Fading daylight
Fading daylight

Ecclesiastes Study Part 2

All right. As I was saying, the message that we get in Ecclesiastes days is timeless. It applies to all people at all times. And since some of you weren’t here last week, I’m to give you a short review and ask you to really just kind of think through everything that we’ve said. We looked last week at important phrases and important words that were used. And I think concluded that the phrase “life under the sun”, or just the words “under the sun”, that phrase, was crucial because what that means, whenever he would say that he was talking about looking at life as if there is no God. It means the human perspective of life devoid of God.

Another way we can look at it is the modern secular view of life. And if you’ll remember, what was Solomon’s conclusion, if there is no God, life is meaningless. It’s all vanity. It’s like chasing after the wind. Your pursuits and your endeavors are nothing more than chasing after the wind. They have no lasting value and therefore Solomon concluded that life under the sun means there is no God who stands behind you and existence. There is no God sustaining the universe. There is no life after death. There’s no judgment. There’s no eternity. When it comes to all the big questions the philosophers and intellectuals have asked over the centuries, there are no answers to those questions. There’s no one to give the answers and therefore Solomon concludes life is meaningless.

And ultimately, I think, if you’ve read through it, as we talked last week, eventually it just leads to despair in your life. I mean, you can say a good bit of the teachings in Ecclesiastes is depressing.

Now, I want to give you an example, a real-life example, someone who lived, I think 200 or so years ago, and an example of the first half of his life, he was an atheist. He was a nihilist, as he put it. He believed in nothing. He believed just as Solomon would, and then a turn took place in his life and he was completely transformed, and you’ll see how it impacted his view of life, his view of the universe, and his view of meaning in life. And the person I’m talking about is the famous Russian author Tolstoy. He was an atheist, and he was profoundly depressed. Listen to what he said, these are his words. “If not today, then tomorrow, sickness and death is going to come to everyone, and nothing will remain except the stench and the worms. My deeds, whatever they may be, will be forgotten sooner or later, and I will be no more.”

I mean, what does that sound like? Sounds like Solomon. And the thing that he struggled with every day was thoughts of suicide. Why live? This life has no meaning. Well, then something happened. He kept noticing, he lived in a town, and he was an aristocrat, and he had lots of money from his writing. I think his family had money and he hobnobbed with a number of wealthy people, well-educated people. And yet he also lived in this town amongst, there were a large number of uneducated peasants.

And yet the thing about these peasants is they were Christians and they were full of life. Their life seemed to have meaning. They had something that he didn’t have, and he began to notice, and he says this, “At some point, his imagination and creative spirit took a radical turn. His life and perspective on death was completely transformed, and ironically, he began to find encouragement and optimism in the community of old uneducated Christian peasants in his town who we now realize were much wiser and much more in touch with the realities of human existence than his educated, arrogant, aristocratic friends. And so, Tolstoy began to read the New Testament. As he searched for answers, he read the words of Jesus, and every page seemed to speak to him elusively. Over time, by faith Tolstoy, embraced the love of Christ and as he did, he tells us that the dark menacing figure of death and the meaninglessness of life was transformed into a bright promise.” He said, and I quote, “For 35 years of my life, I was in the proper acceptation of the word, a nihilist, not a revolutionary socialist, but a man who believed in nothing. But then five years ago, my faith came to me. I believed in the doctrine of Jesus and my whole life underwent a sudden transformation. Life and death ceased to be evil. And instead of living with despair, I tasted joy and happiness that death could not take away.”

So, you see, here’s a guy, here you have Solomon who has basically the same perspective of life under the sun, you see it in Tolstoy, and then you see it, like we looked at last week, Woody Allen. In fact, in Allen’s biography, he uses these words to describe life. “Life is alienation, loneliness, and emptiness verging on madness. The fundamental thing behind all motivation and activity is a constant struggle against annihilation and death. It’s absolutely stupefying in its terror and renders anyone’s accomplishments meaningless.”

That could have come right out of the book of Ecclesiastes. But this is the question. I’m going to say this; I’m going to ask the question and then I’m going to stop and see what your comments are. If life is meaningless and if it leads to despair and depression, what should a human being do? If there is no God, if there is no meaning to life, what should we do?

