Main Idea: No matter how you look at it, you’ll die and be forgotten. But there’s more to this life than living and dying.
Turn in your Bibles to the book of Ecclesiastes. I’m really looking forward to the next several months of preaching, because this is a book that I’ve been wanting to preach for a while. Ecclesiastes is incredibly relatable, because it addresses in very simple terms a question that we’ve probably all struggled with at times in our lives.
Out of all the theological arguments and religious questions that people have, there’s one question that’s in a sense more relevant and practical than the others. We can debate the existence of God, and we can argue that Christianity is the one true religion, but many unbelievers would just shrug and say, “So what?” Many people don’t care whether there’s a God, because it seems too disconnected from everyday life. It’s too theoretical.
And yet, on another level, what we believe about these questions help us to discover the answer to the question that matters to almost all of us, and it’s this: what is the meaning of life?
Some people will say that there’s no meaning to life. Life is just a series of random moments, and we’ve arrived to this time in history after billions of years of meaningless moments, random chance, and none of it means anything. But you can only come to that conclusion if you completely rule out the existence of God. And, operating out of that framework, we might do things because we think they’re subjectively better or pleasurable, or just because we want to, but if we say that there’s no God, then ultimately, nothing really matters, because there’s no overarching point to anything.
On the other hand, if there is a God, then there’s a point to everything. Every seemingly insignificant moment has a purpose, because God doesn’t let anything go to waste. In some ways, that’s a comforting thought. Everything we do and experience matters. But in other ways, it’s a terrifying thought, because we have to come to terms with things that we can’t possibly fathom have any good purpose whatsoever.
So, what’s the point of it all? The book of Ecclesiastes seeks to answer this question.
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem. “Absolute futility,” says the Teacher. “Absolute futility. Everything is futile.” What does a person gain for all his efforts that he labors at under the sun? A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets; panting, it hurries back to the place where it rises. Gusting to the south, turning to the north, turning, turning, goes the wind, and the wind returns in its cycles. All the streams flow to the sea, yet the sea is never full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. All things are wearisome, more than anyone can say. The eye is not satisfied by seeing or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Can one say about anything, “Look, this is new”? It has already existed in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of those who came before; and of those who will come after there will also be no remembrance by those who follow them. (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11)
Father, we confess that we’ve often felt this way. We’ve wondered if there’s a point to all the things we do and experience in this life. So help us to trust in Jesus, the meaning of all things, In Jesus’s name, Amen.
The author of the book identifies himself in verse 1 as “the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem.” It’s generally accepted by both Jews and Christians that this is referring to Solomon, the son of David who became king of Israel after his father passed away. And that certainly fits with what we know about Solomon. Solomon, at one point, asked God for wisdom, and God granted him wisdom so that he was the most wise person on the face of the earth. People would come from hundreds of miles away to hear the wisdom of Solomon. He wrote the majority of the book of Proverbs, and 1 Kings 4:32 says that he wrote over 3,000 proverbs. So he was certainly qualified to write the book of Ecclesiastes, which explores the meaning of life.
In essence, Ecclesiastes is a sermon. When Solomon calls himself “the Teacher” in verse 1, the word can also be translated “preacher,” and has reference to speaking in front of an assembly of people. It’s as if Solomon intended for this book to be used as a kind of textbook that we would come back to time and time again, to correct us and direct us to find our true purpose in life.
And yet, he does so in a way that’s accessible to everyone. It’s interesting that as you read Ecclesiastes, it’s not written in theological jargon, and it doesn’t include any of the history or concepts that would have connected primarily with the Israelites. Ecclesiastes reads as if it’s written by one human being to another human being. Solomon is honest about his struggles, and doubts, and even though he had the wisdom of a scholar, he uses language that we can all instantly connect with.
And the introduction to the book, which we read in verses 2-11, sets the stage for nearly all of the rest of the book. Solomon talks about all the things he observes “under the sun.” Verse 2.
“Absolute futility,” says the Teacher. “Absolute futility. Everything is futile.” (Ecclesiastes 1:2)
When you give a speech, or a sermon, or even just tell a story, one of the most important aspects of your speech is a good hook, and it’s called a hook, because it’s the part that will hook you in and entice you so that you just have to listen to the entire talk. And Solomon was a master at this.
In verse 1, he sets himself up as the Teacher. Not “a” teacher, but “the” teacher. In other words, he’s saying, “I have all the answers. I have the wisdom, and I’m going to teach you true knowledge, and the truth about life.” And then in verse 2, he immediately writes, “Everything is meaningless!” I mean, talk about a hook!
Immediately, we think, “Is that true? How is everything meaningless? Can he prove that? And if that’s true, what does that mean for my everyday life?” Because it’s certainly something we’ve all wondered before. What’s the meaning of life?
But then Solomon doesn’t leave us just to wonder about these things on our own. He immediately follows it with a question meant to cause us to really think about what we do, and why we do what we do. Verse 3.
What does a person gain for all his efforts that he labors at under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 1:3)
That phrase, “under the sun,” refers to all the things that pertain to this life, on the earth. Solomon is directing us for the time being, and really for much of the book, to think about life as if it were purely about what happens here. Let’s hold off on talking about heaven and the afterlife, and let’s just start with what we can all agree on: what is life like under the sun, now, here on the earth. And, as a summary for everything that he’s going to write in Ecclesiastes, Solomon writes here that it’s all futile.
