Christ From the Youth Through the Twilight of Our Lives

I had the good fortune to preach this message to the fine people of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (EPC), Erie, Pennsylvania, the morning of Sunday, March 26, 2017.

Our text for today is Ecclesiastes Chapter 12, the entire chapter. I will be reading from the English Standard Version. Feel free to follow along with whatever version you prefer.

Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; 2 before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, 3 in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, 4 and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low— 5 they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets— 6 before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, 7 and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

8 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.

9 Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. 10 The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.

11 The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. 12 My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Let’s pray. Oh Lord, You have shown us so clearly that a life well-lived is one that is lived unto You. Every moment spent serving our own desires or living in delusion is one robbed from both You and from our own truest good. When we turn to You in repentance and faith we see that clearly, and regret it profoundly. And yet “we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to [Your] purpose.” (Romans 8:28) Our sins and our wanderings are not greater than Your limitless love, power or wisdom. And no matter how many years we wait to come to You, You stand ready to redeem us and use our lives for Your glory. We thank You for that. We pray for the grace to grasp the wonders of Your grace and to respond gratefully by living out obedient service to You. In Christ Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

A couple of weeks ago I was having a conversation with a good friend. I said something like this to him: “I really regret all those years before I was a Christian, particularly those years I threw away on that whole ‘freak lifestyle.’ I am glad I fully committed to Christ when I was still a fairly young man.”  His reply, which I will again roughly paraphrase, was along these lines: “I disagree. Even with all the bad stuff that happened, I learned a lot and my experiences help me to be more understanding and compassionate about what others go through.”

The fact is, we were both right. I have often dwelled on this seeming paradox in looking back over my life, and I am sure many of you have as well.

On the one hand, God clearly calls us to turn our lives over to Him, the earlier the better. He is our Creator. He owns us and we are accountable to Him to use the life He has given us for His purposes. He loves us, and wants us to delight in the life He has given us at the deepest and most honest levels. We cannot do that if we are living as if what is “under the sun” is all that there is. This is what the Preacher is telling us here in verse 1.

When we truly repent, we will experience, and express, profound regret for our years apart from God; walking through life as if He is not our Creator. We will recognize that we have offended God, but also that we have harmed ourselves, and others, by living as if we are not accountable to God. For many of us, the damage that we did, or might have done, by doing this could be terrible, and in some cases permanent. The regrets we might have to live with could be awful.

For example, we can repent for leaving someone permanently disabled because we were driving drunk during our prodigal years, but how many would argue that it would not have been better for us, and him, if we had never done it. What person experiencing guilt before the Lord over something like this would not change history if they could do it all over again?  While Jesus Christ is our Savior, and He fully satisfies the penalty for our sins, He is not our heavenly bus boy, responsible for cleaning up every mess we leave behind, fixing every consequence.

For all of us, evil days are coming, days of decline, weakness, deterioration and inevitably, death. We should turn to God before those times are upon us. Then our years serving God will have fully prepared us for those declining years. We will be able to look back on a life in which we used the strength and optimism of our youth, the experience and realism of our middle age, and the wisdom of our grey and balding heads, for His service and His glory, enjoying and delighting in Him through all of it.

On the other hand, what do we do with that passage from Romans, Chapter 8 verse 28 that I excerpted during our prayer? Does the term “all things” there not really mean “all”?  Or what about this passage from Joel, Chapter 2 verse 25: “I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten…” If you look at that statement, in context, it is God’s wonderful promise to those who have brought terrible things upon themselves and others in rebelling against God. They are reassured that, once they turn wholeheartedly to God, the good things to follow will more than make up for what they lost during their wayward years. Moreover, I can attest with others that, many times, my past failures have sometimes uniquely enabled me to identify, empathize, encourage, and advise others, not to mention helping me to be humble and more appreciative of God. As Jesus said to Simon the Pharisee, in Luke Chapter 4, verse 42, and I am paraphrasing a bit here: “Those who are forgiven much, love much.”

Although it does appear that people who have determined for decades not to follow God do not typically turn to Him in old age, wonderful exceptions abound, both in our own experience and in Christian history. Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena turned from Roman paganism to Christ at the age of 60 in the year 309, lived another twenty years, and saw her son converted later. She encouraged him as he made decisions that extended and secured Christianity in the West, and radically changed the course of history. Or there is Olga, princess of Kiev, a brutal, awful woman who was converted to Christianity in the year 954 at the age of 75. In her remaining years, through extraordinary efforts, she brought Christianity to the Ukraine. In these cases, as in so many others, we see how the experiences of living outside the faith gave folk like these certain advantages of bringing others into it.

If I were a lot brighter, perhaps I would figure out how both sides of this apparent paradox—that we regret the years apart from God and yet God uses them and restores much that we have lost when we turn to Him—can be fully logically reconciled. I must confess that I cannot. I am content to affirm both things because the Bible and my own experience makes both clear: it is best to turn to God in our youth, and follow Him for as many days after as He chooses to give us. When and if we come to Him, we will miss, and regret, every minute that we delayed embracing Christ as Lord and Savior. However, we can offer the Gospel freely and with a full heart to all human beings of every age, right up to the moment of their death, promising them that in Him all things will be made whole, and right, and good, and that He will use them in productive service for Him, in their remaining time.

We can consider this apparent paradox as we approach Good Friday. In Luke Chapter 23 verses 42 and 43, one of the criminals crucified with Jesus asked simply “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” That poor man was clearly, in that context of facing certain and imminent death, placing his hope in Christ and in eternal life through Him. What was Jesus’ reply? “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” On that very day, God washed away every bit of that dying man’s failure, degradation, filth and regret. Every promise of God became his. But as he embraced the offer of Christ, I am certain his dissolute life flashed in front of him and he was intensely sorry for the life he had led, wishing he had known this wonderful Savior all his days, and was not just encountering him at the moment of death.

Following this opening verse, the Preacher lays out, in beautiful poetry, what the young person is going to face even if God should bless him or her with the longest and best life they could hope for; namely old age, and death. This is unfolded in verses 2 through 7, employing the metaphor of a house to describe old age. This Scriptural metaphor—the broken old house we have to leave behind at death—was the inspiration for a famous folk gospel song that I hear elderly people in nursing homes often love to sing—“This Ole House.” The lyrics of this song, written by Stuart Hamblen, fit the details here in Ecclesiastes amazingly well, from the characteristics of old age, but also the implications of sure hope that, though “the dust returns to the earth as it was,” we have assurance that “the spirit returns to God who gave it.” Please indulge me as I recite the words of this song. I will lay out the stanzas, then at the end I will give you the refrain that is sung after each one.

This ole house once knew his children, This ole house once knew his wife

This ole house was home and comfort,  As they fought the storms of life

This ole house once rang with laughter,  This ole house heard many shouts

Now he trembles in the darkness,  When the lightning walks about.

