Sermon Reference: Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 (text); Romans 8:18-25
Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life … When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any permanent and absolute existence … Things do not change, we change.” Henry David Thoreau, 19th century American philosopher wrote this while he lived by a lake called Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. During these two years, he pondered upon the meaning of life and simple living close to nature.
While Thoreau was a 19th century philosopher who pondered the meaning of life, Andy Warhol was no philosopher, but merely a pop artist. Nevertheless, in 1968, he waxed philosophical in saying, “In the future everybody will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” From this saying came the idiom, “15 minutes of fame.”
Warhol’s only venture from pop art to philosophy echoes what the writer of Ecclesiastes taught 2,500-3,000 years ago. The Preacher, as the writer of the book is often called, begins his book exclaiming, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” The Hebrew word translated “vanity” is also translated as “meaningless” or “useless.” The Hebrew literally means “vapor, breeze, wind,” so it can refer to something very fleeting or disappearing very quickly. It could also point to the fleeting pleasures of life. Or it can be an expression of frustration, anger, or sorrow. Or maybe, life itself is “vanity” because it is hard to understand even with all wisdom; to try to understand it is useless, “a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14-15). Thus, the meaning of this word is similar to what James says about our lives, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14).
In this book is a catalog of meaningless things “under the sun”: wisdom, pursuit of pleasure, work, and life and death itself. In the first eleven verses, he speaks about life, from fallen man’s point of view, as meaningless. Man’s work is futile, with nothing to gain (verse 3). Life’s cycles never change (verse 4). Creation itself, the universe and the earth, remain the same (verses 5-7). And there is nothing new “under the sun” (verses 9-10).
Finally, old things will not be remembered. Even new things today will be old tomorrow, and will be forgotten (verse 11). This present generation is the best example of this. In the last several years, every time Apple came out with a new iPhone, people would start to camp in long lines to buy the new version, even overnight. Now, some industry analysts say that Apple is on the decline. Some are even saying that Apple might be the next Atari or Compaq—irrelevant and meaningless. Who remembers these two companies? Who remembers the Sony Walkman or those big, round, CD players?
Andy Warhol was right: everyone and everything will be famous for “15 minutes.” The Preacher of Ecclesiastes is even more right: life is meaningless and nothing is new under the sun. But does the Preacher really conclude that life on this earth is vain and meaningless?
Today, we will meditate on the theme, “Life is Fifteen Minutes of Vanity,” under three headings: (1) From a Human Point of View; (2) From God’s Sovereign Decree; and (3) Life is All Vanity, Really?
From a Human Point of View
Because the Preacher teaches in these verses that all life is vain and meaningless, there is no gain for man from anything in this life. So he repeatedly asks throughout the book, “What does man gain?” (Eccl 3:9; 5:15; also Eccl 2:11; 6:11; 10:11) Is there any meaning to our lives?
The first subject that he mentions as futile is man’s toil or work, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (verse 3) From the very beginning, as the builders of the Tower of Babel, man’s desire was to make a name for himself. The Pharaohs of Egypt built those giant pyramids so they will be remembered. Nebuchadnezzar built his majestic hanging gardens for his own glory. Alexander the Great conquered almost all of the known world, and built great cities named after him, including Alexandria in Egypt and Kandahar in Afghanistan. The Roman emperors surpassed all of those before them in power and in conquering most of the world. Where are all of these empires, emperors and their magnificent cities, buildings and monuments now? All are gone, except for the ruins and the faded memories.
Churches today are not immune from these “15 minutes of fame” phenomenon. Youth leaders would come back from a “creative worship” seminar or camp bringing “new” songs for the church. After a few months, these “new” songs are set aside for still newer “new” songs. Most so-called Christian bands and personalities, like their secular counterparts, vanish after their “15 minutes of fame.”
