When Life Feels Empty

| Ecclesiastes 1:1-14 | February 24, 2019

Week of March 3, 2019

The Point: Life without Christ is meaningless.

All is Vanity: Ecclesiastes 1:1-14.

[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. [12] I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. [13] 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. [14] I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. [ESV]

“Vanity of Vanities [1:1-2]. Why Study Ecclesiastes? If we want to know what is happening these days or have trouble understanding why a powerful Creator allows evil on the earth or struggle to resolve life’s other inconsistencies, it is all right here in this book. We should study Ecclesiastes because it is honest about the troubles of life. More than anything else in the Bible, Ecclesiastes captures the futility and frustration of a fallen world. It is honest about the drudgery of work, the injustice of government, the dissatisfaction of foolish pleasure, and the mind-numbing tedium of everyday life. We should also study Ecclesiastes to learn what will happen to us if we choose what the world tries to offer instead of what God has to give. The writer of this book had more money, enjoyed more pleasure, and possessed more human wisdom than anyone else in the world at that time, yet everything still ended in frustration. The same will happen to us if we live for ourselves rather than for God. Then too we should study Ecclesiastes because it asks the biggest and hardest questions that people still have today. What is the meaning of life? Why am I so unhappy? Does God really care? Why is there so much suffering and injustice in the world? Is life really worth living? These are the kinds of intellectual and practical questions that the writer wants to ask. And part of his spiritual struggle is with the answers that he has always been given. Here is another reason to study Ecclesiastes: it will help us worship the one true God. For all of its sad disappointments and skeptical doubts, this book teaches many great truths about God. It presents Him as the Mighty Creator and Sovereign Lord, the transcendent and all-powerful ruler of the universe. Reading Ecclesiastes, therefore, will help us grow in the knowledge of God. At the same time, this book teaches us how to live for God and not just for ourselves. It gives us some of the basic principles we need to build a God-centered worldview, like the goodness of creation and our own absolute dependence on the Creator. Then, on the basis of these principles, Ecclesiastes gives many specific instructions about everyday issues like money, sex, and power. It also has many things to say about death, which may be the most practical issues of all. In short, there are many good reasons to study Ecclesiastes. This is especially true for anyone who is still deciding what to believe and what not to believe. It is a book for skeptics and agnostics, for people on a quest to know the meaning of life, for people who are open to God but are not sure whether they can trust the Bible. If Ecclesiastes serves as a back door for believers who sometimes have their doubts, it also serves as the gateway for some people to enter a personal relationship with Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life, which is why for some people it turns out to be one of the most important books they ever read. Who is Qoheleth? This Hebrew word can be translated as ‘Teacher’, ‘Philosopher’, or the ‘Spokesman’. It literally means “to gather, collect, or assemble.” It is used elsewhere in the Bible as referring to the gathering or assembly of a community of people, especially for the worship of God. So ‘Preacher” may be the best translation of all. He is not so much a teacher in a classroom but more like a pastor in a church. He is preaching wisdom to a gathering of the people of God. Judging by what the book says, Ecclesiastes may well have been written by Solomon himself; this is the most natural way to read the Biblical text. The book’s real-life background is the story we read about Solomon in 1 Kings and other places. What does the Preacher say? His opening words takes the whole sum of human existence and declares that it is utterly meaningless. Then he takes the next twelve chapters to prove his point in painful detail, after which he returns to the very same statement in 12:8. The word vanity is notoriously difficult to define. Taken literally, the Hebrew word refers to a breath or vapor, like a puff of smoke rising from a fire or the cloud of steam that comes from hot breath on a frosty morning. Life is like that. It is elusive, ephemeral, and enigmatic. Life is so insubstantial that when we try to get our hands on it, it slips right through our fingers. Life is also transitory. It disappears as suddenly as it comes. The Bible often compares our mortal existence to a vapor [e.g., Pss. 39:5; 78:33; Job 7:7; James 4:14]. When we look at the way this word is used throughout this book, it takes on broader significance. The word comes to express the absurdity and futility of life in a fallen world. To use the word vanity is to say that our brief lives are marked by empty futility, which is what Qoheleth says all the way through his book. Notice the vast scope of the claim that he makes: all is vanity. There is not one single aspect of human existence that is not frustrated by futility. It is all empty, pointless, useless, and absurd. To prove his point, the Preacher will take everything that people ordinarily use to give meaning or to find satisfaction in life and then show how empty it really is. In doing so, he will speak from experience, because he had tried it all – money, pleasure, knowledge, and power. Sooner or later we all have the same experience. We try to find the meaning of life but come up empty. We indulge in certain pleasures, only to end up more dissatisfied than ever. Or we are unhappy because we feel that we will never do anything important or be anybody special. Then there is the biggest vanity of all, the emptiest of all futilities – death, in all of its dreadful finality. Death is the vanity of all vanities. What makes everything even worse for the Preacher is that somehow God is at the bottom of it. Qoheleth never gives up his faith in the power and sovereignty of God. But rather than making him feel better, the truth of God’s existence often seems to make things worse. Whatever frustrations he has with the world are also frustrations with the God who made it. So what hope does he have that life will ever make sense? Anyone who has ever felt that life was not worth living – that nothing ever turns out the way one wants or hopes and that not even God can make a difference – knows exactly what the Preacher was talking about. The End of the Matter. Given everything that Ecclesiastes says about the vanity of life, one might think that the book is depressing. Admittedly, some people think that the Preacher is too much of a pessimist. Certainly the experiences of life have taught him to take a darker view. He still believes in God, so he is not an atheist, or even an agnostic. But there do seem to be times when he is tempted to be a cynic, if not a fatalist. Can we really trust a man like this to give us wisdom for life? While it is true that the Preacher takes a sober view of life, never flinching from any of its complexities and confusions, it is equally true that he has solid hope in the goodness of God as well as lasting joy in the beauty of his many gifts. This is exactly why he has shown us the futility of everything earthly: it is so we will put our hope in the everlasting God. The Preacher hits at his evangelistic purpose by using an important phrase almost thirty times over the course of his argument: under the sun. As he describes the absurdity and futility of work and wisdom and pleasure and everything else, he repeatedly says that this is what things are like under the sun. In other words, this is what life is like when we view it from a merely human perspective, when we limit out gaze to this solar system, without ever lifting our eyes to see the beauty and glory of God in Heaven. If that is all we see, then life will leave us empty and unhappy. But when we look to God with reverence and awe, we are able to see the meaning of life, and the beauty of its pleasures, and the eternal significance of everything we do, including the little things of everyday life. Only then can we discover why everything matters. We catch glimpses of this eternal perspective throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, but it becomes even clearer at the very end. Vanity does not have the last word. Instead, the author says, The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man [12:13]. But in order to know and enjoy God properly, we first have to see the emptiness of life without Him, becoming thoroughly disillusioned with everything the world has to offer. To this end, Ecclesiastes gives us a true assessment of what life is like apart from the grace of God. This makes it a hopeful book, not a depressing one; ultimately its worldview is positive, not negative. Like a good pastor, Qoheleth shows us the absolute vanity of life without God, so that we finally stop expecting earthly things to give us lasting satisfaction and learn to live for God rather than for ourselves.

