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Monday, April 4, 2011

"The Cycles of Life" - (04/03/11)

Ecclesiastes 3 (Message #3 in Ecclesiastes Series)
April 3, 2011

Folk-singer, Pete Seeger, wrote a new song in 1959 though he waited until 1962 to record his own version of it, releasing the song on his “The Bitter and the Sweet” album on Columbia Records.  45% of the royalties for the song are donated to an organization called the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, because, in Seeger’s own words, “[in addition to the music] I did write six words” [The last six, those being, “…I swear it’s not too late.”].  The song became an international hit in late 1965, when it was released by The Byrds, reaching #1 on the Billboard Magazine’s Hot 100 Chart, and #26 on the UK Singles Chart.  Thus, the song easily holds the record as the #1 song with the oldest lyrics.  That’s because Seeger lifted nearly all the lyrics straight out of the Bible, from Ecclesiastes chapter 3.
Here’s a blast from past for you music lovers.  This is The Byrds singing on the Ed Sullivan Show on December 12th, 1965.

Seeger managed to turn the song into an antiwar song by focusing on the word “peace.”  But is that what the passage is really about?  Is that what Solomon had in mind when he penned these words?  Let’s look into the text to see.  Please turn to Ecclesiastes chapter 3.  [Lead in a prayer]

I have already explained to you that this book, though written by Solomon, a man who had started out well, was written toward the end of his life after he had totally gone off the rails, leaving God behind and living life on his own terms, according to his own rules.  He is no longer the idealistic young ruler we meet in the Song of Solomon and the Book of Proverbs.  Rather, he is an old man who has grown bitter and cynical.  His viewpoint is jaded.  He is a frustrated old man with very little positive to say to us.
For this reason many have questioned over the years why God has seen fit to include this troubling book in the Canon of Scripture.  In fact, some like Martin Luther have gone so far as to say that it should not even be in our Bibles.  They think that it is unchristian and doesn’t fit with the rest of the Scriptures.  However, I believe they are missing the whole point.
Ecclesiastes is about life from the perspective of one who has done it all wrong.  It stands as a monument to where you will come out if you leave God out of your life.  It describes life “under the sun,” a phrase used 34 times to describe this present human existence cut off from eternal values and realities.  It shows where you will end up if you leave God and heaven’s values out of your life’s equation.  You too, just like Solomon, will end up dry, disappointed, depressed, and disillusioned.

1. Life is perpetually changing and recycling [“…turn, turn, turn”]. (1-10)
1There is an appointed time [a season = an appointed period] for everything.  And there is a time [= a predetermined occurrence] for every event under heaven2A time to give birth and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted.  3A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to tear down and a time to build up.  4A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance.  5A time to throw stones [childhood] and a time to gather stones [to build a house]; a time to embrace and a time to shun embracing.  6A time to search and a time to give up as lost; a time to keep and a time to throw away.  7A time to tear apart [in grief] and a time to sew together; a time to be silent and a time to speak.  8A time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.
  1. Solomon is pointing out here that everything in nature and in human activity, is part of a determined cycle, a set scheme, with a correct season and a correct time. 
  2. Fourteen contrasts are related.  All are common activities know to all of us.  These describe our life “under the sun.”

Verses 9-10:
9What profit is there to the worker from that in which he toils?  10I have seen the task [burdensome work] which God has given the sons of men [i.e. humankind] with which to occupy themselves.
  1. In verses 9-10, after looking at all these human activities that he listed in verses 1-8, Solomon says that nothing seems to last in these vicious cycles. Although a man yearns for something more, he can do nothing about it.  He must be content to get what little happiness he can while he’s on this endless merry-go-round called “life”.
  2. But is that God’s perspective?  Does that fit with the rest of Scripture?  Jesus said in John 10:10, “I came that you might have life, and might have it abundantly.”  Does it sound like Solomon was enjoying “abundant life” from God?  Why not?  What was he missing?

2. The ultimate purposes of God are past finding out. (11)
11He has made everything beautiful [NASB “appropriate”] in its time.  He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.
  1. All of God’s creation is beautiful to Him (cf. Gen. 1:31, “very good”).  From His perspective there is no ugliness in the daily events of our lives.  In His time He will change even our brokenness into a thing of beauty.
  2. “He has also set eternity in their heart…” Try as he will, man can discern the ages but not the eternal purposes of God.  I believe this phrase refers to the deep-seated desire in all of us humans to transcend our mortality by knowing our Creator and the meaning and destiny of the world.  Because we were made in the image and likeness of God we have an inborn curiosity about eternal things.  That is why people make up their own religions, to try and finds satisfying answers to life’s perplexing questions (like Guy Noir on PHC).  But the way God has wired us up we can only find real peace when we come to know our Maker in a personal way.  Of course, even then, according to Paul in I Cor. 13:12 “we know God only in part.”  His having “set eternity in our hearts” also means we are never going to be completely satisfied with earthly pleasures and pursuits.  Because we are created in God’s image, we have a spiritual thirst.  We have eternal value and nothing but the eternal God can satisfy us.  The Life-Application Study Bible has a helpful comment about this verse: “He has built in us a restless yearning for the kind of perfect world that can only be found in a perfect rule.  He has given us a glimpse of the perfection of His creation.  But it is only a glimpse; we cannot see into the future or comprehend every thing.  So we must trust Him now and do His work on earth.”
  3. “…so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.”  All we see of our own existence represents a mere nanosecond compared to eternity.  That’s why the Scriptures call us to live in faith during this short lifetime of pain and sorrow, in the full confidence that God will make everything beautiful in His time.

