The Great Experiment
Sermon audio available here.
i. Paint-Stripper for the Soul
Two years ago, around six months before Gideon Thomas, our young son, was born, I remember setting about preparing the nursery. We were fairly new to the house, the room was still kitted out for the 13 year old boy who had been the previous occupant. The carpet was black, the walls red and the ceiling white; he was a Manchester United supporter. I remember ripping out the carpet and stripping the walls. It was hard work, but the difficulty really began when I turned my attention to the skirting boards. They were painted black also and it was really tough going to remove the paint.
I tried sandpaper, it didn’t touch it; I tried an electric sander, and I broke it; I tried a flame thrower, it just smoked and stank out the house. Eventually I tried paint stripper and the results were amazing. The thick layers of black over white paint just peeled off. And then I spotted the real problem, the layers of paint were holding the skirting board together. As I stripped of layer after layer, the rotting wood just crumbled and so, foolishly, I took the decision to rip out the skirting boards. The plaster began to break away from the wall…
Ecclesiastes has this same effect. Ecclesiastes is paint stripper for the soul. Solomon considers our ruined world and our sin-corrupted, God-hating bent and concludes,
'Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.' (Ecclesiastes 1:2)
I should explain myself. What do I mean when I say that Solomon’s scrutiny of all that occurs ‘under the sun’ has the same effect as paint stripper? What do I mean and why is this necessary?
ii. Darkness and Light
Hundreds of years later, the Apostle John writes,
'And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.' (John 3:19-21)
In John’s dichotomy, Jesus is the light who comes into the world and bids men and women to follow him and receive the light of life (John 8:12). However, John observes a seemingly strange reaction to this light. Rather than loving Christ, running to Christ, and receiving Christ, instead we see men and women fleeing the light and preferring the darkness. If we truly want to see our communities, friends and loved ones transformed, we need to ask why it is that men and women love the darkness. John writes that men and women loved their darkness because the darkness hides their evil deeds.
This requires careful thought because rather than answering our question, this poses a bigger question: why is it that men and women prefer darkness and evil deeds to Christ and the light? The truth is that men and women are blind to the horror of the darkness and their evil deeds and blind to the blazing glorious, beautiful and wonderful light of Christ.
This means that we see the things of this world, money, sex, job, family, TV as more attractive than Christ. This means that we fail to see that Jesus Christ is infinitely more valuable and infinitely more worthy than any other thing.
It is vital that believers understand this as this is fundamental to the way in which we think about evangelism and our own salvation.
For men and women to become Christians, two things must happen. Firstly we must see ourselves as we truly are; radically depraved sinners in need of rescue and we must see this world as it truly is; broken and sin-ruined. Secondly, we must see Christ as he truly is; ultimate, glorious and of infinite worth.
This is why Ecclesiastes is so important. Solomon strips away the deception, exposes humankind and reveals this world as it truly is. My prayer, as we work our way through this book, is that the Holy Spirit would shine the light of Jesus into the hearts of men and women that they might see the futility of living for lesser, petty treasures and instead see the beauty, splendour and glory of Christ.
This is where we finished last week; the end of it all is that we would see God as he is and that we would respond in love and obedience,
'The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.' (Ecclesiastes 12:13)
2. THE GREAT EXPERIMENT
In verse two of the first Chapter, Solomon concludes,
'Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.' (Ecclesiastes 1:2)
But how, we must ask, does Solomon arrive at this conclusion? We find that his conclusion is a result of methodical enquiry. Solomon is embarked upon a great experiment,
'And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.' (Ecclesiastes 1:13)
Before we consider the results of this enquiry, we must first ask whether we can have confidence in Solomon’s conclusions. We find in these opening chapters five reasons why we can rely upon the conclusions of Solomon’s enquiries.
i. People fundamentally do not change
An objection that is often raised in respect of the authority of Scripture is that this is an old book, written from within and to a culture that is very different from our own. There is, therefore, a tendency, even within Evangelicalism, to subordinate Scripture to our own views, perspective and cultural norms.
