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Life is but a breath

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

Ecclesiastes 1:1-18 & 12:9-14

Life is fleeting

This year in October is my 60th birthday which is in my mind a significant milestone.

A significant milestone

Not only am I not a young man anymore, but soon, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, I won’t even be able to refer to myself as being middle aged which they define as being between 40 and 60. If I was to compare my life to the trip that I’ve frequently made  from Newcastle to Sydney over the last 34 years, I would be at that point on the motorway where I’ve just passed the Berowra exit. For me it’s around that point that I start thinking to myself that I haven’t got very long before I’m home. There isn’t far to go now.

I’m also starting to feel this way about life and the time that I have left. My dad was 78 years old when he passed away and so I’ve been lately thinking of my life roughly in 20-year blocks thinking that if I made it to around dad’s age or even perhaps a bit beyond, say to 80, I’d have another 20 years at most. But the thing about 20 years (apart from their being no guarantee of them) is that you know how quickly they tend to go.

A lifetime takes no time at all

When you are young you think that a lifetime will be a long time, but you soon start to realise that a lifetime takes no time at all. The milestones quickly go by, and you arrive at that point in the road where you’re thinking to yourself that it is not far to go now. You come to realise that life is fleeting whether it be 70 or 80 years you get to rack up or even if you manage to get to celebrate 100 years and get that letter from the Queen.

The Teacher’s conclusion

The fact that life is fleeting or brief and over before you know it is in part what the book of Ecclesiastes (that we will be looking at this term) is dealing with. This is the conclusion that the Teacher whose teaching has been recorded for us in Ecclesiastes has come to about life under the sun or here on earth. It is what he says about life both at the start and the end of the book (Ecclesiastes 1:2; 12:8). It’s the situation that is being addressed in this book.

Ecclesiastes 1:2

“Absolute futility,” says the Teacher.       “Absolute futility. Everything is futile.[i]

Everything is breath, vapor or mist

The CSB has translated the Hebrew word, hebel as “futile”. However, the word has a range of meanings and can be translated, breath, vapour, or mist. The teacher uses this word frequently throughout the book to describe what we experience while living under the sun. Life is short and it passes quickly like a vapour or a mist or a breath that we take. The word has this sense of brevity or transience in Psalm 39:5 where it is used in the context of the psalmist talking about the span of our lives.

Psalm 39:4-5

“LORD, make me aware of my end       and the number of my days so that I will know how short-lived I am. 5 In fact, you have made my days just inches long, and my life span is as nothing to you.  Yes, every human being stands as only a vapor.

The NIV translates the last word in these verses which is “hebel”, as breath. I think that ‘vapour’ or ‘breath’ captures more of the sense of the word in Ecclesiastes. Our life is but a breath and breaths are incredibly short, and it is this fact that the Teacher is grappling with to a large degree.

The shortness of life

A breath is over before you know it. If my calculations are correct, just in one day you take more than 17000 of them.. Just in the last minute you have taken 12 to 20 of them without even being conscious of any one of them. They came and went and that’s what our lives are like and that’s chiefly (but not entirely) what makes life and what we do at times seem incomprehensible and unprofitable or without gain. This leaves a big question mark over life and how we are to live it and that’s why the teacher words have been recorded and brought together for us. The teacher wants us to understand what is good for us to do under heaven during the few days of our lives (see 2:3).

We are told that the teacher was a son of David, a king in Jerusalem (1:1). At the end of the book in chapter 12 the editor who has brought the Teacher’s words together and arranged them for us tells us more about the Teacher and the importance of his words.

Ecclesiastes 12:9-11

9 In addition to the Teacher being a wise man, he constantly taught the people knowledge; he weighed, explored, and arranged many proverbs. 10 The Teacher sought to find delightful sayings and write words of truth accurately. 11 The sayings of the wise are like cattle prods, and those from masters of collections are like firmly embedded nails. The sayings are given by one Shepherd.

The teacher was not only wise, but he taught the people. He also wrote down these saying and recorded these words of truth accurately so that they might teach others, like us.

The editor explained that the words of the wise are to act like the cattle prod of a shepherd which was sometimes a staff embedded with nails. The shepherd used the cattle prod to keep the sheep walking along the path and stop them for wandering off and getting into trouble. These words are like that. They have been given to us by the One Shepherd, the Lord our God, to guide us and show us the way that we are to go whether we are just starting out and down the road a little or have been traveling for a while or are coming towards the end.

