In Christ, there is newness of life, a new creation, and we live and toil under the sun while we look for the New Heavens and New Earth. All those who are united to the Son by faith are made new creatures in Christ. The Apostle Paul summed this up when he said, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, behold all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:14-16). The Bible ends with the Son of God proclaiming, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).
The title of Ernest Hemingway’s first major literary success, The Sun Also Rises, draws off of the words of Ecclesiastes 1:5: “The Sun also rises and it goes down, and hastens to the place where it arose.” Hemingway cites Ecclesiastes 1:4-7 in the opening epigraph to the novel. With that, Hemingway set the stage on which the characters in the story act out their inevitable hopelessness and resignation to an aimless and meaningless existence. Sadly, Hemingway misunderstood the teaching of Ecclesiastes and tragically missed the point of Solomon’s opening poem of the book. Rather than teaching a cynical hopelessness, Solomon sets out, in poetic form, the bankruptcy of seeking ultimate satisfaction in a life that is all too tedious and brief. Ecclesiastes teaches us that lasting significance cannot be found in our earthly work alone under the sun; but that it can only be found in the Son.
Nothing Left Over
After our lives have run their course, there will be nothing left over. At the outset of Ecclesiastes, Solomon reminds us that we are living out a life that is like “a whisper spoken in the wind.” We are here for a moment; and, then we are not. Like a passing vapor, life is elusive. Try to control life by what you can arrange and coordinate, and you learn that ultimately control of your future is an illusion. In light of the fact that “all is vapor,” Solomon asks, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:3)?
Mankind is “toiling with toil” under the sun (1:3). This word carries the connotation of difficulty and misery, hard labor–or as our text puts it, “toilsome toil.” All that we do is happening “under the sun.” The phrase “under the sun” is used 29 times in the book. It refers to life on this earth as we experience it.
In verses 4-7, the Preacher gives a series of contrasts to help answer the question of verse 3. The first contrast (1:4) compares the enduring nature of the earth with the transient nature of the generations of mankind. David Gibson writes:
“He sketches humankind’s place on the canvas of the entire universe to show in graphic terms, just how and why there is nothing to be gained. I leave only one thing behind, and that’s the earth I used to live on, remaining right where it was when I first arrived, only now it spins without me.”
Why is nothing left over? Why is nothing left in the plus column at the end of the day? Nothing about mankind is permanent. Generations come and generations go; only the earth remains.
When we look back on all that we have poured into life, the reality begins to dawn on us that it will almost certainly not be remembered by future generations. There will almost certainly be little to no legacy, no notoriety, no monument of accomplishment and no remembrance. Today’s celebrities are tomorrow’s obituaries; even the great rulers will merely be footnotes in human history.
This is well illustrated in Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s well known poem. The poem describes two massive legs of a statue discovered standing in the desert. And nearby, the sneering face of the statue lies half-sunk in the sand. On the pedestal of the statue is written: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!” Then the poem wryly concludes: “Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”