This chronological snobbery (as C.S. Lewis terms it) is most often seen in respect of Old Testament texts which, when viewed superficially, may appear out of kilter with New Testament thought, and, even more so with 21 Century sensibilities.
As we saw last week, however, Solomon observes that there is ‘nothing new under the sun’,
'What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
"See, this is new"?
It has been already
in the ages before us.' (Ecclesiastes 1:9-10)
We considered the way in which Solomon identifies that our craving for sensory gratification invariably leads us to pursue and desire innovation. More than this, however, Solomon is observing something fundamentally true about mankind and the universe in which we live. At its most essential level, things do not change. You and I are not all that different from Solomon’s subjects circa 800BC. Men and women, fundamentally speaking, do not change. We display the same flaws, idiosyncrasies, foibles and quirks.
This is the answer for those who seek to diminish the authority of Scripture and the authority of this book. We can be confident that Solomon’s observations of his culture and his contemporaries are still relevant and that his conclusions still stand firm because people substantially and fundamentally remain the same.
In observing people, Solomon is, by extension, scrutinising us. We can be confident that Solomon’s conclusions with regards to his time are true, because our time is as his time.
ii. This is a methodical enquiry
We return to verse fifteen, Solomon resolves,
'[…] to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.' (Ecclesiastes 1:13)
We dealt with the scope of Solomon’s enquiry last week; Solomon determines to examine ‘all that is done under heaven’. This is an equivalent phrase to the repeated refrain, ‘under the sun’. Solomon’s enquiry is expansive.
Consider also the nature of Solomon’s enquiry, ‘I applied my heart to seek and to search’. The two Hebrew words, here translated, ‘seek and to search’ are significant. The near-synonyms to ‘seek and to search’ represent two kinds of searching, ‘one penetrating in depth, the other going out in extent’. In other words, Solomon is concerned with both detail and breadth; the close-up and the wide-angle shot. Solomon’s enquiry is concerned with the minutia and the context.
iii. Solomon’s wisdom
Wisdom is the means of Solomon’s enquiry. Solomon applies his heart (which, in Jewish thought, refers to the mind and the will and is the core of one’s personality) to examine ‘by wisdom all that is done under heaven’. This leads us to the first exceptional thing about Solomon which differentiates him from anyone who has walked this planet.
The Old Testament explains that God blessed Solomon with exceptional wisdom,
'In that night God appeared to Solomon, and said to him, "Ask what I shall give you." And Solomon said to God, "You have shown great and steadfast love to David my father, and have made me king in his place. O LORD God, let your word to David my father be now fulfilled, for you have made me king over a people as numerous as the dust of the earth. Give me now wisdom and knowledge to go out and come in before this people, for who can govern this people of yours, which is so great?" God answered Solomon, "Because this was in your heart, and you have not asked possessions, wealth, honour, or the life of those who hate you, and have not even asked long life, but have asked wisdom and knowledge for yourself that you may govern my people over whom I have made you king, wisdom and knowledge are granted to you. I will also give you riches, possessions, and honour, such as none of the kings had who were before you, and none after you shall have the like."' (2 Chronicles 1:7-12)
Scripture tells us that Solomon is blessed with a measure of wisdom quite unlike anyone else in history other than Jesus Christ. Furthermore, we see that Solomon received wisdom and excellence in every academic field: in practical wisdom, he wrote thousands of proverbs; in art, he wrote over a thousand songs; and, mastered natural science (1 Kings 4:32-34). We are told that such was Solomon’s wisdom and intelligence that kings and even the Queen of Sheba, came to test and marvel at his genius (1 Kings 10:1-10).
The result of this is that King Solomon was perhaps the most exceptional intellectual ever to walk this earth (other than Jesus Christ, of course).
iv. Solomon’s position
Solomon’s position allows him an almost unique perspective on life.
'I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.' (Ecclesiastes 1:12)
Our experience is limited by our position. You and I are unlikely to ever experience genuine power and authority. If we are fortunate, we may achieve a position in the workplace where we get to manage staff. It is unlikely that we will ever be Chief Executive of a major corporation; it is even more unlikely that we will ever be Prime Minister and none of us will ever be king.
