|Philosophy and the Old Testament
Part I: Solomon on the Meaning of Life
Ronald R. Lambert
Philosophy is concerned with the meaning of life. Millions of people are still asking: "What is the meaning of life?" Does my life have any significance?" "Is there any meaning to my existence?"
Inspired Hebrew literature not only contains the most excellent biography and history and the most beautiful poetry, but it contains the most lofty and up-to-date philosophy. Solomon's book of the Preacher1 is the statement of Hebrew philosophy par excellence. In this little book Wisdom addresses herself to philosophy's great question, What is the meaning of life?
The words of the Speaker, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Solomon's answer to the question, What is the meaning of life? is quite shocking. Life in itself has no meaning. It has no value and possesses no significance. This is why Solomon said, "Then I turned and gave myself up to despair . . ."
Emptiness, emptiness, says the Speaker, emptiness, all is empty. What does man gain from all his labour and his toil here under the sun? Generations come and generations go, while the earth endures for ever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down; back it returns to its place and rises there again. The wind blows south, the wind blows north, round and round it goes and returns full circle. All streams run into the sea, yet the sea never overflows; back to the place from which the streams ran they return to run again.
All things are wearisome; no man can speak of them all. Is not the eye surfeited with seeing, and the ear sated with hearing? What has happened will happen again, and what has been done will be done again, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, 'Look, this is new'? No, it has already existed, long ago before our time. The men of old are not remembered, and those who follow will not be remembered by those who follow them.
I, the Speaker, ruled as king over Israel in Jerusalem; and in wisdom I applied my mind to study and explore all that is done under heaven. It is a sorry business that God has given men to busy themselves with. I have seen all the deeds that are done here under the sun; they are all emptiness and chasing the wind. What is crooked cannot become straight; what is not there cannot be counted. I said to myself, 'I have amassed great wisdom, more than all my predecessors on the throne in Jerusalem; I have become familiar with wisdom and knowledge.' So I applied my mind to understand wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly, and I came to see that this too is chasing the wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and the more a man knows, the more he has to suffer.
I said to myself, 'Come, I will plunge into pleasures and enjoy myself'; but this too was emptiness. Of laughter I said, 'It is madness!' And of pleasure, 'What is the good of that?' So I sought to stimulate myself with wine, in the hope of finding out what was good for men to do under heaven throughout the brief span of their lives. But my mind was guided by wisdom, not blinded by folly.
I undertook great works; I built myself houses and planted vineyards; I made myself gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit-trees in them; I made myself pools of water to irrigate a grove of growing trees; I bought slaves, male and female, and I had my home-born slaves as well; I had possessions, more cattle and flocks than any of my predecessors in Jerusalem; I amassed silver and gold also, the treasure of kings and provinces; I acquired singers, men and women, and all that man delights in. I was great, greater than all my predecessors in Jerusalem; and my wisdom stood me in good stead. Whatever my eyes coveted, I refused them nothing, nor did I deny myself any pleasure. Yes indeed, I got pleasure from all my labour, and for all my labour this was my reward. Then I turned and reviewed all my handiwork, all my labour and toil, and I saw that everything was emptiness and chasing the wind, of no profit under the sun.
I set myself to look at wisdom and at madness and folly. Then I perceived that wisdom is more profitable than folly, as light is more profitable than darkness: the wise man has eyes in his head, but the fool walks in the dark. Yet I saw also that one and the same fate overtakes them both. So I said to myself, 'I too shall suffer the fate of the fool. To what purpose have I been wise? What is the profit of it? Even this,' I said to myself, 'is emptiness. The wise man is remembered no longer than the fool, for, as the passing days multiply, all will be forgotten. Alas, wise man and fool die the same death!' So I came to hate life, since everything that was done here under the sun was a trouble to me; for all is emptiness and chasing the wind. So I came to hate all my labour and toil here under the sun, since I should have to leave its fruits to my successor. What sort of a man will he be who succeeds me, who inherits what others have acquired? Who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will be master of all the fruits of my labour and skill here under the sun. This too is emptiness.
Then I turned and gave myself up to despair, reflecting upon all my labour and toil here under the sun.—Eccl. 1:1-2:20, NEB.
There are those who say, "Solomon was writing out of such a pessimistic attitude toward life that you cannot take his jaundiced view too seriously." But this sort of observation ignores what the book says at the end: what he wrote was the honest truth. The sayings of the wise are sharp as goads, like nails driven home; they lead the assembled people, for they come from one shepherd." Eccl. 12:10,11, NEB.
Life Is Mortal; Death Negates All
The reason that life in itself has no meaning, no value, no significance, is because it is mortal. It ends in death. How can life that dies have any value? How can there be any significance to anything in life if death stands over it to negate everything? This is Solomon's case. That is why he speaks so repeatedly about death. Death stares him in the face at every turn. It mocks all of life's achievements and robs it of any value.
I set myself to look at wisdom and at madness and folly. Then I perceived that wisdom is more profitable than folly, as light is more profitable than darkness: the wise man has eyes in his head, but the fool walks in the dark. Yet I saw also that one and the same fate overtakes them both. So I said to myself, 'I too shall suffer the fate of the fool. To what purpose have I been wise? What is the profit of it? Even this,' I said to myself, 'is emptiness. The wise man is remembered no longer than the fool, for, as the passing days multiply, all will be forgotten. Alas, wise man and fool die the same death!' So I came to hate life, since everything that was done here under the sun was a trouble to me; for all is emptiness and chasing the wind. So I came to hate all my labour and toil here under the sun, since I should have to leave its fruits to my successor. —Eccl. 2:12-18, NEB.
If a man takes off the Hebraic glasses and puts on Grecian ones, he may say: "Life in itself does have some value and significance because, although the body is mortal, the soul of man is innately immortal. Man does have some death-proof substance which survives the disaster of death." But the Hebrew Scriptures know nothing of man's natural immortality, either in whole or in part. Furthermore, such a view of man's inherent worth utterly misses the entire point of the gospel according to Solomon — and we could also add, the gospel of the whole Bible from beginning to end.
For man is a creature of chance and the beasts are creatures of chance, and one mischance awaits them all: death comes to both alike. They all draw the same breath. Men have no advantage over beasts; for everything is emptiness. All go to the same place: all come from the dust, and to the dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward or whether the spirit of the beast goes downward to the earth?'—Eccl. 3:19-21, NEB.
I counted the dead happy because they were dead, happier than the living who are still in life.—Eccl. 4:2, NEB.
As he came from the womb of mother earth, so must he return, naked as he came; all his toil produces nothing which he can take away with him. This too is a singular evil: exactly as he came, so shall he go, and what profit does he get when his labour is all for the wind? What is more, all his days are overshadowed; gnawing anxiety and great vexation are his lot, sickness and resentment. —Eccl. 5:15-17, NEB.
In my empty existence I have seen it all, from a righteous man perishing in his righteousness to a wicked man growing old in his wickedness. Do not be over-righteous and do not be over-wise. Why make yourself a laughing-stock? Do not be over-wicked and do not be a fool. Why should you die before your time? . . . The world contains no man so righteous that he can do right always and never do wrong.—Ecce. 7:15-17, 20, NEB.
I applied my mind to all this, and I understood that the righteous and the wise and all their doings are under God's control; but is it love or hatred? No man knows. Everything that confronts him, everything is empty, since one and the same fate befalls every one, just and unjust alike, good and bad, clean and unclean, the man who offers sacrifice and the man who does not. Good man and sinner fare alike, the man who can take an oath and the man who dares not. This is what is wrong in all that is done here under the sun: that one and the same fate befalls every man. The hearts of men are full of evil; madness fills their hearts all through their lives, and after that they go down to join the dead. But for a man who is counted among the living there is still hope: remember, a live dog is better than a dead lion. True, the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing. There are no more rewards for them; they are utterly forgotten. For them love, hate, ambition, all are now over. Never again will they have any part in what is done here under the sun.
Go to it then, eat your food and enjoy it, and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for already God has accepted what you have done. Always be dressed in white and never fail to anoint your head. Enjoy life with a woman you love all the days of your allotted span here under the sun, empty as they are; for that is your lot while you live and labour here under the sun. Whatever task lies to your hand, do it with all your might; because in Sheol, for which you are bound, there is neither doing nor thinking, neither understanding nor wisdom. One more thing I have observed here under the sun: speed does not win the race nor strength the battle. Bread does not belong to the wise, nor wealth to the intelligent, nor success to the skilful; time and chance govern all. Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come; like fish caught in a net, like a bird taken in a snare, so men are trapped when bad times come suddenly.—Eccl. 9:1-12, NEB.
The light of day is sweet, and pleasant to the eye is the sight of the sun; if a man lives for many years, he should rejoice in all of them. But let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. Everything that is to come will be emptiness.—Eccl. 11:7, 8, NEB.
Emptiness, emptiness, says the Speaker, all is empty. —Eccl. 12:8, NEB.
