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Monday, March 14, 2011

"The Folly of Man Under the Sun" - (03/13/11)

Introduction to Ecclesiastes (Message #1 in Series)
March 13, 2011

How many of you consider yourself to be “reasonably intelligent”?  OK, but have you ever done anything really stupid, that you regretted later?  I certainly have—more times than I want to admit.  Most of you have watched the movie, “Forrest Gump,” starring Tom Hanks.  In that film, Hanks plays the part of a guy who is not very smart but who is good to the core, does kind deeds, and says wise things.  That’s an interesting combination because we expect that a dumb guy would act stupidly and say stupid things.  It just proves that wisdom and intelligence don’t necessarily always go together.
Then, of course, there is Solomon in the Bible—the son of King David, he was heir to the throne of Israel, born into wealth, power, and opulence.  Yet soon after he was crowned king he had one of those “Ah-ha” moments in which he realized that he was not up to the task of ruling over Israel.  This is all explained in I Kings 3:1-14.  Let’s look at that to get the context.

1Solomon made an alliance with Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, and married one of his daughters.  He brought her to live in the City of David until he could finish building his palace and the Temple of the Lord and the wall around the city.  2At that time the people of Israel sacrificed their offerings at local places of worship, for a temple honoring the name of the Lord had not yet been built.  3Solomon loved the Lord and followed all the decrees of his father, David, except that Solomon, too, offered sacrifices and burned incense at the local places of worship.  4The most important of these places of worship was at Gibeon, so the king went there and sacrificed 1,000 burnt offerings.  5That night the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream, and God said, “What do you want?  Ask, and I will give it to you!”  6Solomon replied, “You showed faithful love to Your servant my father, David, because he was honest and true and faithful to You.  And You have continued Your faithful love to him today by giving him a son to sit on his throne.  7“Now, O Lord my God, You have made me king instead of my father, David, but I am like a little child who doesn’t know his way around.  8And here I am in the midst of Your own chosen people, a nation so great and numerous they cannot be counted!  9Give me an understanding heart so that I can govern Your people well and know the difference between right and wrong.  For who by himself is able to govern this great people of Yours?”  10The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for wisdom.  11So God replied, “Because you have asked for wisdom in governing My people with justice and have not asked for a long life or wealth or the death of your enemies—12I will give you what you asked for!  I will give you a wise and understanding heart such as no one else has had or ever will have!  13And I will also give you what you did not ask for—riches and fame!  No other king in all the world will be compared to you for the rest of your life!  14And if you follow Me and obey My decrees and My commands as your father, David, did, I will give you a long life.” (NLT)
So far, so good, but Solomon is well known to us, not only for his great wisdom, but also for exercising incredibly bad judgment in his personal life.  Oh sure, we all remember his wisdom in deciding the case between the two women who both claimed to be the mother of the same little baby.  But this is the same Solomon who according to I Kings 11:1-8 ended up with 700 wives and 300 concubines!  Any married man will tell you that was a serious lapse in good judgment!  No wisdom there!  Let’s look at that passage:

1Now King Solomon loved many foreign women.  Besides Pharaoh’s daughter, he married women from Moab, Ammon, Edom, Sidon, and from among the Hittites.  2The Lord had clearly instructed the people of Israel, ‘You must not marry them, because they will turn your hearts to their gods.’  Yet Solomon insisted on loving them anyway.  3He had 700 wives of royal birth and 300 concubines.  And in fact, they did turn his heart away from the Lord.  4In Solomon’s old age, they turned his heart to worship other gods instead of being completely faithful to the Lord his God, as his father, David, had been.  5Solomon worshiped Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech, the detestable god of the Ammonites.  6In this way, Solomon did what was evil in the Lord’s sight; he refused to follow the Lord completely, as his father, David, had done.  7On the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, he even built a pagan shrine for Chemosh, the detestable god of Moab, and another for Molech, the detestable god of the Ammonites. 8Solomon built such shrines for all his foreign wives to use for burning incense and sacrificing to their gods.

So how are we to take Solomon?  The Bible says he was the wisest man who ever lived (at least in some areas).  But that same Bible paints a picture of him as a total moron in regard to spending money, and in marital and family relationships.  Yet through it all he seems to have learned some important life lessons through his experiences.  That, in and of itself, is admirable.  Too many of us go bumbling through life without learning a blessed thing worth passing on to the next generations.

