Summary: Solomon exposes the insignificance and absurdity of life IF life were nothing more than what is seen “under the sun”. He offers only two options--a life of hopelessness, or trust in God.
“Vanity” Ecclesiastes 1:2-3 & 2:1-11 Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
Ecclesiastes is perhaps the most puzzling and misunderstood book of the Bible. It’s been called “the mystery book of the Old Testament” (Ray Steadman). Few sermons are preached from its pages. We may wonder what it’s doing in the Bible; it seems out of place. Ecclesiastes was written by King Solomon, who had ample opportunities to observe and experience life thoroughly. He wrote this book after he had plunged into materialism, sensuality, even idolatry. He got lost following his desires and saw his life evaporating into insignificance. Now repentant and nearing the end of his days, he writes a philosophical book for unbelievers, exposing the secular mind/worldview. The title of the book refers to an “assembly”, Solomon’s students. He calls himself “the Teacher” and conveys the logical and tragic outcome of regarding life as a cosmic accident. Solomon offers his class only two options--a life of hopelessness, or trust in God.
The quote we’re most familiar with comes from verse 2, “All is vanity”. This word has been translated many ways. Your Bible might read “futile”, “empty”, “pointless”, “momentary”, or “meaningless”. The word literally means “breath” or “vapor”. The only other place this word appears is (appropriately) in Job. The Message translates vs 2, “There’s nothing to anything—it’s all smoke.” In the NT, James picks up on this when he asks a rhetorical question, “What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (4:14). James and Solomon weren’t existentialists, denying any purpose or meaning in human life; they were rather saying that life is empty, fleeting, transitory, and nothing matters--without God. Solomon exposes the insignificance and absurdity of life IF life were nothing more than what is seen “under the sun”.
While participating in a REFORGER, major field exercise in Germany, my Chaplain Assistant and I spent a lot of time on the road in our CUC-V, visiting various units comprising the 3rd Armored Division Support Command/DISCOM. At one location we arrived too late; our grid coordinates were correct, but all that remained was some evidence of maneuver damage. The battalion stayed at the site only 2 days, then left. That is how life appears without God—here briefly, and little remains when life is over.
In verse 3 Solomon ponders, “What do people gain for all their hard work under the sun?” I’ve heard many soldiers ask, “What’s the point of all we’re doing?” In a life lived without God, there’s no gain, no advantage, no meaning. Verse 11 of chapter 2 states, “there is no profit under the sun”; in other words, during one’s lifetime. Imagine reaching the end of your days, only to conclude that you accomplished nothing of value! Solomon could afford anything he desired, but discovered to his frustration how nothing he could buy brought happiness. Thomas Aquinas wrote that, “No man can live without delight, and that is why a man deprived of spiritual joy goes over to carnal pleasures”. We need to appreciate pleasure as a gift, not a god. Solomon never said “no” to himself; he gave in to every impulse, devoted to “the pursuit of happiness” -only to discover he was “chasing after wind” (1:14). He was materially rich, yet spiritually bankrupt.
I remember seeing a photo of Princess Diana meeting Mother Teresa. You couldn’t possibly pair two different people. Princess Diana lived in Kensington Palace, enjoying a luxurious life. She wore designer clothes and jewels; she was famous, young and beautiful. Mother Teresa was old and bent-over. She lived in the slums of Calcutta and spent her time working among the diseased and homeless outcasts of society. She wasn’t surrounded by paparazzi. Both women died around the same time. Which one of these two you suppose was the happiest?
Solomon wanted to disillusion his readers against material goals, as an end in themselves. More importantly, Solomon wanted to drive his readers to despair and then to God. Before we’re ready to hear the Good News, we need to understand the “bad news”. Our efforts to obtain happiness are futile, and our earth-bound goals are meaningless, apart from God.
The Bayside Expo held a car show last weekend. I heard of someone who went there, whose car broke down on the way home. They probably were wishing they had gone home in one of those cars on display! I’ve been to boat shows, car shows, technology shows--and it’s tempting to think that a life of material prosperity might make me happy. For many people, life is simply the pursuit of pleasure, which ends with one big let-down. Like Mick Jagger they end up admitting, “I can’t get no satisfaction!” Apart from God, nothing will satisfy. Jesus said that gaining the whole world means nothing if God isn’t a part of our lives. To quote another pop song, without God “all we are is dust in the wind”. Solomon pursued wealth, sex, power, adventure and knowledge…and came up empty.