The Philosopher’s Words
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” said the Philosopher, “Life is meaningless. There’s no point to anything!”
You spend your life working hard under the sun, and what do you get? One generation dies, and another generation comes along, but the world doesn’t really change. The sun rises, and the sun sets, and then goes back to where it started from. The wind blows south, and the wind blows north, around and around and back to the start again. All the rivers run into the sea; yet the sea is not full – the water just returns to where the river comes from, and starts all over again. Everything is wearisome – its all too much for words! Our eyes can never see enough to be satisfied, our ears have never heard enough. Everything that has happened will happen again. Everything which has already been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun. Someone may say, ‘See, this is new!’, but it has all been done before. People don’t remember what went on in the past – neither shall anyone remember what we do today or tomorrow.
The Philosopher’s Experience
I, the Philosopher, was king of this land. I was determined to investigate everything that happens in this world and to get some answers. God has given us a miserable existence. I have seen everything that people do under the sun – and everything we do is as meaningless as chasing the wind.
- You can’t set straight anything that’s crooked, and you can’t count things that aren’t there!
I said to myself, “Look! I have become a great man. I have more wisdom than any of the kings who came before me. I have had great experience of wisdom and knowledge. I have dedicated myself to learning the difference between wisdom and madness and foolishness!”, but even this is just like chasing the wind!
With great wisdom comes so much grief – a man of understanding is a man full of sorrow.
I said to myself, ‘Come on! I’m going to enjoy myself, and find happiness in pleasure’. But I found out that this, too, was meaningless. I discovered that laughter is just madness; and pleasure – what good does it do? So I tried to cheer myself up with wine. I figured that the wisest thing I could do was just have a good time. I thought that this was the best way that the sons of men could live their lives.
I did great things, building myself houses, planting vineyards, making gardens and orchards. I planted all kinds of fruit trees in them and I dug ponds to irrigate them. I got myself servants, and there were more servants born in my household. I owned more cattle than anyone who lived in this country before me. I acquired silver and gold and all kinds of treasures from the lands that I ruled. I had men and women sing for me, and all kinds of musicians play for me. I was a great man indeed, greater than anyone in who lived in this country before me, and my wisdom never let me down.
Whatever I wanted, I got. I didn’t hold back from enjoying myself. I was pleased with the things I had worked for, and this was my reward. I looked at everything that I’d done, at all the work I had put in, and saw that it was all just as meaningless as chasing the wind. There just isn’t anything to be gained under the sun.
I realized that even a king can’t do anything that other kings haven’t done before.
The Benefits of Wisdom
So I thought again about what it means to be wise or mad or foolish, and I realized that it is better to be wise than foolish, just as light is preferable to darkness. Wise men can at least see where they are going, but the foolish live in darkness.
I also saw that there is one thing that happens to all men, whether foolish or wise. I said to myself, ‘I will share the fate of the fool, so what have I gained by being wise?’, I said to myself, ‘This, too, is meaningless’. No one remembers a wise man, no one remembers a fool. In the days to come, both will be forgotten. Every one of us will die, both wise and fool alike.
Therefore I hated life – everything that we do under the sun brings me grief and frustration. Indeed, I hated all the hard work which I had put in under the sun – it would all just be left to someone else when I die. Who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Either way, he’ll own everything that I have worked so hard for, everything that showed that I was wise. This, too, is meaningless. Because of this, I regretted the work I’d put in under the sun. One man works wisely, with knowledge and skill – then someone who hasn’t worked for it comes along and takes it over. This is both meaningless and very wrong. You work and you worry, but what do you have to show for it under the sun? All a man’s life is heartache, and all his work is misery. Even at night your mind can’t rest. It’s all useless.
The best a man can do is eat and drink, and enjoy what you’ve worked for. This, too, comes from the hand of God.
How else could you eat or enjoy yourself at all? God gives wisdom and knowledge and happiness to those who please him, but to those who displease him he gives toil and strife. All that they get will be given to to those that please him. This, too, is as meaningless as chasing the wind.
