What Is Your Life?

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on April 30, 2023.

            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 (Ecclesiastes 1:1–11).[1]

One day, not too many years ago, when all my children were still at home, my oldest son told me that his Sunday School teacher was beginning a new study on Ecclesiastes. I was elated. Ecclesiastes is my favorite Old Testament book, if not my favorite book in the Bible. Unfortunately, my son didn’t share my enthusiasm. After prying a little deeper, I found out why. His teacher had given the class a one-sentence summary of Ecclesiastes: “Life stinks and then you die” (except he didn’t say “stinks”).

As a Bible teacher, I was angry and frustrated. How could anyone think of Ecclesiastes that way? As it turns out, more than I realized. Since becoming a minister, I have come to realize that next to the Song of Solomon and Revelation, Ecclesiastes may be the most misunderstood book in the Bible. Part of the reason for this is Ecclesiastes is part Hebrew poetry, part proverbial, and entirely philosophical. Unlike a narrative, it must be read slowly, carefully, contemplatively. Ecclesiastes takes time and effort, but time worth spent and effort worth expending.

So, we’re going to take our time, and work our way through Ecclesiastes together, knowing that it is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb. 4:12), and understanding that what it has to say to us is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that [we in Christ] may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

Oh, and if you’re wondering what my one-sentence summary of Ecclesiastes would be, well, it’s not original to me, but I would say my summary is: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”[2]

Life Is Short

Ecclesiastes begins with an introduction to the philosopher, the poet, or to the “Preacher,” as it is translated, the Hebrew word Qohelet. In fact, the name Ecclesiastes is taken from the Greek translation of the word, from which we get our word ecclesiastical. The title connotes a convening of the church, and what follows is less a sermon and more a reflection to be shared, considering the meaning of life, a message for God’s people. But the Preacher is not a priest but a king, not just any king but the son of David, traditionally understood to be Solomon. Who else but Solomon had done all that he had done, lived the way he lived, experienced all that he experienced. Who other than Solomon could reflect on his life under the sun and say,

            Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,

                        Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

The word translated “vanity” here is used 38 times in the book (If you’re looking for a one-word summary of this book, this is it), the Hebrew word hebel. The word “vanity” is often understood as synonymous with “meaningless” or “futility,” but literally translated hebel means “breath”, or “a puff of wind”, or a “mist” or “vapor”. Conceptually, that’s life: it’s here and then gone, like a mist. Or, as one commentator translates the verse, “Breath of breaths. Everything is temporary!”[3]

This is not to say that everything in this world is temporary but that everything in our experience is. Solomon says, “The sun rises, and the sun goes down.” The sun is not temporary, but a sun rise is. The certainty of the solar cycle is not temporary, but the beauty of a sun set is. As an artist, my wife loves to take pictures during the “golden hour,” pictures she may later paint. But to capture it, you can’t be late or procrastinate, or you’ll miss it, the golden hour gone. That’s hebel. That’s your life.

James asks, “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). It’s a worthy question and sobering thought, unknown to the young, well-known to the old. People seek to answer this question in a myriad of ways: Some through wisdom and knowledge, some work and wealth, others through the pursuit of happiness, of which we will consider in the coming weeks. But if life is but a mist, what’s the point?  Or as Solomon puts it,

            What does man gain by all the toil

                        at which he toils under the sun?

It’s a rhetorical question, not to be answered but considered, and that’s the point Solomon is making here: Stop. Think. What is your life?  

Life Is Ordinary

Part of what drives us to strive for significance is that so much of life is ordinary, and who wants to be ordinary? Ordinary doesn’t make headlines, or fill concert halls, or make history. Even in the church, some want a “new work,” or a new look, or a new way of doing things, anything but the ordinary. And yet, when we consider the testimony of creation, we find it gloriously ordinary. In the first chapter of Genesis, we read, “And God said, ‘Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years’” (Gen. 1:14). And even after the cataclysmic flood, God said, “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Gen. 8:22). By God’s design, creation is beautifully and reliably ordinary, which is not by accident nor chance but by design, kept by providence.

Likewise, life and death are ordinary aspects of this fallen world. We’re born, live, and die: “All are from dust, and to dust all return” (Eccles. 3:20). You and I are in a longline of ancestors, going all the way up our family tree to Adam and Eve of Eden, who died. Generation after generation worked to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves, as do we, but they have returned to dust upon the earth which “remains forever.”

Our ancestors are gone, and beyond a generation or two we don’t remember them, but the same sun that rose on them rose this morning. The same sun that set on them set last night. Are you worried about it? Why not? When was the last time the sun didn’t rise or set? The question is as absurd as the fool who says in his heart there is no God (Prov. 14:1).

Or what about the wind? Why do sail boats move? Why do windmills turn? From where does wind come, and where does it go? We do not know, but come and goes it blows:

            around and around goes the wind,

                        and on its circuits the wind returns.

Likewise water to the sea. “All streams run to the sea,” but the sea is never full because the water cycle continues.

