Ecclesiastes 1: Is Life Worth Living?
I wonder whether you saw the New Year in at a party? When people have had a glass or two you often find out what they really think. I heard of a guest at a rather noisy party, who approached his hostess to complain, “I find the whole situation absurd,” he shouted rather loudly over the din, “no-one here seems to realise how silly they look all dressed up, how pathetic their little lives really are, their behaviour is so grotesque…their small talk is so…so superficial…” “Ah,” said the hostess, smiling sweetly, “you must join the sociologists in the far corner. The rest of us realised all that a long time ago but we decided to ignore it and just enjoy the party….” Ecclesiastes was written by a man who decided not to ignore reality any longer but joined the deviants in the corner who are confronting the absurdity of life. And he invites us to listen in on their conversation. The first verse suggests this is the work of King Solomon but most commentators doubt it. The writer gives himself the name qoheleth which is translated teacher (TNIV) or preacher (ESV). For convenience, I am going to assume it is Solomon. What matters is that we read this as an autobiographical journey by someone in search of meaning in life. In the opening chapter, Solomon introduces us to three people, a scientist, an historian and a philosopher, who each help him to answer the ultimate question, “Is life worth living?”
And Solomon gives us his answer in verse 2, even before asking the question. “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Eccl.1:2)
This is like a detective novel in which the writer begins by telling you who did it then proceeds to reveal how they did it and how the clues fit together. While popular in fiction, few people are really comfortable with this “Sherlock Holmes” style of ruthless elementary deduction when applied to real life.
During the Spring when we explore Ecclesiastes together, we are going to unmask some of our fantasies and take off our rose tinted spectacles. Ecclesiastes does not allow us to escape back into our Disney make-believe world where the blood is only tomato ketchup, and everyone rides off into the sunset, living happily ever after.
A hard look at life can be very disconcerting. Have you noticed the way the TV news typically ends? The news will move from a story about army casualties through a road side bomb in Afghanistan, to a suicide bombing of a mosque in Pakistan, to the latest revelations of Iran’s clandestine nuclear programme to a devastating cyclone in the Philippines, then, almost without a pause, we move to the latest cricket and rugby scores, and then with a smile and a shuffle of papers we end “on a lighter note” with a trivial or eccentric story with a happy ending… and in a millisecond it’s straight into the make-believe world of the adverts. T.S. Eliot rightly warned that “humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
But bear it we must if people are to realise that the message of Jesus Christ is good news. You cannot save a drowning man if he does not realise his predicament. Francis Schaeffer, the most influential 20th Century Christian philosopher, once wrote,
“There is a time, and ours is such a time, when a negative message is needed before anything positive can begin…People often say to me, “What would you do if you met a really modern man on a train and you had just an hour to talk to him about the gospel?” I would spend forty-five or fifty minutes on the negative, to show him his real dilemma-to show him that he is more dead than even he thinks he is…Then I would take ten or fifteen minutes to tell him the gospel…Unless he understands what is wrong, he will not be ready to listen, and understand the positive.”
This is the stance that Ecclesiastes takes. Solomon drags us through the pointlessness of life without God, often with great humour. We greatly misunderstand this book if we imagine that Solomon is merely a cynic. He never lets us forget that the posture he is taking is not a divine viewpoint. Rather it is the rationale of a secular person looking at the world with all its problems, horizontally. Or, as Solomon puts it 27x from “under the sun.” He does not accept these secular assumptions. He is deliberately putting on the mantle of the secular mind to force us to think the way the world thinks, and takes us to the logical end of such a world view.
It may be uncomfortable, even disconcerting, to deliberately try and imagine the world without God, but this we need to do if we are to identify with our family and friends who avoid God.
Who think the Church irrelevant. We are going to find that Ecclesiastes will help us a great deal to get into the mind of the unchurched Harry and Mary. There are some amazing similarities between cultures separated by thousands of years and thousands of miles. Human nature does not change with the colour of the skin. Solomon, would have concurred with the view of Black Elk, the great Sioux religious leader, “Everything an Indian does is in a circle”,
he said, “Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood.” For centuries, wise people in different cultures have been pondering the mysteries of the “circles” of human life. Whenever you use phrases like “life cycle“, or “the wheel of fortune,” or “come full circle,” you are taking a cyclical view of life and nature. If life is only part of a great cycle over which we have no control, what’s the point? Why carry on? “Eat, drink and be merry…” (Eccl. 8:15). While much of the world, for most of the time ignores such questions, pretending life is one long party, lets return to the corner of the room and overhear the conversation between Solomon and his friends, a scientist, an historian and a philosopher, debating the ultimate question. Solomon looked at the cycle of life “under the sun” and he came to three bleak conclusions.
