The Bible’s Honest Take on Futility

“I wish I had known then what I know now, that when you get to the top there’s nothing there.”
Harry Patterson, a.k.a. “Jack Higgins,” best-selling author and novelist. His breakthrough novel The Eagle Has Landed (1975) sold over 50 million copies; his 83 novels in total have sold over 150 million copies and have been translated into 55 languages.

Recently, my wife and I were placing a book order through our son’s elementary school and I wondered aloud just how long Scholastic Book Service had been in business, as I could well remember placing my own orders for posters, books, flash cards and educational games when I had been his age…45 years ago! (As it turns out, Scholastic Corp. was founded in 1920 and had 2012 revenues of well over $2 billion.)

One of those long-ago SBS book orders stands out in Mayer family memory. At some point in the 4th grade, I asked my mother to buy a small poster with a sunset graphic on it and the simple question: “Will it matter that I was?” That poster hung in my bedroom for a few years and (I have to think) freaked out my parents more than just a little. The memory came back to me so vividly simply because our second-grader has more or less begun asking the deeper existential questions of life himself. And I have to wonder if I will perhaps, by God’s grace, do a better job of helping him see that, yes, a life lived apart from God and His purposes is indeed futile.

Perhaps back in the late 1960’s I would not have had “ears to hear,” as Jesus says, but I still sometimes wonder how – if at all – the 20-years-downward trajectory of my life might have been changed by an earlier exposure to the book of Ecclesiastes. In short, I think it could perhaps have been quite eye-opening to see that God, through the inspiration of King Solomon, had affirmed long ago that a life spent in pursuit of the pleasures the world has to offer is absolutely meaningless:

Solomon and The Queen of Sheba

“Solomon and The Queen of Sheba” by Giovanni De Min (1789–1859).

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new?”
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.

I like to think of Ecclesiastes as “the addict’s book in the Bible” as it has been my experience that almost all addicts have a heightened sense of their own mortality and the ultimate meaninglessness of their efforts “under the sun.” Ecclesiastes speaks directly to this sense of futility. After all, if King Solomon – the wisest and most prosperous man who ever lived – found life to be filled with futility, what hope is there for you and I? Sure, go ahead and build the very finest house in the world…just know as you do so that it will one day be lived in by someone you do not know.

As a friend, spouse or parent, we Christians probably ought to do a better job of living out a deeper understanding of the truth Solomon has so eloquently identified in Ecclesiastes. In all the vain pleasure-seeking that goes on in the lives of others – and in our own – there is no eternal purpose. The things that have eternal value are too often the things we short-change. Things like time spent developing and sustaining relationships with real people – as opposed to those hundreds of Facebook “friends” we all have, as just one example.

If we truly believed that much of what we spend our time on this side of heaven is “vanity, all vanity,” perhaps we could find more valuable ways to spend our lives. Rather than give ourselves over to vain pleasure-seeking, perhaps we could relent for a season and ask God to make better use of our lives in love and service to others. It has been my experience that God absolutely loves to answer prayers such as this, but it took at least a few years of sobriety for my head to clear sufficiently to hear rightly the words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

“Will it matter that I was?” Strange that the answer to that question was 30 or more years in coming, but thanks be to God that the answer has indeed come. “Yes,” says the Lord Jesus. “You matter to me, and your life has meaning beyond the grave. Work out your salvation now, and in the age to come.”

Proverbs 13:12 (emphasis mine)
Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.

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