The Futility of Human Achievement
Topic: Meaning of Life Passage: Ecclesiastes 1:12–6:12
“THE FUTILITY OF HUMAN ACHIEVEMENT”
As we saw last week, Ecclesiastes is the journal account of one man’s quest to find the meaning to life. And as the very first verse informs us, he was no ordinary man. In fact, by the world’s standards he had it all. Wealth, wisdom, women, and wine were at his disposal in great abundance. And yet, despite basking in such opulence, this man looked about and declared, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2).
Solomon wasn’t just a man who was hard to please. His discontentment came from the honest conclusion that there was simply nothing in life that was able to satisfy the deepest longings of his heart. Centuries later, C.S. Lewis would write in a similar vein:
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it,that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing.
It was such desire to satisfy his longing for joy that eventually drove Lewis to Jesus Christ. And it that same desire that prompted the one who identified himself as “the Preacher” to write the Book we know as Ecclesiastes. In time its writer will get to where Lewis arrived, but not before taking his reader through the steps of his own personal journey to find meaning in a life he has consider “futile” and “meaningless.”
I remind you that his perspective of life is along a “horizontal” plane. To use his words, he is looking at life “under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:3)...or according to the five senses of seeing, hearing, touching tasting, and smelling. And as he considers his existence from that vantage, the conclusion he comes to is that “all is vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14). Repeatedly he seems to ask, “What’s the point of it all?”
Although the overall message of Ecclesiastes comes through loud and clear, the route that Solomon travels in getting there is quite circuitous. Although the book has a clear introduction and conclusion, its outline and structure appear at times to be quite random. In other words, it models life itself.
In our brief study of this unique book, we will be summarizing Solomon’s search for the meaning to life under two main headings: his observations and his admonitions. There is some “blending” of these two divisions, but for the most part we find his observations in the first half of the book—chapters 1 through 6, whereas his admonitions are found in chapters 7 through 12. Today we will survey some his many observations.
There are three preliminary thoughts that we need to keep in mind before we begin:
- First, beginning with verse 12 of chapter 1, the writer refers to himself as “I,” “my,” “myself.” This alerts us to the fact that we are reading an autobiographical account...and it is one that is very personal.
- Next, the fact that the writer shifts back and forth between poetic verse and narrative prose throughout the book is for the purpose of emphasis. Many of the more memorable teaching passages are presented in poetic form.
- And finally, every reference to “God” found within this book is a use of the name, “Elohim.” It is the title that emphasizes His sovereignty. Nowhere do we find the name, “Yahweh” or “Jehovah.”. This suggests that the teaching of this book is not just for Israel, God’s covenant people, but for everyone...including you and me.
With those “preliminaries” in place, let’s dig into the observations of “the Preacher.” Beginning at verse 12 of chapter 1 and extending through chapter 2, he provides for us...
A record of trials in the quest for meaning (1:12-2:26).
Solomon could never be accused of not investing himself totally in whatever he set his mind to do. The wisest and wealthiest king of his day, he possessed all the resources that he needed for any undertaking. Everything about this man’s life—from the number of his wives (“700 wives...and 300 concubines,” cf. 1 Kings 11:3) to the number of proverbs that he spoke (“3,000”) and songs that he wrote (“1,005,” cf. 1 Kings 4:32)—was in abundance. Whatever his heart desired, he pursued it with great “gusto.”
Therefore, when we read of the four areas of investigation recorded in this section, we should not be at surprised that threw his entire being into their pursuit.
First, there was the pursuit of wisdom (1:12-18). In verse 13, he writes, “I applied my heart to seek and to search out wisdom all that is done under heaven.” In the process we are told in verse 16 that he “acquired great wisdom, surpassing all” the kings who were before him. He learned and he applied what he learned. No one compared with him in “graduate degrees” in many fields of study. He observed life as it is, and rather than bringing him the settled answers for which he sought, his anxieties only increased. He couldn’t learn enough, concluding that “All is vanity,” and twice adding that it was “a striving after wind.” Listen carefully to his lonely whine in verse 18: “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”
Beginning with the opening verse of chapter 2, he next turned to the pursuit of pleasure (2:1-11). In fact, he entered into every pleasurable experience that was at his disposal. As king, nothing pleasurable or entertaining was withheld from him. With his heart primed “with wine,” as is alluded to in verse 3, he set about to amuse himself with anything and everything money could buy. Beginning with verse 4, we are told,
“I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines.
