One of my favorite authors is Abraham Heschel, and he made an intriguing proposal once. He says, of course this is so Jewish, this is the way you learn, back and forth question for question. The rabbi would ask you something. This is what Jesus is doing at the Temple when he is twelve. The rabbis, the sages, the teachers are asking him questions and then he responds with a question. It's question for question. And Heschel, a Jewish theologian said, in our academies and our universities, we have it backwards. We give exams and we ask the questions and we see if the students know the answers. He said that the more profound way of teaching is to give the students the answers and see if they know the questions.
Now this man knows the right question and it is, "What does it profit us, what does a man profit from all his labor that he toils at in this world, under the sun?" That's the key question that all philosophers have addressed. Where’s the meaning of life? Where’s the beef? Where's the reality? What is the final meaning to our existence? Where is the profit in our life. And Koheleth gives his answer to that question and his answer is Hakol hevel. It’s a vapor.
Look with me, please, at verse 4: "Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises; the sun sets and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north, round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full, to the place the streams come from there they return again. All things are wearisome, more than one can say." This is so powerful in the Hebrew. It has this kind of almost oppressive feeling about it. The author here is trying to contrast man's impermanence, man's transitory existence, with the seeming permanence of nature. The rivers, the mountains, the streams - they're permanent, they are in place, they always have been, they always will be. But what is talked about here is a kind of regularity in nature that is almost monotonous - like mindless repetition. The sun comes up. The sun goes down. How many thousands and thousands and thousands of times has it done it? What does it all mean? Verse 8 says, "All things are wearisome." Yagehah in Hebrew has the idea of "toil" and "trouble," to use Shakespeare's imagery. Life is toiling in trouble, in travail. It reminds me of the curse on Adam. He was to toil the ground with the sweat of his brow to make his living. And that is the way things are under the sun. In the human dimension, it's wearisome. It's full of weariness. It can also be translated "restless." Everything is restless.
Now notice what he says in verse 8 to continue this wearisome idea, "The eye never has enough of seeing or the ear of its hearing." Isn't it true? I get so tired sometimes of eating. Oh, no. It is time to eat again. Do you ever become exhausted by the routine of life? I get so tired of stuffing my mouth and then four hours later being hungry again. When is enough enough? But the eye never has its fill of seeing and the ear never gets its fill of hearing. The writer says, "What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, look, this is something new. No, there is not. It was here already. Long ago. It was here before our time. And, furthermore, there will be no remembrance of men of old and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them."
You know, one of the fascinating things in going to Israel is you get a sense of the incredible history of humans. You know we are so short-sided in America. We pride ourselves on a country that is two hundred years old. That is not even a blink in time compared to most great cultures. You go to Israel and to Jerusalem and you are looking a city that has been populated for 5,000 years. There is this culture and then there was that culture and then that culture. One comes and then it goes. And then another one comes and it goes. And they build on top of each other. Over and over. And what in Jesus' day was a huge valley, the Tyropean Valley, is all level ground today. It has been filled in with rubble of human existence. You get this incredible sense of, what is man? What does it matter? You know, you stand on ground where merchants stood before and you think, what has transpired here for 5,000 years? They are buying, they are selling. They are feeling pain. They are feeling pleasure. They are eating, eating, eating. They're drinking. But what does it mean? Am I just a blip on the radar screen of life? What is the point? And Koheleth says, it has no point. In the world under the sun, apart from God, it's meaningless.
You'll come, you'll go and in all likelihood, you'll be forgotten. It is wearisome. It's toilsome. There is in life and the world, a dreary rythmn of ceaseless activity. In fact, just the other day, my wife and I were on our way to someplace and we were driving down this street by our home and there were cars lined up for several blocks. We thought, what in the world is going on, because they normally aren't there. We slowed down and made our way and as we rounded a curve, there was a house on the right and they were having an auction. And out in the yard were sitting all the things from this house. There was a bed that caught my eye. And there was furniture and lamps and books and clothes and a TV. I don't know what had happened. Maybe the people died. Maybe some kind of tragedy I hope not. The point is, I thought, is this what life is about? You know, somebody has been in that bed every night for how many years now and now they are gone? What does their life amount to? A yard sale? Is our life just a fistful of dollars? Do we strive after becoming the president of a corporation, and thirty years from know, will anybody ever hear of that corporation? What is the point? It's this kind of awareness that this man has and we are going to find out why he has this awareness. He's experienced it all. And he says, from his experience, hey, folks: it is a vapor. Under the sun, it is toilsome, wearisome. Transitory and impermanent.
* This is an audio transcript, listen to the original message here.