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 4: Finding Answers.
Part 4: Finding Answers
Ecclesiastes is not a politically correct book, it mocks us, our vanity, boasting, little glory, and it asks the question, ‘Do you think that your life and your success is impressive in the span of time and space? As you think about your life on the backdrop of eternity, is it that great?’
One of the stories I’ve loved since I was a boy is ‘The Kon-Tiki Expedition’, where six Norwegian men travelled from South America to the Polynesian Islands on a balsa wood raft, and left on this very day in 1947, so 66 years to the day since they took off. I’ve always loved the story, I took myself off to see the movie. There was a remarkable scene in this new movie, ‘The Kon-Tiki’, where a camera is poised over the raft in the Pacific, and the camera starts to move up until the raft is just a tiny little dot in the ocean.
Then the camera keeps going through the clouds until the earth itself is tiny, and then the camera turns around, and it goes off into the galaxy and begins to move through space. After a while, it turns around, reverses, it comes back down to the earth, down to the Pacific, and on top of the raft again.
The effect of this is that you get to the end of the movie – and they make it from one side of the ocean to the other, and it is a great success. But you find yourself asking the question, ‘Could you really go into the galaxies and impress the galaxy that you’ve just crossed a little bit of water which is so little that the planet that it’s on is not even visible and there’s no cosmic tape measure that can really measure that tiny, little piece of water that you’ve crossed?’
That, I think, is the tension of Ecclesiastes. Small successes, but on the big eternal backdrop, they don’t seem to count for much. The aim of the book is not to depress us. The aim of the book is to get us to God who, as we know from the rest of the Bible can give eternal life and eternal meaning through Jesus Christ.
When we looked a few weeks ago at Chapters 1 to 3, we took a one-word theme, and the word was ‘meaningless’. Life is like an ants’ nest, lots of little people buzzing around. Where’s the meaning? The answer we saw is found in Jesus Christ, who can give eternal meaning to people who are just in this world for a short time.
The next week we looked at Chapters 4 to 6, and the keyword was ‘master’. Who do we serve? Who do we live for? Who’s driving us? We saw that there are a lot of dangerous masters. But there is one in Jesus Christ who will liberate you.
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Last week we saw in Chapters 7 to 9 that the keyword is ‘wisdom’. Is there a formula, a key, a theory, a rule which will explain the world? It’s such a random world. Is there one rule? We see that, according to Ecclesiastes, there isn’t. It’s an uncertain world, and you need to go outside the world to the certain person of Jesus Christ. That’s where your certainty is to be found.
Today we come to the last three chapters, and the keyword is ‘decision’. We’re going to look at it under three brief headings;
- Be smart (Chapter 10)
- Be quick (Chapter 11)
- ‘Be his (Chapter 12)
Ecclesiastes Chapter 10 is a chapter that is teaching on the subject of foolishness. Chapter 10:1 this is the famous fly in the ointment proverb. ‘As dead flies give perfume a bad smell, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honour.’ As a dead fly makes perfume smell terrible, so a little stupidity can outweigh all your wisdom and honour.
Think of the leader, the sportsman, the film star who does one famously foolish thing, and that’s how we remember them. Think Nixon, Clinton, this foolish moment outweighing all the wisdom and the honour. Now, the whole of Chapter 10 does a very clever thing. It strings together some warnings about where foolishness leads because in Chapters 1 to 9 he said a lot of wisdom. Now he’s going to say something about being foolish so that you won’t go down the track of being foolish.
It’s a little bit like talking to teenagers. If you’re talking to teenagers you can say to them, ‘If you’re going out tonight be good. Be good. Don’t do this. Don’t do this,’ and it’s all just hot air. But there’s something to be sometimes said for showing a teenager a two-minute part of a documentary on what stupidity looks like because it weighs a lot to see where a stupid road leads.
If you look at Chapter 10:2 you’ll see the fool always walks the wrong road. If you look at verse 6, what do you do when a fool becomes too powerful? Then, look at verse 12, the fool keeps talking rubbish. We know this. Fools take the wrong road. Fools who get too much power, what a nightmare. Fools who, whenever they open their mouth, it’s stupid.
There’s a whole string of examples in Chapter 10 of things that can go wrong and how much better it is when you don’t have a fool in office, or you don’t have a fool inside your home. So, it’s a good warning. But the problem, friends, is that we need more than a warning.
I remember when I was the Chaplain for the North Sydney Bears who are now defunct, but I had seven very blessed seasons being the Chaplain for the North Sydney Bears. When they’d have their big meetings they would have the little pep talks which were basically, ‘Look. You guys are young. You’ve got muscles. You’ve got girls hanging around. You’ve got a drink. You’ve got adulation. You’ve got success, excitement. You’ve got to make sure that you’re sensible. Don’t bring dishonour to the club.’
