Listen: Christian Growth with Simon Manchester. (Airs 8am Sundays on Hope 103.2 & Inspire Digital.)
Simon Manchester presents a four-part series of messages exploring the book of Ecclesiastes. This week, Part 2: Fleeting Pleasure.
Part 2: Fleeting Pleasure
What we’re doing on these four Sunday mornings is we’re listening to a man who is shockingly honest and prepared to ask the hard questions of life, and what life is like especially without God. The man is the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes, which is a 12-chapter book found in our Old Testament, straight after the Psalms and the Proverbs. And the thing about the man is that there was no pretending with him.
You may have heard of what is called the Car Park Miracle. The Car Park Miracle is what happens when you’re driving to church with your family, you’re grumbling with your spouse or irritated by your children, or people are fighting and squabbling, and then suddenly you pull miraculously into the church car park, and your door swings open, and you greet the first person that you meet with something like this: ‘Praise the Lord! What a lovely day! How great to see you! How great to be together! Isn’t it a wonderful time?’ And a miracle has taken place from the travel to this strange new experience in the car park.
Well, there’s none of that for the writer of Ecclesiastes. He doesn’t play this game at all. He gets out of his 1,000 BC vehicle, and he says exactly the grumbles and the frustrations that he’s been thinking of.
I mentioned last week that Ecclesiastes is one of the wisdom books of the Bible. What that means is that there are four or five books in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, which are asking the question; ‘How does life work? and How does it not work?
This writer is trying to understand the world. Chapter 1, verse 3:
What advantage does man have from all his work
Which he does [a]under the sun (while earthbound)?
Under the S-U-N. He is not trying to work life out under God. He’s trying to work out what life is all about if this is it. In other words, he’s putting on some secular glasses, some naturalist glasses, and he’s asking the question,’If there’s no God, and if there’s just us, and we’re in the world, and it’s random, well,what’s it for?’
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Last week, we saw in Chapters 1 to 3 that his conclusion is that it is pretty pointless. It’s pretty meaningless.
I want to say again; I don’t think the writer is a pessimist. I think he’s a realist, and he wants to point us to significance and security which is found in Jesus Christ.
But his questions are, Without God, life is pretty meaningless;
- If you win a prize, who’s going to remember?
- If you score a winning try, well, nobody listens to me telling my stories of scoring tries in football. It’s a complete boredom for them.
- If you make a great discovery, well, pretty soon you’ll pass away, and you’re forgotten
- If you create an invention or invent something significant, is it going to change the whole world?
- If you win a victory of some kind, will it not be true that pretty soon, the whole battle will have to be re-fought?
Think of the City of Sydney, Monday to Friday, seen from the sky. And just imagine the tens of thousands of people making their way into the city, working all morning, lunch, working all afternoon, go home. The next day, into the city, work, lunch, work, go home. Have some children, so that they can come to the city and work, have lunch, work, and go home, so that they can have some children who will come to the city, work, have lunch, work, and go home. And then just speed it up on fast-forward. It’s absurd.
That’s the way the writer is thinking. He is a thinking man. He’s trying to find ultimate meaning in a Godless world, and he just can’t do it. Even his study, his pleasure, and his work are failing to satisfy.
What we saw last week, is when the Son of Man (Jesus Christ) comes into the world, he shows us that we’re made by God and for God, to be reconciled to God, to be greatly used by God for eternal consequences, everything changes. Everything is wonderfully lit up. And we see that life is not meaningless, but meaningful.
Today we’re looking at Chapters 4 to 6. And the theme of the chapters is mastery.
- Who do you serve?
- Who do you live for?
- Who runs your life?
Why is it that you sometimes feel as though your life is very hard? Your service is hard, or you’re being tricked, or it’s random, unpredictable? I think these Chapters 4 to 6 will help us.
