In or Under? (Ecclesiastes 1:3–11)

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Stuart Chase - 27 Sep 2020

In or Under? (Ecclesiastes 1:3–11)

What do we gain if we live life only “under the sun”? What is the reward for a life lived apart from God? Solomon presents three facts of life that we must wrestle with, each of which highlight utter futility if God is out of the picture.

Scripture References: Ecclesiastes 1:3-11

From Series: "Ecclesiastes Exposition"

A devotional exposition of the book of Ecclesiastes by various contributors.

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How do you imagine you would respond if your present self could travel back to 1985 and show your younger self (or, for some, your younger parents!) a smart phone?

In 1989, Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd starred in Back to the Future Part II, a blockbuster film in which Marty McFly (Fox) and Doc Brown (Lloyd) travel to 2015 to stop Marty’s future son from sabotaging the family’s future.

The film’s vision of 1985 was astounding. People drove flying cars, rode hoverboards, and Nikes were laceless and self-tying. Robotic technology had become ubiquitous, with personalised drones performing everyday tasks like walking the dog and taking out trash. Lawyers had become obsolete, clothing was size-adjustable and self-drying, and 21 October 2015 was opening week for Jaws 19. Yet, for all the technological advances anticipated by the film, the smart phone was not among them.

On 21 October 2015, Fox and Lloyd reprised their roles as McFly and Doc Brown in a special guest appearance skit on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Disappointed that the technology had not advanced as expected, Doc Brown surmised that they must have arrived on a different time line. As Marty and Doc Brown discussed the differences, Kimmel pulled out his smart phone to take a selfie.

“What is this?” asked a confused Doc Brown, to which Kimmel replied, “I’m taking a selfie with you guys. This is how we document important life events now.” Doc Brown grabbed the phone and exclaimed that it must be some sort of “tiny supercomputer. This must allow astrophysicists to triangulate complex equations—”

Kimmel interrupted, “Well, yeah, I guess it could do that, but mainly we use it to send little smiley faces to each other.”

Few people in the 1980s would imagine that we would one day be carrying tiny supercomputers around in our pockets, with all the information known to humanity available at our fingertips—even if we do use it mostly for smiley faces and cat videos. The smart phone is unprecedented. It’s like nothing ever known before. Or is it?

In Ecclesiastes 1:3–11, Solomon makes an astonishing claim: “There is nothing new under the sun” (v. 9). Anything of which it might be said, “See this is new” has “been already in the ages before us” (v. 10). But is he right? Did “ages before us” have smart phones and advanced medical equipment and procedures? Did people in “ages before us” put men on the moon or travel cross-continentally in a matter of hours? Surely we have seen things unknown to previous generations? What is Solomon getting at in this text?

It is important to recognise that his point has nothing to do with technological advances. He writes of realities far more significant than technological novelty. To understand his point, we must consider three realities—three facts of life—that he highlights “under the sun.” But before we do that, let’s remind ourselves what he means when he writes of life “under the sun.”

“What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (v. 3). This is the question he asks and seeks to answer in vv. 4–11. As we saw previously, life “under the sun” is life lived apart from submission God. It is, in the words of Gordon Keddie, “life without the eternal dimension and the ultimate reality of the infinite, personal God.” In life under the sun, “what you see is what you get! Nothing more … but, sometimes, a lot less!” “To see things ‘under the sun’ … is to take an earthly point of view, leaving God out of it for the moment” (Ryken).

As we “toil” in this life, therefore, what do we gain if we live it only “under the sun”? What is the reward for a life lived apart from God? Solomon presents three facts of life that we must wrestle with, each of which highlight utter futility if God is sidelined.

The Inevitability of Death

First, Solomon draws attention to the inevitability of death: “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever” (v. 4). If we think that we are all that significant, consider how short-lived our lives are compared to nature. He employs a threefold illustration of permanence from nature, each of which contrast strongly with the impermanence of human life.

He begins by pointing to the sun: “The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises” (v. 5). You can count on the sun rising each morning. We don’t know whether we will rise tomorrow, but we know the sun will. Day after day, the sun goes about its business, reliably rising in the morning and setting in the evening. The sun has a promise of tomorrow that we do not. It was here long before you and it will be here long after you have returned to dust.

He adds the wind as further evidence to the docket: “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” (v. 6). As you can count on the sunrise, so you can count on the wind. It may be windless here today, but it is windy somewhere else, and you can bet that we will face another windy day in the future. You can count on the wind in a way that you cannot count on your own tomorrow. Rivers never reach the point where they stop because the sea is too full, but is coming when your breath will stop because your days have been filled.

His third illustration has to do with water: “All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again” (v. 7). You can go to the place where a river meets the sea and, day after day, will find the river emptying into the sea. This dynamic never stops: the river always flows and the sea always accepts the water. There is more promise of the Orange River emptying into the Atlantic Ocean tomorrow than there is of you waking tomorrow.

The seeming permanence of creation highlights the certainty of death. The sun, the wind, and the rivers were here long before you were born and will be here long after you die, doing exactly what God has created them to do. If life “under the sun” is all there is to existence, why do you think you are any more significant that the sun, the wind, or the rivers? They have the promise of ongoing, if mundane existence; you have only the promise of death.

