Ecclesiastes Speaks Today — Part One
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Ecclesiastes Speaks Today — Part One

Ecclesiastes 1:1–18  (ID: 3032)

Ecclesiastes is one of the most neglected and misunderstood Old Testament books—yet according to Alistair Begg, it addresses the cultural climate in which we all live. Even today, it comments on the state of our world and invites the reader to ask, “Does life have any point?” Life’s restlessness, it teaches us, is due not to an impersonal universe but to God’s will, pointing us to eternity. The worldly roads we think will lead to happiness all turn out to be dead ends, for we are made for God.

Series Containing This Sermon

The Pastor’s Study, Volume 7

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23008

Basics 2014

Equip, Inspire and Strengthen Selected Scriptures Series ID: 23514

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to turn with me to Ecclesiastes and chapter 1:

“The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
 vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
 at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
 but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
 and hastens to the place where it rises.
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.
All streams run to the sea,
 but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
 there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
 a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
 nor the ear filled with hearing.
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.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
  ‘See, this is new’?
It has been already
 in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
 nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
 among those who come after.

“I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 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. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

“What is crooked cannot be made straight,
 and what is lacking cannot be counted.

“I said in my heart, ‘I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.

“For in much wisdom is much vexation,
 and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”

Thanks be to God for his Word.

Some of you are saying, “Well, you got us off to a right cheery start, I must say!” Well, let me actually just add a personal word of welcome to this Basics Conference. And has been said to those who are joining us by way of the internet: we’re sorry that you’re not here in person, but I hope that you will be in contact with us. We recognize that the diversity of our background is more than compensated for and addressed in our unity in the Lord Jesus Christ and in our concern for the gospel.

And I think it is appropriate for me to acknowledge the fact that since here I am at the beginning of the conference, going first, and then at the end of the conference, going last, that this is not on my part a desire for prominence, but it actually is a rather uncharacteristic attempt at self-abnegation. Let me explain. I do not want those who arrive late or those who leave early to miss either Christopher or Gary. And so this allows me to do that—and after all, somebody has to go first. And I go first in the way that a foursome stands on the tee and look at one another, and somebody says, “Who’s going to go?” And somebody says, “Well, I’ll go.” He drives the ball immediately into the trees, takes the pressure off everybody else, and it is just absolutely super from there. Or standing at the pool after it’s been opened after the winter, and somebody says, “I wonder how cold it is,” and so on, and somebody just has to go first. So that’s why I am going first. And I go first, recognizing all that comes behind. To mix metaphors, I would say that the nutritious part of the sandwich awaits you, and I provide two slices of bread in order to make sure that things cohere in an absorbable manner.

It’s also very important for me, at the outset, to acknowledge the fact that this is not an exposition. This is not an exposition. I am very conscious of that. I have a friend in Glasgow who’s one of my chief critics, who, when I was preaching in Glasgow some time ago, when I ended, he greeted me at the door by saying, “Begg, you used the text like a trampoline.” And that was not a word of encouragement from him. He’s from the Christopher Ash department, and he wanted to let me know that there had been nothing expositional about it at all. Well, I don’t want anybody to be able to say that to me at the end of this time. I want to get ahead of that. I want to acknowledge that I am about to do some unashamed bouncing. And this is purposeful bouncing, and I hope at the end of the time it will prove to be profitable bouncing. But bouncing it is going to be.

It is important, too, to acknowledge that as the conference title points out—Basics ’14—we could hardly be accused of being unduly creative. Here we are, fourteen years after the beginning, and we haven’t come up with a better title than the one we had in 2000. In actual fact, our approach to things is akin to the approach of John Wooden, the most successful basketball college coach of all time, who apparently, when he gathered the freshman class who were in as his new students in his team, gave to them their first lesson, which was “how to put on your socks and shoes.” These very celebrated young fellows could not believe that that was what was taking place, but that apparently is what he did every time, ensuring that their feet were well settled in their socks so that there would be no wrinkles that they would have to deal with, and also that their shoelaces were double knotted so that they would not trip them up in the course of a game and thereby impoverish not only themselves but their team.

