The Preacher's Verdict
on Human Ambition
No one can doubt the importance of being a success in this world. It is a universal human objective - the housewife wants to be a successful housewife, the sportsman strives to be successful, the nation esteems itself as being successful. Anyone not anxious for success must be lazy or lacking in ambition. But if we believe the Preacher, success is illusory.
"The Preacher", "Qoheleth" in Hebrew, "Ecclesiastes" in Greek, is responsible for twelve chapters of almost unadulterated pessimism in the Old Testament. The Hebrew in which he wrote, it is said, is characteristic of the period two hundred years before Christ. If this is so, who was he? He describes himself as a son of David, king in Jerusalem, who sought wisdom, who created houses and parks, possessed slaves and herds, gathered gold and treasures, and had all the women a man could ever want. Surely this must be King Solomon - who lived a thousand years before Christ. It is possible that words from Solomon were included in a work compiled centuries later. Or it has been suggested that someone put this sermon into the mouth of Solomon for the sake of effect, as was done in those days. He was a preacher, a teacher, a philosopher, a speaker. As such his words would have been directed, not to insiders within the temple, but to the world outside. His message here, one of profound pessimism, is "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."
'Vanity' in the AV is the Hebrew word hebel, so translated 54 times in the Old Testament. Of these 54, 30 are to be found in this little book written by the ecclesiastes. The word has various translations in modern versions, 'emptiness' (NEB), 'in vain' (Moffatt), 'meaningless' (NJV), 'useless' (GNB and New Century), even 'smoke' (The Message). Strong has 'transitory and unsatisfactory'. These renderings all point to a disillusion with human success. There's nothing in it. Pointless. It doesn't really mean anything. Like smoke, you can see it from a distance, but when you get close there is nothing there to lay hold of. The expression 'useless' points in two directions: a realisation that human endeavour fails of its objective, and does not truly succeed; and the emotional reaction when you see what your hand has grasped and throw it away in disgust ‑ "Useless!" So what price success?
The things which the Preacher describes in this way belong to his own place and time. It is life 'under the sun' - where blazing light out of clear skies exposes what men are doing. It is a man's world - no scope for the feminist here. The preferred way of life recommended by the Preacher is not ceaseless striving, but for a man to settle down happily with his wife and family. Women in this book are mere adjuncts, worse, they can be a distraction, and the Preacher does not find them to have any sense or wisdom. Men should obey God and make the best of their short lives. Then death will come as the end. And God will judge. Modern expositors see that this bleak picture reveals the need for the New Testament revelation, of Jesus who is the resurrection from death and the bringer of eternal life.
According to the Preacher, the best course for men living under the sun is to eat and drink and enjoy your work in the here and now. Certainly not to live a life full of pain and struggle and sorrow, with minds that cannot rest even when you should be sleeping. If you do not enjoy your work, you might as well not have been born. It is those who please God that attain the right state of mind, it is He who gives men wisdom and knowledge and joy. If you do not please God, others will enjoy the benefit of your work. We Christians might question this view of life ‑ are faithful Christians never persecuted, always successful, do they never lose their property, are they never anxious (as Paul was about his fellow believers)? It cannot mean that God is displeased with them when such things happen. Indeed, it is their calling! But they are also called to joy, love and peace, and godliness with contentment we are told is great gain. We do expect God to bless us with wisdom and knowledge and joy, both now and hereafter.
It is death, a boundary beyond which he cannot see, which most frustrates the Preacher. He would appreciate the point of what Jesus said about the rich fool who suddenly died in the midst of his prosperity, "who will these things belong to when you're gone?" As for the actual person who dies, can we be sure that a dead human is different from a dead animal - where has the life gone? The spirit, the Preacher concludes, returns to God who gave it. But "whatever work you do, do your best, because you are going to the grave, where there is no working, no planning, no knowledge and no wisdom". So enjoy the little transitory life that God has given you - it is all you have got. Enjoy yourself, but remember that God will judge you. You will be dead a long time. That is the Preacher's view, which the Pharisees and Sadducees were debating later on. Jesus came to save us from death.
