What’s the meaning of life without a sovereign God and eternity?
If there is a one-size-fits-all message for every funeral, I haven’t found it. While there may be necessary components in every funeral sermon, I feel it’s best to read each situation and adjust accordingly.
At Matthew McAlpine’s service on January 27, 2018, preaching on the resurrection seemed premature based on my conversations with his family, so I borrowed from Paul’s methodology. When the apostle spoke to the men of Athens, Greece in Acts 17, he needed to first address the reality of the Creator before he could talk about Christ and the resurrection. Similarly, I couldn’t preach the gospel without laying the proper foundation.
Thankfully, most funerals provide follow-up opportunities. Pray for me as well as Matt’s family. May “life and immortality [be brought] to light through the gospel” in their lives (2Ti 1:10).
In the Bible, the book of Ecclesiastes says, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting” (Ecc 7:2). To paraphrase, King Solomon claims it’s better to be at a funeral than, let’s say, a birthday party or a wedding. His statement seems to defy conventional wisdom. It can appear outright absurd. Who in his right mind would rather be at a funeral than a celebration?
Solomon isn’t as crazy as he may sound if we understand from where he’s coming. He likely spoke these words as an old man. Though God had given him incredible wisdom, he still managed to do many foolish things. The consequences were beginning to catch up with him, prompting him to deeply reflect on his life.
He began and ended his speech with this well-known refrain: “Vanity of vanities … vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ecc 1:2). One translation of the Bible quotes Solomon as saying, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” The English translations, however, are misleading. In Hebrew, Solomon used the word hebel, which literally refers to vapor or mist. He was comparing life in this world to a mist.
Fleeting and mysterious
What does life have in common with vapor (i.e., fog, smoke, or steam)? First of all, it doesn’t last very long in the grand scheme of things. Like vapor, it appears then disappears rather quickly. Second, there is something mysterious about it. If you see smoke rising from a fire, for instance, that smoke is both tangible and intangible at the same time. It is a physical thing which you can see and touch, yet you can never take hold of it. It will always slip through your fingers.
Similarly, life is both fleeting and mysterious. Today, I don’t have to convince you that life is relatively short. Whether we live fifty years or a hundred, somehow the end always comes sooner than expected. Meanwhile, our time on earth is full of enigmas. We never find answers to all of our questions. Why do good people suffer? Why is there so much injustice in the world? What’s the meaning of life?
These thoughts were running through Solomon’s mind as he spoke. For perhaps the first time in his life, he considered his own mortality. He began to reflect on all that he had seen and done over the years, and he wanted to know whether it had any meaning. His conclusion was this: “All is vanity” (Ecc 12:8). Life is a vapor, fleeting and mysterious.
Beyond the fog
Solomon’s summary, however, is not as hopeless or cynical as it seems. If one examines life from a purely secular perspective, it does appear meaningless. We are born. We grow and learn. We spend our days doing whatever seems best to us. We laugh. We cry. We enjoy certain pleasures. We endure the difficulties. We search for purpose. Meanwhile, the clock is counting down to an end we can’t avoid. The entire human experience feels mostly random without any clear objective.
Even so, Solomon keeps circling back to another perspective throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. One moment he says, “All is vanity,” yet he tells us to enjoy life the next. How can we enjoy that which is temporary and utterly void of meaning? We can’t, not unless there is something more to this life than we can readily see. The good news is, there is something more.
Imagine yourself standing in a dense fog. You can hardly see two feet in front of you. You don’t know what’s around you or what’s to come. You’re trapped within what Solomon calls hebel (vapor). In moments throughout Ecclesiastes, he reminds us that there is a vast world beyond the fog. To be specific, there is an eternity beyond time and a God who holds sovereign control over everything that happens.
Be joyful and take pleasure
Listen to what Solomon said in a passage which I’m sure you’re familiar with:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; 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 cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.
What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-13)
When Solomon looked at life from a secular perspective, all he could say was, it’s vanity. It’s fleeting and meaningless. But when he considered another possibility, the possibility of a sovereign God and eternity beyond time, his tone changes completely. Suddenly, he speaks of enjoying life rather than resenting it.
Sovereign God and eternity
In a passage made popular by the Sixties’ rock group, The Byrds, Solomon says, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecc 3:1). That’s an expression of optimism. When he considers God’s existence, he realizes that God is in control of what happens. The seasons of life are in his hand. He has a purpose for everything. There is a plan. We may not know his plan—he says, “[We] cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end” (Ecc 3:11)—yet we can have confidence that there is a plan. The world is not as random as it seems. It makes perfect sense to the one in control of it.
Also, Solomon reminds us of eternity. Not only has God “made everything beautiful in its time,” but he has also “put eternity into man’s heart” (Ecc 3:11). He created us to instinctively know there is something beyond the fog. Though we can’t see it with our natural eyes, our hearts can sense it, and the reality of eternity changes everything. As a result, Solomon could say:
I perceived that there is nothing better for them [for any of us] than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13)
If there is no life beyond this life, then it doesn’t matter how we spend our time. Everything we accomplish will die with us. But if there is an eternity, then our lives have rich meaning because there will be no end to them.
If there is no God, then our world is truly random. How could there ever be right or wrong? How could there be purpose or reason? But if there is a God, then everything has a reason: the good, the bad, and the ugly. If there is a sovereign ruler over the universe and time itself, then everything is within his control and grand purpose.
Remember your Creator
In the beginning, I read this verse: “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting” (Ecc 7:2). The latter half of the verse says, “For this is the end of all mankind [i.e., the house of mourning], and the living will lay it to heart.”
Michelle and others who loved Matthew, I cannot express how sorry I am for your loss. I realize that this occasion is incredibly difficult for you, but I want you to understand why the Bible would make such a strange statement. How can it be better to go to the house of mourning than to the house of feasting or celebration?
When everything in life is going right, we rarely pause long enough to think about these weightier matters. Why dwell on what comes after death when we’re in the prime of life? Why question the meaning of it all when we’re having a good time? Just go with it, we think. Solomon knew the value of these harder times in life such as when we lose someone we love. They provide us every incentive to stop and consider the possibility of God and eternity.
Near the end of his speech, Solomon says, “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’” (Ecc 12:1). He implores us to reflect on God before we grow old and cynical. He wants us to intimately know the Creator before times get tough and sorrow overwhelms us. Why do you suppose that is?
What’s the meaning of life?
God gives this life meaning. He gives death meaning. The totality of human history is on a track which God laid and will ultimately culminate in a way which he purposed before time itself. The book of Romans says, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Ro 8:28). Whether we can understand it all or not, everything that happens is part of God’s plan for the good of his people.
As it turns out, the book of Ecclesiastes is not teaching us to give up on life or be discouraged. It is calling us to believe in God and trust his sovereignty. It reminds us that death is not the end. One writer of the New Testament says, “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col 3:2). In other words, look beyond the fog. Try to see past the misery of the moment. There is so much more out there. There is so much more to come if only we look to the merciful Father of heaven who says, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other” (Isa 45:22).
I pray you will find comfort in God above. I hope that his grace will be with you. The possibility of an eternal life without pain, sickness, sorrow, or death is real and available for those who turn to God through Christ his Son.