I’ll stop here. Comments? What’d you say?

          Unidentified attendee: I said find meaning.

Find meaning, okay. What else?

          Unidentified attendee: Eat and drink.

 Eat, drink, and be merry. Anybody else?

          Unidentified attendee: At that point, it looks to me like death would be the only out.

That’s what he thought about all the time.

          Unidentified attendee: That’s the way I feel about it too. If you get to thinking about it like he’s thinking about it, there’s really no sense of going any further. The sooner the end gets here, the better off you’re going to be with it. All you’re going to do is work and it don’t mean nothing.

That’s the conclusion a lot of philosophers come up with, is, should I stay alive or should I not. Anybody else?

I really do think this does explain why, there are there all kinds of reasons people [unintelligible] suicide, I think it does offer an explanation of why people take their life because they see no hope in the future. There is no God there to give me hope so, and I’m in a lot of pain, so, why not just hang it up. And so, I think that’s the thinking, in fact, I’m going to talk at the BCC about a book that was written on, a study a scholar did on civilization and suicide, and it’s fascinating the conclusions he comes to. But anyway; anybody else?

Okay, well, let me share, let’s talk about kind of where to go, what to do, what is the human to do. Let’s kind of take the view that Solomon did. Solomon, he kind of, if you notice, he vacillates. He starts talking about life, and we’re going to read some scripture, Ecclesiastes; he went from looking at life under the sun saying it’s meaningless, it’s chasing after the wind, but then he’ll start talking and he’ll bring God back into the picture, particularly at the end, which is the conclusion he comes to. If you haven’t read the book and you listen to me speak, you’re thinking, man, this must be a depressing book to read. I mean, stay away from it. But at the end, you get to see his conclusions and throughout the book, he weaves into it, and he makes these statements about God and the meaning of life.

But there was this famous French philosopher. His name was Montaigne. He was considered the greatest French philosopher during the French Renaissance. He died in 1592. That just shows you again how far you go back in time. I did some research on him as I was preparing this. He grew up in the church and he was, I guess what you would call kind of a nominal Christian. But at some point along the way, he lost his faith. He became a skeptic and like Solomon and like Tolstoy, and like Woody Allen, that eventually led him into the abyss, into despair.

But he was a writer. He wrote on these things, and this is what he concluded. He said, and this is kind of in relation to what Steve said, he realized he had to come up with a strategy to deal with the despair, to deal with what you mentioned; of why keep living. And this is what he came up with. He said, “Facing a world without faith and without God, Montaigne’s suggested that finding some means of near perpetual distraction was an escape from the horror of cosmic isolation. What you need in your life is a lot of variety because variety always solaces, dissolves, and scatters. By changing place, by changing occupation, company, new friends, new people, I escape into the crowd of other thoughts and diversions, where it loses my trace and leaves me feeling safe.”

So, what’s he saying? What’s the strategy? Divert the mind. Find ways to keep yourself from thinking about it.

          Unidentified attendee: Social media.

Social media. Listen, we are, we live in a culture that can divert the mind better than any other culture, probably ever.

[Unintelligible comments and laughter]

There are all kind of ways to fill your life with distractions and through distractions. You don’t have to think about it. Yes, Steve?

          Steve: He’s just trying to go back into what Solomon talked about here earlier, you pour yourself into your work, you pour yourself into chasing women or drink, or what else did he do?

Wisdom, knowledge. Good works.

          Steve: Those are distractions.

They are. I mean, exactly. And I think Montaigne has just kind of updated what Solomon said several thousand years before that. Anybody else?

[Unintelligible comment]

That’s it. And when you don’t, you don’t run real well, the car doesn’t run well at all. And that’s basically Solomon’s conclusion. And it’s true today, just as it was 2800 years ago. Anybody else?