We’re going to think of them under three headings this morning:
- Chapter 4: Life with a Hard Master
- Chapter 5: Life with a False Master
- Chapter 6: Life with a Non-existent Master
Life with a Hard Master (Ecclesiastes Chapter 4)
‘I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun. I saw the tears of the oppressed, and they have no comforter.’
So as he looks at the world and he sees people who are being driven down and oppressed, and shedding tears with no comforter, he can hardly bear it. He thinks of the tyrants, the despots, the dictators who crush people who’ve got no power to make any redress or answer the problem. And he says something is extremely wrong with the world.
We fail or forget how blessed we are in this country. It’s a breeze in this country. But in so many other parts of the world, there is oppression, injustice on dreadful scales. And the writer says, in Chapter 4, verse 2, it’s probably better to die and get out of here. Or verse 3, to never arrive than it is for some people in this world.
He goes on to say in verse 4: if the boss above you is impossible, what about the engine that’s inside you that’s just driving you all the time for work? And in the end, he says a lot of its just competition. It’s just the envy trying to keep up with other people or succeed ahead of other people. He says in verse 5, if you’re lazy, of course, you’ll come to ruin. That’s a disaster. But if you’re driven, verse 4, you’ll probably go crazy.
So how do you get the balance? He suggests in verse 6, how do you get that one handful, rather than the two handfuls that you don’t need? So the oppression of work.
There’s another problem. verse 8, with the treadmill of work.
What if it’s lonely?
What if there’s nobody to appreciate what you’re doing?
Nobody enjoys what you do?
Nobody cares what you do? What a miserable business.
He comes to a little poem in Chapter 4, verses 9 to 12, about how two are better than one, and three are probably better than two. And this is a passage that’s often read at weddings as if the bringing together of the boy and the girl is the best way forward, and if you’ve got the Lord in there as well as the third member of the marriage, well,that’s the best possible solution. But the point is not marriage, although it could apply, I guess. The big point is that it is much better to be in some team or fellowship or partnership that gives you support and meaning to what you’re doing.
The final problem in Chapter 4 with hard labour is that there are so few guarantees. He gives an illustration of an old king who’s starting to get a bit foolish, and he’s replaced by a poor youth. And, shock of shocks, verse 13, this youth may have come from prison. So you see what the writer is doing? He’s turning all the wisdom of the Old Testament on its head, and he’s saying, what if somebody who’s old and should be revered, and is the king and should be revered, is replaced by someone who’s young, shock of shocks, and poor, and has got a dreadful background? Well, it’s possible.
He goes on to say, in verse 16, even that youth may be popular for a while, but soon he will be dispensed with, and somebody else will come. It won’t be long before he’s replaced. And this, in Chapter 4, is the world of bad leadership. People who are being oppressed, driven inwardly, lonely in what they’re doing, shallow in all their assessments.
When you read this, as somebody said to me this morning, it’s pretty negative, isn’t it? And it is pretty negative. But it’s designed to be negative so that you’ll think. We could wish that across the world there was tremendous justice and kindness taking place. But, the vulnerable, in a sinful world, are being steamrolled all the time.
Evil, as we know, seems to succeed and increase. What’s being done to some children around the world is reprehensible. What’s being done to weak people who’ve got no solution, no redress, no way of answering is just unbearable. People are desperately sad, says the writer, and we feel as though the world is going mad right in front of our eyes.
This is the world that we live in. The Bible’s got a very clear explanation that goes right back to the opening book of the Bible, and that is the world is trying to live with the wrong leadership. It’s trying to live with the wrong master. Jesus put it into one sentence in Luke Chapter 19. He said, this is the attitude of the world: we will not have this person, (Jesus Christ), to be our king. So the consequence is the crowning of self, and when you crown yourself, you become very unhelpful, especially when you come into collision with somebody who’s crowned themselves. And if you crown yourself and you have great power and influence, you can become a very dangerous person indeed.
