Utter Absurdity

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11
October 21, 2018
Daniel Kim

 

Sometimes in our lives we feel like we are just spinning our wheels in the snow. We’re not getting anywhere. We’re not making any progress in life. Work feels like a drag. And we’re just sick of the daily routine, the daily grind. And at times we may feel like life is this way.

But right now at our church not many of us are feeling this way. There are so many new and exciting things that are happening. People just got recently married. There’s new pregnancies. Someone got engaged. There’s new jobs. New relationships. People who are going into new schools. And all these new things are happening and all these exciting things are happening. So it feels like life is progressing really quickly. We’re not just stuck in one place.

But if we were to just take one step back and look at the big picture of our life, and look at the pattern of our life, we might see something a bit different. Maybe I could describe the way that our life generally goes. It’s kind of like this. You wake up, you work, you eat, and then you sleep. Next day, you wake up, you work, you eat, and you sleep. And you do it again. Work, eat, sleep. And you work, eat, sleep. And maybe you go on a vacation. And then you work, eat, sleep. And you work, eat, and sleep, and then you die. And it is something like this. You make money, and then you spend money. You make money, and then you spend money. And you make money, and then you spend money, and then you die.

And when we look back on our life, and the pattern that we see, we have to ask ourselves, “What’s the point? What’s the point of all this? By the end of my life, have I actually gone anywhere? Have I gained anything from all this work, from all this activity, from all this labor? What is the point in all of this? Are we actually getting anywhere?”

And that is what our text asks today. In verse 3, you’ll see that question that the Preacher asks. Is there any gain? Is there any advantage to all the things that we do under the sun? And so today what I want us to do is to look at that question from this text. Is there gain from all our labor? From all our toil?

But before we get there, we have to first look at verse 2 and the specific word in verse 2: the word vanity. Verse 2 says, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Or it could be utter vanity. All is vanity. And this is the theme of not only this chapter but the entire book. This is what the entire book of Ecclesiastes is about. And so later on at the end the same phrase is repeated. Vanity of vanities.

But the problem is, this word is actually very hard to pin down. Our translation here has it here as vanity. If you have the NIV, it might say meaninglessness. And others translate it as like a fleeting breath or a mist, something that’s passing away or transitory. And so it’s hard to wrap our minds around this concept. But if we look at all the times this word is used in Ecclesiastes, it seems that the best way to take this word is “absurdity” or “wackiness.” Things don’t make sense. It’s illogical, it’s irrational. It’s wack. That’s what it is. And when we look at the book of Ecclesiastes and when we look at this world, we will see that this really is the case. This world is wacky. This world is absurd.

And we see that in our lives. For example, we might know that person who smokes a pack a cigarettes a day, who eats very unhealthy, but he lives to be a hundred, lives a full life. And then we see a guy who exercises and eat healthy, takes care of his body, and before he reaches thirty, he dies of cancer. That is wack. That is absurd. Or we see the guy who works really hard at his job. And he saves up all his money so that one day he could just travel the world and enjoy the finer things of life. But the year that he is supposed to retire, he dies. And all that work is for nothing. And we see that this is absurd. This doesn’t make sense. Why are things like this. Or we see a righteous person who gets killed by someone, and the person who killed him continues on with his life as normal. And this too is wack. This is the story of Cain and Abel, where Abel is righteous and he is killed and Cain just moves on with his life and gets to go on. This is absurd. This is utter absurdity.

You know, sometimes the fastest person doesn’t always win the race. The strongest army doesn’t win the battle. The smartest and most skilled person doesn’t get the best job. All of this is a bit wacky to us. Whether you’re foolish or you’re wise, whether you’re righteous or evil, whether you’re good or bad, sooner or later all of us, we end up in the same place: dead in the grave. And this to us is wack. This to us is absurd. It doesn’t make sense. And we know deep down in our hearts something is off. We know that it shouldn’t be like this. And so when we hear these things, we feel this is wrong, this is off, this is incongruous. And because when we think of the world in this way, when we do A, we expect B to happen. But sometimes when we do A, Q happens. Something random happens. And when we see this world, we see that it is absurd.