This ole house is getting shaky,  This ole house is getting old

This ole house lets in the rain,  This ole house lets in the cold

Oh his knees are a’ getting’ chilly,  But he feels no fear nor pain

Cause he seeks a new tomorrow,  Through a golden window pain

 

This ole house is afraid of thunder,  This ole house is afraid of storms

This ole house just groans and trembles,  When the night wind flings it arms

This ole house is gettin’ feeble,  This ole house is a’ needin’ paint

Just like him it’s tuckered out,  He’s a’ gettin’ ready to meet his fate

 

(Ain’t a’ gonna need this house no longer,  Ain’t a’ gonna need this house no more)

Ain’t got time to fix the shingles,  Ain’t got time to fix the floor

Ain’t got time to oil the hinges,  Nor to mend no window panes

Ain’t gonna need this house no longer,  He’s gettin’ ready to meet his fate

It is fun and enlightening to break Ecclesiastes’ poem on old age into parts, especially verses 2 through 5, to consider what each of the figures within the larger house refers to. The missing teeth, the dimming sight, the trembling limbs, bent back, weak legs, creeping deafness, crippling fears, bones that break easily, elusive sleep. That’s wonderful, but we then can miss the larger picture.

And what is that larger picture?  That the most fortunate among us will eventually decline, and then we will die—the silver cord will snap, the golden bowl will break, the pitcher will be shattered; no longer will it carry water. The wheel will be broken, and our bodies will return to the ground from which they came, mourners carrying them to the grave, while our spirits will return to our Creator.

We must turn to God before that. If we do not, the life we have lived, verse 8 tells us, will have been vanity. It will have been vapor, meaningless, futile, mere breath. It will have been hebel. It will have been a long life, but lived entirely under the sun, apart from God, and then never redeemed at the end.

Hearkening back to Ecclesiastes Chapter 6, verses 2 through 5, such a person will have come in vanity and left in darkness, then have been covered by total darkness. Verse 6 of that chapter points this out to everyone who believes our existence can be justified by prosperity, great deeds, and excellent health: “Even though he should live a thousand years twice over, yet enjoy no good—do not all go to the one place?”

Following this, verses 9 and 10 describe the character of the wise Preacher who wrote this extraordinary book. He cared for the people. He took great care in how he wrote and ordered his wisdom, so as to provide the best guidance possible. It is clear his goal was godly instruction for the good of his people, not extolling himself or showing off his brilliance. The Preacher spoke truth, and sought delightful words with which to express it. Whom among us reading the poem on seasons we considered last week, or this poem on old age and death we have considered today, would deny that he achieved that?

Verse 10 then reminds us that the words of the wise are like both goads and nails. “Goad,” you may recall, is both a noun and a verb; you goad cattle with a goad, that is, you drive them with a sharp stick. Wisdom should push us away from the wrong, and toward the correct, places. Words of wisdom are also like nails in that they are firm, fixed, we can hang things on them. In our case, we can hang every element of our lives on these words, and each will be secure there. In this verse, the Preacher also tells us that all words of true wisdom, everywhere, come from one Shepherd, for the benefit of His flock. Proverbs Chapter 2, verse 6 reminds us that “…the LORD gives wisdom; from his mouth comes knowledge and understanding…” The Apostle James, in Chapter 1 verse 5, instructs believers who are looking for true wisdom to seek it from God and God alone. Then, in Chapter 3, verse 17, like the Preacher, he notes that this wisdom will be obviously lovely, pure, delivering true peace and good fruit.

This “goad and nail” applies to our lesson today. What the Preacher has told us about turning to God before the evil days come, of the certainty of what lies before us if we do not, is a nail. It is unshakable truth. We might say that we can “hang our hat on it.”  It is also a goad. It is a sharp stick driving us away from disaster and toward life. It is the loving admonition of our Good Shepherd, in fitting and lovely words, given through a man who has experienced all that life brings, and knows of what he speaks.

Finally, in verses 13 and 14, the subject returns once again to what all people must do in order to have a meaningful life, and to enjoy the good things of this earth, in all their simple glory, as we were meant to do so if we are to be fully and deeply satisfied. Fear God. Hold Him in reverence and awe; do not play games with Him. Keep His commands; seek to live a holy and good life as He has defined it. Study His word diligently and love it intensely, as the writer of Psalm 119 repeatedly admonishes. That is the whole duty of every man and woman. He expects nothing more, nor less. Prioritize those things that are of eternal significance, so that your life will withstand the judgment of God. Love your spouse. Love your children. Feed the hungry. Give water to the thirsty. Visit the prisoners and the shut-ins. Cast your bread upon the waters. Be generous. No matter how young we are, how healthy or safe, we must never forget the brevity of life, the unpredictable and often very inconvenient coming of death, and after that, the final account we must all give to God. Live as if it is true, because it is true.

In sum, show reverence to God and follow Him earnestly, at every point in life remembering that at the Judgement Day you will give account of everything you did in this life.

Consider the life of Christ Himself. He followed the Lord from his earliest days, and we find Him engaging the teachers in the Temple at the age of 12 in Luke Chapter 2, verses 41 through 52. In Matthew Chapter 4, verses 1 through 11, we find Him in the wilderness spurning the temptation of Satan, rebuking that old trickster by citing and honoring God’s scriptural commands. In his agonizing prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane recorded in the Gospel of John, Chapter 17, we find Him clearly taking responsibility for every commandment that God the Father had issued to Him, for example, He had cared for, taught and protected every single soul that the Father had given Him. He behaved as the good servants did in His Parable of the Talents recorded in Matthew Chapter 25, verses 15 through 30; not as the one who hid his talents in the ground. We often find Him enjoying the simple, good things of this world. Sleep, friendship, embrace, perfume, bread, fish, wine. He lived His life with an eye toward His death, even though He did not live to old age. As in all things, He is a model for living that life which the Preacher of Ecclesiastes commends to us.

In closing today, here is the Apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians Chapter 5, verses 1 through 10, telling us the same things:

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. 2 For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, 3 if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. 4 For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. 5 He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. 6 So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8 Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9 So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.

Let’s pray. Oh Lord the life that we have is a gift from You and belongs to You. You have called us here, at whatever stage of life we are in, to give it all to You. You have promised that what we entrust to You will be secure and realize its greatest fruit in You. We see that in Christ, in His perfect life and His death in which He took upon Himself all our sins and sorrows, we have the perfect realization of what we are shown here in this venerable Book of Ecclesiastes—to live a good life before You, be prepared for difficulties to come, and step off this earth and into Your arms when death comes for us. In Jesus name. Amen.

To Everything There Is A Season

Sermon I had the honor of giving to Redeemer Presbyterian Church of Erie, PA (EPC) on Sunday March 19 2017. I really love the saints in this church, what a delight to spend time these past few Sundays!

