The new year is upon us! Now there are a few things that happen every new year aren’t there? The fireworks in the harbour, coupled with the horrific TV coverage, repeats of some of your favourite movies, left overs from Christmas lingering in your fridge, and the Sydney test match.
But of course there’s something else that’s synonymous with the new year isn’t there, and that’s resolutions! I wonder what your resolutions were this year? Here’s a list I found of the top 5 resolutions for 2018, and I wonder if any of yours are on there. Going from fifth most popular to the most popular, they are ‘meet someone’, ‘volunteer’, ‘travel more’, ‘eat better’, and most popular … ‘improve your fitness’.
Ring any bells for anyone? Anything there that you’re silently nodding along with, or that you’ve begun attempting for this year? Most of us have at one stage or another made resolutions like this. We’ve attempted to resolve to do something—or not do something— as the case may be. But the question is, why? Why do we do these things? The article I read tried to explain:
Self improvement, or at least the desire for it, is a goal shared by all Australians, which is why so many of us make a New Year’s Resolution in the first place.
We resolve to do these things out of a desire for self-improvement, in other words, to change. And I think that’s right. I think that’s on the money.
We are constantly discontent aren’t we? We are constantly dis-satisfied with our lot in life. We taste satisfaction, for moments. We taste joy, and contentment, for periods. We search for meaning and purpose in our lives, and sometimes it feels like we have it, but then it slips through our fingers.
This is true of all of us. What’s also universal is what we do with this feeling. When we struggle to find meaning in our existence, we look towards the future. We’re constantly moving toward the future in the promise that the future holds for us a greater satisfaction than we’re experiencing now. We invent new, sexier, wealthier, more successful versions of ourselves, where we’ve actually achieved all our goals.
And in this vision, we’re satisfied. We’ve achieved, so we’re content. We’ve acquired, and so we’re joyful. We are part of the 8% of people who have stuck to our resolutions and so we’ve found that much desired meaning in life in which we’ve been scrambling for.
And yet it never, ever plays out this way, does it? 10 years ago you had plans for today where you’d be satisfied, and content, and joyful, and yet the truth is, that’s not the way life works, is it? \All of us who seek for meaning in the better version of ourselves will always be left disappointed.
But I want to tell you something, and it’s something that I think is shocking, and might actually run against your thinking on this issue. None of what I’ve told you is bad news. In fact, the opposite is true. Rather than our lack of contentment being a bad news story, it’s actually wonderful news.
Because it’s only in our dissatisfaction with the things of this world that we actually can truly find the source of true satisfaction. It’s only when you realize that you’ll never find meaning in the meaningless that you’ll understand where true meaning comes from.
(1) Introducing the Book of Ecclesiastes (v. 1; 1 Kgs 11:4)
We are looking together at the book of Ecclesiastes, one of the ‘wisdom’ books of the Old Testament. Even though this book was written almost 3000 years ago, it’s incredibly relevant to us today. This book is like a knife. Knives can be used to destroy and to kill, but in the hands of a surgeon, they can be used to cut away disease and give life. That’s what this book does—it destroys and kills the lies we’ve been told about life, but also heals and gives us the sweet-tasting nectar of life.
Let me tell you a little bit about it. Look at Ecclesiastes chapter 1 verse 1:
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: (NIV)
This book is written by a man who calls himself ‘the teacher’, and in fact, that’s what the word ‘Ecclesiastes’ means: ‘teacher’, ‘preacher’. He then identifies himself as the son of king David, who was the greatest king in ancient Israel’s history. And then he further tells us that he is also king. And so that tells us who the author is: a man by the name of king Solomon.
Now, if you don’t know anything about king Solomon, that’s ok! The big picture is that he was a king of tremendous wisdom, and that wisdom given to him by God.
However, even though he had great wisdom—and he started out as a good king—over time, he went astray. God had told him, “don’t use your position for personal gain”, and yet that’s exactly what he did. He grew incredibly wealthy, he amassed a huge army, and even more than that, he amassed a huge number of wives. The bible tells us he had 700 wives and 300 concubines! He eventually ended up turning away from God and worshipping the false gods of his wives. So 1 Kings 11:4 tells us:
As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God. (NIV)
Solomon literally had everything, every single desire of his heart was his, and anything that he wanted, he got.
And so Solomon sets out on a quest for meaning in every conceivable place and experience available to a man with limitless resources and unconstrained power. He goes from one potential source of meaning and fulfillment to another—knowledge, wealth, pleasure, worth, building projects—a full tilt search for the meaning that he’s desperate for. And yet each one of these possibilities, which started off so promising, proves to be a dead end. They absorb meaning; they don’t give it. He grows old and finds himself more empty of meaning than ever before.
And in the midst of this dissatisfaction, this unhappiness, this discontent, Solomon turns back to God. He returns to his true Father in heaven. And when he does so, he reflects on his life, a life that has been wasted, a life lived seeking meaning and pleasure everywhere under the sun, and he writes a journal, a biography of his journey, the story of his pursuit, the story of his search for meaning. And that journal, that story, is the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s the story of the search for meaning.
