David Jeremiah - The Futility of Life
A statistical survey of 7,948 students at 48 different colleges was conducted by social scientists from John Hopkins University. Their preliminary report was part of a two-year study sponsored by the National Institute of Mental Health. These students were asked what they considered very important to them now, and these college students, 16% of them checked, "Making a lot of money". But surprisingly, 75% of them said that their first goal was to find meaning and purpose in their life. In his book, "Modern Man in Search of a Soul," secular psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote these penetrating words. He said: "About a third of my cases are suffering from no clinically definable neurosis, but from the senselessness and emptiness in their lives. This can be described as the general neurosis of our time".
One of the reasons why Rick Warren's book, "The Purpose Driven Life" made it to the top of the "New York Times'" bestsellers list is the fact that his book has zoned in on this basic need within every single man and woman to discover why he is here and what meaning can be derived from life. It is the absence of meaning and purpose in the lives of so many people today and especially in the lives of young people that is causing so much substance abuse and promiscuity and suicide among the younger set. Recently, someone gave me this note that was written by a young person before they took their own life. This is a college student. "To anyone in the world who cares, who am I? Why am I living? Life has become stupid and purposeless. Nothing makes sense to me anymore. The questions I had when I came to college are still unanswered and now I am convinced there aren't any answers. There can only be pain and guilt and despair here in this world. My fear of death and the unknown is far less terrifying to me than the prospect of unbearable frustration, futility, and hopelessness of continued existence," end of quote.
That is a sad, sad statement. Someone who has come to believe that death and early death is better than what life can afford them. Well, we're embarking on a study that is going to plunge us right smack in the middle of these questions about meaning for life. I have never asked you to do this before, but I'm gonna ask you to make it your purpose not to miss one single message in this series. You see, Solomon doesn't publish all of his final answers to these questions until he gets to the end of the book. Now, I'm not gonna wait 'til the end to resolve these questions as best I can, but what I want you to know is, only as we hear and understand the entire argument of this book will it serve us completely.
So the book of Ecclesiastes is the record of a man's search for true meaning in life. It stands unique among all of the Bible books in that it is philosophically presenting a man's quest for meaning. This man is eminently qualified to conduct this investigation. I don't know how much you know about Solomon but let me just give you a few little thoughts that you can remember. Basically, he wrote three books. In the early part of his life he wrote the book of romance, we call Song of Solomon. At the noontime of his life he wrote the book of rules, which we call Proverbs. And in the twilight of his life, he wrote the book Ecclesiastes, the book of regrets, and we're gonna study that third book.
You see, Solomon was at the end of his life when he wrote this book and he's looking back over his life and making some observations. You see, Solomon was in a very unusual position to make this investigative study. Interestingly enough, if you study the history of the period of time when he reigned, it was a 40-year period of no war. Solomon didn't have to give himself to the military and to the preparation of war. He reigned in peace. So all of the time that he could have been spending defending his nation from those around, he gave to investigating the meaning of life. He had all the time that he needed. Furthermore, he had all the money that he needed. There wasn't any investigation that he couldn't afford. He was the wealthiest man who ever walked on planet Earth. And if you'll look over in your Bibles to the last part of the first chapter, you will notice that he was one of the men in the Bible who had more wisdom than anyone else.
Notice verse 16: "I communed with my heart, saying, 'Look, I have attained greatness, and I have gained more wisdom than all who were before me in Jerusalem. My heart has understood great wisdom and knowledge.'" Solomon was the smartest man, the wisest man, who ever lived. If you're ever gonna listen to somebody give a message on the meaning of life, at least let it be somebody who's smart. And Solomon was wise. He was the wisest man who ever lived. And the Bible says nobody had even been that wise before him and nobody would ever be that wise or smart after him. I don't know what his IQ was, but it was off the chart.
