The Book of Ecclesiastes: God’s Gospel Bassoon

A sermon I preached this morning at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Erie, PA (EPC) to a wonderful, warm, friendly mission church in the EPC.

Let’s read together from the Book of Ecclesiastes.  We will start with Chapter 1 verses 1 through 14, then jump to the other side of the book – the “end of the story” if you will – Chapter 12 verses 9 through 14.  I will be using the English Standard Version.

Chapter One:

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? 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. 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. 12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

Chapter 12:

9 Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. 10 The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth. 11 The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. 12 My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. 13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Let me pause for an important interpretative note here.  The word “vanity” here is literally hebel in the Hebrew. It appears 5 times here and in 29 other verses in Ecclesiastes as well. Thus, it is obviously important to understanding the book.  It can be rendered as “mist” or “vapor” or “mere breath.” In the New International Version it is translated “meaningless.” The International Standard Version uses the word “pointless.”  When used as a metaphor, hebel means something that is fleeting, elusive, ephemeral; here one second, gone the next.

I find it helps us to swap out different words for hebel sometimes, and to say them out loud, to let these verses impact you as they are meant to: “Only vapor of vapor…nothing more than a vapor of vapor! All is just vapor.” Or “Mere breath of breath…it is only a breath of mere breath! It is all nothing more than breath.” Or like the New International Version: “Meaningless! Meaningless!…“Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Or finally, to voice the International Standard Version: “Utterly pointless…Absolutely pointless; everything is pointless.”

A good way to picture hebel is to think about watching the breath from your mouth on a cold day. You reach out to touch it, and it is gone.

Feeling encouraged yet? (Sorry, a bit of dark humor.) Let’s pray.

“Oh Lord God, who loves us so much that You give us what we truly need, rather than what we think we want, so that we can not only delight in You but also discover and know our heart’s true desire. Who takes us into the lowest valleys so we can comprehend the glory of Your highest heights, and Who drops us to the bottom of the deepest wells so we can truly see the brilliant stars with which You have adorned Your heavens. Please guide us as we consider this ancient, and often difficult wisdom in Your Word, that points us to your Son, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.”

In late August 1976, a very concerned college counselor asked to meet with me before he authorized my request to withdraw from school. It was highly unusual, he admitted, and he couldn’t really stop me, but I had written something on my withdrawal form that puzzled and worried him. Under the section of the form entitled “Reason for Withdrawing,” I had written, simply, “It is all a vanity and a chasing after wind.” As he pressed me, I just muttered something like “I just couldn’t think of anything else to say. It’s ok.” Unconvinced but still worried, and knowing he wouldn’t get any more out of me, he let me leave and I went back to my life. I was 20 years old.

How could I explain it to him? About 14 months earlier I had experienced a profound, beautiful conversion to Christianity, embracing Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior after having thrown away my entire youth, from age 14, on everything I could get out of the “freak” lifestyle: delinquency, dishonesty, hedonism, self-destruction and hurting others. I left college after my first year, sold most of my possessions, and moved hundreds of miles from home at age 19, from suburban Washington D.C. to Edinboro, Pennsylvania. I wanted to be with the people and church within which I had encountered Christ, and get away from the negative influences at home.  At first, I was profoundly happy, at peace, able to enjoy life as I had never experienced. I had a rich prayer life and devoured the Scriptures. I saw God do many wonderful things for me. But the old ways had begun creeping in, gradually taking over my life.  I backslid completely, walked away from Christianity, and returned to my home in Washington D.C., and to my old life.

The problem is, I had now known something real that I could not deny. I had returned to what I now knew were only shadows, realizing more than ever, that if that is all there was, life was pretty futile. I tried pursuing my old dreams (most of them pretty unreachable anyway considering how I wanted to live), but was now haunted by the unshakeable fact that, even if I achieved everything I hoped for – fame, money, physical pleasure, freedom to do as I wanted whenever I felt like it – that it was all meaningless, a vapor, wind. Whether I was a success or a failure I would eventually be dead and forgotten, and eternity would loom in front of me so endless as to make my life here nothing more than a speck of dust by comparison. It was…pointless.

What came after was a terrible year for me, one in which I sunk to new depths and flirted often with self-destruction. But it stripped away everything, every pretense, until I fully understood that it was Christ or nothing, and with that I had to choose hope or despair, meaning or futility. A little over a year later, I chose hope, I chose meaning, because I finally turned completely and irrevocably to Jesus Christ.

