Wisdom and Some Warnings (Ecclesiastes 9:13-10:20)

Just when you think you’re out of the tough passages in Ecclesiastes, you come along another one. One of the books I’m reading on Ecclesiastes says this about today’s passage: “Out of all the passages in Ecclesiastes, this one is probably the most difficult to interpret and preach” (Sidney Greidanus). It seems to lack coherence. It’s hard to tell what the overarching theme of this passage is. One commentator says, “The topics of rulers and speech, wise and foolish, recur throughout 9:13-10:20, but there is no overall design or movement of thought, and the topical clusterings seem merely associative.”

To which I say: Great! Bring it on! I think we need to be honest and to say that we sometimes find the Bible challenging to us. This is not the first passage that I’ve encountered that is tough. But sometimes those passages are the most rewarding as well. We give up far too easily sometimes. I don’t want to settle for what’s easy, because I believe that this passage has something important to say to us.

So I’ve wrestled this week with this passage. And I believe it has a message for us today. I also believe that it’s a crucial message that we need to hear.

So let’s set the scene. The Teacher is taking a look at life and asking how to make sense of life in a fallen world in which nothing seems to make sense. He’s looking at life from every angle to see where he can find meaning. So far the prognosis has been pretty bleak. Overall, the Teacher has told us, apart from God, life is meaningless. Here and there he’s slipped in an optimistic note, and he has yet to reach his final conclusion, but overall he’s concluded that life is out of our control, and that it’s hard to find meaning in the places that we normally look: pleasure, accomplishment, and fame.

But we still have to live. In this passage the Teacher is going to tell us that there is one quality that we need to pursue if we are going to live well in this crazy world. Every single person here needs this quality. It’s absolutely essential. But then he’s going to give us two warnings about the use of this quality that we also need to hear.

So let’s look at what the Teacher says. What one quality do we need? And what two warnings do we need to hear as we build this quality into our lives?

The One Quality We Need

So first: what is the one quality that we really need if we are going to live well in this world that’s often frustrating and ultimately meaningless apart from God?

If you look at this passage, there is a theme that comes up over and over again. So, in chapter 9, the Teacher talks about a little city with few men that’s saved by the wisdom of a poor, wise man. That’s our first clue. The Teacher goes on in verse 16 to say that “wisdom is better than might.” You then begin to see this theme unfold in the rest of the passage in a number of contexts:

  • You see examples of people who lack wisdom and who make complete fools of themselves (10:2-3). They can’t hide that they’re fools. They show their foolishness just by the way they walk down the street.
  • You see what happens when people are put in positions of power when they lack wisdom (10:5-7). It does not go well. Fools do great damage when they’re put in positions of power.
  • You see illustrations of what happens when people don’t use wisdom (10:8-11): digging a hole as a trap and falling into it yourself; breaking through a wall in haste and not looking for the snake that may be hiding there; doing dangerous work without taking the proper care; not maintaining the equipment you use in your work.
  • You see the necessity of wisdom in our words (10:12-15). Wise words win favor; foolish words destroy.
  • Finally, you see the necessity of wisdom in government (10:16-20). We need wise rulers who know when to feast and when to get to work.

You can see that the passage jumps all over the place, but there is a unifying theme. We need wisdom in our lives. The Teacher is showing us what happens when we let foolishness run rampant. It destroys societies. It destroys our workplaces. It destroys lives. In contrast, he’s saying that we need wisdom. Wisdom saves cities. Wisdom facilitates good work and wise government. In this frustrating and meaningless world, the one ingredient that we really need to live well is wisdom.

Let’s stop and think about this for a minute. The Teacher has said that life is brief and unpredictable and meaningless. You’d expect him to throw up his hands, then, and say, “What’s the use? Live however you please!” But note: the Teacher does not do that at all. He says the opposite. Life is brief and unpredictable. Because of this, we need wisdom!

Let’s be clear about this:

  • We want might - brute strength and power. The Teacher says that wisdom is better (9:16).
  • We want a voice. We want to be heard, and our views to be respected. The Teacher says that it’s better to speak quietly with wisdom than to shout from a position of power (9:17).
  • We want power. Some people have access to armies and weapons. Others have access to other resources that we wish we had. The Teacher says that wisdom is better (9:18).

Wisdom, the Teacher says, can save cities. Wisdom can teach us what to say and what not to say. Wisdom can help us cope with bad political leadership. Wisdom is the one quality we need to survive in this world.

You may be wondering how to get wisdom. I’ll give you a hint: you’re doing it right now. Wisdom comes from understanding who made this world and how he made it to function. The book of Proverbs tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. It begins with understanding who God is and who we are. If you are going to live well in this world, as messed up as it is, you need wisdom. You need to access what God has said in this book about who he is, who we are, and how to live.

That, by the way, is why we spend so much time studying Scripture every week. We want to understand what God has revealed about this world and how to live, and then live in light of that truth.

So that’s the one indispensable quality that we need. If we are going to live well in this often meaningless world, we need wisdom.

Some Warnings

So that’s what he’s saying in this passage. We need wisdom. Application: pursue wisdom in every area of your life by living in light of what God has revealed, because wisdom is indispensable.

But the passage doesn’t end there. In this passage, the Teacher gives us two warnings that we need to hear. So let me give you the first warning:

Warning 1: Wisdom is limited.

This is important. Wisdom is essential, but wisdom is limited. Wisdom is not a panacea that will solve everything. You see this in the story that the Teacher tells at the end of chapter 9:

I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me. There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. But I say that wisdom is better than might, though the poor man's wisdom is despised and his words are not heard.

It really seems that this is not a fictional story told to make a point. This probably happened. The Teacher retells the story. We don’t have a lot of details. We don’t know what this “poor, wise man” did to save the city. Whatever he did, his wisdom had a big impact. Even though the city had few men, even though the siegeworks were great, even though this man was not in a position of influence, his wisdom was enough to save the city. It’s a story that underlines the importance of wisdom. After reading a story like that, who wouldn’t want wisdom?

But it’s not all good news. “Yet no one remembered that poor man.” As soon as the danger passed, he was forgotten. Even worse, “the poor man's wisdom is despised and his words are not heard.” It’s a pretty important note. This man’s wisdom was crucial and it made a real difference. Wisdom is valuable, but it can often go unnoticed, unappreciated, and unrewarded. The Teacher is telling us to pursue wisdom. It’s essential. But don’t assume that just because you build wisdom in your life that everyone will appreciate you, and that everything will go well. Pursue wisdom, but understand its limits.

Warning 2: A Little Folly Undoes Lots of Wisdom

There’s a second warning, and it’s where I want to spend a bit of time this morning. The second warning is this: Understand that it only takes a little folly to undo a massive amount of wisdom. You see this all throughout the passage, but most clearly in 10:1: “Dead flies make the perfumer's ointment give off a stench; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.” This is so important. The image is so strong that if you close your eyes you can almost smell it. The perfumer has used all of his skill to create an ointment that smells wonderful. There was nothing wrong with the fragrance. In fact, there was a lot to like about it. But the fragrance also attracted a swarm of flies. Some of the insects had died, and the stench of their carcasses had turned the perfume rancid. It doesn’t take many dead flies to ruin all the work of the apothecary.

So it is with wisdom. All the benefits of wisdom can be undone by just a little bit of evil. A single mistake can do lots of damage and nullify the work of much wisdom. Or, as somebody’s put it, “It is easier to make a stink than to create sweetness” (Derek Kidner). Philip Ryken puts it well:

Wisdom is sweet, like fragrant perfume. But it does not take much foolishness to turn things sour because folly stinks. All it takes is one rash word, one rude remark, one hasty decision, one foolish pleasure, or one angry outburst to spoil everything.

This is true. I’ve seen it. Years of wisdom can be undone by one unguarded moment of folly. I’ve seen friends undo years of work and ministry with one bad decision. A small amount of folly is enough to undo a massive amount of wisdom.

I want to close here and ask you what flies are buzzing around in your life right now that could die any minute and undo all the benefits of wisdom in your life. A few years ago I was heading to a retreat. One of my friends was going to be there. He pastored in Toronto. God seemed to be blessing his ministry. He moved to the States. He pastored some bigger churches there. Things seemed to be going well for him.

On the way to the retreat I got an email asking if I had heard the news about him. There had been a fly in his life. The fly had died, so to speak. As a result of one moment of folly, he did great damage to his marriage, his reputation, and his ministry. One moment of folly undid massive amounts of wisdom. To this day he’s never recovered.

One of the scariest things to realize is that it takes years to build something valuable. It only takes one minute to destroy something that’s taken years to build. It only takes a moment of folly to undo massive amounts of wisdom.

Let me describe some of the follies that could destroy all the benefits of wisdom in your life:

  • Nobody knows it, but you regularly visit websites. It’s a habit now that you can’t seem to break.
  • It’s not physical - yet - but you are developing an emotional attachment to someone who isn’t your spouse.
  • You’re drunk in private but never when anybody important is around.
  • Your financial dealings aren’t above board, but you haven’t been caught, and you’re hoping you never will be.

What we’re talking about here are secret sins. Right now these may be flies that aren’t yet dead and stinking up the place. Give it enough time, and they’re going to start to smell. Give them enough time, and they’ll outweigh any wisdom and honor you gain in your life. Spurgeon said:

Thou art a fool to think of harbouring a secret sin; and thou art a fool for this one reason, that thy sin is not a secret sin; it is known, and shall one day be revealed; perhaps very soon. Thy sin is not a secret; the eye of God hath seen it; thou hast sinned before his face…A man cannot commit a little sin in secret, without being by-and-by betrayed into a public sin. You cannot, sir, though you may think you can preserve a moderation in sin. If you commit one sin, it is like the melting of the lower glacier upon the Alps; the others must follow in time. As certainly as you heap one stone upon the cairn to-day, the next day you will cast another, until the heap, reared stone by stone, shall become a very pyramid…You will go there every day, such is the bewitching character of it; you cannot help it. You may as well ask the lion to let you put your head into his mouth. You cannot regulate his jaws: neither can you regulate sin. Once go into it, you cannot tell when you will be destroyed.

Take this seriously! A lifetime of wisdom can be undone in a moment of folly.

The Teacher is telling us that we need wisdom. But he’s giving us some warnings: wisdom has some weaknesses. And massive amounts of wisdom can be done in a moment of weakness.

So what do we do with all of this?

First off, would you commit to pursuing wisdom? Particularly, would you commit in your life to reading God’s Word and allowing it to shape your life? Let’s do this together. Let’s commit to not just preaching it on Sundays but digging through it all week long, in small groups, in our families, and on our own. I want Scripture to reverberate in our church and in our lives. There is no other source of wisdom that comes close in helping us understand who God is, who we are, and how to live in this world. It’s not unimportant. It’s not kind of important. It’s very important that we know and understand God’s Word.

Second, most of us are aware of an area of folly in our lives that has the potential to do major damage in our lives. I don’t know what the area is in your life, but I know that all of us have at least one. I don’t want to see your life destroyed. Here’s what I’m going to ask you: bring your secret sin into the open. Secret sins are like mushrooms: they grow best in the dark. Don’t harbor secret sins. Don’t struggle alone. Spurgeon said:

Christians must not tolerate secret sins. We must not harbour traitors; it is high treason against the King of Heaven. Let us drag them out to light, and offer them upon the altar, giving up the dearest of our secret sins at the will and bidding of God. There is a great danger in a little secret sin; therefore avoid it, pass not by it, turn from it and shun it; and God give thee grace to overcome it!

Finally, look to Jesus. The solution is not to look more to ourselves and our own wisdom. The solution is actually to look more at Christ. Tullian Tchividjian put it best:

The hard work of Christian growth, therefore, is to think less of me and my performance and more of Jesus and his performance for me. Ironically, when we focus mostly on our need to get better we actually get worse. We become neurotic and self-absorbed. Preoccupation with my effort over God’s effort for me makes me increasingly self-centered and morbidly introspective.

You could state it this way: Sanctification is the daily hard work of going back to the reality of our justification–receiving Christ’s words, “It is finished” into new and deeper parts of our being every day, into our rebellious regions of unbelief. It’s going back to the certainty of our objectively secured pardon in Christ and hitting the refresh button a thousand times a day. Or, as Martin Luther so aptly put it in his Lectures on Romans, “To progress is always to begin again.” Real spiritual progress, in other words, requires a daily going backwards.

The way forward is actually the way back to the cross. Daily return to what Christ has done. Revel in his wisdom. Work his work into your life. “Preach that to yourself everyday,” Tullian says, “and you’ll increasingly experience the scandalous freedom that Jesus paid so dearly to secure for you.”

When Life's Brief and Unpredictable (Ecclesiastes 9:1-12)

Let me tell you how I think life is supposed to work. If you are a good person, love God, and do your best, then your life should go well. If you’re a bad person, and you hate God, and you’re undisciplined and lazy, then your life shouldn’t go well. The better you are, the better your life should go. It’s really like when you go to a candy machine. You put the money in; if you put the right amount of money in the machine, then the machine whirs, the candy drops, and you walk away getting what you paid for.

Here’s how life actually seems to work. If you are a good person and love God and do your best, all kinds of bad things still seem to happen. I know all kinds of people who deserve bad things, but their lives seem to be going pretty well. On the other hand, I know people who seem to do everything right, but they’ve had nothing but trouble in their lives. Every week I meet with good people who live well, but face huge problems in their lives: sickness, unemployment, burnout, family problems, and more.

So, in contrast to the way I would expect life to work, here’s what life is actually like: It’s like when you go to a candy machine, you put in the money, and nothing happens.

That’s essentially the message of the passage that we have in front of us. We’ve been studying the book of Ecclesiastes, and the Teacher has been trying to draw some conclusions. He’s observed life, and he wants us to confront the hard reality before he tells us what we should do. This passage confronts us with the hard reality of how little we know, and the vast extent of what we cannot handle. You are not in control. Life does not work the way we’d expect.

