Bubbles and smoke - Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 9th September 2012.

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Bubbles and Smoke. 1:1-11

Let me begin by reading to you part of a letter written by a fourteen year old girl: “Why am I here? What have I done? Why was I born? Who cares about me? I am me. I must suffer because I am me. Why do we live? For love, for happiness? Why should I not commit suicide? I hate this world. I hate my parents and my home- though why, I do not know. I searched for truth, but I only found uncertainty. I was thwarted in my search for love. Where can I find happiness? I do not know. Perhaps I shall never know.” Fourteen years old!  You would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by words like that wouldn’t you? And I would suspect that such angst ridden thoughts are only going to become more and more common while as a society we become more fragmented and superficial, with parents, politicians and teachers failing to face up to the big questions in life. But although touched by what I have just read, we may not be surprised. What does surprise us is when we read similar words written in the Bible; in fact the whole of the book of Ecclesiastes seems to be one long variation on the same despairing theme of that teenager. Just take a look at the opening few verses: “Meaningless, meaningless”, says the Teacher, “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” You didn’t expect to find that in the Bible did you? But there it is, repeated over and over again like a haunting refrain. And as we shall be seeing over the next few weeks, the thoughts and observations of our writer do appear to have a contemporary ring about them, chiming in with the views of many modern writers and thinkers, in fact, many men and women in the street. In other words, the world he inhabits with all its disappointments, frustrations and contradictions- where so much is expected and so little delivered- is very much our world. But we would be wrong to draw the conclusion that this book has found its way into the Bible by mistake, that somehow an atheist has managed to slip one by the compilers of Scripture. For what we are going to see is that this man is a firm believer in God.

When you read commentaries on Ecclesiastes you continually come across comments like this: ‘This book…is one of the most difficult books in the Bible to read and to understand. Its interest is no less significant a subject than the meaning of life.’ (Walton and Hill, p312). Just because it may seem difficult to grapple with doesn’t mean it is impossible. Once we have come to terms with a few basic principles we will find that this is a book which is pastorally helpful and evangelistically useful. It helps us connect with unbelievers out there who are living in the same broken, messed up world as we are, struggling for answers, and it enables us to see the world as God sees it, and to do something about it. So by way of introduction I want us to look at this passage under three headings: the person, the proposition and the poem.

First of all, the person, just who is this writer and what can we know about him? Well, the first thing to say is that the person who has put the book together is not the same person who had come up with the teaching in the first place. The compiler has come along later to put the author’s words down in some sort of order. In fact at the end he adds his own comments about the man -12: 9ff: ‘Not only was the Teacher wise, but he imparted knowledge to the people’ But what can we know about the man who had wrestled with some of the big questions in life and who seemed to live life on the edge? There are a number of things.

In the first place he is described as ‘The Teacher’. The term is ‘Qoheleth’, which comes from the word ‘assembly’ or even ‘church’. So this is a man who is used to gathering people around him in order to instruct them. It may be that he had such a reputation for this sort of thing that the term ‘the teacher’ became a substitute for his own personal name. This is not all that unusual, for example, one of the most influential preachers of the 20th century was Dr Martin Lloyd-Jones. He was often simply referred to as ‘the Doctor’- well it may be that something like that is going on here- ‘The Teacher’.

And as a teacher his teaching method is quiet interesting. You see, we tend to like a straight development of an argument, mainly because we are used to so-called scientific reasoning. But this Teacher is more of a poet and so he tends to circle around a theme, develop it, toy with it, even appearing contradictory at times. So for example, in chapter 2:13 we hear him speaking about wisdom which starts out to be so full of promise, ‘I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. The wise man has eyes in his head while the fool walks in the darkness.’ So far so good, but then he seems to ditch it all by going on to say, ‘but I came to realise that the same fate has overtaken them both. Then I thought in my heart “The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain from being wise?” I said in my heart, “This too is meaningless”. He really does know how to put the mockers on things doesn’t he? But in fact he is being cleverly subtle, because his teaching style is an expression of what he and we feel life to be like, you know, that feeling you are getting somewhere, maybe in an experiment or a relationship and then it is all taken away from you and you are left high and dry and you are left wondering, ‘What’s the point?’.

In the second place we are told that he is a ‘son of David, king of Israel’. And so some think this is King Solomon whom we know was called a wise man with all his proverbs. Others reckon he was a descendent of Solomon appearing a little later on in Israel’s history, but still very much a ‘chip off the old block’, a thinker. And the fact that he was King puts him at the centre of the life of Israel. So this isn’t some ivory towered academic, he has to get on with the business of government, and as King he was also responsible for ensuring that Israel’s religious life stayed on track. In other words, this is a believer in the one true God and who is deeply involved in the rough and tumble of everyday life, and so we can connect with him.