Well, Montaigne dies, and as I said, 1592 and 30 years later, Blaise Pascal is born. Now this may not be of interest to you all, but I find it fascinating so just hang in there with me for a few more minutes, but Pascal comes along, and he read Montaigne and he was a skeptic. He was a philosopher and mathematician. And then if you know about, he has this incredibly dramatic conversion. I mean, it happened to him one night and you know how he describes it? Fire. And then, you’ve got to read it. And this evening in which he became a Christian, he wrote it all down and he put it in his pocket of his coat. And then he sewed that up. And after he was dead, his family found it and it was published and its powerful.

But anyway, he lamented the way that Montaigne had such an influence on the French culture. The people never thought deeply about these issues and questions. They looked for ways to divert the mind. As he called it, they frittered their lives away and he concluded, I want you to think about this. This was his conclusion, that all the unhappiness of men is, and these are Pascal’s word, “All the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot live quietly and stay quietly in their own chamber.” In other words, people can’t sit in silence and be by themselves and be quiet.

And boy, think about how true that is today. I mean, can you go home, say, nobody’s home, your wife’s out of town, and your kids are gone, and sit in your house, maybe read and be quiet an entire evening. We don’t do that very well. We’ve got to turn something on whether it’s computer or the TV. He goes on to say, “Men have a secret instinct, which impels them to seek amusement and occupation abroad, and which arises from the sense of their constant unhappiness and despair.” Guys, do you see this? The landscape, all the way back to Solomon, then to Montaigne. Pascal recognizes it, then Tolstoy, Woody Allen. Do you see the consistency of where life under the sun leads us?

So, what do we do? We look for ways to divert the mind and what is one of the best ways to divert the mind? Remember the last words of Woody Allen, the movie “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” which I read last week? He said, “since there is no meaning in life, all you can do is enjoy the pleasures of the day.” Guys, this is what our world is doing. And this is why Martin Seligman, who we talked about last week has concluded, this is the reason that the baby boom generation is 10 times more depressed than the previous generation, because if all you do is live your life for pleasure and satisfaction, you will end up empty and depressed.

And remember why he said, the reason he pointed to, and it goes back to Jim, what you just said, Seligman says your ancestors, our past generations, lived for a cause that was bigger than themselves starting with God. We’ve lost that. And it has to make all of you sitting around the table who have kids who are the Y generation, or the millennial generation, what’s going to happen to them? Where does this leave them? Any comment or questions?

Let’s everybody turn to Ecclesiastes. A little longer introduction than I anticipated, but I think is important. And it leads to kind of a somber thought about our nation. And yet I am convinced the solution is found in a relationship with God. Everybody in Ecclesiastes? Go to chapter two. Jeff Grantham, how about reading verses one, two, and three?

          Jeff: “I thought in my heart. Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good, but that also proved to be meaningless. Laughter I said is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish? I tried cheering myself with wine and embracing folly. My mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.”

Now, if you would jump down to verses eight through 11.

          Jeff: “I amassed silver and gold for myself and the treasure of Kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers and a harem as well. The delights of the heart of man. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this, my wisdom stayed with me. I denied myself nothing my eyes desired. I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled and achieved, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind, nothing was gained under the sun.”

By the way, what Jeff read was in the NIV, he talks about having a harem. Do ya’ll know what a harem is? Well, the New American Standard uses the word concubine. So, he says, I have many concubines.

          Unidentified attendee: A lot of women?

That’s a lot of women who basically would do whatever you want. They’re kind of your sex slaves, so to speak. You’re not married to them. It’s kind of like your property that you own. And it says he had a harem, that’s many concubines.

If you honestly think about it, guys, the best way to divert the mind from despair and a sense of meaninglessness is pleasure. If you think about it, since there’s no objective meaning in the universe, then we should seek subjective meaning based on what you feel and pleasure impacts what you feel. What you feel is your feelings. Pleasure makes you feel good. It’s the most natural and the best diversion we have. I mean, think about it. Intense pleasure can remove despair quicker than anything. I mean, if you’re down in the dumps, you can take a couple of shots of whiskey and it’s amazing, you feel better real quick. But if you look at Solomon, and this is what we should learn.

