“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!”
Aren’t you glad I didn’t send this out yesterday? It would not have been a good way to start the week! On Sunday night I attended a service where the minister preached on Ecclesiastes and I enjoyed it so much that I was inspired to dig a little deeper… So, for the next couple of days we’ll be looking at this misunderstood and much avoided book!But first a little background: Ecclesiastes is a protest – a reaction – against a very wooden and literalistic understanding of God, life, and circumstances that had emerged in Old Testament thinking. The problem was that people had developed a life philosophy that boiled down to basic causality: “Dig a hole and you’ll fall into it.” “Sin and you will be cursed!” “Do good and you will be blessed!” The O.T. book of Proverbs appears to promote this kind of thinking. While this is true in one direction, it is not so the other way. If you are prosperous does this mean you have been good and God is blessing you? (Psalm 73 is about the prosperity of the wicked and the Psalmist’s struggles with that.) And, if you are experiencing tragedy or disaster is it because you have sinned or stepped out from underneath God’s protective umbrella? (This kind of thinking is what Job protests against.)The author of the book identifies himself as “son of David” and from the clues scattered throughout the book, many have concluded that it is Solomon although many would say that the book is much later than Solomon (Around 400BC rather than 900BC – based on the language and idioms used) and that the writer is a wealthy, educated, descendant of David who is alluding to Solomon who was so wise and yet lost so much. The writer calls himself the Teacher and so I will refer to him in this way.Rather than keep you in too much suspense, let me summarise the message and strategy of the Teacher and then over the next few days we’ll see how he reaches his goal:The Hebrew word used for “meaningless” is “vapour” or “breath” and it is the transient nature of life that is a key issue for the Teacher. He systematically blows all the our idols and symbols of significance out of the water until we are left with only two absolute certainties: Death and God.Death is the great leveller and we must all face it, and unless we face it with God, we will not stand.So, if you have struggled with simplistic or trite interpretations of life. If it seems like many Christians are afraid to deal with life’s tough issues and find real answers then join me for the next couple of days as we join the Teacher in his bold search for the meaning of life.
The role of work
What does man gain from all his labour at which he toils under the sun?
On his search for the principles which uphold and undergird life, the Teacher begins with the question of work. One needs to balance his statements carefully: On the one hand he dismisses work as a meaningless rat race which is motivated by our envy of one another and our base ambition. (4:4 – “I saw that all labour and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbour. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”) Work that is aimed at accumulating possessions here on earth is also vapour (2:21 “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.”)On the other hand, work can be a source of satisfaction and joy. Repeatedly he points out that work is a gift of God (3:13 “That every man may eat and drink and find satisfaction in all his toil – this is the gift of God.”) He also instructs people to do what their hands find to do (11:6 “Sow your seed in the morning and at evening let not your hands be idle…) And he sees God’s hand in work: (2:24 “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without Him, who can eat or find enjoyment?)So what is the conclusion of the matter? There are some who live to work and others who work to live. The teacher very accurately identifies the treadmill that work can become when it is motivated by greed and ambition. But it is not work in itself that is evil – work can actually be a source of satisfaction and joy – if it is a means to an end and not the end in itself. A lot has to do with our attitude toward work and the extent to which work controls us instead of us controlling our work.Is your work satisfying? Do you live to work or work to live? Is God part and parcel of your work experience?
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. “Laughter,” I said “is foolish and what does pleasure accomplish?”
If the meaning of life is not found in work, can it be found in pleasure? The Teacher’s answer is “No!” In his pursuit of honest answers he has tried all the options. (Later in the chapter he describes the extent to which he indulged himself: “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired and I refused my heart no pleasure.”) But the unbridled pursuit of pleasure did not fill the void.Today people (especially our young people (our yuppies)) are involved in a relentless attempt to escape life’s pain with pleasure. Whether it is the ultimate rave with the chemically induced high, or the search for the most awesome adrenaline rush, or the most daring sexual conquest, or the most lavish address and possessions people are desperately searching for meaning in pleasure, luxury, and sensation. But it is to no avail. At the end of the day regardless of what they have done and who they have been with, they are alone because none of these activities can fill the “God-shaped vacuum” that the famous French Mathematician Blaise Pascal talked about. They have not realised the truth of the old hymn that says “We are restless until we find our rest in Thee.”The Teacher concludes that pleasure cannot be found outside of a relationship with God and is found in the simple things: “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without Him, who can eat or find enjoyment? To the man who pleases Him, God gives wisdom, knowledge, and _happiness_.”
