Today’s lesson is an introduction to the book of Ecclesiastes. Hopefully you’ve read it. If you haven’t, it doesn’t take long –it’s 12 chapters — but if you have read it, you will very quickly recognize it’s a very unusual book in the Bible.
As I mentioned, some people wonder, I can’t believe it’s there, but I think it was in this group last week, I mentioned that R.C. Spruill who is probably in his eighties right now, very, very fine theologian says, it was reading through the book of Ecclesiastes that, he says it was instrumental in his coming to Christ, believe it or not.
Famous author Tom Wolf, everybody know who Tom Wolf is? He wrote Bonfire of the Vanities among other novels. I don’t really know much about his spiritual life, but Tom Wolf says, “Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known. And the wisdom expressed in it is the most lasting and profound.”
Now, before we proceed, I’d love to hear any thoughts that you might have on it. Any just kind of initial reaction that you had after reading? Any thoughts, any comments?
Yeah, I’ve heard it said, and this was serious, that if you took Solomon’s wealth, and its pretty certain Solomon wrote the book and I’ll show you that in a minute, but if you take Solomon’s wealth and put it in today’s terms that he would make Bill Gates look poor. He had that much money. You had that much wealth.
Unidentified attendee: It’s a book that is pretty modern too. It speaks to today’s generation as much as anything I’ve read.
I said the same about it yesterday, Steve. It was very contemporary believe it or not. It really speaks to modern man, I think, in very clear terms. And it’s pretty timeless really in its truth. Anybody else?
Unidentified attendee: It seems like today, everybody’s about trying to make things fair for everybody [Unintelligible]
That’s a great idea. Absolutely. Anybody else?
Unidentified attendee: Are you going to talk about what it means to fear God?
I wasn’t planning on talking about that today. Would you like to?
Unidentified attendee: [Unintelligible]
We’re going to come back to that. That would be probably one of the last sessions. we don’t do that. We’re going to spend three more, maybe four more sessions on this, and that’s kind of where we’ll end up Jim.
Unidentified attendee: Richard, at first blush, it kind of seems like Solomon lost his mind and then we kind of go, wait a minute, this is starting to make sense. And once you kind of unpack what these words actually mean… [Unintelligible]
Well, you know, you may or may not know this. Solomon went through some kind of a dark period in his life. He kind of lost his faith. He kind of drifted away from it because he married all these women that were, you know, he would conquer a nation and he would marry somebody from there, you know, he was trying to please everybody, so he had all these wives and you see him really kind of drift away from the faith even though he returns. What you see here, Charlie, and he kind of vacillates as he writes it, but what you see here, is this is not a young man writing about his life. This is an old man looking back and reflecting on what he’s seen and what he’s experienced and what he’s tried, what he’s attempted to do with his life and his wealth. Anybody else?
All right, before we start, I’m going to turn the AC [Inaudible].
All right. Let me make the comment that I started on a minute ago, that almost every Old Testament scholar, and I have a number of books written about the book of Ecclesiastes that I use as a resource and it seems like every Old Testament scholar believes that the book of Ecclesiastes was clearly written by Solomon, but he never identifies himself as Solomon.
Everybody, turn to the book of Ecclesiastes and you’ll look in the first verse and it says the words of the preacher or the words of the teacher, the son of David, the king of Jerusalem. And then if you look at David’s lineage and you look at the incredible wealth that he speaks of having there’s nobody else that it could be other than Solomon. And, as I mentioned, he is writing about what he had learned in life. He’s older and he’s kind of looking back and writing on what he has learned. These are the words of a man who’s seen it all and tells us all that he had discovered on his search. And his search you’ll see, is a search for meaning.
Warren Wiersbe, who is one of the authors of a really great commentary on this book says, “Do you find yourself unsatisfied with things in your life? If so, you are in good company, because dissatisfaction is a part of the human condition. That’s why God gave us the book of Ecclesiastes — to remind us that satisfaction in life is not an external issue that can be appeased by amassing more stuff, or having certain life experiences. It’s an internal condition of the heart,” but he goes on to say, “I believe for the satisfaction of this life is possible, but to only the extent of my personal relationship with God. This is the big idea that runs through the book of Ecclesiastes.”
Now, in order to really understand this book, there are some key words that you run across over and over again. And because of that, they must be significant. And so, I want to look at some of the words, and the first word that I just want to look at is that word in the first verse. He says, “the words of the preacher”. Some say “teacher”. Does anybody have any additional words from one of the other translations?
Well, it’s the actual word is a Hebrew word, Qoheleth, which means “one who gathers”, “one who assembles”, “one who collects”. Ray Stedman, who has also written a book on the book of Ecclesiastes says an accurate, and maybe a helpful English translation is the word “searcher”. You know, he’s searching.
