You could say that I’m a sucker for movie trailers. I love watching teasers for upcoming films. They are, indeed, a specific art form. There are good trailers and bad trailers (mostly bad, though). The good ones tease the intrigue of the movie without giving anything significant away or spoiling the plot in any way. The bad ones just include the coolest scenes from the movie (or even ones that don’t make the final cut, ahem, Rogue One), and spoil big moments from the final act of the film. A quintessential example of a bad movie trailer is Antoine Fuqua’s 2015 boxing drama, Southpaw. Seriously, if you watch the trailer, you’ve seen all you need to see. Having seen it myself, I can testify to the fact that whoever edited this trailer wasn’t really thinking about setting up the movie in an intriguing way, he was just out to make an awesome trailer. All the major beats of the movie are spoiled, and, in so doing, it makes for a less than captivating movie-going experience.
In a similar way, the Book of Ecclesiastes spoils its ending before it even begins. In the rarest of occurrences, this royal Preacher invites us to read an extended journal entry of his deepest, most vulnerable moments of life. He extends a hand to join in the search for something soul-satisfying. And he starts by spoiling the end of the search.
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem. “Absolute futility,” says the Teacher. “Absolutely futility. Everything is futile.” (Ecc 1:1–2)
To some, it’d be tempting to close the book and call it day. After all, it’s hard to come back from that kind of opening sentence. But the Preacher’s confession of futility and vanity isn’t an invitation to an equally futile and meaningless life. Rather, it’s an extended “human sermon,” which gives a voice to the truest human angst of the soul. It’s not full of gospel rhetoric or redemptive narrative but of common, raw speak that meets us where we are. The crux of message isn’t that we can live for nothing by enjoying everything. Instead, it’s a message that gives us lessons on how to cope in the rubble of “once-Eden” by reveling in the assurance of the New Eden to come.1 Ecclesiastes equips us with a language to speak to the brokenness of what is by giving us the remembrance and hope of what’s to come. What the Preacher does in this introductory chapter is breach the conversation on the world’s brokenness in order to give us three lessons about what we can learn about ourselves “under the sun.”
A lesson about time.
First, we’re given a lesson about time. There’s a common truism in the realm of sports that runs, “Father Time is undefeated.” No matter how fit and athletic you are, no matter how hard or how consistently you train, your body will break down eventually. Time always catches up to you. It cannot be stopped. This is true in all aspects of life, though, not just sports.
All of nature marches to the deathless beat of time, against which we’re rendered impotent at frustrating its advances. As hard as we might work in this life, time will always have its way. (Ecc 1:3–4) Time marches on. Generations come and go. People live and die. They’re born, they breathe, and they’re buried, felled by time, fading into the forgettery of death. (Ecc 1:11) This is the way things are. This is the rubble of once-Eden with which we’re all forced to reckon.
Surely, some try their best to be remembered for what they accomplish “under the sun.” But to such, the Preacher poses the question, “What does a person gain for all his efforts that he labors under the sun?” (Ecc 1:3) What’s the point in all that striving and bustling? As we bury ourselves in the tiresome wanderings after legacies and memories, the Preacher would have us see what we’re actually chasing: empty trophies. “Absolute futility.”
What’s humbling is the recognition that time carries on after we’re gone. Solomon uses examples of nature to illustrate this point. Even though our life is a vapor in the vast expanse of history, “the earth remains forever.” (Ecc 1:4) Creation continues its time-worn progression. (Ecc 1:6) Our deaths don’t spell the doom of the cosmos. “The sun rises and the sun sets . . . to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.” (Ecc 1:5, 7) We’re not so important that when we’re gone the seasons don’t keep their divine schedules.
A lesson about age.
Second, we’re given a lesson about age. Just as Father Time remains unimpeded, moving according to the Sovereign’s clock, neither can aging be foiled or frustrated. Despite our best efforts, old age afflicts us all. As time marches on, so does our weariness. We’re powerless to thwart the aging process. It’s laughable how many “anti-aging” products exist in the cosmetic market. The industry is overloaded with all manner of creams, oils, and “coconut-charcoal-eucalyptus” putties that promise to remove your blemishes and make your skin younger. I don’t care how much “easy, breezy, beautiful Covergirl” you apply, old age will have its way. As the Preacher states here, all things grow “wearisome” and worn out over time. (Ecc 1:8) Age advances and ultimately overtakes the bum on the couch and the beast doing curls. “What has been is what will be.” (Ecc 1:9) Death will not be felled by any amount of rigorous workout regimens.
