“Futile! Futile!” laments the Teacher. “Absolutely futile! Everything is futile!” What benefit do people get from all the effort which they expend on earth? (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3 NET)
The Common English Bible reads, “Perfectly pointless…. Everything is pointless.” Do you feel like life is like being a hamster stuck running on its wheel? You just wonder, “What is the point?” The writer of Ecclesiastes began his writing by saying the same thing. Listen to how the writer continues this thinking in verses 4-11 in Ecclesiastes 1 because it really summarizes the feeling of life.
What does a person gain for all his efforts that he labors at under the sun? A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets; panting, it hurries back to the place where it rises. Gusting to the south, turning to the north, turning, turning, goes the wind, and the wind returns in its cycles. All the streams flow to the sea, yet the sea is never full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. All things are wearisome, more than anyone can say. The eye is not satisfied by seeing or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Can one say about anything, “Look, this is new”? It has already existed in the ages before us. 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. (Ecclesiastes 1:3–11 CSB)
You can hear the emptiness and exasperation in his words. A generation comes and a generation goes. The sun rises and the sun sets. The streams flow to the sea but the sea is never full. All things are wearisome. The eye is not satisfied. What has been is what will be. The Hebrew word that is translated in our English versions as vanity, futility, or meaningless is a word that refers to something being a vapor or breath. The point is that it lacks substance. I thought one writer summed up this idea very well by saying that life is like cotton candy. It is a bite of sweetness and then there is nothing. This is the idea that the writer of Ecclesiastes is getting at when we speaks to the futility and emptiness of life. It is just a vapor. It just dissolves into nothing.
There are times in our lives where we can feel the weight of these things. We can come around to Monday and feels like we are back on the hamster wheel trying to survive to Friday. Then we have the weekend which is going to supposedly be this wonderful time to really live life only to return to Monday and return to the monotony. So what does God want us to know while we run on the hamster wheel of life? What is our hope when life seems futile, vain, empty, and meaningless?
God Made This Life Empty
One of the truths that author of Ecclesiastes repeatedly points out is that God made life to be futile and empty.
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. I have seen all the things that are done under the sun and have found everything to be futile, a pursuit of the wind. What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted. (Ecclesiastes 1:13–15 CSB)
Notice that the author says that God made life this way. Everything under the sun is a pursuit of the wind and that cannot be changed or fixed. In chapter 3 the author continues to describe the hamster wheel of life that God made. There is a season for everything in life (3:1). When you live life long enough you see these changing seasons in life. After speaking about these various seasons of life, the author notes that God is the one who has made everything appropriate in its time, putting eternity in our hearts so that no one can know what will going to happen next (3:10-11; cf. 7:13-14).
Here is the point: God has made the pursuit of the things in this world to be unsatisfying. It is a pursuit of the wind and emptiness. If you make it your mission to be happy by pursuing wealth, career, wisdom, family, justice, pleasure, or power, you are going to be unsatisfied and empty. This is what the author determines as he goes about pursuing each of those categories. Nothing satisfied. It was all cotton candy, lacking substance, and he realized God made life this way. Your first basis of hope is to know that God made life this way. The emptiness you are feeling about what you are doing in this world is natural and it is intended by God. God wanted you to feel this as you pursue life under the sun. This emptiness is the cause for a lot of sadness and depression in our lives. These things can lead us to make really bad decisions in life that cause even more pain to ourselves and to others because we are sadness. So what does God want us to know? What is God’s purpose in making the world this way?
God wants us to see the emptiness and learn to be content. Listen to what author declares about this.
Better to have one handful with quietness than two handfuls with hard work and chasing the wind. (Ecclesiastes 4:6 NLT)
There are many proverbs in the scriptures that teach the same idea. When we understand the all of our hard pursuits and toil in this life is not going to lead to satisfaction but further emptiness, then we can be content with the handful you have now. Stop straining for more. It is not going to give you what you are looking for. Be content with what you have. More is not going to make your life better, make you any happier, or give the satisfaction you are seeking. The author also wants you to see the importance of people. Listen to what he says next.
Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their efforts. For if either falls, his companion can lift him up; but pity the one who falls without another to lift him up. Also, if two lie down together, they can keep warm; but how can one person alone keep warm? And if someone overpowers one person, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not easily broken. (Ecclesiastes 4:9–12 CSB)
Sadly, our pursuit of life under the sun and the chasing of the wind can cause us to ruin relationships and destroy people. We fail to see how much we need each other and can depend on each other during the seasons of life. We need each other when life goes up and down. We need people who will stay with us through thick and thin. I find nothing more troubling and sad but to see a person die and there is no one who really cares. It is not that I feel bad for the person who died who is that circumstance. Rather, I am sad at what that person has done to destroy so many relationships and burn so many bridges that the person dies completely alone. God wants the futility of life to cause us to be content with what we have in our hand and to value the people God has given to us in our lives. Life’s emptiness should move us to see these truths.
The Sum of Life
So what is the purpose of our lives if the pursuing of this world is emptiness and chasing the wind? What are the conclusions that God wants us to draw about life?
First, enjoy life as it is given to you.
A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 2:24–26 NIV)
Notice that it is from God’s hand that we enjoy life and be satisfied in the life God has given to us. We need to enjoy life as God has given it to us, not what you want life to be. So much of our chasing after the wind and finding emptiness is because we are trying to make life be something different rather than enjoying life as God has given it to us. No human experience is going to satisfy the longing of the heart. We should not feel bad about enjoying life. We should not feel bad about enjoying what comes from our work. But notice what the author says. You are not going to truly enjoy any of these things without God. Enjoy life and understand that it is from God. Without God, enjoying life is emptiness. With God, enjoy life is contentment.
God made life laborious, frustrating, and hollow so the we would seek beyond it. All of your effort cannot get you to where you think it will get you.
Again I saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift, or the battle to the strong, or bread to the wise, or riches to the discerning, or favor to the skillful; rather, time and chance happen to all of them. For certainly no one knows his time: like fish caught in a cruel net or like birds caught in a trap, so people are trapped in an evil time as it suddenly falls on them. (Ecclesiastes 9:11–12 CSB)
Enjoy life as it is given to you because life is not going to be fair by our definition. The promotion is not always given to the best work. Justice is not always given to the innocent. The race of life is not necessarily to the strong or the swift. Have we not seen this with the pandemic? There is no rhyme or reason determine why some people die and some people are fine. We want an answer that we are strong or smart or fast. But time and chance happen to all. Disaster suddenly falls on us at any time. So please take what you have today and enjoy it. You do not know that you will have it tomorrow.
You might ask, “How is this hopeful?” I thought this was a series on hope. But when we see life through this lens then we can have hope. Often our misery is because we focus on what we do not have rather than what we have. We focus on what we are wanting rather than enjoying what we have been given. We focus on the pain rather than all the good pleasure that God has given. Enjoy where you are. There are blessings and good that you can find in this frustrating life.
Second, know you are not escaping death.
We really mess up life because we think we know when it is going to be our time. As we just noted, life is not given to the strong or swift necessarily. Our time can be at any time. We need to live with an appreciation of life that we have today because we may not have it tomorrow.
Since no one knows the future, who can tell someone else what is to come? As no one has power over the wind to contain it, so no one has power over the time of their death. As no one is discharged in time of war, so wickedness will not release those who practice it. (Ecclesiastes 8:7–8 NIV)
Finally, life is about God.
In Ecclesiastes 12:1 the author starts describing the pain of old age and the pain of life that will come on us and the need to remember God through it all.
After all this, there is only one thing to say: Have reverence for God, and obey his commands, because this is all that we were created for. God is going to judge everything we do, whether good or bad, even things done in secret. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14 GNT)
The only place where you will find satisfaction is in God. When you feel empty, realize God made life this way so that you would be content where you are and seek him for your true life and joy. Jesus’ words to the Samaritan woman are the same words directed to you. “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” (John 4:10 ESV) Living water is only in God. He is your hope when you feel empty. Come to him and find rest. Come to him and find relief. He came to take off our burdens so that we can rest in him.