What is the meaning of life? What’s the point of it all? What’s the gain for all our efforts under the sun?
That’s what the book of Ecclesiastes is seeking to answer. Ecclesiastes is an Old Testament book which records observations about life. These observations were made by the Teacher of the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon, about a thousand years before Jesus turned up on that very first Christmas. This writer, Solomon, is trying to grasp hold of something tangible and concrete—something that lasts—in his life under the sun. He’s asking questions that you and I have asked at some point in our lives.
And all this writer is looking at to answer these questions is what’s in front of his eyeballs. There’s no God in the picture for this teacher. His Bible is closed. Yet this writer is on the hunt for meaning, for something that will satisfy him deep down in the very core of his soul.
The theme for these three chapters—chapters 4-6—is contentment.
Finish this sentence in your head—“my life would truly be content if only I had … ”
Now if I gave you $100,000, that would make a difference in your life, undoubtedly, but would it bring true, everlasting contentment?
If you moved into that better suburb, ticked off that bucket list item, or had that particular life partner, would that do it for you? Would you achieve lasting contentment?
Keep that question in the back of your mind as we listen in on this writer’s quest to find true contentment.
What we have in Ecclesiastes chapters 4 to 6 is a picture of life lived under three different masters. Under the sun, life is lived under a cruel master in chapter 4, under a greedy master in chapter 5, and under a pretend master in chapter 6.
Let’s look first at what life looks like under a cruel master. Ecclesiastes 4:1-3:
Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed—and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors—and they have no comforter. 2And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. 3But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun. (NIV)
This passage is a massive kick in the guts! There’s no soft intro here. The writer straight out the blocks says that ‘oppression’—which is the pursuit of profit or gain without any concern about the nature, needs, and rights of others—is part and parcel of life under the sun.
‘Oppression’ is what makes the world go ‘round. It takes extreme forms, such as a dictator like Mugabe or a warlord like Joseph Kony. And there are the faceless people responsible for the oppression of human trafficking, people smuggling, and drug, alcohol, and gambling addictions. But oppression can also be much closer to home, in the shape of the power-hungry boss, the bully of a co-worker, or that nasty family member. Oppression can take the form of someone who is willing to do whatever it takes to be ‘first’, to get their nose in front of yours, and to be noticed ahead of you.
Just this week, a former USA Gymnastics Team doctor was sentenced to 175 years prison for sexually assaulting young female athletes under his care. As a dad of three girls, I was sick to the stomach as I was reading their victim impact statements.
When you stop and look around at our world, actually it’s not that flash after all. All over the world, and including right here in our own backyard, vulnerable people are being steamrolled.
No wonder the writer’s conclusion is basically this—that it is better to die and get out of here, or better to never have been here in the first place and taste this cruel, sick kind of behaviour, than to be alive and see oppression running rampant all around you.
As hard as it is to hear these words, the writer is deliberately and intentionally giving us an honest look at life. That’s what I love about the Bible. It doesn’t do pretend. It’s why I especially love the book of Ecclesiastes.
Someone from church who battles with depression and anxiety said to me that the book of Ecclesiastes has helped him put things into perspective. A bloke sharing about his mental illness has said that these words are a comfort to him.
Another guy, one who has written a book on Ecclesiastes, has said that Ecclesiastes was written to depress you. It was written to depress you into dependence on the God who gives meaning. For it is God who has the answers to the longings and desires that keep you and I up at night.
The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a cause behind all this evil, a fuel that feeds the fire of oppression. Ecclesiastes 4:4:
And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (NIV)
What is to blame for all this oppression? It is envy. Envy drives so much of what we do.
Envy boils down to three things. First, what I have is not enough. I am discontent and want more. Second, I want what you have. I am coveting what you have. Third, I don’t want you to have what you’ve got. I have malice toward you.
I don’t need to ask if you’ve ever felt those things before. I know that you have.
Why else do get what I call “the attack of the wants”? We see someone else’s home, and then we want to renovate our own house. We see their new gadget, and then we line up for the latest iPhone.
We generally don’t ask each other in casual conversation, “How much do you get paid? How much money do you have in your bank account?” One of the main reasons we don’t ask is because we’d end up envying each other.
It is as if we’re on this never-ending escalator, trying to move on up in the world. And as we go, we’re always looking around, to the left and then to the right. Instead of being content, we’re busy comparing ourselves with each other, and competing against each other. Envy is a cruel master.
And yet, it’s not all doom and gloom. If envy is the disease, then contentment is part of the cure. Take a look at Ecclesiastes 4:5:
Fools fold their hands and ruin themselves. Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind. (NIV)
The writer here is using an image of hands to describe the life lived, both wisely and unwisely, under the sun.
First he says, don’t just fold your hands. That is just kicking back, and being lazy, and it’s not the answer, because you will end up eating your own flesh! That’s what the original that is translated “ruin themselves” literally means.
Second he says that you don’t achieve contentment by being greedy. This is the desperate grabbing with both hands mentioned in the passage. This involves trying to hold as much as you can using both hands, frantically grasping at this and that.
The third option—one handful with tranquility—is the much better approach. That leads to peace and contentment.
Teresa and I were chatting yesterday, trying to think of who among our friends and family could we say had found contentment, as best as we could judge. Often it was the people who were satisfied with just one portion. They are those who holiday locally, and don’t have the latest technology. In other words, these are the people who live within their means.
This doesn’t mean that they don’t have any worries or stresses in their lives. But they certainly aren’t driven by the opinions of others.
