Ecclesiastes 1:1-18 Is Life Pointless?
Is life pointless? That is the question that the author of Ecclesiastes asks. It is the question we will explore over the next few months as we dive into this great book. I’m not sure many of you have read Ecclesiastes. But I think you will be surprised how much it connects to us today. David Jeremiah states the following about this book:
You’re likely to be startled, though, by this book’s starkly modern insights into the human condition. Its message is as contemporary as a postmodern university textbook, a celebrity interview, or even a teenage suicide note. It’s like an urgent “E-mail” (E for Ecclesiastes) written an hour ago.1
The book begins with an identification of the author.
“The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem.” (Ecclesiastes 1:1, HCSB)
Ecclesiastes is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word Qoheleth, used in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. In the New Testament, Ecclesia is used as a title for God’s assembled people—the church. Ecclesiastes literally means leader of the assembly and has been given English equivalents including, teacher, president, speaker, professor, and pundit. In this book, he will be known as the Preacher2
The author identifies himself in three different ways: (1) his handle, (2) his heritage, (3) his home.
His headline, or his handle, or nickname or title is the Teacher. Yes, this is Solomon, but in this book, he emphasizes his sage role. Next, Solomon states that he is the son of David. This verifies his authenticity and shows the reader that his words can be trusted. Finally, Solomon states where he wrote this book. He wrote this in Jerusalem. Jewish tradition states that Solomon is the author of three books in the Old Testament.
In the morning of his life came the Song of Solomon, a prose rhapsody of passionate romance. In the noontime of his life came Proverbs, a book of heavenly rules for earthly living on the Main Streets of the world. Finally, in the evening of his life came Ecclesiastes, a regretful retrospective. In the disillusioned autumn of his years, Solomon revisited the wreckage of a wasted life. The proverbial pithiness purged, he made one final stab at redemption: an attempt to block others from his own perilous downhill road to destruction.
“It’s what we learn after we know it all that really counts,” someone once said. If Ecclesiastes were a movie, the posters might read, “Solomon is back—and this time it’s personal.”3
Immediately, Solomon makes the statement that life is futile. It is a pessimistic view of life. But there is truth to this statement.
““Absolute futility,” says the Teacher. “Absolute futility. Everything is futile.”” (Ecclesiastes 1:2, HCSB)
Ecclesiastes is unlike any other Old Testament book and has no parallel in other literature of the biblical world. Ecclesiastes is philosophical discourse. When one reads the book of Ecclesiastes, one will find a grim, materialistic view toward life. Solomon will evaluate with his senses (like a modern man does today) and question and critique everything around him (like a post-modern man does today).
The Teacher looks at life (without the benefit of trusting God) and says that life is pointless.
Ecclesiastes makes no claim to bring man a word from God. Instead the writer specifically states that he includes only what he can determine by reason, and limits himself to data that is available “under the sun.” 4 The word vanity or meaningless translates the Hebrew word hebel, which originally meant breath. From breath comes the idea of that which is insubstantial, transitory, and of fleeting value. For Ecclesiastes, anything that does not have eternal value has no real value. Everything in this world is fleeting and therefore, in the final analysis, pointless.5
Which can make a person wonder: What place does this book have in the Bible? Many have asked this question in the light of its pessimism and humanistic sentiments. Primarily it acts as a foil or contrast to the other books. It is ‘a brilliant, artful argument for the way one would look at life—if God did not play a direct, intervening role in life and if there were no life after death.’67
In June 1942, Oscar Schindler inadvertently witnessed an Aktion in the Krakow ghetto in Poland. These were Nazi attacks to round up Jews for deportation to the death camps. They were meticulously planned and usually the Nazis were assisted by collaborators. At the time, Schindler and his mistress were out for a pleasant horseback ride on a hilltop when the Aktion opened directly below them. Astonished by the Nazi ferocity, Schindler’s eye was drawn to a little girl dressed in red who, alone, stood out from the mass of Jews being herded to the trains and to their death. Many years later Schindler looked back on this event and said, ‘Beyond this day, no thinking person could fail to see what would happen. I was now resolved to do everything in my power to defeat the system.’
A notorious womanizer and lover of the ‘good life’, he had amassed a fortune through bribery and corruption, exploiting every opportunity that his status as a member of the Nazi party presented. In the light of what he saw, the ‘good life’ became meaningless! He went on to risk his life and spend a fortune—dying penniless—in the rescue of an estimated twelve hundred Jews in the shadow of Auschwitz.
