Stuffing the Pita of Life: Ecclesiastes 1:12-18
Strangely, not long ago I was at one of my son’s baseball games and found something scrawled on the wall of the public restroom that made me wonder if a descendent of King Solomon had recently visited. That statement, “nothing really matters,” is reminiscent of the tone and tenor of Ecclesiastes. Like meeting someone for a second time, Solomon kindly reintroduces himself in this section of the book as our teacher and the king who lived in Israel. He then explains that, for him, the world was a laboratory and he chose to be both the scientist and lab rat testing one thing after another from the menu of life. Like a mathematician that devotes his life to solving one problem or a scientist that devotes his life to making one discovery, Solomon devotes his life to answering one question: what is the meaning of life? Or, to ask it another way: what makes life valuable, purposeful, and meaningful?
Solomon’s question is one of the three most important questions that any human being can ask. Those questions are:
1. Origins: where do I come from?
2. Meaning: what is the purpose of my life?
3. Destiny: what happens after I die?
The first book of the Bible, Genesis, answers the first question. It tells us that we come from God and are uniquely made in his image and likeness with particular dignity, value, and worth. The last book of the Bible, Revelation, answers the third question by telling us that we are going to return to God at the end of this life for an eternal sentencing to either heaven or hell. Between Genesis and Revelation is Ecclesiastes, which answers the middle question. Solomon limits his study to the natural world “under heaven” or “under the sun” without any reference to the supernatural world. In philosophy, this kind of reasoning is called “empiricism,” which basically means all we have to draw from on earth are our five senses and experiences. His findings are startling.
Have you ever been shot in the soul? If so, then Ecclesiastes is for you. Unlike a good cliffhanger that waits until the very end of the story to reveal the plot, Solomon just punches us in the nose right up front by telling us that the findings of his life experiment, the thesis if you will, are hopeless. Words like “tragic,” “meaningless,” and “cannot” are not the kinds of things we want to hear about life. Sure, we’ve all felt that way. However, we assume that some guy with more degrees than Fahrenheit who kindles his fires with stacks of leftover hundred dollar bills would come to a more hopeful and less painful answer. Nope.
Searching for meaning in life apart from God is as silly as laboring day after day to amass a stellar wind collection, Solomon says. Intrinsically, we know all of this. Nevertheless, for some reason we just cannot come to accept it. This explains why we try to get organized, focused, and efficient but wind up getting only disappointed, frustrated, and jaded. It’s like we were made for a world that had it all together and in our distant faint collective memory that thought of home keeps us longing for more than this world offers.
Bible translations, like ice cream, come in a lot of good flavors. Subsequently, sometimes it’s good to try a few different flavors. The English Standard Version of the Bible translates Ecclesiastes 1:15 this way, “What is crooked cannot be made straight…”
Crooked. That’s a good word. This is Solomon’s way of explaining the fact that we, and our world, are cursed. Something has gone terribly wrong and no matter how many organizations we start, elections we hold, wars we fight, dollars we spend, attempts we make, protests we hold, medications we prescribe, bad guys we lock up, or tears we shed, the world is hopelessly crooked and cursed. This bothers us, so we want to straighten it out. The problem is that not only is everything on the earth crooked, so is everyone on the earth. We are all crooked. Every one of us.
You can see where this is going. Crooked people cannot straighten out a crooked world. For the idealists, especially the young, this all sounds rather fatal. Consequently, they tend to think that other generations got it wrong and they will get it right. Yet, their parents thought the same thing and found that sex, drugs, and rock and roll only lead to disease, despair, and dead rock icons. Everyone has a different plan, but no one has a successful plan to straighten out this crooked world.
To start with, we need someone who is not crooked to get us, and everything else, straightened out. In a crooked world under the sun, where might this person be? Nowhere. In a hopeless world under the sun, who might this person be? No one. Our only hope is for someone to come down from above the sun bringing with them a world that is not cursed. Here the silhouette of Jesus shows up yet again in Ecclesiastes. Often playing on the television at our home are various cooking shows. I am an awful cook, which is overcome by being very good at going out to eat. My wife, however, is an amazing cook. So is our oldest daughter. Our sons are getting pretty decent too. I, however, find anything beyond toast and cereal to be a safety hazard.