Well, let’s be honest: pastoral collapse may be traced almost exclusively to a failure on our part of taking care of what is absolutely basic. And so, the refrain of Basics, which largely emerges from Paul’s Pastoral Epistles, has actually never changed. And I would guess it never will. So, for example, basics like these: “Train yourself for godliness.”[1] “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.”[2] “Guard the good deposit.”[3] “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching.”[4] “Keep your head…, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.”[5] “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a work[man] who has no need to be ashamed, rightly [dividing] the word of truth.”[6] And in all of this, being “strengthened by the grace that is in Christ Jesus,”[7] so that the imperatives that underlie our exhortations to one another in the course of a few days are directly tied to the indicatives which give to us the substance and foundation and the capacity by God’s Holy Spirit to become what he desires for us to be.

Pastoral collapse may be traced almost exclusively to a failure on our part of taking care of what is absolutely basic.

And so, our emphasis is unapologetically on what John Owen referred to as the effective performance of our primary pastoral duty. The first and principal duty of the pastor is to feed the flock by the diligent preaching of the Word of God.[8] And that lies at the heart of all we’re doing. And if we were to miss that, then we would definitely have missed just how basic we desire this to be. Some of us are convinced and need to be encouraged. Some of us have never entered into these waters at all. And this is going to prove to be, as you listen to my colleagues speak, just a transforming couple of days.

Writing in 1981—which is a long time ago now—Michael Green, the Anglican clergyman, observed, “Much of the current uncertainty about the gospel and the mission of the Church must be due to a generation of preachers which has lost confidence in the Word of God, and no longer takes the trouble to study it in depth and to proclaim it without fear or favour.”[9] And it is for that reason that our tutors this year are going to help us to become increasingly useful as servants of the Word. In each case, both Gary and Christopher will be working from the Old Testament, and when I discovered this, I decided that I would do the same. Each of us comes to this task in the awareness of the accuracy of the late John Stott’s observation—that is, “It is a rash and foolhardy enterprise for any preacher to preach to other preachers about preaching.”[10] And you understand that, don’t you? And we understand it as well.

And so, in this and in the final session on Wednesday, I want to encourage us to think about doing a sermon series on Ecclesiastes. I have attempted this on my own a couple of times: on the first occasion in 1981, and then twenty-one years later, which was actually twelve years ago. I was intrigued, because I looked in that little plastic bag that we’ve all been given, to discover that there was a CD in there of some of the Truth For Life material, and there’s actually a talk on there entitled “Preaching the Gospel from Ecclesiastes.” I wish I’d listened to it. Because I didn’t know that I did that. And I’m sure that it was worth trying again, because it’s never any good the first time. But anyway, I’ll be fascinated to see what it is. And I don’t want you to think that I just hauled it away, you know, from out of the recesses of the dim and distant past. I concur entirely with Spurgeon: “Keep your old sermons to weep over.”

So, I have two questions about this whole business. Why, then, do something on Ecclesiastes? And how should we do something on Ecclesiastes? And this, essentially, is a large introduction to the closing talk, when I will actually try and do what it is I’m suggesting we ought to do. All right?

Why Ecclesiastes?

Why, then? It’s a legitimate question. Why plan a teaching series from this book? It’s one of the most neglected books of the Old Testament. It’s also largely misunderstood by many, not least of all those of us who are in the pulpits. So, the short answer to the question “Why?” would be, “Because Ecclesiastes speaks today.” You know, some of us make use of the helpful commentary series The Bible Speaks Today. Therefore, it follows that if the Bible speaks today, and Ecclesiastes is part of the Bible, therefore Ecclesiastes speaks today too. You see how clever I am. Isn’t that amazing? Just wonderful stuff.

