Ecclesiastes | Life Under the Sun 4.29.18
Thanks pastor Jeff for preaching last Sunday. He did a great job, and it allowed me to take the week before off, which allowed me to be CEO of the Meyers’ home while my wife chaperoned Brady’s 8th grade trip to Disneyland. It was the longest my wife had ever been away from me and the kids, and so I was left to assume her many responsibilities; her many responsibilities.
We actually had a really fun week, thanks almost entirely to the 4 pages of instructions my wife left for me – instructions I initially scoffed at, but by the end of the week had come to cherish second only to the Holy Scriptures.
Before she left we did a walk-through of our home. She taught me how to use the washing machine, (in case there was some sort of an emergency), and (I was very happy for this), she took me to the little’s closets and showed me their daily outfits, which had been collected on hangers and each marked with a different day of the week.
I’d like to read you my favorite sentence from her manual – “Thursday, today is the day you need to find all the chapel clothes. The oldest three all need white shirt, tie, and tan pants. Payton’s shirt usually looks like a bum wrestled it off an executive in a dark parking lot. It MUST be ironed; but he may resist. Overcome him.” Which was exactly the kind of practical advice I needed.
We all enjoyed each other, Kristen and Brady had a blast, and now we’re all home safe and sound, eating more than ? + melted cheese. So again, thank you.
This morning, as we continuing our study of Ecclesiastes, we’ll be finishing chapter 2 which, if you divide the book into four parts, which many do, (and I do), than the verses we’re reading today will bring an end to the first section.
And by the end, Lord willing, we’re going to fully understand Solomon’s full assessment of his life. Now, before I preach this sermon, we should pray together. Please bow your heads with me. “Father in heaven, we come to you, by the Holy Spirit, and in the name of your Son Jesus, to ask for help. Help me to preach well. And help all of us to hear well; not just with our ears, but with our minds and hearts. And again, we pray this in Jesus’ name, amen.”
Open your Bibles to Ecclesiastes 2. If you’re using one of our church Bibles, (which you’re free to take with you if you don’t own a Bible), you will find today’s text on page 356.
For those of you who may be visiting today, we are reading this book, written by the great King Solomon of Israel, which is his shockingly honest commentary on the enjoyment of life.
I’d like to begin today with a review, reminding all of us of what Solomon has said so far.
The first 11 verses of chapter 1 are the king’s introduction, and there he gave his central theme – “All is vanity.” All of life, under the sun, is vanity. He uses the word “vanity” 34 times, and the phrase “under the sun” 26 times, making his main point very clear – All of life, under the sun, is vanity.
And that is a true statement. That is reality. This life is vanity – Life is fleeting. Life is inscrutable. Life is monotonous. It’s vapor. It’s short, absurd, and repetitive – It goes by quickly, its circumstances are inexplicable; it’s the same thing over and over and over. There’s no satisfaction here. No fullness, no peace, no contentment, no meaning, no joy, no happiness. All of life, under the sun, is vanity.
And so for the undistracted, thinking person, life is, (as Solomon writes in 1v8) “full of weariness.” That’s his Debbie Downer conclusion.
Then, in 1v12 – 2v11, the text preceding our text today, Solomon described the experiment which brought him to that conclusion. And here’s the experiment – He decided to use all his wisdom, wealth and power to pursue anything and everything this life has to offer, under the sun; that is, apart from God. He played the atheist and decided to, 1v13, “seek and … search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.”
So anything and everything – we read about it last week – He went lowbrow, he went highbrow. He turned to “madness and folly;” to laughter, pleasure, too much wine, and too many women. That didn’t do it, so he turned to hard work and responsibility – He built a temple and a palace and homes and gardens and forests, and that didn’t do it, and so he reached the conclusion in 2v11:
11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
In other words, here is what Solomon discovered: All of life is vanity, and it is NOT in man’s power to gain true satisfaction anywhere on this planet.
Now, that brings us to our text this morning, which is the professor’s full evaluation of his experiment. V11 is his one sentence conclusion, but vv12-26 is his full assessment.
And let me prepare you for what’s ahead. It’s going to get worse before it’s going to get better. Solomon’s going to pull us to the bottom of the ocean with him. He’s going to drag us down to his valley of the shadow of death.
He’s going to confront us with the hard and bitter realities of this life, which is potentially depressing, because, as T.S. Elliot famously wrote, “humankind cannot bear very much reality.” So I want to prepare you for that. Hang on for the next 20 minutes or so, and resist the urge to keep checking the score of the Cavs game.
If you can honestly listen to, and stomach, the next 12 verses, Solomon is going to give us some hope at the end of the section.
