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Monday, May 23, 2011

"Riches That Do Not Satisfy" - (05/22/11)

Ecclesiastes 6 (Message #6 in Series)
May 22, 2011

            You’ve all heard the old joke about Chinese food—you eat it and three hours later you’re hungry again.   I don’t know where that came from but it’s true!  However, it’s also just as true about Norwegian food, German food, and American food.  That’s because food only satisfies us for a little while, and then we want to eat again.  Don’t blame the Chinese—it’s a human issue!  In fact, nothing in this world satisfies us for very long.
            A guy works extra hours, scrimps and saves, and finally gets enough money together to buy himself a little 12 ft. aluminum fishing boat with a   25-horse Johnson Motor.  He’s out of his mind with happiness for about a year, until one day his buddy buys a 21 ft. Alumacraft Trophy 205 boat with a 130-horse V4 E-Tec Evinrude engine.  Now his little 12 footer looks like chopped liver to him.  He’s no longer satisfied with what he has.  Now he too wants a new boat and feels he’s not going to be truly happy until he gets it.
            Or how about the young woman who uses all her feminine wiles to snag the man of her dreams?  She couldn’t be happier!  He’s everything she ever wanted in a husband.  Then, a few years into the marriage after the new has worn off, she meets a guy at work who lights up her life again.  Before long they are going out to lunch together, taking walks on the beach, and texting one another saying cutesy stuff.  Before long, she starts looking at her hubby and decides he just doesn’t measure up to her standard anymore.  Her family and friends are shocked one day when she announces that she is asking for a divorce because she just isn’t happy.  She says she needs a change.  She’s not satisfied with her marriage and wants more out of life.  Now that she’s met Mr. Wonderful she knows that he will make her truly happy and they will live happily ever after.  Yeah, right!  It will be the same thing all over again.
            Like I said, nothing satisfies humans for very long.  For us, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.  This is also true for people caught up in the rat race of trying to get rich.  They think that great wealth will make them truly happy and will give them that warm, fuzzy feeling of fulfillment that every human is searching for.  Of course, it’s not true.
The Washington Post ran an article a few months ago entitled, In prosperous South Korea, a troubling increase in suicide rate.”  They reported that at about 35 suicides per day, South Korea has the highest suicide rate in the world, including the highest rate of female suicide.  The suicide rate in this prosperous nation of about 50 million people has doubled in the past decade and is now the highest in the industrialized world.  But what is really interesting, before South Korea got rich, wired, and worried, its suicide rate was among the lowest in the industrialized world.  But modernity has spawned inordinate levels of stress.  People there work more, sleep less, and spend more money per capita on cram-schools than residents of the 29 other industrialized countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.  Since the end of the Korean War, South Korea has provided a perfect laboratory to prove once and for all that wealth and the struggle to possess wealth does not, and cannot satisfy the human heart.  The richer people get, the more chance that they will throw themselves out the windows of 25-story high-rise buildings.  I find that very interesting.

            Solomon came to understand that “things” and money can never satisfy a person, at least not for very long.  In the short run things can make us happy but the new wears off pretty quickly.  He learned that lesson for himself.  He had more money and more stuff than all of us put together, yet he was not happy, not satisfied.  Here in the Book of Ecclesiastes he tells us his story and shares his conclusions.  Turn with me to Ecclesiastes chapter 6.