Because it is God’s Word, the Bible is inherently and unfailingly relevant. It is inherently and unfailingly relevant. Our task as teachers of the Bible is not to make it relevant—as if we could. But rather, by explaining it and applying it—the text, that is—we have the privilege of showing how relevant it actually is. Now, some of us are masters at irrelevancy. If no one else will tell us, our wives ought to tell us, “That was fascinatingly irrelevant. Thank you very much. You’re getting no lunch today at all.” Something along those lines. Some of us wriggle very uncomfortably, don’t we, at our study desks when we encounter again the classic quote from Spurgeon’s lectures to his students—which, Spurgeon must have been such a funny fellow. I look forward to meeting him. He’ll be over in the smoking section, of course. I’ll leave that alone, but it’s true. Remember what he said: “I know a minister [who] is great upon the ten toes of the beast, the four faces of the cherubim, the mystical meaning of badgers’ skins, and the typical bearings of the staves of the ark and the windows of Solomon’s temple: but the sins of business men, the temptations of the times, and the needs of the age, he scarcely ever touches upon.”[11] In other words, he is completely irrelevant.

Now, when Stott in ’82—staggeringly, ’82. I pulled this book off my shelf the other day, and I haven’t read it, then, for all this length of time. I read it when it came out, but it came out in ’82, under the I Believe series in the UK—I Believe in Preaching. In the American edition, it was then quickly changed into Between Two Worlds. But he did us a great service in that book by reminding us as preachers that we have to make sure that we resist the temptation to build, as it were, barricades between ourselves and between those whom we seek to reach evangelistically, instead making sure that we’re building bridges across the divide between the biblical world and the contemporary world in which we live. Those of you who read Goldsworthy will know that he actually expands upon this in his book on Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics—actually, on page… Well, I won’t tell you the page; the page number that I have is not the page number in the book. Anyway, you’ll find it in there.

So I’m suggesting that Ecclesiastes has particular relevance when we seek, then, to take that challenge to us. Because it addresses, I’m suggesting, at least for many of us, a way of addressing the cultural climate in which we live—which I think we could say with a measure of certainty that we now live in an environment that is increasingly secular. And the book of Ecclesiastes, I think, provides us in some measure with a critique of secularism or humanism, and even of secularized or humanistic religion. We’re not talking about beginning, as it were, simply with the felt needs of people out in the community and then trying to match the gospel or the Bible to their felt needs. No. This is something far more helpful than that. Because what we’re seeking to do is say, “Here is a book of the Bible. Here is something that has been written a long time ago. We’re going to study it together, and I want to show you how compellingly relevant this is,” thereby testifying to the truthfulness and the usefulness of Scripture.

Now, I don’t want to belabor the issue of secularism. It’s there for debate. But when people at the moment are polled, at least in America, concerning the question of religious affiliation—“What is your religious affiliation?”—at the present time the pollsters tell us that among those thirty and over, one out of five answers “none.” None. N-o-n-e. And under the age of thirty, 33 percent of the young people answer “none.” And the implications of this and the manifestations of this, I suggest to you humbly, have to be reckoned with and grappled with, especially for those of us who have spent the greater part of our ministry in a context where those were not the factors that we were dealing with—that we were able to deal with a certain mentality culturally that allowed us to start at a certain point. And some of us who are still starting at the same points are actually leaving many, many people behind.

And the rejection of religion, which is understandable in many cases, is a rejection of any claims to truth—that there is any truth that can actually be verified and believed. And the pushback that comes when you talk to young people, particularly, is not the pushback of intellectual skepticism, but it is, more alarmingly, the pushback of moral animosity. We find ourselves, really, at the very center of a huge moral crisis—that the mentality and the morality of those to whom we teach is such that the notion, for example, of human sexuality is up for grabs, gender roles and genders themselves are passé, and if a young person is unsure of where they fit within the context of male or female—if we put it crassly, if they don’t know which bathroom they’re supposed to go into—then Facebook has provided us with fifty-six different options from which to choose in order to identify ourselves, to declare who and what we are. And so many do not have any idea at all of who or what they are.

