The Problem of Time (Ecclesiastes 3:1-15)

A couple of years ago I was part of a team that was helping a struggling church in Toronto. We got to know them, and began to sense that things were moving.

A few days after Christmas I got a message through Facebook:

We have just returned from hospital. A good number of people from church were there to visit - who collapsed this afternoon. It was not a heart attack but rather a catastrophic aneurism of some sort in her brain. The situation is grave. She is on life support and a ventilator and the doctors say they can do nothing for her. Your prayers would be a great help.

A few hours later:

Nan phoned to say that - has passed away.

I remember being stunned. I had just seen her the week before all of this happened. She went far too early, and left a huge void behind.

I’ve been through this before. There are times that I think that my life is pretty much under control, and that I have a good handle on things. Then there are times when I feel like I’ve been sideswiped. I realize in those moments that I have far less control than I normally think, that most of the events of life are really out of my control. And it’s very hard to understand why things happen the way that they do.

Observing Life and Time

That’s exactly what we’re going to see in the passage we have open before us. We’re studying the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s an ancient Hebrew book written to help us understand how to live in a world that is often beyond our understanding.

Today’s passage is probably the best known passage in the entire book. It was the inspiration for the song Turn, Turn, Turn performed by the Byrds. It’s a poetic masterpiece. The poem simply states its main point, which we find in verse 1: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” The Teacher then gives 14 examples in pairs that cover every area of life. What the Teacher is doing in this passage is describing life. I know some of you are wondering what some of the lines mean in this poem. What, for instance, does it mean that there is a time to kill (verse 3)? What does it mean that there is a time to hate (verse 8)? The Teacher is not prescribing that we make time in our lives to kill, and time to hate, and so on. He’s taking a look at life and observing that if you look at life as a whole, all of these things show up at one time or another:

  • There was a time that you were born; there will also be a time that you die.
  • There are times that you plant a tree; there are times that you have to chop a tree down because it’s grown old and no longer bears fruit. You don’t control that time.
  • There’s a time that soldiers are at war shooting each other; there’s a time when peace is declared and former enemies stand together at the cenotaph in remembrance.
  • There’s a time to build a building; there’s a time when you take down the building in order to make something new.
  • There are times to weep, and times to laugh. There are times when it’s very appropriate to weep; there are times when you have to laugh. To cry at the wrong time is just as bad as laughing at the wrong time.
  • There’s a time to accumulate possessions; then there’s a time to simplify and to give things away.

There’s an ebb and a flow to what the Teacher tells us, and a balance. It’s actually somewhat of a comforting poem until you begin to think about it. There are actually three things we may not like about this list.

First, I don’t want everything on this list. If you look down the list, I like one side of each pair more than I like the other. I love births; I’m not a big fan of death. I like healing; killing not so much. I love love and I love peace, but I don’t need hatred or war in my life. The Teacher is taking a look at life and saying that life in this world is going to have pretty much everything in this list. This list covers pretty much everything that happens in life, from birth to death and from war to peace.

Second, I don’t get to say what I get on this list. We play games together as a family sometimes. The games vary, but a lot of them have cards. Of course, some cards are better than others. Charlene is the best at shuffling the cards. I tend to forget that when I get a good hand and win. Then it’s my playing skills. But when I get a bad hand it’s because Charlene didn’t shuffle the cards right. There’s that moment when you pick up the cards and turn them over that you realize that you’ve been dealt a hand that you didn’t choose. Some of those cards are not ones that you would have chosen. But they’re your cards. They’re part of your game from that point on. Solomon is saying the same thing in this passage. We would all like to choose some of these things and not others, but you’re probably not going to have as much say as you think. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to end his pastoral prayers in London by saying, “And may the Triune God abide with us throughout the remainder of this our short, uncertain earthly life and pilgrimage.” Some people thought he was being dour; I think maybe he had been reading Ecclesiastes. Life is shorter and far more uncertain than we think.

There’s a final problem with this list. When you add it all up, it adds up to nothing. Death cancels out birth. Killing cancels healing. War cancels love. There is a time for everything, the Teacher tells us, and these times end up canceling each other out. It’s why the Teacher asks the question he does in verse 9: “What gain has the worker from his toil?” If everything cancels out, what

Let me summarize the message of the poem: Life is full of lots of things, some of which we like and some of which we don’t. The universe has an ebb and a flow that’s beyond human control. That’s the message of the poem in verses 1-8.