In 1849, J.G. Vaihinger summarized this first section as follows:
[1v2 – 2v26] shows that by the eternal, unalterably fixed course of all earthly things and the experience of the vain and unsatisfactory strivings after earthly wisdom and selfish gratifications, a God-fearing enjoyment of life, and accepting gratefully the present good, can alone constitute the end of our earthly existence. [i] So, we’ll see, there is a new theme waiting for us, and it’s the “enjoyment of life.” So, hang on, and we’ll get there.
There are three sections in our text today, visible as three paragraphs in your Bible (12-17, 18-23, 24-26), and we’ll take them one at a time, beginning with 2vv12-17.
And in this first section, the king gives his full assessment of his madness and folly.
Verse 12: “So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly…” “For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done.” Here’s what he means – No one could come after him and do this experiment better. No one will have his measure of wealth, wisdom, and power. So, I think Solomon feels that he owes us his evaluation. No one’s going to be able to repeat this, so he feels obligated to pass on his results.
Verse 13: “Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. That’s not so bad. This starts positive. He’s thankful for his wisdom. Wisdom is better than folly.
Verse 14: The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness.” Here’s what he’s saying – The wise person is walking around in the light, with his eyes open. The fool is walking around in the dark, with his eyes closed. In other words, the wise man can see reality. He can see things for what they are.
Back to the text: “And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 15 Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity.
Here’s what he’s saying – You have two kinds of people – wise people (who have their eyes open) and fools (who have their eyes closed). Solomon is wise, but he’s realizing that, in the end, the same thing happens to the wise man and the fool – they die. Different paths, but same destination. So he asks a great question – What’s the point?
“Wisdom is better” he said in verse 13, “and yet” he says in vv14-17, wisdom makes no lasting, permanent difference. The bodies of the wise man and the fool both end up as compost. Wisdom is good, but in the end, you will be dirt that used to be wise.
And then v16: 16 For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool!”
So not only does the wise man die, who he was, and all he did, will be forgotten.
In the movie About Schmidt, (which I’m not recommending), Jack Nicholson’s character is trying to find meaning in life. He begins to sponsor a child in Africa, and in one scene he writes him the following note:
I know we’re all pretty small in the big scheme of things, and I suppose the most you can hope for is to make some kind of difference. But what kind of difference have I made? What in the world is better because of me? … Once I am dead and everyone who knew me dies too, it will be as though I never even existed. What difference has my life made to anyone? None that I can think of. None at all. Hope things are fine with you. Yours truly, Warren Schmidt. [ii]
So, no surprise, the professor came to the following conclusion in verse 17: “So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.”
Okay, that’s the first section – Solomon looks back over his madness and folly, and concludes it amounted to nothing, and so he’s feeling hatred for his life – Excellent, let’s move on to the second section, and remember, we’re hanging on for the third. I mean, if you need to get up and walk around a bit or breath into a brown paper bag, no judgment.
In vv18-23 the king gives his full assessment of all his hard work. Here’s what he had to say – 18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, [why?] seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.
This bothered Solomon. He worked and built and established and then he was gonna die, and everything he worked for was going to end up in the hands of someone who didn’t work for it, and they might even be a fool. In fact, we know (from 1 Kings 12), that’s exactly what ended up happening – Solomon’s son Rehoboam will inherit everything, and he will be a fool, and would end up losing like 80% of Solomon’s wealth.
Philip Ryken, in “Why Everything Matters,” said: This is one of the great frustrations of human existence. We are born with a deep longing to have something, make something or do something that will last. Yet the under-the-sun reality is that we will spend our whole lives working to gain something we can never keep. [iii]
Verse 20: 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.
Verse 22: 22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.
There you have it. Solomon looks back at his pleasure seeking and calls it vanity. And now he looks back at his hard work and calls it vanity. It came up empty. It didn’t satisfy. And it seems to put him over the edge.
The same question and conclusion put Russian author Leo Tolstoy over the edge. Listen to what he wrote in “A Confession:” My question—that which at the age of fifty brought me to the verge of suicide—was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man … a question without an answer to which one cannot live. It was: ‘What will come of what I am doing today or tomorrow? What will come of my whole life? Why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything?’ It can also be expressed thus: Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy? [iv]
Okay, you made it, that brings us to the final verses of this first section, which Martin Luther called “a remarkable passage, one that explains everything preceding and following it.” So it’s really important we understand these verses, and in order to understand them, we need to do a little exegetical work and tweak our translation, which I’m not suggesting lightly, so let me show you what I mean. Let’s do some exegetical work. Feel free to write in your Bible.