Now we begin with a bit of an understanding about this book. The book is called Ecclesiastes, which kind of means the gathering. In the verse that introduces Solomon, he's called the preacher. That's in the Old Testament language, that's Koheleth. He's a searcher, if you will. He's the guy who's searching for answers. He's doing an investigation, he's doing a study. He's gathering information. And Solomon is going to look over life and see what is behind the actions of all of the people. What makes them tick? What they do to try to find meaning in life. Unlike many books, Solomon begins his book by giving us his conclusion. That almost seems like self-defeating to tell everybody what the... but some of you know.
You know, my wife does this all the time. She gets a book and she gets into about two chapters and we're on a plane someplace and I know she hasn't had time to read the book and she's reading the last chapter. I do not understand how you could do that. But she does and she still reads the rest of the book. She finds great joy in finding out where it's going and then tracing it from the end back. I don't know how she does it, but that's what she does. And Solomon does that here. He starts at the beginning and he gives us his answer. And it's right here at the beginning. He says, "'Vanity of vanities,' says the Preacher; 'Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.'" What a depressing thought.
The word "vanity" is used in this book 38 times and it is not what you think it is. This is not vanity like you normally think of it today. This is not what happens to some people when they look in the mirror and they become vain. I read this week about a woman who went to her pastor and said, "I must confess to you, Pastor, that I am suffering from a terrible sin. I suffer from the sin of vanity. Every morning before I leave I admire myself in the mirror for half an hour". And the preacher said, "My dear lady, it is not the sin of vanity you are suffering from; it's the sin of imagination". I wish I could be that quick, don't you? The vanity in the book of Ecclesiastes is not the pride of face.
The word "vanity" here means emptiness, mean futility, means without meaning. It's a word sometimes referred to as a vapor which disappears. What Solomon is saying at the front end of his investigation is, "After my conclusions and after my investigations, after my survey, what I have discovered is that life under the sun does not work". He puts this truth in the strongest possible language. He says, "Vanity of vanities". The Hebrews had a way of writing and when they doubled a word, it was like, "This is really intense. This is not just emptiness, this is really serious emptiness. This is serious vanity". So he asked the question at the top of this chapter: "What is there of profit for all that a man does"? And the word "profit" here is a word which means what is left over. What is left over after a man works?
And what Solomon is saying must be understood clearly and I want you to listen carefully, 'cause if you don't get this, you'll misunderstand the rest of the whole book. You will fall into the trap that many have fallen into as they read this book and you will say, "Well, this contradicts everything else that's in the Bible. This book doesn't even belong in the Bible. How did it get in the Bible"? This book is a very true representation of one man's search for meaning, watch this now, as if there were no God in the picture. And the way he conveys this is with a little phrase that's found 29 times in the book of Ecclesiastes. It's the phrase, "Under the sun". Solomon looking back now over his life is going to tell us what life is all about under the sun. If he includes what's over the sun, he includes God. But he doesn't include God in the investigation. He tells us what he observed about life under the sun.
And may I tell you that that's where most people are, when they're trying to figure out what life is all about. God is not a part of the question. He's not a part of the equation. Solomon's gonna take us down some roads that will help us realize without having to go through the agony of the journey, what happens when we reason through life without God. He begins in the first three verses, verses 4 through 7, with a little litany on the futility of life. It's quite interesting. Four things he teaches us. First of all, the futility of the course of life, verse 4. He says: "One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever".
It's almost as if Solomon has the newspaper open and he's reading the record of the births on one hand and the obituaries on the other. And he is saying life is just the same. One generation comes and another generation goes. One man is born and another man dies. Life goes from the beginning to the end and it just keeps repeating itself. The earth never changes but man is transient and he just keeps passing one after another. "Nature is permanent," says Solomon, "but life is transient". And he touches on something that seems to be in his mind throughout this whole study and that is the subject of death. It's something we never talk about. Nobody ever, you know, if you say, "Please come to church this Sunday morning, I am going to teach on death". Nobody would come. But Solomon, you have to understand, is at the end of his life and this is in his mind. And he reasons about the course of life and he says there's some futility in it. It's like, you know?