Everything has its proper time, a time chosen by God. There is:
- A time to be born, and a time to die,
- A time to plant, and a time to pull up,
- A time to kill, and a time to heal,
- A time to break down, and a time to build up,
- A time to weep, and a time to laugh,
- A time to mourn, and a time to dance,
- A time to make love, and a time not to make love,
- A time to kiss, and a time to refrain from kissing
- A time to get, and a time to lose;
- A time to keep, and a time to throw away;
- A time to tear, and a time to mend;
- A time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
- A time to love, and a time to hate;
- A time of war, and a time of peace.
What Do We Gain?
What do we gain from all our work? I have seen the burdens that God has laid on us. He set the right time for everything. He has also given us a desire to understand the world, even though nobody can fully understand all of Gods ways. So all we can do is to be happy, and do good whilst we are alive. Everyone should eat and drink and enjoy what we have worked for. That is God’s gift to us. Whatever God does, I know that it will last forever. No one can add to it or take away from it. God does it so that we will stand in awe of him. Whatever has happened is happening now. God makes the same things happen again and again.
Injustice in the World
I noticed that under the sun, there is wickedness where justice should be, and wrong-doing where right should be. I said to myself, ‘ God shall judge those who do right, and those who do wrong, because everything has its proper time’. Looking at the way people are, I said to myself ‘God is showing us what we’re like – that we are just like animals. The same fate awaits man and animals alike. One dies just like the other. Both are similar. People are not better off than animals. That’s meaninglessness for you. Both man and animal go to the same place – we’re made of dust, and we’ll return to dust again. How can anyone be sure what happens to a man’s spirit, or an animal’s spirit? I see that there is nothing better for a man than to be happy in what we do, in what we have. There is no way to be sure what will happen after we die.
Then I reviewed all the injustice that is carried out under the sun. The oppressed were weeping, and they had no one to help them. There was no one to support them because the oppressors had power on their side. So I thought that those who are already dead are better off than those who are still living. Still better off are those who haven’t yet been born because they have not yet seen the evil work that is done under the sun. I have also realized why people work so miserably hard – it is because they envy others. This too is meaningless, it is like chasing the wind. They say that a man would be foolish to stop working and to starve himself, but it is better to have little and live peacefully, than to make yourself miserable by chasing the wind.
I saw something else under the sun that is meaningless. A man who lives alone, without anyone to care for, yet who works miserably hard and id never satisfied with what he has. He doesn’t ask himself why he is working so hard, denying himself any benefit. This is so very meaningless. It is very miserable. It is better to have a companion, because there is more benefit to be gained from hard work. If one falls, the other can help him up. If someone is alone when he falls, then he is in trouble, because there will be nobody to help him up. Similarly, when its cold, two can sleep together and stay warm, but how can someone stay warm if he is alone? Two can withstand attack when one alone would fail. A rope made of three cords is not easily broken.
Ruling as a King
It is better to be a poor young man who has wisdom, than an old and foolish king who doesn’t know how to learn from good advise. A king may came out of prison to be king – he may have been born poor even in his own kingdom. I thought about all the people who live under the sun. I saw that somewhere there is a child who will eventually take the King’s place. Today, the king may rule many thousands of people, but they won’t be grateful to him. Surely this also is meaningless, just chasing after the wind.
Conduct Before God
Be careful about going to the temple. Go there to listen and learn, not like the fools who offer sacrifices but who don’t know right from wrong. Don’t be quick to speak, and don’t make hasty promises towards God. After all, God is in heaven, and you live upon earth. So don’t say more than you have to. Just as bad dreams are a sign of a worry, so lots of talk is a sign of foolishness. When you make a promise to God, do what you have said as quickly as you can. God takes no pleasure in fools, so do what you promised. It would be better not to make promises in the first place, than to make a promise to God and not to keep it. Don’t let your mouth get you into trouble so that you have to go to God’s messenger and say that you didn’t mean what you said. Why make God angry with you, so that he destroys what you’ve been working for? No matter how much you dream, no matter how many foolish words you speak, remember to stand in awe of God
Riches and Wealth
Don’t be surprised if you see that the poor are oppressed and that the violent deny them justice. One official is overseen by a higher one; and there are yet other officials over them. The wealth of the earth is for all. Even the king depends upon the fields to feed him. Whoever desires silver can never be satisfied with silver; nor he that desires riches be satisfied by increase. All riches are meaningless. The more you have, the more mouths you must feed. What good are riches, except for looking at? An ordinary working man may or may not have enough to eat, but at least he will sleep well. The rich man, however, has so much that he will stay awake worrying. This is a terrible thing that I have seen in this world – that people who save their wealth to their own harm. Their wealth is lost by misfortune, so that a father has nothing to leave to his children. Just as we enter this world with nothing, we depart with nothing in our hands, having nothing to show for all our hard work. This is a terrible thing, that we go just as we came. What do we gain from working so hard as if trying to catch the wind? None but to live our lives in darkness and misery and sickness. It is good to eat and drink and to enjoy the benefits of the work you do under the sun all the days of your life. This is God’s gift. If God gives a man wealth and property, he should enjoy it, because it is God’s gift. He won’t think about how short life is, because God has allowed him to be happy.
