What Do We Gain? (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11)

She was, in some ways, very average. She lived almost 70 years. She was loved by her family. She gave of her time as a volunteer to a school and a few charities. She was a block parent, meaning that if a child was looking for a safe place to go on the street, her house was open. She had a successful career as a teacher and counselor in school. She ran triathlons and participated in hiking groups. And when she faced death, she did so with beauty, grace, and class.

She lived a good life. When I say she was average, I don’t mean that her life was average. What I mean is that she was not unlike a lot of us: loved by family, good at work, generous, and active. Her life was a successful one. One day when I die, I hope that I will have done so much, and that I will be remembered in similar ways.

And yet this morning I really wonder if it was enough. The reason I ask this is because the passage in the Bible we’re looking at this morning confronts us with this question. Ecclesiastes 1:3 asks us: “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” In other words, if you add up everything that we accomplish in a life – and I mean a good life – what have we gained? Is it possible that we have bought into the trap of trying to live the good life – of enjoying life, having children, building a retirement fund, pursuing hobbies, and giving back to others – only to find that in the end that we’ve gained nothing?

Well, this is rather depressing. Let me introduce you this morning to a book of the Bible that confronts us with this question, which is an important one, even if it’s one we would like to ignore. The book is called Ecclesiastes. It’s part of the genre of Scripture that we call wisdom literature. It’s going to teach us something about how to live wisely or skillfully in the world that God has made.

There’s a lot that we don’t know about the book of Ecclesiastes. For instance, we don’t know who wrote it. Tradition says that Solomon wrote it. Solomon was the son of King David, and the wisest person who ever lived. But there are lots of reasons to think that Solomon was not the author. Verse 1 says the author is a preacher – literally someone who gathers an assembly. You could say that he’s a teacher. He’s a descendent of David and a king in Jerusalem. Most scholars think that the author is taking on the persona of someone who has it all, a super-Solomon who outstrips everyone else in wealth and achievement, in the quest to discover the meaning of life. In the end, we just don’t know who wrote these words.

As best as we can tell, Ecclesiastes was written for Israelites for whom a new day had dawned. Previously they had lived quiet and agricultural lives. Now they lived in the crossroads of booming international trade between Egypt, and Asia and Europe. There were new opportunities. Fortunes were being made and lost. You could live a very good life if you played your card right. You could get to the end of your life and look back and say that you had lived a good life.

It’s in this context that the writer makes a startling comment. Verse 2 is a theme statement for everything the writer is going to say in the entire book:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

Everything, the writer says, is vanity. The word literally means vapor or breath. Everything, the writer says, is fleeting, elusive, and very temporary. If you stood outside this morning and breathed out, you would see your breath as a vapor. You’d also notice that the vapor would appear for a second and then disappear. The writer is saying that this is a picture of our lives. Our lives are like a breath on a cold winter’s day. We see it for a moment, and then it’s gone.

The writer then asks a very poignant question that I’d like to ask you this morning. In verse 3 he asks:

What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?

When you’re five, you start going to school. Some 13 years later, you graduate. Then you go to more school and get more degrees. Then you get a job and work for some forty or so years. By the time you retire, you’ll have spent some ninety-thousand hours working. It’s as if the writer is imagining us taking these ninety-thousand hours to the bank, plonking them down on in front of the teller, and asking how much it’s all worth. It’s a lifetime of work. It represents our best energies and our greatest efforts. And the teller replies, “You’ve spent your whole life working. Do you really have anything to show for it?”

Leonard Woolf, an editor and writer, put it this way:

I see clearly that I have achieved practically nothing. The world today and the history of the human anthill during the past five to seven years would be exactly the same if I had played Ping-Pong instead of sitting on committees and writing books and memoranda. I have therefore to make a rather ignominious confession that I have in a long life ground through between 150,000 and 200,000 hours of perfectly useless work.

That’s pretty much what the Teacher is saying. Are you any further ahead for having worked your whole life? At the end of your life, after you’ve worked, played, accumulated, and loved, are you any further ahead? It’s an important question, because this is the goal most of us are pursuing.

The Teacher’s answer is a shocking no. And because he knows that we’re going to struggle with this answer, he gives us three reasons in this passage why, apart from God, we gain nothing from our toil.

Reason one, in verses 4 to 7, is that there’s nothing new in nature.

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.

In December, we stayed in a resort to celebrate our anniversary. They make you feel like a million bucks while you’re there. We got to know some of the staff, and I began to feel a bit like a permanent resident there. We talked about “our room” and “our resort” and so on.

The reality is that we were two people of probably a hundred that will stay in that room over the course of the year. There were some stray cats roaming around, and from their perspective – if cats think that deeply – guests leave and guests come, but nothing really changes.