I read this quote from a book written by Rabbi Harold Kushner who is quite a famous Jewish writer and many of you have read some of his books. And he tells in this book a story about one day when a man came to see him for counseling. And Rabbi Kushner said, "After we talked for a few moments about, you know, common things, he got into why he had come to see his rabbi". And he told him this story. He said, "Two weeks ago for the first time in my life, I went to the funeral of a man my own age. I didn't know him well but we had worked together and talked to each other from time to time and we had kids about the same age".
He said, "Rabbi, my friend died suddenly over the weekend and a bunch of us who work with him decided to go to the funeral. And each of us was thinking as we went, 'It could just as easily have been me.' That was two weeks ago," he said. "They have already replaced him at the office. I hear his wife is moving out of state to live with her parents. Two weeks ago he was working 50 feet away from me and now it's as if he never existed. It's like a rock falling into the pool of water and then the water is the same as it was before but the rock isn't there anymore. Rabbi, I've hardly slept at all since this happened. I just can't stop thinking that it could have happened to me, and a few days later I would be forgotten as if I never lived. Shouldn't a man's life be more than that"?
But isn't that the question so many are asking today? Isn't there more to life than just getting up, going to work, coming home, reading the newspaper, go to bed, get up, go to work, do the whole thing over and over again, week after week until you finally get too old and then you die. Solomon is saying, "If I look at life without God in the picture, it just seems so futile. The course of life just turning over and over, but there's no meaning in it". He goes on to show us how even nature teaches us this lesson. He goes from the course of life to the circle of the sun.
Notice verse 5: "The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and it hastens to the place where it arose". Just as modern astronomers in their everyday speech talk about the sun rising and the sun setting, so Solomon uses that same description and he says that the sun rises in the east and he actually says, "It pants". That's the word it's using. It pants its way across the horizon and it sets in the west. And then while we are sleeping, it pants around the dark side of the earth and there it is again in the morning. It's endless. It repeats itself again and again. Every day since the creation of the world, the sun has done exactly the same thing, Solomon says. And then he adds to it the circuit of the winds in verse 6. He says: "The wind goes toward the south, and turns toward the north; the winds swirl around continually, and they come again in its circuit".
This is truly a remarkable statement for an Old Testament book because this is long before the modern discovery of the world's great wind circuits and the global circulation of the atmosphere. There's no way that could have been known as we know it today. They didn't have satellite coverage on the weather show where you can actually see the winds as they swirl around in circles, and observe what Solomon wrote. He wrote this long before people even knew about this. And then he used as an illustration of how the world is just mechanically going on and man seems so much a part of it all. And then he uses the cycle of water. Notice verse 7: "All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full; to the place from which the rivers come, there they return again".
Now if you've studied science you know that he's discussing the hydrologic cycle. And he's telling us that that's just like the wind and it's just like the sun and it's just like the generations of life. He is saying that things just continue to be the same, that they don't change, that there's a mechanical monotony to the way the world functions. There's a futility to life if you observe it without God in the picture. Have you ever had those thoughts? Even those of us who are Christians, if we for a moment allow ourselves to get caught up in the morose thinking of a world where we feel so insignificant, if we're not careful, we begin to wonder what does it matter, why am I here? Until you remember God. He moves from the futility of life and he begins to talk about the frustration of life in verses 8 through 11. He says, first of all, in verse 8 nothing is fulfilling.
Listen: "All things are full of labor; man cannot express it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing". Life is boring. Now some of you say, "No, my life isn't boring". He's reasoning about life without God. And it speaks to the restlessness that we have in our hearts as men and women today. I couldn't help but think as I studied this and began to understand it better that here is the basis for the entire entertainment industry in the world in which we live. Why do people sit on the edge of their chair every night and watch Entertainment, whatever that show is, where they tell all of the new secrets about all the people in Hollywood that nobody's ever heard before, that aren't in the tabloids yet. And none of it satisfies the ear and none of it satisfies the eye.
