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ECCLESIASTES: PART TWO

 PRESENTED ON 10-05-13

       In my last sermon we begin to look at the book of Ecclesiastes and we took a look at the man Solomon and how he displayed great wisdom in ruling over Israel.  We determined that while the written narrative of this book my have been set down by someone other than Solomon, the internal evidence from the book itself strongly indicates the words of the book are Solomon’s and indications are it was Solomon who initially wrote down these words

       We looked at Solomon’s frequent use of several key words in his dialog and gave special attention to his use of the Hebrew habel.  As we saw, this word is often translated meaningless or futile in English translations.   We determined this word appears to signify the transitory nature of life and all things associated with the physical realm.  We also saw how Solomon balances his rhetoric about the fleeting nature of the things of this life with many statements about how we should enjoy the things God has given us even though they are very temporary and will pass away.

       Today we will begin a systematic review of Ecclesiastes and see what we can learn from this man that was considered very wise and who had opportunity to experience all that life had to offer.  What lessons can we learn from Ecclesiastes?

       Ecclesiastes 1:1-2: The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:  "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless."

       As discussed in some detail last time, the word translated as “meaningless” here in the NIV is the Hebrew heble.  This word has the basic meaning of breath and is used to describe something that is transitory, fleeting, temporary, and short lived.  The word can also be used to connote nothingness or emptiness.  Some scholars see Solomon using this Hebrew word to signify the transitory, fleeting, temporary and short lived things of this life.  I believe this usage best fits the overall perspective seen in Ecclesiastes and it is this usage I would like us to keep in mind as we move thought this book.

       As mentioned last time, one commentator I read described hebel as being what is left over after a soap bubble bursts.  Life is like a soap bubble.  It appears for an instant and then it is gone.  

       The Message Bible, which is a paraphrase of the Scriptures which many Christians use, renders hebel in Ecclesiastes 1:2: in this manner.

       Smoke, nothing but smoke, there is nothing to anything. All of life is smoke.

       I actually enjoy watching a fire and seeing the smoke curl up into the air and then disappear.  Smoke is very momentary.  It lasts a few seconds and then it is gone.  Life is much like that.  Compared to eternity, our lives and all that we do are just moment in time events.

       Ecclesiastes 1:3-7: What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.   The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course.  All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again. 

       In verse 3, Solomon asks the question: “What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?”  Some translations have it as, “What does man profit.”  Solomon appears to be comparing the seemingly unending flow of events built into the created order with the momentary events created by our toil and labor. 

       Solomon reflects on the fact that what we humans do in our short life times can’t begin to compare with the ongoing flow of events that God has ordained to occur on planet earth.  The earth has always worked in a certain way and seemingly always will.  Generations come and generations go but the earth and our solar system just continues to function as it was designed to function with little if any interruption from us humans.  Our sojourn on this earth is but a drop in the bucket compared to the seemly ageless operation of the physical universe. 

       We find this same perspective about life alluded to in the NT.

       James 4:13-14: Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money."  Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. 

       Like Solomon, James sees life as a vapor.  Remember, when we discussed the Hebrew word translated “meaningless” we saw its basic meaning is breath or wind. Our lives are extremely transitory, much like a breath which occurs for an instant and then is gone.  On a cold day your warm breath will form a mist as it hits the cold air.  That mist lasts a second if that and then it is gone. 

       Solomon asks what gain or profit is there in the toil we put forth.  The Hebrew word translated toil is yithron. It basically means "that which is left over."  That fits pretty well with the soap bubble analogy.  Life is like a soap bubble.  A soap bubble appears and disappears and nothing to speak of is left over.  Another analogy is the fist in the water bucket.  You place your fist in a bucket of water and when you take it out there is no trace of it ever being there..    

       Psalm 39:5-7: You have made my days a mere handbreadth; the span of my years is as nothing before you. Each man's life is but a breath (Hebrew: hebel) Selah.   Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro: He bustles about, but only in vain; he heaps up wealth, not knowing who will get it. "But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.

       Like Solomon, the Psalmist is saying that life is like a breath.  Man is a mere phantom as he goes to and fro.  Both Solomon and the Palmist are speaking comparatively.  Compared to God and God’s creation, our lives and what we do are meaningless.  From this stand point, the rendering of the Hebrew habel as “meaningless” may be appropriate. All our human inventions are meaningless when compared to what God does.  In fact our human inventions are only possible because God has created within man the capacity to do what man does.  Our only real hope is in placing our lives in God’s hand and allowing God to direct our labor while on this earth.  Rather than living for ourselves we need to focus on living for God.

       Ultimately, the only lasting thing relative to this physical life is what we accomplish on behalf of the kingdom of God which Paul told the Roman Christians was all about righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The only thing that really counts in the end is being a disciple of Christ.

       Matthew 16:24-26:  Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.   What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?

