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Category Archives: Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes: The Good Life #5 Life Just Isn’t Fair -Ecclesiastes 4


When Solomon first examined life “under the sun,” his viewpoint was detached and philosophical (1:4-11); his conclusion was that life was meaningless and monotonous. But when he examined the question again, he went to where people really lived and discovered that life was not that simple. As he observed real people in real situations, the king had to deal with some painful facts, like life and death, time and eternity, and the final judgment.

Phillips Brooks, Anglican Bishop of Massachusetts a century ago, told ministerial students to read three “books”: the Book of Books, the Bible; the book of nature; and the book of mankind. The ivory tower investigator will never have a balanced view of his subject if he remains in his ivory tower. Learning and living must be brought together.

In this chapter, Solomon recorded his observations from visiting four different places and watching several people go through a variety of experiences. His conclusion was that life is anything but monotonous, for we have no idea what problems may come to us on any given day. No wonder he wrote, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth” (Prov. 27:1, nkjv).

On June 17, 1966, two men strode into the Lafayette Grill in Paterson, NJ and shot three people to death. Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, a celebrated boxer, and an acquaintance, were falsely charged and wrongly convicted of the murders in a highly publicized and racially charged trial. The fiercely outspoken boxer maintained his claim of innocence and became his own jailhouse lawyer. After serving nineteen years, Carter was released. Nevertheless, Carter lost the most productive years of his life, between the ages of twenty-nine and fifty. He was deprived of his career, his wife, and seeing his children grow up.109

This real-life account makes me angry. I hate injustice. I hate knowing that innocent men and women will go to prison. I hate knowing that 85% of convicted murderers will be released. I hate knowing that children are being forced into prostitution and slavery. I hate abortion. I hate knowing that women are being physically and verbally abused. I hate racism. I hate age discrimination. I hate death. Yet, tragically, our world is full of those things that you and I hate. Therefore, we need to talk about the unpopular topics of death, injustice, hopelessness, and judgment because they stare us in the face every day of our lives.

In Eccl 3:16-4:3,110 Solomon cries out for justice, yet his cry seems to fall on deaf ears. Therefore, he concludes life is harsh and then you die. Now you may be thinking, “Oh, great, another encouraging sermon from Pastor Bah Humbug! Maybe I should stop reading before I collapse in depression and pessimism.” I freely acknowledge that no pastor in his right mind would choose to preach this text. Yet, in this passage I actually find meaning and motivation to live life

1. Injustice should move us to humility (3:16-22).

In these seven verses, Solomon tells us that life’s injustices should break us and then shape us so that we are humble before God and others.111 In 3:16 he writes, “Furthermore, I have seen under the sun that in the place of justice there is wickedness and in the place of righteousness there is wickedness.” The word “furthermore” connects this passage with 3:1-15, where Solomon stated that God’s timing is everything. “Furthermore” also marks a change in emphasis, for now Solomon is going to air a few grievances. Solomon’s observations are rather discouraging. He declares that life “under the sun” is filled with “wickedness.” The “place of justice” refers to the law courts.112 However, there Solomon sees injustice and oppression where the rights of the poor ought to be protected. Instead, the innocent are declared guilty and the guilty innocent. This is an application of Murphy’s Law: Although we may long for justice and righteousness, we inevitably end up with wickedness instead.

This hard truth is important for us to come to grips with. Sometimes bad guys win and good guys suffer. Johnny Christian doesn’t always score the touchdown and Paul Pagan doesn’t always fumble the ball. That’s a fact. Do you have a problem with that? Would you rather have a “perfect” universe? Wouldn’t it be great if, after a driver ran you off the road, his car would break down five minutes later? Or if someone cheated you in business, he would go bankrupt the next month? Or if someone got angry and yelled at you, her teeth would fall out that night? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? It certainly would be from a fleshly perspective, but unfortunately you’d have to live in that same “perfect” universe. So if you gossiped about someone, your tongue would turn green. Every time you lusted after another person, more of your hair would fall out. Every time you spent money on something you didn’t need to, the food in your refrigerator would rot overnight. Would you want to live in a world like that? None of us want that kind of instant justice from God. Yet, God’s patience with sin is an incredible blessing. If God was not so patient all of us would come under His immediate judgment.113 We would be wiped out in the blink of an eye. Fortunately, God grants us His mercy and grace. This should lead us to want to be more merciful and gracious with others, to have compassion for those who are in the grips of sin and under the influence of the curse. If these reminders don’t work, then remind yourself that life is harsh and then you die.

While wickedness seems to have run the score up on righteousness 105-0, ultimately, God gets His due because He is in control of the affairs of men. In 3:17 Solomon writes, “I said to myself, ‘God will judge both the righteous man and the wicked man,’ for a time for every matter and for every deed is there” (The word “there” is shorthand for God’s eternal judgment.114) Solomon informs us that God will judge. Sometimes He judges people in this life; sometimes He does not. But payday is coming someday! Wrong will not go unpunished, and right will not go unrewarded, forever. In the end, Jesus Christ will judge all people. Psalm 37:12-13 tells us, “The wicked plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them; but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for He knows their day is coming” (NIV). God gets the last laugh. While we may not see it in time, justice will be carried out in eternity.

Unfortunately, that is not always very satisfying. We hate it when someone “gets away with it.” Solomon tells us that in truth, nobody gets away with it. Paul Harvey illustrated this point when he told about a man named Gary Tindle who was charged with robbery. While standing in the California courtroom of Judge Armando Rodriguez, Tindle asked permission to go to the bathroom. He was escorted upstairs to the bathroom and the door was guarded while he was inside. But Tindle, determined to escape, climbed up the plumbing, opened a panel on the ceiling, and started slithering through the crawl space, heading south. He had traveled some thirty feet when the ceiling panels broke under him, and he dropped to the floor—right back in Judge Rodriguez’s courtroom! When the guilty seem to have escaped judgment, it’s only for a short moment and a short crawl. They will find themselves before the Judge once again in time. Sooner or later, the wheels of God righteousness will right every wrong, balance every scale, and correct every injustice in the world.115

Turning his eyes back toward earth, Solomon imparts a principle: Injustice reminds us that we are mortal. In 3:18-20 he writes, “I said to myself concerning the sons of men, ‘God has surely tested them in order for them to see that they are but beasts.’ For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust.” As you can imagine, these verses have been used to support the evolutionary theory. While some of us may think, look, and act like monkeys, that is not the point of these verses. Solomon is not making a blanket comparison between humans and animals. He is merely saying that we both die.116 A better translation of the word “tested” is “make clear.”117 The point is that God allows human injustice to exist in the world in order to make it clear to us that we are just like animals in the sense that we are going to die. Life is harsh and then you die.

When I was growing up, I had a soft spot for animals. My whole family has always loved animals. In fact, the year I was born, my dad was voted the best amateur nature photographer in the world.118 Consequently, I could never get myself to hunt and kill any animal. Now, don’t get me wrong or call me late for dinner; I am glad to eat the meat of hunters, I just don’t want to be the one to pull the trigger. Believe it or not, while I was growing up I also had a soft spot for insects. I found it hard to kill bugs with my bare hands and feet, so I just sucked them up with our vacuum cleaner. I recognize that I am walking contradiction: I am particularly fond of football, boxing, and mixed marital arts, yet I don’t want to kill any insects. Go figure! But I will tell you this: Today, whenever I accidentally squish an insect, I can’t help but think that my life is every bit as fragile. Life is harsh and then you die.

In 3:21 Solomon postulates, “Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth?” Solomon here considers this question empirically, with only his senses and his three-pound brain to guide him. And with the brute facts before him and us, we can’t prove a thing. At best, it is a guess. If we are only to consider what we can see, taste, touch, hear, and smell, your guess is as good as mine. From Solomon’s perspective, maybe all dogs do go to heaven and all people go to be meat on a shishkabob. Who knows? Everyone has their own guess when left to their own finite brains.119

The point of 3:21 is this: Most of us behave as though we had endless time and close our eyes to the fact of death. God wants us to face that fact (3:18). Even in our Christian service of God there may be the underlying idea that there is still plenty of time tomorrow, and what we fail to do here can be made up in our service in paradise. So Solomon challenges those who live as though they are immortal and are never to be accountable to God (3:16-17).120

So “who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth?” Who can know the truth about the resurrection? The answer is “No one can!” No one can “under heaven” or “under the sun.” So who knows? GOD KNOWS…So the question then becomes: do you know the one who knows? Today, the God of heaven and earth offers you a relationship with Himself through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. If you desire such a relationship, trust in Christ as your Savior from sin.

Just to summarize: You may be successful, powerful, wealthy, talented, and personable, and when all is said and done, you’re going to die just like Bootsie the dog or Gilbert the hamster—whatever pet your kids talked you into that you currently regret. Okay, so who cares what you do, because in the end there’s no difference between you and the animal. You both die. Remember, life is harsh and then you die.

Fortunately, in the closing verse of chapter 3, Solomon encourages us to enjoy life in spite of the world’s injustice. He observes, “I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him [his death]?” (3:22) I love this verse. I’ve checked the Hebrew word “happy” in several lexicons. I’ve considered its Aramaic cognate and I’ve discovered that “happy” literally means “happy.” God wants us to be happy in the midst of this miserable life. The word “lot” or “portion” conveys the sense of the limitations of life. The portion is like an inherited plot of land that one has to work. Toil is inevitable, it is part of the heritage of your portion, but from that very same lot you may find enjoyment.121 Your lot in life may be a small family, a small-fry job, and a small-time neighborhood, yet when you are gone there is no portion to enjoy. So you need to enjoy your life NOW, despite its injustices and trials.

In 2004, The Nation magazine profiled an Alabama woman who works as a nursing assistant at a nursing home for $700 a month. She works the night shift, emptying bedpans, tending the bedridden, mopping floors, and doing other tasks beyond her job description because the place is understaffed. She can’t afford a car, so she pays someone else to drive her thirteen miles to work. If that person doesn’t show up, she walks. Better to walk than to call in sick and probably lose her job, she says. She lives alone with her three children in a shack. There is no phone. The toilet is in the floor. The heater is broken. But she likes her work. She likes to make the residents smile.122

This story convicts me. It breaks me and humbles me to dust! It motivates me to ensure that I enjoy my life. After all, I have nothing to complain about.

  • What is your unjust disadvantage? Don’t answer with a list of petty irritations, but think in terms of major handicaps in your life that you feel have been inflicted upon you unfairly.
  • When do you plan to replace passive self-pity with active courage? If you have not already begun to turn from a destructive, woe-is-me attitude, to a constructive, enjoy-life now posture, then start today. The Lord will give you the power to make the change, but you must avail yourself of it through prayer and action.
  • Have you ever considered the impact your distinctive message could have on the world around you? The Lord can use your disadvantage—be it physical, emotional, mental, financial, or anything else—to positively impact the lives of others. The only thing that stands in the way is your attitude. Will you change it today?123

[Solomon has informed us that injustice should move us to humility. Now, in 4:1-3, he gives us another one of his favorite buckets of cold water…oppression.]

2. Oppression should move us to action (4:1-3).

(Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 NIV)  “Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed– and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors– and they have no comforter. {2} And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. {3} But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.”

Men and women are oppressed in every area of life: business, marriage, family, relationships, and church. Wherever there is power, there is the potential and likelihood that it will be abused. In 4:1-3 Solomon observes, “Then I looked again at all the acts of oppression which were being done under the sun. And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors was power, but they had no one to comfort them. So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living. But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.” These three verses are depressing. Nevertheless, we must recognize that Solomon is using hyperbole (i.e., a deliberate exaggeration) to shake us to the core of our being. He uses forms of the word “oppressed” three times in three verses. He is deeply grieved by what he observes. This is the reason for his extreme language. These verses are not a call to suicide or abortion. They are simply the journal of a man expressing pain and devastation over all of the oppression in the world. Life is harsh and then you die. These words reverberate through my mind and soul.

Many of us as Americans have no idea of what it really means to be oppressed. We can be sure though, that in other parts of the world many know all too well what Solomon is talking about. Nowhere is heartbreaking oppression more evident than in the communist nation of North Korea. An estimated 100,000 Christians are being imprisoned and tortured at the hands of the ruthless Kim Jung II.124 There are 400,000 Christians in North Korea and one out of four are prison camps. This is brutal!

This past Monday, we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Lori and I spent some time explaining to our kids who Dr. King was and why he was murdered. After sharing his life with our children, I was filled with frustration over the unrighteousness of mankind. To think that Americans have oppressed people over skin color is one of the most asinine things I have ever heard. It is an atrocity! What is worse is that many Christians were and are guilty of prejudicial behavior. Into the late 1960s, some Bible colleges and seminaries would not allow African-Americans to attend their schools. Today, various African-Americans are some of the greatest preachers on this planet.

Not only is there persecution and racism, there is also poverty. The Anchor Bible Dictionary catalogs six categories of the poor in the Old Testament and counts the number of references for each:

  • Peasant farmers, mentioned forty-eight times
  • Beggars, mentioned sixty-one times
  • The “lazy poor,” cited thirteen times, mostly in the book of Proverbs
  • Low-income laborers, mentioned twenty-two times
  • The politically exploited and oppressed, mentioned eighty times, the most in the Old Testament.125

In our country, 35% of individuals make less than $25,000. This is also true for 28% of households.126 Many people work for a low wage and no benefits. And many of these people aren’t lazy. They are just working jobs that do not pay well. They may also have recovered from some difficult circumstances along the way. There are many recovering alcoholics, drug addicts, prisoners, abuse victims, etc. Many of these people are trying to start over; however, it is not an easy road.

The above realities can prove to be overwhelming. Our temptation is to say, “Where do we even start?” It seems like we can’t make a dent into these oppressive problems. Indeed, it certainly does seem that way, doesn’t it? Even so, we are not responsible to do away with all the oppression of the world—only God can do that. We are merely responsible to do our little part.

One of my favorite cartoons shows two turtles in the midst of a conversation. One says, “Sometimes I’d like to ask God why He allows poverty, famine, and injustice when He could do something about it.” The other turtle says, “I’m afraid God might ask me the same question.”127

Ten years ago, a friend of mine and a former Green Beret gave me his beret pin, which in Latin reads:

De Oppresso Liber. This phrase means, “To free the oppressed.” Since he gave me this pin, I have kept it in my office to the left of my computer. I want to be reminded of the responsibility I bear.

Yes, we live in a world of injustice and oppression. Maybe you have been a victim of some form of abuse. Perhaps you were raped, molested, or fired from your job. Some of greatest movements have come from those who were cheated or treated unfairly. Candy Lightner founded MADD in 1980 after her daughter, Cari, was killed by a repeat drunk driving offender. Cindy Lamb whose daughter, Laura, became the nation’s youngest quadriplegic at the hands of a drunk driver soon joined Candy in her crusade to save lives. Consequently, thousands of lives have been saved.128 John Walsh and his wife, Revé, suffered the most horrendous loss that any parents could endure: the abduction and murder of their beautiful six-year-old son, Adam. Since that day in 1981, the founder of Americas Most Wanted has dedicated himself to fighting on behalf of children and all crime victims. As a result, thousands of victims have found justice, and dozens of abducted children have been safely brought home.129

You can make a difference in at least one person’s life. You can have a testimony, a ministry, an influence, and an impact. One of our church’s mission strategies is to “lead the world.” We do that by loving one lost person at a time toward Christ. Will you allow the injustices of this world to move you to action? Will you say, “Enough is enough! I want to make a difference in one person’s life?”

In the movie The Last Emperor, the young child anointed as the last emperor of China lives a life of luxury with 1,000 servants at his command. “What happens when you do wrong?” his brother asks. “When I do wrong, someone else is punished,” the boy emperor replies. To demonstrate, he breaks a jar, and one of the servants is beaten. In Christianity, Jesus reversed that ancient pattern: when the servants erred, the King was punished.130

In the courtroom (ECCL. 4:1-3)

“Politics” has been defined as “the conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” The nation of Israel had an adequate judicial system (Ex. 18:13-27; Deut. 17; 19), based on divine Law; but the system could be corrupted just like anything else (5:8). Moses warned officials to judge honestly and fairly (Lev. 19:15; Deut. 1:17), and both the prophet and the psalmist lashed out against social injustice (Ps. 82; Isa. 56:1; 59:1ff; Amos 1-2). Solomon had been a wise and just king (1 Kings 3:16-28), but it was impossible for him to guarantee the integrity of every officer in his government.

Solomon went into a courtroom to watch a trial, and there he saw innocent people being oppressed by power-hungry officials. The victims wept, but their tears did no good. Nobody stood with them to comfort or assist them. The oppressors had all the power and their victims were helpless to protest or ask for redress.

The American orator Daniel Webster once called justice “the ligament which holds civilized beings and … nations together.” The “body politic” in Solomon’s day had many a torn ligament!

The king witnessed three tragedies: (1) oppression and exploitation in the halls of justice; (2) pain and sorrow in the lives of innocent people; and (3) unconcern on the part of those who could have brought comfort. So devastated was Solomon by what he saw that he decided it was better to be dead than to be alive and oppressed. In fact, one was better off if never having been born at all. Then one would never have to see the evil works of sinful man.

Why didn’t Solomon do something about this injustice? After all, he was the king. Alas, even the king couldn’t do a great deal to solve the problem. For once Solomon started to interfere with his government and reorganize things, he would only create new problems and reveal more corruption. This is not to suggest that we today should despair of cleaning out political corruption. As Christian citizens, we must pray for all in authority (1 Tim. 2:1-6) and do what we can to see that just laws are passed and fairly enforced. But it’s doubtful that a huge administrative body like the one in Israel would ever be free of corruption, or that a “crusader” could improve the situation.

Edward Gibbon, celebrated author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, said that political corruption was “the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty.” Perhaps he was right; for where there is freedom to obey, there is also freedom to disobey. Some of Solomon’s officials decided they were above the law, and the innocent suffered.

  1. In the marketplace (ECCL. 4:4-8)

(Ecclesiastes 4:4-8 NIV)  “And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. {5} The fool folds his hands and ruins himself. {6} Better one handful with tranquillity than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind. {7} Again I saw something meaningless under the sun: {8} There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. “For whom am I toiling,” he asked, “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?” This too is meaningless– a miserable business!”

Disgusted with what he saw in the “halls of justice,” the king went down to the marketplace to watch the various laborers at work. Surely he would not be disappointed there, for honest toil is a gift from God. Even Adam had work to do in the Garden (Gen. 2:15), and our Lord was a carpenter when He was here on earth (Mark 6:3). Solomon considered four different kinds of men.

The industrious man (v. 4).

It was natural for Solomon first to find a laborer who was working hard. For, after all, had not the king extolled the virtues of hard work in the Book of Proverbs? The man was not only busy, but he was skillful in his work and competent in all he did. He had mastered the techniques of his trade.

So much for the worker’s hands; what about his heart? It was here that Solomon had his next disappointment. The only reason these people perfected their skills and worked hard at their jobs was to compete with others and make more money than their neighbors. The purpose of their work was not to produce beautiful or useful products, or to help people, but to stay ahead of the competition and survive in the battle for bread.

God did not put this “selfishness factor” into human labor; it’s the result of sin in the human heart. We covet what others have; we not only want to have those things, but we want to go beyond and have even more. Covetousness, competition, and envy often go together. Competition is not sinful of itself, but when “being first” is more important than being honest, there will be trouble. Traditional rivalry between teams or schools can be a helpful thing, but when rivalry turns into riots, sin has entered the scene.

The idle man (vv. 5-6).

Solomon moved from one extreme to the other and began to study a man who had no ambition at all. Perhaps the king could learn about life by examining the antithesis, the way scientists study cold to better understand heat. It must have been difficult for him to watch an idle man, because Solomon had no sympathy for lazy people who sat all day with folded hands and did nothing. (See Prov. 18:9, 19:15, 24:30-34.)

Solomon learned nothing he didn’t already know: laziness is a slow comfortable path toward self-destruction. It may be pleasant to sleep late every morning and not have to go to work, but it’s unpleasant not to have money to buy the necessities of life. “‘Let me sleep a little longer!’ Sure, just a little more! And as you sleep, poverty creeps upon you like a robber and destroys you; want attacks you in full armor” (Prov. 6:10-11, tlb). Paul stated it bluntly: “If any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thes. 3:10).