(2) Meaningless! (vv. 2-3)
So we are going to uncover what Solomon discovered. We’re going to look at what his endless pursuit has produced. But I must warn you. It’s not pretty. In fact, the following words are some of the most offensive and horrifying in the bible! Ecclesiastes chapter 1 verse 2:
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (NIV)
Now as I said, Ecclesiastes cuts like a knife. Solomon is not being subtle here. All the money, all the power, all the sex, all the influence, all the property, it’s true worth is meaningless!
Now the Hebrew word for meaningless is fascinating. It’s far richer than what we can translate. ‘Meaningless’ means ‘without meaning’. That is, it has no true significance. But in Hebrew, it has another connotations—‘vapour’, ‘mist’, ‘a puff of smoke’. It is like seeing your breath on a cold day: it’s real, it exists, but it cannot be grasped. It slips through your fingers. That’s why Solomon then asks the rhetorical question, in verse 3:
What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? (NIV)
And Solomon’s point is clear: it doesn’t matter what you do. It does not matter what you achieve, or attain, or acquire: it all comes to nothing. It might gratify, it might bring short-term happiness, but it won’t last. It won’t give you what you desire.
Of course, this is the opposite of what we’re told. It’s the opposite of what we tell ourselves. The resolution principle says that meaning in life would be ours if we would just earn more money, go without money, quit drinking, start drinking, go on that holiday, work harder, raise your family right, get a degree, ditch your job, get married, get divorced, have a child, get that promotion, buy that house, build that extension, have sex with the person of your dreams, be liked and respected. If you get those things you’ll be the better, new and improved, version of yourself, and you’ll be unbelievably happy, and your life will just be amazing.
But Solomon is stating—and our own human experience is confirming—that it’s just not true. It’s the great deception of the human race. It’s the serpent in the garden all over again. Satan is saying, “Come and taste this fruit”. It’s a house built of a deck of cards: one slight gush of wind and it falls apart.
(3) Proof of Our Meaningless Life Under the Sun (vv. 4-11)
But Solomon is not content to just make the statement and leave it hanging. He then writes a poem with examples from nature and from our own lives to prove his point. Look at verses 4 to 7:
4Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. 5The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. 6The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. 7All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. (NIV)
Humanity is in an endless cycle. One generation comes, and one goes. One goes, and one comes. Each generation is replaced by another, and then another, and another, on and on, in constant repetition.
Humanity is like the sun, and the wind, and the oceans, Solomon says. Rise, set, set, rise. Wind blows, this way and that, only to have to do it all over again. The water runs from the rivers and lakes in torrents into the ocean, and yet the ocean never fills up. All these things take massive amounts of energy and effort. They relentlessly go on and on in an endless cycle, endless effort, endless energy, and yet nothing changes.
Can you see his point? For all the efforts and energies that we put into our activities in life, it actually achieves no purpose. Nothing changes. Humanity is not in a better place than in was 100, 200, or 2000 years ago. Despite the increases in technology and medicine, despite us living longer and healthier and wealthier, the point he makes is that nothing is gained. We think our lives are making a deep footprint. But it’s a footprint in the sand next to the ocean which will swallow it up and destroy everything we’ve done. But in case you’re unconvinced, he continues in verse 8:
All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. (NIV)
You want to see an example of humanity’s never ending discontent? Then think of the senses. They can be fed but never, ever filled. Even today, in 2018, at this very moment, we have an endless supply of sensory delights. Right now, we can see and hear more than we’d ever need. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Netflix, Stan, Foxtel, emails, texting, ipod, ipad, iphone, itunes, i-never-have-enough. Your eye never stops wanting to see more, nor your ears wanting to hear more.
We look and hear all these things, but what have we gained from it? Is your life better for it? Are you happier from scrolling through your phone at 2 in the morning electronically stalking and eavesdropping on everyone else?
Still not convinced? Take human history. Verses 9 and 10:
9What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 10Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. (NIV)
The killer blow of the verbal knife attack which is Ecclesiastes 1 culminates here. For all of humanity’s efforts, and achievements, and advances, there is something no one will say. There is something that politicians and teachers and bosses can not force themselves to say: there are no gains under the sun! What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. You might now be able to do it wearing the brand new fashion, or listening to the brand new music on your brand new electronic device, but for all those things, it hasn’t changed a thing! Sure, we can build a rocket which reaches the moon, but has it saved us from murder, or bitterness, or jealousy, or hatred? Yes, new inventions may make your bones heal quicker, but will they make your heart heal from betrayal?
Worst of all is verse 11:
No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.
Our great grandchildren will not even know our names. It will be as if we’ve never existed. From dust we have come, and to dust we will go!
Where are you searching for meaning?
Are you searching for meaning in your occupation? You will not find it. Are you searching for meaning in adulation? You will not find it. What about your personal situation, your reputation? You won’t get it there. Geographic location? Sexual gratification? Imagination? Your work, your marriage, your children’s successes, your body fat index and chiseled abs, your house, your renovations, your bank balance, your car, your clothes, what people think of you? You will not find it in any of those places. It’s all been tried before, by millions of people. There is nothing new under the sun.
