Smoke and Spitting into the Wind
by Jack Wald | October 31st, 2004

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

From my first reading of the Bible, I have loved the book of Ecclesiastes and have been drawn back to it time and time again. I remember one summer early in my Christian life, when I read Ecclesiastes aloud, on my knees, praying as I read. It was a wonderful time of discovery and learning for me.

It probably says something about me that I like this book because Ecclesiastes is one of the stranger books in the Bible.

Ecclesiastes is the Greek translation for the Hebrew Qohelet and means one who assembles. There have been many attempts to translate this word and so, depending on which translation you read, you will find the author of this book called The Preacher, The Professor, The Pundit, The Professor, The Teacher or The Spokesman. Qohelet’s place was among the wise. He had discussions with other wise men and perhaps women of his age and from all his discussions and debates, he collected wisdom and contemplated the wisdom he collected. This book, Ecclesiastes, is the product of his assembling what he heard and thought.

Although Ecclesiastes seems at first glance to be written by Solomon, son of King David, there are many reasons why it is more likely that it was written 200 to 225 years before the birth of Christ in the period after Israel returned from their Babylonian exile.

There was much discussion about allowing Ecclesiastes into the canon of the Hebrew Bible, what we call the Old Testament. The primary problem was that it seems to contradict the rest of the Bible in the advice it gives.

In the book of Numbers 15:39 we read
You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the LORD, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes.

But in Ecclesiastes 11:9 we find
Be happy, young man, while you are young,
and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart
and whatever your eyes see,

Numbers, which was part of the heart of the Hebrew Bible, encourages us to not follow the lusts of our hearts and eyes and then Ecclesiastes tells us to go ahead and follow the ways of our heart and whatever our eyes sees.

Ecclesiastes does add, but know that for all these things God will bring you to judgment, but even with this addition, there was too much of this emphasis of doing what seemed right at the moment to satisfy the critics of this book.

What becomes clear as you study this book is that you cannot read it as you do other books of the Bible. There is a critical phrase found 29 times in the Bible and all 29 times are in the book of Ecclesiastes. That phrase is: under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:3
What does man gain from all his labor
at which he toils under the sun?

Ecclesiastes 1:9
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 1:14
I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

What this phrase reveals is that Ecclesiastes is the only book of the Bible written from the perspective on someone who does not believe in God. The wisdom of Ecclesiastes is wisdom under the sun. The wisdom of Ecclesiastes comes from someone whose wisdom is limited by the perspective of this world. Over and over, Qohelet makes clear that he speaks from under the sun. He makes clear that he speaks as if there were no life or meaning beyond this life we live.

There is a cultural acknowledgment of God. God is mentioned 41 times in Ecclesiastes, but each time, the word for God is Elohim, the generic term for God. Yahweh, the more intimate name of God is not found in Ecclesiastes. Most people in the US or Europe might say that there is a God but they would not want to be too much more specific than that. It is in this sense that God is mentioned in Ecclesiastes. God was part of Qohelet’s culture and so he speaks about God in this cultural sense as he talks about wisdom under the sun.

This makes Ecclesiastes a wonderful book for an age in which belief in God has diminished. Qohelet takes a look at life from the point of view of this world and concludes that path after path leads to a dead end and all ends up being meaningless.

Over the next three weeks we will take a look at three of these paths: the pursuit of pleasure, the pursuit of justice and the pursuit of achievement. But this morning I want us to learn from Qohelet by looking at the meaning of life.

Qohelet begins with a word that is repeated 35 times in this book.
“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

What is the meaning of life? is the question Qohelet asks. There is no meaning, is the response. Life is without meaning. Life is utterly meaningless.

There have been many attempts to translate this word. The King James and many other earier translations used vanity of vanities. The New Century version reads, Useless! Useless! I like Eugene Peterson’s translation in the Message, Smoke and spitting into the wind, which is where the title for this sermon originates.

The point is that there is no meaning to life when viewed under the sun. Searching for meaning in life is like chasing smoke and spitting into the wind. It is utterly futile.

Qohelet goes on to explain.
What does man gain from all his labor
at which he toils under the sun?

Why do we work? Why do we work hard? Why do we get up early in the morning so we will not be late for work? Why do we work rather than go the beach to lie in the sun or go fishing or lay in a comfortable chair and read a good book? In what way do we benefit by working rather than relaxing?

Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
7 All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.