So life energized by envy—that green monster—is a dead end. But what is life like under a greedy master? Ecclesiastes 5:10-11:
10Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. This too is meaningless. 11As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owners except to feast their eyes on them? (NIV)
We’ve all heard of the ‘flu’, or influenza, but a couple of years back, a book called ‘Affluenza’ came out, and last year a sequel was released called, ‘Curing Affluenza’. The tag line of one of the books reads, “When too much is never enough”.
The writers define ‘affluenza’ as “that strange desire we feel to spend money we don’t have to buy things we don’t need to impress people we don’t know”. And they go on to say that ‘affluenza’ has not just changed the world, but it has also changed the way we see the world. If we are short of money, the solution is to borrow. If you are caught in the rain, buy an umbrella. If you are thirsty, buy a bottle of water and throw the bottle away.
And while we do this, our hearts are experiencing either the thrill of bargain hunting, the quest for something new or unique, or that moment when the shop assistant hands over a beautifully wrapped new purchase, with a bow, just as though it’s a present.
The authors go on to say that the love of buying things can, by definition, provide only a transient sense of satisfaction. The feeling can be lengthened by the “thrill of the chase”. It may include an afterglow that includes walking down the street with a new purchase in a branded carry bag, or even extend to the moment when you get to show your purchase to your friends and family. But that’s it.
Now does ‘Affluenza’ sound like Ecclesiastes or what!? After 3,000 years, for all our advances in human technology, scientific breakthroughs, or human enlightenment, nothing has changed. This is shown by the endless cycle of buy something, feel alive, that feeling fades, buy something else, feel alive again, and that feeling fades again. It’s like a dog chasing it’s tail.
In fact, it can get to the point of keeping you up all night. Ecclesiastes 5:12.
The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether they eat little or much, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep. (NIV)
I’m the son of migrants. My parents came from Hong Kong nearly 60 years ago. I know for a fact that my parents literally chose to go without sleep to provide for me and my brother. Both mum and dad worked shifts, involving late nights and early mornings. Now don’t get me wrong. I’ve learned from my parents about sacrifice and work ethic. But there comes a point when as Ecclesiastes 5:15 says,
Everyone comes naked from their mother’s womb, and as everyone comes, so they depart. They take nothing from their toil that they can carry in their hands.
Friends, the mortality rate among humans has pretty much hovered around the 100% mark since forever. Try as we might, we can’t take any of our stuff with us. Your car will get passed on to someone else. Someone else will move into your house. The savings account will get divvied up, and the smashed avo you ate last week will become worm food. And in case I’m in denial, I’ve only got to read my will, which divides up my stuff, and says who gets what.
It’s pretty depressing to live life with a cruel master and a greedy master. But when we come to verse 18, the writer finally declares something to be good. Ecclesiastes 5:18-19:
This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot. 19 Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. (NIV)
The teacher is saying here, “If you can, be content, collect what you can, enjoy what you can, don’t fuss too much, and hope for the best. But then along comes verse 20:
They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart (NIV)
It’s almost as if being content with your stuff acts like an anesthetic which numbs the pain of life and stops you from asking the hard questions. The other things you are occupied with push the big issues aside—“I will deal with that some other time.”
That doesn’t really sound all that satisfying.
Perhaps you are on a search for meaning. According to this writer of Ecclesiastes here, the best that you can hope for in your meaningless life under the sun is to spend the next five, ten, or however many years you get collecting what you can, enjoying what you can, and along the way, trying not to let personal disasters like life-threatening pregnancies worry you. That’s it, end of story.
But that is not the end of the story—not if we allow God into our lives under the sun. If you are willing to keep reading the rest of the Bible, you will see that Jesus comes along to offer us a life of true contentment under the sun. Jesus doesn’t allow us to be content with what we’ve collected. Instead, he gives those who are willing to live life under the sun on his terms riches that go beyond anything this world can ever give us.
And Jesus does this by giving us his very self. When Jesus walked the earth, he asked his listeners, Mark 8:36:
What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?
Jesus asks that question because what he himself can give us is worth way more than the whole world. Jesus offers you and I meaning. The meaning Jesus gives goes to the core of our very souls.
This is why the rich man Zacchaeus gave up half of what he owned after he met Jesus. Zacchaeus gave it away to the poor because he had received grace and treasured the riches of eternity more than his riches. He wanted his soul to go beyond the grave.
I came across this quote by Randy Alcorn on Instagram this week:
When you leave this world, in a box, like everyone else, will you be known as one who accumulated treasures on earth that you couldn’t keep or will you be recognized as one who invested in treasures in heaven that you couldn’t lose?
We’ve seen the dead end of life under the cruel master of oppression (Ecclesiastes 4) the hopelessness of life under the greedy master of riches (Ecclesiastes 5), so let’s look very briefly at our third master, the pretend master.
In chapter 6, verses 3-6 the writer wants us to imagine someone who has a hundred children, lives for two thousand years, and has everything his heart could possibly desire. That sounds good, and certainly better than any of us get, but it’s not that good, because the writer concludes that you can have a life of ‘quantity’, but that doesn’t guarantee ‘quality’ of life. Someone with long life and abundant riches is still looking for lasting joy and deep satisfaction. In fact, the writer leaves us with this chilling conclusion, at the end of verse 3:
I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.