However, I did discover something called a pita. Perhaps you have heard of this. If a loaf of bread married a purse and they had a kid it would be a pita. Like a purse, you can stuff a lot of various things into a pita. Like a loaf of bread, you can eat a pita. What I like about a pita, especially as someone who cannot cook, is that you can stuff it with pretty much anything and see if you like it. For the sake of Solomon’s experiment, he treats life like a pita. He tries to stuff various popular things into the pita to find something that satisfies the hunger for a meaningful life – everything from money, to fame, power, food, sex, hobbies, leisure, travel, entertainment, work, etc. Both haughtily and helpfully, Solomon tells us that in all his wisdom, he has tried it all, and his findings are that everything and anything that could give meaning to life is a meaningless mess. Why? Because everything he tried was done apart from God.
Perhaps an analogy will help. I love my wife and our five children. I love making memories with them. Sometimes these memories are big – like trips we’ve taken together. Sometimes these memories are simple – like going for a walk to get ice cream cones. What makes each memory special, satisfying, and sacred is being with Grace and the kids. Each moment is infused with meaning that would not be the same without them. Similarly, when life is lived fully integrated with the presence and purpose of God, everything becomes meaningful in a way that is not possible apart from God. Without God, even the greatest things fail to satisfy us. But, with God, even the simplest things fully satisfy us. The secret of life is that it’s often less about what you have and where you go and more about whom you are with.
Our place in history has afforded us an opportunity to access more information than we ever have been able to before. The only problem is that the more we know, the more we have the potential to grieve and fear. For this reason, some people stop following the news altogether, since it’s just an endless parade of brutal human suffering. If, as Solomon says, more knowledge only brings more grief, is there any hope?
Old preachers a long time ago would use the analogy of a knitting loom to explain how to see life. If you peer under a knitting loom, it appears to be nothing more than a hopeless mess of knots and threads—chaos, disorder, or, to use the words of Solomon, meaninglessness. But, if you peer above a knitting loom everything is different as a beautifully, intricately, and purposefully designed pattern emerges. Life under the sun is basically life under the loom. All we see is “grief” and “sorrow.” Therefore, we must find a way to get above the loom for a new perspective. For that to happen, someone from above the loom needs to visit us under the loom and give us a greater view. Jesus understood that this was his ministry, saying of himself in Matthew 12:42b, “someone greater than Solomon is here…”
The essence of wisdom is getting above the loom to make sense of our life and world by seeing the master plan of our great God who is threading everything together into what will, in the end, be a beautiful tapestry. Sometimes God chooses to not give us a glimpse above the loom just yet. In those moments as we stare up at the loom, faith is choosing to trust that above the loom is a great God who loves us, has a grand design, and sees things very differently than we do. This faith compels us to trust him until the day we join him above the loom. On that day when our faith becomes sight, we will worship him for his gracious work to make our lives, even the worst parts, meaningful, purposeful, and beautiful.
Questions For Personal and Group Study Ecclesiastes 1:12-18
1. How would you answer life’s big three questions, and how have your answers changed over the years?
- • Origins: where do I come from?
- • Meaning: what is the purpose of my life?
- • Destiny: what happens after I die?
2. If you honestly reflected on your life, what things are you are juggling that you need to just drop and let fall to the ground because they are currently a meaningless waste of time?
3. How does knowing that the world is cursed help you to respond less angrily and more graciously when things in life just don’t go according to plan?
4. What things have you tried to stuff into life to make it meaningful only to find that they did not satisfy?
5. How would your emotional state be different if you did not believe there was a good God overseeing history and working out everything, even that which is disobedient to him, into a plan for his glory and our good?
6. In what ways has God given you a peer above the loom, so to speak, to see things from his perspective and make your life and its experiences more meaningful?