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Author:Rev. W.B. Slomp
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Congregation:Immanuel Canadian Reformed Church
 Edmonton, Alberta
Title:The Apparent Futility of Earthly Life
Text:Ecclesiastes 1:1-3 (View)
Topic:Comfort in a World of Pain

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Pre-Service song: Psalm47: 3

Votum  and Salutation

This morning the worship service will be about how the Preacher, the author of Ecclesiastes, observes life here on earth and how it can appear to be futile. Our songs this morning will not only reflect that observation, but also the joy in the Lord.

This joy on earth is reflected as in Psalm 121:1, 3, 4 where the Lord promises to be with us even when evil surrounds us.

Sing: Psalm 121: 1, 3, 4

The Ten Words of the Covenant

Sing: Psalm 119: 45, 61 (in these stanzas we are reminded that those who go astray from God’s statutes live in vain)


Sing: Psalm 39: 3, 5 (how man is nothing but a breath or a puff of wind and how he struggles till his death)

Scripture reading: Col.3: 1-4; Rev. 21:22 - 22:1-7: Eccl. 1: 1-11

Text: Ecclesiastes 1: 1-3

Sermon: The Apparent Futility of Earthly Life

1. From man's perspective;

2. From God's perspective.

Sing: Hymn 19: 1 (the people who in darkness walked)


Sing: Psalm 113: 1, 2, 3 (All God’s people under the sun must praise his Name)


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. W.B. Slomp, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved congregation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, brothers and sisters:

Some time ago I read in the news about two professors in the United Kingdom who conducted a study with participants from all over the world, measuring the state of happiness of people at various stages of their life. They found that the older you get, the more depressed you become. The most depressed people are those in middle age.

Such depression is not caused by having children crying through the middle of the night, or by the occurrence of divorces after 20 years of marriage or anything like that. It's much deeper.

In interpreting the data, they concluded that such feelings of depression are due to the fact that as you grow older you realize more and more the futility of life.

When you are younger you are optimistic and you make all kinds of plans, but often those plans do not pan out. And even if things work out for you then they do not turn out to be as meaningful or fulfilling as you thought they would be.

The researchers found that such feelings of unhappiness bottom out in the mid-forties. Their conclusion was that "Miserable middle age is a global phenomenon." The good news, so the study says, is that after your mid-forties you begin to feel somewhat happier. You more and more accept the fact that life is full of disappointments and therefore basically meaningless. There is nothing you can do about it. You might as well try to get out of life whatever little you can get out of it.

But, is that really true? Is life meaningless? As you read the book of Ecclesiastes you would think so. Time and again we read that all is vanity, or meaningless, as other translations have it.

You and I have a high regard for the authority of Scripture. We have that high regard because we know and believe that all of Scripture is inspired by God. Although he uses human beings, God the Holy Spirit himself is the actual author.

And so, what is the Holy Spirit telling us in the first three verses of Ecclesiastes? That life is hopelessly devoid of meaning? Doesn't that contradict what the Lord tells us in the rest of Scripture, namely that life is precious? Listen for example to what the Lord Jesus himself said in John 10:10, I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (ESV). Another translation states, that Jesus came to give his people a rich and satisfying life.

What are we to make of that? How can the Bible in one place say one thing, and then in another place say the exact opposite?

Well, brothers and sisters let me assure you that the Bible does not contradict itself. If you want to understand what God is saying to you then you have to know how to read the Bible, which is the Word of God. God’s Word is spiritually discerned. You have to let God speak to you from all of his Word. And you must read carefully, comparing Scripture with Scripture. You have to look at each passage within its immediate context, within its broader context, and within the context of all of God's Word.

That is what we will do this morning. I will preach to you about:

The Apparent Futility of Earthly Life.

We will look at that

1. From man's perspective;

2. From God's perspective.

The book of Ecclesiastes is a book like no other. It does not begin in the way you would expect. It doesn't begin by praising God or his creation. Nor does it begin by stating that these are the words of God and that therefore we must listen to him. It doesn't begin on a positive note either. It does quite the opposite: it is negative. It sounds like the author is in the midst of a midlife crisis and he wants everybody to know about it. He has to live his life here on earth and he finds that ultimately it’s useless. There is nothing to it.

Perhaps some of you older members remember the song sung by Peggy Lee, "Is that all there is?" She sings about her experiences in life as a little girl and as she grows older. She experiences a fire, and then a circus, and then the falling in and out of love. Throughout the song the refrain is, "is that all there is, is that all there is? If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep on dancing, let's break out the booze and have a ball, if that's all there is. Finally she asks, “Well, people may say to themselves that if that's how she feels about then why doesn't she end it all? And then she sings that she is not ready for the final disappointment of life. She says, for when that final moment comes and I'm breathing my last breath, I'll be saying to myself, is that all there is?

Is that also what the teacher is saying? It seems so. He uses a Hebrew word, hebhel, which can be translated as emptiness, vapor, meaningless, absurdity. It refers to something that quickly vanishes and then leaves nothing behind. Someone summarized the author's feelings as saying that "life is a blister on top of a tumor, and a boil on top of that." But, after you pop it, it’s all gone. When you die it’s all over. There is nothing. You cease to exist. In the meantime, life is gruesome. It’s full of pain and sorrow. It is a bore and, in the end, it will give you very little reward.

