I read a story the other day about a well-known pastor who was invited to dinner in the home of a very wealthy man in Texas. After the meal, the host led him to a place where they could get a good view of the surrounding area. Pointing to the oil wells punctuating the landscape, he boasted, "Twenty-five years ago I had nothing. Now, as far as you can see, it's all mine." Looking in the opposite direction at his sprawling fields of grain, he said, "That's all mine." Turning east toward huge herds of cattle, he bragged, "They're all mine." Then pointing to the west and a beautiful forest, he exclaimed, "That too is all mine."
He paused, expecting the pastor to compliment him on his great success. The pastor, however, placing one hand on the man's shoulder and pointing heavenward with the other, simply said, "How much do you have in that direction?" The man hung his head and confessed, "I never thought of that."
The Israelites had been given much land and they lived on the crossroads of an international trade route between Egypt and Syria and many other countries. There were fortunes to be made with a little knowledge of how to take advantage of the trade routes and some good 'ole fashioned hard work.
For many the location provided the perfect opportunity to reach their financial dreams but that's where the book of Ecclesiastes comes in because it teaches us that "Apart from God, people gain nothing from all their effort."
Oil wells, cattle, forests, farm land...none of it is worth anything apart from God.
Verse 2 is where this section begins. In verse one the author is said to be David's son and I suppose we are meant to assume that Solomon is the author but I'll just call him the Teacher since that's what the text calls him.
2 "Absolute futility," says the Teacher. "Absolute futility. Everything is futile."
Vanity of Vanities is how some translations say it but the word futility literally means "vapor" or "breath." Everything is just like a breath. This time of year we can see our breath when we stand outside in the morning, but it doesn't remain visible for long. Everything is here for a moment then gone. Everything is absolutely futile. That's what the teacher is teaching.
Psalm 39:5 says, "In fact, you have made my days just inches long, and my life span is as nothing to you. Yes, every human being stands as only a vapor."
James 4:14 " ...you do not know what tomorrow will bring—what your life will be! For you are like vapor that appears for a little while, then vanishes."
I'm starting to get old enough that I'm amazed at how fast time goes by. Our children were just born it seems, now we're about to have two of them in college. We blinked and the time vanished like a vapor.
This is what the teacher is trying to teach us: life on this earth, under the Sun, is extremely short. One minute it's there and the next it's gone.
But not only is vapor around for a brief time, it's impossible to grab a hold of. Next time you're outside on a cold day, just try to grab ahold of your breath. It's a futile effort.
It's not just futile, it's absolutely futile and that's what the teacher wants to make sure we understand. Human life is absolutely futile.
And not just our life, but all life. Everything is wearing out. Nothing will last forever. The nice house you live in will eventually be torn down and replaced. The car you drive, no matter how new it is, will eventually get too old to fix and quit working. Everything is futile.
In Ecclesiastes we are going to look at life from different perspectives. Today we are looking at it from the perspective of "what we can gain by our efforts. What does our work accomplish?" And the teacher's answer is that, apart from God, absolutely nothing.
In verse 3 the teacher reflects on the summary statement in verse 2.
3 What does a person gain for all his efforts that he labors at under the sun?
This is a rhetorical question and the expected response is...nothing. For all our efforts we gain nothing. "Gain" could also be translated "profit" and the word carries with it the idea of a businessman wisely investing for a period of time and then counting up what he's gained. When he counts at the end there's nothing.
"Under the Sun" is an important phrase in Ecclesiastes. It's used 29 times and it refers to living in this world without considering God. Those that live under the Sun, the physical sun, do not live under heaven. They do not consider God and so there is absolutely nothing that they profit.
Jesus said in Matthew 16:26 "For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?”
Jesus is essentially teaching the same thing as the teacher in Ecclesiastes. There's no benefit, there's no profit, no gain, if you don't have God and lose your soul.
The teacher in Ecclesiastes illustrates the point with a few examples from nature in verses 4-7.
First of all verse 4...
4 A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
The teacher throws a little curve at us because we would expect the phrase to be "comes and goes" but instead it's "goes and comes" in order to emphasize that one generation replaces another. Before the Baby Boomers there was The Silent Generation, then the Greatest Generation before them, then the interbellum generation, then the lost generation. Then who knows?
Do you see what the teacher is saying? Given enough time your generation will also be irrelevant. There is no gain. The earth stays the same. It remains forever, long after your generation is gone and forgotten.