Compare the rich long-lived person with a stillborn child. The writer says that the rich long-lived person born into a life that’s not really life does not have as much ‘peace’ as the stillborn child. The word here translated ‘peace’ is the same one translated ‘tranquility’ we saw back in Ecclesiastes chapter 4. The writer is not minimizing the value of the life of a stillborn child. Rather, he is brutally exposing, with raw honesty, what life without God really looks like. Again and again, Ecclesiastes reminds us that life after the fall outside the garden is far from perfect. Not every pregnancy goes the distance. Parents have to bury their children. There are such things as funerals.
We live in a world that is under a pretend master. This master is not even there. And that leads to despair. Nothing seems to make sense. You eat, but you are still hungry. You try to be wise, but it doesn’t seem to help. You try to keep up with people, but it never satisfies. Talk is everywhere, but it doesn’t make sense.
And so chapter 6 ends on two piercing questions. The first question is in Ecclesiastes 6:12:
For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless days they pass through like a shadow?
That is followed by a second question Ecclesiastes 6:14:
Who can tell them what will happen under the sun after they are gone?
Here are two brilliant questions. The first is who knows what is good in this world? The second is who knows what comes after this world? And the answer is, ‘not us’. As a fellow human being, I can’t claim to have definitive answers on life beyond the grave any more than you can.
It is estimated that 107 billion people have walked the face of this earth, and all have gone down into the big hole called ‘death’. But only one set of footprints have come out the other side. That’s one out of 107 billion, and those footprints belong to Jesus.
Jesus is the one human who is fully God at the same time. Jesus has all the answers about what’s beyond the grave.
Someone who’s search for meaning finally led to Jesus is Australian author, Tony Morphett. Before Tony met Jesus, he was an atheist. He didn’t believe in God at all. But he was also a highly superstitious man. One Friday the 13th, Tony finds himself catching a flight from Brisbane to Sydney. He takes a lucky charm with him—a stolen Gideon’s Bible from his hotel room. When he gets to Sydney, Tony starts reading Matthew’s Gospel, and by the end of it said, “I write fiction all the time, but this is anything but fiction. This is true truth. It has the mark of reality.” One of those verses Tony came across was Matthew 11:28:
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
Rather than us living life under a cruel master, Jesus gives you and I an alternative—life under his rule and lordship. It’s not oppressive, nor is it something that will crush you. It’s liberating, and it will bless you.
Jesus can say and mean these words because he himself experienced the cruelest of cruelties. He doesn’t stand like a detached Buddha who sits with a permanent smile on his face. Instead, Jesus dived head first into our mess, and like a sponge he absorbed and soaked up every single drop of God’s punishment that rightly should’ve been poured out on us, as he hung there on that cross. And because he did that, Jesus invites you and I to come and have life to the full (John 10:10).
In Jesus, we can have both quantity and quality of life. A life empty of meaning can be traded in for a life full of meaning. That’s the offer Jesus makes to you and I. So if you haven’t yet accepted this offer of true contentment, of life under a loving, merciful, forgiving, liberating, death-conquering master, what are you waiting for? Jesus offers us life with the best, most wonder kind of master. Each of us can find true meaning and contentment in Jesus.
We’re just three weeks into 2018, and everything is suggesting that this year will be just like every other year. We are already seeing on our facebook feeds that a baby has been born, a friend has died, it’s a niece’s birthday, a workmate is getting married, a cousin is getting divorced, and a parent has cancer. The news reports tell us of another war, another murder, another terrorist killing, and another round of peace negotiations. We know that 2018 will be the same as every other year because there is a time, a season, for everything.
A friend once told me that he read a newspaper from beginning to end while he was on his holidays. Unsurprising, really. But what he didn’t realize was it was three months old! He didn’t notice along the way because nothing ever changes.
Our passage today, Ecclesiastes chapter 3, is a favourite at funerals. It speaks not so much about how we ought to live our lives, as much as how life under the sun is actually and in reality lived. Our passage is telling us that there are the seasons of life under heaven. It speaks of the tyranny of time—that one day, sooner or later, there will be a time for everything. Verse 1:
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.
There are events that come upon us at their appointed times. Some of these things we like, and welcome, and long for. Some of these things we wish we could avoid. Our passage presents us with a string of opposites, and for every positive thing there is a negative thing. For every good thing that we accept with joy there is a bad thing which we dread and fear, and yet both come to us in their own time, and have their own season. The teacher has said that everything is meaningless, so he is not afraid to cover everything—even the bad things.
We start with the first part of verse 2, “a time to be born and a time to die”. We find ourselves at one time rejoicing at a birth, then at another time crying at a funeral. Sometimes these two events are separated by only two minutes—as in the case of a stillbirth—or by 90 years. And sometimes as we live our lives under the sun, we experience them both on the same day—the day my uncle died was the day my niece was born. That is the nature of life under the sun.
Between our births and our deaths we experience a range of positive and negative experiences. So in the next three comparisons, the teacher pictures for us and sets against one another both creative and destructive acts.
First, verse 2b, there’s “a time to plant and a time to uproot”. I am a farmer’s son, and as such, I was either planting seeds for the next crop or pulling up weeds to be burnt in the fire.
Second, verse 3a, there’s “a time to kill and a time to heal”. We make the trip to the vet, and there we will decide whether to heal the cat or put it down.
Third, verse 3b, there’s “a time to tear down and a time to build”. All over our city of Sydney, old houses are coming down, making way for new apartment blocks going up in their place.
And with these diverse and contrasting experiences in our lives come the different and opposite emotions. This is what the next four pairs of ‘times’ talk about.