A person who doesn't have God in his life and is trying to find meaning in life just goes from one thing to the next, trying to find something that will fill the emptiness in his life. That's what Solomon is saying. Nothing is fulfilling. This speaks to the restlessness of men in our world today. And in the 17th chapter of Acts and in verse 21, this is what the Bible says about the people who lived in Athens. See if it doesn't register with you. "For the Athenians and the foreigners who were there spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing". They were all into novelty. Whatever you could do that nobody's ever done; whatever is remarkable, you do it. And anybody's got anything new to say, I remember hearing J. Vernon McGee years ago, he used to say all the time, "If it's new it's not true. And if it's true it's not new".
And you know, I don't know whether he got that from the Bible or not; I haven't been able to find that verse in my Bible. Solomon is saying, "There's no real sense of satisfaction in whatever we do". If we buy, can tell you, this is true for even us as Christians. You buy a new computer and it's good for about two weeks until you read about another one that just came out that's got some more bells and whistles than the one you got. Everybody's looking at each other. Most of the wives are looking at the husbands, I need to tell you that. You buy a new television, a flat screen, a plasma, and you put it up on your wall, and somebody's got a different one that's better and it's got greater resolution, and all of a sudden, the one you got isn't really that good. Isn't that the way it works?
If we got a small house, we want a bigger one. If we got a nice car, we want a nicer one. We're always hungry and unsatisfied and, as much as we do not as believers focus on the things that are above, we fall into that trap. But a person who doesn't have God, that's all he's got. Nothing is fulfilling. And then Solomon ends his little discussion here with the fact that nothing is fresh. He says in verses 9 through 11: "That which has been is what will be, and that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which it may be said, 'See, this is new'? It has already been in ancient times before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come by those who will come after". What is he saying? There is nothing new under the sun.
You say, "Pastor, that just doesn't resonate with me. There's so many new things. You've already just mentioned a bunch of 'em. I mean, every day somebody's turning out something new". Wait a minute, nothing new is being created. Almighty God created it all. "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth and everything that is in them". And when we think we're so smart and we invent something, we just take what God has created and we rearrange it so that it meets a need that we have. Thomas Edison once said that his inventions were "only bringing out the secrets of nature and applying them for the happiness of mankind". We don't create anything new. The only one who creates is God and he can still create. He's over the sun. He's not under the sun.
Rudyard Kipling expressed the sentiments of Solomon in a poem that he wrote. He said, "The craft that we call modern and the crimes that we call new, John Bunyon had them typed and filed in 1682". There's not anything new. We think everything is so new but it's really not. It's been done before in a different way by somebody in the past and whatever we do now will be done in the future. What Solomon is saying is, listen to me now: If you look at life without God, nothing satisfies, nothing's new. There's futility in the world and, you know what? I have talked to people, more than a few, who express in modern terms everything Solomon has written in the first few verses of this book. Because you see, Solomon at one time in his life had known the meaning of God.
When he started out he was a man who walked with God. He was a man who prayed for God's gift to be wisdom and God gave him a hearing and an understanding heart and Solomon walked with God and he knew the meaning. But the Bible tells us that as he grew old and he became prosperous, as he gathered great riches among him, he began to walk away from God and he forsook God and he married foreign wives, the Scripture says, and he contaminated his life with the visions of the world and he got away from God and in his end days Solomon died, I believe, a frustrated, disillusioned, discouraged old man. Somebody has said that Solomon is like a European fable about a spider. It descended, the spider did, one day on a single thread from a barn's lofty rafters. And it alighted near the corner of a window and built its web.
