The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
These are not the most encouraging words in scripture. They form the first two verses of a book which is dedicated to exploring the meaninglessness of virtually everything: Ecclesiastes.
A few months ago I wrote about how we are free under God to be angry and ask the question “Why?” Certainly the Psalmists did. Time and time again they say things that today we would be fairly uncomfortable saying.
Psalm 83:1 says, “O God, do not remain silent; do not turn a deaf ear, do not stand aloof, O God.”
Honestly, I don’t think I could say that. It would feel like I was denying the very nature of God. And yet here, inspired writers write words that are real, even if we know they aren’t always neat and tidy theologically.
Which brings me to Ecclesiastes.
Many have sought to redeem the book and speak of its uplifting note in chapter 12. But on the whole, it can’t be denied that the aspect of “the teacher” is fairly… well… depressed. He looks out at the world and asks, “What is the point of it all?”
Too many of us have bought into a church culture that insists that we must always be positive. We must always be happy. To the point where we feel pressure to pretend to be happy as we meet together on a Sunday just so that we don’t make others feel uncomfortable. The false thinking is that if we aren’t happy and upbeat then we aren’t as spiritual as some others, we’re not as deep in prayer as others, we’re not as strong as others are.
But Christians get depressed too.
Christians can look around them and think, “It’s just so meaningless!” Christians can ask the question, “What’s the point?” Christians can despair of finding meaning in life. And we can be afraid to share these thoughts with others for fear that we will be looked down on. We are afraid to show how we feel. We are afraid that we will never be happy again.
But that’s why God has given us each other. We are called to carry one another’s burdens. So that when one is downcast another can help him up. We shouldn’t be surprised when someone is feeling down, or even depressed, we should expect it. They are a normal part of the Christian life. If some were not burdened by life, why would there be a need for Paul to say, “Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the Law of Christ” (Gal 6:2)? Why would he need to say, “Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” (Rom 12:15)?
What the downcast need is a shoulder to cry on. A person who will listen to their laments and questions, without instantly trying to correct their theology, telling them to “just get over it”, or quoting scripture unhelpfully. They will need reminding of what is true and good but done in such a way as to encourage.
A little bit like the other character in the book of Ecclesiastes. The author of the book, who peeks in at the end to offer a summary. It’s interesting that he does not try to explain away the hard sayings of The Teacher. He doesn’t try to undermine him or correct him.
Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true. (Eccl. 12:9-10)
He affirms that The Teacher is a Godly man who taught truth. But the author also adds a true and clarifying summary that helps give the whole book a more positive outlook:
> Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. (Eccl. 12:13-14)
Even when we are downcast, even when we are depressed, as the author states we have a duty to perform: Fear God and keep his commandments.
And that is far from meaningless.