The Cord of Three Strands (Ecclesiastes 4:4-12)

The pastor who is now at my previous church before I came to Tri-State Fellowship 24 years ago is a very young fellow. Actually, I think he might have observed what is his 30th birthday just yesterday. When I am with him and am speaking at that church, I like to have some fun with him by pointing out how he is too young to understand an illustration or remember some event I’m talking about. I have regularly had the same fun with Trent and Chris. But I had it boomerang on me today!

There is a saying, “Keeping up with the Joneses.”  I’ve always wondered what it was about the Jones family that was so envious. So I looked it up to see where the idiom originated. I had no idea!  Did you know that there was a comic strip by this name that ran in newspapers from 1913 to 1940?  The Joneses were never seen in it. Rather, there was a McGinnis family that in varied ways were forever attempting to compete socially with their neighbors, the Joneses.

Though this saying is rather new “under the sun,” the concept long predates a century ago. Solomon saw it happening and writes about it in the first of three sections of our devotional study for today …

Ecclesiastes 4:4 – And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

5 Fools fold their hands and ruin themselves.

6 Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.

Stating that ALL toil and achievement comes from envy is literary hyperbole, but we know it is not rare. For many, contentment means having more than others rather than having sufficiency. Whereas the fool is an underachiever by being lazy, there is an opposite folly in being motivated by envy and accumulating through excessive striving twice as much as is needed. He says it is better to have a sufficient handful than to have twice that amount along with the concomitant problems those efforts bring.

The writer goes on to speak more about selfish greed …

Ecclesiastes 4:7 – Again I saw something meaningless under the sun: 8 There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. “For whom am I toiling,” he asked, “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?”  This too is meaningless—a miserable business!

Here is the picture of a hard-working man who is all alone and who is not content with his personal account’s bottom line. What is the purpose or enjoyment in this?  There is greater pleasure in gaining wealth with a view toward how it helps others near and far. It is a principle of life that there is always greater joy in giving than there is in gaining.

Here are some illustrations as to how life is enhanced by not living selfishly …

Ecclesiastes 4:9 – Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor:

10 If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.

11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?

12 Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

The takeaway points here about how two people are better than one are: a greater return on labor, help in the time of difficulty, comfort in the time of need, and protection in the time of danger. And if two are better than one, then three is even better yet!

Though there are benefits from times of solitude and introspection, it is a timeless principle that life is better lived in serving together with others. Back to the beginning with Adam, it was seen that he was not benefitted by being alone. The body of Christ is all about the interdependent needs that each person has of others. And all of the “one anothers” of the New Testament teach us to look away from ourselves – to be dependent upon God and interdependent with others.

A mirror is helpful in the morning, but looking through clear glass at others is the way to spend the rest of the day.

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The Sad Reality of Oppression (Ecclesiastes 4:1-3)

As Americans, we would like to believe that it is exceedingly unlikely we could ever face oppression that is ignored by our justice system. Even though certain powerful political people in our country seem to have a Teflon nature about being charged with criminal behavior, overall, our system works generally well.

But this is not the way things are in many countries and corners of the earth. Whereas I support the concept of strong borders, the stories of many who seek to cross into Texas, Arizona, New Mexico or California are often compelling on an individual level. Injustice and oppression is absolutely out of control in their native lands. Hazarding many hundreds of miles of dangerous travel and a perilous border crossing is worth the risk, often seen as the only way to have any chance at a life that is not constantly in peril.

One of my sons just returned today (as I write this) from a worldwide trip that included multiple stops in China and the Philippines. He told stories of shock at seeing the desperate condition of impoverished children in these lands. Cry as they may, there is no person to hear them or bring any relief to their plight.

In many lands around the globe where oppression is rampant, the authorities live opulent lives. They care nothing about the condition of the masses of the people. It was the same in the world of antiquity where Solomon writes …

Ecclesiastes 4:1 – Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed—and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors—and they have no comforter.

2 And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive.

3 But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.

The situation is so bad in lands of oppression that it really could be said that to escape the conditions through death would be a positive event, or better yet to have never been born to experience it.

Upon seeing this sort of injustice, one can choose to be angry at God that he does not fix it all and demonstrate right now that he is good. Or one can choose to run to God as the only true justice that is known and promised for eternity.