Reflections on Life and Time

That’s the description of life by the Teacher. In the next few verses he’s going to reflect on it. He’s going to give us good news and bad news. The good news is really good, but the bad news is also really bad. Let’s start with the good news.

Here’s the good news: God is in control. Verse 10 and the first part of verse 11 say, “I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time.” Have you ever gone on a ride at Wonderland and double-checked that the seatbelt is on? You wouldn’t want to go on some of those rides without being buckled in. This verse is like that seatbelt that will help you get through all the things you’re going to go through in your life, all the things the Teacher has listed in verses 1-8: you may not have control over the events of your life, but God does. As one old catechism puts it, God’s “holy, wise, and powerful” providence governs “all his creatures, and all their actions.” This verse points us to a God who is wise, who sees the end from the beginning, who is never caught by surprise, and who makes everything beautiful in its time. We’re not in control, the Teacher says, but God is. One man, Derek Kidner, writes of the “kaleidoscopic movement of innumerable processes, each with its own character and its period of blossoming and ripening, beautiful in its time and contributing to the over-all masterpiece which is the work of one Creator.” God is in control, even if we aren’t. He is the King of time, and he does everything just at the right time. God is always right on time; he’s never too early and he’s never too late. This is very good news for us, especially given the poem we’ve just read.

We need to learn this! At New Year’s Eve a woman at a church near here recounted some of the hard things she’s been through in the past year. As she recounted these things she said that these too came from God’s hands. She really got what the Teacher is saying in this passage. There’s a time for everything, even bad things. And none of these things take God by surprise. God is in control of the times, and he’s always on time. God is in control.

But there’s also bad news, and it’s found in the rest of verse 11. “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” Do you want to know what the bad news is? You are a creature of time who was made for eternity. You, like your dog, are mortal and trapped in time. Unlike your dog, you know there’s more. You were made to ask the bigger questions of life. We want to understand and find the meaning, to solve the mysteries. But we’re trapped. We have to go through life without knowing why. We know God has a purpose, but we don’t have a clue what that purpose is and it drives us crazy because we want to know. Walter Kaiser Jr. says we have “a deep-seated desire, a compulsive drive … to know the character, composition, and meaning of the world … and to discern its purpose and destiny.” But we can’t.

Let’s summarize what the Teacher’s said so far. In the poem he’s told us that life has both good and bad, and that we’re not in control. As he’s reflected on this, he’s given us good news and bad news. The good news is that life isn’t random. God is in control. The bad news is that we want to understand. We want to figure it all out. And we can’t.

What This Means

What do we do with this? What do we do with the knowledge that life is out of our control, that we won’t be able to get all of our questions answered? What do we do knowing that life is uncertain, and that we’re going to be dealt cards that we didn’t want in our hand? Two things.

Number one: Enjoy life. This may surprise some of you, but it’s exactly what the Teacher tells us we should be doing. Read verses 12 and 13:

I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man.

We can make this even more personal, putting it in the first person and using it as our job description: “There is nothing better than to be joyful and to do good as long as I live, and to eat and drink and take pleasure in all my work - this is God’s gift to me.” If life is uncertain, then everything we have is more precious than we realize, so embrace it and enjoy it as a gift from God. In the 1700s a Presbyterian pastor told his Scottish congregation:

Each generation has its work assigned it by the sovereign Lord; and each person in the generation has his also. And now is our time...Now is our time; let us not neglect usefulness in our generation.

You don’t have forever. You have a very limited period of time. So make the most of it. Turn off the TV and get off Facebook. Don’t waste your life. See every day as a gift from God. Enjoy all that he’s given you. Redeem the time. Gratefully receive everything that God’s given you, enjoy it, and offer it back to God in grateful service. Make the most of this very uncertain life.

Second: honor God. Verses 14 and 15 say:

I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.

Here, the Teacher gets us to do the only thing that makes sense once we understand that we can’t control life, but God can. Honor God. “God’s works steamroller over man’s puny efforts, and nothing substantially new can interrupt the awesome course of events that God has ordained” (Michael Fox). When we understand that God is in control and we are not, we had better bow down before God recognizing that he’s God and we’re not. All we can do is to bow before him in submission and adoration.