First, verse 4a, there’s “a time to weep and a time to laugh”. The emotional life of a healthy human includes both weeping and laughter. And that include us men. It is normal to experience joy and sorrows, weddings and funerals, and to experience the emotion that accompany them.
Second, verse 4b, there’s “a time to mourn and a time to dance”. We mourn at funerals, and we dance at weddings. In their place, each response is good and proper, healthy and fully human.
Third, verse 5a, there’s “a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them”. You gather stones to clear a field for farming. You scatter stones over the field for revenge. Vengeance is a desire, and anger is an emotion, that we must deal with under the sun. We cannot escape them.
Fourth, verse 5b, there’s “a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing”. Physical affection is important, but it is not always appropriate, and it does not fix every problem. I’ve seen people use hugs to smother the tears of another. It is wisdom to know the difference.
Living with our eyes open and with realism in our world involves recognizing these opposite and contrasting emotions are a part of life. This is the reality we must engage in. We must reckon with our experiences of grief, loss, and our desire for revenge, and as much as our joy shown in laughter, dancing, and hugs.
There’s much talk about ‘resilience’ these days, and particularly ‘resilient parenting’. Resilient parenting is about helping our children live in each time of life and learn from every season—both the painful and the joyous—and not to try to create some sort of cocoon or bubble with which to shield them from life as it actually is.
The next four observations are reflections on the reality of a fallen and frustrating world.
First, verse 6a, there’s “a time to search and a time to give up”. Who has lost something in the last month? Recently I lost my watch. I looked and looked, and then had to spend $80 on a new one. We all know about the search for a lost key, or a lost child. Most of the time such searches thankfully turn out to be only minor inconveniences in the great scheme of things. But sometimes they have a tragic outcome. We have seen this with a lost sailor, or rock fisherman, or jumbo jet. Then comes the tragedy of having to call off the search, when all hope is gone. There’s a time to stop searching.
Second, verse 6b, there’s “a time to keep and a time to throw away”. Take note, hoarders of the world! There is actually a time for throwing away. Am I really going to lose that 20 kilos and fit into those jeans I’ve been hanging on to in hope for these 20 years? Here’s a word to the wives and mothers of Australia: It may be just a torn t-shirt to you, but to your husband or son, it’s an old friend.
Third, verse 7a, there’s “a time to tear and a time to mend”. ‘Tearing’ or ‘rending’ garments is a metaphor for mourning. In the ancient world, grieving people tore their clothes as a sign of their grief. In a fallen world, legitimate causes of grief will come upon us, but eventually that grief needs to come to an end for the sake of others—there is a time to mend as well as to rend.
Fourth, verse 7b, there’s “a time to be silent and a time to speak”. The ability to know when to speak and when to hold your tongue is what makes you wise. Keep this in mind when you write your next online comment.
The last two pairs in verse 8 have to do with the affections and their consequences. There’s “a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace”. The teacher starts off with the personal category—‘love’ and ‘hate’—and ends up with the international category—‘war’ and ‘peace’. And of course, there is a link between the two.
Remember, the teacher is not saying what should happen in this world. He is telling us what does happen in this world. We all want peace in our time. But in the words of Bob Dylan, “There will be no peace, the war won’t cease until he returns.”
In verse 11, the teacher says, “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” But the better understanding of the verse is, “He has made everything appropriate in it’s time.” There is a God given order in this world. Under the sun, each of the times, both good and bad, has a place, and we must accept them both to live wisely under the sun.
Yet, it is a burden to live life in a fallen world. Verse 10:
I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race.
Life is not just about births, love, laughter, planting, building, embracing, dancing, and peace—all the good, positive things we want. The stiff arm of life under the sun hits us with the opposite of these things: death, hated, killing, mourning, scattering, rejection, destruction, and war. These negative, awful things are just as much part of life as the good, positive things. And the fact is that there is no beauty in these horrible seasons of life—at least, not when we are in the midst of them.
I don’t know why some of us experience more suffering than others. The uneven distribution of suffering in the world and the church is one enormous mystery to me. We are simply not told why God has arranged it this way. But, as I told one of my non-Christian relatives who happens to have been very lucky so far, “Sooner or later the luck will run out”. For there is a season for everything, whether it is good or bad.
In verse 16, the teacher tells us that there is a time for injustice. Remember, he is not saying what ought to be, but what is under the sun:
And I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgment—wickedness was there, in the place of justice—wickedness was there.
Have you ever thought that right now, as we enjoy our comforts and freedoms, there are innocent people imprisoned in jail, enduring all the shame and anger and injustice yet knowing they are innocence, and there are guilty people walking the streets, who should be in jail. In verse 11, you get the feeling that there is no balance between justice and injustice under the sun—that there is only injustice. The teacher gives only one side of life under the sun—the injustice—and only resolves this question of injustice at the very end of the book of Ecclesiastes.
But the ultimate solution to the problem of injustice takes us to the reality of life under the sun—that no-one gets out of here alive. This is what renders life meaningless under the sun—the reality of death, and what it does to our lives. The tyranny of time, the burden and meaninglessness of the seasons, is that no-one escapes, whether humans or animals. Verses 19 and 20:
Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return.
From the dust we came and to the dust we return. Whether you end up six centimeters under in my backyard like my budgies, or you end up six feet under in Pinegrove Cemetery like my father, death is the great leveler, for both humans and animals.