I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. The wise man has eyes in his head while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realise that the same fate overtakes them both.
If work and pleasure don’t hold the answers should one wax philosophical? The Teacher pursues this avenue too. And it is here that we find the finest balance. Wisdom _is_ desirable, and in the book of Ecclesiastes we even find a collection of proverbs that the Teacher has gathered from all over. There are proverbs from Egypt and proverbs from Persia, and they represent universal principles which are as true as the law of gravity. Heeding this wisdom makes a lot of sense and it will add to the quality of one’s life. But there is a “But”. The endless pursuit of wisdom will not give us all the answers. The great leveller, death, still waits for all of us whether we are wise or foolish. The Teacher concludes “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body… here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep His commandments for this is the whole duty of man.”When it comes to putting wisdom in the right perspective, the book of Proverbs is very helpful. In Proverbs wisdom is personified as the handmaiden who leads us into God’s presence. Wisdom is not an end in itself. Wisdom, ultimately, is found in the will of God and is the key for us to be able to stand in the right relationship with Him (keep His commandments) i.e. to reverance (fear) Him. We will examine some aspects of the Teacher’s collected wisdom next week…
There is a time for everything and a season for every activity under heaven.A time to be born and a time to die,A time to plant and a time to uproot,A time to kill and a time to heal, A time to tear down and a time to build,A time to weep and a time to laugh,A time to mourn and a time to dance,A time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,A time to embrace and a time to refrain,A time to search and a time to give up,A time to keep and a time to throw away,A time to tear and a time to mend,A time to be silent and a time to speak,A time to love and a time to hate,A time for war and a time for peace.
This passage is one of the most oft read passages in the Old Testament. People have even composed songs from it. But it seems that while many people have loved this piece of poetry, there are different understandings of this passage.For some this is pure fatalism – everything in life is pre-ordained – “Your time is your time.” – God does as He pleases and we have little choice in the matter. For others this passage is just a description of life as it really is – “You have to take the rough with the smooth you know…” Others have used this passage to justify themselves – almost always as an excuse to go to war or do something like that.But what did the teacher mean? In the verses that follow a number of perspectives emerge:Firstly: At the end of the day, God is sovereign and nothing happens that is outside His control. But rather than giving us the sense that we live under the rule of a Tyrant, this knowledge should fill us with a sense of praise. Jesus reminded us that even the hairs on our heads are numbered. This is an indication of the Father’s loving attention to detail. (“I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken away from it. God does it, so men will revere Him.”3:14) There are times that God’s will, even though we cannot fathom it, will endure.Secondly:We can kick against the rhythmns and cycles of life or we can embrace them and find meaning in them. The Teacher uses work as an example: Work can be seen as a burden and as toil that is subject to the cycles of life (“What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men.” v9-10) Or we can realise that the cycles of life shape us for something greater than this life and that even when we don’t understand it, God is at work. (“He has also set eternity in the hearts of men, yet they cannot fathom what God has done from begunning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live.” v.10) We are eternal creatures and the cycles of life shape us for the glory of eternity.Thirdly, the roller-coaster of life may seem random and circumstantial to us, but when we choose to allow God to work in us and when we reach out to Him for His help, life will make better people of us. (“He has made all things beautiful in _His_ time.” This is not fatalism or even positive fatalism (“Alles sal regkom – Everything will turn out OK”) – we have a role to play and we must respond to the One who wants to make us more beautiful.
