why our secular age needs ecclesiastes

Why Our Secular Age Needs Ecclesiastes

This world is desperate for answers to life’s fundamental questions. What is life about? Why is life so unjust? Why does work have to be so toilsome? How can I be happy when the world seems pointless?

The spirit of the age recommends both finding meaning inward, i.e. we create our own meaning in life; and outward, meaning comes from advancing in our careers, accumulating possessions, and pleasurable experiences.

A few thousands of years ago, there was a Preacher king who pursued meaning this way. He concluded:

“I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11).

That Preacher king was Solomon, who wrote of his experience in the book of Ecclesiastes, a book whose frankness and pessimism about life is sometimes shocking. Does the Bible really say that?

Phil Ryken calls Ecclesiastes in jest “the only book of the Bible written on a Monday morning.”[1] Ecclesiastes at times even seems to contradict other parts of Scripture. (Chew on 1:17–18 or 4:1–3 for a bit.) But what Solomon captures are the paradoxes of living in a fallen world. At the same time, we can enjoy the goodness of God’s creation (Genesis 1:31) and groan as we live in its post-fall futility (Romans 8:20–23).

Our secular world groans as well but doesn’t know where to find hope. Secular solutions only exacerbate the problem, leaving us wanting.

Life apart from God doesn’t satisfy

Ecclesiastes contrasts life “under the sun” with life “under heaven.” Life under the sun takes a human-centered view of existence (which is why it sounds like a way a scientist would describe life) while life under heaven takes God into account. How easy it is to fall into an ‘under the sun’ mindset and only think of life in human terms, swept along by the secular current of our culture!

According to Ecclesiastes, God “has put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecclesiastes 3:11)—we know there is more than what we see, and the secular world knows this. That’s why we long for transcendence and greatness. We want our lives to make a lasting difference. We adore rock bands or talk about the GOAT (Greatest of All-Time) of our favorite sport or look to politicians to fill the worship void in our hearts. Why are palm readers still in business in a secular culture? Why do secularized nations like Iceland believe in elves?[2] Our hearts tell us there’s something more than what social media influencers or our textbooks offer.

If fame and fortune aren’t enough, what is?

Life wasn’t meant to be lived merely under the sun as rising suicide rates in the US testify.[3] Celebrities like Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade, who had it all in the eyes of the world, longed for greater purpose. Reaching the top of the ladder of fame and fortune leads nowhere.

Jim Carrey is reported to have lamented, “I wish everyone could experience being rich and famous, so they’d see it wasn’t the answer to anything.” Halle Berry, an actress known for her beauty, confessed, “Being thought of as a beautiful woman has spared me nothing in life. No heartache, no trouble. Love has been difficult. Beauty is essentially meaningless and it is always transitory.”[4] Even the famed quarterback Tom Brady shared on 60 Minutes, “Why do I have three Super Bowl rings, and still think there’s something greater out there for me?”[5]

“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher”—and apparently many celebrities as well.

If more money and possessions aren’t enough, what is?

John Rockefeller, one of the richest men to ever live, was asked how much money was enough. His answer? “Just a little bit more.”[6] His response wouldn’t have surprised Solomon, who wrote thousands of years ago:

“He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 5:10).

You can’t buy joy on Amazon (even though many spend as if you could). Money may fill a bank account but it will never fill the soul. Only in a God-centered life can wealth and possessions find their proper place in life and be enjoyed.

“Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart” (Ecclesiastes 5:19–20).

“One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15).

If self-seeking pleasure isn’t enough, what is?

Gratifying self drives our secular age. In many ways, the self is the chief god of secularism. The better we eat, enjoy entertainment, have sex, and experience the world, the better life is.

This too, is vanity. Even the secular world admits it from time to time. In 1964, Time Magazine presented the following argument against unrestrained sexual freedom, “When sex is pursued only for pleasure, or only for gain, or even only to fill a void in society or in the soul, it becomes elusive, impersonal, and ultimately disappointing.”[7]

Pleasure for pleasure’s sake is futile (see Ecclesiastes 2:10–11), but enjoying pleasure as a gift from God’s hand brings joy:

“And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 8:15).

Our only true and lasting pleasure is in God (Ecclesiastes 3:11, 2:24–26, 3:12–13, 5:18–20, 7:14, 8:15, 9:7,9), the one who “richly provides us with everything to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17). In the words of Pastor Zack Eswine:

“If we use God’s gifts as mini-gods, we are like those who try to play soccer with a watermelon. The melon isn’t designed to withstand our kicking and will crumble. But if we enjoy God’s good gifts the way he intended, not as mini-gods but as kindnesses, then we grow wise in locating the feisty joy that refuses to quit under the sun.”[8]

If pursuing wisdom isn’t enough, what is?

