The twentieth century began with great confidence in reason.1 The world believed it had ended war and famine. The use of reason via philosophy and technology would progress us into the Golden Age. But this hope was soon dashed by two great wars, drought, and disease. There is no greater irony in the twentieth century than the work of Fritz Haber, a Jewish-German chemist whose synthesis of ammonia, the key component of the fertilizers that drove the 20th century’s “green revolution,” earned him the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918. He created bread from the air. Utopia was upon us. But then came World War I, and Fritz turned his green revolution into mustard gas. He created death from the air and the title “War Criminal.” What brought life, now brought death. And the poignancy doesn’t end in World War I—his gas was also responsible for killing millions of his own people during the Holocaust.
Sadly, the irony is lost on so many and utopianism isn’t going away anytime soon, finding life in the likes of communism, fascism, and anarchism. There are Christian versions of the same concept, where there is no neutrality, instead taking every thought captive with power, with the church attempting to push society into a new Golden Age of Christendom. All we have left to do, besides obviously making it actually happen already, is to name the capital. My money is on either Branson, Missouri; Salt Lake City, Utah; or Moscow, Idaho. Of course, if the Christian Left inaugurates, then it’s either in San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; or upstate New York.
In the age of Utopianism from Plato to Descartes, we need the voice of the author of Ecclesiastes, Qohelet. When we begin to think we are working for food that doesn’t perish, we need Qohelet. When we think we are laying up for ourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust cannot destroy, where thieves cannot break in and steal, we need Qohelet. When we think all can be saved by pithy sloganeering like, “Make America Great Again,” we need Qohelet.
Qohelet has not only read Genesis 3 but he’s also ruminated on it. So he’s suspicious of any so-called wisdom that leads to your best life now. We need this suspicion today, especially this November before we begin to think our vote really matters in the grand scheme of things.
I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with” (Eccl 1:12–13).
This is typical ancient royal propaganda.2 The ancient kings sought to be wiser than their predecessors. And they always succeeded, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge” (Eccl 1:16). Qohelet achieved great success, surpassing all others before him, nevertheless, what did he gain? Nothing! The tradition of wisdom commands the pursuit of knowledge, and he pursued it with gusto and had every privilege known to man, nevertheless, it got him nothing. In the end, according to Qohelet, even kings are impotent.3 It’s all “a striving after the wind” (Eccl 1:17). So much for the Golden Age and this voting season being the most important vote ever. Ever notice how every voting season is the most important ever? “All is vanity” (Eccl 1:2).
In Ecclesiastes death takes everything. It destroys the wisdom tradition, “the wise dies as well as the fool.” There is no overcoming this fallen world by reason, work, pleasure, vocation, family, health, wealth, or anything in all of creation. There is no Golden Age with death’s shadow darkening everything under the sun. Ecclesiastes doesn’t allow for Utopia. So I’ve coined the phrase autopia. By using the negative prefix a (as in amillennialism: no millennialism), autopia indicates no utopia. There is no Golden Age; what we received is all “vanity” and the Olivet Discourse. Utopia means we’re not longing for a better geo-political state, not even a Christian one, but “a better country that is a heavenly one.”
All is vanity is Ecclesiastes. In 1:1–11, Qohelet has shown that work is vanity, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (Eccl 1:3). What advantage do you gain from work? I get paid. Then what? I pay taxes. Then what? I pay the bills. Then what? I eat. Then what? I get some stuff. Then what? I save for retirement. Then what, “There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after” (Eccl 1:11). What’s the reason, purpose, and point of it all? We want our lives to count!4 We want our long hard days and years to amount to something. But in the end, none of it matters. Eventually, your memory is faded into nothingness as if you had never lived.
Not only vocation, but reason with its knowledge of science and art is likewise vanity, “I have seen everything that is done under the sun… is vanity” (Eccl 1:14). The pursuit of the cultural mandate, “be fruitful and multiply,” proves all to be vain. Not vain in the sense of common grace, we still get to work and enjoy the fruits of our labor. We still get to be married and enjoy our families. The cultural mandate is a blessing from God. It produces industry, agriculture, and art. But it likewise produces mustard gas for the wars and rumors of more. The cultural mandate is cursed, so in pain you shall bring forth children. Marriage will be subjected to tyranny—”he shall rule over you.” Childbearing and marriage, it’s all cursed—even the ground is cursed “because of you.” The result is that in this world you will have tribulation. You cannot work your way to life eternal. And you cannot reason your way to life eternal. You cannot work or reason your way out of this sad world. There is no Golden Age this side of glory, only autopia.
