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Author:Rev. W.B. Slomp
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Congregation:Immanuel Canadian Reformed Church
 Edmonton, Alberta
 www.edmontonimmanuel.ca
 
Title:The Futility of Earthly Life
Text:Ecclesiastes 1:1-3 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Living in a sinful world
 
Preached:2008-02-03
Added:2008-02-14
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Sing: Psalm 90: 1, 2, 3
Psalm 119: 45, 61
Psalm 39: 3, 5
Psalm 121: 1, 3, 4
Hymn 32: 1, 2, 3

Read: Colossians 3: 1-4
Revelation 21: 22 - 22:1-7
Ecclesiastes 1: 1-11

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. W.B. Slomp, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, brothers and sisters:

In January 2008, a news story reported that two economics professors in the United Kingdom conducted a study with participants from all over the world measuring the state of happiness of people at various stages of their life. They found that the older you get, the more depressed you become. The most depressed people were those in middle age. Such depression is not caused by having children crying through the middle of the night, or by the occurrence of divorce after 20 years of marriage or anything like that. It's much deeper.

In interpreting the data they surmised that such feelings of depression might be due to the fact that as you grow older you realize more and more the futility of life. When you are younger you are optimistic and you make all kinds of plans, but often those plans do not pan out. And even if things work out for you then they do not turn out to be as meaningful or as fulfilling as you thought they would be.

The researchers found that such feelings of unhappiness bottom out in the mid-forties. Their conclusion was that "Miserable middle age is a global phenomenon." The good news, so the study says, is that after your mid-forties you begin to feel somewhat happier. You more and more begin to accept your life for what it is.

But is that indeed the way it is? Is life meaningless? As you read the book of Ecclesiastes you would think so. Time and again we read that everything is meaningless, or vanity as the other translations have it. That's what it says right here in the Bible, for Ecclesiastes is a part of the Bible. But is that what the Lord God is saying? Is God saying that life is useless? That life is hopelessly devoid of meaning? Doesn't that contradict what the Lord tells us in the rest of Scripture, namely that life is precious? Listen, for example, to what the Lord Jesus himself said in John 10:10, "I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."

What are we to make of that? How can the Bible in one place say one thing, and then in another place say something completely different?

Brothers and sisters let me assure you that the Bible does not contradict itself. If you want to understand what God is saying to you then you have to know how to read the Bible. You have to read carefully and you have to compare Scripture with Scripture. You have to look at each passage within its immediate context, within its broader context, and within the context of all of God's Word.

You and I, we have a high regard for the authority of Scripture. We have that high regard because we know that all of Scripture is inspired by God. Although he uses human beings, the Holy Spirit himself is the actual author. And so, what is the Holy Spirit telling us in the first three verses of Ecclesiastes? Is it normal to be so pessimistic about life here on earth? That is what this sermon is about:

THE FUTILITY OF EARTHLY LIFE.

We will look at that
1. From man's perspective;
2. From God's perspective.

1. The book of Ecclesiastes is a book like no other. It does not begin in the way that you would expect. It doesn't begin by praising God or his creation. It does not begin by stating that these are the words of God and that we have to listen to them. It doesn't begin with a positive tone in the least. It does quite the opposite: it is negative. It sounds like the author is in the midst of a midlife crisis and he wants everyone to know about it. He has to live his life here on earth and he finds that there is nothing to it. It's all useless.

Perhaps you remember the song sung by Peggy Lee, "Is that all there is?" She sings about her experiences in life as a little girl and as she grows older. She experiences a fire, and a circus, and then the falling in and out of love. Throughout the song the refrain is, "Is that all there is, is that all there is? If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep on dancing, let's break out the booze and have a ball, if that's all there is.” And finally she asks, well people may say to themselves that if that's how she feels about, then why doesn't she end it all? And then she says that she is not ready for the final disappointment of life. She says, “When that final moment comes and I'm breathing my last breath, I'll be saying to myself, is that all there is?”

Is that also what the teacher is saying? It seems so. He uses a Hebrew word that can be translated as vanity, emptiness, vapor. It refers to something that quickly vanishes and then leaves nothing behind. The word used in the NIV catches it well: "meaningless." Someone summarized the author's feelings by quoting "Life is a blister on top of a tumor, and a boil on top of that." Life is gruesome. It’s full of pain and sorrow. It is a bore.