So ordinary is creation that we often don’t think about it. We take it for granted that the world God created works so brilliantly. And yet in our search for significance, we seek for it in what we do, rather than what God has done. Meanwhile, day after day, generation after generation, creation keeps showing and telling:

For what can be known about God is plain … because God has shown it …. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made (Rom. 1:19-20).

Life is Constant

Yet, as ordinarily consistent as sun, wind, and water are, we can interpret it, in a sense, as futility. Life is constant, unceasing, on and on and on it goes, with no regard for what your parents did, or you do, or what your children will do. The sun always rises and sets but it makes no progress, the same with wind and water. Likewise, we speak but never run out of words. We see, but we’ve never seen enough. We listen, but there’s always more to hear. Like the sun, wind, and water, no one ever says, “That’s it. I’m full. I’ve said enough, seen enough, heard enough.

But this doesn’t stop us from saying, seeing, hearing more, but for what? We want to know, as the cliché goes, what’s new? So, what’s new? Answer: Nothing. Seriously. Like the cycles of creation, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

So much for the myth of progress. We really aren’t evolving into a better species, despite what our technology tells us.

            What has been is what will be,

                        and what has been done is what will be done.

Yet, we look at our devices and say, “See, this is new?”

But Solomon says, no:

                        It has been already

                                    in the ages before us.

These are frustrating words to those who consider what we make and what we have done is new, different, even progressive.

In our so-called information age, for example, we’re obsessed with our screens and connectivity, connected as never before, we’re told. But, every age, William Powers writes, has “understood the essential human urge to connect and were unusually thoughtful about ‘screen equivalents’ of their respective epochs.”[4] (Time for an upgrade?) In this sense, we deceive ourselves with our own technology. My favorite curmudgeon, Wendell Berry, writes clairvoyantly in his famous 1987 essay, “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer,”

A number of people, by now, have told me that I could greatly improve things by buying a computer. My answer is that I am not going to do it. … I do not see that computers are bringing us one step nearer to anything that does matter to me: peace, economic justice, ecological health, political honesty, family and community stability, good work.[5]

Berry’s point is not to become a luddite, but to not let the myth of progress blind you to what’s most important. All of the meaningless things that you were so upset about this last week, won’t even be remembered in the generations to come. For this is the way of life under the sun, we say we value history, but actually,

            There is no remembrance of former things,

                        nor will there be any remembrance

            of later things yet to be

                        among those who come after.

And those who come after, will do the same thing, believing the myth and saying, “See, this is new”!


It is at this point that some grow frustrated with truth of Solomon’s sobriety, as if to ask: What’s the point of life if everything is simply a cycle, life on repeat, nothing new “under the sun.” Truly, it is sobering. And that’s Solomon’s intent. If you and your work, your achievements, your pleasure is your life, you should be miserable. But God did not create us to glorify and find joy in ourselves. That’s not our chief end; God is.

Though we live “under the sun,” God does not. He is not constrained to time and space. And the cycles of life can seem repetitive and dull to us, but we are not God. He did not create the world, wind it up, and leave it to unwind itself. No, every nanosecond of existence is upheld, sustained by the same Word who created it all (Heb. 1:3). Every breath you take is a gift from God, a gift you take for granted, like the sunrise.

Consider the sunrise. G.K. Chesterton writes,

The sun rises every morning. I do not rise every morning; but the variation is due not to my activity, but to my inaction. … it might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life. The thing I mean can be seen, for instance, in children, when they find some game or joke that they specially enjoy. A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. …The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical ENCORE.”[6]

You’ll never look at a sunrise again the same, will you? I hope not, because the same is true of God’s unceasing love and never-ending mercies, shown to us in the Lord Jesus Christ. Although we are not faithful, he was, unto death, that we might have life through faith in him. And in Christ, our Father never tires of loving us, never grows weary of showing us mercy; like the sunrise, they are new every morning, great is his faithfulness (Lam. 3:22-23).

We do not look at this life and curse our Creator for the constancy of its brevity and believed-boredom. At sunset we pray, and sunrise we say,

            This is my Father’s world:

            O let me ne’er forget

            That though the wrong seems oft so strong,

            God is the Ruler yet.

            This is my Father’s world:

            Why should my heart be sad?

            The Lord is King: let the heavens ring!

            God reigns; let earth be glad!

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] “The Shorter Catechism” Q. 1, The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (Lawrenceville: PCA Christian Education and Publications, 2007), 355.

[3] Daniel C. Fredericks and Daniel J. Estes, Ecclesiastes and The Song of Songs (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010), 65.

[4] Quoted in David Gibson, Living Life Backward: How Ecclesiastes Teaches Us to Live in Light of the End (Wheaton: Crossway, 2017), 26.

[5] Wendell Berry, Essays: Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer (Berkley: Counterpoint, 2021), 19.

[6] G.K. Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy (Moscow: Canon Press, 2020), 61.

%d bloggers like this: