Today is the second week in our Vivid series, our look at the way God reveals his love for each one of us through the poetic books of the Old Testament, books such as Psalms, Proverbs and Job. Last week, Dave gave us an overview of the Book of Proverbs, a book filled with wise sayings… and a book that God has used over the centuries to tell his people the wisest ways to live… how not to become fools. This week we are looking at the book called Ecclesiastes and please, don’t let that odd name scare you; Ecclesiastes is simply the Latin version of the Hebrew word for ‘The Teacher’… and Ecclesiastes, as we will soon see, reads much like the journal of a teacher: it changes subjects suddenly… it goes from poetry to prose and back again unexpectedly… it repeats certain things over and over… but in the midst of all of its journal-like qualities, Ecclesiastes consistently speaks with the authority of someone who knows what they are talking about… someone who is The Teacher with a capital T.
But, at first glance, for all of its authority, this book can also seem like the Eeyore, the Debbie Downer of the Bible’s 66 books. Why, just one look at the first two verses in the book’s introduction will show you what I mean. Let’s all turn to Ecclesiastes. It’s page 472 in the house Bible in the seat in front of you and if you are in Fishers and you need a Bible raise your hand and one will be brought to you. Ecclesiastes 1:1-2 says this, ‘The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: (that’s an impressive start) “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Not what I’d call something that will fire you up for your day first thing in the morning. And the introduction continues on in this same vein: verse 3 asks the question, ‘What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?’ The implication: not very much. And look at verse 8, ‘All things are wearisome, more than one can say.’ And verse 11, ‘No one remembers the former generationsand even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.’ Not too encouraging is it? Now, it has always been presumed that this ‘teacher, this son of David, the King in Jerusalem,’ was the great King Solomon and Solomon was, and still is, considered to have been the wisest man that ever lived (and you can read about how he came to be so wise in the 3rd Chapter of the Old Testament book of I Kings). And so, even if what he has to say doesn’t start out being exactly motivational, we should still take note. And this is how this wise man finishes up the introduction to his journal of wisdom in verse 12, ‘I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.’ Solomon’s opening conclusion: Everything in life, in the end, is meaningless. The Hebrew literally says, everything is just a vapor, a puff of smoke... something that disappears almost immediately. But Solomon then goes on to tell us that he didn’t come to this sad conclusion simply by thinking about things. No, this conclusion came after he’d done the hard work of trying to find meaning in life in the things that most people spend their lives chasing. In fact, in the next chapters of Ecclesiastes Solomon catalogues his attempts at finding meaning and boy is it a big list! First, he tells us he sought meaning in pleasure. And if there was one person in the ancient world who could have fully pursued any imaginable pleasure it was Solomon. He had the wealth and the means; he could try it all and he says flat out that he denied himself nothing. And yet he found, in the end, that all of this pleasure was meaningless. He then tells us that he set his mind to designing and constructing great building projects; that he lavishly spent money in unimaginable ways hoping to build his way to meaning. Again, he tells us that he denied himself nothing… and history also tells us that his building projects were some of the wonders of the ancient world. Yet, he found this too, in the end, was meaningless. He then tells us he studied nature and gained great knowledge; he also hoarded money and became fabulously rich; he bought great amounts of property; he became an influential, international politician, he held the highest of social positions; he studied all of the great philosophers of the ancient world and he even threw himself into religious observance and yet, in the end, he sadly discovered that nothing in the world holds the key to meaning or deep joy; it was all vapor. In fact, listen to what he says after all of his searching. Verse 17 of chapter 2 says, ‘So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.’ Okay, then. Oh, but it gets worse; as Solomon looked around he also realized that the world was a very broken place: he says he saw oppression, envy, foolishness and greed everywhere. Plus, he also realized that anything he might do to bring healing to these broken places could very easily be undone by those that would come after him. And even worse, and I believe this was Solomon’s biggest fear, not only could the coming generations undo all of his good work, they would forget about him all together. As you read this book you will see this fear-of-being-forgotten-by-coming-generations everywhere… and for good reason. Here is why? From all we can tell, and this may come as a surprise to some, most Jews in Solomon’s day did not believe in life after death. While there are hints of life after death in the Old Testament books that Solomon would have had… that being the first 5 Books of the Old Testament, nothing concrete is ever said in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers or Deuteronomy about life after death. Almost all Jews right up until just a few decades before the coming of Jesus, believed that you lived and you died and that was that. Their idea of ‘living forever’ or ‘eternal life’ was how you were remembered in the collective memory of those that came after you. Being forgotten all together by future generations was the worst of all possibilities. It was as if you’d never lived. And so, for Solomon to have done great things, but leave it all to foolish relatives who would forget all about him was as bad, as meaningless, a circumstance as he could imagine. And yet, this was exactly what he saw happening everywhere and his conclusion, at least at first, was, ‘What’s the use? It’s all meaningless.’