       Here Jesus is saying the same thing Solomon came to understand.  We do not gain or profit in any lasting way from our toil under the sun.  It’s what we do for God who resides beyond the sun that has lasting value.  It is what we accomplish relative to following Christ and doing what He taught that will have eternal value.

       Ecclesiastes 1:8: All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing. 

       The longer we live the more that statement rings true.  All indications are that Solomon was old and maybe near the end of life when he uttered the words found in Ecclesiastes. He had pursued about everything there was to pursue. Yet it didn’t really satisfy him.  He was always looking for more to see and hear.  He was never content with what he had.  Contentment is hard to come by if one is never satisfied with what one has and is always looking for more. 

       Some will tell you that not to be satisfied is a good thing because it makes you seek to better yourself and grow.  Now there is truth in this.  We should seek to improve and accomplish personal growth and development.  We should seek to enjoy what God has given us.  However, when the seeking of personal enjoyment becomes our primary focus is when life can become wearisome because we never seem to be able to get enough.  As Solomon said: "The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing."   Apparently for Solomon, there was a constant need to experience something new and as time went on this become quite wearisome to him.  He came to conclude that there was nothing new to discover.

       Ecclesiastes 1:9-10: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, "Look! This is something new"? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.

       In reality, of course, there are many new things under the sun.  Since the time of Solomon there have been multiple thousands of new things that have been discovered and invented that were not in existence in the past.  There is no evidence that the human race ever had computers, cell phones, i-pods or i-pads at any time in our human history until just recently.

       For Solomon, however, there apparently was nothing new to discover or explore in his time.  He had experienced everything that could be experienced and there was nothing more. This apparently frustrated him greatly.  It frustrated him because his focus was on material things.  As we will see as we move though his dialog, Solomon came to realize it was good to enjoy the physical things God has given us but not to have such physical things as our primary focus in life.

       Ecclesiastes 1: 11: There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.

       While this is not totally the case, by and large we do forget about those who have gone before us.  When someone dies there usually is a funeral or a memorial service and a time of morning.  But as time passes we generally get on with our lives and don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the deceased.  Now with a spouse, child or close friend it may take more time but even here memories of the departed begin to fade as time goes on.  If this wasn’t the case, it would be difficult to go on with our lives.  Solomon appears to be simply reflecting on the fact people are born, live their lives, die and life for the living continues to go on.  It’s called the cycle of life. 

       I do a lot of biking along country roads in and around Oconomowoc and in the Wisconsin Dells area.  While biking past wooded areas I often take note of the cycle of life.  You see any number of dead and dying trees and among them you see young trees taking their place.  Life and death is all around us.  It is the created order of things.  Solomon was keenly aware of this and simply was stating the obvious in his dialog.

       Ecclesiastes 1:12-14: I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men!  I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless (habel), a chasing after the wind.

       This passage, when seen with the beginning statement of Ecclesiastes which says, “The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem,” provides internal indication that Solomon was not only the source of the words found in Ecclesiastes but may have also been the writer of these words as well.  As mentioned last time, many scholars feel Ecclesiastes was written by someone other than Solomon.  Yet we see the narrative of this passage begins in the first person where the writer says “I, the teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem.”

       We know that having wisdom was a strong attribute of Solomon’s and we see here that it is by wisdom that the writer says he studied and explored all that is done under heaven.  In reflecting upon this, he says “What a heavy burden God has laid on men!" 

       It is instructive that a foundational attribute of us humans is to want to learn.  While this desire is stronger in some than in others, I have yet to meet anyone that didn’t have some desire to learn.  The whole reason for schooling is to allow us to learn.  From the time we are born we begin to explore what is around us in an effort to learn.  This process continues throughout our life.  I have walked through libraries wishing there was some way I could just absorb the information in every book on every shelf in the library.  I love to collect books and it has resulted in me having a rather extensive personal library in my house.  At times I look at all these books and realize I am not going to live long enough to read them all, especially since I keep adding to my collection.  I actually get a little depressed at times about this realization.

       Many of you remember Dr. Herman Hoeh.  He was one of the first graduates of Ambassador College and a longtime educator at the College.  It is reported that his entire house was one big library.  He had books in every room of the house.  Dr. Hoeh was constantly seeking to have greater knowledge.   

       Solomon apparently had a very strong desire to know everything there is to know.  He came to view the human quest to know as a burden laid upon man by God.  While it is true that God has placed within us the desire to know, this desire to know can become burdensome only if we allow it to be all consuming in our life.  For Solomon this apparently was the case.  It was all consuming.  Solomon appears to have been virtually obsessed with learning and experiencing all there is to experience. 

       In the end, Solomon realized he was going to die and all that he had learned, seen and experienced was going to die with him.  All his seeing and hearing was habel. There’s that Hebrew word again which means breath.  Solomon used the Hebrew word hebel to characterize “all the things that are done under the sun.”  The NIV translates it as “meaningless."  Solomon follows this up by further characterizing “all the things that are done under the sun” as “a chasing after the wind.”  Wind, like hebel, which means breath, is transient.  Solomon sees his quest to experience all things under the sun as very transient. 