And then I read an old sermon by Tim Keller and he calls him, he thinks the best term to use would be calling him the philosophy professor. The philosophy professor. Because, you know, as you read through these 12 chapters in this book of the Bible that you notice that this philosophy professor, this searcher, seems to home in on certain ideas and think about what those are. Again, if you’re looking at the first chapter, look at verse two. In the New American Standard, he says, “Vanities, vanity of vanities,” says the philosophy professor. “Vanity of vanities.” All this vanity. What, what does the NIV say?
Unidentified attendee: Meaningless.
Meaningless. What a great way to start off a book, meaningless. Everything’s just meaningless. And the Hebrew word that’s used there is the word Hevel and Hevel is used 38 times in the book of Ecclesiastes. And Hevel means emptiness, futility, to be a vapor. In other words, the idea of whatever disappears quickly and leaves nothing behind that doesn’t satisfy is Hevel. Is meaningless.
And Solomon, when he considers his wealth, all the pleasures he’s experienced, all the works that he does, all the knowledge he gains, what does he conclude in chapter two, verse 11? Somebody read it. Cobb, how about reading Ecclesiastes 2:11?
Cobb: “And I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun.”
So, you see, this mentioned often; meaninglessness, vanity. It’s important to note that this is not his final conclusion, even though when you read it, you think this is what he believes about life. Comment?
Unidentified attendee: [Unintelligible]
That’s the phrase we’re going to look at next. Anybody else?
Unidentified attendee: Richard [Unintelligible]
Yeah, I think we need to step back. And Jim has just brought up a good point, and understand the term “under the sun”, because I think it’s key because I think what he’s like, he’s like a philosophy professor. He says, this is the way life is under the sun. And though he doesn’t believe this necessarily, he’s just kind of describing, this is what you have to conclude, with life under the sun. And “under the sun”, which by the way is mentioned 29 times and it defines kind of the outlook that he’s trying to bring to the table and saying, basically, this is what life is like from a human perspective and not God’s perspective. Or as Max Anders says, “The basis of meaning of this phrase is man’s perspective on life devoid of God.” In other words, this is my perspective if there is no God. This is what you have to conclude. Everything is meaningless.
And I’m going to show you why in a minute, G. Campbell Morgan said this about this phrase, “life under the sun”. He said, “This man had been living through all these experiences under the sun concerned with nothing above the sun, until there came a moment in which he has seen the whole of life. And there was something over the sun. It is only as a man takes account of that which is over the sun, as well as that which is under the sun, the things under the sun are seen in their true light.”
So, when you see that word “under the sun”, really what Solomon is saying is this is what I discerned. This is what I discovered about life with the perspective that is completely devoid of God. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe in God, because that’s, as you read the conclusion, he does, and he interjects that. And so, it’s kind of like, it’s interesting. It’s like, he shares two perspectives. He says, this is what I discovered with life under the sun. That as you live this life, there is no God, this is what happens. And we’re going to kind of go through that in just a few minutes. Anybody else?
Unidentified attendee: [Unintelligible]
That’s it. It’s a secular worldview. And in fact, that’s why, as Steve said earlier, this book is so contemporary. Now go back to chapter two, that Cobb just read, in verse 11, The New American says there was “no profit under the sun”. The NIV says there was “nothing gained under the sun”. That comes from the Hebrew word, yitron, and is used ten times. It means when all is said and done, this is what’s left over. You see Solomon say with all of the mystery and all of the problems we’ll have in life, what is the reason for living? Is there any profit? Is there really any gain? And so, you began to recognize that life under the sun is depressing, and you notice a sense of despair.
Now, in a couple of weeks, there’s another term that’s used 23 times in Ecclesiastes, and it’s the word, labor, the word work. And that’s an important term. It’s the Hebrew word, amal. You see it 23 times in Ecclesiastes, and it’s a very unusual word. Wiersbe says it means more than just getting out and going to work. It means to toil to the point of exhaustion and yet experience little fulfillment in your work. It’s hard to believe that one Hebrew word could mean all that, but it carries with it the idea of grief and misery and weariness. And the final word that I want to just consider, and it’s a crucial word, and we’ll look at that next week and the week after, and it’s the word — do you notice he says about it’s good to enjoy and then he’ll say something – he uses that word a lot, “joy” and “enjoy”, and it’s used at least 17 times. The one thing you’ll notice is that he is really big on enjoying your life. He says that three or four times, but there’s a key. What you recognize is you see as he says that, there is a key to really enjoying life. And that’s in Ecclesiastes 2:24 and 25. [Unintelligible], could you read those for us?