There is an endless cycle in the world and regardless of what we do, the world continues in its cycle. People are born and die. The sun rises and sets. Water flows into the sea and makes it way back to the source of the stream and it does not matter if I work, work hard or do nothing, the cycle goes on. I can be a success in life or the town drunk and it makes no difference, the cycle continues. The Boston Red Sox, an American baseball team, won the championship for the first time in 86 years and Boston went crazy celebrating. And so what? What difference does it make who won? A hundred years from now their victory will be a baseball trivia question and a thousand years from now the game of baseball itself may be a trivia question. Boston wins and the sun rises and sets, the river flows into the sea, the cycle of life goes on.

All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
9 What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
10 Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.

People rise to power and fall. Countries become dominant and then lose their influence while others rise to power. It is true that new discoveries are made, new inventions make their way into our lives and the way we live changes because of advances that are made, but when you look at the world, nothing has changed. We used to kill each other with stones and then with swords and now we kill each other with guns and bombs. It is the same old human nature. Greed and jealousy and bigotry are not new. We are more educated than our ancestors but we are no smarter. The characters may change but the play is the same and it is wearisome to view the same old play over and over again.

There is no remembrance of men of old,
and even those who are yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow.

I was pastor of two Presbyterian Churches in eastern Ohio from 1980 to 1985. This past week I received an email from a friend in Ohio that contained a newspaper article of one of the small towns where I was a pastor. Piney Fork was a coal mining community that ran out of coal before I arrived and by the time I came as pastor, there were only about 350 people living in town. It was a fascinating community and reading about it brought back many memories.

Twenty years after I left, how many people in Piney Fork remember me? What enduring difference did I make in this community? Does anyone remember even one of the more than 200 sermons I preached? If someone looks up in the church records they will see my name listed as pastor from 1980-1985 but what will they remember about me? They might ask, “Was he the one who played guitar or was that Jones?”

Fifty years from now, only a few old people will possibly remember me being there. One hundred years from now, I am confident no one will remember me.

Who will remember you 100 years from now? You know a lot about your parents, less about your grandparents. How many of you can tell stories about your great-grandparents? I have a diary and letters my great-grandfather wrote during the American Civil War so I know a bit about him. But about his parents, I know nothing. I have a genealogical chart that takes my Norwegian ancestors back to 1500 but I know only names. I know nothing that makes those names persons.

If you have children, they will remember you when you die. If they have children before you die, your grandchildren will remember you. But what about their children? As your ancestors faded away from memory, so will you fade away from memory.

This is especially true for us at RPF. In January I will have been here for five years and already I could read a list of names that mean nothing to most of you. Mark & Margo Moore, Jason & Dorcas Loo, Hillary Johnson, Phil & Kelly List, Ruth & Habib Iskander.

There is no remembrance of men of old,
and even those who are yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow.

But maybe you are an exceptional person, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Galileo, or Albert Einstein and what you accomplish will be known for centuries after you die. But what good has it done for Shakespeare as he lain in his grave rotting away to dust that centuries after his death people read his plays and scholars develop new theories about him so they can get their doctorate in Shakespearean literature? Do his dust particles get excited about that?

Even for these famous people, there will come a day when this earth will be hit by a comet or the sun will burn out and all knowledge on the earth and all memory of what happened on earth will be destroyed.

So what difference does it make? Why be good? Why care for others? Why work hard? If you are a good person or a bad person, what difference does it make if no one will remember who you were or what you did? What difference will it make to you as you lie in your grave turning into dust that you did anything for your few short years on earth?

Having just returned from the US and the wedding of my daughter Elizabeth in Boston and my niece Heidi in San Francisco, my mind went back 27½ years ago to my honeymoon with Annie. While on our honeymoon, we went to see a movie that was playing in the theaters, Annie Hall directed by and starring Woody Allen.

There is a scene in that movie when Woody Allen’s character, Alvie, is nine years old and is taken to the psychiatrist by his mother.

She tells him Alvie is depressed and that all of a sudden he can’t do anything. Dr. Flicker asks him why he is depressed and Alvie’s mother answers, “It’s something he read.”

Finally Alvie speaks, “The universe is expanding.”

Dr. Flicker asks, “The universe is expanding?” and Alvie explains, “Well the universe is everything and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that will be the end of everything.”

That is the core of the problem in the book of Ecclesiastes and when Dr. Flicker responds to Alvie, he responds with the solution offered by Qohelet:
“It won’t be expanding for billions of years Alvie and we’ve got to try to enjoy ourselves while we’re here.”

Or as Qohelet puts it:
So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.

Qohelet expresses uncertainty about a lot in life:
He doesn’t know the future
Eccl 8:7
Since no man knows the future,
who can tell him what is to come?

