In vain!” says the Preacher. In vain! All is that is done is done in vain. What does man gain from all his labor in which he labors under the sun? One generation goes, and another generation comes; but the earth remains forever. The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and hurries to its place where it rises. The wind goes toward the south, and turns around to the north. It turns around continually as it goes, and the wind returns again to its courses. All the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, there they flow again. All things are full of weariness beyond uttering. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. That which has been is that which shall be; and that which has been done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there a thing of which it may be said, “Behold, this is new?” It has been long ago, in the ages which were before us. There is no memory of the former; neither shall there be any memory of the latter that are to come, among those that shall come after.
I, the Preacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under the sky. It is a heavy burden that God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with. I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and behold, all is done in vain and a chasing after wind. That which is crooked can’t be made straight; and that which is lacking can’t be counted. I said to myself, “Behold, I have obtained for myself great wisdom above all who were before me in Jerusalem. Yes, my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also was a chasing after wind. For in much wisdom is much grief; and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
The typical interpretation of this passage uses the term, “vanity,” which distracts from the true meaning and suggests this is a passage about humility.
In fact, this passage and all of Ecclesiastes is an extraordinary study in existentialism. The Preacher notes that everything we can accomplish in our lifetimes will inescapably be erased. Even the pursuit of wisdom is, ultimately, not worth anything. Nature itself reflects this – the sun goes up, but its progress in the sky is reversed as it goes down; the winds blow one way and then another; the rivers labor to fill the ocean to capacity but it never happens.
Most of us define ourselves by our accomplishments – whether it is building a business, building a family, promoting good, filling our eyes with memorable sights, or filling our minds with memorable experiences (e.g.: the recently minted term, ‘bucket list’). If we are asked to say a little about ourselves, we inevitably start with career, vocation, family or something else that identifies us with a group or an interest. At life’s crossroads, especially at the end of earthly life, this can all seem like an exercise in futility. And it is.
Fortunately, our relationships to each other are not about what purpose we serve for each other. Our relationships transcend what we can accomplish for one another. This is especially, transcendentally true of our relationship to God. We are not what we can accomplish for God, and God is not what He can accomplish for us. We stand is an existential relationship – He loves us regardless of our accomplishments on our résumés and regardless of our wisdom, experiences or goodness.
It is said that faith provides us with meaning and purpose. I don’t think that’s entirely true. Faith confirms we need not serve any purpose and still be the beloved of God. And that infuses our lives with extraordinary meaning.
Image: Tim Daniels, Autumn Leaves. www.lapseoftheshutter.com