Which brings us to the proposition in verses 2-3, "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless." 3What does man gain from all his labour at which he toils under the sun?” Now there are three things we need to understand here - three keys for unlocking the rest of the book.

First, the term translated ‘meaningless’, or as it is in the AV ‘Vanity’ which appears over 30 times. That translation doesn’t really cut the mustard because the Teacher goes on to talk about plenty of things which do have meaning, like work, serving God, enjoying God’s good gifts- eating, drinking. The Hebrew word is ‘hebel’. It looks like ‘hebel’ with a ‘b’ but its pronounced ‘hevel’ with a ‘v’ as in our English word ‘level’. What the line says is ‘“Hebel! Hebel!” says the teacher “Everything is hebel”. It is a word linked to the tragic figure of ‘Abel’ whose life you will remember, was cut short by the murderous actions of his brother Cain. He didn’t live long enough to reach his full potential. So it doesn’t mean, ‘meaningless’. In fact it is probably easier to show you what it means, rather than define it. Those of you wearing glasses might wish to take them off for a moment and breathe on them. What happens? The vapour from your breath appears on the glass and then vanishes. That is hebel. It can be translated breath or even smoke. It is a word which depicts that ‘here today gone tomorrow’ quality of things we often experience. That is what so much of life is like, ephemeral, short lived. So you enter into a relationship which you think is going to last and last and suddenly it is cut short by infidelity or death and it is gone like a puff of smoke. Or maybe you embark on a career, in which you think you are going to leave your mark, and then you look back and the years have suddenly flown by and you feel you have achieved so little and retirement is just around the corner. And you are left wondering, ‘Is this it?’ Well, that is hebel- vapour.

Another illustration would be soap bubbles. This is the trick little children fall for time and time again. You blow some bubbles and say ‘go ahead and catch them’, so they try and the moment they put out their hand- ‘pop’ it is gone. This is linked to another favourite phrase used by the writer to describe our experience, a ‘chasing after the wind.’ How can you catch the wind? If you caught it, it wouldn’t be moving and so it wouldn’t be the wind. And so much in life feels like that, it is elusive, you think you have something in your grasp and pop it is gone, and the whole of life can feel like that too. The desire for fame or love drives so many people but what happens when they arrive? Well, they find it has departed. Let's think about someone who has reached the top in terms of fame and fortune- Madonna. She arrived in New York City with just $35 in her pocket. Within a matter of a few years she was a multimillionaire. Do you know what she says about all of this? She was driven. This is how she describes her experience : ‘When my mother died, all of a sudden I was going to be the best student, get the best grades; I was going to become the best singer, the best dancer, the most famous singer in the world. Everybody was going to love me.’ She then adds, ‘I am a very tormented person. I want to be happy.’  Ephemeral, here today gone tomorrow and elusive that is what so many of the things we had hoped would give us some sense of value and purpose and meaning in life feels like. Is that not so? Isn’t that your experience as well as mine?

The second phrase we need to understand is ‘gain’ or ‘profit’ (yithron) with the associated term ‘toil’ (hamal)- v3 ‘What does man gain from all his labour at which he toils.’ The Teacher is asking ‘Is there any bottom line in life?’- It’s a financial term; can we really be sure of being successful in life? And we are not to fool ourselves that any of this will come to us handed on a plate; it will involve plenty of ‘blood, sweat and tears’- toil. But the question is: is it all going to be worth it? For many the answer will be ‘no’. A large proportion of the human race barely reaches adulthood, with most living from day to day trying to eek out a meagre existence. We in the West are often cushioned from such things as famine, war and disease, but not most people-think of the Sudan-their lot is the lot of Ecclesiastes. But in different ways even we can hit a brick wall when it comes to the bottom line. Here is part of an article which appeared in a secular counselling magazine: ‘He’s 29, he has a good job, his own flat, he is in a stable relationship and he is having a mid life crisis. “It crept upon me by stealth,” says Patrick Winston, a publishing executive from Bath. “I had a great job, a partner, a good social life-everything I’d wanted, but gradually this sense of ennui took over and it left me feeling blank and demotivated. I started to feel that my life-including me-was fraudulent. I kept thinking: what next? I went through a period of heavy promiscuity, which made things worse. I felt that all that was in front of me was the same-acquisition of wealth and status, which had come to mean nothing to me. I became impotent, started drinking heavily and hated myself.” The article goes on to point out that the mid-life crisis is creeping downward and hitting younger people. As the writer of the article goes on to say: ‘We are living harder, and burning out sooner. The world is dogged by short-termism, in relationships, in work-and this accelerates the process of disenchantment.’ Does that ring any bells with you? It certainly would with ‘the Teacher’.

