Solomon: A philosopher who did his own stunts

Whether you like his films or not, you have to respect the commitment that Tom Cruise has in giving the audience a tremendous spectacle.

There’s no green screens. He’s jumping out of the plane. He’s riding that motorcycle through oncoming traffic. He’s running across the top of buildings and jumping from one to another. He’s breaking his nose and his ankles in the process. He’s driving the car. He’s sliding the car backwards down a flight of stairs. He’s climbing up the rope into the helicopter. He’s flying the helicopter.

The book of Ecclesiastes is a philosophical book written by Solomon. He wasn’t an ancient sage who stared into the sky, conjured up ideas and then wrote them down. Solomon did all his own stunts. There were no ideological green screens. He actually lived out his thought experiments and given he was the king of Israel, he had all the resources at his disposal to do it.

As the book opens, he introduces himself as the “teacher” which could also be faithfully translated “one who realizes an idea in completeness” or “deep investigator”. (קֹהֶ֣לֶת) In other words, Ecclesiastes opens like, “good morning, I’m your philosophy professor. Over the course of the next 12 chapters we’re going to explore the meaning of life.”

Then, right out of the gate, he hits us with his disturbing thesis: All of life under the sun is “meaningless”. (הֲבֵ֥ל) His tone is strong. It’s as if he’s saying “Prove me wrong. Go ahead – prove that life has meaning.”

By the time you get 18 verses into the first chapter,  Solomon argues that there’s not enough Aspirin in the world for a “what’s-the-meaning-of-life”-sized-headache. The tone of Ecclesiastes is entirely depressing, but the goal of Ecclesiastes is to lead us into a reality that is liberating.

If there is no God and this short, fragile life under the sun is all there is, then no matter your beliefs, character or accomplishments, everyone’s ending is exactly the same – death. Therefore, his logical conclusion of the inevitability of death is that no matter what we say “really matters” in life” … simply doesn’t. It’s just something we’re telling ourselves to help us sleep at night.

Solomon, like all good teachers, anticipates our pushback to this dismal argument.

“The meaning of life is love and virtue and making the world a better place. Find pleasure in your work, your relationships, in human achievement & in beauty. The meaning of life is to defy the meaninglessness of our purposeless origins by choosing to be meaningful & purposeful anyways.”

Those things sound very noble. Then, like a mechanic poking holes in a rusty philosophical subframe, Solomon argues that while all those ideas distract us from the harsh reality of mortality, those ideas are utterly meaningless in an objective sense.  If there is no God and our origins are meaningless, then insisting that life has meaning is a violent contradiction.

In verse 4 of his first chapter, he says “One generation comes and goes” and reminds us that life and death has been on a loop since the dawn of human history. How many of us have the same convictions about life and world we live in as our great, great, great, great grandparents? How many of us can name our great, great, great, great grandparents? Why then, are we so confident that 10,000 years from now, our values, ideas and achievements will live on? In 10,000 years, nobody will remember your name. Even if you rise in influence to become the Prime Minister of Canada, in 10,000 years your name will be nothing more than a footnote in a history lecture someplace – maybe.

Without question, this is disturbing.

Some argue that “meaning” is whatever you choose. Solomon, like all thoughtful people, are not satisfied quite that easily. I can decide that the meaning of life is collecting rotten bananas, but that is a subjective idea and not an objective truth. The law of gravity is an objective truth. Solomon is craving a sense of meaning that is objective.

So our philosophy professor presses the issue further. He goes past human history and draws our gaze to contemplate natural history. He says, “generations come and go and the earth endures forever

If there is no God and all we get is “life under the sun” (a thought Solomon revisits 30 times), then when the sun burns out like all stars do, or our planet revolts and another ice age ensues, all evidence of our existence will be wiped from the cosmos like an enthusiastic 2nd grader whose turn it is to erase the chalkboard on Friday afternoon. 

It could be argued that it’s reasonable to be a good, civil person because it benefits the preservation of our species. It could be argued that our lives have been changed forever from innovations like electricity and so our innovations today are serving the future of humanity. Agreed. But if there was an ocean of time before we  got here and there will be an ocean of time after the sun burns out and we all die, then cosmically speaking, all of human achievement merely prolonged our inevitable end by a few seconds.

Yoswers that’s depressing.

Solomon anticipates the common response to his first chapter … “stop being so morbid!” So his text moves to a predictable remedy for the depressing reality of naturalism, which is hedonism. Hedonism is the ideology that insists that we must find meaning in the pleasures of today precisely because today is all there is. Find pleasure in your work, family, sunsets, starry nights, music, art, food, nature, drink, sex …  enjoy the moment because the moment is all you have. Oh – and whatever you do, don’t stop too long to think about where all of life is headed.

So Solomon embraces the idea that meaning comes from a life of pleasure and does all his own stunts.

He builds houses, vineyards, pools and lives from one party to the next. He has servants, all the wine and food you could ever want along with a harem of sex partners. He’s the 1% so he can get whatever he wants – and he does.

He lives a life of unfathomable luxury. He parties and drinks himself into oblivion – but he doesn’t do it to escape reality. He does it to see if a life of pleasure can infuse meaning into his reality. Then, while nursing his hangover, our philosophy prof concludes it didn’t work. Looking for meaning in pleasure is not pleasurable.

If you convince yourself that you will find meaning by living for the moment, you will become miserable because life never hands anyone enough joyous moments. For every joyous moment we post to social media, there are scores of very difficult moments that never hit our newsfeeds. We’re scrolling through each others carefully curated highlight reels.

Solomon confesses that he has become an addict. In chapter 2 he said, “whatever my eyes desired I did not withhold from them”. His inability to find lasting pleasure led him into a terrible search for the next pleasure.

