3. The Meaning of Life Series: Life in the Fast Lane - Milo Wilson (Ecclesiastes 2:17-26) THE MEANING OF LIFE SERIES

Life in the Fast Lane

The Meaning of Life Series
  • What happens when we seek ultimate meaning outside of relationship with the Creator God? What happens when we're desperate for the answers to life but can't seem to find any? What happens when our souls get wearied from the constant pursuit of pleasure and possessions? These are enormous questions of life and meaning that Ecclesiastes grapples with in the timeless complexity and messiness of reality. In the end, the ancient philosopher recalibrates our hearts, minds, and lives to pursue meaning in the Ultimate God because God alone holds the key to the meaning of life.
3. Life in the Fast Lane (Ecclesiastes 2:17-26)
  • Can we find meaning in life through a day’s work?
Sermon Preparation Guide
  • Importance – What are the central ideas of the text?
  • Meaning in life does not come from work. (Ecclesiastes 2:17)
  • Any meaning in life from work is defeated by the reality of death. (Ecclesiastes 2:21-23)
  • The answer to this conundrum may be to live with a fatalistic view, or it is at least that God does provide good things to enjoy and because of His goodness in this way, they can be enjoyed and in that is meaning enough for life. (Ecclesiastes 2:24 & 25)
  • Implications – What questions should the listener be asking?
  • What is your work and are you seeking for meaning in life from your work?
  • What is the implication that death faces all of us with regard to the living of life and the doing of work?
  • What is the view you should take with regard to your work and your life? Fatalism? Or gifts from God?
Talk it Over Discussion Guide
  • Interpretation – What is the text telling/showing us?
  • Why did the Preacher try to find meaning in work?
  • What happens to the accumulating of things from one's work when the time of death comes?
  • What is it that worries the Preacher about leaving what he has worked for to the next generation (his heir or heirs)? Why is this a worry?
  • Why is there no ultimate meaning in life in mere work?
  • What are the results of work according to the Preacher?
  • What does the Preacher propose as a “solution” to the meaninglessness of work?
  • What does the Preacher mean when he writes that enjoyment in food, drink and work is “from the hand of God?”
  • Why does the “sinner” find that “the business of gathering and collecting” is vanity?
  • Implementation – What should the listener’s response be?
  • What is good about finding pleasure in work? What is the wrong attitude about work? 
  • What is the point in accumulating things as a result of your work?  Does that give you purpose? 
  • Why is there no purpose for work whose sole end is the accumulation of possessions and wealth? 
  • Can people who do not have a relationship with God find meaning in work for the sake of work? 
  • What is your attitude towards your work?  Do you find enjoyment in your work?  If not, why not?
  • What does God have to say about work and your work? 
  • How can you find meaning in your work?  What, if any, changes might you have to make in your work or your approach to and attitude about work in order to find meaning?  What will you do about that?  
Sermon Teaching Notes (as prepared by Pastor Dick Murphy)
  • Investigation – What’s generally going on in this area of Scripture?
In chapter two, verses 1-16, we saw the Preacher’s review of his search for meaning as he looked at pleasure and then wisdom, madness and folly. He found that those things led to meaninglessness, not meaning. His answer to the meaning of life must lie in a different direction; but where? How about work … is the meaning of life to be found in one’s work? If one just works hard, that will provide satisfaction and purpose. So the Preacher looks at work, and verse 18 doesn’t pull any punches: “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun …” (Ecclesiastes 2:18). This does not mean that there cannot be any satisfaction in work; but rather it means that there is not ultimate satisfaction in work. Work is work, intimates the Preacher, and it gets you nowhere in the end. In fact, when you’re gone, all that your work has gotten you is an accumulation of the stuff of life – goods, wealth, material things, possessions – and these stay on the earth and pass on to your heir, and who knows whether that heir is wise or is a fool and what will happen to your accumulation. (Ecclesiastes 2:18 & 19) Was the Preacher, namely Solomon, thinking here about his heir, his son, Rehoboam, and wondering what would happen to the kingdom when it went to Rehoboam as his successor to the throne? History says Solomon had good reason to worry as Rehoboam was not a worthy successor, and followed folly rather than wisdom (I Kings 12:1-15) as a result of which the kingdom was divided (I Kings 12:16 et seq.).

