The Futility of Life Under the Sun

Shattering Our Rose Colored Glasses  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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One of our favorite summer time activities is to go to the beach. Our favorite beach out here is Mayflower beach in Dennis. There’s tons of sand and some really cool sand bars to play on as the tide comes in or goes out.
Of course, what is one of the favorite past times of kids all over the world when they go to the beach? Digging in the sand and building sand castles. I remember being a kid and thinking I would be able to dig through the sand until I arrived in China.
Digging in the sand often becomes a source of contention among my kids however. One of the problems of having little boys is that they are little balls of destruction. So when my girls are digging massive moats for their sand castles, they are constantly yelling at the boys to keep away. They know that the moment that Owen or Brian steps too close, a ton of sand will pour in and ruin their creation.
It’s kind of funny if you think about it. Here they are, sweating and slaving away in the sand, guarding their castles with their lives, when in just a matter of a couple of hours the whole thing will be washed away with the incoming tide. The whole enterprise is meaningless, isn’t it? I know the kids enjoy it for the time being, but what are they really accomplishing?
Do you ever feel as though life was meaningless? It sure seems that way. Consider all of the pain and suffering and brokenness in the world. Want to be depressed? Read the news. We are as powerless to change the disasters around us as we are to build permanent sand castles. It can make you wonder what the point of it all is.
I find that such thoughts scare many Christians. So we put on rose colored glasses, put our fingers in our ears, and stick our heads in the sand. We act as though everything is fine. We put on our positive alternative music and our campy feel good Christian movies and pretend that in the world everything always works out in the end. But does it? Is the world fine?
It doesn’t feel fine. Terrorists strap bombs to their chests and walk into concerts filled with children. Our political leaders are embroiled in scandal after scandal. Children get sick with cancer. Countries are on the verge of nuclear war. No, the world is not fine.
The world isn’t helped by our safe and sterile outlook on the world. The Bible doesn’t agree with it either. The Bible is far more realistic about the messiness of this life than we often let ourselves be.
We are beginning a sermon series in the book of Ecclesiastes this morning, a book that will take our rose colored glasses and shatter them, better equipping us to navigate this broken world and love our neighbors in the process. So with that, let’s turn to chapter 1, verse 1.

The Preacher

Ecclesiastes 1:1 ESV
The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
Ecclesiastes 1.1
The author of the book is identified using three titles. First he is called the Preacher, (or maybe teacher in your translation) which is fitting since he’s got a sermon he wants to deliver to us, one that can be somewhat unnerving if you have a tendency to wear rose colored glasses.
He is also called the son of David and king in Jerusalem. Naturally, this leads us to consider David’s immediate son, Solomon. In fact much of what the Preacher says will draw upon images of Solomon’s life. Most people throughout church history believed that Solomon was the author.
Today though, most Christian scholars aren’t so sure. It is possible that a later king wrote the book, or even someone editing Solomon’s words. The book is technically anonymous, so if Solomon didn’t write the book it is no attack on the legitimacy of the book as a part of God’s word.
I lean toward thinking that Solomon is the author, the minority position today, simply because I find it’s usually better to side with saints long passed. For the duration of this series though, I’m just going to call him the Preacher. What does the Preacher have to say?

The Main Theme of the Book

Ecclesiastes 1.2
Ecclesiastes 1:2 ESV
Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
We are now introduced to the theme of the book and it is quite unsettling at first pass. Everything is vanity. Everything is meaningless. Everything is futile.
The word here that we are translating as vanity is the word for vapor or mist or breath. In other words, life is fleeting and slips through our fingers like fog.
The Preacher will repeat this phrase at the end of the book, serving as bookends to his message. Between these two bookends of everything is meaningless, is the Preacher’s argument backing up this statement.
I’m not sure that we are quite prepared for what the Preacher is saying here. We have a way of treating life as if it can be wrapped up in a nice little bow. Everything fits together and has purpose. We find little messages in even the most mundane of circumstances.
The Preacher does not share our optimism. He looks at this life, this world, and he cannot say, “Everything is just fine.” No, he looks at the world and says, “It’s all gone to hell in a hand basket.” To quote the popular phrase, “Life sucks and then you die.”
I hate most Christian movies for this very reason. Aside from the poor acting and lousy writing, most Christian movies also have this infuriating tendency to have happy, clean, and neat endings. The marriage is reconciled, the cancer is healed, the son returns home, the farm is saved, the atheist becomes a Christian.
Ecclesiastes’ message is quite different. Sometimes the marriage is destroyed, the cancer kills, the son never returns, the farm burns down, and people continue to reject the gospel.
The Preacher has a way of shattering our rose colored glasses. The intended audience for the book of Ecclesiastes appears to be those outside the Israelite faith. We will see that the book ultimately is an extended argument, meant to win people over to faith in God.
I find the Preacher’s approach refreshing. What he does is to essentially strip himself of all of the religious language and history of faith and enter into the world of those who do not know his God. Rather than appealing to his established religious practices he will regularly appeal to the shared humanity he has with his audience.