            In the first 9 verses, Solomon observes that one of life’s greatest misfortunes is that a man may have riches and yet not be able to enjoy them, either because of an early death, or because he has not heir, or perhaps because of a spirit of greediness in him, which will never let him be satisfied, no matter how much he possesses.
Verses 1-2: There is an evil which I have seen under the sun and it is prevalent among men--2a man to whom God has given riches and wealth and honor so that his soul lacks nothing of all that he desires; yet God has not empowered him to eat from them, for a foreigner [stranger] enjoys them.  This is vanity and a severe affliction.
  • Solomon claims to have seen this situation often.  That makes sense since he ran with a wealthy crowd.  He knew lots of wealthy people and had occasion to observe them and become privy to their situations.
  • In verse 2 he describes the scenario: the person is rich, having been given wealth and riches by God.  But then, the person ends up not being able to ever lean back and enjoy what he has accumulated for one reason or another.  Something always seems to go wrong.  Maybe he has no heir and thus, in the end, some stranger ends up benefiting from his estate.
  • Solomon affirms that riches to not always spell joy.  One might be rich and yet unable to spend his riches.  It is possible to starve in the midst of plenty—to be starved for love, for affection, for friendship, for companionship, for meaningful conversation, i.e. for the things that money can’t buy.

Likewise, having a large family is not guaranteed to bring joy either.
Verses 3-5: If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, however many they be, but his soul is not satisfied with good things and he does not even have a burial, then I say, “Better the miscarriage than he, 4for it [the stillborn] comes in futility and goes into obscurity; and its name is covered in obscurity.  5It never sees the sun and it never knows anything; it is better off than he. 
  • In verse 3 Solomon talks about the opposite case from the previous verses.  Here he looks at the case of a wealthy man with heirs galore who lives to a ripe old age and yet still is not satisfied.  Again, what good are riches if they can’t satisfy, whether you have kids or not?  Compare a rich man and a poor man: the rich man can still only wear one suit of clothes at a time; he can still only eat three meals a day; he can only drive one car at a time; he can only sleep in one bed at a time, and more importantly, he cannot live longer than the poor man, no matter how many doctors he has, and he takes nothing with him when he leaves.  From the perspective of eternity, what good are his riches?  Not much!
  • It is vain effort to give one’s life to the pursuit of that which does not bring happiness here, and has no value hereafter.  Yet many people spend their lives in this kind of emptiness, forever chasing the illusive butterfly of happiness.
  • Solomon concludes that it would have been better for the person to die in his mother’s womb, a miscarriage, a stillborn child, than to ever see the light of day.  He says that nonexistence would be better than meaningless existence.  He believes that to live badly is worse than to never have lived at all.  Solomon would say that to grow old and ornery is worse than a premature death.
  • In fact, Solomon would say that productivity and longevity without true meaning are a curse.  In verse 3 he pushes his story to the extreme where he says, “…and he does not even have a burial…”  Some versions insert the word “proper” but it is not in the Hebrew original.  I believe that Solomon is saying, “Even if the man could live forever, without dying and being buried, a life without meaning is worthless, no matter how long it goes on.”  He expands this idea in verse 6 to show that long life may actually turn out to be a trial rather than a blessing.
  • This reminds me of Alice Edwards, who at 106 years asked me several times why God was leaving her here for so long after all her family members were already in Heaven.  Her longevity was not a cause for joy to her.

Verse 6: Even if the other man lives a thousand years twice [i.e. 2,000 years] and does not enjoy good things--do not all go to one place [i.e. the grave]?
  • Life is not just about living a long time!  Ramel and I were watching the news recently and heard about a lady living in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil by the name of Maria Gomes Valentim who was born on July 9th, 1896 in Carangola, Minas Gerais, Brazil.  She is almost 115 years old, lacking just a few weeks.  The Guinness World Records people have determined that she is the oldest living human on the planet.  “Vovó Quita”, as she is known to her family and friends, attributes her longevity to a healthy diet, including fresh bread every morning with coffee, fruit, and the occasional milk with linseed oil.  She can still eat on her own, and she admits that she indulges in an occasional glass of wine.  She also still eats spicy food, and she likes to have peppery chicken pie in the afternoon.
  • Big deal!  I believe that it is more important to finish well than to last long.  Is the goal in life just to keep breathing until everybody else you know croaks and you are the last one standing?  I don’t think so!
  • Length of life does not necessarily bring wisdom and virtue.
  • There is an old saying that says, “There is no fool like an old fool.”  To live a long time but be lacking in wisdom, morals, and character is certainly nothing to celebrate.

