I want to start today by talking about dishes. You may think, what do dishes have to do with Ecclesiastes. You may know that Ecclesiastes is one of the most philosophical and complex books of the Bible, but I’m starting out the beginning of the series by telling you it's about dishes. See, here is the mystery of dishes. Think about the dishes in your home. You wash them everyday, every meal. You prepare the water, the soap, the sponge; set your dirty dishes in order, wash them, scrub them, rinse them; set them in the drying rack, wipe down the counter, the sink; set the soap and the sponge back in their designated places. And then you leave the room for a minute - and come back to find more dirty dishes in the sink! Where did they come from? How did they get there? And guess what: they will be there tomorrow and the next day and everyday of your meaningless life! And that’s an exaggeration - your life isn’t meaningless … but it will feel meaningless because you spend it all doing dishes! How much time do you spend doing dishes? Well, according to a study in “Changing Rhythms of American Family Life”, the average American woman spends 66 minutes a week doing dishes, the average American man 42 minutes. What is funny is that when they asked men and women how much they thought they did dishes, women said 5 1/2 hours and men 2 hours 40 minutes! So we don’t actually spend all that much time doing dishes - it just feels like we do! And if it is not dishes, its laundry, or commuting, or shopping, or changing kids diapers, or sitting at your desk doing the daily grind, or scrolling and scrolling and surfing and scrolling, whatever, so many tedious things that need to be done every day, just to live. How many times have you woken up with amazing plans of what to do today, and then past through the day and wonder what you did?
Whenever I’m trying to figure out our next sermon series I reflect back on conversations I’ve had with you and I brainstorm notes. Some of the topics I wrote down on that reflection were things like, dealing with the monotony of life, finding my purpose, struggling with anxiety or a feeling that I am missing out, what’s God’s point in putting me in a dead end job, how do I redeem the moments of my life and live for something greater, what do I do about these doubts and hard questions that creep in at night - these were all things I jotted down and as I reflected on them, as often happens, a book of the Bible came into focus and I realize that it addresses head-on many of the topics and issues that I had written down. And so that brings us to the Book of Ecclesiastes. For Ecclesiastes teaches us how to deal with the dish-iness of life. Today I want to just look at the first few verses, and really get to the question that the Preacher raises:
Eccl. 1:1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2 “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 3 What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
As we open the book, we understand that we are hearing a great sermon, delivered by an expert preacher. We won’t focus at all today on the biographical sketch given in verse 1, that this preacher is “the son of David, king in Jerusalem” as it will come into focus more clearly next week. Instead, note the preacher’s words that immediately call us to attention, and though we’re using the ESV, I want to give it to you in Hebrew first: “Habel habelim, habel habelim! Everything is habel!”. Before considering this word, habel, we should note that this is also how the book closes, in 12:8 near the conclusion, the teacher repeats, “habel habelim! Everything is habel!” So this is obviously the key word of Ecclesiastes; habel. The word habel appears 37 times in the 12 chapters of the book, the beginning, middle and end.
What is habel? The NIV makes the teacher sound like a complete cynic: “Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless." (NIV). Other words used to translate habel into English are: Meaningless - NIV, NLT; Vanity - ESV, NASB, KJV, ASV; Futility - BSB, CSB, HCSB; Nonsense - CEV; Useless - GNT; Pointless - GWT.
So what is habel? Doesn’t it mean these things? We must remember that the Bible is a cross-cultural book. The Hebrew language is different from English. Often in the Hebrew language, an abstract concept is conveyed through a concrete noun. Chinese does this, and it is often very fascinating. My favourite Chinese expression is “green tree bamboo horse” four concrete visual words, but conveying one abstract concept, in this case, “to fall in love with a childhood friend.” (One whom you knew when the trees were green and you played make-believe games or imagining bamboo sticks were horses.) Hebrew does this as well. And so the word habel is a concrete noun - that’s what makes it so hard to translate. Here is what habel is the word for: in Canada, we have the luxury for being able to see this word. Go outside on any winter day and breath out. What do you see? That’s habel. The only English version that doesn’t over translate habel is Eugene Peterson’s devotional paraphrase, the Message: “Smoke, nothing but smoke. [That's what the Quester says.] There's nothing to anything - it's all smoke.” Here’s how I translated it for you in your booklet: “A mere breath!” says the preacher. “A mere breath - it’s nothing but a breath!”
Taking habel to mean breath, at least at the first, protects us from going into the book with overly pessimistic, or optimistic readings and allows us to hear what the preacher is going to say.