And today in our text, the absurdity that we specifically see is with our work, with our labor. We see it with the activities that we do here on earth and the result that’s supposed to come about. So in our minds, it makes sense for a person to work and then to receive a profit, to receive a gain, to have some kind of result come out of it. If someone does the work, then there should be something that comes about. And the person who did the work should receive a gain. There should be an advantage gained. There should be something achieved. Some kind of progress made. Or if you run a marathon, we know that each step that we take, there is an advantage gained, there is progress made, because we’re that much closer to the finish line. And we expect in our lives whatever activity, whatever labor that we do, we are moving towards that finish line. We are making progress. There is an advantage that is gained for us. That’s what we expect from this world. But today in our text, our text tells us that this is not the case. All our work, all our toil, all our efforts, with all of that, there is no advantage gained. There is no lasting profit. There is nothing that comes about through it. We don’t get real results. We are taking steps, but we are not getting any closer to the end goal. And so it is like we are running on that hamster wheel, taking those steps but not getting anywhere.

And to show us this point, the Preacher takes us through all these different cycles that we see in nature. And his point is that our lives, this world, is like a repetitive cycle that gets us nowhere.

And so the first cycle that we see is that of human generations. One generation comes. And then it goes. And then another generation comes. And then it goes. There is no real progress made because the generation comes and it goes. If the generation were to come and stay, then the next generation would come and stay and add onto that, and add onto that, the next generation comes and adds onto that and stays, then the world would be filled. But as it says here, the world remains, but generations comes and goes, comes and goes. There is no addition to it.

The second cycle that we see is that of the sun. It says that the sun rises and that the sun comes, and then our text says that the sun pants back to the place where it came from. And the picture that we see here, the image that we see, is a sun running on that 400 meter track around and around, lap after lap, and he is panting, the sun is panting, because it is tired. Because it is tired of going round and around getting nowhere. And again we see this repetitive cycle that goes nowhere.

The third cycle that we see is that of the wind. It says that the wind goes to the south, and the wind goes to the north. And we see that three times the word around is used. And then there’s the fourth word that’s very similar to the word around. And basically the Preacher is making us feel the cycle. He’s saying around and around and around and around the wind goes and the wind returns. Around and around and around and around. And with all these cycles, we start to feel, “Wow we’re getting nowhere. We’re just going around and around in cycles.”

And then we see the streams, the streams of water. When you pour something into a container, obviously your goal or our purpose is to fill it up. And you stop pouring once the container is full. But we see that with the sea this is not the case. The rivers flow, the rivers pour in the water, but the sea never becomes full. And so the rivers flow and flow and flow, but the sea is never full. And the rivers keep going to the same place where it ended up, and we see that the end goal is never reached. There is never a completion. There is never a fullness. And so the Preacher tells us that all these things are so tiring. These things are so wearisome. It’s tiring because if our work did something and ended somewhere, at least we could have rest. But here it’s tiring because it goes over and over again with no end, with the endpoint not being reached, with the finish line not being crossed, with the mission not being accomplished. And we see the Preacher says that the eye sees many things, but it is never satisfied. There is still more to see. It’s never full. The ear, we hear many things, but still there is more to hear, more to fill it up, and it just never finishes. And to us, this is wackiness. This is absurdity. We know deep down in our hearts that our work is supposed to go to an end. To a goal. To an endpoint. But with all this activity, all this toil, all our efforts, the end goal is not one step closer.

And so this text may actually bring to mind a myth, a Greek myth of Sisyphus. I don’t know if you guys may have heard of it. In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is cursed by the gods, and he is cursed to push up this stone up the mountain. And he gets that, when he gets up to the top, the stone falls back down. And he has to start all over again. He pushes up the stone. And the stone falls down. And he’s cursed to do that for all of eternity. And this is the picture that we feel from Ecclesiastes 1, where it feels like we’re laboring, we’re pushing up the stone, but it falls down over and over. And we get nowhere ultimately. And once again, this doesn’t make sense. This is really absurd. All our toil is like this. It amounts to ultimately nothing. There is no gain. There is no advantage.