Same Old, Same Old [1:3-11]. Profit Motive. In verse 3 the Preacher begins to make his case for the emptiness of our existence: What does man gain by all the toil. The idea of gaining some profit will come up repeatedly in Ecclesiastes. The word gain is a commercial term ordinarily used in the context of business. It refers to a surplus, to something left over after all the expenses have been paid. This is the goal toward which anyone in business is working. The goal is to turn a profit as the reward for one’s labor. Gain is the return on investment for hard work. The Preacher was willing to work hard, but first he wanted to know the cash value. So he asks the question that people have about every job: Is it worth it? Am I really accomplishing anything? What will I have to show for all my toil? The Preacher asks us to consider what we will have to show for ourselves when life on earth is finished. The answer he gives here is, absolutely nothing. No matter how hard people work, they never really gain anything. The word he uses for toil is imply the ordinary Hebrew word for “work.” People work hard, laboring for some kind of profit, but what do they really get for all their effort? Precious little, if anything at all. To prove his point the Preacher lists a series of things that never seem to go anywhere or gain anything. The first half of his introductory poem gives examples from creation – the natural world [4-7]. The second half gives examples from human experience [8-11]. But whether we look at the world around us or consider our own life experience, the point is the same: there is nothing to gain. People like to talk about progress – economic development, technological advances, evolutionary improvements – but it is all a myth. There is never any progress: just the  same old, same old. Generations come and go, the writer says. One generation may be rising, but at the same time another generation is dying off. It has always been this way. Meanwhile, the world itself remains the same. There is never any progress. The rise of each generation gives the impression that something actually is happening, but nothing really is: the earth remains forever [4]. The world is a very repetitive place. Nothing ever changes [5-7]. So what profit is there? What do we gain? When the Preacher looks at the sun [5], he simply sees the monotony of life in a static universe. The wind shows us the same thing, for it fails to accomplish anything more than the sun [6]. The flow of water seems just as profitless [7]. Qoheleth is talking about the way that all rivers and streams flow forever to the sea. Life is the same way. Everything seems to be in a rut. Where is the progress? What is the profit? You spend your whole life working for one company after another, but what do you gain for all your toil? If the sun and the wind and the mighty rivers have nothing to show for their constant labor, then what hope do we have of ever accomplishing anything in life? It makes the Preacher tired just thinking about it. So he takes what he has observed in nature and summarizes it like this: All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it [8]. Life is such a wearisome, toilsome trouble that it is hard even to put into words. With this statement, the Preacher reiterates the central theme of his poem. He is trying to show how tiresome life is. Yet he is not finished making his argument. It is not just the natural world that proves how little there is for us to gain in life, but also our own personal experience. Start with sensory perception. Here is a notable example of the weariness of all things: the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. People are always looking and listening. This is especially true now in the information age. Every day we see an endless procession of visual images. Yet even after all our looking and listening, our eyes and our ears are not satisfied. We still want to see and hear more. But what have we gained? What have we accomplished? Is there any profit? These are important questions to ask ourselves about everything we see and hear: Is this helping me make some kind of progress, or is it the same old, same old? Of consider the endless weariness of human history, which always seems to be repeating itself: 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 [9]. Nations rise and fall, but human nature remains the same. People who come up with new inventions have the same fallen nature as ever. They have the same basic problems, the same moral deficiencies, and the same underlying insecurities that people have always had. This explains why history does not seem to be going anywhere, why it seems to be circular rather than linear. The more things change, the more they stay the same. And if it ever seems like there really is something new under the sun, it is only because we have forgotten what happened before [11]. How quickly people forget! What Ecclesiastes describes here is a kind of historical amnesia. One day we too will be forgotten. Centuries from now, the common experiences of our own time will be among the former things that are mentioned in 1:11. What we have accumulated will be lost; what we have accomplished will be forgotten. The same memory failure happens at the individual level. There are many things we find hard to remember. This is part of the weariness of life, that there is no remembrance of former things. Here it is crucially important to understand the Preacher’s purpose. There is a reason why he wants us to feel the full weight of the weariness and futility of life under the sun. This is not the whole story, however. Remember that this is only the way things are if we look at them under the sun. This phrase, which occurs here in verse 3 and again in verse 9, as well as dozens of other places in Ecclesiastes, is one of the keys to understanding the book. It partly expresses the extent of our problem. Where do we experience life’s futility and frustration? Everywhere in the world – wherever the sun shines. Yet this phrase also leaves open the possibility of a different perspective. When he says under the sun, the Preacher rules out all higher values and spiritual realities and employs only the resources and gifts that this world offers. To see things under the sun, then, is to look at them from ground level. It is to take an earthly point of view, leaving God out of it for the moment. But of course this is not the only way to look at things, or even the right way to look at them. There is a God in Heaven who rules over the sun. Therefore, we are not limited to the terrestrial; by the revelation of the Word of God, we can also see things from the celestial. The reason the Preacher shows us the weariness of our existence, making us more and more disillusioned with life under the sun, is so we will not expect to find meaning and satisfaction in earthly things, but only in God Himself. This does not mean that if we believe in God all our troubles will be over or that we will never again feel the weariness and vanity of life under the sun. For one thing, believers often forget to remember God, and when we do, we are right back under the sun again. But Ecclesiastes does open up the possibility of an “above the sun” perspective that can bring joy and refreshment to life as we learn everything matters. One way to see this is to take all of the things that make life so wearisome – all of the dreary repetitions in nature and human experience – and see what a difference it makes to bring God back into the picture. What happens when we take the vanity of all these vanities into the Holy of Holies and see them from God’s point of view? The Preacher looks at the natural world and fails to see any progress. But there is another perspective. The repetition that we see in nature is a testimony to the goodness and orderliness of God. The regularity of the created world shows the constancy of its Creator. Looking above the sun also gives us a different perspective on our experience. Is there anything new? Maybe not under the sun, but the God who rules over the sun is always doing something new. There is a “new covenant” in the blood of Jesus Christ [Luke 22:20]. There is the “new life” that came up from the empty tomb when Jesus rose from the dead with the power of eternal salvation. There is the “new heart” that God gives to everyone who believes in Jesus [Ez. 26:26]. There is the “new self” that the Holy Spirit starts to grow in the knowledge and the holiness of God [Eph. 4:24]. This new self is so new that the Bible call it a new creation [2 Cor. 5:17], which is a way of saying that when we trust in God, His work in us will re-create our whole world. The living God who sits on the throne of the universe says, Behold, I am making all things new [Rev. 21:5]. This is the promise to hold on to whenever we are tired of life and all its troubles. One day this God will make new heavens and a new earth. When the great day comes, our restless ears and roving eyes will be fully and finally satisfied to see Jesus Christ and to hear the sound of His glorious worship.