That’s what the Teacher is saying here. A generation dies off, and a new generation is born, but nothing really changes. It may be significant to the generation at the time, but we’re just guests passing through who will be checking out soon, replaced by a new set of guests who will take our place and forget that we were here. In the meantime, the world goes on as it always has. Every new generation thinks that something new is happening. But in every generation the sun rises and sets. It’s always moving, but never ends up anywhere different. The wind continues to follow the same customary currents it always does. It goes around and around and never really ends up anywhere. The waters flow endlessly. If you go to Niagara Falls you’ll see water draining from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. It’s not like Lake Erie ever empties, or Lake Ontario ever gets full. That’s because Lake Ontario flows out to the St. Lawrence, and the St. Lawrence flows out to the Atlantic, but the Atlantic never fills either. It’s a good picture for our lives: one and a half million liters of water going over the Falls every second, but nothing changing.

That’s the first reason why our toil isn’t worth anything. We’re only temporary guests in a world that’s repeating in endless cycles without any sense of progress at all. Depressed yet? But that’s not all. The Teacher gives us a second reason why we gan nothing from our toil.

Reason two, the Teacher says, is that there’s also nothing new in human history.

Verses 8 and 9 say:

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.

The ceaseless activity of the generations, of the sun, wind, and streams, is also mirrored in human life. He’s trying to show us how repetitive and tiresome life is. This is true of the natural world, he says, but it’s also true in our personal lives.

Start with what we see. We’re constantly bombarded with visual images and with and endless stream of sounds. This is especially true today. We have Netflix and YouTube and iTunes. We have home theatre systems with surround sound. We’re now getting 3D entertainment systems in our houses. Despite all of this, we still want to see and hear more. There’s never enough. There’s always one more movie, one more tweet, one more song. Nothing really changes no matter what we see or hear.

It goes even further than this. “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.” You’ve heard the phrase that history repeats itself. If you look at history, there’s nothing you can do that hasn’t already been done. We like to convince ourselves that we’re different. We even talk about how every person is different, just like snowflakes. I love how someone put it: “Don’t forget, you’re unique, just like everyone else.” In the end, we’re not that different. A generation is born. A generation grows and learns. A generation gets older and there are lots of weddings, and then baby showers, and then university bills, and gradually a lot of doctor’s visits and then a lot of funerals.

In verse 10 the Teacher anticipates an objection. “Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’?” Can’t we say, “Well, this is new!” 160,000 people – including at least two from this church – just attended the Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas. All sorts of new gadgets were introduced to the world. We’re talking dual-core smartphones, new operating systems, tablets, and more. I suppose you could object to the Teacher and say, “What are you talking about? All of this is new!” The Teacher could say in response, “Do you really think that the nobody has ever introduced a new invention before?” If he really wanted to get nasty, he could hold up the latest gadget and say, “Do you really want to argue that this new product is enough to bring meaning and fulfillment to your world?” Everything we do falls into some category of what has been done before. As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

So there’s nothing new in human history. There’s nothing new in human history. The Teacher has one more reason why we gain nothing from our toil.

Reason three, the Teacher says, when we are gone, we will be forgotten.

Read verse 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.

Out of everything Teacher has said, I find this the most depressing. Is it possible for us to stand out so that we will be remembered by those who come after us? The Teacher says no. People have had mountains named after them, but later generations change the name. People write books that outlast them, but eventually those books go out of print, and the authors are forgotten. You don’t know anything about most of the people who came before you, even in your own family. One day we too will be forgotten. What we’ve accumulated will be lost. What we’ve accomplished will be forgotten.

There’s nothing new in nature. There’s nothing new in human history. And one day we will be forgotten.

You can see why the Teacher asks the question, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” And you can see why he concludes, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

Look, you didn’t come here to be depressed this morning. But if we pay careful attention, we’ll see that the Teacher is doing us a big favor. He’s telling us that, apart from God, none of this makes sense. He’s trying to prevent us from the tragedy of living good lives, only to find out that it’s all for nothing. It’s depressing to hear it, but what’s even more depressing is not to know, and to find out one day when it’s too late that we’ve wasted our lives.

The Teacher isn’t some crank who’s having a bad week. We need to hear what he says, because Jesus tells us the same thing. Jesus once asked the question: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). That’s a very similar question, isn’t it? What do we gain from all of our toil? What do we profit if we gain everything? Jesus told a story of a rich man who had everything in this life. When he died, that was it. It all added up to nothing. He concluded, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Apart from God, people gain nothing from all of their toil.

Is there any way for all of this to count? Yes, Jesus says. Apart from God, people gain nothing from their toil. But if you live for Christ, it’s a different story. Jesus said in Matthew 6:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)

If this is everything, it all adds up to nothing. But our lives can have profit if, in Jesus’ words, we are rich towards God (Luke 12:20). There is, too, a way to be remembered, if we’re written in the Lamb’s book of life.

If we’re looking to make a profit with our lives, we shouldn’t look for all that this world offers. We should look for the everlasting gain that comes from trusting Jesus. Apart from God, people gain nothing from their toil.

Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash

I'm a grateful husband, father, oupa, and pastor of Liberty Grace Church in Toronto. I love learning, writing, and encouraging. I'm on a lifelong quest to become a humble, gracious old man.
Toronto, Canada