Audio Worship "All Is Vanity" Ecclesiastes 1.1-11

Princeton Presbyterian Church (EPC) Sermon # 1572

February 5, 2023

Ecclesiastes 1.1-11      Click here for audio worship.

Dr. Ed Pettus (This is an extended outline, not a verbatim transcript.)


“All is Vanity”


1The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 3What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? 4A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. 5The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. 6The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. 7All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. 8All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. 9What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. 10Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us. 11There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.



  • All is Vanity


Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities, all is vanity. If these words started a novel, we might not think it a very encouraging to start. Perhaps the author was just having a very bad day. It suggests, on first reading, that life is completely empty, unpleasant, and hopeless. But I suspect that we all have, from time to time, thought these thoughts, - all is vanity. It might be expressed with the question, “What’s the point of all this?” It might be felt in our being as a sense of futility or helplessness or hopelessness. I think of some ways we get like that. Sometimes it after experiencing loss. Someone passes away and we feel lost and the grief is almost too much, vanity, all is vanity. Another way is to consider different periods in life. When we think about how important we once thought certain things were, we realize that the importance of those things changes over time, as we age, priorities change and the things once thought important are now vanity.

In either of these cases, we begin to see that reality is different than what we once thought. We wake up to the reality that life is more than possessions and status and all the things deemed important to the world. We awaken to the reality that we truly cannot take it with us when we die. We wake up to the reality that life is more than what is seen by the eye, but there is something deeper, more important, invisible as it might be.

“Vanity of vanities.” It is certainly a great way to get our attention. But what does Ecclesiastes mean by vanity? It comes from a Hebrew word that means “breath” or “breeze”. It is but a puff of smoke, a vapor, like a fog that is seen for a moment and then lifts as soon as the sun rises.

Psalm 144.3-4 says it this way, 3O Lord, what is man that you regard him, or the son of man that you think of him? 4Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow.” So we see that Ecclesiastes is not the only place in the Bible that holds to the brevity of life on this earth.

So how does seeing our life as a breath, a vapor, how does that help us? As brief as a disappearing vapor, so is life short. When we are young, we think we have all the time in the world. As we grow older we begin to see how quickly a life can fly by, like a breath, like a puff of smoke and then it is over. “Vanity of vanity” helps us gain perspective on life by pointing us to the end of life. I’m sure you heard growing up like I did that life passes even quicker the older we get. You get married have children and poof, before you know it, they are grown and out in the world far from home. If life is but a breath, that also makes it quite elusive. Try to grab a vapor, hold on to steam, it vanishes as soon as we reach out. For those of us who play golf, we see the elusiveness of mastering a difficult sport. As soon as we think we know what makes for a good game, it leaves us looking in the trees for where that ball might have flown. There are no guarantees in this life, in this world. We can work toward a goal and have no certainty if we will reach that goal or even if upon reaching it that it will matter when we get there. Ecclesiastes seeks to tell us something about life by looking at how fleeting it truly is.



  • The Sun, The Wind, The Streams


Thus far we have seen two things about the vanity of life, life is short and life is elusive. Life is also repetitive. Let us look again at verses 5-8. The poetry is fascinating.

5The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. 6The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. 7All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. 8All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

The sun rises and sets, the wind blows circulating the earth, the waters flow again and again. All things work in God’s creation, no matter what we do. (Climate change? Only if God forsakes His creation.) God has set these things in motion. It goes on and on not in a linear fashion but it is cyclical. But what is fascinating about these particular verses is the threefold connection between creation and human existence. The sun, the wind, and the sea point to the human experience of verse eight – our speaking, seeing, and hearing. Just as the sun rises and sets, the wind circuits the earth, and the sea is never filled by the rivers, so too is the weariness of the human experience, the cyclical nature of not getting anywhere, just spinning round and round because there is nothing new under the sun.

Everything is under the sun in the sense of time, as the sun rises and falls marking the days, marking time. Our time is limited under the sun, and so the question arises, how then shall we live? How shall we live under the sun, limited in time and space, counting our days by the rising and setting of the sun, under its designated periods of time, day by day and year by year? This is the power of verse nine, “9What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” That threefold expression of human experience, speech, sight, and hearing express the futility of seeing the constant repetitive day to day rising and setting, the vanity of thinking that we can be completely satisfied in this world. It is the failure to be able to say we have seen it all. I think of this in how we see the world in our time. Just when we think it cannot get any worse in society, something sinful rises up to show us that since the fall of mankind, sin just keeps rotating from generation to generation. There is nothing new under the sun in that sense, because fallen people will always find ways to rebel against God and practice hatred for one another.

