Warning: objects of the world are less important than they appear.
You can get these things for fifty bucks online. It has some plant matter inside, and a few tiny shrimp that feed on microorganisms, and recycled waste products. They can live inside of that totally closed system up to seven years. I guess in human terms that’s like living to a hundred. Life for those shrimp must be pretty dismal all bottled up like that. Probably nothing will ever change for them without a benevolent act from the outside.
We live in that one, but unlike the tiny shrimp, we have cognizance. We can ask questions like, “Why?” and “Is this all there is?” These are questions of purpose, and that is exactly what the book of Ecclesiastes focuses on.
You might wonder if all this concern about purpose seems exaggerated. Are we needlessly stirring up existential angst? After all, most of us feel like we’re in the trenches of life, trying to pay mortgages, raise kids, and hold jobs. We’d rather handle life according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs—take care of the necessities first, and then if you survive, proceed up the pyramid until finally you can sit around, and philosophize about life.
But issues of ultimate meaning are part of the human package. It’s not just for folks that already have everything else. In fact, God expects all of us to ask big questions, even requires us to ask them. This is part of the reason for the Book of Ecclesiastes—not just to warn us about wasting life, but to create a certain resonance in us. When we read it, we’re supposed to notice observations and feelings we’ve already had about the world. The Bible tells you these are legitimate. You’re not weird, or morbid. You notice the irony and emptiness of life because you’re human.
This book will show us that ultimate meaning for life must come from the outside of us, and from outside the closed system in which we live.
1:1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
“Vanity” is not the same as conceit, like the person who sits in front of a mirror for hours, trying to get that perfect Ken or Barbie look. Instead, the actual Hebrew word means “vapor,” something temporal that doesn’t last. After Solomon passes this judgment, he then goes on in the rest of the verses to explain why.
“What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (Eccl. 1:3).
And so the first of Solomon’s observations has to do with useless work, labor that never gains positive traction. He sees the consequences of toil in this fallen world the way God spoke of them in Genesis chapter 3.
“A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again” (1:4-7).
Thus, Solomon points out the mechanical, circuitous nature of life that never seems to get anywhere.
“All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. 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. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after” (1:8-11).
Life not only harbors nothing new, it has a disturbing way of disappearing into irrelevance. We don’t remember 99.9% of all the things that have happened to people who have lived on this planet, and according to Solomon, that’s the way it will continue to be.
“I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And 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. 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. I said in my heart, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ 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” (1:12-18).
Truly, it seems the more you know about this world, the worst off you become. Every news report triggers more anger, fear, and resentment.
Solomon has made a gloomy appraisal about this life. Yet, he’s not saying purpose doesn’t exist at all. It’s just that it doesn’t exist under the sun. The wise king has painted an accurate picture of the horizontal sphere, as he looked left and right at all the things observable in this mortal state of affairs. He labels it vapor.
There is an alternative, though. We know about it because we have a completed Bible of sixty-six books. Maybe if Solomon had seen it coming, he would have jumped up and down with excitement rather than sink in dreary reflection. And perhaps rather than only write twelve chapters in Ecclesiastes, he would have written thirteen. That final chapter would have been about how God was going to carry out some incredibly benevolent act upon us as we lived trapped within our apparently closed system. The thirteenth chapter, had it existed, would have been the entire New Testament.
Take a look at the book of Ephesians, where Paul writes something Solomon could only have dreamed of.
“Even when we were dead in our trespasses God made us alive together with Christ—by Grace you have been saved–and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the Heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:5-6).
These verses deal with salvation, but notice that God’s activity in raising us up and seating us with Him in the heavenly places are spoken of in past tense. We’re not used to thinking of the Christian life this way. We conceive of it as ending one day in heaven, after having loved the Lord and served him well. But Paul points out that because salvation is by grace, the moment we believe in Christ, God seats us with Him in heaven. This is not only for the super spiritual, but the typical saint.
This fact is critical, because it means we are now above, and not under the sun. We’ve been brought outside of, and elevated over the ecosphere we were inhabiting. You might say, “But I’m standing here on the ground.” Yes, however in an even more profound way, you are currently seated in the heavenly places with Christ. How do we reconcile this truth without feeling it or seeing it, especially when everything on the horizontal continuum seems so real?
Certainly, Paul goes on in verse seven to assure us our salvation will not always be shrouded from our eyes, but will become visible to ourselves and everyone else:
Eph. 2:7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ.
But in the current time, God expects us to realize our heavenly position through faith. Yes, right in the middle of this present world, where human beings fight for scraps of power and significance, because they believe there is no other purpose to life.
Christians believe something more. We believe we’ve been caught up in the finished work of Jesus. Admittedly, we do live in cities and neighborhoods, but we are also at the same time occupying the high ground, far above all earthly purposes. The effect of this kind of living can be palpable.
Think about boarding a jet plane, and soaring thousands of feet in the air. You look down out of the window, and see endless numbers of little brown squares. These are the roofs of people’s homes. In every one of them life goes on—hopes, dreams, troubles, anxieties, sorrows. When you were down on the ground, all of it was in your face, and real, the only thing that counted. On the plane, though, you’ve gained altitude above it, and shrunk the entire throng to manageable dimensions.
Yes, we live in the world, but our reality is not of it. Today you can identify as a lot of things. You can call yourself American, with all the current disturbances attached to it, or an Ohioan, with all the morale that goes with its sports teams. We could identify with a certain age group, like the Greatest Generation, or the Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, or Generation Z. You could identify yourself by race, or according to how many kids you have. You could call yourself lower, middle, or upper class. You could self-define according to marital status, gender, or profession.
Each of these categories, especially today, come packaged with mini-meanings of their own. A lot of them have attached narratives seeking to shape you into something other than what God intends. When you ultimately identify with them, you are identifying with things under the sun, which the Bible calls vapor. Be careful. Vapor always turns to nothing.
Instead, by faith look down from the seventy thousand foot view, and see our ecosphere from the throne of grace.
There’s nothing like altitude to get a healthy perspective.