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Author:Rev. Mark Chen
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Congregation:First Evangelical Reformed Church in Singapore
Preached At:
Title:The Futility and Frustration of Life Under the Sun
Text:Ecclesiastes 1:1-18 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Living in a sinful world

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Trinity Hymnal Revised 1990, The Psalter 1912
Psalter 137 - Acceptable Worship
Psalter 99 - The Righteous and the Evil-Doer
TH 539 - Jerusalem the Golden
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

We’re starting our study on Ecclesiastes. This will go on for about 3-4 months. And our sermon title is the theme of the entire book - life under the sun is futile - pointless - and full of frustration. And the aim of studying this book is not to depress or discourage you. It’s not a depressing book but a realistic one. It speaks realistically about life, death, joy, and sorrow. You see, we get frustrated in life because we have an unrealistic view. We have an idealistic and idyllic view. And when our life doesn’t match up to that aspiration, we become frustrated, unfulfilled, disappointed, dissatisfied, and perhaps even depressed. And I use that term loosely. We all have dreams - for jobs, children, health, retirement. But things don’t always happen the way we expect. 

And for some odd reason, we’ve transferred that kind of thinking to our spiritual lives. I pray, read the Bible, go to church; Christ should bless me, right? Why isn’t my life peaceful and prosperous? Why am I not spared from disappointment? We forget that Christ never promised us that, here under the sun. Rather, he calls us to look to him for resolution in life beyond the sun.

Today, from the first chapter, we will learn 3 truths. Firstly, life under the sun is frustrating; secondly, life under the sun is more frustrating than we actually realize; and thirdly, the source of life’s frustration is sin.

Firstly, life under the sun is frustrating. Verses 1-3 say, “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” It says all is vanity. Everything is vain. This is something many parents wouldn’t want their children saying. Who taught you to say that? No, you can do whatever you put your mind to. You must stay positive. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again. If you work hard, you will always get ahead in life. No parent, no teacher, no one likes the verdict - all is vanity - what profit is there in working so hard in life?

And the one who came up with this verdict is the preacher, verse 1. In Hebrew, he is the Qoheleth - the one who gathers a congregation to speak to them. Or in Greek, the ecclesiastes. But can we trust this verdict? It sounds so negative. And we can trust this verdict because we trust the preacher. He calls himself the son of David, the king in Jerusalem. Now, while all the kings of Jerusalem were considered sons or descendants of David, it could only be Solomon who wrote the book. There are some scholars who do have compelling reasons why they don’t believe it’s Solomon. We won’t discuss that, not because I have the conclusive opinion - but because it would be too lengthy. I do recommend you to research. Meredith Kline is one argues why it is not. There are other writers you can read that discuss the issue of authorship - Benjamin Shaw, Derek Kidner, Philip Ryken, etc.

I have chosen to remain with the traditional view. I find it more consistent, more defensible, and easier to preach. So why Solomon? Verse 16 says that he surpassed all others in his wisdom. No other king was wiser than he. 1 Kings 4 says that God gave Solomon wisdom, great understanding, and knowledge as vast as the sand on the seashore. That’s why it can only be Solomon. Furthermore, the length of his reign and his immense wealth gave him the time to investigate many things. Verse 13 says that he gave his heart to investigate with that wisdom all things that were done under heaven. Verse 14 says that he had seen all the works that are done under the sun. That’s a bold claim. To do that, he had to have the resources and time.

Now, it doesn’t mean that he saw or did everything - but he experienced all sorts of things in life - work, family, religion, government, leisure, etc. He examined every aspect of life and death, success and failure. And what was his conclusion? His verdict? All is vanity. It’s a messy and frustrating world. Things are senseless. Now, why should we accept this verdict? I mean, why can’t we be more positive? And why can’t we accept a nicer verdict? Boomers here will remember Louis Armstrong who sang about a wonderful world. I'm just walking on air, haven't got a care. Younger ones will remember Pharrell Williams in his song Happy. That everything will just be fine. Why can’t we accept those verdicts? Why’s the Bible so negative. 

But no! The Bible is not negative. It’s simply realistic. It says that life is frustrating. Verse 2 says, “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” This word vanity is the Hebrew word hevel. Remember? Eve named her first son Cain, because she thought she had gotten the savior? Then when she realized life was still tough, she named her second son hevel. Literally, it means breath or a wisp of vapor, a puff of wind. But figuratively, it is translated here as vanity. Vanity because breath doesn’t last. This word can be translated as senselessness, messiness, wackiness, frustration, emptiness, absurdity, futility, elusiveness. Her hopes that she had were not fulfilled. What she expected did not come to fruition. Her hopes went up in a puff.