So we hope for something new under that sun, something to break through the repetitiveness of life and the vanity of life, the shortness of life, the elusive nature of life. Poof – the kids are out of the house, the pre-funeral arrangements have been made and we wonder where the time has gone. The Cats in the Cradle, remember that song? A classic expression of Ecclesiastes as toil and time prevent a father from spending time with his son and the son who grows up the same way, in the vanity of the toil of life. Generation to generation, passed on, repetitive, sun up to sun down. All is vanity.




  • Under the Sun


Before we get too depressed, let’s look at the ultimate goal of Ecclesiastes. The most important question we might ask, given that everything in creation is cyclical, given that we are but a breath in the span of time, given that all is vanity, how then shall we live? The classic example I’ve seen in this is when someone has been given a short period of time left to live due to an illness. “You have six months to live!” That quickly changes how we think about life and death, and what Ecclesiastes is showing us is how we might consider our lives in light that we will all reach that day of our last breath. It may not be six months away, we normally have no idea when that will be. But as we grow older, we know that day is coming. We are indeed under the sun, our days under the sun are numbered. How then shall we live? We tend to live as if we have all the time in the world. We tend to live as if everyone we know has all the time in the world. Not so, not so for us and not so for them. How then shall we live under the sun?

Ecclesiastes begins with nothing new under the sun, but that is not all there is to life. For one thing, God is not limited to “under the sun”. He is timeless. He is in the heavens. His existence is not spatial or temporal, that is He is both under the sun and above the sun, God is everywhere, beyond the setting and rising of the sun, eternal. So Ecclesiastes wants us to see that without God, all is vanity, but with God there is something more. It is all about perspective. Do we view our lives from the earth or from the kingdom of heaven? Do we see the invisible as more important than the visible and, more importantly, do we live out of that gospel perspective? Our reality is not defined by the repetitive nature of sun, wind, and sea, but defined by life in kingdom of God. In the next seven Sundays, we will see how Ecclesiastes leads us in this direction of vision or perspective.

The sun, the days that mark our limited time on earth, and all that is under the sun, but in Christ we live differently because we live not just under the sun but with a vision toward above the sun, heaven, eternity, salvation, forever with Christ our Lord and Savior. The truth of Ecclesiastes is that we live now under the sun, but there is more to come. There is more to this earthly existence, more to the day to day grind that tends to put us down or cause us to complain – “vanity of vanities”. C. S. Lewis believed that is was one of the devil’s tricks to draw Christians away from God, that if the devil could get us focused on the repetitive, on the vanity, on the futility of life, focus on the life that is but a breath and then we would conclude there is no point to it all, then we would indeed be drawn away from what God offers in Jesus Christ.

I think Ecclesiastes leads us to a particular verse from Paul in Philippians 1.21, the true perspective for life is this: “To live is Christ, to die is gain.” To live is Christ. This is where Ecclesiastes will lead us. But what we tend to do is seek other things of the world, the things under the sun, in an attempt to break up the repetition of life. We seek the things of the world to escape the vanity of the world and then it truly becomes a vicious circle. One more pleasure, one more toy, one more purchase and we will have joy. That is the way under the sun. Ecclesiastes, and the rest of the Bible, knows that life is ultimately not found under the sun, not in this life, not in this world, but only in Jesus Christ. In Him life on this earth is transformed to something beyond our limited existence.

And yet...and yet, there is something more in this life on earth, something that begins here and goes on with us after death, that is the coming of the kingdom of God. Jesus said it, the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matthew 4.17). But He had one other word before that, “repent”, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. If we want this life in Christ, if we want to break through the vanity of vanities, it comes by repentance and life in Christ, in His kingdom. Yes, all is vanity without Christ, but with Christ there is life and life in abundance, for to live is Christ.

The second part of Paul’s short statement is “to die is gain”. The world does not see death as gain, but as loss. Those without God in their life see only the vanity of life and death and the limitations put upon us by the passing of time under the sun. What is the point of it all if we live and work and die generation after generation? That’s the point, without God, without Christ, without the Holy Spirit, all is vanity.

Thanks be to God that Ecclesiastes does not conclude at 1.11! There is more to come, good news indeed.



*This sermon series reflects the work of David Gibson in his book Living Life Backward.