But what sets humans apart from animals is this: God has also set eternity in the hearts of humans, and not in the hearts of dogs. Verse 11, again:
He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end
We as humans have what the animals do not have. We have the privilege and curse of wanting to live forever. This is the tyranny of eternity that remains in the human heart.
I remember the New Years Eve celebrations in 1999, when the word ‘eternity’ was written on Sydney Harbour Bridge. This inscription ushered in the new millenium. But before it was written in fireworks on the bridge, the word ‘eternity’ had already been written on every the human heart by God himself. That is why the word ‘eternity’ touched the hearts of so many who saw it light up the bridge. Every human longs to reach beyond what we have into eternity. This life is not enough. We want to reach out for immortality. We want eternity while we are trapped in a body that will enter a season of death.
Sometimes we see this desire for eternity among us and within ourselves. We see the desire for eternity with health obsessions, trying to milk another five years out of our bodies, or squeezing ten lifetimes into one with frenetic activity.
Albert Camus said that “life is a sustained protest against death”. Hebrews chapter 2 says the same thing, that we are all enslaved to the fear of death, and yet all the while desperate to live forever. That sense of exasperation forces Solomon to concede reluctantly in verses 12 to 13:
I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.
These are God-given concessions. If you don’t know how life began and how it will end, if birth marks the beginning and death marks the end, then eat and drink, do some good, and enjoy your work. This is the best you can hope for. This is all you’ve got, the divine concession you need to live with.
When you think about it, verses 12 to 13 describe twenty-first century Australia: seeking satisfaction with the divine concession of eating, drinking, working, reproducing. This enables people to not have to think too hard about life, and it numbs the pain. And so most Australians live with the pursuit of the trivial. The modern Australian way is to try and live for the moment—to throw yourself into the job, the next gourmet meal, the new craft beer, the upcoming long weekend. And these are undoubtedly gifts from God. They do really give us a degree of happiness and joy. But if that is all there is, then the burden is heavy.
Our bishop Ivan Lee when he was seven years old asked his atheist father, “What is the meaning of life?” His father was brutally honest. He said, “Son, there is no meaning to life. There is no god. You were nothing. You became something when you were born. You grow up. You get a job. You make some money and have a family. Then you die. They put you in a box. Then the worms eat you. Then you are nothing again.”
Ivan said he appreciated his dad’s honesty, but it stressed him out from the age of 7 till he became a Christian at 19 years of age.
With that mindset, there is nothing else but clinging to the concessions of God, those good but temporary gifts like marriage and family and work and eating and drinking. But even in the midst of them, the reality of death breaks in.
Take getting married. Two people come together, the day is built up to be one of the most important days of their lives, and they hear the words, “for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health […] till death do us part.” There is ‘death’ again, forcing its way into life, saying to us, “you cannot get away from me in the concessions and distractions of life”.
Think of the bride who was tragically killed in Bali by a freak wave while on her honeymoon , or the bride who died on her honeymoon in Fiji from extreme pneumonia. There are two husbands coming home to Australia from their honeymoons without their new brides.
Marriage is a real joy and gift, but it is temporary, and can be taken away at any time, even at the very beginning, almost before it starts. And others never get married. Yes, we do enjoy food, and drink, and work, and marriage. But they are not enough, not even if you survive the honeymoon and get to enjoy marriage and a family.
Eternity drives us to want more than the concessions. Augustine once famously said, “Our souls are restless until they find rest in you”.
We cry at funerals because we know there is more to life than the concessions. I remember one philosopher at university who apologized for crying at his wife’s funeral. He always taught at university that we humans are no more than a collection of atoms. So why should he cry when the collection of atoms that constituted his wife is now simply re-configured? But his tears exposed that we are not just a bunch of atoms, and that God has indeed placed eternity in our hearts. This life is not long enough. Nothing less than forever will do.
The teacher has some confidence in God and his purposes. He sees that in the midst of his life under the sun, the knowledge of God and his purposes is like a shaft of light probing the darkness. However, the teacher is unclear on the details. Verse 14:
I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.
There is some hope in the midst of meaninglessness, but it lies in the purposes of God. The one thing the teacher does know is that everything that God does will last into eternity. Again, why does God order the seasons and times? Verse 14c:
God does it so that men will revere him.
He may not know much, but the teacher knows that the answer is found in the fear of God. The tyranny of time makes us hungry for eternity, and maybe, just maybe, we will share that forever with God.
The teacher leaves so many questions unanswered. Verse 21:
Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?
Fear God, enjoy life, and who knows? Perhaps you may end up different to your dead gold fish. Who knows?
But that can’t be right! Trapped in time, we yearn for eternity and yearn for certainty.
While we are trapped in our seasons of time, God is not trapped in time. God is from everlasting to everlasting. His plan breaks into time.
We know that in the fullness of time God sent his Son to set us free from a world marked by death as well as birth, hate as well as love, and mourning as well as dancing. Jesus entered every one of our seasons—joy and sorrow, birth and death. When the time had come, the child of the manger became the man of the cross, and by that cross bought our forgiveness. By rising from the dead, he defeated death and put eternity onto everyone’s agenda.
While the universal experience under the sun is that everyone goes down to the grave, with Jesus Christ one of us has now come up out of it again. And the rest of us who trust in Jesus will follow him and also come up out of the grave. The God who set eternity in our hearts has also satisfied that desire of our hearts with this promise in John chapter 11 verses 25 to 26:
25Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
Where will you be five minutes after you die? Today is the day of salvation. It is appointed for a person to die once and after that face judgment. It is the resurrection that cracks open the tyranny of time. It is the resurrection that also transforms us. I would not be faithful to my wife if Jesus didn’t rise from dead. Jesus is alive, and because he is alive, he is Lord of my body, as well as the universe.
