Everything is Meaningless! (Ecclesiastes 1)

If you know me, you know that I love the book of Ecclesiastes. I don’t know what the deal is—maybe Solomon (the author) just has a special way of speaking to me, but something within that twelve-chapter Book of Wisdom crammed between Proverbs and Song of Songs strikes a chord within me so that every time I open it up, my mind is blown in some new and astounding way. It’s one of those books that’s useful in any situation whether that be evangelizing (literally everybody can relate to the book), starting a conversation (ever walk up to somebody and yell “Everything is meaningless!” at them?), ending a conversation (ever look someone in the eye and told them they’re “chasing after wind” or that their so-called brand-new idea “has been done and will be done again”?), or just getting together with a group of friends to discover the oh-so-sought-for meaning of life. It’s a book that’s quoted at funerals just as much as it at weddings, and if you can make it through any single chapter without relating to, I don’t know, all of it, then you probably misread the entire thing. It’s a great, great book.

And here’s the thing: with the new semester of school having started (Texas A&M Class of 2019, HEY HEY HEY HEY HEYYYY!!!), I haven’t had near as much time to sit down and write as I’d like and resultantly haven’t been able to update my blog near as frequently as I’d prefer. BUTTTTT… the thing I have been able to do is lead a Bible study every Wednesday night (going through Ecclesiastes), and thankfully each week has provided me with a plethora of notes that I can easily transcribe onto a computer, format around a bit to turn it into a somewhat consistent and readable format, and therefore get in my writing fix as I take a quick break from the homework. So, yeah, I think that's what I will be doing, so expect some stuff from Ecclesiastes over the next few weeks!

But enough of my babbling; let’s not waste any more time and hop right into the studying. Without further ado, I present to you Ecclesiastes chapter 1:

Ecclesiastes 1

1 The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: 2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

3 What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? 4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. 7 All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. 8 All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.

9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. 11 No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.

12 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

 15 What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.

16 I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.

 18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.

Right off the bat, in the very first verse we have the declaration that Solomon—“the Teacher, son of David, king of Jerusalem”—is the author, letting us know it was written around 930BC. Why is this important? Because this guy, Solomon, had some really big shoes to fill: his dad was David, that boy who killed some kinda-well-known giant named Goliath, grew up to be a kick-butt warrior in the Israelite army, became king over Israel, and, despite his flaws, would be described as having lived his life as a “man after God’s own heart” (1 Sam 13:14, Acts 13:22). David was the guy to be, and Solomon had to live up to that.

Lucky for Solomon, God came to him in a dream one night and offered him anything he wanted (1 Kings 3). Solomon, having been raised by a God-fearing father who taught Him to likewise fear the Lord, humbled himself and asked for “a discerning heart,” that he might be wise enough to take care of his father’s kingdom once his time to rule came. God, impressed by this act of humility, said not only would he give Solomon wisdom, but he would give him everything a man desired: riches, wealth, power, you name it. In the years that followed, Solomon not only became a great king but even surpassed his father, seeing Israel to the highest prosperity it has ever seen, either before or after. Under Solomon’s reign, Israel expanded its borders the closest it ever has to the borderlines described to Abraham by God, and it also became one of the wealthiest and most prosperous nations. Solomon was world-renowned for his wisdom and became the Renaissance man of his time, being not only king, servant, and judge, but architect, botanist, songwriter, poet, author, sage, politician, and so much more. Name something you want and Solomon probably had it.

Why is this important, though?

The thing is, though Solomon was wise, he didn’t always make smart decisions. His wealth and power soon got to his head, and in no time he had over 700 wives and 300 concubines (I kid you not, look it up) and had begun to worship other gods. He forgot where his power came from, and eventually we can assume that there came a breaking point where Solomon’s sins were brought to his attention and, looking back, he was wracked with guilt. Repenting of what he had done (we assume), he decided to write this gem of a book to warn future generations from making the same mistakes that he had made.

In other words, God couldn’t have chosen a better person to write this book. He ruled over God’s people from the city of God in God’s promised land at the height of its prosperity, yet he looked back at his life and realized that he had messed up big time. So yeah…we should listen, because this guy knows what he’s talking about.

