What’s The Use?
Ecclesiastes/Job Lesson 8
Ecclesiastes 1:12-15; 2:18-26
SUBJECT: Meaning of Life
CENTRAL THEME: The wise person seeks to find meaning in life from God.
Many cultures of the world bury earthly possessions with their dead ancestors. Even going back to ancient civilizations like the Egyptians the departed monarchs were buried with great wealth in order to help them transition to the afterlife. One of the few tombs ever discovered intact was the burial chamber of Pharaoh Tutankhamun; The Boy King Tut. His burial tomb was uncovered by Sir Howard Carter in 1922, and the contents of his crypt is considered priceless. And King Tut was a relatively minor monarch in Egypt. Who knows how much wealth was originally buried with some of the more significant Pharaohs? But throughout history most of those burial chambers were plundered and robbed by thieves and invaders. People throughout history have tried to take their wealth with them when they die. Obviously, they can’t. Death is the great equalizer in life, regardless how much or how little one accumulates. The writer of Ecclesiastes observed that people who focus solely on work and amassing fortunes come to the end of life without any eternal gains to show for it.
UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT:
Ecclesiastes begins and ends with the declaration that “all is vanity” (1:2; 12:8). In Hebrew, the word translated “vanity” means “vapor” or “breath.” From this, the word came to mean other things. CAN YOU THINK OF SOME SYNONYMS FOR THE WORD “VANITY”? (Consider words like, “futility,” “temporary,” “fleeting,” “inconsequential,” or even “absurd.”) The phrase “under the sun” (1:3) was Solomon’s way of referring to life on earth. It is here the Teacher often asked the key question of the book: “What does a person gain for all his efforts that he labors at under the sun?” (1:3). The answer is futility.
Solomon’s thesis is expanded under the idea that generations come and go, but the earth remains the same (1:4). Life on this earth is fleeting and temporary, but the earth continues to turn on its axis. Solomon illustrated the futility of his search by explaining that all of his efforts were like chasing after the wind (1:14).
Solomon delved into numerous pursuits he undertook in the search for life’s meaning. He is a good teacher to learn from here, for he had all the earthly resources and pleasures at his disposal as king of Israel. He tried education and intellectual endeavors but discovered that trying to understand the meaning of life is too perplexing for even the most educated and greatest of human intellects. In the end, it is a bewildering puzzle (1:12-18). Solomon found that even the wisdom one may gain in life is of no real ultimate value. In the end, both the wise and foolish share the same fate—DEATH (2:12-17).
Next, he turned his attention to pleasure and the accumulation of possessions. He discovered the “delights of the sons of men” were in the end a disappointment (2:8). Moreover, when one dies, it is likely that those who inherit these possessions will squander them, so all the work was for nothing. It is best to go through life being content with what one has (2:18-26). All of this indicates the answer to life’s meaning is outside of human achievement. It should lead humanity to look to God who provides the answer to the question, “What is the meaning of life?” The solution ultimately is in the person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
EXPLORE THE TEXT: ECCLESIATES 1:12-15; 2:18-26
Objective Statement: Every believer should seek for wisdom and the meaning of life from God by grasping these three principles from King Solomon.
PRINCIPLE #1 – Limited Perspective (Eccl. 1:12-15)
Verses 12-15 say, 12 “I the Preacher was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith. 14 I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit. 15 That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.”
In this passage, “the Preacher” or Teacher (King Solomon) introduced himself and his life quest while expressing the struggle and frustrations that accompanied him along the way. The Teacher was the “king over Israel in Jerusalem”, and with his office came all the resources that one can imagine at his disposal. In this study of Ecclesiastes, we will journey with the Teacher as he goes on a grand experiment, searching far and wide under the sun in an attempt to experience everything life has to offer. From the teacher’s perspective “under the sun,” after all that he had experienced, learned, and done, he declared that it was all “vanity.” It was meaningless, transitory, and of no real lasting value.
The king was in a position to teach wisdom to his readers, but ironically his words offer challenge and discomfort. In wisdom literature, fear of God is the foundation for all human wisdom. (See Prov. 1:7.) Here however, the Teacher’s quest centered on his own efforts of learning from experience. From this limited perspective, he found only enigmas that he could not resolve on his own.
We’ve all heard the saying, “knowledge is power.” This assumes that the more you know, the more you can achieve, and the more you can achieve, the more power you’ll have. Yet here was one of the wisest men who has ever lived telling us that he had applied his mind and examined and explored all that is done under heaven. In the end it was “vexation of spirit” (vs. 14). This imagery illustrates that one cannot fully grasp the meaning of life by human ability or by utilizing resources “under the sun” (vs. 13; 14).
