. Solomon himself became the classic example of folly when he started to live according to his own script instead of God’s. His “all-you-can-eat lifestyle” eventually led to fatal heartburn. When he forsook the wisdom of God, he became the wisest fool who ever ruled.
Jim Elliot wrote before his death as a missionary martyr: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” May we ever live by that kind of heavenly wisdom.
Meaningless permeates THE VICIOUS CIRCLE (159-160)
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” (Ecclesiastes 1:2 NIV).
This is probably the most despondent and pessimistic opening of any piece of literature. “Vanity” says one translator. “A wisp of vapor” says another. “A puff of wind” writes a third. Solomon describes the sum of life itself!
As one of the most creative writers of the Bible, he employs two strategies for effectiveness. He opens with the arresting element of surprise. Who would have expected a preacher to commence with such a declaration of futility? It creates a shock effect. He also employs repetition. The word translated “meaningless” or “vanity” appears thirty-three times in this brief book. He is not being redundant; he is underscoring his finding that life is meaningless.
“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” announced Henry David Thoreau of his generation. The son of David found it so in his lifetime. It is a dominant characteristic of our world. Many find life to be grinding boredom, futile, and purposeless.
Solomon famous phrase “under the sun” (1:3 NIV) occurs thirty times, providing a key phrase and clue to this book. Right at the start this phrase reminds us that the writer is dealing from an earthbound horizon. His observations originate from ground level. His statements are limited to the seen world. The vertical perspective is not found until the end, and is not complete until we come to the New Testament.
The writer cites the ceaseless cycles of nature as proof of the vicious circle of life. The wearisome repetition is seen in the generations that come and go (1:4 NIV), the rising and setting of the sun (1:5 NIV), the circular currents of the wind (1:6 NIV), the flow of waters in their channels (1:7 NIV), and the repetitive boredom of all things (1:8 NIV).
The writer defines history as a closed circuit with his famous phrase “nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10 NIV). True, our world is not as static as his, but the change and novelty are in externals. Man, in his nature and needs, remains the same. He further laments we will all be forgotten as will our children after us (1:11 NIV).
How does all this square with our outlook on life? Is it all a vicious circle? A treadmill of activity? A routine that brings tedium? Or “a chasing after the wind” in the repeated metaphor of the Teacher (Ecclesiastes 1:17; 2:11, 18, 26 NIV)? Or have we found something better?
Tasting life’s pleasures to the fullest leads to DEAD-END PATHS (161-162)
“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” (Ecclesiastes 2:11 NIV).
The writer looks to wisdom in his search for meaning:
“I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 1:13). But he finds “with much wisdom comes much sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 1:18). Science always raises more questions than it answers. Our larger telescopes only add incalculable light-years to the mysteries of the universe, leaving man more humbled before the God of stars and nebulae, which are but the trailing of His garments.
He next searches for meaning by tasting life’s pleasures to the fullest (Ecclesiastes 2:1). He then looks for it in laughter (2:2). He becomes a connoisseur of the choicest wines (2:3). He erects great buildings—his palace (2:4). He plants vineyards, designs beautiful parks and luxurious gardens (2:5-6). He employs an astonishing number of people. His herds of livestock would make the Guinness record book of his day (2:7). His wealth was legendary (2:8). As a patron of the arts, he enjoyed the best music (2:8). His harem of 700 wives and 300 concubines would prompt Henry VIII to blush with envy. He writes the script for “wine, women, and song.”
And where did this impassioned quest for pleasure and possessions lead him? What was the result of all his brilliant achievements, the realization of his highest ambitions? After surveying all his pleasures and accomplishments, he pronounces his verdict:
“I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. . .
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11 NIV).
The king’s gardens have become dust and windblown down the corridors of time, but the lesson remains. Many today still search these same roads for meaning in life. They look for fulfillment in knowledge, pleasure, fun and laughter, alcohol and drugs, work, possessions, aesthetics and the arts.
The deep needs and desires of our souls can never be satisfied with the things of earth. This classic book will lead us further in our search for meaning.
Spirit of eternal love,
Guide me, or I blindly rove;
set my heart on things above,
Draw me after Thee.
Earthly things are paltry show,
Phantom charms, they come and go;
Give me constantly to know
Fellowship with Thee.4
IS THAT ALL THERE IS TO LIFE? (163-164)
“I hated life.. . . All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:17).
We left the writer in the last chapter “in the pits.” All his pursuits for meaning ended with his verdict of “meaningless.” As we read on he acknowledges death as the great leveler for the wise man and the fool (Ecclesiastes 2:14-16).
He laments: “I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work in which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:18-19).
Every diligent workman must identify with his concern. Will posterity appreciate or repudiate the values by which dedicated and diligent work provided a legacy? Will blessings be taken for granted which an earlier generation struggled to provide? From his vantage point of “under the sun,” he pronounces life to be “meaningless.”
One can almost hear Peggy Lee’s doleful tones, “Is that all. . . is that all there is?” blowing across the dirge-like lament of these pages. Is that all there is to knowledge? Is that all there is to pleasures? Is that all there is to wealth? Is that all there is to wine? Is that all there is to building projects? Is that all there is to possessions? Is that all there is to sex? Is that all there is to aesthetics?
But now a shaft of light falls on his path of darkness. He has to acknowledge that “satisfaction. . . is from the hand of God, for without Him who can.. . find enjoyment?” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25). God alone is the source of true wisdom and happiness (Ecclesiastes 2:26). It is a major breakthrough in his search for meaning.
Many modern-day believers echo this truth in the words of the old hymn whose author is known only as “B.E”
O Christ, in Thee my soul hath found,
And found in Thee alone,
The peace, the joy, I sought so long,
The bliss till now unknown.
I tried the broken cisterns, Lord,
But, ah! the waters failed;
E’en as I stopped to drink they fled,
And mocked me as I wailed.
Now none but Christ can satisfy,
No other name for me;
There’s love and life and lasting joy,
Lord Jesus, found in Thee.
The solution to life’s riddle—VALEDICTORY (203-204)
“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” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
Solomon comes now to the close of his memoirs and states his conclusion on life. His search for meaning in the endless halls of humanism is now over. Having been caught in the jaws of his horizontal perspective “under the sun,” he gives us the clue to the mystery of life. The solution to life’s riddle was reserved to the end:
“For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14).
The writer has given us his valedictory. Its timeless message echoes across the millenniums and challenges us to live by its truth. His hard-won insight has a message for us who live “under the sun.” May it lead us to the Son of God, who came to be the Light of the world and who enables us to discover the ultimate meaning of life.
It is forever true that the whole duty for each of us is to revere God and keep His commandments. Trust and obedience are the keys to the meaning of life.
This timeless truth has been beautifully expressed for us in the time-honored hymn of John H. Sammis:
When we walk with the Lord
In the light of His word,
What a glory He sheds on our way;
While we do His good will,
He abides with us still,
And with all who will trust and obey.
But we never can prove
the delights of His love,
Until all on the altar we lay
For the favor He shows,
And the joy He bestows,
Are for them who will trust and obey.
1. Derek Kidner, A Time to Mourn & A Time to Dance (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 1976), p. 13.
2. Gaius Glenn Atkins, Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 5, ed. George Buttrick et al. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1956), p. 21.
3. Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, Epistle II.
4. Albert Orsborn, “Fellowship with Thee,” stanza 1, by permission of The Salvation Army.