The industrious man was motivated by competition and caught in the rat race of life. He had no leisure time. The idle man was motivated by pleasure and was headed for ruin. He had no productive time. Is there no middle way between these two extremes? Yes, there is.

The integrated man (v. 6).

Here was a man whose life was balanced: he was productive in his work, but he was also careful to take time for quietness. He did not run in the rat race, but neither did he try to run away from the normal responsibilities of life. A 1989 Harris survey revealed that the amount of leisure time enjoyed by the average American had shrunk 37 percent from 1973. This suggests that fewer people know how to keep life in balance. They are caught in the rat race and don’t know how to escape.

Why have both hands full of profit if that profit costs you your peace of mind and possibly your health? Better to have gain in one hand and quietness in the other. When a heart is controlled by envy and rivalry, life becomes one battle after another (James 3:13-4:4, and see Prov. 15:16). Paul’s instructions about money in 1 Timothy 6 is applicable here, especially verse 6, “But godliness with contentment is great gain.”

The industrious man thinks that money will bring him peace, but he has no time to enjoy it. The idle man thinks that doing nothing will bring him peace, but his life-style only destroys him. The integrated man enjoys both his labor and the fruit of his labor and balances toil with rest. You can take what you want from life, but you must pay for it.

The independent man (vv. 7-8).

Then Solomon noticed a solitary man, very hard at work, so he went to question him. The king discovered that the man had no relatives or partners to help him in his business, nor did he desire any help. He wanted all the profit for himself. But he was so busy, he had no time to enjoy his profits. And, if he died, he had no family to inherit his wealth. In other words, all his labor was in vain.

The Greek philosopher Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But the independent man never stopped long enough to ask himself: “For whom am I working so hard? Why am I robbing myself of the enjoyments of life just to amass more and more money?” The industrious man was at least providing employment for people, and the idle man was enjoying some leisure, but the independent man was helping neither the economy nor himself.

Solomon’s conclusion was, “This too is meaningless—a miserable business!” (v. 8, niv) God wants us to labor, but to labor in the right spirit and for the right reasons. Blessed are the balanced!

  1. On the highway (ECCL. 4:9-12)

(Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 NIV)  “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: {10} If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! {11} Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? {12} Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”

Solomon’s experience with the independent man caused him to consider the importance of friendship and the value of people doing things together. He may have recalled the Jewish proverb, “A friendless man is like a left hand bereft of the right.” Perhaps he watched some pilgrims on the highway and drew the conclusion, “Two are better than one.”

Two are certainly better than one when it comes to working (v. 9) because two workers can get more done. Even when they divide the profits, they still get a better return for their efforts than if they had worked alone. Also, it’s much easier to do difficult jobs together because one can be an encouragement to the other.

Two are better when it comes to walking (v. 10). Roads and paths in Palestine were not paved or even leveled, and there were many hidden rocks in the fields. It was not uncommon for even the most experienced traveler to stumble and fall, perhaps break a bone, or even fall into a hidden pit (Ex. 21:33-34). How wonderful to have a friend who can help you up (or out). But if this applies to our physical falls, how much more does it apply to those times when we stumble in our spiritual walk and need restoration (Gal. 6:1-2)? How grateful we should be for Christian friends who help us walk straight.

Two are better than one when it comes to warmth (v. 11). Two travelers camping out, or even staying in the courtyard of a public inn, would feel the cold of the Palestinian night and need one another’s warmth for comfort. The only way to be “warm alone” is to carry extra blankets and add to your load.

Finally, two are better than one when it comes to their watchcare, especially at night (v. 12). “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves” (v. 12, niv). It was dangerous for anyone to travel alone, day or night; most people traveled in groups for fellowship and for safety. Even David was grateful for a friend who stepped in and saved the king’s life (2 Sam. 21:15-17).

Solomon started with the number one (v. 8), then moved to two (v. 9), and then closed with three (v. 12). This is typical of Hebrew literature (Prov. 6:16; Amos 1:3, 6, 9, etc.). One cord could be broken easily; two cords would require more strength; but three cords woven together could not be easily broken. If two travelers are better than one, then three would fare even better. Solomon had more than numbers in mind; he was also thinking of the unity involved in three cords woven together—what a beautiful picture of friendship!

  1. In the palace (ECCL. 4:13-16)

(Ecclesiastes 4:13-16 NIV)  “Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to take warning. {14} The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom. {15} I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor. {16} There was no end to all the people who were before them. But those who came later were not pleased with the successor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”

This is Solomon’s fourth “better” statement (4:3, 6, 9), introducing a story that teaches two truths: the instability of political power and the fickleness of popularity. The king in the story had at one time heeded his counselors’ advice and ruled wisely, but when he got old, he refused to listen to them. The problem was more than pride and senility. He was probably surrounded by a collection of “parasites” who flattered him, isolated him from reality, and took from him all they could get. This often happens to weak leaders who are more concerned about themselves than about their people.

There is a hero in the story, a wise youth who is in prison. Perhaps he was there because he tried to help the king and the king resented it. Or maybe somebody in the court lied about the youth. (That’s what happened to Joseph. See Gen. 39.) At any rate, the youth got out of prison and became king. Everybody cheered the underdog and rejoiced that the nation at last had wise leadership.

Consider now what this story says. The young man was born poor, but he became rich. The old king was rich but it didn’t make him any wiser, so he might just as well have been poor. The young man was in prison, but he got out and took the throne. The old king was imprisoned in his stupidity (and within his circle of sycophants) and lost his throne. So far, the moral of the story is: Wealth and position are no guarantee of success, and poverty and seeming failure are no barriers to achievement. The key is wisdom.

But the story goes on. Apparently the young man got out of prison and took the throne because of popular demand. “I have seen all the living under the sun throng to the side of the second lad who replaces him” [the old king] (v. 15, nasb). It looked like the new young king had it made, but alas, his popularity didn’t last. “He can become the leader of millions of people, and be very popular. But, then, the younger generation grows up around him and rejects him!” (v. 16, tlb) The new crowd deposed the king and appointed somebody else.

Oliver Cromwell, who took the British throne away from Charles I and established the Commonwealth, said to a friend, “Do not trust to the cheering, for those persons would shout as much if you and I were going to be hanged.” Cromwell understood crowd psychology!

Once again, Solomon drew the same conclusion: it is all “vanity and vexation of spirit” (see vv. 4 and 8).

No matter where Solomon went, no matter what aspect of life he studied, he learned an important lesson from the Lord. When he looked up, he saw that God was in control of life and balanced its varied experiences (3:1-8). When he looked within, he saw that man was made for eternity and that God would make all things beautiful in their time (3:9-14). When he looked ahead, he saw the last enemy, death. Then as he looked around (4:1-16), he understood that life is complex, difficult, and not easy to explain. One thing is sure: No matter where you look, you see trials and problems and people who could use some encouragement.

However, Solomon was not cynical about life. Nowhere does he tell us to get out of the race and retreat to some safe and comfortable corner of the world where nothing can bother us. Life does not stand still. Life comes at us full speed, without warning, and we must stand up and take it and, with God’s help, make the most of it.

If this chapter teaches us anything, it is that we need one another because “two are better than one.” Yes, there are some advantages to an independent life, but there are also disadvantages, and we discover them painfully as we get older.

The chapter also emphasizes balance in life. “Better is a handful with quietness than both hands full, together with toil and grasping for the wind” (v. 6, nkjv). It’s good to have the things that money can buy, provided you don’t lose the things that money can’t buy. What is it really costing you in terms of life to get the things that are important to you? How much of the permanent are you sacrificing to get your hands on the temporary?

Or, to quote the words of Jesus: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8:36-37).

Alone at the Top (Ecclesiastes 4:4-16)

Karoshi is a Japanese word which means “death from overwork.” The syndrome is now so common in Japan that it claims as many as 30,000 victims each year. Its increase has caused such concern that since 1990, the Japanese government has been forced to provide restitution to karoshi widows.132 As Americans, we hear this and we think to ourselves, “That’s crazy! What are these poor people thinking?” Yet, all the while many of us are working ourselves to death, either literally or figuratively. The question is, “Why?” What is driving us to work so hard and so long? Our natural temptation may be to claim, “I work hard and long to glorify God.” This may be true, but I would suggest for most of us it is only partially true. If the truth be known, many of us are working hard to climb the corporate ladder, to impress our boss, to meet our own expectations, and to make more money. However, working long and hard for these reasons can lead to bitter disappointment and possibly even a premature death. If you don’t believe me, just ask the Japanese people.

Fortunately, Solomon has a solution for us. In Eccl 4:4-16, he encourages us to work smarter not harder and longer. How do we work smarter not harder? We work smarter not harder by making three specific choices.

1. Choose contentment over achievement (4:4-6).

When I was growing, up my dad would always tell me, “Moderation in everything.” Solomon imparts this same truth in these first three verses. He discusses the workaholic, the lazy sluggard, and then strikes the biblical balance between these two extremes. In 4:4 he writes, “I have seen that every labor and every skill133 which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. This too is vanity and striving after wind.”134Solomon once again observes life. He is a student of human nature and activity. In his “people watching,” Solomon discovers that people compete with one another in everything. The twofold use of the word “every” undoubtedly means every type of labor and achievement rather than every individual instance of these things. The point is: much achievement is the result of a desire to be superior over others. We live in a constant state of competition. Research indicates that nine out of ten office workers suffer from “professional envy” of colleagues they perceive to have more glamorous or better paid jobs.135 What drives many people is to climb the corporate ladder and outdo others.

This quest to get ahead is also true in other areas of our lives. We want to be more successful than our neighbors and friends. The clothes that you’re wearing right now, you’re not wearing because you needed them but because you wanted others to see you in them. You didn’t purchase that new car because you needed a car; you purchased that car because you wanted to be seen in that vehicle. Solomon is saying that we all want to be noticed and we want to be the focus of attention. Therefore, we envy one another and compete with one another. Whether we care to admit it or not rivalry is a driving force in all of us.

Some of us realize the evils of envy and rivalry and determine that we will be different. We don’t want to be the kind of people who step on everyone else on our climb to the top so we drop out of any competitive endeavor. Yet, this is a dangerous extreme as well.136 In 4:5, Solomon shares a proverb:137“The fool folds his hands and consumes [lit. “eats”] his own flesh.” The language of this verse means lazy people eventually make cannibals of themselves.138 They will kill themselves with starvation. Of course, Solomon is being sarcastic and he is using hyperbole. He mocks the lazy! Since they do not raise any crops, they must eat their own flesh.139

In the 1960s, one generation got sick of the affluence of the 1950s. So this group bailed out and claimed the title of “flower children.” Everybody gave up ambition and the drive for financial success. They let their hair grow long, quit bathing, and just sat on the grass and hummed.140 Obviously, this is not the way to accomplish God’s purposes in the world. I would dare say this is sheer laziness and foolishness.

Reflecting on foolishness, please give careful attention to the word “fool” in 4:5. When we read the word “fool” in the Bible, it is natural to assume that the term means “idiot” or “buffoon.” After all, this is what our English word “fool” means. Yet, the biblical meaning of this word means something far worse. A fool is someone who denies God, scoffs at wisdom, and laughs at eternity. Foolishness is a theological stance, a show of contempt for God’s laws.141

God intends for mankind to work, particularly the church. This is why our church emphasizes the importance of a godly work ethic. We believe that everyone who is physically, mentally, and emotionally able should work. Paul said it best when he wrote to the church at Thessalonica, “If anyone will not work, neither let him eat” (2 Thess 3:10). Elsewhere, Paul said, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men” (Col 3:23). The Bible is clear that we are to represent Christ in our work.

One day a mother walked in on her six-year-old son and found him sobbing. What’s the matter?” she asks. The boy replied, “I’ve just figured out how to tie my shoes.” “Well, honey, that’s wonderful. You’re growing up, but why are you crying?” “Because,” he says, “Now I’ll have to do it every day for the rest of my life.”142 Maybe you feel like this six-year-old boy. You’re a stay-at-home mom and you’ve recognized that you’re going to be doing the same tasks for what may seem the rest of your life. Perhaps you work a monotonous job, day in and day out, and it kills you to know that you may be working this job for the rest of your life. God wants you to know that there is glory in the grind. Shrug off laziness. Work like today is your last day of work, for it just might be. Work smarter not harder.

Solomon now strikes a balance between workaholism and laziness. His solution in 4:6 is: “One hand full of rest is better than two fists full of labor and striving after wind.” At first glance, it seems 4:6 contradicts 4:5; however, we must recognize that 4:6 like 4:5 is a proverb.143 The comparison is between anything with rest and anything with work.144 This is not an argument in favor of laziness but a call for balanced living.145 Blessed are the balanced! The wise person realizes that some things matter more than other things, that your career is not the measure of your self-worth, that having more money can’t replace the joy of spending time with people you love. Contentment means that you have everything you need right now. If you needed more, God would give it to you.146 Solomon is saying, “Rather than grasping for so much that you have to be a workaholic to get it, be content with less. It is better to have less and enjoy it more.” Our problem is not the high cost of living; it is the cost of high living. We want far too much. The cure is contentment, being willing to settle for less materially if it means we can have some “rest.”

A new store opened at Minnesota’s Mall of America, called MinneNAPolis. It rents comfy spots where weary shoppers can take naps for seventy cents a minute. The new store includes themed rooms such as Asian Mist, Tropical Isle, and Deep Space, and the walls are thick enough to drown out the sounds of squealing children outside. The company’s website says, “Escape the pressures of the real world into the pleasures of an ideal one.” Some guests will want to listen to music, put their feet up, watch the water trickling in the beautiful stone waterfall, breathe in the positive-ionization-filtered air, enjoy the full-body massager, and just take an enjoyable escape from the fast-paced lifestyle.147

Do you ever get tired of running in the rat race where only the rats win? A sign by the roadside carried this message: “I’m getting sick of the rat race. The rats keep getting bigger and faster.” How much more could we enjoy life if we were content with what the Lord has given us? How many families would cease to be divided and destroyed if parents stopped breaking their necks to give their kids a better life than they had? Let me close this section by giving you 4:6 in the Keith Krell Translation: “Rather than putting two hands in for eighty hours a week, why don’t you put in forty hours with one hand and with the other eat some bubble gum ice cream?”148 Work smarter not harder.

[Not only must we choose contentment over achievement, we must also…]

2. Choose relationships over riches (4:7-12).

These verses remind us that people should be our priority. If you are too busy for the people in your life that matter most, you are too busy. In 4:7-8 Solomon writes, “Then I looked again at vanity under the sun. There was a certain man without a dependent, having neither a son nor a brother, yet there was no end to all his labor. Indeed, his eyes were not satisfied with riches and he never asked, ‘And for whom am I laboring and depriving myself of pleasure?’ This too is vanity and it is a grievous task.” Do you know anyone like this? Of course you do! With that person in mind, I’d like to describe this person. This man believes in the value of hard work and the inherent dignity of a job well done. He’s probably married and has at least three children whose picture he carries in his wallet. He loves his wife and thinks about her more than she knows. It’s true he works long hours—often he’s gone by six in the morning and doesn’t come home until after seven at night. The pressures at work are so enormous that it takes him an hour or two to unwind, so he doesn’t spend much time talking in the evening. He’s so tired that it’s all he can do to read the paper, watch a little television, and then go wearily to bed. His blood pressure is too high, he knows he needs to exercise, his diet isn’t the best, and sometimes he’s irritable and snaps at his family—and regrets it later. It’s true that he works seventy hours a week, but he doesn’t think of himself as a workaholic. He simply loves his job—and he’s good at it. And thankfully, he is able to bring home a nice paycheck and provide good things for his family. One of these days he plans to slow down and smell the coffee—but not today. He gulps his coffee and heads for the door before his family knows he’s gone. One evening he comes home and his family is not there. While he was at work, the kids grew up, his wife went back to college and found a career of her own, his children moved out, and now the house is empty. He can’t believe it. The Board of Directors just named him CEO. Now there’s no one to share the good news with. He made it to the top—alone.149

Even if you are not a successful, high-powered CEO, you can probably relate to this man. It is so easy to become consumed with work. We all tend to suffer from the hurry syndrome. We are busy people…so busy that sometimes we miss the significant people right in front of us. How many mothers and fathers have shortchanged their children for $10,000 or $20,000 extra a year? How many young consultants make great money but don’t have friends because they travel every week? How many wealthy people have accumulated huge nest eggs but no friends?150 Do you have anyone to enjoy life with? Are you taking the time to smell the coffee? Are you truly enjoying your children? Do you have any trusted friends?

The need to have someone to enjoy life with prompts Solomon to touch on friendship and community. In 4:9-12, he lists several benefits of friendship.

  • Friends bring about good results in labor (4:9). Solomon writes, “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor.” Relationships grow out of shared work whether it is yard work, mission trips, service projects, or local church ministry. Two human souls combine their strength, creativity, talent, and ambition. There is something special about working together with at least one other person. There is a bond that takes place when people work or serve together. Who are you currently working with or serving with? Work smarter not harder.
  • Friends pick up one another in trouble (4:10). Solomon writes, “For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up.” America is the land of the lonely. We cultivate loneliness in our culture. We take pride in being independent and alone. We even have a Declaration of Independence. Men especially are raised with this sort of macho attitude. Yet, even men need other men. This is why I meet with two weekly men’s groups. In these two groups we have learned a number of truths about community: (1) relationships are valuable, (2) we need to trust one another, (3) real men share their feelings, (4) real men need accountability, and (5) real men need to learn from one another. Who are you currently encouraging and investing in? Work smarter not harder.
  • Friends warm one another in a cold world (4:11). Solomon writes, “Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone?” If you are married, does your spouse have cold feet? My wife, Lori, has polar feet. One of my most difficult acts of service is to allow her to warm her feet on me. This is sheer unconditional agape love on my part. Of course, you may not be the sacrificial servant that I am, so you adjust the temperature on your waterbed or electric blanket. However, in Solomon’s time, cold was a much more serious issue. When forced to sleep in the open, or even in a tent, the more bodies that huddled together, the warmer all would be. So Solomon says that two are better than one in staying warm.151 Take two coals, heat them up and then separate them and what happens. Their heat will be extinguished. They cannot generate sufficient heat when they are alone. That is why it is so important for the church to meet together. We come together to create a bonfire of fellowship that we might set one another aflame with a zeal for serving the Lord. So who are you currently showing Christian love to? Work smarter not harder.
  • Friends hold up one another in adversity (4:12). Solomon closes his thoughts in this section with these words: “And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.” We need other people to give us strength in the midst of persecution and hardship. “A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart” was a proverbial way of saying “there is strength in numbers.”152 We all face trials and tests of our faith. If you have no one to walk through these dark times with you, life will seem utterly impossible. Again, this is why involvement in a local church is so important. Are you currently bearing someone else’s burdens? Work smarter not harder.

[We must choose contentment over achievement and relationships over riches. Solomon now concludes by urging us to…]

3. Choose influence over popularity (4:13-16).

In this four verse parable, Solomon reminds us that popularity is fleeting; therefore, we are better to choose influence over popularity. The story goes like this: “A poor yet wise lad is better than an old and foolish king who no longer knows how to receive instruction. For he has come out of prison to become king, even though he was born poor in his kingdom. I have seen all the living under the sun throng to the side of the second lad who replaces him. There is no end to all the people, to all who were before them, and even the ones who will come later will not be happy with him, for this too is vanity and striving after wind” (4:13-16). What is in view in this parable is a succession of kings, none of whom fully satisfies the populace. The point is that even though a young man may rise from the bottom of society to the top, not everyone will accept or appreciate him. Therefore, since it is impossible to achieve full acceptance it is foolish to spend one’s life seeking advancement and popularity. It is better to stay poor and wise. From this unimpressive position, it may be possible to influence more people than you ever thought possible. Influence must always trump popularity because popularity is temporal.

If we are honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge that life at the top is fleeting. Our attention span is short, our memories nonexistent, and our only question is, “What have you done for me lately?” Presidents and prime ministers may have extremely high approval ratings for a while, but they don’t last. Just ask President Bush. If the 18-0 Patriots lose today, their quarterback, Tom Brady, who is one of the greatest players in NFL history, will be a goat. Former Dallas Cowboy quarterback, Don Meredith, used to say about quarterbacks, “Today you are in the penthouse. Tomorrow you’re in the outhouse.”153 What is true of quarterbacks is also true of pastors, state workers, teachers, and small business owners. Popularity doesn’t last. Today’s heroes are tomorrow bums. Become president of the Rotary Club or PTA. Get elected chairman of your Homeowners Association. You’ll be doing great if more than half the people still like you when you’re done.

Today is Super Bowl Sunday. Winning the Super Bowl is the professional dream of every NFL player. It isn’t the money they make; a winner’s earnings from a Super Bowl appearance amount to less than a full game’s check for the average NFL player. It isn’t the Vince Lombardi trophy, which they don’t get to take home. It’s the fame, the respect, that moment of supreme glory. The players do receive a ring, and the Super Bowl ring is perhaps the most coveted prize of the world of sports—on par with an Olympic gold medal. But even such a ring may not last. Charlie Waters of the Dallas Cowboys found that out when his five Super Bowl rings were stolen from the closet in his home. Joe Gilliam won two Super Bowl rings as a member of the 1974 and 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers, but he pawned them off for a few dollars after being caught in a vicious cycle of drug addiction and homelessness. Another former Steeler, Rocky Bleier, sold his four rings to cover divorce and bankruptcy proceedings. The Cowboys’ Thomas Henderson had his Super Bowl XII ring seized to pay back taxes. Former Raiders All-Pro cornerback Lester Hayes sold his to pay for dental work. Mercury Morris of the Miami Dolphins sold his ring to raise money to clear his name during a drug-trafficking case.

That ring, symbolic of months and years of hard work crowned by a season at the top, is as fleeting as the glory it supposedly stands for. The hype may be spectacular, the TV ratings may be the biggest of the year, the commercial time a cost of millions…but the glory is fool’s gold. Its luster is quickly tarnished. As Houston sports writer Steve Campbell puts it, “One of the dirty secrets about the Super Bowl is that the winner’s high often has less of a shelf life than a container of cottage cheese.”154

Achievement, riches, and popularity can all expire on us like cottage cheese. These three pursuits are so temporary. In the end they are hebel—breath, vapor, mist, and utter futility. So work smarter not harder. Just trust God, love people, and enjoy life.


110 This precise passage breakdown is adopted by R.B.Y. Scott, Proverbs Ecclesiastes (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 1995), 222-223.

111 Solomon returns to the theme of injustice in Eccl 5:8f.; 8:10-15; 9:13-16; 10:5-7; 10:16f.

112 Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 125.

113 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 61.

114 Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1993).

See also the NET: “I thought to myself, ‘God will judge both the righteous and the wicked; for there is an appropriate time for every activity, and there is a time of judgment for every deed.’” See also Ps 14:5; Zeph 1:14.

115 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 76.

116 Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes, 127.

117 Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament; Leicester, Eng., and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 85-86. See also the NET: “I also thought to myself, ‘It is for the sake of people, so God can clearly show them that they are like animals.’”

118 The PSA (Photographic Society of America) awarded my dad, Richard Krell, for having the most pictures accepted for exhibition in international nature exhibitions throughout the world.

119 David Fairchild, “Justice Departed” (Eccl 3:16-4:3).

120 J. Stafford. Wright, “Ecclesiastes,” in Psalms-Song of Songs vol. 5 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), Electronic ed.

121 Choon Leon Seow, Ecclesiastes: A New Translation with Introduction (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 1997), 176.

122 Ray Waddle, Against The Grain: Unconventional Wisdom From Ecclesiastes (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2005). 65.

123 Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge: Coming to Terms with Reality, Bible Study Guide (Fullerton, CA: Insight for Living, 1986), 35.

124 Open Doors, “North Korean Christians Being Tortured by the Thousands,” 24 January 2008.

125 Quoted in Waddle, Against The Grain, 64.

126 “Household Income in the United States”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Household_income_in_the_United_States.

127 Peter John Kreeft quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 50.

128 “The History of MADD”: http://www.madd.org/About-us/About-us/History.aspx.

129 “About John Walsh”: http://www.amw.com/about_amw/john_walsh.cfm.

130 Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997),

132 Donald S. Whitney, “Rest for your Souls”: http://www.biblicalspirituality.org/weary.html.

133 Longman suggests the translation, “success or achievement.” Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 136. The use of the Hebrew term kishron in Eccl 5:11 supports the translation “success.” See also NIV: “achievement.”

134 The phrase “vanity and striving after wind” (Eccl 4:4, 16) brackets this section.

135 Quoted in David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 87. See “Professional Jealousy Grips the Nation” 2 February 2004:

http://www.personneltoday.com/articles/2004/02/02/22184/professional-jealousy-grips-the-nation.html.

136 Solomon’s words in 4:5 seems to be the opposite of 4:4. Thus, Eaton writes, “We pass from the rat-race with its hectic scramble for status symbols to the drop-out with his total indifference.” Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament; Leicester, Eng., and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 93.

137 The phrase “folding of the hands” is used in Prov 6:10; 24:33.

138 Seow confirms the link to cannibalism and cites Lev 26:29; Deut 29:53; Jer 19:9; Ezek 39:28; Mic 3:3. Choon Leon Seow, Ecclesiastes: A New Translation with Introduction (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 1997), 179.

139 See Prov 6:9-11; 10:4; 12:24; 19:15; 20:13; 24:30-34. Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes, 137.

140 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 65.

141 Ray Waddle, Against The Grain: Unconventional Wisdom From Ecclesiastes (Nashville: Upper Room, 2005). 68.

142 Preaching Today citation: John Ortberg, Leadership, Vol. 14, no. 3.

143 Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes, 138.

144 Seow, Ecclesiastes, 180.

145 If Solomon has to choose between the two options of workaholism and laziness, he would choose working hard with a contented heart. Elsewhere Solomon writes, “Better is a dry morsel and quietness with it than a house full of feasting with strife” (Prov 17:1).

146 Ray Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun: Ancient Wisdom for Contemporary Living (Chicago: Moody, 1998), 123-124.

147 Sermon News: http://www.sermonnews.com/MembersOnlyStory.asp?ID=35.

148 Revised from Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 66.

149 Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun, 125-126.

150 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God,67.

151 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 97.

152 Eccl 4:12 is often read at weddings with the threefold cord in marriage being understood as the bride, the groom, and Christ. However, jumping to such conclusions violates sound hermeneutical principles. The context of 4:9-12a (the value of “two” people in contrast to “one” and in climactic parallelism with “three”), correlated with similar teaching about two or three gathered together in Jesus’ name (Matt. 18:20), might legitimately suggest applying Eccl 4:12 to the importance of cooperation in the body of Christ. A careful distinction needs to be made between the primary interpretation and possible secondary applications today. William P. Brown, Ecclesiastes: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Interpretation; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 52-53.

153 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 69.

154 Quoted in Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 101.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2021 in Ecclesiastes

 

Ecclesiastes: The Good Life #4 Time and Toil – Ecclesiastes 3


Timing is everything. You have probably heard this phrase many times. There is a great deal of truth in that statement. The difference between a good joke and a bad one is a person’s sense of timing. An appropriate pause makes a joke…an inappropriate pause can kill the same joke.

Timing is essential when dealing with people. You don’t ask for a raise when business is not going well or when things are tense around the office. You don’t try to correct someone who feels threatened by you. You don’t ask for a favor when someone is under a lot of stress or angry.

Timing is important in cooking. The juicy hamburger on the grill is raw meat if cooked for too little time and a clump of charcoal if it is cooked too long. Timing is important in medicine. If you catch a problem early you will be able to treat it more effectively.

Your timing is important in taking medication. If you take your medicine as directed it will be helpful. If you skip doses it loses its effectiveness. If you take extra doses it can be deadly. Timing is important in finance. When you invest in a particular stock and when you sell the particular stock will make the difference between whether you make money or lose it. Knowing when to borrow and when not to borrow is the key to financial independence. Timing is important in your spiritual life as well. It is critical to live your life with an acute awareness of God’s timing for your life.75

In Eccl 3:1-15, Solomon tells us that life is really a matter of timing, for timing is everything. This should be evident to us. You and I probably have a dozen clocks and four or five calendars in our homes. Many of us carry a timepiece attached to our wrist, and time indicators are built into our cell phones, computer screens, and PDAs.76 Time and timing is everything. If timing is everything, how should we live? In the following fifteen verses, we will discover four concise exhortations on how to live if timing is everything.

Ponder these quotations from two famous professors: “Why shouldn’t things be largely absurd, futile, and transitory? They are so, and we are so, and they and we go very well together.” That’s from philosopher George Santayana, who taught at Harvard from 1889 to 1912.

“There is no reason to suppose that a man’s life has any more meaning than the life of the humblest insect that crawls from one annihilation to another.” That was written by Joseph Wood Krutch, professor of English at Columbia University from 1937 to 1952.

Both of these men were brilliant in their fields, but most of us would not agree with what they wrote. We believe that something grander is involved in human life than mere transitory existence. We are not like insects. Surely Dr. Krutch knew that insects have life cycles, but men and women have histories. One bee is pretty much like another bee, but people are unique and no two stories are the same. You can write The Life of the Bee, but you can’t write The Life of the Man or The Life of the Woman.

If we as individuals are not unique, then we are not important; if we are not important, then life has no meaning. If life has no meaning, life isn’t worth living. We might as well follow the Epicurean philosophy: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.”

Solomon has presented four arguments proving that life was nothing but grasping broken soap bubbles and chasing after the wind. But he was too wise a man to let his own arguments go unchallenged, so in Ecclesiastes 3-10, he reexamined each of them carefully. His first argument was the monotony of life (1:4-11), and he examined it in Ecclesiastes 3:1-5:9. He discovered four factors that must be considered before you can say that life is monotonous and meaningless.

First, he saw something above man, a God who was in control of time and who balanced life’s experiences (3:1-8). Then he saw something within man that linked him to God—eternity in his heart (3:9-14). Third, Solomon saw something ahead of man—the certainty of death (3:15-22). Finally, he saw something around man—the problems and burdens of life (4:1-5:9).

So, The Preacher asked his listeners to look up, to look within, to look ahead, and to look around, and to take into consideration time, eternity, death, and suffering. These are the four factors God uses to keep our lives from becoming monotonous and meaningless.

Expect change (3:1-8)

(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 NIV)  “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: {2} a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, {3} a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, {4} a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, {5} a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain, {6} a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, {7} a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, {8} a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.”

In this first section, Solomon makes a persuasive case for the brevity of life. As is customary in Ecclesiastes, Solomon begins this section by stating a thesis (3:1). He then proceeds to illustrate and demonstrate his thesis (3:2-8). Solomon’s thesis is this: “There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven” (3:1). The key word in this section is “time,” and it is used thirty times in 3:1-8. There are three insights worth noting in 3:1. First, Solomon is not going to be making judgments on the topics that follow in 3:2-8, he is merely recording the events that occur “under heaven.” Second, Solomon builds his argument upon the word “appointed.”77 The events of our lives do not randomly happen by chance; God has a purpose behind them. Third, Solomon uses an unusual Hebrew word translated “event.” This word conveys the idea of “delight.”78 By using the word “delight” instead of one of the standard nouns, Solomon implies that there is a good sense that one experiences by fitting into a given event at the right time. In other words, there is a sense of success based on appropriate timing—even if the activity, by its nature, is not delightful.79 Again, timing is everything.

After stating his thesis (3:1), Solomon launches into his poem in 3:2-8. In these seven verses, he makes twenty-eight statements—fourteen negative statements and fourteen positive ones.80 The first pair of contrasts (birth/death) sets the parameters for the events that follow. In 3:2 Solomon writes, “A time to give birth and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.” God appoints both our birthday and the day of our funeral. He knows exactly when they will occur; He always has. There are absolutely no surprises with God. He is so sovereign that there is nothing and no one who can take your life before your God-ordained days are finished. Solomon says this is even true of the plant world: the term of life is fixed.81 Verse 2 certainly starts with an emphasis upon God’s sovereignty over time, yet Solomon seems to be saying above all that the time is short. In fact, time is almost up. We are born into this world, and we rather quickly race toward the grave and die. Every eight seconds somebody dies and every three seconds someone is born. Life can seem like a revolving door. The same is true in the plant world. The various seasons of planting and harvest have been set by God. He sets the boundaries and times of the seasons and they come and go so quickly. Timing is everything.

The next two sets present destructive and creative activities: kill/heal, and tear down/build up. In 3:3 Solomon puts it like this: “A time to kill and a time to heal; A time to tear down and a time to build up.” “To kill” does not mean to commit murder. Hebrew has a special word for murder that is clearly seen in the Ten Commandments: “You shall not kill.”82 Here, “kill” involves capital punishment or destroying enemies in a just war. Solomon is not making any moral judgments in this context, but since it has come up in our text, I will. The reason why this is necessary is because of the value God places on human life. Human life is so important to God that when a life is taken that life must be avenged, because humans are made in the image of God (Gen 9:6). Fortunately, there is also a time “to heal,” or literally, “to sew,” “to heal a wound.” There is also a time “to tear down” old walls, relationships, or even, metaphorically, nations (Jer 18:7, 9), as well as a time “to build up.”83 The second line may refer to the demolition of houses and their construction; it may also be figurative. In the Old Testament, the words for tearing down and building up are often used with reference to the destruction and building up of a human life.84 In that case, the first line of 3:3 is expanded by the second.

The next two pairs in 3:4 express human emotions: weep/laugh and mourn/dance. Solomon writes, “A time to weep and a time to laugh;85 A time to mourn and a time to dance.” Both sorrow and joy are part of life; without one the other is unrecognizable.86 We will encounter negative and positive emotions and experiences throughout this life. This is to be expected. Change occurs constantly. One moment we will be on the mountain peak, the next moment we will be in the valley. During these tumultuous times, it is important for us to both grieve and rejoice. When loved ones pass from this life, I always urge family and friends to grieve. God intends human beings to grieve. Jesus grieved when Lazarus passed and when He Himself was preparing to die, in the Garden of Gethsemane. Grieving is healthy for the human psyche and brings about closure. It is also important for us to laugh and rejoice. It has been said, “If you don’t learn to laugh at trouble, you won’t have anything to laugh at when you grow old.”87 I love this! I’ve always told our church staff that the most important trait in ministry is a sense of humor. (Godliness and character are assumed.) If you don’t have a sense of humor in life and ministry, you will never get out of bed in the morning. You will just hit snooze on your alarm clock and pull the sheets over your head. Eventually, you will wither and die.

Is it possible for you and me to worship God in these differing seasons? Is it possible to find joy in the midst of your sickness, to find dependency upon Him in the midst of your failing health? Is it possible to be close to God in ever-changing circumstances? If you only thank God in seasons of great health and prosperity you will not be thanking God very much, because those seasons ebb and flow like the tide. We are to find joy in the midst of each season and in the transition between them.

In 3:5 we come to a very bizarre set of lines. Solomon writes, “A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones; A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing.” The phrase “throw stones” is a reference to sexual intercourse, while the phrase “gather stones” means to refrain from sex.88 In the Old Testament, abstinence from sexual intercourse took place in times of mourning.89 Corresponding to this meaning is the mention in the next line of the embrace, which is used as a toned down expression for the same thing. This interpretation ensures the parallelism between all of the lines of the poem.90 And it could indeed be said in this area that timing is everything. Did you hear that, men?

The next two pairs deal with the nature of possessions. Solomon writes, “A time to search and a time to give up as lost; A time to keep and a time to throw away” (3:6). The latter phrase gives biblical authority for garage sales: a time to keep and a time to clean house!91 The thought here deals with the fleeting nature of our possessions. We buy clothes and we take clothes to the Goodwill. We buy a new car and sell our clunker. We search for various misplaced possessions and then accept that we will never find them in the mess of our closet or garage.

The next pair seems to suggest a time for mourning and a time to cease mourning. Verse 7 reads, “A time to tear apart and a time to sew together; A time to be silent and a time to speak.”92 In the Old Testament, when people mourned the death of a loved one they tore their clothing and kept silent.93 When the period of mourning was over, ordinary conversations of the day could continue.94 This reminds us that there are appropriate and inappropriate times to talk. It has been well said, “In silence man can most readily preserve his integrity.”95 As Christians, we need to be wise in the use of our tongues. It is too easy to say too many careless things. Many of my heroes are those that use their speech wisely. For the past seven years, Lori and I have observed a woman in our congregation by the name of Myra Yu. Myra picks and chooses her words wisely. She is an extremely intelligent woman and possesses a great deal of wisdom, yet she is careful not to speak too much. As a result, her words are golden. Many of us need to learn from people who recognize that timing is everything.

The final lines of this poem occur in 3:8. This set of verses has to do with affections and their consequences. Solomon writes, “A time to love and a time to hate; A time for war and a time for peace.” At first glance, these verses can be hard to understand. We all know that there is a time to love. We should be all about love. Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). But Solomon also says there is a time to hate. Even Jesus hated. He hated sin. He hated its mastery over human souls. He hated the wake of its destruction. We need to learn how to hate that which is evil without hating the people who are evil. We may hate the act of abortion, but we have compassion on both the aborted and the aborting. We may hate the ravages of alcohol, but we love those who struggle with alcoholism, and we want to do whatever we can to help them.96

The internal parallelism of the previous six verses is in this final line of 3:8. This is probably due to a desire to end on a positive note—peace rather than war. Ironically, this line of Scripture has become rather famous, thanks to a 1965 hippie song penned by the rock group, The Byrds. This passage is still very important in spite of the words “turn, turn, turn,” which have haunted me all week like a tack hammer to my frontal lobe. With the addition of just six words to the end of Eccl 3:1-8, The Byrds were able to transform these verses into an anti-Vietnam, pro-peace song. Following the last couplet of “a time for war and a time for peace,” The Byrds added the little phrase, “I swear it’s not too late.” Thus, did Ecclesiastes enter the mainstream consciousness of the counter-culture.

Unfortunately, The Byrds were wrong in their insistence upon peace. As much as we may want peace, there will not be peace until the Prince of Peace brings peace to this world. And ironically, when Jesus does bring peace it will be after the blood bath that is described in Rev 19:11-21. Now I will not weigh in on the various wars that have taken place or are taking place since that is not the point of this passage. However, I will say this: When tyranny runs roughshod over the rights of mankind, war is necessary. We often sit in quiet places when we worship. We worship without fear of infringement from law because someone has fought for the right to be heard and to speak freely, to stand, and if necessary, die for what one believes to be the truth. We love the fact that America has been “the home of the brave and the land of the free” for more than 200 years, yet we often don’t appreciate the need to at times be at war. God is a warrior and war is a part of the Bible. To suggest that war is never to be condoned is a misunderstanding of the Bible. Again, timing is everything. Now I don’t like war. I’m not pro-war. I don’t know anyone who is, but I can’t imagine protesting or complaining while American soldiers are serving our country. My heart is to honor our soldiers and respect the decisions that have been made by our government. It is a mistake to assume that if we were in office all would be well. Nothing could be further from the truth. There will always be war and peace.

We will consider three of these factors in this chapter and the fourth in our next study.

Look up: God orders time (ECCL. 3:1-8)

You don’t have to be a philosopher or a scientist to know that “times and seasons” are a regular part of life, no matter where you live. Were it not for the dependability of God-ordained “natural laws,” both science and daily life would be chaotic, if not impossible. Not only are there times and seasons in this world, but there is also an overruling providence in our lives. From before our birth to the moment of our death, God is accomplishing His divine purposes, even though we may not always understand what He is doing.

In fourteen statements, Solomon affirmed that God is at work in our individual lives, seeking to accomplish His will. All of these events come from God and they are good in their time. The inference is plain: if we cooperate with God’s timing, life will not be meaningless. Everything will be “beautiful in His time” (v. 11), even the most difficult experiences of life. Most of these statements are easy to understand, so we will examine only those that may need special explanation.

Birth and death (v. 2).

Things like abortion, birth control, mercy killing, and surrogate parenthood make it look as though man is in control of birth and death, but Solomon said otherwise. Birth and death are not human accidents; they are divine appointments, for God is in control. (Read Gen. 29:31-30:24 and 33:5; Josh. 24:3; 1 Sam. 1:9-20; Pss. 113:9 and 127; Jer. 1:4-5; Luke 1:5-25; Gal. 1:15 and 4:4.) Psalm 139:13-16 states that God so wove us in the womb that our genetic structure is perfect for the work He has prepared for us to do (Eph. 2:10). We may foolishly hasten our death, but we cannot prevent it when our time comes, unless God so wills it (Isa. 38). “All the days ordained for me were written in Your book” (Ps. 139:16, niv).

