Other Ecclesiastes Posts:
Meaningless, meaningless, utterly meaningless, everything is meaningless.
That’s quite an opening to a book. Especially a book in the bible. Aren’t you supposed to open up the bible and find little nuggets of timeless truth? Isn’t that how the bible works?
I have a friend who works for Gideons – they’re the people who put bibles in hotel rooms all over the world. He has story after story of people alone in their hotel rooms who intend to commit suicide (hotel rooms are popular places to commit suicide) but they pick up a Gideon’s bible, randomly open up and something leaps off the page and they see Christ and that He loves them and they’re saved. But I hope no depressed person ever randomly opens up to Ecclesiastes to find encouragement. Can you imagine opening up chapter 1:
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king of Jerusalem:
Oh this ought to be good. He’s a teacher and a king, he sounds like he knows a thing or two:
“Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
It’s such a strong opening you’re knocked to the floor before the book’s even got going. The teacher hits you with four punches to the stomach, each harder than the last. First the teacher says “Meaningless.” And you can imagine someone like his wife at a dinner party, “Now dear, don’t go off on one, you don’t mean to say meaningless.” And the teacher says it again “Meaningless!” – the second punch. And then his wife says “Come on now darling, life’s not completely meaningless, what about…” And then he cuts her off again “Utterly meaningless.” The wife tries one last time, “But darling surely some things are meaningful.” And the teacher says “EVERYTHING is meaningless.”
“Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
Life is emphatically, absolutely and entirely meaningless.
And you think, he’s over-egging it. That’s just the attention grabbing headline. He’s going to back off now. He doesn’t. This is the sustained position of the Teacher throughout the book. Just skim your eye down chapter 1:
3 What does man gain from all his labour at which he toils under the sun? [answer: nothing]
8 All things are wearisome, more than one can say.
9 … there is nothing new under the sun.
14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
The whole book is like this, for 12 chapters.
And you think, what happened to this guy? Has he lost his job? Has his girlfriend dumped him? It sounds like he’s embittered by life’s failures. But no, this guy is not a loser. Verse 14 is absolutely true, he has really seen “all the things that are done under the sun”. He’s been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. He’s not a loser, he has only ever tasted success in life.
Verse 1, this King is the son of David, so we’re meant to think of King Solomon. A man of fabulous wealth, power, reputation, wisdom and accomplishment. Here’s a man with 300 wives and 700 concubines. 1 Kings 4 tells us he was a philosopher and an artist: he spoke 3000 proverbs and wrote 1005 songs. And he was a great biologist, 1 Kings 4 also tells us he could describe and teach about all plant and animal life in the known world. He is a King, a Lover, a Philosopher, an Artist, a Scientist. He builds up his kingdom to be the envy of the whole world. He is the most famous, most wealthy, most powerful, most intelligent, most desired man in the world. He’s the one who says “Meaningless, meaningless, utterly meaningless, everything is meaningless.”
Ecclesiastes is not the diary of a disgruntled loser. These are the reflections of one of life’s greatest success stories. Yet the first thing he wants us to know is “Meaningless, meaningless, utterly meaningless, everything is meaningless.”
It’s shocking stuff isn’t it?
Can you imagine a news report that had this in it?
“A report released today concludes that life is a wearisome burden. In findings that will shock both religious and secular leaders the report describes even mankind’s greatest achievements as a “chasing after the wind.” The 12 chapter study commissioned by the king, cost millions of pounds and took 30 years to research. It challenges many previously held beliefs and has drawn stern opposition from some critics, accusing the author of being “a bit bleak.” Commenting on the report, its author said in a statement: “Meaningless, Meaningless, Utterly Meaningless, Everything is Meaningless.” And now here’s Suzy with the weather.”
That would sound weird in a news report. This is in the bible!
What’s it doing in the bible?
Well let me give you a sentence that I’ll try to explain. Here’s what Ecclesiastes forces us to see: Christ alone is solid rock, everything else is sinking sand.