So this morning I want to do two things and two things only. First, let’s look at the problem so that we can be sure we’re seeing life as it is rather than how we wish it was. Second, let’s look at how to live in light of the brevity and unpredictability of life.

So first, let’s look at problem.

The Teacher says in verse 1 of chapter 9:

But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him.

Here’s what he’s saying. The Teacher has just been examining the seemingly random nature of life. In chapters 7 and 8 he’s been struggling with the question of why bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people. How can a good and powerful God allow this to happen? As he comes to chapter 9, he says he’s been thinking about this. He’s come to two conclusions. One: our lives are in the hand of God. God is sovereign. Life is not random. God is in control of what happens, even if we can’t figure it out. So far, so good. But he also comes to a second conclusion: nobody can tell whether God loves us or is angry with us. If you just looked at the events of life, you would really have no idea whether God is for you or against you, because life is very harsh.

St. Teresa of Avila is supposed to have said, "God, if that's how you treat your friends, it's no wonder you have so few! "That’s not too far off from what the Teacher is saying. For good measure, the Teacher deals with two topics that really bring home the difficulty of trying to live in this world. There are a couple of things that are stacked against us that really make it difficult to know whether God is for us or against us.

First: death. See what the Teacher says in verses 2 to 6. Let me summarize what he says: we all die, and the dead have nothing. In verses 2 and 3, he says that the same event happens to everyone. It happens to both the righteous and the wicked. Everyone dies. In verses 4 to 6, he says that it’s much better to be a live. Of course, we say. The living have hope, he says in verse 4. They didn’t think much of dogs back in that day, but they thought a lot of lions. The Teacher says that a live dog is still way better than a dead lion. The dead, the Teacher says, lose everything.

  • no memory
  • no more reward
  • no remembrance of their lives
  • no more emotions - no love, hate, or envy

They will have no more share in everything that takes place in this world.

The Teacher is saying that death is kind of a bum deal. It’s hard to know if God is for us or against us when we all have to confront the brutal reality of death. As good as life is, there’s still death to deal with at the end. It’s like if someone dropped you from the CN Tower. The ride down would be all kinds of fun, but the ending not so much. If you think about it, life is like that. No matter what you experience in this life, there’s still the brutal reality of death at the end.

A medical student once came to see his pastor after dissecting his first cadaver. The student was shaken from the experience. As he cut through the muscle and other tissue to expose the internal organs, he said to himself, “If this is all that we become at death, what is the point of anything?”

This is all pretty depressing, but it’s reality. The Teacher isn’t going to settle for simple answers here. When you look at life, you have to realize that we have some things stacked against us, not the least of which is death.

But there’s more. It’s not just death that’s stacked against us. In verses 11 to 12, he says that life is not only brief; it’s also unpredictable. Verses 11 and 12 say:

Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.

I don’t know any passage that does a better job of confronting the lies we tell ourselves about the way that life is supposed to work. If you’re at a race, which runner do you think is going to win? The fast one, of course. But not always. In the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, American runner Lola Jones was expected to win the gold in hurdles. She was known to be the fastest in the world. But she tripped on the ninth hurdle and came in not first but seventh. The race is not to the swift. Life is unpredictable.

Which army wins in battle? Goliath was huge and strong. He had won many battles. He had impressive armor. But a young, inexperienced rookie with no equipment came out and took him on, and won. The mighty Goliath died. The battle isn’t always to the strong. Life is unpredictable.

Who’s going to succeed in life? The Teacher gives three types of people we think are going to do well: the wise, the intelligent, and the skillful. These are voted most likely to succeed in school. Everyone recognizes their talents. But go to a high school reunion years later, and who has actually made it? Not the people that you would have expected. Life is unpredictable.

You are not in control. We are not in control of our destinies. Accidents can cause us to fall short of our goal. Time and chance happen to everyone. Life is not only brief, but it’s unpredictable.

The Teacher gives one more example of this in verse 12:

For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.

You’ve probably seen videos of the disaster in Japan. When the earthquake began, people were going about their business. There was no real warning. Disaster fell suddenly upon them. It’s like birds who are taken in a snare or fish that are taken in a net. There’s no warning. Disaster can overtake us like that.

I realize that this is depressing, but it’s so important that we realize this. The Teacher is helping us grasp that life does not work the way that we expect. Good things to not always happen to good people. Bad things do not always happen to bad people. Life is brief and uncertain. Looking at the events of life, it’s hard to know judging only from the events if God is for us or against us.

In a minute we’re going to look at what the Teacher says in light of this reality. What do we do with the fact that life is brief and uncertain? Do we just throw up our hands in despair? How are we supposed to live knowing that this is what life is like?

Before we do that, though, I need to make a couple of pastoral applications here. The first one is to encourage you to really get this so that you’re not surprised when the tough times come, and that you don’t go looking for easy answers when there aren’t any. There are whole groups of people who promise that if you are a good Christian, that you will experience good health, financial prosperity, and happiness. Your marriage will flourish, your kids will all get As and get married and have no problems. You won’t get sick. You will live long and prosper. It’s like a Christian version of Napoleon Dynamite’s campaign promise: live right, and all your dreams will come true. That’s not what the Bible teaches. I’ve been pastor long enough to know that really horrible things happen to really good people for no apparent reason. We need to stop being surprised by suffering.

The other thing I want to do is to say that we need a way of living that can face up to these realities - including death. I once brought home a carload of sod in my car. My car isn’t built to carry a heavy load. I got the sod home, but the shocks were at their full capacity. That car wasn’t meant to carry that kind of weight. We need a faith that can carry the weight of the type of life that the Teacher describes. We need a faith that can withstand the brief and uncertain nature of life. Otherwise we have a faith that’s not going to be of any use when the hard times come.

How do we live in light of this brief and unpredictable life?

Verses 7 to 10 say:

Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.

Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

The first time you read this, you may wonder how you can get from what he’s just said - life is brief and unpredictable - to this. This seems to contradict everything that he’s been saying about the frustration of life under the sun. But what he says here is very important, and we need to hear this.

Let me give you an example. You know that we were away over March Break. We had a great time. The last day I was wishing that we could stay another week. Our place was great. I was with my family. The weather was beautiful. Everything was absolutely perfect. But it was all ending, and the next day we would be going home. I could have spent the last day not enjoying the sunshine and family and vacation. In fact, there were a couple of times I slipped into this during the day. Or, I could squeeze every moment of enjoyment from the vacation as long as it lasted, not in spite of the fact that my vacation was brief and unpredictable but because of it. That’s what the Teacher is saying here. Instead of falling into despair over the brevity and unpredictability of life, use that knowledge to enjoy every minute that God gives you. Enjoy every good gift that God has given you as long as it lasts.

The Teacher mentions a few pleasures we should enjoy.

One is food and drink. Don’t rush through your meals, the Teacher says. Don’t gulp down your food. God made us so that we don’t just eat to live; he made us so we can enjoy it. He’s provided us with a rich variety of fruit, vegetables, grains, meats, and spices, all for our enjoyment. So “eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart.” Psalm 104:15 says that God gives “wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man's heart.”

Then, in verse 8, “Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.” In the Teacher’s time, white garments and oil were symbols of joy. When people were sad they wore sackcloth, and they put ashes on their head. It’s like the Teacher is saying: get out the nice clothes from the back of the closet. Do your hair if you have any. Get out there and enjoy the night. Enjoy your life.

He then gets more specific: “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love..” I have to be honest and confess that I did not always appreciate my wife as I should have. There was a time when I was more likely to grumble about my wife than to enjoy her. It’s hard to imagine now, because I honestly see my wife as one of God’s greatest gifts in my life. I have no reason to complain. The Teacher says that we should not give up until we get to the point at which we can find enjoyment and pleasure and contentment in the marriage that we have. For some of you right now, this is hard to imagine. Trust me: it’s worth fighting for. The Teacher isn’t all sentimental and unrealistic about marriage. You’ll notice how the verse ends: “all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.” Your life is not going to be without difficulties - so find joy in your marriage.

There are people who think that true spirituality is joyless. If you laugh, you’re in danger of compromising your faith. When you smile, they think, the devil smiles. Nothing can be further from the truth. Enjoying God’s gifts is true spirituality.

C.S. Lewis wrote a fictional book from the perspective of a senior devil trying to tempt a junior devil. I’ll never forget the senior devil chiding the junior devil because he allowed his patient - the human that he was trying to tempt - to read a book he enjoyed, and take an enjoyable walk and have some tea. “Where you so ignorant as not to see the danger in this?” he asks. “How could you have failed to see that a real pleasure was the last thing you ought to have let him meet?” There’s something profound there. We were meant to enjoy this life, not despite the brevity and unpredictability of life, but because of it.

How do we do this? How can we live so that even though life is brief and unpredictable, we can find joy in this life? In the beginning, God created the world so that we would love him and enjoy him and all of his good gifts forever. Sin entered the world and destroyed all of this. But now Jesus has died and he’s risen again to save us from our enslavement to sin, so that we could live life as he intended from the beginning: enjoying our food and drink; wearing the best clothes; enjoying our spouses; finding joy and peace even when things are hard.

When we see that life is a gift from God, we will enjoy the gift. When we see that life is brief, but that God has granted eternal life to those who accept Christ’s gift, then we’ll understand that death is not the end. When we see that God is for us, we’ll have a faith that will withstand even the most difficult times. We’ll find joy in this brief and unpredictable life. We’ll be able to say, “

Former White House secretary Tony Snow returned to work after five weeks of cancer treatment. He said, “Not everybody will survive cancer. But on the other hand, you have got to realize that you’ve got the gift of life, so make the most of it.” That’s what the Teacher is saying. And by God’s grace, and especially because of what Jesus has done, that’s exactly what we’ll do.

Let’s pray.

Living with Adversity (Ecclesiastes 6:10-7:14)

A couple of years ago I took my son to see the Pixar animated movie Up about the last adventure of a 78-year-old balloon salesman named Carl Fredricksen. I thought I was going to see a fun story. I wasn’t prepared for one poignant, four-minute scene.

The scene is wordless. The vignette starts with a brief glimpse of Carl and Ellie's wedding day, and then moves to their first home and first jobs. The couple race up a grassy hill together, then look up at the sky and imagine pictures forming in the clouds. Then the clouds are all shaped like babies, and then Carl and Ellie are painting a nursery together. It's an idyllic look at young love and marriage.

But this isn't an idyllic life. The scene shifts to Carl and Ellie in a hospital room with pre-natal diagrams on the walls. A doctor is talking and gesturing. Ellie is weeping into her hands. Next, Carl comforts his wife by reminding her of an old dream they shared when they were children—traveling to a place called Paradise Falls together. Rejuvenated, Ellie creates a dream jar labeled "Paradise Falls," and into the jar goes all of the young couple's spare money.

Again, however, life happens. First their car pops a tire. Then Carl visits the hospital. Then a tree falls and damages the roof of their home. Each of these inconveniences necessitates the dream jar be smashed and the money spent. Soon, Carl and Ellie have gray in their hair. And in a flash they become elderly.

Near the end of the vignette, Carl remembers their dream of visiting Paradise Falls, and he purchases two tickets from a travel agency. But Ellie collapses on her way back up the grassy hill from their youth. We see her in a hospital bed, with Carl holding her hand and kissing her forehead. Then we see Carl sitting alone at the front of a church. He holds a solitary balloon in his hand. The vignette closes as Carl carries the balloon into his house, which has turned cold and gray. The balloon is a lone spot of color against the gloom, and then everything fades to black. In four minutes you see a lifetime come and go.

It's a wonderful triumph of filmmaking. But more importantly, the series of clips and scenes is a portrayal of the human story. Our lives are fun, deep, tragic, and tender. But they are also brief—"a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes" (James 4:14). The scene ends, and you’re left thinking about the brevity of your life. It’s brief, filled with both tenderness and tragedy. How do we live in a world that’s short and filled with so much beauty, but also so much that’s tragic and out of our control?

That’s exactly what the book of Ecclesiastes is about. We’re at the midpoint of the book. Let me give you the abridged version of what the Teacher has examined so far. He’s examined life to try to find meaning. He’s looked at all the ways that we try to find meaning and fulfillment in life - pleasure, work, riches, and even social justice - and he’s found that none of them provide the meaning we’re looking for. He calls it all vanity. Everything, the writer says, is fleeting, elusive, and very temporary.

That’s been the message of the book so far. We’re now in the second half of the book. The second half of Ecclesiastes is about the conclusions that the Teacher is drawing. Given that we can’t find meaning in pleasure, work, or riches, how then should we live?

How do we live when we’re not in control, and when we don’t know what’s good for us?

The problem is put in stark terms in 6:10-12:

Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he. The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man? For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun? (Ecclesiastes 6:10-12)

Here’s what the Teacher is saying. The future, he says, is largely determined by God. God is sovereign; his will prevails. Whatever happens has already been determined by God in the past. We are so weak that we are not able to contend with God about his will. God is the powerful Creator; he is in control; we are mere creatures who cannot dispute with the sovereign Lord of the universe. We don’t know what’s coming. We don’t even know what’s good for us. The things that we think are good for us are often bad; the things we think are bad often end up being good for us. What’s more, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. Will tomorrow be a good day? Or will tomorrow be a day of adversity? We don’t know. Will we be happy? Or will we be mourning? We don’t know. The future is hidden, and we’re not in control. How then do we live?

You know those antique car rides for kids? The cars run on a track, so they go wherever the track goes. The kids get in, and for the first time in their lives they have a steering wheel in front of them. They’ve never driven before. Dad’s beside them, and inevitably as the car comes up to the curve the Dad yells out in mock panic, “Turn! The curve’s ahead!” The kid turns, and in the back the Mom is rolling her eyes. You see, the kids aren’t in control of the car, even though they think they are. The track is. That car is going to go where the track wants it to go no matter how much the kid steers.

The Teacher is saying that we like to think we’re steering our lives. But we’re not. God is in control, and he is taking us exactly where he wants us to go. The problem is that we don’t know where he’s taking us, and we don’t even know if it’s good or bad. So how do we live in a world in which we’re not in control, and we don’t even know what’s good for us?