You may think, as a bunch of Christian people here, you may think to yourself, God should do more. But there is nothing more generous and wonderful than what God has done, which is to so grieve for the world, and so in the person of Jesus enter the world. He’s not like the sort of detached Buddha who sits with a smile. But Jesus Christ has come into the very world of grief, experienced the worst of it, taken on himself all the evil that we deserve, and extends to us the incredible invitation of coming under his leadership, which is wonderfully caring and wonderfully powerful.
The words in Matthew 11 are probably clearest at this point, and these are words that have helped individuals around the world for 2,000 years, and they probably helped nations as well.
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
The secret, the paradoxical secret, of liberty is surrendering to Jesus. And the secret of liberty in the Christian life is regularly surrendering to your saviour.
Life with a False Master (Ecclesiastes Chapter 5)
We didn’t read this. It’s mostly got to do with money, at least the second half. But the first half of Chapter 5 begins very interestingly because he says: ‘Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools.
Now, I thought we were avoiding God in this book. But here, you see the writer cannot stop himself from exposing what life is like and pointing people to God. He just can’t stop himself. He doesn’t want people to say life is rotten, therefore be desperate. He wants to say life without God is incredibly difficult. Go to him.
Somebody has said that when great suffering takes place in places like Rwanda, the Western world looks on and says,‘Well, where is God?’ And the Rwandan world says, ‘Life is incredibly difficult. We have no hope and no joy but God.’ The reactions are entirely different. And here is the writer of Ecclesiastes saying, look in the face of the difficulties. Don’t go away from God, which will just get darker and darker. Go to him. And if meaninglessness is the summary of life, it’s even worse if you turn your back on God and walk away from him.
He says in verses 1 to 3; it’s better to listen to God than just talk a lot. And in verses 4 to 6, he says, don’t make big promises and then regret them. This is good advice, friends, for the person who is finding life is very oppressive, and finding life is all too much.
I want to ask you, is it possible that you have every voice blaring in your head but the Bible?
Is it possible that your plans are falling apart because you’re not listening to his plans for you?
I know we say this all the time, and I hesitate to say it again, but it seems to make no impact on many people, so I’ll say it again a little more strongly. If you’re not aiming to read your Bible every day you must either know better than Jesus, because he said that you live by the Word of God, or you’ve become a very unusual person, or perhaps even a very proud person, because you’re trying to serve Christ without listening to him, or you’ve got a very strange relationship with God which is all one-way communication, where you don’t care what he says.
The wise Christian man or woman has learned, as seriously as morning breakfast or morning teeth cleaning, that there’s got to be some Bible input. That’s the way you live. I don’t think the writer of Ecclesiastes says it that strongly, but he’s dealing with people who are extremely frail and lost. And he says, ‘Why not go back to the house of God and listen?’
In the second half of Chapter 5, we come to this false master called money, and it’s as if we are being faced with the same choice which Jesus gave in the Sermon on the Mount, where he said, ‘You cannot serve God and money.’ And let me assure you that you can’t because there comes the point where the will of God and the will of money clash. And then you’ll work out quite quickly whether you are serving money if the Word of God gets dispensed with, or whether you’re serving God when the temptation of money gets dispensed with.
This writer sees that money is a lousy God. Look at verses 8 and 9. ‘If you see the poor oppressed, and justice and rights denied, don’t be surprised, for one official is hired by a higher one, and over them, both are others higher still, and the increase from the land is taken by all. The king himself profits from the funds.’ In other words, he’s saying the obvious: that if you trace the process of authority back, you’ll find that there are some very clever people towards the top who are making huge profits. They know what they’re doing.
Whoever loves money
will never have enough money;
Whoever loves wealth
will not be satisfied with it.
This is also useless.
The more wealth people have,
the more friends they have to help spend it.
So what do people really gain?
They gain nothing except to look at their riches.
If you put on a seminar called ‘Come and Help Your Marriage,’ lots of people will come out. If you put on a seminar called ‘Come and Help Your Stress,’ ‘Come and Help Your Depression,’ lots of people will come out. But if you put on ‘Come and Help Your Greed,’ nobody goes. We don’t think it’s a problem. Most of us do not think that we’ve arrived in the money acquisition.