You see that there is a time for everything, and that includes salvation.
We now know the beginning, for God has made that known to us. The past has been made known to us. He has told us that before the creation of the world, God chose his Son to die and save a world scourged with meaninglessness. Before the creation of the world God also chose you who believe in Christ to be adopted as his sons.
God has also made known to us the nature of the present time. He has made known to us that through his blood, we have the forgiveness of sins. Now is the time for salvation.
And God has also made known to us that in the future, we will be resurrected from the dead. He has revealed that there is a resurrection of judgement, and a resurrection of life (John 5:24-30), and that those who believe in Jesus will not be judged but have crossed over from death to life. We have now been sealed with the Spirit, guaranteeing our new body in the new world to come. The mystery hidden for ages has now been revealed to us, that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow. We know that in the end there will be a new heaven a new earth, where he will wipe every tear from their eyes (Rev 21:4). There will be no more death, or mourning, or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
Notice that in this great vision of the future which we have been given, that there are no opposites anymore. That, my friends, is truly beautiful. In the coming world that the Lord Jesus Christ is bringing in, there is not a time for everything. There is not a season for every activity in heaven, as there was in the meaningless world under the sun. There is only a time for life, planting, healing, building, laughing, dancing, embracing, loving, and enjoying peace. Finally, our deepest longings which stem from the eternity God has placed in our hearts will be satisfied. In the new heaven and the new earth there are no phone calls to say that your father has died.
With eternity comes certainty. John says, 1 John 5:13:
I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.
So we who believe in the name of the Son of God now enjoy God’s good gifts we have in this world no longer as a concession wrested from God’s unwilling hand. We no longer take God’s gifts from him in an attempt to impose some meaning upon our otherwise meaningless lives apart from him. But we gratefully receive God’s good gifts in this life as a token from him—as a small reminder—of the gift of eternal life he has promised us and will surely give us.
Early last century, an alcoholic hobo stumbled his way into St Barnabas Anglican church on Broadway, in what is now inner city Sydney. This man listened to a sermon which ended with the question, “Where will you spend eternity?” The preacher invited people afterwards to come forward and make a decision about following Jesus Christ, so that they too could know they would be spending eternity with him. The man, whose name was Arthur, did this, and so came to Christ.
Arthur was illiterate—he could neither read nor write—but he was desperate to do something in service of the one who had saved him. So Arthur Stace decided that he would spend the rest of his life waking up early and writing in chalked copperplate script the only word that he knew on the footpaths of Sydney streets. The word was ‘eternity’. For a long time, no one knew who was doing this. But eventually the Herald ran an enquiry to find out the source of this message. And Arthur Stace was uncovered. Over a period of 35 years, the otherwise illiterate Stace had chalked the word ‘eternity’ around 500,000 times in public spaces across Sydney. A documentary was made about who Arthur Stace was, and in it people came forward, admitting to how they were walking in the city and were confronted by the chalked graffiti that had forced them to think about the very ‘eternity’ that God had already put in their hearts. This one word sermon from an unknown illiterate had provoked in them a search for God.
The word ‘eternity’ strikes a chord in human hearts because God has placed a longing for eternity there. And then in the fullness of time, God has enabled that longing to be satisfied by sending his one and only Son.
Time is running out for you to take hold of eternity.
There’s an old grandfather clock that sits in Chester cathedral in England. It has been there for a hundred and fifty years. It just stands there, keeping time. And on the front of it, there’s a brass plaque, with this poem on it.
When as a child I laughed and wept, time crept. When as a youth I grew more bold, time strolled. When I became a full-grown man, time ran. When older still I daily grew, time flew. Soon I shall find, in passing on, time gone.
To a world trapped in meaninglessness, we need to keep saying that this temporary life is not long enough. This broken world is not good enough. Christ came to usher in a world where there is not a season for everything, but one where there is life not death, love not hate, healing not killing, peace not war, and joy not grief.
We each are now required to redeem the time (Eph 5:16), for there is a world lost in time. Jesus prayed to the Lord of the harvest, and we need more workers of the gospel. We need more men and women who will announce that Jesus’ resurrection has defeated to the tyranny of time. There is now a generation who carry the burden of wanting eternity but not knowing how to get it.
We have 80 ministry trainees here today in our evening service. Let me assure you all, that they are ordinary people just like you. God only ever uses ordinary people. The Ministry Training Scheme, or MTS, is challenging you with one question: “Why have you not taken up the privilege of becoming a ministry trainee?” How many more excuses will you keep throwing up? How long will you purse the good instead of pursuing the best? We need more gospel workers, who will announce that Jesus resurrection has cracked open our tyranny of time. We need more gospel workers who will say, and keep on saying, that this life is not long enough, and this world is not good enough. Christ came to usher in a new world, one where there is life and not death, love and not hate, healing and not killing, peace and not war, joy and not grief. We need men and women to announce that there is a place of no more crying or grief or pain, and no more death.
Now is the time for salvation. Now is the day to accept Jesus as Lord. And then now is the season for making Jesus' life giving resurrection known to a meaningless world.
It has been said, “The two most important days of your life are the day you’re born and the day you find out why.” In other words, discovering why you were born is just as important as being born. We all need to find out the meaning of our lives.
