Notes on Tim Keller’s Sermon: Sickness Unto Death

From the October 6 Sermon “Sickness Under Death” on Ecclesiastes 2:9-26

Herman Melville in Moby Dick, chapter 96 said that Ecclesiastes is the truest book in the world. (thanks for the citation Tim, I didn’t have to google it.)

Two things to understand about the book:

1. To understand Ecclesiastes, the author is “Qoheleth” and some believe it means “the professor”.

2. “in all this my wisdom stayed with me”. What he is saying is that this is a thought experiment. Now put yourself in this situation.

A long thought experiment and the main lesson.

A short thought experiment and an arrow.

The main thought experiment

How to look at life under the sun. Not that life is meaningless, it is meaningless “under the sun”. 30x in the book this phrase is used. What this means is that he considered life here on earth without regard to eternity or God. Let’s make believe that this life is all there is. This is what we call a secular mindset.

Charles Taylor on A Secular Age, is not that you don’t believe in God or an afterlife, but that no one can know there is an after life.

Three ways to live as if this life is all there is.

1. The Pleasure Project

v. 1-11: he imagines he is living with all the sensual pleasure you want. He has a harem, food, houses, servants, etc. “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired.” What was the outcome? “It was meaningless, nothing was gained under the sun.”

When you live for pleasure it is like chasing after the wind. You can feel the wind, but it fades, even as you’re grasping after it.

Cynthia Heimel wrote in 1990 in the Village Voice

I pity celebrities, no I really do – Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Barbara Streisand, were once perfectly pleasant human beings. But now their wrath is awful. I think when God wants to play a really rotten practical joke on you he grants you your deepest wish and then laughs merrily when you realize you want to kill yourself. You see Sly, Bruce, and Barbara wanted fame. They worked, they pushed and the morning after each of them became famous they wanted to take an overdose. Because that giant thing they were striving for, that fame thing that was going to make everything OK, that was going to make their lives bearable, that was going to provide them with personal fulfillment and happiness had happened and they were still them. The disillusionment turned them howling and insufferable. Cynthia Heimel, “Tongue in Chic” column in The Village Voice, January 2, 1990. Thanks “On the shoulders of Giants” for the quote.

When you live for pleasure it doesn’t work, it’s chasing after the wind.

2. Live for Wisdom

What he probably means here is that he used philosophy. Philosophy is trying to find the meaning of life using human reason without using religion.

The Greeks tried to live along the grain of the universe.

What happened? Vs. 14: The same fate overtakes the wise and the fool. The person who thinks it out who works to make the world a better placeand the person who doesn’t care for anything have the same fate. Like the fools the wise will die.

If you get to the existentialists, when you die you rot and when the sun goes out everything is gone. It doesn’t matter how you live, the product is the same.

What if human civilization lasted a billion years. In comparison to the oceans of dead time before life, and the oceans of dead time after the sun burns out, in comparison human civilization is just a blip. No one will be around to remember anything that’s been done. Nothing you do has any significance at all. Everything you do is insignificant whether you live a good life or a bad life.

3. Achievement

All the work done under the sun is also meaningless. I hated all things I toiled for because I must leave them to someone else whether they be wise or foolish.

All the people who worked hard to established Harvard, Yale and Princeton, and who gave their money 200 years or more ago. If they saw these schools today they’d be totally appalled. We think “of course but we’re enlightened now”.

100 years from now your grandchildren will feel the same about your beliefs. Everything you do, even if you do something worth keeping, will be used by people you consider fools. You’re not going to accomplish anything at all.

What do you get for it? You spend your life anxious and in the end it goes no where.

End of the thought experiment

The Lesson

“Under the sun” and “meaningless” are key to understanding. If you base your meaning on things that are here you have no enduring, established life.

The new atheists say that this is wrong.

Steven J. Gould was asked “why are we here?” He said because a group of fish developed. We may yearn for a higher meaning or purpose but none is here. We are here by accident. This explanation superficially troubling, maybe even terrifying is ultimately liberating. We must construct these answers for ourselves. Richard Dawkins says the same thing.

They say “you decide what you want to live for”

Not only has Qoheleth show that this doesn’t work, it only works if you don’t think.

Victor Frankle who survived the death camps during WWII wrote many books.