Ecclesiastes, for some of us, will be something of a reality check as we grapple with the brevity and fragility and the injustice of life that is experienced here under the sun. The teacher asks the hard questions that life confronts us with and sometimes that  we might prefer to avoid or ignore rather than confront.

Life, toil and gain

The first question the Teacher has posed is found in verse 3 of the first chapter and he asks about life, toil and gain. If life is fleeting then, what does all our labour and effort ultimately achieve?

Ecclesiastes 1:3

What does a person gain for all his efforts that he labours at under the sun?

The word “gain” was an ancient commercial term that had to do with making a profit. The teacher is asking whether all our effort and hard work in life ultimately gains us anything if life is fleeting? Does it pay off?  Is there any profit to it? Is there any lasting value to all our toil and effort under the sun?

 The teacher refers to life here as life “under the sun”. He uses this phrase on many occasions throughout the book[ii]  to refer to the limited sphere of our existence and experience here on earth. He is aware that there is more than just what happens under the sun, a bigger unseen reality, for he says in chapter 5, “God is in heaven, and you are on earth, so let your words be few” (5:2). However, his observations are mostly limited to what he can see in front of him here on earth.

In verse 4 to 11 the teacher has answered this question about gain making several points that suggest ultimately that all our toil and work under the sun is but ‘breath’ or ‘vapor’ too. He refers to it as pursuing or chasing the wind for it doesn’t change anything under the sun and ultimately it won’t even be remembered.

Our labour and toil don’t change things

The teacher argues firstly that while generations come and go, nothing changes under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:4-9

4 A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises and the sun sets; panting, it hurries back to the place where it rises.     6 Gusting to the south, turning to the north, turning, turning, goes the wind, and the wind returns in its cycles. 7 All the streams flow to the sea, yet the sea is never full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. 8 All things are wearisome, more than anyone can say. The eye is not satisfied by seeing or the ear filled with hearing. 9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun.  10 Can one say about anything, “Look, this is new”?

We don’t have the impact on our world that we think we might have. We come and go. One generation is replaced by the next. But the sun still rises and sets as it always has. The wind keeps blowing, and around and around it goes, and the streams keep flowing to sea without the sea ever become full. There is nothing new under the sun.

I don’t think that the teacher means that nothing new can be invented or built or experienced. We all know that stepping on the moon in 1969 was not something that had been done before. It was new. But I don’t think the teacher has these things mind when he says nothing is new. While we might come up with new ways to do things, the pattern of our lives and our world don’t change. The outcome is still the same as it was in the time of the Teacher. We cannot change things and break the cycle. Things will go on as they always have. Just as the generations before you came and went so will we and our toil labour in this world won’t change that.

We won’t be remembered

The second thing that he says is that even the memory of us doesn’t last. We won’t be remembered, not really.

Ecclesiastes 1:11

There is no remembrance of those who came before; and of those who will come after there will also be no remembrance by those who follow them.

It doesn’t matter what we build or do with our lives for in a few generations we will be forgotten. Our descendants won’t remember who we are. We like to think that we can leave some sort of legacy that will cause the generations to come to never forget us, but how many generations can you really remember of your own family?  I can really go back only as far as my grandparents that’s all. Even if you do all the researching and try to work out who your ancestors were, you don’t remember them, not the way I remember and valued my mum and dad and my grandparents.

Countless generations have been forgotten

At home, I have picture of my great grandmother and great, great grandfather and mother standing in front of their home somewhere in Yorkshire, but I don’t really know who these people were. I don’t remember them. I don’t know what they did or what they achieved or how they lived their lives. I don’t know their stories. But even if I did the next generation wouldn’t or the one after that would not.

 Just think of the countless generations that have gone before you to bring you about. You and I had ancestors around at the time the pyramids were built, when Rome ruled much of the world, when Genghis Khan rose to power or when the black plague swept through Europe, and all these people, our ancestors have been completely forgotten. There is no remembrance of them just as one day there will be no remembrance of us.

Everything that we do is but a breath

The teacher having argued that nothing changes under the sun, and nothing is remembered of those who came before and those who will come after draws his conclusion about whether anything is gained for all our efforts in verses 13 to 15.

Ecclesiastes 1:13-15

I applied my mind to examine and explore through wisdom all that is done under heaven. God has given people this miserable task to keep them occupied. 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun and have found everything to be futile, a pursuit of the wind.15 What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.

