When you get on the Tyne and Wear Metro you tend not to look at the map or ask for directions. Why? It's familiar to us. When you get on the Paris Metro you'll seek out a map, you might ask for help because it's unfamiliar. As we come to Ecclesiastes, it's a little like getting on the Paris Metro. We feel familiar perhaps with gospel and letters, but the Ecclesiastes takes us somewhere new and unfamiliar. So before we pray I just want to orientate us a little in Ecclesiastes.
Chapter 1:1 gives us a good start:
'The words of the Teacher, son of David, king of Jerusalem.'
The teaching in Ecclesiastes we're told comes from a teacher. His titles, 'son of David' and 'king of Jerusalem' place him at the centre of Israel's political and religious life. Yet his riddle like name, 'teacher' makes us unsure he is a king after all. Let's flick to Ecclesiastes 12:9 at the end of the book for more clues:
'Not only was the Teacher wise, but also he imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.'
The Teacher clearly held a public teaching role. Given the riddle of his name it is likely that the Teacher is not King Solomon or another king of Israel, rather that he claims to stand in the line of wisdom teaching that was associated with Solomon.
What is the purpose of the book? There are broadly two ways of seeing Ecclesiastes. The first view is that the Teacher shows life without God to be meaningless as he puts life to the test. The second view is that Ecclesiastes is a godly man's description of what life is like with unresolved questions.
The Australian minister Graeme Goldsworthy, whose lead I follow, takes the second view but says the first view is not totally wrong. He says the Teacher indirectly shows a life without God to be meaningless, but his primary objective is 'to pour cold water on trite religion.' He claims that at the time of writing, the grace story of the Exodus and the Covenant had been put in the background. The result was people were operating on a 'you must live right or you'll suffer' basis. When people suffered people felt God was absent. Both traps that we can fall into today. So Ecclesiastes sweeps away our false allusions. It affirms the tensions of our broken world, but also reminds us this is God's world and we do well to trust him in the tension.
That is enough for now in way of introduction. Ecclesiastes 12:11 says this book is ultimately from the 'one Shepherd,' that is God. So let's ask God to speak to us tonight through his word...
When you pick up a paper the first thing you see is the headline. When you pick up Ecclesiastes the first thing you see is its headline. We see it in verse 2:
"Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!"
When someone repeats themselves four times you know they're trying to make a point! What is his point? The word "meaningless" literally means vapour or breath. Life is vapour is his headline. It's like when you light a match and blow it out. There's a puff of smoke that lasts for seconds, but then it's gone! There's a frustrating futility to life. There's a transient toil to life. Because it does not last. The teacher is showing us The Frustration of Life (1:2) which is my first point. The frustration of life is death: death pulls the rug from our feet!
Raymond Brigg's the Snowman has been shown every year at Christmas since it was first broadcast in 1982. If you haven't seen the Snowman it's a children's story of a boy who builds a snowman who comes to life and flies him to the North Pole. The story ends with the boy coming out into the garden the morning after to find the snowman has melted away, only his hat, scarf, satsuma nose and the two lumps of coal remain on the ground. I wonder the reason it resonates so much is that it catches the reality of meaningless. The boy enjoys a magical adventure but it cannot last. It moves us not because we too have been flying with snowmen but because it we know good things come to an end. Life is frustratingly futile. It is transient toil. It's a puff of smoke!
Let me ask you as the Teacher paints a picture of life for us, does it ring true with you? Now he's written his headline, he explains his thinking in verses 3-11. Come with me to verse 3:
'What does man gain from all his labour at which he toils under the sun?'
The Teacher asks, 'What is the profit of life?' It's an utterly real question. And the Teacher offers us an utterly realistic answer. A sense of gain in this life slips through our fingers. He outlines for us The Frustration of Toil (3-11) which is my second point. To those who say the Bible is not realistic, let them come hear the Teacher in verse 4:
'Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.'
The Teacher paints a picture of the repetitive round of life. We come and we go. The sun rises and falls. The wind blows round and round. Life is like the world, it goes round and round. And result is as we see in verse 8, 'all things are wearisome.' We know that especially as we start a new year. Whether you're a believer or not, when you get to work the days are the same. The doctor goes into the hospital to find a new patient has replaced the patient she treated the day before. The cleaner tidies the office he tidied the day before. The teacher starts a new term to find a new set of children have taken the place of the ones who have just left. The builder starts a new build after completing one the day before.
Satisfaction is continually beyond reach in our world of transient toil according to verse 8:
'The eye never has enough seeing, not the ear its fill of hearing.'
If only there was something new to break the cycle, but that something new or better never comes according to verse 9:
'What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 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.'