We will be reading from the Book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3, verses 1 through 15. Feel free to follow along in your Bibles. I will be using the English Standard Version.

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

2 a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

3 a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up;

4 a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

5 a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

6 a time to seek, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

7 a time to tear, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

8 a time to love, and a time to hate;

a time for war, and a time for peace.

9 What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away.

Let’s pray. Our God, because of Your great love, You make everything beautiful in its time. Our life here under the sun is brief, almost a blink.  And yet it has incalculable eternal significance and weight. You want us to accept and embrace, through all the seasons of our lives, each time appreciated for what it is, in its joys and its sorrows, knowing it will not last. We know that there is a first and a last to everything, and while we may remember what many of our first things were, we often don’t know when they are happening last, even while we are experiencing them. But You know. You have sent us Your Son to live in this world of seasons and uncertainty, to take upon Himself our sins and sorrows, and to delight with us in our joy. Whatever life brings, You will be there for us in every moment and accompany us, at its end, across the river. You will never leave us or forsake us. Thank you for that and help us to ponder and appreciate those things today. In Jesus’s name, amen.

In late 1999, my mother had finally come home from a rehabilitation center after a long recovery from a botched medical assault on cancer she had in her liver. Thankfully, my wife Kathy and I were able to visit her, though she was very weak. Our son Joshua had just been born a few months earlier, on her birthday, actually.  My mother loved babies, and she was the mother of seven. We put Joshua into her arms. She pulled him very close, put the side of her face on his head, and just breathed in very deeply, taking in the scent of his hair. My mother didn’t know, nor did we, that this was the last time she would have that experience. There had been a first time. This was the last.

That is how the seasons and rhythms in our life are. Even with sadness and pain—not just the times of merriment and rejoicing—by God’s grace each is beautiful in its own time, even though it may be awhile before we see that. I know that I never want to lose the image of that moment with my mother that I carry inside me.

Our text today contains a gorgeous poem made famous to millions of Baby Boomers (like me) through the famous 1965 Byrd cover of an older folk song, “Turn, Turn, Turn.”  Unfortunately, a flourish they added at the end—“a time for peace, I swear it’s not too late”—turned it into an anti-war song. However, the message here is nothing like such a hippy cliché. It is far more complex, lovely, profound, spiritually useful, and mature than that. We will get to this poem, but a little later.

If we look at the first verse and then after this poem in verses 9 through 15, we see that the overall thrust here is that God has a plan, that this plan is wise and morally good, and that nothing happens outside of it; God controls it all.  We see this in the first verse, a kind of “thesis statement” opening this section: “to everything there is a season, and a time for every matter (or, “purpose”) under heaven.”

As Philip Ryken has pointed out, liberal scholars often portray the God of Ecclesiastes as random, as arbitrary. They view passages like ours’ today as encouraging passive, wounded fatalism. Ryken quotes one such commentary as headlining today’s text like this: “Hopelessness of Struggle Against An Arbitrary God”!  This gross misunderstanding is rooted in refusing the Biblical doctrine of the total sovereignty of God, which, in turn, is based upon the old chestnut that no loving God would allow, or cause, so-called “bad things” to happen.

Yet God is totally sovereign over every detail of life while remaining infinitely wise, and being perfectly loving. Not only do events occur in their appropriate time and purpose but, as we are reminded in verse 11, He has made everything, both good things and adversity, “beautiful in its time.”

We are told in verse 15 that, like everything else there is nothing new here. Every good and difficult thing is common in human experience. This echoes the passage we covered two weeks ago in Chapter 1, verses 9 and 10, that there is “nothing new under the sun.” What is past is settled, we can’t change it, and we will experience what our ancestors did, birth and laughter and merriment, and also war and hate and death. But in a rather obscure phrase at the end of verse 15, “God seeks what is driven away,” we find something else. That means, Philip Ryken says, that God redeems our past, He does not just pass judgment on it. Says Ryken, this funny little add-on tells us that “By His grace He will recover and restore what seems, from our vantage point, to be lost forever.” Once again, our God is sovereign, and He is good. Stick by Him, and we will see that—if not sooner, than later.

God wants us to find joy in the simple toils, purposes, rhythms of life, and to strive to be morally upright and concerned with doing good for others. To do this, we must be secure in His overall care for us, and in His wise supervision of all of the affairs of this world, even our past. The writer of Ecclesiastes records this discovery, in verses 12 and 13: “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.” We should never give into temptation to hate life or to try to escape the world, but rather we must embrace our everyday existence in the ordinary details of life—trusting Him and serving Him in the heights but also the dark valleys of our lives.

It is in our hearts to want to make sense of God’s plans. As we experience life, at different points, that desire to understand why things happen can be overwhelming. How often have we cried out “God, why?”  That longing for understanding is not sin. There would be something wrong with us if we did not react, to many things, with that plea, “Oh God, why?” For example, what kind of people would we be if, upon walking into the cancer ward of a children’s hospital for the first time, we did not ask such things? A little girl with a teddy bear in her arms, bald from chemotherapy, IV dripping, odds against her, and we don’t ever think “Dear God, why?”

The fact is that God Himself put that hunger for understanding in our hearts. We see in verse 11: “he has put eternity into man’s heart…” As the liner notes for the New Geneva Bible tell us, the word “eternity” in this context includes not only an innate understanding that our true home is with God, but also a longing to know “what God has done from the beginning to the end.” We want to experience eternity and to understand life’s events in light of an eternal plan. As those liner notes also say, “the heart knows that history is not meaningless.”

Yet the reality is that, this side of eternity, we will never understand completely, and we often will not understand very much. God has simply not revealed these things to us. Looking again at that second sentence in verse 11, we find that while we want to comprehend God’s eternal plan, we “…cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” As Moses instructed the Jewish people in Deuteronomy, Chapter 29 verse 29: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

God does not leave us blind, but He does not disclose everything; not even close. However, what He does show us is enough. He has revealed that there is a purpose, that nothing in this life is random or meaningless so long as He is in it. He makes clear to us, in Deuteronomy Chapter 31 verse 6, that He never forgets or forsakes us.  Knowing this, He tells us, we must “do good” as He has defined what is good. He has given us all the knowledge we need for “life and godliness,” as Peter encourages us in his second epistle, Chapter 1 verse 3.

Moreover, while we are certainly called to combat sin, heal diseases, end injustice, and otherwise toil to improve our lives and those of others, what God has determined cannot be altered. Verse 14 declares: “whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it.” There is no room in this worldview for perfecting either ourselves, or our world, through human planning and effort alone, outside of God’s purposes and submitting ultimately to Him. That is a fool’s game.

