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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:The Misery of Life Without God
Text:Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 90:1,8                                                                    

Ps 39:1,3,6 

Reading – Ecclesiastes 2:1-26; 2 Corinthians 5:12-21

Ps 49:2,3,4

Sermon – Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

Ps 63:1,2,3

Hy 54:1,4,5,6,8          

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in Christ, it’s a new day and it’s a new week. Maybe you've recently started a new job, or begun a new project. When we talk about times being new, we’re being optimistic. For we like a fresh start; there’s always promise in a new beginning. Yet when you think about it, do we really have a reason for optimism? In itself, there’s nothing hopeful about a new day, a new week, or any new beginning. For about the passing of time, Scripture has some hard words: “Vanity of vanities!” (Ecc 1:2).

That’s the refrain throughout this book of Ecclesiastes: it’s all vanity! The Hebrew word being repeated here means literally “a vapour, a breath.” It’s like the steam that you can blow from your mouth on cold winter mornings: it’s there, and then gone. Which is to say, this life is temporary—try to get your hands on it, but it soon disappears.

Who brings such a sour message: some cynic, an early atheist? Surprisingly, it’s the one who’s called “the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem” (v 1). There’s been a lot of debate over who this downcast preacher actually was. Some say it was Solomon, others say it was probably someone else. The author does call himself a “son of David,” but that could mean he was David’s grandson or great-grandson, or even one who came much later. In chapter 2, the author speaks in a way that reminds us of Solomon—he says he had much wisdom, wealth, and ambition, and many wives—yet the author nowhere claims says that he is Solomon. So it’s suggested that the author wrote this book as if he was Solomon, that he tried to get into Solomon’s sandals for a while and take his perspective on life.

For us, more important than authorship is the difficult question: How does Ecclesiastes fit within the holy Scriptures? Its theme is so despairing, so sombre in describing the life God created. How can such a book “equip us for every good work?” And indeed, what could it ever teach us about Jesus, our Saviour?

As we get into our text, keep in mind that the Preacher was an instructor of God’s people. The LORD gave him insight for a purpose, to show his people how to walk righteously before him. So to do so, the author paints a frightening picture of what life is like apart from God. He meets sinners on their level, and convinces them of how all things are empty without knowing the LORD. This morning we’ll see how in Ecclesiastes 1:1-11 he teaches that,

           If you live apart from God, there will be:

            1) nothing lasting gained

            2) nothing original accomplished

            3) nothing worthwhile remembered


1) Nothing lasting gained: After introducing who he is (v 1), and telling us his main theme (v 2), the Preacher goes right to the heart of the matter. He comes with the bold question: “What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?” (v 3). The Preacher challenges us to name some benefit or some gain that we can have from all our efforts. “For what are we working, day after day?”

And he surely anticipates the answer that some will give. It’s an answer that is hardly any different today. “What gain do we have from our labour? Well, what’s the bottom line? Have you covered your costs, made a profit, banked some money? There’s your gain!” The important measure of a thing is so often what it costs and what it’s earned. We judge things in material terms: a company is successful if its earnings are high, or a person is successful if he’s got a well-paying job and the perks that go with it.

It’s a blessing to make a profit, and to earn a good wage. But the danger is this becomes our only standard of value. For those in business, profit can become an almighty god. In politics, concern for the economy is always more important than anything else. Our own lives too can often be geared towards making financial gain. One says, “I’m studying hard right now so that I can get a good position later on.” Another says, “My chief goal is to pay down the mortgage.” Or another, “I want this kind of return on my investments.”

We should make plans, and we’re called to make the most of what God has given, whether a business opportunity, or a steady income, or worthwhile talent. Use it—and as the Preacher will say in chapter 2, use these things with satisfaction in your heart! (v 24).

But let’s also realize that there’s nothing to be gained if our pursuits and plans aren’t dedicated to the glory of God. For outside of a living relationship with God in Christ, it’s meaningless—all of it. Profits, luxuries, honour, accomplishments, and position—without knowing God, all such “gain” is no gain at all.

Why? Because mankind is so small, and our life so limited! We live for seventy years—eighty, if we have the strength, while for God “a thousand years in [his] sight are like a day that has just gone by” (Ps 90:4). As Isaiah says, “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field” (40:6). Recall that key word in this book: you’re just “a vapour, a breath.” After we breathe our last, the world continues just like it did before.

The Preacher explains in verse 4, “One generation passes away, and another generation comes; but the earth abides forever.” Notice how he points us to the creation of God, to what the LORD has made: mountains, rivers, oceans, the planets. Relative to the great works of God, we need to see how insignificant we are, how small our accomplishments.

Sometimes you’ll find a plaque next to a massive, old tree; and on the plaque is some educated guess about how old the tree is—say 500 years old. “When Christopher Columbus came to America in 1492,” the plaque will read, “this tree was already 10 meters tall.” Even a tree puts our little lives in perspective. Dozens of generations have lived, pursued things, and died, while this God-made tree steadily grew and grew. Human generations will come and go, but the earth abides forever.

