An Introduction to the Futility of Life on Earth
Philippe R Sterling
The Big Question: What’s it all about? (v 3)
Some years ago, a popular song by Dionne Warwick asked:
What's it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What's it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
October 6, 1993 was a significant date in the history of professional basketball. On that autumn day the man who was the game’s finest player called a press conference to announce his retirement at age thirty, after winning an unprecedented third world championship and seven consecutive NBA scoring titles. There was no injury, no indictment or shocking personal revelations, no contract dispute.
As he faced the assembled crowd of media representatives with their cameras, microphones, and notepads, Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan told them the game offered no more challenges to motivate him. Having accomplished everything basketball could ask of him he simply felt it was time to call it a career. This young man, whose God-given athletic ability revolutionized the way the game was played, retired with more money than he could possibly spend in a single lifetime, and at an age when many are only beginning to taste career success. Including endorsements that far exceeded his salary, his last season as a player netted him $40 million.
Why would a man with everything under the sun walk away? Jordan, whose father was murdered earlier in the year, hinted at the answer as he told reporters, “One thing about my father’s death was that it reinforced how [life] can be taken away from you anytime.” The “stuff” of life lost its meaning for Jordan when he considered the fragile transience of it. Basketball – and the fame, money, and excitement of being better at it than anyone else – no longer was enough for this superstar. And as he looked ahead to the prospect of another NBA season, it all seemed empty.[i]
Years ago, a man with more power, money, and fame than Michael Jordan also asked, “What’s it all about?” and chronicled his search for the answer in a book. His name was Solomon and his book is called Ecclesiastes.
What advantage does man have in all his work
Which he does under the sun?
The Phrase “Under the sun”
“Under the sun” means “in this world” (5:13-20; 6:12; 8:14-15; 9:3-6, 9). And, specifically, “in this cursed world” (1:14-15).
Background: The Fall and the Curse
God created everything “very good” (Gen 1:31). Adam and Eve fell from the perfect state in which they were created, bringing death (Gen 2:16, 17; 3:1-13, 19). Because of man’s fall, God cursed mankind (3:16, 17-19). And God cursed His creation (3:17-19).
The Short Answer: Zilch (v 2)
Vanity of vanities,” says the preacher,
“Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”
Ecclesiastes begins and ends with this statement (1:2 and 12:8). The Hebrew word for “vanity” is used 37 times in the book. Let’s get acquainted with this word. Today we connect vanity with egotism – with that man or woman who is overly self-involved. Vanity is based on an illusion. A woman once told her pastor, “When I confess my sins, I confess the sin of vanity most of all. Every morning I admire myself in the mirror for half an hour.” To this the pastor replied, “My dear, that isn’t the sin of vanity. You’re suffering from the sin of imagination.”
The meaning of the Hebrew word hebel which is translated “vanity,” “futility,” or “meaningless.”
1. Breath – a thing that doesn’t last; that which is insubstantial, fleeting (Job 7:16; Psalm 39:4-11; 62:9; 144:4). Everything is vanity because life is a breath; we don’t live long enough to see the fruit of our labor.
2. Futility – Something pointless or vain (Job 9:29; Isaiah 49:4). Everything is vanity because life is frustrating, and futile. We lack the power to accomplish what we want.
3. Vanity is when we have added everything up and the sum is zero, nothing, emptiness, meaninglessness.
As Solomon uses the word, he refers to emptiness, to that which is transitory and has little meaning. In this case, vanity is akin to a vapor that lasts only a moment before quickly vanishing, leaving nothing behind.
The implication of the expression “vanity of vanities”
1. What does this expression remind you of? What was the innermost part of the tabernacle? What was the innermost part of the temple?
2. The Holy of Holies was a symbolic copy of the throne room of God in the third heaven (Heb 9:23-24). It was not of this creation (Heb 9:11).
3. By contrast everything “under the sun” (i.e., of this creation) is the opposite of heaven – vanity of vanities. There is no profit in labor under the sun. Labor is a creation ordinance. But labor fell under the curse and is therefore subject to frustration and futility. Our hope lies out from under the sun. We need nothing less than a new life and a new heaven and a new earth.
Four hundred years ago, a poet answered the question this way,
“Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Macbeth, act 5, scene 5, William Shakespeare
More recently the rock band Kansas answered the question in a song:
I close my eyes, only for a moment, and the moment's gone
All my dreams, pass before my eyes, a curiosity
Dust in the wind, all they are is dust in the wind.
Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea
All we do, crumbles to the ground, though we refuse to see
Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind
[Now] Don't hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky It slips away, and all your money won't another minute buy.
Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind
Dust in the wind, everything is dust in the wind.
The Seeking Inquirer: Solomon (v 1)
The words of the Preacher,
the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
The traditional name of this book, Ecclesiastes, and the author’s title “Preacher” both come from the same Hebrew term: qohelet. This term described one who convened an assembly of wise men and served as its principal spokesman. The author chose this as his pen name for Ecclesiastes. Perhaps instead of the “Preacher,” we might call him the “Searcher.”