       What lesson can we learn from this passage?  Is it useless to learn and experience the things of this life?  Because the things of this life are very transient, are we to avoid learning?   It should be obvious that this is not what Solomon is saying.  God has put within us the desire to learn.  It is God’s will that we take what he has given us and enjoy it.  We will see Solomon saying this very thing as we move through his dialog.  What we learn here is that our desire to learn and experience what God has given us must always be done with the understanding that such things are temporal and therefore must be done within the context of fearing God and keeping his commandments which is what Solomon concludes as seen in chapter twelve.

       Ecclesiastes 1:15: What is twisted cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.

       This statement has proved to be somewhat enigmatic.  Scholars have offered various views on its meaning.  Scholars have analyzed the Hebrew words in this passage but have not come up with anything conclusive as to what it was Solomon meant by this statement.  If we see this statement within the context of Solomon looking at the physical creation and seeing all things cycling as he expresses in verses 4 through 7, it would appear he is here saying that what God has willed to be will be and we can’t do anything about it.  What supports this perspective is that in Ecclesiastes 7:13, he says, “Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked?”   In other words, God is going to do what He is going to do and we humans are not in a position to do anything about it.

       Ecclesiastes 1:16-18: I thought to myself, "Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge." Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.

       Here we see Solomon acknowledging his wisdom and understanding and how he applied himself to experience all there is to experience.  After all was said and done, he acknowledges the futility of it all and how all he accomplished was like chasing after wind. 

       Did you ever try to chase after wind?  Did you every try to catch wind?  It can’t be done. The point Solomon appears to be making here is that after all he did and accomplished, it did not bring him satisfaction.  He never was content.  He always wanted more.  He had this tremendous drive to experience everything possible but in the end it really didn’t satisfy him.   He concludes that “with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”

       There certainly is a measure of truth in this statement.  As we grow in wisdom and knowledge we often discover that what we thought was the truth is not the truth after all and the more such discovery is made the more skeptical we may become.  This can result in a certain amount of sorrow and grief.  The exercise of wisdom and knowledge has led to important discoveries and the facilitation of much good.  It has also led to much evil.  Look how the discovery of fire arms has led to their misuse with the resulting violence and death that such misuse has brought upon the world. 

       It has been said that ignorance is bless.  If you don’t know how to do certain things you won’t suffer the consequences of their misuse.  Ignorance, however, is not the solution to avoiding the negative consequences of misusing wisdom and knowledge.  We can avoid the misuse of wisdom and knowledge by using it within the context of the law of love.  When wisdom and knowledge are use within the context of the Golden Rule, we will not use wisdom and knowledge to harm others but will always use it for the benefit of others. 

       We humans tend to blame things for the problems of life rather than our human misuse of things.  We think that getting rid of things will solve the problem.  Prohibition was passed in 1919 because alcohol was blamed for drunkenness.  Yet it is the misuse of alcohol that causes drunkenness.  Right now there is a big debate about firearms. Yet, here too, it is not the firearms but the misuse of firearms that is responsible for the bloodshed occurring in our nation.   What is lacking is an educational system that teaches morality.  What is lacking is parental guidance within the home where respect for the lives of others must be taught.  What is lacking is the recognition of moral absolutes that God created to govern human behavior. It is because of the lack of applying Godly wisdom and knowledge that we have the many problems we have in human society. 

       Solomon was not down on having wisdom and knowledge. What he was down on was his misuse of wisdom and knowledge.  He used the wisdom and knowledge he had to primarily pursue pleasures of this life and satisfy himself.  In the end he found this to be like chasing after wind.  He found it to be a meaningless pursuit. In his dialog, he gives kudos to wisdom rightly used.  

       Ecclesiastes 7:11-12: Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun. Wisdom is a shelter as money is a shelter, but the advantage of knowledge is this: that wisdom preserves the life of its possessor.

       We are experiencing a great lack of wisdom in our society and throughout much of civilization and as a result many lives are not being preserved.  Solomon says wisdom is a shelter as money is.  How is money a shelter?  Money shelters us from poverty.  It allows us to be self sufficient.  It enables us to meet emergencies. 

       Likewise, wisdom allows us to avoid poverty in so much as it facilitates the wise use of money.  Wisdom and knowledge allows us to be self sufficient in that it leads us to make intelligent vocational and purchasing choices.  Wisdom and knowledge give us the ability to avoid emergencies by steering clear of dangers and being keenly aware of cause and effect.  

       As we move through Ecclesiastes, we will see examples of applied wisdom and knowledge.  Next time we will continue our discussion of Ecclesiastes beginning with chapter two. 

 PART THREE