Well, the Teacher is no pessimist. Chapter 7 gives us the Teacher’s response to the question of how we should live in a world that’s out of our control, a world in which we don’t even know what’s good for us. At first it looks like he’s making a number of random comments in verses 1 to 13. They look like proverbs, like pithy statements that communicate basic truths. But there’s a theme to what he’s saying.

He’s been saying that God is in control of our lives, and not us. We can’t argue with God’s purposes, and we don’t even know what’s good for us. So how do we live when we’re not in control, and adversity may be coming our way? In chapter 7, the Teacher gives us the answer. He gives us three examples of things that could come our way that might be bad, and then argues that they’re actually good. The main point he’s making in this passage is this: God is in control, so look for what’s best even in what looks bad. There are three things that we normally think are bad, and that could come our way, but the Teacher says they can actually be good. These three things are death, rebuke, and persistence. Nobody would choose to experience these three things, but the Teacher says that they are actually better than if we avoid them.

First, death. Read verses 1-4 of chapter 7:

A good name is better than precious ointment,
and the day of death than the day of birth.
It is better to go to the house of mourning
than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
and the living will lay it to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.

Here, the Teacher says, thinking about our death is better than living in denial. This is surprising at first. We can understand the first part of verse 1: “A good name is better than precious ointment.” Nobody would debate that. You know the value of a good name. You can buy ointment; you can’t buy a good name. But then he says that in the same way, the day of death is better than the day of birth. How does that make sense? One would think that there’s more joy at a birth than there is at a death. He goes on to say in verse 2 that it’s better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting. Is it really better to go to a funeral home than to a wedding reception? Few would say so. Then the Teacher gives us the reason why this is so: “for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.”

Here’s the reason: because we can’t afford to live in denial of death. Everything in us wants to believe that we’ll never die. It’s so easy to buy into this, and there are a lot of products at Shoppers Drug Mart that will help you perpetuate this belief. We can’t afford to live in denial about the fact that our life is short, and that we will die.

A family from our church visited a crypt (Capuchin Crypt) in Rome this past summer. The crypt displays the skeletal remains of over four thousand bodies of its friars buried in its order. At first they were scandalized by this. As they were leaving the crypt, they came across a sign that explained the display: "What you are now we used to be; what we are now you will be.” All of a sudden it made sense. The display is a silent reminder that this is our future too.

Charles Spurgeon said this about death:

It is much nearer to us than we think. To those of you who have passed fifty, sixty, or 70 years of age, it must, of necessity, be very near. To others of us who are in the prime of life, it is not far off, for I suppose we are all conscious that time flies more swiftly with us, now, than it ever did. The years of our youth seem to have been twice as long as the years are, now, that we are men. It was but yesterday that the buds began to swell and burst—and now the leaves are beginning to fall and soon we shall be expecting to see old winter taking up his accustomed place. The years whirl along so fast that we cannot see the months which, as it were, make the spokes of the wheel! The whole thing travels so swiftly that the axle thereof grows hot with speed. We are flying, as on some mighty eagle’s wing, swiftly on towards eternity. Let us, then, talk about preparing to die. It is the greatest thing we have to do—and we have to do it soon—so let us talk and think something about it.

You’re not in control of your life, and you wouldn’t choose to encounter death. But it’s a good thing, because it keeps us from living in denial about our own future death, says the Teacher.

But there’s more. There’s a second thing that we’d rather avoid, but that can be very good for us.

Second, rebuke.

In verses 3 and 4, the Teacher has already told us that sorrow is a better teacher for us than laughter. Verses 5 and 6 continue this theme:

It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise
than to hear the song of fools.
For as the crackling of thorns under a pot,
so is the laughter of the fools;
this also is vanity.

The Teacher is drawing a contrast. On one hand you have boisterous laughter, the songs and the laughter of fools. You can picture the silly laughter of a group of friends who have had a bit too much to drink, or the locker room antics of a bunch of guys acting goofy. He compares this to the sound of crackling thorns under the pot - in Hebrew it’s a rhyme, sort of like saying that it sounds like “nettles crackling under kettles” (Phil Ryken). If you burn thorns, it will make a lot of noise, but it won’t last long, and it won’t give much heat. You can laugh and sing at a party, but it’s not likely that you’ll learn anything.

On the other hand, the Teacher says, is the rebuke of the wise. If you had to choose between door number one (laughter and singing) and door number two (the rebuke of the wise), which would you choose? The Teacher says that it’s far better to hear the rebuke of the wise. We need this. The rebuke of the wise can save our souls.

Tony Evans tells about the time that he was driving down a one-way street. All of a sudden he saw a car coming towards him. He was alarmed; that guy was totally wrong. He heard voices all around him trying to get his attention. It turns out that it wasn’t the other car that was going the wrong way; he was. They were trying to get his attention, to prevent him from going further down that road. He writes:

I suspected that there were two reasons for their concern. One is the damage that I could do to myself. The other is the damage I could do to others. They could have simply ignored it, and said, “That’s his business.” Or, they could do what they did, which is try to get my attention, because they understood that when you’re going the wrong way, somebody needs to confront you, so that you can reverse your direction.

Nobody goes looking for rebuke, but it’s needed. It’s better than the laughter of fools.

Finally, the Teacher says, there are occasions that call for patience.

Read verses 7 to 10:

Surely oppression drives the wise into madness,
and a bribe corrupts the heart.
Better is the end of a thing than its beginning,
and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit.
Be not quick in your spirit to become angry,
for anger lodges in the bosom of fools.
Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.

Here, the Teacher first cautions us against the abuse of power in verse 7. But then he tells us to take the long view as we look ahead. The end of a thing is better than the beginning, he says, and the patient in spirit are better than the proud in spirit. Don’t become nostalgic and long for the good old days, and don’t get impatient. When you’re in the middle of the muck, this is hard stuff! If you have a job you hate, you might long for the past, or want to escape from the present, but in the meantime you might miss what God wants to teach you if you just stick with it. If you’re trying to save a marriage, you might have to commit for the long haul before you see any payback. It’s easy to long for the old days or to want to give up, but hang in there. The end is better than the beginning, but you’ll never see it if you’re not patient.

Our temptation in adversity is always to look for the easy way out. It’s always tempting to look back in nostalgia or to look for a way out. How often do we miss the payback that comes from patiently enduring and looking to the end with true grit?

God is in control, so look for what’s best even in what looks bad. Look for what’s good even in the face of death, when being rebuked, and even in the middle of a situation you’d rather escape. These things aren’t what we’d choose, but there’s a lot of good in them if we’re willing to learn.

What’s really needed, the Teacher says, is wisdom. In verses 11 and 12, the Teacher sings the praises of wisdom. If you have wisdom you’ll be able to see the good even in what’s bad. Wisdom is as valuable as an inheritance or a small fortune. It’s even better, actually. It will give you life. When you’re wise you’ll be able to see the good even in what’s bad.

So here’s the conclusion in verses 13 and 14:

Consider the work of God:
who can make straight what he has made crooked?

In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.

Here’s what he’s saying: God is in control of your life. You don’t know what’s coming your way, and even if you did, you wouldn’t know what’s good and what’s bad. So enjoy the days of prosperity that God gives you! But even in the days of adversity, consider God. You don’t know what he’s up to. He has a purpose that you may not know about, so look for what’s good even in adversity. God is in control, so look for what’s best even in what looks bad.

Paul wrote:

What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32)

If God loved us enough to give us his Son, who took our sins and died for us willingly and out of great love, then we can trust that God has a purpose even when we don’t understand it, even when we are going through times of adversity.

In his book If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil, author Randy Alcorn recalls when his friend, writer Ethel Herr, had a double mastectomy. Two months later doctors discovered that the cancer had spread. One of Herr's friends, shocked and fumbling for words, asked her, "And how do you feel about God now?" Reflecting on the moment the question was posed to her, Herr says:

As I sought to explain what has happened in my spirit, it all became clearer to me. God has been preparing me for this moment. He has undergirded me in ways I've never known before. He has made himself increasingly real and precious to me. He has given to me joy such as I've never known before—and I've no need to work at it, it just comes, even amidst the tears. He has taught me that no matter how good my genes are or how well I take care of my diet and myself, he will lead me on whatever journey he chooses and will never leave me for a moment of that journey. And he planned it all in such a way that step by step, he prepared me for the moment when the doctor dropped the last shoe … God is good, no matter what the diagnosis or the prognosis, or the fearfulness of the uncertainty of having neither. The key to knowing God is good is simply knowing him.

God is in control, so look for what’s best even in what looks bad.

Enjoying God’s Daily Gifts (Ecclesiastes 5:8-6:9)

The website WikiHow is a handy resource to learning how to do pretty much everything. You can learn how to stay out of a truck’s blind spots, how to make a home brewery, how to get six pack abs, how to know if a guy or girl likes you. You can even learn how to get rich:

It seems that everyone wants to get rich. Many books have been written on this subject, classes have been taught by many who claim to show you an easy way to get rich, rich people have given advice on how to get rich, and many other schemes have been developed that guarantee you will get rich fast. Getting rich is one of the main goals of many people. Here are some techniques that may help you succeed if this is what you want to do.

Are you ready? You may want to write this down. Actually, it’s a pretty boring list. It’s a disappointing one, actually:

  • Define rich
  • Get a job
  • Keep your eyes and ears open
  • Delay gratification and cut expenses
  • Save money fast
  • Then stay rich

There’s also this piece of sobering advice:

Get rich quick schemes are invariably scams. Avoid them. There is no such thing as free money unless you inherit it. Then you must handle it wisely, or you will lose that as well. As there is no free lunch, nothing can be obtained without struggling for it. The best way to get rich quickly is having a plan and able to implement it successfully, if possible with a well-experienced team interested in helping you.

It seems like everyone wants to get rich. In the past, thousands joined the gold rush. Today, we search for high paying jobs. Some try lotteries and casinos or rolling up the rim to win. It’s highly unlikely that any of us are going to become filthy rich, but we sure want to get enough so that we’ll be comfortable. We want to have a comfortable life, to earn just a little more money, to be debt-free, to buy some nice things and travel if we want, and to have enough money until we die.

We’ve been studying the book of Ecclesiastes together. There was also a huge hunger for riches when the Teacher wrote Ecclesiastes. The land of Israel had become a province in a huge empire. International trade was booming. Some people struck it rich; others dreamt and worked hard hoping that they too could join the ranks of the rich, or at least the rich enough.

The Teacher, though, gives us a warning. The warning is this: there’s danger in pursuing wealth. Do you remember those commercials for prescription drugs in the States? They sound awesome for the first part of the commercial. Near the end you hear something like this: “Side-effects may include heart failure, coma or death. Ask your doctor if this drug is right for you.” At the end of the commercial, you want to say, “No! There’s not a chance that I’m going to take that medication!”

We live in a world that highlights all of the benefits of our desire for wealth. In this passage the Teacher says, “The side effects of desiring wealth may include…” So let’s pay attention to what the Teacher says, because he can spare us a lot of heartache. He’s cluing us in on how to live faithfully and well in this world.

Let me describe how the text before us is structured. What we have before us is something called a chiasm. You can picture a chiasm as a matted frame that draws our attention to what’s at the center of the frame. The outside pictures - the beginning and the end of the passage - tell us something. Then the middle pictures - the matte in the frame - tell us something else. Then at the centre of the frame we get the main idea. Another way to look at it is as a pair of staggered bookends around a central point, or a stacked pyramid building up to its main point.

So let’s look at what the Teacher says in the beginning and the end of this passage, which is kind of like the frame of the picture that he’s painting for us. And at the beginning and end of this passage he tells us something we really need to hear:

1. People who pursue wealth won’t be satisfied.

That’s the first thing he tells us in 5:8-12 and 6:7-9, which bookend this entire passage. The Teacher makes the point in repeated ways that people who pursue wealth won’t be satisfied. This is a pretty harsh reality, but it’s much better to know this up front than to spend a lifetime pursuing wealth and finding this out when it’s too late.

The Teacher gives us three reasons why we won’t be satisfied pursuing wealth.

For one thing, our greed often leads to injustice and oppression. Our desire to get ahead can lead to us making choices that will hurt those who are more economically vulnerable than we are. In verses 8 to 9 he talks about the effect of our pursuit of wealth upon those who have less. The problem with the poor is that they often work for someone who’s trying to maximize profits from their labor. The goal is to get as much from them as possible for the least amount of pay possible, so that you can make the most amount of money from them possible. But that boss also has a boss who’s trying to do the same with them. Human greed, left unchecked, prevents justice for the poor.

There’s a second reason that we won’t be satisfied in pursuing wealth. It’s that more money brings more headaches. Read verses 10-12:

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.

The Teacher says that more money and wealth don’t satisfy. Why not? The more money you have, the more headaches you’ll have. Verse 11 talks about all the increased expenses that come when you have more money.

When people become rich, they will need a maid to clean their house, a gardener to trim their lawns, a nanny to watch their kids, a chauffeur to drive their car, an accountant to keep their books, a broker to invest their money, a bodyguard to protect themselves and their family. All these people and more have to be paid. In addition, the tax man will require a good cut, and charities will fill their mailboxes with requests for donations. They will also discover that they have many so-called friends who would like to relieve them of their money. “When goods increase, those who eat them increase; and what gain has the owner?” Nothing! There is no gain. All the owner can do is “to see them with his eyes.” The owner merely gets to watch as others consume his goods. There is no gain for the owner. (Sidney Greidanus)

This is so much so the case that the Teacher says that it can keep the rich awake at night. The laborer who doesn’t make as much lies asleep at night. The rich, he says, can lie awake at night worrying about their riches. They see it slipping away as more and more people want a piece of the pie. They fret about their investments and what the markets are going to do. They second-guess themselves about that trade they made yesterday. They’re anxious about a recession. Will they lose everything? After all, they have much more to lose. The desire for wealth can actually cause you to lose sleep.