By the way, I just got an email the other day, yesterday. As I’ve mentioned to you last week, R.C. Sproul, or two weeks ago, R.C. Sproul came to Christ after reading Ecclesiastes. It’s had a huge influence on him. I read this email yesterday with J.I. Packer, because he really causes us to take a good, hard look at life and what life is like without God. But if you think about it, Solomon, you would have to agree had more intense pleasure than any man who ever lived. And Solomon says, as delightful as pleasure can be, it just doesn’t work. It just doesn’t work. It leaves you empty. And it only temporarily diverts the mind.

You know what he’s saying? I’m going to show you. This was really a great insight. Ultimately, he says, pleasure will fail to distract you. It will fail to divert the mind from the meaninglessness of life. Let me show you where this is in Ecclesiastes that we just read. Go back and look at verse three in chapter two. It was almost like he was experimenting. He said, “I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely.” That’s important to note. While he was going through all this. It says, “My mind was guiding me wisely in how to take hold of folly until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under Heaven the few years of our lives.” In other words, I tried to cheer myself up my drinking and embracing folly, but my mind was still guiding them. Then go down to verse nine.

He says, “Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. But my wisdom stood by me.”

You see what he’s saying? And I didn’t get this. I got this from a commentator, but I think it’s right on. He is saying no matter how hard I try through pleasure to divert my mind from the emptiness of life, I couldn’t, because no matter how hard I tried, my wisdom stayed with me. In other words, the truth of life kept breaking through. Life under the sun is futile, meaningless, like chasing after the wind and pleasure can only temporarily divert my mind from that fact. That’s what he’s saying.

That’s what C.S. Lewis, in the book that I wrote, Safe Passage, it’s about seeing what C.S. Lewis says about how human beings deal with the fear of death. And he says, the number one strategy is the same strategy that Montaigne suggested. Find a way to divert the mind, fill your life with activity and pleasure. Anything you can do from thinking about being mortal and knowing that one day your life is going to end. But he has the same problem as this. It doesn’t work. It doesn’t work. You’re continually, you can try to get your mind involved in so many things that you don’t think about it, but you know what? There are always funerals to go to. Every time you go to a funeral, you’re reminded that one day you’re going to be in that box. And, as you get older, like me, you watch your body begin to decay. You can’t, I mean, I guess you can get plastic surgery and you work out, but that’s more temporary. It’s like, I just noticed yesterday, I picked up the phone in our bedroom — we still have a landline — and right there on my wife’s side of the bed on her table, there’s a picture of us where we got married 20 years ago. And I looked at that and I thought good night. Man, I’ve aged. I couldn’t believe it. But that’s what, that’s what Lewis says. This strategy doesn’t work. Trying to divert the mind off the serious issues of life doesn’t work. Comments, questions, anybody?

          Unidentified attendee: To pleasure also leads to addiction because you know, pleasure is never maintained, the same activity, the same level, [unintelligible].

You’ve been reading; you must have read my mind. What you just said was what I’m going to say next, and it’s right on. It’s what Keller, he talks about this all the time, he calls it the tolerance factor. Exactly what you were just saying. He says, pleasurable agents give you a rush, but there’s this tolerance factor. And then he uses this as an example, he says, let’s just say you needs five liters of some type of pleasurable agent. And when you ingest it into your body the first time you have this great first-time experience, but he says the next time you’re going to need a little more. And then a little more. Our minds and our bodies adapt and these pleasurable agents wear off in their ability to create pleasure. And he says, this is how addiction happens. And then when you have an addiction to anything, pornography, it could be drugs, alcohol, anything.

[Unintelligible comment]

In fact, we’ll read that verse next week. You got two options when you’re heavily addicted to something. What are those two options, come on guys. You’re a smart group. What?

[Unintelligible comments]

Get more, get more, stay on that path. Keep going, keep pursuing or stop. Now, if you keep going down the path, it’s eventually going to destroy you in some form or fashion. It might take a while, but it will happen. The other thought is to give up the pleasure, which another problem with that for life under the sun, the diversion is gone. It was a diversion you had, and now the diversion is gone and you’re back to emptiness. Unless you find as Jim said, the car and gasoline illustration, that’s where Christ comes in to fill the void.