Ecclesiastes says the same thing. With the Bible closed you will never find the meaning of life. But before he gives the right answer to the meaning of life, the Teacher in Ecclesiastes wants you to know the wrong answers to the meaning of life. He wants to show us that each of the wrong answers leads to a dead end. Ecclesiastes wants to make the mistakes for you, so that you don’t have to make them, and suffer the consequences.
Let’s remind ourselves who is speaking. It is the teacher. Ecclesiastes 1:1:
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king of Jerusalem: (NIV)
If the writer was not king Solomon, the book is about king Solomon. Solomon pursued the world’s dreams and found that those dreams had turned into nightmares.
The book of Ecclesiastes is written from the perspective of one who had it all, and did it all. It’s one thing for a poor man to say that “wealth is meaningless”, but if Bill Gates with his billions says that “wealth is meaningless”, it has more clout! The teacher was not a philosopher who lives his fantasies only in his dreams or on his xbox. He had it all and did it all. And the writer is not just a king, but he is also a teacher in search of wisdom. Ecclesiastes 1:13:
I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! (NIV)
For this teacher, the burden of his study was great, because he had worked out that everything is meaningless. Ecclesiastes 1:2:
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (NIV)
Thirty-five times in the book of Ecclesiastes we are told that everything is meaningless. In verse 2, the word is used four times in one sentence! Everything is meaningless because nothing lasts. The search for meaning is the search for what lasts. But the teacher has found that it’s all just a mist.
How much is meaningless? Everything is meaningless. It is utterly meaningless. By “everything”, Ecclesiastes doesn’t mean that God and his purposes are meaningless. But neither is he in a hurry to give us the answer as to what is not meaningless. The teacher wants to take you down dark corridors, along roads that promise meaning, only to show you that they are dead ends.
In Ecclesiastes 2:14, he describes the fruitless pursuit of meaning as “a chasing after the wind”. It is as pointless as a dog chasing its own tail.
Our modern culture teaches us three things. The first is that no one has the right to tell you what to do. The second is to be true to yourself. And the third is that happiness is the highest goal. Being happy is the main thing.
No one pursued happiness with more commitment and resources than king Solomon. Ecclesiastes 2:10:
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. (NIV)
What he saw and liked, he took. He is not ashamed to say it. Nothing was off limits. The teacher tried to find the meaning of life in raw pleasure.
Many people deny their desires, but that is only because of a lack of opportunity. Police say that three things are required for a crime to be committed. There needs to be motive, ability, and opportunity. 10% of it is motive, 10% is ability, but 80% is opportunity. And Solomon has the opportunity.
Solomon has no problem accessing sources of pleasure. He has a never-ending supply of wine, women, and wealth. In his time, he was the wealthiest man alive. He had a thousand women in his harem. He had access to the best the world of his day had to offer. Ecclesiastes 2:1-3:
I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. “Laughter,” I said, “is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?” I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives. (NIV)
And we Australians now have the money to pay for our pleasures. But at the end of all the overseas travel, experimental sex, endless drinking, gourmet food, thrill seeking adventures, and the never ending spending spree, there is no deep satisfaction. No happiness is achieved. No lasting contentment is found.
Solomon sounds just like rock star Jimmy Barnes. In his book, ‘Working Class Man’, he says this:
Even before I joined the band I was never short of someone to sleep with, but after joining, things got crazier and crazier. Just like the drugs and booze, the more I had, the more I wanted. I’m not going to sit here and brag about this. I’m not proud of all I’ve done. This behavior has been nothing but destructive in my life. It started out as something that filled a gap, something that made me feel good about myself, but after a short time all these encounters added to my feelings of not being worthy and I began to dislike myself even more. (p. 79)
Jimmy Barnes is an example of how pursuing pleasure is such a dead end. The pursuit of pleasure does not last. Think about how you feel at the end of a great holiday. You’re left with a whole lot of selfies that no one really wants to see. Nothing was gained, except making a few Facebook friends feel a bit jealous.
The second place that our teacher sought to find meaning is in work. Let’s face it, work does takes up at least a third of our lives. Ecclesiastes 1:3:
What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? (NIV)
No one wants to work for nothing. A man labours under the sun, and the question is asked, “What’s the point?” What does a man gain? The Teacher recognizes elsewhere that work is a gift from God (cf. Eccles 3:12-14, 22). But after you have invested so much time and energy created your business, built your house, written your program, mastered your job, and developed your processes, how long will it last? How much of it will last? And the answer is “nothing”. Ultimately there is nothing to be gained in all the work done under the sun. He gives the reason for this in Ecclesiastes 2:18-19:
I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. (NIV)
The issue for Ecclesiastes is this: no matter how skilled, how impressive, how efficiently you have worked, at some point you have to hand that work over to another person or generation. You will either die or retire, or your work will be outdated. It will be passed on to others, or you will pass on, and sooner or later it will come to nothing.
I was talking to one friend in the IT (information technology) area. One moment his program was cutting edge, but only four years later, it was on the cutting room floor. It was obsolete. How many times have I seen a well run school under a good leader with an excellent reputation, and then a change happens, and within three years, it becomes the school you don’t want to send your kids to.
The same is true with the money you make from your work. You work your heart out, you slave for long hours—we have seen many of our parents’ generation do this, and especially migrant parents. They worked so hard and missed out on so much. But as much as you love your children, you never know whether they will turn out to be gamblers, druggies, or drop kicks. Or will they end up marrying dropkicks who divorce your son or daughter and take half the inheritance that you have worked so hard for. And if they don’t lose the lot, their grandchildren will.
