Fading daylight
Fading daylight

Ecclesiastes Study Part 3

This week, we’re going to look at a second very natural diversion, and that is our work. Our labor, as Solomon likes to call it. Some translations use the word “our toil”.

Now, I do think that every single one of us would agree that your work does have the potential to give your life a certain sense of meaning. The problem with it, just like pleasure, it doesn’t last. It’s just temporary. And so, as we look at our lives, as we look at the work that we do, it does only seem natural that work would provide a sense of satisfaction because we give so much of our lives, and we give so much of our time, and we give so much of our energy to our work. And as you know, so many men get their identity in life from their work. So, it does seem natural that this would be a good place for man to look for meaning.

I read two interesting quotes on this, Jeffrey Salkin in the Wall Street Journal said this, “Americans work so hard that we often put work at the emotional and spiritual center of our lives.”

And then Freud, who, as I’ve mentioned over and over in all that I’ve read about him, lived a miserable life. He was truly miserable. And he said this, I quote, “Work is the most powerful deflector to keep us from having to face the unhappiness of our existence.”

And I want to make a couple of comments just about work. And then we’ll dive into Ecclesiastes, but practically speaking, work is necessary to carry on the human race. I mean, one of the first thing God tells man is to be fruitful and multiply. So, it is a good thing. It is ordained by God. In fact, II Thessalonians 3:10, Paul says this. If a man is not willing to work, what? Don’t let him eat! If a man’s not willing to work, just don’t let him eat.

And then the Bible gives principles for work; integrity, diligence, serving others, doing quality work. In fact, I don’t know if we’ve really ever talked about this very much, but what is the purpose of work? Think about that for a minute. Let me show you the way this was designed. And this is an illustration I use often. This is us, and we’ll put a cross up here. These are God’s objectives for our lives.

This has many applications, and we are called to pursue God’s objectives. What God has laid down for our lives. And as we pursue God’s objectives, there are certain byproducts that I’ll call blessings. Now, what is the objective of work? Most people think the objective in my work is to get rich, but the Bible says labor not for wealth. In other words, the purpose of work is not to get wealthy. What is the purpose of work? What is the objective? It’s to serve, seek to benefit other people. And when you make that your core principle, if you make that the objective of what you’re trying to do in your work, what is the blessing? Generally, it’s going to be that you profit.

The problem we have is we don’t seek God’s objectives. We seek the money and whenever you make this your objective, you’re going to ultimately sabotage this. And of course, if this does come about, then, and this is what we’re going to talk about today, because Solomon covers is, so what do you do with the fruit of your labor? What do you do with it? Because there’s nothing wrong with making money. It’s a by-product of doing this well, of serving or seeking to benefit your customer, your client. So work is a good thing. Work is a good thing, but we also recognize that it has the potential to corrupt us. That’s the problem with everything God has created.

As we read last week in I Timothy, it’s all created for good, but it’s amazing how all the idols that our lives are things they will elevate elevated to the point that they displace God. Isn’t that amazing that we do that. So, work has the potential for great good and is good, but it has the potential to corrupt us.

Now, the second comment that I would make is this. I’ve heard Tim Keller talk about this. There are very few people in life, and I’m not looking for your story, all right, I’m just making this comment. But there are very few people in life who are able to align their talents and their abilities and their passions with their work. And if that’s true of you, then you’re a very blessed man, because there are very few people who, and I do hear this, that work to them is kind of like a high, so enjoyable, it’s like they do it for pleasure. I can’t believe it’s a job, but so many people, that’s not the case. And therefore, what you see is that for so many men, as they enter the workforce, they look at jobs that might really fulfill them, but it doesn’t pay much.

So, they go into careers and Keller makes this reference to so many of the people he encounters on Wall Street. So many go into careers that pay a great deal of money but makes them miserable. And unfortunately, I can’t think of anything worse in life is to go through life doing something I really don’t enjoy. But that’s what happens.

