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TEXT: Ecclesiastes 1:1-11
SUBJECT: Ecclesiastes #1: All is Vanity.Under the Sun
This was the creed my father lived and died by. On the afternoon of December 30th of last year, orderlies came into his hospital room to cart him off for an MRI. By that time, he was very weak and it was hard to lift him out of bed. When they did though, something happened I didn't expect: he fainted. They put him back in bed and told me he'd have no test today.
Fifteen minutes later, he woke up not knowing where he was, but knowing full well what he was. He turned to me sitting on his left and said matter-of-factly-
I'm not going to make it.
Of course he was right: he died on the morning of January 4, 2011. For me and you and many other people, the days were filled with prayer and hope--and a good measure of pretending.
But Dad was facing reality. He had read his Bible every day for many years and he knew the verse, There is-
A time to be born,
And a time to die.
His time had come, and he chose to accept life as it really is and not as we wish it would be.
These painful memories bring us to Ecclesiastes, and what Herman Melville called-
The truest book in the world.
To say there is no consensus on this Book is to badly understate the case. Scholars, pastors, and rabbis disagree on almost everything, from its authorship to its message; its point-of-view, its key words, and even whether it belongs in the Bible or not!
Most of these arguments are way over my head, but because I believe in Providence and in Jesus Christ, I also believe Ecclesiastes is the Word of God, and that, consequently, it is-
Profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto every good work.
But it is not easy to understand, and in some places, it is even harder to stomach. If you're looking for easy answers and edifying stories, you've got to go somewhere else. Ecclesiastes is not Jello; it's Beef Jerky! If you try to swallow it whole, it'll choke you. You've got to chew on it, and that takes effort and patience.
Don't get me wrong: I have not mastered the Book or solved many of its puzzles. But I have been fascinated by it all of life.
Ecclesiastes bears the stamp of Divinity. Like God Himself, it both pulls you in and pushes you away at the same time. It mocks the scholar, daring him to plumb the depths of its Mystery, then laughing at him when he gets it all wrong or gives up in despair.
But if it pushes away 'the know-it-all', it invites the disciple to sit down with an older, wiser man and learn what he's learned from a long and carefully observed life. He doesn't know everything, but he's always honest and he can point us in the right direction.
Martin Luther urged his friends to Read this noble little book every day because it knocks the sentimentality and religious cant out of us. It keeps us from becoming silly and phony and saccharine-sweet! It keeps you from becoming 'church ladies' like Jim and Tammy Bakker! Or Mr. and Mrs. Osteen!
Soft-headed Christians need this book; and so do hard-hearted unbelievers. Leland Ryken calls it-
The most contemporary book in the Bible. It is a satiric attack on an acquisitive, hedonistic and materialist society. It exposes the mad quest to find satisfaction in knowledge, wealth, pleasure, work, fame and sex.
I wish Dr. Ryken would use shorter words! Most of the people you know are looking for satisfaction, fulfillment in all the wrong places. Some of the places are obviously wrong, like drugs or heavy drinking. But most of them are not. We look for satisfaction in good things-marriage or children or career or fitness or sports or study or poetry or fine dining.
These are the gifts of God and the Preacher often recommends them to us. But they're not enough! The French philosopher, Blaise Pascal said 'There is a God-shaped hole in our hearts and nothing fills it but God Himself'.
This is the message of Ecclesiastes, but it is not announced from Heaven as a Oracle of God. No, the Preacher found it out for himself through a long and tedious life of trial-and-error.
This adds texture and color and heft to what he says. It gives the message a ring of authenticity. But to hear it our ears have got to be on-key, and this means we need Jesus, for-
The hearing ear and the seeing eye,
The Lord has made them both.
THE SUPERSCRIPTION, V.1
The Book begins with author's title. He is-
The Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Scholars differ on how to best translate the man's title. Is he a preacher, a teacher, a rabbi, a philosopher, a sage-- or should we just leave it in Hebrew, Koheleth? To my way of thinking, it makes no real difference. He's a man that's got something to say, and we would do well to hear him out. If he's the Preacher, we're the church; if he's the Teacher, we're the students. Or, maybe, if he's the Father, we're the children.