That is why its always smart to invest in the kingdom of God. A man builds an empire and his son fritters it away. In just one generation, Solomon’s son Rehoboam acted so foolishly that the twelve tribes eventually become the two tribes of Israel. With it went everything that Solomon had built up—the wealth, the temple, the land, the throne—everything.
In the end, if the fruit of your labour can’t be preserved, then the meaning of life can’t be found in work. Ecclesiastes is working off the thinking that if it doesn’t last, then it’s meaningless.
Now, to be more accurate to what Ecclesiastes finds, we should say that work is meaningful—we must do it, and called to do it skillfully, and it is a gift from God—but work can’t be the meaning of life.
Jim Carey is the star of the movies, ‘The Mask’, ‘Dumb and Dumber’, ‘Ace Venturer’, ‘The Truman Show’, and ‘Bruce Almighty’, among others. His net worth is roughly $150 million. He uploaded to social media this quote:
I wish everyone could get rich and famous and everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer. (NIV)
So ‘pleasure’ is a dead end to give our lives meaning, and ‘work’ is a dead end to provide meaning to our lives. So what about ‘wisdom’. Surely ‘wisdom’ is not a dead end. Sorry, No.
Ecclesiastes knows that there is a difference between the wise and the foolish. How you live your life now really does make a difference in the present. Ecclesiastes 2:13-14:
I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. Doing the right thing is always better than doing the wrong thing. The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both. (NIV)
The wise can see how life is to be lived. It is true that you really are more happy if you have a healthy body, a disciplined life, good family relationships, and smart investments. Getting those things in order ticks a lot of boxes.
In contrast, the fool lives in the dark, lives for the moment, has no delayed gratification, drinks too much, works too little, and is always in debt. But in the end, both the wise and the fool will be dead and buried.
Whenever my daughter Amy was impressed about someone not worth being impressed by, I would say, “Yes darling but remember, they will die like a dog like everybody else.” Death is the great leveler.
There is an Assyrian proverb which says, “Come and see! You cannot distinguish between the bones of kings and the bones of slaves.” The wise and the foolish both end up reduced to white bleached bones. When James Packer and Ray Galea die, we will have differently priced coffins, his skeletal structure will be somewhat longer than mine, but that will be the only difference.
So the teacher asks the question, “Is it pointless being wise?” If you live with your Bible closed and look at life under the sun, then death is the end, and the difference between the fool and the wise is reduced to nothing. Being wise is useless under the sun, and of no lasting value, when you exclude God from the picture.
A lot of preachers at this point go to the movie ‘Groundhog Day’. It’s a mini-Ecclesiastes. It’s about a weather reporter with a bad attitude, played by Bill Murray. He is doing a weather report in a small town, and is snowed in, and somehow he re-lives the same day over and over again. No matter what he does, the next day is exactly the same way. At first he thinks this is great—there are no consequences for my actions. And this means that he engages in endless eating, stealing, and sex. He is rude, crude, and disgusting, only to find when he wakes up in the morning, that it’s the same day all over again.
At first he enjoyed having no consequences for his selfish and poor behaviour, but it eventually gets boring. It has no purpose. He can’t find meaning in the pleasure, and so the pleasure stops being pleasurable.
So he then tries to end his life—but no matter what he does, he wakes up the next day very much alive.
So almost as a last throw of the dice, he then tries to live a wise and good life. And the man finds meaning by genuinely serving others. There is meaning in loving others.
In the movie ‘Groundhog Day’, there is no death, but in real life there is. And so death means that every door and every corridor that promises hope is utterly meaningless.
Friends, why does Jesus say, in Mark 8:36, “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world yet forfeit his soul?” If you gain the whole world you gain nothing because it will not last. But if you gain your soul you gain life everlasting (John 3:16). God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish but have everlasting life.”
So some things do indeed last forever. You can last forever. Indeed, you will last forever, either in heaven or hell. The one who believes in God’s one and only Son will not perish. The day you were born was an important day—someone that lasts forever entered the universe. But the day that you realized why you were born is far more important—and if it hasn’t been before, today is that day. For whoever believes in Jesus Christ will not perish but have everlasting life.
I beg you to come and find out where life is really found. If your want to know more, don’t miss out on our ‘Explaining Christianity’ course.
But for those of us who have already found eternal life in Christ, perhaps you have been fixing your eyes on what is seen and temporary, and not fixing your eyes on what us unseen and eternal. You need to think again on Peter’s words to Jesus, in John 6:67-68. Jesus asks the twelve, “You do not want to leave too, do you?” And Simon Peter answered him:
Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. (NIV)
To whom shall you go. If you walk away from Jesus, where do you walk to? Pleasure won’t do it for you. It is never enough and you won’t be satisfied. Work won’t do it, for you have to hand over what you do and achieve and however much you make to someone else, and eventually they will botch it up. Wisdom won’t do it for you, because the fool dies just like the wise person.
As Christians, we have been rescued from a lot of things as followers of Christ—hell, the second death, sin, and the devil. Well, we need to remember this, that we have also been saved from a life without meaning.
Dear Lord Jesus,
To whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Thank you for giving us meaning in a meaningless world.
 While it has been attributed to Mark Twain, it almost certainly was not said by him. https://marktwainstudies.com/the-apocryphal-twain-the-two-most-important-days-of-your-life/ accessed on 15 January 2018.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.