All of this almost perfectly parallels venerable old Job’s ultimate affirmation. Recall that he had embarked on a lengthy intellectual quest to understand the reasons for truly terrible things that had happened to him, at times crossing the line by asking God to justify Himself, but without denying the existence, justice, or goodness of God.  Then, in Chapter 42 verse 2, in a dramatic moment of revelation, self-humiliation and repentance, he makes this remarkable statement: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

So why would God place this longing in our hearts, to understand His eternal ways and plan, to comprehend the reasons that things happen, if He did not intend to satisfy this yearning?  I cannot answer this completely, but I think I can confidently assert two things.

First, in eternity with God our longings for true understanding of God’s purposes will be satisfied. He does intend to quench, completely, our thirst to know, but just not in this life. This does not mean that, in eternity, we will know everything; I am certain we will not. However, we will certainly know a lot more than we ever will in this life, as the Puritan preacher Edward Griffin famously proclaimed in one of his sermons: “The feeblest infant that has gone to heaven probably knows more of God than all the divines on earth.”

Second, if I can indulge in a little sanctified speculation, I think we can answer part of this puzzle—why would God give us a longing to understand what He knows we can never fully understand?—with a question. How often have those longings drawn you to God?  How often have they driven you to talk to Him, plead with Him, to search the Scriptures, to bring your sorrows and questions to Him, to wrestle with God and His puzzling ways?

Do you remember old Asaph in Psalm 73?  He sought God, with agonized pleas, to understand how the terrible injustices he saw and experienced could be reconciled with the God of the Scriptures. God answered Asaph just enough to give him confidence in His sovereignty, goodness and justice, light that, for example, enabled Asaph to feel sorry for those whom he had been envying.  He ended up understanding God’s plan, and His ways, better, though not completely.

In the process, Asaph knew more about God but, far more importantly, he knew God better. As J. I. Packer has said many times, isn’t that better than learning a ton of theological facts? So long as we ultimately return to trusting and obeying, and to embracing the goodness and wisdom of God without knowing all the answers, those quests for understanding, rooted in the inner longings of our hearts, bring us closer to God. I think that is a major reason that God put that hunger there.

This brings us, then, to trusting Him through the events of life, and to that beautiful poem memorialized by The Byrds and many other musicians. We find, in verses 2 through 8, 14 couplets in 7 verses. Philip Ryken says this: “Each pair forms a merism, a figure of speech in which two polarities make up a whole.”  Says Ryken again, “There is something comprehensive about each pair.”

Ryken points out, with numerous other commentators, that the 14 pairs, taken as a single poem, are also comprehensive, because they capture the entirety of life. H. C. Leupold says they “cover the widest possible range and thus practically every aspect of human existence.”

In the poem as a whole, as well as in each of the 14 individual pairs, we find balance, wholeness, completeness. We see the banal reductionism of many modern people, who only wish to embrace one side of some of these pairs, to be completely undone. Yes, there is a time to kill.  (By the way, the word here is not “murder,” but rather forms of righteous or necessary killing of other human beings.) Yes, there is a time to hate, a time to destroy, it is not all about just loving, or building. Not all wars are righteous, and not every way of conducting oneself in war is acceptable to God. However, this side of eternity, in this fallen world, sometimes there will be peace, but sometimes there has to be war.

Each couplet comprehends both human and divine activity, and of course God’s actions are always ultimate and primary. God, in His perfect governance over all of reality, places everything into its right time in the right place. His timing is always good, suitable, and right.  Ryken quotes Ralph Wardlaw, from 1821, in pointing out what this poem demonstrates that “God does everything at just the right time”:

“the wise, and regular, and orderly administration of One, who sees the end from the beginning, and to whom there is no unanticipated contingency; and whose omniscient eye, in the midst of what appears to us inextricable confusion, has a thorough and intuitive perception of the endlessly diversified relations and tendencies of all events, and all their circumstances, discerning through the whole the perfection of harmony.”

There is not one particular on either side of any of these 14 pairs that we do not see God specifically authorizing, celebrating, commanding, or doing throughout Scripture. Laughter but also weeping. Keeping but also casting away. Gathering and dispersing. Birth and death, healing and killing, destroying and building. We must accept them as they come, and we must honor God in each. As Job admonished his foolish wife in Chapter 2, verse 10: “Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble” (New International Version).

I don’t know how many of you have seen Hacksaw Ridge. The hero of this true story, Desmond Doss, could not kill due to his particular Christian convictions and his life experience. Yet there in 1942, he saw the need for killing, for war, if the whole world was not to fall under the dominion of extraordinary evil. So he served as a combat medic, smack in the middle of some of the most ferocious combat of the war, without so much as a knife or club to defend himself. Yet even as he went out to save lives, his own life had to be protected by others who killed, and he not only saved soldiers but, through his contribution, helped them and our country to achieve victory. He saw that too. So he did not see his fellow soldiers as evil for killing in that context, even though he could not do so. Taken together, one sees the balance of Ecclesiastes in this powerful film. Righteous killing and skilled, merciful healing.

Imagine cities with ambulances, but no police and no self-defense. We may not like it, but we need both. This is completeness, and both ultimately serve the same ends, to protect and save human life. There is a time and a place both for one and the other.

We also find this harmony and experience in the life, death and teaching of Jesus Christ. He entered this fallen world with us, and more than any man or woman who ever lived, He experienced, taught and exemplified both sides of each of these 14 couplets. God orchestrated every detail of His birth and death to fulfill a divine plan for the benefit of the human race in accordance with the Scriptures. Jesus made reasonable attempts to preserve His life and that of others, as when He quieted the wind and waves as recorded in Matthew Chapter 8 verses 24 through 27, but when the time came to lay His life down, He accepted it as He promised He would in John Chapter 10, verse 18.

We find Jesus weeping at the death of Lazarus in John 11 verse 35, and teaching us about the goodness of mourning for the right reasons at the right time in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, verse 4. Yet earlier we find Him refilling wine jars at a wedding in Cana, as recorded in the second chapter of the Gospel of John, and we find history concluding amidst rejoicing of the saints and the wedding feast of the Lamb in Revelations Chapter 19. He talked about God both planting and rooting out, in Matthew 15, verse 13.

The Jesus of history is the Prince of Peace at war with the forces of Satan, shedding the blood of His enemies. He is the epitome of love, yet there are clearly things that He hates, and in John 2 verses 13 through 16 we find Him driving out profane merchants from His temple with a scourge, turning over their tables and dumping their money onto the ground. He healed many times, but this included healing the servant of, and praising the faith of, a Roman centurion, a soldier—a man who killed— in Matthew Chapter 8 verses 5 through 18. He told us in parables about those He brings in, and those He casts away, for example in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 19, verses 19 through 31, or what He said about sheep and goats at judgment day in Matthew 25, verses 31 through 46.