But Solomon was too wise to leave us despairing. He also did a lot of work in the hope of making sense out of what seemed so meaningless. Now, since Ecclesiastes is a book in the Bible a lot of people over the years have just assumed that Solomon’s advice in the midst of all of this ‘vapor’ should be that we should simply turn completely and unreservedly away from the things of this world and toward the spiritual realm… and many commentators have stated that his counsel in the midst of the world’s meaninglessness should have been something like, ‘Just fix your eyes on the things of heaven and forget about the things of this world.’ But, that wasn’t Solomon’s answer at all. In fact, there is nothing particularly religious or spiritual about anything in Ecclesiastes. The big idea of this whole book might actually seem pretty surprising for a book in the Bible: it’s summed up multiple times throughout the book, but here in verse 24 of chapter 2 is one version of Solomon’s consistent conclusion: ‘A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God,for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? For about 95% of the Jewish population at the time almost all of their labor was making eating and drinking possible; almost everyone was a farmer. Eating and drinking was the reward of work well done. So, after much consideration Solomon concludes we will never find purpose in the things of this world, but all things can find meaning in God because the hand of God is present in all things... even in our having food to eat and something to drink. And so, his wise counsel is that we enjoy what we have, especially the simple things, because all that we have, no matter what we are talking about, has been given to us as a blessing from God. God is present everywhere in everything and we should find joy in his graciousness and his goodness. And when Solomon comes to the end of his book and he gives us his ultimate conclusion about life; this is what he says in verse 13 of chapter 12, ‘Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind.’ Fear God. In other words, give God his due; recognize his position; honor him for role he plays in our lives; don’t be foolish and assume you’ve done anything on your own. Fear God, Solomon says and keep his commandments. One good way to define ‘keeping God’s commandments’ would be, ‘to live a life of such character that it doesn’t add to the brokenness of the world.’ And we can do this by not being envious, not being oppressive, not being foolish and not being untruthful. Solomon says, on God’s behalf I fully believe, THIS is the duty of every person… and I believe that Solomon would say that we can best fear and obey God if we focus on the simple things, the day-to-day joys, because it is in the day-to-day joys that we will most clearly, if we are paying attention, see God’s hand in our lives.
Yes, there certainly are a number of Eeyore aspects to this book; for instance, Solomon says that the fate of everyone is the same: we will all die some day; he also says that life is hard, confusing, often difficult and can be, in the end, without meaning; he continually says we can have no confidence that our descendants won’t destroy everything we spent our lives doing. And these are just some of Solomon’s Debbie-downer conclusions. But, I don’t believe Solomon is an Eeyore. First, he is just being honest. The fact is that we will all die… and that our lives aren’t all that long. The fact is that life is hard and we don’t know what our decedents will do with what we leave behind. But, I believe that in spite of all of this Solomon would tell us that life is worth living! Look at Ecclesiastes 3:9-14. What do workers gain from their toil?I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him. The wisest man that ever lived says that God is up to something… something that will endure forever and we get to play a part in that; that’s worth living for! And if God is busy gifting us with the necessities of life we must be important to God… and I believe Solomon would say we’re more than important to God, we are precious and valuable to God; so valuable to him that He, the God of the entire universe, enters into the simplest aspects of our day-to-day lives. That’s something we can find joy in. We should fear him and obey him because he is headed someplace important and he wants to take us with him… and I am confident that Solomon would add that we shouldn’t waste our time imagining that things of any sort will satisfy us, but rather we should live in the satisfying beauty of what God is doing in us and for us and through us and all around us.