So work doesn't provide meaning; you do your work, and then you die. This leads not to a life of meaning, but to one of despair (Ecclesiastes 2:20). Thus, even if there seems to be some meaning in work, such as it produced something or made you feel good, that perceived meaning is blown away by the reality of the end by death (Cf. Luke 12:13-21 in which Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool who built bigger barns only to die suddenly.) Moreover, even during life, what one's work does provide is anything but meaning, says the Preacher. First, there is the frustration, noted above, that someone who comes later, and who may or may not be worthy and who didn't earn the rewards of another's earthly toil, will nevertheless reap the rewards.(Ecclesiastes 2:21) There is also the anxiety that derives from the constant striving and driving to achieve the results of one's work (Ecclesiastes 2:22). There is pain, grief and sorrow in the activities of one's work. And there is worry over one's work, even at night when one is not actually working and should be sleeping (Ecclesiastes 2:22 & 23). What should have come from work, namely meaning and purpose, does not come; instead what comes is meaninglessness.

So what is one to do? The Preacher essentially sets out what would be seen as a fatalistic approach, that we should just accept what is, enjoy life and “make the best of a bad situation.” (Ecclesiastes 2:24) Or, in the words of a pop song from some years ago by Bobby McFerrin, “Don't worry; be happy!” The Preacher puts it this way, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil.” This approach would represent not a contentment based on meaning, but instead based on the view that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable, and one should submit to that and passively resign oneself to and accept the “inevitable.” This approach says, “I have no control of anything anyway, so just live life to the fullest.” This approach represents the totally human perspective that excludes God. And this approach can be viewed as coming from God (Ecclesiastes 2:24b), though not the God we know, the God with whom we can have a personal relationship, the God who loves us and wants the best for us. Rather, this approach is moreso a “secular” view of God (as in “the gods”) as the force that controls things, the one who has made things as they are and things that can be enjoyed. So, following this view, work (among other things) is God's gift, so enjoy your life and work; take pleasure in it because it's from this God (Ecclesiastes 2:25). But guess what, there is still meaninglessness because this God who controls everything gives good things to some, and even gives success and possessions to those who are evil (“the sinner” Ecclesiastes 2:26). But with the latter, this God takes what they have from them and gives it to the non-sinner. What enjoyment is there in that as in the end, because everyone will die anyway as the Preacher already noted. So in the end, “[t]his also is vanity and a striving after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 2:26b)

Because we know that Solomon is Jewish, was raised in the Jewish religion, that his father, David, was a man after God's heart, and that Solomon began his reign as king fully submitted to the God of Israel and following His way (I Kings 3:7-15; 8:14-61; 9:3-9), it is quite possible that the foregoing fatalistic view was not what Solomon concluded, as opposed to merely setting it forth as the only approach for the person outside of God short of despair. Instead, in verses 24-26, Solomon may be providing a hint of the conclusion he will reach at the end of his book, namely, that God is part of life, and that approaching life from God's perspective is the way to meaning in life. Thus, these verses say that the One true God has given life to everyone, and that He has made things for His human creations to enjoy, so we should enjoy what God has given! Eat the good food and drink the good drink He has given us; work and find satisfaction in the work itself, in the completion of a job, in the creativity of the work, in the joy of simply working hard to the end of the day. The meaning is thus found in the true God who gives the meaning to these things, and it is the wise one who enjoys these things simply because they are from God Himself given for enjoyment. The sinner, on the other hand, will not find joy and satisfaction as he or she is merely engaging in the “business of gathering and collecting” (Ecclesiastes 2:26) and will lose even that. The sinner, therefore finds only “vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:26b) in such business.

So the conclusion is that there is no meaning in work, and the great mind of the Preacher-King, when applied to the question of meaning in life, has come up empty yet again. But in an attempt to salvage at least something from the search, the Preacher has pointed to a life of enjoyment for enjoyment's sake, possible as nothing else than a fatalistic antidote to despair, where life ends at death, but the impersonal, controlling God at least let's us have a life, so live it out as best you can. What an empty conclusion, however, as it seems simply to underscore the outcome of life as meaningless and leading to despair. A “new wisdom” from the outside is still needed, a wisdom that gives a new orientation to life and provides meaning. What is this “new wisdom?” Where does it come from? The Preacher's seems to say that the answer is not fatalism, but is found in the God who is the giver of good things. As the search goes on, then, will the Preacher find that the latter perspective is correct, notwithstanding that so much in life appears meaningless? The subsequent chapters will show us his answer.