The Futility of Human Endeavor
Topic: Meaning of Life Passage: Ecclesiastes 1:1–1:11
“THE FUTILITY OF HUMAN ENDEAVOR”
1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher.
Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
7 All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
8 All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.
Ecclesiastes has been described by some as “the most enigmatic book in all of Scripture.” And while there is good reason for saying that, it is also a book that begs to be preached. I can say that with confidence because it begins by telling us that these are “the words of the Preacher” (Ecclesiastes 1:1).
Many people avoid this book because of its “dark” and “desperate” tone, whereas others are instinctively drawn to it for the very same reason. There are different times in our lives when each of us is able to relate to its message to one extent or the other. Interestingly, even though the author identifies himself as “the son of David, king in Jerusalem,” he writes from a very pessimistic perspective. Fortunately, by the time we reach the end of the book, we are left with a positive conclusion. As one proceeds through its content, he must do so carefully, because if he doesn’t he may find himself in greater despair than when he began.
Ecclesiastes is a book about “the search for meaning”...specifically, the meaning to life. Because King Solomon is thought by most to have been the writer of this book, it is quite amazing that the man who had more wealth and more wisdom than anyone in his time would struggle to find purpose in life. Solomon’s problem, as he freely admits and as well shall see, is that he searched for the meaning to life in all the wrong places.
Sprinkled rather freely throughout the book are several “verbal clues” that provide for us “guard rails” to keep us drifting into hopelessness and falling “off the edge” into a pit from which there is no way out. We need to keep these “guard rails” in mind as we make our way through “the Preacher’s” message lest we fall into hopelessness too quickly.
Verse 2 establishes the “tempo” of Ecclesiastes and sets us up for what is about to come: “Vanity of vanities...Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” The Hebrew word is “hebel,” which could be translated “emptiness,” “vapor, “breath,” “futility,” “worthless,” “absurdity,” “meaningless”...you get the picture. “All (everything) is vanity,” so says “the Preacher.” We find that term being used more than thirty times in the book. It is a word that is pronounced with a heavy breathing sound...a slow expiration, something on the order of a “sigh.” Every time the book was read aloud in ancient Israel, the hearer would have been reminded that life was fleeting...a mere “breath.”
Two more phrases that are regularly found in Ecclesiastes are “under the sun” and “striving after wind.” At times they appear together, but more often separately. Both contribute further to the “vanity” or futility of life that the writer has both experienced and expressed. “Under the sun” (or “under heaven,” as it is sometimes stated) reveals the perspective from which the writer recorded his observations. And from such a vantage place, life appears to him to be little more than a pointless and repetitive cacophony...a steady “drum beat” of “sameness.”
In a word, Solomon is writing about a life of futility that is lived to the exclusion of God It becomes what one writer has called, “the journal of desperate journey.” In our approach to Ecclesiastes over these next several weeks, we are going to be considering the emptiness of this man’s quest to find meaning apart from God. I believe that you will see something of yourself along the way...and as you do, I hope that you will pause to consider how you may need to alter the course of your own life’s journey. This morning we will be looking at the futility of human endeavor.
But before we dig into this opening section of the book, allow me to make mention of a few of the deceptions that we sometimes hear and repeat in an effort to mask life’s realities. At times they sound like “mantras” or “slogans” that are pulled out and said in order to mask how we actually feel about life. Things like, “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” “Things are getting better everyday,” “Things are never as bad as they seem,” or that biblical quote that is so often used out of context: “All things work together for good.”
God’s Word, rightly read and correctly understood, never deceives us or deludes us with false hope. It gives us the straight facts with regard to human existence, regardless of how disturbing and unsettling those facts may be. It presents life as it is...and that is what Ecclesiastes is about.
The first eleven verses of Ecclesiastes lay the groundwork for the entire book. Its premise is laid out in verses 1 through 3, where we find the...
Exposure to life “under the sun” (verses 1-3).
