And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:4).
Man, now separated from God by sin, collects together and attempts to fulfill his inner yearnings through brick and mortar. Since death is inevitable, man seeks to make a name for himself. Man does not want to be alone, and if there is some beacon that can summon everyone to it, man will never have to be apart again.
While God frustrates man’s design through the confusion of speech (Genesis 11:7-9), the inner desire of man is not removed. Nearly five millennia later, man finds himself in a similar condition. His language may be confused, but he has learned to adapt and speak different languages. He still desires to make a name for himself. He’s still looking to build that tower, be it literal or metaphorical, and trying to avoid being scattered like the wind.
This message is instilled in our youth. You can become whatever you want. Search for a career that will provide meaning. Do something that makes a difference, or makes an impact. Make a name for yourself.
Then we come to Ecclesiastes. The Preacher’s message has the reputation for being downright depressing and cynical. The message only seems cynical and depressing, however, when one is enraptured with the human pretension of significance. In reality, the Preacher’s message is precisely what man must remember: everything earthly is vanity (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Heaping up of possessions, seeking after pleasure, buildings, monuments– all vanity (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11). As it is written,
I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind (Ecclesiastes 1:14).
The Preacher does not attempt to depress; instead, he tries to help us to understand reality. Man apart from God is nothing. Man is insignificant. He will be forgotten.
The career that provides meaning or makes an impact? The name is barely remembered after a few generations. The statues and memorials of man? If they are not relegated to history’s dustbin, they will not be much more than things recited in history class by disinterested teenagers.
Make a name for yourself? More likely than not, your name will just end up as one of many written in genealogical books or as a curiosity in the archives of the local paper. Man’s pretension, when stripped away, is simply vanity and striving after wind. It is empty. It is futile. In the end, it is a lie.
And what a devastating lie it is! How many have reached the depths of despair when the “cruel” reality of their own earthly meaninglessness and insignificance is made manifest? How many live lives of despair because, for whatever reason, they did not reach their “potential”? Then again, how many are discouraged because they reached their “potential” but saw that it was not what it was cracked up to be?
Would they have suffered this devastation had they never been told the lie in the first place? If the urge to make a name for themselves was properly handled, would it have led to such discouragement?
The Preacher does not mean to discourage, but he attempts to get us to understand how we can truly live.
And also that every man should eat and drink, and enjoy good in all his labor, is the gift of God. I know that, whatsoever God doeth, it shall be for ever: nothing can be put to it, nor anything taken from it; and God hath done it, that men should fear before him (Ecclesiastes 3:10-14).
Life, in the end, is a gift from God, and God provides many things for us to enjoy. Work is one of them. Everything must gravitate toward serving Him, since He is all that will last (Ecclesiastes 3:11).
Human effort goes nowhere. All the works of man, whether small or great, will be destroyed at the last conflagration (2 Peter 3:9-12). Whatever God does not plant will be rooted up (Matthew 15:13). God extends the hope of eternal life (John 3:16). When man does the work of God to His praise and glory, that work will endure (Matthew 6:19-21). Apart from God, we are meaningless and insignificant. In God we have purpose and meaning, able to take part in the most significant of matters– God’s eternal plan (Ephesians 3:11). Through God, even the works of man that represent vanity can have meaning– working as for the Master, giving us the opportunity to direct ourselves and others to that which has ultimate significance (cf. Ephesians 6:5-9).
All that which man does to aim high will be frustrated, humbled, and brought low, just as with the Tower of Babel. But when man recognizes his limitations, dispenses with the pretenses, and in all humility clings to God, God will raise him up and give him everlasting life.
We are nothing, and God is everything. When we come to that realization, we do well.