Now I don’t want to run out of time on this, but this is, I think this is important for what I want to mention. One of the problems with pleasure is that it leads to addiction; it’s that tolerance factor that Mike just mentioned. But there’s another side to pleasure that maybe is not as obvious, but it is truly, the social scientists will tell you, the problem with a pleasure-obsessed society or culture is that they have a problem dealing with something that’s created by it. And that problem is boredom. I never, I didn’t see this. I found this as I was studying this issue, but Dr. Gene Veith says, “Boredom is a chronic symptom of a pleasure-obsessed age. And when pleasure becomes one’s number one priority, the result is ironically boredom.”

Now, let me ask you this question. What do you think happens when you get, particularly you get younger people, and they’re bored? Let’s say young men who are born out of their minds, and let’s say they don’t have, let’s say pleasure’s not an option. What do you think happens?

[Unintelligible comments]

That that’s the natural thing, but boredom ultimately leads to aggression and violence. And that’s what we’re seeing out in our world. Senseless aggression and violence. Pascal said, when you get a bunch of young boys and they don’t have anything to do and they get bored, that’s when they look for ways to torture the cats. I know y’all probably have never been into torturing cats, but that was maybe something they did back then. Psychiatrist Richard, Winter says, “Aggression and violence is one of the bitter roots of boredom.” And if you’re interested in the topic, he wrote a great book on this, it’s where I got this information called Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment: Rediscovering Passion and Wonder. And that’s why, again, I would say it makes you wonder where this pleasure-obsessed, entertainment-obsessed culture is going to end up. Comments, questions?

          Unidentified attendee: What’s the name of that book again?

It’s called, it’s called Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment: Rediscovering Passion and Wonder, and the author is psychiatrist, Richard Winter.

          Unidentified attendee: So, Richard as a parent of a bunch of young kids, other Dads that give you advice, keep your kids involved in a lot of stuff. So, you’re in Scouts, you’re in sports, whatever. Is that wrong?

I don’t think so. I think there has to be a good balance. I mean, that’s the one thing we talked to our kids about is the balance between their activities and their schoolwork, reading, we place a lot of emphasis on reading, but where the problems come in is that, is their hearts and minds from the things that they get off of the computer, their iPhones, and that’s where so many kids are getting their pleasure today, and is how they’re entertained is through electronic media and on television. Then you’ve got Netflix and all the screentime, I mean, it’s amazing. But I would say something like, something like you brought up Scouts. You know the great thing about that? It’s relational. I want to come back to talking about that component. Anybody else?

          Unidentified attendee: Another thing is you’ve talked about in the past, Richard is amusement, the definition of amusement without fault. It is amusing ourselves to death.

You’ve got a good memory. That’s right along with what we’re talking about. That comes from, what’s guy’s name? Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death. It’s a fabulous book. A great read. Alright, so what are we supposed to do, guys? All right. We’re talking about, what are we supposed to do; what we do with pleasure? That’s kind of what the focus is today. I mean, do we just stay abstain from it completely and say, no pleasure in life. Well, you’ve got to step back and remember, that pleasure is a gift of God. And Solomon says, God wants us to enjoy life. You still in chapter two? Go down and read 24 and 25. Ecclesiastes 2:24-25. Everybody there? Gary Ard, how about reading those for us?

          Gary: “And there’s nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and to tell himself that his labor is good. This also, I have seen that it is from the hand of God who can eat, who can have the enjoyment without God?”

So, here’s Solomon, like you said, he kind of vacillates. Now he comes and he talks about enjoying life, recognizing it’s from the hand of God. Ray Stedman says that “The book of Ecclesiastes pounds home the lesson that enjoyment does not come with increased possessions or pleasures. It’s a gift that God must be up to”. And he says a key, this is really good, “A key to enjoyment, proper enjoyment, is to enjoy the pleasures of life in a way that is pleasing to God, and to recognize that all the pleasures of life are a gift from God, and that we therefore should consistently be giving Him praise.”

That’s what Paul says in I Timothy four. So, if you would, turn over real quick to the New Testament. I don’t want to run out of time here. I Timothy 4:4. Warren, how about reading for us please?

