(1 of 5 in a series through Ecclesiastes)
This week I pulled up an article that I first read about a decade ago.1 It was written by the man who was my adviser in college. His name was David. It will not be surprising to any of you who know me well that I planned out my course load for each semester, what classes I had to take when, from the very beginning of my freshman year. So, my bi-annual meeting with my adviser about my class schedule rarely revolved around actually talking about classes. We’d just catch up on life, talk about what each of us was doing, and he’d sign my class schedule before I headed out. It was always an enjoyable moment with an enjoyable professor.
But when I read this article that he wrote in 2008, enjoyment was the farthest thing from my experience. It was actually painful to read, and I hadn’t read it over the last ten years until this week when I pulled it out and re-read it as I was studying the first eleven verses of Ecclesiastes. In the article, David details a moment of discomfort that occurs in his soul each year as his family sits down to watch together an old Bing Crosby movie called Holiday Inn. In the movie, the leading female character remarks about her dad that “he never amounted to much. He was just a man with a family.” And it’s this point that David picks up on in this article and pushes against personally.
He argues that he doesn’t want to be “just a man with a family.” He writes, “My desire to leave a mark on the world, . . . to be a person of influence, to be remembered after I die, . . . was just too strong for that life. I had some gifts, the time was right, and the fire of ambition burns hot within me.” He then wraps up this bearing of his soul in this article by concluding, “You can amount to something. Or you can be a man or woman with a family.” And his choice is clear. He’s determined to amount to something, to leave his mark on this world, and to be remembered long after he dies.
And the message of Ecclesiastes as a whole, and especially our text this morning (1:1-11) is simple. The preacher comes with a straightforward message to David and those of us who may think like him, wanting to wrestle from this life lasting significance, make our permanent mark, and be remembered long after we’re dead. The preacher’s message is simply, “That ain’t happening.” And if that’s your goal, you’re approaching this life no differently than an unbeliever.
Now, for some of you, this news may feel crushing. Your whole aim in life has been to “amount to something” in this world, to find lasting significance in your labor, and wrestle from this life rewards that will finally bring you true and lasting happiness. So, at this moment, you’re inclination is to push back. But if it is, I want to ask you to stay with us for this five-week study through Ecclesiastes and see if what is offered to us in this book actually isn’t more than what you’re longing for.
For others of you, however, this news that you’ll never achieve amounting to something, being remembered, and leaving your mark in this world is a relief. It’s what you’ve secretly wanted to be true because you’re wearing yourself out in this tireless pursuit of some elusive gain that always leaves you empty-handed, frustrated, and maybe even hating life. And if that’s the case, then I want to ask you to stay with us through this five-week study as well and let the preacher show you why you don’t have to live like that anymore. I hope you’ll find great freedom over these weeks that you’ve perhaps never known.
Let’s start this pursuit first, then, by giving the context for the book and then diving into this first eleven verses. Ecclesiastes was written by “the Preacher,” as we read in verse 1. Verse 1 continues by identifying him as “the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” And for that reason, traditionally the church has identified Solomon as the author of this book. And he may well have been the author, as there is much that points us in that direction. But because any king in David’s line could have been identified as the “son of David,” and because the author himself simply identifies himself as “the Preacher,” I will simply refer to our author in that same way.
Moreover, before we dive into these first eleven verses, let me provide one note of definition. Throughout the book, the preacher will use the phrase “under the sun.” And when I preached through this book twelve years ago, I said that I thought he used that phrase to mean “without reference to God or eternity.” But I want to tweak that a bit because I don’t think it’s completely accurate to say without reference to God. I think rather we should hear the phrase “under the sun” simply as meaning “life in this present world . . . on earth,”2 on this side of eternity. In other words, without reference to eternity and simply thinking about this life, on earth, under the sun, on this side of eternity, what is the preacher wanting to teach us in this book? Let me give you his thesis that can be found in the opening three verses. It is this: There is no lasting significance or gain to be had under the sun, on this side of eternity, so we don’t have to worry about chasing after it.
Now, let me be clear, he is not saying that things we do here don’t have eternal significance. They do. Jesus instructs us to store up treasures in heaven that will last. He tells us that we can lose our lives here and know eternal life. And I could go on and on. But, if you think of this side of eternity, and you simply consider this present world as it is, you can’t extract from this life lasting gain, lasting significance, some net gain in the end.
That’s what he tells us in the first three verses. After his introduction in verse 1, he writes in verses 2-3, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he labors under the sun?”
