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TEXT: Ecclesiastes 4:7-16
SUBJECT: Ecclesiastes #5: Working Together
Have you seen The Rise of the Planet of the Apes? It's a pre-quel to The Planet of the Apes, and explains how the monkeys took over the world and made us their slaves.
They did it by working together. Caesar was a very intelligent ape, but had he gone it alone, he would have ended up in a circus. He didn't go it alone, however, and by getting and keeping his kind together, he first won their freedom, and then, everything else.
The monkey revolt began in an ape kennel just a few miles northwest of where we are, in San Bruno. California. Caesar and another ape were sitting in a cage. Caesar held up a stick and snapped it in two. Then he bundled the stick with many more, and-try as he may-he couldn't break it. Like the sticks-
One ape weak;
Many apes strong.
Caesar may have been plenty smart, but he wasn't all that original. The illustration comes from the Fables of Aesop, a Greek storyteller who lived about 600 BC. Where he got it, nobody knows.
He might have got it from a traveling Jew who recalled the Preacher's Big Idea, but was a little fuzzy on the details. Instead of bundling sticks, the Preacher wound three ropes together, and discovered-
A threefold cord is not easily broken.
If a rope can hold one hundred pounds, three ropes together might hold a thousand pounds. There is strength in numbers-not sheer numbers, of course-but when the numbers are together and working as one.
This is what the second half of Ecclesiastes 4 is about: unity of heart, working together for something bigger than our own petty desires. It is made up of three parts and they're arranged in such as way as to draw attention to the one in the middle. The three parts are:
FIRST OBSERVATION, VV.7-8
The Preacher starts with an observation, the truth of which does not depend on special revelation or religious belief. He dares anyone to look at the world as it really is, and say it ain't so, vv.7-8-
Again I saw vanity under the sun: one person who has no other, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, 'For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?' This also is vanity and an unhappy business.
Here's a man who lives for making money. Is he an only child whose parents are dead? Was he unable to find a wife or father a son? Maybe, but I don't think so. Look at the big picture, and what you have is a man who has cut himself off from family, friends, and neighbors, so he can pursue money without distraction. He's a workaholic and a miser.
Think of Ebeneezer Scrooge, eating a cold dinner alone on Christmas Eve, caring only over his business. Or think of Gollum, for five hundred years, living alone under a mountain, staring at a gold ring, consumed by his Precious!
Are Scrooge and Gollum attractive characters? No, they're not. Like the Rich Man in the parable, they've gained the whole world and lost their souls.
So has the man in our text. Work and money have filled his every waking moment and haunted his dreams. There is-
No end to his toil.
His life is without pleasure; ironically, even the pleasures money can buy, he doesn't have. Oh, he's got a head for business, all right, but the rest of his mind has been eaten away. He's lost the point of what he's doing; he can't see the absurdity of working his fingers to the bone, getting nothing out of it himself and leaving it to no one!
What does the Preacher think of such a man? He leaves no doubt-
This is vanity and an unhappy business.
Scrooge and Gollum are fictional characters. But Dickens and Tolkien didn't make them up out of thin air. They correspond to real people; if they're overdrawn, it is only by a smidgen.
No one here has gone as far as they did, but many of you are tempted to live for career or money. As Servants of happiness and community, these are good things-gifts of God-but when they become your Master, you become their slaves. Jesus said-
No man can serve two masters, for either he will love the one and hate the other, or else, he will cleave to one and despise the other: you cannot serve God and Mammon!
Taking his cue from our Lord, Paul brands covetousness idolatry. Not akin to it, but the very thing itself.
For all the fake informality, the blue jeans and flannel shirts, Silicon Valley is a cut-throat place to work. It is a 'produce or else' culture that works it way out of the high tech industry and into every person in the Bay Area. We all want to keep our jobs, to be secure, to buy a home, and so on, but at what cost? Are you being consumed by your work? Is the desire for money eating you up alive? I cannot answer for you, but I can tell you, It is high time to answer for yourself.
But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.
Working for personal wealth is vain.
THE ADVICE, VV.9-12
By denouncing materialism and consumerism, the Preacher might be taken for an old-time hippie. He's not that. He himself values hard work and making money, and he wants us to do the same, 2:24-
There is nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil.
What he's against is working alone and for yourself alone. This is vanity, but what isn't is working with and for others-
Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their toil.
The good life, he says, is when we work together and share the fruits of our labor. To help us do that, he names some of the benefits of working together-
For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up.