Now, here’s the question: How, then, are we to do gospel ministry in that kind of environment, if you’re prepared to accept that that is a fairly legitimate assessment of things? Now, it’s true to say that it doesn’t matter if that’s the environment; whatever it might be, it’s always the right question to ask: How do I do gospel ministry? It’s really the question, I suppose, that the apostle Paul was asking himself as he walks into Athens, and he looks at the panorama of religious identification, and his reaction is, essentially, to be exasperated. You remember that it says that he had paroxysms, that he was stirred internally. It just got to him.[12] So his reaction was exasperation, but his counteraction was not condemnation; it was proclamation. When he looked, he said, “Oh dear!” When he spoke, he said, “Let me tell you something,” and he began boldly and clearly to reason with people, seizing the opportunity that the context provided. In other words, he didn’t curse the darkness. He didn’t immediately stand up there with a great big placard, saying, “I can’t believe that you people are so stupid as to believe all of this nonsense! If you were only like me,” and so on.

Which, loved ones, is it wrong to suggest that evangelicalism, at least in America, is masterful at that? Do you hear anybody really listening? “Who are these mean people?” the young people ask. “Who are these mean men?” Well, they would never have said that of Paul. He was very clear. He was very straightforward. But he was reasonable, and he reasoned with them, and he explained to them, and he started where they were. In other words, to quote John Dickson from one of our conferences before, his approach was one of mission rather than one of admonition. And what I want to suggest to you again is that Ecclesiastes can be really helpful here. In the middle nineteenth century, when [Thomas Tyler] wrote his commentary on Ecclesiastes, he points out in it, the tone of Ecclesiastes “is not that of the prophet declaring to Israel ‘the word of the Lord,’ but rather that of the philosopher” commenting on the world.[13]

So he’s not standing up, in this book, to make these big pronouncements, but he’s essentially saying to the readership, “Why don’t we walk down a few of these roads together? Why don’t we think this out together?” And he appeals to universally observable facts. And then he invites the reader to ask, “Does life have any point? And if so, what is the point?” That’s essentially the heart of it all. That’s what he’s saying: “Let’s ask and address the question, ‘Are we all here by chance? And if not, why are we here, and how we can make sense of being here?’” And the particular challenge in it is not simply in providing ammunition, as it were, or encouragement for our own people to be able to engage in dialogue with their friends, but also—and, I want to argue, in a way that is often not followed through on by many of us—it is an opportunity to preach and teach evangelistically, to actually engage the minds of men and women with the gospel.

Can I just take an excursus here for a moment on this notion of evangelistic preaching? When you think about your pulpit ministry, let me ask you, how much of it in your own thinking, praying, planning, is related to seeking to see unbelievers converted—teaching and preaching the gospel to those who do not believe with an express view to their conversion? And that is an awesome privilege. And that also, let’s be honest, is hard work. And if we’re going to do it, we have to begin by taking nothing for granted. We can’t simply throw big slabs of religious material at these unbelieving folks. We can’t get away with just all the same old Christianese jargon that makes the believer nudge with great encouragement or fall off to sleep with great boredom but actually does nothing at all to engage the minds of those who don’t believe. We have to use the Bible’s own vocabulary to explain the gospel. That means that we’re gonna have to think hard about what it means to explain to our culture words like repentance, words like justification, words like faith. We have to make every effort to understand our hearers rather than expecting them first to understand us. So many of us as preachers are like a Scotsman going on his holidays in Europe—in France or Germany, wherever it is. And you say to him, “And did you learn German before you went?” “Oh no,” he says. “I just spoke English louder and louder and louder!”—as if somehow or another, if he just said it louder, that they would immediately understand what he was on about. The average Englishman can’t even understand what a Scotsman’s on about, no matter how loudly he speaks.