Without wasting any time, Solomon starts this book out by stating four times that everything is “meaningless,” or “vanity,” as some translations might read (v2). This word, meaningless, comes from the Hebrew word hevel meaning “smoke” or “vapor,” which suggests that life can be at one shape at one moment yet another at the next; if we try to grasp it, it will slip through our fingers, and when you are stuck in the thick of it, like fog, it’s impossible to see very far. Already we have reached our first fundamental truth: if you live life with your mind focused on life itself, you will find it meaningless. He isn’t suggesting that life has no meaning, but instead that the meaning of life isn’t typically clear—it’s confusing, disorienting, uncontrollable. This verse invokes the sense that, in order to truly comprehend “everything,” we must remove ourselves from the meaninglessness—the vapor—and take an outside look at life. You can’t find the meaning of life through life itself, but only in looking beyond it.

Next, Solomon asks a huge question: In the end, what do our works here on earth benefit us, if at all? When he talks of labor he speaks not only of livelihood but of all of man’s activities “under the sun,” which is to say daily or earthly life (this phrase will appear about thirty more times throughout the book, carrying with it a special meaning each time). In the end, the answer to this question is “nothing,” because anything done apart from God is meaningless. Our labors are temporary, only to be forgotten; the only lasting efforts are those design to accomplish God’s purposes for humanity.

It sounds depressing, I know, but hang with me for a second. Things will look up soon.

Now (v4) Solomon breaks into a rant on our self-absorbed world where our lives are the most important things to us, with us forgetting that everybody else lives just as complex and intense a life as we do—billions of people at this exact moment. This is something that has been true for all time, people living vivid and complex lives—some of great impact—yet most have been forgotten. This revelation is meant to make us feel small, to put us in place, and in this fragile state of smallness we realize that perhaps all our labors were in fact meaningless. Yet the world keeps on spinning.

Which is exactly what he moves onto next. Not only do our works seem meaningless in the grand scope of things, but earth follows a constant cyclical pattern that becomes tiresome after time. Air moves in a constant circular motion; the earth keeps spinning on its axis and going around and around the sun. We don’t realize the frustration in endless cycles until we truly think about it; imagine a book series where the last book ends where the first book begins (from experience, I can honestly tell you how frustrating it is).

Whether you run a marathon or sit at the TV eating chips all day, you are going to get weary or tired at some point, yet another cycle that Solomon begins to address in verse 8. Everything on earth can cause stress if you let it, and with this mindset it is easy to succumb to things like depression, anxiety, fear, etc. We go and go and go and go and our bodies grow weary of it all, yet still we are never satisfied with what we have been given! Imagine if somebody walked up to you and told you that you were going to be blind or deaf for the rest of your life. Would your eyes be satisfied with all they had seen thus far, your ears satisfied with everything they had heard? Likely this is not the case. “The eye never has enough of seeing,” Solomon tells us, “nor the ear its fill of hearing.” We live lives in constant un-satisfaction despite what we have been given: when one song stops playing, we turn on another; though one painting may be beautiful, we are always looking for one that may outshine even that. We are humans wired with an earthly mindset, and the sad thing is, for those people out there who don’t believe in an eternity, they have to accept the fact that despite their un-satisfaction, there will soon come a day when their ears will stop hearing, their eyes stop hearing. For us, at least, there is hope.

From here Solomon transitions from human nature to human action, describing how things have seemingly lost excitement over time (something especially applicable in our much more modernized world some three thousand years later). Our expectations are often greater than reality thanks to internet, video games, touched-up pictures, and blatant advertising, and while Solomon didn’t have all these same things back then, he reflects the same issue: “What has been will be again…there is nothing new under the sun” (v9). There’s a sense of repetitiveness to everything and understandably so being that the world has been around for thousands of years and has been home to billions of people. Just recently I wrote an article titled “Repentance: I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means,” and to my surprise, there were multiple other articles with the same exact title. Even in terms of societal advancement, we live in a world of innovation, not creation. Nothing is new, and it’s honestly kinda depressing!

If you are like me, at this point in the chapter you are beginning to feel a little bit down on yourself, realizing the futility of all things here. And honestly, that’s the point! Solomon will keep drilling this into your head as he moves on: we are but blips on a map. As I’ve stated before, billions of people walk the earth at this moment, and the world has been around for thousands of years! Yet here we are living our lives as if we are the best things since sliced bread…Solomon is humbling us, you see. Sure, he’s taking the drill sergeant approach rather than the caring granddad method, but humbling us nonetheless.

Think of the people from the past: the further you go back in time, the list of people you can name gets exponentially smaller. We all aspire to be remembered by the history books, yet that’s a kind of unrealistic goal! It’s super depressing, I know.