Relationships and Friendships
Two are better than one because they have a good return for their work:If one falls down his friend can help him up.But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!Also if two lie down together, they will keep warm But how can one keep warm alone?Though one may be over-powered, two can defend themselves.A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
One of the few things the Teacher is outrightly positive about is the value of friendship. The five images that are used indicate progressively deeper levels of friendship, moving from the synergy of two companions working side by side, to the companions that are there to meet each other’s needs in times of trouble, to the intimacy of sleeping together, to the fight against common enemies, ending ultimately with the cord of three strands.I have used this passage as the text for a wedding sermon with the following sub-headings:- A job to do together: The synergy of marriage is amazing. It is well illustrated by the English carthorse that can pull up to one ton on its own, while two horses working together can pull up to ten tons!- To pick each other up when you fall: Many marriages fail because the couples are not willing to tolerate each other’s weaknesses and yet this is precisely what makes marriages strong is when we are able to forgive and cover over the other one’s weakness. (But this must be a two way street.)- Intimacy to maintain: If this passage is applied to marriage, then the intimacy and warmth of the bedroom is a key to the marriage, but this sense of warmth, security, and intimacy needs to be present in all the areas of the relationship.- Fighting the common enemies: My mentor, Glen Craig, always said that he thinks that “Fight the _good_ fight” is a good wedding hymn. Couples often end up fighting each other, not realising that the real fight is against a world-value-system that has lost sight of what is really important. The fight is to keep our Christian and Family values in a world that is increasingly materialistic and self-centred.- What is the third strand? It is significant that the first four images are twos and now a three is introduced. I think it is quite appropriate to argue that when we bring God into our relationships and especially into our marriages they become even stronger…While I have applied this passage mainly to marriage, I think it is also appropriate for friendships as well. It is quite possible that he is talking about soldiers in the battlefield who will sleep side by side for warmth. The point is that friendships are valuable and even stronger when we include God in them.
Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.Do not be quick with your mouth Do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before GodGod is in heaven and you are on earth – so let your words be few.
At first glance this passage sounds so strict and forbidding that we are tempted to write it off as part of the Old Testament worship that those of us who have freedom in Christ do not have to be bound by. Closer inspection reveals that this is _not_ typical Old Testament worship. In his by-now-familiar fashion the Teacher examined worship and found a lot that was wrong: The endless sacrifices, the easy manner in which the worshipper’s conscience was eased through the sacrifice of some animal, and the ritualism and mindless repetition did not impress the him at all.Here are the insights the Teacher gained:1. Worship is about lifestyle – “Guard your steps” – Proverbs uses this phrase regularly to denote lifestyle.2. Worship is about listening – There is much to be said for getting to church a few minutes early, and after greeting everyone, to sit down and close your eyes and become quiet within yourself and ready to listen. God _will_ speak – either in the hymns, the prayers, the children’s talk, the readings, the offering or maybe even the sermon(!) – if we are ready to listen! We should not be too quick to want to speak or pray if prayer involves talking. Listening is a very important part of worship – As someone said “God gave us two ears and one mouth – go figure!”3. Worship is thoughtful and thought-through. People are often guilty of being emotionally moved in worship and then they make rash promises and wild commitments. This does not bring honour to God. Our worship should be a serious (but that doesn’t exclude enjoying it) thing.4. Worship is an act of reverance. While Jesus tells us that He does not call us servants but friends and while the Holy Spirit marks us as sons and daughters of God and moves us to call God “Abba”(Daddy) we should never lose the sense of awe, wonder, privilege and reverance when we are in His presence.
A good name is better than fine perfumeAnd the day of death better than the day of birthIt is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feastingFor death is the destiny of every man and the living should take this to heart.Sorrow is better than laughter because a sad face is good for the heart.The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.
