Ecclesiastesby Philip E. Satterthwaite
Do you ever wonder what legacy you will leave behind for your family members and others when you die? How will you be remembered? What difference will you have made during the years that are given you? In today's text the Teacher gives some blunt and uncomfortable answers to such questions. What difference will our lives make? Not much. Will we be remembered? In the long term, not at all.
″What do people gain from all their labours at which they toil under the sun?″ (Ecclesiastes 1:3). In this verse the Teacher introduces further key terms: ″people″, ″gain″, ″labours″, ″toil″, and ″under the sun″. His focus is on what he sees happening around him. Look at what happens on earth, he challenges us; look at what people get up to during their lives. What is the point of all this activity? What does it amount to in the end?
Ecclesiastes 1:4-7 draws a contrast between our brief lifespan, generation after generation being born and passing away, and the permanence of the earth. Humans come and go, but the earth ″remains forever″ (v. 4): the sun keeps rising and setting; the winds blow endlessly; the rivers flow ceaselessly into the sea. What impact do humans have on these cycles? Next to none. The Teacher finds the whole spectacle ″wearisome″ (v. 8): things never come to an end, so we never really see the point of everything that happens; but on the other hand, there is a sense that nothing new will happen, nothing that will make a decisive difference (v. 9).
We may object: what about new technologies, new discoveries? Have these not changed the conditions of our existence? The Teacher's first hearers might have raised similar objections, for there were technological developments in the ancient world as well, though less frequent than in our own day. No, says the Teacher, there will be nothing really new, nothing that will change the way things are and always have been (v. 10). And it is indeed true that most ″revolutionary″ new inventions are only more of the same. The mobile phone and the jet aeroplane are only the latest developments in a millennia-old quest to speed up human communication and travel; they will in due course be superseded.
In 1:11 the Teacher steps back and gives us a dizzying perspective on human history: think of those who died long ago, who are now entirely forgotten; even those who are yet to be born will eventually be forgotten in the same way!
Today's passage should challenge us: Why do we do all the things we do? What are our motives? These are issues that will confront us repeatedly in later chapters. Part of Christian discipleship is recognising the limits of our creaturely existence: we should be realistic about what we can achieve during our few years on earth; we should recognise the harm that we may do when our hearts are set on the wrong goals.
Paul speaks of forms of ″work″ or ″labour″, which Christians can engage in knowing that they are worthwhile (1 Corinthians 15:58)-not just church-based work, but any work that can be done ″in the name of the Lord Jesus″ (Colossians 3:17), apparently including work that we might regard as secular. What distinguishes such work from the ″labours″, which the Teacher regards as futile (Ecclesiastes 1:3)?
What spiritual legacy do you hope to leave behind when you die? Consider Matthew 24:35 and 1 Timothy 5:24-25.