Planting and plucking (v. 2).

Being an agricultural people, the Jews appreciated the seasons. In fact, their religious calendar was based on the agricultural year (Lev. 23). Men may plow and sow, but only God can give the increase (Ps. 65:9-13). “Plucking” may refer either to reaping or to pulling up unproductive plants. A successful farmer knows that nature works for him only if he works with nature. This is also the secret of a successful life: learn God’s principles and cooperate with them.

Killing and healing (v. 3).

This probably refers, not to war (v. 8) or self-defense, but to the results of sickness and plague in the land (1 Sam. 2:6). God permits some to die while others are healed. This does not imply that we should refuse medical aid, for God can use both means and miracles to accomplish His purposes (Isa. 38).

Casting away stones and gathering stones (v. 5).

Tour guides in Israel will tell you that God gave stones to an angel and told him to distribute them across the world—and he tripped right over Palestine! It is indeed a rocky land and farmers must clear their fields before they can plow and plant. If you wanted to hurt an enemy, you filled up his field with stones (2 Kings 3:19, 25). People also gathered stones for building walls and houses. Stones are neither good nor bad; it all depends on what you do with them. If your enemy fills your land with rocks, don’t throw them back. Build something out of them!

Embracing and refraining from embracing (v. 5).

People in the Near East openly show their affections, kissing and hugging when they meet and when they part. So, you could paraphrase this, “A time to say hello and a time to say good-bye.” This might also refer to the relationship of a husband and wife (Lev. 15:19-31; and see 1 Cor. 7:5).

Getting and losing (v. 6).

“A time to search and a time to give it up for lost” is another translation. The next phrase gives biblical authority for garage sales: a time to keep and a time to clean house!

Tearing and mending (v. 7).

This probably refers to the Jewish practice of tearing one’s garments during a time of grief or repentance (2 Sam. 13:31; Ezra 9:5). God expects us to sorrow during bereavement, but not like unbelievers (1 Thes. 4:13-18). There comes a time when we must get out the needle and thread and start sewing things up!

Loving and hating (v. 8).

Are God’s people allowed to hate? The fact that the next phrase mentions “war and peace” suggests that Solomon may have had the nation primarily in mind. However, there are some things that even Christians ought to hate (2 Chron. 19:2; Ps. 97:10; Prov. 6:16-19; Rev. 2:6, 15).

Life is something like a doctor’s prescription: taken alone, the ingredients might kill you; but properly blended, they bring healing. God is sovereignly in control and has a time and a purpose for everything (Rom. 8:28). This is not fatalism, nor does it rob us of freedom or responsibility. It is the wise providence of a loving Father Who does all things well and promises to make everything work for good. [Solomon has urged us to expect change. Now he will encourage us to…]

Accept limitations (3:9-11).

(Ecclesiastes 3:9-11 NIV)  “What does the worker gain from his toil? {10} I have seen the burden God has laid on men. {11} He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”

Solomon writes, “What profit is there to the worker from that in which he toils?” This section ends in 3:9 with the same rhetorical question posed in 1:3 (cf. 2:11). This rhetorical question is an example of negative affirmation, expecting a negative answer: “Mankind gains nothing from his toil!” Any profit or advantage that man might gain from his toil is nullified by his ignorance of divine providence.97 We say to ourselves, “Why should I work so hard when it’s all going to be destroyed? Why get married when you just end up fighting and hurting one another? Why have a child and deal with the stress and disappointment?”98 These are all good questions. Actor Jim Carrey said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”99

Solomon continues in 3:10-11 with these words: “I have seen the task which God100 has given the sons of men with which to occupy themselves. He has made everything appropriate101 in its time. He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.”102 The word “everything” in 3:11 resumes “everything” in 3:1. The point of 3:11 is that God makes everything, even events that occur through human agency, happen in its proper time. Yet, the tension of this verse is that we don’t always understand His purposes.

We ask questions like, “Why was I born this way? Why did my father treat me that way? Why did you take my friend? Why am I missing out on this blessing?” Our problem is that we focus our attention on the wrong thing. We see the fuzzy, ugly cocoon; God plans and sets in motion the butterfly. We see the painful, awful process; He is producing the value of the product. We see today; He is working on forever. We get caught up in the wrapping; He focuses on the gift—the substance down inside. We look at the external; He emphasizes the internal. He makes everything beautiful in its time, including your loss, your hospital experience, your failures, your brokenness, your battles, your fragmented dreams, your lost romance, your heartache, your illness. Yes, even your terminal illness…whatever you’re going through. He makes it beautiful in its time. Without Him, life is purposeless and profitless, miserable and meaningless. With Him, it will ultimately make sense.103

Solomon also says that God has set eternity into the hearts of mankind. Knowing that gives purpose to life. The phrase “eternity in their hearts” means God has placed a big question mark deep in every man’s soul. We should be asking the question: What is the meaning of life? God intended it that way. Anthropological evidence suggests that every culture has a God-given, innate sense of the eternal—that this world is not all there is.104

If you ever get the opportunity to visit Egypt and its tombs and pyramids, study what was required to construct some of those monuments. Some studies revealed that it required the efforts of one hundred thousand workers forty years to build just one of the great pyramids. As you tour the area there, you can’t help but ask why. Why so much effort? Why would somebody put that amount of emphasis on a tomb—on the afterlife? The answer is, the Egyptians understood full well that they would spend a lot more time in the afterlife than they would spend in this life. Granted, some of their conceptions of what would happen in the afterlife were a little skewed. But the point is, they understood to the core of their being that the afterlife was a whole lot more important than this life, and so they prepared for the afterlife during this life. God had placed eternity in their hearts.105

Since all has been predetermined by God, there is purpose and meaning in the events of life. Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they can find peace in you.” Blaise Pascal said, “There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of every man that cannot be filled by any created being, but by God alone made known through Jesus Christ.” The truth is: we have an eternal itch. We all long to know the eternal significance of what we do. The Bible says this can only be found in Christ.

[Solomon has said we need to expect change and accept limitations. Now he will tell us to…]

Enjoy life (3:12-13).

(Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 NIV)  “I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. {13} That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil–this is the gift of God.”

Solomon says one of the greatest responses to this life is to make the most of it. Not in a hedonistic sense, but in a spiritual sense. We enjoy life by including God in all that we do and being filled with joy. Solomon declares, “I know106 that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime; 13 moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor—it is the gift of God.” Biblical faith is a call to joy. Ben Franklin once said, “Do you love life? Then do not squander time, for it is the stuff life is made of.” Timing is everything. Let’s face it, life is stressful. It is filled with all kinds of pressures from people, projects, pursuits, and more. For example, I could get a cold or flu this week. On my way home from church, a car could cross the yellow line and hit me head-on. I may learn that I have some form of cancer. So it makes sense to enjoy this life. Eat ice cream, watch a movie, play in the rain with your kids, take your wife out to a nice dinner. Yes, be a wise steward. There’s no need to be extravagant, but make the most of your days on this earth.  [Not only must we enjoy life, Solomon also says that we must…]

  1. Fear God (3:14-15).

Solomon closes this passage with these words: “I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him. 15 That which is has been already and that which will be has already been, for God seeks what has passed by.” God’s work is permanent and complete. Everything that He does is awe-inspiring. This is why Solomon says that we should fear God (lit. “fear before Him”). The fear of God is one of the key themes in Ecclesiastes and throughout the Bible. The phrases “fear God” or “fear of the Lord” appear over one hundred times in the Bible. The concept does not refer to paralyzing terror, but rather a commitment of the total being to trust and believing the living God.107 I have been to Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, and the Swiss Alps. On each of these occasions when I have gazed on God’s majestic handiwork, I felt small, fearful, and awestruck. God wants us to stand in awe of who He is and all that He is. When we do so, we will understand just how temporary this life is in contrast with an eternal God.

Today, will you fear God? Will you entrust yourself to Him? Will you depend upon Him for everything? Will you acknowledge that His timing is everything to you?

Look within: eternity is in your heart (ECCL. 3:9-14)

(Ecclesiastes 3:9-14 NIV)  “What does the worker gain from his toil? {10} I have seen the burden God has laid on men. {11} He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. {12} I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. {13} That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil–this is the gift of God. {14} I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.”

The Preacher adjusted his sights and no longer looked at life only “under the sun.” He brought God into the picture and this gave him a new perspective. In verse 9, he repeated the opening question of 1:3, “Is all this labor really worth it?” In the light of “new evidence,” Solomon gave three answers to the question.

First, man’s life is a gift from God (v. 10). In view of the travail that we experience from day to day, life may seem like a strange gift, but it is God’s gift just the same. We “exercise” ourselves in trying to explain life’s enigmas, but we don’t always succeed. If we believingly accept life as a gift, and thank God for it, we will have a better attitude toward the burdens that come our way. If we grudgingly accept life as a burden, then we will miss the gifts that come our way. Outlook helps to determine outcome.

Second, man’s life is linked to eternity. (v. 11). Man was created in the image of God, and was given dominion over creation (Gen. 1:26-28); therefore, he is different from the rest of creation. He has “eternity [“the world,” kjv] in his heart” and is linked to heaven. This explains why nobody (including Solomon) can be satisfied with his or her endeavors and achievements, or is able to explain the enigmas of life (1:12-2:11). God accomplishes His purposes in His time, but it will not be until we enter eternity that we will begin to comprehend His total plan.

Third, man’s life can be enjoyable now (vv. 12-14). The Preacher hinted at this in 2:24 and was careful to say that this enjoyment of life is the gift of God (see 3:13, 6:2, and 1 Tim. 6:17). “The enjoyment of life” is an important theme in Ecclesiastes and is mentioned in each of the four sections of chapters 3-10. (Review the outline.) Solomon is encouraging not pagan hedonism, but rather the practice of enjoying God’s gifts as the fruit of one’s labor, no matter how difficult life may be. Life appears to be transitory, but whatever God does is forever, so when we live for Him and let Him have His way, life is meaningful and manageable. Instead of complaining about what we don’t have, let’s enjoy what we do have and thank God for it.

When the well-known British Methodist preacher William Sangster learned that he had progressive muscular atrophy and could not get well, he made four resolutions and kept them to the end: (1) I will never complain; (2) I will keep the home bright; (3) I will count my blessings; (4) I will try to turn it to gain. This is the approach to life that Solomon wants us to take.

However, we must note that Solomon is not saying, “Don’t worry—be happy!” He is promoting faith in God, not “faith in faith” or “pie in the sky by and by.” Faith is only as good as the object of faith, and the greatest object of faith is the Lord. He can be trusted.

How can life be meaningless and monotonous for you when God has made you a part of His eternal plan? You are not an insignificant insect, crawling from one sad annihilation to another. If you have trusted Jesus Christ, you are a child of God being prepared for an eternal home (John 14:1-6; 2 Cor. 4). The Puritan pastor Thomas Watson said, “Eternity to the godly is a day that has no sunset; eternity to the wicked is a night that has no sunrise.”

The proper attitude for us is the fear of the Lord (v. 14), which is not the cringing of a slave before a cruel master, but the submission of an obedient child to a loving parent. (See 5:7, 7:18, 8:12-13, and 12:13.) If we fear God, we need not fear anything else for He is in control.

Look ahead: death is coming to all (ECCL. 3:15-22)

(Ecclesiastes 3:15-22 NIV)  “Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account. {16} And I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgment–wickedness was there, in the place of justice–wickedness was there. {17} I thought in my heart, “God will bring to judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time for every deed.” {18} I also thought, “As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. {19} Man’s fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath ; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. {20} All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. {21} Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?” {22} So I saw that there is nothing better for a man than to enjoy his work, because that is his lot. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?”

Solomon already mentioned the certainty of death in 2:12-23, and he will bring the subject up several times before he ends his book (4:8; 5:15-16; 6:6; 8:8; 9:2-3, 12; 12:7-8). Life, death, time, and eternity: these are the “ingredients” that make up our brief experience in this world, and they must not be ignored.

Verse 15 helps us recall 1:9-11 and gives us the assurance that God is in control of the “cycle of life.” The past seems to repeat itself so that “there is no new thing under the sun” (1:9), but God can break into history and do what He pleases. His many miracles are evidence that the “cycle” is a pattern and not a prison. His own Son broke into human life through a miraculous birth. He then died on a cross and rose again, thus conquering the “life-death cycle.” Because Jesus Christ broke the “vicious circle,” He can make us a part of a new creation that overcomes time and death (2 Cor. 5:17-21).

Solomon added a new thought here: “and God will call the past to account” (v. 15, niv). Scholars have a difficult time agreeing on the translation of this phrase. It literally says “God seeks what hurries along.” Solomon seems to say that time goes by swiftly and gets away from us; but God keeps track of it and will, at the end of time, call into account what we have done with time (12:14). This ties in with verses 16-17 where Solomon witnessed the injustices of his day and wondered why divine judgment was delayed.

“How can God be in control when there is so much evil in our world, with the wicked prospering in their sin and the righteous suffering in their obedience?” Solomon was not the first to raise that question, nor will he be the last. But once again, he comforted himself with two assurances: God has a time for everything, including judgment (see 8:6, 11); and God is working out His eternal purposes in and through the deeds of men, even the deeds of the wicked.

Yes, God will judge when history has run its course, but God is judging now (v. 18). In the experiences of life, God is testing man. (The word is “manifest” in the kjv. The Hebrew word means “to sift, to winnow.”) God is revealing what man is really like; He is sifting man. For, when man leaves God out of his life, he becomes like an animal. (See Ps. 32:9; Prov. 7; 2 Peter 2:19-20.) He lives like a beast and dies like a beast.

We must be careful not to misinterpret verses 19-20 and draw the erroneous conclusion that there is no difference between men and animals. Solomon merely pointed out that men and beasts have two things in common: they both die and their bodies return to the dust (Gen. 2:7; 3:19). Being made in the image of God, man has a definite advantage over animals as far as life is concerned; but when it comes to the fact of death, man has no special advantage: he too turns to dust. Of course, people who are saved through faith in Christ will one day be resurrected to have glorified bodies suitable for the new heavenly home (1 Cor. 15:35ff).

The Bible says that death occurs when the spirit leaves the body (James 2:26, and see Gen. 35:18 and Luke 8:55). In verse 21, Solomon indicates that men and animals do not have the same experience at death, even though they both turn to dust after death. Man’s spirit goes to God (see 12:7), while the spirit of a beast simply ceases to exist. You find a similar contrast expressed in Psalm 49.

The Preacher closed this section by reminding us again to accept life from God’s hand and enjoy it while we can (v. 22). Nobody knows what the future holds; and even if we did know, we can’t return to life after we have died and start to enjoy it again. (See 6:12, 7:14, 9:3.) Knowing that God is in sovereign control of life (3:1), we can submit to Him and be at peace.

God holds the key of all unknown, And I am glad; If other hands should hold the key, Or if He trusted it to me, I might be sad. I cannot read His future plans, But this I know: I have the smiling of His face, And all the refuge of His grace, While here below. (J. Parker)

Faith learns to live with seeming inconsistencies and absurdities, for we live by promises and not by explanations. We can’t explain life, but we must experience life, either enduring it or enjoying it.

Solomon calls us to accept life, enjoy it a day at a time, and be satisfied. We must never be satisfied with ourselves, but we must be satisfied with what God gives to us in this life. If we grow in character and godliness, and if we live by faith, then we will be able to say with Paul, “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Phil. 4:11, niv).


75 This illustration comes from Bruce Goettsche, “Timing is Everything” (Exodus 20:11-15): http://www.unionchurch.com/archive/052001.html.

76 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 48.

77 The Hebrew word zeman (“appointed”) is used in Ezra 10:14; Neh 2:6; 10:35; 13:31; and Esther 9:27, 31.

78 E.g., 1 Sam 15:22; 18:25; Job 21:21; 22:3; 48:38; Ps 1:2; Prov 31:13; Eccl 5:3; 12:1, 10; Hos 8:8; Mal 1:10; 3:12.

79 Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.

80 Glenn writes, “The fact that Solomon utilized polar opposites in a multiple of seven and began his list with birth and death is highly significant. The number seven suggests the idea of completeness and the use of polar opposites—a well known poetic device called merism—suggests totality (cf. Ps. 139:2-3).” Donald R. Glenn, “Ecclesiastes” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton: Scripture Press/Victor, 1985), 983.

81 In the OT, Solomon also metaphorically applies the language of planting and uprooting to nations (e.g., Jer 18:7; Zeph 2:4).

82 See Exod 20:13; Deut 5:17.

83 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Ecclesiastes: Total Life (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 63-64.

84 See Gen 16:2; Job 16:14.

85 Elsewhere Solomon writes, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones” (Prov 17:22).

86 Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1993).

87 This quote is attributed to Ed Howe in Ray Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun: Ancient Wisdom for Contemporary Living (Chicago: Moody, 1998), 90.

88 Today’s English Version (TEV) renders this line “the time for making love and a time for not making love.”

89 See 2 Sam 12:24; 1 Chron 7:21-23.

90 Although this seems like a logical parallel, it should be noted that none of the other items in the list seem to be figurative. This is a problem with the above interpretation, yet it should also be kept in mind that we are dealing with poetry. Therefore, it should not come as a shock that a euphemism might appear. And since each of the other fourteen pairs are parallel, why would this set be any different? Those that disagree with this view prefer the following possibilities: casting stones to make a field unworkable (as in warfare), or clearing a field of stones to prepare the soil, or the use of stones as counters to record the number of sheep in a flock.

91 Warren W. Wiersbe, Be Satisfied (Wheaton, IL: Victor, 1990), Electronic ed.

92 The father in Proverbs continually admonishes his children to pay attention to words of wisdom and instruction (2:1; 3:1; 4:1, 10, 20; 5:1, 7; 7:1, 24), but he also warns against talking too much (17:27) and becoming ensnared by one’s words (6:2). The more we talk, the more likely we are to sin (10:19); the fire of gossip dies out as soon as the talk ceases (26:20). In short, words can contain life or death; it is up to us to choose them carefully (18:21). There is no greater wisdom than knowing the seasons of the tongue—when it is time to speak and when it is time to keep silent (26:4-5). Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 53.

93 See Gen 37:29; 2 Sam 1:11; 13:31; Ezra 9:5; Lev 10:1-3; 2 Kgs 2:3, 5; Job 2:13.

94 J.A. Loader, “The Grip of Time” in Reflecting with Solomon: Selected Studies on the Book of Ecclesiastes ed. Roy B. Zuck, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994), 260.

95 Preaching Today citation: Meister Eckhart in Directions for the Contemplative Life. Christianity Today, Vol. 34, no. 3.

96 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 53.

97 See NET Study Notes.

98 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 47.

99 Preaching Today citation: “Quotable Quotes,” Readers Digest (March 2006); submitted by Van Morris, Mount Washington, KY.

100 Davis notes, “The title Elohim (God) occurs a total of 40 times in the Book of Ecclesiastes (i.e., 8.93 times per 1,000 words). Compared to the remainder of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Book of Ecclesiastes ranks number six in frequency of occurrence.” Only Deuteronomy, Jonah, Psalms, 2 Chronicles, and Ezra have more occurrences. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.

101 The word yapheh means “beautiful” when referring to something physical, like human appearance (Gen 39:6), but when referring to actions and states like those listed in 3:1-8 the word “appropriate” conveys the sense more clearly. Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 111 n. 6.

102 Kaiser writes, “This quest is a deep-seated desire, a compulsive drive, because man is made in the image of God to appreciate the beauty of creation (on an aesthetic level); to know the character, composition, and meaning of the world (on an academic and philosophical level); and to discern its purpose and destiny (on a theological level)…Man has an inborn inquisitiveness and capacity to learn how everything in his experience can be integrated to make a whole.” Kaiser, Ecclesiastes, 66. Elsewhere Kaiser states that Eccl 3:11 “summarizes the teacher’s whole argument, and in context (3:10-15) it serves equally well as a summary for the entire wisdom corpus.” Walter C. Kaiser, “Integrating Wisdom Theology into Old Testament Theology: Ecclesiastes 3:10-15,” in A Tribute to Gleason Archer ed. Walter C. Kaiser Jr. and Ronald F. Youngblood (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 206.

