BIBLICAL PERSPECTIVES/The emptiness of significance
Wednesday, May 28, 2014 1:00 PM
We are beginning a summer study series on the book of Ecclesiastes. It is a book that at first reading is filled with despair, frank hopelessness, stiff philosophy, but is in fact full of gospel truth. I look forward to unveiling that to you as we work through the book this summer. This first section, chapter 1 verses 1 through 11, is really the introduction to the whole book. The thesis statement is basic: apart from God, this life is meaningless.
The Greek rendering of the Hebrew name that you have here in the first verse, "Preacher," is the name from which we get the modern word, Ecclesiastes. The Preacher is what the person calls himself, who is speaking to us in this book, and his message you will see summarized in verse 2. His message is basically that all man's efforts to find happiness apart from God are useless. This life, apart from God, is meaningless, it is hopeless, and it is only filled with despair.
From the very beginning chapters of the book of Genesis, the Old Testament asserts this fundamental truth: that there is a Creator, He is distinct from His creation, we are His creatures, and we are not Him; and the essence of life consists in glorifying and enjoying that Creator and honoring Him as the One who is the Lord and Sovereign.
The Author's Attestation of His Competence.
The author begins in verse 1, by attesting to his competence. The author is speaking from a position of knowledge and experience that qualifies him to ask and answer hard questions. The author calls himself "The Preacher." There is an illusion to Solomon, the Son of David, King in Jerusalem, and this constitutes an assertion that he know what he is talking about. He is in a position having had enough life experience to state with confidence the things that he is going to state in this book. Verse 1 is there to say that the author knows what he's talking about.
The Assertion of the Human Situation, Without God.
Verse 2 is his thesis statement and it's a brutally realistic evaluation of life under the sun. Life under the sun is the preacher's way of talking about a life that is lived only along the horizons of this world. It doesn't look to the ultimate realities that are beyond this earthly reality. He gives us this realistic evaluation of life under the sun: Vanity of vanities; all is vanity. Without reference to God, the world in which we find ourselves is a chaos without meaning or progress. He is laying down the foundation, the groundwork, for commending to you a God-centered life. Emptiness and pessimism are the only alternatives to Biblical faith.
Solomon wants to undermine confidence in a pagan and an unbelieving view of life by pointing to the futility of life apart from God. He does not mean that most things are empty in this life; he means all things apart from God are empty in this life in the sense that they cannot supply ultimate meaning. That reminds us of the brevity of life, the unreliability of life, and the frailty of life because there are so many things in this life that seem to promise more than they are able to deliver.
In verse 3 he gives us an assessment of the outcome of all human endeavor. What gain does a man get? For all that he puts into life, what's his yield? The answer is: this life apart from God does not pay dividends. The "Preacher" tells us that under the sun, everything that we do has an undertone of misery and futility.
That is why you find so many songs about working hard, and getting nothing for it. That is why you find so many songs about the quest for meaning and the frustration of that quest for meaning. "Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind." No little trite sayings can supply significance and meaning.
The Appraisal of the Problem.
He goes on to explain in verse 4, that the problem of meaninglessness under the sun doesn't go away. A new generation comes along and doesn't come up with a secret formula. There's no solution to this problem through progress. This problem will outlast every generation of men. As one hymn puts it, "Frail as summer's flower we flourish, blows the wind, and it is gone."
He goes on to say in verses 5-7 that the lack of a solution to this problem is displayed even in the cycles of nature. In the Old Testament, when a believer looked at the world and saw the regularity of the sunrise and of the seasons and of the ebb and flow of the tide, you know what the Old Testament believer did? He rejoiced. It was a sign of God's sovereign control, of His working out His purposes. The author of Ecclesiastes says that when an unbeliever looks at this world and he considers the cycles of nature, the sun, the seasons, the rivers, it feels monotonous and hopeless to him. All that activity seems to be pointless in terms of providing ultimate significance.
The Things That We Want the Most in This Life, Eventually Weary Us.
In verse 8, he goes on to say that things we want most in this life, apart from God, will eventually weary us upon reflection. What we desire cannot fulfill us. What we get delights us less and less. We are impacted by two universal laws: the law of unfulfilled expectations and the law of diminishing returns. When you finally get what you have always wanted, you find out that it did not give you what you thought it was going to give you. The law of unfulfilled expectation gets us and we become weary with what we desired.
Or, the law of diminishing return hits us. We may enjoy something and delight in something, but over time the return lessens and sometimes we even get sick of that which we once delighted in. It bores us. It exhausts us. It drains us. It wears on us. It saps us. It cannot satisfy us. Everything in life becomes a weariness apart form God. "I can't get no satisfaction," said the Rolling Stones.
Ultimate Meaning is Not Found in Progress, Invention, or New Accomplishments.
Look at verses 9 and 10, meaning is not found in the next thing because the next thing never turns out to be so new after all. He is not protesting against progress or technology, but he is protesting against you trying to find ultimate meaning in change and progress and technology. Near eastern kings were always trying to seek to accomplish something new so that they could leave a legacy, build a new building, bridge a new river, or capture a new territory. They wanted something new, something extraordinary about their reign which would establish their reputation and imbue their reign with significance. Ecclesiastes is saying here that that won't work. Ultimate meaning is not found in something new. "New and improved"-the ultimate hope of the modern consumer will not realize your fondest dreams.
Apart from God, the preacher says, our approach to life will either be bitter and cynical and pessimistic, or it will be trite, unrealistic, naive, and impractical. We're going to explore those two alternatives over and over again in the weeks to come.
By way of contrast, the Christian view of life is realistic and hopeful and practical and durable all at the same time. You see, the preacher is saying, if you really consider this life apart from God, you'll see there's no hope. But that very hopelessness, the futility of any other approach to life, should lead us to the only hope--God our Savior.
The Rev. Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III is Chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary. He can be reached at 601-923-1600 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.