We sit in front of our TV sets showing us adverts of products that promise us something new, something better. They scratch our itch of transient toil. But cannot deliver on the forever fulfilment we long for. The IPhone 7 advert says, "The IPhone 7 makes the things you do even better. This is the best IPhone we've ever made!" It sounds like it could fix our frustrated futility, but, like everything under the sun, it cannot!
The Teacher reminds us that no matter how much we toil we are transient. Come with me to verse 11:
'There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.'
No matter what you achieve in your toil in the hospital, classroom, home or building site the Teacher says you will not be remembered.
I'm a bit of a fan of 'Who Do You Think You Are?' on BBC 1. It's a show where celebrities research their ancestors. It's striking how quickly people lose knowledge of their forebears. Ancestors are known by their birth certificates; stories are pieced together from scraps if they're lucky. If we know all 4 names of our great grandparents we're doing well.
The Teacher holds up a mirror to our broken world. Since Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden our world 'under the sun' is fallen. In judgment for our rebellion God has allowed death into the world. Work has become toil. Our world is like an Ikea chair where the parts have warped, where the fittings are broken. It still works, but it's not as it should be. As the Teacher holds up a mirror to our broken world: do you recognise it?
The American minister Larry Crabb says this:
'Beneath the surface of everyone's life, especially the more mature, is an ache that will not go away. It can be ignored, disguised, mislabelled, or submerged beyond a torrent of activity, but it will not disappear…We either groan or we pretend we don't.'
Believers and non-believers both have the same itch. The issue is what we do with it. So often the busyness of life is the excuse we need to ignore the Teacher's diagnosis. So often we can pretend the frustration of life can be solved. There's a health food book with the subtitle, 'How to Avoid Ageing.' But we know deep down that we can eat as much kale and quinoa as we want but we can't avoid death pulling the rug from under our feet! Under the sun transient toil is our lot.
So the Teacher in verse 13 sets out to 'explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven.' Toil offers no refuge. Can wisdom offer any comfort? So the Teacher shows us The Frustration of Wisdom (12-18) which is my third point. In his exploration he says in verse 13b:
'What a heavy burden God has laid on men.'
The Teacher says God has frustrated this world. We too know the burden of transient toil. He continues to say everything done under the sun, that is our fallen world, is vapour. It's a puff of smoke. And no matter how he ponders, he cannot straighten out life's frustrations or reduce the tensions with a neat system. Look with me at verse 15:
'What is twisted cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted. I thought to myself, "Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.'
Yet despite all his wisdom he comes unstuck in verse 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. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.'
The Teacher, as we'll see in the book, is positive on wisdom, but acknowledges it is limited in its advantages. It cannot lift the frustration of transient toil. Both the wise man and the fool both have the carpet pulled from under their feet by death.
To try and solve the problem of life by wisdom only makes the issue ever more clear! He affirms the tension that we live in a world that God rules over, yet a world that is subject to frustration.
Is that a view the rest of the Bible endorses? The answer is yes! In Romans 8.18-25 Paul paints a picture that complements the Teacher's painting of the world. Let's just flick to page 798.
Paul says in verse 20 that the 'creation was subjected to frustration.' He says in verse 21 that the world is in 'decay.' Believers and unbelievers share an itch brought on by our transient toil. We have that itch because we were made for forever fulfilment. How is this possible? It's possible through The Frustration Ender which is my final point.
Many years later the one Shepherd would leave heaven and enter into our world of frustration. Jesus, the true Teacher would experience first-hand the burden God has laid on men. He knew first-hand the destruction of transient toil. When his friend Lazarus died he wept. He was outraged in his spirit at death. So he advanced on his tomb like a warrior and raised Lazarus back to life. That miracle foreshadowed his own future. In his death on the cross he would bear the curse for our rebellion. Yet three days later he rose from the grave defeating death.
He entered into our frustration so one day he could end the frustration that subjects this world. That is what believers groan for. Paul writes in Romans 8:22:
'We know the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.'
Paul says that until Jesus returns and ends the frustration placed on this world we groan for what we do not have. If you're trusting in Jesus, we must learn to groan along with the Teacher as we read Ecclesiastes. Right groaning is not a lack of contentment. We can be content while we groan for what is to come. Right groaning isn't just an acknowledging that this world is spoiled, but a longing for Jesus to return and put this world right.
If you're not yet following Jesus tonight, do you agree with the mirror the Teacher and Paul hold up to us in Bible? Whether we're following Jesus or not we all live in a world broken by transient toil. But do you see the Christian position is not to ignore it or deny it, but to groan for a better world to come.
A world we can only enjoy if we turn to Jesus, the only one who can liberate you from judgment and end the frustration that besets this world. What will you do with your ache? Either you groan or you pretend you don't.
Let's close. The teacher has shown us that everything in this fallen world is subject to transient toil. So let's acknowledge we live in a world broken by frustrating futility, and let us long for the day when Jesus will replace it with forever fulfilment.