In spite of his lapses in judgment and his outright screw-ups, God thought enough of Solomon to use him to write three books in our Bible: Canticles (Song of Solomon), Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes.  When looked at together these three books serve as a rough outline of Solomon’s life.  The ancient Jewish scholars tell us that he first wrote the Song of Solomon at the very beginning of his reign, while he was still very young and still very much in love with his first wife and lover, identified as “the Shulamite maiden” in that book.  It is a tender and intimate love story from the perspective of a man who was crazy-in-love with his wife.  Next, in mid-life he wrote the Book of Proverbs, a collection of observations on life interspersed with one-liner wise sayings that sum up his views on all kinds of subjects and situations.
However, toward the end of his life, Solomon penned the Book of Ecclesiastes.  It is very different from his first two books.  It is dark and depressing, filled with bitterness and cynicism.  It is hard to read.  It is hard to preach and teach.  In fact, most of you have never heard a sermon from the Book of Ecclesiastes because most preachers bypass it in favor of more uplifting texts.  But you know me—“boldly going where no man has gone before”!  I believe that if it is in the Bible then God must mean for us to study it, understand it, and apply it’s truths to our lives.  So starting today, we are going to study the Book of Ecclesiastes together.  But I warn you; it will not be an easy read.  There is much in this book that will serve as a mirror for our own follies and foolishness.  Moreover, you will discover that this book is amazingly up-to-date in terms of the worldviews in which we are constantly “stewing and simmering.”  Jesus said that we are “in this world” but should not be “of this world.”  The Book of Ecclesiastes will help us better understand why He made that statement.
I plan to have us take a plane ride over the book.  It has 12 chapters and I plan to cover the book in 12 messages.  Obviously, we will miss a lot of stuff.  At this pace I won’t be able to hit all the fine points.  But I figure that it’s about all we’ll be able to handle, but hopefully, will serve to whet our appetites and give us an appreciation for this ancient portion of Scripture.

The book gets its English name from the Greek version of the Bible, which has the title, “Ekklesiastes” from the word meaning “assembly.”  By the way, it is from this word that we get the word “church” (ekklesia).  The Hebrew name of the book is, “Kohelet,” which signifies, “one who assembles, or addresses an assembly.”  This has been taken to mean either (1) “one who collects” wise sayings (cf. 12:9-10), or (2) “one who addresses an assembly,” that is, a preacher or speaker, the logical implication being that one assembles a group for the purpose of addressing it.
Solomon’s purpose in writing the book seems to be to show from his personal experience that all earthly goals and blessings, when pursued as ends in themselves, lead to dissatisfaction and emptiness.  He concludes that the highest good in life lies in knowing, reverencing, and obeying God, and enjoying life while one still can.  In this book we will see Solomon as a man of faith; he was skeptical only of human wisdom, wealth, and endeavor, because he had, “Been there – Done that – Bought the T-shirt!” and still came up empty.
This first chapter divides nicely into two sections.  My outline of the chapter looks like this…
OUTLINE of Chapter 1:
A. The Transitory Nature of Things (Verses 1-11)
B. The Futility of Wisdom (Verses 12-18)

