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. I can be philosophical, wise, and so transcend the meaninglessness of this world. Ecclesiastes is, after all, wisdom literature. You come to wisdom literature, like Job and Proverbs, to overcome the illusions of this world, to understand, to be a philosopher. Maybe you don’t have enough time, with all the work you have to do, but a king does, a philosopher-king.
The preacher was a philosopher who applied his heart to get wisdom (1:13). He’s going to succeed in overcoming the dreariness of life under the sun by understanding it. You know where wisdom got him? It’s an “unhappy business.” This life merely under the sun is depressing. It makes you want to give up, to mutter “what’s the use” and crawl in a hole. You look at everything in this life — business, academics, sports, society, whatever it is, “behold,” look at the fact, it’s vain — like a vapor (1:14-17.) It’s like chasing the wind. You’ll never catch it and even if you did, you would have caught nothing.
Even wisdom under the sun is wind chasing, “in much wisdom — much keen understanding — is much vexation,” much grief, much irritation, much anger because now you see how many people are wasting their lives on nonsense, living for things that are nothing, heading toward nothingness. Your insight into it, doesn’t change it. It just makes you sad. You stare out the window and think, ‘what’s the use?’.
So, let’s try some fun, then. Let’s try every kind of fun there is (2:1-11). First, laugh. Go to the comedy clubs, stream Jim Gaffigan. Still, it’s ridiculous, in both senses of the word. Let’s drink then. So, have all the best wine, maybe beer or liquor if that’s your thing. If you still have wisdom and don’t get fooled by the intoxication, you’ll realize that’s still nothing. How about just fooling around, “folly” he calls it (2:3). Video games, binge-watching, laser tag, paintball, go karts, bowling (roll a large, hard ball down a wooden floor to knock over some wooden things, over and over again), roller skating, ax throwing, tubing or rafting, zip lines, skiing, paragliding, amusement parks with roller coasters, balling, whatever. There’s nothing wrong with all that stuff but what do you think they’ll be worth in the end?
What about, instead, I grow up and make something, something big, the fun of accomplishment? Most of us don’t have the resources to make “great works” (2:4), and so we think, ‘if only I had billions of dollars, then I could have a meaningful life.’ Build mansions, like the Biltmore, the Breakers, the Hearst Castle, Tara, Xanadu. Maybe don’t be so selfish. Have a building built at your alma mater with your name engraved on it, “Carpenter Hall.” If that doesn’t work, maybe resorts, gardens and parks, with irrigating pools (2:5). Congratulate yourself that you’re good for the environment.
Still not working? Maybe be a business giant with employees depending on you for their livelihood (2:7). ‘I’ve got mouths to feed,’ you tell people. Your life isn’t for nothing because others’ lives depend on you. We can tell you’re somebody because of all the checks you sign, and your vast possessions, warehouses full, managers to keep inventory. You’d be somebody then, wouldn’t you?
Maybe cash will do it (2:8), like Elon Musk who sold seven billion dollars of his stock so that he’d have the cash on hand to buy Twitter. Don’t like social media? Buy Twitter or Facebook or whatever. You’ve caught the wind then, haven’t you? Maybe it’s entertainment you need. Rush Limbaugh once hired Elton John for $1 million to play at his wedding reception. Of course, what do men like? What is the “delight of the sons” — it’s literally, specifically “sons” (2:8)? In Hebrew, it’s ‘a concubine and concubines.’ Yeah, sex galore. Now we’re talking fun.
So, you’re having all the fun in the world. You’re somebody big. Whatever you want, you can have. “Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them.” (2:10) You even enjoyed your work. “Love your job and you’ll never work a day in your life,” was your motto. Then you sit back in your recliner, with your concubines waiting on you hand and foot, your freezer stocked full of Haagen Dazs, Elton John playing for you personally, and you stare out the window, and think, ‘What’s the use?’ After all that money, all that work, all the good times, still, “all was vanity and a striving after wind and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (2:11).