Unidentified attendee: A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too I see is from the hand of God. For, without him who can eat or find enjoyment.
Apart from Him, who can eat and find enjoyment. You know, when he talked about life under the sun, he talks about it being vanity and meaningless. And here he’s talking about it, but he’s interjected God back into the picture.
Now we’re going to come back to this because I think this is an important point, but before we move on to something else, I wanted to know if you noticed, as I did, that so much of this book is a series of questions. Did you notice that? He always stopped and asked a question. For instance, in the first chapter and the third verse, he’s already railed about everything meaningless and vanity, and he says, “what advantage does man have in all of his work which he does under the sun?” He asked a question. Go over to chapter two, verse two. “I said of laughter, it is madness and of pleasure; what does it accomplish?”
And then verse 12. He says, “So I turned to consider wisdom, madness, and folly. For what will the man do who will come after the king except what has already been done?”
Then, in verse 15, “Then I said to myself, as in the fate of the fool, it will also befall me. Why then have I been extremely wise? So, I said to myself, This too, is vanity.”
So, you see throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, the searcher, the philosophy professor, presents us with the questions that philosophers have been asking throughout the ages. And for this reason, as Steve pointed out, it’s a very contemporary book, where, if you look closely, he asked some really penetrating questions. What is your life really all about? What are you trying to accomplish? You toil and you labor and at the end of your life, what do you have to show for it? I mean, ultimately, he wants to know what difference does your life really make? As one commentator put it, if we’re not asking these questions, we’re not really living very thoughtfully.
What strikes me is that many times as he considers life under the sun, you see real despair. You see it’s kind of like, why even be alive. Look at chapter two.
Unidentified attendee: Richard, I can’t help but think about the story about the mother, telling the child that the stove is hot… [Unintelligible]
You’re absolutely right, this is why Ecclesiastes is considered part of the wisdom literature of the Bible. All right, who’s going to read for me? Ecclesiastes 2:16-17. Greg Pyburn, you want to read for us?
Greg: Okay. “There is no enduring remembrance of the wise or fool, seeing that in the days to come, all will have been long forgotten, after the wise die just like fools. So, I hated life because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and chasing after the wind.”
What is he saying there? Particularly in verse 16. What is he saying?
[Unintelligible comments, Laughter]
Yeah, he says, you’re going to be forgotten. You know, once you die, 20, 30, 40 years, you’re going to be forgotten. He says, there’s no way you can make it. I mean, he’s talking about life under the sun, you’ve got to remember that. That’s the perspective. He says, there’s no way you can make a difference in the world with your life. When it comes to you and history, your life is insignificant. That’s encouraging, isn’t it?
For instance, how many of you remember your grandparent? Do you remember your grandparents? How about your great-grandparents? Vaughn remembers his great-grandparents, but the rest of the world doesn’t. I don’t mean that in a …. I mean, I remember my great-grandmother. I was a little kid, and she was 90-something, but I bet there’s hardly anybody alive today who remembers who she was. What Solomon is saying is no one remembers you, and in a hundred years, no one’s going to remember any of us. And this is why he despondently says everything is futility. It’s like chasing after the wind.
So, guys, this is what he’s asking. If life under the sun, remember devoid of God, if life under the sun is all there is, it means there is no God who put us here, there is no God who’s sustaining the universe, there is no life after death, there’s no eternity, and there is no meaning. And so, it’s not surprising that you seek him in such great despair, almost even depressed.
Now, this was written like, Isaiah was written 2700, 2800 years ago, so this was written, a good deal in the past. But fast forward to today, and let me read to you, someone who is modern and contemporary and what he has to say about this. This has nothing to do with Ecclesiastes, but this is a guy by the name of Martin Seligman. I’ve quoted him before. He’s written a number of best-selling books. I’ve got one at home that I’ve read some of, it’s called Flourish. He is a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania and he is the man, and I quoted this three or four years ago at the Birmingham Country Club at one of my talks, he’s the man that said that the baby boom generation suffers a 10 times greater rate of depression than their parents’ generation.
And then, I don’t know if you remember, I was kind of taken back. These are his words. And then he is truly, this is something he has great expertise in. He says, “We are the most depressed generation in the history of the world.” And how he can come up with that, I have no idea, but he says we are depressed for the same reason that Solomon found life to be so depressing. Seligman suggests that “we no longer live as our ancestors, as our parents or their parents.” He said, and I don’t know, have no idea about this guy’s spiritual life, reading him, it doesn’t appear to be from a purely Christian point of view. In fact, Seligman is a Jewish name. But he says, “We no longer live as our ancestors who clearly lived,” and these are his words, “for a cause much bigger than themselves.” He said they lived first for God. And then for family. And then for country. But, he says, that’s not the way modern people live anymore. They’re more secular, is the word he used. They live godless lives. They therefore merely live for their own pleasurable satisfaction. And Seligman believes this approach to life always leads to emptiness and despair. And this is Solomon’s view as well as he considers life under the sun.