We’re people who often get what we desire. But at the same time, we have all experienced hevel. Imagine if you were an Olympic medalist. You won gold in Rio 2016 beating the world number 1 of many years. You train for the next Olympics. Pressure is on you. And during the heats, you fail to qualify. Not only do you not qualify, but you’re last in the heats. It’s frustrating. You’re mad at yourself, your country is disappointed, people make snide comments. You feel winded - not only after the heats, but returning back home with no medal, no parade, no pride. Frustration!

Your national ping pong team seems to be doing well - in doubles and in singles. They have a real chance at making it - at least winning the bronze. But during the pairing up, a player is pitted against the top player. Frustration! Of course she loses. If she had been paired against someone else, she may have made it. No bronze - missed the mark.

Kids - have you built your lego - an amazing creation, with high towers and intricate and delicate designs. Then your younger sibling comes and pushes it off the table? Broken. Or while you’re playing your last move in the last stage of your game, and your mobile phone runs out of battery? Frustration!

Life is hevel. It’s frustrating. And many cannot take the disappointment. Verse 8 says all things are wearisome, no man can describe it. Not everything goes according to plan. In fact, there are some times that nothing goes according to plan. Yes, there are good times - Solomon describes in later chapters about eating, drinking, and making merry. He talks about studying, working, and having kids. He talks about joy and sadness, life and death. Life is full of good things - but it’s mixed with bad things. And there’s disappointment. The phrase “under the sun” is used twice. Verse 14 - “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” This phrase describes all of life. Everything under heaven, on the earth, in the whole world. In other words, we’re living in a frustrating world. Just turn on the news. COVID is down, then COVID is up. Phase 2, then Phase 3, then Phase 3 heightened, Phase 2 heightened. Your cruise ship holiday is canceled. And great news - we can meet up to 500. I’m happy, but I’m a lot more cautious now. And the vaccines? Not so effective after 6 months. Life under the sun.

But secondly, life under the sun is more frustrating than we realize. Life down the ages has always been and it will always be frustrating. There are those who say, “in my day, things were simpler. Better times.” Not really. Children may not have had to do as much in school. Last time it was 1 +1 = 2. Now it’s the Singapore model method. But in times past, infant mortality was higher. In the past, kids may not have experienced cyber-bullying. But there were more gangs in schools. Life in every generation is messy and frustrating. 

Verse 9 speaks about the cyclical character of life - “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.” There is nothing new. Whatever was done will be done again. And we see this in verse 4 - one generation dies, another is born. It’s like photo albums of your parents and grandparents - they had birthdays, graduations, weddings, funerals; and your albums are filled with the same things. Once upon a time, there was the Spanish flu, and SARS, today there’s COVID. Once upon a time, there was WWI, then WWII, then the Vietnam War, Iraq, Afghanistan - there’ll be another major one. 

And this life cycle is very punishing. Verse 5 says, “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose.” The sun rises and sets by returning to the place of its rising. The word “hasteth” literally means to stomp back panting. The sun is very tired. Day after day, huffing and puffing. Verse 6 says, “The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about unto the north; it whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.” The wind is like a merry-go-round - round and round. And yet there is no gain. The sun goes back to the same place. The wind goes round and round. And verse 7 - the rivers are constantly flowing and filling into the sea - but the sea is never full. The point of pouring water is to fill up something. But the sea is never full - the level is always the same. We all want things to work. But no matter what, the roof still leaks, the dust still settles, the ants still come in, and the kids still don’t put away their plates. Or if they do, it’s something else.

And the more you know about life, the more frustrating it is. Solomon spent time examining life. And his conclusion? Verse 18 - “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” When you know more, the more grievous it is. Why? Because you don’t know how to fix it. No matter how smart or successful we are, we still have problems in our lives. My cousin - many years ago - had a failed marriage. Her son, graduated from university in London. While high on drugs, he fell off the balcony and died. Then she had breast cancer a few  years later. And she died. She had so many problems she didn’t know how to fix. But why we are frustrated is because we think we can fix them. We demand they be fixed. But not every problem be fixed. We have to live with regrets in our lives. You can’t fix everything. Verse 15 - “That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.” And that’s a lesson especially for young people. The more we know and find out, the more helpless we really are. And that really disturbed Solomon. That’s why he said in verse 14 - “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” What he saw troubled in his spirit. 