103 Charles R. Swindoll, Solomon, Bible Study Guide (Fullerton, CA: Insight for Living, 1994), 88.

104 Randy Alcorn, Heaven (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 2004)

105 Preaching Today citation: Bill Hybels, “Your Ever After: Heaven,” Preaching Today, Tape 34.

106 “I know” does not introduce a conclusion; rather, it begins a premise, an additional piece of information, or a concession. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs.

 
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Posted by on March 2, 2021 in Ecclesiastes

 

Ecclesiastes: The Good Life #3 Disgusted with Life? Ecclesiastes 2


“There is but one step from the sublime to the ridiculous.”

Your Purpose Green Road Sign Over Dramatic Clouds and Sky.Napoleon is supposed to have made that statement after his humiliating retreat from Moscow in the winter of 1812. The combination of stubborn Russian resistance and a severe Russian winter was too much for the French army, and its expected sublime victory was turned into shameful defeat.

As part of his quest for “the good life,” King Solomon examined everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. In the great laboratory of life, he experimented with one thing after another, always applying the wisdom that God had given him (vv. 3, 9). In this chapter, Solomon recorded three stages in his experiments as he searched for a satisfying meaning to life.

Satisfaction cannot be found in pleasure (2:1-11).

(Ecclesiastes 2:1-11 NIV)  “I thought in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. {2} “Laughter,” I said, “is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?” {3} I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly–my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives. {4} I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. {5} I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. {6} I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. {7} I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. {8} I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well–the delights of the heart of man. {9} I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me. {10} I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. {11} Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.”

In this section, Solomon describes his grand experiment into pleasure and its total failure. He followed the philosophy of the advertising slogan, “You only go around once in life, so grab all the gusto you can get.” He grabbed for all the pleasures of life. But after some time he realized that the “gusto” was less fulfilling and did not taste so great.56 In the first eight verses, he speaks of at least six kinds of pleasure he tried in his effort to find satisfaction.

  • Humor (2:2). Solomon writes, “I said to myself, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself.’ And behold, it too was futility. I said of laughter, ‘It is madness,’ and of pleasure, ‘What does it accomplish?’”57 Solomon mocks “laughter” as “madness.” I don’t know if the comics he listened to were as bad as the ones we see on TV today, but if so, I’m not surprised he labeled it “madness.” Do you really think the leading comedians of our day are sincerely satisfied with life? Has humor given them an inside track on human happiness? Hardly.58 It is easy to seek to lose ourselves in comedy and entertainment whether it is in a theater, in front of our TV, or on-line. Although it can seem like a great escape, it leaves us empty in the end.
  • Wine (2:3). Solomon writes, “I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take hold of folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives.” Many people assume Solomon was a “party animal” who got drunk like a skunk. Not so! He was too smart for that. Getting drunk for pleasure is about as dumb as jumping off a ten-story building to enjoy the breeze. Rather, Solomon was a connoisseur of fine wine, but he clearly states that he didn’t drink so much that it would prevent his mind from guiding him wisely. Rather, wine became a socially acceptable way to loosen up and enjoy people and conversations. Yet, he states that it is futility.

Solomon had the means and the authority to do just about anything his heart desired. He decided to test his own heart to see how he would respond to two very common experiences of life: enjoyment (1-3) and employment (4-11).

Enjoyment (2:1-3).

The Hebrew people rightly believed that God made man to enjoy the blessings of His creation (Ps. 104, and note 1 Tim. 6:17). The harvest season was a joyful time for them as they reaped the blessings of God on their labor. At the conclusion of his book, Solomon admonished his readers to enjoy God’s blessings during the years of their youth, before old age arrived and the body began to fall apart (12:1ff). Eight times in Ecclesiastes, Solomon used the Hebrew word meaning “pleasure,” so it is obvious that he did not consider God a celestial spoilsport who watched closely to make certain nobody was having a good time.

Solomon specifically mentioned wine and laughter as two sources of pleasure used in his experiment. It takes very little imagination to see the king in his splendid banquet hall (1 Kings 10:21), eating choice food (1 Kings 4:22-23), drinking the very best wine, and watching the most gifted entertainers (2:8b). But when the party was over and King Solomon examined his heart, it was still dissatisfied and empty. Pleasure and mirth were only vanity, so many soap bubbles that quickly burst and left nothing behind.

Perhaps many of the king’s servants envied Solomon and wished to change places with him, but the king was unhappy. “Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful,” he wrote in Proverbs 14:13, “and the end of that mirth is heaviness.”

Today’s world is pleasure-mad. Millions of people will pay almost any amount of money to “buy experiences” and temporarily escape the burdens of life. While there is nothing wrong with innocent fun, the person who builds his or her life only on seeking pleasure is bound to be disappointed in the end.

Why? For one thing, pleasure-seeking usually becomes a selfish endeavor; and selfishness destroys true joy. People who live for pleasure often exploit others to get what they want, and they end up with broken relationships as well as empty hearts. People are more important than things and thrills. We are to be channels, not reservoirs; the greatest joy comes when we share God’s pleasures with others.

If you live for pleasure alone, enjoyment will decrease unless the intensity of the pleasure increases. Then you reach a point of diminishing returns when there is little or no enjoyment at all, only bondage. For example, the more that people drink, the less enjoyment they get out of it. This means they must have more drinks and stronger drinks in order to have pleasure; the sad result is desire without satisfaction. Instead of alcohol, substitute drugs, gambling, sex, money, fame, or any other pursuit, and the principle will hold true: when pleasure alone is the center of life, the result will ultimately be disappointment and emptiness.

There is a third reason why pleasure alone can never bring satisfaction: it appeals to only part of the person and ignores the total being. This is the major difference between shallow “entertainment” and true “enjoyment,” for when the whole person is involved, there will be both enjoyment and enrichment. Entertainment has its place, but we must keep in mind that it only helps us to escape life temporarily. True pleasure not only brings delight, but it also builds character by enriching the total person.

Employment (2:4-11).

Next, Solomon got involved in all kinds of projects, hoping to discover something that would make life worth living. He started with great works (4-6), including houses (1 Kings 7), cities (2 Chron. 8:4-6), gardens, vineyards, orchards and forests (1 Kings 4:33), and the water systems needed to service them. Of course, Solomon also supervised the construction of the temple (1 Kings 5ff), one of the greatest buildings of the ancient world.

He not only had works, but he also had workers (7a). He had two kinds of slaves: those he purchased and those born in his household. He might have added that he “drafted” 30,000 Jewish men to work on various projects (1 Kings 5:13-18). His father David had conscripted the strangers in the land (1 Chron. 22:2), but Solomon drafted his own people, and the people resented it (see 1 Kings 12).

Of course, Solomon accumulated wealth (7b-8a), in flocks and herds (1 Kings 8:63) as well as gold and silver (1 Kings 4:21 and 10:1ff). He was the wealthiest and wisest man in the whole world, yet he was unhappy because activity alone does not bring lasting pleasure.

There can be joy in the doing of great projects, but what happens when the task is finished? Solomon found delight in all his labor (2:10); but afterward, when he considered all his works, he saw only “vanity and vexation of spirit” (2:11). The journey was a pleasure, but the destination brought pain. “Success is full of promise until men get it,” said the American preacher Henry Ward Beecher, “and then it is a last-year’s nest from which the birds have flown.”

We must not conclude that Solomon was condemning work itself, because work is a blessing from God. Adam had work to do in the Garden even before he sinned. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Gen. 2:15, niv). In the Book of Proverbs, Solomon exalted diligence and condemned laziness; for he knew that any honest employment can be done to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). But work alone cannot satisfy the human heart, no matter how successful that work may be (Isa. 55:2).

This helps us to understand why many achievers are unhappy people. Ambrose Bierce called achievement “the death of endeavor and the birth of disgust.” This is often the case. The overachiever is often a person who is trying to escape himself or herself by becoming a workaholic, and this only results in disappointment. When workaholics retire, they often feel useless and sometimes die from lack of meaningful activity.

Solomon tested life, and his heart said, “Vanity!”

  • Projects (2:4-6). Solomon writes, “I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees.” Solomon tried to create his own Garden of Eden. His buildings, vineyards, gardens,59 and irrigation canals are legendary. Solomon’s temple is known to be one of the most magnificent buildings of all time. It took 153,000 workers seven years to build.60 However, it took them thirteen years to build Solomon’s own house! Imagine what you could build with unlimited resources and 100,000 plus workers. Imagine what it looked like! But did all this beauty satisfy? No, it didn’t. The projects described here don’t seem to resemble an ongoing job or trade as much as leisure projects. The house-building, tree-planting, and reservoir-constructing in Ecclesiastes might correspond to a new shed, some tomatoes, and a sprinkler system in your backyard—on a grander scale than we’re used to, certainly, but the intended result of personal enjoyment is the same. Yet, this will never satisfy.
  • Possessions (2:7-8). Solomon writes, “I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces.” He bought more and more slaves and even bred them. He amassed larger herds than anyone before him—the real measure of wealth to the average man. He collected gold and silver and all manner of luxurious gifts from other kings and countries. So great was Solomon’s fortune that silver and gold were soon regarded in Jerusalem as stones (1 Kgs 10:27; 2 Chron 1:15). Not one of all the above good things brought satisfaction or joy. For centuries, the old saying that “money can’t buy happiness” has been espoused by many, but few ever live their lives as if there is any truth to this statement—in fact, quite the contrary. As one wise pundit with deep insight put it, “All I want is the chance to prove that money can’t buy happiness.”61

The classic movie Citizen Kane illustrates this point. In the film, you watch the character Charles Foster accrue an incredible amount of wealth, until it ultimately destroys him. As Foster is progressively tainted by his desire for wealth, power, and pleasure, there is a recurring shot of a fireplace in his home. As the wealth grows and becomes more destructive, the fireplace gets bigger and bigger until in the last few frames, it is the largest thing in the movie. The fireplace is always burning and consuming. By the end of the movie, the fireplace takes up almost an entire wall of his house.

Foster’s life is nothing but this raging inferno that never, ever is consumed until he dies. And when he dies, all his possessions are burned. The viewer watches his entire life go up in smoke. The only difference between Foster and most of us is that his stuff produced a lot of smoke. He had a big trash bag. We will have little-bitty trash bags. But in the end, it all goes up in smoke.62

  • Music (2:8b). Solomon says, “I provided for myself male and female singers.” He didn’t need an iPod; he had live musicians with him whenever he wanted. Can you imagine having your favorite musician or band travel with you wherever you go? All you have to do is snap your fingers and they are at your beck and call. This too is futile.
  • Sexual Pleasure (2:8b). Solomon says, “I provided the pleasures of men—many concubines.” Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. One thousand women available to him any time of the day or night! Surely that ended his search for satisfaction, didn’t it? Well, it ended his close relationship with God, but it didn’t end his quest for meaning and significance. It only left him bored, empty, and frustrated. Several years ago, I read an article about Hugh Hefner in Christianity Today. The author explained that Hefner is completely desensitized to sexual activity due to excess. Even though he owns the Playboy mansion, for many years he has not had a sexual relationship with a woman. What a glaring example of the futility of immorality.

Solomon summarizes his pursuit of pleasure with his own analysis in 2:9-11: “Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. My wisdom also stood by me. All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor.63 Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun.” I cannot help but think here of Jesus’ question in Mark 8:36: “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” Solomon would answer, “Nothing. It profits him nothing at all.” Solomon says, “It won’t work. You can earn more, spend more, collect more, drink more, eat more, sin more, you name it, but none of those things will put meaning into life.”

Solomon hated life (ECCL. 2:12-23)

(Ecclesiastes 2:12-23 NIV)  “Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom, and also madness and folly. What more can the king’s successor do than what has already been done? {13} I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. {14} The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both. {15} Then I thought in my heart, “The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?” I said in my heart, “This too is meaningless.” {16} For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die! {17} So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

 “I turned myself to behold” simply means, “I considered things from another viewpoint.” What he did was to look at his wisdom (12-17) and his wealth (18-23) in light of the certainty of death. What good is it to be wise and wealthy if you are going to die and leave everything behind?

The certainty of death is a topic Solomon frequently mentioned in Ecclesiastes (1:4; 2:14-17; 3:18-20; 5:15-16; 6:6; 8:8; 9:2-3, 12; 12:7-8). He could not easily avoid the subject as he looked at life “under the sun,” for death is one of the obvious facts of life. The French essayist Montaigne wrote, “Philosophy is no other thing than for a man to prepare himself to death.” Only that person is prepared to live who is prepared to die.

[So far we have seen that the pursuit of knowledge is futile and the pursuit of pleasure is futile. Now Solomon will tell us that…]

Satisfaction cannot be found in wisdom (2:12-17).

It’s been said that a good preacher makes points that are bluntly stated, clearly explained, and endlessly repeated. That’s what Solomon is doing here. Solomon has already talked about wisdom and knowledge at the end of chapter one, so perhaps he is going back to the subject rather than pursuing a new topic, but I prefer to think that his previous discussion dealt primarily with the acquiring of knowledge or education, while now he is more concerned with the application of wisdom and knowledge. Solomon shares two important principles.

  • The wise man and the fool die alike (2:12-14). Solomon writes, “So I turned to consider wisdom, madness and folly; for what will the man do who will come after the king [Adam, the ‘king’ of creation] except what has already been done? And I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. The wise man’s eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I know that one fate befalls them both.” Solomon concedes that wisdom has certain advantages over ignorance. However, despite its advantages, even the remarkable gift of wisdom falls under the general condemnation of hebel. The grim reaper stalks the wise and the fool, the righteous and the wicked, the believer and the unbeliever. Death is the great equalizer, and if it makes no distinctions, then why bother to be overly wise? Why not act the fool if we all end up in the same grave anyway?
  • The wise man and the fool are both forgotten (2:15-17). Solomon writes, “Then I said to myself, ‘As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall me. Why then have I been extremely wise?’ So I said to myself, ‘This too is vanity.’ For there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man as with the fool, inasmuch as in the coming days all will be forgotten. And how the wise man and the fool alike die! So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me; because everything is futility and striving after wind.” The intellectual’s real hope is that he will achieve lasting fame and be long remembered for his great contributions. Solomon pronounces all this to be an illusion. Future generations will no more remember the scholar than they will the beggar on the street. In fact, a good case could actually be made for the fact that fools are remembered longer than the wise. At least the crazy get more press. And what is Solomon’s response to all this? He says in 2:17, “So I hated life.” Notice carefully that he doesn’t say, “So I hate life,” but “I hated” This is not his final conclusion, not even his present outlook, but it was his attitude when his pursuit of wisdom turned up a dry hole—he despaired of even living.

Consider the sum total of all our knowledge, all our progress, all our technology. Has any of it really made the experience of life richer? Yes, we are thankful to God for medical advances and jet travel. Most of us have more information on the hard drives of our computers than entire nations once possessed in their ancient libraries. Yet, there have never been so many unhappy people, so many illiterate, so many hungry, diseased, and disowned. All our accumulated knowledge of history cannot keep us from terrorism and war and discord on every continent.64 We spend millions on AIDS awareness, yet people who “know better” regularly engage in promiscuous sex. We have more consultants and experts in business than ever before, yet bankruptcies continually occur. We have learned about fat grams and exercise routines, yet we are the most obese nation in the world. Books on parenting and marriage appear regularly, yet families seem to struggle as never before.65

[Solomon has pursued education, pleasure, and wisdom. His personal experience takes him on one more excursion, but the result is the same.]

Satisfaction cannot be found in work (2:18-26).

{18} I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. {19} And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. {20} So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. {21} For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. {22} What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? {23} All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.”

Since both the wise man and the fool will die, what is the value of wisdom? For one thing, we can leave our wisdom for the guidance of the next generation; but how can we be sure they will value it or follow it? “What can the man do that cometh after the king?” suggests that it is folly for successive generations to make the same “experiments” (and mistakes) when they can learn from their forefathers; but they do it just the same! There is nothing new under the sun (1:9); they can only repeat what we have already done.

In spite of the fact that all men must die, wisdom is still of greater value than folly. They are as different as night and day! The wise man sees that death is coming and lives accordingly, while the fool walks in darkness and is caught unprepared. However, being prepared for death does not necessarily relieve Solomon of his burden about life; for it takes a person a long time to learn how to live, and then life ends. All of this seems so futile.

Both the wise man and the fool die, and both the wise man and the fool are forgotten (v. 16). Solomon’s fame has remained, of course (1 Kings 4:29-34; Matt. 6:28-30); but most “famous” people who have died are rarely mentioned in ordinary conversation, although their biographies are found in the encyclopedias. (I note that some of these biographies get smaller from edition to edition.)

“So I hated life!” concluded Solomon, but he was not contemplating suicide; for death was one thing he wanted to avoid. “I hate life and yet I am afraid to die!” said the French humanist Voltaire; Solomon would agree with him. Life seemed irrational and futile to Solomon, and yet it was still better than death. We might paraphrase his statement, “Therefore, I was disgusted with life!”

The healthy Christian believer certainly would not hate life, no matter how difficult the circumstances might be. It is true that some great men have wanted to die, such as Job (Job 3:21-7:15), Moses (Num. 11:15), Elijah (1 Kings 19:4), and Jonah (Jonah 4:3), but we must not take these special instances as examples for us to follow. All of these men finally changed their minds.

No, the Christian should “love life” (1 Peter 3:10, quoted from Ps. 34:12ff), seeking to put the most into it and getting the most out of it, to the glory of God. We may not enjoy everything in life, or be able to explain everything about life, but that is not important. We live by promises and not by explanations, and we know that our “labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).

Not only did Solomon hate life, but he hated the wealth that was the result of his toil. Of course, Solomon was born wealthy, and great wealth came to him because he was the king. But he was looking at life “under the sun” and speaking for the “common people” who were listening to his discussion. He gave three reasons why he was disgusted with wealth.

First, you can’t keep it (v. 18). The day would come when Solomon would die and leave everything to his successor. This reminds us of our Lord’s warning in the Parable of the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21) and Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 6:7-10. A Jewish proverb says, “There are no pockets in shrouds.”

Money is a medium of exchange. Unless it is spent, it can do little or nothing for you. You can’t eat money, but you can use it to buy food. It will not keep you warm, but it will purchase fuel. A writer in The Wall Street Journal called money “an article which may be used as a universal passport to everywhere except heaven, and as a universal provider of everything except happiness.”

Of course, you and I are stewards of our wealth; God is the Provider (Deut. 8:18) and the Owner, and we have the privilege of enjoying it and using it for His glory. One day we will have to give an account of what we have done with His generous gifts. While we cannot take wealth with us when we die, we can “send it ahead” as we use it today according to God’s will (Matt. 6:19-34).

Second, we can’t protect it (vv. 19-20). It’s bad enough that we must leave our wealth behind, but even worse that we might leave it to somebody who will waste it! Suppose he or she is a fool and tears down everything we have built up? Solomon didn’t know it at the time, but his son Rehoboam would do that very thing (1 Kings 11:41-12:24).

Many people have tried to write their wills in such a way that their estates could not be wasted, but they have not always succeeded. In spite of the instruction and good example they may give, the fathers and mothers have no way of knowing what the next generation will do with the wealth that they worked so hard to accumulate. Solomon’s response was to walk about and simply resign himself (“despair” v. 20) to the facts of life and death. As the rustic preacher said, “We all must learn to cooperate with the inevitable!”

Third, we can’t enjoy it as we should (vv. 21-23). If all we do is think about our wealth and worry about what will happen to it, we will make our lives miserable. We do all the work and then leave the wealth to somebody who didn’t even work for it (v. 21). Is that fair? We spend days in travail and grief and have many sleepless nights, yet our heirs never experience any of this. It all seems so futile. “What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?” (v. 22, niv)

At this point, Solomon appears to be very pessimistic, but he doesn’t remain that way very long. In a step of faith he reaches the third stage in his experiment.

Now a significant number of people will agree with me on this point, for all of us at one time or another lose interest in our work and wonder if it’s even worth it. But let’s see the reasons behind Solomon’s analysis. Again, Solomon shares two critical principles.