The chapter starts out with “the Preacher” being identified in verse 1: 1The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.  Until the 19th Century it was generally believed that Solomon wrote the book in its entirety.  Luther was actually one of the first to throw doubt on this fact.  However, I’m just gullible enough to believe the text itself, as well as the untold centuries of ancient witness to the Solomonic authorship of this book.
Verse 2 lays out for us the Preacher’s thesis: 2“Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher, “Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity.”  This word, vanity, in Hebrew literally just means “air.”  In Isa. 57:13 it is translated as “breath.”  In Proverbs 21:6 it is “vapor,” like the condensed breath that one breathes on a cold day.  Solomon is saying that everything in this life is transitory, and therefore, futile to be pursued.  He had discovered that life has no final meaning apart for God and His revelation.  Apart from that, life is all just “hot air.”  We’ll discover later that he’s not a complete pessimist; he is merely pessimistic about human existence bringing satisfaction apart from God. 
In verse 3 Solomon expands the sphere of our consideration by introducing a phrase that we will see over and over again in this book.  He poses a question: 3What advantage does man have in all his work, which he does under the sun?  The phrase “under the sun” simply means life as we know it, human existence with all its joys and sorrows, ups and downs, toils and pleasures.  He asks, “What advantage does a man gain in this life for all his efforts?”  His conclusion is, “NONE”!
This phrase, “under the sun,” or some variation of it, is going to show up 34 times in this book.  In fact, I would advise you to take some time this afternoon and read through all 12 chapters at one sitting with a highlighter pen in your hand.  Every time you come across the phrase, “under the sun,” or “under heaven,” or “on the earth,” highlight it.  You will be surprised how many times it appears.  (Note: I’m using the NASB.  Your Bible may have a little bit different phase but you will recognize it when you see it.)
Starting in verse 4 Solomon begins to develop his thesis.  He starts out by pointing out the transitory nature of things.  4A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.  5Also, the sun rises and the sun sets; and hastening to its place it rises there again.  6Blowing toward the south, then turning toward the north, the wind continues swirling along; and on its circular courses the wind returns.  7All the rivers flow into the sea, yet the sea is not full.  To the place where the rivers flow, there they flow again.  He says that life is like a merry-go-round.  To illustrate this truth he points to the continual cycles of the sun, wind, oceans and rivers.
We can hear in his words as they come sliding off his pen that he is a frustrated man.  In verse 8 he says that these continual, monotonous cycles in nature are futile and seem to have no meaning and give no satisfaction whatsoever.  Wherever Solomon looks in nature he finds the same tiresome, ceaseless round of meaningless activity.  8All things are wearisome; man is not able to tell it.  The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor is the ear filled with hearing.  He means that it is impossible to put into words the futility of it all.  Solomon seems to be disturbed by his own conclusions.  These are the words of an angry, disillusioned old man, but one who on the other hand, knows what he is talking about.  He spent his life “chasing after the wind,” only to find out that it means nothing and cannot satisfy the longings of the human heart.
In verses 9-10 the Preacher goes on to say that the future will just be a repeat of the past.  9That which has been is that which will be, and that which has been done is that which will be done.  So there is nothing new under the sun.  10Is there anything of which one might say, “See this, it is new”?  Already it has existed for ages which were before us.  He says, don’t look for things to change, to be different tomorrow.  It’s just the same-old same-old.  Thus, he concludes, life is futile; neither what we call “success” nor “failure” has any real value in the light of the future.
Solomon goes on to say in verse 11 that the past will inevitably be forgotten.  11There is no remembrance of earlier things; and also of the later things which will occur, there will be for them no remembrance among those who will come later still.  He says that not only will the past inevitably be forgotten, likewise, the future will also someday forget us!  On our recent trip to the Southwest we stopped for a night and a day in Delta, Colorado where my family came from.  Ramel and I went up to the old cemetery and wandered around until we found the graves of some of my ancestors, including my great-grandparents and other relatives.  I know that they were real people when they were alive, with personalities and sense of humor and hopes and dreams.  But now, for me, they are just names on gravestones.  They are in the past, long-gone and forgotten.  Moreover, if the Lord tarries, someday some of my descendents may stand in a graveyard reading my name on a headstone and feeling the same disconnectedness from me.
Verse 12 begins the second section of the chapter, which deals with The Futility of Wisdom.  First of all, the writer identifies himself again.  12I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.  This is basically a repeat of verse 1.  Then he goes on in verse 13 to describe his diligent search through the labyrinths of human wisdom looking for the meaning of life.  He says, 13And I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven.  It is a grievous task, which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with. 
It is obvious that the futility was not due to a lack of resolve on his part.  He threw himself wholeheartedly into the task but came up empty-handed.  Look at verse 14:  14I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind.  15What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted.  16I said to myself, “Behold, I have magnified and increased wisdom more than all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge.”  So after this carful search he declares the inability of wisdom.  Even with his great wisdom, true meaning in life still escaped him. 
The chapter ends with verses 17-18 in which the Preacher declares the frustration of great wisdom.  He says: 17And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind.  18Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.  Solomon says that, in a sense, “ignorance is bliss” because with greater knowledge and wisdom one clearly discerns the futility of life “under the sun.”  In fact, he says that not only does the search for life’s meaning prove frustrating and its goal unattainable, but it actually also brings mental and spiritual pain.
What a depressing conclusion!  It’s not what we want to hear.  It rubs us the wrong way because we all secretly hope that if we just keep looking long enough through the things this world offers, sooner or later we will find the magic key that will unlock all human happiness and ultimate meaning.  Solomon, the wisest man in history, one of the wealthiest men in history, one of the most intelligent men in history, one of the most powerful men in history, one of the most sexually satisfied men in history… says it just ain’t so!  None of these things holds the key.

            We humans are wired up in such a way that we think, “If I can just do this, or have that, then I will be truly satisfied and happy.  If I just had a little more money so that I could buy that thing I’ve been craving, then I know that my life would be truly complete.”  The thing about Solomon—he had all the money, power, sex, good looks, fame, and toys that anyone could ever want.  He tried it all.  He had it all.  He did it all.  But at the end, he concluded, “It’s all vanity—smoke, mirrors, hot air, a waste of time.  It doesn’t satisfy.  It doesn’t fill the hole in the soul of an individual.  It doesn’t bring real happiness.”
            The danger for us is to think to ourselves, “Yeah, but maybe he just didn’t find the right thing.  Surely he was mistaken.  Otherwise it would mean that the things I’ve been chasing all my life aren’t going to satisfy me either, and that is unthinkable.”
            May we have the courage to stop the crazy race long enough to consider whether we too are, as Solomon puts it, “striving after the wind.”

            What thoughts come to your mind?  What are you hoping to gain through this study of the Book of Ecclesiastes?

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About Me

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Since 1994 I have been the pastor of Sellwood Baptist Church in Portland, OR. Before that I was a missionary in South Brazil for many years. Until just recently I have also served as a police chaplain with the Portland Police Bureau. Now, however, God has a new assignment for us. My wife and I have been appointed with WorldVenture and are preparing to move to Ireland to help plant a new church in Sligo, a small city in NW Ireland. I'm married to Ramel, a crazy, beautiful redhead that I love more than life itself. We have three great kids, Jonathan, Chris, and Simoni who have given us ten wonderful grandchildren. We are truly blessed.

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