There’s a third reason why we won’t be satisfied in pursuing wealth. It’s at the other bookend, in chapter 6:7-9. It’s that no matter how much money we have, we never quite have enough. If you’re famished after church, I can take you out for lunch and order enough food so that eventually you say, “I’ve had enough. I can’t eat anything more.” That’s not the way that it works with money. No matter how much we make, we want just a little bit more. 6:7 says, “All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied.” We never have enough. We always want just a little bit more.

If you buy a child a battery-operated toy, the box will often say “batteries not included.” The Teacher is telling us that if we pursue wealth, we need to understand that the wealth comes with a sign, “satisfaction not included.” What you’re looking for can’t be found in wealth, no matter how much you have. George Hebert once wrote a poem about that. He pictured God making man by taking a glass, and pouring out as much blessing as he could on us: riches, beauty, wisdom, honor, and pleasure. But when the glass was almost empty, God decided to stop pouring. The only thing that God didn’t pour out was rest, deep soul rest. “For if I should (said he) / Bestow this jewel also on my creature, / He would adore my gifts instead of me.” God has made this world, the Teacher says, so that no amount of money will ever satisfy our search for meaning. We’ll never find rest and satisfaction in wealth, because we’re meant to find it in God.

“If anything is worse than the addiction money brings,” writes Derek Kidner, “it is the emptiness it leaves.”

The Teacher says that if we pursue wealth, we won’t be satisfied. We’ll be tempted to oppress others; we’ll have all kinds of headaches because of our money; and we will never have enough to truly be satisfied.

But that’s not all. The Teacher has give us the bookends, the frame, of the chiasm. He now moves closer to the main point he’s going to make by coming in and making a second point:

2. It’s evil when people don’t enjoy life like they’re supposed to.

We’ve seen the first set of bookends. Now we’re going to move in a bit closer to the central point. The Teacher has told us that people who pursue wealth won’t be satisfied. Now he’s telling us that this is wrong. It’s evil. We were meant to find joy and satisfaction in life. Turn back to 5:13:

There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand.

The Teacher calls this a “grievous evil.” You could literally call it “a sickening evil.” The Teacher is saying that it makes him sick to even think about this. What is he talking about? It’s about somebody who hoarded riches and then lost it all. We don’t know how it happened. It could have been a bank failure, or a recession, or a war. Overnight, they lost everything. Verse 15 describes the result: no net gain. Everything lost. Again in verse 16 the Teacher says that this is a grievous evil. You can spend your whole lifetime accumulating wealth, and in the end it can slip through your fingers, and you can lose it all. All it takes is one bad venture, and an entire lifetime is wasted. The result in verse 17 isn’t pretty: vexation, sickness, resentment.

The Teacher then gives us another picture, this one even more tragic. In chapter 6:1-6 he adds another story of a rich person who doesn’t enjoy life. He has everything: wealth, possessions, and even honor. He has everything that his heart desires. He has a hundred children. He lives a long life. He has everything that an Israelite desired: many children, a long life, and financial success.

He has everything except for one thing: the ability to enjoy God’s daily gifts. We read in 6:2, “God does not give him power to enjoy them.”

We don’t know why he wasn’t able to enjoy everything that he had, but we know that there are lots of people like him. In his autobiography Just As I Am, Billy Graham recalls a story of such a man:

Some years ago Ruth and I had a vivid illustration of this on an island in the Caribbean. One of the wealthiest men in the world had asked us to come to his lavish home for lunch. He was 75 years old, and throughout the entire meal he seemed close to tears. "I am the most miserable man in the world," he said. "Out there is my yacht. I can go anywhere I want to. I have my private plane, my helicopters. I have everything I want to make my life happy, yet I am as miserable as hell." We talked to him and prayed with him, trying to point him to Christ, who alone gives lasting meaning to life.

Then we went down the hill to a small cottage where we were staying. That afternoon the pastor of the local Baptist church came to call. He was an Englishman, and he too was a widower who spent most of his time taking care of his two invalid sisters. He was full of enthusiasm and love for Christ and others. "I don't have two pounds to my name," he said with a smile, "but I am the happiest man on this island."

Billy Graham relates how he asked his wife Ruth after they left, "Who do you think is the richer man?" She didn't have to reply because they both already knew the answer.

Martin Luther said that these verses are “a description of a rich man who lacks nothing for a good and happy life and yet does not have one.” It’s a story that’s repeated countless times even in our neighborhood - people who have everything except for happiness.

Not only that, but this man dies, and for whatever reason he doesn’t receive a proper burial. Again, we don’t know why, but his death goes largely unnoticed. He had everything but ends up with nothing. Karl Barth once talked about the day that he would die:

Some day a company of men will process out to a churchyard and lower a coffin and everyone will go home; but one will not come back, and that will be me.

This is the future of the man who has everything. Eventually he too will die and have nothing.

The Teacher concludes that a stillborn child is better off. This is harsh. “A long life without enjoyment…is far worse than no life at all” (William Brown).

You can’t make the point more strongly than this. The first thing that the Teacher has told us is that when we pursue wealth we won’t find satisfaction. The second thing that the Teacher has told us is that this is evil. It’s a tragedy when people do not enjoy their lives. It makes him sick.

What, then, are we supposed to do?

So: Enjoy God’s daily gifts.

I mentioned that this passage is a chiasm. It’s bracketed with sub-points, building up to the main point. The main point is found in verses 18-20:

Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.

People who pursue wealth won’t be satisfied. It’s sickening to see someone who has everything except for enjoyment. So, the Teacher says, enjoy God’s daily gifts. I like how Sidney Greidanus puts it:

It is true that God has given us but few days here on earth. There is nothing we can do about this. But there is something we can do about how we live those few days on earth. We can use them to pursue money and end up with vexation, sickness, and resentment. Or we can begin every morning with the goal of enjoying the day God is giving us. We can start with the common, everyday things, the Teacher suggests: find enjoyment in our food, and drink, and our toil. We don’t have to be rich to find something to enjoy each day.

Instead of pursuing wealth, enjoy God’s daily gifts. More isn’t necessarily better. Enjoy what God has given you. Life is meant to be enjoyed with laughter, dance, love, and thankfulness. It’s only when we treat the good things of life as ends in themselves that they become deterrents to happiness.

By the way, this is not just the message of Ecclesiastes. The apostle Paul wrote much later:

Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. (1 Timothy 6:6-10)

If we have food and clothing and Jesus, we have enough.

Bryan Wilkerson tells the story of a couple who exemplifies what the Teacher is saying:

Charlie and Agnes are some of the meekest people I've ever known. Charlie is a bright, energetic, hard-working man who could have been successful at just about anything he set out to do. What he set out to do was mission work. He spent his entire career working with some of the lowliest people on earth—alcoholics on skid row…At a time in life when most people his age were playing golf or taking cruises, Charlie would commute every day to minister to homeless men on the streets of New York.

You don't get rich doing mission work your whole life, but every once in a while, Charlie and his wife, Agnes, would get to do something special. One year they invited me and my wife, Karen, to join them for a night on the town. Someone had given them tickets to hear Handel's Messiah at Carnegie Hall—velvet-covered seats in a private booth. It was a great night, and we all enjoyed it. As they drove us home that night, Karen and I were sitting in the back seat, and I was admiring Charlie and Agnes. They were all dressed up for their big night out. She was sitting close to him, like they were high school sweethearts. They struck me in that moment as two of the happiest people on earth. Just then I noticed a little plaque they had stuck to the dashboard of their old Chevy. It explained everything: “God always gives what's best to those who leave the choice to him.”

Charlie and Agnes had long ago given up striving, fretting, and demanding things from God and from life. Instead they had surrendered to God their talents, their careers, their safety, their material needs, and even their retirement. Instead of chasing the abundant life, they waited for God bring it to them.

Instead of pursuing wealth, enjoy God’s daily gifts. “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32 ESV)

The Danger of Worship (Ecclesiastes 5:1-7)

This morning you’ve come from home. You may have fought with your family on the way. You may have come on time; you may have come late. You may be thinking about what you’re doing for lunch. But what many of you may not have realized is that you’ve come to a dangerous place this morning. Please don’t tell our insurance broker, but this is a dangerous place. Pastor and author Eugene Peterson put it this way:

Sometimes I think that all religious sites should be posted with signs reading, "Beware the God." The places and occasions that people gather to attend to God are dangerous. They're glorious places and occasions, true, but they're also dangerous. Danger signs should be conspicuously placed, as they are at nuclear power stations. Religion is the death of some people.

Did you hear that? Beware the God. You are coming to a dangerous place this morning. In the book of Exodus, Moses went up the mountain to meet with God. Think about the privilege that it would have been to meet with holy God. In the preparations for this meeting, the people were warned not to come near the mountain because of the danger. We read in Exodus 19 that the mountain was wrapped in smoke, and that God descended in fire, and that the entire mountain trembled. The sound was overwhelming. God warned the people to stay back from the mountain so that God didn’t break out against them. Even an animal approaching the mountain would have to be stoned to death. Beware the God!

Let me say it again: you are coming to a dangerous place this morning. It’s dangerous to worship God, so be careful. We’re especially in danger because many of us have had mornings like the one we just saw on the film. You may have stayed up too late last night. You may have fought on the way here. Who knows what’s happened? It’s easy to come in here without adequately preparing for what’s going to take place.

This morning’s passage helps us understand the danger we face when we come to worship God together, and how we should act as a result.

Guard Your Steps

We’ve been studying the book of Ecclesiastes together. Ecclesiastes is a book of the Bible that’s intended to help us understand how to live wisely in the world. It’s probing the meaning of life and helping us understand where and how to find true meaning. He’s visited the courtroom, the marketplace, the highway, and the palace. Now he visits the temple and considers what happens there.

Listen to what the Teacher says about worshiping God. Verse 1 says, “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God.” There you have the core of what he’s going to tell us in this passage. He’s putting up a danger sign for us. He’s essentially saying:

Be careful...Think of what you are about to do. You are not just dropping in on a neighbor for a friendly chat. You are not just passing time with a friend. You are going to “the house of God.” You are going to the place where the almighty Creator stoops down to meet with you. “Guard your steps!” Think of Moses meeting God at the burning bush. God said to him, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). “Guard your steps!” (Sidney Greidanus)

What he’s doing is issuing a warning, and it’s one we probably need to hear. His warning isn’t for people who never go to church. It’s for those of us who are well-meaning and who show up for church, who like to sing a good song and hear a good sermon, but sometimes find it hard to pay attention. It’s for those of us whose thoughts wander, and who are full of good intentions, but who never quite follow through. The Teacher is warning us against sleepwalking through church. You don’t come to worship God half-awake and stumble your way through worship and then stumble out.

Did you see the video of the lady who was texting while walking though a mall? She walked out of a department store texting on her phone. She kept walking and she walked right into the fountain out of the store. A security video caught this, and they posted it on YouTube. I checked the other day, and 3.5 million people have watched this video. She’s an example of how many of us spend our lives: half-present, not even aware of what’s going on around us.

Business guru Seth Godin writes:

Yes, you shouldn't text while driving, or talk on the cell phone, or argue with your dog or drive blindfolded. It's an idiot move, one that often leads to death (yours or someone else's).

I don't think you should text while working, either. Or use social networking software of any kind for that matter. And you probably shouldn't eat crunchy chips, either.

He’s saying: Don’t go through life half-present. I think the Teacher would add: Even if you do go through life half-there, don’t do this at church. Don’t text and worship. Don’t show up half-awake and stumble through what’s taking place here, because we come to meet with the God of the universe. This is not safe. It shouldn’t be approached casually.

What does this mean? The Teacher gives us two specific instructions on how we can guard our steps as we come to worship God.

First: Come prepared to hear from God and his Word.

Read verses 1 to 3 with me:

Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. For a dream comes with much business, and a fool's voice with many words.

There’s something strange going on as we gather together. There’s an old book on writing called If You Want to Write that’s become a classic. The first chapter of the book is: “Everybody is talented, original, and has something important to say.” We’re steeped now in this way of thinking. Self-expression is huge. We tweet. We blog. We share our thoughts on Facebook. We’re used to speaking and telling others what we have to think.

The danger is that we’ll come to worship with this attitude as well. The Teacher essentially says in these verses that we should come to worship with the expectation that we listen more than talk. The picture is that of a worshiper walking into the house of God, the holy sanctuary. It would have been the temple in Jerusalem when this was written, but it applies to any place that is set aside for worship. The Teacher is telling us that there’s a right way and a wrong way to enter as we come to worship God.

The right way is to come with our ears wide-open. We come to sit and to receive what God has written in his Holy Word. As we worship, it’s time to read and preach the Word of God. Philip Ryken says, “Understand that whenever we go to worship, we enter the presence of a holy God who has gathered his holy people to hear his Holy Word.”

The wrong way is to come a little too quick to speak. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter.

The Teacher would agree. He cautions us not to be rash with our mouths, not to be quick to utter words before God. We should come prepared to hear what God has to say.

The reason he gives us is at the end of verse 2: “For God is in heaven and you are on earth.” In other words, remember the tremendous distance between God and us. God is in heaven; we are on earth. God is far superior to us. He is infinite; we are limited. He is Creator; we are created. His thoughts aren’t our thoughts; his ways are higher than our ways. Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “Knowing how widely the divine nature differs from our own, let us quietly remain within our proper limits.”

So we have to come to listen, to hear. I can’t tell you how important this is. Take what we’re doing right now. I’m speaking; you’re listening. It seems wrong for one person to do all the speaking - unless the person doing the speaking isn’t speaking for themselves. The only way it makes sense for one person to be speaking is if the person is speaking on behalf of someone else who does deserve to be heard. Thabiti Anyabwile puts it this way:

The Christian worship service is inherently dialogical. The dialogue, however, involves a more important party than any living human. The Lord of the Universe speaks during the service. We have the wondrous privilege of being able to speak to Him as a community of saints. When God speaks through the exposition of His word there certainly will be many reactions, but as our Sovereign speaks there should not be an interruption in favor of our pooling our comments and sharing our insights. Our best wisdom is foolishness before God. Better to first listen to the One who speaks, then talk with one another about it afterward.

