God subjected everything “under the sun” to futility in hope. Hope is the opposite of depression. God made everything vapor under the sun in hope that you’d start looking for what is not under the sun. God is not under the sun and apart from Him, you can’t eat or enjoy anything (2:25). So, stop being apart from Him. Please God, by not living just for what’s under the sun. Get wisdom and knowledge and joy (2:26), and a life that’s not a vapor, not just wind chasing. Everything under the sun is in bondage to futility. So, what’s the use? The use of putting everything under the sun in bondage to futility was so that you would look higher than the sun and have the freedom of the glory of the children of God, through Jesus Christ. Ecclesiastes’ use is to take our depressed stare off things under the sun and set it on things above.
Twenty years ago, I was depressed. I was 37 years old living in a nice home in Kentucky. Just a couple of months earlier I thought I was set up for the life I had been working so hard for. I was driven. After three years of 17 hour days of an MDiv program with Greek and Hebrew flashcards, after a missionary stint in Ethiopia, I bull-dozed my way through a Ph.D. program, while working – walking outside in 30 below degree weather in Chicago, hunched over in my car, writing academic papers at 3 am. I had arrived, finally, I thought, where everything would pay off: church, academics, success. It all turned to nothing. So, I sat in the recliner, staring out the window, staring at nothing, with the tv on but not really watching, a freezer full of ice cream which I didn’t eat because I just didn’t care and thought, ‘what’s the use?’. There’s good news for depressed people in Ecclesiastes: you’re right. What is the use?
First, the facts. What are the facts, you depressed people? The “preacher” tells us. He’s the philosopher king, the wise man and he’s going to tell us the facts.
The facts are “vanity of vanities.” The word literally means “vapor,” like a puff of wind, like that mist that comes from vaping. You see it for a few seconds and it dissipates. Everything “under the sun” is like that. Except, it gets worse. It’s not just vapor, it’s the vapor of vapor. If vapor could produce a vapor — if the whole universe were vapor and in that vapor universe there was its own vapor — that’s what everything is like, under the sun.
Under the Sun
“Under the sun” is the qualifier, specifying what exactly is vapor. Not everything but everything “under the sun.” What is “under the sun” is the world we can see; what can be observed; the horizons of this world; the things we see and touch and taste; the work we can do, the things we can achieve with our bodies or minds. That’s the stuff that’s vanity, vapor, meaningless, for nothing. Of course, for most people, that’s their whole lives. They live constantly for what is “under the sun” and so, for them everything is meaningless and they don’t know it and if they find out, without God’s word, they’re going to be very depressed. They’re going to be staring out the window thinking, ‘What’s the use?’
The fact is, under the sun, you’re getting nowhere. “Sixteen tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt.” What’s the gain if you work 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, for years, to make a life for you and your family and your family doesn’t care? I know a couple who did that, who grew a successful business; were able to branch out to 2 restaurants, move to a nice house near a golf course and their daughter grows up, goes away and never wants to visit. What did they gain by all their toil? (1:3.) “Gain” means profit, end up with more than you began with. Your work has gained you this that you can point to: a house, a bank account, a car. “Under the sun,” people think they’ve gained if they end up with more money and stuff than they started with, than they were raised with. “He who dies with the most toys wins,” they think — except they don’t really think or they’d see that here, under the sun, no one gains because everyone ends up with exactly what they came with: nothing. Hearses don’t pull U-Hauls, no trailers full of their stuff going to heaven. We all end as empty-handed as we started. So, what’s the use?
The fact is we’re never satisfied. “The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with hearing” (1:8.) You never watch a movie that is so good, you’re satisfied never to see another movie again. You never hear a song so fulfilling that you’re happy to never hear another song again. It’s addiction. Now with our phones we can feed that addiction. We can be constantly staring down, looking at something, listening to something and we never have enough of it and we never learn that we’ll never have enough.
The fact is that we’re not really getting anywhere, under the sun. “What has been is what will be and what has been done is what will be done” (1:9). The more things change, the more they stay the same. Is there anything that is really new (1:10)? ‘Ah, we might say back, living in an age of rapid innovation, the iPhone is new, the internet is new.’ Maybe, but what we do with it is the same. Nonsense, looking at cat videos, ranting about politics, porn. Archaeologists dig up pornographic sculptures from Pompeii or from the Canaanites and with our smart phones we’re conveying the same content. Same song, different verse.
Maybe, we’ll think, we’ll make a difference. We’ll write a book or an article or a song or build a building or give the money or be the parent who will be remembered. But how many people do you know from the past? Do you know your great grand-parents? How many of your eight great-grandparents can you name? What makes you think your great-grandchildren will know you? I don’t mean to depress you. Those are just the facts.
The facts are that everything, under the sun, is nothing; that it’s going nowhere and try as hard as you can, you won’t change that. You’ll be forgotten just like you forgot your ancestors. You might think that’s brutal, but those are the facts. What I can do, though, is understand it.