Just as Paul in Romans does not end his message on the utter sinfulness of all men, so Solomon does not end his message on the emptiness of life. It is true that life considered in itself has no meaning because it is mortal life. We must go outside of life to find that which gives it true meaning. At the beginning of human history stands the Creator (Eccl. 12:1). At the end stands the Judge (Eccl. 12:14). In between "all . . . are under God's control." Eccl. 9:1, ". . . .Whatever God does lasts for ever . . . " Eccl. 3:14, NEB. It is God, and God alone, who provides life with purpose, significance and meaning. Without Him life is emptiness and despair.
Solomon's message is consistent with the whole biblical doctrine of justification by faith. The people of God are considered righteous, but their righteousness is, as Luther said, "an alien righteousness." It is outside of themselves in the Person of Christ. So too, faith in itself has no value or saving properties. To find its true value, man has to go outside of faith to its Object. Thus Solomon teaches us that we have to go outside of life itself to find that which gives it value.
If mortal life, life which dies, has no meaning in itself, then it must become clear that only a life which is immortal has any intrinsic worth. And since God "only hath immortality" (1 Tim. 6:16), it follows that only His life has intrinsic value. Thus the Word declares: "There is none good but One, that is, God." Matt. 19:17. " . . . Thou only art holy." Rev. 15:4.
That which fills my life with meaning and makes it precious is not my own worth nor my own immortality, but the Word outside and above me, which declares, "How precious also are Thy thoughts unto me, O God! how great is the sum of them!" Ps. 139:17. The preciousness is not an innate quality in the object, but in the eye of the Beholder.
To teach that life has an inherent value by virtue of an inherent immortality is no different in principle than to teach salvation by an inherent righteousness. They are one and the same error. It blinds a man with the fantasy of his own worth and obscures the truth that life never has worth or meaning in itself except as it stands related to the One who is both Life and Righteousness.
The Preacher brings his message to an end with the thrice repeated appeal:
Remember your Creator. . .
Remember Him before the sun and the light of day give place to darkness. . .
Remember Him before the silver cord is snapped. . . . —Eccl. 12:1,2, 6, NEB.
Apart from the remembrance of Him life has absolutely no meaning, no significance. Without Him all is emptiness, and nothing remains but despair.
Part II: Despair and Modern Philosophy
In medieval Christendom man tried to find God by natural religion (the philosophy of Aristotle) or by mysticism. All this led to a great sense of guilt which men tried to rid themselves of by pilgrimages, indulgences and fasts. Men's burden of guilt was even reflected in a lot of the art of that period.
Then came the Reformation with its emphasis on the revealed religion of the Bible. Reason was made subordinate to revealed truth. When reason was put in its proper place, it became fruitful. Following the great Reformation awakening, the age of modern science was born. This was no accident.
. . . Christianity created a climate of thought which put men in a position to investigate the form of the universe.
The age of the Reformation was followed by an age of theistic rationalism. When man found that he could rationally understand and discover God's universe, he also depended more and more on reason to support the Christian religion. As the universe began to yield its secrets, reason assumed the lofty confidence that it could explain everything. It began to distrust anything that could not be rationally explained.
. . . . The early scientists also shared the outlook of Christianity in believing that there is a reasonable God, who had created a reasonable universe, and thus man, by use of his reason, could find out the universe's form. . . . Nature had to be freed from the Byzantine mentality and returned to a proper biblical emphasis; and it was the biblical mentality which gave birth to modern science.—Francis A. Schaeffer, Escape From Reason (Inter-Varsity), pp.30-32.
The next step was the development of agnostic rationalism, the age of skepticism and growing attacks on the Bible (Rousseau, Voltaire, etc.). The beginning of the nineteenth century saw Kant's so-called Age of Enlightenment. Man must become of age, said Kant. He must renounce all external authority and do what reason alone tells him is right. This meant that reason took the place of revealed religion. Men like Voltaire, Rousseau, Marx, Sade and Darwin thought it was time to kick God out of His universe altogether.
Nietzsche (1844-1900), the German philosopher, was bold enough to carry the movement to its logical end. God is dead, he declared, and man must go it alone. Man alone must decide what is right and what is wrong. But he was logical enough to see that if God is dead, man is also dead. Life has no real meaning. Sade (1740-1814) said that what is is right. With the rejection of any revealed truth, man is left without any objective moral guide, without any absolute standard or any distinction between right and wrong.
As we trace down this line of thinking to our present age, we find that modern philosophy is completely pessimistic. Such philosophy says that life has no meaning, man has no significance, and the universe is absurd. The end is despair. That too is just what Solomon found out when he examined the meaning of life without God. ". . . . there is nothing new under the sun."
