The following message was delivered for Patrick Henry College chapel on March 29, 2019.
9 What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 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. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.
14 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. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away. 16 Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. 17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. 18 I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. 19 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? 22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?
4 Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. 2 And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. 3 But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.
Many of you may have been thinking, as the Scripture passage was read, “Well gee, that was depressing—I know political theory is supposed to be the most depressing major, but c’mon, Dr. Littlejohn. It’s spring, the flowers are blooming, and Easter’s on its way—couldn’t you have chosen a cheerier passage for the admitted students’ day?”
Well yes, Easter is on its way. But we’re not there yet. Many Christians, I think, struggle with the book of Ecclesiastes, because it seems stuck in a pre-Easter world. It seems so dark and despairing and frankly nihilistic; where is the hope of the resurrection? Indeed, I had one particularly pious friend in college who struggled deeply with the book, and wondered how it belonged in the Bible. Since I was the kind of student who liked all things edgy and existentialist, I disagreed, of course, but I can’t say I really understood the point of it either.
As I’ve gotten older though, I’ve come to appreciate more and more the depths of wisdom in Ecclesiastes, and I chose this passage for my message because I think it is a profoundly important reminder for Christian college students who are out to change the world. Optimism is supposed to be our product, after all. Gospel means “good news.” Sure, there is death and darkness and futility in the world, but we know the end of the story, because the end has already begun in the middle. We know the hope of resurrection because we know the truth of Christ’s resurrection. We’ve been given a sneak peek of the final chapter, in which “there will be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying.” (Rev. 21:4) “We know that all things work together for good to those who love the Lord”; this is a happy story, we remind ourselves, so don’t be so down.
Not only that, but the reason most of you are here is because you have a lot of confidence that this good news can change the world—and you are eager to be the agents of this change. Because we know how the story ends, we have the answers, we have the solutions. You’re here because you’ve heard there’s a problem in our culture and our country, and you’re ready to go fix it. The great strength of America, and American Christianity, is our “Can-Do” attitude. “All we need is…” fill-in-the-blank: “a few Christians willing to speak truth to power”; “an army of Christian lawyers and lawmakers to set our politicians straight”; “bold Christian businessmen ready to show what it means to be a leader and a servant.” To all these noble aspirations, the Book of Ecclesiastes is a big fat warning sign saying “Beware: Blasting Zone Ahead.”
Why do we need this warning? What’s wrong with optimism? Well, nothing is wrong with optimism—indeed, I thank God for the hope and enthusiasm I see in my students here at PHC. But we need this warning sign for two reasons. First, without a proper appreciation of the futility of our labors, we run the risk of losing faith altogether when we crash and burn, or when we leave this cocoon of Christian college and come face to face with the brutal and unyielding real world. Second, without a proper appreciation of the futility of this present age, we are liable to miss just how extraordinary and transformative the Gospel is. If you don’t take a good hard stare into the darkness, you won’t realize how blinding the light truly is.
The passage we read today has two key themes that might seem at first glance unrelated, but which together paint a picture of the wrenching question to which Jesus’s resurrection is the answer: the futility of time, and the futility of judgment.
I still remember an episode, I think it was toward the end of the summer after my freshman year at college, when I came downstairs one morning after despondently reviewing my planner and discovering that of the 200 or so things I had planned to read, write, or accomplish that summer, I was only on track to get through like 125. I said to my dad, “I’ve just realized something about life, Dad. There’s no such thing as getting caught up. I always thought that just round the next bend, there was this blissful state of the Completed To-Do List. But it will never happen.” My dad, who was given to fits of melodrama, called for my mother, and exclaimed, “Honey! It’s happened! Today our son has become a man!”
It’s true, though—one of the great transitions from childhood to adulthood is the sudden change in the perception of time. For most of childhood, time seems to move much too slowly—“are we there yet?” “will I ever be old enough to….?” For long periods, time can seem not to move at all, and looking back, it can just seem a happy haze of play-days. Dylan Thomas captures this powerfully in one of my all-time favorite poems, “Fern Hill”:
“And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns
About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,
In the sun that is young once only,
Time let me play and be
Golden in the mercy of his means”
But there comes a sudden moment where this seems to change all at once, and time becomes not a friend but a cruel master, and begins rushing past while we grasp vainly for what it leaves behind. Thomas’s poem continues,
“And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows
In all his tuneful turnings so few and such morning songs
Before the children green and golden
Follow him out of grace,
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.”