Day after day he raised His voice to teach the crowds, but before His accusers He was silent, as we see in Mark 14, verse 61. What about both embracing and refraining from embracing? In one remarkable passage in Matthew 15, verses 21 through 28, we find Him initially refusing to have anything to do with a Canaanite women whose daughter was possessed by a demon, but then He lets her approach, she kneels, He grants the healing and praises Her faith. He ordered His disciples to shake the dust off their feet if anyone denied them hospitality or refused to hear them, in Matthew Chapter 10 verse 14.  Yet He also let a prostitute wash His feet with her tears and dry them with her hair, even kissing them and anointing them with perfume, as we see in Luke Chapter 7 verses 37 and 38.

Jesus, the Son of God, had a perfect grasp of the times and seasons. He did all things well, and embraced everything from the hand of God in its time. This is evident from His birth to a virgin peasant woman, through His perfect life, His teaching, the death He died in our place, the intricate details and facts of His bodily resurrection, and His ongoing righteous rule. In living those 14 pairs out and teaching them, always trusting the Father, He showed us how to live well, in tune with God, across the various times of our lives. Jesus demonstrated the beauty of each, in its time. A fitting example in every way of God’s perfect planning and wisdom in even the hardest adversities, He can help us to “trust and obey,” even as He did.

Let’s pray. Lord, You have shown us that in our brief but momentous lives, we will experience good things but also adversity. Yet there is no truly good thing in which You do not delight, and there is no adversity that does not have meaning, and through which You will not only carry us, but tell us as much as we need to know to bear it and glorify You through it. We ask you to apply these things to all we will face in the coming week, both good and bad. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

 

“I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” (Outside of Knowing God

The sermon text for today is Ecclesiastes Chapter 1 verse 15 through Chapter 2 verse 26. I will be reading from the English Standard Version. Here we go:

Chapter One  15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.16 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.” 17 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.18 For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

Chapter Two  I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” 3 I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. 4 I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man. 9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. 12 So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. 13 Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. 14 The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 15 Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. 16 For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! 17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind. 18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. 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, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

Before we pray and then dig into this week’s text, let me remind you of something that I laid out last week.  We have to realize the meaning and importance of two critical phrases in order to understand any of the Book of Ecclesiastes properly.

First, there is the word translated here as vanity–hebel–which means mere wind, meaningless, vapor, here one second and gone the next. This word, or the variant “striving after wind,” appears 12 times in today’s reading.

Second, there is the phrase translated “under the sun” or “under heaven.” This signifies that the writer of Ecclesiastes is saying something like “in this world only” or “if you take God away, this is what reality looks like.” This phrase, in one variant or the other, appears 6 times in today’s reading.

If we put this together, it goes something like this: “In a world without God every single thing and very single endeavor, no matter how lawful and inherently good it is in any other respect, and no matter how skillfully and wisely it is handled, is ultimately futile, vapor, vanity, mere wind. They will never satisfy.” And yet, as we see at the conclusion: “In God and under God (rather than just “under the sun”) all these things and all these labors find true meaning and purpose. We will be able to find satisfaction and meaning in them, because our foundation is ultimately going to rest in God and His gifts to, and labors for, us.”

Let’s pray. Oh God, our hearts are so prone to wander from You, to forget You, to dig into life living like practical atheists even when we do truly believe in You. We take the good things of this world and make idols of them, letting them be to us a source of ultimate satisfaction and meaning, apart from You, and this also leaves us so very empty. We chase vanity and attempt to live as if everything that matters is here, under the sun. Help us instead to find our true meaning and happiness in You and in You alone, our faith and hope in Christ alone. Then we can enjoy the good gifts You have given of us rightly, and hold them loosely when, as will be true for all of us here and as we step into eternity, we are asked to set them down.  In the name of Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.

When I was a boy I struggled with the unrelenting, unforgiving nature of “time.” It puzzled me that everything that I experienced was over as quickly as it registered in my brain. Time took everything away from me as quickly as I comprehended it. Everything I looked forward to, like Christmas morning, would be over in less than a blink of an eye even as I enjoyed it. One day I decided to “figure it out,” using the spokes of my moving bicycle tire as I rode it. I was about 12. I looked at the spokes turning and tried to figure out how and why as soon as I saw any spoke ‘here’ it was already ‘there’, and so on into infinity. I never did figure out time.  That’s ok, no one has.

In our reading last week, we encountered a famous saying, that “there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:9). That is, outside heaven what we experience and do now has been before, and it will be again. That is certainly true with what the writer of Ecclesiastes says in this week’s text. He lays out all of the things he did or experienced in order to try to find purpose, meaning, contentment, lasting value and contribution “under the sun.” What does he talk about, and what did he try, that would not have been familiar to someone a thousand years before he wrote this book or that people today cannot relate to?

First, he tried to acquire as much wisdom and knowledge as he could, by extensive observation, reading, and brutally honest reflection.  He wanted to use this wisdom and knowledge to guide his own actions and to deal with the world around him. He hoped to improve both through sound wisdom lived out with prudence and discretion. The search for and value of wisdom, as opposed to the folly of the foolish, is something he brings up repeatedly in the Book of Ecclesiastes. We see it at the beginning of our reading today, and then again in the second chapter, verses 12 through 16, where he tells us he “turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly.”

Second, he wanted to fix some of what is wrong with the world. Today we might say he wanted to leave the planet better than he found it. I think he meant doing this at every level, from his own character and family through deficiencies in his workplaces, communities, houses of worship, government, nation, and world. A lot of this deals with social and political reform. This becomes evident later in the book, as we find him repeatedly mourning injustice, oppression, inequity, greed, political corruption, and so on (cf. 3:16-17, 4:2, or Chapter 5:8, 7:7).

He tried to find true meaning and satisfaction in personal pleasure. “Under the sun”—without God—this was hedonism. He prominently reported indulging in “wine, women and song,” and that is what we often focus on in these passages.  However, he also talked about enjoying beauty and fun—for example, his gardens, wealth, music, and various enterprises.

He connected his hedonism with his labor. As with most of us, he had to work to get those things he indulged in.  Much of his labor was the kind we all hope for, where he could take pleasure not only in the things he built and accomplished, but also in the acts and processes of doing so. This is what many people look for in things like gardening, fishing, hunting, arts and crafts, restoring homes or antique cars—doing it is fun, and then you also get to enjoy the fruits of your labor. It reminds me of the old Bachman Turner Overdrive song, “Taking Care of Business,” where rock stars brag about getting tons of money and goodies in exchange for doing what they love doing anyway!

He is careful to let us know that he kept this pleasure seeking under reflection and control. Notice the caveats in verse 3, “my heart still guiding me with wisdom,” and in verse 9, “Also my wisdom remained with me.”  We like to think about people embracing God only when, and because, they hit “rock bottom.” That is often how things go.  This man never hits rock bottom. He could have said something like this: “I tried it all, every earthly delight, and I did it without destroying myself.  I did not wreck my health, land in jail, or bottom out. If I had died in the middle of all of this, I would have gone out on top.” I can picture Hugh Hefner, founder of the Playboy empire and due to turn 91 next month, saying this very thing to his beautiful, young, glamour model third wife. “I did it my way.”