No Gain Under the Sun

What good comes from our lives?

Ecclesiastes 1:3 ESV
What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
The Preacher begins to unpack his claim that all is meaningless by asking the question of what gain there is to be had by all of our work under the sun. In other words, he is asking us, “What is the point?” “What are you really accomplishing with your life?”
Now, most people live as though their lives count for something. But the Preacher disagrees. His answer to the question of what is gain by all our toil under the sun is clear: NOTHING.
Lest you think this message is un-Christian, what the Preacher says is not far from what Jesus says when he asks his disciples what does it profit (what gain is there) if a man gains the whole world but loses his soul? Jesus’ implied answer is the same as the Preacher: NOTHING.
Mark 8:36 ESV
For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?
The key phrase the Preacher is using here that let’s us in on what he is doing is the phrase, “under the sun.” This is a key phrase he will repeat in the rest of the book. There is a way of living that sees all of life from the perspective of being under the sun. What is under the sun is all that there is. In other words, under the sun simply means from an earthly or worldly or secular perspective.
When a person sees their entire existence as one simply from a secular or earthly perspective, they have no ultimate purpose or meaning to their lives.
Now, the irreligious person is quick to interject. I have meaning! I have purpose! But the preacher anticipates this objection and continues his argument.

The futility of each generation’s attempt to leave a mark

Ecclesiastes 1:4 ESV
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
Ecclesiastes 1.4
First, the Preacher considers the accomplishments of each generation. What do they contribute to the world? Nothing.
Generations come and they go. The earth continues on as though individual generations never existed.
I’ll prove it to you that this is the case. How many of you considered the accomplishments of your great, great grandparents this morning? This week? This year? I cannot even name my great, great grandparents, let alone think about their contribution to society.
Each generation has a tendency to feel as though they are significant. Each generation views the previous generation as out of touchand old fashioned and the incoming generation as foolish and disrespectful.
Listen to this quote: “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect to their elders.” Guess who said that? Socrates! Over 2400 years ago.
Listen to what Socrates said:
The Greatest Generation was once a bunch of rebels. Millennials will one day be old fashioned. Both will be forgotten 100 years from now. The accomplishments of each generation is meaningless. The Preacher’s point? So will yours be.
Ryken, Philip Graham. Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters (Preaching the Word) (pp. 25-26). Crossway. Kindle Edition.

The futility of nature reminds us of our own

Ecclesiastes 1.5-7
Ecclesiastes 1:5–7 ESV
The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. 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. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.
The Preacher turns to nature and is reminded of our futility. Even the physical world preaches a message of the futility of living under the sun.
The sun itself makes no progress. It rises, it sets, then it does it again. Nothing changes.
The wind patterns likewise remain consistent. It blows from one direction to the other and then returns again. No advancement.
All the rivers and streams run into the sea yet it doesn’t overflow. Here the Preacher is thinking of the Dead Sea, which does not have any water flowing from it. Yet for all the water flowing to it, it never rises. No gain.
When viewed from the perspective under the sun, the physical world is nothing but a cycle of boring futility.
The Apostle Paul even says as much in that the creation was subjected to this sort of groan inducing futility. The world is boring and pointless and if the sun and wind and seas make no progress, what hope do we have under the sun?

The futility of our existence

Ecclesiastes 1.
Ecclesiastes 1:8 ESV
All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
I love the Contemporary English Version’s translation of this phrase: All life is far more boring than words could ever say.
We get worn out trying to find meaning in this meaningless existence. Our eyes and ears are never satisfied. Have you ever watched an amazing movie and thought to yourself, “Ah, now I never need to watch another show again.” No you want more. We don’t just want Avengers 1. We want 2 and 3 part 1 and part 2.
We are reminded of how futile life is under the sun when we consider how easily bored and unsatisfied we can become. There is a perpetual restlessness that we have no answer for. This leads to frustration. No matter how much we consume, it will never be enough.

Nothing is new

Ecclesiastes 1.9-10
Ecclesiastes 1:9–10 ESV
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. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us.
We may be tempted to find meaning in our individual accomplishments and additions we bring to the world. The Preacher silences us. There is nothing new under the sun. Everything is old.
Now, of course there are new things. There hasn’t always been the Patriots or cell phones or Uptown Funk. But there has always been sporting events, technological advances, and music.
And for all of our cultural and technological “advancements” what have we changed about human nature? We still die. We still get sick. We still go to war. We still oppress the weak.
I read an article recently about the founder of Twitter. He made the comment that “the internet is broken.” He truly believed that much of the world’s problems were found in the fact that people did not have a voice. He thought that if you gave the every person a voice and a right to speak that public discourse would improve as would society. Instead the internet has become filled with trolls and hate and conspiracy. Why? Because nothing is new. We are the same.
For all of our advancements, the experience of humanity has remain unchanged. Nothing is novel. Nothing is changed. Nothing is new.
If you try to find meaning in innovation you will soon discover there is no such thing. There is nothing new under the sun.