There’s an interesting book, I’m going to read just a little bit of it. It’s called The Paradox of Success. It says, “When winning at work means losing at life,” and the guy that wrote it is a guy by the name of John O’Neill. O’Neill is a psychologist, and he is president of the California School of Professional Psychology. And he consults primarily with CEOs from some of the largest corporations in America. Let me read to you a couple of things he says about work. He says, “The first seeds of this book was planted one day when I heard Tom Peters talk about his then new book In Pursuit Of Excellence.” This is well 20 years ago. And he says, “It was billed as a gathering of America’s top 100 entrepreneurs. Peter Drucker was there. Peter Senge was there. He was MIT’s Sloan School of Management. We listened to Peters whip up this high energy tales about leaders in their top-notch companies and what made them that way. He led us on a whirlwind tour across the business landscape. He was vibrating with his own excitement, and it was utterly engaging. Though Peters spoke of the incredible success of these companies, his optimistic analysis didn’t fully describe the lives of the business and professional leaders who I knew. In fact, I knew that some of the excellent leaders in companies he referred to had serious problems that were not being addressed. And my personal experience had taught me that success is not always the glittering prize it seems to be on the surface. I didn’t need to look far for evidence of the toxic problems lurking below public achievements. The previous night, a top and a highly successful entrepreneur who was now seated three rows in front of me had told me about the train wreck of his personal life. His wife was threatening a vicious proxy fight for his company and his two children were threatening to join her. Nearby sat a client and friend whose media empire sprawls across the Southwest. He was suffering from depression and required medication to go to bed at night. Two others I knew in the audience were considering leaving high level positions that they hated. They felt stuck, afraid to let go and at a loss of what to do next. They were starting to manifest ominous physical symptoms of extreme stress. Furthermore, I knew that in that living room, in that meeting and in offices around the country, there are countless leaders who were entering the early stages of career disenchantment. Men and women in top positions across America were drowning in work and bored by it. Chronically overstimulated by pressure and under-stimulated by genuine challenge, growing daily more irritable or withdrawn from their coworkers and families without knowing why. The central part of the mystique of business success has been to present a corporate happy face and an image of solid strength to the public. The need to maintain an image of invulnerability and vitality is felt by successful individuals too. Men in particular, although women are by no means immune, but in human life, success cannot be sustained over the long term by denying the existence of problems, problems having nothing to do with finding the best locations, the best computer system for product manager, but deeply personal matters, such as loss of passion, loss of commitment, loss of vision, and a loss of meaning in their jobs.”

And then there’s, at the very back of the book, as we think about it, men, this guy is not a Christian, listen to what he says about meaning and work. He says, “The basic questions that we encounter when we look deeply into the shadow are really spiritual questions.” What he’s saying is that when it comes to this idea of meaning, it’s really tied to spiritual questions. He says, “They concern our place and purpose in the world, the significance of our lives, and our personal connection to whatever force keeps the world humming along,” you know, whatever God is out there keeping the world going humming along. He says, and this is the problem, “Most of us today have moved away from the religious structures that once supplied answers to these questions, but the questions have not gone away, and they never do.”

You hear what he’s saying? He’s saying the questions related to the meaning and the purpose of life have not been answered. The problem is they never go away. That’s what Solomon said. That’s what this whole book of Ecclesiastes is about.

Now let’s turn to, let’s go back to Ecclesiastes. That was kind of my 15-minute introduction. Turn to Ecclesiastes 2. And while we’re turning, anybody want to comment on what I just said, what I just read? Ecclesiastes 2.

Unidentified attendee: [unintelligible] they worship created things instead of the Creator.

And that’s right on. We’re going to really home in on that next week. Anybody else? All right, Ecclesiastes 2:4-8. Charlie DeBardeleben, would you read those for us?

Charlie: “I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself, made myself gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water forest from growing trees. 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 Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold treasure of Kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.”  

Okay. How about jumping down reading verse 11?

Charlie: “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and striving after the wind and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”

That’s what he seems to always conclude. All vanity, all meaningless; all this great wonderful work that I did. Go down to verse 17 and read 17 to 23 (Ecclesiastes 2: 17-23). Alex Lockett, would you read that for us?

Alex: “So, I hated life for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me because everything is futile and striving after the wind. Thus, I hated all the fruit of my labor, which I had labored under the sun for I must leave it to the man who will come after me. Who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will have control of all of the fruit of my labor, which I had labored by acting wisely under the sun. This too is vanity.”

Everything’s vanity, everything’s meaningless. Go over to chapter five, one more verse, verse 10 (Ecclesiastes 5:10). It says he who loves money will not be satisfied with money, or he who loves abundance with its income. This too is vanity.