We have already noted that the writer has identified himself as “the Preacher.” That specific term (“Qoheleth”) occurs seven times in Ecclesiastes and nowhere else in the Bible. It does not carry a purely “religious” connotation as the word “preacher” does today, but refers to “someone (anyone) who addresses a gathered assembly.”
The expression, “Vanity of vanities” in verse 2 conveys a Hebrew idiom that amplifies the intensity of that word. Were he to have expressed the thought today, “the Preacher” might have said, “Life is empty...made up of nothingness.”
Many since Solomon have echoed that sentiment. The journalist H.L. Mencken wrote, “The basic fact about human experience is not that it’s a tragedy, but that it is a bore. It is not that it is so predominantly painful, but that it is lacking in any sense.”
Henry David Thoreau agreed when he wrote, “Most men live out their lives in quiet desperation.” Another has said that “Much of our activity is nothing more than a cheap anesthetic to deaden the pain of an empty life.” And a bit more humorously, but just as true, another has added, “The trouble with life is that it is so...daily.”
Perhaps you recall the bumper sticker that read, “Life is hard, and then you die.” That is the point Solomon is making.
And while we may shake our heads at descriptions such as these, we must admit that we too—perhaps more frequently than we care to admit—have entertained similar thoughts. That is because it is what life on this earth has become as a result of sin (and the death it brings) having entered the world. The “very good” creation of God (cf. Genesis 1:31) has been badly marred. It is, in fact, but a vestige of its original self.
Man’s perfect and peaceful relationship with God was severed when our first parents chose to pursue “the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and the pride of life” (cf. 1 John 2:16) over the love of God and trustful obedience to His command. With the Fall, man was consigned to labor “by the sweat of (His) face” in order to live and survive (cf. Genesis 3:19). The “daily grind” of a “9-to-5” existence goes back to the Garden of Eden.
What we find in Ecclesiastes is one man’s assessment of life based purely on a human value system. This is precisely what Solomon refers to in verse 3, when he asks, “What does a man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” The question is asked rhetorically. The answer, as his reasoning will show throughout these twelve chapters, is “ultimately nothing.” A man can work hard and accumulate all of his life, but when that life is over and he is taken away all that he has will be left behind. Just as Paul would later remind Timothy, “We brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world” (1 Timothy 6:7).
Someone has quipped, “You never see a U-Haul trailer behind a hearse.” not true The expression that “He who dies with the most toys wins” is simply not true.
But such is life “under the sun.” We will keep running into that phrase as we make our way through this book. It depicts life on the “horizontal” plane, from a purely human, “this-life-is-all-there-is” perspective. It depicts life that is limited to the five basic senses of man: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell.
At one time, man had a “sixth sense”...the ability to know and relate to God on a “vertical” plane. That was when the LORD God would walk and talk with man “in the garden in the cool of the day” (cf. Genesis 3:8). But that special relationship was lost with the advent of sin. It is at this point where the evolutionists get it wrong. Man has not “evolved”... if anything, he has “devolved.” Man once experienced life “above and beyond the sun,” but because of sin he has been consigned to live life “under the sun.”
Solomon, however, is not anywhere near ready to give us the solution to this dilemma Fortunately, there is Good News, and you and I don’t have to wait for Solomon’s journey to play out before we find it. We have the rest of the Bible to turn to. You see, that “vertical” plane that was removed at the fall is accessible and restorable to those who are able to hear and heed God’s call to believe the Gospel.
So what is the Gospel? Its content is summarized in 1 Corinthians 15(:3-4), where Paul writes, “Christ died for our sins...was buried...and raised on the third day.” The knowledge of those facts, however—and even believing them—is not a sufficient solution. The larger body of Scripture tells us that we need to come face-to-face with our sin, admit it and confess it to God, turn from it and respond in faith to the One who offered up His sinless life in exchange for ours. Jesus Christ’s atoning death voluntarily paid the penalty that our sin has incurred. Because of our sin, you and I must realize that the perfectly holy and righteous God has every right to condemn us, but that He is also loving and merciful enough to forgive us on the basis of the His Son’s death and resurrection.