No, here’s the thing. We need to ask ourselves, “What would I make of it if I heard this gospel presentation right now that I’m giving? What would I make of it if I could hear myself doing what I’m now doing?” And it’s a salutary thought, isn’t it? Because quite honestly, we couldn’t even convince ourselves with our sermon, let alone convince anybody else.

We have to make every effort to understand our hearers rather than expecting them first to understand us.

I remember when I worked as a summer in Philadelphia in a restaurant on the main line called The Joshua Tree, and one of my colleagues there was a girl called Rosie, and at the end of the day, we would talk. And I remember I was greatly stirred in my spirit about the second coming of Jesus Christ, and one evening I began to extol the great virtues of this to her. And halfway through my presentation, she stopped me, and she said, “Please stop. I haven’t worked out his first coming yet.” Which was a good reminder to me. We have to make sure that if we’re going to do this, that we start far enough back in our preaching. You understand what I mean?

The point of departure is the point of departure with the Bible. Okay, we agreed on that. But did the apostles begin in the same place when they preached to the Jews as they began when they preached to the gentiles? Largely, no. When the apostles preached to a Jewish audience, they were able to assume their knowledge of the law of God. When they preached to a gentile audience, they could have no such assumption; therefore, their point of departure was different. That’s why Paul, in Acts 17, begins with God as creator: “The God that you don’t know I want to tell you about.” And there, where does he begin? “The God who made the world and everything in it does not live in temples built by human hands. He doesn’t depend upon you in any way at all.”[14] He starts right there, because it makes perfect sense. God’s law convicts of sin only as I appreciate whose law it is. To tell people that they’ve broken the law of God if they don’t know what this law is… It’s the law of God! Therefore, we need Genesis 1 and we need Genesis 3 as much as we need John 1 and John 3. And some of us have become adept at jumping immediately to John chapter 3 and feeling that we’ve done a terrific job. As Goldsworthy says, we’re masterful at telling people the benefits of believing the gospel or the dangers of rejecting the gospel, and we get to the end of our sermon, and we never even told them the gospel at all.[15] They don’t know what it is they’re supposed to be responding to, ’cause we never started correctly.

How Do We Preach from Ecclesiastes?

“Well,” you say, “I thought there were two points.” Yes, there were, and there are. The second one has to do with, “How would we do this?” “Why would we do it?” I’ve belabored that, I think, purposefully so. How would we do it? Well, the same way that we would do it in any other book of the Bible.

Let’s take a few adverbs. That we would approach it prayerfully.

Lord, speak to me, that I may speak
In living echoes of thy tone;
As thou has taught, so let me teach
Your erring children lost and lone.[16]

Prayerfully. Humbly: “This is the one to whom I will look,” says the Lord: “humble and contrite in spirit.”[17] Cautiously, claiming no infallibility for our interpretation. We declare what is plain, but we don’t pretend that everything is plain when it isn’t plain. And that’s one of the reasons that people resist us, because we appear to be giving them explanations that are so clearly not there.

So, for example, many of us have never got started on a study in Ecclesiastes because we got ourselves so tied up in knots trying to figure out who or what Qoheleth was, or is. What do we do with this? “The words of the Preacher,” the Qoheleth in Hebrew. Who or what is Qoheleth? Somebody says, “Well, it has to be Solomon.” Well, it maybe is Solomon. It has the characteristics of Solomon. But we don’t have the name of Solomon. Therefore, if you’re going to make a big fuss and dance about who wrote the book, just do it by yourself. Your wife may be interested for five minutes or so, but probably not longer than that. But I suggest to you that there is no place for you taking that out into the public proclamation. You’re sensible people; you can do as you choose. But I don’t think there’s an advantage in that at all. All we need to know is what we’re given. Whether we translate it “the Professor,” or “the Preacher,” as it is here, or as Sinclair Ferguson has it, “the Pundit.” Eaton says the “material [comes] from ‘Mr Preacher’, who has all the characteristics of Solomon except his name.”[18]

