One of my most memorable experiences of living in China was when I got to accompany one of my students, that we called Frank, to his hometown in a village outside of Shanghai. Frank was the first person from his village to study in Beijing, and I was, as far as anyone in the village knew, the first American to visit his village.
Adam last week spoke on the related themes of prosperity, greed, contentment, and stewardship. His main points were taken from Solomon’s observations in Ecclesiastes chapter 5, that “Greed is bad. Prosperity itself is not bad but is in fact a gift from God. And so, we should find contentment and practice stewardship.” Chapter 5 concluded with returning to the theme of the book. Each major section of the book of Ecclesiastes end with these sections instructing us to receive the god things of life as the gift of God. Do you remember, in the first section of the book, Solomon described his lifelong research project in which he pursued every possible pursuit of life and found that he was not able to extract any lasting gain out of those pursuits, so he concluded:
Eccl. 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, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy
So Solomon’s first argument is that it is only when one receives all of life from the hand of God he is able to truly find enjoyment in his toil. At the end of chapter five Solomon pushes the argument forward a bit, the idea of accepting our lot in life that God has assigned us, and that it is God who gives us the power to enjoy the gifts he gives and accept our lot.
Eccl. 5:18 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. 19 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. 20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.
The power to enjoy the gifts of God and the ability to accept our lot and rejoice in toil, is itself a gift of God. This is what Adam last week defined as contentment: “Contentment is finding joy in the lot that God has given you.” Well this week we’ll find that Solomon presses on deeper to explore this idea of contentment, and we’ll see him press his argument forward by pointing out three simple observations, and then really press in upon our hearts. The first two observations are related:
Joy Comes From God, Not Stuff.
You Can Have it All and Still Have Nothing
Joy Comes From God, Not Stuff
Eccl. 6:1 There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: 2 a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil.
Here Solomon separates the things we receive from God (the person receives wealth, possessions and honour from God) from the enjoyment of those things (God does not give him power to enjoy them). In other words, the enjoyment of a thing is a separate property that is not in the thing itself, but is a separate gift of God. The joy is unconnected to the stuff. In other words, the one who is taught contentment by the Lord receives a gift greater than wealth, for through the eye of contentment, even the little we possess will seem to us to be more than enough. To the discontent however, all the wealth of the world will seem to be but poverty.
You Can Have it All and Still Have Nothing
3 If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with life’s good things, and he also has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. 4 For it comes in vanity and goes in darkness, and in darkness its name is covered. 5 Moreover, it has not seen the sun or known anything, yet it finds rest rather than he. 6 Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good—do not all go to the one place?
The second principle flows out of the first, that because The Attainment of a thing is not the Enjoyment of a thing, the Accumulation of things does not lead to greater joy. Here Solomon uses two hyperbolic statements (exageration) - if a man fathers 100 children. If he lives 1000 years twice over. In the ancient world, the number of your brood and your your years were signs of God’s blessing, the good life. Yet, if a person is unable to see the joy in one child multiplying that lack of joy by 100, will not lead to any greater amount of joy. If a person enjoys no good in one day, multiplying that lack of joy by 1000 years twice over reaps nothing. He receives as much joy out of life as a stillborn infant.
So again we must insist: the Joy is not in the stuff. The joy is a separate gift from God. You can have all the things and no joy.
Now - the relationship between joy and things has been a trending topic lately. There is this netflix show, “Tidying Up With Marie Kondo”, that has been helping people sift through all of the stuff that they have accumulated and “declutter”. Her method is to sift through each set of items, clothes, books, etc, and engage them directly, emotionally, and evaluate the time based on this simple criteria - does this “spark joy”. If the answer is yes, great! Place the item back in its drawer with rekindled fondness and gratitude toward the item for the joy it has brought you. If the answer is no, thank the item for it’s having been part of your life, and give it a respectful send-off. The Kondo method seems to be truly inspiring people - thrift stores are reporting record donations.
