Accepting That Life is Pointless (Ecclesiastes 1:12-15)
Topic: One Truth: In All Things Passage: Ecclesiastes 1:12–15
I. Are You 'Insane'?
Have you ever heard this alternative definition for the word insanity... “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”? In light of that statement, think with me for a moment about your own bouts with this 'insanity'... or maybe the severity of your own 'insanity'. In what ways are you, to your disappointment and detriment, “doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”?
Were he alive today, I believe that quote, that alternative definition, would resonate with the inspired writer of Ecclesiastes. Let me show you why that's the case as we look together at the opening chapter of this wonderfully unique book. Please turn there if you haven't already.
II. The Passage: “An Unhappy Business” (1:12-15)
Look with me at verses 12-15 of chapter 1. Consider what this writer tells us here about himself and his personal quest. Verse 12...
I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.  And I applied my heart 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.  I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.  What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.
Before we dig into the main point this ancient writer is making here, let's briefly talk about his identity. The title “Preacher” translates the Hebrew word qoheleth. It means “one who leads the assembly”. In the Greek Old Testament (OT), the title is ekklesiastais, since an ekklesia is an assembly. Many of you may recognize that word. Ekklesia is the word we find in the Greek NT almost always translated as “church”. This is why the word “ecclesiastical” is connected to the church and not the book of Ecclesiastes. But I'm not sure “Preacher” is the best English word for describing this assembly leader. So I'll just use the title Teacher instead.
Who was this Teacher over the assembly of God's people? 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 simply mean “descendant of David”. Ultimately the identity of the author is not critical to understanding what he’s written. So we’ll simply refer to him as the Teacher.
So what point is the Teacher making in verses 12-15? Simple. Everything is pointless. Life is pointless. Living one's life in this world is the (v. 13) “unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with”. So much for inspiring optimism this morning, right?
Where am I getting this idea of pointlessness from? Look again at verse 14, “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” Don't miss that word “vanity”. That word can be confusing because we usually connect “vanity” with pride and appearance. But here, the meaning of the word is not like, “He's so vain”, but instead, it's the same as when we say, “it was all in vain”; that is, it was useless... it was pointless.
The word in Hebrew here is the word hebel which very literally means “vapor”. Something fleeting; something impermanent, and impossible to lay hold of. That word is used 73 times in the OT, with over half of those instances occurring in this book; in Ecclesiastes. If you could use only one word to describe this book, this would be that word. The importance of this word is clear from the opening verses of the book. Look at 1:2: “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” And that same, dense statement is found (not only in the opening verses, but also) in the closing verses of the book, in 12:8. What does that declaration mean? It means, “This is the most pointless of all pointless things: everything is pointless!”
(vs. 14-15) Life is as pointless as trying to straighten a crooked branch. Life is as pointless as trying to count what you don't have. Life is as pointless as trying to chase and catch the wind.
Okay. So how has this teacher come to such a dreary, such a depressing, conclusion? 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.” That verse is probably better translated, “All words are wearisome; no one can explain it.”
What he’s saying is that just like nature is always going but never getting anywhere (the earth is literally going in a circle!), so too are human words an exercise in futility. Verse 8: the 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; listening... and listening.
And so the Teacher understandably asks, “What is the point of it all?”
Look at verse 9: All human existence, life in this world, seems to be on this same kind of treadmill or hamster wheel. 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 will free all of us from the rut”. People do say that all the time (esp. advertisers and tech entrepreneurs and politicians and self-help gurus). But they say that and we believe it because, verse 11: “There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.” For example, from the Bronze Age to the Internet Age, technological innovation has always promised that kind of real change; real escape from hebel. But while innovation does bring us new change, it also and always ends up perpetuating our old sins. “...there is nothing new under the sun.”
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 go back to verse 12 and to the second half of chapter 1.
It's clear that we cannot simply write this guy off as king of that 'glass half empty' crowd. No. He was a man who was full of wisdom. Unrivaled in many respects. Verse 13: “I applied my heart to seek and search out by wisdom...” Verse 16: He had personally “acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before [him], and [his] heart... had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.”
Knowing that, we should again ask, how did this man come to such a depressing conclusion, that life is pointless? Well, that would lead us into the next chapter (another chapter from our Reading Plan last week), chapter 2. What did we find there? We heard more about the specifics of the Teacher's quest. In his search for meaning, he tested and considered all sorts of things; the kinds of things with which people fill their lives: pleasure, laughter, alcohol, folly, accomplish-ment, possessions, entertainment, sex. In 2:18, the Teacher turns to work/toil and asks, “What's the point?” Exertion and exhaustion, leading to accumulation, leading to where? To the grave!
