Life is hard…but God is Good

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.

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 knowing that women are being physically and verbally abused.

I hate abortion. 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, 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 Mr. Bah Humbug! Maybe I should leave before I collapse in depression and pessimism.” I freely acknowledge that no teacher in his right mind would choose to teach this text. Yet, in this passage I actually find meaning and motivation to live life. In these ten verses, Solomon shares two important observations (cf. 1:3) with us that will help us to cope with injustice and oppression.

 

  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. 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. 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. 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. 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 hard.

 

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.) 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 once 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.

 

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, which 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. A better translation of the word “tested” is “make clear.” 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.

 

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 shish-kabob. Who knows? Everyone has their own guess when left to their own finite brains.

 

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).

 

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 end times? 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 our beloved pets or whatever pet your family 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 hard.

 

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 – are you ready for this – “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. 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.

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?

 

[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.]

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

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 – the most dangerous place to be a Christian for 14 straight years (Christianity Today ranking). An estimated 100,000 Christians are being imprisoned and tortured. There are 400,000 Christians in North Korea and one out of four are prison camps. This is brutal!

 

Just recently we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day. You cannot talk about MLK without becoming frustrated about 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. Tony Evans, Dr. E.V. Hill, Bishop TD Jakes

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.

 

The official poverty rate in 2015 was 13.5 percent, down 1.2 percentage points from 14.8 percent in 2014. In 2015, there were 43.1 million people in poverty, 3.5 million less than in 2014. (US Hunger and Poverty Facts, Sep 13, 2016.) 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.

I found a cartoon that 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.”

 

Yes, we live in a world of injustice and oppression. Maybe you have been a victim of some form of abuse. Perhaps you were abuse, mistreated, 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.

 

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.

 

You can make a difference in at least one person’s life. You can have a testimony, a ministry, an influence, and an impact. Our church’s mission statement is “people leading all people to a life-changing, ever growing relationship with Jesus Christ.” 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?”

 

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Timing is everything

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.

 

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 tablets.  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.

  1. Expect change(3:1-8).

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.” 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.” 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. Again, timing is everything.

 

After stating his thesis (3:1), Solomon launches into his poem in 3:2-8 (sung by the Byrds in 1965 – Turn, turn, turn and then redone by Bruce Springsteen in 2008).

In these seven verses, he makes twenty-eight statements—fourteen negative statements and fourteen positive ones. 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. 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.” 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.” 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. 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; A time to mourn and a time to dance.” Both sorrow and joy are part of life; without one the other is unrecognizable. 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, we should 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.” 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. In the Old Testament, abstinence from sexual intercourse took place in times of mourning. 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. 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! 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.” In the Old Testament, when people mourned the death of a loved one they tore their clothing and kept silent. When the period of mourning was over, ordinary conversations of the day could continue. 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.” 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. 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.

 

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 song (but not written) 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, so Ecclesiastes entered 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. There – I have said my peace (pun intended).

[Solomon has urged us to expect change. Now he will encourage us to…]

  1. Accept limitations (3:9-11).

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. 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?”

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.

 

Solomon continues in 3:10-11 with these words: “I have seen the task which God has given the sons of men with which to occupy themselves. He has made everything appropriate 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.” 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.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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…]

  1. Enjoy life (3:12-13).

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 know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime; 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 spouse 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. 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. I have been to the Grand Canyon and was able to 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?

Getting satisfaction from the right things – Ecclesiastes 2

What would it take to make you happy? What if you had the wealth of Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg? Would this make you happy? What if you had the success of Oprah or Joanna and Chip Gaines? Do you think you could be happy? What if you had the brains of Albert Einstein 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. 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.

 

  1. 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 mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven. It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men 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. 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. 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). Things that were crooked to his mind he couldn’t straighten out; and there were many gaps he couldn’t fill in (1:15).

 

In 1:16-18, Solomon transitions to seeking wisdom internally. 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 realized 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!” 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. 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? TRY IT! 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. T.S. Eliot once remarked, “All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance.” [So the pursuit of education is not the answer to life’s dilemmas.