Of course, God is doing the latter; he is the true and final judge where truth and righteousness will prevail. And we look forward to that greater day. And in the intervening time, as God gives us opportunity, we may be used as his instruments to bring relief and assistance to some in greatest need. Until the Lord comes again, it will never be fully eradicated. But even in coming months, we will hear of some new ways to partner with some of our minority church friends to address some issues of oppression and injustice in our own community. Let us see how God may use us in a bigger way.

A Perspective on Finding Satisfaction in Life (Ecclesiastes 3:12-22)

During my years as a student at Dallas Theological Seminary, one of our most esteemed homiletics (the science of preaching) professors took his turn speaking in chapel. He was a rather colorful fellow, and we all wondered how he would begin his sermon in front of hundreds of students gathered there. Additionally, the entire cadre of fellow professors were daily seated upon the stage behind the featured speaker – with the terrifying appearance of a choir of theological geniuses who had memorized the entire Scriptures, probably even in the original languages as well.

He steadied himself at the podium, and in a strong voice said, “You only go around once in this life, so you have to grab for all the gusto you can get. I think that’s good theology!”

What?!?  The only sound was that of the school president’s dentures hitting the floor.

Many of you may not be old enough to recall that this “grab for gusto / once in life” statement was the main line featured in beer commercials in the 70s for Schlitz Beer. The professor went on to share passages from the book of Ecclesiastes, like this one …

Ecclesiastes 3:12 – I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13 That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.

I don’t remember what he said about these verses, other than that this life is the gift of God to be enjoyed in spite of the abundant sorrows within a sin-infested world. He finished by telling us we should all take our wives out for ice cream and order TWO scoops, not just one. That stuck with everyone, and from that time forward he was referenced by all the seminary guys, not by his name, but simply as “Dr. Two Scoops.”

But Solomon no sooner gets this “live big” statement written down than he is back to the sad realities of the material world, filled with injustice and the certainty of death for every living creature, including man.

14 I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that people will fear him.

15 Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past to account.

16 And I saw something else under the sun: In the place of judgment—wickedness was there, in the place of justice—wickedness was there.

17 I said to myself, “God will bring into judgment both the righteous and the wicked, for there will be a time for every activity, a time to judge every deed.”

18 I also said to myself, “As for humans, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. 19 Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless. 20 All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”

22 So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?

This whole subject of death is rather … ah … morbid – yes, that’s the word for it. Dust to dust, that is rather blunt. And though the Old Testament in multiple places uses this phrase, I’ve always found it too difficult to use the standard graveside committal benediction: “For as much as it has pleased our Heavenly Father in His wise providence to take unto Himself our beloved __________, we therefore commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust…”  And even though this canned liturgy goes on to talk about the blessed hope of Christ, I don’t think the grieving loved ones get beyond the dust and ashes part of it very well.

Have you ever struggled with thanatophobia?  With what?  My spell check did not recognize this word either!  And though I’ve been known to make up my own compound Greek words, this one does come from the original Greek (thanatos) for “death” … or as here, the fear of death.

This is a common emotion. Death is indeed the great enemy. And from all that can be known and seen with the eyes from the material, physical world, the death of man and animals is all the same. Decomposition follows the final breath. And Solomon asks a valid question, “Who knows if the human spirit rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”

Hey, shouldn’t the inspired Scriptures be a bit more affirmative?  But two things to remember. Again, the writer is speaking primarily from what can be observed in this world, under the sun.

And secondly, there was a very undeveloped idea in Old Testament times about the afterlife, even amongst God’s people. There was a general sense of a spirit life after the physical world, but it was not clear at all. God had not yet revealed the details that we know to be true about the payment for sin and assurance of salvation in the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus.

We can feel a bit better about Solomon’s actual, personal view when we read later in 12:6-7, “Remember him—before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”

But this is for sure: We can be so thankful to live in a time of God’s completed revelation. Though we note also the futility of life, we know also of the finished work of Jesus Christ to accomplish our salvation and give us a specific hope for eternal life.

Times and Seasons for All Things (Ecclesiastes 3:1-11)

Probably the most well-known passage in the book of Ecclesiastes is that which we examine today in verses 1-8 of chapter three. There are a total of 14 opposites listed here about the inevitable ups and downs of life …

Ecclesiastes 3:1 – There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:

2     a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,

3     a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,

4     a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance,

5     a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,

6     a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away,

7     a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak,

8     a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.

Yes, we know that there are going to be good times and bad times in a life that is lived in a fallen world. It would be great if everything was always awesome and totally the best. But I think that place is called “heaven.”