So, how are we going to do it? Well, we’re going to do it by making sure that we allow the text to be set forward. Therefore, when it comes to structure, again, we ought to be fairly cautious. Now, this is not an argument against structure or against an outline—although you may think this whole address is an argument against that. But the fact of the matter is that as hard as I have tried on each occasion that I have taught through this to come up with some kind of underlying structure, I cannot find one. In the present Banner of Truth magazine, a young fellow has given us a suggested outline in a couple of pages. I saw it the other day, and I commend it to you. But even then, he does so tentatively, and justifiably so. I love it when I come across, for example, a comment like this in the New Bible Commentary, where the fellow writing it there says, “The book defies any logical analysis.”[19] I’m going, “Hallelujah!” I run around in my room, and I have myself a coffee just at that point. “So I’m not the only person,” I say to myself, “that has read this fifteen times and still doesn’t know how to come up with a good outline.” Oh, I can come up with an outline; that’s easy, an outline. But you know, you don’t want to have an outline whereby you impose on the text a structure that the Preacher would be surprised if he discovered it, or a framework that he obviously never had in mind.

No, what we have to do is pay attention, as we read the entire book, to the things that we clearly have to do something with. If we’re ever going to come back to it and do exposition, there are certain things we have to pay attention to. One is obvious, and that is that he begins with his conclusion. This is, like, not his postscript but his conclusion. He comes back to 1:2 and 12:8: “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.” He comes back to that in 12:8. This is like, you remember, the old Columbo detective things, if you’re old enough. Columbo, with the raincoat. And it always started whereby we knew what had happened, and the fun in the program was in tracking to see how it was that the detective got to the place where he realized it as well. Well, in many ways, that’s exactly what’s happening. And it’s important for us to recognize that that’s the case.

Also, that his verdict on life, which is a sad verdict on life, is set within the context of, if you like, secularism. He sets up his watchtower “under the sun.” And that phrase “under the sun” is a key phrase, isn’t it? Comes about thirty times. And also the phrase about meaninglessness comes some thirty-five times. So I know, then, that when I get to grips with the exposition, it’s going to have to be framed by, constrained by, helped by some of these factors.

He is acknowledging that he is unable to provide a satisfactory explanation of things which would make sense of the world “under the sun”—make sense of the big world and make sense of his own little world. And so, for those of you who enjoy music and remember some of the old songs, as I do—I only know old songs now—but, I mean, there are some classics that just pop out of your mind if they’re embedded in there.

Why do we never get an answer
When we’re knocking at the door
With a thousand different questions
About peace and love and war?

And the refrain: “I’m looking for someone to change my life. I’m looking for a miracle in my life.”[20] It’s the Moody Blues, isn’t it?

Well, if you don’t know the Moody Blues, then hopefully, you’re sensible enough and went to a good enough school to know Hamlet. And then you can use Hamlet to reinforce this notion of the meaninglessness of things. Remember when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive, and he greets them, and he says, “Good lords, how do you both?” And Rosencrantz replies, “As the indifferent children of the earth.” And Guildenstern says, “Happy, in that we’re not overhappy.” And Hamlet says, “Well, I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of easiness. And it seems to me that this noble frame, the earth—this goodly frame, the earth—seems to be but a sterile promontory.”[21]

Well, that’s what Qoheleth is doing here. He’s saying, “Come down with me. If you try and make sense of who you are, what you are, where you fit under the sun, then you’re going to discover that it’s a dead-end street.” And here’s the other thing that is vital to our coming to terms with it: the way in which he moves from, if you like, his earthly perspective into these heavenly dimensions; the way he moves, if you like, from time and allows eternity to jump in.