When Steven Spielberg retold the story in Schindler’s List, the main body of the film was shot in black and white, except for the glow of candles and the two scenes in which the girl in the red coat appears, picked out in color. The effect was both stunning and heartbreaking as she stood out from the mass of humanity that was being herded to their deaths. Later in the film, we see the girl in the red coat again, as her body, along with 10,000 Jews killed in the Nazi massacres, is exhumed and burned.
Ecclesiastes is life portrayed in black and white, emphasizing the captivity and destruction of a whole race—the human race—gathered together under the shadow of death. But there is color. The occasional candle flickers and soon others begin to glow and illuminate the scene. The brightest color appears when the cameras focus upon one person vividly illuminated against the drab back-drop—not a little girl in a red coat, but God, the Creator of human beings. As the camera pans away and the span of biblical history is revealed, we see that same God among the seething mass of humanity, sharing in their suffering and death—Jesus Christ.
The book that portrays the pointlessness of everything really does have a point to make!8
With this pessimistic view in mind, we see that Solomon – the Teacher – shares five different observations (like the eyes of the modern man) with the attitude of skepticism (like the mind of a post-modern man) to show that life is futile.
FIVE OBSERVATIONS OF LIFE FROM A SKEPTICAL VIEW
1. Completion that never delivers. (Ecclesiastes 1:3-4)
“What does a man gain for all his efforts that he labors at under the sun? A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” (Ecclesiastes 1:3–4, HCSB)
You work but you don’t ultimately get what you work for. You never see a delivery on the promises of work. Too many things cost too much that require more work. You do a task, but there is still more to do.
2. Cycles that never stop. (Ecclesiastes 1:5-7)
“The sun rises and the sun sets; panting, it returns to its place where it rises. Gusting to the south, turning to the north, turning, turning, goes the wind, and the wind returns in its cycles. All the streams flow to the sea, yet the sea is never full. The streams are flowing to the place, and they flow there again.” (Ecclesiastes 1:5–7, HCSB)
Here, Solomon observes nature and realizes that there are cycles of the Earth. Things repeat. Things happen over and over. That’s amazing that Solomon can see the ebb and flow of nature and conclude that the “glass is half-full.” You can almost read the sense of regret in his writing.
3. Consumption that doesn’t satisfy. (Ecclesiastes 1:8-11)
“All things are wearisome; man is unable to speak. The eye is not satisfied by seeing or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Can one say about anything, “Look, this is new”? It has already existed in the ages before us. 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.” (Ecclesiastes 1:8–11, HCSB)
The eye can never see enough. The hours spent in front of television rise every year. The ear can never hear enough. I can remember when hi-fi was the big thing. Then it was stereo, followed by quadraphonic sound—a short-lived fad—followed by digital recordings and CDs. This was followed by mp3, then iPod, then iPads and smartphones. Everyone looks for the latest and greatest in technology every year. There’s always something new to see or something new to hear—but never enough.9
Solomon consumed all he wanted. Solomon had the best foods and the fastest cars. He had the prettiest women and the latest and greatest of everything a man could want. He even had the greatest legacy. But in the end, he sees the pointlessness of it all.
4. Comprehension that never helps (Ecclesiastes 1:12-15)
“I, the Teacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. I applied my mind to seek and explore through wisdom all that is done under heaven. God has given people this miserable task to keep them occupied. I have seen all the things that are done under the sun and have found everything to be futile, a pursuit of the wind. What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.” (Ecclesiastes 1:12–15, HCSB)
Solomon ends the first chapter of Ecclesiastes by describing the futility of searching for fulfillment through learning. Was the king soured on education? Not a bit. He was the best educated man of his generation. His wisdom was legendary; he had pursued wisdom wherever it could be found. Yet to his surprise, the more he learned, the emptier he felt.
He’s not alone. A few years ago, in his monthly letter from Focus on the Family ministry, Dr. James Dobson told the story of Karen Cheng, age seventeen, from Fremont, California. She achieved a perfect score of 800 on both sections of the SAT test. She also got a perfect 8,000 on the rigorous University of California acceptance index. Never before had anyone accomplished this staggering intellectual feat.
Karen, a straight-A student at Mission San Jose High School, described herself as a typical teenager who munches on junk food and talks for hours on the telephone. She even claimed to be a procrastinator who didn’t do her homework until the last minute.