Solomon was king at the greatest moment in Israel’s history. In his day, Israel was, in effect, the only superpower. Solomon was, then, the greatest King of Israel at the greatest moment in Israel’s history. Solomon’s reign defines the apex of Israel’s history. This is why Solomon is able to declare,
'[…] became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem.' (Ecclesiastes 2:9)
This is significant. Our experience is limited by our authority and we will never be able to regard life from Solomon’s position. Solomon’s perspective on life is unique.
v. Solomon’s experience
'I have seen everything that is done under the sun…' (Ecclesiastes 1:14a)
Solomon’s position enables him freedom, authority and (as we will see) the resources to live and experience life more deeply than anyone before him or since. Next week we will see that Solomon plays the role of husband, billionaire playboy, philanthropist and benefactor.
iv. Solomon’s resources
'So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem.' (Ecclesiastes 2:9)
Solomon possessed a greater intellect, more wealth, and a richer life experience than anyone before or since. We can be confident that Solomon’s conclusions are reliable and trustworthy because he has lived life more deeply and more richly than anyone else who has ever lived. Solomon is able to conduct the most thorough of enquiries into the human condition because he has the intelligence, the resources and experience to thoroughly test every aspect of life.
i. This unhappy business
This leads us to consider Solomon’s conclusions.
Firstly, Solomon returns to his conclusions from last week and reiterates that this life under the sun is meaningless and futile,
'And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.' (Ecclesiastes 1:13-14)
Here Solomon goes further than last week. Last week we saw that ‘all is vanity’, now Solomon declares that it is ‘an unhappy business’ that God has given man. In truth, the ESV translates this generously. The Hebrew word, ra, here translated ‘unhappy business’ is incredibly strong and is elsewhere translated as ‘evil’. Yet, this is not the most shocking aspect of this passage, we find that behind this ‘unhappiness’, behind this ‘evil’, lies the sovereign hand of God; ‘It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with’ (v. 13).
This is a step beyond the Apostle Paul’s conclusion that it is God who has subjected creation to this futility,
'For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it […]' (Romans 8:20)
This requires careful thought. The Hebrew word here translated ‘given’ elsewhere is used to talk of permission and ordaining. Solomon’s point is this: life is an unhappy business in which we chase the wind only to be left with a handful of air and behind this futility lies the sovereign hand of God permitting and ordaining that life be this way.
ii. An irreparable flaw
Furthermore, we find that even Solomon’s quest for understanding is, in itself, a futile pursuit,
'What is crooked cannot be made straight,
and what is lacking cannot be counted.' (Ecclesiastes 1:15)
Some commentators have taken this ‘crookedness’ as a reference to mankind’s sinfulness, but this is far too narrow a definition. Rather, Solomon has ‘all that is done under heaven’ in view. All that is done under heaven, everything under the sun, is crooked.
Consider then the futility of Solomon’s experiment, ‘What is crooked cannot be made straight’. Solomon may see, but he is powerless to intervene. Consider also the futility of Solomon’s efforts to understand (through the application of his God-given wisdom), ‘what is lacking cannot be counted’.
Solomon observes the way things are with incredible accuracy and wisdom and yet he is unable to change this world and he is unable to fully understand why things are this way.
This should give us pause.
The great religion of our day is the cult of self-help. Newspapers, magazines, day time TV, life coaches and book stores are full of advice on how to improve our circumstances underpinned with platitudes that urge us to look within and release the hero, the champion, inside us.
This infects the way that we see ourselves and view our circumstances. You may be an unbeliever reading this and you may believe that your circumstances are the big issue, the big problem preventing you from finding real fulfilment. You may believe that if only you could discipline yourself, if only you could allow positive thinking, self-actualisation, inner peace, or whatever, to take hold then surely you would be able to triumph over your circumstances.
Sadly, this drive to realise a hidden potential has seeped into the fringes of Evangelicalism and so we see super-churches preaching a message and promoting a gospel which does not substantially differ from what we hear on Oprah.
