Guest post by Megan Russell
At the end of 2016, I got a planner that promised increased productivity and happiness from continued use. Designed with the latest science in mind, one section asks you to list what you need to do that day for success. Another asks for you to list for what you are grateful.
As a breastfeeding mom of a new baby at the time, I kept writing “drink water” in the need-to-do section and “I’m thankful for our dinner” in the grateful section. It is always good to drink water and be thankful for your food, but these thoughts are more life sustaining than life bringing.
What’s the money for?
At my financial planning firm, we like to challenge our clients to answer the question: “What is the money for?” Money is a placeholder for the reward of labor, so the question carries with it a lot of life meaning. A near-synonymous question would be: What are you laboring for?
The answer that most disappoints me is: “I’m not going to live that long.” That is not a life plan; it is a death plan.
If you feel that way, then the book of Ecclesiastes is for you.
In Adventuring Through the Bible, Ray Stedman describes Ecclesiastes as the atheist’s favorite book of the Bible. Stedman writes:
There is no other book like it, because it is the only book in the Bible that reflects a human, rather than a divine, point of view. This book is filled with error. And yet it is wholly inspired. …Inspiration guarantees an accurate reflection of these various points of view. …Whenever false views of men are quoted or set forth, the Bible is speaking error. …So it is quite possible to “prove” all kinds of utterly false things by quoting the Bible, because in that sense the Bible is filled with error. But the Bible always points out the error which it presents and makes it clear that it is error, as in the case with this book. Because of its remarkable character Ecclesiastes is the most misused book of the Bible. This is the favorite book of atheists and agnostics. And many cults love to quote this book’s erroneous viewpoints and give the impression that these are scriptural, divine words of God concerning life.
Solomon’s search for the meaning of life
Using Stedman’s sermon, “Ecclesiastes: The Inspired Book of Error,” as a guide, here is a summary and paraphrase of this 12-chapter book.
Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. As the king of a prosperous nation at peace who had the reputation as the wisest man in the world, Solomon set his sights on discovering the meaning of life. To do so, he sifted through the world’s philosophies (1:1 – 11:8), and he concluded that most philosophies end in vanity. In this case, vanity means futility or worthlessness.
In Ecclesiates 1, Solomon describes how we are a small blink in life’s ongoing cycles. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). My husband calls this “Do I even matter?” feeling existential vertigo. It is a common feeling in our lonely, scientific society. Miles away from those we love, working before a computer screen at a desk job, it is easy to feel reduced. “Why make a life plan?” the vertigo chides us, “I’m not going to live that long.”
In Eccleisates 2-3, Solomon moves on to hedonism, the enjoyment of life. It is an obvious progression out of the vertigo. Perhaps the world doesn’t care if you are here, the thinking goes, but you care that your experience is pleasurable even if you are insignificant. Solomon talks of laughter, wealth, wine, accomplishments, companions, wisdom, “and whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them” (2:10). He progresses from “buy fun stuff” to “buy experiences not gifts.” He tries to “take pleasure in all my toil” or, in colloquial, he tries to “enjoy the ride.”
But all his enjoyment ends in despair. Fleeting fancy does not bring meaning to life. No matter what experiences you have, the world moves on without you after you die. “Eat, drink, and be merry” or “enjoy the moment” can help you enjoy life, but it doesn’t bring meaning to it.
In Ecclesiates 4-6, Solomon turns to human ventures and legacies as a source of meaning. The idea is that perhaps we can achieve meaning as a group, be it through capitalism or communism or the enduring institutions we build. But alas, death gets the last laugh as it does with all these philosophies. “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure? …As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again,” Solomon writes, “naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand” (4:7, 5:15). “A stranger enjoys” the achievement after your death (6:2).
After six chapters of merriment, Solomon turns to a moderation-in-all-things stoicism. This life philosophy is: “Why risk it?” He writes, “There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time?” (7:15-17). This answers the question of the meaning of life by dodging it entirely.
Last in Ecclesiastes 8:1-11:8, Solomon tries utilitarianism. He writes, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.” (9:10). Stedman paraphrases this section as: “Try to understand who is an authority and who isn’t, and do your best to be on the right side at the right time.” There’s no life meaning here. The message is just “Do what you gotta do.” This might produce a focus on specific savings goals and expenses without a larger plan.
