Friends, we’re going to spend four mornings on the book of Ecclesiastes. Some of you may know the book very well, some of you may not know much about the book. It comes after Proverbs, which comes after the Book of Psalms. And I want to introduce the book this morning.
I want to present the book by asking you the question which goes like this. I want you to imagine that you get to the age of 90 and you’re sitting on a bench in the park, and you’ve got very little to do, and there are not many people taking any notice of you. A teenager comes and sits next to you and says, ‘Hello. You’ve obviously lived a good long life, what did you do?’ And you say to the teenager,
‘Well, you know, I had a business. I ran a company.
I was a builder. See that building over there? I built that building.
I raised my children; I helped raise my grandchildren.
I was a teacher. I was a doctor. I was a plumber.
I was a minister. See that church around the corner?
I worked there for a long time. I was an actor, ever seen the film?
I was a singer, ever heard the song?
I was the Prime Minister. I was the Governor of New South Wales.’
And after a little pause, the teenager says, ‘Well, nice talking. See you later.’
I wonder if you feel at that moment that what you have done, which has been described in half a sentence, doesn’t amount to a great deal.
It’s not caused somebody else to sit up and say,’You’re significant, you’re substantial, and I must listen very carefully to all that you have done and all that you know.’ There’s just a sense, isn’t there? At the park bench, that what you’ve done with a long life has not done much. And this is especially painful for the male. I think women are better at this.
Woody Allen has said, ‘The universe is indifferent, and so we create a fake world for ourselves, and we exist within the fake world. It’s meaningless, but it’s important that we create some sense of meaning because no meaning exists.’
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We might think as we hear that quote, well, it’s typically Woody Allen, you know, the funny pessimist. But if the park bench test is right and somebody listening to us describe our life in a sentence considers that it is very insignificant, are we not deluding ourselves in the present when we think that what we’re doing is very significant?
There is a book in the Bible called Ecclesiastes which gives us a very rigorous thinker, somebody who’s going to force us to face hard questions about what’s important. The writer is not a pessimist; he’s a realist. He can critique secularism. We do not have many thinkers in our city I don’t think who do this. We tend to have lots of doers, people who just run from activity to activity, planning, planning, planning.
Not a lot of thinking on meditation. But Ecclesiastes is a gift of a book, and it’s a gift of a book for the non-Christian who wants to stop and think about what’s important and ask hard questions because the book does it better than most non-Christians can do it.
And the book is also a great help to the Christian who wants to get inside the mind of a secularist, or even think about how do we introduce questions which would get a person reflecting.
In case you think the book ends up in despair, it points us to God, and as we go through the next few minutes, I want you to know that we’re going to finish on the most hopeful wonderful note. But before that, we need to ask some hard questions. And before we ask the hard questions I want to say a little bit about the book, because of this book, Ecclesiastes, is one of what we call the wisdom books in the Bible.
The Bible has about five wisdom books;
- Song of Songs
These books focus not so much on salvation (how to be saved), they focus on how to live well in the world.
They’re not asking the question,’Have you heard what God said?’, but they’re asking the question,’This is what I’ve observed, can you get it too?’ And the author sounds very like Solomon, especially in Chapter One, verse one, where he describes himself as the teacher, the son of David, the King of Jerusalem. But most people think that he’s writing about Solomon as if he were Solomon. And the perspective of this writer is not life under God; it is life under the Sun. In other words, I’m thinking about life in the solar system where there is no God, where this world is it, naturalism. I’m trying to work out why the universe is here from my bedroom.’ And the conclusion as he goes through the book is that life is meaningless, it’s pointless. This word comes over 35 times, and the word means a mist or vapour or a puff of smoke after you’ve extinguished a candle, that little puff of smoke that disappears.
So the wisdom of Ecclesiastes is not what is called neat wisdom, neat wisdom is in the Proverbs, if you’re lazy you’ll soon be poor.
This wisdom is what is called radical wisdom, it’s asking uncomfortable questions. Just as Job asks uncomfortable questions, ‘What happens if you’re good and everything goes wrong’, says Job. And Ecclesiastes says,‘What happens if you live in the world and this is it!’ radical wisdom.
I have three quick points;
- Hard Questions
- False Trials, and
- Vital Clues.
The words of the Teacher, son of David, King in Jerusalem, meaningless, meaningless says the teacher, utterly meaningless, everything is meaningless.
The word ‘teacher’ literally means ‘convener’ or the person who assembles, the person who gets the ecclesia together. That’s why the book is called Ecclesiastes, the one who gathers people or gathers thoughts. And his conclusion is that everything is meaningless, because nothing changes. You see in verse 3, the sun rises and it sets, the wind blows to the south, it turns to the north. The streams flow to the sea, the sea is never full. All things are wearisome, nothing ever changes.