Here is a terrible thing which I have seen under the sun, and it is heavy on men: God may give someone riches, wealth, and honor, so that he has everything that he wants, but then will not let him enjoy it. Some stranger will enjoy it instead. This is meaningless, and this is wrong. If a man has a hundred children, and lives a long time, but he isn’t happy and he doesn’t get a decent burial, then I think that a baby born dead is better off than him. The baby’s birth is meaningless, and it departs into darkness where it is remembered no more. It never sees the sun, it never knows what the sun is like. The still-born will know rest that the man who never enjoys life does not know, even if he were to live two thousand years. After all, both will end up in the same place.
A man works just to get something to eat, but he is never satisfied. What advantage has the wise man over the fool? What advantage has the poor man who knows how to face life? It is better to be satisfied with what you have than to want something that you don’t have. Everything else is just meaningless, it is chasing after the wind.
Everything that happens has already been known long ago. A man’s nature is already known. He cannot fight with one stronger than himself. The longer you argue, the more meaninglessness it is. What do you stand to gain? How can anyone know what is best for a man as he lives his meaningless life – a life that passes like a shadow? Who can tell what will happen under the sun after he dies?
Some Thoughts About Life
- A good reputation is better than expensive perfume.
- The day you die is better than the day you are born.
- It is better to go to the home where there is mourning than to the home where there is a party, because death is waiting for all of us, and that is something that the living should realize. Sorrow is better than laughter – you may look miserable, but it sharpens your understanding. A wise person thinks about death, whereas foolish people are always about enjoying themselves.
- It is better to be put straight by a wise than to listen to a fool sing your praises.
- When a fool laughs, its like crackling thorns cracking in a fire. It doesn’t mean a thing.
- A wise man becomes foolish when he cheats someone. Excepting a bribe will ruin his character.
- The end of a thing is better than its beginning.
- Its better to be patient than to be proud.
- Don’t let yourself get angry quickly – keep your temper. Only a fool harbours a grudge.
- Don’t say ‘Why was yesterday better than today?’ You cannot ask such questions wisely.
- Wisdom is as good as an inheritance, actually better for those who live under the sun. Wisdom will keep you safe, just as money can. It will save the life of anyone who has it.
- Consider what God does. Who can straighten anything that he has made crooked?
- When things go well for you, be happy. When things don’t go well, remember that God sends both – and you never know what’s going to happen next.
I have seen all these things in the times when my life was meaningless. Sometimes a person who does what is right will die, and at the same time someone who does wrong may live on. So don’t be too good or too wise – why kill yourself? Neither be too wicked nor too foolish – why die before your time? Avoid both extremes. Whoever fears God will be successful anyway.
- Wisdom can do more for you than ten rulers can do for a city.
There is no one on earth who does right all the time, who constantly does good and doesn’t do wrong. Don’t listen to everything people say – you may hear your servant insulting you, and you know that you’ve insulted others many times.
I used my wisdom to test all of this. I said, ‘I will be wise,’ but really it was out of my reach. How can anyone understand what life means? It is too deep for us, too hard to understand.I was determined to seek wisdom, to get answers concerning the grand scheme of things, and to know that wickedness is stupidity, and that foolishness is madness.
I found something more bitter than death. The woman whose love is a trap, and whose arms around you keep you captive like chains. If you aim to please God, you will escape from her, but whoever does not aim to please God will be ensnared by her. Indeed, said the Philosopher, I found this out a little at a time as I was seeking answers. I am still seeking – I have found one man in a thousand that I could respect, but not one woman. What I did find was this – that God made life plain and simple, but we have made ourselves very complicated.