The author of Ecclesiastes was Solomon, the son of David, king of Israel. On his deathbed, David ordered that Solomon be anointed king of Israel and advised his son to walk in God’s ways (1 Kings 2:2-4).
Solomon began well. He had a godly heritage. He was blessed by God in a way that no one else has ever been. Only one person on this planet has ever been given a blank check by someone who could deliver, regardless of the sum. God said to Solomon, “name it and claim it.” Solomon chose – and his choice pleased God. He asked God for wisdom and he also received riches and honor in tremendous amount (1 Kings 3:4-13). His future was bright.
A spider dropped a single strand down from the top rafter of an old barn and began to weave his web. Days, weeks, and months went by, and the web grew. It regularly provided the spider food as flies, mosquitoes, and other small insects were caught in its elaborate maze. The spider built his web larger and larger until it became the envy of all the other spiders. One day this productive spider was traveling across his beautifully woven web and noticed a single strand going up into the darkness of the rafters. I wonder why this is here? he thought. It doesn’t serve to catch me any dinner. And saying that, the spider climbed as high as he could and severed the single strand that was his lifeline. When he did, the entire web slowly began to tumble to the floor of the barn, taking the spider with it. This is what happened to Solomon.[ii]
As a young man, Solomon asked God for the gift of wisdom that would make him a good king, and God answered his prayer. Somewhere along the way, however, Solomon cut the strand that kept him in fellowship with God and decided to find meaning and satisfaction in a life lived under the sun. For example, against the command of God, he took for himself a harem of foreign women that turned his heart towards other gods (1 Kings 11:1-13).
As an old man Solomon may have recognized his folly and wrote Ecclesiastes. In Ecclesiastes, this man of wisdom and prestige with every talent and asset possible, said that life under the sun was empty. It takes forty minutes or so to read the book aloud – about the length of a sermon – but it is not a sermon. It is a testimony. Solomon observed, “I went down every path. I exhausted every extreme in life, because I had the talent and the means and the position to do so. And now that I am old, I see that most of it was just so much chasing after the wind. Life is meaningless.”
Jack Higgins, author of such bestsellers as The Eagle Has Landed, says the one thing he knows now that he wishes he’d known as a small boy is this: “When you get to the top, there’s nothing there.” Solomon climbed the same ladder and made the same discovery. There’s nothing here; all is vanity.
Jewish statesman Abba Eban tells of meeting Sir Edmund Hillary, the first man to climb Mount Everest. Eban asked Hillary precisely what he felt when he reached the peak. Hillary replied that there was an immediate rush of triumphal ecstasy – for a fleeting moment. It was quickly replaced by a sense of desolation. Where could he go from here? What mountains remained to climb?
Another Everest climber expressed a similar sentiment. Jon Krakauer described his feelings on May 10, 1996, as he reached the highest point on earth: “Straddling the top of the world, one foot in China and the other in Nepal. I cleared the ice from my oxygen mask, hunched a shoulder against the wind and stared absently down at the vastness of Tibet…I’d been fantasizing about this moment, and the release of emotion that would accompany it, for many months. But now that I was finally here, actually standing on the summit of Everest, I just couldn’t summon the energy to care…I snapped four quick photos…then turned and headed down. My watch read 1:17 p.m. All told, I’d spent less than five minutes on the roof of the world.”
Not only is it empty at the top, but it’s empty at the bottom – and everywhere in between. Life, in and of itself, is a cluster of cells dividing and redividing; nature recycling its rituals ad infinitum. Emptiness. Vanity. As Peggy Lee used to sing, “Is that all there is?”
Romans 8:20 is the New Testament commentary on the Book of Ecclesiastes. It states plainly that “vanity” exists, and also that it has a beginning and an end. Before its beginning and beyond its end is a creation without vanity. God subjected creation to vanity when mankind fell (Gen 3). God will one day liberate creation to freedom from vanity (Rev 22).
The person under the sun needs an existence that is not under the sun. This is available through the resurrected Jesus. Without the resurrection our faith is “vain” (the Greek word for vain translates the Hebrew word hebel) because it is for this life only, i.e., life under the sun (1 Cor 15:17-19, 58). We can reign in life through the resurrection (Romans 5:12, 17). We are new creatures in a new creation, no longer under the old sun (2 Cor 5:17). Yet we await the final consummation of that new creation (Rev. 21:1). The final resurrection will redeem creation and our bodies from vanity (Rom 8:18-23). And we shall discover that our labor was not in vain (Phil 2:16; Rev. 14:13).
Do not seek meaning under the sun.
Find life and eternal purpose in the Son.
[i] The account of Michael Jordan’s retirement from basketball is shortened and adapted from the book Been There, Done That, Now What? by Ed Young Sr.
[ii] The fable of the spider as an illustration of what Solomon may have done is also adapted from Ed’s Young’s book.