That is the pattern of the Book of Ecclesiastes – to cut off all avenues of escape, to show us the futility of the “broad ways that lead to destruction” not to destroy us, but so we can see and appreciate the “narrow way that leads to life,” as Jesus tells us in Matthew 7, verse 13. It is the confusion and degradation and folly of Jew and Gentile alike to seek any way to live apart from God while preserving the benefits of living in God’s world, right up to and including killing His own Son.  But then, for those who finally see the futility of it, landing at the foot of the Cross.  It is what we look forward to in this Lenten season, and walk through as we move from the ruin of sin to the glory of the Resurrection.

This is why this passage in Ecclesiastes, of all the Bible that I had read in the first rush to Christianity before my backsliding, had stood out to me as I struggled with how to explain why I was leaving college. Having turned my back on God, I could see no point in any of it if I was going to be living, again, in a world that had no Savior.

The writer of Ecclesiastes lays out, in painful detail, the utter folly and hopelessness of any other path to true meaning, to true life.  And didn’t Jesus do the same? “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”, He declares in Matthew 16, verse 26.  Remember Jesus’ admonition to the person endlessly piling up wealth in the well-known “Parable of the Rich Fool”, in Luke 12, verse 20: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Notice how closely His words parallel a similar reflection in the Book of Ecclesiastes (2:18-19): “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.” We see here the writer of Ecclesiastes comprehending what Jesus wanted the rich fool to also see – that without God, the wealth—and all the skill he used, and all the work he did to acquire it—was pointless. He would die and go naked into eternity, while someone else—perhaps a fool—got everything that he worked for, and the cycle would start over.

Some of you may recall the 1977 song “Dust in the Wind,” by the rock group Kansas. It not only reflects this somber reality, but shows that this perspective is something that is accessible to the natural person, something by which we can reach them.  Here is how one website summarizes how the song came about: “Kansas guitarist Kerry Livgren wrote this after reading a book of Native American poetry. The line that caught his attention was ‘For All We Are Is Dust In The Wind.’ This got him thinking about the true value of material things and the meaning of success. The band was doing well and making money, but Kerry realized that in the end, he would eventually die just like everyone else. No matter our possessions or accomplishments, we all end up back in the ground.” And here are the lyrics: “I close my eyes, only for a moment and the moment’s gone. All my dreams pass before my eyes, a curiosity. Dust in the wind; all they are is dust in the wind. Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea. All we do crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see. Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind.” Hebel. Vanity. Vapor. Mere breath.

One great and absolutely critical phrase unlocks the meaning of the Book of Ecclesiastes.  It is the phrase “under the sun.” In one form or another (for example, “under heaven”) this phrase appears 29 times in this book. And yet we find it in only one other place in Scripture, Second Samuel Chapter 12, verse 12, and in that other place it has a completely different meaning than it does in the Book of Ecclesiastes. It appears three times in our passage today—twice as “under the sun,” and once as “under heaven.”

The commentator H. C. Leupold has pointed out, correctly, that if we do not properly understand “under the sun,” and see how it is the context for much of the content in the Book of Ecclesiastes, we will gravely misunderstand the book and its teaching. In fact, without the phrase “under the sun,” much if not most of Ecclesiastes would be heresy! Yet once we grasp what the author means by “under the sun,” the real meaning of Ecclesiastes explodes.  Francis Schaefer, and many other evangelical teachers and commentators, have made the same point.

Here is what Leupold says: “Each time the phrase occurs it is as though the author had said, ‘Let us momentarily rule out the higher things.’” Thus, what appears to be heretical or hopeless is interpreted this way, says Leupold: “What I claim is true if one deals with purely earthly values.”  For example, we can say that without God, work is ultimately futile, though it may have temporal value. Another commentator says that “under the sun” is like a “horizontal line” that the author of Ecclesiastes draws across the horizon.  It’s as if he is saying “Let’s just look at everything below this line without reference to anything above this line.”  To put it more simply, we could say that “under the sun” means “this is how things really are if you take God out.”  Ravi Zacharias agrees, saying that it means simply “life without God.” For the philosophically inclined, Ecclesiastes divorced from it ultimate point and conclusion—which we see today in that passage from Chapter 12, is the reality of the godless, whether they acknowledge it or not.  It is exactly what the atheist German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche saw–nihilism.

That is what I was dealing with in August 1976. I was attempting to reconcile myself to living my life, again, “under the sun”—to live life without God—after having tasted true reality in His Son.

As we walk through elements of the Book of Ecclesiastes together in the next few weeks, we will see that, when we remove God, the obvious realities of life can be very stark, even though life can be in many ways good, and many human virtues can be quite useful. Wisdom, pleasure, fame, social reform, political revolution, planning, craft, saving, prudence – at their best they still ultimately add up to nothing in an endless cycle that has gone on forever before we were born and will continue forever after we die, erasing all our endeavors eventually, and for most of us, sooner rather than later. Under the sun. And yet in God, and for God, all of these things are redeemed, preserved, remembered, meaningful, satisfying, not pointless but pointing toward an ultimate, and good, goal.

From this, we can also deduce that to gain wisdom, and to truly comprehend the beauty and wonder of Christ and all He has done for us, we must sometimes look at what life would be if God did not exist.

Doing so will also help us to understand the plight of our thoughtful but unbelieving friends–to be able to enter into their world and suffering for a moment.  How does getting terminal cancer at age 45 look to them?  Or the death of a young child?  What “psychological solutions” might they try to arrive at to resolve their existential pain; to make the senseless, sensible?

Doing so will also help us to understand the plight of our believing, but sometimes deeply despairing, friends, who are struggling with doubts and fears as they face sometimes truly awful circumstances.

More clearly, doing so will enable us to better see the real brokenness of this world but, by contrast, also see the real awesome beauty and grace of God.  God in all He is and what He does against the real, total futility of what life would be if we were only broken people living among other broken people in a broken world, without God.  To see how hopeless things really are without God.  Then, to look at God again, and see how He really shines in the darkness.

We are reminded of the Apostle Paul’s response to the question “what if heaven, what if the resurrection of the dead, is just a myth”? 1 Corinthians Chapter 15, verses16 through 19 and then 32: “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied…. If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’”  But of course, as Ecclesiastes 12 reminds us, there actually is a God, there really is a final judgment, and our toil need not be “vanity.” We do not just live “under the sun.”

J. I. Packer, explaining why he loved the Book of Ecclesiastes so much, accurately described it as “God’s Gospel Bassoon.” Let me close by quoting what he said about this, because he said it so well (note: from a short piece in Christianity Today from 1996):

“I tell people to read the most important books of the Bible most often, and I read Scripture that way myself. But most often of all I go back to the 10-page wisdom tract called Ecclesiastes….

“Sheer bracing delight is the reason: Ecclesiastes does me good. What he says, sadly and beautifully, about the pain of brainwork (the more you know, the more it hurts), about the boredom of the supposedly interesting and the hollowness of achievement (all pointless! like trying to grasp the wind!), about the crazy-quilt character of life, about our ignorance of what God is up to, and about death as life’s solitary certainty, grabs me deep down: for I felt all this as an adolescent, and still do.

“What he says about life’s best being enjoyment of the basics—one’s work, meals, and marriage-makes me want to laugh and cheer, for this, too, is what I have felt all my adult life. My built-in makeup as an antihype, anti-Pollyanna reality man anchors me in Ecclesiastes’ corner, where realism is the name of the game….

“The text that runs most constantly round my heart is Ecclesiastes’ admonitory exit line: ‘Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man [everybody]. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil’ (Eccles. 12:13-14, NIV). In face of life’s randomness and bitterness, says the writer, I must keep worshiping and doing what I have been told to do; then I can’t go wrong.

“…the statement that God will take account of everything done is not a legalistic threat, but an evangelical encouragement. It tells me that ongoing worship and obedience when I feel frustrated, frantic, hurt, cynical, rebellious, and sick of trying actually counts. God is very concerned that I would keep on keeping on in the godly life, no matter what.

“The statement is really a bassoon version, in Old Testament terms, of Paul’s trumpets-and-drums declaration in 1 Corinthians 15:58: ‘Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord’ (NASB). The notes may be an octave lower, but the tune is the same, and bassoon gravity can strike just as deep as trumpet brilliance. So Ecclesiastes helps me hear Paul; and Paul helps me understand Ecclesiastes; and with these twin texts echoing in my ears, I go on my way rejoicing.”