Experimenting on oneself
Ecclesiastes 2: I said to myself, “Let’s go for it — experiment with pleasure, have a good time.”
One of the experiments of Solomon is to see if pleasure produces lasting happiness. As a powerful king he has all the resources necessary for this experiment. He builds exquisite palaces and gardens, acquires an army of servants, amasses enormous wealth, and fills his life with beautiful women. He reports, “Everything I wanted I took.” Many people at least attempt this approach to happiness, although few have the resources to pull it off. Because of that, they remain convinced that just a little more of this or that will do the trick. They think that once they arrive at that point they’ll be truly satisfied. Solomon, though, does have it all. Not only that, he goes into this experiment with his eyes wide open. His verdict? Solomon says it’s all like collecting smoke. He’s left empty and even dejected. He says he worked hard at making it all happen, expecting to arrive at a place of personal happiness and satisfaction. “Surely,” he thought to himself, “just one more palace, just another million dollars, just the right woman and everything will come together.” However, he ends up thinking it’s all a waste of time. In spite of this ancient verdict of Solomon, we still tend to believe the big lie that not only is pleasure the answer, but that it’s all there really is to life. It’s no wonder that “taking up the cross” is such a foreign language to us.
Take Away: Happiness isn’t found in possessions. It can only be found by the way of the cross.
Searching for answers to the big questions of life
Ecclesiastes 1: These are the words of the Quester, David’s son and king in Jerusalem.
The Greek word “Ecclesiastes” is generally translated “the Preacher” or “the Teacher.” The name of this book of the Bible is taken from the opening words in which the writer, Solomon, gives himself that title. The book is about Solomon’s quest for meaning, how he tries many of the things people still try today, and how he concludes that none of them live up to their promise. In The Message, Peterson picks up on the “quest” of Solomon and calls him, “the Quester” rather than “the Preacher.” In other words, the emphasis is on the search for meaning, happiness, and satisfaction rather than on the proclamation of the result of that search. Solomon wants more than power, wealth, fame, peace, and success. Having tried them all, he’s convinced that they’re not all they’re cracked up to be. Actually, Ecclesiastes doesn’t try very hard to give us “the answer” but it does a good job of asking “the question” concerning the search for answers to the big questions of life.
Take Away: Like the writer of Ecclesiastes people today still search for meaning.
When all is said and done…
Ecclesiastes 12: Fear God. Do what he tells you. And that’s it.
The book of Ecclesiastes is about a wise man’s search for meaning. That search takes on a pessimistic flavor as he tries one thing and then another, concluding that it’s all just “smoke” that quickly vanishes. As he nears his conclusion he says that life passes quickly as the body begins to wear out. In other words, life, in general, is just so much smoke. Obviously, this book is not a Gospel. It doesn’t conclude with a resurrection and words of hope. Instead, it simply winds down with the big questions left pretty much unanswered. Well, kind of. When Solomon has considered everything from constructing impressive buildings to collecting words of wisdom, from living a pleasure-focused life to making the most of one’s youth he concludes that it’s all smoke. Basically he says that everything that people think brings meaning to life can be dismissed as failing to live up to expectations. Now, in his final words, he concludes that meaning must come from outside of all that. The book of Genesis starts with “In the beginning, God….” This book of Ecclesiastes concludes with “In the end, God….” Meaning to life only comes through the Creator of life. Really, Solomon has done the best he can do at this point in history. There’s more, in fact a whole lot more, but we have to turn ahead in time to those Gospels I mentioned for that part of the story.
Take Away: Meaning to life only comes through the Creator of life.
Delight in the light
Ecclesiastes 11: Even if you live a long time, don’t take a single day for granted.
A light reading of Ecclesiastes (if such a thing is really possible) leaves me with the feeling that the writer is a hardened pessimist who’s concluded that everything is “vanity.” While there are plenty of statements about how worthless things are, there’s also a positive, yet realistic theme here. He advises me to cherish every day. Some days, he says, are going to be dark, but there’s also plenty of light and I’m to “delight in the light.” I don’t want to be one of those people who only focuses on all that is going (or can go) wrong. God has blessed me with so much! I don’t want to take any of it for granted. True to form, the wise man adds, “most of what comes your way is smoke.” That is, most things in life are temporary, and a high percentage of those things aren’t all that important anyway. On one hand then, I don’t want to get so focused on the problems of life that I lose sight of the blessings. Those problems are pretty much “smoke” anyway and are temporary. On the other hand, I want to appreciate the little blessings while I have them. They too are smoke and will be gone before I know it and I don’t want to take them for granted.
Take Away: Cherish every day.
Watching the wind
Ecclesiastes 11: Don’t sit there watching the wind, Do your own work.
The wise man of Ecclesiastes says that when the clouds are so full of water that they can’t hold it anymore that it rains. When the wind is strong enough to blow down a tree, well, down it comes. In other words, things happen when they’re ready to happen. Sitting around waiting on them is a waste of time; time that could be spent doing something worthwhile. We spend a lot of time dreaming about things happening that will only happen when the time is right. Meanwhile, there’s living to do. The farmer might hope for rain, but he isn’t to sit out in the field watching the sky, instead he gets on with the work he can do right now. There’s nothing wrong with looking forward to some future blessing and even taking a quick look to the horizon to see if it’s in sight yet. However, our lives aren’t to come to a stop while we wait. The issue isn’t “what’s God going to do?” Rather it’s, “what’s God doing right now and how can I work with him in doing it?” Staring at the clouds is a waste of time; we need to “get on with…life.”