You will be forgotten

Ecclesiastes 1:11 ESV
There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.
As one last swipe at our self-perceived purpose, the Preacher reminds us: You will be forgotten. You don’t remember the people before you, nor will those not even born yet have even the faintest idea that you existed. No one will remember you. You will be forgotten.
In all of our desires for greatness and achievement, the Preacher points out the painful reality, that there truly is nothing to be gained in your meaningless life under the sun.

There is Great Gain to be had

Does that sound bleak? It should. However, the Preacher knows that there is great gain to be had in life, not in a new place, but with a new perspective. Though we may live under the sun, there is a God who reigns over it.

Our work matters

Paul’s perspective was not limited to under the sun when he considered our toil.
1 Corinthians 15:58 ESV
Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
1 Corinthians 15.58
When we labor from the perspective above the sun we realize that all of our work is not in vain. There is great gain to be had. You actually accomplish that which will endure into eternity.
We have a better job, which is a way of saying that our jobs matter. Do you want your work to count? Then live in such a way that suggests that this material world isn’t all there is.

Though nature has been subjected to futility, it declares the glory of God

The heavens

Consider also the effects of a perspective above the sun on how we view the created universe. The prophet Jeremiah saw the sun rise and set again and again was not reminded of futility but of faithfulness:
Lamentations 3:22–23 ESV
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
Lamentations 3:22–23 ESV
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
Lamentations 3.
The Psalmist beheld the winds and was reminded of God’s presence.
Psalm 104:3 ESV
He lays the beams of his chambers on the waters; he makes the clouds his chariot; he rides on the wings of the wind;
The book of Job sees the process of evaporation as part of the system our God uses to water the earth.
Job 36:26–28 ESV
Behold, God is great, and we know him not; the number of his years is unsearchable. For he draws up the drops of water; they distill his mist in rain, which the skies pour down and drop on mankind abundantly.
Job 36.26-28
Rather than reminding us of our futility under the sun, with a new perspective our world declares the handiwork and glory of our God.

We will be satisfied

Unlike those under the sun who can never see nor hear enough to be satisfied, true contentment is found by those who direct their gaze above the sun. Listen to Paul again:
1 Corinthians 2:9 ESV
But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”—
1 Corinthians 2:9 ESV
But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”—
1 Corinthians
God has joy in store
The joy to be had by God’s people does not even have a category. It’s beyond anything we have seen or heard or dreamed! Knowing true contentment is only possible if you look beyond what is simply under the sun to that day God has prepared for those who love him.

God is doing something New

For those under the sun, the Preacher says, there is nothing new. Not so for those who know God. Listen to what the Lord says in the book of Revelation:
Revelation 21:5 ESV
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
And again in Isaiah:
Isaiah 43:19 ESV
Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
Part of the new thing God is doing involves all of creation. Consider the words of Peter:
2 Peter 3:13 ESV
But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.
And God’s new, transforming activity, extends to those who know his Son Jesus:
2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
The only way to break the cycle of monotony of a life of the same old, same old is to realize there is more to this life than simply what we have here under the sun and embrace the Kingdom of God. When God took on human flesh and bore our sins on the cross God was truly doing a NEW thing. That act shook the very fabric of our boring and unoriginal existence.

You will never be forgotten

Our text closes with the painful reminder that, should we persist in a mindset that understands our existence as simply under the sun, we will be forgotten.
When Jesus was crucified, he was hung between two criminals. One of them hurled insults at Jesus and mocked him for his claim to be the Messiah. His perspective was limited to an earthly, under the sun world view. How foolish could a man be to claim to possess the power Jesus did, yet die pathetically on the cross?
The other man had a different perspective. He rebuked the other criminal for his disrespect of Jesus and lack of fear of God. Then he turns and asks Jesus to do something. Do you recall what he asked?
Luke 23.46
Luke 23:42 ESV
And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Remember me. Jesus remember me. Friend if you receive the salvation available to you through Jesus you will never be forgotten. Christ has engraved the names of his people on his hands. I am named and I am known and I will be forever. Those who die apart from Christ will not be. This meaningless existence is the best that they are going to get. You have the opportunity to escape the monotony of this life by changing your perspective and entering the Kingdom of God. If you want to know more about how to do that, see me after worship. I’ll be hanging out in the cafe.
Church, we have a better perspective
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