Long after the writing of Ecclesiastes we have returned to the conclusions that the Teacher in Ecclesiastes could articulate as he speaks with the voice of the covenant breaker. Remember, in the voice of the covenant breaker the conclusion is “meaninglessness of meaninglessness, a mere chasing of the wind.”
Already, as he has spoken with the voice of the covenant breaker, we have seen him come to that conclusion of meaninglessness as he has examined several areas of life where he sought to find meaning independent of God.
But as man refuses to bow to God, man returns to the Teacher’s search and so we have found that to be the case in the 20th century and today. In the 20th century a Philosophy arose which organized the Teacher’s covenant breaking voice of despair into a school of thought called “existentialism.”
The heart of existentialism is that existence precedes essence, which is to say these philosopher’s taught that man has no inherent nature or meaning in and of himself and consequently man was responsible himself to create his own nature and his own meaning.
Now we can’t go into great detail here explaining 20th century existentialism but I did want to use the introduction to expose you to this idea since it is still with us today in many respects and since existentialism tracks so well with the Teacher’s work in Ecclesiastes.
Jean Paul Sartre, one of the chief existentialists of the 20th century did us the favor of explaining the motto of the existentialists, “existence precedes essence” by writing,
“What is meant here by saying the existence precedes essence? It means that, first of all, man exists, turns up, appears on the scene, and, only afterwards, defines himself. If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, he himself, will have made what he will be. Thus, there is no human nature, since there is no God to conceive it. Not only is man what he conceives himself to be, but he is also only what he wills himself to be after this thrust towards existence.” Sartre
You see … man has not inherent meaning because there is no God. As such man must make up his own meaning in life but as the Teacher in Ecclesiastes told us thousands of years ago that apart from God all is meaningless, a mere chasing of the wind.
Elsewhere Jean Paul Sartre could write on this score,
“Man is nothing else but what he makes of himself. Such is the first principle of existentialism.” Jean Paul Sartre
If man has no inherent nature, then man has no inherent meaning until he first gives himself that meaning. (And, naturally if man is giving himself meaning then the meaning is not inherent.) And of course that meaning is entirely subjective since there is no personal objective Transcendent point of reference in order to be informed or guided by.
Please understand how relevant all this is for today. All this explains where we are at. If man has no inherent nature and so no inherent meaning, then man is himself what is called a “social construct.” If there is no personal objective Transcendent point of reference then man can say things like …“sexuality is a social construct. Male and Female are artificially contrived categories that can be blended or added to. Objectively speaking, there is no such thing as Male or Female. They can be what we want them and make them to be.” Or, similarly, “Family is what we make it to be. Family can be defined anyway we want it to be,” and so we come up with all kinds of non Biblical families of two Mommies or two Daddies and who knows what else.
And so man, apart from and in denial of God, seeks to be God by giving himself and everything around him meaning. But as we learn in Ecclesiastes there is never any satisfaction. Again, and again we learn that all this attempt to make and find meaning is a chasing of the wind.
Albert Camus, another Existentialist philosopher and popularizer, said something very similar to the task of finding meaning apart from and in denial of God,
“At the point where it is no longer possible to say what is black and what is white, the light is extinguished and freedom becomes a voluntary prison.” Albert Camus
The point of union then between Ecclesiastes, as the Teacher speaks in the Covenant Breaker voice, and Existentialism is, in the words of Sartre,
“Existentialism is nothing else than an attempt to draw all the consequences of a coherent atheistic position.” Sartre
And this is what the Teacher has been doing in Ecclesiastes. When he speaks in his covenant breaking voice, He has been drawing all the consequences of a coherent atheistic position, and finding that coherent atheistic position to be meaninglessness. The only coherence one can find in life apart from and in denial of God is incoherence.
The existentialists admitted that they were looking for meaning. Another of their tribe, Albert Camus could say,
“The world itself, whose single meaning I do not understand, is but a vast irrational. If one could only say just once; ‘this is clear,’ all would be saved.” Albert Camus
But for the modern existentialist nobody could stride forth to say, “this is clear,” and so for the modern existentialist like the Teacher in Ecclesiastes nothing is clear because all is meaningless.
Well, we can understand why Sartre could say, perhaps in frustration,
“Man is a useless passion.” Sartre
For without God, man is indeed a useless passion.
As we continue with Ecclesiastes this morning we see the Teacher turning to observe life apart from God.
The Teacher, viewing social order issues through the lens of the covenant breaker, makes some observations regarding oppression.
