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TEXT: Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:26
SUBJECT: Ecclesiastes #2: The Voice of Experience
Thirty-five years ago, friends invited me to my first Christian concert. I don't remember who the opening acts were that night, but the headliner was Phil Keaggy. The man was a first-rate guitar player, and a pretty good singer, but his songwriting and presentation were a little too sweet for my taste. Most of his songs were impossibly sunny, but even the few that touched on the darker side of life came off as silly, sanitized, and phony. Brushing his teeth one morning, it occurred to him that what gets the toothpaste out of the tube is pressure; in the same way, God applies pressure to get the best out of us. The lyrics are somewhat less than immortal-
He's gonna squeeze you,
'cause He really loves you.
With all due respect to Phil Keaggy, life is not this way, and the Lord's discipline is likely to be a lot rougher than a gentle squeeze. Paul says it's more like a thorn in the flesh and a wise guy sent to beat him black-and-blue.
No one captured real life in his music better than the late Johnny Cash. Many of his songs were about Divine grace and redemption, but they were always set against the dark background of human sin and guilt, suffering, and death. There was nothing sickly-sweet in his singing; no lying lyrics. They were songs of salvation sung by a Man in Black.
This brings us to the second sermon in our study of Ecclesiastes and what the author of Moby Dick called-
The truest book in the world.
Ecclesiastes is true because it is God's Word; it rings true because it was written by a man who first lived it! There's something ludicrous about a man making minimum wage bellowing, 'Money can't buy happiness!' How would he know? Or a lonely single man decrying the emptiness of the playboy's life. Or a teetotaler assuring us there's no joy in the bottom of a glass! Everything they say is true, but it comes off as a platitude, a cliché-with a hint of sour grapes.
There's none of this in the Preacher! He knows what he's talking about because he learned it on his own from first hand experience. He tells his story, beginning in 1:12 and running through the end of chapter 2.
THE PREACHER'S IDENTITY AND TASK
He starts by reminding us who he is and hinting at what the Lord has called him to do. He is-
The Preacher, king over Israel in Jerusalem.
I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom
concerning all that is done under heaven.
The kings of Israel were different than the kings all around them. Others came to power by birth or war, assassination or dumb luck, the rulers of Israel were the Lord's Anointed. They were His special servants called to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to earth. This means they must not be tyrants living off their people, but fathers of the nation, or shepherds caring for the Flock of God.
One part of that shepherdly care was the teaching of wisdom. Not all the kings did this, of course, most didn't, in fact. But the good kings did, including the one in whose name this Book was written.
As King he had the time and opportunity, the connections, and most of all, the wisdom to get to the bottom of life. He made the most of all these advantages, and after a lifetime of study and thought and conversation and prayer, here's what he came up with-
It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of men to be busy with.
In other words, trying to understand life is impossible. For all the efforts he put into it, he ended up-not wise-but weary and frustrated.
Why does he feel this way? Because-
Because everything that is done under the sun is vanity and chasing after the wind.
Vanity means 'vapor', a substance you cannot understand or control or keep a hold of. If this is not disheartening enough, he adds two more difficulties to understanding life, v. 15-
What is crooked cannot be made straight,
And what is lacking cannot be counted.
There is something terribly wrong with the world, but try as we may, we cannot fix it. Crooked things cannot be straightened out! And what's lacking in the world cannot be provided by human effort.
These are not the conclusions of an ignorant or inexperienced man. No one has studied the issue as long and carefully as the Preacher, and all the study has gotten him is tired and discouraged, v.18-
For in much wisdom is vexation,
And he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.
PLEASURE IS VAIN
This is what the Preacher says, but how do we know it's true? Maybe he was looking for something solid and satisfying in all the wrong places. Well, if he was, so are we. He looked in the same places that we do, except that he had a lot more time and money and brains than we do to find them-if they're really there.
The first place he looked was pleasure-and please note-the pleasures he sought were not guilty and shameful ones, but innocent pleasures of the highest quality.
He started with laughter, 2:2, and after hearing the funniest jokes and the most amusing stories in the world, he's said it's crazy to live this way. Laughter is vain.
Next on his list was fine wine, 2:3. You can be sure a man of his wealth and good taste was not guzzling Ripple or Thunderbird. He was drinking only the best, and what is often overlooked, he was drinking in moderation-
I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine-my heart still guiding me with wisdom.
After trying all the best vintages in the world, and enjoying every sip of them, he found wine is not the answer.
Then he tried beauty, vv.4-9-
I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forests of 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 in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasures of kings and provinces. I got singers both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of men. So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem.Also my wisdom remained with me.
The preacher designed and built a series of beautiful homes-a home in the city, a home in the country, a home in the mountains, a home on the beach, maybe a houseboat when he wanted a home on the river or a yacht when he preferred to cruise the Great Sea.