Perhaps the most profound meditation on time in modern film can be found in Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar, a film built around the refrain of Dylan Thomas’s other masterpiece, “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night.” In case you haven’t seen it, the central plot line involves a character named Cooper who is sent on a mission from a dying Earth to try and find a new planet for the human race to settle; he has to leave his children in the care of their grandfather, with no guarantee of when he’ll see them again. He can receive video messages from them but cannot send any back. After a few months of journey, they visit a planet close to a black hole, whose gravitational pull leads to severe time dilation. When they return to the spaceship after just a couple of hours there, they find that 23 years has passed. The most evocative sequence of the whole film comes when Cooper downloads and watches 23 years’ worth of intermittent video transmissions from his children. He watches his son grow up, get married, provide him with a grandson, and then bury the child and curse his father in despair. Cooper weeps uncontrollably and so do many viewers. In a flash, Cooper has lost 23 years that he can never get back. It is a vivid picture of a universal human experience.
It is no coincidence that a recurrent visual and auditory motif of Interstellar is that of wind; the movie begins and ends with the sound of wind. Wind is that thing which moves everything else before it, but cannot be moved itself; cannot be grasped. We stretch out our hands, and the wind passes through them. This is the fundamental image of the book of Ecclesiastes, which repeats over and over, “This also is vanity (or literally, vapor) and grasping after wind.”
Ecclesiastes is obsessed with the futility of time, the way that time marches on and on with nothing that we can do to stop it. But what is it that makes time so vain, so vaporous? It is its repetition.
“What profit has a man from all his labor at which he labors under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth abides forever. The sun also rises, and the sun goes down, and returns to the place whence it arose. The wind goes toward the south, and turns around to the north; the wind whirls about continually, and returns again on its circuit.”
Over and over, the author of Ecclesiastes, “the Preacher” as he calls himself, returns to this theme of repetition—the sheer circularity of earthly affairs.
At first glance, this might seem in sharp contrast to what we’ve said about time so far. Wasn’t the whole point of “Fern Hill” and Interstellar the fact that time runs in a linear stream, that it goes and never comes back? An endless circling sounds like things are just standing still. But the point is that the line and the circle are the same thing without the hope of the resurrection. Or, as Jewish political philosopher Hannah Arendt hauntingly puts it in her work The Human Condition, “This is mortality: to move along a rectilinear line in a universe where everything, if it moves at all, moves in a cyclical order.”
Although she never talks about Ecclesiastes, Arendt sheds more light on it than many commentators, particularly in her grasp of the depths of this question—“What profit has a man from all his labor at which he labors under the sun??” We tend to think of the words “work” and “labor” as synonyms; in fact, many modern English translators of Ecclesiastes use the words interchangeably. For the ancients, though, Arendt shows, there was a profound difference. Labor was the life process: birth and death, sow and reap, eat in order to toil and toil in order to eat, produce and consume. Work, though, was building and making, was the construction of something durable, of the fabric of civilization, of something that might last longer than we ourselves. And action was best of all—deeds that might, in the words of the film Gladiator, “echo in eternity.” As Arendt shows, we long above all to transcend the conditions of our mortality, to make or do something that might matter, that might last. “God has put eternity in our hearts” and yet we feel trapped within the cycles of time. Everything that we do seems futile, vain, vaporous. We think we do something of significance, but the wheel turns and we’re back at square 1. We write that killer essay or book that is going to change people’s minds on an important issue; it wins acclaim and awards, but a year or two later, everyone seems to have gone back to their same errors. We come in to a struggling business and make brilliant decisions that turn it all around, and a few years later, it is failing again. We pass laws that will fix injustice and end corruption, and a decade later, the same problems are back.
The argument of the Preacher is that although the ancients—and Arendt—might have tried to distinguish between labor, work, and action, all three of them, without Christ, turn out to be labor—all three are vanity and a grasping after wind. We long to put down some markers in the sand, to make an impact, to make a difference, but the wind whirls, and it’s gone. This is why time, even as it circles round, rushes by—if we felt that our deeds had really made an impact, a change, a difference, we could rest content in the passing of the years.
Now, how does the whole issue of judgment fit into this? Why is it that, in the context of reflecting on the futility of human labor, the Preacher is so concerned with the pervasiveness of injustice in human affairs?
“Then I returned and considered all the oppression that is done under the sun: Behold the tears of the oppressed, but they have no comforter—on the side of their oppressors there is power, but they have no comforter.”
To be sure, the presence of oppression is perhaps the ugliest mark of the curse that lies on fallen humanity, but how is it connected to the theme of futility?
We don’t have to look far for an answer. Many of you students, as I’ve noted, have come here to PHC because you want “to make a difference in the world,” to do something meaningful. And for many of you, this means pursuing justice—whether by working in government, or strategic intelligence, or as lawyers, or as journalists dedicated to exposing the truth. Why is this so important to us?
I would submit that it is because, in a world where everything seems to be fluid and futile, in which lasting meaning seems to escape us, the act of judgment is the way in which we drive a stake into the sand by telling the truth about the meaning of a human action. Justice is the effort to grasp hold of the wind of history by showing that it is subject to an eternal order of meaning. And this is why the only thing that is worse than oppression itself, the only thing worse than acts of injustice, is the miscarriage of justice. The preacher laments:
“Morever I saw under the sun:
In the place of judgment, wickedness was there;
And in the place of justice, iniquity was there.”