 

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

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. 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?’” 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. 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.

 

  • 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, 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. 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 home born 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.”

Consider a fire – As it grows and becomes more destructive, it gets bigger and bigger. The fire is always burning and consuming. And when it finishes, everything is burned. But in the end, it all goes up in smoke. The same can be said of our possessions – no matter how many we gain, they will still be lost when we die.

 

  • Music (2:8b).Solomon says, “I provided for myself male and female singers.” He didn’t need an iPhone; 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. The same is true of pornography – the more a person views, the more desensitized they become to it and then the less normal sex they want to have – up to a point where they cannot enjoy what God has provided.

 

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. 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.”

[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…]

  1. 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. 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.

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

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

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. 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.

 

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 give to one who is good in God’s sight. This too is vanity and striving after wind.” 

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.”

 

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. 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 (James 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.

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.

Ecclesiastes #1, Here today and gone tomorrow

Here today, Gone tomorrow – Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

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 enjoy racquetball, but occasionally, I get on the stationary bike to exercise.

Life is like riding on a stationary 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. Several 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?

In this New Year, maybe you are seeking to discover a purpose and meaning to your life. If so, the book of Ecclesiastes will guide you in this endeavor…but not in the way you might think. Ecclesiastes has been dubbed, “the strangest book in the Bible.” It is an enigma for many Christians, for the bulk of this book is the memoirs of a man that is sharing his observations about what is wrong with life. In Eccl 1:1-11, we learn that life is fleeting and disappointing.

  1. Life is fleeting (1:1-7).

In this first section, we will come to grips with the temporary nature of life. In the first three verses, the author introduces himself and his theme. Verse 1 begins: “The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.” Although our author chooses not to identify himself, his titles or pen names give him away as Solomon. Solomon’s story is recorded for us in the first eleven chapters of 1 Kings. Although King David had many sons, it was his son Solomon who was chosen to be heir to the throne. God so favored Solomon that He appeared to him in a dream offering Solomon whatever blessing he desired. Solomon astutely asked God for wisdom to lead the nation well. He asked for wisdom instead of riches and fame. God honored Solomon’s request, granting him not just unparalleled wisdom, but wealth and recognition as well.

Solomon wrote three books of the Bible: Proverbs, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes. He is considered the wisest and perhaps richest man that has ever lived. He had a fleet of ships that would bring gold to him every day from far off lands. Tragically, Solomon married a foreign woman, which was forbidden by God because of the temptation to be led astray spiritually. Ironically, it was this unwise decision to gain favor from different nations by taking foreign wives that diverted Solomon’s eyes from the one true God. Scripture records that he had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Truly, this diverted Solomon’s devotion, so that it is often said of him that he had a divided heart.

If we were to depict Solomon as someone more modern, he might be considered a mix between Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Hugh Heffner, and Brad Pitt. In Ecclesiastes, what philosophical conclusions does this rich powerful genius come to after living a life with everything at his fingertips? We would expect Solomon’s sermon to be entitled “Seven Habits of Highly Successful Kings.” In 1:2, Solomon gives the theme of his book.

“‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher, ‘Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.’”

This preacher fails to start his sermon with a compelling introduction. There is no attention-grabbing illustration. There is no appeal to felt needs. There is no whetting of the spiritual appetite so his audience will want to hear more. The one called “the Preacher” violates a basic preaching principle. He tells his readers up front that he has nothing to say because “all is vanity.” I regret to say that the translation “vanity” is not the best rendering of the Hebrew word hebel, for in our contemporary speech we typically connect vanity with arrogance. Unfortunately, many contemporary English versions continue to follow the Old English of the KJV. Nevertheless, there is great debate on what the term hebel means. Does it mean temporary or meaningless? It would seem that the word carries both ideas and even a few others. Hebel is an inexhaustible term. It can mean “vapor, deceitful, futile, and fleeting.” It points to what is without real substance, value, permanence, or significance. In other words, no person or pursuit in and of itself will bring lasting satisfaction. Everything is temporal. It may be that the modern Christian reader can do no better than to import hebel into his or her vocabulary, much as has been done with agape and to a lesser extent koinonia. Everything is hebel and therefore of no lasting value.