It’s just that Ecclesiastes will throw almost all its weight on the second half of that saying. Ecclesiastes rubs our nose in the everything else – it says look at it, really look at it. It’s sinking sand. You cannot build on it, it’s meaningless.
If you like, Ecclesiastes is the gospel in photo negative. You can actually see the good news of Jesus very clearly in Ecclesiastes but you see it in reverse. You appreciate and know the Rock for all His strength and solidity because you’ve spent 12 chapters meditating on the sinking sand.
And to show you the way this works, we need to understand the two suns in chapter 1. One is the s-u-n – because we need to understand life “under the sun”. Do you see that phrase in verse 3, verse 9 and verse 14. In fact “under the sun” is repeated 29 times in Ecclesiastes.
This is the perspective of the Teacher. He’s looking at life under the sun. And if you look at verse 13 of the passage you’ll see that “under heaven” is a parallel phrase. To be “under the sun” is to be “under heaven”. We’re down here on earth and we’re feeling our way. This isn’t a heavenly perspective, it’s an earthly one. This is not about God coming down to us as a gift. It’s about humans trying to get by and maybe, make it up there.
Now the teacher is not an atheist. Many people read Ecclesiastes as though he’s a total materialist. Not at all. He speaks of God on every page. Let me just read to you some of the things he says about God:
God has set eternity in the hearts of men…. He’s done it so that men will revere him (3:11-14)… Stand in awe of God (5:7)… God made mankind upright but men have gone in search of many schemes (7:29)… I know that it will go better with God-fearing men who are reverent before God (8:12)… God will bring you to judgement (11:9)… Remember your Creator (12:1)… [And here’s the conclusion to the whole book]: “Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” (12:13-14)
He has a very strong belief in God doesn’t he? Very strong.
But do you notice how God is described throughout? As Judge. God is Judge, Judge, Judge. Life under the sun is not necessarily a life of materialistic atheism. Life under the sun in the Teacher’s case is a life lived in CONSTANT acknowledgement of God. And yet it’s God the Judge.
And belief in God as Judge only still renders life meaningless.
That’s really important to hear. Because it would be easy to come away from Ecclesiastes thinking that “Life is meaningless when you don’t believe in God, so believe in God and your life will have meaning.” No, no, no. The Teacher has very strong belief in God, that doesn’t deliver him from meaninglessness.
And maybe you believe in God too, but that doesn’t prevent your life being meaningless. We need to consider the other son in this passage if we’re going to find meaning. The other son is right there in verse 1:
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king of Jerusalem:
That’s who the Teacher is: “son of David.” And that’s a massively important title: In 2 Samuel 7, David was promised that his offspring would be The Messiah, the King of Heaven, the Son of God taking our flesh. The title “Son of David” has “Messiah” written all over it.
And you’ll remember that when Jesus came people were always crying out “Son of David, have mercy on us.” The people had an exalted view of the Son of David. The Son of David would sort everything out. And when Jesus did His incredible miracles of healing and restoring and bringing life and dignity people would ask “Is this the Son of David?” And when Jesus rides into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday they all cry out “Hosanna to the Son of David.” The “Son of David” is the Messiah, the King of Heaven, who comes to earth to put the world to rights. Jesus is Son of David with a capital S.
The Teacher in Ecclesiastes is son of David with a little s. He’s not the King of Heaven. He’s a king under heaven. He’s a king who is subject to all the same forces that we are. And he might have incredible wisdom and wealth and worldly power, but none of them can break the powers that this world is under.
Let’s think about those powers that the Teacher lists for us:
First there’s LAW
And there’s two kinds of law that we are bound to. On the one hand, there’s what we might call natural law. This is what much of chapter 1 is about. Read from verse 4:
4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains for ever. 5 The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. 7 All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. 8 All things are wearisome, more than one can say.
Here’s the law of nature: what goes around, comes around. And it’s relentless and wearying and it makes you cry out for something NEW. But, v9, there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s just cause and effect cycling around and around, and nothing seems to break the cycle. That’s the natural law. But there’s also moral law.
The Teacher speaks about this a lot. In fact the book concludes with this (chapter 12:13-14)
13 Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.
When you just consider life under the sun – the whole duty of man (in fact the word duty is not there in Hebrew) the whole of man is just obeying the law. That’s all there is in life under the sun. There is no getting around the law.
And there’s no getting around sin either. The Teacher often speaks of our waywardness. So for instance in chapter 7 he says:
“God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes.”
That’s our nature and there’s no getting around it. Life under the sun is a life bound in sin.
Thirdly, and probably most prominently in the book. Life under the sun is lived under the power of death. The Teacher’s always on about this. Even as he gives marriage advice, check out chapter 9 verse 9:
9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun– all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labour under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.”
He tells it like it is doesn’t he? He’s not interested in platitudes or airbrushing the truth. We will die and rot and there’s no getting around it.
And finally, when we’re under the sun, we’re under judgement. As I’ve said, the final verse of the book reads:
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.
There’s no getting around it – life under the sun is life lives under law, under sin, under death and under judgement.
And here is the Teacher, this son of David, and people will have hoped that this King of Jerusalem might be the High King of Heaven. But here they read his spiritual journal over his shoulders and think yikes, this guy is as depressed as the rest of us. Even more so. This son of David cannot deliver us from these powers.
And that’s scary. Even the best of the best cannot find a solution to law, sin, death and judgement.
It’s a bit like… there’s a famous joke that’s not actually funny. But it’s one of those jokes you nod sagely to and say “Ah the irony.”
A man goes to doctor and says “Doctor, I’m desperately unhappy. Life is meaningless, my work is drudgery, my wife doesn’t understand me, I don’t seem to connect with the world. I’m miserably depressed you’ve gotta help me.” The doctor says “I know just the thing. The great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. He is the greatest clown in the world. Go along and he’ll have you laughing and clapping and feeling on top of the world.” The man bursts into tears and says “But doctor… I am Pagliacci.”
It’s less comedy, more tragedy that joke. The one they turn to for laughter is the one who is most depressed. But that’s just like Ecclesiastes. What is so depressing is that these are not the confessions of any old spiritual seeker. This is the prayer journal of the son of David – with all the messianic expectation and hope that goes with it. But yet none of his wealth or wisdom or worldly power could deliver. Next week we’ll see how he tries to find meaning in wisdom. In two weeks we’ll see him look for it in pleasures. Then we’ll see him searching in work. He also tries it in riches and achievements and in family and nothing satisfies, nothing liberates him from these dominating powers.
And so everything is desperately circular. Did you notice that about verses 3-11? It’s this mindless cycle grinding along.
Verse 4 – generations come and go
Verse 5 – the sun comes and goes
Verse 6 – the wind comes and goes
Verse 7 – the streams come and go
Round and round – it’s so wearisome. And so, verse 8:
The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.
Isn’t that the truth. Have you ever sat in front of the TV, 200 channels and nothing’s on. But you flick from channel to channel to channel. What’s wrong with TV companies? Not one out of 200 can come up with a single entertaining programme? Is that the problem? But no, when I stop to ask myself, do I want to watch a Comedy? A Drama? News? Sport? I don’t know. There’s nothing on that will satisfy my heart. So I keep on flicking, and flicking, and flicking. Surfing the web is the same. I stumble upon one site and then another, and then another, and I’ll go to bed in 5. 2 hours later, click, click, click. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor my ear its fill of hearing.
You know where the problem is? In here. My heart is dark and deceitful and never satisfied.
Ecclesiastes 6:7 says “All man’s efforts are for his mouth, yet his appetite is never satisfied.”
We feed ourselves – whether its food or entertainment or whatever it is. But our appetites are insatiable.
This is life under the sun. It’s relentlessly wearisome, but at the same time our hearts are crying out for more! It’s incredibly frustrating. We long for something NEW – for something to crash down into the world from on high. Not the same-old stuff, but:
9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.10 Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. 11 There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.
Do you know the names of your great grandparents? I don’t. There’s no remembrance of men of old. Do you think you’ll be remembered by your great grandchildren. You won’t.
This is life under the sun. Meaningless, meaningless, utterly meaningless. Everything is meaningless.