Overly pessimistic readings of the book. If you think the message of the teacher is that life is meaningless, you’re not really going to listen to what he has to say, or think there is much to gain from the book, and may even question, why is this in my Bible? Peter Kreeft suggests this when he says, “Ecclesiastes is the question to which the rest of the Bible gives the answer.” If that is the case, then we don’t need to read any further in Ecclesiastes, as the question is sufficiently raised in the first 2 verses.
Overly optimistic readings of the book. Some people think that Ecclesiastes is giving a pessimistic answer that life is meaningless without God, but for the Christian, life has meaning - the abundant life! That really does a disservice to the teachers argument as well, because as I pointed out, the teacher is not moved from his stance that life is habel and the life is habel for everyone. Christian, this is a book for us too. Life is habel for us too and we need to truly wrestle with the habel-ness of life. It’s not like Solomon is saying, “when I was living like an unbeliever, life was habel and then I woke up and followed God and life was no longer habel anymore. Nope, he’s saying life is habel - for the unbeliever, life is habel, for the believer, life is habel, for the young, life is habel, and for the old, life is habel - in other words, Ecclesiastes is about the inescapable habel-ness of life.
Breath is Fleeting: The primary quality of breath is not that it is meaningless, but that it is fleeting, of quickly passing through time. Life’s a breath in that it’s here one day and then gone. That’s what is referred to in Psalm 78 (So he made their days vanish like a breath) and Psalm 144 (Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow). It is what James talks about in James 4:14: “yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.” The fact that life is fleeting like a breath, may in fact mean that it is meaningless or futile - or it could mean that because life is fleeting, every breath matters. We’ll see as we go through the book that either outcome is possible depending on our perspective.
Breath is Elusive: Another immediate reality of breath, and something that also seems to fit with where the argument of the book goes, is that it is intangible, elusive, something that you can’t grasp, can’t pin down. Oh, we try, and the Preacher has an amazing phrase for this, that he uses it seven times, and another like it at least twice more: striving after the wind, or perhaps an even better translation: shepherding the wind. Trying to make sense of life is like shepherding your breath. Can you tell your breath what to do? Can you grasp it, hold on to it, hang it on a hook, try to sort it out? That’s life, and as we’ll see as we progress through he book, the more we try to figure it out the more vexing and frustrating it becomes.
The Key Question: That leads us to verse 3, the key question of the book: 3 What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? The Hebrew word yitron (NIV “gain”) is unique to Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament; it derives from the verb ytr, meaning “to remain over, be left over.” The idea is that of surplus, and the question is asked from the perspective of someone who thinks of life in a particular way, as if it were raw material to be invested in, manipulated and shaped, given added value by what is done with it, and marketed as a means of accruing capital. What is left over after the breath passes away? Can anything be gained through this life that we pass through under the sun? “What are we working so hard for, since everything will soon fade away, no matter what we do?” Given that our life will be over life a breath, what can be gained?
That’s a question. The only important question. And it is a question we may wrestle with when were doing dishes, or commuting to work, or changing a diaper or studying for an exam. Now need to feel the weight of that question in this first chapter Solomon does this through poetry. Theologians argue, Artists feel, and Solomon does both. This poem should disturb us and make us feel the habel-ness of life. It’s a poem about the unsatisfying monotony of this habel life.
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.
6 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.
7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.
The monotonous cycles of nature keep chugging along, nothing changes and nothing ever stops. The oceans are never full and the sun and the wind are never satisfied having run their course. Here’s the thing though: nature doesn’t care. It’s how nature is designed. For nature, the monotonous cycle is a feature - yet that same feature that earth the universe spinning on its axis is what drives us to perplexity and despair. Nature is not unsatisfied - its doesn’t experience satisfaction. Yet we do. And we are unsatisfied with this monotony.
8 All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
9 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.
10 Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us.
11 There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be among those who come after.
See, the problem is not only with the breathiness of life, it is that we spend so much of our life toiling away doing … dishes. This grates at us particularly in the West, and particularly it can frustrate us Christians, because we’ve trained ourselves to deny the dish-iness of life. Here’s what I mean. There are basically two ways of looking at history, the cyclical view of history and the linear view of history. Generally speaking, Eastern religions and the ancient worldviews assumed a cyclical view of life. They observed the cycles of days and nights, and cycle of the four seasons and the cycles of planting and harvest and assumed that this is how the world is. This is what the Preacher is describing in this poem.