          Warren: For everything created by God is good and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.

Everything that’s created by God is good. He put in the pleasures of life. But he says it should all be received with gratitude. Do you remember what we said about the significance and importance of having a grateful heart? I mean, I kind of pound this home. This should be a significant part of your daily prayer life is to give thanks to God. It’s the key to having a healthy soul.

Do you remember Hans Selye? I’ve read this a number of times and he was kind of the first true pioneer and discovering the impact of emotions on health. He wrote like 30 books on it, and at the end of his life, he summarized all of his research and he said that he concluded that gratitude is the single most nourishing response to life’s events, and it has the most nourishing impact on your soul, more so than anything else. And this is, I think, what we can glean from Solomon’s words, to receive the pleasures of life in a way that is pleasing to God, but also receive with thanksgiving, with gratitude. Any comment?

[Unintelligible comments]

Anybody else? Yesterday, just real quick, and I’m going to wrap this up with some words from C.S. Lewis, one thing, when we think of word pleasure, I think we often think of things that you take into your life or you experience, is what pleasure is all about. But somebody pointed out yesterday and I started thinking about that, and I thought, yeah, that’s true.

You know what else we get a lot of pleasure out of? Buying things. Think about it. I mean, you know, we look at money for all different types of reasons. We’ll get to that next week. Money is important to some people. It provides some security; money is a way that you can make yourself look good as you spend it. There are all kind of reasons. But what some people like about money is they can go buy something and when they buy it, it brings some enjoyment to their life. I mean, it can be that a new set of golf clubs, a new shot gun, a new car, but it’s the same problem. The problem with pleasure is, as we’ve said, after you experience the pleasure, you get thirsty again, you want something else. Same thing with the material possession. The moment you receive it, the moment you get it, there’s this adrenaline rush and the, but the moment you get it, the energy and the enjoyment for that begins to go like this. And it’s just a matter of time before that thing that you bought is just something ordinary in your life and then your heart presses again.

And we make a joke about it. This is how women do with shoes. They love to buy shoes. It gives them great pleasure. The problem is after they bought them and they wore them out and people were saying things of like, I guess I got to go buy another pair. But that’s the way material possessions are, which leads me to this final point.

One of the things Solomon is saying is that the pleasures of life, and that can include the material possessions, the pleasures of life can’t satisfy. They’re always on the down. But there’s only one thing in life that has the potential. One thing that has the potential to grow love and enjoyment and meaning over time, and that is our relationships. It doesn’t mean that they will grow. Unfortunately, so many relationships don’t grow, but that’s the only thing that you, basically, if you live in our relationships the way that God designed them, they will grow in love and commitment and depth and enjoyment over time. And that was His intent. But that also includes us putting our relationship with Him first and foremost, over everything else, which leads me to what I would close with.

This is powerful. This is worth you getting up this morning and coming to hear. This is the words from C.S. Lewis, on the [inaudible] of God and the enjoyment of pleasure. And it’s true. He says, “All pleasure and happiness is in its own natural good and God wishes us to enjoy it. He does not, however, wish us to enjoy it without relation to Him, still less to prefer it to Him. Lewis keeps emphasizing the basic principle of the spiritual life. When one’s relationship to God is given first place, everything else, including our earthly loves and pleasures, increase, not decrease.”

This is one of the great paradoxes of life. He goes on to say, “When I have learned to love God more than my earthly desires and pleasures, then I will enjoy my earthly desires better than I do now.” You know, people don’t believe that. They believe just the opposite. If I put Christ first in my life, He’s going to take away all my pleasures and all of my happiness. “Insofar as I learned to love my earthly desires at the expense of God, I shall be moving towards that state in which I shall not enjoy earthly pleasures and experience the meaninglessness and despair that we’ve been talking about.” Then he says, “When first things are put first, secondary things are not suppressed, they ironically increase”

Guys, I’ll say it again. This is one of the great paradoxes of why and modern people just don’t get it. And sometimes I’m not even sure that Christians get it.  But I think that is a significant truth to use here as we contrast it with the meaninglessness and despair of life as we live under the sun.

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