Mere access to information doesn’t make one wise. If it did, our smartphones wouldn’t be making thought and discourse shallower. Solomon, called by some the wisest man who ever lived, wrote in Ecclesiastes 1:17, “I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.”

There is no wisdom apart from the fear of God, for “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). If you don’t enter the race for wisdom from this starting line, you’ll find yourself on the wrong course chasing the wind. Only in Jesus Christ can we correctly perceive reality and be truly wise (1 Corinthians 1:24). Apart from Him, every scientist, cultural commentator, and worldly sage proves foolish.

If our work isn’t enough, what is?

Ecclesiastes laments the vanity and injustice of work (see Ecclesiastes 2:18–26)— and no, Solomon wasn’t just having a case of the Mondays. Due to humanity’s sin, work is toilsome and often emotionally and physically painful (Genesis 3:17–19). Days slog on to weeks and months and years with repetitive, frustrating work that seems to accomplish nothing. Will my work be forgotten once I’m gone? Why do some get rich on the hard work of others?

“There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” (Ecclesiastes 2:24–25)

Yes, work can be toilsome. But the answer is not found rejecting the good gift of work God gave humanity at creation, but by embracing it with thankful hearts and realizing that our work is ultimately for His glory and will be rewarded (Genesis 1:28, 2:15; Ephesians 6:5–8). Don’t let work’s fleeting nature discourage you, let it drive you to worship the One whose Word and work endure forever:

“I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him.” (Ecclesiastes 3:14)

The End of the Matter—or, How to Find Meaning in Life

What is our purpose here on earth? Where can we find meaning? Many in our secular world don’t believe we can actually know. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy jokes that “42” is the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything.”[9] Somehow, I don’t think Solomon would have laughed.

Solomon’s conclusion in chapter 12 provides the interpretive key for Ecclesiastes and all of life:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14)

Without God, all is futile. But with Him, all has incalculable value. Fearing Him is the only way to escape vanity and taste the satisfying nectar of life that comes only from His hand (Ecclesiastes 3:14, 5:7, 8:12, 12:13–14). We will live in futility until we center our lives on God and live submissively before Him.

Without God, all is futile. But with Him, all has incalculable value.

Why? Look again at verse 14: “God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (emphasis added). Every little thought or action has eternal significance because God says it does—even if life feels like a passing cloud.

We aren’t the captains of our souls or the masters of our fate—our holy God is. We can’t live as if we had authority over life and death without facing the Creator’s wrath. All sin and injustice in the world will be dealt with, either by Christ absorbing it on the cross or at the final judgment.

Ecclesiastes comforts me is by reminding me that Christ understands life’s frustrations better than I do, and thus can provide the appropriate remedy. “Everything Solomon pursued, Jesus was tempted by, but resisted.”[10] He died as the perfect sacrifice for our sin and rose from the dead as evidence to His authority over this broken creation and as the firstfruits of a greater redemption for His children and the new creation:

“[T]he creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).

Yes, creation and our lives under the sun were subjected to futility, but Christ gives us joy-producing hope in the present as we await our glorious future. Yes, this world is a difficult place to live; but we won’t always live here. Christ will set us free to enjoy Him and His glory forever.

Until that day, let’s avoid frustration by making Augustine’s prayer our own, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”[11]



[1] Shared in Ecclesiastes (Preaching the Word).
[2] Ryan Jacobs, “Why So Many Icelanders Still Believe in Invisible Elves,” The Atlantic, October 29, 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2013/10/why-so-many-icelanders-still-believe-in-invisible-elves/280783/.
[3] Amy Ellis Nutt, “Suicide rates rise sharply across the United States, new report shows,” The Washington Post, June 7, 2018, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2018/06/07/u-s-suicide-rates-rise-sharply-across-the-country-new-report-shows/.
[4] “Being beautiful isn’t easy, Halle Berry says,” DeseretNews, August 3, 2004, https://www.deseret.com/2004/8/3/19843269/being-beautiful-isn-t-easy-halle-berry-says.
[5] Brady shared this in a 2005 60 Minutes interview, clip accessible at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoHPx5wTnRs.
[6] Also shared in Ryken’s Ecclesiastes (Preaching the Word).
[7] Shared in the January 24, 1964 edition of Time Magazine.
[8] Zack Eswine, “Preacher’s Toolkit: How Should I Preach Ecclesiastes?,” The Gospel Coalition, August 24, 2017, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/preachers-toolkit-how-should-i-preach-ecclesiastes/.

[9] https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/42_(answer)
[10] Phil Ryken quoting Mark Driscoll in Ecclesiastes (Preaching the Word).
[11] Found in Book 1 of Augustine’s Confessions.

Colin Smith is senior pastor of The Orchard Evangelical Free Church, a multi-campus church located in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, and president of Unlocking the...

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