I don’t often mention little incidents about my family, I try and keep my family out of sermons, but I may have told you that many years ago I was standing with my son on a beach, when he was about five, holding his hand. And in a reflective moment looking at the waves rolling in, I said to him, “You know, I stood here with my grandfather, and I stood here with my father, and now I’m standing here with my son. And one day you’ll stand here with your son, and maybe with your grandson.” I was hoping as I said this that he would say something like ‘That’s profound, Dad. Let’s get a pen and write that down.’ And his reaction was, ‘Could I, please go now.’
But occasionally it comes across your mind that the waves roll and the people turn up on the beach and they leave, and the waves roll, and new generations turn up and disappear, and the waves roll, and nothing changes. We walk on a rock, we don’t make any footprint. We walk on sand, and the footprints get washed away.
Do we make any difference by walking across the stage of the world? You turn up here for 70, 80, 90 years if you’re blessed. Do you make any difference at all? Do you do anything that counts? Or as somebody has said, is it just déjà vu all over again?
Nobody gets remembered. There’s no remembrance of men of old, even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow. Is there anybody here this morning, you don’t have to wave, but do you know the names of your great grandparents? Do you know the names of your great great grandparents? They don’t go back that far, and yet we don’t even know the names of the people in our family. If you get a street named after you or a building named after you or even a city named after you, do you think anybody will remember why the building was named?
Who is remembered after twenty years? Who is remembered after 50 years?
At our staff meetings we have the strange habit of celebrating birthdays with a cake, and then for some weird reason, we clap the person a clap for every year they’ve been around. So the staff are learning to clap a little longer for me, but for many of the others, I tell you the clapping is all over in thirty seconds. All the years have just gone past in thirty seconds.
The writer is asking good hard questions, not to drive us to depression, but keeping us from stupidity, to keep us from emptiness and danger. And before he comes to the conclusion he tries to beat the emptiness with some stop gaps, and so this is my second point this morning, false trails. If you look at your Bible, you’ll see three false trails.
- Wisdom or Study
The False Trail of Study
The first false trail study. He says ‘I devoted myself to study and wisdom. Now, this is an excellent thing to do. Nobody would object to doing some study. But he discovers that the more he studies, the more it becomes discouraging and difficult and heavy and burdensome because there’s so much that he doesn’t know, and there’s so much that he learns that he doesn’t want to know.
So if you study justice, for example, you must see all the inequalities that are taking place in the world. If you study medicine, you begin to realise all the problems that can go wrong with a person. If you study history, you begin to see all the evils and the depravities that have taken place. If you study philosophy, you just get more and more confused. So study, it just doesn’t bring all the answers.
He sees in verse 15 that study does not straighten people out. Verse 15, ‘What is twisted cannot be straightened.’
The universities are not the seedbeds of morality and decency and generosity. The colleges at the universities are often places where you have very clever young people with lots of evil ideas mixing with clever people who may have good ideas and again and again, those with the evil ideas dominate those with the good ideas. The knowledge, the learning, the IQ has got nothing to do with the behaviour or the performance. Those who teach in primary schools know that education does not bring selflessness among the pupils. Those who study ethics classes in high school will discover that they have no way of causing anybody to want to do what is good. The desire does not come with the lesson. You don’t even get the framework with the ethics classes. And so, all the teacher’s knowledge, Chapter 1 verse 18 does not solve his big questions. He simply says, ‘With much wisdom comes much sorrow, the more knowledge, the more grief.’
Stephen Hawking, who is considered to be one of the cleverer men of our world, says. ‘We are an advanced breed of monkeys on a mini planet of a very average star.’ You just can’t help feel as you read that or listen to that that he’s got both his eyes open to the real world.
The False Trail of Pleasure
And the teacher, therefore, tries another false trail, Chapter two, verse one. This appeals to us hugely, I think, which is the trail of pleasure. He says in Chapter 2 verse 1; I thought my heart come, I’ll test you with pleasure to find out what is good.’ Again, this makes very good sense, because if life is just a water slide, it might as well be a pleasurable water slide. You know, who wants to have a painful water slide? And so he tries laughter, verse two.
Endless joking, comedy festivals after comedy festival, endless comedy DVDs. Now there’s nothing wrong with a comedy DVD if it doesn’t pollute your brain, although I’m told that a tragedy is likely to do much more good for the depth of your personality. But he says in verse two, ‘The laughter soon turned sour.’ It became tedious. It became irritating, as you know what it’s like to be with those people who can never say anything serious.
