Wisdom for the Good Life, III (Inscription 45)
Ecclesiastes: The Good Life is Meaningless
March 6, 2011
· Listen to “Imagine”
Greeting and communication card
· Membership Class
Scripture reading: Eccl 1:1-8a (michael Pompeo)
Q Have you ever read Eccl?
Isn’t it amazingly depressing? It’s like the Bible’s emo book. It’s the existential musings of “The Teacher,” as NIV translates it. But it’s almost like a title, so a lot of translations just use the Hebrew: Qoheleth.
· That’s what I am going to do, because it sounds really smart, and now you can sound smart too.
Who is Qoheleth? He never identifies himself, but he sounds a lot like King Solomon, the richest and wisest man, but a man who compromised his integrity and didn’t have a whole heart for God.
· I like to think of him as Marvin in “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”
Eccl is a highly philosophical book, and this sermon is likewise philosophical. At its best, philosophy changes how you view the world, which changes how you live.
· We’ll I’m giving an abstract concept and then showing how it applies to everyday life.
Eccl plays a very important role in the Bible; like Job it balances “The Good Life” perspective that we find in the Bible up to this point.
Q Remember how I defined the Good Life a couple of weeks ago?
· “By obeying God we may have the most happiness possible in this life without being distracted from the next.”
Eccl tells us what happens when we only seek happiness in this life, and completely ignore the next. It is the worst case scenario – what happens when you have everything in this life, but nothing in the next.
· Rather than telling us, it shows us as we listen to that man.
Imagine there is no Heaven
Another way that Eccl is like Job (other than being depressing) is that they both record and invite us to examine teachings that are not completely God’s teachings.
In fact, Eccl had a hard time being accepted into the Bible because its teachings seem to contradict the Bible. But God kept it in because it true, from a perspective:
Qoheleth basically speaks as if there is no afterlife. There are some hints and references to it, but on the whole he is very ambiguous about the afterlife, there may or may not be a Heaven or Hell, but as far as we can tell, this is all there is.
· In the modern age, this is becoming an increasingly popular perspective, making Eccl more applicable than ever:
Imagine there’s no Heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today
Imagine, John Lennon
Qoheleth is saying, “I can imagine it, and it is meaningless.” Here is a bleaker approach, from the late Bertrand Russell, an atheist and a modern Teacher in the tradition of Eccl:
[Our ideals are that man’s] origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave;
That all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins...
Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built. (A Free Man’s Worship by Bertrand Russell, paragraph 5)
In my mind, this is the modern equivalent of Eccl; they both try to set up a workable system without the hope of an afterlife. The difference is that Qoheleth is more intellectually honest.
Russell pretends that meaning can still be found within the “unyielding despair,” but Qoheleth has no such illusions. His philosophy is enjoy this life as much as you can, but it is still meaningless.
Ecclesiastes 5:18 Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him – for this is his lot.
· But it in the end, he says, it is all still meaningless.
As a vapor
Let’s talk about “meaningless;” it’s the key to the whole book. That’s not necessarily the best translation (also translated, pointless, vanity, futility).
Hebrew is a very concrete language; the word is nebel, literally “vapor,” like a little bit of smoke that comes and goes.
· I like Mark Driscoll’s translation – blowing a raspberry.
Here’s the big idea: These things aren’t bad, but temporary, like the fog, they will burn away very quickly. “You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (James 4:14)
Qoheleth is cursed with a clarity ( as we will read, “My mind still guided me with wisdom”) and in the midst of having fun, he knew that it is temporary, that no matter what he did, what he accumulated, he would be dead soon, and it wouldn’t matter.
Q Have you ever felt this?
Q Have you ever felt your life is just one big hamster wheel?
We get up, run through our routine, then go back to bed, and get up and do it again. And at the end, we die, they put us in a box, and then we are forgotten about.
· The most famous will be forgotten when humanity dies out; every trace will disappear as the universe collapses.
Pursuit of happiness
Faced with this, Qoheleth asks, “If there is nothing beyond the grave, how can we find happiness?”
Money? Power? Possessions? A career? Listen as he talks about what he pursued, and see if any of it sounds familiar.
Ecclesiastes 2:1-11 I thought in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. 2 “Laughter,” I said, “is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?”
He has fun, but it’s temporary.
3 I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly-- my mind still guiding me with wisdom.
He tried drinking his problems away. Nothing new there!
I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives. 4 I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. 5 I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. 6 I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees.
A flourishing career, ambitious building projects, great accomplishments.
7 I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. 8 I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces.
Wealth beyond imagination.
I acquired men and women singers,
This was their equivalent of an in-home surround sound movie theater, fully staffed.
and a harem as well-- the delights of the heart of man.
Um, another form of entertainment. But perhaps sex and pornography is the most common form of distraction.
9 ¶ I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me. 10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor.
Anything and everything he wanted, he had.
Q How often have you thought “If I only had this, I would be happy”?
He had all, he had the means to get everything he wanted.
11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.
Okay, so we know that things and accomplishments are temporary. Sure, we act as if they will make us happy, but we know better. So we pursue relationships instead, we find our fulfillment in loving people:
NIV Ecclesiastes 9:9-10 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun – all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
· You would not want this guy to be your best man. Imagine the toast he would give.
I am a bit of a “Death Cab for Cutie” fan, but I am always bothered by their song “Follow You”:
Love of mine some day you will die
But I’ll be close behind
I’ll follow you into the dark
No blinding light or tunnels to gates of white
Just our hands clasped so tight
Waiting for the hint of a spark
Okay, so you don’t believe in Heaven or Hell, that when we die, we dies, there is nothing, just “the dark.” If that is all there is, then you won’t follow her, because there won’t be any you, no hands to clasp, no sight, no voice, no purpose, no meaning.