The corner of the barn was very busy and soon the spider waxed fat and prosperous. One day he was looking at his web and he noticed the strand that reached up to the loft above. He had forgotten its significance and, thinking that it was a stray thread, he snapped it and his whole world fell apart. Solomon had had that connection with heaven in his earlier life but he had forsaken the God of his youth and he lost the meaning to life. And as he comes to term with his own life he realizes that without God life doesn't have any meaning. He summarizes the central question in his book in chapter 6 and verse 12. He says: "Who knows what is good for man in life, all the days of his vain life which he passes like a shadow? Who can tell a man what will happen after life under the sun"?
And I need to tell you there's only one who can tell you what the meaning of life is and I'm not that one. All I can do is report to you what I know. And I wanna give you a key to this book before we close our Bibles today. If you'll go to the third chapter and the 11th verse, you will see the key. Here's what Solomon says in the third chapter: "He has made everything beautiful in its time". Now watch this. "He has also put eternity in their hearts". Here's what that means. That means that when God created us, each and every one of us, no matter who we are, he made us all the same in this respect. We are built as human beings with a place in our heart for God. He's created eternity in our hearts.
There is a hole in your heart and in mine and that hole cannot be filled with anything except God. If we try to put something else in that place but God Almighty, we will be frustrated and we will feel the futility of life that Solomon writes about in the first chapter. There cannot be meaning in life without eternity in our hearts. God has not made us for this world. He's made us for the next world, and he put eternity in our hearts and he wants to fill that with himself if we will allow him to. If you want to know meaning in your life, you have to cooperate with the one who made you and put God at the center of what you do and put him in your heart and in your life.
You say, "Pastor Jeremiah, how do I do that"? Well, the Bible tells us that we get God in our lives when we receive Jesus Christ who is God's Son who is God in the flesh, when we invite him to come and live within us. We put God in our lives when we realize what Jesus said is true. When he said to us, "I am the way," Jesus said this, "the truth, and the life. And no one comes to the Father but by me". And we listen to Jesus when he says, "I have come that you might have life, and have it more abundantly". He is saying, in essence, Jesus is saying, "I have come to fill that space in your life so that you can have abundant, meaningful life". And Jesus offers us this invitation to all of us no matter who we may be. He says, listen now, "Come unto me, all ye who labor and are heavy laden. Come to me, all you who are in Ecclesiastes 1 through 11. Come to me, all you who are weary and you labor, and I will give you rest". He's the one who will make sense out of your heart. He's the one who can make the difference.
Andrei Bitov, a Russian novelist, grew up under an atheistic communist regime but God got his attention one dreary day. He recalls, "In my 27th year, while riding the metro in Leningrad, which is now St. Petersburg, I was overcome with despair so great that life seemed to stop at once, pre-empting the future entirely, let alone any meaning". And he said, "Suddenly, all by itself, a phrase appeared to me and that phrase was this: 'Without God life makes no sense.'" "Without God life makes no sense". He said, "Repeating it in astonishment, I rode the phrase up like a moving staircase. I got out of the metro and I walked into the light of God". Let me say that again. Without God life makes no sense.
You say, "Well, Pastor Jeremiah, you're paid to say things like that. You're a preacher. That's what you do". No, wait a minute, I'm talking to you as a fellow journeyer on planet Earth and what I'm trying to get across is what Solomon observed and that is if you try to make life work under the sun, you will fail. Life does not work the way God intends it to work unless he's in the picture. So meaning has to come from outside. This world is a closed system. If this closed system is gonna have any meaning at all, it must come from one outside. And the one who came into this world for us was Jesus Christ. Let me say it another way. There is no meaning in life under the sun, S-U-N, but meaning in life is found in the Son, S-O-N. "He that hath the Son hath life". If you wanna have the meaning that God intends for you to have, if you wanna rise above the despair and futility and frustration of Ecclesiastes 1, acknowledge the eternity God has put in your heart and embrace his Son Jesus Christ and become a Christian.