The writer of Ecclesiastes then dug into the subject of “toil” more directly, namely all the things we have to do to make it in this life, whether we enjoy them at the time or not. Some people live for their daily toil; we call them “workaholics.” He was not. He was balanced, and rich enough to have a life that consisted of a lot more than self-maintaining toil. Whether laborious or not, was it worth it, he asked?

What does he say about each and every one of these things—wisdom, work, pleasure, reform efforts—knowing he had done everything as well, and with as much wisdom, as is humanly possible?

On the one hand he tells us that, when done lawfully and skillfully, each of these things was in essence not only legitimate, but good. In a normal lifetime, God means us to have and pursue things such as these, in their proper time, place and circumstance. People who gain wisdom and live by it are better off.  They are safer, see more, are more successful, and they do more real good. There is legitimate satisfaction is seeing a garden well dug and planted, a building that is both functional and solid, and architecturally beautiful. To be able to labor creating things you can enjoy both making and using is a truly wonderful thing. The taste of wine is from God, as is the embrace of our loved ones and the scent of flowers. Dignified toil is good, and noble, and we should honor it. We ought to strive to make the world a better place. We should hate injustice and oppression, and we ought to care about and for the poor. None of these things was inherently evil.

There is not one shred of Platonism, of other-wordliness, in this book. The writer of Ecclesiastes has his feet on the ground and he likes the dirt. His voice has what C. S. Lewis described in one of his novels as something like “having blood in it.” The writer of Ecclesiastes was an organic creature in a natural world and he believed that we should rejoice in it, despite life’s inevitable struggles and disappointments.  The eminent German sociologist Max Weber called this “inner-worldly asceticism,” to contrast this kind of spirituality with the kind that thrives on self-castrated men, living in caves, trying to escape reality.

Yet in spite of this, because he pursued these things “under the sun,” they were hebel, meaningless, pointless, vapor. He could be the wisest of the wise and yet death would overtake him as much as it would the fool, and his memory would still be lost in obscurity. Wisdom was a mixed blessing anyway.  He was wise enough to know how little he knew, and what he would have been happier not knowing.  He could labor to build great things, but the wind, water and sand would wear them away, if invaders did not sack and burn them first. Even what lasted would eventually come under the power of those who did not work for them, who might not appreciate them, and who would perhaps even foolishly destroy them. He could help the poor, or root out corruption but like weeds, injustice, greed, and oppression would return.

I lived for a few years in St. Louis and did creative writing services under contract for the Anheuser-Busch Corporation. Consider August Busch the fourth. I wonder how his great-great-grandfather Adolphus Busch, or how his great-great-great grandfather Eberhard Anheuser, would feel about him if they were alive.  He lost the company to a hostile takeover two years after becoming CEO, after 156 years of family control of what had become one of the largest and most secure corporations in the world, despite vowing he would not let that happen. His girlfriend then died of a drug-overdose in his mansion. He was involved just last month pulling a gun on someone during a bar fight. He has had years of run-ins with police. The Belgian conglomerate who bought his company has been dismantling a lot of the philanthropic work in St. Louis that the Busch family had taken pride in for years. But all of this was inevitable. It was only a matter of time.

An advertisement has been running in National Review magazine recently for a service for rich people that promises to make sure that their children will not be able, after they die, to use their inheritance to promote causes that they would have hated and opposed. It is a kind of “ideology insurance.” I read those ads and say to myself, “nice try.” It is vanity and a striving after wind.  If your children really want to, they are going to get around your financial firewall, and do terrible things with your money, or their children will, or someone else will. Just wait.

What is all this but what the writer of Ecclesiastes had pointed out repeatedly over two and a half millennia ago? Vexation. Frustration. Folly. Hearts full of sorrow, and nights devoid of sleep.  We strive mightily and worry often to gain, build and preserve those things that are important to us. And for what? Hebel.

Praise God He does not leave us there. Yes, life is hebel, it is vanity, but only if this life is all there is. Only if we count out God.

But as Francis Schaeffer said, there is a God, He is there, and He is not silent. He is not absent, nor is He dead. As Jesus told us in Matthew 10, verses 26 through 31, He cares for us, He values us, our very hairs are numbered, not one deed escapes His attention. He keeps our treasure in a place where moth and rust do not destroy and where the thief cannot break in and steal, as Jesus told us in Matthew 6, verses 19 and 20.

This life is not all that there is. We may leave the physical fruits of our labor to fools, but God is sovereign over both our labor and over the fools. He sees and rewards everything we did for His glory and His purposes, no matter how big or how small, no matter how spectacular or how mundane. Thus, as Paul said in his first letter to Timothy, Chapter One, verse 6, “godliness with contentment is great gain.” Why? Because God “insures” our deposit!

In like manner, evil people never really “get away with it.” Vengeance is His, and He will repay. This is why we pray for the wicked rather than hating or envying them, because we know what awaits them. Like Asaph of Psalm 73, even if we despair at times as we see the wicked prosper as the righteous are suffering, in God we see that, while so often everything seems to be well with them, they are in a slippery place, they will fall to ruin, they will be swept away (v. 18-19).

“To the one who pleases Him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business and gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God,” we read today. (Eccl. 2:26) The meek will eventually inherit the earth, as Jesus tells us in Matthew 5 verse 5. It will be, and is now, an eternal kingdom that, the writer of Hebrews later reminds us in Chapter 12, verse 28, “cannot be shaken.” All that the sinner has stored up will come to us.

As Jesus also taught us in Matthew 7, verses 24 through 27, their foundation is on sand, but ours is on a rock, and the winds and the waves will not destroy it.  What is the rock?  He, Jesus Christ, is that rock. The Apostle Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13, verses 10 through 15 that, as we labor and build and then pass the fruits on to others at our passing, what we have built in this earth, to the extent it was done for Him, will survive the final judgment, and will be purified and made eternal.  He goes on, in Chapter 15 of the same book, verse 58, urging us to be steadfast and immovable, pouring excellence into our work, because our “labor in the Lord is not in vain.”  Our labors in the Lord are not hebel.

Knowing this, we can find contentment in our lives. We can enjoy, “from the hand of God,” eating, drinking and toiling. We can rest in the night, knowing that our labors in the daytime are meaningful and secure. Someday we can rest in the grave, knowing He will not abandon us, nor will He forget our earthly labors and loves.

On Easter we celebrate the empty tomb. If Jesus had remained in that grave, and suffered decay like every man or woman who has ever lived, His life would have been, ultimately, hebel. Actually, worse for Him than for us, because given all He did and taught, as C. S. Lewis pointed out in Mere Christianity, He would then “…not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell.” He would have been an object of derision, and His disciples would have been laughing stocks. And if He had not been raised, our life would also truly be hebel— vanity—because this world, under the sun, would be all there is.

