IS LIFE MEANINGLESS?
Pastor KC Liu / Ecc. 1:1-18 / Sept 20, 2015
1 These are the words of the Teacher, King David’s son, who ruled in Jerusalem. Everything Is Meaningless 2 “Everything is meaningless,” says the Teacher, “completely meaningless!” 3 What do people get for all their hard work under the sun? 4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth never changes. 5 The sun rises and the sun sets, then hurries around to rise again. 6 The wind blows south, and then turns north. Around and around it goes, blowing in circles. 7 Rivers run into the sea, but the sea is never full. Then the water returns again to the rivers and flows out again to the sea. 8 Everything is wearisome beyond description. No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied. No matter how much we hear, we are not content. 9 History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new. 10 Sometimes people say, “Here is something new!” But actually it is old; nothing is ever truly new. 11 We don’t remember what happened in the past, and in future generations, no one will remember what we are doing now. The Teacher Speaks: The Futility of Wisdom 12 I, the Teacher, was king of Israel, and I lived in Jerusalem. 13 I devoted myself to search for understanding and to explore by wisdom everything being done under heaven. I soon discovered that God has dealt a tragic existence to the human race. 14 I observed everything going on under the sun, and really, it is all meaningless—like chasing the wind. 15 What is wrong cannot be made right. What is missing cannot be recovered. 16 I said to myself, “Look, I am wiser than any of the kings who ruled in Jerusalem before me. I have greater wisdom and knowledge than any of them.” 17 So I set out to learn everything from wisdom to madness and folly. But I learned firsthand that pursuing all this is like chasing the wind. 18 The greater my wisdom, the greater my grief. To increase knowledge only increases sorrow.
Good morning beloved! This Fall quarter, we will be starting a new series on the book of Ecclesiastes. It will be an exciting 12 part series, taking us all the way to the end of 2015.
Old Testament Scholars agree that Ecclesiastes may be the most difficult book in the bible to interpret and preach. It is because they are not in agreement on some key issues, such as the who is the author, when it was written, where it was written, and why it was written. Therefore, I will take on a particular viewpoint so that I can focus on getting the message across. As you come across other commentaries, you may find differences in interpretation, and that’s perfectly fine. I believe the overall theme will be very similar. So here we go.
Introduction to Ecclesiastes. So who is the author of this book? Traditionally, the theologians believed that it was King Solomon, since in verse 1, he identifies himself with “The words of the teacher, son of David, and king in Jerusalem”. If we take the text as face value, we should conclude that it’s King Solomon himself.
However, other scholars believe that the author is an unidentified wise man who teaches from the wisdom of Solomon. Kind of like how the disciples Matthew, Mark, Luke and John wrote the gospels that contained the words of Jesus. They came to this conclusion because the author identified himself as “The Teacher”, and didn’t mention his own name.
The Hebrew word for teacher is “Qohelet”, which they translated into the Greek as “Ecclesiastes”. The root of Ecclesiastes is Ecclesia, which we get the word “Church”, or the assembly of God’s people. So Ecclesiastes literally means the teacher, or preacher of the assembly. In this series, I will take on the perspective that this “teacher” is no other than King Solomon himself who wrote Ecclesiastes.
When was it written? Solomon was born around 1000BC, and reigned the nation of Israel around 970BC. From the age of 30, he reigned until he died in 931 BC at the age of 69. It is possible that the book was written towards the end of his reign, after he has experienced the ups and downs of his life.
Who was the original audience? One perspective argues that “the book was not written for the ordinary Israelite. To the contrary, members of its original audience had access to the king (Eccl 8:2-3), and either had or were in pursuit of wealth (5:10-17). In short, the first readers were members of the aristocracy.” Internal evidence suggests that they were the upper middle-class who got preoccupied with money and pleasure. Their lives were consumed by the economy, the possibility of wealth, inheritance, and social status.
Does that sound like the life of someone who lives in Irvine? Is it possible that we, here, get caught up with money and pleasure as well?
Why did the Teacher write this book? It was probably because he saw the meaninglessness of living a life that is consumed by materialism and selfish pleasure. He saw it in his own life, and he saw it in the lives of his people. They were a religious people who lost intimacy with their God. Though they professed God with their mouth, their hearts were distant from Him. They lived their lives “under the sun”, which meant they lived horizontally, seeing only the world. They couldn’t see vertically, where God is. To that, the Teacher says, “Meaningless, it’s all meaningless.”