And so, if that’s how you look at life it is no wonder that the Preacher asks, “What does a man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” However, why exactly does he ask that? It seems like a rhetorical question. Does he agree with that kind of thinking?

Well, let’s look at who that Preacher is. We don’t know much about him. All we know, as it says in verse one, is that he is a king in Jerusalem of David's lineage. Many claim that the author is Solomon. Some scholars, however, dispute this. They say that the style and the language used do not reflect Solomon's time. They conclude that this book was the last book of the Old Testament and that it was written some 300 years before the birth of Christ.

In the end it doesn't really matter, for it doesn't affect the meaning of the book. All we know is that he introduces himself as “Qohelet”, which is translated as the Ecclesiastes, or Preacher, or Teacher. The name "Ecclesiastes" refers to someone who belongs to the assembly, or to the church. He calls the assembly together and he preaches to them or teaches them.

The Teacher has a unique style. He wants his students to carefully observe what is happening around them. He wants them to reflect on their entire lives. He does not want them to be stuck in a certain period of their life, oblivious to what is behind and to what lies ahead. For that is how most people live. They live for today. They become stuck in a rut. They are busy with their daily activities and they plough ahead without truly considering where they are going to end up.

The Preacher wants the reader to reflect on that. Think about it. What do you get out of being so busy with the various things of your life? Stand back for a moment. Look at where you're going with your earthly activities. Isn’t it true that on its own it means nothing at all? In effect he says, life on earth is like a balloon. You keep on huffing and puffing to make it bigger and meaningful. But in the end of its all gone. Bang! The balloon bursts. There's nothing left.

Isn't that the truth? Look at the kinds of things people strive for in this life. When you're young you aim to be independent. And then you want to get married. You want to get a house. You want to accumulate things, stuff. You want to have children. You want to have a career. You want to be recognized as someone significant, unique.

As you get older you have obtained some of that, and some of it not. But, says the Teacher, reflect on that: in the final analysis, what does it all mean? As he observes later in his book, what you have gained here on the earth will ultimately go to others, to those who have not worked for it. Your precious possessions that you toiled and laboured for so hard all your life, in the end don't mean anything, does it?

Isn’t that the way it is for us too? When you are old and dependent on others you will likely go into an old-age home where you will probably end up in a one or a two-room apartment, and where you can only take a few possessions with you. You have to let go of all the precious goods you have acquired over the years. Somebody will live in the house that you worked so hard for all your life. And all your beautiful furniture and your various trinkets you will have to give to others who will not appreciate it like you did. Those possessions were part of your life. And then when you die everything is completely done. That, says the Teacher, is basically the lot of every single man and woman on earth.

Depressing, isn't it? Yes, if that's how you look at life, then that is indeed depressing.

And so, what do you do? Bring out the booze and have a ball? Live for the moment?

No. As I said, we have to read carefully. What exactly is the Teacher talking about here in this passage? Well, please note that he speaks here about the life under the sun…. In other words, he is only looking at this earthly life. He is only looking at life from man's perspective, from an earthly perspective. He is talking about what happens here on earth. And whether you are a believer or an unbeliever we all share the same lot.

The Teacher begins his book in the way that he does because he wants to shock us into reality: "Look at what life is like under the sun: it is meaningless. On its own it has no purpose. All you do is live and die. Once all is said and done there is nobody on earth that is going to remember you anymore."

However, if you really want to look at life from the proper perspective, then you have to look at what God sees. We come to the second point.

2. The Preacher refers to life under the sun to show our limitations. God is the one who created it all. He put us here on earth with a purpose. When he created us there was a wonderful connection between heaven and earth. Adam and Eve could walk and talk with God. There was direct contact with heaven. Adam and Eve had great freedom to go anywhere and do anything. Except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, there were no restrictions.

However, as soon as man sinned that connection was broken. Man became confined to his earthly existence. He became like a fish in a bowl. There was no escape from it. Everything came under a curse. Listen to what the Lord God said to Adam, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.” In other words, you are now part of the cycle of life and death. Your movements and your abilities will be greatly restricted. You will experience pain and eventually death. That is your curse.

And now the Preacher in this book presses home the implication of that curse that God put upon mankind. He says, that is the reality of the fall into sin. That is now the fate of all men and women.

In this book of Ecclesiastes the Preacher mentions the word "toil" no less than 23 times. In this way he reminds us over and over of that curse pronounced upon man, upon each and every one of us. The Preacher brings home the message of Genesis that if you want to survive here on earth then you have to toil and labour to the point of exhaustion. And yet in the end you will experience little or no fulfilment in your work. The word "toil" carries with it the idea of frustration and misery.

How do you escape that? Well, brothers and sisters, the Lord God wants us to look at things from his perspective. That is our purpose as we live the life under the sun. We are on this earth to reflect on him and to believe in him and to glorify his name.

