We began last week looking at Solomon’s slap in the face, reminding us that viewing life from earth’s perspective, from the here and now, without God, leaves us breathless with the meaninglessness of life. We look for meaning and satisfaction and find none in life.
So he starts out…
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.
All is vanity. It is empty and meaningless. Why? Because we come and go and it seems we don’t even leave a mark on the world. Sun, wind and rains all cycle through taking no notice of us.
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.
As for the world, it remains the same. There is no progress, only the same old, same old. The sun (v. 5), the wind (v. 6), the rains (v. 7) appear, disappear and come back again. These hardworking forces all seem to be quite busy doing something new each and every day. But a closer look will show their motion-filled monotony.
The world is a very repetitive place. Nothing ever changes. So what profit is there? What do we gain? Jerome said, “What is more vain than this vanity: that the earth, which was made for humans, stays — but humans themselves, the lords of the earth, suddenly dissolve into the dust?” (quoted in J. L. Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes , Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987), p. 63.)
Nature is not heading to a climactic point but is performing an endless cycle of the same thing every day. You come, you live, you die, you go into the earth. Does the earth care? Does the earth applaud you? No, it just keeps going.
The theory of evolution has been promoted as a way of thinking about this world. Evolution believes that by chance we came into being because of some chemical concoction. But if all we are is chance molecules joining together, then when we wonder “Who am I?” evolution answers back, “You are nothing.”
That’s as good as it gets “under the sun.”
According to Ecclesiastes, even the sun itself gets short of breath. The word “hastens” is really the Hebrew word for “pant” (sha’ap), which may suggest that the sun is racing from east to west and back again; but more likely it means that the sun is weary of its slow and endless journey across the sky. Usually we turn to nature to find encouragement for the soul, but when the Preacher looks at the sun, he simply sees the monotony of life in a static universe.
The sun rises and sets—over and over and over again, same old, same old. It never gets anywhere. It never does anything new. It is still a big old ball of hot gas seemingly doing perpetual somersaults around the earth. It is exhausting even to think about.
The great novelist Ernest Hemingway went to this verse of Ecclesiastes for the title of one of his books, The Sun Also Rises. Like most modern literature, this first novel of Hemingway depicts heroes and heroines who are disillusioned and wearied with life. (Roland Cap Ehlke, The People’s Bible, Ecclesiastes, 12)
Around and around the wind goes, following its circular course but never reaching a destination. For all its constant movement, there is never any progress. The wind might seem to be “free,” but it returns to the same place.
The flow of water seems just as profitless. “All streams run to the sea,” the Preacher says, “but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again” (Ecclesiastes 1:7). When he talks about water flowing and flowing again, he is not describing the water cycle, in which water evaporates into the clouds and eventually returns to water the earth in the form of rain. Rather, Qoheleth is talking about the way that all rivers and streams flow forever to the sea.
There is an especially vivid example of this in Israel, where Qoheleth lived. The Dead Sea is landlocked; it has no outlet to another body of water. Yet for all the centuries that the Jordan River has been flowing down into the Dead Sea, the sea is not yet full, and thus the water continues to flow.
Again, this is what makes the gospel so thrilling and fulfilling, for we don’t have to depend upon the waters of the world to quench our thirst when we have a fountain of water welling up inside us, the Holy Spirit.
Solomon is, however, mounting up examples of the fact that in nature, everything is in a rut.
“The preacher’s point is this: When we die, the sun will rise the next morning, the waters will tide, and the wind will blow, while human beings after us will likewise come, take their turn, and go. So, our worst and best days fade.” (Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, p. 49).
What Solomon is pointing out to us is that we so often believe the illusions of permanence and control. Nature reveals that neither is true for us.
Its meaning is blunt and simple: you will not be able to induce significant change in the course of life because creation itself is stamped with an indelible pattern that brooks no human alterations. (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 49)
Life just doesn’t have any natural reward of itself. It doesn’t automatically head to a climactic point of happiness, meaning, and fruition. It just grinds on with the sun rising and setting. Nature never rewards you; instead, it smashes you into pulp, then you die and go into the ground. (Tommy Nelson, A Life Well Lived, 4)
All of this is true only if you look at life “under the sun” and leave God out of the picture. Then the world becomes a closed system that is uniform, predictable (but not controllable) and unchangeable. It becomes a world where there are no answers to prayer and no miracles, for nothing can interrupt the cycle of nature. (Warren Wiersbe)
Daily life is like the famous song from the musical Show Boat , in which Old Man River just keeps rolling along. The song is sung by Joe, a dock worker on the Mississippi River, who is worn out by all his hard work. What he sings sounds a lot like Ecclesiastes:
Ah gits weary,
An’ sick o’ tryin’,
Ah’m tired o’ livin’,
And skeered o’ dyin’,
But Ol’ Man River,
He jus’ keeps rollin’ along!
Michael Eaton notes:
“For Old Testament orthodoxy, creation rings with the praises of the LORD. Creation is his…. But, says the Preacher, take away its God, and creation no longer reflects his glory; it illustrates the weariness of mankind.” (Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes).
There is a treadmill to life’s experiences. The mood has been well expressed by L. Alonso Schökel: “In what another might see as the rich, limitless variety of creation, he contemplates the monotony of existence. The result is that the theme reveals his attitude, and the technique he uses is synonymy. He wants us to focus on what is the same and overcomes his readers with the fatigue of monotony” (A Manual of Hebrew Poetics, 71).
