Vanity, vanity – it’s all vanity. How can this be a biblical writer? Did someone get it wrong? What’s this doing in the bible? Isn’t this some of the most deeply cynical material you will ever read? Have you ever read Ecclesiastes?
I want to tell you today that God is going to speak to you through this book. This is a book that tears down, so that God can rebuild. This is a book that challenges illusions so that God can show you truth. This is a book that tells us ‘the emperor has no clothes’ so that God can provide raiment fit for our souls.
I want to introduce you to the book of Ecclesiastes this morning, and to invite you to read it through over the next few weeks. We’re going to preach six messages from it, but there is much more you can find in the book. It comes from the Old Testament, from a section known as the wisdom literature, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes. These are books that ponder some of the practical and difficult questions of life. I like the way Eugene Petersen puts it. “Ecclesiastes is a John–the–Baptist kind of book. It functions not as a meal but as a bath. It is not nourishment; it is cleansing. It is repentance. It is purging. We read Ecclesiastes to get scrubbed clean from illusion and sentiment, from ideas that are idolatrous and feelings that cloy. It is an exposé and rejection of every arrogant and ignorant expectation that we can live our lives by ourselves on our own terms.”
Today I want draw you into the book with 5 quotes from Ecclesiastes that will stay with you.
Quote 1: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”(vs 1:2) That’s how the King James version translates the first message of the Teacher – that’s what Ecclesiastes means, the Teacher, the Preacher, the one who gathers. “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” That’s how the NIV puts it.
But let me take you back to the Hebrew, so you can get a fresh grasp on this message. ‘Hebel’ is the Hebrew word translated ‘vanity’, it means ‘vapour’ or ‘breath’. This verse is not about a movie star staring in the mirror, it isabout the briefness of life, here one moment, gone the next. You know when you are out on a cold morning and you breathe and there is condensation in the air, it is there for a moment and then it disappears. That’s what the Teacher is trying to say, life is momentary, our lives are just a moment on the seas of time. Life is breath and God originally breathed life into human beings (Genesis 2:7). So much boasting is just breath, here and then gone. I believe that God values us incredibly highly, but it is good for us to realise that our lives are as the blink of an eye apart from him, they are breath on the wind. But God is the wind, and in him we can find purpose and meaning and love. It is also literally true, in a sense, that we are breath. We can survive about 40 days with food, about 3 days without water, but not 3 minutes without oxygen. We are breath.
Leo Tolstoy is considered one of the world’s great novelists having written “War and Peace”. Tolstoy was a bit like the Teacher – he went around searching for the meaning of life in pleasure, in money, in success. Here’s how he described his search for meaning: My question—that which at the age of fifty brought me to the verge of suicide—was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man . . . a question without an answer to which one cannot live, as I had found by experience. It was: ‘What will come of what I am doing today or shall do tomorrow? What will come of my whole life? . . . Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?’ (Leo Tolstoy ‘A Confession’ Chapter 5)
Wow, big question. The Preacher basically says the same thing, everything is just breath – we cannot create anything of great meaning on our own. I think this quote has an amazing power to deflate a false life. The psalmist says the same in Psalm 39:5 “You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man’s life is but a breath.” It is incredibly sobering to realise just how fleeting our lives are in eternity. But in God you can have meaning, and purpose and a home. For the eternal God loves you and claims you as his own. On our own our lives are but breath, but in Christ we can be adopted into the heart of the eternal God. Ephesians 1:5 “God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ.”
The book doesn’t name its author; it says the author is a son of David, King in Jerusalem. So it’s traditional to see the author as Solomon. Solomon is a good candidate because he did pursue wealth and power and pleasure and it was his undoing – a huge palace, too much money, too many wives. Solomon even pursued wisdom, and on its own it was not enough.
Quote 2: “There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9). ‘Well, that might have been OK for Solomon. But come on, this is the most blatantly untrue thing I have ever heard, hasn’t he heard of progress?’ It seems untrue until we dig a little deeper. For our generation who have gone to the moon, who have got our iphones, and exciting new designer drugs, some illegal and some legal (my friend Richard tells me there are new chemo drugs coming out all the time); this teaching seems so utterly wrong. But actually it’s so utterly right. Solomon’s razor (as we could call it) confronts the myth of progress.
Aside from the fact that some of our coolest technology was found in the ancient world, technology has not changed the hearts of human beings. We might have an exciting new place to go but when we get there, it’s still me that experiences it. We might have the most wonderful new communications device, but we still discuss who’s going out with who, how our team is going, what is life all about. Little boys 5,000 years ago sat around and played games just like they do today.
When I think of the Teacher I think of him suffering a bit of middle aged malaise, someone who has ‘seen it all’. I am less surprised now when I see a couple together for ten years complaining about how different they are to each other. If they hang in there a few more years they will remember how attractive those difference were and are. I am less surprised when I see someone who leaves a third job complaining of the same problems they had at the other two jobs - I’m thinking perhaps the problem is with them.