Why is this present world so full of sin and misery? Why do we get sick? Why does God send us a virus which keeps us from doing the kinds of things that we want to do? Which restricts us in ways we never thought would happen?

Well, it is because of the curse that God sent upon us because of our sin. Our sin in Adam, and our everyday sins. He hates sin and everything that has to do with sin. And, if you want to look at things from God’s perspective, so should we.

For who is God? He is the Almighty creator of heaven and earth. He created everything, including the sun. What is so significant about that? Well, for one thing life here on earth would not be possible without the sun.

For what does the sun do? The sun makes the crops to grow. And you need the sun to bring warmth and prosperity. The sun in the sky is a blessing to us. The sun reminds us that God smiles on all those who believe in him, in spite of difficult circumstances that we find ourselves in. God is always there. And that should make you smile, that should make you happy, exceedingly happy.

Oh sure, the sun can also be a curse. But ultimately only for those who do not believe in him. For what happens when the light of the sun is taken away? Then we are reminded of God's curse. Think about what the Lord God did to the Egyptians. He gave them darkness. That was one of his great curses upon Egypt. The Egyptians were worshipers of the sun. But the Lord God showed them that he is the one who created the sun and that he can make it to shine or not to shine.

For it is God who ultimately controls everything that happens here on earth. He is in control of man's destiny. And you may wriggle and writhe and nothing can change that.

But he has your life here in his hands. That is what the Preacher wants each and every man here on earth to realize. Throughout your whole existence here on earth, God, like the sun, will be with you. The sun is representative of his power. With the sun he can create life and cause death. The Shunammite's son was killed by the sun. He had a sun stroke. The sun is also representative of his endurance. For example the Lord God says in Psalm 89:35–36, “Once for all I have sworn by my holiness; I will not lie to David. His offspring shall endure forever, his throne as long as the sun before me.” (ESV)

The line of David is compared to the sun. And what does the line of David refer to? Ultimately it refers to the Lord Jesus Christ. For he is of the line of David.

And so, here we have God's perspective on things. It is not as if he is not involved in his creation. He is. He rules. He makes the sun to shine. He gives life here on earth. Through his only begotten Son he took away the curse that rests on us in all creation.

Brothers and sisters, do you want to get out of that vicious cycle of life? Do you want to have a life that is full of meaning? Do you want to get out of that rut that you are in? Well, then take the godly advice of the apostle Paul who tells us to set your heart on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

Oh sure, there are many things right now already that we can enjoy here on earth. We can enjoy the freedom that we do have. We can enjoy good food and good company in our families in our church community. There are so many things that we can enjoy and should enjoy. But, ultimately you must put it all into proper perspective. Don’t make an idol of what you have here on earth now. Put God into the picture. He loves this creation. He loves you because you are his. But you also have to acknowledge that in the way that you live. And not as if this is all there is. For there is so much more. With God there are other abundance of blessings. We can have a foretaste of that now already. But, only if you open your eyes to who God is and what he has done and will do.

That ultimately is also the message of Ecclesiastes. The Teacher describes his life here on earth. He looks at life from man's point a few. But then, like a bolt of lightning, he will come with a perspective from God. He does that especially in the end. He says in chapter 12, "remember your Creator in the days of your youth. Remember him, before you are old and spent. He says, "now all has been heard; here's the conclusion of the matter: fear God and keep his commandments.

If you want to look at life without any reference to God, then you will experience a world full of chaos, without meaning and without progress. An unbeliever sees history as something circular. It goes around and around and around. Que sera, sera, what will be will be. There is no real progress. To postmodern man truth is an illusion. Truth is only what you make it to be for yourself.

However, someone who looks beyond the sun, beyond the universe, has a completely a different perspective. When you are a believer then you love God's creation and then you see the glory and the majesty of God's name. When you're a child of God and you see the sun shine, then you know that he is the one who makes that happen and that in so doing he smiles upon this creation, upon the animals and the trees and all of creation. He blesses his creation with his Holy Spirit.

Listen to how David expresses his joy about life under the sun. He writes in Psalm 8, "O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! And in Psalm 19:1 David exclaims with great joy, that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” (ESV) He says further,

Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat.” (Psalm 19:4–6, ESV)

 Ecclesiastes, the Teacher, wants us to go beyond this earth. He wants you and me to see the futility of it all. And for that reason he keeps on coming back to the refrain of vanity, of meaninglessness, that everything is meaningless. He wants us to realize that ultimately it is only the Lord God who can shine upon you.

Revelation 22 brings us to the end of our earthly existence. There you are brought to a life that is no longer under the sun. For we read there that in the New Jerusalem there will be no more sun. It says there that the New Jerusalem "does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp (Revelation 21:23). Jesus is the light today and always into eternity. We are not children of darkness but of the light.

Life is meaningless, futile? Oh yes, without God it is. Without God you walk in darkness, even though you live under the sun. That is why God should be your light now. If he is your light now, then he will also be your light for ever in the new Jerusalem.

And so, brothers and sisters, lift up your hearts unto the Lord. Lift up them to God. That’s where your treasure is, and not here on earth. Amen


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. W.B. Slomp, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2008, Rev. W.B. Slomp

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