“Dust in the wind. All we are is dust in the wind.” These lyrics were sung by a seventies rock group called Kansas. If one were to examine all of the lyrics of the song, he or she would find them to be both cynical and depressing. They smell of death. Yet one can see that the writer of the lyrics of the song is intelligent, indeed penetrating. And the music the tune is well written and makes these sad lyrics palatable. Kerry Livgren is just one of the brilliant minds of his times whose words were put to music. Paul Simon is equally prophetic in his song “The Sound of Silence” as is John Lennon in the song “Imagine”. But for all their brilliance, we are confronted with a feeling of emptiness. All of these sones are no more than sweet nothings which in the long run makes for an empty bitterness.
These artist belong to a generation in which I came to adulthood. I heard these songs many times without realizing the gravity of what they said. These words are subliminally and subconsciously implanted into the human mind. When we are openly confronted with their message, we react strongly against them. We do not realize today the power of music. It can either sweeten or poison the soul. It either gives meaning to life, or it slowly drains the life from a culture
But words and thoughts like these are not limited to one generation. The prophets of this message don’t just write their mute songs in tenement halls and subway walls. Brilliant minds have silently sounded their message wrapped up as music or poetry. The great Shakespeare in his poem “All the World’s a Stage, brilliantly echoes the same sentiments. We see words like these in the Greek philosophers and playwrights. We even get the word “cynic” from one of these philosophies. It would be impossible in this sermon to cite all the examples, but this mindset plagues all human cultures in all times. What is the meaning of life? Does it have any meaning at all? It seems from these learned men and women that the answer is no. We are nothing but “dust in the wind”.
So what does the Bible say about this. Are we “dust in the wind?” One could take the text in Genesis which says “from dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return” out of its context to support this. But the fuller context of this verse tells us that God created us for a purpose. The return to dust was part of the curse because of the fall of Adam and Eve. We were not created for such futility but fell into futility and death.
Then we come to this morning’s text from the Book of Ecclesiastes. Does it teach us that we are dust in the wind? If read at the literal level, it is certainly as depressing as any of the secular examples I’ve cited. The book seems to wander around in circles. It is fixated upon death. The Hebrew word, Hevel, which is translated “vanity” in the King James Version occurs again and again in the book. This word bears the meaning “futility”, “vapor”, “breath”, or even “dust”.
We as Christians as well as the Hebrews included this book in their canon of Scripture. Why would this book which seems on the surface to be so contrary to the rest of Scripture be included? Was it because they believe that Solomon was the author? Whereas the book seems to be about Solomon, it is questionable that he wrote it. At least this is the conclusion of most scholars. I do think that he could have wrote it. What I can say about the author is that he was brilliant.
Some, take Luther for example, “Christianized” the book. He like many others have tried to tone down the harshness of the message. I feel in doing this, they are correcting Ecclesiastes rather than translating it. I think that it is a depressing as it sounds. The resolution to the book occurs at the end in which it finds its harmony with the rest of Scripture. The message of the preacher begins with the conclusion to the philosophers’ search to the meaning of life. If one starts with man, then man who is mortal and troubled cannot but come up with the conclusion that everything is “vanity of vanities, all is vanity”.
The Greek philosophers who started with such hope to find a meaningful purpose and unity to life by trying to define the “all”. One said, “All is water”. Another said, “All is air”. A third philosopher said “All is static”. Yet another, “All is flux”. A fifth said, “All is unable to be determined”. These philosophers were all brilliant, but their definitions of “all” all contradicted one another. Even Aristotle, one of the greatest tried to find the unifying principle or God by a process called “remotion”. He did find the first cause. But Aristotle’s god is an infinite emptiness. In other words, his search for God resulted in vanity. All human philosophies which start with man and carried forth to their logical conclusion results in emptiness. This is why Paul can say in 1 Corinthians that for all man’s wisdom, they utterly failed to find God. They all wandered in the wilderness of desolation and died without finding the Promised Land. They had as Ecclesiastes notes, “Chased after the wind.”