In this one verse, Solomon uses the word hebel five times. Hebel appears thirty-eight times in Ecclesiastes and only thirty-five other times elsewhere in the Old Testament. The term is used in every chapter of Ecclesiastes with the exception of chapter ten. It also brackets the book (see 12:8). Furthermore, Solomon uses a literary device to bring out a supreme emphasis: “vapor of vapors—the thinnest of vapors.” The Old Testament authors spoke of the “holy of holies,” “heaven of heavens,” and “servant of servants.” Solomon says that everything in life falls under this definition. Whatever hebel is, the world is full of it! The word “all” in the context of what he proceeds to describe refers to all human endeavors (cf. 1:3). This verse is blunt; it is intended to shock the reader out of complacency. It is designed to rock the boat, shake the tree, and pull the chain.

If the above explanation is a bit much for you, let me explain hebel another way. [Take a balloon out of my pocket.] This blue balloon represents your life at birth. I will now provide a visual of your lifespan. [Blow up the balloon.] At the end of your life, this is what happens. [Release the inflated balloon and let it sputter into the crowd.]

Life is not totally meaningless or without any ultimate purpose. The point that Solomon is making is that you live for seventy or eighty years and then you’re gone. Materially speaking, life is short and then you die. You will lose everything you own to the next generation. Your children will rent out your house, purge your possessions, and spend your inheritance. Ultimately, you will be a distant memory at a Thanksgiving meal.

Solomon follows up his theme with a rhetorical question that demands a negative answer. In 1:3 he asks, “What advantage does man have in all his work which he does under the sun?” The answer is there is no advantage. Work seems pointless because it is quickly passing. Furthermore, it is monotonous. The key phrase in Ecclesiastes, “under the sun,” is used twenty-nine times. This phrase is the key to understanding the book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon is writing from his viewpoint—ground level, horizontal, limited, and human. In these words we have a description of what life is like if the heavens are shut off from man. If a bowl were placed over the earth, masking the heavens (i.e., the spiritual world from which God speaks and acts), what would life be like? Given this perspective, what would be the view from earth? This is the experiment which is in focus in the book of Ecclesiastes.

Moms and some dads understand the truth of this verse. Whether it is washing dishes, cleaning sinks, scouring toilets, or washing floors, there is always more to be done. Not to mention, chasing toddlers, mediating fights between siblings, grocery shopping, and playing taxi in your minivan. Preparing creative, well-balanced meals that everyone is ready to devour without complaining is a challenging responsibility, on top of everything else we are responsible for.

What about work? After working and commuting fifty hours a week, you then come home to more work: mowing the lawn, cleaning the garage, changing the oil in the car, doing the taxes, and playing with the kids. All of these responsibilities come at you day-in and day-out. There is no rest for us.

Just recently, we got a second dog.  She eats and sleeps (most of the time).  She likes to sit next to us on the couch and do nothing. Then it dawned on me: If a dog  viewed most of our lives, he or she would see a vicious cycle. We get up, go to work, come home, eat dinner, watch TV, go to bed, and repeat the cycle all over again, until retirement. Our lives are short and boring. It makes one want to say, “Stop the insanity!”

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.

  • 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.
  • 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.”
  • The Wind (1:6). “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.
  • 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).

[Solomon has argued that life is fleeting. In 1:8-11, he shares a second problem with life.]

  1. Life is Disappointing (1:8-11).

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.” 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. Seriously, most of us don’t know history, so we keep thinking we’re coming up with new ideas! 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.

  • 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.

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? Mark Twain was right, “The world will lament you for an hour and forget you forever.”

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.

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, 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! 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 advantage 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? 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.