Life Under the Son
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.”
Nothing to Gratify
The brevity and transient nature of man and his legacy—as contrasted with the stability and permanence of the earth—is a wearisome thing! This weariness is also explained as a lack of human satisfaction. Daniel Fredericks puts it this way: “All things are wearying because human and natural events exhaust the power of language to explain them; yet, like the sea, neither the eyes nor the ears are ever fully satisfied by seeing them or hearing them…Every culture has its ways of stimulating the eyes, ears, taste buds, and senses. The progressively more and more diverse ways to stimulate ourselves through technology, wealth, and removed taboos have not satisfied, and will never be able to satisfy a soul created for more than the sensual.”
Mankind is by nature insatiable, and nothing under the sun is capable of satisfying us. In fact, the under the sun “gains” were never intended to satisfy us. Solomon is driving us toward an eternal perspective. We are immortal beings, and immortal beings cannot find satisfaction in earthly legacies, earthly accomplishments––earthly “gains.” Moreover, we will weary ourselves even in the attempt to satisfy our selves in transient things.
Verses 9-10 help explain further why verse 8 is true. Why is our toil so wearying, why does nothing here satisfy? There’s “nothing new under the sun.” Forms change, medicine, technology, but really it’s all the same. All generations of men have the same kind of problems, the same unquenchable desires, the same false hopes, the same results and the same death. We all experience the same oldness of life in this fallen world. Looking for meaning in something new is a vain pursuit. It is something after which we cannot grasp.
God has revealed these painful truths to us in Ecclesiastes in order to show us our need for the Gospel. In Christ, we find the answer to our questions—what will last, what satisfies and how will things be made new?
The Son came to dwell among us, under the sun in order to reverse all that Adam brought into the world through his rebellion against God. The curse upon Adam’s race hurled us into this “under the sun” sweaty, toilsome toil. But that was not the last Word. Jesus came as the second Adam. The Son of God entered this weary, sweaty, toilsome world of man under the sun. He came to this weary humanity in order to accomplish his own work for us.
Jesus spoke of doing the “work” the Father had given him to do. The Gospel of John is replete with this language on the lips of the Savior. He spoke of “the works that the Father has given me” and “the works of him who sent me.” When he prayed to his Father, Jesus said, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work you gave me to do.” All of this culminated in Jesus’ cry, “It is finished,” on the cross.
In the finished work of Jesus on the cross, there is a true and lasting surplus, a true gain. Jesus gained a people for himself. Jesus spoke of his people as “those the Father has given me.” He accomplished our full and final redemption, so that even as we live under the sun, we do so by looking “above the sun” through believing the gospel.
Yes, we toil away and then we die. But our labors are “through the Son and because of the Son and they will be blessed by the Son.” On the last day, the Savior will say to every believer, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.” It is the reality of what Christ has done that changes everything and gives true meaning to our labors. Doug O’Donnell writes:
“We see that Jesus’ work was and is new, and that it has been and will be remembered. Therefore, the work that we do, as enabled by and through Christ, matters, too. We can put it this way: life under the sun is brief and bleak, but life through the Son is eternal and joyful.”
Our faithful Christian service, in whatever sphere He has placed us, has other-worldly significance and lasting substance. Our acts of Christian Kindness to a hurting church member, our faithful parenting in the home, our honesty in the workplace, our loyal and encouraging Christian friendships, our timely and loving rebukes or exhortations––all of these labors will never be in vain. Christ knows them and is pleased with them, because of what he has purposed to accomplish through them.
His resurrection is the guarantee of this truth. Through the resurrection of the Son of God, we have hope—not just in this life, under the sun, but in the next life. As a result of the hope of eternal life after death, our labors under the sun take on eternal meaning and significance.
Our toil under the sun is not fleeting when done in the context of life above the sun, life in the Son of God, for the glory of God. Paul concludes the matter like this: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord, your labor is not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:58).
There is newness through the saving work of Jesus. His work is utterly new and makes all things new. Doug O’Donnell has put it in the following way: “Jesus has done what no one before or after him could accomplish: the Son of God has reconciled the children of Adam to their Creator.”
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).
Rev. Jeffrey J. Windt is the Assistant Minister for Youth and Families at Second Presbyterian Church of Greenville, SC (PCA). Jeff and his wife Mariah have three sons, Jonah (9), Elijah (5), and Jude (2).