Episode 41: The meaning of life – wisdom from Ecclesiastes
Dan and Paul discuss the biggest of big questions – the meaning of life! While some song lyrics spring to mind in the discussion, they find something more authoritative in the Bible, specifically in the little book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. At first reading the author of this book seems to be concluding that life is meaningless, but by exploring the key Hebrew word ‘hevel’ which is repeated over and over again, Paul and Dan find links into the broader Biblical narrative which lead (surprise!) to Jesus and his resurrection.
Paul and Dan kick off by acknowledging that this is the ultimate question about life! People routinely find meaning in events and actions, and ascribe value or worth to others in their lives. But is that all an illusion? Is life meaningless or is there a purpose in life?
How often do you ponder the meaning of life?
Dan talks about some recent statistics in a YouGov poll that surveyed attitudes towards the meaning of life in the British public. Apparently, at least 75% of people ponder whether life has meaning at some point in their lives, out of which 9% think about it at least once a day! 15% of the population never consider the question, leading Dan to think about how the cycle and monotony of life might prevent people from ever thinking about such things, exemplified by the finely crafted title (and repeated lyrics) of Fatboy Slim’s Eat Sleep Rave Repeat!
Does the lack of religion give life more meaning or take it away?
Paul thinks back to the movements in the early 2000s by Richard Dawkins and the humanist associations to push a narrative claiming that happiness and fulfillment can be found by leaving religion behind. But this is contrasted by the words of the German philosopher Neitzsche who famously declared that “God is dead”. Neitzsche saw that removing religion would at the same time remove meaning and morality from life.
Paul also reflects on another set of song lyrics – from a different generation! – the ballad about the suicide of a successful and affluent fictional character, Richard Cory, (by Simon & Garfunkel). Even people who appear to have found fulfillment in life can still suffer the same hopelessness that pervades society.
So, is life meaningless? And is there anything in the Bible that addresses these sorts of questions head on?
What is the meaning of life according to Ecclesiastes?
Dan turns up the small wisdom book in the Old Testament known as Ecclesiastes. It’s the words of “the preacher” who is described as someone who has had everything; a king with riches, time for pleasure, education in everything possible, and a whole set of servants at his disposal. It’s a thought experiment in the mind of a biblical Richard Cory.
The opening verses are reflective of how powerfully this book reaches into the very question of purpose and meaning in life.
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.Ecclesiastes 1:2-4
Paul and Dan discuss the various translations of the Hebrew word hevel which is rendered as vanity. Sometimes it’s translated as meaningless, and once as futile. But the underlying idea behind the word is that of a mist or a vapour that appears and then disappears almost as quickly, expressing life’s transitory nature.
Ecclesiastes has a lot to say about how many aspects of life are vanity, but one idea that gains traction through the book plays on the sense of value and worth that humanity ascribes to people and actions in terms of their morality. The preacher senses injustice in the fact that wise and foolish people both end up in the same place, (Ecclesiastes 2:13-15), but most especially in how the wicked oppresses the poor and even murders the righteous, (Ecclesiastes 4:1, Ecclesiastes 7:15). Thus, righteous people are often denied their long life whilst the wicked prosper in their evildoing.
With this in mind, Paul and Dan begin to see whether the book, and the Bible as a whole, has any answer to the seemingly meaningless existence in society.
A symbol of injustice and hope
Dan turns back to the story of two brothers, Cain and Abel, in Genesis 4:1-10 noting that the name Abel is the same Hebrew word hevel that is translated as vanity or meaningless in Ecclesiastes. The difficulties transliterating the Hebrew word into English accurately accounts for the different English spelling.
In the narrative Abel is portrayed as a righteous person but Cain, through jealousy, murders his brother. Abel, whose name means a vapour that is transitory, is cut off and his life fades exactly like a vapour. Meanwhile, Cain lives on and his family prosper and pioneer all sorts of successful endeavours.
This seems to confirm that life is indeed full of injustice and that there is no hope of reclaiming meaning and purpose in life, yet in the narrative we learn that God hears the “voice of your brother’s blood” which is “crying to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10). So Abel becomes not only a symbol of injustice, but a symbol of hope that God has heard and will indeed act.
This is exactly how the book of Ecclesiastes ends up. After hearing all the doom and gloom, the summary is still to “Fear God and keep his commandments..for God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14). The New Testament uses the symbol of Abel’s blood to show that the unjust murder of Jesus provides more hope, (Hebrews 12:24), and that’s because of the claim that Jesus has been resurrected.
Paul and Dan conclude by noting that this episode only begins to answer the ultimate question – there is much more than needs to be said. But they think it begins to show how the wisdom of an ancient book is very relevant to the question “What is the meaning of life?” that is every bit as ancient as it is modern. And perhaps the resurrection of Jesus and the symbol of Abel’s blood begin to show that we can find true meaning and purpose in faith in God which is rooted in something very real.
Getting to know Jesus personally is the subject of Episode 37: How can we know Jesus?