Another frustration is the unfairness of life. Rewards in this world do not match deeds, so don't count your chickens, don't even try too hard to be good. Often the good die young. The wicked succeed. Cruel people have all the power. There is a hierarchy of oppression - an official mistreats the poor, he is mistreated by his superior, who is cheated by the governor, while the king gets his cut. In our day, the workers and the bosses? Workers of the world unite! Hardly possible in places like Mugabe's Africa. And the greatest sinners are given the best funerals! Why does God permit injustice and oppression in this world, we ask. And does He plan ever to do anything about it?
Mankind, it seems, are born to a life of disappointment. What reason is there for all our striving if it all comes to nothing. The Preacher set out to understand the world, and found it frustrating because he had no power to change things. "If something is crooked, you can't make it straight." Much wisdom leads to much disappointment. So he tried self-fulfilment. Alcohol? Possessions? Power? Money? Sex? After trying it all he realised that it all was empty, transitory, pointless.
Ceaseless striving is not worth it. Not striving out of envy for others and what they have done. Not striving in love of riches. Not the driving lust to get more and more. Not in the ambition that drives from rags to riches ‑ for popularity does not last, and others will inherit the riches. So what is the alternative? "Some say that it is foolish to fold your hands and do nothing, because you will starve to death. May be so, but I say it is better to be content with what little you have. Otherwise you will always be struggling for more, and that is like chasing the wind." Is that how modern 'personalities' find life to be? Footballers?
And nothing is permanent. Not a reputation - you'll be forgotten. Not youthful success. Not the laughter of fools. Not health and strength, for your powers will fail, your eyes will grow dim, you lose your marbles, and then - ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
God, on the other hand, is permanent, and so is the world He has set in place. Men need to accept His order of things. People live, and people die, but the earth continues forever. The wind blows south and north... then it turns round and repeats the same pattern, going nowhere. All the rivers flow to the sea, but the sea never becomes full. An adolescent may think that everything is boring and repetitive, and nothing is really new. And worse, there is nothing you can do about it. Old worn out people will feel the same. And everything, inevitably, will happen in its time - birth, death, planting, harvest, wailing and dancing, creating and destroying, they all go on. It is for us to discern, and then act upon, the right time: to be silent or to speak, either to love or to hate, either to fight or to make reconciliation. Because that is how things are, it is no use arguing with God about it - "the more you say, the more useless it is."
The Preacher's final advice is "Honour God and obey His commands, because this is all people must do. God will judge everything, even what is done in secret, the good and the evil." This is salutary advice. It is the sort of thing John the Baptist was saying. It is valid advice too for our own century.
Ecclesiastes was writing against a background not of life in our modern economy, but in a situation which may remind us of what we learn about parts of Africa today. Today it may seem that the effect of technology is to increase the possibility of changing things, of making a difference, reducing the frustrations. It may seem that 'democracy' with its checks and balances decreases the opportunity for oppression. We may wish to modify the Preacher's conclusions, particularly since the word of the kingdom has leavened parts of society for two thousand years. Even so, looking around us we can see a lot of truth in what the Preacher said.
We today do not so much live 'under the sun' as in the light of the TV screen, which brings before us a panorama of life not unlike what the Preacher describes, for all the differences. Our 'stars', men and women, have their ambitions; the chariots of war trundle across the world; the demon of famine stalks into our living rooms; the great and the good come, and they go. And we, like God, have the opportunity to judge all that we see. Positively, we are on the look out for the poor and humble, genuine folk, like Mary the mother of Jesus. We look too for men and women of wisdom, who are aware that all our striving may prove to be in vain. Perhaps we feel that this world is not our home.
Our homeland, says Paul, is in heaven, and we are waiting for our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, to come from heaven. He will change our weak bodies to be like His own glorious body.... "The sufferings we have now are nothing compared to the great glory that will be shown to us. Everything God made is waiting with excitement for God to show his children's glory completely. Everything God made was changed to become useless, not by its own wish but because God wanted it and because all along there was this hope: that everything God made would be set free from ruin to have the freedom and glory that belong to God's children." (Romans 8.18-21 NCV) This is a hope which carries us far beyond the Preacher's perspective of meaningless and transitory human life.