Rooted in Wisdom
We come today to our study of what is commonly called “Wisdom Literature” These are the books of proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Job and Song of Solomon. (Technically the Psalms are wisdom lit as well but we covered them already.) These books are some of the most beloved OT books of many Christians because their message often sounds very contemporary. R.C. Sproul reminds us that these books are very philosophical – as philosophy is indeed the love of wisdom.
Today we are going to encounter the book of Ecclesiastes, called “the truest of all books” by Herman Melville and the “highest flower of poetry, elegance and truth” by Thomas Wolfe.
The book of Ecclesiastes is written by a very worldly successful person (probably Solomon) at the end of his life who has come through a end-life crisis. You’ve heard of a mid-life crisis. Well this is an end-life crisis. It’s the crisis that we face when we come to the realization that nothing lasts. Life is winding down and will soon be over and nothing will remain. Often people at the end or their life face this – I call it the end-life crisis. More common is the mid-life crisis, which happens after the kids grow up and the career winds down and all of the energy put into both is reevaluated. I also believe in the “quarter-life crisis”. This is the time of life after university when everything is open to you, and nothing is because you don’t know what will last. The teacher is writing especially to the young, so that you don’t make the same mistakes he did.
So what lasts? Much of Ecclesiastes is an autobiographical account of how the teacher progressed through life seeking something that will last. This is the real meaning behind the word that shows up over 30 times which may be in your bibles translated as vanity, or meaningless. It is the idea of a breath or the smoke of a candle after its been extinguished. Today we’re going to walk you through some of his experiences, noting some of the universal laws he found.
Reading the book of Ecclesiastes is like a Rocky movie. You get pounded and pounded and pounded and pounded and it never stops. Nothing lasts. Nothing lasts. Nothing lasts. 33 times the word is used over and over and over again. Read 1:1-18
Not Youth or Health
The Law of Time: Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:8
Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity.
What lasts? Not youth or health. You think your indestructible. This should be pretty obvious that you're not. Time waits for no man. Yet we do everything we can to fight against this law. In 2006, Americans spent $14 billion on plastic surgery. It is not only being done by Hollywood or the rich. 1/3 of those who had cosmetic surgery earned less than $30,000 and over $1 billion was financed. We spend $20 annually on cosmetics trying to regain the glow of youth, fighting the law of time. The point is, the Teacher says, enjoy your youth and be thankful for your health, but don’t trust in it because it’s not going to last.
The Law of Burnout: Ecclesiastes 2:1-11
I said in my heart, "Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself." But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, "It is mad," and of pleasure, "What use is it?" I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine--my heart still guiding me with wisdom--and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. . . . (8b) I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the children of man.. . 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.
One of our first responses to the fleetingness of life is to just live it up. This is often the response of people facing the quarter-life crisis. In university and afterward, its hard to see anything else to do in life so you become the life of the party. The problem is, the party ends. Sooner or later you burn out, OD, or just simply wake up one morning in a stranger’s bed, not remembering anything of the night before, and you look in the mirror and see an old man or woman where there used to be a soul. The funny thing with Solomon: he tested it. He tried to see how far he could go. He drank and got all the entertainment he could. He didn’t’ stop. He clubbed it like some sort of mutant Linsdey Lohan-Paris Hilton-Brittney Spears hybrid. Solomon was the life of the party. Solomon had 700 wives. Many of these were alliances for political reasons. Yet he also had a harem of 300 concubines: these were for pleasure: different woman every night for three years. . I said of laughter, "It is mad," and of pleasure, "What use is it?" There is nothing to be gained in it. It doesn’t last.
After pleasure, people devote themselves to things. Getting the toys and the houses. Solomon’s wealth was legendary as he says:
(2:4-8) I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces.
Law of Diminishing Returns: Ecclesiastes 5:10
He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.
The Law of Diminishing returns states that ”achievement in any area of life adds to happiness only up to a certain point. Beyond that point, more and more gains in any one particular area adds less and less to happiness.” In plain English, the theory is saying that you CAN have too much of a good thing. The more you experience of the good thing, your overall happiness will decline.” Like a friend of mine as a kid who loved whipped cream, so he made himself a whole whip cream pie. Here’s how it works for many. You have an income in which your living in a modest apartment. You decide that your going to buy a house. Great. One purchase. Then you buy your house and realize that it ‘s bigger than your apartment so you’ve got to buy more furnature. As you’re driving back and forth from Ikea, you realize your little sedan’s not cutting itso you’ve got to get a new SUV. To afford the car and house payment your spouse has to work. Well with the extra money from your spouse’s income you buy more and more and more. It all seems to make sense from the inside, but from the outside you’re always looking for the next purchase, never satisfied. It doesn’t last.
Law of the Market: Ecclesiastes 5:13-17
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. As he came from his mother's womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand.