Modern man has two alternatives as he is confronted with the despair of an existence which has no meaning:
1. The first alternative is found in being irrational. If reason has only brought man to despair, he must escape into the realm of the irrational. It was Kierkegaard (1813-1855) who proposed that since reason cannot get man anywhere, he must take a "leap of faith" — meaning the kind of faith which has nothing to do with rational evidence. Rationalism appeared to have discredited the historical accuracy of the Bible, so Kierkegaard concluded that a man cannot base his eternal happiness on historical uncertainties. What is needed, he said, is a blind leap of faith, a commitment to the absurd.
Kierkegaard became the great-grandfather of modern existentialism — whether secular (Jean-Paul Sartre, Jaspers, Heidegger) or religious (Barth, Brunner, Bultmann). Existentialism is not based on the authority of truth which is objectively revealed in propositions, but on the authority of experience. Secular existentialism says there are no external authorities, no systems. Man makes his own values. Death mocks everything anyway, and brings all to nothing.
In forsaking God, millions of Western men have been reduced to mass men herded together like ants in our great centers of population as part of the "lonely crowd." In forsaking God, modern humanists have severed their connection with the true basis of their existence as human beings, and they have thereby opened up the way to apostate nihilism, so prophetically foretold by the most honest atheist of modern times, the German philosopher, Nietzsche. The masses now seek satisfaction in such false idols as sports, sex, gambling, alcohol, and automobiles. But as they fail in all this to find true peace of mind, they will eventually land in nihilism. Already many of the West's leading artists, poets, painters, and thinkers have reached this final stage where human existence is thought to be futile and senseless. . . .
Francis Schaeffer shows how the modern drug culture had its birth:
Post-Christian man has created a sterile society in which he discovers that when he lives as if God is dead, man also becomes dead. Human life has today lost its meaning and purpose as apostate modern man finds himself reduced by his own science and technology to a mere cog within the great machine of nature and society. The only way of escape now lies in a nonrational world of experience, of drugs, pornography, and an elusive "final experience," and then ultimate madness. . . . Michel Foucault in Madness and Civilization teaches that the ultimate in autonomous freedom is being crazy. It is a great thing to go insane, for then only can you become truly free.—E. L. Hebden Taylor, Reformation or Revolution (Craig), pp. 135,136.
Aldous Huxley made a titanic addition to this way of thinking. We find him using the term "a first-order experience." In order to have a first-order experience he advocated the use of drugs. I have worked with many intelligent people taking LSD and have found hardly any of them who did not realize what they were doing was related to Aldous Huxley's teaching in regard to a "first-order experience. " . . . The basic reason that drugs are seriously taken today is not for escape or kicks but because man is desperate. On the basis of rationality and logic man has no meaning, and culture is becoming meaningless. Man is therefore trying to find an answer in "first-order experiences." This is what lies behind the modern drug mania. It is related to a thousand years of pantheism, for Eastern mystics have taken hashish for centuries to achieve religious experience.—Schaeffer, op. cit., pp. 53, 54.
While most people do not read the leading philosophers, yet their message of meaningless and despair is mediated to the masses in music, art, stage, theater and popular literature. From the heady aspirations of the Renaissance, beautiful and sublime art, music and literature have descended to the absurd and downright ugly. Much of it has gone from despair to madness. A monkey can dip his paw into a paint pot, daub it on a canvas, and win a great art prize. A group of men can break every literary rule and deliberately write utter rubbish, yet it becomes a best seller (Naked Came the Stranger). Many parents wonder why their children want to listen to "music" which is stark crazy or drop out of the world of the rational into the world of the irrational with the help of drugs. But they themselves have brought their children up in a godless, secular culture, and their children see that it is all an empty, plastic society.
Here, then, is one way of escape from the despair of life which has no meaning, no significance. Solomon called it madness and folly.
2. The other alternative is the one offered in God's Word. The only true philosophy of life is the one which builds on a revealed religion which posits a Creator who stands at the beginning of history and a Judge who stands at the end:
Remember your Creator. . . .
It is to this age and to this society which is eating the bitter fruits of Darwinism that God's last-hour message rings out with startling relevance:
God brings everything we do to judgment. —Ecce. 12:1, 14, NEB.
And I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell on the earth, and to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people, saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to Him; for the hour of His judgment is come: and worship Him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters. Rev. 14:6, 7.
1 Ecclesiastes. The original title of the book means Preacher.