As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned in the third stanza of his famous poem “The Rainy Day” …

Be still, sad heart, and cease repining;

Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;

Thy fate is the common fate of all,

Into each life some rain must fall,

Some days must be dark and dreary.

I very distinctly remember the first time when it really hit me that death and separation was the fate of all. I was sitting in a chair next to my father as he was working at his desk, and the thoughts of death that flooded my mind caused to suddenly break out into tears. My father was totally confused as to what it was that triggered my emotional outburst. I told him how I was thinking about how we were all going to die sometime and then we would not be able to see each other and be together. He told me to stop thinking about that, that it was many years away. I was only slightly comforted.

OMG, this whole discussion and this list of Solomon is so depressing!  But, but, once again, the tone suddenly changes as a larger perspective is written …

Ecclesiastes 3:9 – What do workers gain from their toil? 10 I have seen the burden God has laid on the human race. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

Solomon asks what man gains from toiling repetitively. By itself, the cycles of life are a burden – to just live and survive today, in order to just live and survive tomorrow.  Wash, rinse, repeat.

The word for “beautiful” means proper, or appropriate. God has ordained the order of things that cycle in life, many of them displaying the faithfulness of God, though mankind may distort and misuse His good gifts.

But here is the great line that puts all of this into perspective, though the best answers and details will come more in successive chapters of the book… that God has also set eternity in the human heart. There is something in man that causes him to have a desire for something better and more lasting than the mere cycles of life. There is a sense within man that there exists a greater purpose – something eternal, more than endless repetitions.

Solomon is shedding light upon that “Realville” feeling of disillusionment. Of frustration. All of which is to lead to a desire for something bigger, something eternal. A want – to be a part of a bigger picture. This, combined with the concept of an intuitive knowledge of God, is a desire to truly know God and be connected rightly to the eternal in a way that even impacts daily life.

This feeling is something that is universal and in the hearts of all mankind and all cultures. Even remote, tribal cultures have some sense of, and definition of, a God to be known and a desire for the eternal. Romans chapter 1 gives us information about this as well.

Disillusionment / frustration. You have to admit you are lost before you will commit to being found. You have to admit that you are sick before you’ll go to the doctor. Whatever problem we have, we need to identify it before we work to fix it.

The fact is this:  We have a macro problem. Life is short, the world is a mess. At its best, the joys it gives are temporal. Life is not rigged in a way to be fair. And that makes many people very angry with God, or even the notion of God.

Beyond that, life that is here and now – life under the sun – is rigged in such a way that it can’t be figured out … not here, not from the stuff of this world. But again, He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

This is saying that you can’t figure out the eternal stuff on your own. You can’t find satisfaction in material things. The only thing that can fix disillusionment is dependent upon revelation from the eternal realm. And that is what we have in the Scriptures. And that is why we are an academic bunch of folks here at TSF.

So let me ask you: How disillusioned are you with the cycles of this world?  I hope it is a lot!!  That is actually very healthy!

Pleasures that are the Gift of God (Ecclesiastes 2:24-26)

For many years I went annually to a pastor’s gathering sponsored by our denominational association that was geared specifically for churches of our size at Tri-State Fellowship. It was a wonderfully helpful gathering of about 30 pastors, many of whom have become very dear friends.

Another aspect of this annual winter gathering that I especially enjoyed is that it was most often held in very warm climates, often in either Austin, Texas or in Southern California. This was a great break from the odious winter and cold that we experience and that I detest.

But it was also a bit frustrating. Even though it was beautifully warm outside, I was stuck inside while attending meetings – longingly looking out the windows at the inviting sunshine. I would often take the time at seminar breaks to go outside for even a few minutes, and I’d always find a way to take a hike along the Pacific ocean or in the hill country of Texas. It wasn’t perfect or all that I hoped to enjoy, but I chose to enjoy as much of the nice weather as I was able to experience.

And that is how it is as we journey through life in an imperfect world. We are most often burdened with responsibilities – usually even good stuff, but not the way we would most choose to best use our time if it was possible. Our cold spring season, along with my greater busyness, has ruined my cycling interests as compared to other years. I have rather chosen this late winter/early spring to do some extensive yard work, which I enjoy and which gives plenty of exercise.  All of this is to say that we can choose to be bitter about what we are not experiencing, or rejoice in what we are able to experience.