Hebrews 11(:1) calls the restoration of that “vertical” dimension “faith,” and describes it as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” “Faith” is the “sixth dimension,” and it is more powerful and able to exceed what the “five senses” can do. That same chapter tells us that “Without faith it is impossible to please (God), for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6).
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, and way ahead of Solomon. Before we are able to appreciate the solution, we must first of all be able to understand and relate to the dilemma that we all face Having exposed the meaning of life “under the sun,” the writer next moves on to provide for us several...
Examples of “life under the sun” (verses 4-11).
Four observations illustrating the “vanities” of life are mentioned in verses 4 through 11. They are stated here as general topics that will be “fleshed out” in greater detail in later chapters.
The first of these is the passing of generations, found in verse 4. “The Preacher” writes, “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” People are born and people die with every passing day. Over time an entire generation will replace the one that now exists. Although each succeeding generation differs in many ways from the last—and we certainly notice that in significant ways over time—the life cycle remains virtually the same: we are born...we live...and we die. That pattern holds true whether we are wealthy or poor, strong or weak, black or white, male or female, introvert or extrovert, gifted or deprived, intellectual or unlearned. One “generation” dies off and a new one takes its place...for a brief while until the next comes along. Our transitory nature is our most common link as human beings.
“But,” the writer adds, “the earth remains forever.” While generations of people come and go, the earth stands. We simply “occupy the space” of those who have gone before us...and, in time, we will hand it over to those who follow after us. Ever since man’s Fall in Genesis 3, “the creation (itself has been) subjected to futility,” according to Romans 8:20. Neither man, who is impermanent, nor the earth, which is permanent, escape the futility of “life under the sun.”
The second example is the cycles of nature, seen in verse 5. There we read, “The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it.”
We can feel the monotony in Solomon’s words, can’t we.? The reference to “the sun” reminds us again that “the Preacher” is describing life lived “under” it. His account of the ceaseless rhythm of nature demonstrates the repetitiveness and tediousness of daily life, and the relative lack of ultimate value it seems to bring. Everything moves in purposeless motion. Whereas Jeremiah was able to look at life and declare God’s “faithful” blessings to be “new every morning” (cf. Lamentations 3:23), Solomon saw each new day as just another page in life’s boring story. “Sun comes up...sun goes down...repeat ad infinitum.”
Not even the wind currents impress the one who lives life on the “horizontal” plane. “The wind blows to the south,” then “to the north,” but it never seems to arrive at a fixed place or find lasting rest. While explaining the ministry of the Holy Spirit with Nicodemus on evening, Jesus Himself admitted that “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8).
Here, “the Preacher” adds that even the rivers and “streams” continue to flow, running into the oceans, and yet never filling them. And once they have arrived at their destination, they continue to roll along, only in time to evaporate and become rain, thus beginning the cycle over again.
Most of us take the processes of nature for granted, but Solomon was a much keener observer of life than we are. And the more intently he looked, the stronger became his opinion that “All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it.” To the writer, life just droned on day after day in a seemingly meaningless cycle. “So, what’s it all about?” he seems to ask of anyone willing to listen.
That brings us to his third example of life’s futile search for meaning, which is the curiosity of man. It is briefly alluded to in verse 8, where he writes, “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” Man’s quest for knowledge is insatiable...never satisfied. Have you ever noticed that as soon as one question is answered, another is raised? It’s that way from the time we are children and always asking, “Why?” And the more we learn, the more jaded we become in our sophistication or disillusioned in our futility.
I have known several individuals who are seemingly on an “academic treadmill,” earning one degree after another—at times in different fields of study—with no real plans beyond pursuing the next one. Paul writes of those who are “always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). Such is the purposeless pattern of life lived with no higher perspective than that of existing “under the sun.”
