Ecclesiastes Chapter 1 – The Wise Man’s Conclusion: Life is Meaningless

Introduction

Ecclesiastes is a startling book. The opening verses proclaim the utter meaninglessness of life. The writer has investigated every sphere of human activity, and found it void of lasting peace, contentment and satisfaction. Such findings were a great cause of sorrow for the book’s author. The author takes the hopes and dreams of every human on the planet and pronounces them worthless, in and of themselves.

So unless we want to induce a dose of depression, why read the book of Ecclesiastes? The book drives us to find our value, joy, contentment and lasting peace in God and God alone. Every other apparent source of lasting satisfaction is a sham – only God truly delivers. Do you envy the highly paid and famous premier league footballer? Then read this book. Do you think ultimate fulfilment is found in being the most famous and influential politician, celebrity, sportsperson, businessman or even philanthropist on the planet? Then read this book. If the true meaning of life was to be found in these activities, true fulfilment would be found by only an elite few.

The message of Ecclesiastes is that true fulfilment, lasting peace and satisfaction is within the grasp of every human being, it is found in knowing God. Ecclesiastes is such an important book!

The Writer – King Solomon

“The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” Eccles 1:1

While a measure of debate exists around the identity of the author of Ecclesiastes, the best candidate would seem to be King Solomon. The Hebrew term translated “son of” in verse 1 can mean “descendant of”, and not necessarily that the writer’s father was David. However Solomon who was both a son of David and a King in Jerusalem who had unparalleled wealth, wisdom and opportunities for pleasure, which are activities and attributes that are discussed in Ecclesiastes. Of Solomon is was said,

“Thus King Solomon excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. And all the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind.” 2 Chron 9:22,23

Unfortunately Solomon’s heart was seduced to follow the foreign gods worshipped by many of his 700 wives and 300 concubines. The Lord judged Solomon for his idolatry, but it would seem that Solomon returned to the Lord in his later years, writing the book of Ecclesiastes. As David wrote Psalm 51 after he sinned, a case can be made that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes after he returned to the Lord.

The Purpose – Teaching the Gathered Congregation

The title of the book “Ecclesiastes “ comes from the Greek word “Ekklesia”, which in the New Testament is translated “church”, or “assembly”. This Greek word is in turn a translation of the original Hebrew. The word carries the idea of a preacher or debater speaking to a gathered assembly, seeking to discuss a problem and come to a conclusion.

The topic for debate is, “What is the true meaning of life?” The speaker is the wisest man on the earth, who has had every opportunity to thoroughly investigate the meaning of life, and to try and find the purpose of our human existence on the earth. We can imagine silence falling over the gathered assembly as people wait to hear King Solomon’s conclusions on existence under heaven. Would he describe some complex philosophical construct? How many of his hearers that did not have his great wisdom and intellect would be able to understand Solomon’s conclusions? They need not have worried. Solomon’s conclusion on the meaning of life was very simple. Without God, life is meaningless.

Lasting Satisfaction Cannot Be Found In The World

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities!  All is vanity.” Eccles 1:2

“’Meaningless! Meaningless!’, says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” Eccles 1:2 NIV

Solomon examined all of the opportunities available to man in this world, and his conclusion was simple, this world cannot bring lasting satisfaction or purpose to human life. All of its pleasures, profits, honours, endeavours and business cannot provide lasting happiness. We are satisfied for a time, but these pleasures create a larger whole in our desires than they fill. So often we are left empty with a feeling of, “Was that it?” which then drives again to seek another high, which proves only as transient as the last.

There is a real temptation to try and find our satisfaction and purpose in the things of this world. Many around us, who do not know God, are seeking to make this world their source of happiness. They know of no other way, having denied the existence of God. Our desires are for the things of this world – they look so attractive! Ultimately we try to find meaning of life in the gifts and not the giver.

The Lord Jesus Christ states,

“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” Mark 8:36

Even if we gained all the material wealth and political power in this world, this is still nothing compared to a lost eternity in Hell.

Solomon states

“What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” Eccles 1:3

Why would you want to gain the world? Even with all material gain and power you would still be disappointed, finding no lasting peace, contentment, satisfaction or meaning in life. Yet people still try!

