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Monday, March 21, 2011

"The Futility of Earthly Values" - (03/20/11)

Ecclesiastes Chapter 2
March 20, 2011 (Message #2 in Ecclesiastes Series)

Last Sunday we launched a new 12-week study of the OT Book of Ecclesiastes.  I explained to you that this is one of the most neglected books of the Bible because it makes believers, including preachers, feel uncomfortable.
For one thing, many Christians today have little appreciation for the OT in general.  They prefer the NT, believing, albeit inaccurately, that since many of the OT prophecies have occurred already and since Christ said that He came to “fulfill the Law,” then there isn’t much point in us studying the OT anymore.  They prefer to hang out in the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul.
Other Christians find that the Book of Ecclesiastes troubles them because it doesn’t make them feel all warm and fuzzy like many of the Psalms.  In fact, it contains some statements that don’t even sound correct.  On top of that, down through the years there have been many Bible scholars, including some famous ones like Martin Luther, who believed [believe] that Ecclesiastes should never have been included in the Canon of Scripture.  They think it somehow got in there by mistake.  Of course, if this were true it would undermine the validity of any portion of the Canon.  If we can simply reject the parts we don’t like or don’t understand then all bets and boundaries are off.  It becomes a big theological free-for-all.

Indeed, rightly understood and interpreted, Ecclesiastes has much to teach us about life and godliness.  But there is one more thing… before we launch into Chapter 2 I need to explain something else that is very important.  The Doctrine of the Inspiration of Scripture does not guarantee that everything in the Bible is correct, holy, honorable, or pleasing to God.  The Doctrine of Inspiration only guarantees that the record of events and the text itself are God-breathed and divinely preserved without errors.  For example, the Bible faithfully records the sin and treason of Judas Iscariot but it puts no stamp of approval on his actions.  What he did was evil, pure and simple, and it was satanically motivated, not God approved.  The Bible faithfully records the sin of Adam and Eve but what they did was clearly sinful.  Jonah’s dirty rotten attitude toward the Ninevites is included in the inspired text but that doesn’t mean that his attitude was righteous.
Here in Ecclesiastes we have an accurate record of Solomon’s foolish search for life’s meaning, but we can readily see that he was looking in all the wrong places.  The inspired text accurately records the thoughts of a man who was walking far from God, doing life on his own terms.  I tell you this because while Solomon here makes many true observations, we must be careful not to absorb everything he says at face value, because some of his conclusions are just plain wrongheaded.
Solomon was a complex character.  Raised in the palace, heir to the throne, given everything his heart could desire, yet he felt empty on the inside.  He even had an encounter with God in which he was told to ask for anything he wanted, so he asked God for wisdom and insight into how to rule over Israel.  The Bible says that God answered that prayer, in spades.  Throughout his reign he was a wise and beloved leader of his people, Israel.  However, his personal life was a mess that whole time.  He seemed unable to apply his wisdom to the realm of human relationships including marriage and family.
In the Book of Proverbs we see the incredible wisdom of Solomon.  Here in the Book of Ecclesiastes we see the boundless stupidity of Solomon.  They form a fascinating contrast, with both coming from the pen of the same man.  In 1:12-14 Solomon lays out for us his thesis.  He says: “I, the Teacher, was king of Israel, and I lived in Jerusalem. 13 I devoted myself to search for understanding and to explore by wisdom everything being done under heaven. I soon discovered that God has dealt a tragic existence to the human race. 14 I observed everything going on under the sun, and really, it is all meaningless—like chasing the wind” (NLT).  In chapter 2 we find Solomon following yet another course to find satisfaction in life.  This route he chooses is also a popular route for modern man who seeks satisfaction in all sorts of pleasures.

Chapter 2 breaks down nicely into two parts;
  • Outline of Chapter 2:
            A. The Futility of Pleasure and Accomplishments – 2:1-11
            B. The Futility of Earthly Success – 2:12-26
  • By the way, I am making some use of Dr. Stan Ellisen’s outline of the Book of Ecclesiastes.  He was one of my OT professors from Western Seminary and he had a wonderful way of partitioning the Scriptures in divisions that make sense to me.


