The Futility of Life Without God

1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
    at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
    and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
    and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
    and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
    but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
    there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
    a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
    nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done,
    and there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said,
    “See, this is new”?
It has been already
    in the ages before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things,
    nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
    among those who come after. – Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 ESV

The book of Ecclesiastes got its name in a rather roundabout manner. The original title for the book was the first verse:  “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” But in the third century B.C., the men who translated the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek (the Septuagint), chose to title the book “Ekklesiastes.” This is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word qōheleṯ, which the ESV translates into “Preacher.” The original Hebrew word refers to a “speaker in an assembly” or a “teacher” and in the Old Testament,  the verb form was often used to refer to calling together a group of people for a special religious, political, military, or judicial occasion.

As the opening verse suggests, the book was authored by King Solomon, the son of David. The general consensus among conservative evangelical scholars is that Solomon wrote the book of Ecclesiastes in the latter years of his life, sometime after his apostasy (1 Kings 11:1-8) and after God had declared that He would divide Solomon’s kingdom in half.

So now the Lord said to him, “Since you have not kept my covenant and have disobeyed my decrees, I will surely tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your servants. But for the sake of your father, David, I will not do this while you are still alive. I will take the kingdom away from your son. And even so, I will not take away the entire kingdom; I will let him be king of one tribe, for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, my chosen city.” – 1 Kings 11:11-13 NLT

Solomon did not live to see his kingdom split in half. God allowed him to live a long and very prosperous life but his latter years were filled with faithlessness and futility. He was wise, wealthy, and powerful but, as the book of Ecclesiastes reveals, he was anything but contented or satisfied.

The book of Ecclesiastes is essentially Solomon’s autobiography and a personal treatise on how his worldview took a turn for the worse. Somewhere along the way, he lost his perspective by taking his eyes off of God and forgetting the very words his own father had taught him.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever! – Psalm 110:10 ESV

He would go on to include and expand on this admonition in his collection of wise sayings.

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction. – Proverbs 1:7 ESV

The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight. – Proverbs 9:10 ESV

But Solomon had ignored his own teaching. Blessed by God with wisdom, power, and wealth, Solomon had begun to seek fulfillment and satisfaction from all the wrong places. Rather than focusing his attention on the Giver, Solomon had become obsessed with the gifts. And he provides a sad assessment of his godless pursuit of happiness in all the wrong places.

“Look, I am wiser than any of the kings who ruled in Jerusalem before me. I have greater wisdom and knowledge than any of them.” So I set out to learn everything from wisdom to madness and folly. But I learned firsthand that pursuing all this is like chasing the wind.

The greater my wisdom, the greater my grief.
    To increase knowledge only increases sorrow. – Ecclesiastes 1:16-18 NLT

Chasing the wind. Futility. Vanity. Meaninglessness. These are just a few of the words that Solomon uses to describe life throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. These words are rather surprising when you consider that they’re coming from the pen of a man who seemingly had it all – health, wealth, wisdom, success, fame, and the respect and admiration of men near and far. But Solomon was human. He may have been rich, but he was still susceptible to the conditions that plague all mankind – fear of man, the desire for more, discontentment, dissatisfaction, jealousy, and the ever-present reality of sin.

Solomon didn’t live in a vacuum. He was surrounded by individuals who tested and tried him, sought to defeat him, played up to him just to get something out of him, lived off of him, and revealed the worst about him. In other words, Solomon lived in a fallen world. He may have been the king of the people of God, but his life was not that much different than yours or mine. And when he looked at life from his own human vantage point, things took on a rather dark tone. He soon became disappointed and disillusioned.

But the book of Ecclesiastes is really designed to give the reader a God-centered perspective. It shows the futility of life when viewed from the vantage point of self. If we view life from our limited perspective, we will constantly find ourselves in a state of confusion and discontentment. This life does not make sense. Good things happen to bad people. The wicked seem to prosper. We can work hard all our lives and end up with nothing to show for it in the end. Life is not always fair. Justice doesn’t always seem to win out in the end. The unjust do not always seem to get their just desserts. In fact, many of the most wicked in this world seem to get away with murder – literally. Evil men rise to power and grow wealthy as they abuse and exploit their own people. Corrupt corporate executives get filthy rich while their investors lose everything. Injustice and inequity are everywhere.

But one of the phrases Solomon uses repeatedly is “under the sun.” He is basically referring to life on the planet earth. It refers to a temporal mindset that can easily focus on the horizontal and leave out the vertical. Rather than living life with a God-centered worldview, we become fixated on a self-centered, me-focused worldview. It becomes life as I see it – limited, myopic, and incapable of seeing the bigger picture. One of the recurring themes of Ecclesiastes seems to be that life without God lacks real substance. There is no real value or permanence to it all. It’s like a vapor or fog that is here one minute, then gone the other. It’s transitory and futile.

One of the most well-known phrases found in the book of Ecclesiastes is the refrain: “Vanity of vanities” (Ecclesiastes 1:2 ESV). The Hebrew word is hebel and it refers to something that is without substance, such as a mist or vapor.

“Vanity” (Heb. hebel) probably does not mean “meaningless.” As Solomon used this word in Ecclesiastes he meant lacking real substance, value, permanence, or significance.[14] “Vapor,” “breath-like,” or “ephemeral” captures the idea (cf. Proverbs 21:6; Isaiah 57:13). One writer favored the words “absurd” or “absurdity.” – Michael V. Fox, “The Meaning of Hebel for Qoheleth,” Journal of Biblical Literature 105:3 (September 1986):409-27.

Solomon had all that life had to offer. But he seemed to know that all the wealth in the world was going to satisfy him in the end. You can’t take it with you. And you could lose it all in the blink of an eye. Years of hard work and labor could be easily squandered, stolen, or wind up never delivering what you thought they would. It’s the house that’s never clean. The yard that persistently needs mowing. The bills that are never finished being paid. The pain that never goes away. The hurt that’s never fully healed.

Solomon stresses the monotony and endless repetition that accompanies life on this planet.

A generation goes, and a generation comes… – vs 4

The sun rises, and the sun goes down… – vs 5

The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind… – vs 6

All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full – vs 7

He concludes that it is all a relentless cycle of weariness and futility.

What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done,
    and there is nothing new under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 1:9 ESV

This rather pessimistic, glass-half-empty perspective pervades the book of Ecclesiastes.

…as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless. It was like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere. – Ecclesiastes 2:11 NLT

But in the midst of all the doom and gloom, there is good news. Solomon still believed that God was in control and that His perspective is much larger and more accurate. God is able to view life from a better vantage point. That led Solomon to write, “God has made everything beautiful for its own time. He has planted eternity in the human heart, but even so, people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NLT).

Solomon came to understand that his perspective was limited. He couldn’t see what God can see. He didn’t know what God knows. He wasn’t privy to the plans of God, and God does not consult or seek man’s approval for His actions. For Solomon it was as simple as, “I know that whatever God does is final. Nothing can be added to it or taken from it. God’s purpose in this is that people should fear him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14 NLT).

Life is like chasing the wind, but only if you choose to ignore God’s bigger plan. When you leave Him out of the equation, nothing adds up. It doesn’t make sense. Nothing works. Nothing. No amount of money can make us happy. Nothing we can purchase or own can fulfill us. Nothing we eat or drink can fully satisfy us. But God can.

Attempting to live life without a God-centered perspective will be like chasing the wind. But when we keep God as the focus of life and His will as the motivation for our obedience, life becomes meaningful. It becomes rich, complete, fulfilling, satisfying, and worth living.

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