Man Is Insignificant Compared to the Created World

“A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” Eccles 1:4

We are here briefly and then we die, the earth is a stage with persons continually coming and disappearing before our eyes. Our time is limited on the earth in comparison to the age of the earth itself. What lasting influence can a man produce from all his hard work? What lasting good can a man do for himself? All he has is left behind at death, none of his material possessions are taken with him into eternity beyond the grave. Man is insignificant compared to creation around him – we have no lasting influence and no ability to change our state.

The sun, wind and water cycles are described in Ecclesiastes 1:5 – 7. They all repeat their cycles, but man dies once, never to return to the earth, his time and influence are over.  Man is completely dwarfed by the age, power and scale of creation. If we are looking to find meaning for man in relation to his surroundings, then we find he is utterly insignificant, which is a far cry from the meaning and purpose in life he seeks.

Another aspect to this section are the endless cycles of repeated activity. The natural world continues in its cycles, not producing anything new. Man too has his own treadmill of activity. We eat, sleep, work, look after family and then repeat the whole process day after day. Man does not escape the treadmill of continuous repetitive activity.

Man Will Try to Find Lasting Satisfaction In The World

We Seek New Sources of Lasting Satisfaction

“All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.“ Eccles 1:8

Weariness not joy is our portion, as we continually labour to find something that will satisfy. The restless nature of our search is described as the eyes and ears never being satisfied. Clothing and hair fashions continually change as the next and greatest “look” is sought after. Music styles change, language changes as people seek to mark themselves as the in crowd or to be “cool”. Automotive styling changes as the marketing men seek to make the latest offerings tempting to buy. The world continually desires the next new look or sound.

The fact that things change so often clearly demonstrates that people quickly grow discontent with what they have and continue their restless, tiring search to find contentment in something new. Our eyes and ears drive us on to find fulfilment, yet we return wearied from the search with no lasting satisfaction. We cry for more of the world, but when it comes, it does not satisfy.

The Search Fails To Reveal New Sources of Lasting Satisfaction

Not only does the current universe not satisfy us, but there will be no new avenue for satisfaction that will open to us either.

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us.” Eccles 1:9 – 10

Before I deal with technological innovation, let us consider how the universe remains static. The universe has operated under the same rules and in the same manor since its creation. There is the same cause and effect, the same physical laws, these do not change. God has given us His word fully revealed to us in the Bible. The revelation in the scriptures is complete and sufficient for a life of faith and godliness – no new revelation (until the return of Christ!) will be given. The sinful nature does not change, the 10 commandments are as relevant to us today as when first given some 3 500 years ago. There are numerous ways in which our world does not change.

Let us now turn to technological innovation. Certainly computers, smart phones, widescreen televisions and hi fi systems did not exist in Solomon’s day! As one (Victorian) commentator remarks:

“Look again at man in all his pleasures, pursuits and changes of life. His intellect may be gratified, and his appetite for novelty supplied in the multiplied new openings of science. But no new springs of vital happiness are opened to him. He is as far as ever from true rest.” Charles Bridges

The context determines that when Solomon states there is nothing new under the sun, what he means is that there will be no new source of happiness for mankind. People always have and will always travel (whether by foot, horse, car or spaceship), they always have and always will speak to each other (by word of mouth, telephone or satellite link), and they always have or always will explore (a new country, continent or planet). Technology aids our activities, but does not bring a new source of lasting contentment and satisfaction.

We and The Satisfaction We Find Are Both Soon Forgotten

“There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.” Eccles 1:11

Such is the transient nature of satisfaction in this world that we soon forget our last “high” and move onto seeking the next. Indeed one of the reasons why we continually search for satisfaction is that we do not know what has already been tried (and found wanting) by our forefathers.  As a wise man once said, “What history teaches us is that history teaches us nothing”. If a true source of lasting peace and contentment could be found in this world it is reasonable to expect that it would have been enshrined in our history and culture. Yet no such evidence can be found. Instead the fruitless searches of our predecessors is forgotten and we are destined to revisit their dead ends.