The Preacher searched through a variety of “pleasures” (1-3):
1I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure.  So enjoy yourself.”  And behold, it too was futility.  2I said of laughter, “It is madness,” and of pleasure, “What does it accomplish?”  3I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and 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 their lives.
  1. Solomon seems to have tried everything known in the way of pleasure, including all kinds of laughter, mirth, and even substance abuse (v. 3).
    1. “Pleasure” – The implication here is sexual pleasure.  Solomon makes this even clearer down in verse 8.  He explored every form of human sexuality, in the end being left empty and dissatisfied.  Surely this should resonate with our society and generation.
    2. “Laughter” – I can’t help notice the upsurge in the last few years of people wanting to be “stand up comics.”  That phrase didn’t even exist a few years ago.  Now we have thousands of people just trying to make us laugh as though laughter and hilarity were the most important thing in life.  I imagine that Solomon surrounded himself with funny guys to try and take his mind off of his troubles.  It doesn’t work!
    3. “Stimulate my body” – Solomon would have fit right in with my generation—the Woodstock kids, the flower children, the LSD crowd.  Solomon would have loved Timothy Leary.  He was limited to using alcohol to get high but if he had found anything stronger he would have certainly tried it.  He says in verse 3 that he actually “explored with his mind how to stimulate his body with wine”.  He applied the scientific method to the study of how best to get bombed out of his gourd!
  2. Notice that he claims to have done all this, all the while retaining his perception (v. 4).  That is debatable.  The other night on TV I watched two half-hour episodes of a program called “Three Sheets.”  This guy goes all around the world drinking the local brews, wines, and liquors.  He gets drunk regularly yet claims to hold on to his good judgment, etc.  (By the way, I was only interested because the two that I watched were about Brazil and Portugal.)
  3. His conclusion: All these things he found devoid of true meaning and heart satisfaction (cf. verse 12).

Solomon searched for satisfaction in his great achievements (4-7):
4I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; 5I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; 6I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees.  7I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves.  Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem.
  1. Like a lot of people, he tried to cover up his unhappiness with lots of activity.  He took up carpentry, winemaking, gardening, and horticulture.  These became hobbies for Solomon.  He built great buildings.  He established huge irrigation systems and undertook huge public works projects.  It is now known that snow was brought down from Mt. Hermon so that he could have cold drinks in the summertime.  He obviously was trying to exceed all who had come before him, and claims that he succeeded in this.
  2. He sought satisfaction in “things.” He apparently got into both human and animal husbandry, raising livestock (horses, cattle, sheep, camels) and also breeding slaves. 

He describes his search for satisfaction in wealth and fame (8-10):
8Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces.  I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men--many concubines.  9Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem.  My wisdom also stood by me.  10All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them.  I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor.
  1. He accumulated servants, possessions, and riches.  He figured that these material things would satisfy him so he went for them in a big way.  Of course the only way he could get all this wealth was through taxation of the people.  In Solomon’s case he also had some huge gold mines.
  2. He even tried the music scene.  He hired the best musicians money could buy.  He surrounded himself with music.  That sounds pretty modern, doesn’t it?
  3. He gave all his energies to a full gratification of the flesh.  He is very forthright about admitting that he gave himself whatever his evil little heart desired.  He had the money, he had the power.  Who could tell him, “NO”?
  4. The last part of verse 9 is a head-scratcher: “My wisdom also stood by me.”  I don’t think so!
  5. In verse 10 he claims that all these goodies were in a sense his right due to his hard work.  They were his rightful wages.  But is that true?  Is that how God would look at this?  I don’t think so.  Kings have always had the idea that they were somehow entitled to their wealth by a divine right.  But did God ever say that?

Solomon sums up the conclusion of all his experimentation (11):
11Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun.
  1. He concludes that life is devoid of ultimate meaning and without real profit, in spite of all his material possessions and accomplishments.  In the end those things meant nothing to him.
  2. He says that in the end, the results of this search were emptiness and chasing after the wind.  There was no profit gained.  He found that even the world’s very best things cannot satisfy the heart.  The sad thing here though is that a lot of people will not take Solomon’s word for it; they will insist on making his same mistakes all over again.  But eventually they will come to the same conclusions.  They will say: “Life is empty and has no meaning.” 

B. THE FUTILITY OF EARTHLY SUCCESS (Materialism) – 2:12-26

The Preacher admits to the advantage of wisdom over folly (12-13):
12So I turned to consider wisdom, madness, and folly; for what will the man do who will come after the king [meaning him] except what has already been done?  13And I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness.
  1. After weighing this subject in his mind he concludes that wisdom far exceeds folly (13).  Then he points out that anyone who comes along wanting to check this out for himself will have to walk in his footsteps because he has already exhausted the search.  He is the expert!
  2. Notice that he certainly gives no merit to ignorance.  He says that wisdom always trumps stupidity, in the same way that light always trumps darkness.  What he means is that when wisdom walks in the door, stupidity has to flee, just like darkness always flees from the light.  Look at verse 14: a wise man uses his head and uses his eyes, while a fool just bumps around in the dark.

