Futility in Effort

Vanity of vanities,” saith the Preacher; “vanity of vanities, all is vanity. What profit hath man of all his labor wherein he laboreth under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 1:2-3).

There is nothing quite as futile as shoveling snow.

It does not matter how much snow has fallen. It does not matter how elaborately the mounds of snow are piled up. It may snow again, and then you have to shovel all that snow onto all the previous snow. And then, after a few months or days, it is all gone – melted and drained away.

Then again, mowing the lawn feels a lot like shoveling snow. One goes and mows the lawn and it looks nice and fresh. Then, after a week or a month, depending on location and weather factors, the lawn looks just like it did before mowing. And thus it must be mowed again. And the cycle repeats itself.

When you stop and think about it, pretty much everything seems futile. Clothes are washed only to get dirty again and require washing. Dishes are cleaned only to be dirtied again. Meals are cooked and eaten, and those who ate hunger again.

Sports teams play their seasons. Most teams never make it to the playoffs, and the fans are left believing, “maybe next year.” Some teams make it to the playoffs only to lose then. And then there is the championship game. A winner is crowned. The team and fans exult. And then everyone gets ready for the next year and the next season and the next set of playoffs and the next championship.

There seems to be futility even in the area of spiritual matters. A preacher preaches lessons on one Sunday only to have to work to preach new lessons the next Sunday. The Lord’s Supper is taken one week, and then is taken the next week. The same things are done over and over again, only to need to be done over and over again.

It is very easy to take a step back and ask yourself, “what is the point of it all?” After all, everything seems so pointless! “Why bother?,” one may ask!

The reason that everything seems so “worthless” in this perspective is because we have been raised to expect there to be some great overarching purpose and meaning in life that makes every single event seem important. Ever since the Tower of Babel man has attempted to invest his deeds with great earthly significance (cf. Genesis 11:4). We are raised to go out and “make a difference” in society. We are strengthened and encouraged to believe that our participation in various efforts – employment, volunteerism, politics, etc. – will have lasting value.

Yet, ultimately, the Preacher is correct. All is vanity – futility – emptiness. We may like to think a lot of our efforts have lasting worldly significance, but such is not really true. One of these days everything around us will be thoroughly destroyed by fire and the memory of them will entirely fade (cf. 2 Peter 3:9-12)!

Does this mean that all is lost? Should we all despair of life? Hardly! The problem is not in the activities of snow shoveling, lawn mowing, household chores, and the like, but our perspective on them. We must recognize that everything we do should be means to an end, and not the end in and of itself. We have many functions that are just functions of life, and we should learn to be content with the fact that they will come and go.

As Jesus indicates, there is only one place where moth does not eat and rust does not destroy, and that is Heaven (Matthew 6:19-21). The spiritual realm is the only realm of any permanence. That is why all of our effort, ultimately, must be to the glory of God and to the promotion of His purposes (Matthew 5:13-16, 6:33). The functions of life must be done as a means to the end of glorifying God. Shoveling snow, mowing the lawn, and household chores are the means by which we serve our family members and others, and in so doing, we serve God (Ephesians 5:23-6:4). Doing the best work we can for an employer is as serving the Lord (cf. Ephesians 6:5-9). Our assemblies and the actions therein are accomplished for encouragement and edification, and thus promote God’s purposes (1 Corinthians 14:26, Hebrews 10:24-25).

The Preacher indicates that all things done for their own benefit in their own name are vanity. Paul indicates that all things done “in the Lord” are not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). Let us not allow ourselves to be distracted or to invest our energies in things that lead to no profit, but instead to serve God and promote His purposes on earth!

lesson by Ethan R. Longhenry

Are We Having Fun Yet?

There are times in this life when sorrow rolls over us and peace is far away. There are times when our sin is ever before us. The phrase, “Are we having fun yet?” is a sarcastic remark that permeates pop culture. Usually, when we ask this question, we are feeling the exact opposite. “Are we having fun yet?” may have, in fact, made a good title to some of the chapters in the book of Ecclesiastes. Many of the issues we find in the wisdom literature still exist today.

Solomon recognizes times of trouble, times of sin, times of conflict. He sees much around him that is without endurance and without foundation. He sees that we live in a broken world where bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people. We see twisting of justice. We see a lack of fairness. It is not life itself that is unprofitable or vanity. Rather, vanity comes from living to the world’s standards of success and happiness. Successful jobs, praise from others, material possessions, pushing boundaries – none of these things fulfill man’s purpose nor provide enduring contentment.

Seeking the Next Fix

We grow dull and desensitized to those things that give us joy and excitement. Solomon begins looking for pleasure in chapter 2, but that is not enough. He then moves on to building great works – houses, gardens, parks, pools, etc. Verse 7 then transitions to material possessions. He has servants, flocks, silver and gold. It begins with him seeking pleasure, and he moves on time and again to the next fix. By verses 10-12, Solomon indulges in any and every joy he sees – whether wise or foolish.

