Under the Sun (Ecclesiastes 1)

By David Feddes

I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 1:14)

Have you ever had the Sysiphus syndrome?

According to an old Greek legend, a man named Sysiphus offended the gods, and they decided to punish him. They ordered him to push a heavy, round stone to the top of a mountain. But every time he got to the top and let go of the stone, it would roll right back down to the bottom, and he’d have to start all over again. Push it up, watch it roll down; push it up, watch it roll down; push it up, watch it roll down; over and over and over again for all eternity. That’s the Sysiphus syndrome: always working hard and never accomplishing anything. Know the feeling?

The Sysiphus syndrome can hit students. You get up and go to school and come home. The next day you get up and go to school and come home. The next day you get up and go to school and come home. Each day you go to class and do your homework, and what’s the reward? More classes, and more homework!

The Sysiphus syndrome can also hit stay-at-home moms. You change one diaper, but soon there’s another diaper, then another and another. You make a meal for your family, but soon the meal is digested and you’re making another meal. You scamper here and there picking up around the house, but the next day the place is as messy as ever, and you’re picking up all over again. It’s like shoveling snow in a blizzard.

The Sysiphus syndrome also hits people on the job. You slave away to finish a pile of paperwork, and tomorrow there’s an even bigger stack waiting for you. Or you finish one unit on the assembly line just in time to do the next, then the next, then the next. Or you’re a trucker, driving mile after mile after mile to haul one load, only to pick up the next load and drive mile after mile after mile with it. Or you’re a farmer doing all the same things you did last year, or a store manager stocking the same shelves over and over, or a salesman giving the same sales pitch again and again and again. Whatever your job is, don’t you sometimes feel like you’re pushing a stone to the top of the mountain only to have it roll down so that you can start all over again?

Nobody is immune to the Sysiphus syndrome. No matter how exciting something looks from the outside, it can seem routine and useless to the person doing it. A professional athlete going from game to game and hotel room to hotel room; a rock star doing yet another concert; an author writing still another book; a government leader working on still another piece of legislation—their lives can seem as monotonous and repetitive as students doing yet another homework assignment. A business tycoon getting on the next airplane or making the next million can get as bored as a mother changing diapers.

What’s the Use?

You can be the richest, smartest, most powerful person around and still feel empty and insignificant. Listen to the opening statement of the Bible book of Ecclesiastes: “The words of the Teacher, son of David, King in Jerusalem: ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Or, as another version puts it, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!”

Now remember, these aren’t the words of some poor dummy without the imagination to think of anything exciting or the brains to do something impressive. These are the words of a genius called Mr. Teacher. The Hebrew word is Koheleth. (The word Ecclesiastes is the Greek equivalent.) Koheleth literally means the person people gather around. This is the guy people listen to: the authority, the pundit, the expert, the Teacher. He is smart, and what’s more, he’s rich and famous. He’s a son of the great King David and reigns as king in Jerusalem. It appears that the writer of Ecclesiastes is none other than the brilliant and mighty King Solomon, though he avoids using his own name and speaks of himself as “the Teacher.”

At any rate, he’s got a bad case of the Sysiphus syndrome. After years of hard work and brilliant thinking, what does he have to show for it? Nothing. He hasn’t changed a thing. The rock just rolls back to the bottom of the mountain.

What does a man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place where the streams come from, there they return again.

Everything seems to be going in circles, always moving but never getting anywhere. The sun keeps going, the wind keeps blowing, the water keeps flowing, and nothing much changes. So what’s the use of all our labor and effort?

The Teacher’s view here is like the view you get from a skyscraper or an airplane. You see farther than you’ve ever seen before. You see the big picture. When you look down and try to see people, they’re almost invisible. If you see them at all, they look like tiny ants crawling along. Then you realize that you are one of those ants yourself. When an ant enters a place, nothing much changes; and when the ant gets stepped on, nothing much changes. So too, people’s lives have an ant-sized impact on the world and the universe. Entire generations come and go without leaving a trace. Millions, even billions, of us live and die and turn to dust, and the earth remains as it always has. The cycles of nature roll on and on.