Mankind will often boast in what he’s accomplished—and there are advances in technology, in medicine, in wealth. But even if we claim some achievement or receive some fame, our “gains” are still laughably small, and our lives still so short. Says Psalm 49:12, “Man, despite his riches, does not endure; he is like the beasts that perish.”

What fine thing can we ever earn that we won’t soon lose? Think of the rich fool of Luke 12, who built many barns to store all his goods. Yet what security did he have on the day he died? “You fool!” said God, “This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (v 20). There’s nothing earthly that’ll save us from that hour of facing the end.

No wonder the Preacher says about mankind in chapter 2, “All his days are sorrowful, and his work burdensome; even in the night his heart takes no rest” (v 23). God knows that if we’re not careful, all our worldly pursuits can consume us—that even while sleeping, our minds can be filled with what must be done tomorrow.

This is the picture of life being painted in chapter 1: life can be endless work, just to get a few short-lived rewards. What vanity! And the Preacher’s speaking not just of the 9 to 5 jobs that many of us have, but about every human task and responsibility in this fallen world: time with the family, projects around the house, effort spent in school. Everything to which we give our attention can be without any real gain!

In your job there’s no lasting profit. Maybe we knew that. But also in play and pleasure there’s no enduring value. We read earlier how the Preacher sought happiness in the “good things” of life: the pleasures of laughter and wisdom and wine and women. “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure” (2:10). He had it all! Yet what does the Preacher say in our text? “The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing” (1:8). He was never content. He points us to God’s creation to see this principle in action: “All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full” (1:7).

Though our resources might not be unlimited like the Preacher’s, we might try pursue pleasure our lives long. We seek enjoyment in playing sport and video games, or taking nice holidays. We can chase pleasure through lots of food and drink, or nurturing relationships and developing abilities. We might take in as much as we can, “yet the sea is never full.” Human pleasure always hits a threshold, for there’s imperfection in our joy and flaws in our happiness. Nothing is permanent or without sin.

So the Preacher gives this verdict on times lived apart from God: “All things are full of labor, man cannot express it,” or as the NIV translates, “All things are wearisome, more than one can say” (1:8). Life is wearisome, for although we plan and pursue and even reach our goals, though we might have many thrills and highs, we’ll never arrive at the point where we can finally say: “It’s enough; I’ve experienced it all; I need nothing more.”

“All is vanity, and without meaning.” Pretty discouraging, yet there is a faint hope here. For how could the Preacher declare that everything is empty, unless he knew that somewhere, somehow, there was some sure ground? What would even be the point of writing all this, if there wasn’t something more, if there wasn’t some hope? This is why we find hints and clues in Ecclesiastes about how we are to live; there are pointers to the real meaning of life. For in Christ there is something to be gained from our efforts. In Christ Jesus, there is a purpose for our work, and even a foundation for joy.

But first the Preacher must thoroughly convince us that life without God is utterly vain. For without God there’s also,


2) Nothing original accomplished: People want to be unique. We want to stand out—not too far, of course—but enough so that people take notice. We want to be known: for having a fascinating talent, an interesting ability, a unique character. “He’s the best striker in the league. She’s the smartest person in the class. That family is so talented in music.”

Yet what does a good reputation really bring us? And does any personal accomplishment have enduring value? The Preacher offers this reality check: “That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (v 9). He’s saying, “Show me something new!” Even if we try to contribute something unique, spend years crafting a fine reputation, it’s no big deal. If we think we’ve become something a little beyond the normal, then we’ve forgotten how small and limited we are.

People may invent new gadgets, develop new theories, try to become something, but even progress is overrated. “That which has been is what will be.” Once again the Preacher points us to creation to see this principle in action: “The wind goes toward the south, and turns around to the north; the wind whirls about continually, and comes again on its circuit” (v 6). Even the mighty sun and the powerful wind, things which no human can ever control, have an existence that is never really new. All the sun does is shine; all the wind does is blow. So also our small deeds are re-runs of things that were done before, and previews of what’s going to be done again.

Discouraging, isn’t it? It seems that we’re stuck on “the circle of life,” all things going endlessly around. We like to insist that history is not circular, but linear, that we’re all moving to a definite goal and destination. And we are. But the Preacher is revealing that apart from God’s intervention by grace, we are stuck on an ever-repeating loop. As he asks in 1:10, “Is there anything of which it may be said, ‘See, this is new’?” And he gives another biting answer: “It has already been in ancient times before us.” There may be small steps forward in science and technology and knowledge, but how long before people have moved on?

Many things seem to be new, simply because the past is forgotten or because old ways appear in new forms. Ideas are constantly reused and recycled. The mistakes of the nations are often repeated. Without God, this universe—and our own lives—are unable to progress at all. The Preacher underlines this a little later in chapter 2, “For what can the man do who succeeds the king? Only what he has already done” (v 12).

When you think about it, our inability to break out of the endless cycle can make a person feel hopeless: “What’s the purpose of my life, if I can do nothing special or unique? What’s the goal of life, if nothing can be considered as progress?” But the Preacher doesn’t despair. Throughout this book, you hear that he maintains a quiet trust in the LORD. Much is uncertain, but this truth remains: God is just and God is good, and He’s given us this life as a precious gift. Despite all its brokenness, God has never abandoned this world. For it is still his, and He has a purpose for it!

