Everything Is Meaningless
1 The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:
Our translation here uses the word ‘Teacher’. The word means someone who gathered people together to speak to them. Some translations use the word ‘Speaker’ or ‘Preacher’. King David’s son might mean Solomon or it could be someone else from David’s line.
Solomon’s fame because of his wisdom (1 Kings 10:24) and possible parallels with his life (especially in chapter 2) lead most people to believe that Solomon is the author but that’s by no means certain.
So here we go on a journey to discover that everything is “hevel”. Welcome to the transience and uncertainty of life. I have been reading about the Japanese concept of Wabi Sabi (侘寂) for a music project that I am working on. Wabi Sabi offers a similar concept. It asserts that beauty is in the transient, the imperfect, the unpredictable and that our part in that is to surrender to it.
Ecclesiastes goes further to suggest that because of this that the only meaningful thing we can do is to fear God and keep his commands. It leaves us with more hope and purpose than Wabi Sabi which attempts to leave us with peace amidst the uncertainty but does not give us the why, other than the circular life of nature.
2 “Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
Everything is meaningless.”
3 What do people gain from all their labors
Verses 2-3 introduce us to “hevel“. The transient nature of life and existence. We cannot trust that anyone or anything in this world will make us completely happy.
We cannot achieve anything that will last. Work is hard. And although we work during our whole life this seems to have no real reward. Even if we have an impact in the workplace we will soon be forgotten once we are out of sight.
Earlier this year (2016) myself and my wife popped into a store in an Essex town. I opened that store. I closed the old store in the town centre and opened what at the time was the flagship store for Essex and East Anglia. I was the general manager of that store once. We were the top performing store in the region. 25 years had passed since I left. I could walk through the store and nobody had a clue who I was. No customer, no staff member. A lot of toil and hard work went into that store and the two years I spent there. It’s all dust now. I doubt there are even stories that are from that period. It’s “hevel“…a mist, a vapour.
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
7 All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
8 All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
9 What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
11 No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.
Nothing changes, Nature doesn’t change, People don’t change. “hevel“.
Verses 4-11 are a poem that describes history. Nothing in human history and nothing in nature moves forward. Things always seem to change. But they remain as they were. People are born and people die. But the earth, that they come from, never changes. The sun, the wind and the streams return again and again to where they begin. There is nothing new in people’s experience. Nobody in the future will remember people and events from the past.
Verse 5 reminds me of Psalm 19:4-5, the writer describes the sun, ‘like a bridegroom in his splendid clothes’. And here the writer describes that sun as he would describe a person. The sun ‘hurries’ back to where it started. The Hebrew word ‘hurry’ refers to someone who is running. It must rise and it must go down again daily in an endless cycle.
In verse 6 The wind seems to be free. It may blow where it chooses to blow (John 3:8). The Teacher thinks about the wind’s constant movement. It is always changing the place from where it blows. But it always comes back to its first direction.
Verse 7 tells us that streams flow into the sea but they never manage to fill the sea. The streams continue to flow. Job spoke about water that comes from streams. Water comes from the clouds and it comes from the rain. Then it returns to the streams (Job 36:27). Water goes up from the sea as mist and it returns as rain. Everything in nature and creation are circular and cyclic and yet we as humans attempt to buck the system by making everything linear. Maybe it’s the intervention of death that makes us this way and our selfish core “sin gene” .
Verse 8 reminds us that our senses are like the sea, which is never full. There is no end to what we can see. And there is no end to what we can hear. This thirst for experience, this grabbing at life makes us weary. It is like trying to grab water. The tighter we grab the less chance we have of quenching our thirst but if we relax our hand and immerse it in the water, allowing the water to flow all around our hand and just “be water” there is a good chance by gently cupping our hand we may just bring enough water to our mouth to quench a thirst.
Verses 9-11 are a stark lesson that everything that existed in the past will continue to exist. People will continue to do everything that they have done before. History will repeat itself. Nations, even Empires will rise and fall. People live and die, they are forgotten people. My children have no experience of my grandfather (my dad’s father). He died before any of them were born and although he had a profound impact on me, once I am gone there will be no reminder.
At a cursory glance it all seems pretty depressing but actually it’s not. It’s about surrender and once you understand “hevel“, the transient nature of life, the futility of attempting to recreate our experience of the world in a linear fashion then you can relax and be at peace. You can love God and love people without distraction or worry or pressure. It’s a profoundly beautiful thing.
Wisdom Is Meaningless
12 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
15 What is crooked cannot be straightened;
what is lacking cannot be counted.
16 I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.
18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more knowledge, the more grief.
It appears that the Teacher in these verses was King Solomon. His thirst for wisdom, understanding and insight was relentless. It wore him out. He acknowledged that wisdom, insight, knowledge and understanding do not bring peace but they only lead to more questions. God has instilled this desire to understand our purpose in all of us. The answer is as the book concludes to walk with God. Everything else is “hevel”.
In verse 14 we read that we cannot expect to control the wind. In the same way, we cannot expect to understand all that happens in the world. We cannot fully grasp purpose and reason. We would arrive too readily and where would the need for God be. God is our purpose.
Verse 15 reminds us that we cannot know or do everything.
Verse 16 The Teacher said that he had become very wise. He was wiser than the kings who had ruled before him. Even in his pursuit of wisdom, insight and knowledge it was a chasing after the wind. It was elusive … “hevel“
We are reminded also in verse 18 that knowledge and wisdom bring us more trouble. Higher expectations, more judgment, more worry and anxiety, more understanding that we cannot control or govern for specific outcomes. Life is fragile, beautiful, unpredictable, unfair and uncertain …”hevel”.