Although megachurches are still popular, there are signs of decline after four decades of dominating evangelicalism. Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, one of the first of these megachurches, is now gone. Our old home church in California has declined by more than half. Most membership increase is not because of new converts, but because of transfers from other churches. Because a great majority of these churches are not true churches—preaching false gospels, dishonoring the sacraments, and no church discipline—they will falter in the end. Only true churches will remain steadfast, even if they remain small, because they are not after “15 minutes of fame,” but for faithfully preaching the true gospel of Christ.
The second subject the Preacher mentions as meaningless is the cycle of life itself, “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever” (Eccl 1:4). Some scholars believe that the generations refer to the human cycle; others concluded that they refer to the natural cycles of creation. In contrast to the coming and going of time and cycles, the earth remains permanent.
The third subject is creation itself, which runs its course daily, monthly, yearly, and for many millennia, but does not change. This seemingly endless cycle of nature has continued since the beginning of time when God created the sun, moon and stars, and the seasons on earth. The sun rises and sets at specific times daily. The wind blows wherever it will, and it blows in never-ending circles. The rains fill the rivers, and the rivers flow to the sea. But the sea never changes its level in minute amounts that the change is measurable only by sensitive equipment. The only time changes in sea level are visible is when a tsunami comes after an earthquake.
These natural cycles of creation does seem to have no purpose, in vain, and meaningless because they do not have any lasting effect on anything.
From God’s Sovereign Decree
Because of the utter meaningless of man’s toil, the cycles of human life, and the seasons of natural world, the Preacher continues, “All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. All of the things in the previous verses—human and natural cycles—continue in endless repetition. When we look at these things, we sometimes say in exasperation, “Same old, same old,” or “Been there, done that.” The Preacher says these things are wearisome, and we run out of words to describe it. Our eyes see and our ears hear these things, but we are never satisfied. No matter what “new” things we see or hear, we want to see and hear more “newer” things.
This is why the Preacher says that always seeking “new” things “under the sun” is all meaningless. It is because “there is nothing new under the sun” (verse 9). Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us”(verse 10). The world has always been obsessed with the “new and improved.” Adam and Eve were given an obsession by the serpent: to touch, eat and taste that beautiful, delicious-looking forbidden fruit. The builders of the tower of Babel were obsessed to build a new, great structure to make a name for themselves.
If nothing is new under the sun, what shall we call space travel, the most advanced computer and communications technologies, and weapons of mass destruction unknown to man until 70 years ago? They might be new things, but the people who make them are only as intelligent and as sinful as all previous generations. Even heresies in the church are merely recycled heresies from the ancient days. All new “insights” and doctrines are just heresies of the past because of man’s sin.
Since man’s fall into sin, the world has been full of its tragic consequences: war, disease, oppression, hard labor, grief and hopelessness. The Preacher has a very pessimistic statement, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done” (verse 9). The tragic past, present and future effects of sin will always be present, even unto the end of time.
At the end of our text, the Preacher writes a sad conclusion, “There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after” (verse 11). Why do we call some ideas “new” when there is nothing new “under the sun”? Because we have either forgotten them or ignorant of them. We have very short memories. If we have a hard time remembering people, events and things just a few years back, how do we remember these things from 10, 20, 50 or 100 years ago?
Look at the church today. Evangelicals have no idea what, why, and how they came to be, or why there is a Roman Catholic Church and evangelicals who both claim the truth from the Bible. It is because they are ignorant of the history of the church beyond their own local church. Heretics of old—Montanus, Pelagius, Donatus, Jacobus Arminius, Charles Finney, to name a few—are their heroes. Not only are they ignorant of church history, they are ignorant of the Holy Scriptures itself! Very basic doctrines such as original sin, substitutionary atonement, justification, sanctification, and the end times are rarely taught, preached or discussed. Evangelicalism has made its choice of entertainment over doctrine, experience over Scripture, resulting in widespread Biblical illiteracy.
The march of people from one generation to the next, the cycles of the created world, and the obsession with “new” things that are actually old: all of these seem to be meaningless and in vain.