In today’s passage we see Solomon’s first schizophrenic, Jekyll and Hyde sort of expression …

Ecclesiastes 2:24-26 – A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?  To the person who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

After all the “Debbie Downer” negativity of the first two chapters, suddenly there is a total change of tone. We will regularly come across these “sage advice” sections from Solomon as he makes conclusions about how to live in a messed-up world.

Indeed, the world is schizoid as well. While driving south on Interstate 81 this past Saturday evening, the sunset over the mountains to the west was absolutely stunning. The array of varied colors and beams of light shining through the occasion clouds attested to the beauty of creation that God has given for us to enjoy. At the same time, the news on the car radio was talking about an insanely-drugged individual who unknowingly killed his infant child.

The believer has a perspective on the world that is categorically different than that of the unbeliever. The one who trusts in God has eyes to see and enjoy the gifts of God, even in a fallen world. He knows that this is temporary. The residual, natural graces of God and the blessing of His sovereign hand may be enjoyed, even while understanding that the curse of sin leads to death and destruction … with death leading to the perfect beyond.

But the unbeliever has nothing to hang onto but the material world and the pursuit of its temporal offerings. This pursuit is the ultimate “chasing after the wind” and will pass away quickly, perhaps even to the benefit of those who believe.

So, we may choose to embrace the good gifts of God as a believer should, or we may choose to act like the unbeliever and pursue the temporary and fleeting things of the temporal world. The former choice, while imperfect, is very good. The latter choice is frankly rather stupid.

The Futility of Earthly Accomplishment (Ecclesiastes 2:17-23)

You have been introduced to someone new. You meet their significant other, their family, etc.  Then, what is the next question you ask them?  It might be, “So where do you live?”  Or, even more likely, you might question, “And what is it that you do for a living; where do you work?”

I have found myself feeling a bit uneasy with that question, not wanting a person to think that I am about ready to make a judgment upon them according to the perceived worthiness or excellence of their career. And I have found myself more recently turning this question into a light-hearted moment by asking, “So, what makes you famous?”  This takes the edge off and always leads to a broader conversation.

But the fact is that we do assign a lot of meaning and worth to what a person does for work, for their choice of career. It is one of those defining elements about a person’s life. And I suppose there is no way around it, since the time applied to labor is the single item that consumes the largest bulk of hours in any person’s life. Add to that the travel time that so many in regions like our own have to deal with, and immediately the majority of non-sleep hours are accounted for.

There is a saying that if you do what you love, you’ll never work a day in your life. There’s more than an ounce of truth in that, but few people can find gainful employment that both meets their material responsibilities while also fulfilling their passions. Even the greatest of jobs have odious elements and inescapable demands of time and energy.

We all know more than a few people who have given the greatest energies of their life toward career success, seemingly to find validation and satisfaction in it. But Solomon calls this investment another example of meaningless chasing after the wind. The reason is that it will be all left behind, to be inherited by someone else who may not be worthy of this benefit nor be responsible with it.

Yet it is a natural desire to want to leave behind something that is tangible. I was talking recently with an acquaintance who has advanced theological training, but who in the course of life has not been employed in pastoral ministry in the church setting. However, he has a significant list of discipled people over the decades whose lives have been changed forever by his influence. Even so, he lamented with me of an occasional sadness to not have a church congregation and its accoutrements as testimony of his life energies.

Given enough time, even the great pyramids of Egypt will rot away. But legacy impact in the lives of other people can have eternal benefit. Leaving a truth legacy through family can impact generations.

Do you live to work, or work to live?  Our work and labor is not the end in itself, but rather it is a means toward a true end of investing in that which has connections to eternity and to the Word of God that lasts forever.

Ecclesiastes 2:17 – So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. 19 And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish? Yet they will have control over all the fruit of my toil into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. 20 So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. 21 For a person may labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. 22 What do people get for all the toil and anxious striving with which they labor under the sun? 23 All their days their work is grief and pain; even at night their minds do not rest. This too is meaningless.

The Futility of Earthly Wisdom (Ecclesiastes 2:12-16)

I suppose we all have down days when things aren’t going well or we are not feeling the best. But some of us have more proclivities toward depressed thoughts than others. I can be one of those folks, even as many of my relatives have struggled with it far more than I ever have. But I know the feeling.

When I have one of these episodes where physical ailments seem to multiply and circumstances are not falling into place, I can even scare myself just a bit with the negative assessment of life that will come out of my mouth. As a very active person over most of my years, this aging process is grievously annoying.