You can’t beat the market forever, and even if you do, you can’t take it with you. You hit a rough spot but since you couldn’t control your appetite, you’re locked in to looking for a job that pays you similar wages and you’re supporting people (children friends, parents) that depend on you. It doesn’t last.
Many of us think ourselves far nobler. We do not work only for pleasure or property, but for the noble task of doing the job itself.
The Law of Succession: Ecclesiastes 2:18-23
I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and 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
This is the idiot might come after rule. You worked so hard to build your company and you retired and handed it over to a moron. You may be able to ensure that you choose a worthy successor, but you cannot control what will happen to the things you built after you move on. It won’t last.
The Law of Competition: Ecclesiastes 4:4
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. (ESV)
The greater you succeed, the more people are gunning for success, you know this because this is how you succeeded. The only thing more fleting than getting to the top, is staying there.
The Law of Devotion: Ecclesiastes 4:7-8
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. (ESV)
To become to extremely successful, you have to be very devoted to what you do. Families who separate so one can get a job somewhere else.
Not Government or Power
The Law of the Pen and the Sword Ecclesiastes 10:5-7
There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, as it were an error proceeding from the ruler: folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place. I have seen slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves. (ESV)
The power/skill set required to gain power, is not equivalent to the skill set required to rule well. Many great leaders are not great rulers or great people, but they got to the top.
The Law of Corruption Ecclesiastes 4:13-16
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. (ESV)
Even worse is when you get a good person to the top and you find that life at the top changed him or her. So that you think you have a nodle leader in place but they become corrupted by power. Only a few weeks ago the entire board of the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corp resigned for corruption. The problem was that many of those who resigned were brought in only a couple of years ago to clean up corruption. It doesn’t last
The Law of Common Grace: Ecclesiastes 8:14-15
There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.
Adam spoke last week on common grace - God sends the sun on the righteous and the unrighteous. Here is the flip side: God sends the rain on both as well.
The Law of Sin: Ecclesiastes 7:27-29
Behold, this is what I found, says the Preacher, while adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things-- which my soul has sought repeatedly, but I have not found. One man among a thousand I found, but a woman among all these I have not found. See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.
You can try to seek moral perfection in this life, but alas, you will not be able to. And what does it gain you? You kill yourself to be pure, and one sin soils you. Imagine if you believed that God was perfect and he made us upright and one sin separated you from God and that you had to rely on your own moral perfection to last: no of us would.
The Law of Death: Ecclesiastes 2:12-16
So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. 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. Why then have I been so very wise?" And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool!
Great, so you’re wise. You may live a better quality of life for a while but you’re going to be part of the only statistic that matters: dead.
The Law of Blissful Ignorance: Ecclesiastes 1:16-18
I said in my heart, "I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge." And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
Solomon almost sounds as if he regrets looking into the matter of what lasts because his search only brought him to sorrow.
What are you living for? Are you living for youth, pleasure, things, career, power, justice, righteousness or wisdom? Nothing lasts.
Ecclesiastes 12:8 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity. (ESV)
So far, I have made it sound as if Ecclesiastes is the most negative, cynical book in the Bible (if not ever written). It actually is not. See I compared it to a rocky movie where Rocky gets pounded on over and over and over and over. What happens at the end of every Rocky movie? The comeback.
Punch #1: The Jab. Quick little punch. Something he’s been saying here and there . Under the Sun. 33 times Solomon uses the phrase “under heaven” or “under the sun” once for every time he has declared life vanity. See – he’s fighting back. Nothing lasts - under the sun. Nothing lasts - under the sun.
Punch #2: The Cross. The cross is a punch that startles. What startles in the book of Ecclesiastes is how, for all its cynicsm, how life-affirming it is.
Ecclesiastes 2:24: 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,
Ecclesiastes 3:12-13: 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.
Ecclesiastes 3:22: So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot.
Ecclesiastes 5:18-20: 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. (ESV)
Ecclesiastes 8:15: And I commend joy, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun. (ESV)
Ecclesiastes 9:7-10: 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.
This is a counter and it is a startling theme: Because nothing lasts, receive everything from the hand of God with Joy! Contentment and Thanksgiving. (If time tell the Chinese Story)
Punch #3 The knockout blow. Ecclesiastes 12:9-14
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (ESV)
Some people think that these verses were tacked on at the end because they failed to see the other punches. But once you see the punches scattered through the book this doesn’t take you by surprise because you’ve already stated seeing Rocky fight back. This is the knockout – the only thing that lasts is your relationship with God. Jessu said the entire book of ecclesiastes very simply: what does it prophet a man to gain the whole world and lose your soul. You soul, and the souls of others are the only thing that lasts.
A.L.I.V.E.: Always live in view of eternity. Enjoy life, but ask yourself, is what I am doing today going to last?