Only wise man really know what things mean. Wisdom makes a man’s face shine, and his frowns disappear.
I say, ‘Do what the king says, because you have made a promise to God.’ Don’t be hasty to leave his presence. Don’t do what the king says you shouldn’t – he can do whatever he wants. His word is supreme. Who can say to him, ‘What are you doing?’ If you do what he says, you won’t be harmed – a wise man knows what to do and when to do it. Men are miserable and have heartache because we don’t know what will happen. Who can tell him what is to come? No one can keep himself from dying or put off the day of death. It is a battle we cannot escape, neither is their any way to cheat your way out.
These are things that I have seen. I have thought about everything that is done under the sun.
There are times when one man has power over another to hurt him. I have seen the wicked buried, and on the way back from the cemetery people praising them. This, too, is meaningless. Crime is not punished quickly, so men are determined to do evil. Some men commit a hundred crimes and live a long life – even so I know it is said that those who fear God have a better deal, that the wicked won’t have a good life, and that their lives will be short because they have no respect for God. Another meaningless thing that is done on earth is that there are those who live lives that are pleasing to God, but they are punished like the wicked, and there are those who live lives that are displeasing to God, but they are rewarded like those who do good. As I said, this, too, is meaningless.
So I recommended that people should just enjoy themselves, because there is nothing better under the sun than to eat and drink and to be joyful. He can at least do this as he works, as he lives the life that God has given him under the sun.
When I applied myself to finding wisdom, and to understand everything that is done on the earth, I realized that you could stay awake day and night and still never be able to understand what God is doing under the sun. However much a man works to find answers, yet he won’t find them. Even if a man thinks that he can understand, he won’t really be able to find answers.
Life and Death
I thought all this through, and tried to understand it. God guides those who please him, he guides the wise in all that they do, even what they love and what they hate. People don’t know what will happen to them, it makes no difference what lies ahead of them. The same thing happens to both those who please God and to those who displease him, to the good and the bad, to the religious and the irreligious, to the people who offer sacrifices and to those who do not. The same thing happens to the good and the bad, to the one who makes promises and to the one who does not. The same fate comes to all, and this is as wrong as anything that is done under the sun. As long as people live they are full of evil and madness, and then they die. As long as someone is alive, they have hope – even a living dog is better off than a dead lion. The living know that they will die, but the dead don’t know anything. They have no further reward, because they are simply forgotten. All their love and hatred and envy died with them, and they no longer share in anything that is done under the sun. So live your life, enjoy bread and drink wine gladly. These things are all right with God. Always look happy and cheerful. Enjoy life with the woman you love. Enjoy every meaningless day of it, the days which God has given you to live under the sun. All your days are meaningless – that’s all you get in life, all there is as you work hard under the sun. So whatever you do, give it all you’ve got. There is no work or cleverness or knowledge or wisdom in the grave where you are going.
Another thing that I see under the sun – fast runners don’t always win a race, nor do the strongest always win in battle. Wise men do not always earn a living, nor intelligent men always become rich. Those with skill do not always reach the highest positions. Time and chance happen to them all. You don’t know when your time is coming. Just a fish and birds can be caught in a net, so we can suddenly be trapped by difficult times.
A Wise Man in a Small Town
Here is an example of how wisdom is regarded under the sun. There was a little town, without many people in it. A powerful king attacked it. He surrounded it and made ready to break down the walls. A man who lived in that town who was poor but also wise. His man lived in that down, and using his wisdom he saved that town. Even so, everyone forgot about him. So I said to myself, ‘Wisdom is better than strength – even so, nobody is interested in a poor man’s wise words. It is better to listen to the quiet words spoken by a wise man than to the shouting of a ruler in a council of fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war – but one evil man can destroy a lot of good. Dead flies in a bottle of perfume can make it stink. In the same way, a little foolishness can cancel out a great deal of wisdom and honour.
A Fool is Known by His Conduct
It is natural for a wise man to do the right thing and for the fool to do wrong. As a fool goes about his business his understanding will fail. By this he will demonstrate to everyone that he is a fool.
- If a ruler becomes angry with you, don’t run away. He is likely to forgive you if you keep your cool.