These verses have been tough for translators over the years. There used to be an issue with vv25-26, but the ESV worked that out. But there is still an issue, I think, with v24.
Look there with me. Verse 24. If you have an ESV, it reads like this: There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil.
Now, to me, (and many others), that seems to say the opposite of what Solomon has just said. He has said “I’ve tried to find enjoyment in my toil and eating and drinking and I couldn’t.” That was the experiment. That’s why he ended up hating his life.
So let me show you the literal translation. The ESV says “There is nothing better for a person than.” That literally translates “There is nothing (inherently) good in a person.” The words “for” and “than” have been added by translators because those words appear in that exact phrase in two other places in the book (3:12, 8:15), and so they assumed it accidentally dropped out of the manuscript they were translating from.
So let me give you a full literal reading of these verses, making the changes to v24: There is nothing (inherently) good in a person 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? That’s a rhetorical question. What’s the answer based on v24? No one! That’s the experiment. No enjoyment apart from God. No enjoyment “under the sun.”
Now, I wonder if you’re thinking, “that’s not true.” Don’t people enjoy these things apart from God? Not if their wise.
Solomon, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Hemmingway – here’s the thing, here’s what they had in common – they weren’t idiots, they weren’t fools, in the sense that they faced grim reality. They were wise according to Solomon’s definition; their eyes were open. They were wise men at the end of their ropes.
Life is vanity, and there is “nothing good in a person that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment.”
Life is vanity – And not because there is no God, but because that is the nature of life apart from Him – it’s vanity.
In conclusion, here’s the hope. Or, here’s the joy.
Listen to the verses again, this time with v26: There is nothing (inherently) good in a person 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? A shift here! 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.
Verse 26: For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy
No joy! Unless God gives it. And he does, to those who please him.
So here are your options under the sun:
- A fool distracts himself, plugs his ears, numbs his senses, dulls his mind, puts on a blindfold, tells himself stories, so he doesn’t have to face grim reality.
Woody Allen on the meaninglessness of life: I firmly believe, and I don’t say this as a criticism, that life is meaningless,” “I’m not alone in thinking this — there have been many great minds far, far superior to mine, that have come to that conclusion. And unless somebody can come up with some proof or some example where it’s not, I think it is. I think it’s a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, and that’s just the way I feel about it.
I’m not saying that one should opt to kill oneself,” Allen said. “But the truth of the matter is, when you think of it, every 100 years, there’s a big flush, and everybody in the world is gone. And there’s a new group of people. And that gets flushed, and there’s a new group of people. And this goes on and on interminably — and I don’t want to upset you — toward no particular end, no rhyme or reason.
“That’s why over the years, I’ve never written or made movies about political themes. Because while they do have current critical importance, in the large scheme of things, only the big questions matter, and the answers to those big questions are very, very depressing. What I would recommend — this is the solution that I’ve come up with — is distraction.
“You’re in the world and it’s so terrible and all these things are going on, and you go into a dark room, the movie theater, and you’re there for an hour and a half, and Fred Astaire is dancing. It’s like drinking a cold drink on a hot day, and you’re refreshed, and you walk back out into the terrible heat, and you can take it for another few hours, maybe more. The artist can’t give you an answer that’s satisfying to the dreadful reality that’s your own existence, so the best you can do is maybe entertain people and refresh them, and then they can go on and meet the onslaught until they’re sunken and crushed and then somebody else comes along and picks them up a little bit.
- A wise man faces reality and grows depressed. (Solomon)
- Then there’s the godly man. There’s the man who knows God, who loves God, and God gives him the power to enjoy his life. God gives him joy.
Which are you?
Are you the fool distracting yourself?
Are you the depressed wise man?
Are you the godly man?
Do you know and love God? You cannot apart from Christ. Through Christ alone may we receive the gift of joy in this vain life under the sun.
[i] J. G. Vaihinger in Christian D. Ginsburg, Coheleth: Commonly Called the Book of Ecclesiastes [1861; reprinted in The Song of Songs and Coheleth (Commonly Called the Book of Ecclesiastes), The Library of Biblical Studies, edited by Harry M. Orlinsky (New York: Ktav, 1970), pp. 221-222.
[ii] Warren Schmidt, played by Jack Nicholson, in About Schmidt (New Line, 2002).
[iii] Ryken, Phil. Why Everything Matters: The Gospel in Ecclesiastes (Kindle Locations 753-755). Christian Focus Publications. Kindle Edition.
[iv] Leo Tolstoy, A Confession, quoted in Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Dutton, 2008), 201.