Solomon has one last example of life’s futile nature. It is the absence of something new. Let’s read again verse 9 through 11: “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.” There is nothing truly novel, the writer insists...which helps explain why we get bored so quickly and tire of things so easily.
In our day when the “newest and best” computers and i-phones are replaced by “newer and better” ones within just a few months, “the words of the Preacher” are quite relevant. But today’s “newest” gadget or is out-of-date before we learn how to fully use it.
The word for “new” (“chadash”) that is found in verses 9 and 10 does not solely convey the idea of “newness in time,” as much as it speaks of “newness in quality.” For example, you may consider buying a “used car” to replace your current one Technically, that vehicle would not “new” in its chronological age, but it would be “new” to you and of better quality than your old one.
More biblically in terms of context, we can note how this same Hebrew term is used in Ezekiel 36:26 where the Lord promises to give His covenant people “a new heart, and a new spirit.” The emphasis of the “newness” is on its qualitative difference. This is what Jeremiah had in mind when he said that the Lord’s “mercies...are new every morning” (cf. Lamentations 3:22-23). And even more significantly, it is what our Lord Jesus meant when he informed His disciples of “the new covenant in (His) blood” (cf. Luke 22:20).
But here in Ecclesiastes, Solomon has not yet reached that place of understanding. He has just begun his quest for meaning...and perhaps you have as well as well. Or maybe you have been pondering questions like these for years. If so, I believe that you will find this book has some answers for you. But for right now—today—what is the meaning of your life?
According to a recent article in “Psychology Today,” “The meaning of life is that which we choose to give it.” Not a very brilliant analysis! In fact, it is utterly meaningless. You mean to say that one person’s answer is as valid as the next? That seems like a very unstable foundation upon which to build one’s life.
Albert Einstein was considered one of the world’s most brilliant thinkers. When asked what was the meaning of life, he merely rephrased the question with a statement:, “The man who regards his own life and that of his fellow creatures as meaningless is not merely unhappy but hardly fit for life.” Not much help there either.
Ecclesiastes is an exposé of another man’s struggle to find meaning in life apart from God...on the “horizontal” plane...“under the sun.” As we shall see even more fully in the chapters ahead, it is the unhappy lament of a disappointed and frustrated soul.
The answer for which we most crave can only come from the Giver of Life Himself. In John 17:3, Jesus in dialogue with His Heavenly Father said, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” When He came to earth Jesus identified Himself as “the way, and the truth, and the life,” insisting that “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).
Jesus Christ redeemed us from the “vanity” that “the Preacher” so wrestled with and suffered under by subjecting himself to what Douglas Sean O’Donnell has called “our temporary, meaningless, futile, incomprehensible, incongruous, absurd, smoke-curling-up-into-the-air, mere-breath, vain life.”
Jesus was born “under the sun.” He toiled “under the sun.” He died “under the sun.” But in his subjection to the curse of death through His own death on the cross, the Son of God redeemed us from life’s “curse...by becoming a curse for us” (cf. Galatians 3:13). By His resurrection, he restored meaning to our toil. And by His return, He will exact every injustice and elucidate every absurdity when He ushers those who are His into the glorious presence of our all-wise but never completely comprehensible God.
If we are able to view these first eleven verses of Ecclesiastes through “the lens of the Gospel,” we see the significance of Jesus’ work. His work is “new.” Through His life, death, and resurrection, the problem of humanity’s sin has been addressed and fixed... permanently...never in need of repair again. Jesus has done for us what no one before or after Him could accomplish. He has reconciled us to God and given meaning to life.
But not only is Jesus able to give meaning to our lives...He is life itself, and He is, therefore, the meaning to life. The plain truth is that life has no meaning without Him.
More in Ecclesiastes: The Search for Meaning
July 15, 2018The Futility of Human Achievement