Doubt everything, find your own light.(1) So recommends the Buddha in his last words. It sounds like good advice, but then the human heart invariably presses on to doubt itself! After all, what kind of assurance can we have that this light is real light or true? The hunger for meaning, the quest for understanding, the search for answers and solutions are central features of the human condition.
For instance, what is the nature of reality? What is existence all about? What is the purpose of life, if any, and what should we try to give answers to? A much-neglected resource for reflection in this area is the book of Ecclesiastes, from the preacher, or Qoheleth in Hebrew. It is a book that speaks profoundly to our times by asking questions, by setting out contradictions, and by forcing the reader to feel what absurdity as an outlook is really like.
As the book opens, we are confronted with its most famous words, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” Or in another translation of Ecclesiastes 1:2: “‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher, ‘Utterly Meaningless! Everything is meaningless.’” Not a very inspiring start! He has devoted himself to explore life, to examine what is good for humanity to do under the sun, and his observations have yielded some depressing results: Everything in life seems to be bound by inevitability. Human freedom appears to be constrained by overwhelming necessities, leading to a sense of helplessness. And the endless cycle of repetition leads to a sense of boredom, pointlessness, and despair.
Many a sage, philosopher, and guru have come to similar conclusions. What is unique to Ecclesiastes is how the author tackles the issues and what he leads us to see. By laying out the vanities of life, the propensities of youth, the all-encompassing reach of death, and the vast urgency of wisdom as a potential life-philosophy, he engages a chaotic world with some serious reflections. The writer takes us on a journey through life, and he deals with the questions and exasperations that we all inevitably encounter. His own desire was to try and figure things out so he could live well and be content, and encourage others to do the same. He likely hoped to discover the key or missing ingredient, the clues to true and lasting success and happiness.
Instead, the world he begins to see is one that displays both good and bad at the same time. He sees the superiority of wisdom, yet even the wise are reduced by death. He sees injustice being done and oppressors prevailing, yet he also notes there is a higher justice. He cites the sayings and actions of wise people but then goes on to point out how quickly they are forgotten! It is the tone that wears on us. We see ambiguity and fuzziness, a mixture of pain and problems, food, friends, wisdom, and a spiritual hunger. These things all dwell in the same world at the same time, and this is a difficult reality for many of us to digest. Like Qoheleth, we want better answers, tidier analysis, more comforting visions—and we have them, but not here, in doubt and darkness.
Qoheleth shows us the futility of life without God. He makes us feel what life is like from an honest look at how things truly are. He gives us a severe picture of reality and suggests that God is still worth seeking somewhere in the midst of it. Even prior to the coming of the Messiah, Qoheleth paints our stark need for the God who is there.
While the world as we know it is indeed disordered and damaged, and to find answers in the world itself is absurd, God does not abandon us to absurdity. Into this world, into its pain and confusion, God, too, became flesh and dwelt among us. And it ended for Jesus as tragically as anything we observe under the sun. He went to the cross with the full force of every ugly, honest reality of Ecclesiastes on his shoulders. And he stood with us in that darkness, giving us an equally severe image of a God worth seeking in the midst of it.
Stuart McAllister is vice president of training and special projects at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Terry Breverton, Immortal Words: History’s Most Memorable Quotations and the Stories Behind Them (London: Quercus Publishing Place, 2009), 13.