But the pep talks didn’t go anywhere because there was just too much testosterone inside and there were too many opportunities outside. So they are regularly having to come back and have the club meeting and say, ‘Look. It’s been a bit of a mess, bit of a disaster. Would you please do your best?’
Now, they are not any different from us, really. There’s enough stupidity inside us and enough temptation outside us for us to know that we need more than a pep talk. We need somebody who will forgive us for the stupidities we’ve already done. We need somebody who will change us so that we get a new heart for wisdom. Not perfect, but new. We also need somebody who knows the best road to travel.
Then you come face to face with Jesus Christ, and He says, I’m the way. I’m the truth. I’m the life.’ Or you remember His invitation at the end of the Sermon on the Mount? ‘The crowd are on the broad road going to destruction.’ That’s where most people are. ‘But you,’ He said,’enter in the narrow gate.’ He might have said, ‘Come to me and you’ll start to walk on the narrow path that leads to life.’
He’s the person who takes our natural foolishness and turns it into a greater wisdom. That’s the first thing. Be smart.
Now, the second, Chapter 11 ‘Cast your bread on the waters.’ This is quite a famous phrase, quite a confusing phrase. What does it mean to cast your bread upon the waters? Then verse 6, probably very similar, ‘Sow your seed in the morning.’
These phrases are not a call to give to charity, as many people think. But they are a call to wake up and take action. I presume ‘Cast your bread on the waters’ could mean, ‘Sow your wheat even if the fields look doubtful.’ Or it could mean, Export your product so that there is some decent yield that comes back to you.
But He’s not interested in our business. He’s interested in our soul. He’s just spent ten chapters telling us what matters and what doesn’t matter, and now he’s saying in Chapter 11,Wakey, wakey. Make a decision. Be quick. There are, of course, some things, if you look at verse 3, that you cannot fix or change, whether a tree falls to the south or the north. In the place where it falls, there it will lie. You can’t do anything about that.
Verse 4, if you wait for perfect conditions, well you’ll never make a decision. Verse 4, ‘Whoever watches the wind will not plant. Whoever looks at the clouds will not reap.’ ‘Don’t wait until you know everything,’ verse 5, as you don’t know the path of the wind or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb. You cannot understand the work of God, the maker of all things. So don’t wait until you know everything.
You’ve got to get off the fence. You’ve got to get off the couch, and you’ve got to make a decision based on the reasonable amount of information you’ve been given which is that the path away from God is going to be deadly and the path towards him is going to be wonderful. You’ve got to make your decision.
Now, sadly we have people in church every Sunday, so I’m not talking to anybody in particular. But we have people in church every Sunday who are waiting for something to happen so that they’ll make their decision. They’re waiting for a miracle or a feeling, or a vision, or some proof which is friends, never going to come. Unless God is incredibly kind as to write your name across the sky, it’s just not going to happen.
So, sadly these people wait outside the door of God’s family, and they wait outside the door, and they wait outside the door, and then the door closes. Somebody takes their funeral and says, ‘They were nice,’ and they stay outside God’s family for eternity. It’s an absolute tragedy. Ecclesiastes is saying in Chapter 11, ‘Get up. Make your decision.’
Listen to C.S. Lewis in his book,‘The Great Divorce’. He’s describing a scene where a man who has died and is, therefore, seeing the reality of heaven and hell, is speaking to a man in a very strange situation who is still alive and trying to get them to wake up and respond to Christ. This is how the conversation goes:
‘I’m telling you to repent and believe.’
‘But my dear boy, my religion is very precious to me.’
‘Very well. Will you come with me to the mountain? That is, will you come with me to see the reality?’
‘Well, I’m perfectly ready to consider it. But I want a guarantee that I shall find a wider sphere of usefulness. Scope for my talents and an atmosphere of free inquiry.’
‘No, I can promise you none of these. No sphere of usefulness, for you are not needed. No scope for your talents, only forgiveness for having perverted them. No atmosphere of inquiry, for I shall bring you answers.’
‘Ah, but we must interpret things in our way.’
‘If that were true, how could anyone travel with confidence?’
The slippery man continues to be slippery and evasive until the man who knows what he’s talking about turns and walks away.
The writer of Ecclesiastes says, ‘You’ve got enough information to go forward and make a decision. So be quick to respond.’ As Jesus said in John Chapter 12, ‘Put your trust in the light while you have it, before darkness overtakes you.’
You see in Chapter 11:7? ‘Light is great. It’s sweet.’ But verse 9, ‘Darkness is coming, and therefore,’ verse 9, ‘Young man, enjoy your youth. But get wise while you’re young before you get too old because God is going to bring you to judgement.’ Isn’t it a strange thing? I know this from my background when I was an unbeliever.