So he tried wine, verse three. It’s hard to work out whether he tried wine to enjoy it or to escape the world, maybe he went to endless restaurants drinking and eating. And then in verse four, he tried great projects, especially the perfect house. So from Chapter 2 verse 4 he built vineyards, parks, trees, got himself servants, flocks and herds, silver and gold, entertainers, even a harem. And there isn’t anybody here this morning who wouldn’t say that sounds pretty good. Let’s not kid ourselves that we sit in church and think that sounds rotten. For most of us, we think that’s the dream. And he is getting to live the human dream; he’s getting to live the human dream in a godless way so that we might know what it’s like.
The sad thing is we’ve all known people who live in magnificent mansions who are desperately unhappy. There is only some much pleasure that you can take. There’s only so many chocolates you can push into your mouth. There are only so many strawberries you can shove into your mouth. There are only so many senses that you can indulge. Nothing stays or lasts.
The tastes, sounds, feelings, smells, sights. They are unsustainable; they wear off. The advertising is always better than the product. The repetition starts to wear thin, and finally having glutted ourselves, and we all know what it’s like to glut ourselves thinking that’s the solution, we turn for something deeper because we are not just bodies. We’re made by God.
That’s what he says in Chapter 2 verse 10, ‘The pleasure was a vapour.’ Now it is a gift from God, God does give us pleasure, but it’s just a hopeless God. It just won’t work as God. So if you live for pleasure, you’ll never reach it. You’ll never really get there.
The False Trail of Work
The third false trail, Chapter 2 verse 17, is work. Again, this is an excellent gift from God, and all the people here this morning who have jobs, you should be very grateful. We should be grateful. Those who are waiting for work, you know this is a gift from God, and we are concerned that you do get work. It was given to the man and the woman in the garden when it was perfect, it’s not a punishment. It’s very satisfying, it’s very accomplishing, it provides for the family, it provides for beyond the family. What you do during the week is God’s gift to you. He’s deeply interested in it, and the way you conduct yourself, and most people here this morning conduct themselves extremely faithfully at work, it does glorify Him. It does benefit other people, and it does hopefully give you some satisfaction.
But what do you do with a man who can’t stop working, because the work is the God? He’s so empty; he’s so needy, this is the God. And so all the important people are getting neglected by the timetable. Everybody who gets in the way of the work becomes an enemy. The only thing that matters is that you be powerful and successful, and you find that you’ve got hunger inside you that cannot be satisfied because you’re made for God.
I read a terrible story in that book, Affluenza, of a lady who persuaded her husband to finally spend a day off with their son. And so he spent a day off with his son, and they went sailing, and the boy regarded this as the most wonderful day that he had had for years. And sadly, quite soon after that, he died, he died of heart attack. And the son was going through the diaries of his father, and he found the day where they’d gone sailing together. And the father had written across the day, ‘A complete waste of a day.’ What a dreadful thing to discover.
And Tim Keller says to the person who’s trying to make their work their God, ‘What is missing that to be complete and to have hope and to have worth you must go so hard? What is missing?’
It’s just not going to work. When the funeral comes, and somebody lists your achievements up to the front for five minutes. Did you arrive? And will what you’ve done last, or will it be overturned? Will it be superseded? Will it be bulldozed? Will it be mismanaged by somebody else? It’s obviously not the goal of the world.
Clive James is a thinker who I quite enjoy reading, and he certainly fits the false trails of study, pleasure and work. And this is what he says in the introduction to the fourth part of his autobiography. He says, ‘On any objective scale I can’t complain of being ignored. It is the subjective scale that haunts your waking hours and even deprives you of sleep. On that scale, I have only seldom and never for long felt that I got my career into focus. I made a living, and I made a name, but I still don’t feel that I have made it in the sense of knowing exactly what I’m doing. This might seem an absurd claim when I look along the shelves of my books and videos; even I can see that I’ve been quite busy, whatever the quality or lack there is certainly quantity. And there is my name over and over, usually written vertically so that I have to turn my head sideways, and the crick in my neck is evidence that I’m not shy about doing so. An onlooker might say that I have done something. But I’m not entirely sure about the something, and I don’t know about the I.’
You see therefore in Chapter 2:24, ‘What is left to say after all of this, but a man can do nothing better than eat and drink and find some satisfaction in your work because that’s it. You might as well just enjoy the water slide because it’s going straight to the cemetery.’
And he says at the end of verse 26, ‘It’s meaningless. It’s a chasing after the wind.’ He cannot stop himself from seeing that regarding the great picture it’s just a puff of wind.