“In the OT, the heart is the center of the human person.”5 Qohelet gave all his heart, soul, mind, and strength to the pursuit of wisdom. He sought his whole life long to answer the most important question of all, “What is the meaning of life?” He sought his wisdom differently from the Proverbs. Proverbs’ search for wisdom comes from the fear of the Lord. God is the first principle. Qohelet’s first principle is “I.”
And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with (Eccl 1:13).
The center of Qohelet’s quest will be his own consciousness, “as manifested in observation, reason, and experience.”6 This I doesn’t mean he has given up on God. It means he has sought wisdom from God’s creation. God has given man his creation. Qohelet used God’s creation to find the meaning of life, which proved to be an unhappy business. It’s unhappy because the game is rigged, “I have seen everything… and [it is all] a striving after wind” (Eccl 1:14). Trying to find the meaning of life in cultural pursuits is like trying to get hold of the wind. The meaning is there. You can see that there is meaning in labor, in families, in health, in wisdom, reason, in creation, only it cannot be grasped by means of these. You cannot find the meaning of creation in creation. Trying to find the meaning of life in creation is like looking to Biden for coherence. You want the leader of the free world to make sense, but the light has faded. Trying to find meaning in creation is like shaking hands with ghosts. It’s not there.
What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted (Eccl 1:15).
A proverb is introduced to reinforce the curse.7 This world is crooked. While it is true that instructions may straighten the crooked and bend the straight—we need the Proverbs. Yet in the end, some things are too crooked to be straightened. You cannot straighten out the world in all its perversity and disorder. You cannot reason your way out of this sad world. What is not there cannot be counted.
I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind (Eccl. 1:16–17).
His superiority over his predecessors turns out to be a farce. With all the time and resources, with no stone left unturned, he found nothing but a final proverb, “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (Eccl 1:18). In the ancient world, it was assumed that pain and trouble would lead to wisdom.8 So by pain, one could find life. It was a means to an end—utopia. But Qohelet crushes this proverb—and utopia—for pain and misery are the very results of wisdom.9 The more one knows the worse off he is—autopia.
You cannot reason your way out of this sad world. All you can find by work and reason is misery, In this world, you will have tribulation. We have to live with the thorns, thistles, pain, and sweat.11 God will not bring salvation through creation, either by your work or reason. There is no escape from under the sun, so we must lift up our eyes to another. Heidelberg assumes Qohelet’s denial of the Golden Age. Heidelberg assumes autopia.
Q52: That in all my sorrows and persecutions [autopia in agreement with the Olivet Discourse; Christ preached Ecclesiastes], with uplifted head I look for the very same person, who before offered himself for my sake, to the tribunal of God, and has removed all curse from me.
Jesus Christ stood beneath the sun for us and proclaimed that there is no Golden Age; in this world, you will have tribulation.11 Then he was crucified for not triumphing by worldly expectations in his entry into Jerusalem, died, and was resurrected so that he could say in truth, “But be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.” Ah, there is glory, there is utopia—it is just not of this world. Amen!
© Jared Beaird. All Rights Reserved.
1. Craig G. Bartholomew, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament: Ecclesiastes, ed. Tremper Longman III (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 126.
2. C. L. Seow, Ecclesiastes: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 18C, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 144.
3. Ibid., 148.
4. Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden: The Gospel according to Ecclesiastes, ed. Iain M. Duguid, 1st ed., The Gospel according to the Old Testament (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2014), 44.
5. Craig G. Bartholomew, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament: Ecclesiastes, 123.
6. Ibid., 123.
7. C. L. Seow, Ecclesiastes, 146.
8. Ibid., 149.
10. Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, 58.
11. Ibid., 58.
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Wow! What a perfect analogy:
“Trying to find meaning in creation is like shaking hands with ghosts. It’s not there.”
This is perfectly timed piece.
this is excellent, thank you for these insights, really helpful
“…The more one knows the worse off he is—autopia…”
Yes, indeed. In fact, we always used to use the expression, “the more you know the more you realize how much you don’t know.” Only those who have acquired a great depth of knowledge in their specific field realize this – those who are neophytes, beginners “think” they know it all.