One commentator on Ecclesiastes, David Hubbard, he tells a story where he was seeking donations for a new building on their property, and he decided to write to a particularly wealthy Christian man. And the treasurer said, ‘Forget it. It’ll never happen. Wait till he dies and writes to his widow. Then you’ll get something. But for him, money is his life. He cannot let it go.’
The writer goes on to say that money is burdensome. verses 12 to 17. It keeps you awake at night. The sleep of a labourer is sweet, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep. It brings new worries. new anxieties. new sleeplessness. As the lady said to her husband in bed one night, ‘Roll over,’ and he immediately said, ‘$70 million.‘ It just dominates the brain. It dominates the brain.
When a good gift like money becomes the ultimate so that you cannot afford to part, that’s when it’s become an idol. God’s given us lots of good things. Money is a great gift from God. It enables so much to happen. Family and beyond. It’s a wonderful gift. But when it becomes the ultimate thing, and we would utterly despair if it was taken, then we know that it’s become an idol, and it will destroy us.
An idol is a substitute for God. It’s the sort of thing that you dream about when you’re alone. It’s the sort of thing you think about what you dream about, what you would be terribly afraid ever to lose. The thing that you live for and serve. The thing that calls the shots in your life. If anything takes the place of God, if anything takes the place of Jesus, it’s become an idol.
I have seen what is best for people here on earth. They should eat and drink and enjoy their work, because the life God has given them on earth is short.
God gives some people the ability to enjoy the wealth and property he gives them, as well as the ability to accept their state in life and enjoy their work.
They do not worry about how short life is, because God keeps them busy with what they love to do.
You’ll notice in the last few verses 18 to 20; he finishes by saying, ‘Well, perhaps we should just be content’. Verse 18, he says, I realise it’s good and proper for a man to eat and drink and to find satisfaction in his labour during the few days of life that God has given him. This is his lot.’ I think that probably is the best conclusion that most unbelievers will come to. ‘Collect what you can, enjoy it, don’t fuss too much, hope for the best.’
Jesus brings us an utterly different and magnificently better solution. He doesn’t leave you just to be content with the things you’ve collected. He gives you riches which outweigh everything the world could ever give you by giving you himself. Now, we know from his teaching that he told on one occasion a story of a man who comes across treasure in a field, and he recognises the treasure is so precious that he’s willing to sell everything to get the field. That’s the way Jesus describes himself. More valuable than the world.
And remember, he told another parable of a man who’s searching for pearls, looking for the best pearl possible, and he finds the pearl of great price. And it’s obvious that the pearl of great price is himself.
Now, that’s the reason why Jesus can say,‘What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?’ You can only talk like that if you’re worth more than the world, and he is. He outweighs the world. That’s why when Zaccheus had Jesus come to his house, a very rich man, he suddenly recognised in Jesus the riches of eternity, salvation, fellowship with God, a future that will outlast the world, and he said, ‘Take the money.’ That’s the sign of sanity. That’s the sign of clarity.
There was a great missionary called Sundar Singh 100 years ago. He was an Indian Sikh, and he became a Christian, and then a Christian missionary to his people. And the Indian people came, and they said to him, ‘Why would you leave the faith that we have grown up with for thousands of years and become a Christian? I mean, what have you been given in its place?’ He said ‘I’ve been given Christ.’ They said, ‘No, no, no. What rituals or what experiences, what things have you received from this new religion which make it worthwhile?’ He said ‘I’ve received Christ.’ That’s the privilege of the Christian. I’ve received Christ. Everything else becomes secondary.
Life with a Non-Existent Master (Ecclesiastes Chapter 6)
The third and the last chapter is what I’ve called Life with a Non-existent Master. This is the sense that the whole world is random and crazy and there’s nobody there. By the way, is it not a wonderful thing to discover, in history and scripture, that behind the universe is a God who sits on the throne, who’s powerful and loving and wise and sovereign, and who can run all the details, all the cells, all the stars, and work them all for the good of his people? It’s an incredible thing, and it’s based on history, not just on fantasy.