But wait…no, there’s hope in there. Yes, there’s hope, you just have to look for it. Think about it…who are some historical figures that, regardless of faith, people would recognize by name if you namedropped them in a conversation?

Adam. Eve. Noah. Abraham. Moses. Jesus Christ.

…what do all these people have in common? Their outstanding moments—the ones they are remembered for—involve some sort of interaction with God. Those who are not serving God are much more likely to have their names forgotten to history—heck, we aren’t even sure which Pharaoh ruled Egypt during the time of Moses, but everybody knows Moses—yet we know God’s messengers.

From here, Solomon once again reminds us of his credibility in writing this book (if you haven’t noticed, chapter 1 is like an ultra-long introduction, hitting all the main points). Just in case we forgot, he reminds us of all the various pursuits he chased during his life, and in this reminder we see a sudden shift: it’s about to get personal. He had “seen all things that are done under the sun”—and as we have already established, this is barely hyperbole—yet even he thought they were “meaningless, a chasing after the wind”—vapor, impossible to truly grasp (v14).

It is here that we reach the end of chapter one, with four concluding verses that take all of the depressing things we have discussed thus far but decidedly give it a positive spin. You see, Solomon wants to give us some hope to hold onto:

And, if you ask me, it all points to Jesus.

You see, here Solomon remarks that “What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted” (v15), a simple truth if you think about it. If you bend a straw, you can straighten it out as much as you want but there will always be a little crease there—it will never be straight again. To take the metaphor even further, think of ripping a piece of paper in two; you can tape them back together if you want, but they will never again be one. This is the law of the world we are confined to.

So where’s Jesus in all of this?

About 930 years after Solomon wrote this, a man showed up on earth who wasn’t bound by these trivial “laws” that we were bound by. What was crooked, he could straighten. What was lacking he could count. Whereas our laws of physics (and logic) declare that stepping out of a boat at sea will result in drowning, this man showed up and walked on the water. Whereas our laws of chemistry tell us that water is water, this guy shows up and turns water into wine. Whereas the laws of life tells us that, as Solomon points out “generations come and generations go” (v4)—death is a permanent thing—this guy shows up and says “not for me.” Whereas the laws of this life tell us what is crooked cannot be straightened, we are later promised that we “can do all things through Christ” (Phil. 4:13).

Aye, there’s the rub. At last we see the hope in Solomon’s message, for while things are meaningless under the sun, the suddenly find meaning once you look to the Son.

But Solomon’s just getting started, and he can’t let it end there. In the concluding three verses of the chapter, Solomon decides to leave us with a cliffhanger. After once again establishing his credibility in writing this book, Solomon tells us how he grew bored in his wisdom and knowingly pursued madness and folly. Yet even this, he concludes, is chasing after wind. Like Paul, he knew what not to do yet did it anyways (Rom 7:15-20), something that we all can relate to, I believe. Solomon is reminding us that even though the truth of Jesus is right in front of us, we knowingly pursue madness every now and then.

And with the final verse, Solomon concludes his message: Ignorance is bliss. NOW LET’S BE HONEST…did you expect any different from the wisest man in the world? This is a guy who’s seen everything known to man—more on that later—and so he can honestly look at it all and realize that “with much wisdom comes much sorrows; the more knowledge, the more grief” (v.18).

And while this might sound like a depressing end to the chapter, take hope my friends, for Jesus is hiding in here as well. You see, when Jesus walked the earth, he taught us to, instead of pursuing meaning through wisdom, embrace the heart of a child! We need to be childlike for it is they who truly love the world. With wisdom and understanding comes heartache and sorrow, but the Bible tells us instead to be “born again” like babies new from the womb, dead to our old selves (see John 3, 2 Cor 5:17, 1 Cor 13:11). You see, children have no problem believing what is unseen, so with the heart of a child we can pursue the meaningless things as a pastime—which, for the most part, is totally fine—so that we can keep our mind on our true meaning which is found in Christ! In this sudden revelation at the end of this chapter, we see that the first step in solving the meaning of life is by abandoning our old way of thought—repenting—and becoming like children once again (2 Cor 4:18, Heb 11:1, John 20:29, Psa 112:2, Matt 18:3). Professing to be wise we become fools (Rom 1:22), but in being born again and embracing that childlike heart of love and trust and believing what we haven’t seen, we can truly find our really meaning despite the meaningless.