WHY DID HE LAND ON THIS CONCLUSION? (Verse 15 says, because in the end, “that which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.” In other words, all the wisdom in the world cannot fix the deepest problems of humanity. Ecclesiastes teaches us not to depend on ourselves and our own resources, but rather to depend on God and His provisions for our lives. In reality, anything other than dependence on and trust in God is an attempt to grasp the unattainable (to chase after the wind).
The teacher’s quest was an attempt to find meaning in life. Even though there is an advantage to wisdom over folly, “much wisdom is much grief” (1:18). As knowledge increases, grief increases. In the end, the same fate comes to both the wise and the fool. This is the first lesson we learn from the Teacher, namely, there is something bittersweet about the limits to human wisdom. On the one hand, the more you know, the better. At the same time, the more you know, the more your sorrow increases because you become more aware of the pain and suffering in the world.
This is the tension of living life under the sun. The world doesn’t always make sense, and we cannot fix it. We can all attest to this fact. There are times you wish you knew more and times you wish you knew less. Worldly wisdom can tell you how things are in the natural world, but worldly wisdom does not always provide an answer. The longings of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes tell us there is something beyond the parameters of this life, something beyond the sun that gives us an answer and provides lasting meaning and purpose.
As believers, we understand that there is a wisdom that does not lead to despair. Those who have their sights fixed within the parameters under the sun will never see it. The truly wise are those who know Jesus. He is for us wisdom from God. (See 1 Cor. 1:24.) The wise of this world glory in their worldly wisdom. The wise of the “world to come” boast in Christ as their only hope. Those who have found Christ—they are the ones who have found power over death and the true meaning of life. This eternal perspective gives meaning that wisdom in this world cannot obtain.
PRINCIPLE #2 – Inheritance Blown? (Eccl. 2:18-21)
18 “Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun: because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me. 19 And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and wherein I have shewed myself wise under the sun. This is also vanity. 20 Therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair of all the labour which I took under the sun. 21 For there is a man whose labour is in wisdom, and in knowledge, and in equity; yet to a man that hath not laboured therein shall he leave it for his portion. This also is vanity and a great evil.”
WHY DO WE GET UP IN THE MORNING TO GO TO WORK? WHY DO WE DO WHAT WE DO? There is a sense of purpose that comes in working, producing, and contributing. Perhaps this explains why the first question we often ask each other is, “So, what do you do?” We also realize that work is not easy or always enjoyable. Even still, work is good. In fact, work was given before the fall in Genesis 3 and was included in everything that God declared good. We were originally created to work under and for God in a meaningful and fulfilling way. Our work was meaningful because it was part of God’s plan (Gen. 1:26-28). In the garden, God provided Adam and Eve with meaningful work (work and keep the garden) and with good food (freely eat of every tree in the garden, except one).
But work after the fall, ”under the sun,” is difficult toil. After the fall (Gen. 3:1-7), we still strive to work meaningfully but are continually frustrated in this effort (3:16-19). In Ecclesiastes 2:18-21, the Teacher described work as “vanity.”
As Christians it is important to remember that the curse over all of creation will one day be lifted because Jesus became a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). Therefore, we are to live out our lives under the heavens, looking forward with hope to a day when we will live fully in the joy of fellowship with God (Rev. 21–22). Until that day, there is fulfillment after a hard day’s work, yet still at the end of the day it is hard on us. But what happens to all of the resources that we collect in this life? The teacher tells us plainly. When we die, the “stuff” we have goes to someone else: “to a man that hath not laboured therein shall he leave it for his portion” (vs. 21).
The Teacher lamented that he had no control over his own legacy—what would come after his life. He envisioned his successor and revealed a bit of cynicism realizing that his life’s work would be left in the hands of the one who came after him. The teacher admitted he had no control over who inherited his work. The implication is clear; since his successor had not worked for all he had been handed, he may be utterly foolish in how he stewards his inheritance.
This uncontrollable outcome is also shown to be an enigma that the Teacher could not remedy on his own. Therefore, Solomon despaired to think that a person might work hard and with great skill only to die and have nothing of lasting gain. Solomon’s self-indulgence reflects the natural inclination of the human heart when unchecked (2:1-11). Living prior to Christ, Solomon would not have had the more developed perspective of the afterlife and the renewal of all things that the New Testament explains to the modern reader.
Since the Old Testament only provided partial insights into life after death, the New Testament believers should have sympathy toward Solomon and his limited perspective. Coming to grips with death without the clearly espoused eternal perspective through Christ is in itself an enigma. In the natural world, death is the last enemy. From a purely naturalistic perspective, death is the one enigma that no one has faced and lived to tell about it. This is why bringing God and His work through Christ into the discussion makes all the difference.