Here’s what the Teacher is telling us this morning: The events of life are beyond our control, so enjoy God’s gifts and honor him. Even though life is uncertain, and even though we want answers that we don’t have, enjoy every day as a gift from God, and honor him with your life.

What does this look like?

Today you’re going home. I don’t know what’s going on in your life, but I guarantee you that you have questions. You may be wondering, as I was, why God allowed someone to die before his or her time. You may have all kinds of questions. Here’s what this passage might mean for you as you go home.

First, if you get this passage, you won’t be surprised when troubles come. You’ll know that there’s a time for everything. You’ll be prepared for both the good and the bad.

Second, you’ll realize that you’re not in control. You never were. This saves a lot of worry. Martin Luther was friends with Philip Melanchton. Melanchton would occasionally worry a bit too much, one time in particular about the situation in Germany. Luther chided him, saying, "Let Philip cease to rule the world." It’s liberating to know we’re not in control.

Third, you will realize that God is in control, and that it’s your job to honor him. Luther explained, "It is none of our work to steer the course of providence, or direct its motions, but to submit quietly to Him who does." There is a king who reigns, and that king is not us.

Fourth, you’ll realize that you have questions. God made you that way. But many of your questions won’t be answered, at least for now. But just because you have questions that aren’t answered doesn’t mean that there aren’t answers. We can rest in the knowledge that we were made for more than all of this, that God has placed eternity in our hearts, and that one day we will be free from the problems of time.

Finally, in the meantime, enjoy life. Every day of this uncertain life is a gift from God, so enjoy it. Enjoy every day that he’s given you. The events of life are beyond our control, so enjoy God’s gifts and honor him.

How much more should this be true of us who know what God has done for us in giving us his Son. “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32)

So let me close as Lloyd-Jones did with his congregation: “And may the Triune God abide with us throughout the remainder of this our short, uncertain earthly life and pilgrimage.” And let me add: May you know the love of Jesus Christ, the one who died to give you all things. May you fear God who is in control, even if we aren’t. And may you enjoy every good gift that God has given you to enjoy in this life. Amen.

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Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

The Search for Meaning (Ecclesiastes 1:12-26)

The movie City Slickers is a comedy about a man who’s 39 years old and in the middle of a mid-life crisis. He’s friends with two other guys who are also experiencing a mid-life crises, so they go on a cattle drive in Colorado. There’s a fascinating scene that goes something like this:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [points index finger skyward] This.

Mitch: Your finger?

Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean [anything].

Mitch: But, what is the "one thing?"

Curly: [smiles and points his finger at Mitch] That's what you have to find out.

And that really captures the pursuit of many of our lives. Almost nine years ago, I remember seeing stacks of the book Purpose-Driven Life at Costco. One of the reasons the book was so popular, I think, is because it tapped into our search for meaning. A few years later you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing people read the book Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. Filled with despair after a nasty divorce, the author embarked on a quest to find meaning and transcendence in some very different places.

There’s something in us that resonates with this search. We all long to find meaning in our lives.

This morning I’d like to invite you to join the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes, a man who was also on this search. It may surprise you to learn that the Bible has something to say about our search for meaning. We’re not the first to search for the meaning of life. Not only this, but it turns out that we haven’t shifted too much in where we search for meaning.

In the passage we have before us, we join the author on a quest to find meaning. And the author takes us in three different directions in the quest for meaning. The passage before us reminds me a little of Eat, Pray, Love. It’s a deliberate attempt to explore all the options to see if they provide what we’re looking for.

When I was a boy I drew up designs for a go-cart. I took them to the local garage and showed them to a mechanic who was very impressed by my design. He was actually pretty impressed. I came home all encouraged but did nothing, because I had no way to turn my design to reality.

It’s like that with the quest for meaning. We could draw up plans to try to find meaning in a number of different areas, but we probably wouldn’t get too far because our resources are limited. It’s not a big problem for the author of Ecclesiastes. We’re going to see in this passage that he’s uniquely qualified to try to squeeze meaning out of life in some areas in which we wouldn’t have the means. Solomon is doing us a huge favor. He’s conducting a costly experiment so we don’t have to.

The teacher shows us three of the ways that we try to find meaning in our lives.

First, we try to find meaning in our wisdom.

