At the 2003 MTV awards show, Johnny Cash’s video “Hurt” was nominated for an award. Cash didn’t win. But the showing of the video caused an almost palpable discomfort in the crowd. The video to the song features haunting images of his youthful glory days—complete with pictures of his friends and colleagues at the height of their fame, now dead.
As the camera pans Cash’s wizened, wrinkled face, he sings about the awful reality of death and the vanity of fame: “What have I become? My sweetest friend/ Everyone I know goes away in the end/ You could have it all/ My empire of dirt.”
“It’s all fleeting,” he told MTV News. “As fame is fleeting, so are all the trappings of fame fleeting; the money, the clothes, the furniture.”
The face of Johnny Cash reminded this generation that he has tasted everything the MTV culture has to offer—and found there a way that leads to death. His creviced face and blurring eyes remind them that there is not enough plastic surgery in all of Hollywood to revive a corpse.
Cash found an alternative to the vanity of shifting celebrity. He found freedom from guilt and the authenticity of the truth in a crucified and resurrected Christ.
(from this article)
Johnny Cash was a modern day Solomon – both had lived the life of celebrity, enjoyed all that this life has to offer and seen through it. And both sat down to write their experiences as a warning for the rest of us.
Are Cash and Solomon cynics and pessimists? No, although this book seems really pessimistic, Solomon is doing us all a favour. He is recording the results of his fouled up life which he lived like an experiment to answer the question – What is life for? What makes my life worthwhile?
He isn’t sitting pondering this in his mind, he writes like Johnny Cash – from a well of experience that he doesn’t want others to plumb. And he tells us four things from the depths of that well
Without God your life is a footprint in sand 1:3-11
v1&2 Solomon introduces himself and his theme. In v3 then he asks a key question
“What does a man gain from all his labour at which he toils under the sun?”
Or “What profit does a man get after all his labour?”
The word profit here is an accounting word, used of an accountant sitting totting up the columns in his book, and he comes to the bottom of the list, and all the costs, and payments have been made – what is left? What has been gained that is of real and lasting profit?
That’s the question Solomon is asking.
He has already given us his answer in v2 – profitless, everything we could do is without lasting profit. And now he seeks to show us that whatever we devote ourselves to is as lasting as a footprint in the sand, washed away by the next wave or blown away by the next breeze.
In v4 he reminds us of the tragedy of death. Life is not profitable because, despite all the toil in life, one day you will have changed nothing on the earth and then you will die. And man who is made of the earth disappears while the earth of which he is made remains constant – almost as a mockery.
Solomon tells us three things about our great lives that we think accomplish so much:
Man himself is fleeting – a footprint in sand
v4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.
One generation enters the earth as another is dying off. Each generation thinking that they will make progress, but the only progress they make is to the grave. And as wave after wave of men, women and children return to the earth, the earth itself remains constant. The earth tramps on regardless – not even pausing to note the passing of great men or women.
Man’s work is fleeting
The earth itself illustrates this futile round of things – the sun rises and sets, and there it is in the mrning again. The rivers do the same, always running, never emptying, you cut the grass and it needs cut next week, you wash the dishes and you turn your back and the sink is full again, you get your hair cut only to need it done again in a few weeks time, you weed the garden only to find the weeds back.
One generation after the other enters the earth frantically moving with all the vigour of a guy on an exercise bicycle peddling like mad and going nowhere. And then we die, and our gardens which we so carefully planted return to the wild, our house which we so carefully kept clean fills with dust – someone else moves in and it is as if we were never there. Even the great civilisations of the Babylonians, the Incas and the Greeks are reclaimed by nature and little remains of the mighty empires.
Man’s innovations are fleeting
Ah but what about people who really make their mark? Who like? Like the guy who invented the Tilly lamp, or the fiddle for sowing corn, or the ram for pumping water from a river to houses uphill. Or what about the guy who invented the Betamax video recorder? Or what about the walkman, the record player, the valve radio, or the indicators that used to pop out on the side of cars.
And the people who invented all these are no more remembered than a footprint in the sand.
There is nothing new under the sun –
v10 Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! This is something new"? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.
But what about nuclear power, or computers, or robotic milking parlours? What are they really but ways to do the same things as before except in bigger and faster ways. The only thing that changes is the scale – more power, faster calculations, bigger herds.
Even the best achievements of man are fleeting.
Man’s remembrance is fleeting
v11 There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.