The writer observes the universal leveling process of death (14-16):
14The wise man’s eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness.  And yet I know that one fate befalls them both.  15Then I said to myself, “As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall me.  Why then have I been extremely wise?”  So I said to myself, “This too is vanity.”  16For there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man as with the fool, inasmuch as in the coming days all will be forgotten.  And how the wise man and the fool alike die!
  1. So he’s saying that while it is true that it’s better to be a wise man than a fool, an educated man instead of an ignorant man, ironically, all of them end up in the grave—the foolish and the wise, the educated and the ignorant, the righteous and the wicked (14).
  2. Maddeningly, the grave seems to hold no advantages for the wise (16).  The wise man and the fool may end up lying side by side in the cemetery and they both have the same dirt thrown in their faces in the end.  That just doesn’t seem fair, does it?

The Preacher shows the futility and resulting depression of life (17-18a):
17So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me; because everything is futility and striving after wind.  18aThus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun
  1. Notice how much hating is going on in these two verses: “I hated life,” and, “I hated the fruit of my labor.”
  2. Man’s best efforts seemed to him to be without value—again, those same words: “futility” (emptiness, without meaning or purpose) and “striving after wind.”
  3. Thus, the products of his life were reprehensible.  “I hated all the fruit of my labor…”  Those are very strong words!

Solomon comments on the disappointment of his success and successors (18b-23):
18aThus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun18bfor I must leave it to the man who will come after me.  19And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool?  Yet he will have control over all the fruit of my labor for which I have labored by acting wisely under the sun.  This too is vanity.  20Therefore I completely despaired of all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun.  21When there is a man who has labored with wisdom, knowledge and skill, then he gives his legacy to one who has not labored with them.  This too is vanity and a great evil.  22For what does a man get in all his labor and in his striving with which he labors under the sun?  23Because all his days his task is painful and grievous; even at night his mind does not rest.  This too is vanity.
  1. A person’s success is often exploited by an unworthy successor (21).  How many people have worked all their lives to accumulate a little of this world’s goods, then they leave it to some godless fool of a relative who quickly squanders it all on wine, women, and song.  Or how about the good Christian people today who leave money to so-called Christian organizations, but they have no assurance that the organizations will remain true to the faith.  Think about it.  How many Christian organizations have become apostate and have departed from teaching the Word of God?  We have no guarantees.  We also know that Solomon faced this same kind of problem, and I Kings 12 tells us what happened.  He left the kingdom to his son, and it was his son’s foolish arrogance that resulted in the dividing of the kingdom.  What a tragedy that was!
  2. Success also brings sleepless nights of useless worrying (23).  This reminds me of one of my favorite commercials.  Have you seen this one?  First he takes it out from under his mattress and buries it in the backyard.  Then he digs it up and takes it to the bank and locks it in the vault.  But on his bed he’s worried and can’t sleep so he goes back to the bank, gets his bone and brings it back home and insures it with Traveler’s Insurance.  The background music is a guy singing, “Worry, worry, worry…”

Solomon holds out an alternative based on faith in God (24-26):
24There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good.  This also I have seen that it is from the hand of God.  25For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?  26For to a person who is good in His sight He has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, while to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting so that he may give to one who is good in God’s sight.  This too is vanity and striving after wind.
  1. He says that man’s responsibility is to receive and enjoy life as a gift, coming directly from the hand of God (24).  Moreover, he should remind himself often that God is the Giver of these good things.
  2. Man should trust God for ultimate meaning and live his life as unto Him, rather than for himself.
  3. In verse 26 Solomon clearly divides mankind into two camps: (Group #1) those who are good in God’s sight and have found favor with Him; and (Group #2) sinners, who God has tasked with heaping up good things for group #1.  Then he comments at the end of verse 26 that for them this is just more emptiness and wind-chasing.

            Once again I must remind you that in the Book of Ecclesiastes Solomon is looking at life from the perspective of one who is “under the sun,” i.e. immersed in the world and it’s way of thinking.  It is the view of the man apart from God.  This is not the view of the man in Christ, seated in the heavenly places of Ephesians 2:6.  This view “under the sun” always leads to pessimism and dark thinking.
            Another way to think of this… Ecclesiastes looks at life from the perspective of a carnal Christian, a person who is walking afar off, leaving God out of every equation.  Life sucks, the joy of his salvation is gone, the world looks bleak, and there is no reason for life to go on.
            Or from another angle… We could maybe say that Ecclesiastes looks at life through the eyes of a person who is clinically depressed and off his meds.
            So as Christians, how are we to process all of this?  How much of what Solomon says should we take as Gospel Truth?  Can we hold tightly onto the doctrine of Inspiration and yet disagree with him or are we forced to agree with his findings about life?

            Of the things you’ve seen here today are there points in which you disagree with Solomon?  Why?              Are there things that you agree with him about?  Which ones?

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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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