Chapter 6 is a very honest chapter, and he continues to think about life without God. Verses 1 to 6, he says, ‘What if life is full of possessions and lots of children, and you get many years to live them? Let’s imagine you get 2,000 years. So you get twice Methuselah’s lifespan. But, he says, what if you’re miserable? What if you’re an unhappy person, and yet you’ve got everything?’ Well, he can hardly bear it. The thought of having all the quantity and no quality. He says in Verse 3, ‘Surely it would be better to be a stillborn child.’
People work just to feed themselves,
but they never seem to get enough to eat.
In this way a wise person
is no better off than a fool.
Then, too, it does a poor person little good
to know how to get along in life.
It is better to see what you have
than to want more.
Wanting more is useless—
like chasing the wind.
Who Can Understand God’s Plan?
Whatever happens was planned long ago.
Everyone knows what people are like.
No one can argue with God,
who is stronger than anyone.
The more you say,
the more useless it is.
What good does it do?
In verses 7 to 11, he kind of despairs. He says nothing seems to make sense. You eat, and you’re still hungry. You try to be wise; it doesn’t help. You try to keep up with people; it doesn’t satisfy. Talk is everywhere. A huge amount of it doesn’t make any sense.’
He finishes with two questions in verse 12,
People have only a few useless days of life on the earth; their short life passes like a shadow.
Who knows what is best for them while they live? Who can tell them what the future will bring?
Two wonderful questions.
George Bernard Shaw tried to answer this, and he came to the same despair as the writer of Ecclesiastes. George Bernard Shaw, as you probably know, was sort of the Dawkins of the 19th Century, and this is what he wrote from a very rigorous brain, thinking about a Godless world. This was his conclusion:
‘Man’s life is brief and powerless. On him and his race, the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow to pass through the gates of darkness, it remains only to cherish.’ And listen to this: ‘The lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day, and to worship at the shrine, to worship at the shrine that his hands have built.’
That’s where a good atheist goes. And the only way you can avoid that is to stop thinking and just fill your day with activity, or something that numbs the brain.
Now, contrast that, friends, with the way that Jesus comes into the world. And he says, are you oppressed? I will give you loving leadership, which will inwardly and outwardly bless you. He sees people who’ve been tricked by false gods and are being led astray into great darkness, and he says, I’m the way, the truth, and the life.’ And he looks at people who are frightened that the world might be just run by a non-existent God, and he says, I was before the world, I will see you after the world, and I will give you eternal life at the cost of my death, and you will be mine forever.’ Fellowship with God today and forever, as a gift.
I said last week that Ecclesiastes is like a man striking a match in a blackout. Groping around, trying to find something. And Jesus Christ comes like the dawn, like the sunrise of a new day, and just makes everything visible.
I think we forget how blessed we are. But we’re incredibly blessed. He who did not spare his son, but gave him up for us all. How will he not, along with Christ, graciously give us all things? We are incredibly blessed. We may not think that we have much of a message to say to the world, especially as the world is not interested in our message. But this is the light for a dark place.
I urge you to go on praying for and living as faithfully as you can and looking for the opportunities to point people to the one who answers all the bleakness of Ecclesiastes and turns a meaningless life into a most meaningful and eternal life.
Let’s pray. Father, we thank you for putting a book in the scriptures which ask the hard questions that we might avoid. We especially thank you for sending into the world the Lord Jesus, who can provide solutions for the past and the present and the future. We pray that you would help us to appreciate him more and more, and we pray that you would help us to pass on the very great things we’ve received. We ask it in his name, Amen.
- See the whole series, ‘ The Book of Ecclesiastes — A Christian Growth Series
- See more of Simon Manchester’s Christian Growth messages