Thirdly to the vital clues, and in Chapter 3 verse 1 we didn’t read this chapter, but it’s probably the most famous chapter in the Book of Ecclesiastes, and one of the most famous chapters in the Bible. ‘A time to be born, a time to die. A time to plant, a time to uproot. A time to kill and a time to heal.’
This was put to music by Pete Seeger in the 1950s, and then it was made famous by The Byrds in the 1960s, a song some of you will remember called, Turn, Turn, Turn. And the point of this section, if you’ve never thought about it before, is that he cannot avoid the fact that he sees a certain order in the world, people do begin and finish. They do plant and harvest, they clear the ground, they build a building, they fight a battle, they get some peace. There is some order in the world.
The problem, Chapter 3:11, is that eternity is in our heads. We’re not just like the dogs in the park thinking time. We are in time, but we’ve got eternity inside us, and unless you’re a very superficial person the idea of just stroking all your nerve endings for eighty years and then dying is just too weak.
So he says in Chapter 3 verse16, I looked at the world, and I saw that there was great injustice.’ Verse 17,’There must be somebody who puts things right.’
The problem for the writer? He’s in time, but he’s aware of eternity. He sees injustice, but he knows that there should be justice. He’s caught, but he’s got no solutions. He’s got some clues, but he’s got no answers. He sees the fingerprints of God on the creation, but he can’t work out what it’s all about. And so he finishes, in Chapter 3 verse 19, again with despair. He sees it all as wasted, just like the animals, we will die.
The reason that he is so clear about this is that he recognises that when he tries to personally invade the universe for answers. With his brain, with his experiences, with his heart, he cannot work it out. It doesn’t matter how carefully or cleverly or systematically he tries to invade what the world offers, he finds that it does not give the answers or the satisfaction.
What we desperately need is another message and another solution, and we don’t have to invent this. This is the good news because Somebody has invaded us. God, in the person of Jesus, has invaded the world and has provided the light and the answers that the world needs which change the picture for anybody who listens.
So the invasion of the human to work out the universe is always going to be empty. The invasion of the world by Jesus is going to bring wonderful life to the full.
Jesus who is before the world and made the world and entered the world and offers eternal life to the world transforms the world.
When Jesus came, the lights came on. When Jesus comes into your heart, the lights come on. The big questions get answered, you discover according to Jesus, that life is highly meaningful. You’ve been made for eternity. You’ve been made for a relationship with God. That’s going to be the key to the whole of the world. It’s not that you’ll get a plaque on a wall it’s that you’ll get a place in God’s family. And you’ll discover that there is a future. It’s been made possible because Jesus died. It’s been made abundantly clear because Jesus rose. So our life is not a vapour, it is not meaningless. God works in and through His people to do incredibly lasting things.
I tell you this with all the authority of the Bible that it is possible for you to get to the age of 90 and be sitting on a park bench and have a teenager come up and say to you,’What’s your life been all about?’ And you’ll say,’I did a few things. But up in front of me are the fruits of God at work in me, having heard some prayers, having used some gifts, having blessed some conversations, and I have no idea what I’m going to discover in the eternal world of the way God has used me. I sometimes get a glimpse of it here, but I’m going to discover it all in the future’. All the people who come up and say, ‘I was helped to Christ because of your prayers.’ All the people who have come up and said, ‘I was helped to Christ because of your gifts.’
In front for the believer who belongs to Jesus Christ, is the most incredible series of riches, because of the grace of God. Now of course the false trails that we have been walking which are evil and foolish need to be forgiven. And when we become Christians they continue to temp and attract us. We need to remind ourselves therefore on a regular basis of what we saw so clearly when we became Christians, which is that God is better than sin, and God is better than idols, and we have to go on living that way in the light of the truth of the Gospel.
We have to see the secondary things which are good, like study, pleasure and work, that they’re not gods, but they’re gifts, and they must be surrendered to God. And when we surrender our study to God and our pleasure to God and our work to God, everything fits.
So I want to conclude this morning by saying that I think Ecclesiastes is like lighting a match in a blackout. It’s doing the best that it can to work out the world. But Jesus is like the morning coming in your heart. Everything is lit up, everything is made clearer, everything is made worthwhile. And there are people here this morning, your life I frankly must say to you, without Christ is pretty meaningless. It’s just a vapour, and all the achievements will go to dust. And until you belong to Christ it’ll never be meaningful, that’s why you must do everything you can to find about Him and belong to Him, which is easy to do. And for most people here this morning your life is highly meaningful, because you’ve come to by the grace of God, put your trust in the Son of God, and He is at work in you and through you to do things which will last forever.
Let’s thank Him, let’s pray. Heavenly Father, we thank you this morning for this book, which probes us so effectively, and points us to Jesus so wonderfully. Amen.