  • You can’t take it with you (2:18-20). Solomon writes, “Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun. This too is vanity. Therefore I completely despaired of all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun.” It’s a pretty sure bet that Solomon was a Type-A personality. He’s like many Americans today. It’s easy for some of us to work, work, work, strategize, plan, skip vacations, miss out on family time and leisure, and work, work, work some more. Then, when everything is in place, when all the ducks are in a row, wham! We die and have to leave it all to others. That is a fact that applies to every one of us. King Tut tried to take it with him, and we smile at the futility of his effort. But millions after him have acted as though they could take it, amassing great fortunes while fearful of spending them lest they die penniless.
  • You can’t control it when you’re gone (2:21-23). Solomon writes, “When there is a man who has labored with wisdom, knowledge and skill, then he gives his legacy to one who has not labored with them. This too is vanity and a great evil. For what does a man get in all his labor and in his striving with which he labors under the sun? Because all his days his task is painful and grievous; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is vanity.” Some people amass great fortunes, not for their own benefit but for their children’s benefit. But there’s no guarantee that the child will show the same wisdom that the parent showed. Typically, large fortunes are squandered by those who inherit. More often than not it also ends up destroying relationships. Leaving our loved ones too much might be worse than leaving them too little.

The disappointing reality is that significance cannot be found in work. Some time ago, an aspiring television star was given a shot at a network series. He went to the NBC studios, saw his name on a parking space, found the crew treating him like royalty, and admired the star on his dressing room door. The series pilot was shot in five days, but television executives rejected it. When the young actor left, no one said goodbye, the name was gone from his parking space, and his dressing room was locked. “All the success was like smoke,” he said. “I couldn’t get a handle on it; like cotton candy, once it was in my mouth it was gone.” Our culture is a cotton-candy world—sugary and seductive—a pink swirl of empty calories. Today you might be the “flavor of the month,” with Hollywood or Wall Street at your command.

Tomorrow your pockets may be as empty as your soul.66 If you don’t believe me, ask Britney Spears.

Solomon, the Preacher, has taken us on his search for satisfaction through the pursuit of education, pleasure, wisdom, and work. Each effort he has judged to be futile. None of these areas, when pursued for their own sake, are able to provide meaning and satisfaction in life. So he concludes this entire section in 2:24-26 with these words: “There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen that it is from the hand of God. For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him? For to a person who is good in His sight He has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, while to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting so that he may give67 to one who is good in God’s sight.68 This too is vanity and striving after wind.”69

At first glance, 2:24 almost appears that the Preacher has flipped and is telling us that since life is hebel, the best thing you can do is to gorge yourself, get drunk, and tell yourself that your labor is worthwhile, even though you know it isn’t. But that is a serious misunderstanding of his point. Solomon is saying that eating and drinking and laboring, while devoid of ultimate meaning in and of themselves, are infused with meaning and purpose and happiness and satisfaction, when done in accord with God’s regulations and with His blessing. What spoils these activities is our greediness to get out of them more than they can give or our tendency to do them to excess.

Nevertheless, God longs for us to enjoy these activities. He wants us to enjoy a good meal with friends. He encourages us to drink in moderation. He expects us to have a positive attitude toward work, for “The highest reward for man’s toil is not what he gets for it, but what he becomes by it.”70

God also wants us to realize that He will grant three gifts to those who please him: wisdom, knowledge, and joy. But to the sinner who persists in trying to remake God’s world, there is also an outcome: “a chasing after the wind.” This reference to the chasing of wind is to the frustrating activity in which the sinner works night and day to heap things up only to find in the end that he must, and as a matter of fact does, turn them over to the one who pleases God.71 This again demonstrates the utter futility and transient nature of life.

Picture your hands out in front of you, cupped together, palms up. In your open hands are all the things He has entrusted to you—money, cars, a home, furniture, everything. All of these are His gifts (Jas 1:17). We are the stewards, and faithfulness is our charge. That means our hands must never close over the gifts, but remain open so that He may use them as required—and refill our hands.72

The main conclusion of Solomon’s search is: Get satisfaction from God’s gifts. Satisfaction is a gift from God, just like salvation. When we can take our education, our pleasure, our wisdom, and our work as gifts from God, then our search has found its goal. And all the good things that God has in store for us are ours. Death will take none of that satisfaction.73

He accepted life (ECCL. 2:24-26)

This is the first of six “conclusions” in Ecclesiastes, each of which emphasizes the importance of accepting life as God’s gift and enjoying it in God’s will (3:12-15, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 11:9-10). Solomon is not advocating “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die!” That is the philosophy of fatalism not faith. Rather, he is saying, “Thank God for what you do have, and enjoy it to the glory of God.” Paul gave his approval to this attitude when he exhorted us to trust “in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17, nkjv).

Solomon made it clear that not only were the blessings from God, but even the enjoyment of the blessings was God’s gift to us (v. 24). He considered it “evil” if a person had all the blessings of life from God but could not enjoy them (6:1-5). It is easy to see why the Jewish people read Ecclesiastes at the Feast of Tabernacles, for Tabernacles is their great time of thanksgiving and rejoicing for God’s abundant provision of their needs.

The translation of v. 25 in the King James Version is somewhat awkward; the New American Standard Bible is better: “For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?” The farmer who prayed at the table, “Thanks for food and for good digestion” knew what Solomon was writing about.

The important thing is that we seek to please the Lord (v. 26) and trust Him to meet every need. God wants to give us wisdom, knowledge, and joy; these three gifts enable us to appreciate God’s blessings and take pleasure in them. It is not enough to possessthings; we must also possess the kind of character that enables us to usethingswisely and enjoy them properly.

Not so with the sinner. (The Hebrew word means “to fall short, to miss the mark.”) The sinner may heap up all kinds of riches, but he can never truly enjoy them because he has left God out of his life. In fact, his riches may finally end up going to the righteous. This is not always the case, but God does make it happen that “the wealth of the sinner is laid up for the just” (Prov. 13:22). At their exodus from Egypt, the Israelites spoiled their Egyptian masters (Ex. 3:22; 12:36), and throughout Jewish history their armies took great spoil in their many conquests. In fact, much of the wealth that went into the temple came from David’s military exploits.

It is “vanity and vexation of spirit” (“meaningless, a chasing after wind,” niv) for the sinner to heap up riches and yet ignore God. Apart from God, there can be no true enjoyment of blessings or enrichment of life. It is good to have the things that money can buy, provided you don’t lose the things that money can’t buy.

This completes the first section of Ecclesiastes—The Problem Declared. Solomon has presented four arguments that seem to prove that life is really not worth living: the monotony of life (1:4-11), the vanity of wisdom (1:12-18), the futility of wealth (2:1-11), and the certainty of death (2:12-23). His argument appears to be true if you look at life “under the sun,” that is, only from the human point of view.

But when you bring God into the picture, everything changes! (Note that God is not mentioned from 1:14 to 2:23.) Life and death, wisdom and wealth, are all in His hands; He wants us to enjoy His blessings and please His heart. If we rejoice in the gifts, but forget the Giver, then we are ungrateful idolaters.

In the next eight chapters, Solomon will consider each of these four arguments and refute them. At the end of each argument he will say, “Enjoy life and be thankful to God!” (See the outline.) In his discussions, he will face honestly the trials and injustices of life, the things that make us cry out, “Why, Lord?” But Solomon is not a shallow optimist wearing rose-tinted glasses, nor is he a skeptical pessimist wearing blinders. Rather, he takes a balanced view of life and death and helps us look at both from God’s eternal perspective.

“Life isn’t like a book,” says Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship ministry. “Life isn’t logical, or sensible, or orderly. Life is a mess most of the time. And theology must be lived in the midst of that mess.”

Solomon will provide us with that theology.

It’s up to us to live it—and be satisfied!

———————————————-

 

56 Kurt De Haan, “Why in the World am I Here?” (Grand Rapids: RBC, 1987), 8.

57 Identifying Eccl 1:3; 2:2; and 6:8a as verses that present questions that “are among the most [sic] important questions in the book,” Miller observes: “Toil, pleasure, wisdom. In one sense, each of these is a rhetorical question: by implication they make a statement that there is no surplus for toil, that pleasure accomplishes nothing, and that the wise have no advantage over the fool. Yet, their form as questions raises the possibility of an answer and Qoheleth finally does supply one in each case: he eventually allows for value in toil (2:24; 3:13; 4:9; 5:17 [Engl. v. 18]; 11:6); he urges that to seek pleasure accomplishes little (2:1), although life without it is worthless (2:24; 3:12-13; 4:8; 5:17 [Engl. v. 18]), and it is particularly to be found in companionship (4:8-9; 9:9); he says finally that though wisdom has limitations, it preserves life (7:11-12; 9:16-18; 10:10). By delaying his answers, Qoheleth raises tension and uncertainty for the reader.” Douglas B. Miller, “What the Preacher Forgot: The Rhetoric of Ecclesiastes,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 62 (2000): 229.

58 Prov 14:13 states, “Even in laughter the heart may be in pain, and the end of joy may be grief.”

59 One of the reasons we love gardens is because man was first made in one. It was the only place on earth that was completed, then Adam and mankind was given the task of cultivating the rest. Gardens are an echo of home.

60 See 1 Kgs 6:38 and 7:1.

61 Tim A. Krell, “Chasing the Wind: Philosophical Reflections on Life”: unpublished paper (3/1/1996).

62 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 31-32.

63 Davis writes, “In 1:3, the author directs his readers’ attention to what is arguably the key question of the book: ‘What advantage does man have in all his work which he does [works] under the sun?’ (NASB; emphasis, mine). In our current section of the book, the author begins to address the amal (noun — labor, toil, trouble; verb — to work, to labor, to toil) concern of that question. Throughout the book (though significantly more frequently in the first half of the book [30x] than in the second half [5x]), the author utilizes the various grammatical forms of amal (labor) 35 times, 15 (i.e., nearly 43%) of which he uses to drive the thought of the latter portion of chapter 2 (vv. 10[2x], 11[2x], 18[2x], 19[2x], 20[2x], 21[2x], 22[2x], 24). Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.

64 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 23-24.

65 Wayne Schmidt, Soul Management (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 35-36.

66 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 39.

67 The word “give” (nathan) appears in Ecclesiastes with God as its subject eleven times.

68 Solomon is not speaking of believers and unbelievers. It is speaking of those who please God or are displeasing to Him. Roland Murphy, Ecclesiastes (WBC Vol. 23a; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992), 26-27.

69 This is the first of seven passages in which the writer recommended the wholehearted pursuit of enjoyment (2:24a; 3:12; 3:22a; 5:17; 8:15a; 9:7-9a; and 11:7-12:1a).

70 Preaching Today citation: John Ruskin, Leadership, Vol. 7, no. 4.

71 Walter C. Kaiser, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997, c1996), 293.

72 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 41.

 

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2021 in Ecclesiastes

 

Ecclesiastes: The Good Life #2 Trivial Pursuits Ecclesiastes 1:11-18


Your Purpose Green Road Sign Over Dramatic Clouds and Sky.

Ecclesiastes 1:12-18 (ESV)
12  I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.
13  And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.
14  I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.
15  What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.
16  I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.”
17  And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.
18  For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

The historian now becomes the philosopher as Solomon tells how he went about searching for the answer to the problem that vexed him. As the king of Israel, he had all the resources necessary for “experimenting” with different solutions to see what it was that made life worth living. In the laboratory of life, he experimented with enjoying various physical pleasures (2:1-3), accomplishing great and costly works (2:4-6), and accumulating great possessions (2:7-10) only to discover that all of it was only “vanity and grasping for the wind” (v. 14, nkjv).

But before launching into his experiments, Solomon took time to try to think the matter through. He was the wisest of all men and he applied that God-given wisdom to the problem. He devoted his mind wholly to the matter to get to the root of it (“seek”) and to explore it from all sides (“search”). Dorothy Sayers wrote in one of her mystery novels, “There is nothing you cannot prove if only your outlook is narrow enough.” Solomon did not take that approach

What would it take to make you happy? What if you had the wealth of Bill Gates or Donald Trump? Would this make you happy? What if you had the success of Oprah or Martha Stewart? Do you think you could be happy? What if you had the brains of Carl Sagan or Stephen Hawking? Do you think you could be happy? Let me guess. Your answer is, “I don’t know, but I’d sure like to give it a try.”

A few people have been able to possess wealth, success, and intelligence just as I described. Solomon, the third king of Israel, was one of them. In some ways he had everything. He had a thousand wives and concubines, enormous wealth, international respect, and unparalleled wisdom. What he didn’t always have, however, was a reason for living. He didn’t always have happiness. He fits the pattern of the highly gifted, extremely ambitious person who climbs the ladder of success—only to contemplate jumping off once he’s reached the top.

In the first eleven verses of Ecclesiastes chapter one, Solomon examined three broad categories in his search for the key to life: human history, physical nature, and human nature. Now in 1:12-2:26, he narrows his search to his own personal experience.40 In a sense he takes us on his own spiritual sojourn as he searches for satisfaction in life. In the memoirs that follow Solomon informs us that he sought satisfaction in four broad categories, but wound up empty-handed.

Satisfaction cannot be found in education (1:12-18).

In this first section, Solomon states that even the best education is powerless against life’s enigmas. In 1:12-15, he begins seeking wisdom externally: “I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I set my mind41 to seek and explore42 by wisdom43 concerning all that has been done under heaven. It is a grievous task which God44 has given to the sons of men45 to be afflicted with. I have seen all the works [intellectual] which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.46 What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted.”

Solomon begins by giving his credentials once again (1:12; cf. 1:1). Why does he reiterate his position as king? To remind us that he is a man who had everything this world could offer. If anyone could have found satisfaction in life, it was Solomon. After citing his credentials, Solomon states that he purposely set out to find the ultimate principles behind everything in the universe (1:13).

I assume he studied literature and art, psychology and sociology, astronomy and physics, and theology and philosophy.47 But he found his search to be a “grievous task,” for there are so many things that yield no answers, even when assaulted by the highest of human intelligence. Everywhere Solomon turned with his knowledge and wisdom he found hebel (1:14).48 Things that were crooked to his mind he couldn’t straighten out; and there were many gaps he couldn’t fill in (1:15).49

In 1:16-18, Solomon transitions to seeking wisdom internally.50 He writes, “I said to myself, ‘Behold, I have magnified and increased wisdom more than all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge.’ And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized51 that this also is striving after wind. Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.” If Solomon were alive today, he would say, “You’ve heard of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle? Morons!”52

Solomon’s point in 1:16 is that he is the wisest man that has ever lived, yet he still couldn’t find satisfaction in education and learning. At first glance, it is natural to assume that Solomon’s quest led him to observe insanity. However, in Scripture both “madness” and “folly” imply moral perversity rather than mental oddity.53

Having felt that he had mastered intellectual pursuits, Solomon decides he will seek to understand the pursuit of pleasure. These verses anticipate 2:1-11, where the actual pursuit of physical pleasure is described, but here he means that he examined the life of pleasure from a philosophical standpoint. Yet, in the end, he finds that much wisdom leads to “much grief” and “increasing pain.” Every pursuit for wisdom and knowledge under the sun is like “striving after wind.”

Have you ever tried to catch the wind in your hands? It is impossible. In fact, it is a ridiculously futile waste of time. It can’t be done! This is exactly Solomon’s point. Wisdom “under the sun” fails to satisfy the soul. This observation actually demonstrates Solomon’s wisdom, for the more knowledge we acquire the more we realize just how ignorant we are. As Socrates himself said, “I am the wisest of all Greeks, because I of all men know that I know nothing.”

The more we are educated in current events, the more serious the world’s problems appear. The better we understand the vastness of our universe, the more insignificant we become. In other words, increasing knowledge often compounds our sense of futility.54 T.S. Eliot once remarked, “All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance.”55

[So the pursuit of education is not the answer to life’s dilemmas. Now we will see that…]

Here are some of his tentative conclusions: Life is tough, but it is the gift of God (v. 13).

He described life as a “sore travail” (“grievous task,” nkjv) that only fatigues you (“may be exercised”, nkjv). Of course, when God first gave life to man, the world had not been cursed because of sin (Gen. 3:14ff). Since the Fall of man, “the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs” (Rom. 8:22, nkjv); this is one reason why life is so difficult. One day, when our Lord returns, creation will be delivered from this bondage.

While sitting in my backyard one evening, I heard a robin singing merrily from atop a TV aerial. As I listened to him sing, I preached myself a sermon: Since early dawn, that bird has done nothing but try to survive. He’s been wearing himself out hiding from enemies and looking for food for himself and his little ones. And yet, when he gets to the end of the day, he sings about it!

Here I am, created in the image of God and saved by the grace of God, and I complain about even the little annoyances of life. One day, I will be like the Lord Jesus Christ; for that reason alone, I should be singing God’s praises just like that robin.

Life doesn’t get easier if you try to run away from it (v. 14).

All the works that are done “under the sun” never truly satisfy the heart. They are but “vanity and grasping for the wind” (v. 14, nkjv). Both the workaholic and the alcoholic are running away from reality and living on substitutes, and one day the bubble of illusion will burst. We only make life harder when we try to escape. Instead of running away from life, we should run to God and let Him make life worth living.

The ultimate door of escape is suicide, and Solomon will have something to say about man’s desire for death. Some specialists claim that 40,000 persons commit suicide in the United States annually, and an estimated 400,000 make the attempt. But once you have chosen to live and have rightly rejected suicide as an option, then you must choose how you are going to live. Will it be by faith in yourself and what you can do, or by faith in the Lord?

Not everything can be changed (v. 15).

It is likely that Solomon, who was an expert on proverbs (1 Kings 4:32), quoted a popular saying here in order to make his point. He makes a similar statement in 7:13. If we spend all our time and energy trying to straighten out everything that is twisted, we will have nothing left with which to live our lives! And if we try to spend what we don’t have, we will end up in bankruptcy.

In short, Solomon is saying, “The past can’t always be changed, and it is foolish to fret over what you might have done.” Ken Taylor paraphrases verse 15, “What is wrong cannot be righted; it is water over the dam; and there is no use thinking of what might have been” (tlb).

We must remind ourselves, however, that God has the power to straighten out what is twisted and supply what is lacking. He cannot change the past, but He can change the way that the past affects us. For the lost sinner, the past is a heavy anchor that drags him down; but for the child of God, the past—even with its sins and mistakes—is a rudder that guides him forward. Faith makes the difference.

When He was ministering here on earth, our Lord often straightened out that which was twisted and provided that which was lacking (Luke 13:11-17; Matt. 12:10-13, 15:29-39; John 6:1-13). Man cannot do this by his own wisdom or power, but “with God nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37). Solomon was looking at these problems from a vantage point “under the sun,” and that’s why they seemed insoluble.

Wisdom and experience will not solve every problem (vv. 16-18).

Those who go through life living on explanations will always be unhappy for at least two reason. First, this side of heaven, there are no explanations for some things that happen, and God is not obligated to explain them anyway. (In fact, if He did, we might not understand them!) Second, God has ordained that His people live by promises and not by explanations, by faith and not by sight. “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed” (John 20:29).

If anybody was equipped to solve the difficult problems of life and tell us what life was all about, Solomon was that person. He was the wisest of men, and people came from all over to hear his wisdom (1 Kings 4:29-34). His wealth was beyond calculation so that he had the resources available to do just about anything he wanted to do. He even experienced “madness and folly” (the absurd, the opposite of wisdom) in his quest for the right answers. Nothing was too hard for him.

But these advantages didn’t enable Solomon to find all the answers he was seeking. In fact, his great wisdom only added to his difficulties; for wisdom and knowledge increase sorrow and grief. People who never ponder the problems of life, who live innocently day after day, never feel the pain of wrestling with God in seeking to understand His ways. The more we seek knowledge and wisdom, the more ignorant we know we are. This only adds to the burden.

“All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,” wrote T.S. Eliot in “Choruses From ‘The Rock.’ ” An old proverb says, “A wise man is never happy.”

All of this goes back to the Garden of Eden and Satan’s offer to Eve that, if she ate of the fruit, she would have the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3). When Adam and Eve sinned, they did get an experiential knowledge of good and evil; but, since they were alienated from God, this knowledge only added to their sorrows. It has been that way with man ever since. Whether it be jet planes, insecticides, or television, each advance in human knowledge and achievement only creates a new set of problems for society.

For some people, life may be monotonous and meaningless; but it doesn’t have to be. For the Christian believer, life is an open door, not a closed circle; there are daily experiences of new blessings from the Lord. True, we can’t explain everything; but life is not built on explanations: it’s built on promises—and we have plenty of promises in God’s Word!

