Ep.302: Ecclesiastes and the Meaning of Chess.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

Today we continue our series on the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes. Last week, I questioned the New International Version’s translation which says, “Meaningless, meaningless, it’s all meaningless.” 

Today, let’s think about meaning by asking, What’s the meaning of chess? 

It was a big deal in 1997 when IBM’s Deep Blue chess program beat Garry Kasparov, the reigning world champion. It was a major victory for artificial intelligence, and a huge win for IBM’s technical skills. But many chess players resented IBM’s arrogant intrusion into their favorite game because chess is a human game. The goal isn’t just to capture the opposing army. If all I want is to sacrifice pawns and kill the king, I can pitch my opponent’s pieces in the fire. 

Chess is a game, a microcosm of human civilization and war. It evokes the emotions of a thousand years of knights and castles, of medieval bishops, queens, and kings. Chess asks me, “Am I a pawn in this game of life? Will the church and politicians and army sacrifice me for their bigger aims?” 

Chess is recreation, a mental challenge, a battle of wits, an opportunity to develop skill. It is also a spectator sport. 

Computers that play chess don’t understand that. They have no memories of love and war, of victory and defeat. They just process information and execute a programmed strategy. 

Computer chess reminds me of a satellite navigation unit I had. Whenever I made a wrong turn the unit said with an annoyed tone, “Recalculating, recalculating.” I was on a journey, but my GPS wasn’t enjoying the trip. All it cared about was the math. 

So what does this have to do with Ecclesiastes and meaninglessness? 

The author of Ecclesiastes applied his “mathematical” mind, his computer mind, to the search for meaning. 

He tried gaining wisdom. But he discovered that “In much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge increases pain” (1:17-18). 

He tried maximum pleasure: wine, music, dancing, women. But he found no lasting satisfaction, no meaning there (2:1-9). 

He became obscenely wealthy and he used his money to build houses and vineyards and gardens and parks (2:4-7). But his life continued to fail the test of meaning.  

The problem was that the author played life like a computer program plays chess, like my GPS goes on a journey. He defined the goal played to win, but when he did, he didn’t know what the game meant. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we are players in this game of life. How often we have computed that better health, more money, better social connections, or more wisdom would give us a richer, fuller life. And maybe, just maybe, answer our nagging questions about meaning. 

But now we confess with the author of Ecclesiastes that a meaningful life is not gained by strategy and design. As the author discovered, all our accomplishments and all our experiences can leave us empty and dissatisfied.

Teach us then the true source of meaning. 

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube

Ep.301: Meaningless?

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.

When I was growing up, I was fascinated by the opening words in Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” 

That was the King James Version. Today’s New International Version puts it, “Meaningless, meaningless, everything is meaningless.” 

That’s a harsh philosophy of life. Everything is meaningless? Does the Bible really teach that nihilistic philosophy?

One graduation requirement at my Christian high school was to preach a ten-minute sermon in chapel. I wasn’t an active Christian back then, but I did want to graduate, so preaching the senior sermon presented a dilemma. 

I solved the problem by taking my theme from Ecclesiastes. As I followed the author through his search for meaning in work, in wealth, in leisure, and in learning, I agreed with him that, yes, it was all rather meaningless. Today, as a committed Christain, still searching for meaning, that theme of Ecclesiastes keeps coming back. 

These days, I’m pretty sure I pointed my senior sermon in the wrong direction. The Hebrew word for meaningless is better translated as vapor or breath. 

The author is not asserting that everything is meaningless, but that everything is transient, unsubstantial, passing. Like smoke and vapor. Like the morning mist the sun disperses. 

I worked in computing for 28 years at Alberta Motor Association, on three different membership systems. The first was a home-built system we retired before the year 2000; the second was leased from a vendor, and the third was an off-the-shelf system that morphed into an expensive custom development. And now that I’m retired, they’re replacing that system too.  

That’s what Ecclesiastes tells me. It’s smoke: three decades on transient computer systems. It’s vapor: no one remembers me or the systems I supported. 

Ecclesiastes says the same about other parts of life. Years of scrimping and saving built my small investment portfolio. But what will happen to my savings? Will the stock market crash, will inflation chew them up, will health expenses deplete them? My health insurance contract covers the first $200,000 of lifetime medical expenses. After that, they’re finished with me. I can solve my own problems. 

That too is part of Ecclesiastes. Success is not guaranteed in the things we do. And as we do them, we grow old and die and leave it all behind. Like smoke in the wind or mist on the water. 

Fortunately, that’s not the whole message of Ecclesiastes. Stay tuned to hear more of the story next time. 

Let’s pray. 

Our father, we pray with the poet of Psalm 90:
  The length of our days is seventy years,
      or eighty if we have the strength,
      yet their span is but trouble and sorrow,
      for they quickly pass and we fly away (v. 10). 

Our wealth and health and pleasures fall under the shadow of age. We bury the friends of our youth, and our zest for life diminishes. O Lord, draw us closer to you and to those we love and to the home you are preparing for us. 

Amen. 

I’m Daniel, on the channel “Pray with Me”.  

YouTube channel: Pray with Me – YouTube