My Sunday sermons given at Sellwood Baptist Church in Portland, OR, for those who missed church or just want to see what we're up to. You can also listen to these sermons if you prefer. Just go to our church website and click the "Online Church" tab. Here's the link:

Monday, April 11, 2011

"Better Off Dead?" - (04/10/11)

Ecclesiastes 4 (Message #4 in Ecclesiastes Series)
April 10, 2011

            One of my favorite country singers is Mac Davis.  He’s written lots of great songs, many of them recorded by other more famous artists.  You may remember his #1 country hit, “Watchin’ Scotty Grow,” which was about his own son, Scott Davis.  Or you may remember his hit song, “In the Ghetto,” which was recorded by Elvis Presley and a few other singers.  But this morning I want to play another Mac Davis song that I think could be used as a soundtrack if anyone ever decides to do a movie version of the Book of Ecclesiastes.  It’s called, “Life Is Hard.” [Play the song.]
            This song more or less sums up the philosophy of Solomon for much of his life.  The Book of Ecclesiastes is in our Bibles because it shows how messed up a person can get if they try to live life without God in the equation.  Solomon had everything a human could want—power, money, fame, honor, women, gadgets, property, mansions, servants, etc.  However, for much of his adult life he chose to go his own rebellious, independent way and he ended up driving the bus into the ditch.  Finally, near the end of his life, after he had come back to God and had gotten straightened out, he wrote the Book of Ecclesiastes.  Its purpose is to show the utter hopelessness and emptiness of human existence unless God is given His rightful place on the throne of our lives.
            Ecclesiastes is an autobiography.  In it Solomon gets honest with himself and with us.  One of the things that make the book amazing is the fact that Solomon would be so candid in telling us how screwed up his perspective was, and for so long.  But the book is not unique in that sense.  Jonah wrote the Book of Jonah, and in it he tells us very honestly about his D.R.A. (Dirty Rotten Attitude) toward the people of Nineveh.  He wanted God to zap them and kill every man, woman, and child.  Moreover, he got mad at God when He refused to slaughter them.  And a second example: Moses wrote the Pentateuch in which he reveals a lot of rotten and embarrassing facts about himself.  Solomon does the same thing in Ecclesiastes.
            Last Sunday we looked at Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes in which Solomon laments about how death overtakes everyone, both man and beast.  However, I ran out of time and we didn’t finish.  So before we move on into chapter 4, I want us to take a minute to look at what Solomon says about death in 3:18-21. 
18I said to myself concerning the sons of men, “God has surely tested them in order for them to see that they are but beasts.”  19For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same.  As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity.  20All go to the same place [i.e. the ground].  All came from the dust and all return to the dust.    
a.       Here in verses 18-20 Solomon shares some observations about death, but like a lot of subjects here he sees the glass as half empty rather than half full.  For example, in verse 18 he says that God “tests” men just to prove to them that they are no better than beasts.  But is that true?  His father, David, certainly didn’t agree.  He wrote in Ps. 8:4-9, What is man that You take thought of him, and the son of man that You care for him?  5Yet You have made him a little lower than God, and You crown him with glory and majesty!  6You make him to rule over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet, 7all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, whatever passes through the paths of the seas.  9O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is Your name in all the earth!”  
b.      I would point out that just viewing the death of the body is quite deceiving.  But I can tell you there is a big difference between holding a beloved pet in your arms while it dies, and holding a human being when they slip from this life into eternity.  I’ve done both, several times, and they are two very different experiences.  But Solomon is looking at death merely from a physical standpoint—the cessation of bodily functions leading to death, burial, and eventual total decomposition in the ground.  However, he’s not taking into account what happens to a human at the moment of death.  Our soul does not die.  Our spirit does not cease to exist.  That’s because we were made in the “likeness and image of God” and like God, we are eternal beings.
21Who knows that [i.e. whether] the breath [ruach, spirit] of man ascends upward and the breath [ruach, spirit] of the beast descends downward to the earth?
c.       In verse 21 Solomon expressed his doubts about whether man is an eternal soul, any different from a cow, a gorilla, or a wildebeest.  That is seriously messed up.  How depressed does a believer have to get to start talking “crazy talk”?  But Solomon was not looking at life through the eyes of God’s revelation.  Instead, he was trying to figure things out on his own.

Now, moving on into Chapter 4, Solomon looks at four perplexing problems that lead him to question whether life is worth the living.
·         Verses 1-3 = The Problem of Oppression
·         Verses 4-6 = The Uselessness of Toil
·         Verses 7-12 = The Sorrow of Friendlessness
·         Verses 13-16 = The Meaninglessness of Political Success

The Problem of Oppression
1Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed—and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors—and they have no comforter. 
2And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. 
3But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.  [New Living Translation]
a.       All through history the poor have been victims of oppression.  They have no political capital, no power, and no leverage.  But sadder still, Solomon observes that they have no comforter.  That is sad to hear coming from him because God has always taken up the cause of the poor and needy and He has always been ready to comfort any who will turn to Him.
b.      In verse 2 Solomon says that because of this oppression and the fact that there is no comforter, people are really better off dead.
c.       In verse 3 he takes it a step further and says that the luckiest of all are those who have never been born.  I have actually heard people say that.  A few years ago I was called to the mental hospital that was located here in Sellwood to try and talk some sense into a man who had tried several times to commit suicide.  He told me that very thing several times—“I’m better off dead.  In fact, it would have been better if I had never even been born.”  It seems that in his deep depression and disappointment with life Solomon came to the same conclusion.
d.      But is that God’s perspective?  Is it the truth?  Of course not.  We are each one a unique being, created in the likeness and image of God.  The Imago Dei is stamped on our very soul, and God knows each of us by name, and loves us dearly.  That’s the Gospel truth!