Verses 12 to 18 describe the Teacher’s quest to find meaning through wisdom. “I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven,” he writes (Ecclesiastes 1:13). His quest was comprehensive. He wanted to understand life, to know as much as he could, to examine life’s questions and to get knowledge. The scope is breathtaking. He wants to seek and search out all that is done under heaven. This is not a cursory search; it’s a comprehensive one. The Teacher wants to get to the bottom of things and to achieve wisdom. Not only that, but he wants to understand folly as well, according to verse 17. It’s as if the Teacher is trying to find what he’s looking for by looking under every rock. No stone is unturned.

This is an admirable quest in many ways. It’s what lies at the heart of our educational system, our universities and bodies of higher knowledge. There’s great prestige in becoming an authority in your field. Our schools, libraries, and bookstores are all part of this quest, and it’s a good one.

But wisdom, according to the Teacher, doesn’t ultimately satisfy our quest for meaning. For one thing, some things are just inscrutable. No matter how much wisdom we have, we won’t be able to figure things out. That’s what he means when he says in verse 15:

What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.

There’s another problem with trying to find meaning in our education. Verse 18 says:

For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

The picture he paints is that of irritation, or frustration verging on anger. This is true to life. One man said that gaining wisdom “leads a man to find out many disturbing things that may militate strongly against his peace of mind.” Or to put it in a way you may have heard, sometimes ignorance is bliss. The more you know, the more wisdom you gain, sometimes the more disillusioned you become. To quote John Cheever, “The main emotion of the adult American who has had all the advantages of wealth, education, and culture is disappointment.”

So we don’t find our meaning through wisdom.

Second, the Teacher says, we try to find meaning in pleasure.

In the first 11 verses of chapter 2, the Teacher tries to find meaning in pleasure. Having failed to find meaning in wisdom, he looked to pleasure. In verse 1 he says, “I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.’” Verses 2 to 8 describe all the things he tried: comedy, alcohol, all the finer things in life. He had the best houses and gardens and all the accouterments. On top of that, he had women. He had more sexual partners than anyone could imagine. He had it all.

I love how Philip Ryken puts it:

Wine, women, and song - the Solomon of Ecclesiastes had it all. Today his face would be on the cover of Fortune magazine, in the annual issue on the wealthiest men in the world. His home would be featured in a photo spread with Architectural Digest - the interior and the exterior, from the wine cellar to the lavish gardens. Pop stars would sing at his birthday party; supermodels would dangle from his arms.

We face this every day. I don’t think anyone here expects to experience all the pleasures that the Teacher did. But Ryken continues:

Generally speaking, we live in better homes than he did, with better furniture and climate control. We dine at a larger buffet; when we go to the grocery store, we can buy almost anything we want, from anywhere in the world. We listen to a much wider variety of music. And as far as sex is concerned, the Internet offers an endless supply of virtual partners, providing a vast harem for the imagination.

The result is that he lived a better life than anyone else. Verse 9 says that he lived harder than anyone who had gone before him. But this, too, did not satisfy. He says in verse 11:

Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

The Teacher still found it empty. Ironically, the harder we go after pleasure, the less pleasure we find. It’s never enough. Joy Davidman said: “Living for his own pleasure is the least pleasurable thing a man can do; if his neighbors don't kill him in disgust, he will die slowly of boredom and lovelessness.”

So he’s tried wisdom and he’s tried pleasure, and neither one has satisfied.

Third, we try to find meaning in our work.

We define ourselves by our careers. A lot of us try to find meaning for our lives through work. The Teacher pursues this option as well. But he gives up on this option as soon as he begins.

For one thing, you have to leave your work to someone else eventually, and that person may be a fool. Those who come after you could end up wasting everything that you’ve spent a lifetime building. “Who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2:19).

Not only that, but work doesn’t really provide the soul security that we need. We’re meant to work, but when we ask too much of our work it consumes us. Read verses 22 and 23:

What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.

Can you relate to this? Barbara Brown Taylor decided to limit her work to 40 hours a week back in 2000. Listen to what she said:

I do not mean to make an idol of health, but it does seem to me that at least some of us have made an idol of exhaustion. The only time we know we have done enough is when we are running on empty and when the ones we love most are the ones we see the least. When we lie down to sleep at night, we offer our full appointment calendars to God in lieu of prayer, believing that God—who is as busy as we are—will surely understand.

We live our lives at full speed and hardly have anything left at the end. And even what we have left may be lost as it’s passed to the next generation. The Teacher doesn’t find the meaning that he needs even in his work.