I’m going to give you a more, a good modern example of this, of what Solomon is saying that I believe is absolutely correct. If you look at life under the sun, if you look at life devoid of God, that we’re just basically a mass of chemicals living this life, you will have no option but to conclude that life is meaningless.
Now there’s a lot of examples, but one, I think one of the best ones you see, and I am a real fan of his movies, a lot of people find that hard to believe, of Woody Allen. And I don’t know if you ever watched any of his films, in my opinion, the best one is “Crimes and Misdemeanors”. And there’s two stories that go along and the main story is about this wealthy doctor who has this wonderful family and he’s living his life, and it’s revealed that he has a mistress. There’s a woman that he met who was a flight attendant, he met her on an airplane, and he was flying to somewhere and she [unintelligible] and they end up together. And they had this long relationship, and he tells her, you know, one day we’ll be together. But he has no intent of leaving his wife and his kids. And finally, one day she confronts him, and she gets hysterical and the next thing you know, she’s trying to contact his wife to tell her this is what’s gone on and he’s beside himself and he doesn’t know what to do. Then there’s another plot going on over here with Woody Allen and his marriage breaking up. And these two, they run alongside each other. And at the end, the two guys come together, the doctor and Woody Allen, but the doctor didn’t know what to do. As it turns out, he has a brother that’s in the underworld and his name was Jack. And he says, Jack, what do I do? And the guy that plays Jack, you can just tell he’s a thug. I mean, he’ll hurt you. So, he’s, ‘Jack, what should I do?’ ‘Well, we could have her killed; we could if your knock her off.’ And he says, ‘you are crazy. What are you talking about?’ And over time, the idea of having her [unintelligible] and his conscience begins to wane, and finally, as she gets more and more hysterical, he finally said, okay, do it, and she’s killed. [Unintelligible] shot in her apartment, and he’s never caught. But after she’s killed, for a period of time, his wife thinks he’s losing his mind. And then you fast forward several months and his daughter’s getting married. And at the end of the movie, the doctor and Woody Allen are sitting in the bar and this big wedding celebration is going on. And he says this, the doctor says this. “If you think about the big questions, if you think about what life means, there are no answers.” And the movie closes with this, and he says, “Since there is no meaning in life, all you can do is enjoy the pleasures of the day.” And the movie ends.
And that’s what our world is doing. That’s what our world is doing, is that life under the sun, life devoid of God makes no sense. And therefore, you pour yourself in either pleasure and pour yourself, all the things that Solomon poured himself into, into work and labor, into gaining knowledge, he says, in the end, it’s all meaningless. It’s what Woody Allen was complaining. That’s what modern man is completely. Life under the sun. Comments, real quick?
Unidentified attendee: It seems like it takes a bit of burden off of us, modern day guys, [unintelligible] actually had everything and what he discovered kind of just, you can step back and you apply it to your life, you don’t have to chase all this.
Yeah, that’s where when God enters the picture, everything changes. You know what struck me? What we’ve just been talking about is kind of, there’s nothing real uplifting about it, but it’s true, and so this is the question we want to close with, and we’ll be looking at in the weeks to come. And that is, consider this issue of meaning, which is basically what this book is about because it’s saying everything is meaningless, but man seems to be searching for meaning.
Why is that? Dallas Willard, I want to read you, this is really powerful, guys, he is just as one of the smartest guys that I’ve ever read, some of his books are very political, but in my opinion, his best book is called Renovation of the Heart. And in it, he writes, he was a philosophy professor at USC, I fact, he was head of the philosophy department there for a number of years, so obviously he was very highly regarded. He died two years ago. He said, “Finding meaning is a real problem for modern people. And yet, meaning is one of the greatest needs of human life. It’s one of our deepest hungers. Perhaps it is, in the final analysis, the most basic need in the realm of human experience. You can bear almost anything if your life as a whole is meaningful.”
And as I was preparing this, I don’t know if you remember, and we’re going to end this session on a more encouraging note, but as I was preparing this, I was reminded of something in the book, The True Measure of a Man, I’m going to read just a couple of paragraphs and then talk about what is God’s intent and where is meaning really found.