All of this 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” (Ecclesiastes 1:8). Life is such a wearisome, toilsome trouble that it is hard even to put into words. The Contemporary English Version says it like this: “All of life is far more boring than words could ever say.”
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.
Solomon summarized the plight of man in relation to this inhuman, impersonal, destructive, entropy-filled cosmos by saying:
All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
After surveying instances of the constant repetition of an action in nature, the author now turns to the activity of humans (the primary interest in the work) and finds the same phenomenon there: they are part of that world, always active and yet never satisfied. The inadequacy of words is not merely the inability of humans to find words that fit (the ideal of the sage was the right word at the right time; cf. Prov 15:23, 25:11). Rather, the point is that human words never achieve their purpose.
Life is such a wearisome, toilsome trouble that it is hard even to put into words. The Contemporary English Version says it like this: “All of life is far more boring than words could ever say.”
Verse 8 speaks of our incessant curiosity, wanting to see and hear everything. And with the internet and social media we can satiate our senses with pixels and data. But it leaves us empty.
Every day we see an endless procession of visual images: Comcast, YouTube, BlackBerry, Netflix. We can also listen to an endless stream of sounds: iPod, iPhone, iTunes, TVs, CDs, and mp3s.
Yet even after all our looking and listening, our eyes and our ears are not satisfied.
There is always one more show to watch, one more game to play, one more song to which to listen. So we keep text-messaging, webcasting, Facebooking, Twittering, and Flickring. But what have we gained? What have we accomplished?
Our senses may be fed, but are never filled. We always are looking for more.
As Zack Eswine relates: “Sunshine is pleasant and happy. But it cannot satisfy us. Everything we sense leaves us restless. Like a child two days after Christmas, or lovers two days after holding hands for the first time, we grow bored even with the good things. We always want more.” (Recovering Eden, p. 52)
According to the preacher, there is nothing but the same old story:
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.
Now, it is obvious that technology and invention have given us many new and wonderful devices. The things we create, however, are not Solomon’s focus. Rather, the context makes it clear that his focus references the toil of human beings under the sun and the absence of gain that it provides them.
Every generation faces the same basic issues and questions.
Again, in the words of Zack Eswine…
“Every human being has tried to navigate food, clothing, and shelter. Each one has wrestled with what it means to work, to provide a way of life, to make their way, to hope and weep for their children. Crimes, wounds, and enemies are not new. Handling weather patterns, sickness, romance, gaining, sadness, forgiveness, commitment, laughter, and dreams has not originated with us….A young one in love is an ancient thing. Spring rains are old-fashioned. Most human questions have hung around. Death speaks all languages. Uniqueness does not bring about the gain for which we strive. (Recovering Eden, p. 53)
Has Solomon abandoned the hope-filled view of history of his people, a linear history that has a goal and purpose, for the cyclical way of viewing history common to the East? This may be part of what is contained by the “under the sun” perspective he is forcing us to consider.
The journey goes on; we never arrive. Under the sun there is nowhere to make for, nothing finally satisfying or really new. As for pinning our hopes on posterity, in the end posterity will have lost the faintest memory of us.
Verse 11 states…
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.
As the generations come and go (1:4), there are very few people who make any significant impact on the course of world history; the majority of the human race lives and dies in obscurity. The seemingly never-ending march of human generations thus appears to be as purposeless as the repetitive cycles of the natural world.
Today’s celebrities are tomorrow’s obituaries, and their names are as disposable as the morning paper in which their life stories will be printed. And if that is what becomes of our celebrities, what will become of us?
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 Ecclesiastes 1. What we have accumulated will be lost; what we have accomplished will be forgotten. Our descendants will not remember us any better than we remember our ancestors. Eventually, when things that have yet to happen are forgotten, those people will no longer be remembered either.
Folks, this is reality “under the sun.” This pessimistic, hopeless perspective is what results when you leave God out of the equation.
Here again 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. “The function of Ecclesiastes,” writes Derek Kidner, “is to bring us to the point where we begin to fear that such a comment (all is vanity) is the only honest one. So it is, if everything is dying. We face the appalling inference that nothing has meaning, nothing matters under the sun.” (The Message of Ecclesiates, p. 20).
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. The use of this phrase is equivalent to drawing a horizontal line between earthly and heavenly realities.” (H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1952), p. 28)
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; [but] 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.
Here is how the nineteenth-century English commentator Charles Bridges explained the Preacher’s strategy: “We are permitted to taste the bitter wormwood of earthly streams, in order that, standing by the heavenly fountain, we may point our fellow sinners to the world of vanity we have left and to the surpassing glory and delights of the world we have newly found.”
Just because you are a believer in Jesus Christ doesn’t always mean that you are including God, spiritual realities and eternity in view in your practical, everyday life. We often live as “practical atheists.” We believe in God, but don’t keep Him in mind in day to day activities. We believe in spiritual realities and eternity, but we live for the material and the present.
By the way, Solomon never uses the personal name of God Yahweh in this book. He addresses God as Elohim. Again, it speaks to the reality that this viewpoint occurs when we fail to pursue a personal relationship with God.
Solomon is warning us of the futility, emptiness and dissatisfaction of living this way.
As we continue through Ecclesiastes, I hope you will remember to put God front and center in your mind, and to consider the reality of spiritual and eternal things.
David Guzik points out that for the Christian, there are many new things:
· A new community (Ephesians 2:14).
· A new help from angels (Psalm 91:11).
· A new commandment (John 13:34).
· A new and living way to heaven (Hebrews 10:20).
· A new purity (1 Corinthians 5:7).
· A new nature (Ephesians 4:24).
· A new creation in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).