Wednesday, October 8, 2014
It Seems Hopeless
“The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” (Ecclesiastes 1:1)
David’s son Solomon was one of the greatest rulers of history, ruling much of present day Syria and Jordan as well as Israel, extending as far south as the gulf of Aqaba, and having treaties with many of the surrounding nations. The major Caravan routes across northern Africa to the east all passed through Israel, and Solomon took advantage of the location to build a great trading Empire. He formed a trading alliance with Hiram of Tyre, and the Phoenicians to trade around the Mediterranean, and also to develop a fleet of ships on the Gulf of Aqaba to trade along the coasts of Africa and India.
“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3)
Though he had wealth and power beyond belief, Solomon discovered that they weren’t very meaningful or satisfying. While they seemed important at the time, his accomplishments were not much more valuable in the long term than winning wining a basketball game. As soon as the game is over, you have to start preparing for the next game because their win doesn’t keep them from losing next time. Sooner or later someone will set a new record or break the winning streak.
“One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose. The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full; unto the place from whence the rivers come, thither they return again.” (Ecclesiastes 1:4-7)
While the earth remains, the people on it do not. Todays young people will get old and die and a new generation will take over. All of nature goes through cycles. The sun arises in the east, and sets in the west then arises the next morning in the east again. When the wind blows in one direction, other air moves in to replace it so the air never all accumulates in one place. In a similar manner all the rivers run to the sea, but evaporation carries the water back out to the land where it precipitates and runs to the sea again. Nothing man does can stop the cycle.
“All things are full of labour; man cannot utter it: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after.” (Ecclesiastes 1:8-11)
The second law of Thermodynamics tells us that everything deteriorates. As a result even the best house or nicest car takes constant work to keep it useable, and a man never gets to the point where he doesn’t need food as long as he lives, so he has to keep working just to live. The eyes and brain are designed so they never fill up and just stop seeing things nor do the ears run over with the sounds they hear.
We brag about inventing some new thing, but even those things have been done in the past, although not necessarily the same way. The first recorded steam engine was made about 300 BC. The first computer we know about was built five hundred years ago. The Aztec Indians did brain and heart surgery. The Chinese had guns and bombs long before Marco Polo went exploring, and everything we invent is based on our understanding of how natural things work. There is nothing truly new under the sun.
Nothing we learn can be passed directly to our children. They have to learn those things for themselves, although we can try to teach them. As a result, history repeats itself because people and governments continually repeat the same behavior instead of learning from the mistakes their forbearers made.
It is easy to get depressed as you realize how little control you really have of things. Solomon wants us to understand the reality that we have very little control, despite what the motivational speakers may tell us. When I was in college we were required to take a course in philosophy. Being an avid reader, I read the entire book, including the biographies of the philosophers we studied. I was shocked to realize almost all of them realized the same things Solomon states in this book and committed suicide, concluding that life was ultimately meaningless and hopeless.
Solomon didn’t commit suicide, but continued to look for answers. He discovered that life could have meaning, but that it would not come from the things we accomplish. Ecclesiastes describes what he learned from his efforts to find meaning in his life. While the first several chapters seem pretty depressing, and mirror many people's experience, there is hope.