The Seeker’s Quest [1:12-14]. The Solomon of Ecclesiastes was a seeker; he was on a personal quest for wisdom and knowledge. He says, I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven [13]. The Preacher-King was asking the ultimate questions. He wanted to know the meaning of life. He focused his mind and disciplined his heart to know the truth. His quest was also comprehensive. The words seek and search indicate the seriousness of his efforts. They show Solomon’s diligence. He wanted to understand life. His quest was as extensive as it was intensive. This was a commendable quest. Rather than seeking pleasure or looking for popularity or finding significance in his personal accomplishments, the Preacher first used wisdom to find meaning for life. As a wisdom writer, he viewed wisdom as the highest virtue. The kind of wisdom the Preacher had in mind was not divine wisdom but human wisdom – the very best that human beings have ever thought or said. Although wisdom generally has very positive connotations in the Bible, it does not always refer to spiritual wisdom that comes from God. Here it refers to what human beings can learn about the world without any special revelation from God. Seeking such wisdom is a worthy pursuit, as far as it goes. All truth is God’s truth, wherever it may be found. If we learn anything that is true to the world as it truly is, that truth ultimately comes as a gift from God. The question is, how far will such wisdom take us? Will it help us to know and to worship Jesus Christ as the Son of God? Will it lead us in the way of life everlasting? Will it help us understand why everything matters? One good way to answer these questions is to see the result of the Preacher’s quest. What did he discover? And what would we learn if we devoted our lives to a similar quest for knowledge? The reality is that the Preacher came up totally empty. The Preacher found that the meaning of life was nothing at all. So in verses 13-15 he describes the unhappiness, the emptiness, and the futility of his own efforts to understand the universe – the end of his first quest. The longer he looked for answers and the harder he tried to understand life, the more burdened he became. The Preacher believed that the quest for knowledge was his God-given task. As a person made in God’s image, he could not help but ask the ultimate questions, trying to understand the meaning of life. It also leads to emptiness, as the Preacher also discovered. After going everywhere to make a thorough investigation of everything that people do, he came to this conclusion: I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind [14]. From what the Preacher has seen, based purely on his personal experience, without the benefit of divine revelation, figuring out the meaning of life is as unattainable as striving after the wind.” [Ryken, pp. 13-41].