From the view point of the scientist, nothing in life is changed (1:4-7); in the opinion of the historian nothing is new (1:8-11), and in the experience of the philosopher, nothing is understood (1:12-18).
1. Life is boring because nothing is changed
“Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.” (Ecclesiastes 1:4-7)
In these verses Solomon approaches the problem as a scientist and examines the life cycles on, The Earth (1:4); The Sun (1:5);
The Wind (1:6); The Sea (1:7). We move from the cycle of birth and death on earth to the cycle of day and night, from the visible east-west movement of the sun to the invisible north-south movement of the wind, to the hydrological cycle of water from vapour, cloud, rain to river and sea. Whether we look at the earth or the heavens, the winds or the waters, we come to the same conclusion: nature follows a series of routines…in which human life is transitory.
The Psalmist says the same thing.
“As for man, his days are like grass. The wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.” (Psalm 103:15-16)
Thomas Carlyle, the historian, called history “a mighty drama, enacted upon the theatre of time, with suns for lamps and eternity for a background.” Solomon might have added that the costumes and sets may occasionally change, but the actors and scripts remain pretty much the same. For many people life is like living in a prison. Day in day out there is the same routine.
Get up. wash, shave, clean teeth, 7.00 breakfast, kiss the cat, kick the wife, sorry… leave the house at 7.30, get the 7.49 train to Waterloo, on the tube, off at Oxford Circus, walk along to Hanover Square. Work until 1.00. Break for lunch. Back at 2.00.
Work till 5.00. Get the tube back to Waterloo, then catch the 5.40 for Virginia water, and the rest of the day in reverse order.
The routine takes on the role of the prison warden. An occasional tragedy or scandal is a welcome break from the monotony….
a royal wedding, leaves on the line, a blizzard, a tube strike, a bank holiday, a natural disaster, anything to break the monotony of the routine. “Look at nature“, says Solomon, “and realise that you’re just a small and insignificant, expendable cog in a cosmic machine, that was here long before you were born and will be here long after you’re dead and gone.” Life “under the sun“, is not worth living. Without God, the world is a closed system that is boring, predictable, repetitive, monotonous, unchangeable.
A world where there are no ultimate answers, where even asking questions is a waste of breath because nobody is listening.
You can perhaps see why in some cultures, people want to believe in reincarnation, worshipping a deified nature or their ancestors.
No wonder Blanche Dubois in “A Street Car named Desire” says
“I don’t want realism, I want magic.” How different our view of the world when we recognise that God can and does break into our world.
We do not have to live in a system of endless monotonous cycles.
We are pilgrims but not prisoners. But for now, Solomon would have us spend a little longer identifying with the secular humanist, and feel the despair of a world view in which nothing changes. A world in which,
2. Life is insatiable yet nothing is new
“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new?” It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.” (Eccl. 1:9-10)
Solomon now introduces us to the historian’s view of the world.
Few want to admit what their experience tells them. Life might be a monotonous drag but we kid ourselves into thinking, “if only my circumstances were different, then I would be happy…”
How much more money would make a significant difference in your life? Most people really believe an extra £5000 a year would make them fulfilled. They believe more = fulfilment. Whether its a larger salary, a higher position, a bigger house, a newer car, a more secure pension. Both the workaholic and the alcoholic are running away from reality and are living on destructive substitutes. We are always hungry for more, without realising that, like salt water, materialism won’t quench our thirst, it merely deepen it. Solomon torpedoes this view with one missile, “The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.” (Ecclesiastes 1:8).
Life has an appetite that can never be satisfied. Frankly all the changes in the world would make no difference. We spend our lives saying things will be better, just around the corner, but when the pay rise is in the bank, the house contracts are exchanged, the promotion has been awarded, how do we feel? Hungry for more. Our commercial world and the advdertising industry is built on that assumption. Marketing people bank on it, literally. Advertisers must convince us to replace yesterday’s gadgets with tomorrows toys long before they wear out. Chuck Swindoll put it like this,
“The itch for things, the lust for more-so brilliantly injected by those who peddle them-is a virus draining our souls of happy contentment. Have you noticed? A man never earns enough. A woman is never beautiful enough. Clothes are never fashionable enough. Gadgets are never modern enough. Houses are never furnished enough. Food is never fancy enough. Relationships never romantic enough. Life is never full enough.”
We often think things are ‘new’ because we either have bad memories or because we didn’t read the minutes of the previous meeting. We don’t learn from history so we repeat it.
Thomas Avla Edison, one of the world’s greatest inventors, wisely observed that his inventions were only “bringing out the secrets of nature and applying them for the happiness of mankind.” Solomon’s observation that there is nothing new under the sun is shocking to our ears today, because we like to believe in progress and achievement.
On 20th July 1969, as a teenager, wide eyed with wonder, I watched Neil Armstrong become the first man ever to walk on the moon.