If we just understand life to be about the things that we do in this life, it’s all meaningless! Vanity of vanities! It’s all absolutely futile. Because at the end of our lives, we can’t take anything with us. Everything we’ve gathered, everything we’ve accomplished, all the hard work we’ve done, when we think about these things from a purely materialistic standpoint, It’s all completely pointless.
Sounds pretty pessimistic, doesn’t it? Sounds pretty cynical and even a bit depressing, right? Good. Because that’s exactly where Solomon is taking us on this journey.
A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets; panting, it hurries back to the place where it rises. Gusting to the south, turning to the north, turning, turning, goes the wind, and the wind returns in its cycles. All the streams flow to the sea, yet the sea is never full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. (Ecclesiastes 1:4-7)
As believers in Christ, we know that we have a spirit that lives on forever, and we know that this will be destroyed and replaced with a new earth. But from an unspiritual perspective, a generation goes and a new generation takes its place. We can talk about leaving a legacy for generations to come, but we’re fooling ourselves if we think we can significantly change the course of humanity, because the next generation can take things in the complete opposite direction. Solomon will write more about that in chapter 2. And ultimately, both generations are only a blip in history from the perspective of the earth. We can observe all the patterns that happen on the earth, how generations come and go, and the sun rises and sets day after day, how the winds just circle around the earth, and even how the water cycle never ends, and we could come to the conclusion that life is just one meaningless cycle. And certainly, apart from God, we could come to that conclusion. That’s what many unbelievers believe. “Nothing really matters.”
Now, as we read Ecclesiastes, we need to keep something in mind, because sometimes we’re going to read things that sound pretty desperate and cynical. And that’s where Solomon was for a good period of his life. He had it all! He had riches, and fame, and such wisdom that drove him insane. And so, near the end of his life, Solomon wrote much of what he does in this book from man’s perspective as if he didn’t know God because he wanted to show how absurd it is to try to find meaning in this life apart from God.
All things are wearisome, more than anyone can say. (Ecclesiastes 1:8)
Have you ever felt that way?
One of the strange things about depression is although it feels so real, and is real, that it’s almost impossible to really find the words to describe it. You can try, and you might be able to come close. I heard one pastor recently describe his own depression as an overwhelming weight of despair. Solomon described it best when he said that all things are wearisome, more than anyone can say.
Maybe you wouldn’t describe it as depression, but I think we’ve probably all had days, weeks, and sometimes even months or years in which nothing felt satisfying, and so maybe you didn’t feel like getting up to do anything at all. So what do we do?
The eye is not satisfied by seeing or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Can one say about anything, “Look, this is new”? It has already existed in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of those who came before; and of those who will come after there will also be no remembrance by those who follow them. (Ecclesiastes 1:9-11)
Well, as long as we’re in that state, there doesn’t seem like there’s much that we can do. There’s not even anything that we want to do. The eye is not satisfied by seeing or the ear filled with hearing. Even laying in bed and watching tv isn’t any fun. Going to work isn’t fulfilling. Going to school just to get a job to make money and do the same things that every generation before us has done just sounds completely pointless.
Sometimes we try to satisfy ourselves with new thoughts or new experiences. We think on some level that there’s something out there that we’re lacking, some new thing we haven’t experienced yet, and if we can just experience that, then life will be satisfying. But Solomon says no. There’s nothing new out there.
Even with the age of technology that we’re in right now, when there are new inventions and new ways of doing things, it’s still all the same old things that we’re trying to do.
Because no matter how you look at it, you’ll die and be forgotten.
But there’s more to this life than living and dying.
I’m jumping the gun a little in saying this, but the point of Ecclesiastes is for us to see that if we treat this life as if it’s all there is, then everything that we do in this life is meaningless. But if we see that God gave us this life as a gift, then everything matters. Chapter 2, verses 24-25 says:
There is nothing better for a person than to eat, drink, and enjoy his work. I have seen that even this is from God’s hand, because who can eat and who can enjoy life apart from him? (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25)
We can find joy in the big things, and we can find joy in the little things, but only when we recognize that they’re from God. Otherwise, why should we enjoy anything? What makes enjoyment something good that should be pursued?
But, like I said, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. For now, Solomon simply wants us to see the utter futility of finding meaning in this life apart from God. Some unbelievers fully admit that they believe this to be the case, and it’s caused many to become suicidal because of what they believe to be the pointlessness of existence.
And yet, it’s interesting that we all long for meaning. We don’t want life to be pointless. We want there to be more to this life.
C.S. Lewis wrote in his book Mere Christianity:
The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same. – C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
And so the book of Ecclesiastes doesn’t appear to just be a sermon, but also an evangelistic invitation. Solomon invites us to see the absurdity of living for this life alone, and instead to live in the joy of God.
Pastor Chris Huff has been with us since July 2009. He and his wife, Abby, have four children. Chris is originally from St. Louis, MO and even though he was raised as a city boy, he has a small town heart. Chris is all over the internet, so you can find him on Facebook, Twitter,… (read more)