Don't think of Saddam Hussein's tacky palaces, or the monstrosity of Hearst Castle! The homes were not only big and richly furnished, but they were tasteful; they were not built to show off his power and money, but were fine places to live.
He landscaped the homes with vineyards and gardens and orchards, and it was all kept green in a dry country because he also dug wells and reservoirs to catch the rain. And nothing ever got shaggy, for he had an army of servants to rake the lawn, to pick the ripe fruit, and to keep the hedges trimmed and the flowers bright.
There's nothing more peaceful than a well-kept garden, but to the King of Israel, there was more to it than this. His gardening was done in the Promised Land! To enjoy its milk and honey therefore, was a deeply religious experience. The green fields reminded him of God's favor and His fidelity to the Covenant.
There's another kind of beauty most men like, and that is female beauty-pretty faces and shapely figures. I like fine rugs and red roses as well as the next man, but let's get serious! The Preacher had female singers who charmed him with their voices, and concubines who charmed him with.well, with other things.
What's most surprising about this long list of pleasures is, they didn't go to the preacher's head, v,9-
My wisdom remained with me.
After enjoying every pleasure a man can have, the Preacher concluded, v.12-
Behold, it is all vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.
The pleasures were gifts of God and real, but they did not satisfy him. For all the happiness they supplied, there was still something missing.
Pleasure is vain.
WISDOM IS VAIN
.And so is wisdom, vv.12-17.
The King is the wisest man in the world. On hearing of his brilliance, the Queen of Sheba traveled to Jerusalem expecting to be disappointed. Surely no one is a wise as the gossip says this man is. On meeting him, she found the amazing reports were false, but not in the way she thought they were-
I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it. And behold, half the greatness of your wisdom was not told me; you surpass the report that I heard.
The wise man recommends wisdom to everyone, telling us it ought to be our number one concern in life-
Wisdom is the principal thing.
Therefore, get wisdom; and in all
Of your getting, get understanding.
Has he changed his mind in old age? No, he hasn't, vv.13-14-
Then I saw there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness.
The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness.
If it is better to walk in the light instead of stumbling around in the dark, then it is better to be wise than foolish because wise men walk firmly and fools blunder all over the place.
And so, relatively speaking, wisdom is better than folly. But for all the ways they differ, the sage and the stooge have one thing in common: they both die, vv.14-15-
I perceive that the same even happens to all of them. Then I said in my heart, 'What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why, then have I been so very wise?'
Wisdom may prevent some calamities, but not all of them. Go to the cancer ward and you'll see wise men and fools in the same room; go the morgue and you'll see their bodies next to each other. Wisdom does not prevent death or even delay it. Some fools live to be a hundred and some wise people are cut down in the flower of youth.
The Preacher knows this is not the way things are supposed to be! But he also knows, this is the way things are!
Life is a vapor and not even wisdom can keep a grip on it. Thinking your wisdom guarantees your future is trying to catch the wind and put it in your pocket.
Wisdom is vain.
WORK IS VAIN
.And work is vain, vv.18-23.
Work itself is good, and when you do your best and accomplish something, you feel some satisfaction. The wall stood up; the students learned to read; dinner was delicious. It's a shame how some people hate work. It's not what it was before the Fall, but it is still the Gift of God and a good gift.
But if there's some good in work and the money it brings in, there's plenty of bad as well. You'll die some day and the joy you found in your work will be lost. As for the money you earned, it will be left to someone else, and there's a good chance he'll be a fool, squander the money you left him and maybe ruin himself with it!
These evil prospects bleed into the present, diminish the joy you'd have in your work, keep you up at night, and vex every waking moment. In the light of death, work becomes-
Vanity and a great evil.
The Preacher didn't get his learning out of a book, and he not parroting what some fool told him! He has lived a long, full, and carefully observed life, and, now an old man, says there is nothing under the sun fully satisfies-not pleasure, not wisdom, not work, not money, nothing-
Vanity of vanities; all is vanity
THE PREACHER'S ADVICE, VV.24-26
In light of all he's said, you'd expect the Preacher to give no counsel at all-what's the use? Or, if he does, he's going to advise despair or apathy.
But then he fools us. After telling us there is no lasting or full satisfaction in pleasure, wisdom, or work, he tells us to enjoy the pleasures of life, work hard, and learn wisdom, vv.24-26-
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, for apart from Him, who can eat or who can have enjoyment? For 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 striving after wind.
Your life is the gift of God, and He has given it to you because He loves you and wants you to enjoy it! The ordinary gifts of life are not meant to be God Himself or designed to 'complete' you or to supply full, final, cosmic, primordial happiness!
But, taken for what they are, they can be truly enjoyed. And should be. Don't despise a sandwich because it is not Eternal Life! Enjoy the sandwich. Thank God for it, and remember the little joys of this life are pointers to the Great Joys of the Life to Come.
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