· And so, he says, our entire life is spent toiling for something that doesn’t last, a chasing after the wind.
Some good news, please?
Q Are you feeling depressed yet?
Good, that is the point of Eccl. You should read it and be left with a sense of meaninglessness of this life. But there is just the smallest flicker of hope in Eccl:
NIV Ecclesiastes 3:11 [God] has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.
God has put within us a hint of Heaven, the sense that there is something more. In fact, I think this is part of what made Qoheleth so miserable – even as he saw temporariness of this life, he felt that there should be something more.
· We have within us an instinct, sense that there must be something more.
Creatures aren’t born with instinctual desires unless satisfaction for them exists. A baby feels hunger, because there’s food. Humans feel sexual desire, because there’s sex.
· I am convinced we have an instinctual desire for something beyond this world because we were made for another world.
This train stops here...
But this is as far as Eccl can take us. It only gives the question, and presents the problem: You can be as happy in this life as possible and it will still be meaningless.
· Eccl is meant to leave us wanting more, it is supposed to spur us on to find hope.
It is in the NT we find this hope, through Jesus Christ, God’s highest and final revelation. In him we find clear understanding of eternity, and how this life is lived in hope of the next.
· He is from eternity, so he can speak authoritatively.
One of the interesting things about Eccl is that it is one of the few OT books never quoted in the NT, expect in once in Romans where Paul alludes to it.
It’s a little hard for us to recognize, as the translation goes from Hebrew to Greek, but nebel (“meaningless”) is a very rare word in the NT, but Paul uses it here to reference Eccl.
The closer I look at this passage, the more I see it is the NT’s answer to the questions of Eccl:
Romans 8:18-21 18 ¶ I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration [meaninglessness, futility], not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
Do you get the point? Yes, this life feels meaningless, yes, there is much toil and trouble, suffering and frustration, good and bad. Why? Because this is not our end, it is not our purpose – we were made for eternity, we have eternity in our hearts.
· Yes this life is a vapor, it is incredibly temporary, however, it is your choice if it is meaningless.
Let me repeat that: This life is temporary, you can’t change that. But it doesn’t have to be meaningless.
Q How do we keep it from being meaningless?
By making sure that it finds eternal meaning. It is God’s intent that the things of this life find eternal meaning. How? Jesus gave us two important keys when he spoke about wealth:
Luke 16:9 9 I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings
1. Temporary things can be converted to eternal things.
Jesus is saying that we can take our worldly, temporary wealth and use it for eternal purpose, to invest it so that Heaven is fuller and richer because of how you used your money.
Q All of your money is temporary, how much of it is meaningless?
Q How much of your money are you investing into eternity, through your church, missions, hospitality?
Is this only true of money? No, it works for time, relationship, talents, and much more.
Q Your career is temporary; but is it meaningless? Are you working in a manner glorifying to God? Are you salt and light?
Q Your relationships are temporary – even marriage; Are they meaningless? Are you building up your loved ones?
Q Your talents are temporary – in Heaven no one will care about your guitar playing; Are they meaningless? Are they being used to draw other’s eyes to Heaven?
Q Your knowledge is temporary – in Heaven no one will care how much CS Lewis I can quote (they can just go ask him); but is it meaningless? How am I, how are you using that for eternity?
1 Corinthians 3:11-15 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw- 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
The foundation is Christ – you can do absolutely nothing of value without him. All of our righteousness is as filthy rags. Our entry into Heaven is only through him and his sacrifice.
· But there will be many in Heaven who spent their entire life chasing meaningless things.
Don’t we get to have any fun?
Q Does this mean that we must drop everything we are doing, sell our stuff, and enter the ministry?
Jesus goes on to say:
Luke 16:10-11 10 ¶ “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. 11 So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?
2. This life trains us for the next. I have compared this life before to High School:
Some foolish teenagers live only for high school, ignoring that real life starts afterwards and impervious to the consequences.
On the other hand, some foolish teenagers drop out, because “they don’t need all that school.” They don’t benefit from the intellectual and social training it provides.
But the wise teenagers recognize that high school is temporary, so they enjoy it fully and take every opportunity to be prepared for when real life begins, yet are not too attached to it.
· How we live this life is training for the next.
How you live this life, what you value, what you pursue, how diligently and ambitious you are all affects the next.
But, as I said two weeks ago, because Christians frequently undervalue earthly joy, I feel the need to emphasis this aspect:
In Proverbs I said that God is the source of joy, and that he has filled this world with reflections of that joy. The purpose of that reflection is to draw us back to God.
· When we enjoy this life in a God honoring manner, without begin distracted by it, we develop an appetite for joy in God.
If Qoheleth were able to speak to us today, from Heaven, he would probably still say, “eat, drink, and be merry, enjoy this life God has given you, but live it in preparation for Heaven.”
· Develop a taste for Heaven; be sure that your life is not meaningless.
Q & A
· Evaluate, post on Facebook
· Observe Lent
Call to Worship
· Praise (Qoheleth never called God “Yahweh” – no close relationship)
We are now 1/4 of the way through the year, how are you doing with “EC”?
· Look through commitment.
· Have you been praying for 3 people?
· Do you have any stories?
Main Point(s) of sermon:
· This life is temporary, but it doesn’t have to be meaningless.
Objectives of sermon:
· Inspire us to convert the temporary into eternal.