(4) Under the Sun, Over the Sun.
Now, let’s step back for a minute. That’s a dark picture so far, isn’t it? You see why I say the book of Ecclesiastes is like a dagger. Ecclesiastes tears away at our delusions. It rips to shreds the lie that we will ever find meaning in our achievements or accomplishments. It stabs to the heart of the historical amnesia which proclaims that humanity is improving!
But Solomon is not a crazed killer, seeking to depress you or make you feel insignificant. For in the right hands, the same blade which destroys delivers healing. The same dagger which kills can bring life. Solomon is not a killer. He’s a surgeon.
You see my friends, this bleak, dark picture of life is not the whole of the story. Solomon is not writing to wither, but to warn. He says what he says to build you up, not tear you down. He has found, first hand, the utter meaningless of searching for meaning in these places. And so Solomon wants to prevent you from starting the fruitless pursuit. He wants to save you from the search and point you in the right direction.
Solomon says all of what he says, so that rather than looking left, towards achievement, and looking right, towards accomplishment, you will stop, and look up, and raise your gaze to God.
Why can’t you find meaning in what you do? What can’t you find satisfaction, and purpose, and lasting joy in what you do? Because God has made you to only find those things in Him. It’s what you were designed for. It’s what you were created for. It’s what you were made for. It’s what you were meant for.
C.S. Lewis says this:
If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world. (Mere Christianity, Reprint New York: HarperColins, 2001, 136-7)
You see, what Solomon is doing is merely the first half of a contrast. Almost like the ‘before’ shot in a weight loss commercial. Solomon is saying, “This is what life is without God.” But with God, life becomes meaningful. God has created you to know him, and to be known by him. You were meant to be in a relationship with him.
And so you need to look at Solomon’s words through a new pair of glasses. Don’t just allow yourself to be cut with the dagger, but use Ecclesiastes as the surgeon’s healing knife. Solomon has made his case as clear as light: there is no ultimate gain in our pursuits or no lasting benefit to our expenditure of energy—that is, under the sun. Apart from God there is no enduring benefit to any human endeavor. There is nothing new under the sun.
But while there is nothing new under the sun, there is a God who rules over the sun, and he is always making something new.
The pursuit for meaning outside of God leads us away from him. We reject him, and insist on finding the meaning we want outside of him. But even though we all have done that—even though we have pursued created things, rather than the creator—God has not abandoned us. He has not turned his back on us.
And so in the midst of humanity’s endless cycle of rejection, and desire for a godless universe, God has stepped into humanity to make something new. God made a new covenant, a new promise, between himself and people. He sent his only eternal Son on a new mission: to come to this earth and become a man. Why did Jesus do that? So that God could make a new sacrifice. Jesus went to the cross and took the punishment we deserve. So we can know God, and find him, and know the true meaning of life. He gives new life from the empty tomb when Jesus rose again.
But God hasn’t stopped there. God creates new hearts out of old ones. He gives you a new heart when you believe in what Jesus has done.
Is there nothing new? Well, there’s nothing new that comes by our hands. But by God’s hand, there are good things available for us that are truly new. 2 Corinthians 5:17:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!
God created the universe out of nothing. By his very word everything has been created. And the same word that created the universe that can create in you a new heart and new spirit.
What does all this mean? It means that you will not find meaning under the sun because the one who is above the sun has created you to only be satisfied through his Son!
And here’s where it gets incredibly real for us. For how will you spend your life? How are you going to put value into vapour, or meaning into mist?
The way forward for us is to live with God at the centre of our lives. Without him, all we do is meaningless, and turns to vapour and mist. But with him, there is meaning in the mundane, and value in the vapour. There is meaning in everything!
God wants you to enjoy your life. God wants you to love your life! And he’s given you the secret how, right here.
God doesn’t deal in accidents, or coincidences. God has you where he wants you, and he wants you there for a reason. You might not even know what it is yet: but God does. And that means whether it’s eating lunch, catching a bus, or working at a job that you hate, you are living your life under the sun defined by him who is over it. That’s what living a life of worship is: seeing God’s hand at work in even the most mundane things. Look at the sandwich in your hand, and marvel at the God who created yeast, and wheat, and rain to make it grow, and gifted farmers with the skills to turn it into food. Sitting on the bus, dwell on the God who made people with the intelligence to make engines, and wheels, and the God who has given us people willing to drive them. Think of that person who bugs you at work—they too are a gift from God.
Augustine famously said:
You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in you. (Augustine, Confessions, 1.1)
Stop finding your meaning in the meaningless and instead find your meaning in the mundane gifts that make up your life, and the God who gave them to you!
This is how we are to live. This is what it is to live a life of true meaning, and true purpose—not searching desperately everywhere for meaning, but finding it where you are, because God has come near in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ, and loving your life because you’ve found true peace in the one who gives all life.