The preacher laments “What profit is there in all of one’s labor?” in verse three. If one were to start from the works of man which are done under the sun, what other conclusion could be drawn? If this life is all there is, and there was no “in the Son” understanding, then one is born with nothing and returns to nothing when he or she dies. So what difference is it how high one rises or falls in life if the emptiness at the end is as the beginning? The writer of Ecclesiastes had tried every existential means of trying some temporal purpose and meaning in life, just like Hemingway. He tried it all and concluded that “all is vanity”. If one tried to make great monuments, time would render it into dust. If one worshiped one’s own body, time slowly and painfully renders it into dust as well. If one tried to be famous and get his or her ten minutes of fame, one finds that history is the first step to amnesia. Even if one were to leave some sort of legacy, to what purpose is it if one can’t experience it? If one looks only under the sun for meaning in life, then the only event that means anything is death. Death is then their lord. No matter how hard one tries to escape it, one eventually faces the greatest of man’s enemies, death.
Even the cycles of nature become part of the pallor of death. God created a purposeful and meaningful universe. It is only the sin of man which reduces it to dust. It is good that the wind blows from one direction and then another. It allows for the mixing of cold and hot, wet and dry. Without this cycle, most of the earth would be uninhabitable. The same can be said of the hydrological cycle. The evaporation of water from the seas allows for fresh rain to fall on the earth to water the crops. All of the cycles of nature, as we call them are rally the brilliant design to sustain meaningful life on this planet. Even the dust itself had a purpose. From the dust of the earth, God created Adam and Eve. Even though God started with nothing, He created all there is. He gave Adam and Eve meaningful work to do. But like all of God’s good gifts, man corrupts them. We are slowly poisoning ourselves with the exhaust of industrial life. God breathed life into us, but we have breathed out poison. We destroy what God has made for good.
The book of Ecclesiastes should teach the sober reader not to waste time in meaningless pursuits. Anything that starts from the assumption that we are autonomous and make meaning for ourselves will end in futility. A wise man learns from the mistake of others. A fool has to repeat the mistakes, and it is even doubtful that he or she learns anything at all. Santayana said that those who failed to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. However, Hegel is even more cynical in saying that the one thing that man learns from history is that he learns nothing at all.
Seeing that we are so dull of hearing and blind, we seem doomed to have to go through this same relearning. It would be time better spent reading the Book of Ecclesiastes who wasted his life so you would not have to waste yours. We need to stop chasing after meaningless fads of the world. The Christian life is fixed in the “Son”. The world considers this to be utterly foolish, of course. This seems odd, because you can reason from the Scripture in general and Ecclesiastes in particular that it is their view which is nothing but “dust in the wind”. Purpose has to come from above. It cannot be a transcendent projection of the human mind, because even though it seems to come from above, its origin is from under the sun, from the ground, from the dust, itself. It is like Van Til notes about firecrackers. The children see them as coming “senkrecht von offen” (“Straight down from above”) But those in the know know that they were shot up there. The earthly man, of course, has to do this. To follow the life suggested by John Lennon in “Imagine” is suicidal. Even the propound John Paul Sartre uses words like “nausea” and “no exit” to describe life. If the world has any answers, it is that there is no answer. The postmodern reaction seems to be that there it no overarching truth or purpose. This cannot but lead to death.
Ecclesiastes at the end finally gets to the right conclusion that purpose is found in God, not the empty god of Aristotle, not a projected transcendence by the mind of man. Rather purpose has to truly come down from above. It has to be revealed by God. It has come down to the prophets of old at various times and diverse manners, but the chief revelation of God is that God has come down from Heaven personally in Jesus Christ. The One who purposefully created everything and despite the sinful rebellion of men and some angels, sustains it from certain destruction at the hands of His creatures, which He does by His powerful Word. He also has come down to redeem us. He shared the dust of our existence without succumbing to its sinful corruption. He bore the curse for our sin by paying the penalty of death, as though it was His fault that creation was reduced to vanity. This same Jesus was raised the third day and is now our intercessor in heaven. He is our purpose.
It is time to embrace what the world considers to be the foolish and scandalous cross of Christ. This wisdom comes from above the horizon of man. Because it comes from above the sun and is centered in the person of the Son, it is the only wisdom that leads to life and not death. Kiss the Son and find peace for your heart. The Lord of life has died to give you new life and purpose. You no longer need to wander in the intellectual deserts of man. Embrace the promise of Christ and move on with your life.