And as I’m speaking this, some of you may be very offended because a lot of us take pride in our work. We think that our work is important. We know that we are making a difference by our jobs, by our activities. And so this cannot be true. There must be a gain to the work we are doing.

And we have to remember that the Preacher is talking about something very specific. You may remember that when God first made Adam, he made Adam to be a worker. He was to work. But God didn’t make Adam like Sisyphus. There was an end goal for Adam. He was to work, but he was to work towards that endpoint. And we see that especially in Genesis 1 when God shows himself to be a worker. Day 1, he works, and then it’s day and night. Day 2, he works, and then day and night. He works six days, and then finally, after he finishes his work, he takes his well-deserved rest. And as human beings made in the image of God, we are to imitate that pattern where we work six days and we work towards that rest. Adam is to work and do the job that God gave him so that he can ultimately enter into that rest that God entered into himself.

And so we see that God made things with an endpoint for Adam. And his work had an end goal that he was supposed to reach. But we all know what happened. Adam failed to obey God. He failed to do what God commanded him to do, to bring all of creation under the rule of God. And so we see that the end goal was never reached. That endpoint, that end rest, was never had by Adam.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, it talks about something being bent crooked. Something being bent so that it becomes twisted. And it was actually done by God himself. And we see that it is this twisting, this crookedness, that makes this world absurd, that makes this world wacky. And so we see that after Adam’s failure, this world has been bent crooked. And now when we do work, no matter how hard we work, not matter what kind of work we do, you may be doing cancer research, you may be designing new technology, you may be educating the next generation - it doesn’t matter what it is - no matter what you are doing, it doesn’t bring us one step closer to that ultimate rest. It doesn’t bring us closer to that end goal that God gave human beings. None of it matters. None of it brings us an advantage.

And so as children of Adam, we feel like our work should do something. We feel like it should lead to our end goal. But we see that it does not. And so this world is wacky. It doesn’t make sense. It is illogical.

But at the same time, this doesn’t mean that your work is not important. The Preacher even says later on, God gave you this work to enjoy, and so enjoy it. And we know from other places in the Bible that our work is a means to love and serve our neighbors. And so it is good, but it is limited. It won’t bring the end. It won’t bring the end goal that we were destined for. There is no lasting gain. There is no advantage. We are just spinning our wheels in the snow with all our activity.

And that’s why in verses 9-10, the Preacher talks about there being nothing new under the sun. And when we first hear that, obviously as moderns, we think, oh this can’t be right. What is this guys talking about. Of course there are new things. Every year we get a new phone, a better laptop. And if you just look back at the past 200 years, you can see how much progress that human beings have made. We have new medicine, new technology, new ways of doing things that make our quality of life so much better. And so how can you say that there is nothing new under the sun?

Once again, the Preacher is saying, there is nothing new that brings us closer to our goal, to our end goal. With all the progress we made, at the end of it all, we still end up dead. We still end up in the grave. We are still left outside, barred from God’s presence and rest. And so nothing new has ever come to change this fact.

And so things may cycle through in different ways. But the end result is still the same. It is death. It is exile from God. What has been is what will be. What has been done is what will be done. There is nothing new that makes a difference with the most important matter.

Even though we remember those people in history who made a change in the world, who made a great difference, we remember those people who won the Nobel prize because they did something great for this world. And it seems like progress has been made with those people. But again, they haven’t done anything so different and so radical to make straight that which has been made crooked. They haven’t solved humanity’s greatest problem. They haven’t dealt with the problem of death and our inability to make it to the end. To the end goal of rest. And so people have tried. They have tried to create utopias on this earth to try to get to that heavenly rest by ourselves, with our labor. And even in the next chapter, the Preacher he uses all the wisdom that he has. He uses all his efforts to make it to the end. But even he says that he fails. And so we see that it’s all been tried, and it all ends up the same. There is nothing new to be remembered. There is nothing new that has stopped the problem. Death still blocks the way. The ultimate rest cannot be had.