Praise God that, as Jesus’ ancestor King David prophesied in Psalm 16, verse 10, God did not leave His Holy One in Sheol, nor let Him see corruption.  So we can learn, and work, and love, and enjoy, secure and content in Jesus Christ, our hope and our life.

Let’s pray.

Jesus, in Your life we have life, in Your death our death has been conquered. Help us to enjoy the good things You give us in life, including the wonderful Easter celebrations ahead of us, secure in You, grateful that You have redeemed us, and thankful that in You our life has purpose, and meaning, and joy. In Jesus precious name we pray. Amen.

The Book of Ecclesiastes: God’s Gospel Bassoon

A sermon I preached this morning at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, Erie, PA (EPC) to a wonderful, warm, friendly mission church in the EPC.

Let’s read together from the Book of Ecclesiastes.  We will start with Chapter 1 verses 1 through 14, then jump to the other side of the book – the “end of the story” if you will – Chapter 12 verses 9 through 14.  I will be using the English Standard Version.

Chapter One:

1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 3 What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? 4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. 8 All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. 9 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. 10 Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us. 11 There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after. 12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 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. 14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

Chapter 12:

9 Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. 10 The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth. 11 The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. 12 My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. 13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Let me pause for an important interpretative note here.  The word “vanity” here is literally hebel in the Hebrew. It appears 5 times here and in 29 other verses in Ecclesiastes as well. Thus, it is obviously important to understanding the book.  It can be rendered as “mist” or “vapor” or “mere breath.” In the New International Version it is translated “meaningless.” The International Standard Version uses the word “pointless.”  When used as a metaphor, hebel means something that is fleeting, elusive, ephemeral; here one second, gone the next.

I find it helps us to swap out different words for hebel sometimes, and to say them out loud, to let these verses impact you as they are meant to: “Only vapor of vapor…nothing more than a vapor of vapor! All is just vapor.” Or “Mere breath of breath…it is only a breath of mere breath! It is all nothing more than breath.” Or like the New International Version: “Meaningless! Meaningless!…“Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” Or finally, to voice the International Standard Version: “Utterly pointless…Absolutely pointless; everything is pointless.”

A good way to picture hebel is to think about watching the breath from your mouth on a cold day. You reach out to touch it, and it is gone.

Feeling encouraged yet? (Sorry, a bit of dark humor.) Let’s pray.

“Oh Lord God, who loves us so much that You give us what we truly need, rather than what we think we want, so that we can not only delight in You but also discover and know our heart’s true desire. Who takes us into the lowest valleys so we can comprehend the glory of Your highest heights, and Who drops us to the bottom of the deepest wells so we can truly see the brilliant stars with which You have adorned Your heavens. Please guide us as we consider this ancient, and often difficult wisdom in Your Word, that points us to your Son, our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.”

In late August 1976, a very concerned college counselor asked to meet with me before he authorized my request to withdraw from school. It was highly unusual, he admitted, and he couldn’t really stop me, but I had written something on my withdrawal form that puzzled and worried him. Under the section of the form entitled “Reason for Withdrawing,” I had written, simply, “It is all a vanity and a chasing after wind.” As he pressed me, I just muttered something like “I just couldn’t think of anything else to say. It’s ok.” Unconvinced but still worried, and knowing he wouldn’t get any more out of me, he let me leave and I went back to my life. I was 20 years old.

How could I explain it to him? About 14 months earlier I had experienced a profound, beautiful conversion to Christianity, embracing Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior after having thrown away my entire youth, from age 14, on everything I could get out of the “freak” lifestyle: delinquency, dishonesty, hedonism, self-destruction and hurting others. I left college after my first year, sold most of my possessions, and moved hundreds of miles from home at age 19, from suburban Washington D.C. to Edinboro, Pennsylvania. I wanted to be with the people and church within which I had encountered Christ, and get away from the negative influences at home.  At first, I was profoundly happy, at peace, able to enjoy life as I had never experienced. I had a rich prayer life and devoured the Scriptures. I saw God do many wonderful things for me. But the old ways had begun creeping in, gradually taking over my life.  I backslid completely, walked away from Christianity, and returned to my home in Washington D.C., and to my old life.

The problem is, I had now known something real that I could not deny. I had returned to what I now knew were only shadows, realizing more than ever, that if that is all there was, life was pretty futile. I tried pursuing my old dreams (most of them pretty unreachable anyway considering how I wanted to live), but was now haunted by the unshakeable fact that, even if I achieved everything I hoped for – fame, money, physical pleasure, freedom to do as I wanted whenever I felt like it – that it was all meaningless, a vapor, wind. Whether I was a success or a failure I would eventually be dead and forgotten, and eternity would loom in front of me so endless as to make my life here nothing more than a speck of dust by comparison. It was…pointless.

What came after was a terrible year for me, one in which I sunk to new depths and flirted often with self-destruction. But it stripped away everything, every pretense, until I fully understood that it was Christ or nothing, and with that I had to choose hope or despair, meaning or futility. A little over a year later, I chose hope, I chose meaning, because I finally turned completely and irrevocably to Jesus Christ.

That is the pattern of the Book of Ecclesiastes – to cut off all avenues of escape, to show us the futility of the “broad ways that lead to destruction” not to destroy us, but so we can see and appreciate the “narrow way that leads to life,” as Jesus tells us in Matthew 7, verse 13. It is the confusion and degradation and folly of Jew and Gentile alike to seek any way to live apart from God while preserving the benefits of living in God’s world, right up to and including killing His own Son.  But then, for those who finally see the futility of it, landing at the foot of the Cross.  It is what we look forward to in this Lenten season, and walk through as we move from the ruin of sin to the glory of the Resurrection.

This is why this passage in Ecclesiastes, of all the Bible that I had read in the first rush to Christianity before my backsliding, had stood out to me as I struggled with how to explain why I was leaving college. Having turned my back on God, I could see no point in any of it if I was going to be living, again, in a world that had no Savior.

The writer of Ecclesiastes lays out, in painful detail, the utter folly and hopelessness of any other path to true meaning, to true life.  And didn’t Jesus do the same? “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?”, He declares in Matthew 16, verse 26.  Remember Jesus’ admonition to the person endlessly piling up wealth in the well-known “Parable of the Rich Fool”, in Luke 12, verse 20: “Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” Notice how closely His words parallel a similar reflection in the Book of Ecclesiastes (2:18-19): “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.” We see here the writer of Ecclesiastes comprehending what Jesus wanted the rich fool to also see – that without God, the wealth—and all the skill he used, and all the work he did to acquire it—was pointless. He would die and go naked into eternity, while someone else—perhaps a fool—got everything that he worked for, and the cycle would start over.