We return to the theme of wisdom and look at some of the pithy wisdom sayings that the Teacher has collected. Unfortunately (especially on a Monday morning!) this first group of sayings seems to be more cynical and negative than anything else. We would expect the Teacher to be urging us to “suck the marrow out of life” – to make the most of every opportunity, but here he almost seems to be urging us to be focussed on the negatives.In order to understand the Teacher here, we need to remember the theological and sociological frameworks that shape his thinking… In the midst of a world that is convinced that meaning and purpose lie in wealth, pleasure, and self-centered achievement and coming out of a faith-system that seemed to indicate that we could control our destiny (“Do good and you will be blessed”,) the Teacher, as we said in our first devotion on Ecclesiastes, boils life down to two absolutes: Death and God.In contrast to the Teacher, society does whatever it can to _avoid_ thinking about these two absolutes. We have euphemisms for death and our modern hospitals are more like hotels because we don’t like to be reminded that people die in them. Today people prefer memorial services (where the coffin and body are absent) to funeral services, and hardly anyone every goes to the graveyard or crematorium anymore! We’ve also abstracted God to move Him as far away from our daily lives as we possibly can in a desparate attempt to hide away from His demanding presence.The Teacher’s group of sayings are not really an attempt to be morbid, but a timely reminder in a world that hides from reality (isn’t it funny how people talk about the “real world” when it has more smoke and mirrors than anything else?)We should never try to avoid or insulate ourselves from the troubles of life – they remind us about the deeper realities and take a long-term view. It is the sad-times that cause us to explore life’s meaning and to reach out to God… We think of neither in our pleasures and excesses.In terms of understanding life and finding meaning then, the Teacher reminds us that we learn more from a person’s name (their reputation built up over the years) than from their perfume (or clothes or other status symbols (perfume indicated wealth and status)) Death tells us more about life than birth because we can see how the life has been lived and whether it was worth the birth. Sorrow teaches us more about the realities of life and brings out the people we _really_ are better than pleasure does.We need to avoid at all costs a life that insulates us from life’s realities. It is there that we find God.
Wisdom again: 2
If a ruler’s anger rises against you, do not leave your post;calmness can lay great errors to rest. (10:4) Do not be quickly provoked in your spiritfor anger resides in the lap of fools. Ecc7:9
These two verses illustrate the same principle from opposite sides: Letting our anger get the better of us can cause us to react badly and without wisdom.In the first proverb advice is given about what to do when someone in authority blows their top. Ostensibly what has happened here is that the ruler has dismissed the soldier in a fit of rage, but it would be more prudent for the soldier to stay put because the king will realise the soldier’s importance later.In the second proverb we are urged not to be easily provoked. When one has learned this skill, it is a major advantage that we have gained. I have never made a good decision when provoked. I _have_ made some good decisions when I have been angry, but then I have been angry about the right things. The things and people that provoke us are trying to stir up that ugly side of us that blinds common sense and wisdom and places us in a weak position.Once we learn to recognise provocation it will not easily master us.So whether we are about to lose our tempers with someone or if someone is blowing up at us, the important realisation is that a provoked spirit, a “lost temper”, places the provoked person at great risk in terms of their ability to solve the problems they face in a godly, sensible, and wise manner.
Wisdom again: 3 – Discipline
When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, the hearts of the people are filled with schemes to do wrong.
We all have an inner sense of justice. While this passage could be used as a “proof text” for all sorts of things like the death penalty, corporal punishment, and spanking kids, these issues are one step away from the principle. The _principle_ of this passage is that society desperately needs a clear set of values and a clear set of responses when those values are transgressed.A society plunges into lawlessness when the consequences of transgressions are fuzzy and when the response time is slow. We should not get sucked into whether the sentence for a murderer is execution or life imprisonment – the real issue is that society must respond quickly and clearly with a message that leaves no doubt that this kind of behaviour is _not_ ok. As parents the discipline issue is not so much about whether we spank or remove privileges. The real issue is that there are clear boundaries and a consistent reaction when the boundary is crossed. Long delays between transgression and punishment cause fear and resentment in children. As human beings in families and in society we are constantly in need of reminders that justice is a vitally important issue. Without a clear sense of justice, society _will_ decay and values, morals, and life itself will be devalued. It is important that we do not allow a sense of “human rights” to dilute responsibility in the light of justice. If I violate someone else’s “rights”, I disqualify myself as a beneficiary of those rights.Delays in the justice system and doubts as to whether the system _is_ just will cause those with evil intent to be bolder and can even raise enough resentment in others to push them into acts of rebellious crime.There is room for us to apply these principles in our own contexts (family and work) but they are also relevant for society…
Remember your Creator in the days of your youthBefore the days of trouble comeAnd the years approach when you will say”I find no pleasure in them.”