As a kid my favourite tv programme was record breakers. I loved seeing the attempts to see who could lift the most, eat the most, balance the number of crates on your chin etc. I loved browsing through the Guiness book of World Records. But there is something ultimately depressing about GBWR – old editions sitting in second hand shops. Worthless because they commemorate worthless achievements because the achievements have been surpassed. All that effort and training, all for no avail, the next year someone beats your record. And no one remembers your name.
This is bleak, but ultimately it is right – we are so used to placing ourselves at the centre of the world and thinking that the world rotates around us – but here is a sobering reminder the earth itself pays no attention, and neither ultimately do our fellow man.
Walk along the beach, near the waters edge and watch your footprints dissolve – that’s what you are, a fleeting imprint that is there for a little while and is gone.
Ah, you say, maybe I shouldn’t look to leave a mark then, I should just look to get as much as I can here and now. Solomon tried that, and he found that there is no sufficient replacement for God
There is no sufficient replacement for God 1:12-2:10
In these verses Solomon enters in to a great experiment. He asks himself another question in v3
“I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.”
And so like many people before and since Solomon set out just to enjoy life for all it was worth. And these verses instead of being 3000 years old could be a description of Letterkenny main street on a Saturday. Solomon surrounded himself with comedians v1, he tried alcohol, not getting totally plastered, but enough to have a good time free from inhibition v3, he then went for live bands and music of all descriptions v8, and then sex as much as he wanted as often as he wanted v8 – he had 700 wives and 300 mistresses. v10 There wasn’t anything pleasurable that he skipped out.
And it wasn’t just pleasure that he went for, like so many people before and since he poured himself into his work, amassing property, building great schemes, both business and farming, gathering money, so much that it says in 1 Kings 10 that silver was as common as stone.
Whatever there was to do this guy did it – whether pleasure or work.
You see our problem is that there are very few people in the world who have the time or the money to pursue pleasure or work as far as they want. And so the myth persists that if only I was a little richer, or a little more successful, or a little more attractive, or had some more land, or some more brains, then I would be happy.
So mankind persists in chasing a lost cause. And we don’t stop to listen to the voices of those who have been there, Solomon, Johnny Cash, or even Robbie Williams – who once he got to the height of his fame found that fame and money still left him feeling empty inside.
It is the despair that Solomon voices 2:11
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.
So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
As Scottish band Del Amitri said, “The disappointment of success hangs from your shoulders like a hand-me-down dress.”
What Solomon wants us to see is that none of these things, nor anything else is a sufficient replacement for God.
You see this is what sin is – so often we think of sin as being doing wrong things, but at its heart lies this – putting something else in the number one place in our hearts. Sin is basing your life on anything but God. That’s what the first commandment is – you shall have no other gods before me. Sin is taking even a good thing and making it into the ultimate, building your identity around a thing rather than God. So if you make as the main source of your happiness in life your self-esteem, your farm, your success, your looks, your goals, the approval of others, your children, anything – if you say If I had that, or did that, or achieved that I’d be happy – what is it that you want more than anything else – if that isn’t God then you are doing what Solomon did. Except he got what he aimed for because he had enough money and enough time on his hands – and still he said it doesn’t satisfy.
These things, the search for self esteem, riches, approval, success, whatever will drive you into the ground, if you get what you want it will disappoint you, if you fail to get what you desire it will crush you.
These things are not a sufficient replacement for God, because Jesus is the only master who satisfies, and when you fail him, he is the only one that will die for you to make you right again. And you can see that yourselves – ask the question what use are any of these things when the great trials of life arise?
Young people here is a guy who has had it all, standing before you today pleading with you to set your heart o God, because all else fails.
The thing to realise is that your heart is an idol factory – even for the Christian – constantly inventing things for you to put in the place of God. And Solomon says to you – all of them will disappoint you in the end.
So our significance and meaning are not to be found in making a mark on the world, or in living life to the max. As Solomon says in v23 – All this is meaningless – unprofitable, empty. Solomon isn’t being cycnical or pessimistic he is being utterly realistic because he wants us to see that:
Without God, despair is the only honest alternative 2:11-2:23
It is a very clever book – Solomon is setting out to drive people to despair. Not out of cynicism, but out of love. He has lived this life, now in his old age, broken by his sin, having seen the effects it has had on his kingdom, he writes with a repentant heart to warn people of the dangers of following the idol factory of our hearts. He knows that most people don’t get to see the emptiness of life until it is too late, they aren’t rich enough or successful enough to see that the path they are on falls of the edge of a cliff. But Solomon has been to the brink and comes back to tell us.
