(January 1999 – Volume 5, Issue 1)
A Glimpse into the Book of Ecclesiastes
No book in the Bible goes deeper in exploring the meaning and purpose of everyday life than the book of Ecclesiastes. There you will find no pious cliches about the ease and simplicity of living. Nor will those who are struggling with questions and perplexities be told that they are living in sin. Rather, Ecclesiastes, like Psalms, encourages careful and honest evaluation of our existence “under the sun.” That kind of evaluation may very well cause us to feel frustrated and disappointed with many things but will ultimately lead us to the only Source of true life.
One of the great questions of all time is, “What is life all about?” Does life really have a purpose, or must we be content to just live out our days the best we know how? Os Guiness, in the Dust of Death, points out that there are three prevalent attitudes today concerning this question:
- Irrational Optimism: Many people speak in glowing terms of a golden tomorrow, while trying to ignore the truth about the present.
- Bleak Pessimism: These are the doom-and-gloomers. They see only a dark future, full of wars and economic depression, sickness and personal unhappiness. Life is a mess; don’t try to figure it out but just endure as best you can.
- Escape From Reality: Many try to break away from the despair of life by escaping to drugs, Eastern religions, the occult, immorality, materialism, hobbies, jobs, and so forth.
Right in the midst of the battle stands the book of Ecclesiates. There is no book in Scripture more relevant to our society than this one describing perfectly the thoughts and feelings of so many. The key to understanding the book is in the little phrase “under the sun.” Whenever Solomon uses this phrase (and he does so at least 30 times), he is speaking of life without higher values and spiritual realities. It is life without God. It is the life lived without any valid hope for the future. It is the life of the person who is living for this world.
Contrary to what some may think, Solomon was not just thinking of the unsaved when he wrote this book. Solomon was not only a believer but in his early years he followed in his father David’s footsteps. He was a man truly committed to God, but apparently life became too easy for Solomon, the temptations became too great, and ever so slowly the wisest man who ever lived drifted from the Lord. During those many years he lived for the world, much like an unbeliever. As time rolled on he became confused, depressed and pessimistic. He tried everything to fill the void in his life but nothing worked. Eventually it was this understanding of the meaninglessness of life “under the sun” that apparently forced him to reconsider God (see chapter 12).
The opening statement of the book sets the tone for all that Solomon will say (“The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. ‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher, ‘vanity of vanities! all is vanity’” NASB). Five times in verse two he uses the word “vanity” or “meaningless” to describe his view of life. The word actually means “a vapor” or “breath.” It is like the breath that condenses and disappears at once. It speaks of the fleeting, transitory nature of life and could be translated as, “What profit is there?” What profit is there really in anything in life? Solomon will use this word forty-four times and he does not leave us in the dark about what specific things are disappointing him. Peppered throughout Ecclesiates are questions concerning the profit of numerous activities, goals and pleasures through which mankind attempts to discover some meaning to life. He shows us that every one of these pursuits leads to a dead end. Life cannot ultimately be found in any of these endeavors:
- Nature (1:3-11).
- Education — knowledge (1:12-18).
- Fun and pleasure (2:1-3).
- Achievements (2:4-6).
- Wealth (2:7-11).
- Work (3:9).
Solomon is also upset about some other observations “under the sun” that he has made:
- Life is unfair and unjust (3:16-4:16; 8:9-17).
- People find many substitutes for God (4:13-5:20).
- People are never satisfied (5:18-6:12).
But happily the book of Ecclesiates does not leave us to solve all of life’s uncertainties on our own. Solomon’s journey through emptiness finally led him to recognize a number of hooks of truth that he could hang his life upon. Much of life is a mystery, much of life seems to have no purpose, but Solomon, through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, assures us of certain truths that will enable us to get the most out of this life and at the same time invest our lives for the future:
- God is sovereign (3:1-15).
- We must submit to the Lord (8:1-8).
- There are many things to enjoy in life (2:24-26; 11:7-12:14).
While much of life is a mystery there is a wise way to live (7; 8:16-11:18).
Learning to Relax and Enjoy Life
Henry David Thoreau observed in 1845 that “the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” Today we might amend this to “lives of noisy desperation.” King Solomon said much the same thing in Ecclesiastes 1:2, “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless”(NIV). Since the fall of Adam and Eve mankind has tried to make sense of life, often with very disappointing results. Many, as Thoreau testified, simply give up and struggle through this world the best they can. Others, like Solomon, try everything “under the sun” to find some purpose and meaning to their existence on this planet. Even Christians who have at their disposal all the resources of the children of God often have a difficult time getting a handle on living.
It is impossible to discuss how to enjoy life as believers until we have God’s perspective on living. Unless we have taken the time to discover the meaning of life as God lays it out for us in the Scriptures, our attempts to enjoy life will be at best superficial, and at worst sinful.