So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem.”
His repeated reference to “myself” and his desire to outdo any of his predecessors suggests that Solomon’s pursuit of pleasure could more fittingly be called his “adventure in self-indulgence.” In verse 10, he admitted, “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure.” Sadly, as with his pursuit for wisdom, this too proved to be “vanity and a striving after wind.”
Then there was the pursuit of folly (2:12-17). By now, one can almost sense the tension of frustration rising up within him. He writes in verse 15, “Then I said in my heart, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” Here he imagines himself leaving behind his crown and royal robes and taking off for the “far country,” not unlike the “prodigal” in Luke 15. Whether or not he lived out his fantasy is a matter of speculation. What we do know is that Solomon had become weary in his pursuit to find meaning to life. If both the wise man and the fool face inevitable death, then what’s the point of it all? “So,” he concludes in verse 17, “I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for (again) all is vanity and a striving after wind.”
Dangerously strong words...and yet we must remember the context. Solomon is describing life “under the sun”...life on the “horizontal” plane...life according the five senses. Clearly, there was more to living that “the Preacher” had not yet found. So, beginning with verse 18, he tried a different approach. Perhaps meaning was to be found in the pursuit of toil (2:18-26) or hard work. But we see right away that this, too, was not the answer. “I hated my toil,” he begins. Everything for which he labored and had achieved would merely be left for another who didn’t have to work for it. It just didn’t make sense.
Having pursued these elusive courses and come up empty, he happened upon a “flash of insight,” which he shares at the end of chapter 2. It was far from being theologically comprehensive and even accurate. Nevertheless, it was a beginning. Even Solomon realized that he still remained far from his answer. In verses 24 through 26, he writes,
“There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering of gathering and collecting, only to give to the one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.”
Here “the Preacher” seems to have reached a “meditative moment,” a “philosophical pause”. As chapter 3 opens, we find him engaging in...
A reflection of time and the quest for meaning (3:1-22)
We read these familiar words:
“For everything these is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and time to speak;
a time to love and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.”
If you are from my era and old enough to remember the song by the Byrds entitled, Turn, Turn, Turn, then these words should take you back to a turbulent time in American history. “The Preacher,” not the Byrds, was the one who first penned them. And when he did, he was experiencing a personal time of turbulence. These eight poetic verses were born out of his search for the meaning to life. As with all that has been said thus far, this section is an observation of life lived “under heaven” or “under the sun.” But even from that angle, he recognized what appeared to be a structured pattern of life. To borrow from another translation of verse 1, he saw “There is...a time for every purpose under heaven” (ASV).
As Solomon recorded his observations and reflected upon life’s structured pattern, he was forced to admit that there was a “higher power” behind it all. He wrote in verse 11, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity in man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” That comes close to an admission that the true purpose of life extends beyond this present one. But for the moment that meaning remains unclear and not experienced.
Nevertheless, when one considers what little information he had to go on, our writer’s observation was quite amazing. Someone had to have revealed that to him. Perhaps his “horizontal” perspective is beginning to tilt upward toward the “vertical.” Notice what he writes, beginning in verse 14: “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.”
Although there is no hint, as of yet, that this “God” of whom he speaks is personal and can be known, Solomon goes on to reflect further on His providential rule in verses 16 through 22. “God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and every work.” Man is mortal, he is forced to admit, but God is not...and to this God every man is accountable. There is justice in the universe...but according to the reckoning of “the Preacher,” man does not fare any better than the animals. The purely-human reflections of this chapter, rather than shedding any sustained light, seem only to take our seeker into a darker analysis.
For example, in chapter 4, there is...
A recognition of evil and the quest for meaning (4:1-16).
“Oppression” is the first “evil” that the writer identifies in this chapter. Interestingly, he observed that neither the “oppressed” nor the “oppressor” derive any sustained “comfort” from their standing in life. In fact, sounding quite “Job-like” in his “under the sun” observations, he draws the conclusion that “the dead...are...more fortunate than the living”...going so far as to add that it would be “better” to have been born at all!
I’m not sure that I have ever truly sunk that low, and I can only attempt to relate with those who have. Remember who it is who is saying these things. It is the wealthiest king of that time...which only goes to illustrate the words of Jesus which ring true in every age: “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possession” (Luke 12:15). Neither the possession nor the deprivation of money and power bring lasting joy and fulfillment.