Now, two items worth quickly noting: first, the Teacher cannot be accused of basing his sad conclusions on an unlucky or unhealthy season in his life in which 'girls, drugs, and rock & roll' were used to stay afloat in a sea of dysfunction. No. In verses 3 and 9, the Teacher makes it clear that he was always using wisdom as he engaged in this quest; that is, there was always a kind of intentionality in his searching; there was always thoughtfulness involved in what he was doing. Second, the Teacher (and his conclusion) cannot be faulted for not going far enough; of not getting enough. As he makes clear in the first half of chapter 2, he was (2:9) “great and surpassed all who were before [him]”. Whatever he wanted he could get, in whatever quantity, to whatever degree he desired. He was a man of a great means, and in the eyes of most people, he had it all. He had arrived. If life was a game, then according to most people, he had won.
But again, that's not the conclusion at which the Teacher arrived. His takeaway is restated over and over again in chapter 2 (verses 1, 11, 15, 17, 19, 21, and 23), including the last verse of the chapter (v. 26): “this also is vanity (pointless) and a striving after wind.” And the rest of book? It follows this same pattern. You see, the book of Ecclesiastes is like a diary/journal. It's the record of a man's questions and struggles as he tries to make sense of this thing we call life.
III. Walking in This Wisdom
Please notice the question that drives this quest is made clear at the outset of the book, in 1:3... “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” What does a person really gain from all of the relationships and things and aspirations and activities and hardships that characterize each and every life? “What does man gain...”? Ultimately, in the face of death, and in the face of ultimate meaning, anything gained seems to be nothing more than hebel, “vapor”.
Ecclesiastes is one of the OT's wisdom books. Do you believe that God has wisdom for you this morning, the wisdom this book contains? You may be thinking, “Wisdom? This book sounds so negative and depressing. What wisdom does it offer me?” The wisdom of Ecclesiastes is the wisdom of accepting that life in this world, on its own terms, is ultimately pointless.
Think about this: as a nation, we spend billions every year on therapy, self-help books, medication, vacations, recreation, etc., and yet, we are still the most depressed country on the planet. 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 things like corporate fraud or market volatility. We try to help, but then make the situation worse. 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.
Remember that definition from the outset of our time in the word? “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” Isn't that you and me? Like every generation of fallen humanity before us, we pursue the same things expecting to gain something that is ultimate; that is spiritually satisfying; but these can never provide that kind of “gain”.
But I/we still look expectantly (but foolishly) to the next good restaurant, to the next vacation, to the next show on the watchlist, to the next job, the next project completed, the next friendship or romance, the next set of letters after your name, the next 'like', the next 'follow', the next sale, the next purchase, the next child, the next election, the next candidate, the next good book, the next doctor's visit, the next phone call, the next good day, the next collectible, the next car, the next house, the next investment, the next song on the playlist, the next shift, the next season.
We look to such things expectantly, but foolishly. Why? Because they simply cannot give meaning to our lives. In our readings, we learned from 3:11 (take a look) that God “has put eternity into man's heart”. What does that mean? At least one of the things it means is that every human being, in a search for significance, longs to understand the big picture of human existence (especially their own). But there's more to that verse: “...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.” Meaning, significance, the very things for which every person hungers, these things cannot discovered if you only look around you (or within you, as so many people prescribe today).
If we are to follow the Teacher's example, what is truly good is not discovered when you look around you, but only when you look above you. The meaning of life cannot be found by examining and experiencing life in this world, even the best life has to offer; it cannot be discovered there, even by the wisest among us. It can only be found when we consider what God has revealed. And that revelation is sprinkled throughout Ecclesiastes, as the Teacher reminds his readers of what is good in reference to God, and what God has revealed (e.g., 3:9-15).
Of course, when we arrive in the NT, we learn about how God's revelation came down, so that those who were only look around saw in their midst that which was from above. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) Is life really pointless? No. But wisdom calls us to accept that in a wayward world like ours, filled with straying sinners like us, life is pointless on its own terms. What you're seeking, you won't find out there. If you have the wisdom to accept that, if you can arrive at the same conclusion as the Teacher in Ecclesiastes, then more and more, you will reject the temptation that there's this kind of “gain” in the (even good) things around us.
Instead, we will look to Jesus who said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and [yet] forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:35–36) When you give up on what is around you (and within you), you will cling to what is above you. And that's where eternal life is found.
As disciples of Jesus, not only do we have guidance about keeping what's around us in its proper place (things like pleasure, laughter, alcohol, folly, accomplishment, possessions, entertainment, sex), but we have a better Teacher, One who says, “Follow me and I will teach you about the point of life. About the point of your life. And I will satisfy the eternity in your heart with eternal life. Through my own death and resurrection, I will give you hope in the face of death, and... fullness in a new world.” Brothers and sisters, encourage one another with the wisdom of Ecclesiastes, so we wouldn't keep asking that which is around us to give us what only comes from above. And having accepted life is pointless from that perspective, let us live as those who are fully devoted, “knowing that in the Lord [our] labor is not in vain.” (1 Cor. 15:58)
More in Our Bible Reading Plan (2022-2023)
August 27, 2023Praying for God's People (Daniel 9:17-19)
August 20, 2023Daniel's 'Not of This World' Example (Daniel 1:8-17)
August 13, 2023The Shepherd's Rescue (Ezekiel 34:10-12)