He described this terrible search as “chasing the wind.” This is an apt descriptor of pleasure because like wind, you can feel it, enjoy it and be refreshed by it – but you can’t hold onto it. 

In 2017, Russel Brand wrote a transparent book about his recovery from addictions. Brand is a comedian, author and political activist with a philosophic soul. He opens his book Recovery, in an Ecclesiastic way …

“Here in our glistening citadels of limitless reflecting screens we live on the outside. Today we awaken and instantly and unthinkingly reach for our phone, its glow reaching our eyes before the light of dawn, ts bulletins dart into our minds before even a moment of acknowledgement of this unbending and unending fact: you are going to die. You and your children and everyone you love is hurtling toward the boneyard. We all know this, but because it yields so few likes on facebook, we purr on in blinkered compliance filling our days with empty fixes. A coffee here and Ebay purchase there, a half hearted wank or flirt. Some glinting twitch of of pleasure, like a silvery stitch on a cadaver, tiding you over … there’s nothing but an empty grave and a tombstone, chisel poised.”

Hurtling toward the boneyard? Yes it’s true, but there’s no joy in that reality. If this life is all there is, then you have to find joy in distractions from that reality

Brand ended up grappling with the same philosophical fallout as Solomon. If we are looking to find meaning in life’s pleasures, then we’re all somewhere on the addiction scale because life isn’t handing any of us a steady stream of constant pleasure.

Ecclesiastes provokes us to face the hopelessness of this short life to push us to a hope in the God that transcends this short life.

What if the meaning of life is not found in this life under the sun? What if the meaning of life is beyond the sun? What if there was a God who created the sun?

Ecclesiastes lifts our gaze off of life under the sun and directs us to consider the God who spoke and created the sun. And as our gaze is drawn upward to God, we are introduced to a new, eternal reality.

If there is a God, then we are His, and our identity is something we receive, not something we must achieve. If there is a God who is eternal, then united to Him, there is joy without horizon. If there is a God, then our meaning and our very existence has no vanishing point.

In chapter 3, Solomon writes that God has put “eternity in our hearts” which explains our incessant craving for love, joy, peace, pleasure and beauty without end. Eternity in our hearts explains our chronic dissatisfaction between the world we want and the world we live in. Eternity in our hearts explains why we want a world of love without hate, joy without pain, justice without injustice, equity without oppression and life without death. Eternity in our hearts explains the dark feelings that burrow deep in our souls when we attend funerals. We despise our mortality because we were created for eternity.

Ecclesiastes leads us to confess our hopelessness to make us candidates for God’s hope.

The bible actually answers the hopeless philosophical framework of Ecclesiastes with a hopeful philosophical framework in the Gospel of John.

In John 1:1,  Jesus is referred to as the “logos” which is God’s “logic”, “reason” and “word”. Greek philosophers continued to search for meaning just as Solomon did. The apostle John argued that God’s logic, God’s reason, God’s final word on the subject, could be seen in Jesus.

John goes on to explain how in the beginning, the world was created through Jesus – the logos. In the beginning, there was no life & death cycle – only life. There was no joy & pain cycle – only joy. In the beginning, according to God’s logic, there was no cycle. The sin of our first parents in the Garden brought the life/death cycle and we are all born into the life/death cycle.

The good news of the gospel is this: God came in Jesus Christ to stop the cycle.

His resurrection foreshadows ours. Just as God raised Him, He will raise us. In Christ, life is not cyclical and temporal – it is eternal.

Just as Jesus was raised, bodily and it was really Him, we will be raised, bodily and it will really be us. The scriptures do not teach that we become stardust or some ethereal part of the universe. God is the God of creation and the gospel promises the restoration of His creation.

The scandalous, forgiving grace of Jesus wipes away our sin and reconciles us to God. This means we are restored to His logos – His logic, His reason for life in the universe in the first place. We were created to enjoy life in God and cultivate civilization in wondrous ways to the glory of God – eternally.

Everything beautiful about the world will be restored and everything evil about the world will be eradicated. The bible does not teach that God is doing away with the material world – it teaches that by His grace He will restore it. That is what the resurrected Jesus signifies.

All those who trust in Christ have the promise of a life that is eternal and a sense of identity and meaning that is without end.

Practical things like caring for the earth have eternal meaning for the Christian. Ecological responsibility is no longer a meaningless task of delaying the inevitable extinction of the human race by few cosmic seconds. We care for the earth because we recognize it as a gift of God – a gift He promised to restore. The implications of the gospel means that a billion years from now, we’ll be enjoying nature, drinking wine, eating bread and cultivating civilization with our God at the centre – which was his logos from the beginning. 

Caring for the poor and standing for mercy and justice have eternal meaning for the Christian. We are not merely helping others live a more comfortable life before their inevitable death and our inevitable extinction. We care for the poor and we stand for mercy and justice because that’s the loving character of our God and by His grace we desire to resemble Him. The implications of the gospel means that one billion years from now, we’ll be celebrating God’s mercy and justice – the mercy He poured out for our sin and the justice He showed by taking the penalty for our sin and paying it Himself.

Going to work and studying on campus have eternal meaning for the Christian. We’re not simply getting jobs to pay our bills, contribute to society and have some moments of pleasure along the way before we land in the boneyard. Were are not an accidental collocation of molecules – we have been wonderfully made by an eternal God. That means one billion years from now, we will be using the glorious gifts and personalities He gave us to cultivate civilization with our God at the centre – which was his logos from the beginning.

The gospel of God’s grace is the announcement that the story of the end of our lives is not death, but life. We will not be swallowed up in an ocean of time. United to Christ by grace and faith, we rest in the hands of our God who will bring eternal restoration. We desire to live in congruence with our Father, bear the family resemblance and love others as ministers of restoration. 

Press on,

Paul

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