Purpose and contentment do not come from either having or being denied “things.” And yet our craving for them is insatiable. This is the “envy” of which he speaks in verses 4 through 6. The proverb is verse 5 is quite graphic, is it not? “The fool folds his hands (in death) and eats his own flesh.” In other words, what we inordinately crave and consume ends up consuming us. Like everything else in this seemingly futile search, this too proves to be “vanity and a striving after wind.”
Two more “evils” are discussed in this chapter. There is “loneliness” or “isolation,” either by chance or by choice, in verses 7 through 12. From the very beginning, humanity was not created to live alone (cf. Genesis 2:18). In the Old Testament, God chose a nation with whom to reveal Himself so that they would carry out His purposes in the world. And in the New Testament, we find the Lord choosing out a people for Himself from among all the nations to love Him, to serve Him, and to make Him known. It is called the Church, the very people for whom Jesus gave His life to save.
But the idea of “community” predates creation. From eternity past within the Godhead, there existed the communal fellowship of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. “The Preacher’s” reference in verse 12 to “a threefold cord...not quickly broken” may have had deeper significance than the writer himself would have understood. As the man, so the Maker...we are not made to be alone. Christ gave His life to bring into being the Church...His Bride. How we need one another...and yet how often we seek refuge through our vain attempts to escape within ourselves.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, at least so it would seem, are the “powerful.” That’s the final “evil” that “the Preacher” discusses. By way of summary, he seems to imply that not even those at the very top of life’s “food chain” are able to find the meaning in life by looking for it “under the sun.” It, too, is “vanity and... striving after the wind.”
The acknowledgment of inequities in life such as these leads Solomon to the further realization that he is but a creature who is accountable to his Creator. The first seven verses of chapter 5 inch us closer toward his seemingly endless quest to find meaning. It is here that we find him speaking of...
A reverence for God and the quest for meaning (5:1-7).
This brief section can be summarized by two phrases in reference to “the Preacher’s” reference to God: “listen first” (verses 1 through 3), and “speak second” (verses 4 through 7).
Even though Solomon is still far from arriving at the end of his quest, we do well to pay attention to his observations here. In particular, I am speaking of the manner with which we attempt to relate with a holy God. I am afraid at times that we become too relaxed, too comfortable, too haphazard, and even too flippant in the presence of God and in our approach to Him in worship. Compare, for example, how you prepared your heart and mind for this morning’s service with some of the warnings that we find here. He writes,
- “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.”
- “Do not be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God.”
- “Let your words be few.”
- “When you vow a vow to God, do not delay in paying it...Pay what you vow.”
- “Do not let your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say to the messenger that it was a mistake.”
- “Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?”
- “God is the one you must fear.”
Those are pretty strong words of caution. Although you and I are encouraged in Scripture to “Draw near to God” (James 4:8)—and I say this with the utmost respect—our awareness of His holy and righteous character requires that we maintain a “safe distance.” Are you aware that God assesses the way in which we worship? Hebrews 12:28 reminds us that there is an “acceptable worship,” implying that there is a “worship” that is not acceptable with Him. Even at this stage of his quest, Solomon had a healthy respect for God. Perhaps it is time that we reassess our own level of respect for the holy character of God.
If you haven’t yet read R.C. Sproul’s book entitled The Holiness of God, I would recommend it to you. Or if you haven’t recently reviewed Job’s record of his encounter with God in chapter 40 of the book that bears his name, you may want to do that. Or better still, hear again Isaiah’s words when he caught a vision of God’s holiness: “And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’” (Isaiah 6:5). But ultimately, it is the Word of God Himself who commands, “Be holy, for I am holy” (Leviticus 11:44). God is holy, and we are not. We must realize that or we will remain in great peril. That is the most basic, fundamental truth about Christianity. And if we don’t get the foundation right, whatever we are building will in time collapse and crumble.
An authentic reverence for God is the principle missing ingredient in the Church today. May God show us mercy for neglecting His holiness and failing to give Him the respect and honor that He alone deserves whenever we gather in His name.
Solomon has come a long way in his pursuit, but he still has a long way to go. As he begins to wrap this extended section of observations, he makes...
A rational assumption in the quest for meaning (5:8-6:9).
Beginning with chapter 5, verse 8 and going through chapter 6, verse 9, “the Preacher” recapitulates several of his observations from the previous chapters. Again he speaks of oppression and justice, power and wealth, toil and rest, life and death. It is a fitting summary of life as he has observed it “under the sun,” and his conclusion is the same: it is “vanity and a striving after wind.”