Each of the eight philosophies is either beat by death or surrenders to it. Stedman paraphrases these chapters as saying:
“What is life? Nothing at all. Utterly insignificant. Without any meaning. Utterly futile. All that we can do, therefore, is to make the best of it. Eat, drink and be merry. Life goes out like a candle flame in the end.”
Fear God, but how?
But then, in Ecclesiastes 12, we get a very poetic 7-verse description of death. After the flowery description, Solomon describes what he sees as the meaning of life in verse 13:
Stedman says of this:
Life is fulfilled only when God is enthroned in the center of an individual’s life and that individual acts in obedience to his ruler. But the philosophy that begins and exists and ends in the dust, and then says that the dust is everything — that this is all life is intended to be, that vanity is everything — is utter folly. The Debater’s conclusion is that everything is indeed vanity unless you put God in the center of life.
Putting God at the center of your life is a vague conclusion. How do you know God is at the center? If he isn’t at the center how would you put him there?
In “The Making of Man,” a sermon on Genesis 2:4-17, Stedman explains:
Though we may struggle to learn this, eventually all the thrust and purpose of the gospel is here, to put God back into the center of his world and relate everything in our life and in the lives of others to him and not to us. It does not make any difference how things affect us. The important thing is, what do they do to God? What is his relationship to these things?
…the seductive lie that the serpent has whispered into the ears of men ever since: “You are the center of life. This is your world, everything relates to you. What you like is right; what you don’t like is wrong. What you want to do is right; what you don’t want to do, then don’t let anyone make you do it. You are the center of things.” You can find this idea throbbing and pulsating throughout the philosophies of men, that man stands at the center of things. That is the curse that fell upon man when he ate of the fruit in the Garden of Eden. In a psychedelic way his mind was twisted, and he thought of himself as God, and related all things to himself.
The opposite of the serpent’s seduction would be the truth. It would be that “You are not the center of life. This is God’s world, everything relates to Him. What He likes is right; what He doesn’t like is wrong. What He wants to do is right; what He doesn’t want to do, He won’t let anyone make Him do it. He is the center of all things.”
How should you treat someone who is rightfully the center of the world? What is His relationship to your wealth?
In “Put on the New” a sermon on Colossians 3:12-17, Stedman writes:
“Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).
I hope you will memorize this marvelous verse and repeat it to yourself frequently. “Whatever you do”—that means the whole of life is to be related to the Lordship of Jesus. Everything in life, every activity can become an act of worship. Even routine things can be offered to Christ; done “in the name of the Lord,” motivated by our relationship to him. Ruth Graham had for years a sign over her kitchen sink that said, “Divine services held here three times a day.” Washing the dishes can be an act of worship if you do it in the name of the Lord, as unto him.
We can see the difference this shift in motivation makes in small ways. There is a marked attitude shift between doing your own dishes as a single person and doing your own dishes for your family as an act of love. Your feelings before, during, and after doing the dishes are all different. This can also be true in relationship to God. What would it look like to make all you do an act of love for God?
What a difference of motivation this makes to a Christian! You do things you do not like because you offer them willingly to the Lord as a sweet sacrifice to him. If you love someone you will do things for his or her sake that you do not particularly like doing. That is the point here. There are things that money could never pay us to do, but love will motivate us to them.
That is worth repeating: There are things that money could never pay us to do, but love will motivate us to do them.
If we love the Lord we offer to him the activities of our day; we do everything with a view to his glory. Fill out your income tax forms with that in mind! Meet with your boss, or your employees, “in the name of the Lord Jesus.” Buy your groceries in the name of the Lord. Do your homework in the name of the Lord Jesus. Thus, you are laboring, not for the world or its benefits, but for Christ. What a glorious picture this gives of the whole of life under the Lordship of Christ.
Authentic spirituality can infuse all of life’s endeavors with a greater meaning and purpose. In this larger context, even things as small as drinking water and being thankful for my food have more meaning.
Although any love might motivate us to do worthy things, through our love of God we overcome death and transcend into a meaningful life. In Christianity, the hope of the gospel is that Christ was not defeated by death but rather Christ rose from the dead conquering death. Thus, through God, death does not get the last laugh, and our faithful acts are imbued with a meaning that death cannot conquer.
What is the money for? It matters as much why you answer the way you do as how you answer.