Why is it that we think that we should put God off because if we get too near to him, he will wreck our life where nobody in the New Testament, whoever took Jesus seriously, got anything but life. Once they got Jesus, they didn’t want to give him up for anything. But we persist, don’t we? People, in thinking, that if we get close to Jesus, He’ll wreck it.
Why is it that we think, ‘Well we’ll turn to God when we’re 80 or 90’. When we’ve got no guarantees that we’ll get to 80 or 90, and when we get to 80 or 90 we’ve got no guarantees we’ll be thinking straight? Why is it that we want to stay the pirate on the opposite side to the king when the king invites us to cross to his ship, on his gang plank, at his expense and giving us a pardon for the past and a great guarantee of the future? There’s something very perverse about us. So, this writer says, ‘Be quick.’
The third thing this morning is, Be His,’ Ecclesiastes, Chapter 12, the last chapter of the book. These are brilliant verses. They describe the process of ageing. Getting to the day, verse 6 where the silver cord is severed and the golden bowl is broken, and the dust returns to the dust, and the soul returns to God. Again, the writer is saying, ‘Don’t forget your maker. That’s really who you’ve been made for, and you need to remember Him before you fade away.’
Don’t be like those people in politics or business who are making sure that they never make a decision by having so many consultants and reports, and papers, and forums, on and on. Opposing one another until finally, you can say, ‘Well, we’ve thought a lot about it, and we’re not doing anything.’
The description of old age in Chapter 12 where the pleasure starts to fade and strength starts to disappear, and verse 5 we leave the world. I think that this is a very clever description of the decaying of the human body. Verse 3, ‘The grinders are few.’ I think that means the teeth.
‘The windows,’ verse 3, are dim.’ I think that means the eyes.
‘The ears, the sounds get faint,’ verse 4, and even desire, even sexual potency starts to fade,’ verse 5.
So, he says, ‘Remember your creator,’ verse 1, because,’ verse 8, ‘without Him you’re life will be meaningless.’
I could imagine these verses being read out of school assembly. I could imagine the people who are there saying,’Yes. This is a lovely reading. It’s a lovely piece of poetry, and I agree. I think we should give a little tick to the creator. I’m going to remember Him. I’m going to set aside 60 seconds to remember my Creator. That’s what I’ll do. Yes, I acknowledge Him.’
But it doesn’t mean that, does it? It means that we’ve got to be goaded – look at verse 11 – or prodded, or pushed, verse 11,to the Shepherd because the creator is more than a creator. He’s a creator and a Shepherd. He’s more than a creator and a Shepherd. He’s a creator, a Shepherd, and a father.’ That’s where this book is pushing us.
God is not asking us to mentally acknowledge Him. He’s asking us to belong to Him, to be His. If you wake up to your creator and you say, ‘There is a God,’ well, you’ve made a start. The next step is to realise that a distant creator is a danger, and no solution, especially when you know that He is a father to those who have welcomed His son.
That’s the way to becoming one of God’s children. You become one of God’s children by welcoming His son. John, chapter 1, ‘Christ came into the world. Those who receive him, God gave the right to become His children.’ We’re all part of the creation. We’ve all got a creator. But you only become one of God’s children when you welcome God’s son. What a privilege it is to welcome His son and receive eternal life that will go through the grave.
So as we come to the end of Ecclesiastes, he’s been a good guide for us because he shows us that the roads away from God are dead ends and are dreadful, and will get darker and darker, and end in permanent darkness. But he finishes in a way by pointing us to God, who is the Shepherd. We might remember the words of the Lord Jesus,I am the good Shepherd. I lay my life down for the sheep. I give them eternal life. No one will ever pluck them out of my hand.’
So Ecclesiastes calls out, ‘This is a meaningless road without God,’ and Jesus calls out, ‘It’s a meaningful life with him.’
Ecclesiastes calls out, ‘This is a dark, dark road,’ and Jesus calls out, ‘I’m the light of the world.’
Ecclesiastes says, ‘Your life will be meaningless without Christ,’ and Jesus says, ‘Your life with me will be utterly meaningful.
You will belong to the one you were made by. You’ll belong to the one you’re loved by. You’ll always belong to him, and the thousands of little things that you do in your life will be used by him for eternal good.’
Let’s pray. Father, we thank you so much for giving us the prodding, pushing word of Ecclesiastes, and we pray that you would give us the wisdom, the insight and the confidence that the world without you, despite all its bragging, is empty and short. We thank you for sending into the world the Lord Jesus, for the bringing of the good Shepherd, the bringing of light.
We pray that you would help us, each one today, to rise and follow, to respond to Him, to rejoice in Him, to serve Him, and to help others belong as well. We ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.
- See the whole series, ‘ The Book of Ecclesiastes — A Christian Growth Series
- See more of Simon Manchester’s Christian Growth messages