After naming himself the Preacher, he goes on to add that he's-
The Son of David,
King in Jerusalem.
This has led most readers to think 'Solomon', but no scholar believes this-and not because he doesn't believe the Bible. They think the Preacher is striking a pose-and his readers know he is. He's either writing about Solomon, or in effect, for him. In any event, there's no lying or forgery involved. Solomon had it all-money and fame, wisdom, women, good taste, power, a long life-and was still unsatisfied. He would have sighed in agreement with St. Augustine's most remembered words-
Lord, Thou hast made us for Thyself,
And our souls are restless till they
Find their rest in Thee.
THE THEME, V.2
The theme of the book is summed up in v.2, and what a bleak summary it is-or seems to be-
Vanity of vanities says the Preacher;
Vanity of vanity, all is vanity.
Vanity, shows up more than thirty times in Ecclesiastes, and usually in key places. We'll get nowhere in understanding the Book unless we gain some feel for the word.
As I've said several times already, the scholars are split on the meaning of the word. Among others, they've tried-
Meaningless, absurd, futile, nothing, illusory, frustrating. and fleeting.
There's something to be said for all these words, but the one I prefer is vapor. Outside of Ecclesiastes, this is what the word usually means, and, for the most part, it fits here too. The Preacher is comparing life under the sun to vapor or steam or smoke or a fog.
Think of the steam that rises from a cup of hot coffee. Think of your breath on a cold day. Think of the smoke coming out of your chimney. Think of the early morning fog we usually get in the Bay Area.
What have they got in common with each other-and with life as it really is?
You cannot control them and you cannot hold on to them.
I've seen people blow smoke rings, but only in the movies have I seen a man blow a smoke ship and make it sail though the ring! That's the work of wizards-not humans!
With the price you pay for coffee and Starbucks, you ought to get it all! But the next time steam rises from the cup catch it in a jar and enjoy the wonderful scent whenever you want to. You can't do it. Steam has a way of eluding our best efforts to catch it.
What's true of smoke and steam is also true of life: You cannot control it and you cannot keep it! Life is a gift given and taken away at God's leisure-and not yours or mine, 8:8-
No one has power of the spirit to retain the spirit,
And no one has power in the day of death.
This is not a unique insight, but is taught all over the Bible and confirmed by everyday experience,
Do not boast of tomorrow,
For you do not know what a
Day may bring forth.
What is your life but a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away?
Every adult here has gotten the late-night phone call that someone has died-someone young and healthy, someone you expected to outlive you. But didn't.
If life itself cannot be controlled and held on to, neither are the things that are in our lives controllable or secure. A man works hard, and loses his job. A woman is a fine wife, and her husband leaves her. People eat right, exercise, go to the doctor, and contract a terrible disease. The best parents have prodigal sons. The safest investments are lost. The strongest minds are lost to Alzheimer's disease!
I'll never forget the words of Jaqueline Kennedy Onasis on learning she had breast cancer-
Why did I do all those pushups?
Her husband was one of the wealthiest men in the world; she had the finest care money could buy; she was relatively young; she took exceptional care of herself, and what was she doing-what are we all doing?-
Laboring for the wind.
THE CONCLUSION, V.3
After many years of reflecting on life as it really is, the Preacher has come to a conclusion-
What profit has a man
From all his labor
In which he toils under the sun?
Though it is put in the form a question, it is in fact, an answer: There is no profit for your labor under the sun! None. Nada. Zilch-
Naked I came from my mother's womb,
And naked shall I return.
On the surface, the Preacher seems to have gotten it wrong. Most intelligent, hard-working and focussed students will get their diploma or degree. Most shrewd, disciplined, and patient investors will make money on their investments. The Bible seems to sanctify this common-sense observation-
He who deals with a slack hand
But the hand of the diligent
Makes one rich.