But is this all there is? Well, this is where we come to the third key phrase in v3 ‘life under the sun’. The Teacher is talking about what we all experience here on earth, from a purely earthly perspective, a perspective shared by believer and unbeliever alike; it is the perspective which is the common lot of humanity. There is a dreary, repetitiveness about existence-v8. In fact this is where we get our saying, ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’- v9. Things may change on a superficial level, yes, we can split the atom, yes, we can land a probe on Mars, but pretty well everything is the same- people are born, there is happiness and misery, there is love and war, friendships and hatred, work and leisure and then death which seems to make a mockery of everything. This is something which really does begin to press upon you when there is less ahead than what lies behind because you have hit the 50 mark. You ask ‘Where has all the time gone to?’

And as if to back up this claim that life does appear fleeting and elusive- hebel, a drag, full of hard work - he gives us a poem, vv 4-11: ‘Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. 5The sun rises and the sun sets and hurries back to where it rises. 6The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. 7All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. 8All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. 9What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 10Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! This is something new"? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time. 11There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.’  He is saying people come and people go but the world continues with ‘the same old same old’. He portrays the elements like the sun and the wind and the seas finding things to be a slog. And to top it all, we as individuals appear on the scene and we are but a blink of an eye. My name is on the list of Vicars of St John’s by the church door, but most of my predecessors are just names to you and nothing more, and that is what my name will be in due course, just a name. But doesn’t that cause any reasonable person to ask the question: ‘Isn’t there more to life than this?’ ‘Is that all we are-names?’ Well, from a purely ‘under the sun’ perspective, it is difficult to find a positive answer. That is what many playwrights of the 20th century have concluded, like Samuel Beckett and his one minute play, interestingly called ‘Breath’. The curtains open to reveal a stage in total darkness, then we hear the sound of a man’s breath, which is like a death rattle and a light comes on to reveal a pile of rubbish, then the lights go out. That is life as far as he is concerned, fleeting, pointless and meaningless. But is that the only perspective? If it is, then mankind is the greatest tragedy in the universe, lower than the slugs who are not troubled with thoughts of purpose and significance-they just are getting on with the business of producing a slimy trail.

Well, there is another perspective captured by a slightly different phrase, ‘under heaven’. We first come across it in verse 13, ‘I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men!’ In 5:2 the connection between God and heaven is underscored even more strongly, ‘God is in heaven and you are on earth.’ It therefore seems that this is a phrase associated with God and his sovereign rule over the world and our lives. And this is the perspective which makes all the difference in the world. It is a phrase which resonates with the idea that God is governing his world which is why the rising and setting of the sun is as predictable as it is. The routine nature of things is not all that bad; it provides us with a sense of security, why we can do science for example. What is more, even the sense of frustration and deep longing we have has been laid upon us by God, so that we might feel unsettled and seek after him by asking the big questions, ‘Why are we here?’ As he says in chapter 3:11 God has placed ‘eternity in our hearts’. In other words, feeling like strangers in a strange land reminds us that our world is a fallen world, fractured because of our sin, and so it is fitting that things don’t always work out the way we want them to, it is not a bad thing that we feel the friction and the tension of life, that we recognise our world to be a mixture of the good, the bad and the ugly, all coming under God’s sovereign sway. Isn’t it often the case that when things are going along swimmingly, we give little thought to our Maker? But when things are thrown out of wack, when faced with tragedy, and disappointment, and especially death, that is when we become less settled with the superficial plastic way of living and want a taste of reality- true reality- God. And when we come to know him as our rightful, loving and wise ruler, who doesn’t always explain himself to us, because he doesn’t have to-then we can start to journey through life with a sense of purpose- knowing, loving and serving God, enjoying the things of life as gifts with gratitude to the Giver. Which is the conclusion reached at the end of the book.

In other words, Ecclesiastes is concerned with having right expectations. If we expect everything to be plain sailing, with no knocks, frustrations and pain, then we are going to be very disappointed. If we expect government, work, education or even religion to solve all our problems, then we are going to be gutted. That is life under the sun. But when we begin to see God at the centre- life under heaven- seeing that this world is still God’s good world, full of good gifts to enjoy, but a world also shot through with tragedy because of our sin, that we are not the be all and end all, rather God and his glory is- especially as we meet him in the person of the One who himself has lived this life under the sun and triumphed over it-the Lord Jesus Christ, then we can learn something which many of our contemporaries know nothing about- contentment. And that is a valuable lesson ‘the Teacher’ wants us to learn.

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