So I’d better come prepared to speak not my words but God’s. And all of us should come, guarding our steps, prepared to hear from God and his Word. Come expecting God to speak, and don’t interrupt. Respond, but don’t interrupt.

But that’s not all.

Second, the Teacher says, do what you say.

Read verses 4-6 with me:

When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it, for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin, and do not say before the messenger that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?

In Bible times, people made vows to God, often in the context of public worship. The problem is that it’s much easier to make a vow than to keep it. The Bible is very clear that when we make a vow to God, we’re required to keep it. It’s much better to not make a vow than to make a vow and then not keep it. Deuteronomy 23:21-23 says:

If you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay fulfilling it, for the LORD your God will surely require it of you, and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from vowing, you will not be guilty of sin. You shall be careful to do what has passed your lips, for you have voluntarily vowed to the LORD your God what you have promised with your mouth.

That’s exactly what the Teacher is saying. God takes it very seriously when we make promises to him and then fail to keep them. It’s a dangerous thing to come into worship and make promises to God and then not keep them.

It’s dangerous thing to stand before God and to promise to live together as husband and wife “till death do us part.”

It’s dangerous thing to present our children before the Lord and vow to instruct them in the Christian faith and to lead them into Christian discipleship.

It’s dangerous to read a covenant in church as we did last week and make vows before the Lord of how we will relate to each other.

It’s dangerous to pray and make commitments to God.

It’s dangerous to sing many of the songs we sing: “O Jesus, I have promised to serve thee to the end.” “Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold.” “Jesus, all for Jesus, all I am and have and ever hope to be.” “I will follow you all of my days.”

It’s dangerous to vow to give a certain amount to God and then renege. Verse 6 is about that. The Teacher seems to be referring to the vow that people made to pay a certain sum to the temple treasury. When they failed to come through, the priest or some other messenger would come and visit them to remind them of their vow. People might respond that their vow was unintentional, a mistake. The Teacher says that God isn’t fooled by our games. “Why should God be angry at your voice and destroy the work of your hands?”

It’s a dangerous thing to make promises to God. So think carefully before you do. Guard your steps when you go into the house of God. Listen to his Word, and make sure you keep the promises you make before him. Don’t be a deadbeat worshiper.

All of this is capped off with verse 7: “For when dreams increase and words grow many, there is vanity; but God is the one you must fear.” It’s dangerous to worship God, so listen well and do what you say. Fear God. Instead of multiplying words, fear God. Fear is not cowering in terror. It’s recognizing that God is God, and that we’re to enter his presence with reverence and awe. Guard your steps as you come to worship him. God struck down seventy people because they looked into the Ark of the Covenant (1 Samuel 6:19). He struck down another for touching the Ark of the Covenant when it was about to fall (2 Samuel 6). In Acts 5 a husband and wife died for lying to the LORD. Our God is a consuming fire. We come to a God who is good, but he is not safe.

Our Response

What we really need is what one person experienced with a tornado. You can talk about tornados and read about tornados. You can watch Twister dozens of times but not be changed. But what happens when you’re actually in a tornado? Don Ratzlaff writes:

[Since] last spring ... I look for tornadoes. ... One personal encounter with a power that before was only theoretical can make all the difference. You live differently after that. You respect the power. You live in awe of its presence and tremble to think of its potential. Above all, you live in profound humility because you recognize your inability to control it.

If all this for tornadoes, then what of the Almighty God? I am reminded of the quote from C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where Mr. Beaver describes the might and majesty of Aslan, the lion-God. When he finishes, Lucy asks, "Is--is he safe?" Replies Mr. Beaver: "Safe? Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King I tell you." This is our God: hardly safe but thoroughly good. We cling to the King in fear, but much too afraid to let go.

What happens when we experience God, when we get a glimpse of his other-ness, when we’re gripped with holy fear? It will change you.

Somebody paraphrased this passage:

How brazen and dishonest people are
with their religion. They will go so far
with it as suits their needs; so they attend
the services and sing the hymns, and when
they have to, give a little money to
the Lord. But do they live as one should do
who’s made a vow to God? Don’t kid yourself.
Among their friends their faith is on the shelf….

Remember, God knows everything.
He knows our hearts when we before him bring
our worship, and you can’t fool him. So take
a good look at yourself before you make
your next appearance before the Lord. And go
to listen, not to speak, for he will know
just what you need. Why, any fool can spout
a lovely prayer or sing a hymn about
his faith. His words are mindless, like a dream,
although to people looking on they seem
impressive. Not to God….

For words are cheap,
just like the dreams you have while you’re asleep.
God wants your heart, my son, not just a show.
Get right with him before you to him go.

Annie Dillard writes:

Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.

Let me tell you a couple of ways that we need to respond.

First: we need a new reverence of God, a new sense of awe for what takes place here. We really need to raise the stakes and raise our expectations. We can’t afford to worship casually. We come to a God who is a consuming fire.

Second: we need to ground our confidence. Listen: the people could not approach God’s holy mountain. God told them to stay away. Moses himself trembled in fear before God. They had to kill even animals that approached the mountain. God is a consuming fire. But the writer to the Hebrews says we can approach God with confidence.

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16)

It’s dangerous to worship God, so listen well and do what you say. And most of all, put your hope in the great high priest in reverent fear and worship.

Three Ways to Live (Ecclesiastes 4:7-16)

I had lunch with a friend this week who’s planning a trip to Europe - Portugal and Italy. He said he’s planning it himself. If you’ve ever planned a trip on your own, you know how difficult this can be. You really have no idea what the hotel is going to be like until you get there. I can remember a couple of surprises, both pleasant and unpleasant. It’s scary to commit to going somewhere if you don’t know what it’s going to be like when you get there.

So I asked my friend if he’s using TripAdvisor, and he said yes. Have you heard of TripAdvisor? It’s “World's Most Trusted Travel Advice™.” You go to the website and search for any destination, and you can read hundreds of reviews. As an example, here are two very different reviews for the last place we went on vacation:

“Amazing.....Beautiful......Romantic......Sunny & Warm!!!”

“Please don't waste your money”

You can read all kinds of reviews and see the percentage of people who were happy and unhappy. You can see pictures of your destination - not just the professional images that have been through Photoshop, but real images from people who’ve been there. In essence, you get to know what it’s like before you get there. That way you can choose your destination knowing what you’ll find when you get there.

This morning’s passage is kind of like TripAdvisor for the soul. The passage we just read in Ecclesiastes gives us three pictures of what life could look like. He’s helping us a lot, because it really helps to know what you’re signing up for before you get there.

So let’s look at the three pictures. Let’s take a few moments to consider where we’re going with our lives, and what the Teacher has to say about our destination.

First Picture

Here’s the first picture, found in verses 7 and 8:

Again, I saw vanity under the sun: one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, “For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?” This also is vanity and an unhappy business.

You already get the sense that this isn’t going to be a positive picture. It’s a common one, though. Picture someone who rises early every morning and takes transit to work. The days are long, and it’s rare to get home much before bedtime. There have been some difficult choices along the way. There’s already been one failed marriage, but you really have to choose, and the marriage just seemed like it was getting in the way. But business has been good. The mortgage is paid off. The retirement fund is looking good. There’s really nothing that couldn’t be bought. Life is working really well, as long as one keeps moving and never stops too long.

You meet people like this every week. In fact, we praise this type of person. They know what they want. They make tough choices to get there. If you’re hiring, you’d gladly have this person working for you. Although this passage was written thousands of years ago, you see this person on the GO Train and in the subway every day.

Yet there are problems with this picture. The Teacher examines this picture and finds two problems. The first is that success comes at a pretty steep price. Verse 8 speaks of a viscous circle: there’s no end to the toil. Why? Because they’re never satisfied. No matter how much they earn, it’s never quite enough. Last year’s bonus was nice, but unless you beat last year’s performance you’re not going to get a bonus this year, so you have to work even harder this year. So you’re caught in this treadmill of never having done quite enough. The carrot on the stick is always just slightly out of reach no matter how fast you run, so you keep running faster, but you never quite catch up.

There’s another problem. This person is successful but solitary. Verse eight says that they have “no other, either son nor brother.” It doesn’t really bother them most of the time, but it’s only because they try to avoid thinking about it. Verse 8 says that they never ask, “Why am I doing this? Who is it all for?” The Teacher concludes with these words: “This also is vanity and an unhappy business.”

This is a big help. The Teacher is warning us not to do this with our lives. Don’t become a successful, solitary person, he’s saying. It’s just not worth it. You’ll end up enslaved to your work, never really satisfied, and you’ll have no-one to share it with.

Let’s pause here and take a minute to reflect. We live in a world in which we have to make choices. You can’t have it all. Robert Louis Stevenson said, “Perpetual devotion to what man calls his business is only to be sustained by perpetual neglect of many other things.” I know that some of you are facing pressures at work and you’re making difficult choices. If you don’t keep up, there are others who will gladly take your place.

The Teacher is holding up a picture and asking, “Is this what you want?” Are you sacrificing your relationships for the sake of a career that will leave you successful but solitary? I like how Tim Keller puts it:

Sin isn't only doing bad things, it is more fundamentally making good things into ultimate things. Sin is building your life and meaning on anything, even a very good thing, more than on God. Whatever we build our life on will drive us and enslave us. Sin is primarily idolatry…

If you center your life and identity on your work and career, you will be a driven workaholic and a boring, shallow person. At worst you will lose family and friends and, if your career goes poorly, develop deep depression.

If you center your life and identity on money and possessions, you'll be eaten up by worry or jealousy about money. You'll be willing to do unethical things to maintain your lifestyle, which will eventually blow up your life.

So don’t aspire to the first picture that the Teacher shows us. Don’t aim to be a successful but solitary person.

Final Picture

I want to look now at the last picture that the Teacher gives us, before we return and look at the middle picture. The first picture is of a successful, solitary person. The last picture is of a politically successful but solitary individual. It’s a little hard to untangle, but let’s see if we can understand the picture that he gives us in verses 13 to 16:

Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice. For he went from prison to the throne, though in his own kingdom he had been born poor. I saw all the living who move about under the sun, along with that youth who was to stand in the king's place. There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led. Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him. Surely this also is vanity and a striving after wind.

There’s some debate about the details of this picture. Here is, as best as I can see, what it means. There’s an old and foolish king who’s lost touch and who won’t take advice. Perhaps he’s fired his advisors. I can think of a number of politicians who have done this. Once they reach the top they stop listening, and eventually they drift towards irrelevance. Everyone’s glad when they’re gone.

But then someone new and better comes along. He comes from nowhere. He was born poor. He captures the imagination of the people and inspires them to hope again. He’s immensely popular. “There was no end of all the people, all of whom he led.” Again, I can think of many examples of new leaders who have come to power and have inspired hope. Their popularity levels have been off the charts.

But the Teacher shows us where this leads. “Yet those who come later will not rejoice in him.” People are fickle. This new and better king will become yesterday’s news before very long. The Teacher is showing us that the life guided by wisdom, who rises from obscurity to the pinnacles of achievement, and who receives the adulation of millions - that life is also futile and useless in the end. The Teacher says it’s “also is vanity and a striving after wind.”

It’s like what the 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.” The Teacher would agree with that. You can attain the respect and admiration of the crowds, but in the end be left alone because your friends are not true friends. They’re just fans who will eventually move on to the next new thing.

Do you realize that the Teacher has just put the spotlight on two of the things that we value most: career success, and fame and popularity? George Harrison - one of the Beatles - said:

At first we all thought we wanted the fame. After a bit we realized that fame wasn't really what we were after at all, just the fruits of it. After the initial excitement and thrill had worn off, I, for one, became depressed. Is this all we have to look forward to in life? Being chased around by a crowd of hooting lunatics from one crappy hotel room to the next?

Maybe on a more personal level, the Teacher would caution us about building surface relationships that aren’t really true friendships. You can have a lot of Facebook friends without really having intimate connections. Don’t live to become a successful, solitary person, the Teacher tells us. And don’t live to become someone who lives for the acclaim of the people, because you’ll die as alone as the solitary person in the first picture. Neither one is really the destination you want to choose for your life.

The Middle Picture

How, then, should we live? In the middle of these two negative pictures, the Teacher gives us a positive one. Read verses 9 to 12:

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

In contrast to the successful and solitary person, or the person who achieves temporary fame and acclaim, the Teacher offers us a picture of someone who is in genuine community. It’s the only one of the three pictures that doesn’t end with a pronouncement of vanity. This, the Teacher says, is what we should aim for. Genuine community is better than solitary success or popularity. It’s what we need in our lives.

The Teacher tells us four benefits of genuine community.

First, we’ll have a larger profit. “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.” Two people working together often produce more than twice what they’d produce alone. Not only that, but it’s a lot more fulfilling to share the rewards of hard work with another.

Second, we’ll find help in times of need. “For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!” When you used to go swimming as a kid, you were probably told to use the buddy system. When they blow the whistle, you need to make sure that your buddy is okay. You can’t be responsible for everyone in the pool, but you can be responsible for your buddy. We need the same thing in life. We need others who have our back.

Third, we’ll have more comfort. “Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?” This one sounds strange to us. It’s not talking about a married couple. It’s probably speaking of the travel that took place on dangerous roads in the ancient Middle East. They would sleep outdoors at night. On cold nights, a single cloak would not be enough. You may not be comfortable with the thought of huddling under a pair of cloaks on the side of the road, and that’s okay. But you too have found comfort in community. You’ve experienced the warmth of friendship. You know what he’s talking about.

Finally, you have greater protection. “And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” When you’re alone, you’re vulnerable. When you’re in community, you have greater protection. Spurgeon said, “Communion is strength; solitude is weakness. Alone, the free old beech yields to the blast and lies prone on the meadow. In the forest, supporting each other, the trees laugh at the hurricane. The sheep of Jesus flock together. The social element is the genius of Christianity.”