It’s looking pretty bad, but it gets even worse. I skipped a section. In verses 12 to 17, the Teacher realizes that there’s another problem: death. Read verses 14 and 15:

The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also.

At this point the Teacher considers the great equalizer. Even if you are able to make sense of life and achieve great wisdom, you still have to face the one thing that happens to everyone: death. Haddon Robinson recounts having stood at the graveside of a man who had a working knowledge of 34 languages. Most people know one or two languages; some people know a few more; this man knew nearly three dozen. Yet in the end it didn’t matter. He was dead just like everyone else in the graveyard. In death we’re all alike. Alexander the Great saw his friend Diogenes, a philosopher, standing in a field, looking intently at a pile of bones. When Alexander asked what he was doing, Diogenes said, “I am searching for the bones of your father Philip, but I cannot seem to distinguish them from the bones of the slaves.”

So we come to a familiar question in chapter 2 verse 22. It’s similar to a question he asked in chapter 1. “What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun?” You can become well educated, you can get the best of life, you can have it all - but in the end, are you really ahead?

This is important for us to learn. Remember City Slickers? “Do you know what the secret of life is? One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean [anything].” It’s your job to find out what that one thing is. Well, the Teacher has told us that that one thing isn’t wisdom, and it isn’t pleasure. It’s not comedy or having the best of everything. It’s not sex. Meaning isn’t found wisdom, pleasure, or possessions, or work. They’re dead ends if we are going to find the meaning of life.

Well, it’s not looking too good, is it? If none of those are the one thing, then what is?

The Teacher surprises us as we come to the end of chapter 2:

There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

Just when you’re expecting more bad news, the Teacher gives us a hint of good news. What does the Teacher say? By themselves, wisdom and pleasure are not enough to provide meaning. But then something changes. What makes the difference? God does! According to verse 25, nobody can find true meaning apart from him. Ray Stedman put it best:

Isn’t it strange that the more you run after life, panting after every pleasure, the less you find, but the more you take life as a gift from God’s hand, responding in thankful gratitude for the delight of the moment, the more that seems to come to you.

But even here there’s a distinction. The Teacher makes a distinction between two kinds of people: those who are under the favor of a gracious God, and those who are lost in their sins. It’s the first time the Teacher has brought up the subject of sin.

This means that if you’re here this morning, and you haven’t experienced the grace of God evidenced at the cross, you’re still in your sin, and your life is still caught in the cycle of vanity. But there is the offer of forgiveness through Jesus Christ, and with it the one thing that we’ve been searching for - meaning that can’t be found anywhere else.

Meaning isn’t found wisdom, pleasure, or possessions, but in seeing life as a gift from God. Let me say that again: Meaning isn’t found wisdom, pleasure, or possessions, but in seeing life as a gift from God. And nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in the gift of his Son, who has come to give us life more abundantly.

“Do you know what the secret of life is? This….One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean [anything]." Not wisdom, not pleasure, but in seeing life as a gift from God. Those who experience all that life has to offer are still left empty. But those who experience all of this with God have discovered the only thing that can truly satisfy the hunger of the soul.


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

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 is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.

Abide in Me (John 15:1-8)

Dr. David A. Dunning, professor of social psychology, was fascinated to read a story of a bank robbery that took place in Pittsburgh. The robber, a 5 foot 6 inch man weighing some 270 pounds, walked into two banks in broad daylight and attempted to rob them. He made no attempt to disguise himself.

Within hours of the robberies, police found him. He was easily identified from the surveillance tapes. Nevertheless, he was shocked. "But I wore the juice!" he said to the arresting officers. It turns out that before the robberies he smeared his face with lemon juice. It caused his face to burn, and he had difficulty seeing, but he was under the impression that smearing lemon juice on his face would render him invisible to the camera. He had tested this at home with a Polaroid camera and it had seemingly worked. It's more likely, of course, that the film was bad, or that he simply didn't point the camera in the right direction because of the lemon juice in his eyes.

In any case, this lead to Dr. Dunning, the professor of social psychology, writing a report called "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments." How would you like to be the person who inspired a study like that? Dr. Dunning writes, "Not only do [incompetent people] reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of their ability to realize it."

