Philippe R. Sterling
Sisyphus was a character in Greek mythology who upset the gods with his extraordinary wisdom. As punishment, he was sentenced to be blinded and to perpetually roll a giant boulder up a mountain to the peak, only to have it inevitably roll back down the mountain into the valley. Sisyphus is a metaphor for the meaninglessness of life under the sun. Life is a great circle, a “weary go-round.”
I went to the gym for many years. I was astounded by the vast array of exercise machinery – stationary bikes, treadmills, and stair-climbers – all designed to enhance fitness. You get on them, and you go…nowhere. In fact, going nowhere is part of their design. The point is not to get somewhere – the point is to expend as much energy as possible for as long as possible while you are going nowhere. Every time you step off the treadmill or the bike, you are in the same place you began. Life is pointless, Solomon argued, because it is always moving in circles but going nowhere. He supported his thesis by observing patterns in nature and noting that they are all cyclical.
Nothing seems to change (4-7).
The Course of Life: Generation come and go, while the earth remains forever.
We can imagine Solomon sitting at his breakfast table with the newspaper open, reading the birth announcements on one page and the obituaries on the next. Generations pass in parade. There is a deathbed in one room, a crib next-door. History is a continuously repeated drama; the earth abides, but the actors play their parts and move on.
Rabbi Harold Kushner tells of a man who came to him for counseling. After the usual chatter that precedes such appointments, the man told Kushner why he had come.
“Two weeks ago,” said the man, “for the first time in my life I went to the funeral of a man my own age. I didn’t know him well, we worked together, talked to each other from time to time, had kids about the same age. He died suddenly over the weekend…It could just as easily have been me. That was two weeks ago. 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 fifty feet away from me, and now it’s as if he never existed. It’s like a rock falling into a 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 then. I can’t stop thinking that it could happen to me, and a few days later I will be forgotten as if I had never lived. Shouldn’t a man’s life be more than that?”
There is no meaning in the day-to-day repetition of life. We get up, go to work, come home, watch TV, go to bed – only to repeat until retirement. Then we die. What’s the point?
The Circle of the Sun: The sun is constant with its rising and setting.
We know that the earth circles the sun. Solomon is using observational language. Solomon’s phrase, the sun also rises, speaks of the silent, uncaring machine that life and nature can appear to be. For him, every golden sunset represented another short day gone from his brief life.
It’s intriguing that Ernest Hemingway chose these words, The Sun Also Rises, as the title of his first best-selling novel. His book conveys the despair that characterized his life and writings. Years later, shortly before his suicide, the great writer confessed, “I live in a vacuum that is as lonely as a radio tube when the batteries are dead and there is no current to plug into.”
The Circuits of the Wind: The winds continue their whirling cycle.
Solomon anticipates what is now known about the world’s great wind circuits and the global circulation of the atmosphere. There’s something about the wind that speaks to the soul. Jesus spoke of it as blowing “where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes” (John 3:8). In that case, Jesus was speaking about the mystery and marvel of the work of the Holy Spirit. But for Solomon, the wind represented the invisible brevity of life. As Margaret Mitchell would later express in the title of her great novel Gone with the Wind, sooner or later everything in life – even our most cherished relationships and possessions – vanish with the wind.
Remember the haunting words of the song from the rock band Kansas:
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.
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 Cycle of the Water: The water also, as rivers run into the seas, and then through evaporation and rain return to the rivers again.
Solomon describes the earth’s amazing hydrologic cycle. The sun and the wind make possible the evaporation and circulation of water. But the sea never changes. The rivers and waters pour into the sea, but the seas remain the same.
We live under the sun, but our destiny is beyond its rising and setting. Colossians 3:1-3 says, “If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
Nothing seems to satisfy (8).
Despite all our labors, we are never truly satisfied.
“Boring!” – usually pronounced “Booooooo-ring!” – is the ultimate put-down today, yet everyone seems afflicted by it. This verse explains why. Nothing under the sun satisfies. We can never see enough or hear enough to bring satisfaction. Everything ultimately brings weariness and boredom.
In 1958, American writer Barnaby Conrad was badly gored in a bullfight in Spain. Eva Gabor and Noel Coward were overheard talking about the incident in a New York restaurant. “Noel, dahling,’ said Eva, “have you heard the news about poor Bahnaby? He was terribly gored in Spain.” “He was what?” asked Coward in alarm. “He was gored!” “Thank heavens. I thought you said he was bored.” There’s a bit of wisdom there. Ultimate boredom – the fate of those who can look only under the sun for meaning – may be the worst fate of all.
The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
No matter what we see, we continue to look for things more pleasing to the eye. With cable and internet there is now available five-hundred-plus television channels in our homes. Bruce Springsteen’s song “57 Channels and Nothing’ On” is very close to the truth. But we will scan those channels, all the same, just to be sure we are not missing anything – because the eye is not satisfied, no matter where it looks.
Certainly, if ears were filled with hearing, some people would be full. I once saw someone in a truck that had speakers in the back bigger than its tires. The sound was cranked up so loud that the whole truck was rocking back and forth. I thought his ears must be bleeding for the sound – mine almost were! There is not enough sound to fill us.
Nothing is new under the sun (9-11).
Do you believe there is anything new in our world today? What about cellphones? Pacemakers? Actually, the physical properties of these inventions have always been with us; we have just learned how to combine them into different forms. But how far have we really come? The seven deadly sins are as deadly as ever. People are still at war with one another, and no less inclined to fight than before. There is no less greed, no less immorality, and no less dishonesty, as far as I can see. Is our world getting better?
What will be done is that which has been done.