But there is an answer. We know why life under the sun is frustrating. That’s the third point. Why is life so hard? Because God is responsible. Verse 13 - “And I gave my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under heaven: this sore travail hath God given to the sons of man to be exercised therewith.” We see that life under the sun is described as a sore travail, a tragic existence, an unhappy business, a heavy burden, a grievous task. That’s how other versions translate it. And who is the one who has given it to mankind? It was God. God hath given it to the sons of man to be occupied with.

And the reason why God did this was not because he’s unkind and mean. This was a result of sin. When Adam and Eve sinned in Genesis 3, they brought upon themselves the curse of sin. God was the one who cursed them. And yet, the curse was not as bad as what their sins should’ve gotten them. Before the Fall, God warned them that in the day they eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would surely die. But they didn’t die. Not that God was wrong - but God was merciful. He delayed the inevitable to give them time to repent. And the curse that was given to them was this - work would be hard - Adam would toil with sweat on his brow; marriage life would also be hard - Eve would try to control Adam and Adam would control her back; family life would be challenging - Eve would have great pain in childbirth and in family rearing.

The sin belonged to Adam and Eve, but God pronounced the curse. And this is why, verse 2, all is vanity. This is why - verse 15 - those things which are crooked cannot be made straight. And why - verse 18 - the more you know, the more grief you have. In Genesis 1, after God created everything, he said all was very good. But Ecclesiastes 1 has a different conclusion - all is vanity. Why? Because Genesis 3 happened. And man can’t change it. Man can’t break out of the cycle of life’s messiness. And he does it by two ways. 

He does it by making a name for himself. If I win that medal or if I make my mark on society, then along after I’m gone, I will be remembered. It doesn’t work. Aside from select people from history, you will not be remembered. Verse 11 tells us that no one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them. 

He also tries to break out of life’s messiness by doing works of significance. I can be remembered if I’m truly innovative. If I do this, my work will last. Not really. Verse 9 tells us that history merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new. Sure, there will be new inventions, great deeds - but there’s truly nothing all that new. There are many inventions that no one ever uses now. The unicycle. If you use it, you’re probably a clown. 

While medical science has advanced and people can live longer due to better medicine and health care - people still die. The fabled vaccine that people were lining up to get - after less than 6 months, it’s only 60% effective. Every generation born will die. Nothing man can do will break him out of the cycle of a messy life.

And yet, what is the response to this frustration and messiness? What is the response to people not getting what they want? They resort to all things to try to get it. It reminds me of a novel I read in my youth by F. Scott Fitzgerald - the Great Gatsby. A man who was spurned by the love of his life, couldn’t accept it, and made millions to win her back. By that time, she was married, her husband had an affair, and Jay Gatsby tries to win her back. In the end, everyone dies in the end. We move houses so our kids can get into good schools, who eventually can't study. We study hospitality because of tourism. Then COVID hits. It’s a Korean drama. And you all have dramas in life. Difficult family, bad investments, unreasonable boss, serious illness, or a boring life. It happens differently to different people. There’s no such thing as an idyllic life.

Why does God give this to man to be occupied with? Why are these things unchangeable? Why Ecclesiastes 1 and not Genesis 1? Because of Genesis 3. Thorns and thistles, great pain, relationship problems. Why? So that we will turn to God. So that we would turn to Christ. Life under the sun will always be frustrating. And only by the gospel can we endure it. You see, what God has bent, no man can straighten. God did not promise a problem free life - but a problem filled life. Christ himself said - I came to bring a sword, not peace. Follow me and suffer the pain of the cross. You can’t escape life’s troubles. But we acknowledge it, and learn to live contentedly with its messiness. How?

By going to Jesus. Solomon already asked - what do you get from all your labor under the sun? Nothing. So what does Jesus say? “He that comes after me, must deny himself, take up the cross, and follow me. Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

You see, being Christian does not rescue you from life’s frustration. But it teaches you a cross-bearing and self-denial so necessary to go through life’s messiness. We receive from his hands good and evil. And the reason why we can do that is because we are yearning for a better life in heaven. 

Romans 8 tells us that what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory of heaven. All of creation is waiting for that day. Everything was cursed - subject to vanity and frustration - but one day it will not be anymore. So until that day, we live by faith. That’s the message of Ecclesiastes.


  1. Life Under the Sun Is Frustrating
    1. The wise investigator
    2. The frustrations of life
  2. How Frustrating Is Life Under the Sun?
    1. It has always been and will always be frustrating
    2. The more you know, the more frustrated you will be
  3. Why Life Under the Sun Is Frustrating
    1. God is responsible
    2. Man can’t change it
    3. We endure frustration through the gospel


* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Mark Chen, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2021, Rev. Mark Chen

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