We’re nearing the end of our journey through Ecclesiastes. The Teacher has relentlessly questioned life and has not candy-coated his conclusions in any way. Life is hard and it is not always fair. Sometimes it looks like life is just a vapour – slipping past us and feeling like it has no substance. Most people search for the meaning of life in all the wrong places.The answers aren’t found in pleasure, work, or power. The Teacher has tried them all and finds the answers elsewhere. As we have seen in earlier chapters the answer lies in the simple rhythms of life lived in the presence of our awesome God. And it is to this point that the Teacher returns now.As he launches into the final chapter and as he has shown us that the only certainties in life are death and a holy God, the Teacher gives us one of his most beautiful poems (read the rest of the chapter if you can) as an urgent appeal to search for and find God while we are still young. And it is not physical age that is at issue here…It is God’s presence, peace and strength in our lives that gives it meaning. Before we grow old and cynical it is vital that we reach out to God who is always reaching out to us. The danger is that life can make bitter and twisted people of us (we grow “old”). We _have_ to hear the Teacher’s urgent plea: “Remember Him!”When life is hard and we begin to feel that everything is meaningless, when we question the point and value of life, when we feel as though the rats are winning the rat race, and when we find very little in life that gives us satisfaction, then we are in danger of forgetting our Creator. When we find ourselves at a point of such absolute frustration with life, we desperately need to reach out to the One who makes sense of it all.It is significant that God is identified as Creator. The Creator has a purpose and plan, the Creator knows where this is headed, and the Creator is also painfully aware of the deviations from His perfect plan and it grieves Him even more than it grieves us (think about Jesus weeping at the tomb of Lazarus even when He knew that He was about to raise Lazarus – futile death was not part of God’s plan: We brought it on ourselves, but He sent His Son to redeem us.)When we remember our Creator, life will not necessarily “come right”, but we’ll find strength and comfort because the Creator is not bound by our brokeness – He can accomplish a new creation in us.Finally… What does it mean to “remember Him” – Sometimes it’s like the prodigal son: We remember that He is good and then we return- Sometimes it’s taking time and effort to put our relationship with Him in the right place in our lives- Sometimes it’s the 30cm journey from our heads to our hearts: From a philosophical cerebral view of God and life to a personal faith relationship with the living and loving God.Remember Him!
Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter:Fear God and keep His commandments For this is the whole duty of man.For God will bring every deed into judgement including every hidden thingWhether it is good or evil.
After a relentless examination of life the Teacher has explored the length and breadth of all that life has to offer and has found that the answers do not lie in pleasure, wealth, or wisdom.The reality is that life is a vapour – it can pass us by all too quickly. Life, if lived in the presence of God in in the awareness of His holiness, can be very meaningful and blessed indeed.I did my thesis on the “Fear of the Lord in Old Testament Wisdom Literature.” I looked at the meanings this phrase “Fear of the Lord” had and I discovered that there was an amazing range. In Latin the range of meanings extends from “mysterium tremendum” to “mysterium fascinans” and everything in between. I found this to be a lovely way of describing our relationship with God: God is always a mystery to us – sometimes this mystery is too tremendous for us and we tremble. But we are also fascinated by this awesome God – as one author put it “We are afraid to draw too near, but we are also too afraid to let go!”Although the Teacher seems to pull us in the direction of “tremendum” when he says “God is in heaven and you are on earth…” he also pulls us toward “fascinans” or relationship when he urges us to remember our Creator in the days of our youth.God is the be all and end all to life and life only makes sense when we live it before Him in faith, reverance, and commitment.