So, I really like Solomon. I can groove with the way he thinks and states some attitudes and moods. It is blunt – sorta like he might have been born and raised somewhere between Brooklyn and South Philly!  And today he has a discussion about the value of wisdom that leads him to a terribly negative summary statement.

Ecclesiastes 2:12 – Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom, and also madness and folly. What more can the king’s successor do than what has already been done?

13 I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness.

14 The wise have eyes in their heads, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize     that the same fate overtakes them both.

15 Then I said to myself, “The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?”  I said to myself, “This too is meaningless.”

16 For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered; the days have already come when both have been forgotten. Like the fool, the wise too must die!

Solomon is able to assert that wisdom is better than folly. It is smarter to walk wisely with one’s eyes open in the light than it is to attempt to travel as a fool in total darkness. Wisdom wins.

But Solomon also realizes in this moment of depression that the victory of wisdom is rather shallow. Both the wise and the fool have the same end: death. One will be as forgotten as the other. So in light of this fact that death is the ultimate human equalizer, what good is wisdom?

His answer will be forthcoming in later passages and days. But at this juncture, Solomon is presenting the cold, hard facts.

There is no denying the inevitability of death, though many just choose to never think about it. It is laughed at by others, as in the line, “I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”

There are simply going to be down days and sad, melancholy times of particularly internal reflection. It is sobering. But it is also normal; and facing even the darkest realities has the benefit of giving informative and motivational guidance to the days of life that we do have.

I have a son who is getting married in July and moving to Colorado. He could choose to be in denial about the realities of total change coming his way, including the end of his life as a Virginia resident. He could hope it all somehow works out. Or he could count the days and weeks until this life change happens and therefore use his time productively to plan for both the ending and the beginning.

I have always loved the 90th Psalm and especially the great 12th verse: Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

The Futility of Earthly Pleasures (Ecclesiastes 2:1-11)

It is the generally-believed proposition of life that having unlimited resources will lead to unlimited happiness. We tend to think about the things that worry us – those items where we fear not having sufficient assets to fund even our legitimate needs and desires … if only we had even just one or two million dollars, we’d be wonderfully happy and at peace with life. Worry would be completely removed from the equation.

At the same time, we all know that there is no shortage of examples of famous people who have every resource of riches and pleasure at their disposal, yet who proved in the end to be miserable, some even taking their own lives.

But again, most of us probably think we would handle such riches and power well; we’d be smart with the money in using it in such a way as to provide true contentment. But today we read that the smartest guy ever discovered that his experiment in seeking pleasure through abundance was not fulfilling at all.

Here is his proposition …

Ecclesiastes 2:1 – I said to myself, “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 madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?”

Solomon had no limits. He could do it all, have it all. And it went after it – bigly!  There are five ways he experimented with seeking unlimited happiness through unlimited resources…

  1. The Party Life

Ecclesiastes 2:3 – I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives.

He speaks of wine and folly – a good time of laughter and merriment. It describes the party life. And we too live in a party world. People slug through a work week just to make it to the party-hardy weekend.

I’ve never understood this. Yet even Christians can be people who live for the fun and leisure of the weekend … the off times from responsibility. Some live to fill their free time with a steady stream of fun activities, vacations and journeys near and far. The problem is that such busyness may take a person away from any ability to focus upon the greater values of godliness and kingdom service and relationship.

  1. Material Consumption

Ecclesiastes 2:4 – 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. 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.

Solomon did a lot of good things. He worked hard to accomplish all that is listed above. But it all takes time and energy. The more one has, the more one needs to worry about protecting and maintaining all that one has. This story of Solomon is much like the parable of the rich fool who laid up treasures for years to come, only to get to the door of enjoying them and having his “soul required” at that time.

  1. The Pleasure of Having Money

Ecclesiastes 2:8a – I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces.

Again, having a lot requires the burden of managing and protecting it all. In my four years of living around the excessively wealthy crowd that largely comprised my Dallas congregation, I was much struck by the worrisome burden upon such people of means. They had the constant concern of security systems and a sense of being a target of thieves.