The Teacher asks, “What does man gain from all his labour at which he toils under the sun?” The Teacher has been a keen observer of life around him. He has lived a full life and now tries to make sense of it all. Who is that Teacher? We don't know. All we know, as it says in verse one, is that he is a king in Jerusalem of David's lineage. Many claim that the author is Solomon. Scholars, however, dispute this. They say that the style and the language used do not reflect Solomon's time. They come to the conclusion that this book was the last book of the Old Testament and that it was written some 300 years before the birth of Christ.

In the end it doesn't really matter who the author is, for it doesn't affect the meaning of the book. All we know is that he introduces himself as "Ecclesiastes", translated as the Preacher, or the Teacher. The name "Ecclesiastes" refers to someone who belongs to the assembly, or to the church. He calls the assembly together and he preaches to them or teaches them.

The Teacher has a unique style. He wants his students to observe carefully what is happening around them. He wants them to take a broad picture. He does not want them to be stuck in a certain period of their life, oblivious to what is behind and to what is ahead. For that is how the worldly man lives. He lives for today. He becomes busy with his daily activities and he ploughs ahead without truly considering where he is going to end up. He becomes stuck in a rut.

And so the teacher says, what advantage do you gain by being so busy with the various things of your life? Think about it. Stand back for a moment. Look at where you're going. It means nothing at all. He says, life is like a balloon. You keep on huffing and puffing to make it bigger and meaningful. But in the end it’s all gone. Bang! The balloon bursts. There's nothing left.

Isn't that the truth? Look at the kinds of things we are aiming for in life. When you are young you aim to be independent. And then you want to get married. You want to get a house. You want to accumulate things -- stuff. You want to have children. You want to have a career. You want to be recognized as someone significant, as someone unique. You want to make a name for yourself.

As you get older you have obtained some of that, but not necessarily all of it. But, says the Teacher, think about it: in the end, what does it all mean? What you have gained here on the earth will go to others, to those who have not worked for it. Your precious possessions that you toiled and laboured for so hard all your life, in the end don't mean anything. When you get old and you move into an old-age home you will end up in a one or a two-room apartment, where you can only take a few possessions with you. You have to let go of all the precious goods you have acquired over the years. Somebody will live in the house that you worked so hard for all your life. And all of your beautiful furniture and your various trinkets will go to others who will not appreciate it like you did. For those possessions were part of your life. And then when you die everything is completely done. That, says the Teacher, is the lot of every man and woman on earth.

Depressing, isn't it? Yes, if that's how you look at life, then it is indeed depressing. And so what do you do? “Bring out the booze and have a ball?” Live for the moment? No. As I said, we have to read God’s Word carefully. What exactly is the Teacher talking about here in this passage? He speaks here about the life under the sun. In other words he is only looking at this earthly life. He is only looking at life from man's perspective. He is talking about what happens here on earth. And whether you are a believer or an unbeliever we all share the same lot.

The Teacher begins his book in the way that he does because he wants to shock us into reality: "Look at what life is like under the sun, it is meaningless. It has no purpose. All you do is live and die. Once all is said and done there is nobody on earth that is going to remember you any more." If you really want to look at life from the proper perspective, then you have to look at what God sees. We come to the second point.

2. The Teacher refers to the life under the sun to show us our limitations. God is the one who created it all. He put us here on earth with a purpose. When he created us there was a connection between heaven and earth. Adam and Eve could walk and talk with God. There was direct contact with heaven. Adam and Eve had great freedom to go anywhere and do anything. Except for the tree of knowledge of good and evil, there were no restrictions.

However, as soon as man sinned that connection was broken. Man became confined to his earthly existence. He became like a fish in a bowl. There was no escape from it. Listen to what the Lord God said to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:17-19). In other words, you are now part of the cycle of life and death. Your movements and your abilities will be greatly restricted. You will experience pain and sorrow and eventually death. That is your curse. And now the Teacher in this book presses home the implication of that curse that God put upon mankind. He says that is the reality of the fall into sin. That is now the fate of all men.

In this book of Ecclesiastes the Teacher mentions the word "toil" no less than 23 times. In this way he reminds us over and over of that curse pronounced upon man, upon each and every one of us. The Teacher brings home the message of Genesis that if you want to survive here on earth then you have to toil and labour to the point of exhaustion. And yet in the end you will experience little or no fulfillment in your work. The word "toil" carries with it the idea of frustration and misery.

