It is interesting because when you look at this idea, what is the meaning of life, I did a Google search on that, because now in this day and age, if you want to know anything, you go to Google. The Google search I just typed in, “What is the meaning of Life?” I got 24,300,000 responses. People are searching because the reality is, it doesn’t always make sense. So again in this information day and age, if you are looking for information on something and you’ve done your Google search, what’s the first place you go? Wikipedia! So I looked up the definition of ‘What is the meaning of Life’ in Wikipedia, because that’s where we get our answers today, right? What is the meaning of life pertains to the significance of living or existence in general? There have been a large number of proposed answers to this question from many different cultural and ideological backgrounds. Yes 24,300,000 of them. So many different answers since life doesn’t always make sense. But for the follower of Jesus, I think in some way this is more particularly difficult when things don’t go as we’ve expected. Well, the Bible does give answers to life and also gives life and new life, in particular, that’s found in Jesus, even though the answer to the question of sin was answered at the cross. Even before the cross and since then, people have been wrestling with this idea and sometimes, I think especially for we that are followers of Jesus, this can become a particularly difficult question, because we think we should have the answer. Well the answer is Jesus, right? So just read your Bible more, pray a little bit more, serve a little bit more and give a little more. Give one more…
But yet, you do all those things and sometimes, we still don’t have the answers. Some of you nodding your heads already know, you know about this. God gives us in the scriptures, the book of Ecclesiastes. So why we are looking at this book? Bible is a tough book sometimes if you actually read it and you are trying to apply to your life. Is not always an easy book. Is not always all John 3:16, God loves the world so much. Because it’s a real book for real people dealing with real situations and circumstances. But the book of Ecclesiastics is even more than that. Ecclesiastes is not for everybody, I will tell you that flat out and is not helpful for everyone as well, to be totally honest. But if you are at the point now where you are cynical, you are tired, you are searching, maybe you’ve been on the journey for a long time. You need to be and you want to be reminded of who God is and what he offers for those who walk with him, then this book is for you.
So today, we are going to start off in Ecclesiastes chapter one and then the next number of weeks, we are going to just walk through it. So if you have your Bibles, I world invite to open there, to Ecclesiastes chapter one. Ecclesiastes is found in the Bible between Proverbs and the Song of Solomon. If you want a find two more diametrically opposed books, that’s a great place to put this. It is considered a wisdom book in the Old Testament, but also, a poetic book as well. So the form of it will be very poetic, though it’s very hard hitting. But the purpose of it, ultimately in all the wisdom books, is to give instruction. To give instruction to the church before Jesus even came, before John 3:16 was even on John’s pen before generations, hundreds of years before when people are still asking this question and didn’t have the cross, they didn’t have an empty tomb. Consider how hard that would be to live when you didn’t have that. God gave them, the book of Ecclesiastes. It is a very tough book to understand if you’ve tried to read this and study before, because it’s a book of contradictions in many ways. So as a result, it’s not really used in the church a lot. Oftentimes, there will be a random quote from it and there are some good bullet points in here and some good soundbites. But as a whole book is not used a lot. But yet the people of Israel, the Jewish people still use that as part of their feast of the tabernacle. That full ceremony, that’s the celebration they had, the book is read during it, to help them to remind of God’s faithfulness. And when you look at it, the author seems to be looking back over their lives, reflecting on their lives and by extension all that man does. And in the end, this is his prognosis, what is learned thus far and is really about the search for the meaning. Is a book that is often quoted but misunderstands but here is how it begins in verses 1-3:
The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem: “Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?
Needless to say, this caused an issue in the broader community about that but I think, why is that not possible if we can talk about things like gender being neutral? You can choose what gender you are. I mean that’s a natural progression right. If everything is on the table and you can just choose based on what you feel like, why can’t you choose that? That’s the wisdom of the day. Is based on how you feel but yet only one assigns these things and that is God. But that exposes wisdom today and answers the meaning of life. Then there is the other the North American idea of just believe Oprah Winfrey the other year had what was called the belief mini-series, and she said in that you become what you believe. That’s a very nice sentiment here in North America. What about those in refugee camps? What to become an NHL hockey, well you know what an NHL is. But you know I want to be an NBA basketball player. You can believe it all you want, is not going to happen. So just simply believing doesn’t answer the meaning of life. So wisdom, believing to all this, the teachers cries out the meaningless! Utterly meaningless! So what get out of this depends on your perspective, because it speaks to our attitude. An attitude is something we have within our control. See a lot of things are outside of our control but a lot of things are. So I have a glass here, is it half full, is it half empty and I’m not going to ask for a response. Because you are all going to say, of course, is half full. Because you know where I’m going with this. But think about it, is attitude right? And all these things are ways to try to understand this question; what is the meaning, search for meaning, what is the meaning of life?
Wisdom, belief, all these things are trying to sort out the reality and a lot of it comes down to attitude because there are a lot of things that you cannot control. That refugee in that refugee camp, you can’t control the fact that they are in that circumstance. They can’t control the geopolitical things that happen. Those that are going through times of famine right now, they don’t have that within their control to change the climate or political situation or the economic condition to do that, they can’t control that. Many of you can’t the situations that you are in, things are happening to you that you cannot control. But you can control how you process them. That speaks to our attitude.
So we want to start to understand what the meaning of life is, we have to start with the point, what is our attitude? Is our attitude half empty or is it half full? What do you see? So how do we reconcile all of these? How do we answer the questions, the series that have been posed already at the beginning of this book, almost like a sledge hammer shot? Meaningless, meaningless and again that’s just too much for me but know he’s going somewhere with this, so hang in with me, church.
What is the meaning of life, he says and that’s what we are going to look at. As we are going to seek to discover within the next few weeks, just what the teacher discovered. So verses 1-11 really kind of frames our discussion going forward. I’m not going to spend a lot of time in that because again it’s poetic and it is just reinforcing those first three verses. But I do want to take a step back and establish a couple of things.
So first of all, who is the author of this? It is conventionally viewed that Solomon, but there’s a lot of controversy over that. Because it says the word of the teacher, the son of David, king of Jerusalem or a son of David, so it will be Solomon right. But when you look at kind of the structure in Hebrew and a lot of others and the content of it, it seems to be that it was written later on, maybe in the post-Babylon exile, that kind of thing. So either him or it was intended to be in his vain after that time period. And we are not going to hung up on that, because that’s kind of a distraction. Whether it was Solomon or whether it’s not, that’s not the issue, because what he’s speaking to is all that Solomon had, all he that learned and it meant in the end. So whether it was him or not, is not really relevant to what we are talking about today and going forward, we can learn a lot from it. But the author describes him, he describes him as the teacher.
Verse 1: “The words of the teacher” and the word in Hebrews used there is Qoheleth, it’s translated as teacher or preacher (or the message calls it as the quester). What that means is one who is seeking the question to the meaning of life. He’s sharing his thoughts, he had many things going for him; many experiences he’s reflecting back on. Solomon we know from the scripture was the wisest man that ever lived. 1 Kings 3:12; God said ‘I will give you a wise and discerning heart so there will never anyone like you, nor will there ever be’. It says later on in Kings that the whole world sought an audience with him to hear his wisdom. So he’s a wise man, he was a rich man. He rebuilt the temple, he built the palace, he spared no expense. Bronze, silver were nothing to him because he used everything with gold, he was that rich. He was described in 1 King 10:23, ‘as greater in riches than all the other kind of the earth’. So probably no one has ever been richer. So he’s wise, he was rich, but he was also a carnal man. He had experienced many pleasures. It says in Kings 11; ‘that he loved many foreign women from nations God had said not to intermarry with. It said there, 700 wives of royal birth and 300 concubines. I’m not going to get into that one. So in all these things, at the end he looked back after sampling everything, knowing, having, experiencing and what does he say, what’s his prognosis? He says it’s meaningless.
Solomon, I know it doesn’t matter, but this is a reference to him because he was seen as the pinnacle and especially in the Jewish culture at the time, who this originally would be written to. You say a man, who was the one and who had it all? Solomon! That was the high water mark of their nation; at that point, the nation of Israel is one of the greatest nation in the world and then fell. After he died, splits came and exile and all those types of things. So you want to talk the hay days, the glory days, the days when it was good, it was Solomon’s days. So whether it was Solomon himself writing this or somebody else writing several hundred years later, they were shadow what they once were. They would look to this example, they would say, this guy had it all. And what is the result? What is the result of the analysis of the Qoheleth, of the teacher? As he reflects back on his life, he sees all as meaningless; is kind of trying to stop a raging fire with a bucket of water.
There is a problem in the world. There is a problem in his world too -this is not just a 21-century thing that we are struggling with. This is a something that they were struggling with 2000 years ago. The problem in the world, the teacher is addressing it head on. There’s no polite dodge around it here. This is not politically correct language here. In the end, we’ll see the promise what we value. And what he said, he used another word here called Havel. Havel can be translated to vanity or meaningless. 38 times in the book of Ecclesiastics, we would see this word Havel used. Depending on your translation you are looking at right now, I used the NIV, is translated as meaningless. If you look at New King James Version is ‘vanity of vanity, all is vanity’ it says. The Contemporary English version says, ‘everything is nonsense.’ It’s an attempt to try to translate a very tricky Hebrew word. Vain and self-centered but more accurately rather than vanity, is not about vanity, is not about how you look. Because that’s often times, is not how we look at it. Is not about you know looking great, being mistaken for your daughter like the advertisement shows here. That’s not really kind of what he’s talking about here when he says Havel, the more accurate translation is this idea of vapour or breath or emptiness or futility, nothing less. It’s like smoke, it’s fleeting and it has no value. This is the illustration for me, so I have another illustration for you.
So Havel, meaningless, is like smoke. Is there, you can see it but you can’t grab it. There’s nothing to it, is no value to it, means nothing but yet, is there. That is Havel. That is meaningless. That’s what he’s talking about when he’s talking about all his experiences, it’s like smoke. It’s like nothing, it’s fleeting. So again, it’s a tricky word and is easy because if read this meaningless, like I would see this, I say meaningless is of no value, that’s how I would translate it in English. But you can’t really look that way because that’s not, what he’s talking about.
He’s examined all things that are valued and condemning them. Work, money, knowledge, pleasure, they are all Havel. They are fleeting and have no lasting value. That’s his prognosis. He’s looked at all these things; riches, experience, wisdom, knowledge, all these things and he says they’re nothing. They are like smoke. They are fleeting. They are temporary. They are futile. They are empty. They are meaningless.
And then he jumps right in and then he moves forward. In verse 3 he gives the example; ‘What does man gain from his labour which he toils under the sun?’ Verse 3 is key because he qualifies what he means by nothingness. He’s looking at the things that man values that we value. This is not speaking of life in God but what he’s speaking is we substitute for life in God. And what he says is all these things that are under the sun 29 times in the book of Ecclesiastes is termed ