Ecclesiastes | Life Under the Sun 4.8.18
Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, called this book we’ll be studying “the truest of all books.” There are many honest books in the world, but very few are committed, (as this book is relentlessly), to pulling back the curtains and exposing the most difficult realities of life.
This book is a commentary on mankind; it’s a commentary on God; it’s a commentary on life – and as it comments, it does so with shocking honesty. It pulls no punches. It holds nothing back. To read it is to face reality about ourselves; and reality about this world; and reality about our deepest longings and desires.
Now, let’s not pretend we’re all excited about reading a book like that. Americans are known for escapism. We have a tendency to distract and relieve ourselves from reality because much of reality is disappointing, (to say the least). So we change the channel, we plug our ears, we close the book. T.S. Eliot famously said “humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
Well, you can’t read this book without bearing very much reality – the subtitle for this sermon series could have been “Bearing Reality.” Ecclesiastes is brutally realistic, and it has being ringing true and making people squirm for centuries –
So come and let us squirm together.
“Ecclesiastes” is Latin for the Hebrew word Qoheleth [koe-hell-et], which commonly translates into English as The Preacher, though a better translation would probably be professor, or pundit. That is the word the author chooses to identify himself. And so in this book, the author is gathering an audience to listen to him about a particular subject of which he is an expert, and the subject is life.
At this point, the plan is to devote 16 sermons to this book of the Bible, and today we’ll be taking the first 11 verses, which make up the author’s introduction. In these first 11 verses the author introduces the first of two dominating themes, and here it is:
All of life is vanity. That is the first chipper theme. We’ll look to understand that statement, and then for some relief, we’ll walk ahead in the book for a first introduction to the author’s second great theme.
Now, before I preach this sermon, we should pray together. Please bow your heads with me. “Father in heaven, we need help understanding your Word; We need help applying your Word. We know that our minds will be dark and our hearts cold without you, so, being the consuming fire that you are, by your Holy Spirit, give us what fire gives us – give us light and heat. Enlighten us and encourage us we pray, in Jesus’ name, Amen.”
Open your Bibles to Ecclesiastes 1. If you’re using one of our church Bibles, (which you’re free to take with you if you don’t have a Bible of your own), you’ll find today’s text on page 355.
Here is the opening line; chapter 1, verse 1: “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” Preacher – that’s the Hebrew word Qoheleth and it’s used 8 times in this book. It’s what the author calls himself. And again, a better translation is probably “The Pundit” or “The Professor.” He’s gathering an audience to listen to him about a particular subject of which he is an expert.
And who is this professor? He is, we’re told, “the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” So this is Solomon, the second child born to David and Bathsheba, who became king of Israel upon his father’s death.
You remember the famous story – in 1 Kings 3 God came to Solomon in a dream and told him to ask for whatever he wanted. Surprising most of us, Solomon asked for wisdom so that he could righteously govern God’s people. God was so pleased with Solomon’s request that not only did he give him the wisdom, but he gave him riches and power. Verses 12-13 “Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you. 13 I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor, so that no other king shall compare with you, all your days.”
In 2 Samuel 12 (vv24-25) we read that Solomon had another name, one given to him by God, which was Jedidiah, which means “loved by God.” God loved Solomon, and was very good to Solomon, even though Solomon was not always good to God.
In 1 Kings 11 we’re told that Solomon had a weakness, and it was women. Rather than loving one woman, which he should have done, he loved many women, which no surprise, did not go well. We’re told he had 700 wives, and that many of them succeeded in “turning away his heart after other gods.”
Nevertheless, as God had promised in 2 Samuel 7:14-15, his steadfast love did not depart from Solomon. He lovingly disciplined him by handing him over to his sin, and in time, (it is my belief), he was granted repentance.
And he writes now, this book of Ecclesiastes, as an old man, probably near the end of his life, looking back with godly sorrow on time and life wasted. He had wrung out this life to the very last drop, and found it lacking.
All that said – He is a well-qualified professor. So, let’s pull up a chair and listen to the wisest man of all time. Lord willing, we’ll be listening to him from now until the end of Summer.
All is Vanity
Verse 2. He begins the content of his book in verse 2, and here he gives his thesis statement. You remember what a thesis statement is? It’s the sentence toward the beginning of your essay where you let your reader know what your essay is about. It’s your topic; your central theme; your main point.
Here is Solomon’s – If you’re hoping for something positive, prepare to be disappointed:
“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
I’ve put together three questions to help us understand this main theme in Ecclesiastes.
- Where is this vanity?
- Does he really mean this?
- What is this vanity?
- Where is this vanity?
“All is vanity” he says. Everything is vanity.
Everything where? What part of life is vanity? What part of the world is vanity? What is the scope of this vanity? We have a clue in the very next verse, verse 3:
“What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” “Under the sun.” That’s a very important phrase, and it’s answering our question. Solomon will use this phrase 26 times in Ecclesiastes, and it means “this earth.”
Under the sun is the OT equivalent of the world in the NT. It’s where we live, it’s where we work, it’s where we play. It’s everything from horizon to horizon, excluding God and eternity.
It’s this life. Solomon is an expert on, and writing about life under the sun. In fact, that is the subtitle for this sermon series: Life under the sun.
So, according to Solomon, where is this vanity? Everywhere! You can’t escape it. “All is vanity” – In other words, everything, all of life under the sun is vanity.
- Does he really mean this?
Does he really mean that? Come on Solomon. Everything? Someone wake up on the wrong side of the bed? Someone need a hug?
It’s worth considering. It’s possible this is hyperbole. Solomon is exaggerating the truth to get our attention. It’s possible he’s being sarcastic. Maybe he’s playing the devil’s advocate? Maybe he doesn’t really believe this, and he’s just speaking from a secular, humanistic point of view?
I don’t think so. I believe Solomon actually means this. I think he’s daring to go where few would go. He’s being brutally realistic. At the end of the day, I believe he means this for two reasons. One, he uses this word, vanity, 34 times in his book – and he will apply it to nearly every aspect of life. Let me give you a four verse sampling:
2:17 …I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity
3:19 They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity.
11:8 …if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.
And 11:10 Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.
34 times he uses this word. Second reason I believe Solomon actually means and believes this – He repeats this statement at the end of his book, which is exactly what you do with a thesis statement; you repeat it at the end.
Listen to chapter 12, verse 8, just 6 verses short of the end of his book: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.” That’s an exact restatement of chapter 1, verse 2. That phrase is the book ends of the book. It is his thesis statement. It is a main point. It is a central theme.
So now, most important of these three questions, what does Solomon actually mean? What is vanity? He means it, and he sees it in all of life under the sun… what is it?
- What is this vanity?
The Hebrew word is hebel (hevel), and it is not an easy word to translate. Literally the word means “vapor,” or “smoke,” or “fog.” So it actually reads -“Vapor of vapors. All is vapor.” Or “Smoke of smoke. All is smoke.”
Now Solomon obviously doesn’t mean hevel literally – everything is not, literally, vapor and smoke and fog.
So translators have done their best by giving a figurative translation, and most of them have settled on one of two words – “meaningless” (in the NIV) and, the more common, “vanity” (in the ESV, NASB, KJV). Meaningless is not a good translation because, thank God, all of life under the sun is not utterly meaningless.
“Vanity” is better, but still struggles to convey the depth of this word. This is a common struggle in Bible translation. You have a word in the original Hebrew or Greek, and you just don’t have a specific English word that gets the job done.
I mean vanity typically means “excessive pride in one’s appearance or achievements” and that’s definitely not what Solomon is talking about. Vanity can also mean “the quality of being worthless of futile” which is closer, but still comes up short.
So here’s what we’re going to do – Based on how this word is used by Solomon and other OT writers, I’d like to suggest we keep three words in mind:
Fleeting, Monotonous, and Inscrutable.
Fleeting – it goes by quick; it lasts a very short time.
Monotonous – tedious and repetitive.
Inscrutable – impossible to understand or interpret.
Life is short. It’s transient. It’s elusive. It’s ephemeral. It’s transitory. It’s fleeting – It goes by very quickly.
Life is boring. It’s repetitive. It’s wearisome. It’s mind-numbing. It is monotonous – the same thing over and over and over.
Life is absurd. It’s circumstances are inexplicable. It’s puzzling. It’s mysterious. It doesn’t make any sense, we can’t figure it out.
All is vanity. All of life under the sun is vanity.
That is one of two main themes in this book of Ecclesiastes.
Then, in vv3-11 Solomon simply begins to establish and illustrate that reality. Let’s read through them with a just few comments.
v3, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?”
That’s quite a question. Man works (toils) his entire life, and at the end of his life, what does he have to show for it? It’s rhetorical question asked by Solomon. He knows the answer. He’s the pundit. He’s the professor. You know what his shockingly honest answer is? “Nothing.”
What does man gain by all his toil? Nothing. I want you to hear the force of this. “I’m going to leave the world a better place!” No you’re not. “I’m going to change the world!” No you’re not. “I’m going to seize the day!” No you’re not. “I’m going to make a difference!” No you’re not. “I’m going to find meaning and purpose and joy in this life!” No you’re not.
Verses 4-8: 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.
All of life is vanity. We come and go while the earth lives on and watches. Life goes quickly, it’s fleeting. Life is monotonous, it’s repetitive, just like the sun and the wind and the rivers.
You understand this. You already know what’s going to happen tomorrow. You’re going to wake up, drink your coffee, take your shower, put on clothes, sit in traffic, and go to work. Nothing exciting will happen at work. You’ll have a lunch break. Then you’ll be done, you’ll drive home, maybe go to the gym, you’ll eat dinner, you’ll watch a TV show and you’ll go to bed. And then you’ll wake up the next morning at the same time and do it all over again – That is your repetitive life, and creation itself is doing the same thing. And according to verse 8, that is not satisfying; it is “full of weariness.”
I cut the grass a week ago, I need to cut it again. I cut my hair two weeks ago, I need to cut it again. There are dirty dishes again. There is dirty laundry again. There are bills to pay again. Life is the same thing, over and over, and it’s exhausting.
Verses 9-11: 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”?
Here’s what Solomon is saying – Some people deny what he’s saying. “My life will be different!” “I’m going to break the mold.” “I’m a dreamer.” “I’m going to make a difference.” Here’s his response:
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.
Ouch. Solomon is saying – You’re going to live and die and no one will remember you or what you did. Your life is on a treadmill. You’re going to run really hard, and you’re going to get really sweaty, but at the end of your life you’re still going to be in your living room. And then you’ll die and fall off and someone else will get on and do the same thing. It’s true – how many of you know the name of your great, great, great, great grandfather?
That’s not what life is about friends. That’s not where joy is.
Solomon is establishing and illustrating this theme – All of life under the sun is vanity. Now that is one bitter dose of reality. Can you bear it?
If you weren’t excited to study this book, I’ll bet you are now. Some of you are feeling like your Summer just got ruined. Some of you are visiting and thinking to yourself “I came to church to be encouraged today. Man did I come to the wrong church.”
So in conclusion, I think it would be wise to answer one final question, “Why should I come back next week?”
Why should I come back next week?
To answer that, we need to jump ahead and read the conclusion of this section. It’s at the end of chapter 2, and it’s the first of several important joy passages in this book. Most of the book is pessimistic, but then there are these sparkles of optimism sprinkled throughout.
Martin Luther called the end of Ecclesiastes 2 ‘a remarkable passage, one that explains everything preceding and following it.’ It is ‘the principal conclusion,’ Luther said, ‘in fact the point, of the whole book.’
So I said at the beginning that there are two dominating themes in this book. The first is all is vanity, but here we find the second:
There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.
Now there are some translation issues here, which we’ll look at in weeks to come, but look again with me at verses 25-26. Solomon says something here that he’ll say throughout his book. It’s his second central theme:
25 for apart from him [that is, “apart from God”] who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy,
In other words – apart from God – there is no enjoyment in life.
Here are the two central themes:
- All of life under the sun is vanity.
- Only the Christian, who knows the God above the sun, can enjoy it.
Here is how the Professor says it in 5:19:
Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions [and God has given all of you wealth and possessions] and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God.
Solomon’s book is about enjoying life under the sun. Life under the sun is vanity, and only believers can enjoy it. Only believers can see life for what it is and rest and laugh and eat and drink and find joy – Joy in the vanity. Joy in the futility. Joy in the monotony.
What unifies this book is the assertion that there is a God-given joy that can be found in life even though a strong bass-pedal note of … “mist,” … is played against the more central search for some kind of fixed point of reference and meaning in one’s work. This book points to learning and living, that yields enjoyment to life itself and joy in such basic functions of life such as eating, drinking and happiness in one’s work. [i]
And today, this joy is only in Christ. John 10:10 says “ The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
Amen. Regarding communion, Veritas Church welcomes all Christians who are willing to forsake their sin and trust in Jesus Christ for salvation, and who are committed to this or another local church that proclaims the gospel, to receive the Holy Communion with us. We will have people who will serve you from the front. Please empty into the center aisle, come forward and receive the emblems, then return to your seat from the outer aisles, and wait for us to eat and drink together.
[i] Kaiser Jr., Walter C. Coping with Change – Ecclesiastes (Kindle Locations 731-735). Christian Focus Publications. Kindle Edition.