Solomon’s overarching purpose in Ecclesiastes, therefore, is to bring those who are toiling under the sun for the “bigger and better” back to the heart of God, to fear Him, to obey his commands, and enjoy God’s good gift on earth. That’s the goal, for the next 12 weeks.
With that Introduction, now let us dive into Part 1 of our 12 part series. I titled part 1, “Is your life meaningless?” Here in the Simpsons cartoon, we see Bart writing on the board, “I will not celebrate meaningless milestones.” Apparently, his teacher is familiar with King Solomon’s writings! Please look up at the screen at Ecclesiastes Chapter 1.
Let’s read verses 1-2 together….
"1 These are the words of the Teacher, King David’s son, who ruled in Jerusalem. Everything Is Meaningless 2 “Everything is meaningless,” says the Teacher, “completely meaningless!”
The NIV translates the Hebrew word “HEVEL” to “meaningless”. Hevel can also be translated as vanity. As if you just spent two hours typing up your finals paper, without saving it, then your computer crashed. What do you call that? Vanity!! You did all that hard work in VAIN! This is what you do when you toil in vain! You throw your computer against the wall!
The Amplifed Bible translates “hevel” into “futility”. There is a famous Star Trek quote that uses this word, can you guess it? The Borgs took over and said, “Resistance is FUTILE.” It is useless. You will not succeed in your efforts, they are useless. Everything you do is useless.
The Amplified Bible also translates “hevel” into vapor, or breath. Do me a favor, and let’s role play a little bit. Let’s pretend it's freezing cold in here; it’s actually snowing. Now exhale as hard as you can. What do you pretend to see? Your cold breath right? No? You’re not exhaling hard enough. How about trying to blow freezing air like superman, and try to freeze your friend next to you. Just try it. Entertain me. Now try to grab your breath. Just grab it in the air. How many of you caught it and have it in your hand? None of you. Why? Because the breath is already gone. It has NO substance. It lasted about 2 seconds, and it’s gone.
That is Solomon’s point, life without God is meaningless, it is vain, it is futile, it is a vapor and a breath. Here one minute, gone the next.
Let’s read verse 3 together as loud as you can:
"What do people get for all their hard work under the sun?"
This is Solomon’s million dollar question: What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? What’s the answer to this rhetorical question? The answer is you gain NOTHING. From a secular perspective, for a life without God, you gain NOTHING from all your hard work. Solomon proves his point with a carefully constructed argument. He compares the futility of human life with the cycles we can observe in people and in mother nature.
First, he talks about human existence. Let’s read verse 4 as loudly as you can, ready, set, go!
Generations come and go. One generation is replaced by the next, and it doesn’t even matter; no one knows and no one cares. Who knows the generation of kids in poverty born 10 years ago? Not me, not you. They probably died already due to famine, hunger and disease. No one knew them except their parents. And barely anyone cared. They died and we didn’t know about it, but it doesn’t matter because a new generation of hungry kids is here again, and they will die in 5 years due to hunger and disease, replaced by another generation of kids in extreme poverty. The human life cycle is futile, it is a breath in the wind. Here one minute, gone the next.
"The sun rises and the sun sets, then hurries around to rise again."
The word “hurries” literally means pants. The sun pants back to where it rises. The image of the sun is tired; he is exhausted of working 24 hours a day. He struggles to get to work everyday. He doesn’t get to rest or take a break on Sundays. He gasps for breath from his never-ending toil. Meanwhile, what does he gain by working around the clock? What does he actually gain? He gains absolutely NOTHING.
"The wind blows south, and then turns north. Around and around it goes, blowing in circles. "
The same thing goes for the wind. He is stuck in a mundane routine too. The wind has to go to work everyday. He blows from the north to south, north to south, north to south, same route, day in and day out. Round and round he goes, and once he is done, he has to do it all over again, without rest, without purpose. What does he gain? Nothing.
"Rivers run into the sea, but the sea is never full. Then the water returns again to the rivers and flows out again to the sea. "
All streams flow into the sea yet it is never full. It is like pouring water into a leaking bucket. What does the stream gain? Absolutely nothing. It is useless, a waste of time pouring into something that will never be full. The bucket is like our desires and wants; we pour our lives into something that will never be full. It will never bring the fulfillment we crave for.