There is a lot of good in Marie Kondo’s work. She seems to be helping to awaken people to the uselessness of our hoarding, and she encourages us to understand our possessions with mindfulness and gratitude, and so she is right in affirming the second principle that You Can Have it All and Still Have No Joy - accumulation of things does not bring about joy. However, it is the first principle, that Joy Comes From God, Not Stuff that she runs up against.
The Kondo method is based on Japanese Shintoism. Shintoism teaches that animistic spirits called kami are present everywhere, in nature, humans and yes, even in those objects in your home like your shirts and books. And so when Kondo encourages us to respect the objects and consider whether they spark joy, she is encouraging us to look deeper into the thing, and sense the resonance of emotion with us. The gratitude she instructs us to cultivate is directed toward the thing. Solomon, and the scriptures teach a completely different thing. Solomon has instated that the power to enjoy a thing does not come from the thing itself, but from God who “richly provides us with everything to enjoy”. My joy toward my things is sparked by God, which means I learn “in whatever situation I am to be content.” and Paul goes on to say in Phil 4:12 “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” Joy is not found in the stuff, or in the accumulation, it is a gift from God that stands on its own, whether i have much or little.
We Feed Our Bodies And Our Souls Starve
Eccl. 6:7 All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied. 8 For what advantage has the wise man over the fool? And what does the poor man have who knows how to conduct himself before the living? 9 Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite: this also is vanity and a striving after wind.
I find verse 7 to be a curious translation, for the word translated appetite, is the Hebrew word nephesh which is more commonly translated soul. So the meaning of verse 7, fitting the context of the chapter, would seem to be that “everyone works so hard to feed their bodies, but the soul remains unsatisfied.” If life is merely about physical sustenance, eating to work another day, then wise or fool, poor or rich, none of these distinctions matter (verse 8). We toil and strive for things that do not engage the soul. Rachel Gilson, writing for the Gospel Coalition, speaks to this lack of soul engagement:
Isn’t this exactly what Kondo is tapping in to? We Americans do not precisely know how to abound. Not in the sense that we aren’t stacked with plenty — clearly we are. No, in the sense that right in the middle of abundance, we’ve lost our way. We don’t know how to thrive in abundance. It drowns us instead of lifting our boats. There just has to be a secret to mastering this, instead of letting it master us, right? How can we be the richest and yet unhappiest people of all time?
So what is Solomon’s answer? 9 Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the soul.
Again, contentment. The idea here is to not let your soul wander around looking in envy for what you do not have, but to find the good, to receive joy from God, in the things that are right in front of your eyes. Contentment is the training of the soul to be satisfied with God’s gifts and the lot he has assigned. Which brings us to Solomon’s conclusion:
Conclusion: Quit Fighting With God - He Knows More Than You.
Eccl. 6:10 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. 11 The more words, the more vanity, and what is the advantage to man? 12 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?
Solomon believes strongly in God’s sovereign power and place over our lives. He doesn’t use the phrase, “our lot” here but it is clear that it is what he is referring to in verse 10 when he suggests that our lives are marked out and known by the one who is stronger than ourselves - in other words - find contentment in what is set in front of you for who are you to fight with God?
Yet we argue with so many words and we fight with God - and gain no advantage for all of our words and all of our striving. what do we gain? Verse 12 is to the point - Who knows what is good for man while he lives? Can you tell the future? How many times have you prayed with God to change your situation, and got angry when He did nothing, only later to be thankful that he kept you from something that would have ruined you? Like a person prays that she might receive the promotion to manager, and is angry with God when she doesn’t get it, but then a month later all the managers are laid off, and she keeps her job.
Finally: Life is Not Found in the Possessions We Have, But In Whose Possession We Are
We are the possession of God by virtue of Creation. He made us and so we are his.
We are the possession of God by virtue of Salvation. He saved us and so we are his.
Titus 2:11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.