The broad question that the writer of Ecclesiastes seeks to answer is, “Is there any meaning to the time that I spend in this world?” We put on a man’s tombstone that he was born on a certain date and that he died on a certain date. Between these two poles of time we live our lives. The basic question is, “Does my life have meaning?”
A common refrain echoed in Ecclesiastes is that there is futility, vanity, and “nothing new under the sun.” If our lives begin under the sun as a cosmic accident, a result of random collisions and mutations of inert matter, and if our ultimate destiny is to return to the dust that bore us, there can be no purpose.
When we cease to look “under the sun” and seek our destiny “under heaven,” we find our purpose. Our origin was not in the primordial soup but in the very hands of God, who shaped us and breathed life into us. Our destiny is not to return to dust, but to give honor and praise to God forever. Under heaven we find purpose. If we have God as our origin and as our destiny, between those poles there is purpose and meaning.
The writer answers the question with a resounding “Yes!” There is a reason for our lives. There is a reason for our suffering and a reason for our pain. There is also a reason for our joy.
When Paul declared the mysterious and breathtaking promise that “all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8: 28), he was musing in teleology. He was dealing with the realm of the remote rather than the proximate. This suggests that the proximate must be judged in light of the remote.
Our problem is this: We do not yet possess the full light of the remote. We are still looking in a dark mirror. We are not utterly devoid of light, though. We have enough light to know that God has a good purpose even when we are ignorant of that good purpose.
It is the good purpose of God that gives the final answer to the appearance of vanity and futility in this world. To trust in the good purpose of God is the very essence of godly faith. This is why no Christian can be an ultimate pessimist.
The world in which we live is not a world of chance. Its beginning was not an accident, its operation is not an accident, and its telos, or goal, is not an accident. This is my Father’s world and He rules it without caprice. As long as God exists, vanity is a manifest impossibility.
“Why did God allow it to happen?” This question seeks to probe the remote or ultimate purpose. The question assumes something crucial to our understanding of God. It assumes that God could have prevented the thing that happened. If we deny this verity, we deny the very character of God. If God could not have prevented it, He would no longer be God. By asking why, we also assume something else that is vital. We assume there is an answer to the question. We assume that God had a reason or a purpose for the thing that occurred.
The question remains—”Was God’s reason or purpose a good one?” To ask the question is to answer it—if we know anything about God. We err in our reason. We establish futile goals. We rush off on fools’ errands. We pursue sinful ends. Let us not project the same kind of vicious intentionality of God.
The only purpose or intention God ever has is altogether good. When the Bible speaks of the sovereign exercise of the pleasure of His will, there is no hint of arbitrariness or wicked intent. The pleasure of His will is always the good pleasure of His will. His pleasure is always good, His will is always good, and His intentions are always good.
In the quest for purpose, we must distinguish between proximate and remote purposes. The proximate refers to that which is close at hand. The remote refers to the distant, far-off, ultimate purpose. The football player’s proximate goal is to make a first down. The more remote goal is a touchdown. The even more remote goal is to win the game. The ultimate goal is to win a championship.
We remember the poignant meeting between Joseph and his brothers, when the brothers feared recriminations from their powerful brother for the treachery they had committed against him. But Joseph saw a remarkable concurrence at work between proximate and remote intentions. He said, ” You meant it for evil; God meant it for good.”
Here the proximate and the remote seemed to be mutually exclusive. The divine intention was the exact opposite of the human intention. Joseph’s brothers had one goal; God had a different one. The amazing truth here is that the remote purpose was served by the proximate one. This does not diminish the culpability of the brothers. Their intent and their actions were evil. Yet it seemed good to God to let it happen that His purpose might be fulfilled.
“Why?” This simple question, which we utter many times a day, is loaded with assumptions of what philosophers call teleology. Teleology is the study of design and purpose. It comes from the Greek word telos, which is sprinkled liberally through the New Testament.
We seek to discover the reason things happen as they do. Why does the rain fall? Why does the earth turn on its axis? Why did you say what you said? When we raise the question of purpose, we are concerned with ends, aims, and goals. All of these terms suggest intent. They assume meaning rather than meaninglessness.
The cynic may respond to the question “Why?” with a glib retort: “Why not?” Yet even in this response there is a thinly veiled commitment to purpose. If we give a reason for not doing something, we are saying that the negative serves a purpose or fulfills a goal. Human beings are creatures committed to purpose. Intent informs our actions.