Genuine community is better than solitary success or popularity. It’s what we need in our lives.

This morning’s passage obviously has huge implications for us. It may mean that you rethink what you’re aiming for in life. Some of you may have to rethink some of the career decisions you’ve been making so you don’t end up a successful, solitary person. Some of you may need to take a step back from your focus on winning the acclaim of the crowds.

One of the biggest implications is for how we’re going to function as a church. I want to ask you honestly to answer four questions this morning from this text:

  • Do you have someone in your life who is helping you be more productive spiritually?
  • Do you have a buddy who knows you’re down, who will notice when you’re in trouble, and who will pick you up when you fall?
  • Do you know what it’s like to find comfort in the friendships you have with other believers?
  • Do you have the protection that comes from being in this together rather than going at it alone?

There’s a limit to what you can do in life alone. It’s futile! Jesus invites us into community characterized by love. I never get tired of reading what Jesus said right before he offered his life for us:

This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (John 15:15-17)

I don’t want us to think that church is just this - sitting in pews and then leaving. Church is community. It’s loving. It’s costly love. We can get started by taking relational risks and just beginning to build strong connections with others in this room. It’s time to break through.

Here’s an example of someone who did this:

One of the most important moments of my spiritual life was when I sat down with a longtime friend and said, "I don't want to have any secrets anymore."

I told him everything I was most ashamed of. I told him about my jealousies, my cowardice, how I hurt my wife with my anger. I told him about my history with money and my history with sex. I told him about deceit and regrets that keep me up at night. I felt vulnerable because I was afraid that I was going to lose connection with him. Much to my surprise, he did not even look away.

I will never forget his next words. "John," he said. "I have never loved you more than I love you right now." The very truth about me that I thought would drive him away became a bond that drew us closer together. He then went on to speak with me about secrets he had been carrying.

If I keep part of my life secret from you, you may tell me you love me. But inside I think that you would not love me if you knew the whole truth about me. I can only receive love from you to the extent that I am known by you. (John Ortberg)

Here’s what you can do. You can become someone who pushes toward genuine community. If enough of us do this, it won’t take long before we infect this whole church with a taste of what it’s like.

Choose your destination carefully. Don’t become a solitary, successful person. Don’t become someone who lives for popular acclaim. Develop genuine community. Let’s begin by seeing Jesus who called us friends, and who called us to become friends who love one another.

Living and Working in an Unjust Wicked World (Ecclesiastes 3:16-4:6)

A number of years ago a soccer-loving family helped host a boys' soccer team from Costa Rica. They were amazed by the skill level of the visiting team. With their advanced ball-handling and passing skills, this elite team reached the finals of the tournament.

In that final game they obviously possessed better skills than the other team, a big and physical American team that relied on bullying and cheap shots. Unfortunately, the officials were oblivious to every foul. They called nothing, allowing even outright "muggings." After the Costa Rican boys lost 2-1, the man who hosted the team had to restrain himself from yelling at the inept officials. He didn’t mind if the Americans won. He just wanted them to notice the injustices, to intervene like they're supposed to, and make a few calls. Instead, they didn't do their jobs, and the game wasn't played fairly.

Reflecting on the game, he writes:

Sometimes people feel that way about God and the way God "officiates" the world. We all know that there are big problems: world hunger, a global economic crisis, mistreatment of the poor, political oppression, and worldwide sex trafficking. Then there are also more personal problems: a friend's addiction, a marital crisis, a church split, friends who despise each other. At times we feel like crying out, "Why doesn't God intervene? Why doesn't God make a few calls and keep the game fair? Why does God let the bullies of life win?"

It’s a good question. Why does a good God allow so much injustice in the world? Why are so many people experiencing so much hardship all over the world? It’s not just a theoretical question either. It’s a personal one as well when we see injustice right in front of us: a friend who’s fired without cause; or who’s a victim of medical malpractice but is powerless to sue. “Why doesn’t God intervene? Why doesn’t God make a few calls and keep the game fair? Why does God let the bullies of life win?”

That’s the question that we have before us this morning. We’re studying the book of Ecclesiastes. In this book the Teacher is taking a good look at life. He’s examining life to see if he can make sense of it all. In the passage we have before us, he notices two things about life that cause him to lose all hope. The two things he notices are timeless, and they are things that cause us to despair as well today.

Injustice is Rampant

Here’s the first. In Ecclesiastes 3:16, the Teacher observes: “Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness.”

This is serious. He’s talking about “the place of justice” - in other words, the courts. If there’s anywhere where one would expect justice, it’s in the courts. You’ve seen courtrooms. Many of them have sculptures of Lady Justice, holding a set of scales. She’s often pictured wearing a blindfold to show that she’s impartial, and she has a sword in her right hand symbolizing the power of reason and justice that she can wield in the pursuit of truth and fairness. She weighs carefully what is right and what is wrong, and is impartial in her deliberations. But the Teacher observed that instead of finding justice there he found injustice. Instead of finding righteousness there, he found wickedness.

Things haven’t changed. A recent book was written by a lawyer who spent eight years investigating courtroom failures. The blurb for the book says:

What she found was an assembly-line approach to justice: a system that rewards mediocre advocacy, bypasses due process, and shortchanges both defendants and victims to keep the court calendar moving.

Here is the public defender who pleads most of his clients guilty with scant knowledge about their circumstances; the judge who sets outrageous bail for negligible crimes; the prosecutor who habitually declines to pursue significant cases; the court that works together to achieve a wrongful conviction. Going beyond the usual explanations of bad apples and meager funding, Ordinary Injustice reveals a clubby legal culture of compromise, and shows the tragic consequences that result when communities mistake the rules that lawyers play by for the rule of law.

I can’t vouch for the book, but it sounds about right. Lawyers and judges recognize that the system has many challenges, that the results aren’t always equitable, and that as good as the system is, there are inequities and injustices that need to be fixed.

The Teacher finds himself holding out for divine justice in verse 18. But then he makes a more depressing statement in verses 18 to 22. Let’s read verses 18-20:

I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?

That’s rather depressing, isn’t it? The Teacher is looking for justice. He comes to the conclusion that many die without ever having found justice. In light of this, he sees that we’re no better than animals. If this life is all there is, then he’s right. Clashes in Egypt left many dead this week. They died without seeing the justice they longed for. Many animals also died this week. You may have read of a case about sled dogs in British Columbia that were put to death inhumanely. The Teacher would say that it’s not so different. If this life is all there is, then there really is no justice, and we end up no better than animals in the end.

So this is the first thing that the Teacher notices. Injustice is rampant in this world. Where you’d expect to find justice, you find wickedness in its place.

So Is Oppression

But that’s not all. The Teacher goes on to describe another problem in the first verse of chapter 4. “Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.”

You have injustice on one hand; on the other, you have oppression. Oppression involves cheating, defrauding, and robbing at the cost of others; seeking profit without regard to the needs and rights of other people. What he’s talking about here is about a power imbalance, in which those in power used the power for their own advantage, and those who were oppressed suffered with no recourse. The teacher saw the powerful abusing their positions, and the victim at the mercy of the oppressor. As he saw this it led him to despair. Verses 2 and 3 say:

And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.

This may seem a little extreme, but I get it. Miroslav Volf was born in Croatia and lived in Serbia. He’s seen a lot of violence and conflict. He writes:

I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect non-coercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

Let me put it slightly differently. We can afford to be theoretical about the issues of suffering and oppression from the relative comfort of our lives. But in the middle of the injustice and oppression that the Teacher rights about, one sometimes despairs of life itself. The injustice and oppression are so overwhelming that one wonders sometimes if it would have been better to have never been born.

How Do We Respond?

It’s a pretty bleak picture, and the Teacher doesn’t offer many easy answers. Injustice and oppression are rampant. It’s enough to make you wonder whether we’re any better off than animals, whether it’s better off never having lived. This is tough.

I want to return to the image we began with, the image of the soccer game that’s not being played fairly. Remember the questions: "Why doesn't God intervene? Why doesn't God make a few calls and keep the game fair? Why does God let the bullies of life win?" How do we live and work in a world that isn’t being played fairly?

Two things, and the first has to do with how we play the game - actually, how we work. The Teacher gives us two wrong ways and one right way to work in verses 4-6:

Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

The fool folds his hands and eats his own flesh.

Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.

It’s an unfair world full of injustice and oppression, and it looks like we’re powerless to change it. How do we respond?

One way is competition and accumulation. To use the soccer metaphor, it’s to realize the tournament’s not fair, so we may as well try to use any advantage we can to get ahead. Work hard so you can buy enough stuff so you can be happy. Our work, he says in verse 4, can be all about keeping up with others, trying to accumulate more and more. New York psychologist Paul Wachtel says:

[People’s] entire orientation to how [they] are doing is based on comparison. That's why as an entire society grows, people don't feel any better, because they're still in the same relative position. There's a sense of being on an endless treadmill and of never getting to where you thought you were going to get.

That’s what this is like. The Teacher says it’s like chasing the wind. You never get there. It’s meaningless.

Another approach is basically laziness. It’s throwing up our hands and giving up. This is meaningless too. The Teacher said it’s like eating your own flesh. It’s like you’ll kill yourself by starvation. This is becoming more common today. According to recent statistics, single young men are wandering in a prolonged phase of immaturity and irresponsibility. Researcher Kay S. Hymowitz claims that single young men (or SYM's) often loiter "in a hormonal limbo between adolescence and adulthood." In this limbo SYM's "often seem to hang out in a playground of drinking, hooking up, playing [video games], and, in many cases, underachieving," Video games used to be for children, but now men between the ages of 18 and 34 are now the biggest gamers. They play, on average, two hours and 43 minutes per day. She says: "With no one to challenge [young men] to deeper connections, they swim across life's surfaces … . Young men especially need a culture that can help them define worthy aspirations. Adults don't emerge. They're made." This is the second wrong approach: don’t give into laziness and waste your life doing nothing.

Here’s what we should do: “Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.” In a world full of injustice and oppression, the Teacher says, get out there and work, but do so with contentment and quietness. Fight oppression and injustice, yes, but don’t be consumed by an insatiable desire to get ahead. Do so out of a quiet center. Live for others, but do so as you learn contentment.

It’s amazing how timeless this advice is. James Davison Hunter wrote a recent book called To Change the World. He says that we ought to stop trying to change the world, and instead learn how to be a faithful presence within it. Do your part faithfully, and leave the rest up to God. Learn to work with a handful of quietness, knowing that your work matters to God.

But that’s not all. The Teacher also gives us another key to living in this unjust world. Trust that God will judge. Trust that God will set things right. Back in chapter 4 verse 17 he said:

I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work.

Remember the questions at the soccer game? "Why doesn't God intervene? Why doesn't God make a few calls and keep the game fair? Why does God let the bullies of life win?" The Teacher is telling us that God will judge, that God will set things right one day. Life isn’t as unfair as we think, because God does see the injustice and oppression and he will set this right.

Does the idea of God as judge bother you? N.T. Wright says:

The biblical doctrine of God's wrath is rooted in the doctrine of God as the good, wise and loving creator, who hates—yes, hates, and hates implacably—anything that spoils, defaces, distorts, or damages his beautiful creation, and in particular anything that does that to his image-bearing creatures. If God does not hate racial prejudice, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not wrathful at child abuse, he is neither good nor loving. If God is not utterly determined to root out from his creation, in an act of proper wrath and judgment, the arrogance that allows people to exploit, bomb, bully and enslave one another, he is neither loving, nor good, nor wise.

God does not let the bullies of life win. He does step in, and he does set things right in the end.

Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the case of Jesus Christ. God did not stay distant from the oppression and injustice of this world. In the person of Jesus Christ, he entered it. Tim Keller says:

Christianity does not so much offer solutions to the problems of suffering, but rather provides the promise of a God who is completely present with us in suffering. Only Christians believe in a God who says, "Here I am alongside you. I have experienced the same suffering you have. I know what it is like." No other religion even begins to offer that assurance.

Or, as John Stott put it:

I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I turn to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness.

That is the God for me. He set aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death.

Let’s pray.

The Problem of Time (Ecclesiastes 3:1-15)

A couple of years ago I was part of a team that was helping a struggling church in Toronto. We got to know them, and began to sense that things were moving.

A few days after Christmas I got a message through Facebook:

We have just returned from hospital. A good number of people from church were there to visit - who collapsed this afternoon. It was not a heart attack but rather a catastrophic aneurism of some sort in her brain. The situation is grave. She is on life support and a ventilator and the doctors say they can do nothing for her. Your prayers would be a great help.

A few hours later:

Nan phoned to say that - has passed away.

I remember being stunned. I had just seen her the week before all of this happened. She went far too early, and left a huge void behind.

I’ve been through this before. There are times that I think that my life is pretty much under control, and that I have a good handle on things. Then there are times when I feel like I’ve been sideswiped. I realize in those moments that I have far less control than I normally think, that most of the events of life are really out of my control. And it’s very hard to understand why things happen the way that they do.

Observing Life and Time

That’s exactly what we’re going to see in the passage we have open before us. We’re studying the book of Ecclesiastes. It’s an ancient Hebrew book written to help us understand how to live in a world that is often beyond our understanding.

Today’s passage is probably the best known passage in the entire book. It was the inspiration for the song Turn, Turn, Turn performed by the Byrds. It’s a poetic masterpiece. The poem simply states its main point, which we find in verse 1: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” The Teacher then gives 14 examples in pairs that cover every area of life. What the Teacher is doing in this passage is describing life. I know some of you are wondering what some of the lines mean in this poem. What, for instance, does it mean that there is a time to kill (verse 3)? What does it mean that there is a time to hate (verse 8)? The Teacher is not prescribing that we make time in our lives to kill, and time to hate, and so on. He’s taking a look at life and observing that if you look at life as a whole, all of these things show up at one time or another:

  • There was a time that you were born; there will also be a time that you die.
  • There are times that you plant a tree; there are times that you have to chop a tree down because it’s grown old and no longer bears fruit. You don’t control that time.
  • There’s a time that soldiers are at war shooting each other; there’s a time when peace is declared and former enemies stand together at the cenotaph in remembrance.
  • There’s a time to build a building; there’s a time when you take down the building in order to make something new.
  • There are times to weep, and times to laugh. There are times when it’s very appropriate to weep; there are times when you have to laugh. To cry at the wrong time is just as bad as laughing at the wrong time.
  • There’s a time to accumulate possessions; then there’s a time to simplify and to give things away.

