When You Only Look Around
Passage: Ecclesiastes 1:1–1:18
When You Only Look Around
January 13th, 2008
Way of Grace Church
I. What Do You See?
When you look around you, what do you see?
Imagine for a minute if you were sent to our world from some other galaxy. Imagine if you knew nothing about this planet or the people that inhabited it. Imagine as well that your world is a very different place than Earth.
But your mission on our planet was simply to observe. For thirty days you just watched, and listened, and considered everything that was going on around you. Imagine you were able to observe people in their homes, at their places of employment, in schools...at malls and in meetings, in lines and in labor, at play and in pain.
What would you conclude from your observations about human existence?
If you were here to only look around, would life make sense to you?
This morning, we are going to meet a man who was thinking hard about these very questions. No, he wasn't an alien in disguise, but he did come from a place and a time that are a long way from today.
Turn with me, if you will, to the book of Ecclesiastes. (page 333)
This morning we begin a new journey through a portion of God's word, a journey that will return to every other month over the course of this year.
II. The Passage: "All is Vanity" (1:1-18)
Let's begin this morning by look at the verse 11 verses of the first chapter. Listen as I read:
The words of the Preacher,ï»¿ the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2 Vanityï»¿ of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? 4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastensï»¿ to the place where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. 7All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. 8All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. 9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there a thing of which it is said, "See, this is new"? It has been already in the ages before us. 11 There is no remembrance of former things,ï»¿ nor will there be any remembrance of later thingsï»¿ yet to be among those who come after.
Well, so much for inspiring optimism this morning. This is how the book of Ecclesiastes begins. Let's think a little more deeply about what we've just read.
First, we have to talk about the name of this book. Ecclesiastes? Not really a best-selling title is it. Some of you are probably thinking Ecclesiastes sounds like 'ecclesiastical', which is a term related to the Church. So why does a book in the Old Testament, a Hebrew book, have a title like this?
Well the name Ecclesiastes and the term ecclesiastical both come from a Greek word ekklesia meaning assembly, or literally, those who are called out, that is, a group of those who are called out in order to assemble. In the New Testament, the name becomes a technical term that we translate, "church".
But here the term "assembly" is related to the speaker. The word we find in both verse 1 and verse 2 translated "Preacher" is, in the Greek version of the Old Testament, the word ekklesiastais. This word translates the Hebrew word qoheleth.
What does qoheleth mean? It's hard to say. It probably means "one who leads the assembly". The ESV uses the term Preacher. But in our culture, that word doesn't really capture it. I'd rather use the word "Teacher" since that's what he's doing in this book.
Who was this Teacher? We're never told. All we know, from verse 1, is that this Teacher was the son of David and king in Jerusalem. Based on this evidence, and other clues throughout the book, the obvious candidate is King Solomon, but strangely, that's never confirmed in the book. Just as 'son of David' was used of Jesus, here it could also mean "descendant of David".
Ultimately the identity of the author is not critical in understanding what he's written. We'll simply refer to him as the Teacher.
A. Words of Despair? (1:1-11)
So what is the Teacher trying to say in these verses? Well right out of the gates the Teacher gives us a summary of his message. One of the things confirming that this is in fact a summary statement is that we find this same exact statement at the very end of the book in 12:8. So this summary is placed like a frame or bookends, as if to say, "this is what sums up everything in between!"
What is the summary? Vanityï»¿ of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Now for us this can be confusing because we usually connect "vanity" with self-pride and appearance. But here, the meaning of the word is the same as when we say, "it was all in vain", that is, it was pointless, it was useless.
The word in Hebrew here is the word hebel which very literally means "vapor". "Vapor of vapors." The repetition is just a way to stress a superlative. All of "vapors" this is THE "vapor", or taken figuratively, of everything that is "pointless", this is the most "pointless".
But what does the Teacher mean when he says, "All is vanity" or "all is pointless"?
Well look at how he begins to explain it in verses 3-11. He begins with three examples from nature. Verse 5, the sun comes up and the sun goes down. It happens every day, the same way. Verse 6, the wind blows here and there and back again. Verse 7, the rivers and streams flow into the sea, but they never fill it up and they never stop. They just keep going.
And all of this is summed up in verse 8. All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it. The verse is better translated, "All words are wearisome; no one can say anything."
What he's saying is that just like nature is always going but never getting anywhere, so too are human words an exercise in futility. eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. We look and never seem to see, we listen and never seem to hear. And so we are always looking, and looking, and listening and listening.
And the Teacher asks, "What is the point?"
Verse 9: All human existence, life, seems to be on this same kind of treadmill. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.
Life just goes on and on and on, but never seems to get anywhere. No can say, see "look here's something new that frees us all from the rut". People do say that all the time, especially advertisers, but they say that and we believe it because, verse 11:
There is no remembrance of former things,ï»¿ nor will there be any remembrance of later thingsï»¿ yet to be among those who come after.
Pointless, everything is pointless.