And so this world is kind of like a prison cell. You know, if we’re in a prison cell, you can make your prison cell a lot nicer. You can put up posters. You can clean the toilet. You can maybe even get a TV up in there. You can really work really hard to improve your prison cell. And you can make a lot of progress with it. But at the end of the day, it’s still a prison cell. And you’re waiting for the day to be executed. This is what our wacky world is like. It is a prison cell, and we can make all the progress that we want. But it doesn’t make a difference. It’s not going to get us to our destination. And this is utter absurdity. It doesn’t make sense. It is wacky. It is illogical. And we know that deep down something is off. And it shouldn’t be like this.

But here we see that the Preacher, he is just being realistic with us. He is telling us straight up how things really are in this world. This is the cursed life that we have after Adam. It is thorns and thistles rather than the tree of life. It is repetitive fruitless labor unto death rather than life and rest with God. This is our lot in life. This is the reality that we must face.

But here we are every Sunday on the Lord’s Day gathering. And one of the things that we do as we gather as a church is we remember. There is something we remember in the past. And we remember something utterly unique. There is something uniquely new that happened in history that we remember on the Lord’s Day. And in the Bible, God actually commands his people to sing a new song. And he tells his people to sing a new song when he does a new act. When a new thing happens in history, that’s when the people are to sing about that new thing, a new song. And so on Sunday, we come and remember something new that has happened under the sun. Finally there is something that breaks through the cycle, and a new thing has happened. And it is that God himself came and put himself under the sun and he himself became man and experienced the absurdity of this life, the absurdity of this messed up world. He experienced himself. And in this world, he carried out the work given to him by his Father. He finished the work that Adam failed to do. He established the kingdom of God. He obeyed his Father unto the end. And even experienced the greatest absurdity of all: death itself. And because he completely the work that Adam failed to do, he has earned once and for all lasting gain, something that brings eternal profit and advantage. He has run the race and he has crossed the finish line. He has broken through death and unto new life, passing through the heavens and entering into that seventh day sabbath rest. He has made it. He has gone to the end. And now those who belong to Christ, those who belong to this new Adam, those who trust in him, will be taken out of the death row prison cell and out of this absurd world, and they will be ultimately brought to the end goal for which humanity was made. And they will enter into God’s rest. And we will enjoy him forever and eat of the tree of life and live with him and see him face to face. This is the end that we have in Christ.

Beloved people of God, you will experience the wackiness of this world, the absurdity of this life, and sometimes it may discourage you. Sometimes it may confuse you. And you may feel like what is the point of all this. Why should I continue on with life. But let us cling, let us cling to the hope that in Christ God will bring us into a new creation, where that which is crooked, where that which is twisted, will finally be made straight. Where death and the curse are finally put aside. That is the hope that we cling to. In Christ, you have that end goal. In Christ, you have that final rest. So keep looking to him in the midst of all the absurdity.

End


Summary of Sermon

The Preacher in Ecclesiastes declares that life is vain and absurd. Many things in life do not make any sense. There is nothing new under the sun. And no matter what our work is, we all die.

God made Adam to work and then rest. But Adam sinned against God and failed to achieve that rest. Because of Adam’s sin and because of our own sin, we would never be able to achieve rest and perfect fellowship with God on our own.

But God did a new thing under the sun. He provided salvation in Christ Jesus. And we who believe in Him will see an end to sin, death and all the absurdity that comes with this old and fading life.

Questions for Discussion & Sharing

What are some absurdities that you see in the world? How do you make sense of them? What is your response to them?

How do you view your work? What good does it bring? What are its limits?

How does the first Adam and the last Adam (Jesus Christ) affect your relationship to work (1 Cor 15:58)?