We don’t seem to amount to much in the bigger picture. So what’s the use of living? What’s the point? What value or meaning do our lives really have? Nature goes through the same cycles with or without us, and during our short lives we seem to be going in circles just like the rest of nature. We do the same things and go through the same routines over and over. Then we die and disappear and leave the wheels of nature to go on turning without us. How can we deal with such monotony and emptiness?

All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 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. There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.

Many of us would rather not face reality, so we get hooked on distractions. When we’ve got a spare moment at home, what’s the first thing we do? We turn on the television. Even if we don’t like anything that happens to be on TV at the moment, we watch it anyway, just to kill time—about four hours a day, on the average. If we do turn the TV off, it’s only to turn on the radio or stereo or computer instead. As the Teacher puts it, “The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.”

Take away all our noise and distractions, and what’s left? Most of us would rather not know. So we keep stuffing our eyes and ears with sights and sounds. Is that the cure for the Sysiphus syndrome? Just give poor Sysiphus a TV to watch and a set of headphones to listen to as he pushes the rock up the mountain for the umpteenth time, and maybe he won’t notice how monotonous and meaningless his life really is!

Under the Sun

The Teacher won’t settle for distractions, and neither should we. We need to take a hard, honest look at life under the sun. That phrase “under the sun” is one that’s repeated over and over in Ecclesiastes—about 30 times, in fact. “Under the sun” is life lived through human effort without trusting God. It’s life seen from a human perspective without looking at things from God’s perspective. And from that point of view, we can’t see any true purpose or meaning to our lives. Life “under the sun” is vanity of vanities. It’s monotonous, empty, meaningless.

This isn’t just a grumpy complaint from a man in a bad mood. It’s the result of careful study and realistic observation and thorough thinking. The Teacher says,

I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I devoted myself to study and explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after wind.

He’s seen it all and analyzed it all, and that’s his conclusion.

Remember, he’s relying only on what he can discover for himself without listening to God. He knows that God exists, but in “under the sun” thinking, God is just a label for whatever higher power made this world. He’s not a Lord to be worshipped or a Friend to be trusted or a Father to be loved. He’s just a distant factor in an equation. He’s the One who set the whole boring cycle in motion, the One who burdened us with lives that don’t seem to accomplish much or make much sense.

That’s life under the sun: even if you believe in a God of some sort, when it comes to your work, you rely on your own efforts, not his grace; and when it comes to your thinking, you rely on your own wisdom, not his revelation. And what’s the result? Your work seems useless, and so does your wisdom. You feel like you’re just chasing the wind.

Facing Our Limits

Secular, “under the sun” wisdom has to face the fact that there’s much that it can’t control or change, and much that it can’t even know. As the Teacher puts it, “What is twisted cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted” (v. 15).

Living in a twisted world, we hear over and over that we need better education in order to straighten things out. Whether it’s AIDS or alcoholism or child abuse or teen pregnancy, we expect education to straighten out what is twisted. But it doesn’t. Journalist Malcolm Muggeridge once said,

Education—the great mumbo jumbo and fraud of the ages—purports to equip us to live and is prescribed as a universal remedy for everything from juvenile delinquency to premature senility. For the most part it serves to enlarge stupidity, inflate conceit, enhance credulity, and put those subjected to it at the mercy of brainwashers with printing presses, radio, and television at their disposal.

Perhaps Muggeridge was exaggerating a bit, but it’s time we realized that education isn’t the solution to everything. There are limits to what human thinking can do. It can’t straighten out what is twisted by sin. And it can’t figure out things to which it has no access. “What is lacking cannot be counted.” If there really is something missing from our lives, then humanistic thinking—”under the sun” thinking—can’t tell us what it is. God himself will have to show us what it is, or we’ll never know. We can’t rely on education or brain power to solve all our problems or to find out all we need to know.

So, then, it makes no sense to be snooty or self-satisfied about how smart we are or how much we know. In fact, there are times when it seems we’d be better off not knowing. The Teacher puts it this way in the last part of Ecclesiastes 1.

I thought to myself, “Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” 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. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.

In other words, the more you know, the more it hurts. With so much education and research data and investigative reporting, much of the information you learn just makes you sadder and more cynical. You admire a certain person as your hero—and then some news report or biography shows just how rotten that person can be. You enjoy a certain food—only to hear a news report that it could give you cancer (if it doesn’t give you a heart attack first). Sometimes you wish you could just go back to not knowing. The more you know, the harder it is to believe in anybody or enjoy anything. “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow,” says the Teacher, “the more knowledge, the more grief” (v. 18).