I.) The End Of All Social Order Arrangements Apart From God — Oppressor & Oppressed
4 Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. 2 And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. 3 But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.
Now of course, if man is left to making his own meaning then in affairs having to do with civilization inevitably what one will get is oppressors and the oppressed. If man is left to create his own meaning in terms of justice then all social orders will ultimately reduce down to these two categories of oppressed and oppressor. And, I would say that it is likewise inevitable that, just as in much of existentialism philosophy you hear a note of despair in the voice of the Teacher, again speaking as in the voice of the covenant breaker.
Better to be dead or never born then to live as the oppressed or the oppressors in a meaningless social order. If all there was, was life as oppressed or oppressor it would be better to have never existed then to have lived and looked to closely at the Holdomar in the Ukraine, or the Killing Fields in Camboida, or the Gulags built by the Soviets, or the abortuary’s in America. If there were no God, it indeed would be better to have never existed.
Understand though that in a social order where man makes the meaning then there is no standard by which oppression or oppressed can be adjudicated. What this clues us in upon is that even when the Teacher speaks in terms of the covenant breaking voice, he must presuppose God in order to lament the damage that life apart from God brings. In other words if the Teacher was being consistent in speaking in his covenant breaking voice he could not complain about oppressor and oppressed because for the covenant breaker … for the existentialist …. for the post-modern … there are no stable categories of oppressor and oppressed, because there is no stable meaning for anything. The covenant breaker, the existentialist, the post-modern, even though they may complain, has no absolute standard upon which to base their complaint.
This reminds us that the way that social orders are organized, or the way that we do politics or economics can not bring us satisfaction if we are operating as covenant breakers. Men who will not submit to God in Christ may build all kinds of different social orders (Democratic, Republican, Monarchy, Socialist, Communist, Anarchist, etc.) but all any of them will bring eventually will be the oppressed and the oppressors. This is true of our social order today here in this nation. Over 50 million unborn children cry out as the oppressed and we the oppressors can find no comfort. Social Orders in and of themselves and by themselves can not bring salvation. They are inert arrangements. Only God in Christ can save men who then will incarnate that renewal into their social orders.
No, the solution to man’s covenant breaking problem can not be found finally in building Utopias. Indeed, man’s very problem is the attempt to build social order Utopias … Utopias that only lead to Dystopias. Man’s problem is that he is dead in his sin and has needs to turn to the Lord Christ who alone has provided a salvation upon which redeemed men can build social orders which reflect justice, do mercy and reinforce in a people to walk humbly with their God. Only in Christ Jesus can meaningful meaning be restored as men bow to the one who is God’s Meaning (the Word) and legislates by His transcendent objective Word.
In vs. 4-6 the Teacher is still exploring the matter of where the good life might be found. Clearly, it is not found in social orders apart from God because they only yield oppressors and the oppressed. And so he probes the issue of work once again.
II.) The End of all Labor Apart From God
The Teacher seems to divide the idea of the worker into three categories
First he speaks of those who diligently labor (vs. 4) and then he speaks of the one who doesn’t diligently labor (vs. 5) and so he seems to be pointing us to the idea that one is damned if he does work because of envy and one is damned if he doesn’t work because of Laziness. In vs. 6, the theme of work is continued as the Preacher deals with the person who works but can never find contentment. So, in 4-6 he deals with the issue of labor, but it could be that he is looking at labor in the context of social order still.
Michael Kelley offers here,
“All of these qualities (envy, laziness, discontentment) are meant to stress that man’s goal of community (what we are calling “social order,”) without God is bound to fall apart, for nothing can eradicate the crookedness in the nature of man himself.”
You have these categories of oppressed and oppressor that he has brought up and then he turns to the issue of envy as it relates to labor. Well, obviously, envy is one means by which oppression is achieved and by which people are oppressed in crooked social orders.
Hence, here you have this social order of oppressed and oppressor where there is the oppression of envy against the one who works.
Well, the alternative to work is not working but that is the laziness of the fool. And then the Teacher deals with the issue of discontentment.
I’m going to take up the issue of Laziness first because I want to give the issue of envy more time next week, since envy is presently such a great destroyer of men.
This problem of Laziness is a theme that is taken up throughout the Scripture,
Proverbs 6:10 A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
11 and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man.
Proverbs 24:33 A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest,
34 and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
and want like an armed man.
II Thessalonians 3:10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat.
I Timothy 5:8 But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.
Clearly the expectation in Scripture for the covenant keeper is to work.