There’s an ebb and a flow to what the Teacher tells us, and a balance. It’s actually somewhat of a comforting poem until you begin to think about it. There are actually three things we may not like about this list.

First, I don’t want everything on this list. If you look down the list, I like one side of each pair more than I like the other. I love births; I’m not a big fan of death. I like healing; killing not so much. I love love and I love peace, but I don’t need hatred or war in my life. The Teacher is taking a look at life and saying that life in this world is going to have pretty much everything in this list. This list covers pretty much everything that happens in life, from birth to death and from war to peace.

Second, I don’t get to say what I get on this list. We play games together as a family sometimes. The games vary, but a lot of them have cards. Of course, some cards are better than others. Charlene is the best at shuffling the cards. I tend to forget that when I get a good hand and win. Then it’s my playing skills. But when I get a bad hand it’s because Charlene didn’t shuffle the cards right. There’s that moment when you pick up the cards and turn them over that you realize that you’ve been dealt a hand that you didn’t choose. Some of those cards are not ones that you would have chosen. But they’re your cards. They’re part of your game from that point on. Solomon is saying the same thing in this passage. We would all like to choose some of these things and not others, but you’re probably not going to have as much say as you think. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones used to end his pastoral prayers in London by saying, “And may the Triune God abide with us throughout the remainder of this our short, uncertain earthly life and pilgrimage.” Some people thought he was being dour; I think maybe he had been reading Ecclesiastes. Life is shorter and far more uncertain than we think.

There’s a final problem with this list. When you add it all up, it adds up to nothing. Death cancels out birth. Killing cancels healing. War cancels love. There is a time for everything, the Teacher tells us, and these times end up canceling each other out. It’s why the Teacher asks the question he does in verse 9: “What gain has the worker from his toil?” If everything cancels out, what

Let me summarize the message of the poem: Life is full of lots of things, some of which we like and some of which we don’t. The universe has an ebb and a flow that’s beyond human control. That’s the message of the poem in verses 1-8.

Reflections on Life and Time

That’s the description of life by the Teacher. In the next few verses he’s going to reflect on it. He’s going to give us good news and bad news. The good news is really good, but the bad news is also really bad. Let’s start with the good news.

Here’s the good news: God is in control. Verse 10 and the first part of verse 11 say, “I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time.” Have you ever gone on a ride at Wonderland and double-checked that the seatbelt is on? You wouldn’t want to go on some of those rides without being buckled in. This verse is like that seatbelt that will help you get through all the things you’re going to go through in your life, all the things the Teacher has listed in verses 1-8: you may not have control over the events of your life, but God does. As one old catechism puts it, God’s “holy, wise, and powerful” providence governs “all his creatures, and all their actions.” This verse points us to a God who is wise, who sees the end from the beginning, who is never caught by surprise, and who makes everything beautiful in its time. We’re not in control, the Teacher says, but God is. One man, Derek Kidner, writes of the “kaleidoscopic movement of innumerable processes, each with its own character and its period of blossoming and ripening, beautiful in its time and contributing to the over-all masterpiece which is the work of one Creator.” God is in control, even if we aren’t. He is the King of time, and he does everything just at the right time. God is always right on time; he’s never too early and he’s never too late. This is very good news for us, especially given the poem we’ve just read.

We need to learn this! At New Year’s Eve a woman at a church near here recounted some of the hard things she’s been through in the past year. As she recounted these things she said that these too came from God’s hands. She really got what the Teacher is saying in this passage. There’s a time for everything, even bad things. And none of these things take God by surprise. God is in control of the times, and he’s always on time. God is in control.

But there’s also bad news, and it’s found in the rest of verse 11. “He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” Do you want to know what the bad news is? You are a creature of time who was made for eternity. You, like your dog, are mortal and trapped in time. Unlike your dog, you know there’s more. You were made to ask the bigger questions of life. We want to understand and find the meaning, to solve the mysteries. But we’re trapped. We have to go through life without knowing why. We know God has a purpose, but we don’t have a clue what that purpose is and it drives us crazy because we want to know. Walter Kaiser Jr. says we have “a deep-seated desire, a compulsive drive … to know the character, composition, and meaning of the world … and to discern its purpose and destiny.” But we can’t.

Let’s summarize what the Teacher’s said so far. In the poem he’s told us that life has both good and bad, and that we’re not in control. As he’s reflected on this, he’s given us good news and bad news. The good news is that life isn’t random. God is in control. The bad news is that we want to understand. We want to figure it all out. And we can’t.

What This Means

What do we do with this? What do we do with the knowledge that life is out of our control, that we won’t be able to get all of our questions answered? What do we do knowing that life is uncertain, and that we’re going to be dealt cards that we didn’t want in our hand? Two things.

Number one: Enjoy life. This may surprise some of you, but it’s exactly what the Teacher tells us we should be doing. Read verses 12 and 13:

I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man.

We can make this even more personal, putting it in the first person and using it as our job description: “There is nothing better than to be joyful and to do good as long as I live, and to eat and drink and take pleasure in all my work - this is God’s gift to me.” If life is uncertain, then everything we have is more precious than we realize, so embrace it and enjoy it as a gift from God. In the 1700s a Presbyterian pastor told his Scottish congregation:

Each generation has its work assigned it by the sovereign Lord; and each person in the generation has his also. And now is our time...Now is our time; let us not neglect usefulness in our generation.

You don’t have forever. You have a very limited period of time. So make the most of it. Turn off the TV and get off Facebook. Don’t waste your life. See every day as a gift from God. Enjoy all that he’s given you. Redeem the time. Gratefully receive everything that God’s given you, enjoy it, and offer it back to God in grateful service. Make the most of this very uncertain life.

Second: honor God. Verses 14 and 15 say:

I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.

Here, the Teacher gets us to do the only thing that makes sense once we understand that we can’t control life, but God can. Honor God. “God’s works steamroller over man’s puny efforts, and nothing substantially new can interrupt the awesome course of events that God has ordained” (Michael Fox). When we understand that God is in control and we are not, we had better bow down before God recognizing that he’s God and we’re not. All we can do is to bow before him in submission and adoration.

Here’s what the Teacher is telling us this morning: The events of life are beyond our control, so enjoy God’s gifts and honor him. Even though life is uncertain, and even though we want answers that we don’t have, enjoy every day as a gift from God, and honor him with your life.

What does this look like?

Today you’re going home. I don’t know what’s going on in your life, but I guarantee you that you have questions. You may be wondering, as I was, why God allowed someone to die before his or her time. You may have all kinds of questions. Here’s what this passage might mean for you as you go home.

First, if you get this passage, you won’t be surprised when troubles come. You’ll know that there’s a time for everything. You’ll be prepared for both the good and the bad.

Second, you’ll realize that you’re not in control. You never were. This saves a lot of worry. Martin Luther was friends with Philip Melanchton. Melanchton would occasionally worry a bit too much, one time in particular about the situation in Germany. Luther chided him, saying, "Let Philip cease to rule the world." It’s liberating to know we’re not in control.

Third, you will realize that God is in control, and that it’s your job to honor him. Luther explained, "It is none of our work to steer the course of providence, or direct its motions, but to submit quietly to Him who does." There is a king who reigns, and that king is not us.

Fourth, you’ll realize that you have questions. God made you that way. But many of your questions won’t be answered, at least for now. But just because you have questions that aren’t answered doesn’t mean that there aren’t answers. We can rest in the knowledge that we were made for more than all of this, that God has placed eternity in our hearts, and that one day we will be free from the problems of time.

Finally, in the meantime, enjoy life. Every day of this uncertain life is a gift from God, so enjoy it. Enjoy every day that he’s given you. The events of life are beyond our control, so enjoy God’s gifts and honor him.

How much more should this be true of us who know what God has done for us in giving us his Son. “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31-32)

So let me close as Lloyd-Jones did with his congregation: “And may the Triune God abide with us throughout the remainder of this our short, uncertain earthly life and pilgrimage.” And let me add: May you know the love of Jesus Christ, the one who died to give you all things. May you fear God who is in control, even if we aren’t. And may you enjoy every good gift that God has given you to enjoy in this life. Amen.

The Search for Meaning (Ecclesiastes 1:12-26)

The movie City Slickers is a comedy about a man who’s 39 years old and in the middle of a mid-life crisis. He’s friends with two other guys who are also experiencing a mid-life crises, so they go on a cattle drive in Colorado. There’s a fascinating scene that goes something like this:

Curly: Do you know what the secret of life is? [points index finger skyward] This.

Mitch: Your finger?

Curly: One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean [anything].

Mitch: But, what is the "one thing?"

Curly: [smiles and points his finger at Mitch] That's what you have to find out.

And that really captures the pursuit of many of our lives. Almost nine years ago, I remember seeing stacks of the book Purpose-Driven Life at Costco. One of the reasons the book was so popular, I think, is because it tapped into our search for meaning. A few years later you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing people read the book Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. Filled with despair after a nasty divorce, the author embarked on a quest to find meaning and transcendence in some very different places.

There’s something in us that resonates with this search. We all long to find meaning in our lives.

This morning I’d like to invite you to join the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes, a man who was also on this search. It may surprise you to learn that the Bible has something to say about our search for meaning. We’re not the first to search for the meaning of life. Not only this, but it turns out that we haven’t shifted too much in where we search for meaning.

In the passage we have before us, we join the author on a quest to find meaning. And the author takes us in three different directions in the quest for meaning. The passage before us reminds me a little of Eat, Pray, Love. It’s a deliberate attempt to explore all the options to see if they provide what we’re looking for.

When I was a boy I drew up designs for a go-cart. I took them to the local garage and showed them to a mechanic who was very impressed by my design. He was actually pretty impressed. I came home all encouraged but did nothing, because I had no way to turn my design to reality.

It’s like that with the quest for meaning. We could draw up plans to try to find meaning in a number of different areas, but we probably wouldn’t get too far because our resources are limited. It’s not a big problem for the author of Ecclesiastes. We’re going to see in this passage that he’s uniquely qualified to try to squeeze meaning out of life in some areas in which we wouldn’t have the means. Solomon is doing us a huge favor. He’s conducting a costly experiment so we don’t have to.

The teacher shows us three of the ways that we try to find meaning in our lives.

First, we try to find meaning in our wisdom.

Verses 12 to 18 describe the Teacher’s quest to find meaning through wisdom. “I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven,” he writes (Ecclesiastes 1:13). His quest was comprehensive. He wanted to understand life, to know as much as he could, to examine life’s questions and to get knowledge. The scope is breathtaking. He wants to seek and search out all that is done under heaven. This is not a cursory search; it’s a comprehensive one. The Teacher wants to get to the bottom of things and to achieve wisdom. Not only that, but he wants to understand folly as well, according to verse 17. It’s as if the Teacher is trying to find what he’s looking for by looking under every rock. No stone is unturned.

This is an admirable quest in many ways. It’s what lies at the heart of our educational system, our universities and bodies of higher knowledge. There’s great prestige in becoming an authority in your field. Our schools, libraries, and bookstores are all part of this quest, and it’s a good one.

But wisdom, according to the Teacher, doesn’t ultimately satisfy our quest for meaning. For one thing, some things are just inscrutable. No matter how much wisdom we have, we won’t be able to figure things out. That’s what he means when he says in verse 15:

What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.

There’s another problem with trying to find meaning in our education. Verse 18 says:

For in much wisdom is much vexation,
and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

The picture he paints is that of irritation, or frustration verging on anger. This is true to life. One man said that gaining wisdom “leads a man to find out many disturbing things that may militate strongly against his peace of mind.” Or to put it in a way you may have heard, sometimes ignorance is bliss. The more you know, the more wisdom you gain, sometimes the more disillusioned you become. To quote John Cheever, “The main emotion of the adult American who has had all the advantages of wealth, education, and culture is disappointment.”

So we don’t find our meaning through wisdom.

Second, the Teacher says, we try to find meaning in pleasure.

In the first 11 verses of chapter 2, the Teacher tries to find meaning in pleasure. Having failed to find meaning in wisdom, he looked to pleasure. In verse 1 he says, “I said in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.’” Verses 2 to 8 describe all the things he tried: comedy, alcohol, all the finer things in life. He had the best houses and gardens and all the accouterments. On top of that, he had women. He had more sexual partners than anyone could imagine. He had it all.

I love how Philip Ryken puts it:

Wine, women, and song - the Solomon of Ecclesiastes had it all. Today his face would be on the cover of Fortune magazine, in the annual issue on the wealthiest men in the world. His home would be featured in a photo spread with Architectural Digest - the interior and the exterior, from the wine cellar to the lavish gardens. Pop stars would sing at his birthday party; supermodels would dangle from his arms.

We face this every day. I don’t think anyone here expects to experience all the pleasures that the Teacher did. But Ryken continues:

Generally speaking, we live in better homes than he did, with better furniture and climate control. We dine at a larger buffet; when we go to the grocery store, we can buy almost anything we want, from anywhere in the world. We listen to a much wider variety of music. And as far as sex is concerned, the Internet offers an endless supply of virtual partners, providing a vast harem for the imagination.

The result is that he lived a better life than anyone else. Verse 9 says that he lived harder than anyone who had gone before him. But this, too, did not satisfy. He says in verse 11:

Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

The Teacher still found it empty. Ironically, the harder we go after pleasure, the less pleasure we find. It’s never enough. Joy Davidman said: “Living for his own pleasure is the least pleasurable thing a man can do; if his neighbors don't kill him in disgust, he will die slowly of boredom and lovelessness.”

