Ecclesiastes 6: We work to feed our appetites; meanwhile our souls go hungry.
I read somewhere that the average American works 46 hours a week, with a significant number of people working over 50 hours a week. I probably don’t have to convince anyone that life is getting more, and not less, complicated. We Americans even work hard at playing. School sports are demanding enough but many children are involved in leagues beyond school. It’s a rare thing for most families to just be “doing nothing.” And what does this all get us? Frankly, I don’t have the feeling that people are happier and more satisfied in their lives. To me, this lifestyle has a lot in common with running on a treadmill: lots of activity that isn’t really taking us anywhere. Could it be that all of our busy-ness is an attempt to fill emptiness in our souls? There has to be more to life than work and weekends. There has to be a greater purpose than buying a bigger house or seeing that our kids get sports scholarships to good schools. Jesus said it this way: “What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36) This passage reminds us to check our priorities with this in mind.
Take Away: All the activities in the world won’t do for us what a genuine relationship with the Lord will do.
Listening in prayer
Ecclesiastes 5: Don’t be too quick to tell God what you think he wants to hear.
Some folks think God wants to hear us pray in the language of the King James Bible: “Almighty God, Thou Who art from everlasting to everlasting….” To them, prayer is a rather formal event that ought to be filled with plenty of pomp and circumstance. Sometimes, as I’m reminded here, I’m better off to pray without words at all and let God be in charge of what happens next. It does make sense. God is always the “first mover.” After all, the Bible doesn’t start off with “In the beginning man…”! So, rather than coming to prayer in what might be called “automatic mode,” in which every prayer is pretty much a copy of the one before, or with a sense of formality, I want to come to him humbly and honestly; not saying what I think he wants to hear, but in a genuine desire to hear from him. If I let him lead the way my prayer time will be more satisfying to both the Lord and to me. Prayer is just as much a matter of listening as it is a matter of talking.
Take Away: Being still before the Lord is a legitimate approach to prayer.
Friends and family
Ecclesiastes 4: A three-stranded rope isn’t easily snapped.
There’s power in relationships. I’ve heard it said that some people are “married to their jobs.” That is, their work is the most important thing in their life and because of that the most important relationship in their life has suffered. The writer reminds those with type “A” personalities that relationships are what make life worth living. A person who gives everything up to climb the cooperate ladder is chasing after smoke, wasting their life. Accomplishments are worthwhile only when there’s someone with whom to share them. Also, family and friends help us get up again after life has knocked us down. There’s more to life than work, position, and financial rewards. In fact, these potential blessings can become a curse if they dominate our lives. Our most valuable possessions are our relationships. The greatest mistake a person can make is to neglect and lose the real “gold” of life for some job or due to an unhealthy devotion to the ladder of success.
Take Away: Our most valuable possessions are our relationships
Life after death
Ecclesiastes 3: Who knows if there’s anything else to life?
One of the concerns of Solomon as he seeks meaning is what happens when life is finished. As far as he can tell animals and humans are pretty much alike; made of flesh, breathing the same air, and, upon death returning to the dust. It may be, he theorizes, that the human spirit survives death, but he really doesn’t have any proof of that. His conclusion is that since there’s uncertainty on this topic that a person ought to live life to the fullest right now because there may be no tomorrow. One thing we need to remember as we read Ecclesiastes is that we’re following Solomon on his quest for truth. He’s telling us his “in process” conclusions. To pick out a line here and there and state it as though this is Solomon’s final verdict is unfair to him. In the first part of the book he explains what he’s doing and we ought to remember that as we read his words. Another thing to remember is that he speaks from a purely Old Testament perspective. It isn’t until the first Easter and the understanding of life after death that develops from it that we have, as Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story.” In these words of Solomon we have the opinion of the secular humanist. When Jesus tells us that those who believe in him will never die we have the authority of the Son of God. The answer to Solomon’s “who knows” is this: “Jesus knows.” For someone who doesn’t have faith in Jesus to arrive at the same conclusion as Solomon is perfectly reasonable. As a believer in Jesus, though, I have the answer: “My Lord knows and he has told me that there is life after life.”
Take Away: The only real authority on the subject has told us that there is life after death, and that how we live now has a direct bearing on what that after-life will be like.
Ecclesiastes 3: God made everything beautiful in itself and in its time — but he’s left us in the dark.
One of the famous parts of Ecclesiastes is his “a time to plant and another to reap” section in which he lists all the opposites of life and decides they all have their proper place. The writer is impressed by all God has done in the world, but frustrated that he can’t understand the meaning of it all. I played golf with a fellow who had a long pre-shot routine that he went through every time he hit the ball. He shuffled his feet a specific way, waggled the club for what seemed to be an eternity, and then stood frozen over the ball before finally hitting his horrible slice. I wanted to shout out, “Just hit the ball!” No doubt, he needed some golfing lessons, but even I could see that he was over-thinking his golf swing. He had himself tied up in knots and it created, not an athletic, fluid golf shot, but a poor shot and a frustrated golfer. Solomon is frustrated that, after all his thinking and considering, he can’t understand all God does. He decides that “there’s nothing better to do than go ahead and have a good time and get the most we can out of life.” That isn’t a ticket to living an immoral, God-ignoring life, but it’s a reminder that life is a gift of God and if we over-think it we, like my golfer friend, will spend way too much time out in the weeds rather than enjoying the beauty that has been freely given to us.
Take Away: Life is a gift meant to be enjoyed.
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.