God, who will bring every work into judgment, has an important message for His people in Ecclesiastes. He brings this message about the human condition through a narrator, a man called a “son of David,” who indicates that he is king in Jerusalem. The name that he uses for himself throughout this great work of wisdom is translated “the Preacher.” The Preacher calls together God’s worshiping assembly to pass on these words of wisdom.
He has this to say to us as he begins his message: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” The world seems so permanent to us and is the only reality we have ever sensually perceived, yet the Preacher wants us to know that a man’s life here is very temporary. It is like a vapor that comes and goes. A man can work diligently all his days, but his time will soon be over. What gain does he get from all that work?
Though the earth itself continues, generations come and go and are soon forgotten. Every stream on the planet seems to teach us a lesson. Where did all this water come from? Where is it all going? What is the point of all this busy rushing? Who can keep track of it? Are the waters from the mountains attempting to fill up the seas below? Why do they never succeed? There is no doubt that someone can observe a mountain stream and have many beautiful contemplations. Yet our hearts should also receive this other lesson of unending activity that never seems to reach its goal.
The cycles of life tell a similar story, one that we need to hear. A baby boy is born, and time may seem to stop for a moment. Soon an old man dies, and in just a few generations he is utterly forgotten.
Not only is life like a vapor that comes and goes, there is a weariness to it. Every part of us is continually working at something and never seems to finish until we reach the grave. The eye insists on taking in all kinds of seeing but is never satisfied. The ear does the same with hearing. The weariness of it all is not only a result of the continuous working of all our body parts. Even with all their continual activity added together there is still nothing new.
Is there really nothing new under the sun? In a world of technological advance it would seem that progress is everywhere. Yet a man may die with the latest invention in his hand, and death will still be death as it has been for thousands of years. Ambition, loyalty, deception, despair, accomplishment, disgrace, and all other significant feelings and experiences have existed for a long time. Life is what it always has been, and people who lived centuries ago have now long been forgotten.
Many face this life of vapor without much contemplation. They learn enough to work, they labor in their calling until they cannot toil anymore, and eventually they pass away. Through it all they have not desired to consider life too carefully. Others have been made to think about life very deeply, yet is this contemplation the solution in our search for meaning? The Preacher tells us that it is not.
He has been a thinker over the course of his long life, and he has found futility in all of his own pursuits. God has given people like the Preacher the business of wisdom, but it has an unhappy side to it. The laborer and the philosopher both will discover, each in his own way, that this world is fatally broken. Each man will feel it in his own life. Man tries to make crooked things straight, and he cannot quite get there. He attempts to invent things, but what is lacking cannot be counted. With every advance he discovers or creates two new difficulties. He appreciates the new medicine, but he does not anticipate all the side effects. It is the same, if not worse, in the world of ideas. The man who increases knowledge will increase sorrow.
This is the human condition as we know it in a very broken world. The Apostle Paul says in Romans 8:20 that “the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope.” God has brought a sentence of death upon the world, but He has also made a plan for glorious life. For Paul, and also for Solomon, the honest observation of our current futility coexists with the solid expectation of a better day that is coming. This day has been revealed to us in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It is wisdom for us to see life under the sun as it really is and to learn how to live well in a world that God has subjected to futility. Our ultimate hope in the midst of brokenness is secured by the fact that our Redeemer has entered this world of despair to bring about a new creation, even at the cost of His own life. He can make the crooked straight. There is nothing lacking in His righteousness and His love.
Prayer from A Book of Prayers
Glorious Lord, You are above all the earth, and You rule over everything under the sun. There is a limit to our understanding. We see the weariness of the passage of time. In a way, there is nothing new here. Though it may seem new to us, it has been before in some way. We see so much that comes and go. We mourn over many things that are broken and cannot be fixed. In our work and our wisdom there is much reason for sorrow. Our Father, these obvious facts puzzle us. Surely there must be an answer. Give us settled hearts, and a ready ear to hear Your Word.