In the next verses we see that sensual-satisfaction in not soul-satisfaction.  Pleasures that only come from our physical senses are short-lived at best.
Verses 7-9: All a man’s labor is for his mouth and yet the appetite is not satisfied.  8For what advantage does the wise man have over the fool?  What advantage does the poor man have, knowing how to walk before the living?  9What the eyes see is better than what the soul desires.  This too is futility and a striving after wind.
  • A sick soul can never be satisfied with material things and money.
  • Moreover, the soul is not satisfied through the mouth.  There is not a connection between the stomach and the seat of our satisfaction.  In other words, you can’t eat your way to happiness, though lots of Americans try to do just that.  But all the “Biggest Loser” type shows on TV prove that it just ain’t so!
  • I really like the way the New Living Translation renders these verses: All people spend their lives scratching for food, but they never seem to have enough.  8So are wise people really better off than fools?  Do poor people gain anything by being wise and knowing how to act in front of others?  9Enjoy what you have rather than desiring what you don’t have.  Just dreaming about nice things is meaningless—like chasing the wind.”
  • If we would enjoy what we have rather than desiring what we don’t have we would be much better off and much more content.  Covetousness, jealousy, and the constant desire for more rob us of contentment.

In these last three verses, Solomon tries to come to some kind of conclusion.  He reminds us again that in the final analysis God is the one in charge and our ultimate satisfaction in life depends on us making our peace with Him and His plan for us.
Verses 10-12: Whatever exists has already been named, and it is known what man is; for he [man] cannot dispute with Him [God] who is stronger than he is.  11For there are many words which increase futility.  What then is the advantage to a man?  12For who knows what is good for a man during his lifetime, during the few years of his futile life?  He will spend them like a shadow.  For who can tell a man what will be after him under the sun? [Answer = God, and God alone!]
  • In verse 10 Solomon tells us that everything has already been decided. God determined long ago what each person would be so there is no use arguing with Him about your destiny.  For example, it was God’s plan that Solomon should become the King of Israel.  But that does not mean that God caused him to do all the stupid things he did while serving as King.  In the same way, in God’s plan another man has been chosen by God to be poor.  In the play, “Fiddler On the Roof,” Tevya is contemplating this very fact when we hear him talking to God and saying: Dear God, You made many, many poor people.  I realize, of course, that it’s no shame to be poor.  But it’s no great honor either!  So, what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune?”  At that moment he breaks into song singing, “If I were a rich man…” listing all the things he would do if he were a wealthy man.  At the very end of the song he turns his attention to God once again and says: “Lord, who made the lion and the lamb, You decreed I should be what I am.  But would it spoil some vast eternal plan… if I were a wealthy man?”  I think many of us have asked God that same question.
  • In verse 11 Solomon points out that riches and attainments often just serve to increase pride and emptiness.  They are a poor substitute for patience, honor, character, or health.  These things produce far greater satisfaction at the end of life.
  • The idea of verse 12 is that only God knows what awaits us when we die.  No man knows.  For that reason we should fix our eyes on Him and draw near to Him.  Only God knows how the end of our story will play out.

            What can we take away from this passage?  First of all we need to see it in the broader context of the book and of the author’s main message.  Solomon is writing to tell us one single over-arching truth and that is this: Apart from knowing God and doing His will, this life has no meaning.  It is just a big joke, a useless waste of time, a “chasing after wind”, and an exercise in futility.  No matter what heights you might attain in business or politics during your lifetime, no matter how much money you make, no matter how many widgets you manufacture, and no matter how many altruistic philanthropic good-deeds you do—if you do not know God and do not find His will and plan for your life, then in the end you will find that you’ve just been spinning your tires the whole time you’ve been on Planet Earth.  If you don’t know God, it doesn’t matter who else you know.  If you don’t do what God designed you to do, it doesn’t matter whatever else you do—you are a loser!

            That’s what Solomon would say if he were standing here.  Is he right, or is he wrong?  What do you think?

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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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