Take Away: Don’t live your life waiting for something to happen – instead, connect with what’s happening right now.
Return on investment
Ecclesiastes 11: Be generous: Invest in acts of charity. Charity yields high returns.
The Lord is wonderfully generous to us. He’s given us the world and all its beauty and life itself. His greatest gift to us is salvation. This gift cost him everything as is seen at the cross. This is God’s investment in us and his charity toward us. Solomon says “charity yields high returns.” God gave everything and he has every right to expect big returns on his investment. What is the return he expects? He expects human beings to respond to his great act of charity by giving their hearts to him in loving devotion. From the very beginning God has desired willing fellowship from us. That relationship is so valuable to the Lord that he gave everything (invested everything) that that relationship might be restored. It’s my positive response to that sacrifice; my responding in love and thanksgiving, and my walking in continued fellowship with the Lord that he considers to be a “high return.”
Take Away: Am I giving the Lord a “high return” on his investment in me?
Good theology from Johnny Cash
Ecclesiastes 10: Dead flies in perfume make it stink, and a little foolishness decomposes much wisdom.
The “dead flies” line always struck me as funny, especially when I first read it as a teen. At that time I didn’t take time to try to understand the meaning of it so I just smiled and moved on. A person can say and do a lot of wise things in their life, but one blunder can pretty much ruin it all. I’ve seen that happen with presidents and pastors; with CEO’s and secretaries. When my son got his first driver’s license I commented to him that many drivers only make one mistake in their lives, and it’s their last. Car wrecks can be unforgiving. It’s true of other life situations too. A man can be a good husband and father for 30 years and then get involved with someone for a brief fling that ruins all those years of faithfulness. While I’m a big believer in second chances and grace I also know that a few “dead flies” can ruin a lot of godly living. Johnny Cash wasn’t singing a hymn when he sang, “I keep a close watch on this heart of mine…because you’re mine I walk the line” but his words do apply in that sense. I don’t want a few “dead flies” to ruin a lifetime of faithfulness.
Take Away: Watch out for “dead flies” in your life.
God, enjoying life with me
Ecclesiastes 9: God takes pleasure in your pleasure!
I know that a common view of God is that he’s against our enjoying life and that his favorite word is “no!” That is very mistaken. It’s true that God has a lot of “no’s” for us. Then again, a loving father has a lot of “no’s” for his children too. When his toddler picks something up off the floor and is about to put it in his mouth his mom and dad say, in chorus: “No!” Their desire is not to ruin his life, but to protect him from something that might be downright hazardous to his health. Even so, the Lord has some prohibitions for us and every one of them is for our benefit. The other side of the coin is wonderfully positive. When I enjoy some new discovery, or take pleasure in one of God’s many gifts to me; when I laugh out loud as one of my precious grandchildren comes up with a terrific one liner — at that moment God laughs with me. The writer of Ecclesiastes struggles with the meaning of life and is trying to understand just what it is that will bring real satisfaction. However, he has this one just right: “God takes pleasure in your pleasure!”
Take Away: All the joys of life come from our Heavenly Father who takes pleasure in our pleasure.
Good people and good things
Ecclesiastes 8: I’m still convinced that the good life is reserved for the person who fears God…and that the evil person will not experience the “good” life.
The conventional wisdom of Solomon’s day (and it is often still conventional wisdom today) is that bad people have bad things happen to them and good people have good things happen to them. In his wisdom Solomon sees considerable evidence that this approach isn’t true. He sees wicked people live pretty nice lives and he even attends some funerals in which it appears that the person “got away with it” — living an evil life yet having everything a person could ask for right to the very end. He has plenty of evidence that the common belief of “bad gets bad and good gets good” doesn’t really work. Still, though, he can’t quite give up on it. While he can’t prove that it’s true, he can’t shake the belief that there’s some truth in this philosophy. He reports, “I’m still convinced….” Today, I think Solomon is right to hang on to this belief. It doesn’t play out as he thought it would but I agree with him that serving God has great advantages. It isn’t that those who trust God have more money and better health but in the intangibles of life there are riches for God’s people. There’s wealth in going to sleep at night knowing that no matter what tomorrow brings things will be okay. There’s wealth in being at peace with God and there’s wealth in knowing one is a child of the King. I believe the conventional wisdom is both right and wrong. It’s right in its belief that good things happen to good people. It’s wrong in having such a narrow and material view of just what those good things are.
Take Away: In the intangibles of life there are riches for God’s people.
Trying to lock up the wind
Ecclesiastes 8: No one can control the wind or lock it in a box…as long as men and women have the power to hurt each other, this is the way it is.
I’m not sure that the writer intends for me to associate these two statements but they tie together for me. I’ve seen people make bad choices. If I ask them about it, they’ll most often have someone or something to blame for what they’re doing. I’m not saying that everyone else is always innocent in some of these things but the bottom line is that people pretty much do what they want to do. Sadly, even when I see what’s going on I can’t force people to do the right thing. As Ecclesiastes says, “no one can control the wind.” Well, neither can one control the hearts of others. The very fact that I love people, encourage them, and help them through their darkest hour means that I also give them the power to hurt me. At some level I have to just let things go and protect my own heart. As the writer says, “This is the way it is.” When I’ve done all I’ve been allowed to do, and when my heart has been broken, I come to the place where I have to let go and entrust those I “can’t control” to the hands of a gracious God. He’s able to work through issues if he’s given an opportunity, even after I’ve been removed from the situation.
Take Away: Sometimes we just have to walk away knowing that the more we try to help the worse we’re making things. Happily, the Lord never has to just walk away.