To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.
Throughout the month of August, we’re looking at Ecclesiastes, that strange and seemingly “modern” Old Testament book that depicts what happens when humanity searches for ultimate meaning apart from God.
It’s a wonderful thing to live under the sun.
Some of us may be reluctant to affirm that statement in the midst of a sweltering summer, especially after Phoenix just experienced a record 31 consecutive days of at least 110 degrees.
But life would simply be a non-starter on our planet without the sun’s steady source of radiant power just 93 million miles away.
The sunlight that warms our skin, stirs our atmosphere, and allows plants to make apples, watermelons, and (ultimately) State Fair pork tenderloins, is actually a stream of photons – by-products of the nuclear fusion that is happening deep within the sun’s core.
It’s worth pausing every now and then to remember that 400 million tons of hydrogen are consumed every second within the sun’s nuclear furnace. Since it appears there’s plenty of fuel on hand, we can anticipate beautiful sunrises and sunsets on the Earth for at least a few more billion years.
Each ray of sunlight that streams through our windows has been on quite a journey.
It takes about eight minutes and 20 seconds for a single photon, traveling at the speed of light, to zing from the sun to the surface of the earth. That means that every glimpse we’ve ever had of the sun is actually what the sun looked like eight minutes earlier.
But that’s nothing. Scientists estimate that from the time it is “born” in the heart of the sun, it may take a photon one million years to battle its way to the sun’s surface before it begins its brief eight-minute sprint to start melting the ice cream in your cone.
It is indeed a wonderful thing to live under the illuminating, warming, life-sustaining power of the sun.
But when the author of Ecclesiastes talks about living “under the sun” – a phrase which he uses 29 times in just 12 chapters – he has something else in mind. And it turns out to be the key to understanding the core message of this one-of-a-kind book.
Going back to his startling opening words in chapter one, verse two (bypassing for now the mystery of the author’s identity as revealed in verse one), we read: “’Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’”
“Meaningless” represents the Hebrew word hebel, which appears 86 times in the Old Testament. Scholars have struggled to agree on a good one-word English translation. If you grew up reading the King James Version, you might remember Ecclesiastes 1:2 as “Vanity of vanities, everything is vanity.” Other translations opt for “useless,” “smoke,” “mist,” or “mere breath.”
What do we mean by hebel? It is something that doesn’t last, or that doesn’t produce its intended result. It’s here today, gone tomorrow.
Hebel is something you can’t count on.
And that brings us to the very next verse, where we read the author’s exasperated protest: “What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?”
Here the author isn’t making a comment about the physical challenges of plowing, harvesting, and bricklaying under the intense Palestinian sunshine, even though almost every task in the ancient Near East took place outdoors, and none of them were easy.
“Under the sun” is shorthand for this world – the visible world that is all around us, the one that we can access by means of our five senses. The writer of Ecclesiastes is going to make the case that if we look for the meaning of life in this world only, we will never find it.
If the quest for life’s meaning is like solving a jigsaw puzzle, then some of the pieces seem to be missing. And we don’t have the picture on the box to guide us, even though every religion worth its salt is shouting, “Here it is! This is what you’re looking for.” Ecclesiastes says that all of our eating, drinking, sleeping, working, loving, fighting, and hoping takes place under the sun – in this world and this world alone.
And if all our answers for life’s biggest questions come from this world alone, they will turn out to be hebel. They will be meaningless, short-of-the-mark, and as insubstantial as a summer morning fog.
That may seem like an esoteric philosophical point that doesn’t have a whole lot to do with what you’re going to have for lunch.
But how your life turns out inevitably depends on where you choose to start – the so-called “first principles” that you choose to believe.
The American journalist and satirist H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) mocked people who fell for religious answers. He was fully content with atheism as a bedrock assumption. But his quest for a deeply satisfying this-world-only life came up empty. “The basic fact about human experience is not that it is a tragedy, but that it is a bore. It is not that it is predominantly painful, but that it is lacking in any sense.”
The author of Ecclesiastes would not have been surprised. He himself enthusiastically pursued the search for meaning under the sun, and also came up empty.
Spoiler alert: The outcome of all his efforts, and thus the very heart of this book, can be summarized in six words:
Outside of God, Everything is Meaningless
And what about us?
We can thank God that the sun will once again appear at tomorrow’s sunrise – and that “beyond the sun” there is indeed true Meaning waiting to be found.
To listen to this reflection as a podcast, click here.