We look at the world that is around us – what we can see and feel and hear under the sun – and we realize there is nothing new. It is as it ever was. Rudyard Kipling expressed the sentiments of Solomon when he wrote these lines:
The craft that we call modern,
The crimes that we call new;
John Bunyan had ‘em typed and filed
If thought to be new, it has been done in ancient times.
A reporter named Chris Ross filed his last column for the Jacksonville Daily Progress. This is part of what he had to say:
If I’ve learned anything in my days at the Progress, it’s there really isn’t anything new under the sun. Of the first things people said when I’d tell them what I did, was usually, “Wow, I bet that’s interesting. Something new every day.” And I’d smile and say, “Yeah, it beats getting a real job,” or something. But the longer I worked as a reporter, the more I realized I’m doing the same stories over and over. Some of the names and places and even motives would change, but essentially it was the same old thing.
We simply don’t remember the past, nor will the future remember the present.
Weighing his evidence alone, most of us would have to agree with Solomon’s conclusion that life is empty, would we not? Even the best life lived out under the sun is meaningless, boring, and empty. Listen to the word of a modern-day Solomon if you are not sure. Alexander Curry was a thirty-something Wall Street trader for a large brokerage house. His hefty six-figure income afforded him a well-furnished Upper East Side apartment filled with high-tech toys. In his more introspective moments, he wondered what it is all about.
I’ve always felt that there was something I could do and feel I was doing something of real tangible benefit. Trading, arbitraging futures markets does not have any real tangible benefit, in my opinion. I mean, it serves a purpose for the economy, but I don’t think of myself as really doing a lot for society. I’m really doing more for myself. I would have to say that I feel that there is a lack of purpose in my being. I don’t understand why I’m here. I don’t really try to understand why I’m here because I think it would probably be futile. It does provide a real hole in my existence.
Is there a way off the treadmill? Can we step off the stair-climber? Is there an alternative?
Howard Mumma was a Methodist pastor who, during several summers in the 1950s, served as a guest minister at the American Church in Paris. One Sunday after the service, he noticed a small crowd of admirers gathered around a man in a dark suit. The man was Albert Camus, a famous existentialist author whose books centered on the theme of the absurdity of the human condition. Camus’ novels, The Plague and The Stranger, and essays such as The Myth of Sisyphus, were the talk of the intellectual community; and he won the 1957 Nobel Prize for literature. Camus had begun attending the church’s services to listen to the organist, and he had continued attending to listen to Mumma’s sermons.
Mumma and Camus became friends in spite of the gulf that separated their beliefs. Mumma kept the content of their conversations private for forty years. At the age of ninety-two, he finally went on the record about his discourses with the nihilist philosopher. In one conversation, Camus told Mumma:
The reason I have been coming to church is because I am seeking. I’m almost on a pilgrimage – seeking something to fill the void that I am experiencing – and no one else knows. Certainly, the public and the readers of my novels, while they see that void, are not finding the answers in what they are reading. But deep down you are right. I’m searching for something that the world is not giving me…In a sense we are all products of a mundane world, a world without spirit. The world in which we live and the lives which we live are decidedly empty…Since I have been coming to church, I have been thinking a great deal about the idea of a transcendent, something that is other than this world. It is something that you do not hear much about today, but I am finding it.
These were not yet the words of a man who believed in Christ for eternal life, but they are significant. Camus had built a career out of the idea that life is absurd and meaningless, but after living with that philosophy for several decades, he wasn’t so sure anymore. He was willing to consider that there was a God who might satisfy his thirst for meaning after all.
Another philosopher lived centuries earlier. Blaise Pascal was without equal, a brilliant French thinker, scientist, mathematician, and inventor. As a young man, Pascal had trouble with the spiritual equations of life, and he soon grew disillusioned with the pleasure of his fashionable society. Everything seemed boring to him.
One night Pascal picked up a Bible and turned to John 17. As he began reading, verse 3 blazed out like a spark and seemed to set the room on fire: And this is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. Taking pen and parchment, he began writing snatches of his thoughts:
In the year of Grace, 1654
On Monday, 23rd of November
God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob
Not of the philosophers and scholars.
Certitude. Certitude, Heartfelt Joy. Peace.
Joy, joy, joy, tears of joy.
This is eternal life, that they may know You, the Only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.
Jesus Christ. Let me never be separated from Him.
Pascal spent the rest of his life proclaiming the greatness of God. That scrap of parchment was found after his death sewed into the lining of his coat, that it might ever be close to his heart. It was this same Pascal who echoed the words of Ecclesiastes in this well-known paraphrase of one of his Pensées: “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man that cannot be filled by any created thing, but by God alone made known through Jesus Christ.”
Let’s end by comparing this passage of Ecclesiastes with 2 Pet 3:3-13. In verse 3 Peter points out that unbelievers mock by saying everything goes on the same; there are no changes. Yet that’s exactly what Eccl 1:4-11 seems to be saying. Remember this is life under the sun. This is life as it is on this earth that lies under a curse.
Peter responds to the objection by pointing to Noah. God clearly announced His intention that the earth should not continue in an endless cycle. There will be a judgment day. And the heavens and the earth will be renewed to an entirely different kind of existence.
Because of this, Ecclesiastes can end by saying Fear God and keep His commandments…for God will bring every deed into judgment (Eccl 12:13-14). Don’t be fooled by appearances; things won’t go on this way forever. Believers are to prepare for the Judgment Seat of Christ where their works will be evaluated and appropriately rewarded (2 Cor 5:10). But Ecclesiastes makes this point by first giving due weight to appearances and by pointing out the futility of looking for fulfillment short of the new heaven and the new earth.
Get off the weary go-round. Get on track with Christ.