3. Solomon’s reach of faith. (12-15)
12I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime; 13moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor—it is the gift of God.  14I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him.  15That which is has been already and that which will be has already been, for God seeks what has passed by. 
  1. Man’s responsibility is to receive and enjoy this life as a gift from God.  For a person who really knows God, life is not boring, monotonous, tepid, or dreary.  Biblical faith is a call to joy, even in the midst of this wicked world, because the only true joy is to be found in knowing the living God.
  2. In contrast to man’s work, God’s work will endure (14).  Men build big, beautiful buildings but sooner or later they all fall apart.  TV loves to do those programs about what the earth would be like without humans, in 50 or 100 years.  Nature takes over again.  Man’s footprint gets wiped out.  But what God does lasts.  He doesn’t make cheap junk!  His stuff holds up against the ravages of time.  “His love endures.  His mercies are everlasting.  His faithfulness is to all generations.”  Heaven is forever.
  3. Also in verse 14, “…God has so worked that men should fear Him.”  What does that mean?  What kind of God just wants his creatures to be afraid of him?  Of course, this is not the same fear we have of monsters, huge Ferris Wheels, and scary movies.  It means to revere Him and hold Him in awe.  It means to respect and appreciate Him for who and what He really is.  Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom.”  That just means, when we begin to know Him for who He really is and to give Him His just honor we are beginning to show signs of genuine good sense and real wisdom.  For a human being to ignore, revile, or rebel against his Creator is the very definition of “stupid.”  A wise person will want to know the One who made him.
15That which is has been already and that which will be has already been, for God seeks what has passed by.
  1. Verse 15 is sort of a “head-scratcher.”  What is Solomon saying?  The first part seems pretty clear.  The past, present, and future are really all the same thing, at least to God.  But the picture here seems to be that of God continually pursuing the things that have already passed in order to capture them and cause them to happen again—that old recurring cycle thing. 

4. The need to see injustice in light of God’s Day of Judgment. (16-17)
16Furthermore, I have seen under the sun that in the place of justice there is wickedness and in the place of righteousness there is wickedness.  17I said to myself, “God will judge both the righteous man and the wicked man,” for a time for every matter and for every deed is there. 
  1. Solomon reminds us that God will one day settle all accounts.  Present injustices will not go unanswered.  He points out that in this life “under the sun” injustice often takes the place of justice and wickedness reigns where we should be able to expect righteousness.
  2. But one day, God will even up the score.  Righteousness will be rewarded and wickedness will be judged.  The Bible says, Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap (Galatians 6:7).  God always has the last word and the last laugh.

5. The apparent finality of death. (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 other things 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 Psalm 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 just 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 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.

6. Solomon’s conclusion. (22)
22I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot [KJV “his heritage”].  For who will bring him to see what will occur after him?
a.       Solomon concludes that man’s responsibility is to rejoice in life and trust God (22).  He seems to say that it is futile to speculate on the future where God is silent.  Our job is to take care of business here and now.  God’s job is to take care of our future.
b.      Sometimes we forget who we are.  We are the creature, He is the Creator.  We are the clay, He is the Potter.  We are the sheep, He is the Shepherd.  I could go on and on.  The Westminster Confession asks: “What is the chief end of man?”  The answer?  “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”  If you try to substitute anything for Him you will end up as screwed-up as Solomon did.

            How can we sum up this chapter?  Once again I remind you that just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t mean that it’s all true.  By that, I mean that just because it’s here doesn’t automatically imply that it is God’s viewpoint, only that it is an accurate and well-preserved account of Solomon’s thoughts and words.  To verify its truth we have to compare it to other passages where God speaks clearly and shares with us His perspective.  He is always right.  He is always true.  And His analysis is always accurate.
            That said, I believe that Solomon is wrong about several things:
(1) Life is not an endless miserable cycle of doing the same lousy things year after year, day after day.  God wants us to enjoy life and to enjoy Him during this life and forever after.
(2) Man is not like the beast, which dies and then rots in the ground.  Man is an eternal being who will consciously spend eternity in either Heaven or hell.  God does not test us with pain and misery to remind us that we are just beasts.  That is a twisted, cynical view from a seriously depressed person.
(3) We can know absolutely what will happen to us when we die.  We don’t have to wonder if our spirit will go up or down.  In II Corinthians 5:8 we learn that, “…to be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord.  And in I John 5:11-13 the Word of God says, God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.  12He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life.  13These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. 
            What particularly stands out to you from this chapter?  What will you take away from this text?

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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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