The Teacher also talks about how we are part of giant cycles in nature – the sun rises and sets, the wind blows this way and that, the rivers run to the sea and yet the sea is never full. What he is describing (without the detail we have) are the global cycles of climate. Even if we do manage to trigger a new ice age, these things have been before. Apart from God there is conservation of energy in the universe, ‘for every action there is an equal but opposite reaction’ (Newton’s third law). And for we human beings, though we have new experiences, it is the same old neural transmitters that experience them. If you are tempted to be obsessed with the new – there is nothing new under the sun. But God is an original creator, God can make something out of naught, when God says ‘behold I do a new thing’ he really does.
From the fleetingness of life to the endlessness of life’s cycles, the Teacher then turns to recommend a life of enjoying the simple pleasures. Quote 3: “A person can do nothing better than eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.” (Ecclesiastes 2:24). After pursuing pleasures and great projects and even pursuing wisdom, the Teacher comes back to simple pleasures – to eat and drink and to find pleasure in his work. He’s not recommending drunkenness, but taking pleasure in the simple things. In the second half of this verse he identifies these pleasures as coming from the hand of God. God has given simple pleasures in the world. Sometimes people wonder about the problem of pain, or why is there so much suffering. The challenge that C S Lewis posed to his students was, ‘why is there pleasure?’ Where did pleasure or joy come from in a Darwinian world. This world is not black and white, it is drenched in colour and sound and tastes and scents. Pleasure itself - simple, unadulterated, honest pleasure - is a great gift from God. It is the pleasure of doing simple tasks well. That is why so often people who are burnt out love to return to the soil - to plant and grow, to harvest and to walk among the trees. The Teacher recommends taking in the goodness God has put all around. I’ve been reading my dad's book about his time as a POW on a farm in Austria during the war. He wrote about an old man who had the skill of carving wagon wheels with a right handed axe. How the old man would search the orchard for branches with a particular bend and cut them down and put them aside to cure for a year or two. A simple job done well.
Quote 4:“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.”Ecclesiastes 3:1. After saying that life is a chasing after wind (Eccl 1:14) the Teacher then goes back to being positive, and says there is a right time for things. He has observed the breadth of human experience and recognises that there is a time for everything.
What I love about this quote, this simple wisdom, is that it acknowledges the way that God has made human beings to go through cycles. The Teacher doesn’t just say that things are boring because they are endlessly repeating, he recognises a beauty in that repeating. Our life has its seasons - those who live close to the earth will work longer hours in the summer than in the winter. We in New Zealand often try to have the lights on late into the night, but perhaps God hasn’t made us to work that way. In a full life there will be seasons of grief and of joy. As we age there is the grief of our friends dying but the consolation of grandchildren. Have you ever noticed that when someone dies there is often someone else born. There is a time to plant and a time to uproot. What this wisdom offers us is a map of life, saying it is good to discern what season we are in. It also offers hope that if we are in a hard season it will not stay forever. What he’s not saying, but perhaps implying, is that there is also often a wrong time for things to happen, actions that don’t fit.
What season are you in at the moment? If God has made life to follow certain patterns, are you following his rhythm? Jesus spoke to Paul once and talked to him about “kicking against the goads” (Acts 26:14). Are you fighting the right battles in your life at the right time, or are you not in time with God?
I believe that for all of us there are times God has prepared for us to grow spiritually. He sets the scene for us to come to faith, then perhaps there is a time for consolidation before the next leap. The bible advises that we not appoint new Christians to leadership roles so that they can be seasoned a little. What season are you in? Are you ready for a new season?
Quote 5: “God has placed eternity in the hearts of men”. Ecclesiastes 3:11 I think that is such a cool saying. It means that God has put a desire in each of us to search for something more, more than the rhythm of nature. Do you know that experience of gazing into the night sky and thinking “wow”! That is something God has placed in our souls, a desire for transcendence. And after all, that is what the Teacher is so distracted by, the utter feeling that nothing under the sun is transcendent. There is no higher purpose in a life that is purely physical and natural. The spirit of our age is a spirit of materialism. The only things that are real, we are taught at school, are things that we can see, and hear and touch and taste and smell. But the Teacher says no, there has got to be more. And the Teacher recognises that God has put an unquenchable desire in us for something more. If you have ever felt that, it is God. It is something God has put in you, a desire for something more. Blaise Pascal put it this way, “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.” Saint Augustine put it this way, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” What this means is that we are designed to be discontent until we find God. The Teacher explores all the things he can think of to fulfil life - wealth, pleasure, hard work and even wisdom. We might add marriage, children, fame and success. But in the end we need to find God
My friends, to finish I want to say it is very easy to know this in our minds but not to know this in our hearts. Our pursuit of God needs to be more than thought, it needs to encompass our whole being. Are you searching for something more? Do you think there might be a God? Can you feel that drawing? I want to encourage you today to pray this prayer with me. I’ll say it, then you can say it in your heart. ‘God if you are real, show yourself to me, I’ll be watching.’ Is that a prayer you could pray? Let’s pray.