In those days, I was a pretty good golfer. And some of the wealthy guys in the church would like to take the young music minister as a member of their foursome team in golf tournaments. Of course, I thought this was pretty awesome. But I noticed they could never quite get away from the office. Long before cell phones, they would have to run into the clubhouse quickly to make a quick business call. One time, the guy I was playing with (a Texas oilman) was late coming out to make the turn and begin the back nine. We were almost disqualified. As we rode down the fairway, I asked him if everything was alright. And he told me that yes, things were fine – he just needed to call his son back at the office to give the authority to buy an oil well they were looking to purchase. So, he bought an oil well between the 9th and 10th holes. The burdens of wealth followed him onto the golf course.

  1. Sexual Gratification

Ecclesiastes 2:8b – I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well—the delights of a man’s heart.

You get the picture here. Solomon lived the fantasies of the sensual world to the fullest extent. The guy had 1,000 wives!  So if there was satisfaction in fleshly gratification, Solomon would be the one who could report it to be fulfilling. Spoiler alert – he calls it worthless and a chasing after the wind.

  1. Career Success

Ecclesiastes 2:9 – I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.

Solomon was the greatest of the kings. Rulers came from other lands just to see the amazing opulence of his kingdom.

And in our contemporary world, this may be the most tempting of the five categories we’re examining today.

But at the end of it all, God is not going to say, “Well done, thou good and successful servant!”  No. God does not call us to be successful, but we are called to be faithful.

And so he concludes …

Ecclesiastes 2:10 – I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil.

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.

In our brief years of living here under the sun, we may have that time enhanced by listening to the perspectives and wisdom of Solomon. The things of this world do not satisfy. Their true value is to be used in such a way as to contribute to the greater purpose of investing in the world that is yet to come.

We don’t want to be an example of climbing the ladder of success, only to get to the top and find out that it was leaning against the wrong building.

The Limits of Understanding (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18)

Disclaimer up front:  You know I love education and learning. You know I respect deep-thinking analyses of anything. I place no premium whatsoever upon ignorance. But advanced learning and knowledge is not the ultimate answer to the ills of this world. Serious education is a worthy pursuit, but so many people put all of their hopes in this basket; and though much good has come from scholarship and human advancement and understanding, it alone does not solve the ultimate problems of a crumbling, material world.

None was smarter than THE TEACHER, not even our local genius – most of you know who I’m talking about!  😊

Between my graduate educational years around some of the greatest minds ever in the Christian world (e.g. – exempli gratia – Charles Ryrie, of the Ryrie Study Bible), my two mega-genius half-brothers, and brilliant minds I’ve met through politics and Civil War scholarship, I have known some of the world’s smartest people. But I also know from them that being brilliant doesn’t solve life’s problems, in fact, it may make them worse.

Let me illustrate it this way: When you’re diagnosed with stage 5 melanoma, is there greater comfort in being an oncologist or a mere plumber?  Quoting Solomon’s finale sentence today: For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.

I distinctly remember finishing high school and committing to attend college for a five-year, dual-degree program toward bachelor’s degrees in music and Bible. The 159 credit hours of education were charted on a single page that I studied over and over with amazement. I remember the exact spot where I was in my house as I shared this with my parents. It was a list of all the things that I would know EVERYTHING about after the five years were completed!  Wow, I was going to be so smart!

What rather soon amazed me once I began that education is that what I was learning factually was merely the basic material that rose to about the level of the tops of my feet!  The rest of it was “process” about how to continue to learn more and more over a lifetime of study and application.

I’ll illustrate that with discussing how to know about the Bible and its teachings. To understand the Scriptures deeply, you need to of course know all you can about the writer, the audience to whom he wrote, along with the historical context and occasion of his writing. That’s a lot to begin with.

But to really know the Bible deeply, you have to become a student of the original languages in which it was composed: Hebrew, Greek, and some Aramaic.  OK.  So, I began to study Greek, only to find out that there are different types of Greek at different ages (just as we have “Old English,” etc.).  And to really know Hebrew, one needs to also have some basis in understanding other “Semitic” languages like Akkadian, Ugaritic and Syriac.

And then to interpret the information correctly, one needs to understand the philosophies of theological interpretation that have colored all the above information over the millennia.

After a very short time in advanced education, you have indeed come to know a great deal more than you knew before. But at the same time, an even larger world of what you do not know is now opened to you. So rather than feeling smarter, you feel more ignorant… because now you know of the existence of a universe of even more stuff that you know nothing about!  What you learn is that you can never get to the bottom of much of anything. It is like trying to find the edge of the universe, it just keeps on going and growing.