So, which is it? Are 'ends' and 'means' connected? Is there some positive relationship between, let's say how hard you study and what grades you get? If there is-and of course there is-there must be some profit in our efforts to make a living or stay healthy or have a good family, and so on.
The Preacher is not denying some profit in what we do. What he's denying is certainty and the permanence of that profit. Paul refers to money as-
Jesus reminds us that the finest wardrobe can eaten by moths, the shiniest metals can tarnish and, no home or safe or bank or portfolio is completely safe from the thieves who break in and steal.
Closer to home, think of the real estate market. For thirty-five years, you almost couldn't lose money! Now, every block is littered with 'bank sales'.
Even if things could be kept safe in this life and they were guaranteed for life.how long will that be? Five years? Fifty? Maybe not five minutes. You can't take it with you.
In death, everything that can be gained under the sun will be lost. Everything.
THE PROOF, vv.4-11
No matter how hard you try to prevent it. The Preacher proves his point by reminding us of several things we all know perfectly, but haven't thought about lately.
One generation passes away,
And another generation comes;
But the earth abides forever.
The human race is made out of dirt. For a few years, we control the dirt, but then the dirt controls us-
From the dust we were taken,
And to the dust we return.
This is our predicament-and no matter how long or hard we fight it, the dirt always wins.
The sun also rises,
And the sun goes down,
And hastens to the place
Where it arose.
No one is busier than the sun. It never takes a day off, never calls in sick, never sleeps late. But for all of its rising and setting, it never gets anywhere. It's in the East every morning, the West every evening, and overhead at noon every day.
The biggest and most powerful force in our galaxy is like a hamster on a treadmill-always on the move and never getting anywhere.
This is equally true of the wind, v.6-
The wind goes toward the south,
And turns around to the north;
The wind whirls around continually,
And comes again on its circuit.
The rivers are no different, always running into the ocean, but never filling it up, v.7-
All the rivers run into the sea,
But the sea is not full;
To the place from which the rivers
There they return again.
From the tedious routines of nature, the Preacher turns his gaze on our dull lives--
All things are full of labor;
Man cannot express it.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing,
Nor the ear filled with hearing.
That which has been is that which will be,
That which is done
Is what will be done,
And there is nothing new under the
Is there anything of which it may be said,
'See, this is new?'
It has already been in ancient times
There is no remembrance of former
Nor will there be any remembrance
Of things that are to come
By those who will come after.
Though we're a lot smaller and weaker than the earth or the sun or the winds or the rivers and seas, our lives are not much different from theirs. Most days are spent doing pretty much the same things-and not getting anywhere.
Keeping the house and yard is a prime example. You mow and trim the lawn, and it looks great: a few days later it's as shaggy as ever, and you've got to do it again. You cook a meal and it takes great: a few hours later, you've got to do it again. You wash a load of laundry and it smells great: Tomorrow you'll be up to your chin in dirty clothes.
There's no one I admire more than a homemaker, but not everyone feels this way. But as they look down on the people doing such dull work everyday, they ought to take a look at their own lives. Are then really any different? Don't security guards do pretty much the same thing every day? Or doctors? Attorneys? Even singers and professional athletes. Some are on higher-paying and romantic treadmills than others, but they're all on the treadmill!
People who think they're doing something totally new are, in fact just doing a variation on and old theme. Computer nerds are delivering information-and it's amazing how much and how fast they're doing it! But is that really any different than what librarians used to do? Or singing minstrels before them? Or tribal elders sitting around the fire?
There is nothing new under the sun.
WHAT TO DO WITH LIFE
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
All is vanity.
If life cannot be controlled or held on it, what do we do with it? Some, reading Ecclesiastes, say we despair of it. But this is not the Preacher's counsel.
What's he tell us to do with our short and uncertain lives? Four things:
We cannot control our lives, but we can trust the Lord who does; we cannot live forever, but we can believe in Jesus who is-
The resurrection and the life.
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