All the things we’ve seen and heard for our entire lifetimes never seem to fill us. And such has been the case for everyone who exists “under the sun,” and there hopes to find their filling. (Ecc 1:8) “There is nothing new under the sun,” the Preacher reports. (Ecc 1:9) Certainly, there are “new inventions” and new advancements that “make our bones heal quicker but not our minds, not our hearts.”2 The methods by which we seek to stymie the futility of our souls are merely the tattered, moth-eaten strategies of generations gone by.
The impetus behind every new innovation of man is the filling of the soul with joy and life. Since his banishment from the Garden, man’s mission has been to find satisfaction and meaning in his possessions. Whether modern or ancient, nothing is new. He always comes to the same conclusion: vanity, “absolute futility.” (Ecc 1:10) “Nothing new under the sun” can fill the angst for otherworldly joy. We are a “soul-starved people,”3 scavenging the earth for something, anything that might slake our appetite for meaning and purpose. But so long as this quest is confined to that which is “under the sun,” we’re tiring ourselves on tired methods of soul-quenching satisfaction.
A lesson about limits.
Third, we’re given a lesson about limits. This, certainly, is an unpopular and unconventional sermon subject. It’s not every day you hear a preacher tell you that it doesn’t really matter how much you apply yourself, change won’t come at your hands. “What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.” (Ecc 1:15) But this Preacher’s message isn’t a pointless, hopeless look at the present through the lens of the past. It’s an honest, humble understanding of the future that realigns our focus in the here and now.
Our Teacher admits to efforts at exploring the limits of wisdom (Ecc 1:16–17), something he describes as a “miserable task.” (Ecc 1:12–13) But even as he learned of and saw “all the things that are done under the sun,” he considered it all futile, “a pursuit of the wind.” (Ecc 1:14, 17) For all his wisdom, our Preacher couldn’t relieve all the sorrows and griefs of life. Actually, they increased. (Ecc 1:18) The more he discovered, the more he determined he was defenseless against time’s assaults.
Right now, you’re probably wondering where the hope lies in this message of futility. To be honest, I wondered the same thing at first. It’s easy to see the surface-level defeatism that’s present in the Teacher’s message. It feels as though he’s offering up nothing in the way of “get-up-and-get-out-of-your-bed” inspiration. Nothing to set your alarm for. But actually, his message isn’t one of cynical nihilism, it’s the message of freedom.
The notion that we can “change the world” is an enslaving one. And, what’s more, it was never one you were meant to carry. The world won’t be fixed by the power and might and wisdom of our hands. For all our strenuous activity, we aren’t the instruments of reform the world needs. Jesus is. As Jared C. Wilson has so eloquently put it:
“You’re the preacher?”
“So you’re the guy with all the answers.”
“No, I’m the guy who points to that guy.”
We aren’t the world’s change-agents, but we point to the true and better Change Agent to come. Ecclesiastes equips us with a language to proclaim the good news about the Spirit of Christ who comes to our brokenness and promises to make everything new again. And he’s One who cannot lie! Learning to cope in the ruins of Paradise Lost means directing all our attention to the glorious King who not only meets us in our ruin but has promised to rescue us out of it. The good news of the gospel tells us about our glorious Brother who has come and felt all our angst, all our infirmities, that he might win for us the assurance of Paradise Regained.
When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is this: fear God and keep his commands, because this is for all humanity. For God will bring every act to judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil. (Ecc 12:13–14)
You can be hopeful during your time “under the sun” because God isn’t chilling in the netherworld with the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy eating scones and drinking lattes. He’s working to “bring every act to judgment.” In fact, he’s sitting on a throne in Zion right now, willing everything according to the ends he desires. And that end is restoration and renewal. The rubble of once-Eden will give way to the glorious pastures of New Eden because the Father of grace and time has covenanted with us to make all things new. (Rv 21:5)
Zack Eswine, Rediscovering Eden: The Gospel According to Ecclesiastes (Phillipsburg, PA: P&R Publishing, 2014), 25.