“What advantage does a man have for all the work he has done under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:3). The Book of Ecclesiastes is sobering, though it is one of my favorite books in the Bible. I was drawn to it in college because of the candid assessment of life that it reveals. That candid assessment was refreshing to me as a young adult as I surveyed life and my place in the world.
We work most of our lives to earn a living, to keep up appearances, to obtain things, to advance our station in the world, to keep our yards neat and clean. We go about our labors often without much thought for why we do it. I don’t mean that we don’t have goals. Of course we do, but our goals are temporal.
I am reminded of the carrot attached to a stick mounted on the harness of a horse. We chase after those carrots. When we catch one, there is always another carrot to chase. Often we don’t achieve our goals, and we are left unsatisfied as a result. The truth is, though, even when we do achieve our goals, we are rarely satisfied by having attained them.
The author of Ecclesiastes takes a step back from the busyness of life, as I was doing in college. The author contemplates the arc of life, the beginning to the end, and asks what it all means. We rarely do that. But, if you stop to think about it, what is the point? We labor and toil on this Earth through our 60, 70, 80 or more years, but for what? What do we get in the end?
If this life is all there is, our labor and toil does not benefit us in the end. Everything that we do is left to the people who come after us. And what they leave is taken by those who come after them. We may take comfort in the thought of leaving things to our children, but children often don’t appreciate what has been done for them. Children often squander what is left to them.
Even if our children don’t appreciate what we have left them and don’t squander it, their lives, too, will end the same way. In 10 Generations, what will be left of anything that I have done on this Earth? Who will even know my name? Who will even know that I existed?
My father has done a lot of ancestry research. He has researched back about 10 generations in our family. Even so, what we know about our ancestors is very little. In some cases, we cannot even be certain we have the right people. We might have a birth record, a death record, or a census, but very little other information. Their Wills offer the most informative window into their lives.
These people worked very hard for the very meager possessions they owned at their deaths. Their lives were much more difficult than ours. Many people died young. Most of them lost multiple children at young ages. These people had personalities and dreams, but we will never know their intimate thoughts. They are virtually anonymous to us today, even to the most studious researcher.
One of my descendants was the first permanent white settler in Scioto County Ohio. He arrived there when the Native Americans still controlled the land. He carved out a homestead for himself. He built a house and created a life in the unforgiving wilderness. During his own life, however, all of it was taken from him when the state of Virginia claimed the territory, began to drive the Indians out, and sold off the claims to people who acquired them from the state. He was forced to move off the land he had conquered, leaving everything behind him that he had built. He couldn’t even enjoy the fruits of his own labor during his lifetime.
The writer of Ecclesiastes recognized that all of our toil and labor is ultimately in vain if we consider the big picture. All our toil and labor is vanity and meaningless “under the sun”. The term, under the sun, conjures up an image of working in the heat of the day, eking out a day-by-day existence, knowing in the back of our minds that tomorrow isn’t even guaranteed.
Most of us try not to think about that reality.
The writer of Ecclesiastes looked at other things that might give meaning and hope, like living for pleasure or working to gain wisdom. He observed that pleasure is here today, gone tomorrow. Pleasure is chasing after the wind. Pleasure has increasingly diminished returns. We find that it quickly fades. We need more and more of it to satisfy. In the end, there is never enough pleasure. It is a mirage we can never hold onto. It begins to cease, even as we experience it.
The writer of Ecclesiastes recognized that wisdom, also, is chasing after the wind. Those who are wise often do no better in life than the fool. Wisdom does not necessarily produce greater results then folly. In the end, the wise person dies just like the fool, and the wise are no better off for having been wise.
This is our experience “under the sun” if we really think about it. If nothing transcends this existence of ours, what is the point? We are better off dead, better never to have been born, than to yearn for something more and never have any hope of attaining it. (Ecclesiastes 4:2-3)
It’s hard to argue that Ecclesiastes doesn’t paint a clear or accurate picture. But, something doesn’t up. Why do we even care? Does the Lion care that he won’t reign over his patch of the savanna forever? Does the goat worry about the grass shriveling and dying in his field after he is gone? Does my dog long for eternity? Why do I?
Ecclesiastes gives us an answer: “[God] put eternity into man’s heart….” (Ecc. 3:11)
But, we won’t find what we are looking for “under the sun”. What we yearn for is not to be found under the sun, in this temporal life, in the flesh. What we long for is the transcendent, and the fact that we long for it suggests that something transcendent exists to satisfy that longing.
CS Lewis makes this argument in his book, Mere Christianity:
“The Christian says, ‘Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or to be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that country and to help others to do the same.”
Jesus might have translated “under the sun” to mean the flesh when he said, “the flesh profits nothing”. (John 6:63) Though the flesh profits nothing, Jesus said, “the spirit gives life!” Jesus came preaching the kingdom of God, but he said no one will see it unless they are “born again”. (John 3:3) He came talking about a transcendence for which we long, but he stressed that we will not see or experience the transcendent unless we are born of the spirit. Everywhere Jesus went he said, “Follow me”; and he promised living water that would quench our thirst (John 7:37-39), bread of life that would satisfy our hunger (John 6:35), and eternal life (John 6:40).
This is what the writer of Ecclesiastes was suggesting. We will never be satisfied “under the sun”. We will never be satisfied in our flesh. Our aim should not be the temporal, but the eternal, transcendent reality for which we long. We long for it because God put a sense of the transcendent into our hearts. He intended for us to long for it. That is the whole point. God desires that we long for and choose the transcendent over the temporal – to long ultimately for Him.
Frankly, it’s a no-brainer when you consider that everything in this life is striving after the wind. It’s all a mirage. It will never, never satisfy a longing that only a transcendent, eternal God can fulfill.