How do you escape that? Well, brothers and sisters, the Lord God wants us to look at things from his perspective. That is the life under the sun. But who created the sun? God did. He did not just create man, but also the sun. He is the one who makes the sun to shine. Life here on earth would not be possible without the sun. And that is not all bad. In many ways it is good. The sun reminds us that God will not always be angry with man, that he will not always have man live under his curse.

For what does the sun do? The sun makes the crops grow. And you need the sun to bring warmth and prosperity. It is only when the light of the sun is taken away, then we experience God's curse. Think about what the Lord God did to the Egyptians. He gave them darkness. That was one of his great curses upon Egypt. The Egyptians were worshipers of the sun. But the Lord God showed them that he is the one who created the sun and that he can make it to shine or not to shine.

For it is God who ultimately controls everything that happens here on earth. He is in complete control of man's destiny. And you may wriggle and writhe and nothing can change that. He has your life in his hands. That is what the Teacher wants each and every one of us to realize. Throughout your whole existence here on earth, God, like the sun, will be with you. The sun is representative of his power. With the sun he can create life and cause death. The Shunammite's son was killed by the sun. He had a sunstroke. The sun is also representative of his endurance. For example the Lord God says in Psalm 89, "Once for all, I have sworn by my holiness- and I will not lie to David - that his line will continue forever and his throne endure before me like the sun" (Psalm 89:35-36).

The line of David is compared to the sun. And what does the line of David refer to? Ultimately it refers to the Lord Jesus Christ. For he is of the line of David. And so here we have God's perspective on things. It is not as if he is not involved in his creation. He is. He rules. He makes the sun to shine. He gives life here on earth. He gives you prosperity. He gives you many gifts to enjoy.

Brothers and sisters, do you want to get out of that vicious cycle of life? Do you want to have a life that is full of meaning? Do you want to get out of that rut that you are in? Well then take the godly advice of the apostle Paul who says “set your heart on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:1-2). That ultimately is also the message of Ecclesiastes. The Teacher describes his life here on earth. He looks at life from man's point of view. But then, like a bolt of lightning, he will come with a perspective from God. He does that especially in the end of the book of Ecclesiastes. He says in chapter 12, "remember your Creator in the days of your youth. Remember him, before you are old and spent.” He says, "Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: fear God and keep his commandments” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).

If you want to look at life without any reference to God, then you will experience a world full of chaos, a world full of disappointments, without meaning and without progress. Then you enter the world of Peggy Lee – “Is that all there is?” Then you enter the world of the existentialists. An unbeliever sees history as something circular. It goes around and around and around. Que sera, sera, what will be will be. There is no real progress. To postmodern man truth is an illusion. Truth is only what you make it to be for yourself. However, someone who looks beyond the sun, beyond the universe, has a completely a different perspective. When you are a believer then you love God's creation and then you see the glory and the majesty of God's name. When you're a child of God and you see the sun shine then you know that he is the one who makes that happen and that in so doing he smiles upon you, upon the animals and the trees and all of creation. He blesses his creation with his Holy Spirit.

Listen to how David expresses his joy about life under the sun. He writes in Psalm 8, "O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! And in Psalm 19 David exclaims with great joy: "the heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” He says further, “Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun, which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion, like a champion rejoicing to run his course. It rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other; nothing is hidden from its heat” (Psalm 19:1, 4-6).

Ecclesiastes, the Teacher, wants us to go beyond this earth. He wants us to see the futility of it all. And for that reason he keeps coming back to the refrain of vanity – that everything is meaningless. He wants us to realize that ultimately it is only the Lord God who can shine upon you.

Revelation 21 & 22 bring us to the end of our earthly existence. There you are brought to a life that is no longer under the sun. For there we read that in the New Jerusalem there will be no more sun. The New Jerusalem "does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp (Revelation 21:23).

Life is meaningless, futile? Oh yes, without God it is. Without God you walk in darkness, even though you live under the sun. That is why God should be your light now. If he is your light now, then he will also be your light forever in the New Jerusalem. And so lift up your hearts unto the Lord. Lift them up to God. That’s where your treasure is, and not here on earth. Amen





* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. W.B. Slomp, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was: www.edmontonimmanuel.ca

(c) Copyright 2008, Rev. W.B. Slomp

Please direct any comments to the Webmaster


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