The Impossibility of Satisfaction

The second major fact to which Solomon draws our attention is the impossibility of satisfaction: “All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing” (v. 8). Long before Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wandered on the scene, Solomon sang about the inability to find satisfaction in this life.

The sad reality is that the consumer economy in which we live is built on the quest for, and, often, the lie of, satisfaction. Providers strive for customer satisfaction and many make promises of satisfaction. Providers work hard to guarantee satisfaction by promising unparalleled customer support and making assurances of ease of return if satisfaction is not attained. Free trials, lowest prices, and reliable brands are key to satisfaction in a consumer culture. But satisfaction is guaranteed for only as long as it is useful.

Apple and Samsung guarantee you satisfaction with their latest flagship devices—until next year when your model is obsolete and only the new model can satisfy. You may be satisfied with your new vehicle purchase, but before long you’re probably already thinking of trading it in for a more satisfying experience. And is it not true that, for all the good service we experience, it’s the poor service that we remember most?

We live life in a frantic race for satisfaction and yet we find satisfaction under the sun to be elusive. There is always something about our present to be dissatisfied with and always something better in someone else’s life that would give us greater satisfaction.

The Instability of Novelty

The third fact with which Solomon confronts us is the impermanence of novelty:

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. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us. 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 1:9–11)

Here, Solomon’s point is that there is no ultimately new and lasting achievement “under the sun.” As I have said, his point is not technological advancement; his point is new ways to find the lasting satisfaction that, he has noted in v. 8, is so elusive. You are chasing meaning and satisfaction in the same way that people have throughout history. Do you think meaning and satisfaction will be found in wealth? You’re not the first, nor will you be the last. Do you think meaning and satisfaction will be found in fame, or influence, or pleasure, or diligence? Guess what? People have been chasing that dream for centuries and they will for centuries more to come. You’re not as novel as you think you are!

Douglas Sean O’Donnell observes that “today’s celebrities are tomorrow’s obituaries.” In March 1966, John Lennon, lead vocalist for the Beatles, argued that the band was “more famous than Jesus” and that their popularity would outlive his. Christianity was declining, he said, and their music would long outlast Jesus and his followers. I wonder how many thirteen-year-olds today can even name all four Beatles? One Direction or BTS may be the new rage but our grandchildren will probably stare at us in bemusement when we tell of how popular these bands are today. “There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.”

The Incomprehensibility of Christianity

If this once again sounds terribly dreary and depressing, let’s remember that all of the above is true only of life “under the sun.” But life doesn’t have to be lived under the sun. As O’Donnell writes, “Life under the sun is brief and bleak, but life through the Son is eternal and joyful.” From the perspective of life in the Son rather than under the sun, things are very different. That is what makes Christianity so incomprehensible to many. They cannot understand life that is not under the sun. But consider Solomon’s three facts when viewed through the lens of life in the Son rather than under the sun.

First, if your life is found in the Son, death may be certain, but it’s only temporary. If you live life under the sun, you face death now, but an even greater, eternal death at the final judgement. But if you live life in the Son, your death will one day be eternally reversed as you inherit eternal life in Christ.

Second, if your life is found in the Son, true satisfaction is guaranteed. Listen to the words of Jesus to the Samaritan woman:

Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

(John 4:13–14)

Through Jeremiah, God said to Israel, “I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish” (Jeremiah 31:25). This reminds us of the words of Jesus: “Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28–29). Satisfaction is impossible under the sun; it is guaranteed in the Son.

Third, if your life is found in the Son, the newness he gives is eternally stable. There is nothing new under the sun, but everything is new in the Son. There is a “new covenant” in Jesus’ blood (Luke 22:20). God gives to those who believe in Jesus a “new heart” (Ezekiel 36:26). There is, in Christ, “the new self, created after the likeness of God in righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:24). In this new life, “the old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). In Christ, God is “making all things new” (Revelation 21:5) and the eternal hope of Christians is resurrection life in “a new heaven and a new earth” (Revelation 21:1).

The bleak reality of life under the sun is that “there is no remembrance” (v. 11). The great joy of life in the Son is that there is eternal remembrance. When the woman poured expensive ointment on Jesus’ feet, the disciples objected: “What a waste!” But Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her” (Matthew 26:10–13). Similarly, Paul encourages us that if our work for the Lord is built on the foundation of Christ, our work will survive and we will be rewarded (1 Corinthians 3:10–15).

That is the difference between life under the sun and life in the Son. O’Donnell states it beautifully:

Death stands, almost boastingly, at the end of the corridor of our lives. And death doesn’t play favorites. It takes everyone’s solid labors and vaporizes them…. Jesus brings life out of death. He takes decaying apples that have fallen to the ground and births from them a vast and beautiful orchard, full of fruit and life and joy.

Solomon asked, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (v. 3). Jesus asked a far more significant question: “What will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). In Christ, we can be delivered from transitory frustration and meaninglessness under the sun to eternal significance and reward in the Son. May we be found in the Son, and not under the sun, today.

AMEN