In the book Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, the king of Brobdingdang, a nation made up of giants, “observed how contemptible a thing was human grandeur, which could be mimicked by such diminutive insects as [Gulliver]: And yet, said he, I dare engage, these creatures have their titles and distinctions of honour; they contrive little nests and burrows, that they call houses and cities.”
Among these giants, suddenly Gulliver’s accomplishments are not so grand. He is angered and offended by the king’s comments, but in a way, the king is right. We are not as important as we think we are. We and everything around us are ephemeral, “a mere handbreath” (Psalm 39:5). Why is it that we place so much emphasis on what does not last, but ignore God who lasts forever? The Bible, especially the Old Testament, reminds man of who he really is.
Nowhere is this more emphasized than in the book of Ecclesiastes. Ignored by pastors and priests for its seemingly depressing message, Ecclesiastes is yet one of my favorite books in the Bible. Qoheleth, the leader of a religious assembly, starts this work with a bold and shocking exclamation: “ ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!’ What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-4). The Teacher poses a very important question. What he is asking, of course, is what millions of people in the world ask themselves daily. Mainly, what is the meaning of life? What is the reason for my existence, and why is that important?
At first glance, Ecclesiastes’ message seems to echo Jean-Paul Sartre’s philosophy of Existentialism. Life is meaningless. Yet Sartre and Qoheleth come to very different conclusions. Sartre decides that “l’existence précède l'essence” (existence precedes essence). In other words, apart from ourselves, there is no meaning to life. We must create our own meaning to life. Sartre points out that when we first realize how insignificant we are, we fall into deep despair. This nausea, as he calls this emotional state, pervades our whole being until we come to terms with it and decide to make our own meaning to life. Notice that God does not exist. The Teacher experiences this nausea as well when he writes, “So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (2:17). In fact, he even sounds a bit suicidal when he says, “And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun” (4:2-3).
But Qoheleth eventually discovers the reason for his existence. It is because of God that we are living and because of Him— and only because of Him—that we can continue to live. Everything on earth, which is in fact temporary, is yet a gift from God. Because it is a gift from God, we are allowed to enjoy it. “So I commended the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun” (8:15). Qoheleth overcomes the nausea by acknowledging God and allowing Him to bring meaning to his life. Because of God, Qoheleth has been given a duty and his actions do matter. Suddenly, life is good—very good. It is a gift in fact. However, although our actions matter, they do not define us. Now, the unborn, the handicapped, and the elderly have a place in society, and they are actually living. Life has meaning apart from themselves. We must continue to recognize our dependence on God, because, yes, apart from God there is NO ultimate meaning to life. Because we place our full trust in God, we recognize that all good things come from Him, and thus, there is no place for pride in our lives. We do not need to continue to put our full and complete trust in our own works and in our material possessions that do not last. Becuase of this realization, the Teacher takes back his previous view on life. “Anyone who is among the living has hope—even a live dog is better off than a dead lion!” (9:4). It is good to be alive because God exists!!! Sartre, on the other hand, argues that without continuous action a person is not living. Life is only good if you actually have the ability to make choices, and even then, there is nothing constant in our lives to protect us, love us, and give us peace.