The Meaning of Meaninglessness Gives Meaning to Life
When I was teaching High School English, one of my students gave his review of the book Moby Dick by describing how dull and torturous it was to read. As he searched for the right words to describe how much he hated reading the book, he threw his hands in the air and exclaimed, “it’s almost as bad as trying to read the Bible!”
I wasn’t offended, I love the Bible, but I agree, it’s a tough book to sort through. If you aren’t excited about learning more about God, I can’t imagine why anyone would bother.
And one of the toughest of the books to get through is Ecclesiastes. You probably won’t get a lot of quotes from this book on your daily inspiration app. It’s a major downer book unless you read the whole thing and wrestle with it for a while.
The book opens with this lovely quote: (Ec. 1:2)
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
(I’ve never seen that verse on a cross stitch pillow or greeting card!)
Truthfully, I avoided this book because that first verse is just the beginning of the depressing verses. The book goes on to talk about how nothing you do matters because we are all going to die and time marches on. Even if people remember you, they will die and eventually they won’t be remembered. It’s all pretty dark stuff that makes Edgar Allan Poe seem uplifting…
Until you study it…
I recently came across this video:The Bible Project: Wisdom Series
And it sparked my curiosity. Is there more to Ecclesiastes than just Solomon lamenting over how a bunch of women had ruined his life?
I started my exploration with studying the word “Hevel”
Hevel- the word, which is translated as “meaningless” in the NIV, has such a complicated meaning that no one English word can successfully capture its meaning. Which I find fascinating. The interpretations “vanity, meaningless, chasing the wind, smoke,” all mean “something hard to wrap your mind around and something hard to hold onto” a meaning that we ironically lost when the word was translated.
Also interesting: the word Hevel is the same as the Hebrew word Abel. For the Jews, the word encompassed the whole question of the hard to grasp meaning of life, which in all its complexity boiled down to one simple question: Did you choose the way of God or did you choose to follow evil?
In the story of Cain and Abel, Abel found favor with God. He chose God’s way and God accepted him. Cain was angered by this and murdered his brother Abel. The story seems like a terrible tragedy with the bad guy winning. But if you understand the question and complexity of hevel, you see Abel as a victor because he found favor with God.
All that matters in this life is “have you chosen the way of God?” I heard a rabbi explain it like this: suppose you are a doctor and you dedicate your whole life to curing cancer and you are successful. Every person that you saved from cancer will still die. So what difference did it make? If you were following God and trying to make this world a better place, then it means everything and your life was a success. If you were simply trying to find meaning in the success then you will come up lacking.
This is not a popular teaching in America. We are a land of comfort and prosperity. Most of us are doing well. We like to think that if people join us in our moral life-style of following God, then they will do well too. This works very well for us, because in general it’s true. Good morals and hard work generally mean a better life, especially in America, but not always.
Death, illness, and life (divorce, disappointment, mistakes…) also happen to us all. Then what? Where is the meaning and hope? If hope is only in life being nice and comfortable, then tragedy destroys your foundation. If your meaning is found in following God, then these hard times when they come, will shake you but they will not destroy you.
There is a young mom I know who had a baby die. Naturally, this tragedy shook her faith in God. It also shook the people around her. Religious people wanted an explanation. Some wanted to blame her. Many made God seem like a jerk with comments like, “God just wanted another angel”. Many people didn’t even want to talk about this happening because just hearing of such a tragedy rocks our world.
But it did happen and it happens to other people too. It is a harsh reality of life. If you don’t want to misrepresent God to people who need his comfort the most, then you need to wrestle with this truth. The meaning of life isn’t found in all the stuff of this world. God never promised his followers that everything would go well for them. You aren’t guaranteed health, wealth or your next breath. Meaning is found only in a relationship with God. Bad things happen to us all.
Solomon, the writer of Ecclesiastes had great wisdom and was the wealthiest man in the world and he found no meaning in any of that. While Solomon was king, he ran after a ton of women and those women talked him into worshipping other gods. Solomon had been given everything and he didn’t appreciate it. In Ecclesiastes, he reflects on his life and finds that the only meaning is in following God. It seems to be a remorseful reflection on how he chose poorly and an encouragement for us to do better.
I don’t know about you, but this explanation has me pretty pumped! Maybe because I’m trying to find meaning in my own life right now. After 20 years of working in education and 24 years of being a mom, sometimes I wonder if my efforts meant anything. A lot of people that I poured into are not doing so well and I often question if what I did mattered to anyone. When I think of “hevel”, I know that the way I lived my life mattered, even in all my crazy messiness and emotional roller coasters!
It mattered because I was following God and trying to make this world a little better.
Blessings my friends! I hope this search into meaningless helped you find a little meaning in your life. I really mean it!
I am a really strange mix of a hippie, Calypso, Southern Belle, Madea- wannabe, Christian with the attitude of a Rhode Islander! I’m fascinated with people’s stories, I love to laugh at life with people and I’m genuinely trying to follow Jesus’ teachings. Strangely, my search for truth often has me at odds with American Christians who believe themselves to be the guardians of this truth. I was kicked out of Sunday School as a child for asking too many questions. I learned to repress them but my questions never went away. Thankfully as an adult, I feel completely free to pursue answers. Turns out, God is pretty big and not nearly as upset with my questions as his followers tend to be!