“Imagine the horror of a Nazi concentration camp in Hungary. Imagine that we are Jews held against our will and are forced to work in a factory that supplies the Nazi’s growing war machine. We’re just barely surviving. And then one day an Allied aircraft blasts the area and destroys the hated factory. The next morning, several hundred of us are herded to one end of the charred remains. Expecting orders to begin rebuilding, we were puzzled when the Nazi officer commands us to shovel sand in the carts and haul it to the other end of the plant. The next day, the process is repeated or reversed. We now were ordered to move a huge pile of sand back to the other end of the compound. A mistake must’ve been made we say to ourselves. [Unintelligible] But a guard soon shouts, and we pick up our pace. Then day after day, we’re forced to haul the same pile of sand from one end of the camp to the other. Finally, one old man begins to cry uncontrollably, and the guard hauls him away. Another one screams until he’s beaten into silence. Then a young man who had survived three years in the camp, darts away from the group. The guards shout to him to stop as he makes a run for the electrified fence. We all cry out, but it’s too late. There’s a blinding flash and a terrible sizzling noise. The smoke rises from his smoldering flesh. In the days that followed, dozens of other prisoners go mad and run from their work only to be shot by the dark or electrocuted by the fence. We overhear the commandant [unintelligible] remarking that soon there will be no more need for the crematorium. I paraphrased the telling of the above story as originally appeared in Charles Colson’s book Kingdoms in Conflict to emphasize the point Colson made. If life seems purposeless, over time, we will become dysfunctional. Our minds will snap. If no meaning or purpose is behind the events as they unfold, life will always be bleak and hopeless, just like Solomon has described. And then the question is asked, would it have made a difference if the Nazis had forced the prisoners to do the exact same work, but instead, the purpose of the labor was to assist in building an orphanage for the Hungarian children who lost their parents in the war. This shift in perspective underscores the concept Colson believes is so critically important to grasp, finding meaning and purpose behind what we’re experiencing in life is everything.”
And so, Solomon is telling us that despair and meaninglessness is what we face if there is no God. And that’s what you see in the first chapter verses two and three, meaninglessness, says the teacher, utter meaninglessness. Everything is meaningless. What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?
And so, I want to end our time together in the next few minutes and ask the question, what do you think, therefore, it means to have a meaningful life, and why does God play such an essential role? Any thoughts or ideas on that? What does it mean to have a meaningful life? And why does God play such a central role?
I would say two things. And then last session that we do on this, we’re going to talk about how do you really find true meaning in life. But I think the clues are here. We just talked about it. But think about it. It should have a key impact on your life if you realize that your life and my life is of great value in the sight of God. We have tremendous value because we’re designed in His image.
So, we have great value. And then we’re told, remember, and this is a key, I think. Ephesians 2:10. You remember what it says? “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which He prepared beforehand that we should walk in them.”
You remember what that word workmanship means? It’s the Greek word poiema. And that is the Greek word for work of art. We are God’s work of art. We are created uniquely. We, every man in this room has certain unique gifts and abilities. It says we are his workmanship created in Christ Jesus for certain good works. There are certain things that God wants to do in and through each of our lives. And He prepared these before we were even born.
So, I think that is a key element of this, but also what Gary just mentioned, that we have purpose and meaning when we do what we’re designed to do. And that is to know God and to live in a relationship with Him. Remember that as the logos, which the Greeks were searching for, the reason for life. The problem is if you recall, they never could figure it out. They never could agree on it. And then God drop, or John really drops a bombshell when he says, “In the beginning with the logos the reason for life.”
As Charlie says, the reason for life is a person. Jesus. So, we’re called to live our lives in relationship with Him. That’s the beginning of where meaning is found, and living with Him and walking with Him through life and allowing Him to lead and guide us into the plan that He had, the plans that He has.
We’re out of time, but there’s a verse, it’s in Luke chapter seven, verse 30 (Luke 7:30). It talks about the scribes and the Pharisees.
It says they rejected God’s purpose for themselves. Exactly what it says. Look it up. The scribes and the Pharisees rejected God’s purpose for their lives because they refused to be baptized by John. What does that mean? Refused. What was John’s message? John’s message was repentance for the forgiveness of sins, so that when your sins are forgiven, you can enter into a relationship with God. That’s the purpose that they rejected. They rejected the message, the good news that you see in the New Testament. And unfortunately, that’s what so many people do today. They reject God’s purpose for their life. They reject Him, they live without Him. And over time they begin to realize everything’s meaningless, and that’s why there is so much despair and there’s so much depression in our culture. And Seligman puts his finger on it. We don’t live for a higher cause. We don’t live for Him. Remember we exist for Him. That’s why.