The scientist tells us that the world is a closed system and nothing is changed. The historian tells us that life is a closed book and nothing is new. The philosopher tells us that life is a deep problem and nothing is understood.

But Jesus Christ is “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24), and He has miraculously broken into history to bring new life to all who trust Him.

If you are “living in circles,” then turn your life over to Him.

41 The phrase “I set my mind” (1:13, 17) is what is known as an inclusion (i.e., the bracketing off of a passage by beginning and ending a section with the same or similar word or phrase). The use of this particular inclusion again emphasizes Solomon’s personal experience.

42 The word translated “seek” (darash) means to penetrate to the very core of a matter, while the word translated “explore” (tur) means to investigate a subject on all sides. In his quest for satisfaction, Solomon did his homework—he did a thorough job.

43 “Wisdom” (chokmah) in this context does not refer to living life with God in view. It means using human intelligence (“under the sun”) as an instrument to ferret out truth and significance.

44 Ecclesiastes does not use the divine title Yahweh, God’s covenantal name (Exod 3:14-15). Instead, the book uses the word Elohim for God twenty-eight times, a word that stresses His sovereignty over all creation. The wisdom writers often use Elohim when they wish to speak of universal truth instead of truths that are peculiar to God’s covenantal relationship to Israel. Ronald B. Allen, “Ecclesiastes,” in Nelsons New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 782.

45 Most of our Bibles have translated the Hebrew word adam (“man”) as “men.” The phrase then reads: “It is a grievous task which God has given the sons of men to be afflicted with.” Yet, Solomon seems to be alluding to Adam and the effects of the Fall. Therefore, the idea is: On account of Adam’s fall, the sons of Adam seek and explore in pursuit of the meaning of life, but to no avail.

46 “Striving after wind” is only used in the book of Ecclesiastes. Seven of its nine occurrences follow hebel (“vanity,” futile,” etc.) statements (1:14; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6; 6:9). Constable suggests, “This phrase ‘striving after wind’ occurs frequently in Eccl 1:12-6:9 and is a structural marker that indicates the end of a subsection of Solomon’s thought (cf. 1:17; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6, 16; 6:9).” Dr. Thomas L. Constable, “Notes on Ecclesiastes”; 2007 edition: http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/ecclesiastes.pdf, 10.

47 A universal theme in wisdom and philosophic writings is that the life of wisdom is the highest of all callings. In Plato the task of the philosopher is the purest of all. Here, however, it is a grievous task (we could translate the phrase as a “lousy job”). Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1993).

48 In Rom 1:21-32, Paul says that man’s thoughts are foolish, futile, dark, immoral, and perverted.

49 Solomon observes that it is God who has “afflicted” us with this task. This is significant because the “affliction” that we experience should be the very thing that drives us to God, the ultimate goal of living.

50 The external and internal divisions come from Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.

51 The phrase “I realized” and its synonyms occur frequently in Ecclesiastes (cf. 1:13; 2:1, 3, 14, 15; 3:17, 18, 22; 7:25; 8:9, 16; 9:1).

52 This is a great line from Vicini in the classic movie Princess Bride.

53 Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs.

54 Michael P. Andrus, “The Search for Satisfaction” (Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26): unpublished sermon notes.

55 Quoted in David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 23.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2021 in Ecclesiastes

 

Ecclesiastes: The Good Life #1 Is Life Worth Living? Ecclesiastes 1:1-11


Your Purpose Green Road Sign Over Dramatic Clouds and Sky.

Ecclesiastes 1:1-18 (ESV)
1  The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.
2  Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3  What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
4  A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
5  The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.
6  The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
7  All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.
8  All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
9  What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.
10  Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us.
11  There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.

“Everything an Indian does is in a circle,” said Black Elk, the Sioux religious leader. “Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood ….”

You would think Black Elk had been studying the first chapter of Ecclesiastes, except for one fact: for centuries, wise men and women in different nations and cultures have been pondering the mysteries of the “circles” of human life. Whenever you use phrases like “life cycle,” or “the wheel of fortune,” or “come full circle,” you are joining Solomon and Black Elk and a host of others in taking a cyclical view of life and nature.

But this “cyclical” view of life was a burden to Solomon. For if life is only part of a great cycle over which we have no control, is life worth living? If this cycle is repeated season after season, century after century, why are we unable to understand it and explain it? Solomon pondered these questions as he looked at the cycle of life “under the sun,” and he came to three bleak conclusions: nothing is changed (1:4-7), nothing is new (1:8-11), and nothing is understood (1:12-18).

Nothing is changed (Eccl. 1:4-7)

In this section, Solomon approached the problem as a scientist and examined the “wheel of nature” around him: the earth, the sun, the wind, and the water. (This reminds us of the ancient “elements” of earth, air, fire, and water.) He was struck by the fact that generations of people came and went while the things of nature remained. There was “change” all around, yet nothing really changed. Everything was only part of the “wheel of nature” and contributed to the monotony of life. So, Solomon asked, “Is life worth living?”

To clarify his meaning and to support his contention in 1:3, Solomon cites four examples from nature. In 1:4-7, Solomon answers his own question: There is no advantage for one to work from earth’s perspective because everyone is caught in the unending and unalterable cycles of life.23

The Earth (1:4). The transitory nature of human generations contrasts with the permanence and apparent immutability of the physical world. Solomon writes, “A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.” You are born into the world, you live your life, and then you die, but the earth keeps right on going. Birth announcements are on one page and obituaries are on the next. Generations passing parade. It’s like you’re walking across the desert, leaving footprints in the sand that the wind erases as though you were never there.24

From the human point of view, nothing seems more permanent and durable than the planet on which we live. When we say that something is “as sure as the world,” we are echoing Solomon’s confidence in the permanence of planet Earth. With all of its diversity, nature is uniform enough in its operation that we can discover its “laws” and put them to work for us. In fact, it is this “dependability” that is the basis for modern science.

Nature is permanent, but man is transient, a mere pilgrim on earth. His pilgrimage is a brief one, for death finally claims him. At the very beginning of his book, Solomon introduced a topic frequently mentioned in Ecclesiastes: the brevity of life and the certainty of death.

Individuals and families come and go, nations and empires rise and fall, but nothing changes, for the world remains the same. Thomas Carlyle called history “a mighty drama, enacted upon the theater of time, with suns for lamps and eternity for a background.” Solomon would add that the costumes and sets may occasionally change, but the actors and the script remain pretty much the same; and that’s as sure as the world.

The Sun (1:5). Solomon writes, “Also, the sun rises and the sun sets; and hastening to its place it rises there again.” The sun is on a monotonous cycle of rising, setting, and then racing back to the place from which it rises. The verb translated “hastening” means “to pant.” The sun is like a runner endlessly making his way around a racetrack. As each generation comes and goes, so also each day comes and goes with a regular and monotonous passing. It has been said, “The problem with daily living is that it is so DAILY.”

We move now from the cycle of birth and death on earth to the cycle of day and night in the heavens.

“As sure as the world!” is replaced by “As certain as night follows day!” Solomon pictures the sun rising in the east and “panting” (literal translation) its way across the sky in pursuit of the western horizon. But what does it accomplish by this daily journey? To what purpose is all this motion and heat? As far as the heavens are concerned, one day is just like another, and the heavens remain the same.

The Wind (1:6).25 “Blowing toward the south, then turning toward the north, the wind continues swirling along; and on its circular courses the wind returns.” As the movement of the sun implies an east-west course, now the wind is described as moving north and south. The repetition in “going round and round” heightens the sense of monotony and purposelessness.

From the visible east-west movement of the sun, Solomon turned to the invisible north-south movement of the wind. He was not giving a lecture on the physics of wind. Rather, he was stating that the wind is in constant motion, following “circuits” that man cannot fully understand or chart. “The wind blows where it wishes,” our Lord said to Nicodemus, “and you … cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes” (John 3:8, nkjv).

Solomon’s point is this: the wind is constantly moving and changing directions, and yet it is still—the wind! We hear it and feel it, and we see what it does, but over the centuries, the wind has not changed its cycles or circuits. Man comes and goes, but the changeless wind goes on forever.

The Rivers (1:7). “All the rivers flow into the sea, yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, there they flow again.” The sense of accomplishing nothing is reinforced here. The rivers continually empty into the sea but cannot fill it. The last phrase does not refer to the cycle of evaporation and rainfall as implied in the NIV translation. The implication here is not cyclic motion but futile activity.

These verses profoundly impress certain sensations on the reader. First, there is a sense of the indifference of the universe to our presence. It was here before we came, and it will be here, unchanged, after we have gone. Second, however, the universe, like us, is trapped in a cycle of monotonous and meaningless motion. It is forever moving, but it accomplishes nothing. Finally, a sense of loneliness and abandonment pervades the text. No one has described this better than the apostle Paul. The creation is “subjected to frustration,” in “bondage to decay,” and awaiting “freedom” (Rom 8:19-21).26 [Solomon has argued that life is fleeting. In 1:8-11, he shares a second problem with life.]

Solomon described here the “water cycle” that helps to sustain life on our planet. Scientists tell us that, at any given time, 97 percent of all the water on earth is in the oceans; and only.0001 percent is in the atmosphere, available for rain. (That’s enough for about ten days of rain.) The cooperation of the sun and the wind makes possible the evaporation and movement of moisture, and this keeps the water “circulating.” But the sea never changes! The rivers and the rains pour water into the seas, but the seas remain the same.

So, whether we look at the earth or the heavens, the winds or the waters, we come to the same conclusion: nature does not change. There is motion but not promotion. No wonder Solomon cites the monotony of life as his first argument to prove that life is not worth living (1:4-11).

All of this is true only if you look at lifeunder the sun” and leave God out of the picture. Then the world becomes a closed system that is uniform, predictable, unchangeable. It becomes a world where there are no answers to prayer and no miracles, for nothing can interrupt the cycle of nature. If there is a God in this kind of a world, He cannot act on our behalf because He is imprisoned within the “laws of nature” that cannot be suspended.

However, God does break into nature to do great and wonderful things! He does hear and answer prayer and work on behalf of His people. He held the sun in place so Joshua could finish an important battle (Josh. 10:6-14), and He moved the sun back as a sign to King Hezekiah (Isa. 38:1-8). He opened the Red Sea and the Jordan River for Israel (Ex. 14; Josh. 3-4). He “turned off” the rain for Elijah (1 Kings 17) and then “turned it on” again (James 5:17-18). He calmed the wind and the waves for the disciples (Mark 4:35-41), and in the future, will use the forces of nature to bring terror and judgment to people on the earth (see Revelation 6ff).

When, by faith, you receive Jesus Christ as your Saviour through baptism for remission of sins, and God becomes your Heavenly Father, you no longer live in a “closed system” of endless monotonous cycles. You can gladly sing, “This is my Father’s world!” and know that He will meet your every need as you trust Him (Matt. 6:25-34). Christians live in this world as pilgrims, not prisoners, and therefore they are joyful and confident.

Life is Disappointing (1:8-11).

If nothing changes, then it is reasonable to conclude that nothing in this world is new. This “logical conclusion” might have satisfied people in Solomon’s day, but it startles us today. After all, we are surrounded by, and dependent on, a multitude of marvels that modern science has provided for us—everything from telephones to pacemakers and miracle drugs.

How could anybody who watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon agree with Solomon that nothing is new under the sun? In this discussion, Solomon stopped being a scientist and became a historian. Let’s follow the steps in his reasoning.

Man wants something new (v. 8).

Why? Because everything in this world ultimately brings weariness, and people long for something to distract them or deliver them. They are like the Athenians in Paul’s day, spending their time “in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing” (Acts 17:21). But even while they are speaking, seeing, and hearing these “new things,” they are still dissatisfied with life and will do almost anything to find some escape. Of course, the entertainment industry is grateful for this human hunger for novelty and takes advantage of it at great profit.

In Ecclesiastes 3:11, Solomon explains why men and women are not satisfied with life: God has put “eternity in their heart” (niv, nasb, nkjv) and nobody can find peace and satisfaction apart from Him. “Thou hast made us for Thyself,” prayed St. Augustine, “and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.” The eye cannot be satisfied until it sees the hand of God, and the ear cannot be satisfied until it hears the voice of God. We must respond by faith to our Lord’s invitation, “Come unto me … and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).

The world provides nothing new (vv. 9-10).

Dr. H.A. Ironside used to say, “If it’s new, it’s not true; and if it’s true, it’s not new.” Whatever is new is simply a recombination of the old. Man cannot “create” anything new because man is the creature, not the Creator. “That which hath been is now, and that which is to be hath already been” (3:15). Thomas Alva Edison, one of the world’s greatest inventors, said that his inventions were only “bringing out the secrets of nature and applying them for the happiness of mankind.”

Only God can create new things, and he begins by making sinners “new creatures” when they trust Jesus Christ to save them (2 Cor. 5:17). Then they can walk “in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4), sing a “new song” (Ps. 40:3), and enter into God’s presence by a “new and living way” (Heb. 10:20).

Why we think things are new (v. 11).

The answer is simple: we have bad memories and we don’t read the minutes of the previous meeting. (See 2:16, 4:16, and 9:5.) It has well been said that the ancients have stolen all of our best ideas, and this is painfully true.

Solomon wrote, of course, about the basic principles of life and not about methods. As the familiar couplet puts it: Methods are many, principles are few / methods always change, principles never do. The ancient thinkers knew this. The Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote, “They that come after us will see nothing new, and they who went before us saw nothing more than we have seen.” The only people who really think they have seen something new are those whose experience is limited or whose vision can’t penetrate beneath the surface of things. Because something is recent, they think it is new; they mistake novelty for originality.

In these next four verses, Solomon demonstrates that everything and everyone in life will ultimately disappoint us. There are three basic reasons for this: There is no satisfaction under the sun, there is nothing new under the sun, and no one is remembered under the sun.

No satisfaction under the sun (1:8). Solomon states that nothing is truly fulfilling. He writes, “All things are wearisome; man is not able to tell it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear filled with hearing.”27 The Rolling Stones made famous the song, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” Sadly, this song could have been written by Solomon himself. Just like Mick Jagger and the rest of the Stones, Solomon had it all…and then some, yet everything was wearisome to him since one can never say, see, or hear enough. Man just can’t get NO satisfaction! Have you seen a good movie? Read a good book? Listened to a great song? Enjoyed a restful vacation? Delighted in a special experience? It is never enough. It never satisfies, for ultimately you want MORE.

Nothing new under the sun (1:9-10). Solomon writes, “That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one might say, ‘See this, it is new’? Already it has existed for ages which were before us.” The French have a proverb that goes: “The more things change, the more they turn out to be the same.” While there are new inventions, and God does do new things, Solomon is talking about how man can never be satisfied “under the sun.” Solomon is saying that there is no advantage for one to work from earth’s perspective because one’s work will never result in anything new, but only that which has been. If it appears that something new happens from time to time, it is only because our memories are short.28 Seriously, most of us don’t know history, so we keep thinking we’re coming up with new ideas!29 We often mistake movement with progress. We think we are making progress but in reality we are driving around a cul-de-sac and wondering why the neighborhoods all look the same.

Some people track their year, not on the basis of the months or seasons but on sports: baseball in the summer, football in the fall, basketball and hockey in the winter, and NASCAR in the spring. Where do you go when you conclude that there is nothing truly meaningful in life? Back to the stadium, where at least there are games with consistent rules, rewards, and penalties.30

Not remembered (1:11). Solomon writes, “There is no remembrance of earlier things; and also of the later things which will occur, there will be for them no remembrance among those who will come later still.” We need not look any further than the sports page to have this verified. One injury is all it takes to become forgotten. Household names can be discarded quickly. Yet the simple truth is: No one will remember anyone in the future. One hundred years from now everything and everyone will have been forgotten, regardless of what occurs today.

There is good news and bad news in 1:11. The good news is for those people who worry about what others think about them. In the end, no one will think about you at all. The bad news is for those who seek some type of temporal immortality. In the end, no one will think about you at all.31

When you die, there will be a funeral. You may have twenty-five or 2,000 people attend. But do you know what they’ll do after the funeral? They will catch lunch and have a great old time together. Then they will hurry back to work because somebody was covering for them. That night they’ll go home to their families, watch a sitcom rerun, and forget all about your memorial by morning. Are you ready for that?32 Mark Twain was right, “The world will lament you for an hour and forget you forever.”33

Perhaps this makes you feel empty. That’s exactly what Solomon is seeking to accomplish. He wants you to feel an overwhelming sense of emptiness, for emptiness is designed to draw us to God. We must learn to value emptiness. As we acknowledge our sense of meaninglessness, we are motivated to search for more. We must learn to value emptiness for its positive potential. As an empty cup invites water or a vacant room invites entrance, so an empty heart can lead us to search for God-given ways to fill it.34

By putting on biblical binoculars, we can see how Solomon concludes his book. In 12:13-14 he writes, “The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.” These two verses and the message of the Bible tell us that the best way to live under the sun is to live in the Son. The good news is that God has not left us “under the sun.”

If you have believed in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord through baptism for remission of sins, life is not “under the sun” but rather in the SON. He brings purpose, peace, and significance. He gives you the opportunity to live an abundant life (John 10:10).

However, the Bible is clear that apart from the Lord Jesus life under the sun is terribly disappointing. It is cursed! It is disjointed! It is upside down! It is in bondage to decay! It is meaningless! It needs to be liberated!35 This will happen when we leave this life and go and be with Jesus.

In the meantime, the best way to live under the sun is to live in the Son. This means we must “fear God and obey His commandments…for God will bring every act into judgment.” The question of 1:3 is the most important question of the book: “What advantage36 does man have in all his work which he does under the sun?” Solomon’s concern is what do humans have “left over” after life is over. What difference do the activities of this life have in the next life? Does anything last beyond the grave? Can we make certain (beyond the shadow of a doubt…beyond the shadow of death) that what we do in this life has some lasting value? This should be the key question of our lives (and of the lives of all other people). What can we do to guarantee a return on our life-investment?37

The answer that Solomon gives is to fear God and obey His commandments. When we do this, our fleeting lives begin to count for eternity. The disappointments that we experience in this life are bearable. When everything around us seems meaningless and monotonous, Christ—the Meaning in life, gives us meaning. When we are weary from the wearisome nature of life, Christ says, “Come to Me all you who are weary and heavy-laden and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).

When we can’t get no satisfaction under the sun, we can find satisfaction in the Son. When we can’t find anything new, we remember that Christ has created a new covenant, given the new birth, and new life. When we feel like no one will ever remember us, we can take confidence in the truth that God remembers us, and one day we can overcome this world and receive a new name that Christ Himself will give to us. In the meantime, the best way to live under the sun is to live in the Son.

The Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote, “They that come after us will see nothing new, and they who went before us saw nothing more than we have seen.” The only people who really think they have seen something new are those whose experience is limited or whose vision can’t penetrate beneath the surface of things. Because something is recent, they think it is new; they mistake novelty for originality.

23 Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying: “The most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible.” See www.infoplease.com/cig/theories-universe/scientific-origins-universe.html.

24 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 13.

25 Solomon is particularly interested in the wind. He refers to it once in the Song of Solomon, six times in Proverbs, and fourteen times in Ecclesiastes. Jesus also spoke of the wind when he was sharing the gospel with Nicodemus (John 3:8).

26 Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs,

27 This last phrase is a loose quotation of Prov 27:20: “As Death and Destruction are never satisfied, so the eyes of a person are never satisfied” (NET).

28 Ronald B. Allen, “Ecclesiastes,” in Nelsons New Illustrated Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), 781.

29 David Fairchild, “Futility Under The Sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11):

30 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 12.

31 Ray Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun: Ancient Wisdom for Contemporary Living (Chicago: Moody, 1998), 29.

32 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 12.

33 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 5.

34 Wayne Schmidt, Soul Management (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 15. Schmidt quotes David Augsburger who states, “Emptiness is at the center of our humanness. To flee it is to miss the creative openness toward creation and Creator. To stuff it full of things is to block our ability to receive others in listening love. To anesthetize it with addictive experiences is to deaden the creative springs of the true self. Emptiness is to be embraced as a gift.” See David Augsburger, When Enough Is Enough (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1984), 52.