The first step, after conversion, in living the abundant life that Christ came to give us is to understand and live life biblically. The next step may be to look at some of the hindrances to the enjoyment of life. Following that, in our next paper we will be to examine God’s answers to these hindrances:
Hindrances to the Enjoyment of Life
In the early 1970s Alvin Toffler coined the phrase “future shock” to describe the disorientation and stress caused by too much change in too short a period of time. The amount of available information doubles every decade or so; within seconds we can learn of every tragedy, war or disaster anywhere in the world; all of our major institutions (home, church, government) have changed drastically in our lifetime, and nothing seems to be the same.
In our efforts to slow down we have become nostalgic but have not really changed our lifestyles. For example, we are restoring old houses, buying antiques, being entertained by old music and movies, taking vacations to quiet and remote places, all in an effort to capture some of the supposed serenity of the past. Yet, at the same time we do not change the pace of our lives. We may buy old houses or antiques that remind us of family life, friendship and quiet conversations around the fire, but then we continue to be away from our homes every evening as we pursue the many interests and activities of the ‘90s.
In addition there are so many opportunities, demands, and responsibilities. We claim that we would love to slow down, but what do we cut out? Just running our children to their activities can be a fulltime job. Plus there seems to be an endless barrage of good things in which to be involved. In the Christian world alone we are confronted with a whirl of programs, conferences, seminars, and retreats both inside and outside of the church. The competition for our time and energy grows more fierce every year. Gordon MacDonald in Restoring Your Spiritual Passion said, “Weariness comes not only in the things there are to do but also from the incredible amount of experience and information coming at us. I think one can actually grow tired from the constant onrush of spiritual stimulation. Words and more words, sensation and excitement.”
And what about the choices that we must continually make? It has been estimated that we in America are bombarded by more than two thousand persuasive messages each day. Our mind filters out many of these but we are still left with such a large number of decisions and choices that it can become wearisome.
If you are not depressed yet, think about time pressure. In the book Amusing Ourselves to Death, the author, Neil Postman, points out that beginning in the fourteenth century the invention of the clock made us into time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers. A time-server once said, “Unbearable mental fatigue. Work alone could rest me, gratuitous work, or play… I am far from that. Each thought becomes an anxiety in my brain. I am becoming the ugliest of all things: a busy man.” Yet most of us would agree with Tim Hansel in When I Relax I Feel Guilty that “we are called to be faithful, not frantic…(Yet) we are more often characterized by frantic activity, fatigue, and weariness than love, compassion and joy.”
Following the Herd
Undoubtedly there has never been another time in history when masses of people have had the opportunity and resources to attempt to “keep up with the Joneses.” By nature we all want what our neighbor has and the advertising world makes certain that we never become too content. We therefore may find ourselves in constant turmoil, working and striving for that which does not satisfy. As has been said, “We buy things that we don’t want, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like.”
In Walden, Thoreau makes several comments on this subject that are worth quoting. Even though these words were written in the mid 1840s by a non-Christian, they seem rather up-to-date:
We worship not the graces, nor peace, but fashion. She spins and weaves and cuts with full authority. The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same… Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.
It is the luxurious and dissipated who set the fashions which the herd so diligently follow.
I am wont to think that men are not so much the keepers of herds as herds are keepers of men, the former are so much the freer.
Money is not required to buy one necessity of the soul.
Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
If anyone should march to the beat of a different drummer, it should be the Christian who has not allowed the world to press him into its mold. (Romans 12:1,2 “I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”)
In explaining why Jesus was able to stand against the temptations of Satan in Matthew 4:1-22, G. Campbell Morgan made this interesting comment in his book The Crises of the Christ, “Man in his fall has rendered life complex by endeavoring to act upon a thousand different principles, and with complexity has come confusion. This man had but one principle, and that the will of God…” (p. 185).
We are reminded that Jesus told His followers, “Seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). And on another occasion he tried to help the godly, but anxious, Martha when he said, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only a few things are necessary, REALLY ONLY ONE…” (Luke 10:41,42).
We have hopelessly complicated our lives by our distorted value systems. Because we have not decided what is truly important we tend to pursue almost anything that sounds good or offers to give us a lift. Tim Hansel suggests that the advertisement media has two basic messages: You must go somewhere in order to be happy, and you must buy something. If we believe such messages then we will find ourselves constantly discontented — for no matter how hard we try, where we travel, or how much we spend, it is never quite enough.
Think about this quote by John Gardner, “If happiness could be found in having material things, and in being able to indulge yourself in things that you consider pleasurable, then we, in America, would be deliriously happy. We would be telling one another frequently of our unparalleled bliss, rather than trading tranquilizer prescriptions.”
The Insatiable Desire to Be Entertained
In order to understand this problem we must first understand that for the last one hundred years we have been living in what some have termed “The Age of Show Business.” Our desire to be entertained has been greatly enhanced by the invention of and our addiction to the television.
Note the contrast between the Americans of today compared with those of the past as documented in Amusing Ourselves to Death.