Are we as honest as the Teacher? Are we able to face the things of this world and say “You are sinking sands. I cannot trust in you”?
Last Saturday I was doing some open air evangelism and spoke to a teenager. She said “I don’t believe in God. We are an accident and when we die that’s it.” I said “So we’ve come from nothing, we’re heading nowhere and the grave awaits us.” She said “Don’t say it like that, you make me sound depressed.” I said “Well aren’t you?” She said “Sometimes. But I’m not suicidal.” I said “I’m glad to hear it. But I’d be pretty depressed if I thought we’ve come from nothing, we’re heading nowhere and the grave awaits.” She said “I don’t usually think about it.”
That’s what most people do, whether Christians or atheists or agnostics or whatever we are, we don’t like to face the big questions. But will we have the guts to think about it? As we study Ecclesiastes over the next few weeks, will we have the guts to look life square in the eye and call it like it is?
If you don’t believe in Jesus right now, Ecclesiastes is a great little reality check for you. Because the Teacher is going examine all the areas in life where we usually look for meaning and significance. And he’s going to show you they are sinking sand. You need to turn to Jesus.
If you do believe in Jesus, Ecclesiastes is a vital reality check because you and I are tempted, hourly, to build on sinking sand. Every advertisement, every film, every TV show will be telling you “Sinking sand is the place to be! Join us!” And it’s a lie. And we need to see it for the lie that it is. We naturally think: “I’ll be somebody if I have the right education.” Lie. Many people bankrupt themselves and waste years of their life and have their whole self-image dominated by that lie, but it is a lie. Or we think: “I’ll be somebody if I have the right job.” Lie. If we’re miserable at the bottom of the ladder, we’ll be miserable at the top too. Or we think, “I’ll be somebody if I get a girlfriend or boyfriend, a husband or a wife.” Lie. Meaning doesn’t come in marital status. Or we think “I’ll be somebody if I get the latest gadget.” We’d never say it out loud but for some of us it takes up a lot of our thoughts and even more of our income. But it’s a lie. Or we think “I’ll be somebody if I’m rich or successful or famous.” Lie. If Ecclesiastes teaches us anything it’s that those things prove meaningless.
Let me ask you a question: What do you think the Teacher was missing? He seems so down, what would give him true satisfaction?
I remember hearing a sermon on Ecclesiastes many years ago and afterwards I joked with someone and said “Boy oh boy, did that guy need a girlfriend!” And I was joking, but I wasn’t. Whatever we think the Teacher needed to invest in, that’s probably where we’re building on sinking sand. That was certainly true for me at the time. What is it that you think the Teacher should have tried?
Friend – he tried it. He’s been there, done that, bought the T-shirt: Meaningless.
But here’s the good news. Another son of David stood on the earth. The King of Heaven did something very NEW. He came down into this wearisome cycle of life and death. He was born into our race, an actual descendant of David, one of us and a true King.
And He lived under the sun – under these powers. And law? He lived under it completely, fulfilling its every requirement in our name and on our behalf. Sin? He resisted it at every turn, conquering every temptation of the evil one. Death? He entered into it and then didn’t just come back from the dead, like Lazarus. He went through death and out the other side into immortal life. He broke through the cycle and opened it out to resurrection life. And judgement? He faced it, absorbed it and put it away entirely on that cross.
The King of Heaven triumphed where the king of Jerusalem failed. He offers us a life in which all those powers have been vanquished – law, sin, death, judgement – they are no longer powers over us. God is not on our backs anymore, He’s on our side. God is no longer simply our Judge. He is our Father. The King is no longer simply the Teacher, with us trying to copy him. He’s Christ our Saviour. And life is not trying to live up to some standards – we’re free. The powers are broken and now we can just live. Maybe we get rich, maybe we don’t. Maybe we get promoted, maybe we don’t. Maybe we get married, maybe we don’t. But we don’t have to manufacture the meaning of our lives. Christ manufactured the meaning, we just share in His life.
Christ alone is solid rock. All else is sinking sand.