"Everything is wearisome beyond description. No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied. No matter how much we hear, we are not content. "
The “all things” refers to the never ending cycle of nature and of life. Just thinking about everything going on in this world is wearisome, it's tiring just to think. It’s tiring just to read all the news going on around the world. What are we going to do with all the new information that comes our way everyday? The Syrian refugees, the presidential elections, the fight again terrorism, the LGBT debates, the water shortage crisis, our own job security, and dealing with our own family problems. OMG, what am I going to do with all I am hearing and watching? When will it ever end?! The fact is, it will never end. Our eyes will always crave something to watch, our ears will always crave something to hear. Even if we are infinitely bored with it, we will continue to do it. The cycle will repeat until the day we die.
"History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new. "
I know that we all work very hard in our school and at our work. It is part of us as Asians to work until we drop. And we try to find meaning and happiness through excelling in what we do. And many times we have to be in competition mode, and try to outdo everyone else, so we can win and be the top of the class. But no matter how hard you study, there will always be someone with better grades than you. In sports, there will always be someone who scores more points than you. There will always be someone who jumps higher, kicks farther, spikes harder, and runs faster than you. What you are trying so hard to accomplish, it’s already been done, and done in a better way. There will always be someone next to you that sings, “Anything you can do, I can do better, I can do anything better than you.” Solomon says whatever you are doing, it’s been done, so it’s useless.
"Sometimes people say, “Here is something new!” But actually it is old; nothing is ever truly new."
Let me give you a modern example. Let’s go back to 2001 when this little device called the i-pod started the whole i-technology revolution. This was hot, if you owned that you were a stud. Can the late Steve Jobs say, “I changed the world with my new ipod technology? Look, I can now listen to music anywhere I want! I changed the world!” Solomon would say, “Poor Steve, you didn’t invent portable music. No. It was here already long ago. Remember back in the late 70s and early 80s, when Nobutoshi Kihara of Sony invented the Sony Walkman? That was the first portable music technology. It was here long before your i-pod. And before that, Vinyl Discs in 1906. And way before that, during my era 1000 BC, I just bought the entire band and I brought them wherever I went.” You see, Solomon was the true gangster. He was a thug, he just out did everyone in everything.
"We don’t remember what happened in the past, and in future generations, no one will remember what we are doing now."
Is it possible for people to make such an impact on history that they will be remembered and at least gain recognition? Solomon’s pessimistic answer is No, “the people of long ago are not remembered.” Human memory is too short. These 3 men here were world leaders. How many of you know who they are and their contributions to the world? Let me ask you, how many of you know the name of your great-grandpa? It was 3 generations ago, but we don’t remember. Heck we probably never even knew their name. Life is but a vapor. No one knows, no one remembers.
Solomon clearly made his point that people gain nothing from all the toil at which they toil under the sun. More specifically, they gain nothing from all the hard work they do APART from GOD. In the New Testament, Jesus raised the same question, “For what shall profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul? (Mark 8:36). When people forfeit their lives, they have gained nothing – no profit.
Jesus makes the same point as Ecclesiastes. With a simple story, a parable, he said “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest.
17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
Here we see again, APART FROM GOD, PEOPLE GAIN NOTHING FROM THEIR TOIL.
Is there then nothing to be gained from life on Earth? Nothing left over when we die? No profit? Yes, Jesus says, there can be a profit, but then we ought not to store up treasures for ourselves but be rich toward God. Therefore Jesus encourages us “Do not store up for yourselves treasure on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Jesus’ message is clear: we gain nothing if we store up treasures on earth. We gain nothing if we toil apart from God. But our lives can have a profit if we are “Rich toward God”, if we “store up treasures in heaven”, if we “serve God”. Paul confirms Jesus’ words. He writes, “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that IN THE LORD, your labor is NOT IN VAIN.” (1 Cor 15:58)
So my question to us all this morning is “Are you right with God today? Is Jesus truly the Master of your life?”
If you can’t answer YES to these 2 questions, I would like you to come and receive pastoral counsel and prayer. I will be available until 12:30PM. I will be more than happy to talk to you.