A Great Evil
If you’re wise, you can see what’s happening, where you’re going. The wise person has “eyes in his head,” (2:14) while the fool is stumbling in the dark. But seeing, the wise still isn’t able to avoid death. Being able to see, with keen philosophical insight, doesn’t enable him to dodge the ditch of death. Maybe, he can live a little longer, a little more comfortably. He sees what makes life easier. He sees that smoking is dangerous, that drunkenness destroys the liver (and probably the family); that if he or she wants a comfortable old age and the kids able to live better, he or she will have to hunker down and work for decades. Sure, that’s wisdom. But what’s the gain in the end? The end isn’t retirement in a nice house. The end is the grave and when you go there, you’ll have exactly what you started with when you came out of the womb. No gain. You’ll have exactly what the fool ends with, who smoked and drank too much and didn’t study or work hard. So, if you’re wise, you’ll say to yourself, “this also is vanity,” it’s a vapor (2:15). It’s nothing. Indeed, you’ll be forgotten, like most of you have forgotten your great-grandparents, maybe a name on a genealogy somewhere but you don’t really know them. So, whether you’re wise or foolish, you’ll be forgotten. “No enduring remembrance.” (2:16) Maybe, at best, you’ll be name on someone’s genealogy. So, everything you’ve worked for, sacrificed for, every hour of it under the sun, will be for nothing. And, if you have any wisdom, you’ll hate that. It’s grievous. It causes grief; it causes you to stare out the window depressed, thinking ‘what’s the use?’
Being wise deprives you of the bliss of ignorance. “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun.” All that hard work, all those long days, all that missed sleep, that time you could have been relaxing, watching your favorite shows but you drove yourself . . . for what? The futility of it all leads to “despair” (2:20), to sitting in a recliner, with the tv on but you’re not watching, staring out the window, so empty of all enjoyment that even the ice cream you normally love doesn’t interest you. You think, ‘I worked so hard for nothing.’ “This also is vanity and a great evil” (2:21).
Good News for Depressed People
There’s good news for depressed people in Ecclesiastes. You’re right. Everything, under the sun, is futile. That should give you some consolation. At least you’re right, if you’re depressed. But you might as well eat and drink and enjoy your work, enjoy your rest, enjoy your fun (2:24.) “This also . . . is from the hand of God.” The bondage to futility that this world, under the sun, is in (Romans 8:20), is from the hand of God. Creation — what’s under the sun — was subject to futility because God reached down and subjected it. So, if you’re wise, you’d know that all your work is futile, like chasing wind. So what then? Don’t work? Give up? Nah, you might as well work and play and enjoy yourself, enjoy your job and your treats. What good is it to stare out a window and not eat your ice cream?
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.
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God commends enjoyment in this book of wisdom, under the sun. For the writers, nothing was above the sun. It shines down on the graces of God, the follies of man, and upon time and chance. Yes there is help for the depressed here, but much more than this article understands.
Ecclesiastes doesn’t say nothing is above the sun. That would be thoroughly materialistic. You’re reading that into it.
Your view of “under the sun”, while held by the majority, is also read into the text. The enjoyment commended by the preacher is materialistic. the narrator invites us to trust all of the words of the preacher. I left God’s sovereignty out of my list, which is another thing sprinkled through out the book, also under the sun.
Ecclesiastes doesn’t say nothing is above the sun. That would be thoroughly materialistic. You’re reading that into it.
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This is truly an honest and refreshing article. Not many people who are willing to admit what the writer of Ecclesiastes knows. It doesn’t take much living on this earth to see it within us and around us. However, I don’t end up depressed from this article. Rather, I’m reminded of my hope in Christ and freedom from needing to chase the wind. Thank you for this!
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Great line, “Hearses don’t pull U-Hauls, no trailers full of their stuff going to heaven.” My guess is that you were inspired by David Gibson’s book, ‘Living Life Backward,’ which is one of my favorite books. If so, thank you for writing a good summary of what he brought out (and if not, thank you anyway – good stuff!)
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