Guys, Solomon had untold wealth. I mean, it was truly staggering. And in the verses that we just read, he does speak of the fruit of his labor, all that he built, all that he acquired, all that he had. And what you’ll notice is that Solomon kind of makes three observations about the fruit of our labor. And the first is pretty obvious when he says all of the fruit of my labor was, which is a result of all of my toil, all of my blood, sweat, and tears. He says, one day, it’s going to pass away. It’s not going to really pass away. He’s going to pass away. And he said, remember what he says?  And I’m going to have to leave all that I labored for behind me. And he says, that’s not the bad part. The bad part is I don’t have any control over it once I’m gone. And he says, somewhere down the line, whoever inherits the fruit of my labor, somewhere down the line, they’re going to squander it. All that I’ve worked for is going to be squandered. And he says, this is vanity. He says, I hated all the fruit of my labor because it’s so transitory.

And you know, I realize and I understand this. I think I shared this with y’all a couple of years ago is that, you know, my Dad died at least, well, seven years this November, and I’m the executor of his estate. And of course, he left everything to my Mother, and my dad worked for 50 years in the insurance industry. Fifty years. Now, he was not a super wealthy person, but he did okay. And what I realized, assuming that my mom dies before any of my siblings, there’s six of us, that all of that he, all that he worked for for 50 years, is going to be divided by six and given to his children.

And then, when we all die, I did the figuring last night, there’s 14 grandchildren. It will go all to them. And at some point, all that my Dad worked for, for 50 years, is going to kind of disappear. It’ll probably be squandered by somebody down the line. Not pointing fingers at anybody. It could be my kids, but it will be squandered somewhere along the line. And so, the 50 years that he worked, somewhere it will just kind of vanish.

And Solomon said, this is vanity. This is chasing after the wind. This is foolish. Of course, Solomon is focusing on material wealth. It’s funny, I mentioned that I was reading Luke 12 this morning about the rich fool. And Jesus says, “Tonight, your life, your soul, will be required of you and then who will own all that you have saved? And then He says, “Such is a man who is wealthy in the things in the world, but is not rich towards God, the true riches of life that you’re speaking of.” Anybody else?

Second observation. Solomon says, you know, we always want more of it when it comes to the fruit of our labor. There’s something within us. There’s this insatiable desire to always want more. He says, Ecclesiastes, the eye is never satisfied.

Now, many of you have heard this illustration, but I know some of you haven’t because I haven’t shared it in a couple of years, but it reveals how universal this truth is, that you always want more. And this comes from Ron Blue, an article that he wrote. And I don’t know if you know who Ron Blue is; he’s a Christian financial consultant and there was a missionary organization that he supported financially. And they did work in Africa in a very poor country. I don’t remember if he even mentioned the country and because he took such great interest in the missionary that was doing the work and the work and he gave so generously to it, he decided, I think he and his wife decided they would go over and see the work, and traveled Africa, which is what they did. And when he arrived, he just saw, they lived in abject poverty and he said it was, they spent time together. He asked the question, what is your greatest barrier in reaching these people with the gospel? Do you remember what the answer was? Materialism. And Blue said “what?” and was dumbfounded. And he said, how could that be? The missionary said this. If a man has a manure hut, he wants a mud hut. If he has a mud hut, he wants a stone hut. If his hut has a thatch roof, he wants a tin roof. If he has one cow, then he wants two. If he has one wife, he wants two wives. And he said, you can see where this goes. And what Blue realized is materialism is not so much about things; it’s about the heart and the insatiable desire that we have to always want more. And the reason, you know why the reason is we want more? It’s that we somehow have bought into one of the greatest lies of life. And that lie is that more is always better.

And let me do, this is one of my favorite illustrations, and this does not come from a group of Christians. This came from two secular sociologists. And they said, this is the truth about our beliefs about money. And you might remember this because I really love this illustration.

On this line is the fulfillment we experience in life. And on this this line, that’s the amount of money we have. And this is the great lie of life guys, that as I, as my wealth increases out this way, my fulfillment goes up. And what studies have shown is that when people believe this, they get to a point where they think nothing is more important than making money. It takes precedence over everything in life and the reason is because they believe this, they believe this lie. Because if I can get out to here and make this much, just look how much more fulfilled I’ll be. And that’s one of the greatest lies of life.