There is an injustice that I have seen under the sun, the sort of wrong that is done by a ruler. Foolish people sit in positions of authority, whilst the rich are given poor seats. I have seen servants on horse back whilst noblemen have to walk like servants. If you dig a hole, you may fall into it. If you pull down a wall, you may be attacked by the snakes that live in the brickwork. If you work in a quarry, then you may be injured by the stones. If you split wood, you may get hurt as you work. If you use a blunt axe, and don’t sharpen it, then you must work so much harder. Skill brings success. It is no use knowing how to charm a snake if it bites you first. The things that a wise man says bring him favor, but a fools words will destroy him. When a fool starts speaking, he talks nonsense. By the time he finishes his words are madness. A fool just talks on and on
- Nobody knows what is going to happen next. Who can tell what will happen? Only someone too stupid to find their way home keeps working until he’s worn out.
- A person’s laziness results in a leaky roof. A person who sits around all day will end up with leaks.
- It is a bad day for a country when its king is young, and its noblemen stay up all night feasting. It is good for a country when its king can make his own decisions, and his nobles eat at the proper time, for strength rather than because they like to get drunk.
- Feasting makes you happy, and wine cheers you up, but money is the answer for everything.
- Don’t criticize your king, not even in your thoughts. Don’t criticize the rich, not even in the privacy of your own room. A bird might take what you have said and reveal it to them.
Investing in the Future
Spread your investments, and one of these days you’ll make a profit. Put your investments in more than one place – as many as you can – because you never know what might go wrong. When the clouds are full, it rains. When a tree falls, it will lie in the direction in which it fell. If you wait for the weather to be just right, you will never so anything nor harvest anything. You do not know what the wind will do, nor do you know how a child grows in the womb. You can no more understand what God will do than these – and he is at work in everything. Sow seed in the morning, and don’t stop sowing until the evening. You never know what will do well – it may be one thing, it may be another. Perhaps they will do equally well.
Live While You are Alive
It is good to enjoy the pleasant light of the sun, so however many days a man lives, may he enjoy them all. At the same time, remember that you will be dead a lot longer than you are alive. Everything ahead of you is meaningless. So enjoy your youth. Be happy then, and do what you really want to do. At the same time, remember that God will judge you for all that you do. So don’t be unhappy, don’t do wrong, because your youth and the dawn of life are meaningless.
So remember your Creator while you are young, before difficult days come, and the years approach when you no longer take pleasure in your life.
- When the light of the sun and moon and stars will grow dark, and it will always seem to rain.
- when the keepers of the house begin to tremble, and the strong men stoop,
- when the grinders cease because they are few, and those looking through the windows grow dim,
- when the doors to the street are closed, and the sound of grinding fades,
- when men rise up at the sound of birds, but all their songs grow feint,
- when men are afraid of heights, and of danger in the streets,
- when the almond tree blossoms, and the grasshopper drags itself along,
- and you loose your appetite for life.
We are going to our everlasting home, and there will be mourners in the streets. So remember your Creator before the silver thread of life is severed, and the golden lamp falls and is broken, before the water jar is shattered, and the rope at the well snaps.
- Our bodies will return to dust, the dust from which we are made, and our spirit (the breath of life) will return to God, who gave it.
“Meaningless, meaningless”, said the Philosopher, “Everything is meaningless”.
The Words of the Wise
Because the Philosopher was wise, he taught the people what he knew. He searched for answers and thought about what he found, and he wrote many proverbs. He tried to find the right words, honest words that would prove true. The words of the wise are like sharp sticks that shepherds use to drive sheep. Their collected proverbs are like firmly driven nails. They have been given by God, the one shepherd of all.
In addition, my son, be warned: there is no end to the writing of books, but much study wearies the body.
This is all I have to say, now that you have head everything. Fear God and do what he says. That is what you were created for. He will judge everything we do, even the things that others do not see, both the good and the bad.
The text above is my paraphrase of one of my favourite pieces of writing. Originally entitled, “Qoheleth”, the author emphasises the meaninglessness of life and the ambiguity of religion. Given distinctly post-modern tone of the work, it is interesting to note that it was originally written well over 2,000 years ago. The idea that life is “meaningless” is not really the sort of thing you hear preached in Church on a Sunday, so I find it startling that the text was included in the collection of documents that are popularly known as the Bible, where it appears under the title of “Ecclesiastes”.
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