Have you ever wondered if you life matters? Have you wrestled with dark, sad thoughts, thinking that you are not important? If so, you’re not alone. Just about everyone has battled those kinds of thoughts at least some time in their lives.
What can be confusing is that there is a book of the Bible that seems to say very boldly that life is meaningless.
In the previous post, I mentioned that some people through the centuries have considered the book of Ecclesiastes to be so depressing and hopeless that it shouldn’t be in the Bible. Ecclesiastes did, however, make it in Bible, but hopelessness is not the message the Teacher is trying to convey. When we read in Ecclesiastes 1 verse 2 that life is meaningless (as the New International Version translates it), it sure sounds like the Teacher is describing a life that has no meaning. A meaningless life is one that could be understood as futile or worthless, a cruel joke that God has played on people. But that is not what the Teacher is saying. In fact, the word “Meaningless” is a bad translation of the word the Teacher uses here. Some translations use the word, “vanity.” Is that any better? “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” All is vain? Is the Teacher talking about vanity like a person who likes to look at themselves too much in the mirror? Is the Teacher talking about people who are too self-focused?
No. We know this because in the word used here is the same word that is translated “breath.” I was super-excited this past week because the temperatures in the morning, at least for a few days, were a bit cooler here in the northeast USA. I’m ready for the humidity and heat of summer to make way for fall because I go running in the mornings, and this summer has been hot! So one morning this past week, it was actually cool enough that I could see my breath. Just for a brief split-second. Then it was gone. Which is exactly what the Teacher is trying to say here.
We could translate this phrase I verse 2 as “Breath, breath, all is breath!” Even in the cold of winter, when our 98.6 degree breath comes out of our lungs, hits the freezing cold air, and crystallizes in a small cloud of air, what happens? It dissipates really fast, right? Maybe it lasts a few seconds. But that’s it. What are some words we used to describe that? Not meaningless. Not vanity. The breath still served a purpose and was important and meaningful.
A much better word to use to translate Ecclesiastes verse 2 is “fleeting.”
“Fleeting, fleeting, all of life is fleeting.” That’s what the teacher says.
What does “fleeting” refer to? How is that different from meaningless? It’s very different, and it gets to the important truth that the Teacher wants us to understand as central to the argument he will make over the course of the book of Ecclesiastes.
Like breath, life is fleeting. And that’s exactly what the Teacher describes in verse 3. It is also where we can see how this is some truth-telling that we might not want to hear. Read verse 3. This is a tough question to answer: In the end, when we die, what do we have to show for it?
See what I mean about Ecclesiastes starting off in-your-face? But we need to think about this. Life is fleeting. We’re born, we live, we die, and what do we have to show for it? How would you answer that question?
Do we need to be people who make a name for ourselves? Do we need to be William Shakespeares, Albert Einsteins, Apostle Pauls, Mother Theresas, or Martin Luther King Juniors to consider our lives meaningful? Do we need to be people that will be known for a long, long time?
Some people might think about the small business they’ve gotten off the ground. Hoping it will last beyond them, and not just shut down when they are gone. That has been front and center during Covid, as some small businesses haven’t made it. Imagine feeling the anguish of investing decades of your life into something and now it is gone. How do you handle that?
Maybe by taking solace in the investment that we make in other people? It is often hard to quantify, but we do impact our children, our family, our friends. Our lives are fleeting, but they are not meaningless. Our lives are fleeting, but they are still important.