We had introduced a new age. It was all going to be different.
But by 1980, Dr Lewis Thomas wrote in the Harvard Magazine,
“You can walk on the moon if you like, but there’s nothing to do there except look at the earth, and when you’ve seen one earth, you’ve seen them all.” A few months ago they repeated on television the epic recording of the first moon walk. I wanted my family to watch it, expecting them to experience the same thrill I had done 40 years ago… But they couldn’t see what the fuss was about –
I watched it alone. Even the most exciting novelties can quickly become boring. Only God can create new things. Only God can satisfy our deep hunger and thirst. Jesus said in a loud voice,
“If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” (John 7:37-38)
Without God, life is boring and life is insatiable.
Thirdly, without God,
3. Life is inscrutable for nothing is understood
Solomon moves from the scientist and historian to debate with the philosopher. As the king, Solomon had the equivalent of today’s finest universities, laboratories and libraries at his disposal. Next week, in chapter 2, Solomon will take us on a tour of that research park.
In the final verses of chapter 1, he gives us some of his tentative conclusions. Here are three for starters.
3.1 We must recognise that life is a burden
“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 the human race! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 1:13-14)
Life is a burden. There is no other way to describe it honestly.
Since the Fall, in the words of Paul, “the whole creation groans and labours in child birth” (Romans 8:22). One day when Jesus returns, creation will be delivered from this bondage, and us with it.
Nothing on earth will truly satisfy in any lasting sense, because we were created for eternity. Life is as meaningless as chasing after the wind, when God is ignored. Life is a burden, but Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28) Only in Jesus can we find relief from that burden.
3.2 We must realise that we cannot undo the past
“What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.” (Ecclesiastes 1:15)
Many people, when they realise time is running out, go into reverse gear, back peddling into their second child hood.
But that is like trying to run down an escalator the wrong way –
it just makes you look silly. Solomon says, “The past can’t always be changed, and it is foolish to fret over what you might have done.” God cannot change the past, but He can change the way the past affects us. For the unbeliever, the past is a heavy anchor than drags them down, but for the child of God, the past – even with its sins and mistakes-is a rudder that guides us forward. Only God can bring good from the past. We must recognise life is a burden. We must realise we cannot undo the past.
3.3 We must understand wisdom cannot solve every problem
“Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” (Ecclesiastes 1:17-18)
Ten years ago I was really excited about Christ Church having its very own website. Just knowing that anyone anywhere in the world could access our website and download sermons or talks was mind blowing. Not anymore. Now the struggle is to make it live and interactive. This storage pen hold 16 gigabytes of data – everything I have ever said, or ever written or photographed can be stored on this pen. In the past 7 years Google have indexed 5 million terabytes of information on the internet. (A terabyte is a 1000 gigabytes or a million megabytes). But the internet contains at least 170 terabytes of data. If no more information were added to the internet, it would still take Google 238 more years just to catch up.
There are over 700 million websites with thousands added daily. Microsoft’s search engine has recorded over one trillion web pages. It would take you 6 million years to read them all.
There are already more web users in China than there are citizens in the USA. Perhaps that is why web traffic is predicted to grow 50 fold in the next five years. No, this world does not lack knowledge or information. Those who go through life living on explanations will always be unhappy for two reasons. First, this side of heaven, much of what happens is inexplicable, we never have enough data. Cancer, freak weather, the car accident, mindless vandalism like my car being broken into outside Wexham Park hospital on New Year’s Day. We may understand what has happened but rarely do we discover why. Second, God has ordained that we live by promises and not by explanations, by faith and not by sight. “Blessed”, said Jesus to Thomas, “are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29). Solomon had many advantages.
Position and power, wealth and intelligence. But these advantages did not enable him to find all the answers he was seeking. We are wise if we accept his conclusions without feeling the need to repeat his experiments. For many people life may be monotonous and meaningless, but it doesn’t have to be.
For the person who trusts in Jesus, life becomes an open door, not a closed circle. Life becomes an exciting challenge, an adventure of unknown proportions.
True, we cannot explain everything, but life is not built on explanations. It centres on the person of Jesus Christ.
The secular scientist tells us that the world is a closed system full of theories and nothing is changed. The secular historian tells us that life is a closed book, mankind doomed to repeating the same mistakes because nothing is new. The secular philosopher tells us that life is an enigma and nothing can be fully understood. Remember the key phrase: “Under the sun”.
It appears 27 times in twelve chapters. It is the key.
“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 the human race!” (Ecclesiastes 1:13)
Solomon identifies with the person whose world view is limited to life under the sun. Life under the sun is indeed meaningless. Meaningless that is, until we take account of life over the sun.
Only then can life under the sun be seen in its true light.
It is all a question of perspective. Are you still living under the sun or over the sun? Viewing the world from above or below?