My grandfather died of brain cancer. I was 18 at the time and it was my first interaction with that dreadful word cancer. Since then, I have had several interactions with it. It is always a formidable and frightening foe.
As we push into our reflection on Ecclesiastes, Solomon wants us to fully understand how pointless life is. He has already described the pointlessness of wisdom, pleasure, power, altruism, and religion. And you would think that is enough. But those five things being pointless just make life crappy. The next five are even worse.
Which brings us back to cancer. When my grandfather got cancer, it first affected his thinking abilities. Then his personality. Then his motor functions. And finally, death.
These five thoughts of Solomon are like that. It starts small. It is just a line on the computer screen. But the more you think about it the more it starts to affect things—emotions, thinking ability, a purpose for living. If you follow through you move to listlessness. Then spiritlessness. Then death.
The five things that Solomon considers are these:
The indifference of all things
Death is certain for all
Progress is a lie
God is there but not here
What do I mean when I say the indifference of all things? Think about all the organisms in the universe. Plant and animal, big and small, from plankton to the blue whale, from the amoeba to humanity. Let that number be x. Then ask the universe which of those the universe cares enough about to keep alive. The answer is again x. Not x+1 nor x-1. The issue is not that bad things happen to good people. The real issue is those bad things happen to good people just as frequently as bad people.
Solomon writes about the indifference this way, “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.” (Ecc. 9:2)
Death. If we doubted the indifference of the universe, here is the truth – all die. Pascal wrote, “The last act is tragic, however happy all the rest of the play is; at the last a little earth is thrown upon our head, and that is the end for ever.” Underneath all our fancy or not so fancy dress. Despite all our intelligence or lack thereof. Death comes.
Alexander the Great is said to have given instructions that one arm was to be left exposed out of his coffin with an open hand. The man who conquered the whole world left the world with what he came.
If the point of a novel is the ending, then the point of life is vanity with a vengeance. The bell tolls for us all. “For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.” (Ecc. 3:19-20)
I would like to close with two thoughts.
The first is we need to go no further to see the absolute insignificance of everyone everywhere. If the universe does not care and death comes to us all, what is the point? Sometimes we get so upset about drugs, sex, other value systems, power politics. But what is the real issue? If people are looking for something to give them meaning, why do we get so upset with the things they are trying to find the meaning in? You say you have a better answer, then give it.
The second is that everyone dies. The Buddhist and the Christian. The old and the young. Rich and poor. Single. Married. Sinner. Saint. Good health. Bad health. Christians say they have a purpose and point -- maybe even life after death. Yet – they live in the same despair and same listlessness that afflicts the rest of the world. I wonder sometimes whether Christians believe what they say they believe.