So, then, what’s the alternative? If knowledge makes us more miserable, does that mean ignorance is bliss? And what about work? If it seems monotonous and empty, does that mean we’d be better off not doing anything? Should we just drop out and be a bunch of know-nothing, do-nothing, good-for-nothing bums? No, that may be tempting, but that would just make us lazy and foolish and empty, instead of hard-working and educated and empty. Either way, we’re still empty.

Nowhere Man

Our main problem isn’t that we work too hard or know too much. It’s that we pursue our work apart from God’s blessing, and we pursue education without God’s revelation. The main trouble with our work isn’t that we work too much and accomplish too little; it’s that we don’t know whom we’re working for or why we’re working in the first place. The main problem with our wisdom isn’t that we know too much about earth; it’s that we know too little about heaven. As long we work and think with an “under the sun” perspective, we end up feeling like nobodies who are headed nowhere, like the “Nowhere Man” in the Beatles song:

He’s a real nowhere man,
sitting in his nowhere land,
making all his nowhere plans
for nobody.

Doesn’t have a point of view.
Knows not where he’s going to.
Isn’t he a bit like you
and me?

That’s life “under the sun.” Doesn’t have a point of view: you don’t have God as your supreme point of reference and you don’t see your life in light of God’s plan. You know not where you’re going to: you leave your eternal destiny out of the equation and focus on the here and now. You have no personal relationship to the God who rules all things; you have no idea where your life is headed; and so all your work and wisdom is empty.

Without God you are a nowhere man or woman, and God will make sure you stay that way. He will make sure that your work and wisdom remain meaningless as long as you live without him. In the Bible God says of work, “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain… In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat—for he grants sleep to those he loves” (Psalm 127:1-2). Any work without God’s blessing is ultimately in vain—vanity of vanities, meaningless.

As for wisdom, it too is worthless without God. The Lord says, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.’ … Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Corinthians 1:19-20). Education without revelation is vanity.

You see, God never designed us to work without him or to think without him. The Lord made us for himself. God created the universe through his Son, Jesus Christ, and he designed all things to thrive and find their meaning and fulfillment and happiness only in Christ. When humanity fell away from the Lord through sin, God subjected us and the entire creation to a frustrating cycle of monotony and eventual decay (Romans 8:21).

From Frustration to Fulfillment

Is there any way out? Is there anything new under the sun? Yes, there is, but only because of someone who came from beyond the sun. Jesus Christ has come into this world, and he has done what we could never do. He has broken the cycle of repetition and decay by doing something truly new under the sun: he has risen from the dead, never to die again. And he has sent his Holy Spirit to fill our emptiness and give our lives meaning and draw us into the eternal life of God and make all things new. For those who trust him, that changes everything.

When we live for the risen Lord Jesus and work for him, our work is not meaningless. 1 Corinthians 15, God’s Word speaks magnificently of Jesus’ resurrection and of the fact that all who trust him will also be glorified. And how does that great chapter end? It says, “Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58). Not in vain! Not vanity! Not meaningless! If you know the risen Lord, life is no longer a matter of going in circles. It’s a journey that leads to glory. And on that journey everything you do for God and in his power is of immeasurable value.

And what about wisdom? Well, in 1 Corinthians 2 the Bible picks up on the theme of knowledge without God. It says that people who have only “the wisdom of this age” are “coming to nothing.” But, the Bible goes on to say, there’s another brand of wisdom, “God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory before time began… ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’—but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit” (1 Corinthians 2:6-10).

If your work seems empty and your wisdom seems worthless, there’s only one way to escape. Stop living on your own. Stop ignoring the Lord. Stop living life under the sun (S-U-N), and start living under the Son (S-O-N), God’s Son, Jesus. As the Bible puts it, “set your hearts 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). Then your work and your thinking can begin to glow with a sense of meaning and purpose and wonder and gratitude. Then, instead of being a nowhere man or woman, you can sing a new song.

He’s a real Christian man,
headed for the promised land.
Living life within God’s plan,
he’s somebody.

God gives him a point of view,
shows him where he’s going to.
Oh, I pray that’s true of you
and me.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.