By chapter 2:17-20, all of this brings him despair and dissatisfaction. He seeks pleasure in this life, regardless of the source. Hebrews 11:24-25, in the context of Moses’ life, speaks of the pleasures of sin, yet the writer calls these pleasures seasonal. They are temporary and transient. Moses recognizes this and chooses God. While we acknowledge the ability of sin to deliver pleasure and satisfaction, but what long-term gains come from it. Romans 6:20 calls sin freedom from righteousness, but verse 21 asks what the point it, though, when the end of that freedom is destruction.

Discovering True Contentment

Can respect, honor, dignity, and love come from living in sin? Paul says no – shame and death come from sin. Are we having fun yet, while we continue to distance ourselves from God? Returning to Ecclesiastes 2, however, Solomon sees hope. In verses 22-24, he sees that one can enjoy life in this broken world while acknowledging God and keeping Him in perspective. Chapter 5:18 reinforces this idea of enjoying our possessions and labors in gratitude to God. Chapter 8:12 reminds us that those who do good will do well before God. He concludes in chapter 12 by admonishing us all to remember our Creator and to live our lives for Him.

Solomon recognizes that striving after fulfillment in this life ultimately results in vanity. No matter how we try to ignore it or run from it, we know eternity awaits us. Many aspects of life lose meaning without God. Without Him, all these pleasures and achievements are mere distractions that will leave voids needing to be filled again and again. Are we having fun yet? Perhaps that is the wrong question altogether. Paul asks of the fruits of sin, but he offers hope in Romans 6:22-23. We are free from sin in Christ’s sacrifice, and he concludes where Solomon concludes: serve God. We can enjoy the things of this life, but we have meaning and contentment when we acknowledge the temporary nature of this world. In serving God and obeying Him, we can enjoy life and find peace in a broken world.

lesson by Tim Smelser

Seeking Meaning

We are in a time of year when we tend to be more reflective and more thankful for the things we are blessed with. We tend to give more thought to the meaning of this life. We all want purpose or a reason for living. What are we contributing? What difference do we make as individuals? Thoughts such as these take us naturally to the book of Ecclesiastes.

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon seeks to understand meaning in life so he may share what he learns with others. He calls life under the sun is unprofitable. What this means is that life has meaning, but if we only define ourselves by things of this world, we will ultimately find life meaningless.

Vanity Under the Sun

There is a certain amount of gloom in studying this book. Ecclesiastes 2:11 is only one instance of Solomon expressing distress over the vanity of worldly pursuits. Despair comes when we define ourselves by nothing but carnal standards. Time and again throughout Ecclesiastes 2 and beyond, Solomon expresses despair over his accomplishments. He speaks of vanity – of things that have no true support or continuance.

Solomon sets out to discover whether or not man can find real advantage from his works in this life. He asks this in chapter 1:3 when he asks what profit comes of his labors. He also pursues what, indeed, man should pursue in this life. Chapter 2:3 begins this exploration. He seeks purpose in work, in pleasure, and in general.

Searching for Purpose in this World

Success, friendships, education, comfort, family, wealth, glory, power, enjoyment – all of these are often cited as meaningful in life. In Ecclesiastes 2:1, Solomon begins his search for meaning in pleasures. Chapter 2:16 records him seeking wisdom and honor. Chapter 2:8 records his amassing wealth and possessions. Ecclesiastes 5:10-14 tells us that we will never be satisfied with our material possessions. In all these, Solomon finds vanity.

Ecclesiastes 6:3 explores the joys of a large family. Chapter 1:17 tells of Solomon’s search for worldly wisdom as well as madness and folly. Also, chapter 2:4 begins his search to make a name for himself and surround himself with comfortable things only to realize he would leave everything to someone else. Again, he finds vanity in these worldly pursuits.

If happiness cannot be found in all these things, then why not explore the pleasures of sin? Hebrews 11:24-25 speak about the joys of sin, but these joys are fleeting. The Hebrew author describes their effects as but a season. Romans 6:20-21 speaks of sin as a slave-master that drives one unto death. No true profit or benefit comes from sinful living. Sin does not produce love, respect, or purpose – only harm.

Meaning in Hope

Solomon concludes that life has purpose when it is focused beyond the sun. Under the sun – upon this world – we find little, but God gives us much. Ecclesiastes 2:24, chapter 3:12-13, chapter 5:18-19, all speak of doing good, for goodness is a gift from God. Chapter 8:12, 11:9, 12:13 – these remind us to focus on our Creator. In God, we find goodness and purpose. He motivates us to share that goodness with others, and Solomon assures us that remaining mindful of and obedient of God fulfills the purpose we seek.

There is much for which we can be thankful. We have many worthwhile pursuits, and many of us have professions that help us care for our families. However, the things of this world cannot distract us from the true purpose of this life – the life that is to come. Solomon concludes that God gives our lives purpose and meaning, and, because of that purpose, we have hope.

lesson by Tim Smelser