This morning I'd like to suggest that we are all in danger of not only being spiritually incompetent, but also of being unaware of our condition. It's bad enough to be spiritually incompetent, but the problem is even greater than this. It's like we're surprised by our spiritual incompetence. We're wearing the juice, so to speak.

This applies to us individually. We are completely unable to produce the kind of changes in our lives that need to take place. But this is also true of us as a church. We want to make a difference in the lives of those who are part of Richview. We want to make a difference in the community. But we're spiritually incompetent and we don't even realize it.

The passage we read this morning speaks to this issue. It's the night before Jesus dies. Jesus is meeting with his disciples in what's called the Farewell Discourse. He's preparing them for what lies ahead, not only the next day, but in the future when he's ascended to heaven. In this passage Jesus deals with the issue of our spiritual incompetence - our inability to produce fruit on our own. He helps us to grasp three things: that he is the true vine; what the Father is up to; and finally, what we need to do as a result.

So let's first look at verse 1 and see:

Jesus is the true vine.

In John 15:1, Jesus says, "I am the true vine." I think I've read this verse dozens, maybe hundreds of times. Most of the time I've read, "I am the vine," which is actually what verse 5 says. I've usually missed the word true in verse 1. It's a significant word.

The disciples would have known the Old Testament very well. They would have known that one of the main images used of Israel, the covenant people of God, was the vine. If you had asked them, "Who is the vine?" they would have answered, "Israel is the vine."

For instance, you may have thought of Psalm 80:8-9, which says:

You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.

Or you may have thought of the prophets, who frequently spoke of Israel as a vine or a vineyard. You'd recall the words of Hosea 10:1:

Israel is a luxuriant vine
that yields its fruit.
The more his fruit increased,
the more altars he built...

Or Isaiah 5:1-2:

Let me sing for my beloved
my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
and hewed out a wine vat in it;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
but it yielded wild grapes.

That would have reminded you of the chilling words spoken by Ezekiel, who said:

Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Like the wood of the vine among the trees of the forest, which I have given to the fire for fuel, so have I given up the inhabitants of Jerusalem...

If you had been one of the disciples, you would have known that Israel is the vine. But it hadn't been a very good vine. It had produced wild fruit. It had not produced the kind of fruit that God had expected. It had failed in its assignment, and God had spoken in judgment against it.

But then Jesus comes along and says, "I am the true vine." Jesus is the true and better vine. He produces the fruit that the people of God failed to produce on their own. Where God's people failed, Jesus has succeeded. He is the true and better vine that has produced the fruit we should have produced all along.

What does this mean for us? Two things. First: to be connected with God previously, you had to be connected, through faith, with Israel, God's covenant community. They were the vine, and you had to be connected with Israel to be connected with God. Now, Jesus is claiming that if you want to be connected with God, you need to be connected with him. He is the true and better Israel. He is the one through whom we find our connection with God.

But it also means that we see Jesus as the one who has done for us what we couldn't do for ourselves. It's right and important to remember that Jesus died for us. But we also need to remember that Jesus lived the life that we couldn't live. He produced the righteousness that we couldn't produce for ourselves.

Really what it means is that we don't look to ourselves to produce the spiritual life that we need. We can't produce what God expects. But Jesus says that he is the true vine. He is the one in whom we find life. Instead of looking to ourselves, we look to him.

So we see in this passage that Jesus is the true vine.

We also see what God is doing in the world.

John 15:1 says, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser." This is a continuation of the image, but it's more. It's also a snapshot of what God is doing in the world. God is the author of life. Right from Genesis 1 we see that God is the creator of life. Here the image is of God cultivating life in this world, and he's doing it through Jesus. We're going to see in a minute that it includes us as branches.

What is God doing in the world? On Christmas Eve, the National Post ran an editorial. The Post usually runs the stories we consider news. The editorial said:

The Christian understanding is that there is another history, a sometimes-hidden history that reveals the true story of the world, told in its proper depth. It unfolds in the Sinai desert, in a stable in Bethlehem, on a cross in Jerusalem, in the work of martyrs and saints in places far away from the chancelleries and parliaments. This hidden story of God's love breaks into history even as a flickering flame banishes the darkness...

This passage shows us that if we want to understand what's going on in the world, we need to understand what God is doing. And what God is doing is bringing life to the world, and he's doing so through Jesus Christ, who is the true and better vine. And he's including us as well.

