Everything is meaningless!
The worldview of the Teacher is framed by the assertion that, "Everything is meaningless." He makes this statement at both the beginning and the end of his thoughts on life. We are challenged in our English translations on the word hebel, which at one time was given as "vanity" but now is here translated "meaningless" (NIV; while NET does well with "futile"). The expression itself is pointing to the absurdity of it all, and it is a statement of frustration with everything that he sees: everything that happens under the sun. We could use modern slang to convey this, ranging from the sanitary to the vulgar.
At the end of the day, this Teacher has observed and engaged life. He has wrestled with it, been knocked down by it, confused by it, and is now over it. He sees that the endless cycles of nature – the movement of sun and moon, wind and rivers – are so constant that the world is void of that which he may regard as novel or unique. It has become rubbish to him. All of this is worthless and empty. And so, he begins his greatest inquiry into life itself with his exasperation: Everything is HEBEL!
Most of us who live in the digital age have quickly discovered this reality itself, without ever having to leave our screens. At first we thought that this was a great novelty and tool for human advancement. And yet, we know that the same cycles of life repeat themselves, leaving us constantly scrolling and clicking and tapping for something that can hold our attention. Truly, there is nothing new under the sun, or perhaps we have learned to appreciate the wonder of nature in the first place.
The world has closed in on most of our imagination, though there are still those who will seek physical, emotional, and spiritual life in a virtual world. The imaginary world we foster in this virtual reality moves us in our physical world as well. This is no simple tirade against virtual content, but rather a consideration of our lives as they interact with increasingly intense experiences "outside of ourselves." But do we ever have a personal experience that can be completely "outside of ourselves" as though we are left unaffected? I am no doctor of psychologist, so I cannot speak to the specifics of the mental or biological nature of this issue. But I am a theologian, and it is undeniable that every experience in our lives affects our spirits.
So, I look at this fascination with a pornographic culture that has exploded to extreme levels since the Western world got online, and the simple connections to immoral behaviors in the physical world, many of which greatly damage others. And I see a large interest in violent, murderous, and grotesque entertainment found in many virtual reality games, movies, and television shows, and the simple connections to violent behavior in the physical world.
There are many voices who still insist that these connections do not exist, either for pointing in other directions or finding blame on a case-by-case basis. And yet, when tragedy and violence happen in our world, there is mass confusion in the society as everyone searches for culpability. The answers are settled on rather quickly, and the solutions come in rapid succession. And yet, as these voices from our culture can point to every jot-and-tittle of what they think ought to change in others, they so easily miss very significant factors right in front of them.
Today, the Hollywood elite mock the faith of those who were in church as a cowardly madman walked in and began shooting. And yet, their own sub-culture is struggling to deal with the sexual violence that apparently has been widespread for many years. Those who have no room for faith and morality in their lives have no basis for making judgments on the prayers of believers. Even before they have emerged from the public release of their debauchery these figures laugh at those whose faith is leading them to a life of more integrity. The Hollywood elite do not understand this, for they have been rolling around in such filth for years, celebrating it in their productions and awarding themselves for their depravity. Hebel!
And so, the discussions of culpability stand at the forefront of our national discussion. Politicians want to blame each other, Twitter celebrities seem to be in a race to see who can be the most vulgar and asinine in their statements, so-called news channels work to advance whatever narrative is most profitable for today, and NFL players are still kneeling for reasons they themselves are yet to understand. The axiom, a conclusion is the place where you got tired of thinking comes into play here: when we don't want to deal with it anymore, blame society as a whole whenever bad things happen.
There are two main problems here: first, this would necessarily including the victims of violence, since they are part of society; second, there are many within society who choose not to participate in this so-called culture of violence and pornography, and whose lives are (in one way or another) working to bring an end to it. But let's remember, in the midst of the voices that cry No More! the ones who hold our society's microphones laugh, ridicule, mock, and dismiss our concerns. In fact, any objection to what is vulgar and shocking today will find the boundaries pushed by someone else tomorrow. And, therein lies the culpability.
Admittedly, not every congregation gets it. But, the church is a place of nonviolence, and the gospel is a message of peace and love and hope and reconciliation. Those who walk with Jesus along this path are not participating with the culture of violence that is supposedly producing our tragedies. Then again, there are many who claim for themselves the mantle of 'Christian' who are perfectly happy to indulge themselves in grotesque, violent, pornographic, immoral filth set before them as entertainment. And since I rarely hear of someone binge-reading their Bible, I'm guessing there is more time spent engaging the depravity than in feasting on the Word. And to say that one's spirit is unaffected by this is incredibly foolish. Such a faith is hebel!
When concerns are raised regarding the morality of a particular television program or film or virtual reality game of some sort, the larger culture typically laughs it off. This is true even within the American church today, where Christian behavior is nearly indistinguishable from worldly behavior. And then the scenarios that once existed on screen become a horrific reality that splatters across our headlines, and the head-scratching cycle begins again. Hebel!
Our situation is simply the front-end message of the gospel: we have a moral problem. Before we rush to blame guns, games, movies, drugs, education, laws, or anything else, it must be acknowledged that humanity's brokenness is the cause for the evils we perpetuate to one another. This is a simple answer, but it is the core of what we need to recognize. The solution is just as simple, though not particularly easy, especially for those so entwined in the world's behavior. The key phrase here is repentance, which will make many roll their eyes at the word's very sound. The key behavior associated with this word is to turn from one course of action or direction, in favor of another. In this case, it would be turning from the immorality and violence in order to walk towards Christ.
For those who are already part of the church this is of paramount importance: It is time to stop trying to reconcile the depravity of our human nature with the gospel. Jesus did not come to make peace with sin and death, but to conquer it. It makes no sense for us to stand in the place of his victory while continuing to engage with the darkness. It is time to stop allowing the grotesque to defile our God-given homes; it is time to stop soiling the wedding clothes of the Lamb's Bride with the disgusting muck of immorality. For that is Hebel while the fullness of life still awaits us in our Creator's world – indeed, he himself has shown us the way to a life more abundant.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is worthy of respect, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if something is excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)