“Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless!” (Eccl 1:1).
While such a refrain about how everything is meaningless might be typical for many grad students, it doesn’t sound particularly Christian. It’s definitely not what you expect from a preacher or religious teacher.
When we looked at this text during our study, several people told me that they’d heard sermons or teachings on this text where the text has been cleaned up so what is written in Ecclesiastes 1 (and the rest of Ecclesiastes, I presume) is considered to be the words of someone describing what life looks like without God. Once the writer came to know God, the situation changed completely: in the same vain, once we come into the fullness of life in Christ, these words no longer apply to us.
The problem with this teaching is that it is not what the text says. The text clearly is written by someone who is part of the congregation/assembly, often translated as the preacher or teacher (Goldingay translates the writer as ‘churchman’). From his/her position in the assembly, the person speaks these words and gives no no indication that these words do not describe his (her?) current perspective on life, despite these words being not the sort of thing that we usually hear in church.
The words spoken in Ecclesiastes 1 seem to be of a person who is weary, hopeless, depressed, dull, and disillusioned. Perhaps there is even some anger that things are not better? It is a bit disconcerting, as these words seem so far from hope, faith, love, joy, peace – all the nice Christian words – we often use to talk about life.
Considering the life of a grad or professional student – too many tests, multiple assignments/tasks without a clear purpose, multitudes of paperwork, uncertainty about grants and future jobs, the phase of dissertation (and/or research) and more – these words in Ecclesiastes provide a very fitting description of what life feels like right now. There is something deeply comforting in hearing someone from within the church speak not simply of joy and peace or even the good of the “calling of being a student,” but also of the hardness of being a student, following Christ (and taking up one’s cross). Too often life feels like it is full of vanity and too much that is meaningless.
We are going through the book of Ecclesiastes on Monday evenings at Campus Edge – we’d love to have you join us for the discussion!