By exploring all that is done under heaven or under the sun the teacher concluded that all our efforts and labour and hard work that we do to find profit or gain are useless. This shouldn’t surprise us for this is what God told Adam and Eve would happen right at the very beginning. All our hard work won’t prevent us from returning from the ground from which we came. (Gen 3:17-19). But in contrast, what the Teacher will says a little later in the book is that everything that God does last forever and there is no adding to it or taking from it (see 3:14). So, there is nothing lacking in what God does and what he does lasts, last forever. But what we do doesn’t. It won’t change the outcomes and the Teacher concludes that everything is but a breath or vapour. It is like pursuing the wind. If you are pursuing the wind, you are chasing something that you can never catch or can take hold of or control.

The teacher compares our all our activity to trying to straighten that which cannot be straightened and filling something, the lack of which can’t even be counted. Without God in the picture our labour is in vain, our effort and hard work has no gain, no profit, no lasting significance despite everything that we do.

More wisdom itself isn’t the answer

Even having more wisdom and understanding doesn’t change things, it just makes you more aware of things.  Wisdom itself isn’t the answer to the fragility, transience, and impermanence that we experience here on earth under the sun. The teacher has explained in verses 16 to 18 that he took it upon himself to amass wisdom far beyond all those who had come before him, but his pursuit of wisdom and understand had not tipped the scales in the favour of gain or profit. The pursuit of wisdom and understanding can also just be a chasing after the wind.

Remember your creator

But this doesn’t mean that the teacher hasn’t got anything to say about how we should live here in the few short days that we have under the sun. Wisdom, he will argue is better than folly (Ecclesiastes 2:13) and there is a wise way to live and a foolish way. There is way that leads to contentment and joy and a way that only leads to frustration and despair.

The answer isn’t our hard work and toil

But what the Teacher has revealed for us, in chapter 1 today is that we won’t find the answer to the brevity of life in our own hard work and labour. We don’t find meaning in life by just building something bigger and better or doing something grand and noteworthy or working a little harder so that we might be remembered. None of these things will last. It isn’t found in trying to make a difference through our labour or toil or even through knowing and understanding lots of things about life that others don’t’. All these things are fleeting. They pass away.

Only what God does lasts forever

Instead, what the Teacher will argue is that we need to turn to the one who is eternal, the one who has put eternity in our hearts (3:11), and the one whose works lasts forever (3:14). What the Teacher will argue in chapter 3 is that we don’t find satisfaction in our toil and labour for satisfaction and joy in life has always been a gift from God. It’s God who allows us to find contentment and satisfaction in all that we do in life. Without God there is no gain for only what he does last forever.

Give up on yourself and remember the Creator

This is what life here under the sun is meant to teach us. As the teacher says in chapter 5, it’s God who is heaven and us who are on the earth, and he goes on to say let your words be few (5:2). In other words, you need to stop talking and start paying attention and listen to the one who is in control, the one who sees the beginning from the end.  You need to stop pretending that you have the answers to life and listen to the one who does. This is what the brevity of life here under the sun ought to teach you whether your six or sixty.

In the last chapter, the Teacher will call us to remember our Creator (12:1). It is the Creator who we need to acknowledge and the first step that you need to take in acknowledging him is to admit that everything that you do is vapor or breath. It is “hebel’’. We are to stop fooling ourselves. It’s time to give up on your own efforts and turn back to the Creator and to receive the life that only he can give you for only what God does lasts forever.

Trust in the Son and his work for us

Friends, the Lord Jesus, the Son of God came into the world to live a life under the sun so that we might have eternal life (John 17:2-3). His work was to do the work of his Father (John 5:36), work which lasts forever. He invited all to come to him and he promised that he would give the weary and the burdened rest (Matthew 11:28-30) and life in abundance (John 10:10).  Friends we must stop trying to straighten what is crooked and fill what can’t be filled and believe in the Son for he sets us free from chasing the wind.

[i] Unless otherwise indicated all Scripture references are taken from the Christian Standard Bible. (2020). Holman Bible Publishers.

[ii] Ecclesiastes 1:9,1:14, 2:11, 17; 3:16; 4:1; 4:3; 4:7; 4:15; 5:13, 5:18; 6:1, 6:12, 8:9; 8:15, 8:17; 9:3; 9:6; 9:9; 9:13; 10:5.