Questions for Discussion: 

  1. List the things the Preacher calls vanity. And note why he calls them that. Look up 2:1,4,17-23; 4:4,7-8,9-12,13-16; 5:8-15; 11:8,10. What is an ‘under the sun’ life? Compare 1 Corinthians 15:19 and Ephesians 2:12. What is the problem with this?
  2. Watch for examples in the media, from politicians and teachers and entertainers, etc., that indicate that the meaning of life is being sought in autonomy from God. Start a file of significant quotations. As you read your Bible and assess what is going on in the world, identify the consequences of the exclusion of God and His Word from private life and public policy, and ask God to open blind eyes and bring every thought captive to Christ [2 Cor. 10:5].
  3. Discuss the three facts of life set out in verses 4, 8 and 9. How do these contribute to a sense of futility in life? Is there any escape from an ‘under-the-sun’ life? What does God say about this world and our life: where it all came from [Ps. 19:1-6]; how He views it [Gen. 1:10,18,21]; and where it is going [Isa. 65:17-25; Rom. 8:19-20]?
  4. The application of this passage to you is this: Are you willing to take another look at your life? Face some hard questions? Or do you prefer the warm and fuzzy comforts of your illusions? Or will you drown reality in distractions, denial, or even despair?

References:

Ecclesiastes, Craig Bartholomew, Baker.

Ecclesiastes, Charles Bridges, Banner of Truth.

Ecclesiastes, Duane Garrett, NAC, Broadman Press.

Ecclesiastes, Gordon Keddie, Evangelical Press.

The Message of Ecclesiastes, Derek Kidner, Inter Varsity.

Ecclesiastes, Philip Ryken, Crossway (ebook).