35 Ardel B. Caneday, “Qoheleth: Enigmatic Pessimist or Godly Sage?” Grace Theological Journal 7.1 (1986): 55.

36 The noun yithron (“advantage, profit, excess”) appears only in the book of Ecclesiastes in the following passages: Eccl 1:3; 2:11, 13 [twice]; 3:9; 5:8, 15; 7:12; 10:10, 11. Profit is always on our minds (e.g., profit margins profit shares). God has wired us this way; however, He wants us to look toward eternal profit.

37 Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.

also Bible Exposition Commentary – Bible Exposition Commentary – Be Satisfied (Ecclesiastes).

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2021 in Ecclesiastes

 

Ecclesiastes: The Good Life – An Introduction


Your Purpose Green Road Sign Over Dramatic Clouds and Sky.

“Life is filled with difficulties and perplexities,” King Solomon concluded, “and there’s much that nobody can understand, let alone control. From the human point of view, it’s all vanity and folly. But life is God’s gift to us and He wants us to enjoy it and use it for His glory. So, instead of complaining about what you don’t have, start giving thanks for what you do have—and be satisfied!” (Warren Wiersbe)

Our Jewish friends read Ecclesiastes at the annual Feast of Tabernacles, a joyful autumn festival of harvest. It fits! For Solomon wrote, “There is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labor. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God” (Eccl. 2:24).

Even the Apostle Paul (who could hardly be labeled a hedonist) said that God gives to us “richly all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17).

Life without Jesus Christ is indeed “vanity and vexation of spirit” (Eccl. 1:14). But when you know Him personally, and live for Him faithfully, you experience “fullness of joy [and] pleasures forever more” (Ps. 16:11).

Have you made any New Year’s resolutions to lose weight and get into shape? Many Americans have great intentions at the start of a new year. Perhaps you have already purchased a gym membership or a piece of exercise equipment. If so, good for you!

It’s important to get in shape and be healthy. I own an stationary exercise bike…and I love it. I work out on it nearly every day. I cycle miles on this bike and burn calories and increase my heart rate. The cool thing is: I don’t even have to leave my house. But if I am honest, it is a terribly boring and tedious way to exercise. When I look down at the odometer and it says I’ve cycled five miles, I’ve actually gone nowhere. I work up a sweat and ride until I am weary, yet I know that I am going to have to hop back on the bike all over again tomorrow. It is rather depressing!

Life is like riding on a recumbent bike. It is a boring, tedious, and repetitive ride. A thoughtful person will ask, “What is the purpose in life?” Have you ever asked this question? Most people have. For some of us, this question has plagued us over the course of our lives…even our Christian lives.

A few years ago, scientists at John Hopkins University surveyed nearly 8,000 college students at forty-eight universities and asked what they considered “very important” to them. What do you think these college students said? Make a lot of money? Get married? Get a job? Buy a home? I can tell you this: only 16 percent answered “making a lot of money.” But a whopping 75 percent said that their first goal was “finding a purpose and meaning to my life. This is a staggering piece of research, isn’t it?

From the human point of view (“under the sun”), life does appear futile; and it is easy for us to get pessimistic. The Jewish writer Sholom Aleichem once described life as “a blister on top of a tumor, and a boil on top of that.” You can almost feel that definition!

The American poet Carl Sandburg compared life to “an onion—you peel it off one layer at a time, and sometimes you weep.” And British playwright George Bernard Shaw said that life was “a series of inspired follies.”

What a relief to turn from these pessimistic views and hear Jesus Christ say, “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). Or to read Paul’s majestic declaration, “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58, nkjv).

Life is “not in vain” if it is lived according to the will of God, and that is what Solomon teaches in this neglected and often misunderstood book.

Before we go any further, we need to take care of some business, understanding the author of this amazing book and seeing some of the major themes.

The Author

Nowhere in this book did the author give his name, but the descriptions he gave of himself and his experiences would indicate that the writer was King Solomon. He called himself “son of David” and “king in Jerusalem” (1:1, 12), and he claimed to have great wealth and wisdom (2:1-11, and 1:13; see 1 Kings 4:20-34 and 10:1ff). In response to Solomon’s humble prayer, God promised him both wisdom and wealth (1 Kings 3:3-15); and He kept His promise.

Twelve times in Ecclesiastes the author mentioned “the king,” and he made frequent references to the problems of “official bureaucracy” (4:1-3; 5:8; 8:11; 10:6-7). Keep in mind that Solomon ruled over a great nation that required a large standing army and extensive government agencies. He carried on many costly building projects and lived in luxury at court (1 Kings 9:10-28 and 10:1ff; 2 Chron. 1:13-17). Somebody had to manage all this national splendor, and somebody had to pay for it!

Solomon solved the problem by ignoring the original boundaries of the twelve tribes of Israel and dividing the nation into twelve “tax districts,” each one managed by an overseer (1 Kings 4:7-19). In time, the whole system became oppressive and corrupt; and after Solomon died, the people begged for relief (2 Chron. 10). As you study Ecclesiastes, you sense this background of exploitation and oppression.

King Solomon began his reign as a humble servant of the Lord, seeking God’s wisdom and help (1 Kings 3:5-15). As he grew older, his heart turned away from Jehovah to the false gods of the many wives he had taken from foreign lands (1 Kings 11:1ff). These marriages were motivated primarily by politics, not love, as Solomon sought alliances with the nations around Israel. In fact, many of the things Solomon did that seemed to bring glory to Israel were actually contrary to the Word of God (Deut. 17:14-20).

Ecclesiastes appears to be the kind of book a person would write near the close of life, reflecting on life’s experiences and the lessons learned. Solomon probably wrote Proverbs (Prov. 1:1; 1 Kings 4:32) and the Song of Solomon (1:1) during the years he faithfully walked with God; and near the end of his life, he wrote Ecclesiastes. There is no record that King Solomon repented and turned to the Lord, but his message in Ecclesiastes suggests that he did.

He wrote Proverbs from the viewpoint of a wise teacher (1:1-6), and Song of Solomon from the viewpoint of a royal lover (3:7-11); but when he wrote Ecclesiastes, he called himself “the Preacher” (1:1, 2, 12; 7:27; 12:8-10). The Hebrew word is Koheleth (ko-HAY-leth) and is the title given to an official speaker who calls an assembly (see 1 Kings 8:1). The Greek word for “assembly” is ekklesia, and this gives us the English title of the book, Ecclesiastes.

But the Preacher did more than call an assembly and give an oration. The word Koheleth carries with it the idea of debating, not so much with the listeners as with himself. He would present a topic, discuss it from many viewpoints, and then come to a practical conclusion. Ecclesiastes may appear to be a random collection of miscellaneous ideas about a variety of topics, but Solomon assures us that what he wrote was orderly (12:9).

The Aim

Solomon has put the key to Ecclesiastes right at the front door: “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the sun?” (1:2-3). Just in case we missed it, he put the same key at the back door (12:8). In these verses, Solomon introduces some of the key words and phrases that are used repeatedly in Ecclesiastes; so we had better get acquainted with them.

Vanity of vanities.

We have already noted that Solomon used the word “vanity” thirty-eight times in this book. It is the Hebrew word hevel, meaning “emptiness, futility, vapor.” The name “Abel” probably comes from this word (Gen. 4:2). Whatever disappears quickly, leaves nothing behind and does not satisfy is hevel, vanity. One of my language professors at seminary defined hevel as “whatever is left after you break a soap bubble.”

Whether he considers his wealth, his works, his wisdom, or his world, Solomon comes to the same sad conclusion: all is “vanity and vexation of spirit” (2:11). However, this is not his final conclusion, nor is it the only message that he has for his readers. We will discover more about that later.

Under the sun.

You will find this important phrase twenty-nine times in Ecclesiastes, and with it the phrase “under heaven” (1:13; 2:3; 3:1). It defines the outlook of the writer as he looks at life from a human perspective and not necessarily from heaven’s point of view. He applies his own wisdom and experience to the complex human situation and tries to make some sense out of life. Solomon wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (12:10-11; 2 Tim. 3:16), so what he wrote was what God wanted His people to have. But as we study, we must keep Solomon’s viewpoint in mind: he is examining life “under the sun.”

In his Unfolding Message of the Bible, G. Campbell Morgan perfectly summarizes Solomon’s outlook: “This man had been living through all these experiences under the sun, concerned with nothing above the sun … until there came a moment in which he had seen the whole of life. And there was something over the sun. It is only as a man takes account of that which is over the sun as well as that which is under the sun that things under the sun are seen in their true light” (Fleming H. Revell Company, 1961, p. 229).

Profit.

The Hebrew word yitron, usually translated “profit,” is used ten times in Ecclesiastes (1:3; 2:11, 13 [excelleth]; 3:9; 5:9, 16; 7:12 [excellency]; 10:10, 11 [better]). It is used nowhere else in the Old Testament, and its basic meaning is “that which is left over.” It may be translated “surplus, advantage, gain.” The word “profit” is just the opposite of “vanity.” Solomon asks, “In the light of all the puzzles and problems of life, what is the advantage of living? Is there any gain?”

Labor.

At least eleven different Hebrew words are translated “labor” in our Authorized Version, and this one is amal, used twenty-three times in Ecclesiastes. It means “to toil to the point of exhaustion and yet experience little or no fulfillment in your work.” It carries with it the ideas of grief, misery, frustration, and weariness. Moses expressed the meaning of this word in Deuteronomy 26:7 and Psalm 90:10. Of course, looked at only “under the sun,” a person’s daily work might seem to be futile and burdensome, but the Christian believer can always claim 1 Corinthians 15:58 and labor gladly in the will of God, knowing his labor is “not in vain in the Lord.”

Man.

This is the familiar Hebrew word adam (Genesis 1:26; 2:7, 19) and refers to man as made from the earth (adama in the Hebrew: Genesis 2:7; 3:19). Of course, man is made in the image of God; but he came from the earth and returns to the earth after death. Solomon used the word forty-nine times as he examined “man under the sun.”

These are the basic words found in the opening verses of Ecclesiastes, but there are a few more key words that we need to consider.

Evil.

This word is used thirty-one times and in the King James Version (kjv) is also translated “sore” (1:13; 4:8), “hurt” (5:13; 8:9), “mischievous” (10:13), “grievous” (2:17), “adversity” (7:14), “wickedness” (7:15), and “misery” (8:6). It is the opposite of “good” and covers a multitude of things: pain, sorrow, hard circumstances, and distress. It is one of King Solomon’s favorite words for describing life as he sees it “under the sun.”

Joy.

In spite of his painful encounters with the world and its problems, Solomon does not recommend either pessimism or cynicism. Rather, he admonishes us to be realistic about life, accept God’s gifts and enjoy them (2:24; 3:12-15, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10; 11:9-10). After all, God gives to us “richly all things to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). Words related to joy (enjoy, rejoice, etc.) are used at least seventeen times in Ecclesiastes. Solomon does not say, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die!” Instead, he advises us to trust God and enjoy what we do have rather than complain about what we don’t have. Life is short and life is difficult, so make the most of it while you can.

Wisdom.

Since it is one of the Old Testament wisdom books, Ecclesiastes would have something to say about both wisdom and folly. There are at least thirty-two references to “fools” and “folly” and at least fifty-four to “wisdom.” King Solomon was the wisest of men (1 Kings 4:31) and he applied this wisdom as he sought to understand the purpose of life “under the sun.” The Preacher sought to be a philosopher, but in the end, he had to conclude, “Fear God, and keep His commandments” (12:13).

God.

Solomon mentions God forty times and always uses “Elohim” and never “Jehovah.” Elohim (“God” in the English Bible) is the Mighty God, the glorious God of creation who exercises sovereign power. Jehovah (“LORD” in the English Bible) is the God of the covenant, the God of revelation who is eternally self-existent and yet graciously relates Himself to sinful man. Since Solomon is dealing exclusively with what he sees “under the sun,” he uses Elohim.

Before we leave this study of the vocabulary of Ecclesiastes, we should note that the book abounds in personal pronouns. Since it is an autobiography this is to be expected. Solomon was the ideal person to write this book, for he possessed the wealth, wisdom, and opportunities necessary to carry out the “experiments” required for this investigation into the meaning of life. God did not make King Solomon disobey just so he could write this book, but He did use Solomon’s experiences to prepare him for this task.

 

 
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Posted by on February 1, 2021 in Ecclesiastes

 

“God’s Person in an Upside-Down World” — The Be-attitudes Series and The Good Life: Ecclesiastes An Introduction


 

(Sermon presented as introduction to the Be-Attitudes series but also a class study of the book of Ecclesiastes)

What would it take to make you happy? That’s the question Psychology Today asked 52,000 Americans. And their answers in rank order included:

Friends

A good job

Being in love

Recognition or success

Sex

Personal growth

A good house or apartment

Being attractive or beautiful

Good health

The city that I live in

My religion

Recreation and exercise

Being a parent

Ironically, the last one was: My partner’s happiness

The most interesting thing about that entire list is that virtually everything the respondents named was an external thing or an external situation.

In other words, the popular idea of happiness is that I’ll have it if I can ever line up the right circumstances.

Now that’s not a new idea. In fact, our English word “happiness” is from the same root word as our English word “happening.” Do you get the connection? If I can just get enough positive happenings in my life, then surely I will receive happiness. I call it “WHEN AND THEN” thinking:

  • Like, when I get out of school then I’ll be happy.
  • Or, when I get a job then I’ll be happy.
  • Or, when I get rich then I’ll be happy.
  • Or, when I get married then I’ll be happy.
  • When I have children then I’ll be happy.
  • When all the children have left home then I’ll be happy.
  • When and then…When and then…When and then…I’ll be happy.

Well maybe, it’s some consolation to know that man has always thought that way. If you’ll turn with me to Ecclesiastes 2, we’re going to take a look real quickly at a book, a journal, that was written by King Solomon as he chased that elusive pot of gold called, “happiness.”

 “I thought in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find  out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless.”    (Ecclesiastes 2:1)

By the way, if you want to save yourself a lot of time, a lot of frustration, and a lot of heartache in your quest for happiness. Go home and read very thoroughly, the book of Ecclesiastes.

Solomon, who was far and away the most powerful man in the world in his day and likely the richest man who ever walked the face of the earth, he said, “I tried it all and I found three dead ends.

The first dead end was accumulating things.

7  I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem.
8  I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.

O Solomon said, you name it, I had it. But, we’ll see what the result was in just a moment.

The second thing he tried was experiencing pleasure.

1  I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity.
2  I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?”
3  I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life.

10  And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil.

And the third thing he tried was achieving success.

4  I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself.
5  I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees.
6  I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees.
9  So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me.
11  Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

 Do you see what he tried? He said, I tried accumulating things, experiencing pleasure, achieving success.

3,000 years later, those are still the things we think we’ve got to chase to achieve happiness. Isn’t that right? Starting with accumulating things.

A bumper sticker: “Whoever said money can’t buy happiness just doesn’t know where to shop.” That’s the way most people think. How many times have I heard somebody say, “Man, if I could just win the lottery, I’d be so happy.”

Two newspaper articles a few years back, one was about a man by the name of Buddy Post. Buddy is now 58 years old, a former carnival worker and cook. He hit the jackpot in the Pennsylvania lottery. He won $16.2 million. Buddy is on Easy Street now, isn’t he? NOT!

He has been convicted of assault. His sixth wife has left him. His brother has been convicted of trying to kill him for the money. His landlady has sued him for one-third of his winnings. And the gas company has shut off the gas to the decrepit old mansion that he bought and can’t keep up.

From the Dallas Morning News, about Jim and Lynette Nichols. Lynette bought 23 one-dollar tickets and she was thrilled when one of those was good for one-third of a $48,000,000 jackpot.

Now Jim and Lynette are getting a divorce after 12 years of marriage. The divorce proceedings have taken over two years because, you guessed it, they’re trying to sort out who gets how much of the money. Lynette Nichols, who had the ticket, said, “We had one month of good times and three years of misery. It was a curse. It didn’t help at all.”

Solomon found it out the hard way. You don’t get happy by accumulating things. You don’t get happy by experiencing pleasure: sex, drugs, gambling, whatever, anything to give a thrill, anything to give a rush, anything to give a buzz. It’s like the old Eagles song says, “After the thrill is gone, you’re unhappier than you ever were.”

And you don’t receive it by achieving success. The idea that if I can just get to the top of the ladder, at least make everybody think I’ve got it made, then I’ll be happy.

Ecclesiastes 2:17 (ESV) So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.

If you don’t leave here with anything else today, leave here knowing this. Your happiness will not come from your happenings. Your happiness will not come from any external force.

Turn in your Bibles to Matthew 5 where we’ll camp for the rest of our time together.

We’re going to see what Jesus says about happiness. I’ll tell you right now that he says your happiness doesn’t depend on your circumstances, it depends on your attitudes.

In Matthew 5 we have the opening lines of Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Mount, and that sermon begins with eight positive statements about happiness that we’ve come to call the Be-attitudes.

Now it’s interesting to me that of all the subjects that Jesus could have picked to start the greatest, most famous sermon of all time, he chose to speak on, “How to Be Happy.”

Do you know why? Because he knew that is what everybody wants and what so few people find. So for the next eight weeks we’re going to look at those eight beatitudes.

Being a master Teacher, our Lord did not begin this important sermon with a negative criticism of the scribes and Pharisees. He began with a positive emphasis on righteous character and the blessings that it brings to the life of the believer.

In the Beatitudes and the pictures of the believer, Jesus described Christian character that flowed from within.

If you’ve turned to Matthew 5 beginning in verse 3, you see that each beatitude begins with the word, “Blessed.” The word, “blessed,” in English is really a holdover in the Old English in the King James. The Greek word there is “makarios” and it just literally means “happy.”

The meaning of makarios can best be seen from one particular usage of it. The Greeks always called Cyprus the makaria, which means The Happy Isle, and they did so because they believed that Cyprus was so lovely, so rich, and so fertile an island that a man would never need to go beyond its coastline to find the perfectly happy life.

It had such a climate, such flowers and fruits and trees, such minerals, such natural resources that it contained within itself all the materials for perfect happiness.

Makarios then describes that joy which has its secret within itself, that joy which is serene and untouchable, and self-contained, that joy which is completely independent of all the chances and the changes of life.

The beatitudes are not pious hopes of what shall be; they are not glowing, but nebulous prophecies of some future bliss; they are congratulations on what is.

 

The blessedness which belongs to the Christian is not a blessedness which is postponed to some future world of glory; it is a blessedness which exists here and now. It is not something into which the Christian will enter; it is something into which he has entered.

True, it will find its fulness and its consummation in the presence of God; but for all that it is a present reality to be enjoyed here and now.

Let me ask you something right now.

  • If you’re going to have to have all your problems solved before you’re going to be happy, will you ever be happy? NO.
  • If you’re going to have to have everything perfect in your life before you’re going to be happy, will you ever be happy? NO.
  • So Jesus says I want to teach you that happiness doesn’t depend on having the right circumstances, it depends on having the right attitudes.

 

In other words, “My happiness is not determined by what’s happening to me, but what’s happening in me.”

  • Jesus says it’s not how much we have that makes us happy, it’s what we are that makes us happy.
  • It doesn’t depend upon the circumstances outside, it depends upon the attitude inside.
  • What Jesus is getting at then is that happiness is a choice. You choose it as you choose the right attitudes.

 

Mark Twain over 100 years ago had a great statement. He said, “Do you know what happens to most people over life?…About the same things.” Mark Twain concluded, he says then most people are about as happy as they choose to be.

 

The world can win its joys, and the world can equally well lose its joys. A change in fortune, a collapse in health, the failure of a plan, the disappointment of an ambition, even a change in the weather, can take away the fickle joy the world can give.

 

But the Christian has the serene and untouchable joy which comes from walking for ever in the company and in the presence of Jesus Christ.

 

The greatness of the beatitudes is that they are not wistful glimpses of some future beauty; they are not even golden promises of some distant glory; they are triumphant shouts of bliss for a permanent joy that nothing in the world can ever take away.

 

We all cry, we all laugh, we all smile, we all frown, we all hurt, we all have pleasure. You know if you live long enough about the same things happen.

 

You hurt and you cry, does that mean you cannot be happy? Absolutely not. Your happiness depends upon the right attitudes. And that is what we will be seeing in coming weeks.

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on January 21, 2021 in Be-Attitudes, Ecclesiastes

 
 
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