From its beginning until well into the 19th century, America was as dominated by the printed word and oratory based on the printed word as any society we know of. America was founded by intellectuals… In a culture dominated by print, public discourse tends to be characterized by a coherent, orderly arrangement of facts and ideas… As late as 1890 advertising was essentially serious and rational whose purpose was to convey information and make claims in propositional form for it was intended to appeal to understanding… Toward the end of the 19th century the age of exposition (reading) began to pass and the early signs of replacement could be discerned. Its replacement was to be the Age of Show Business… We are now a culture whose information, ideas and epistemology are given form by television, not by the printed word… Television is transforming our culture into one vast arena for show business. It has turned our world into entertainment.
So what is the harm? Like almost everything else, entertainment has its place. We all enjoy being entertained and in itself there is nothing wrong with this. But as with other harmless and good things, when entertainment dominates our lives or has a higher place in our priorities than it deserves, our lives quickly get out of balance.
Think of some of the obvious results of an entertained society: Illiteracy, short attention spans, boredom, students who think school should be Sesame Street, people who expect to be entertained and given a good show in church services. But for the purposes of this study the most important effect is that people, including believers, are running themselves ragged seeking one form of entertainment after another in an attempt to discover peace and contentment. But while entertainment can deliver fun and diversion, it can do nothing for the inner man. Therefore we come away from our entertainment with the same needs we had when we started.
It is reported that we spend more money on entertainment and recreation each year than we do on education, construction of new homes, or national defense; yet suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people, and our mental hospitals are full. Part of our problem here is that we confuse entertainment with leisure. Leisure means “rest, opportunity, unhurried quietude, relaxation, stillness.” It comes from a Latin word meaning “to be permitted.” We must learn to allow ourselves the opportunity to be quiet, to rest, to enjoy life and God. We will look at this subject more in our next paper.
The Scriptures clearly teach by precept and example that investing our lives in people should be one of our highest priorities. At the same time people can be one of the greatest hindrances to the abundant life. There are two problems that we could focus on in this regard:
People drain —
“And the apostles gathered together with Jesus; and they reported to Him all that they had done and taught. And He said to them, ‘Come away by yourselves to a lonely place and rest a while.’ And they went away in the boat to a lonely place by themselves” (Mark 6:30-33). These verses show that Jesus recognized the need to occasionally withdraw from people in order to rest. People can be very draining. In addition, constantly being with people, even in ministry, leaves no time to be alone with God for spiritual refreshment.
Nothing robs us of joy like conflicts with people. The solution to this problem lies in having a Christ-like attitude toward the people in our lives (Philippians 2:1-8).
Isaiah 55:1,2 “Ho! Every one who thirsts, come to the waters; And you who have no money come, buy and eat. Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost. Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in abundance.”
Jeremiah 2:13 “For my people have committed two evils: They have forsaken Me, the fountain of living waters, to hew for themselves cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.”
If we define sin in the broad sense of abandoning God’s way and doing our own thing, then the passages above show the futility and restlessness that accompanies such a lifestyle. We cannot expect to have the kind of life that God wants to give us and yet ignore His way of living.
In Restoring Your Spiritual Passion, Gordon MacDonald suggests four attitudes (or spirits as he calls them) that will drain our spiritual life:
The competitive attitude
3 John 9 “I wrote something to the church; but Diotrephes, who loves to be first among them, does not accept what we say.” See also Philippians 1:15-17
It is human nature to rarely delight in the success of others. Somehow we feel that their success is a threat to ours. Therefore it is easy to constantly compare ourselves with others, being jealous of their success, secretly happy about their failures, all in an effort to feel better about ourselves. Such an attitude will doom us to restlessness.
The critical attitude
Philippians 2:14 “Do all things without grumbling or disputing.”
To have a passion for God and life, and at the same time be critical of almost everything around us, is impossible.
The selfish attitude
James 3:14,15 “But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart, do not be arrogant and so lie against the truth. This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic.”
When our lives are governed by selfish ambition or bitter jealousy we know immediately that we do not have the wisdom of God. Therefore even as Christians it is possible to handle life with a wisdom James describes as worldly, natural, even demonic. Again, we cannot hope to have a godly lifestyle with a selfish attitude. Life is not meant to be lived for self (Matthew 16:23-25).
A vengeful attitude
Ephesians 4:32 “And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.” See also Romans 12:17-21
Our passion for God and the life that He gives will be directly affected by how we handle the difficult people in our life. The vengeful attitude is a poisoned attitude that will create a bitterness that will destroy all zest for life. MacDonald says, “Spiritual passion cannot coexist with resentments. We can do our best to claim that we are in the right, but the Scriptures are clear. The unforgiving spirit is no home to the energy that causes Christian growth and effectiveness.”
To Be Continued.
In this paper I have quoted from a number of sources with whom I am not in general agreement in many areas. Quotes taken from such authors do not imply endorsement of all of their biblical positions.