Now what these guys learned if you recall, is this is the way it actually works. It goes something like this. But bottom line is when you’re really poor and you increase the amount you have, it can lead to a better quality of life. But what happens is you finally reach a point somewhere out here, enough, where you have enough, and as you keep acquiring things, and what you find is your fulfillment goes down. And they said the only way, because the natural question is to ask is, so you’re telling me, this is I can never go higher than this as far as being fulfilled. And what they observed, and they realize is once you get here, in this area right here, and people always say, well, how much is enough? I have no idea. I can’t tell. I can’t say what’s enough, but they did discover the only way to increase the fulfillment when you’re making lots of money, this is called giving.

What I find to be true is that very generous people who basically, they realized they’d gotten to this point, and they don’t need anymore and they seek to give away. I had one guy tell me, who had retired, I think was old enough to be retired, that he keeps working because every dime he makes now he gives it all away. Another guy told me his goal was to give away 50% of everything he earns. So, we need to see this in its true light and how it does impact our sense of fulfillment and even meaning in life. I’ve shared this graph with some very wealthy people and they, they agree with it a hundred percent. In fact, one guy says, you know, I feel like I’m down here, because all that I have is basically, it takes up all my time.

This is really linked to Solomon’s third observation, which is the fruit of our labor does not satisfy us; it will not fill the emptiness of life. I’m sure you’ve seen that, this was an article, there was a Newsweek article several years ago before it went under, talking about the studies that are done on people that win the lottery. He says, when a person wins the lottery, they experienced this huge surge of euphoria, but within six months they returned to the same level of satisfaction they experienced before the lottery. I’ve often wondered; do we really believe this? If I won the lottery, do I really believe that I would basically, it would make my life so much better? But that’s what basically people believe. And the best way to, I think, to put this is to ask this question, and acknowledge that money and wealth cannot purchase a good marriage. Would you agree with that? Money and wealth, you can’t purchase a good marriage. In fact, I guess you could say it can corrupt the marriage. It has the potential. Money and wealth cannot purchase a meaningful family life.

It can’t purchase real friendship. I remember reading an article in The Wall Street Journal that said the really wealthy people in the world have no real friends because they don’t trust anybody. They think you want to be my friend because of all the money I’ve got.

Real wealth and money cannot purchase wisdom. It can’t purchase peace and contentment in your soul. And most significantly, it cannot purchase the forgiveness of your sins and thus, eternal life. And what he’s saying is if you could get free from all of this, the fear of failing, fear of what others think of us, and all of the money and energy that we expend in trying to impress the world, how much different would your life be. Really, he’s asking how much better with your life be?

You know, guys, as we grow, or as time goes by, hopefully as we grow wiser, hopefully we realize that the grind to be financially successful and the perpetual attempt to win the approval of others, when it gets right down to it, it’s just not very gratifying. It can really lead to, as Solomon says, it’s all vanity. In the end, it’s all vanity. It’s all meaningless. It’s all just a chasing after the wind. Comments, questions.

[Unintelligible comment]

Yeah. In fact, the guys that do this; and so, that’s the real problem is that we become convinced. We buy this lie that more money means more fulfillment and so, we end up sacrificing all the things in life that really matter because we believe this lie. Anybody else?

Well, let’s look at two final verses and we’ll wrap this up. Go to Ecclesiastes 3. Let’s read verses 10 and 11 (Ecclesiastes 3:10-11). Forrest, how about you reading those for us, will you?

Forrest: “I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 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.”

I just want to make a couple of comments on that verse. He has set eternity in the hearts of men. He’s put within each human being a desire for permanence. This is why guys like Woody Allen are so, they are so terrified of death and dying because they realize that there’s a permanence about our lives.

Armand Nicholi, the famous psychiatrist, who teaches at Harvard Medical School says that every human being has a deep-seated desire for permanence. But if life under the sun is true and there is no life after death and there is no eternity, why would we long for it? So that’s, in one sense, that’s the heart of this book, because Solomon will continually talk about life under the sun, but then he always comes back to life with God. Why would we long for permanence? Pretty simple. He tells us. God put it there. We’re made in His image; therefore, we guys, are the only creatures that are eternal beings, and because we are eternal beings, we have this natural, deep-seated yearning for permanence.

That’s why I love, Dan [unintelligible] shared this last week, two weeks ago, and some of you didn’t hear this. He says, “We are eternal beings having a temporary human experience.”

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