So he’s tried wisdom and he’s tried pleasure, and neither one has satisfied.

Third, we try to find meaning in our work.

We define ourselves by our careers. A lot of us try to find meaning for our lives through work. The Teacher pursues this option as well. But he gives up on this option as soon as he begins.

For one thing, you have to leave your work to someone else eventually, and that person may be a fool. Those who come after you could end up wasting everything that you’ve spent a lifetime building. “Who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2:19).

Not only that, but work doesn’t really provide the soul security that we need. We’re meant to work, but when we ask too much of our work it consumes us. Read verses 22 and 23:

What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.

Can you relate to this? Barbara Brown Taylor decided to limit her work to 40 hours a week back in 2000. Listen to what she said:

I do not mean to make an idol of health, but it does seem to me that at least some of us have made an idol of exhaustion. The only time we know we have done enough is when we are running on empty and when the ones we love most are the ones we see the least. When we lie down to sleep at night, we offer our full appointment calendars to God in lieu of prayer, believing that God—who is as busy as we are—will surely understand.

We live our lives at full speed and hardly have anything left at the end. And even what we have left may be lost as it’s passed to the next generation. The Teacher doesn’t find the meaning that he needs even in his work.

It’s looking pretty bad, but it gets even worse. I skipped a section. In verses 12 to 17, the Teacher realizes that there’s another problem: death. Read verses 14 and 15:

The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also.

At this point the Teacher considers the great equalizer. Even if you are able to make sense of life and achieve great wisdom, you still have to face the one thing that happens to everyone: death. Haddon Robinson recounts having stood at the graveside of a man who had a working knowledge of 34 languages. Most people know one or two languages; some people know a few more; this man knew nearly three dozen. Yet in the end it didn’t matter. He was dead just like everyone else in the graveyard. In death we’re all alike. Alexander the Great saw his friend Diogenes, a philosopher, standing in a field, looking intently at a pile of bones. When Alexander asked what he was doing, Diogenes said, “I am searching for the bones of your father Philip, but I cannot seem to distinguish them from the bones of the slaves.”

So we come to a familiar question in chapter 2 verse 22. It’s similar to a question he asked in chapter 1. “What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun?” You can become well educated, you can get the best of life, you can have it all - but in the end, are you really ahead?

This is important for us to learn. Remember City Slickers? “Do you know what the secret of life is? One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean [anything].” It’s your job to find out what that one thing is. Well, the Teacher has told us that that one thing isn’t wisdom, and it isn’t pleasure. It’s not comedy or having the best of everything. It’s not sex. Meaning isn’t found wisdom, pleasure, or possessions, or work. They’re dead ends if we are going to find the meaning of life.

Well, it’s not looking too good, is it? If none of those are the one thing, then what is?

The Teacher surprises us as we come to the end of chapter 2:

There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?

Just when you’re expecting more bad news, the Teacher gives us a hint of good news. What does the Teacher say? By themselves, wisdom and pleasure are not enough to provide meaning. But then something changes. What makes the difference? God does! According to verse 25, nobody can find true meaning apart from him. Ray Stedman put it best:

Isn’t it strange that the more you run after life, panting after every pleasure, the less you find, but the more you take life as a gift from God’s hand, responding in thankful gratitude for the delight of the moment, the more that seems to come to you.

But even here there’s a distinction. The Teacher makes a distinction between two kinds of people: those who are under the favor of a gracious God, and those who are lost in their sins. It’s the first time the Teacher has brought up the subject of sin.

This means that if you’re here this morning, and you haven’t experienced the grace of God evidenced at the cross, you’re still in your sin, and your life is still caught in the cycle of vanity. But there is the offer of forgiveness through Jesus Christ, and with it the one thing that we’ve been searching for - meaning that can’t be found anywhere else.

Meaning isn’t found wisdom, pleasure, or possessions, but in seeing life as a gift from God. Let me say that again: Meaning isn’t found wisdom, pleasure, or possessions, but in seeing life as a gift from God. And nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in the gift of his Son, who has come to give us life more abundantly.

“Do you know what the secret of life is? This….One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that and the rest don't mean [anything]." Not wisdom, not pleasure, but in seeing life as a gift from God. Those who experience all that life has to offer are still left empty. But those who experience all of this with God have discovered the only thing that can truly satisfy the hunger of the soul.

What Do We Gain? (Ecclesiastes 1:1-11)

She was, in some ways, very average. She lived almost 70 years. She was loved by her family. She gave of her time as a volunteer to a school and a few charities. She was a block parent, meaning that if a child was looking for a safe place to go on the street, her house was open. She had a successful career as a teacher and counselor in school. She ran triathlons and participated in hiking groups. And when she faced death, she did so with beauty, grace, and class.

She lived a good life. When I say she was average, I don’t mean that her life was average. What I mean is that she was not unlike a lot of us: loved by family, good at work, generous, and active. Her life was a successful one. One day when I die, I hope that I will have done so much, and that I will be remembered in similar ways.

And yet this morning I really wonder if it was enough. The reason I ask this is because the passage in the Bible we’re looking at this morning confronts us with this question. Ecclesiastes 1:3 asks us: “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” In other words, if you add up everything that we accomplish in a life - and I mean a good life - what have we gained? Is it possible that we have bought into the trap of trying to live the good life - of enjoying life, having children, building a retirement fund, pursuing hobbies, and giving back to others - only to find that in the end that we’ve gained nothing?

Well, this is rather depressing. Let me introduce you this morning to a book of the Bible that confronts us with this question, which is an important one, even if it’s one we would like to ignore. The book is called Ecclesiastes. It’s part of the genre of Scripture that we call wisdom literature. It’s going to teach us something about how to live wisely or skillfully in the world that God has made.

There’s a lot that we don’t know about the book of Ecclesiastes. For instance, we don’t know who wrote it. Tradition says that Solomon wrote it. Solomon was the son of King David, and the wisest person who ever lived. But there are lots of reasons to think that Solomon was not the author. Verse 1 says the author is a preacher - literally someone who gathers an assembly. You could say that he’s a teacher. He’s a descendent of David and a king in Jerusalem. Most scholars think that the author is taking on the persona of someone who has it all, a super-Solomon who outstrips everyone else in wealth and achievement, in the quest to discover the meaning of life. In the end, we just don’t know who wrote these words.

As best as we can tell, Ecclesiastes was written for Israelites for whom a new day had dawned. Previously they had lived quiet and agricultural lives. Now they lived in the crossroads of booming international trade between Egypt, and Asia and Europe. There were new opportunities. Fortunes were being made and lost. You could live a very good life if you played your card right. You could get to the end of your life and look back and say that you had lived a good life.

It’s in this context that the writer makes a startling comment. Verse 2 is a theme statement for everything the writer is going to say in the entire book:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

Everything, the writer says, is vanity. The word literally means vapor or breath. Everything, the writer says, is fleeting, elusive, and very temporary. If you stood outside this morning and breathed out, you would see your breath as a vapor. You’d also notice that the vapor would appear for a second and then disappear. The writer is saying that this is a picture of our lives. Our lives are like a breath on a cold winter’s day. We see it for a moment, and then it’s gone.

The writer then asks a very poignant question that I’d like to ask you this morning. In verse 3 he asks:

What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?

When you’re five, you start going to school. Some 13 years later, you graduate. Then you go to more school and get more degrees. Then you get a job and work for some forty or so years. By the time you retire, you’ll have spent some ninety-thousand hours working. It’s as if the writer is imagining us taking these ninety-thousand hours to the bank, plonking them down on in front of the teller, and asking how much it’s all worth. It’s a lifetime of work. It represents our best energies and our greatest efforts. And the teller replies, “You’ve spent your whole life working. Do you really have anything to show for it?”

Leonard Woolf, an editor and writer, put it this way:

I see clearly that I have achieved practically nothing. The world today and the history of the human anthill during the past five to seven years would be exactly the same if I had played Ping-Pong instead of sitting on committees and writing books and memoranda. I have therefore to make a rather ignominious confession that I have in a long life ground through between 150,000 and 200,000 hours of perfectly useless work.

That’s pretty much what the Teacher is saying. Are you any further ahead for having worked your whole life? At the end of your life, after you’ve worked, played, accumulated, and loved, are you any further ahead? It’s an important question, because this is the goal most of us are pursuing.

The Teacher’s answer is a shocking no. And because he knows that we’re going to struggle with this answer, he gives us three reasons in this passage why, apart from God, we gain nothing from our toil.

Reason one, in verses 4 to 7, is that there’s nothing new in nature.

A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and goes around to the north;
around and around goes the wind,
and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.

In December, we stayed in a resort to celebrate our anniversary. They make you feel like a million bucks while you’re there. We got to know some of the staff, and I began to feel a bit like a permanent resident there. We talked about “our room” and “our resort” and so on.

The reality is that we were two people of probably a hundred that will stay in that room over the course of the year. There were some stray cats roaming around, and from their perspective - if cats think that deeply - guests leave and guests come, but nothing really changes.

That’s what the Teacher is saying here. A generation dies off, and a new generation is born, but nothing really changes. It may be significant to the generation at the time, but we’re just guests passing through who will be checking out soon, replaced by a new set of guests who will take our place and forget that we were here. In the meantime, the world goes on as it always has. Every new generation thinks that something new is happening. But in every generation the sun rises and sets. It’s always moving, but never ends up anywhere different. The wind continues to follow the same customary currents it always does. It goes around and around and never really ends up anywhere. The waters flow endlessly. If you go to Niagara Falls you’ll see water draining from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. It’s not like Lake Erie ever empties, or Lake Ontario ever gets full. That’s because Lake Ontario flows out to the St. Lawrence, and the St. Lawrence flows out to the Atlantic, but the Atlantic never fills either. It’s a good picture for our lives: one and a half million liters of water going over the Falls every second, but nothing changing.

That’s the first reason why our toil isn’t worth anything. We’re only temporary guests in a world that’s repeating in endless cycles without any sense of progress at all. Depressed yet? But that’s not all. The Teacher gives us a second reason why we gan nothing from our toil.

Reason two, the Teacher says, is that there’s also nothing new in human history.

Verses 8 and 9 say:

All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.

The ceaseless activity of the generations, of the sun, wind, and streams, is also mirrored in human life. He’s trying to show us how repetitive and tiresome life is. This is true of the natural world, he says, but it’s also true in our personal lives.

Start with what we see. We’re constantly bombarded with visual images and with and endless stream of sounds. This is especially true today. We have Netflix and YouTube and iTunes. We have home theatre systems with surround sound. We’re now getting 3D entertainment systems in our houses. Despite all of this, we still want to see and hear more. There’s never enough. There’s always one more movie, one more tweet, one more song. Nothing really changes no matter what we see or hear.

It goes even further than this. “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” You’ve heard the phrase that history repeats itself. If you look at history, there’s nothing you can do that hasn’t already been done. We like to convince ourselves that we’re different. We even talk about how every person is different, just like snowflakes. I love how someone put it: “Don’t forget, you’re unique, just like everyone else.” In the end, we’re not that different. A generation is born. A generation grows and learns. A generation gets older and there are lots of weddings, and then baby showers, and then university bills, and gradually a lot of doctor’s visits and then a lot of funerals.

In verse 10 the Teacher anticipates an objection. “Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’?” Can’t we say, “Well, this is new!” 160,000 people - including at least two from this church - just attended the Consumer Electronics show in Las Vegas. All sorts of new gadgets were introduced to the world. We’re talking dual-core smartphones, new operating systems, tablets, and more. I suppose you could object to the Teacher and say, “What are you talking about? All of this is new!” The Teacher could say in response, “Do you really think that the nobody has ever introduced a new invention before?” If he really wanted to get nasty, he could hold up the latest gadget and say, “Do you really want to argue that this new product is enough to bring meaning and fulfillment to your world?” Everything we do falls into some category of what has been done before. As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

So there’s nothing new in human history. There’s nothing new in human history. The Teacher has one more reason why we gain nothing from our toil.

Reason three, the Teacher says, when we are gone, we will be forgotten.

Read verse 11:

There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.

Out of everything Teacher has said, I find this the most depressing. Is it possible for us to stand out so that we will be remembered by those who come after us? The Teacher says no. People have had mountains named after them, but later generations change the name. People write books that outlast them, but eventually those books go out of print, and the authors are forgotten. You don’t know anything about most of the people who came before you, even in your own family. One day we too will be forgotten. What we’ve accumulated will be lost. What we’ve accomplished will be forgotten.

There’s nothing new in nature. There’s nothing new in human history. And one day we will be forgotten.

You can see why the Teacher asks the question, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” And you can see why he concludes, “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.”

Look, you didn’t come here to be depressed this morning. But if we pay careful attention, we’ll see that the Teacher is doing us a big favor. He’s telling us that, apart from God, none of this makes sense. He’s trying to prevent us from the tragedy of living good lives, only to find out that it’s all for nothing. It’s depressing to hear it, but what’s even more depressing is not to know, and to find out one day when it’s too late that we’ve wasted our lives.

The Teacher isn’t some crank who’s having a bad week. We need to hear what he says, because Jesus tells us the same thing. Jesus once asked the question: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26). That’s a very similar question, isn’t it? What do we gain from all of our toil? What do we profit if we gain everything? Jesus told a story of a rich man who had everything in this life. When he died, that was it. It all added up to nothing. He concluded, “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Apart from God, people gain nothing from all of their toil.

Is there any way for all of this to count? Yes, Jesus says. Apart from God, people gain nothing from their toil. But if you live for Christ, it’s a different story. Jesus said in Matthew 6:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21)

If this is everything, it all adds up to nothing. But our lives can have profit if, in Jesus’ words, we are rich towards God (Luke 12:20). There is, too, a way to be remembered, if we’re written in the Lamb’s book of life.

If we’re looking to make a profit with our lives, we shouldn’t look for all that this world offers. We should look for the everlasting gain that comes from trusting Jesus. Apart from God, people gain nothing from their toil.