The Uselessness of Toil
4And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another.  This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.  5Fools fold their hands and ruin themselves. 
6Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.
a.       In verse 4 Solomon reveals a rather jaded view of hard labor.  He seems to think that it’s all about one-upping the neighbors.  But is that the only reason people work hard, to make their neighbors jealous?  I don’t think so.  Besides, I don’t think Solomon knew anything about hard work.  I doubt he ever put in a day’s work in his life.  He was a prince, raised in the palace.  He never got his hands dirty as far as we know.
b.      In verse 5 he takes aim at lazy people and says literally, that they consume their own flesh.  He’s not talking about cannibalism, of course.  This is a metaphor implying starvation (cf. Amos 4:6).  The person who won’t work uses up all his substance until he has nothing left but his own flesh upon which to feed.  He’s not willing to work to protect or provide for himself.  He wants somebody else to do it.  How interesting!  We have created a whole segment of our society that feels just like this.  They feel entitled to everything, but are not willing to work for anything. 
c.       On the other hand, in verse 6 Solomon seems to say that overworking is just and stupid.  Work brings some reward, but too much work, or a total preoccupation with work can destroy a person’s life too.  He concludes that it is better to have only a handful of money when it’s gained with a tranquil mind, than to have lots of money gained through worrisome toil.  I think most of us would agree.
The Sorrow of Friendlessness
7 Again I saw something meaningless under the sun: 8There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. 
There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. 
“For whom am I toiling,” he asked, “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?” 
This too is meaningless—a miserable business!  9Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: 10If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. 
But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. 
11Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.  But how can one keep warm alone? 
12Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. 
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
a.       Solomon starts out by telling a story about a man who was all alone, without siblings and without children of his own.  He worked very hard, yet grew disheartened when he observed that he had no one to pass it on to.  He began to question why he was putting out such effort for something he would not live to enjoy and had no one to give it too.  Solomon concluded that this kind of toil was empty and meaningless.
b.      Much wealth often turns men into misers.  When this happens they sometimes begin to isolate themselves out of fear that people will try to get their loot.  A lot of rich people are actually very lonely.
c.       This leads Solomon to talk about the importance of companionship.  A friend with you in business will double your profit.  A friend will help you up if you fall down.  A friend will keep you warm and keep you from freezing to death.  A friend will have your back when you are threatened by muggers.  That’s why we swim with the “buddy system.”  That’s why we partner up on hikes.  Woe to the person who does not have a friend.  And I believe that Solomon was just such a man.  Who was his good friend?  David had Jonathan, but who did Solomon have?  No one that we know of.  I believe that he was a very lonely man.  Kings often are.
d.      He makes a statement about a three-stranded cord.  A single strand rope can be easily broken, but if you braid three strands together their product will be stronger than the sum of their individual contributions.  I have often used this verse to describe Christian marriage, which is a union of three, not two, as most people believe.  Christian marriage only works when we invite God to be the third Person in the marriage.  Human math says 1+1+1=3, but God’s math says, 1+1+1 may equal 10 or more!

The Meaninglessness of Popularity or Political Success
13Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to heed a warning.  14The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom.  15I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor.  16There was no end to all the people who were before them.  But those who came later were not pleased with the successor.  This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
a.       In these verses Solomon gives a hypothetical example of what sometimes happens in the rise of a man from poverty to the throne.  He says that a king who will no more allow himself to be admonished or to be given advice, was actually better off when he was just a poor kid.  Then, at least, he was open to learning, but now his years as a high-and-mighty have blinded him to his own weaknesses and his need to seek wise counsel from others.
b.      The point that he seems to be making in verses 15-16 is that no matter how high you rise on the scale of popularity, power, and fame, eventually others will come along and eclipse you.  You will one day be forgotten, just like the Roman Caesars.  We might recognize the names of one or two of them but we have no idea who they really were or what they accomplished.  Today’s hero may become tomorrow’s beggar.
c.       Solomon concludes that chasing after popularity or political success is a fool’s errand and “meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”  That must have been a very sad realization for him.

            So what is the end of the matter?  In 4:1 Solomon speaks about those who have no comforter.  In 4:8 he talks about those who have no family, no heir, to whom they can leave all for which they have worked so hard.  In 4:4-6 he addresses those who have no rest.  In 4:10 he talks about those who have no friend.
            It strikes me that these were not just hypotheticals for Solomon, but were part of his own experience.  When he was out there living for himself and for the pleasures he could buy, he ended up being friendless, restless, and comfortless.  He had kids but they were all “stinkers” from the get-go.  In fact, after Solomon’s death his son, Rehoboam, ended up destroying Solomon’s kingdom, splitting it down the middle.

            Can you relate to being friendless, family-less, restless, or comfortless?  How has God filled in the gaps for you?  How has He made a difference in that area of your life?

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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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