But he isn’t the only one to see it. An atheistic philosopher once said, “Suicide is the only sensible option, but few have the courage to take it.” And he is right if all there is to life is be born live, die. If there is nothing to live for, and if disease, disappointment, depression, and doubt along with break up of relationships, family and natural disasters can strike anyone in random fashion then he argued what’s the point of going on?
That is precisely the force of this opening section of Ecclesiastes. Without God despair is the only honest alternative. There is a dishonest alternative – to bury your head in the sand and shout, “I don’t believe you.”
And as I have said before those who are on the brink of suicide and depression sometimes see life most clearly. We all think that they are deluded when they ask “What’s the point? What’s the point in getting a job and then working for a lifetime when you’re only going to die? How do you know that someone will love me and be there for me, how do you know that things will get better? This world just rolls on and misses no one, so I’ll not be missed.”. But at a deep level they see things more clearly, they have stood on the brink and seen what Solomon has seen. And the vast majority of life just gets on with life, getting hopelessly lost in the boring repetitiveness of life with all its trivialities – pretending that the big questions don’t exist.
Well they do exist, and Solomon wants us to look at them, so he launches his attack to destroy the false optimism that people cling to.
And what Solomon is saying is that this despair is vital. If you haven’t come to that point of despair – either about your own state before God, or about life in general, where you know that you don’t have the answers and that you can’t help yourself, and that you know that nothing in this life can either – then you aren’t going to see life as it really is. Jesus job is to show you the meaninglessness of life apart from him. Like Paul in Phil 4:8 – I consider all things dung without Christ – because all things are dung without Christ.
And so if you are not a Christian and things are going wrong in your life – God is teaching you. He is forcing you to look at life and see what your priorities are, to see what has claimed the place that belongs to him. What is most important to you? See that unless you have a relationship with God you will fill your life with all sorts of stuff to fill the emptiness, and then you will grow to hate the stuff because it ultimately lets you down.
But where the atheist philosopher had no answer, and where our hearts cry out and override our minds and say, “But there has to be more to it than this” Solomon doesn’t stop – he points us to an answer.
With God there is meaning purpose and joy 2:24-26
That’s where he brings us to in v24-26.
He doesn’t stop with meaninglessness. He tells us that enjoyment itself and making sense of this world, and finding a way to understand life, to have happiness amid the monotony of life, and the hurt of life is a gracious gift of God.
v24 reads more literally “There is nothing good in a man that he should eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work.”
In and of ourselves there is nothing, absolutely nothing that we deserve. It’s all a free gift from God. And so even when those who aren’t Christians enjoy things in life – this too is a message from God. He is seeking by his kindness to draw you to him. CS Lewis said “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks to us in our consciences, but shouts to us in our pains; it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” God has given you that in grace.
What Solomon is saying is that when we make wisdom, knowledge or happiness our chief aim, we get meaninglessness, but when we make God our goal it is then that we get wisdom, knowledge and joy given to us, because this pleases God.
This is quite simply the gospel – give God his proper place, and he will freely reward you – not because you earned it, but as a gift of his grace. Free, the ability to enjoy life with God at the centre is a gift that God gives. You can’t earn it.
Push God off the throne, and you may get short term pleasure in this life, but you will find that it has been of no profit to your soul. Restore God to his rightful place, and you will find that no matter what life throws at you, you will see a meaning and a purpose – and that will give you a deep contentment even amidst the trials.
Christian friends, pushing God off his throne isn’t just something non-Christians do. We know Jesus is king, but we still find ourselves putting other things in the place where he should be. And when we do we find ourselves getting discouraged and down – and that’s because things or people can’t sustain hat weight of expectation, they will let us down. And so even when our heads ell us that we know Jesus is first we find ourselves discouraged because we have low self esteem, or because we don’t feel as appreciated as we want, or because we are saying “If only I had this, or if only I was like this, then it would be so much different”. And we have made exactly the same mistake. We have tried to find our meaning, value self worth, in acceptance, success, possessions, love of something, or someone other than Jesus.
And in the low points Jesus is our teacher, even more than Solomon is and he comes and says, You’ve pushed me off my throne, you need to find yourself in a deep love relationship with me, and then you will have meaning and joy and esteem, and love, and in me you will have success, and position far more than this world can measure.