Now, it would be easy to write this Teacher off as some kind of royal cynic, a depressed and despairing despot...a cranky king. But look at what we read in verses 12-18...
B. Words of Wisdom (1:12-18)
12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I applied my heartï»¿ to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.ï»¿
15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.
16 I said in my heart, "I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge." 17 And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.
18 For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
Notice how the Teacher continues to point to what he perceives to be the pointlesssness of life. Life is about as pointless as trying to straighten a crooked branch. Life is about as pointless as trying to count what you don't have. Life is about as pointless as trying to chase and catch the wind.
Thus the teacher describes life, in verse 13, as an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.
But what I really want you to see here is the Teacher's claim in verse 16: I said in my heart, "I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge." 1
Look, we cannot write this guy off as simply a depressed grouch. He was a man who was full of wisdom. Unrivaled in many respects.
But if that's true, what are we to make of the Teacher's depressing conclusion about life.
Is life really really pointless?
III. The Wisdom of Pointlessness
If you believe that these writings we find in the Bible are ultimately from God, then you have to believe there's something God would have us learn from Ecclesiastes. There's is a point in all this talk of pointlessness.
There is real wisdom here, wisdom that all of us need.
Think about what the Teacher is doing. He is looking around, he considering life as we know it. Like that alien visitor, he is looking and listening and asking, "What's the point?"
But wouldn't you come to the same conclusion if you were only looking around, if your answers were informed only by what you might find "under the sun"?
Look around. Look at the single mother in Oakland who works year after year to raise four boys in a rough part of town, teaching them about right and wrong, encouraging them to avoid the wrong kind of people. Last year, her oldest son was shot to death because of a disagreement over a basketball game. A basketball game. Does that make any sense?
Look at the soldiers in Iraq who give their lives to oust a dictator and then find themselves fighting against so many of the people they fought to liberate. Look at how the tribal killings are locked in a vicious cycle of blood. Look at the innocent victims of a suicide bomber. Does that make any sense?
Look at Americans. We spend billions every year on therapy, self-help books, medication, vacations, recreation, and we are still the most depressed country on the planet. Does that make any sense?
Look at the internet. We connect the world with something new only to fill it with the oldest kind of vice.
We work too much in order to buy things we don't need. We give and give and give and then lose it all because of corporate fraud. We try to help, only to listen to complaints. The one who suffers abuse often becomes the abuser. The one who seems to have everything always feels like something is missing. We pay attention, only to be neglected. We consume and consume and consume, but are never filled.
Look around. Does any of this make sense?
Pointless. Everything is pointless...when you only look around.
This morning I believe God would have us look around and come to the same conclusion as that of the Teacher. I believe God would have us recognize this wisdom.
Why? Because when we give up on what is around us, it's then we look to that which is above us.
When you only look around, life seems meaningless. But when you look up, when you look to what God has revealed, there is a clarity, an understanding.
While it may not appear to be the case in light of this first chapter, the Teacher understood this idea. You see, the book of Ecclesiastes is kind of like a diary. It is a record of a man's questions and struggles.
As we explore this book, we will find the Teacher looking around, and we will find him looking up. Let me give you a preview of this from chapter 3. Now consider this passage in light of verses 3 and 13 of chapter 1:
9 What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil-this is God's gift to man.
I don't have to ask you if you're looking around this morning. All of us are. Every day. We are seeing and hearing and experiencing, and then processing, and interpreting.
But I suspect that most of us are not reaching the same conclusions as the Teacher. I believe we are seeing the same kinds of things, "what is is what has been, and what has been, is what will be". But I believe our temptation is not to believe life is meaningless, but to create meaning out of nothing.
"My life is about my kids. My life is about my work. She needs me. I'm destined to be with him. I'd like to be a good person. Once I get out of here, then everything will fall into place."
The Teacher saw through all of these. He recognized that men and women cling to these created meanings in order to cope with the seeming pointlessness of life.
I hope you believe that life is not pointless. But I hope you believe that for the right reason.
After you look around, don't look within. Look up.
I believe even as Christians we are only looking around more than we'd care to admit. Our bitterness. Our despair. Our lusts. Our greed. Our indifference. All of it confirms that we are not looking up like we should. We are not listening in faith to what God has revealed.
Remember the Teacher's opening question? What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? Listen to what Jesus said about toil and labor:
27 Do not labor for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you...33 For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven [from above]and gives life to the world [to those under the sun]." 34 They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always." 35 Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.
Look up. Look up and see that God has revealed that there is meaning under the sun, meaning that only Jesus Christ makes possible.
Jesus reveals clearly what the Teacher could only see dimly: that God has a purpose for all things, and it all points back to Jesus Christ.
Is Christ your only hope this morning? In the times where life seem like it's stuck on a treadmill, always going but getting no place, is Jesus your rest and hope and joy?
Where have you been looking? When you only look around, you will miss what you're really looking for. But when you first look up, then in Christ, you will have new eyes to look around and see the point of everything under the sun.