Okay. Now that all sounds great but how do I do this? Especially when just about everything in our materialistic, marketing-driven world pushes against all of this… First off, and can I get really honest with you for a moment, I’m here to tell you that now that I’ve lived as long as I have, I know from experience that Solomon is right when he says that most of the things that so many strive to have and to be do not bring meaning or satisfaction. I can testify to the fact that having knowledge, high position, possessions and pleasure as the world defines these things will not satisfy the deeper longings of the soul. They are fleeting and in the end are not only meaningless but leave you empty, disillusioned and often lonely. Take my word for it. I’ve been there; Solomon knew what he was talking about. Also, while I don’t know what it would be like to be wealthy, at least not by our culture’s standards, I know many people who would be called rich in our world and almost to a person they are either keenly aware that there is much more to life than having money or they are insufferably arrogant in their wealth and no one wants to have anything meaningful to do with them. But, I don’t think I need to work at proving Solomon to be right. I think everyone, particularly people who claim to be followers of Jesus, at their core, knows he is right. The bigger question for me, actually, the bigger problem for me as I think about what he has said to us, is this: I don’t really know how to find joy in the moment… in the day-to-day. And here is why: there is always so much to do; there is always the next task, the next step in the grand vision. I have places to go; things to accomplish; things I have to do. Sitting tight in the moment and finding joy in the fact that there is food on the table seems, well, counter-productive. And I know where this all comes from. It comes from not knowing how to be truly thankful. I know that I take so much in life for granted. Think about this with me. It hasn’t been all that long ago that almost everyone in our world had to be continually busy with simply providing the basics of life for themselves, their families and their communities. Many of us have no idea what that is like… and our distance from this makes it so that we take much of the simple stuff for granted. We have the privileged opportunity to be all about self-actualization… reaching our potential… becoming all we can be and in the process we can easily forget to both live in the moment and be thankful in the moment… and we certainly forget that this moment is all we have been given, that no one is guaranteed tomorrow. And I know, at least for me, I can get so busy doing, that I miss all that God has done and is doing for me.
My point in all of this is that I think I’ve earned the right to go Ecclesiastes on you; to be The Teacher for a moment. What lessons does this teacher think we should learn from this book? And none of this is astral-physics. 1) It is always appropriate to take a deep breath, take stock of life and live in the moment; and to be truly thankful in that moment for the simple provisions that come from the hand of God to your doorstep. Live in the moment and be thankful. 2) Don’t waste time imagining that the things of this world of any sort will satisfy. This is huge. A God-centered life can bring meaning to the things of this world, but a self-centered, things-centered life will always end up being meaningless and empty. 3) God is up to something and he wants to take us with him. Our duty on this journey with God is to fear Him, give him the proper respect and to live the kind of lives that bring healing to his world. I can promise you that when you live thankfully and obediently he will show you what he is up to in ways that will make every moment of you your life meaningful and purposeful.
Bottom line: Ecclesiastes is actually a call to joy; but joy is not some sort of uber-happiness. Here is the biblical meaning of the word joy: Joy is the deep satisfaction an artist has when they complete a very difficult and yet worthwhile project. It is the knowledge that something good is finished coupled with expectation of the next possibility. Joy is a substantive sense that something valuable has been undertaken and accomplished. We are called to live joyous lives because in every moment something substantive is being accomplished: God has given us the blessing of his presence and his abundance. Life with God isn’t a vapor; it is meaningful because it has eternal purposes. Now, I know that my saying we should live in the moment and be thankful may not seem very spiritual, but I think God gave us Ecclesiastes to bring about a very practical shift in our thinking. He wants us to stop continually living for some hoped-for future and to take stock of the present. I’m not knocking planning or vision or hopes and dreams, but it can’t be denied that Ecclesiastes calls us to find joy in the moment… to be aware that all of the blessings we have because all of them, from the most audacious to the simplest, is a gift. Life can have great meaning; it isn’t all meaningless. Is it hard? Yes. Can it seem confusing? Yes. But is it purposeful? Absolutely, when we make the center of our lives the God who is with us and caring for us every moment of every day. The Teacher says, ‘If you fear God and obey him your life will be anything but meaningless… it will have meaning because it will be filled with the enduring power, authority and majesty of the kingdom of God.