Do you see what he’s doing here? He’s asking a question in verse 3 that he’s already answered in verse 2. He’s asking in verse 3 that if you look at this world and you think to yourself, “What can I gain, what lasting significance or profit can I gain from this world so that when it’s all said and done I got something so that I was in the black in the ledger, if you will?” And the implied answer is nothing. In the end, under the sun, you gain nothing. My friend, David, who wrote that article daring to tell anyone who read it that he was going to make his mark on this world, be remembered after he died, and amount to something, getting gain out of this world, is going to be sorely disappointed. And the reason why the answer is nothing, that you can wrestle no lasting significance and lasting happiness from this world, is because “All is vanity,” says the preacher. And by “vanity” he means that it’s like a mist, a puff of smoke, that is here one minute and gone the next. Attempting to make one’s mark on the world is like attempting to build a lasting sandcastle down by the crashing waves. It’s soon erased. This world, on this side of Genesis 3, simply isn’t equipped to provide for you what you long for in and of itself. But how can we know that to be true? How can we know that such a pursuit is like “chasing after the wind,” as the preacher will go on to say? Well, the preacher gives us four arguments. The first is that we’re all going to die and likely be forgotten.
The preacher writes in verse 4, “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” Unless the Lord Jesus Christ returns in our lifetime, you and I cannot escape the unavoidable truth that we will all one day be dead.
I mentioned a few weeks ago the beauty I encountered as I was driving to work early and watched the sun rise. Can you imagine how many people have stood near where I was standing that day and watched the sun rise over the years? Hundreds upon hundreds. Even if we go back only 200 years, could you and I provide their names? Probably not. I can’t even tell you the name of my great, great grandparents, and they’re my great, great grandparents. I’ve got no chance of remembering yours.
The earth keeps being there, the sun keeps rising, but we keep dying and giving way to others who’ll look on that same sunrise, and so it will be until the Lord returns. A generation comes and a generation goes, and there is no remembrance of former things.
The other day I looked on Twitter and someone had written, “If you live in a small town, do yourself a favor and do some research on your family history. My great great grandfather, for example, sounds like he was a riot.” That’s a fine thing to write, much better than most things on Twitter, I’m sure. So, I’m not taking issue with the tweet. But think about that for a second. Think of the man who was her great great grandfather. He was a person just like you or me, and think of all that man went through in his life. He had dreams. He probably worked hard. Overcame struggles. Battled anxieties. Raised his children. Loved deeply. Prayed earnestly. Lived life fully. Perhaps he even had ambition like my friend, David, and thought, “I’ll make my mark on this world and be remembered when I die.” And on the on and on. If he lived to be even seventy-years-old, there were 25,550 days that he lived on earth, days full of heartache and pain, fears and disappointed, laughter and joy, excitement and thrill. He lived over 25,500 days, and his life is reduced in 2018, on this side of eternity (i.e. “under the sun”), to a one-hundred-and-forty-character tweet that tells us that he “sounds like he was a riot.” That’s it!
And why? What did he miss? What did he fail to do that would have changed all of that, that would have provided lasting significance? Nothing. He’s like all of us. This is how life is “under the sun.” We’re all going to die, and most likely only a few generations from now, no one will know our names. The preacher tells us in verse 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.” We’ll die and be forgotten. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? Nothing, because life is like a puff of smoke, here one moment and gone the next.
My adviser isn’t the first to want to “leave a mark on the world” and “be remembered” after he dies. But he, like all of those before him, will fail to “gain” by all of his toils under the sun. After all his labors, he’ll be like that glorious sandcastle on the beach that is amazing to look at for the few minutes it stands before it is erased away by the tide. Life is like a mist, a vapor, a puff of smoke. Vanity of vanities. You and I will one day die and be forgotten.
And if you still want to push back, the preacher’s next point is that not even creation achieves lasting gain.
Next the preacher looks at creation and writes, “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 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” (vv. 5-8a).
Do you see? Not even creation achieves lasting gain. It’s not as if the sun rises, warms the earth, brings life to all things on the planet, and then says, “Whew, that was hard, but I’m glad that’s done. I did a lasting work. Glad I’ll never have to do that again.” No. It rather starts the same process tomorrow and the next day and the next, on and on until the Lord’s return. The wind blows in cold fronts or warm fronts, rains and storms, but it’s never done with its work. It’s not like blowing in one rain storm is sufficient for any piece of land to have life as long as this earth lasts. The wind just keeps going on its circuit; its job is never done. Even the streams that flow into the ocean never get to stop and say, “Now the sea is full.” It never gets full. The streams just flow again and again and again. Creation itself is in a wearying toil with no lasting impact. As one commentator put it, “Why do you imagine that a ‘surplus’ for the puny individual is a realistic aim, when creation itself, in all its awesome mystery and complexity beyond mortal grasping, is not ordered to produce a surplus through its toil but is content, as it were, to go on with its tasks, endlessly and cyclically, in consistency with its nature? . . . There is no reason to assume that individuals should ‘gain’ from their toil when creation as a whole does not.”3 That’s the preacher’s second point.