He doesn’t know his end
Eccl 9:12
Moreover, no man knows when his hour will come:

And he doesn’t know what will come after us
Eccl 10:14
No one knows what is coming—
who can tell him what will happen after him?

But there is one thing that Qohelet knows with certainty
Eccl 9:5
For the living know that they will die

This is the crux of the problem for Qohelet. It is because we will die that everything is smoke and spitting into the wind. If we lived forever, there would be no problem. But we will not live forever. Each one of us sitting in this sanctuary this morning will die. There is a chance someone in this congregation will die this year. It is almost certain that some of us will die in the next twenty years. In fifty years most of us will be dead. In one hundred years, all of us will be dead – except perhaps for some of the babies in the congregation who will live an exceptionally long life.

This is why Qohelet wrote that all was meaningless, useless, vanity of vanities, smoke and spitting into the wind. Under the sun, life has no meaning.

There are a couple interesting observations to make at this point.

First, why is it that in a world under the sun, without meaning, that we seek meaning in life?

If we live in a world without meaning under the sun, why do we expect that there would be anything but randomness and chaos. We are born. We gradually become aware of the world. We notice that a classmate in school does not show up at the desk next to us because of a sledding accident and another dies in a car accident.

We notice that good people suffer and bad people live comfortable lives. Some people eat unhealthily and never exercise and live to be 90 and others eat well and exercise regularly and die in their fifties. A family leaves church and is hit by a car on the way home and all are killed. It all seems so hit and miss, so random.

There is no sense to what we observe in life. There is no way of explaining why some people die and others live. Life and death in this world is random and chaotic.

The fact that we expect to find meaning in life that is observed to be random and chaotic indicates that there is in fact meaning to be found. Perhaps it will not be found under the sun, but it is there to be found.

Secondly, if there is no meaning under the sun, why do people do kind and generous things for others?

The only reason for being honest in a world under the sun is if it somehow works to your advantage to be honest. In a life lived under the sun, there is no reason not to cheat, steal, deceive, do whatever you can do to get ahead and get more of the world’s resources for yourself so you can get more enjoyment in this life.

What difference does it make if people don’t like what you do to get ahead. Let them cry and complain as you sit in your yacht on the Mediterranean Sea sipping a cool drink and enjoying the beauty around you.

The fact that we have a conscience indicates that there is something beyond the sun. There are some who are pretty good at shutting off their conscience, but even so, there is evidence that we do not live just under the sun.

Thirdly, if there is no meaning under the sun, why is it that people are offended at injustice?

People ask why it is that bad things happen to good people. In a world under the sun with all its randomness and chaos, isn’t it just as reasonable to wonder why it is that good things happen to bad people?

Under the sun, when a child becomes sick and dies, the parent does not have an answer to why the child died. The parent who lives under the sun, in a world without meaning, does not even have an appropriate question to ask. Life is random and chaotic under the sun and so why be outraged that life isn’t fair when a child dies.

The fact that people complain that life is not fair indicates that there is somewhere, perhaps beyond the sun, a place where there is a standard of fairness and justice.

Job was offended by the injustice of his situation. He lost his wealth, his family and his health and as he sat there in his misery, he sat with his wisdom from under the sun and declared his hopelessness:
“At least there is hope for a tree:
If it is cut down, it will sprout again,
and its new shoots will not fail.
8 Its roots may grow old in the ground
and its stump die in the soil,
9 yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put forth shoots like a plant.
10 But man dies and is laid low;
he breathes his last and is no more.
11 As water disappears from the sea
or a riverbed becomes parched and dry,
12 so man lies down and does not rise;
till the heavens are no more, men will not awake
or be roused from their sleep.

This is what you come to at the end when you live under the sun.

And this is why we celebrate with such enthusiasm the good news that Jesus offers life beyond the sun.

You might think the world was designed this way, to lead thoughtful people to the conclusion that this life, lived under the sun, is without meaning.

When I was in seminary, a professor asked us one day what we would do if it could be proved to us beyond a shadow of doubt that Jesus had not resurrected from the dead. My favorite response was a classmate who said he would get a case of beer, sit under a tree reading Ecclesiastes and wait for the Messiah to come.

If you are in that position, sitting under a tree waiting for the Messiah to come, then I encourage you to lift up your eyes and discover that the Messiah has come. Beyond the sun there is meaning in life and it is to be found in Jesus who loves you and died for you. It is Jesus who sent the Holy Spirit to care for you and lead you and reveal to you wisdom beyond the sun.

Because there is wisdom beyond the sun, your life is not without meaning.