A couple months ago, many of you here participated in the March for Life, protesting against 46 years of legalized abortion in our country. Many skeptics are likely to say, “What’s so special about Roe v. Wade? What about the millions of babies killed by illegal abortions before Roe? Let’s work on reducing the causes of abortion, rather than fixating on the legality.” And of course, they are right that every abortion is an unspeakable tragedy, and we shouldn’t be narrowly focused on the political side of it. But we are right to draw attention to Roe v. Wade, to draw attention to the legal issue. For the truly great evil of America today is not that people do acts of wickedness and iniquity. It is that in the place of judgment—there is wickedness; in the place of justice, there is iniquity. It is not that we have lost the capacity to do what is right—that should not surprise us—it is that we have lost the capacity to tell the truth about our wrongs.
This is what each of us burns to try and change in our country. And we are right to want to. And much good may come out of our efforts, by God’s grace. But the Preacher’s words should be a warning to us that this is what it means to live under the sun—to see oppression done, and not be able to reliably set it right; to see the innocent suffer, and the guilty get off scot-free.
But why is it that Preacher talks over and over about life “under the sun”? For a long time, I always thought that this was just a poetic way of saying, “on earth” or “in the visible realm.” And indeed, that’s what the remarkably unhelpful marginal notes in the Reformation Study Bible will tell you. But it seems obvious to me now that when the Preacher speaks of “all the labor with which man labors under the sun,” he means to evoke a very specific image: the farmer, with sweat on his brow and the sun on his back, toiling over and over in a stubborn effort to bring forth one more year’s crops—so that he can sow their seed and start the process all over again. This is the reality that most of the human race lived day after day for thousands of years. We labor under the sun to bring forth fruit from the earth, and then we throw that fruit back into the earth that it can die and restart the process.
The reason why this is such a powerful image, of course, is that it is not merely an image for that which keeps us alive, but for our lives themselves. We are in the midst of what many Christian traditions celebrate as the season of Lent, the season in which we remember our mortality and look toward the hope of the resurrection. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, in which, after a service of prayer and penitence, worshippers go forward and receive the sign of the cross in ashes upon their foreheads, with the words, “From dust you came, and to dust you shall return.” As the Preacher says, “For what happens to the sons of men also happens to animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over animals, for all is vapor. All go to one place: all are from the dust, and all return to the dust.”
Unless we fully reckon with the bleakness of this picture, unless we face it head-on, we cannot appreciate the wonder of the Christian story. In John 12:24, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Immediately before this passage, what has Jesus done? He has just raised Lazarus from the dead. He could have prevented Lazarus’s death, but he tells his disciples that he did not, so that they might see the glory of God. In John 12, perhaps his disciples think this is what he means. Lazarus fell into the earth and died, but his death bore much fruit, for Christ raised him from the dead and showed the power of God to all the people of Bethany. But Lazarus was going to die again; however mighty this miracle may have been, it did not stop the cycle; it was merely a rescuscitation.
We know, however, that when Jesus introduces this familiar image in John 12, he does so with something much more radical in mind. “Now is the judgment of this world,” he says a few verses later; now is the moment for a truth-telling about the meaning of human action. When Jesus went to the cross, the most spectacular example of the Preacher’s lament about the miscarriage of human justice also became its spectacular reversal. For we can look at the cross and say, “In the place of judgment, righteousness himself was there; in the place of justice; equity himself was there.” On the basis of this judgment, the cycle which the Preacher laments was broken. Like Lazarus, Jesus died, and went into the earth, to return to the dust from which he came—but then he burst forth again with the fruit of indestructible life, eternal life, life that would not return to the dust ever again. Paul writes in 1 Cor. 15:
“So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. 43 It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. 44 It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. … The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shallalso bear the image of the man of heaven.”
Through this action in the middle of history, Jesus suddenly breaks the circle within which the human race had been trapped since Adam. His resurrection means that time has a meaning, that human labor is not in vain, and that the tears of the oppressed are not in vain.
Thus Paul concludes, “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.”
In the Lord your labor is not in vain. But it will often feel like it. We still live in an agonizing waiting time, when we must march out under the sun to our labors, and feel like time is slipping by with little for us to show for it, and see wickedness in the place of judgment. Ecclesiastes is a much-needed reminder that Christians must not look at the world through rose-tinted spectacles. The only reason the Gospel can be good news is because we know how desperately the world needs it. But Ecclesiastes points us also to the hope of the resurrection—Christ’s resurrection and our own resurrection that awaits us. As we walk by sight, our labor will still seem more often than not to be in vain. And we need to be cheerfully prepared for that, prepared to wrestle in prayer before God and ask him to give us the eyes of faith to see that our labor in the Lord is not in vain, that as the Psalmist says, “He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”