Solomon agrees that life is fractured and that this world has gone badly wrong. There is no encouragement, however, to look within and find the hidden ‘me’ because we are helpless to rectify our situation.
iii. The sadness of seeing
The seeing which comes with Solomon’s great experiment (and in reading Ecclesiastes) is not only futile, but also comes at a great cost,
'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.' (Ecclesiastes 1:16-18)
The point is this, Solomon is among the greatest and wisest of men ever to have lived and yet he is unable to find a solution to the meaninglessness of life under the sun and he is unable to find a remedy to the human condition. The result of this is that his efforts to understand result in greater sorrow and frustration, ‘in much wisdom is much vexation’.
The truth is that the book of Ecclesiastes, when understood properly, should cause us to feel the weight of this fallen world and this should cause us to feel sorrow.
iv. Looking beyond the me
This seems to be an incredibly pessimistic view of life if it were not for the clue hidden in verse 13, ‘It is an unhappy business that God has given…’ I know, for some of us, it is difficult for us to accept that God permits and even ordains famine, war, sickness, disaster and even the persecution of believers, but I rejoice in this truth.
The result of understanding that God gives us this unhappy business is that we know God is fully and completely in control. Furthermore, the believer knows that this giving must be in accordance with his divine nature and character: this means that for the believer, this world, our struggles and even our sufferings are all, ultimately, intended for our good (Romans 8:28).
But more than this, for the believer, the call is to look outside ourselves for the solution and end to this futility and sorrow. We are not the solution and Solomon is not the solution. Rather we look to one greater than Solomon, one who is outside this sin-corrupted fallen creation who, nonetheless, steps inside his creation to bring rescue,
'And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.' (John 1:14)
And this God-man, Jesus Christ, felt the weight of the fall, he felt the sorrow of all that it means to be a man and all that it is to experience life under the sun,
'He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.' (Isaiah 53:3)
Jesus Christ suffered more than any other man suffered. He experienced hunger, thirst, disappointment, rejection, betrayal, temptation, humiliation, agonising pain and, ultimately, an ignominious death. But, in this, Christ brings rescue for those who trust in him.
'Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.' (Isaiah 53:4-6)
This changes everything, but not, perhaps, in the way we might expect. Yes, Christ suffers for our sake and, yes, he bears our sorrows and our transgressions, but this does not mean that believers are no longer subject to the consequences of this fallen world. We still become sick, we still suffer and we still feel sorrow.
Indeed, there is absolutely a sense in which the Christian life is the most sorrowful life there is. We see the world as it truly is and we see the fate of those who reject Christ. This explains the Apostle Paul’s ‘great sorrow and unceasing anguish’ for the sake of his kinsmen, his fellow Jews, who had rejected Jesus Christ (Romans 9:1). Some of us feel this way as we see our loved ones turn away from Christ and make bad decision after bad decision.
And yet, and yet, the Christian life is a life of incredible joy. How can this be? Again, because we know that this ‘unhappy business’ is given by God. We know that he has cursed this fallen world to futility, but that this curse is lifted and removed in Christ Jesus. We have hope, therefore, that Christ will return to this earth and make all things new. We have hope and our abounding joy is grounded upon this hope.
'For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:20-21)
We believers are not pessimists, but we are realists; we see the world as it is, but we have a sure hope that things will not always be this way. We know that what is crooked will be made straight and that it will be King Jesus who achieves this. For this is necessary.
The remedy to our situation lies outside of our situation; the solution to the futility of this world lies outside of this world.
This is the gospel, heaven invades earth and God becomes flesh; God experiences and lives life under the sun. God feels the futility of this life; he was a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He is the solution to the problem, he is the one who brings heavenly wisdom and he is the one who bids us come to him because he has tasted this life. He bids us come because only he can bring rescue and relief,
'Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.' (Hebrews 4:14-16)
Preached by Andrew Evans on the evening of the 14 June 2009 at Firwood Church, Oldham, Manchester, UK
For free resources and media content visit www.firwoodchurch.com.