Some of you may recall the 1977 song “Dust in the Wind,” by the rock group Kansas. It not only reflects this somber reality, but shows that this perspective is something that is accessible to the natural person, something by which we can reach them.  Here is how one website summarizes how the song came about: “Kansas guitarist Kerry Livgren wrote this after reading a book of Native American poetry. The line that caught his attention was ‘For All We Are Is Dust In The Wind.’ This got him thinking about the true value of material things and the meaning of success. The band was doing well and making money, but Kerry realized that in the end, he would eventually die just like everyone else. No matter our possessions or accomplishments, we all end up back in the ground.” And here are the lyrics: “I close my eyes, only for a moment and the moment’s gone. All my dreams pass before my eyes, a curiosity. Dust in the wind; all they are is dust in the wind. Same old song, just a drop of water in an endless sea. All we do crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see. Dust in the wind, all we are is dust in the wind.” Hebel. Vanity. Vapor. Mere breath.

One great and absolutely critical phrase unlocks the meaning of the Book of Ecclesiastes.  It is the phrase “under the sun.” In one form or another (for example, “under heaven”) this phrase appears 29 times in this book. And yet we find it in only one other place in Scripture, Second Samuel Chapter 12, verse 12, and in that other place it has a completely different meaning than it does in the Book of Ecclesiastes. It appears three times in our passage today—twice as “under the sun,” and once as “under heaven.”

The commentator H. C. Leupold has pointed out, correctly, that if we do not properly understand “under the sun,” and see how it is the context for much of the content in the Book of Ecclesiastes, we will gravely misunderstand the book and its teaching. In fact, without the phrase “under the sun,” much if not most of Ecclesiastes would be heresy! Yet once we grasp what the author means by “under the sun,” the real meaning of Ecclesiastes explodes.  Francis Schaefer, and many other evangelical teachers and commentators, have made the same point.

Here is what Leupold says: “Each time the phrase occurs it is as though the author had said, ‘Let us momentarily rule out the higher things.’” Thus, what appears to be heretical or hopeless is interpreted this way, says Leupold: “What I claim is true if one deals with purely earthly values.”  For example, we can say that without God, work is ultimately futile, though it may have temporal value. Another commentator says that “under the sun” is like a “horizontal line” that the author of Ecclesiastes draws across the horizon.  It’s as if he is saying “Let’s just look at everything below this line without reference to anything above this line.”  To put it more simply, we could say that “under the sun” means “this is how things really are if you take God out.”  Ravi Zacharias agrees, saying that it means simply “life without God.” For the philosophically inclined, Ecclesiastes divorced from it ultimate point and conclusion—which we see today in that passage from Chapter 12, is the reality of the godless, whether they acknowledge it or not.  It is exactly what the atheist German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche saw–nihilism.

That is what I was dealing with in August 1976. I was attempting to reconcile myself to living my life, again, “under the sun”—to live life without God—after having tasted true reality in His Son.

As we walk through elements of the Book of Ecclesiastes together in the next few weeks, we will see that, when we remove God, the obvious realities of life can be very stark, even though life can be in many ways good, and many human virtues can be quite useful. Wisdom, pleasure, fame, social reform, political revolution, planning, craft, saving, prudence – at their best they still ultimately add up to nothing in an endless cycle that has gone on forever before we were born and will continue forever after we die, erasing all our endeavors eventually, and for most of us, sooner rather than later. Under the sun. And yet in God, and for God, all of these things are redeemed, preserved, remembered, meaningful, satisfying, not pointless but pointing toward an ultimate, and good, goal.

From this, we can also deduce that to gain wisdom, and to truly comprehend the beauty and wonder of Christ and all He has done for us, we must sometimes look at what life would be if God did not exist.

Doing so will also help us to understand the plight of our thoughtful but unbelieving friends–to be able to enter into their world and suffering for a moment.  How does getting terminal cancer at age 45 look to them?  Or the death of a young child?  What “psychological solutions” might they try to arrive at to resolve their existential pain; to make the senseless, sensible?

Doing so will also help us to understand the plight of our believing, but sometimes deeply despairing, friends, who are struggling with doubts and fears as they face sometimes truly awful circumstances.

More clearly, doing so will enable us to better see the real brokenness of this world but, by contrast, also see the real awesome beauty and grace of God.  God in all He is and what He does against the real, total futility of what life would be if we were only broken people living among other broken people in a broken world, without God.  To see how hopeless things really are without God.  Then, to look at God again, and see how He really shines in the darkness.

We are reminded of the Apostle Paul’s response to the question “what if heaven, what if the resurrection of the dead, is just a myth”? 1 Corinthians Chapter 15, verses16 through 19 and then 32: “For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied…. If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.’”  But of course, as Ecclesiastes 12 reminds us, there actually is a God, there really is a final judgment, and our toil need not be “vanity.” We do not just live “under the sun.”

J. I. Packer, explaining why he loved the Book of Ecclesiastes so much, accurately described it as “God’s Gospel Bassoon.” Let me close by quoting what he said about this, because he said it so well (note: from a short piece in Christianity Today from 1996):

“I tell people to read the most important books of the Bible most often, and I read Scripture that way myself. But most often of all I go back to the 10-page wisdom tract called Ecclesiastes….

“Sheer bracing delight is the reason: Ecclesiastes does me good. What he says, sadly and beautifully, about the pain of brainwork (the more you know, the more it hurts), about the boredom of the supposedly interesting and the hollowness of achievement (all pointless! like trying to grasp the wind!), about the crazy-quilt character of life, about our ignorance of what God is up to, and about death as life’s solitary certainty, grabs me deep down: for I felt all this as an adolescent, and still do.

“What he says about life’s best being enjoyment of the basics—one’s work, meals, and marriage-makes me want to laugh and cheer, for this, too, is what I have felt all my adult life. My built-in makeup as an antihype, anti-Pollyanna reality man anchors me in Ecclesiastes’ corner, where realism is the name of the game….

“The text that runs most constantly round my heart is Ecclesiastes’ admonitory exit line: ‘Here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man [everybody]. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil’ (Eccles. 12:13-14, NIV). In face of life’s randomness and bitterness, says the writer, I must keep worshiping and doing what I have been told to do; then I can’t go wrong.

“…the statement that God will take account of everything done is not a legalistic threat, but an evangelical encouragement. It tells me that ongoing worship and obedience when I feel frustrated, frantic, hurt, cynical, rebellious, and sick of trying actually counts. God is very concerned that I would keep on keeping on in the godly life, no matter what.

“The statement is really a bassoon version, in Old Testament terms, of Paul’s trumpets-and-drums declaration in 1 Corinthians 15:58: ‘Be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord’ (NASB). The notes may be an octave lower, but the tune is the same, and bassoon gravity can strike just as deep as trumpet brilliance. So Ecclesiastes helps me hear Paul; and Paul helps me understand Ecclesiastes; and with these twin texts echoing in my ears, I go on my way rejoicing.”