Frankel noted that some prisoners became bad, other prisoners just became like zombies. They lost themselves. Other prisoners stayed strong, courageous, caring for people. Why? It depended on what they made their meaning in life. If you make your meaning in life something the death camp can take away then you have no self left. They can take away anything under the sun.

If you live for family the death camp takes it away. If you live for some political cause or status or career or money or sex and romance, the death camp takes it away from you if its some thing and you don’t have a self left. The only people who stayed strong lived for something the death camps couldn’t take away.

The lesson is that you can’t create meaning for yourself you have to discover it in some reality higher than yourself. If you say “I decide by living for that…” you don’t really have any higher thing, you’re just serving yourself because it makes you feel good about yourself. There’s nothing higher than you and you don’t have a meaning that will last. You won’t have a self left.

If you live for God, if you live for him beyond the sun, above the son, nothing can take that away.

Sartre was right not Dawkins. The existentialists were right. Sartre said if you origins were meaningless and your destiny is meaningless have the guts to admit your life is meaningless. Everything in the middle is meaningless. Soren Kierkegaard wrote “Sickness Unto Death”, the spiritual nausea of trying to build your meaning on things here but you can never quite get it. A sense of futility underneath everything.

The Small Experiment

In vs. 24-26. Suddenly God comes up and is back in the picture. Now let’s look at life with God at the center. Suddenly all the things that before were chasing under the wind suddenly these things were gifts. God’s hand gives us satisfaction in our work and pleasure even in our daily food. All the  things that before were burdens are now gifts. Why?

What if you make it your meaning in life will make the things that were burdens suddenly become gifts? What will give you meaning in life that will last? It’s not just obeying God, it’s pleasing him. What does it mean to live for somebody’s pleasure?

Many people will say “I lived for God, prayed, went to church, read my Bible every day…” but I’m not doing it anymore. Why not? God never gave me anything I asked for and God didn’t put out for me.

It’s possible to obey God not for God’s sake but for your sake. You obey God to get thing things in this world, under the sun, and they’re the reason you’re living. You have a meaning in life that is just as unstable as the so called secular person. You may call yourself very religious but if you’re living for God to get things, health, success, you’re just unstable as everyone else is, and you’ll have that spiritual nausea too.

You should be someone who serves God and obeys God not for thing but just to give him pleasure.

Let me tell you what real love is. It’s not just saying I want a relationship with you because you make me happy. That’s part but not the heart. It’s not mainly volitional. You know you love somebody when you put your happiness into their happiness so that you’re greater happiness is just to see them happy. You’ve inserted their happiness into their happiness so that you don’t make them happy to feel good about yourself. Their joy is your joy. Their delight is your delight. Then you know you love somebody.

The only way to get a meaningful life is not to obey God in some dutiful way, in the way the death camps can take away from you, you need to obey God because you just want to delight him.

How does that happen?


The little thought experiment ends but there’s a pointer in it. God in these three verses is giving gifts of satisfaction, enjoyment, wisdom and knowledge. He gives people the gift of futility and meaninglessness.

Isn’t that a curse? Depends on what you do with it.

In Romans 8:18, he subjected this world to meaninglessness in hope that it will drive you to where you should go.

Here’s what you should be looking at. Jesus cried out “my God my God why have you forsaken me!” He was experiencing life without God. The heavens were brass. He was stuck under the sun. he was experiencing spiritual nausea because God wasn’t there for him. He was getting what we deserve. Jesus took the punishment we deserve so that God can forgive us. Jesus got life without God so that we could have life with God. Jesus was inserting himself into our lives, our misery, going to the depths for us. That is love.

When you see him doing that, that will get you to want to delight in him. When you see him putting his happiness into his, that is what you need. You’ve got to see him do this to attract you. To the degree that you can do that you can have a meaning in life that is bomb proof and everything in life will become a gift.



About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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2 Responses to Notes on Tim Keller’s Sermon: Sickness Unto Death

  1. Cathy Smith says:

    Thanks for this, Paul. Tying together “under the sun” with “meaningless” is a real eye-opener for me. Helps to make sense of the whole book. A great key to understanding.

  2. bb05579 says:

    Solomon is the author of Ecclesiastes

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