Life is All Vanity, Really?
In these first eleven verses, the Preacher’s thoughts dwell on the human perspective. And from the human perspective alone, everything under the sun is meaningless. But what does the rest of Scripture tell us about these things? First, man’s toil was established by God already in the Garden of Eden, “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). Since this command was given to Adam before he fell into sin, work is not a result of sin. Man was created by God to work and to guard his own created world.
But after sin, work has become hard labor, with blood, sweat and tears. Paul tells us about the importance of honest work, “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need” (Eph 4:28). He condemns those who are lazy, “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:10). He judges them harshly, “But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Tim 5:8).
Work is not meaningless, for we have a higher goal for our labors, not just for ourselves and our families, but to help those who are needy, especially among the “household of faith” (Gal 6:10).
Secondly, human and natural cycles are not meaningless, endless repetitions, because God has decreed before the creation of the world all things that will come to pass, “declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’” (Isa 46:10). Not only did he ordain everything that will happen, he has made all of his decrees of creation happen: “He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved” (Psa 104:5); and “The mountains rose, the valleys sank down to the place that you appointed for them. You set a boundary that they may not pass, so that they might not again cover the earth” (Psa 104:8-9). From the fourth day of creation, God set the courses of all the cosmic lightbearers—the sun, moon and stars—“[the sun] runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them” (Psa 19:5-6).
Therefore, what seems from our human perspective as endless, repetitious cycles of work, life, and natural seasons are not meaningless and futile as we might think. Because God has ordained them for his good purpose for his creation. God rules over all his creation as the King of the universe, “The LORD has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all” (Psa 103:19; 1Tim 6:15). Not only does he rule over all his creation, God guides man to act according to his purpose, “fashion[ing] the hearts of men” (Psa 33:13-15), even turning the king’s heart “wherever he will” (Prov 21:1).
As Christians, one of our favorite encouraging texts is Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” All good things are sent to his people by God. And even temptations, sufferings and persecutions that come to us are also under God’s sovereign plan.
We commonly hear that “history repeats itself,” but God is leading all history from a seemingly endless and meaningless cycle to a dramatic end and into an eternal age. Ever since Jesus ascended into heaven, Christians have eagerly awaited his return to gather his people into the new heaven and new earth. Jesus and his disciples promised his return in his Word, and we trust that he will fulfill his Word now, as he did in ages past. And the day of his coming is also the Day of Judgment.
At the end of his book, the Preacher anticipates this Judgment Day, “God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Eccl 12:14). Evildoers do not believe in Christ’s return and a Day of Judgment, saying that the world is in an endless, repetitious, meaningless cycle of seasons, so they mock, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation” (2Pet 3:4). The world has always been in a meaningless merry-go-round, so why worry? But God’s wrath will destroy all the mocking, scoffing sinners who are “being kept until the day of judgment” (2Pet 3:7).
But although God is wrathful towards sinful man, God is also “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psa 103:8). God was not slack in giving the Ninevites a 40-day reprieve from destruction if they repented of their wickedness (Jon 3:10).
The world is not in an endless, meaningless spin, but is swiftly moving to an end. You usually hear that God would completely vaporize the universe and create a completely new one. But the end is not of destruction, but of restoration to what God had originally intended: an eternal kingdom of a new heaven and a new earth. This is why Paul says that even though “creation was subjected to futility,” or meaninglessness or vanity, it will be “set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Even though ”the whole creation has been groaning together … we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Rom 8:20-23). As Christ is the Son, so you are also adopted children with an eternal inheritance.
As you depart from this beautiful creation that God has prepared for you this weekend, remember that this world is not spinning endlessly and meaninglessly forever. Your lives are also not a meaningless cycle of birth and death, but of work ordained by God. As you await our Lord’s return, strive to live godly and holy lives in your homes, work, schools, and in the church.