Already in the days of Ecclesiastes, God was preparing to intervene in our hopelessness. It’s what God had promised long ago, when sin first entered the world. Then the LORD said that this horrible curse would one day be lifted. He said that one day the power of reigning sin would be broken. This is what Ecclesiastes cries out for: it cries out for that new day, that new beginning, for the first and most glorious promise to be fulfilled.

So into the world that God created, into the world that rejected him, the Father sent his only Son. And Jesus broke the vicious cycle. He lifted the curse by taking the curse onto himself. Unlike the Preacher of Ecclesiastes, He was a Son of David who finally started something new. Like the Spirit says in 2 Corinthians 5:17, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new.”

Life isn’t meaningless anymore, or pointless. Because through Christ’s power, the Holy Spirit now restores our hearts. The Spirit has started us on a path in which progress is possible—He has set us on a journey that has a real destination. Progressively we are being renewed in spirit, day by day. On this side of glory, we’re never done. But one day we will be.

So be reconciled to God, Paul urges us. While you have life, be found in Christ by faith! Because apart from a living relationship with God, the Preacher must remind us once more, there will be…


3) Nothing worthwhile remembered: He’s been brutally honest about the kind of life that humans lead. And now the Preacher gives us one more piece of bad news: Once our life is over, we won’t even be remembered. “There is no remembrance of former things,” he says (v 11). What’s past is past. And this pattern won’t be changed anytime soon: “Nor will there be any remembrance of things that are to come by those who will come after” (v 11).

Nothing remembered! Nobody will be recalled in later years. People try to fight these unsettling thoughts of mortality. Though this life is but a “vapour and a breath,” many want to leave a so-called “legacy,” they want to make something that will be remembered. Maybe you give a generous gift of money, make a memorable contribution to knowledge, get a building named after you, if you can—for then you’ll “live on,” even after dying. This way you’ll endure.

It’s true, there are some notable people who get remembered for a few generations. But even these memories will fade in time; as the Preacher says in 2:16, “There is no more remembrance of the wise than of the fool forever, since all that now is will be forgotten in the days to come.” A hundred years from now, it’s unlikely that anyone will even remember your name. Even your great-grandchildren will have forgotten you. All that will remain is a tombstone, while our bodies return to dust.

Here too, the Preacher wants us to be rid of all vain hopes, every false expectation. He knows it’s human to overestimate our abilities and influence. But it’s humans who have reason to be pessimistic. If we live apart from God, there’s a terrible weight that burdens us: it’s the burden of sin and death. We can try drown out this reality with work or pleasure. We can avoid thinking about it, and pretend everything will be just fine. Yet that truth won’t go away: if we’re not right with the LORD, nothing good will come of us.

As we’ve already said, the Preacher wants to do more than leave his congregation downcast and despairing. He wants them to see where they’d be without the LORD! Without him, it’s vanity. Without him, there’s no hope. Without him, they’ll be forgotten—forgotten even by God, left outside in the darkness.

But with God… life has meaning again. Through fellowship with God, all that vapour turns into something solid. When you live in covenant with God, all the time and opportunity that we have on earth gains a positive purpose.

And this is how: we can use our life for things that last! We can put our talents to work for the cause of the eternal kingdom. We can put our time and money to work for the cause of the gospel. God says we can accomplish much through prayer. We can teach our children about the Lord, and we can witness to our neighbours about him too, imparting to them the knowledge that saves and transforms. We can be a channel of God’s blessing toward others.

Serving God, we can even gain a reputation—a reputation not for something trivial or passing, but for something truly great. We can be known for being full of the Spirit, for being holy, being Christ-like and faithful.

Serving God, we said, we can make true progress in our lives: progress in the things and abilities that matter. We can progress in godliness, progress in our knowledge of Scripture, progress in our ability to love and to serve. And yes, when we serve God, we won’t ever be forgotten. But we’ll be remembered by the LORD.

If you look ahead, you see that the Preacher reaches this as the pinnacle of his sermon. By the time he gets to chapter 12, we’re under no illusions: Life is short; life will sometimes be hard; but while you have life, “Fear God and keep His commandments, for this is the purpose of man” (12:13). Though many people will look high and low, and many people will die in despair because they haven’t found it, here is the purpose of life, the thing that gives us meaning: “Fear God and keep his commandments.”

Beloved, it’s a new day, a new week—we get to go through it in covenant with God, with the God who has become our Father in Christ. As Paul said, “He died for all, that those who live should live no longer for themselves, but for him who died for them and rose again” (2 Cor 5:15). Note it well: Christ died, that we should no longer live for ourselves, but for him!

He’s given us a high purpose and a holy calling. He’s begun a miraculous work in us, and He has set before us a wonderful destination. And our humble human works, done in faith, will follow us there. This makes our life not meaningless nor empty, but blessed. For blessed is the person whose God is the LORD!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2018, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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