We're going to get to our part in a minute, but notice in verse 2 what the Father is doing: "Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit." Not only is God bringing life through the true vine to the world, but he is also dealing with us as well. We're the branches connected to Christ. The Father is active in our lives a well in two ways.

First, he removes branches that don't bear fruit. Jesus says this in verse 2, and he repeats it again in verse 6: "If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned." What does this mean? Some have wondered if this means that we can lose our salvation. We need to remember that elsewhere in this gospel Jesus has assured us that all of his true disciples will be preserved to the end. "I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand" (John 10:28). This is an allegory, and Jesus' purpose is not to teach on eternal security. What he is saying is this: God sees to it that there is no such thing as an unfruitful branch. That's the first thing that the Father does.

Jesus also says that the Father prunes the branches. "He prunes, that it may bear more fruit." We have a pear tree in our backyard that hasn't been pruned in years. I can tell you what happens when things aren't pruned: they grow wild, things get unhealthy, and the fruit suffers. Jesus reminds us here that the Father is active in our lives pruning so that we can bear more fruit. Afflictions make us more fruitful. The Father is actively involved in our lives so that we bear more fruit.

Jesus has helped us understand that he's the true vine. He's helped us understand what God the Father is up to in the world. There's one more thing that he helps us understand in this passage:

Our role as branches is to abide.

We've seen this morning that we're spiritually incompetent. Not only that, but the great danger is that we are in danger of not realizing that we're incompetent. This is humbling and liberating at the same time. It takes the pressure off of us, but it also helps us realize we're more powerless than we thought. I can't preach this morning in a way that will produce lasting results. It's beyond me. You and I can't change our characters in a way that will bring lasting change. Our church can't be effective in ministry on our own power no matter how skilled our leaders, no matter how great our strategy. As D.A. Carson puts it:

The Christian or Christian organization that expands by external accretion, that merely apes Christian conduct and witness, but is not impelled by life within, brings forth dead crystals, not fruit.

But we've seen that God is active. We've seen that Jesus is the vine. And we see now that our role is as branches. We're not the main point. It's hard for a branch to get overly proud. It's only a branch. It's hard for a branch to think that it's all about them. Understanding that we're branches both humbles us and encourages us. We're nothing by ourselves - but we're connected to what God is doing. Our story is small, but we're part of a larger story that's bigger than we can imagine.

What's our role? If you read this passage, Jesus tells us one thing over and over: abide. The word abide takes place some ten times in verses 4 to 10. It means that we do what branches do in relation to vines: stay connected. We get everything we need from Jesus. We are completely dependent upon him. "No branch has life in itself; it is utterly dependent for life and fruitfulness on the vine to which it is attached" (Carson). We can do nothing of lasting value without him. Apart from him, we can do nothing. The passage mentions a couple of ways that this happens: through God's Word (John 15:3) and through prayer (John 15:7). It's a matter of complete dependence upon and connection to Christ.

Notice that it's not our job to produce the fruit. It's our job to abide. God produces the fruit as we do so. The fruit represents what God produces in our lives through Christ, including obedience (John 15:10), love for other disciples (John 15:12), and

I love how Jerry Bridges puts it:

We are always challenging ourselves and one another to "try harder." We seem to believe success in the Christian life (however we define success) is basically up to us: our commitment, our discipline, and our zeal, with some help from God along the way. We give lip service to the attitude of the apostle Paul, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Corinthians 15:10), but our unspoken motto is, "God helps those who help themselves." The realization that my daily relationship with God is based on the infinite merit of Christ instead of on my own performance is a very freeing and joyous experience.

This is our role: to abide in Christ. And this is the reason: because apart from him, we can do nothing. But as we abide in Christ, we will bear fruit, and as verse 8 says: "By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples."

Father, this morning we ask that you would humble us. Help us to truly grasp that we can do nothing apart from Christ. Give us a view of what you are doing in bringing life to the world through Christ who is the true vine.

And Father, may we abide in Christ. And as we do so, we pray that you would make us fruitful so that we bring you glory. We ask this in the name of Christ, Amen.


Darryl Dash

Darryl Dash is a graduate of the University of Waterloo, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He’s married to Charlene, and has two children, Christina and Josiah. Darryl is currently planting Liberty Grace Church in Liberty Village, Toronto. He previously served as pastor of Richview Baptist Church and Park Lawn Baptist Church, both in west Toronto.