Now, we read chapter 1, so we should at least acknowledge what is there to give some indication of the fact that we are dealing with the Bible. But I’m not wanting to expound it to you, but let’s just look at what he does. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher. It’s all vanity.” And then, in verse 3: “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” The drudgery of things; that’s what he’s saying. Same old thing. It ought to make us and probably prompt us in the direction of “What would it profit a man if he gained the whole world and lost his own soul?”[22]—point us in that direction. In verse 4: “generation comes” and “generation goes”—makes me think of Paul Simon and his song “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright,” and he has that refrain:

Architects may come and
Architects may go and
Never change [their] point of view.[23]

That’s what he’s saying here: one generation comes around; another one comes. The routine of nature in 5–7, whether it’s the sun in its course, or the wind in its routine, or the streams. The things that speak to the believer of the faithfulness and order of God simply say to the unbeliever, “This is absolute futility.”

And it holds up a mirror on human experience. And that then allows us to say to those with whom we’re talking, “Do you ever wonder at your constant attempt to outmaneuver boredom? Do you ever wonder why it is that you’re constantly trying to squeeze more out of life than is there?” The longings of verse 8: “The eye isn’t satisfied with seeing, the ear is not filled with hearing.” In other words, life under the sun has a huge, big appetite that under the sun can never be satisfied. “And is there anything of which it is said, ‘See this is new’?” He’s not saying that there are no inventions. All he’s saying is that the more things change, the more they turn out to be the same.

There’s no greater illustration of it in our contemporary world than that of fashion. I mean, do you have any of those Kipper ties anywhere around? I mean, they’re almost as big as a shirt, aren’t they? The huge ties that came all the way here. You’d be embarrassed to wear it right now, but don’t throw it out; it’ll be back. Someday your grandson’ll say, “We’ve got a whole new kind of tie, Grandpa. Look at it.” And you’ll go in and you’ll say, “Look at this!”

And are you going to assume that posterity will answer it? That you will find your place in posterity? “There’s no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after” us. Christopher Hitchens, in his book Hitch-22, says cynically, “Attempts to locate oneself within history are as natural, and as absurd, as attempts to locate oneself within astronomy.”[24] The whole business seems to be an entire struggle against pointlessness. Now, Plato said that the unexamined life is not worth living. But, says one cynic, “what if the examined life turns out to be a clunker as well?”[25] Now, you see, that’s the issue.

Now, let me draw these rambling comments to a close by pointing out to you that this most unhappy business, this universal restlessness, is not, says the Preacher, because we live in a chance universe, but it is on account of the will of God. Do you see that in verse 13? “It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with”—that the reason that humanity is in this position is on account of God. You say, “Well, surely not.” Yes, surely! Do you think that Paul perhaps had Ecclesiastes 1 in his mind, or even the whole book of Ecclesiastes, when he wrote, “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope…”[26] In other words, it is written into the very DNA of our humanity that any attempt to unscramble the riddle of life that remains under the sun, as it were, that seeks to sort it all out without the penetration of that which reveals God’s intervention, is destined to emptiness. In chapter 2, he’s going to say, “Try education or intellectualism. Try hedonism. Try materialism.” He says, “Come down these roads with me, if you wish, and I’ll prove to you that they’re a dead-end street.”

The pop-ups which come up on our computer screens, which are often a jolly nuisance to us, are actually really helpful in Ecclesiastes. And I will stop with this, but I want to just show you how these pop-ups are actually a mechanism for us to make sure that we don’t go wrong in our teaching. Now, the first of these I’ve already mentioned, here in verse 13: this “is an unhappy business that God has given.” If you go into 2:24, he says, “[I could say that] there[’s] nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God.” What’s from the hand of God? “For apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” It’s a pop-up. It’s important—crucial in 3:11, when he comes back to the whole point of work and toil and so on. This is the business that men are faced with: “I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. [And] also, he[’s] put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” In other words, the only way that man is going to understand his existence is by way of the revelation of God, and that that dimension of eternity… We know something about our unbelieving friends that they are unprepared to accept about themselves—namely, that God has made them for an eternal relationship.

And you can go through the whole book, but in chapter 7—two more—7:14, another one: “In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.” In other words, it is God’s work that baffles us. It’s God’s work that baffles us.

