The Book begins with a morbid and negative range of ideas which continue throughout the book. The pessimistic motif of the book is quite contrary to the rest of Scripture. To account for the pessimistic pattern isn’t always easy.The antidote to the pessimism is to recognize the positive verses that are scattered throughout the chapters as well as the subjects under discussion by Solomon.
For instance, the observations of life in chapter four can be reversed and taught as warnings concerning the hazards of life. If one prepares for the negatives in life, it must be accompanied by positive approaches mentally and spiritually. Mental and spiritual preparation comes only from an fuller understanding of the rest of Scripture as well as a positive relationship to the God of the Bible. Another is in chapter five where the reader is admonished to “guard your steps when you go the the house of God.” Solomon then gives warnings concerning the approach to the God who is “above the sun” as opposed to the life of one who is constantly “under the sun.”
Verse 2. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanitiy of vanities; all is vanity.” (KJV) Solomon was not alone in his study of wisdom literature. There were other writers in the ancient world who discussed life’s problems that included serious philosophical essays in which they would probe the depths of the same questions that atheists and existentialists do today. It is a strand of literary pessimism in which the authors would raise the question as to whether life was ultimately worth living.
In chapter one, Solomon is not giving a weather report or a scientific discussion of the sciene of evaporation and precipitation. He is addressing the idea of many cultures and religions concerning the ebb and flow of time as being a futile recurrence of the same thing. The Eastern philosophy of reincarnation is probably the prime example of what Solomon is really discussing.
The word “futile” is the most gross obscenity in the human language. A person can take most any kind of disappointment or discouragement as long as there is a ‘light at the end of the tunnel.’ However, if one believes that all of life is nothing more than an exercise in futility, it becomes unbearable and completely vain and meaningless. That is the message that Solomon is addressing and that is what a person faces when approaching life entirely “under the sun”.
Solomon (vs. 12) then gives his credentials and authority for writing the Book. We must remember the great wisdom that was given to Solomon by the Lord; he is well qualified to face the problems of life but admits that he was facing a “heavy burden that God had laid on men!” He had seen “all the things that are done “under the sun” and “all of them are meaningless, a chasing after wind.” (vv 13-14 NIV)
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He admits in verses 15-17 that even his great wisdom is insufficient regarding events and knowledge “under the sun.” In chapter two, he gives his testimony of his experiences of life “under the sun”.
“All if futile”. That is the message of the skeptic, the nihilist. These are words to describe the philosophy of despair. The life of despair is so severe that the only conclusion is that it IS meaningless. There are no values, no purpose for life and human existence that we are at best a kind of cosmic joke. If that is all we have, then life, truly, if vain.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), the German philosopher and poet, is one of the ‘fathers’ of modern nihilism. He examined life and came to the conclusion that God is dead and that the end of life is nothingness, the ‘nihil’. The same sentiment is taught again and again in schools and universities in our day. Our children are flooded by the philosophy of the absurdity of life. Philosophy begins with a contemporary novel or book; the motion picture industry promotes it and ultimately it filters down to teaching in grade schools and mingles into the lives of our children.
His French contemporary, Albert Camus, made the comment that the only serious question that is left for philosophers today is the question of suicide (written about by the ancient Egyptians). Much of these attitudes came into out country as a result of reaction to the revelation of the holocaust of WWII where as many as 8,000 people (mostly Jews) were killed every day. When many Nazis escaped punishment, the pessimism became even more ingrained the populations of the world. There is much more that could be said regarding the development of the philosophy of despair and the doctrine of reincarnation,but the reader can study that on his own.
One more thought on Nietzsche’s philosophy of nihilism. When he declared that God is dead, the world rejoiced that they no longer had to be accountable to a “dead” God. The problem was that some of the existentialists looked at that and then looked at the other side of the coin. Their determination was that: “If I am no longer accountable, that means that I am also no longer of any account.” If God is dead, there is no standard of good and evil, right or wrong and the philosophy of nihilism is magnified and life truly becomes “meaningless” and “futile” “under the sun”. The existentialist and philosophers have nowhere to go and nothing to offer.
Such lack of meaning can explain the chaos that exists in societies throughout the world today. However, Solomon goes on to examine life “above the sun” and continually brings the God of the universe back into the picture. He is not dead, but alive and working in the hearts of men and women around the world. His book is summarized in chapter twelve where he begins with “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth . . .”