Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Art of Deduction: Thoughts on Ecclesiastes 1-2

I have this silly little quirk, which stems from my total dislike of surprises. Every time I pick up a novel, something inside me compulsively flips to the very last page. There I read the end of the story. Never mind that I have no idea who the last words are spoken by or what they mean for the storyline. I just have to know.

From there, I spend the rest of my time with that book trying to put together the clues as I read, the information that will make that final page's picture come together. It's so satisfying when I figure it all out before the end!

I know, I know! It's a silly quirk, like I said. But nevertheless, it is part of what makes me...well me! And, surprisingly, it came in quite handy for my study of the book of Ecclesiastes.

If you begin reading Ecclesiastes in Chapter 1, you will quickly diagnose the great King Solomon as, well, kindof a party pooper. "Poor rich, powerful, brilliant guy, he just couldn't find happiness," we condescendingly and sarcastically charge. "I bet if I had all that stuff, I'd be able to find happiness just fine!"

But if we start at the beginning, what we fail to see is that Solomon is conducting an ingenious experiment, and it's all for our benefit. To understand this book, we must skip ahead to then end, so let's do just that:

The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person.
Ecclesiastes 12:13

Since he is clearly making a conclusion here based on what has been written in the previous chapters, suddenly the first part of the book begins to look very different. He's not expressing his own dissatisfaction with his life at all. Rather, he is conducting an experiment, donating his own life and resources as the test subject, endeavoring to prove a point.

Every scientific experiment begins with a question, and his is simple and universally pondered: why are we here, how can we find happiness and what in the world is the point of life? Wouldn't you like to know the answers to these questions? I know I would!

So now that we know what our writer is getting to, and where he will ultimately end up, let's begin again and see what we can discover about this life business.

Life is Frustrating

(1:1-2) The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. "Vanity of Vanities," says the Preacher, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity."

I warned you: it sounds depressing at first, doesn't it? Vanity is a multi layered word, one we will see again and again in this book. So what does it mean? Well in a literal sense, it means breath. If I say to you "Life is a breath," then you can take that to mean short. Here one moment, gone the next. And what is the nature of a breath of air? Can you hold it, can you control it? No, of course not. It is without substance, it is empty. So you can deduce just from this word that King Solomon is saying life is short, it's empty, and overall, it's very frustrating. I think we can all agree on that.

(3) What advantage does man have in all his work which he does under the sun?

Here Solomon gives us the question he seeks after in this work: What's the point of life? What do we get, what do we accomplish from all that we do in our time on earth?

(4) A generation goes and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.

Thinking back to my mom's generation and her mom's generation, and beyond, I can think of several very significant eras in American history. Each rose up in its time and committed to solving the world's problems in its own unique way. In the 50s it was wholesome American values, family and the home; in the 60s it was space exploration and peace and Woodstock and freedom; now in the 21st century we pride ourselves on our advancements in technology, we have discovered Crossfit and Paleo diets and plastic surgery and cloning, so we will live longer and stay more beautiful with the world literally at our fingertips.

Each new generation believes in its significance; each has its own new and unique way of viewing and living in the world with its own priorities and way of 'fixing' things. But all the causes, remedies, methods and discoveries are soon forgotten and replaced with a younger group's ideals. Nothing, in short, lasts. In the end we will all be survived by the dust under our feet and the mountains over our heads.

The Emptiness Within

(5-7) Also, the sun rises and the sun sets;
And hastening to its place it rises there again.
Blowing toward the south,
Then turning toward the north,
The wind continues swirling along;
And on its circular courses the wind returns.
All the rivers flow into the sea,
Yet the sea is not full.
To the place where the rivers flow,
There they flow again.

In short, time and life are not linear, as we like to think they are. We want to believe that we are moving and increasing and progressing, but Solomon says we live in a cul-de-sac, not on an Interstate. Think about it: you experience that every day. You pay the last of your bills on the 17th of the month just to go to the mailbox and find what? Yes, the bills for the following month have arrived. You put away the last dish from the dishwasher, walk away, and when you return less than an hour later what do you find? A dirty glass in the sink! It's so frustrating, isn't it? Nothing is every completed, ever satisfied, ever fulfilling or fulfilled. There is no real progress, only repeated cycles.

This is not the most comforting thought, which is why Solomon, in exasperation I'm sure, proclaims in the next verse:

(8) All things are wearisome;
Man is not able to tell it.

Indeed they are! Wearisome is another word for full of toil. We work so hard in life. In our jobs, in our relationships, in the activities we choose to occupy ourselves. But in the end, nothing that we begin is ever really done, and in the end it makes no real impact anyway. It is really depressing to think about this isn't it? Hang in there though; it's tough truth to hear, but Solomon is going somewhere with it (as we know already, since we read ahead, wink!).

(8b)The eye is not satisfied with seeing,
Nor is the ear filled with hearing.

Now this is different. Now not only is he talking about the world, but now he's we find that just like things in nature, like the cycles we see all around us, we as mankind are never really satisfied either. We eat, but we get hungry again. We receive, but yet we want more. John D. Rockefeller, an American industrialist and philanthropist, was at one point the richest man in the world. He felt his purpose in life was to make money to help improve humanity. At one point, Rockefeller was asked, "How much money is enough money?" His answer was "Just a little bit more." It's a human condition. We have a hole inside us from birth to death, that we are desperately trying to fill.

We Can't Fix What's Broken  

(9-10) That which has been is that which will be,
And that which has been done is that which will be done
So there is nothing new under the sun.

Is there anything of which one might say,
"See this, it is new"?
Already it has existed for ages
Which were before us.

In other words, there is really no such thing as a new idea and we don't have nearly as much control as we think we do. There is no new cause, new angle, new innovation - it's all been done or thought of before. Fashion is a great example of how we simply recycle what has come before and repurpose it to fit in the current age. Think you're an exception? In this amazing digital age, we can be more certain than ever that we are totally unoriginal by simply "googling" the thoughts that come to mind. Rest assured, no matter what you put in that little search box, something has already been written, posted and blogged or recorded.

(11) There is no remembrance of earlier things;
And also of the later things which will occur,
There will be for them no remembrance
Among those who will come later still.

To make matters worse, even when some people do come along and make great names for themselves, time erases the memories of these great men. There is no lasting fame or glory. Sure, people have certainly made an impact, there are names we remember as heroes and pioneers, but the vast majority of people on earth are forgotten almost as soon as their obituaries are printed. And the accomplishments, as exciting as they were, did not fill the void that lies within the hearts of men.

(12-15) I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem.
And I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven. It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with. I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after the wind. What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted.

Each of us in life says at some point, "I'm going to do something to change the way this frustrating world is!" But Solomon responds here to that longing that no matter what we do, we will die, we will be forgotten, and nothing we do will really change the world. The "crookedness," the emptiness we experience in life and the frustrating nature of the world cannot be "straightened," or fixed, by mankind, no matter how much wealth or ambition or momentum we can muster.

(18) In much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.

Perhaps you've heard it another way: ignorance is bliss. The man who understood the world more than any other human ever had found it very burdensome to realize just how futile and helpless we really are. All is vanity and striving after the wind, he says. Trying to change things, living for a cause, making our mark, all of this is so meaningless; in all our honorable pursuits we are as silly as someone trying to catch a breeze and hold it in their hands.

Beautiful Distractions

So how in the world are we to cope with such dismal reality? If we can't fix things, then how should we be spending our time on earth?

Well, apparently people have not changed much since Solomon's time: we have always sought after something to fill the time with, lists of things to obtain, distractions and life plans, so that in seeking after these, life on planet earth feels more in control and purpose-filled. In short, we fill the hole inside us with beautiful - albeit temporary- distractions. Chapter two consists of a list of man's choicest pleasurable pursuits. They may seem outdated at first glance, but let's examine a few and relate them to modern day activities. Try to think about what it is you want out of life, what you enjoy doing, what you are pursuing as we go through these together.

What it looks like today
V 3
I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine
Stimulants and substances that please the body such as coffee, alcohol, drugs (legal or illegal),
V 4
I built houses for myself
Real estate, cabins and lake houses, big homes
I planted vineyards for myself
Industry, career, work
I made gardens and parks for myself
Gardening, having a sanctuary or a safe place, vacations and travel
I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees;
Food, cooking, dining experiences
I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees
Nature, the outdoors
I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves
People who do things for us; they cut our lawn, our hair, do our nails, give massages and fulfill any other whim we might have or convenience we might desire
Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem
Nice things, expensive toys, clothing, luxury, cars, brand names, status symbols, d├ęcor for ourselves or our homes
Also I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kinds and provinces
Money, and lots of it!
I provided for myself male and female singers
Entertainment, television, shows, comedy, concerts, sporting events, or just music
And the pleasures of men – many concubines
Physical, sexual pleasure, lust, love, being loved or liked, not being alone, relationships
I became great and increased more than any who preceded me in Jerusalem
Fame, renown, status, prestige, or physical health, access to everything
My wisdom also stood by me
Intelligence, education, degrees, being the smartest guy in the room or having the last word or the best story

Look at all Solomon enjoyed. Look at all we are blessed with for enjoyment - were you able to identify some things that you gain pleasure from in life? They are wonderful things, are they not? And yet, with all this to occupy himself with, here is Solomon's response to having it all:

(11) Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold, all was vanity and striving after the wind.
Notice in each of these verses that Solomon was striving to please himself. Everything that he built was self-serving, to fill the longing within his heart. But with every new effort, he felt unhappy, unsatisfied, unfulfilled. Doesn't that happen all the time? We go after things, we make lists, we obtain, and then we instantly have buyers remorse in a sense, because we find it's not really what we wanted. It was not the end-all to our total satisfaction the way we thought it would be. This is why Proverbs says "Charm is deceitful." The world sells us the idea that it has what will fill our longing - but it doesn't. And a self-serving, self-focused life - "looking out for number one," as they say, doesn't actually end well for number one when all things are considered.

The Human Condition

So from Chapters 1 and 2 we see the pretty real and hard-to-swallow picture of reality. Let's look at what we've learned from our Preacher so far:
1. Life is frustrating, fleeting and totally out of our control
2. Nothing is ever finished, completed or satisfied - including us! We live with a longing we cannot satiate all the time
3. We cannot fix the problem - we cannot fix the world and we cannot find a way to be satisfied
Reading and studying this, my heart broke. We serve such a wonderful and just God in YHWH. Why on earth would he put us in a place like this awful, broken world?
Then it hit me. Well, He hit me with His Word. "Actually, I didn't," He says. "As a matter of fact, Beloved, go back to the beginning of My Word - there you will find the world I made for you and what I intended for you."
And sure enough, God created paradise - He called it "good." He made us stewards of creation. We had it all, His presence, a great job, all desires filled. But sin entered the world through mankind. When Adam and Eve willfully disobeyed God, when they failed to trust Him and were led astray, the world changed. There were consequences. We can read about those in Genesis 3:

(to man)
Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life . Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; and you will eat the plants of the field; by the sweat of your face you will eat bread, till you return to the ground...
(to woman)
I will greatly multiply your pain in childbirth,
In pain you will bring forth children;
Yet your desire will be for your husband
And he will rule over you.
As I read and study and get to know God more and more, I find that His punishments always fit the crime, measure for measure. And the consequences Adam and Eve faced were very intentional. God had made mankind the stewards over animals, over plants, over all the earth. And just as God's creation (Adam and Eve) had frustrated Him in their disobedience, now He would allow them to really understand how He felt, by being frustrated in what they held dominion over. He wanted them to understand how He feels when the work of His hands rebels against Him.
God was teaching Adam and Eve that there are consequences for sin. He wanted them to understand how He feels when we rebel against Him. And He wants us to understand that same thing today, friends. He wants us to experience that life is frustrating when we live in rebellion to Him. God did not create a frustrating world. We made it that way.
We live in this world that seems to offer every pleasure, yet we never find complete rest and satisfaction in anything. We see that good people suffer and bad people thrive, that evil agendas override holy pursuits. We work so hard and nothing ever changes. We try to distract ourselves. And one day we will die and be forgotten. And in realizing all that, God knows that there will be a point in each person's life when we finally we comes to the end of ourselves and cry out to Him for an answer. And that, Beloved, is what He waits for, because when we finally run out of our own answers and begin to listen to Him, He can finally tell us what He has been trying to reveal all along. I imagine it would go something like this:
Life is frustrating because your sins have separated you from Me. You have lived to please yourself rather than to know Me. I am the answer you seek, Beloved. You cannot make it right. I am the only one who can. And I have been waiting for you to come to Me so I can heal you and restore you and fill you.
How do I know that's what he says? Because this, friends, is the Gospel, the Good News message, this is Jesus. Life on earth is all about the art of deduction, about discovering our need for the Savior. We will never know satisfaction until we become less focused on ourselves and put God first; until we accept that we can't fix it and place our trust in Christ. Jesus told us that in the book of John (4:14):
But whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

What an amazing hope we have in Him, if we would only believe and repent.


Stuff Versus God

A very important note: there are some believers throughout history who have read Solomon's words and come to the conclusion that all his pursuits to experience pleasure were sinful. Let me say this emphatically: there is nothing wrong with enjoying your life. Food, companionship, laughter, nature, sex (inside marriage of course) and work are wonderful things! James tells us that every good and perfect gift comes from above, and Psalm 16 says in God's presence is fullness of joy and in His right hand there are pleasures forever. Asceticism is not His way. He wants His children to look like they are having a blast while they are here, because that - not misery - draws others who want that same glow and joy. So enjoy it, Beloved!
However, enjoy it all with caution, wisdom and proper perspective. The problem is not with having the stuff. The problem is that we tend to get comfortable and start to worship the things rather than the Giver of them. Stuff is for enjoyment, but God is for satisfaction. So love God, live for Him and experience life in the most fulfilling way, confident that He is all we really need - that way, everything else is merely added blessings.

So, Solomon's conclusion is my conclusion for today: What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? To fear God, and keep His commandments. Do this, and the rest will all fall in to place. I guarantee it.

Blessings to you as we come to the end of the summer season!

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