Any attempt to unscramble the riddle of life that remains under the sun, that seeks to sort it all out without the penetration of that which reveals God’s intervention, is destined to emptiness.

And in 8:16–17: “When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun.” You see, this is actually the best part of it all—that we’re saying to our friends, “We can identify with this, can’t we?” That’s why the disc jockeys, right around Tuesday lunchtime, they start saying, “Well, it’s not long till Friday now!” What are you talking about? It’s only eleven o’clock on Tuesday morning; it’s a long time till Friday! “Yeah, but you can’t live this miserable solitary existence that you have, with that miserable boss you’ve got, and that same old stuff, and putting the thing in the same old box, and droppin’ it off, and driving the same old route, and coming back, sitting in the same old traffic, and everything, and you want to actually think that you can make sense of your life down here? Well,” you say, “that’s just because we live in a random universe.” No. No it’s not because of that. It’s because Augustine was right: “God, you’ve made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”[27]

Well, when we come back, we’ll try an exposition. But in the meantime, we’ll pray:

Father, thank you. Thank you that you have set us at this point in history in the places in which you’ve put us—some of us in environments that challenge us peculiarly, some of us in places of great encouragement, but all of us, Lord, in need of the reminder that your Word is fixed in the heaven,[28] that your Word is a lamp that shines out on the pathway of life.[29] And we want to learn what it is to be better at understanding the world in which we live, the horizon of our own grasp of things, the horizon of men and women’s posture, the horizon of the biblical text—all of these things coming together, enabled by your Spirit. We realize what a challenge that it is and what a wonder it is that you entrust the message to the likes of us. That’s why we’re glad we’re here, so that we can learn, so that we might be better equipped to expound the wonderful news of Jesus and his love. Bless us now, we pray, as we go to our meal, our fellowship there, and as we anticipate the evening, watch over us, and be with our loved ones where they are. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

[1] 1 Timothy 4:7 (ESV).

[2] 1 Timothy 4:13 (ESV).

[3] 2 Timothy 1:14 (ESV).

[4] 1 Timothy 4:16 (ESV).

[5] 2 Timothy 4:5 (NIV).

[6] 2 Timothy 2:15 (ESV).

[7] 2 Timothy 2:1 (ESV).

[8] “The Duty of a Pastor,” in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 9:453.

[9] Michael Green, preface to Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century, by John R. W. Stott (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 7.

[10] Stott, Between Two Worlds, 9.

[11] C. H. Spurgeon, “Sermons—Their Matter,” in Lectures to My Students (1875–94; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2011), 83.

[12] See Acts 17:16.

[13] Thomas Tyler, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction to the Book; an Exegetical Analysis; and a Translation, with Notes (London: D. Nutt, 1899), 1.

[14] Acts 17:23–25 (paraphrased).

[15] Graeme Goldsworthy, Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture: The Application of Biblical Theology to Expository Preaching (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 95.

[16] Frances R. Havergal, “Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak” (1872). Lyrics lightly altered.

[17] Isaiah 66:2 (ESV).

[18] Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity, 1983), 23.

[19] G. S. Hendry, “Ecclesiastes,” in The New Bible Commentary, revised ed., ed. D. Guthrie and J. A. Motyer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), 571.

[20] Justin Hayward, “Question” (1970). Lyrics lightly altered.

[21] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, 2.2. Paraphrased.

[22] Matthew 16:26 (paraphrased). See also Mark 8:36.

[23] Paul Simon, “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” (1970).

[24] Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir (New York: Twelve, 2010), 331–32.

[25] Attributed to Kurt Vonnegut in Christopher Hitchens, “Saul Bellow: The Great Assimilator,” in Arguably: Essays (New York: Twelve, 2011), 65.

[26] Romans 8:20 (ESV).

[27] Augustine, Confessions 1.1.1. Paraphrased.

[28] See Psalm 119:89.

[29] See Psalm 119:105.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.