In Christ, death becomes the gateway into the presence of God. For a Christian, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. To be present with the Lord is to enjoy eternal pleasures forevermore. In 1 Corinthians 3:10-15, the apostle Paul reminded us that we are not to build our lives on the foundations of gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw. In the end, these things will not last and will be exposed as vain and futile. On the other hand, we are told to build on the eternal foundation of Christ and His teachings, which will lead to eternal reward. Focusing solely on work and amassing material possessions leads to no eternal gains. Focusing on Christ, however, leads to rewards that moths and rust cannot destroy (Matt. 6:20).
HOW DOES SOLOMON’S LAMENT ABOUT THE TEMPORARY NATURE OF HUMAN ACHIEVEMENT GIVE US PROPER PERSPECTIVE ON WHAT WE SHOULD EXPECT FROM THIS LIFE?
PRINCIPLE #3 – ENJOY WORK (ECCL. 2:22-26)
22 “For what hath man of all his labour, and of the vexation of his heart, wherein he hath laboured under the sun? 23 For all his days are sorrows, and his travail grief; yea, his heart taketh not rest in the night. This is also vanity.”
Solomon established that when we die, the stuff we have goes to someone else. Moreover, he established that we have no control over whether our successors will be wise or foolish with their inheritance. DOES ANYONE HAVE AN ANECDOTE OF SOMEONE WHO INHERITED A SIGNIFICANT AMOUNT OF WEALTH AND ENDED UP SQUANDERING IT? To make us feel even more sheepish with this paradox, the Teacher said this is the reason we stay up, “in the night” and “his heart taketh not rest” (vs. 23).
Have you ever asked of your work, how will I ever get it all done? As we lay awake, we are haunted by the reality that there is too much strain without much gain. Indeed, our work is never done! This is another sense in which work takes its toll on us. But perhaps it takes its toll on us and we stay awake because deep down inside we have made work something it was not meant to be.
24 “There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God. 25 For who can eat, or who else can hasten hereunto, more than I? 26 For God giveth to a man that is good in his sight wisdom, and knowledge, and joy: but to the sinner he giveth travail, to gather and to heap up, that he may give to him that is good before God. This also is vanity and vexation of spirit.”
The direct references to God in Ecclesiastes are few and far between, but He is referenced in 2:24 as the giver of joy. Thus, these verses give us proper perspective on life under the sun. If we understand that divine gifts of creation are meant to be enjoyed as matters of stewardship rather than as possessions, we see that they have their limits. So we cannot make the mistake of making a good thing the ultimate thing. We cannot look to the gifts to give us what can only come from the Giver Himself. When we receive good things in life as a gift rather than an entitlement, we experience genuine joy and can keep our focus on what truly matters.
The Teacher said to savor the pleasure you have when you “eat” and “drink,” find enjoyment in a good day’s work. These are gifts to us “from the hand of God.” In fact, according to Solomon, there is nothing better than to stop and enjoy life for what it is and to stop trying to make it what it was never meant to be. Eating, drinking, and enjoying one’s labor are here positively evoked as the gift of God. Enjoying food and drink is a gift often expressed in biblical texts. In Revelation, we read of a meal called “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:6-9). In the end, we shall see provision of food and healing that will last for eternity in the new earth as God dwells with man (Rev. 22:1-2). Therefore, the gifts of eating and drinking here and now, simply foreshadow a life of eating and drinking perfect things in the presence of God that is to come.
Many of us, like the Teacher, labor under the sun and see life’s gifts as an entitlement. However, consider Jesus, who instead of working to gain all for Himself, sacrificially gave His life for others. Which pattern of life is most fulfilling? When we take in all of what the Teacher has said, there are different responses we might make. We can become a bitter skeptic suspended over the abyss of despair, or we might place all of our hope in this life, which is “vexation of spirit.”
For the Christian, however, there is another way that gives us both humble realism and hopeful optimism. The good news of the gospel gives us a humble realism. Nothing in this life can satisfy our souls; only Christ can. But it also gives us a hopeful optimism: we can have hope that this life is not all that there is.
Living life as if it is all defined by what is “under the sun” misses the whole point. We all want our lives to be connected to something beyond the mere pleasures and comforts of this life. We all want to be significant and to contribute something more lasting. What defines our end goal?
It seems that the teacher realized that God gave humans life and work as a means of joy, not despair. Despair arises when humans seek to enjoy life apart from God. As believers, we should enjoy our work, thanking God for His provisions. “Whether therefore ye eat, or drink, or whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).
HOW CAN THE GOOD GIFTS OF THIS LIFE BE A MEANS TO TURN OUR WORSHIP TO GOD? HOW CAN THE GOOD GIFTS OF THIS LIFE BE A DISTRACTION FROM OUR ATTENTION TO GOD AND BECOME OBJECTS OF WORSHIP THEMSELVES?
Remember our Objective Statement: Every believer should seek for wisdom and the meaning of life from God by grasping these three principles from King Solomon.