Solomon Found Despair So We Don’t Have To

One of the things that makes the book of Ecclesiastes so difficult for some to understand is the way that Solomon allows himself to think. Solomon was looking at life to see meaning and purpose. He wanted to be able to show what is right and wrong, good and evil, worthwhile and worthless.

What you might miss is that Solomon accomplishes his task in this book by, at points, examining life from a this-worldly point of view. He looks at life, all our pleasures and pains, and he thinks about what would matter if indeed there was no future for mankind after death. What Solomon concludes, what we see in his examples, is that without an afterlife, it is hard to see why anything in this life matters.

Here is a simple example of how this reasoning goes.

Ecclesiastes 9:1-6 – 1 But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. 2 It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. 4 But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. 6 Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.

If you were to read this without context, without knowing what is happening in Ecclesiastes, you might think this to be unbiblical thinking. Solomon is not an atheist. Even in his greatest despair, he never would pretend like there is no God. Instead, what Solomon did here was to look at human circumstances with the assumption that this life is all there is. And this led him in place after place to declare that all we do is in vain, it is meaningless.

In verse 2, as an example, Solomon says that being good or being bad is irrelevant. After all, good people and bad people all die. Sometimes bad people live longer and happier lives. Sometimes good people live longer and happier lives. But either way, the same thing happens, all end up in the grave.

In verse 5, Solomon points out that, if this life is all there is, the only thing we know is that it is better to be alive than to be dead. After all, if this life is all there is, the dead know and think nothing. There is no justice. There is no reward for righteousness. There is no punishment for evil. Without a life to come, Solomon sees that the only good is to live; and even there, living is a vanity, because life leads to death.

Now, to stop us from really not liking this little book, let’s remember that Solomon will draw the perfect conclusion. Solomon, in chapter 12, will remind us that God does bring deeds into judgment. There is a life beyond this one. Solomon knows all this. He is just taking us through a teaching exercise that shows us how empty life is when one has no hope beyond their 80 years or so.

But we should be learning that there is a genuine emptiness to naturalistic worldviews. Solomon, even three millennia ago, understood that a person who views this life as all there is has no basis for either morality or hope. Even if we know our actions are evil, if we see this life as all there is, so what? Why would we care if we have been good or evil? Solomon shows that, in the end, all we do is live and die and return to dust. There is no hope and no meaning in such a worldview. And thus, such a worldview is unsatisfying and untenable. A this-life-only view offers no basis for morality, no reason for morality, no rational explanation for limiting aggression, no reason to value human beings over animals, no incentive for right behavior, and no deterrent for great evil.

Ecclesiastes is valuable for us because we need somebody to be honest with us about what happens when we see ourselves from a this-world-only view. Solomon was intellectually brighter than all his peers. He did the study. He showed us that naturalism leads to despair. But he did not lose his faith. In the end, he expresses confidence that God is, that God is good, and that God will judge. God will reward those under his favor. God will judge those who have opposed him and his ways. And we can be grateful that Solomon worked through this exercise and wrote it down for us under the inspiration of God. That should keep us from having to walk the same ugly path.

Morality Requires Belief in God

If you have studied apologetics or philosophy much at all, you likely have run across the simple argument that without God, there is no basis for morality. This is a simple argument, to be sure. But simple does not take anything away from its accuracy.

In order for us to see an action as right or wrong, good or evil, acceptable or unacceptable, there must be a standard by which this is determined. If the basis for this determination is subjective, totally based on the point of view of the one assessing the situation, then in truth, there is no such thing as right or wrong. Only if there is an ultimate judge, an ultimate law-giver or morality-maker, can we actually understand that what is right is really right because it is right.

In contrast, if we live in a materialistic and naturalistic universe, morality cannot exist in any meaningful way. If all you and I are at our cores are collections of chemicals that have randomly come together to produce the illusion of meaning, then there is no actual point to discussions of right and wrong. After all, there is simply no way to suggest that one random collection of chemicals dismantling another random collection of chemicals has any sort of moral value. We do not judge a rock as morally wrong if it falls and breaks another rock. WE do not judge the ocean as in sin for eroding the coastline. And thus, if human beings are mere matter, we have no moral basis for judging any action of humans, regardless of its level of destructiveness.

While this argument appears philosophically sound, a more important question arises: Is it biblical? Does God’s word reveal to us the truth that we feel we arrive at through simple reasoning? I thought of that in my daily reading, this time in the Psalms.

Psalm 36:1-4

1 Transgression speaks to the wicked
deep in his heart;
there is no fear of God
before his eyes.
2 For he flatters himself in his own eyes
that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated.
3 The words of his mouth are trouble and deceit;
he has ceased to act wisely and do good.
4 He plots trouble while on his bed;
he sets himself in a way that is not good;
he does not reject evil.

The wicked does not reject evil. Why? What is it that prevents the wicked from rejecting evil? What is he missing? What is at least part of the problem? Notice what the psalmist gives us.

At the end of verse 1, we see that a key to being evil is that there is no fear of God before your eyes. In verse 2, we see that the wicked deceives himself into the belief that no one can find out his wickedness. And I would suggest that these two thoughts fall perfectly in line with our discussion of a need for God in order for morality to have meaning.

In verses 1-2 of the psalm, a wicked person acts based on a pair of false beliefs. This person assumes that there is no God, no judge above him to assess his actions. Thus, the wicked person feels free to act according to his desires, uncircumscribed by an external moral standard. He believes that his iniquity cannot be either found out or hated by anyone who matters. At the end of the day, it appears that the wicked person walks easily into wickedness because of his assessment of the world that he will answer to no one for his actions.

No, this psalm is not engaging in the deep philosophical discussion of whether or not true morality is possible apart from a belief in God. But it does point us in the direction of an answer. The lack of acceptance of the existence and authority of God leads people to act in wicked ways because they fear no retribution for their actions from a judge who sees.

Now, it is also true that some men, claiming a religious faith, have acted wickedly. And it is true that some who claim no religious faith have behaved in ways that are consistent with good. But the key to our understanding is that it is only logically consistent for a person to find his or her morality based on the presence, existence, judgment, and standards of God as we find revealed in the word of God.