The inescapable truth is that the majority of the human race live and die in obscurity. The vast majority of people do not make a lasting impression on their land or nation. If we are trying to find the meaning and purpose of our existence in how many people remember our names after we have died, then the lives of almost all people have no purpose or meaning at all.

The Preachers Testimony, “I Could Not Find Lasting Satisfaction in the World”

The Preacher Diligently Applied Wisdom To His Task

“I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.” Eccles 1:13

Why does man experience unsatisfied desires, weariness of life, and an unsuccessful search after happiness? This was a problem worth investigating. If Solomon had found an answer that could be applied to his kingdom, it would have transformed the lives of many. But this search for a solution was hard work, and ultimately fruitless, as evidenced by his opening statements. It was an unhappy work.

The Preacher Could Not Change God’s Established Order

“I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.” Eccles 1:14, 15

Solomon had personally investigated all that this world had to offer, and found it empty. Matthew Henry gives something of the scale of what Solomon’s search may have consisted of:

“He set himself to get all the insight he could into philosophy and mathematics, into husbandry and trade, merchandise and mechanics, into the history of former ages and the present state of other kingdoms, their laws customs and policies, into men’s different tempers, capacities and projects and the methods of managing them; he set himself not only to seek, but to search, to pry into that which is most intricate and which requires the close application of mind and the most vigorous and constant prosecution” Matthew Henry

Yet Solomon could not change the established order of how man relates to the natural world through the application of wisdom or intellect. Applying wisdom and knowledge Solomon could not change the either the heart of man to align it with the world or the world to align it with the heart of man. Lasting satisfaction, peace and contentment could not be “manufactured” from world through the application of even Solomon’s mighty intellectual abilities.

Should we be surprised by this conclusion? We have no power to alter our physical natures. We cannot discover, never mind remove, the cause of our lasting dissatisfaction through our intellectual abilities alone. Furthermore we have no innate power to subdue the sinful nature present in us all. An examination of ourselves reveals our inability to change ourselves or our environments in a manner which produces lasting satisfaction.

The Preachers Wisdom Led Only To Sorrow

“And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” Eccles 1:17, 18

The conclusions from Solomon’s enquiries into the meaning and purpose of human life in this world were troubling. No source of lasting satisfaction could be found in this world. No new source of lasting peace or contentment would present itself for mankind either. Yet, even more crushingly, there was no means of man being able to change either himself or his circumstances to derive a means of lasting satisfaction from this world.

Man is utterly insignificant in comparison to creation, with no lasting influence on the world or for himself. Indeed, no one will remember his life, his trials, his joys, his struggles after he has died. Man’s life amounts to no lasting influence or memory. He is here today and gone tomorrow with almost no trace of his existence. Man’s life is utterly meaningless.

If Solomon with his mighty intellect could not find rest in earthly wisdom then who can expect it? His studies revealed more that troubled him, and a solution was farther from his grasp than he began.

Lessons from Chapter 1

If you feel small and insignificant in comparison with the world – it is because you are.

Our true value is found at the cross of Christ! The Lord Jesus Christ valued us enough to die for us. Who else has died for you, or loved you enough suffer the wrath of God for your freedom? Our true value is found not in the world, but in the cross of Christ and the eternal love of God for His people.

If you feel that you will never amount to much in the eyes of the world – it is because you probably never will amount to much of worldly value.

But being involved in God’s purposes, in whatever role, can bring eternal significance to our lives. If we are involved in a work, either directly or indirectly, that brings the gospel to others, then this has eternal consequences. A soul reconciled to God through Christ will still be praising God a billion years from now!

If your experience a fruitless search for peace and contentment in this world – realise God designed this world to prevent you finding your peace in it.

Understand, there is only one place you will find lasting satisfaction, and that is in God Himself! We are made in the image of God, which separates us from the animals, made for a personal relationship with Him. God has so designed us and this world that the only place we will find peace and contement is in Him alone.

If you feel wearied and sorrowful from your disappointments in the world – come to the one who can give joy and peace!

The Lord Jesus Christ said:

“Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.“ Matthew 11:28

 


Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com. The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™

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