Karen’s teachers told a different story. They called her “Wonder Woman” because of her unquenchable thirst for knowledge and her uncanny ability to retain whatever she read. But when a reporter asked her, “What is the meaning of life?” Karen’s reply was surprising. “I have no idea,” she answered. “I would like to know myself.”1011
5. Collections of wisdom that never heals. (Ecclesiastes 1:16-18)
“I said to myself, “Look, I have amassed wisdom far beyond all those who were over Jerusalem before me, and my mind has thoroughly grasped wisdom and knowledge.” I applied my mind to know wisdom and knowledge, madness and folly; I learned that this too is a pursuit of the wind. For with much wisdom is much sorrow; as knowledge increases, grief increases.” (Ecclesiastes 1:16–18, HCSB)
His second proverb can be summed up by the more commonly used quotation from Thomas Gray: ‘Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.’ Knowledge in itself can never make us happy. In the first place it is insatiable, and its increase only heightens the awareness of our ignorance. Secondly, it heightens our awareness of sin. Jesus said, ‘If I had not come and spoken to them, they would have no sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin’ (John 15:22). As the Puritan, Thomas Watson, remarked, ‘How unprofitable is the luxuriancy of knowledge? He who is only filled with knowledge is like a glass filled with froth. What a vain, foolish thing it is to have knowledge and make no spiritual use of it.’1213
Solomon went on a search. He wanted to discover if wisdom could be his answer to life’s questions. He collected wisdom from all over the world and through all of time. He discovered that the more he learned, the more hurt he became. When you learn more, you are responsible for more. Ignorance really is bliss. The weight of this knowledge and wisdom made Solomon a cynical man. It increased his mindset that life is pointless.
Yet, Solomon should not be viewed as an unhappy soul who has been beaten down by circumstances. He is not some gloomy pessimist. He is viewing, for the moment, life at ground level—“under the sun”—without thought to spiritual values. Man’s activity is but another reflection of the ceaseless round of purposeless motion which is exhibited in nature. Without God, human activity is futile. This negative assessment of life “under the sun” indirectly calls for mankind to focus on higher values. Though it may seem that life is pointless, the pointlessness should drive us to find meaning. Just as Solomon went on his journey to find meaning, we should look too. But in the end, that search will lead us to life with God. That enables man to look at life from a different perspective.14
At the ripe old age of 89, and a year before he died, English politician Sir Leonard Woolf said, “The world today and the history of the human anthill during the last 57 years would be exactly the same if I had played ping-pong instead of sitting on committees and writing books and memoranda. I have therefore to make this ignominious confession to myself and anyone who reads these words, that I have in this long life ground through 150,000–200,000 hours of perfectly useless work.”
No one wants to look in the rearview mirror of their life and see regret. God gives us one opportunity to make a difference—we should make the most of it, rather than investing our lives in perfectly useless work.15
1 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth: How to Find What Really Matters in Life (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004), xii.
2 Jim Winter, Opening up Ecclesiastes, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2005), 10.
3 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth: How to Find What Really Matters in Life (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004), xviii–xix.
4 Larry Richards and Lawrence O. Richards, The Teacher’s Commentary (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1987), 349.
5 Duane A. Garrett, “The Poetic and Wisdom Books,” in Holman Concise Bible Commentary, ed. David S. Dockery (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1998), 245.
6 Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to read the Bible for all its Worth, Scripture Union, p. 214.
7 Jim Winter, Opening up Ecclesiastes, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2005), 11.
8 Jim Winter, Opening up Ecclesiastes, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2005), 12–13.
9 Jon Courson, Jon Courson’s Application Commentary: Volume Two: Psalms-Malachi (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2006), 273.
10 James Dobson, monthly newsletter, May 1996.
11 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth: How to Find What Really Matters in Life (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004), 23.
12 Thomas Watson, A Plea for the Godly, Soli Deo Gloria, 1993, p 165.
13 Jim Winter, Opening up Ecclesiastes, Opening Up Commentary (Leominster: Day One Publications, 2005), 29.
14 James E. Smith, The Wisdom Literature and Psalms, Old Testament Survey Series (Joplin, MO: College Press Pub. Co., 1996), Ec 1:9–11.
15 Jim L. Wilson and Bob Johnson, “Playing Ping-Pong instead of Working,” in 300 Illustrations for Preachers, ed. Elliot Ritzema (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015).