Colleagues help each other, and when we don't have any partners, we don't have anyone to aid us. Obviously.
Again, if two lie together, they keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone?
It sounds weird and unsavory to us, but you know what he's saying: Working with others provides warmth and comfort.
And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him.
The picture is highway robbery. Bandits will attack a solitary merchant, but will think twice if he's got a partner.
I won't labor this point, but notice: the benefits of working together are both financial and personal. Partners are likely to make more money than one man, and the work will be more satisfying.
Is the Preacher condemning all self-employment? Of course not! But he is condemning the attitude that puts self at the center and pushes others to the periphery.
The summary is the verse I referred to a few minutes ago-
A threefold cord is not quickly broken.
Preachers and commentators have often allegorized this. Matthew Henry thought that where two men work together, Jesus joins them to make a third. Others make it a reference to the Trinity, and how secure we are in the hands of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Modern scholars ridicule all this, but I think there's some truth in it. The bigger truth, however, is this: the more the merrier! If two people working together is good; three is even better,
Not everyone buys into this, of course, because they identify 'needing others' with 'being needy', i.e., insecurity, cravenness, indecision, incompetence. Nobody wants to be thought of as needy and so many act as though they don't need anybody.
They're wrong. The strongest men and women need others. Daniel was a man of great moral courage, but when tempted to eat the king's food, he got his friends together to pray. Esther asked the whole Jewish population to do the same for her. Paul traveled with partners and missed them when they were gone. And, of course, our Lord Jesus, in His moment of agony in the Garden, wanted Peter, James, and John to be with Him.
Solitude is made worse by the Fall, but long before the disaster, God pronounced-
It is not good that man should be alone.
Working by and for yourself is vain. But working with and for others is not.
This brings us to what may be the most confusing paragraph in the whole Book, vv.13-16. It's a story about an old foolish king and a poor, but wise, young man.
The old man's a fool because he's gotten so used to flattery and being agreed with, that he won't take counsel. That's vain, for sure!
But what about the young man? He's wise, and his wisdom has gotten him places in life. He's a royal advisor, and he wields immense power. Millions hang on his every word, but then he dies, and he's soon forgotten. Think of Joseph, sold into slavery, thrown in prison, exalted to Pharaoh's right hand, given rule of the whole Empire, and.
There arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph.
This too is vanity, the Preacher says, and a chasing after the wind.
What is? Living and working for fame. You get it and fifteen minutes later, you lose it. Fame cannot be hold on to, and to live for it is a-
Striving after the wind.
Let's review the facts as marshaled in today's passage.
These are the findings of the Preacher, and they are confirmed by the prophets, the Apostles, and our Lord Jesus Christ. Working together and sharing what we make is better than working alone and watching out for number one!
If you know your political science you know these words could have been spoken by Karl Marx and signed off on by Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, and the rulers of North Korea-
From each according to his ability,
To each according to his need.
This is not far from the Preacher's message. But they differ in one significant respect. Bereft of the Gospel, Communism can only appeal to resentment and envy, and has to enforce its will by armies, informers, and secret police.
The Gospel, on the other hand, creates true fellowship between God and His People, and His People and His People. It enables us to love others as much as we love ourselves-or more.
Thus, the idea of hoarding our money or pouring all our time and energy into ourselves and our own narrow wishes becomes unattractive. We begin to see how unworthy it is to live this way, because-
The world is passing away
And the lusts thereof,
But he who does the will of God
The Law commands unselfishness and your parents tried to beat it into you. But they failed. Unselfishness cannot be taught; generosity cannot be enforced. We cannot make people work together and like it.
With man it is impossible,
But with God, all things are possible.
And not just 'possible'. It is happening right here and now. The Gospel is working in human hearts, drawing people out of themselves into something worth living for. People are ignoring the questions 'What shall we eat? What shall we drink? What shall we wear? in favor of The Kingdom of God and His righteousness.
Is the Gospel at work in your heart? Or are you still chasing the wind? You can't catch the wind, and if you could, what would you have? The Preacher was a man who knew. He had it all, and, at the same time, he had nothing-
Vanity of vanities,
All is vanity,
Says the Preacher.
Work is good; money is good; popularity is good. In their place. But they'll never beat fellowship with God and His People!
We have no idea how blessed we are to know the Living and True God and to be in the company of His People! Let us prize the fellowship now remember-
The best is yet to come.
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