And yet there’s more. The preacher also points out that even our senses confirm we’ll never find lasting gain under the sun.
He writes in verse 8, “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.” It’s not as if you see something or hear something and think, “Now that I’ve experienced that, there’s nothing more that I yearn for. That sight or that sound has brought me perfect contentment.” But we deceive ourselves sometimes, thinking that will be true, don’t we? It’s pretending that the next thing will bring us lasting satisfaction that can serve as our carrot in the race, enticing us to keep striving toward finding that elusive lasting significance under the sun where we will really have achieved and amounted to something.
David Gibson, in his terrific book Living Life Backward, notes this reality, writing, “Let’s pretend that if we get the promotion, or see our church grow, or bring up good children, we’ll feel significant and leave a lasting legacy behind us. Let’s pretend that if we change jobs . . . we won’t experience the humdrum tedium and ordinariness of life. Let’s pretend that if we move to a new house, we’ll be happier and will never want to move again. Let’s pretend that if we end one relationship and start a new one, we won’t ever feel trapped. Let’s pretend that if we were married, or weren’t married, we would be content. Let’s pretend that if we had more money, we would be satisfied. Let’s pretend that if we get through this week’s pile of washing and dirty diapers and shopping lists and school runs and busy evenings, next week will be quieter.”4 That is precisely what the preacher is telling us is vanity of vanities. It’s as if we’re reaching for that puff of smoke after you’ve blown out a candle. It quickly disappears. It’s—as he will later say—like chasing after the wind.
And finally, he gives us one other reason in these opening verses to support his thesis that there’s no lasting gain to be had this side of eternity. He finishes his prologue by reminding us that we’re just repeating what has already been done.
He writes, “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” (vv. 9-11).
You may well be thinking, “Well, my life is different. I’m going to find lasting gain, lasting meaning, lasting significance. I’m going to do what has never been done before.” But the preacher says, “No, it’s been done.” And the fact that we don’t know it’s been done merely proves his point that about a hundred years after you die, no one will even know you’ve lived. You’ll do things that no one will know about a hundred years from now. You may be reduced to, “My great great grandfather sounds like he was a riot.”
Now, someone could counter that we have done new things. In 1969 a man stepped on the moon. That was new. Sure, but what isn’t new is being a pioneer and seeking to explore new areas. That’s as old as time. And once a new area is explored, even when it’s the moon, there are more to be explored. There is no lasting gain.
Brothers and sisters, the preacher is telling us this not to destroy us but to save us. He wants us to know that if we spend our lives chasing significance and meaning and lasting gain simply under the sun—looking merely on this side of eternity—we’re going to be sorely disappointed in the end, and he wants to save us from that. He’s doing us the favor of saying, “Look, I’ve tried it, and you don’t need to throw away your life doing what is the equivalent of chasing after the wind.”
So, what do we then do? Two things. First, realize that the pursuit of fixing your hopes in this life only is worthless and abandon it. God did not put you on this earth in order to pursue making your mark, being remembered with you die, and amounting to something in this life. That’s not why you were created. And if that’s what’s driving you in your life right now, you may well end up hating life, as you keep finding out that it’s out of your grasp and what you grab hold of is never enough.
You were created to recognize that God is the center of all things, not you. Ian Provan has voiced this perfectly in my mind, as he writes, “The universe is not designed to enable ‘gain’ to happen, and those who attempt to fly in the face of reality can only ever know grief and frustration in the end. The universe is not designed to contain gods and heroes, but mortal beings who accept the limitations that have been set upon their lives and get on with them in quietness and humility. This life on earth is intended to have as its center the God who created everything and who holds everything in his hand.”5 And that brings us to our second application: live in light of eternity.
Life in the here and now is not all there is. Jesus came and lived and died and was raised so that death might not be the last word for us. So, give your money now, under the sun, knowing that you can store up treasure that does last forever. Serve others, knowing that you’ll know a greatness that won’t simply disappear. Do everything you do to love and honor God, giving up on your pursuits of amounting to something in the here and now, and realize that he will exalt you on that last day so that you might enjoy him forever. Let us live for the day that never ends, the day that will be ours at the appearing of Christ. And let us remember the certainty of that coming day now as we come to the table. Amen.