Now, in contrast to the cyclical nature of life, the Bible declares that the cycle is not all there is: the very first verse of the Bible declares that there is a beginning, and that “in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” That sentence has been called the most significant sentence in all of history, because it presupposes that History is not merely cyclical, but that it had a start and it is going somewhere. That sentence sets off the story of humanities redemption in Scripture, what we’ve been tracking over the past year: that God created us for Him and for his glory, but we turned against Him and turned away from Him, that that he sent in motion a plan to send a saviour into the world, Jesus Christ, who would save His people from their sins, return them to God and restore the paradise that had been lost in Eden. This linear view of history begins in Genesis and continues through to revelation, which tells of Jesus’ return to bring history to its conclusion, in which the people of God dwell with Him for all time in the new earth. And so there is a purpose to history, and progress to history, an end to which we are being driven. And we the church find meaning and purpose in that linear progression - Matthew 28:18 “And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Your life matters, you’re part of the great commission! You’ve got a history making task to do! Some of you just got back from Urbana and thats probably the message you heard!
Yet, the reality is that as much as we affirm the linear perspective on life, and we obviously reject the cyclical perspective as the ONLY sole view of history, the reality is that we still live in the cycle. The cycle is what frustrates us. The never ending cycle of doing dishes, changing diapers, going to work, making new years resolutions, seasons come and go. The terror of life is that we are all just a breath that will be forgotten about after we pass, yet we waste this breath on those monotonous things, and we’ll be soon forgotten after we take our last breath, and that is what drives us to ask, what’s the point of it all. Habel habelim - its all just a mere breath! And so what Ecclesiastes forces us to do, and it my be one of the only books of the Bible that really forces us to do this, is to wrestle with the reality of the cyclical nature of our reality - it forces us to del with the everyday frustrations of dishes, and commutes, and forces us to consider what can possibly be gained from all this monotonous toil that no one is going to remember in 100 years.
Well, I’m not going to give you the answer today, as I want to encourage you to wrestle with Solomon’s argument as it unfolds through the book. Take it home, begin reading it, meditate on it, hear it for yourself. I have some resources, good books I’ve found on it: order one from Amazon and read it along with the series. I even made a playlist, listen to it.
But I will give you three suggestions here at the beginning; things that I believe are consistent with the argument that will be made through the book but that supplement our approach to the hearing the preachers argument. And so I’d take you to Romans Chapter 8:18-25, one of the few places in the New Testament which may contain an allusion to the book of Ecclesiastes:
Rom. 8:18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. 23 And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
The habel has purpose, as God has subjected creation to it: Notice verse 20: For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it. The apostle Paul uses the same word that is used in the Greek translation of Ecclesiastes, to say that the futility - the habel-ness that we experience living in this world, was a direct and intentional act of God - he subjected creation to habel-ness. In other words, there is a purpose to this perplexing breath.
The habel points us to a glory beyond the scope of life. Verse 19 tells us that “creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God“, and verse 23, “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies”. The habel-ness of this world makes us too long for another. If everything under the sun is habel then it must be that the answer to our habel-ness must come from beyond the sun, from outside of time. As C. S. Lewis once wrote: “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.” Again, this is not only true for those who do not know Christ, although it is most definitely true for them, but Romans tells us that it is particularly true for us, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, for we know that there is something beyond the habel-ness, the dish-iness, of life. The fact that we have the Spirit within us constantly reminding us of something beyond this life makes it even at times more frustrating to us, so that we groan and cry out and long for that world, praying Thy Kingdom Come. So let me encourage you that the frustration you feel with the habel-ness of life does not make you some kind of inferior Christian - it unites you with Creation, other Christians, and the Holy Spirit himself, who groans in anticipation along with you.
The gospel provides us with a new perspective on the habel of life. Paul writes in verse 18: For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. It gives us great hope that the more we are frustrated by the habel-ness of life, the more we can be assured that the glory to be revealed is all the greater. Paul knew a greater hope, a hope in what is to comes, and it changed his perspective on the here-and now. The passage speaks of hope, hope for what we do not see as we are consumed by dishes and diapers, but hope that seeps into those moments and redeems them, as we receive them as gifts from God’s hand, and part of His purpose. Here is why I am so excited to go through Ecclesiastes with you: the Preacher speaks of beauty, satisfaction and joy. I don’t believe there is a more life-affirming, joy-producing, gratitude-inducing book ever written.