5 The sun rises and the sun sets; panting, it returns to the place where it rises.
Again, from nature itself we see the futility of life. The sun rises and sets, only to return to where it started. It "pants" or struggles to come around again only to be right back where it started. It's like a treadmill that never ends. There isn't any change. No gain.
6 Gusting to the south, turning to the north, turning, turning, goes the wind, and the wind returns in its cycles.
The wind, in contrast with the Sun which always travels from east to west, is free to go where it wants yet even the wind "returns in its cycles" and repeats itself making no progress in the end.
7 All the streams flow to the sea, yet the sea is never full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.
All streams eventually make their way to the sea, yet the sea doesn't overflow. Imagine the Jordan River which has been flowing into the Dead Sea for thousands of years without any progress.
One would think that with all of nature's constant motion a lot of progress is being made but the teacher is saying it's all for nothing. It's like a hamster in a wheel. The Sun keeps going around. The wind keeps blowing in its predictable paths. The ocean doesn't fill up no matter how much flows into it.
The point is that if nature can't gain anything, over thousands and thousands of years, then neither can we with our relatively short lifetimes.
Verse 8 gives us the conclusion:
8a All things are wearisome
All you accomplish with your effort, apart from God, just makes you tired.
8a All things are wearisome, more than anyone can say. The eye is not satisfied by seeing or the ear filled with hearing.
It doesn't matter how much we say, see, or hear, it all adds up to nothing.
In verse 9 the theme is restated:
9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.
There is nothing new. There is nothing is gained. There is frantic activity all around us, but none of it is going anywhere for those that are living under the sun and apart from God.
Now some might object to this bleak picture of life. Surely, he is overstating things just a bit. "Nothing?" But it's as if the teacher anticipates what some are thinking right now. Here's the objection stated...
10a Can one say about anything, "Look, this is new"?
Hasn't our society made progress? Look at all the new things around us? What about all the new technologies and medical procedures?
Here's the teacher's response:
10b It has already existed in the ages before us.
Everything that appears to be "new" is just a variation of something that has already happened. Yes, there are amazing technological advances today, but there have been amazing technological advances in the past and none of them made life less futile without God.
History shows us that, there is much that has been forgotten. We admire the pyramids but have no clear understanding of how they were constructed. We marvel at how much longer people live today, yet history shows us that long ago people lived much longer than we do now without all of our medical advances.
11 There is no remembrance of those who came before; and of those who will come after there will also be no remembrance by those who follow them.
The teacher isn't saying that we shouldn't do our best to remember and learn from history, but that those whose sole focus is on making a name for themselves, hoping to be remembered for some great accomplishment...they are only striving after wind.
People have had streets named after them but many of those same streets are no more. People have written books but many of those books have been replaced by newer books. People have even had mountains named after them only for people to come along and change the name.
So, if you think you're going to beat the system by having a memorial erected after you die that's futile, too.
The teacher has clearly made his point: people gain nothing from all their efforts apart from God.
And this is a point we see clearly in the NT too. We already read Matthew 16:26. Let's turn to Luke 12:16-20.
In Luke 12:16-20 Jesus tells a parable to illustrate this point.
16 Then he told them a parable: “A rich man’s land was very productive. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What should I do, since I don’t have anywhere to store my crops?
18 I will do this,’ he said. ‘I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones and store all my grain and my goods there.
19 Then I’ll say to myself, “You have many goods stored up for many years. Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.” ’
20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is demanded of you. And the things you have prepared—whose will they be?’
21 “That’s how it is with the one who stores up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.”
Apart from God people gain nothing from all their effort. It's a foolish waste of time to store up your treasures on earth. The only thing that matters is storing up treasures in heaven.
Matthew 6:19-21 says,
19 “Don’t store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.
20 But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves don’t break in and steal.
21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
John 6:27 says it this way...
27 Don’t work for the food that perishes but for the food that lasts for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you,
So what Jesus, the ultimate teacher, is saying to us is that we don't gain anything if our work is not for God. But if we serve God then our efforts are worthwhile. We're not saved by works, but there is lasting fruit from them.
1 Corinthians 15:58 sums it up this way...
Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the Lord’s work, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
What is the Lord's work? It's the work that Jesus did. He cared for the sick. He spent time with sinners. He sacrificially lived His life for others. There is nothing more important than doing the Lord's work. Put you effort into the Lord's work and your labor will not be in vain.