The feeling is a lot like trying to chase the wind and somehow bottle it up for later use. What a great picture!  (credit: Solomon of Jerusalem)

At the end of great learning … sin remains, injustice remains, death remains, futility still rules.

The only answer is one that we will see has to come from beyond this world. But at this point of Solomon’s text, we’re still at the “meaningless” stage – his piling up of illustrations of the brevity and transitory nature of the material world. Feel the disillusionment building. Embrace it. There are bigger perspectives yet to come.

Ecclesiastes 1:12 – I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

15 What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.

16 I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.

18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.

The Endless Cycles of Life (Ecclesiastes 1:3-11)

The longer you live, the faster the years seem to go by. I remember older people saying this to me, and now that I’ve put in six decades under the sun I can affirm that it is true. For example, today it is difficult to believe that I have been a father for exactly 36 years – our oldest son being born on a rather cold April the 24th in Dallas in 1982.

Along with the multiplication of years, we also note the repetitive nature of so many things in life. Living as we do in Maryland with four very distinct seasons, I feel like I’m constantly switching back and forth between cutting grass and dealing with firewood … only to have to repeat the process over again. So much of our lives feel like “wash, rinse, repeat.”

Solomon, here in verses 3-11 of chapter 1, noted the constant cycles of life with three categories of illustration. The first is an exasperation that would ultimately lead to the development of Ancestry.com!

  1. The Cycles of Generations (1:3-4, 11)

Ecclesiastes 1:3 – What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? 4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.  … 11 No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.

I have several times asked the congregation during a sermon to think back over their ancestors, asking how many could give names and at least one fact about their grandfather … then their great-grandfather … then the great-great-grandfather, etc. With each generation, fewer hands remained raised. By about five generations, not a hand in the room was still raised. The digital age has helped us to learn and retain more of family lineage information.

I know generational information on one part of my family back into the 1600s – learning that Diana is not just my wife, but also my 7th cousin!  Yes, when German and Swiss immigrants settled in the same rural area of Eastern Pennsylvania, it was inevitable that there would be some cross-over.

And guess what?  You’re likely to get forgotten in just a few generations. People don’t tend to have much interest in ancestors they did not personally know. So the same will happen to you. You’ll be forgotten, not just by the history books, but also by your own flesh and blood. (Again, think of it as the condensation upon a cold glass!)

  1. The Cycles of Nature (1:5-7)

So many features of the natural world function on a continuous cycle.

Ecclesiastes 1:5 – The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises.

I have become amazed at how quickly the days pass by and cycle over and over. When going to bed, it often feels like it was shorter than 24 hours when I last did the same thing. The days turn over so quickly that I found myself not remembering if I took my single medication that day or not. To keep myself straight, I got one of those containers with seven sections in order to remain organized.

Ecclesiastes 1:6 – The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.

Where does the wind come from? And where is it going? It appears to randomly come from various directions, but it never seems to actually arrive at any goal. (From my cycling, the only thing I know about wind direction is that it is always blowing in your face, even when you turn around!)

Ecclesiastes 1:7 – All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.

Sure enough the streams flow and flow, but do they ever arrive somewhere and stop flowing? They just keep doing their thing, never running out and never arriving.

  1. The Cycles of Human Endeavor (1:8-10)

Ecclesiastes 1:8 – All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. 9 What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”?  It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.

When in college, I had a very dry and oft-boring history professor. The only thing I remember from his classes is that he would make some point about the nature of people in history, pointing out how the nature of man remains the same. And then he would conclude his thought by quoting verse 9, “And so we see there is nothing new under the sun.”

The reason we can study biblical characters, even such as the patriarchs in Genesis and learn from them, is that the nature of man remains the same. The soul has not changed.

Military people are constantly studying wars and battles of the past, even into antiquity, because the principles about handling troops in crisis is timeless. Technology does not change this.

Even new discoveries in the field of science are not truly New. When DNA was uncovered, it was not something new that never existed, rather, it was just unknown. When we get to Mars, it will not be a new discovery. It will rather be a greater knowledge of what we already knew about the red planet. So it is not new – just seeing what was always there.

So do you feel this way about elements of your life?  Do you have a sense of just living life in an endless cycle of working to just pay off the bills? Dealing with the mundane nature of life is as timeless as mankind’s presence on the planet.

If you can say “amen” to the reality of these thoughts, you are being set up by Solomon to best receive the positive side of his message about life under the sun. You just have to stick with it and read on a bit further.