The best way to get a handle on this last section is to view it as a chiasm. A chiasm is an intentionally structured style of writing that places the writer’s main idea, not at the beginning or at the end of his argument, but at the very center...in an “A-B-C...C-B-A” pattern. To illustrate this, imagine a triangle where the two base angles (“A” and “B”) represent the first and last parts of the argument (which are parallel in thought), with the side lines of the triangle extending upward and meeting at the top angle (“C”), which represents the central thought. We find many chiastic passages in the Bible.
Without taking time to diagram the passage before us, a chiasm demonstrates the central idea to be found in verses 18 through 20 of chapter 5. It is specifically stated in verse 20, which reads, “For he (that is ‘everyman’) will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.”
Now, that seems like a pretty shallow place to land. And yet it is a rational assumption, given the observations the writer has been able to make up to this point. What it basically says is that “Life is short...enjoy it as a gift from God...it will soon be over.” That sounds a lot like the Epicurean philosophy of “Eat, drink, and be merry; for tomorrow we die.” In fact, Solomon will seem to arrive at that very conclusion two chapters from now. That is because, it is inevitably where any philosophy of life lived “under the sun” will lead.
Just to be clear and to avoid inadvertently taking the Bible out of context, we must remember that we are reliving the quest of a man in search for the meaning to life. He has not yet found it, and is growing more frustrated by the day. As weanalyze his quest and compare it with our own, we must give him a little more time.
That being said, we should not find it strange at this point that he draws...
A rash conclusion in the quest for meaning (6:10-12).
In verses 10 through 12 of chapter 6, “the Preacher” pauses to reflect upon what he has thus far observed. And it is this:
“Whatever has come to be has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he. The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man? For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?”
That’s a pretty stark assessment. A man’s life is determined for him, Solomon seems to say. But by whom and for what purpose he has not yet been able to determine. Our seeker at times seems to acknowledge both the active presence of God and man’s accountability to Him. But for now, that is as far as His quest has taken him. And, if you are being honest, perhaps that’s as far as your quest has taken you.
Intuitive knowledge of God is a good thing, but an intimate relationship with God is infinitely better. It is, in fact, the only thing that is able to address the questions any of us have about the meaning of life and the destiny for which we were created. To those who have not yet arrived at that place, the line between “fate” and “providence” tends to be blurred. “Fate” is what happens to us, as if “by chance,” but “providence” implies a guiding hand that directs the course.
Thousands of years removed from Solomon’s circumstances, you may feel little or no link with his experience. But before closing the matter there, let me suggest that you reflect a little longer on what he has had to say. What is it that you are living for? What is it that gives your life meaning and purpose?
Wherever you are in your personal search for meaning and your life’s purpose, allow me to offer a few conclusions drawn by some others:
- In the very first statement of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, the framers of that document wrote that “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.” And in light of that, it was Jesus Christ who said, “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:24).
- In His Confessions, Augustine of Hippo prayed, “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” To which Jesus Christ had said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).
The quest to find the meaning to life ends at the foot on an “old rugged cross,” upon which the Giver and Sustainer of life took upon Himself the penalty of sin—your sin and my sin—so that we wouldn’t have to bear it on the Day of Judgment when we stand accountable before a perfectly holy God. It was sin that separated the creature from His Creator, and it is our sin that keeps us separated from Him today.
Jesus Christ—God come from heaven to earth—took on flesh, took our place, and absorbed the wrath of God on our behalf. He was brutally put to death by being nailed to a cross, where He absorbed the wrath of God that we deserved. Three days later He arose from the dead, and now calls those with “ears to hear” (cf. Matthew 11:5. et al) to turn from their sins and entrust themselves to Him. To those who respond in faith, forgiveness of sin and right standing with God is granted. Jesus alone did for us what no human effort or achievement could ever accomplish. With His own blood, He wrote the meaning of life.
Were we to stop our reading of Ecclesiastes at this point, there would be some “flashes of insight” that might get us through the day, but no real hope for tomorrow. The hymn writer speaks of “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.” The “hope” for which man has searched from Solomon’s day to our own is found only through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ and the personal application of those events to our lives.
Someone has said, “Man can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air...but only for one second without hope.” Where is it that your hope rests today? The answer to life’s meaning is found in Christ alone.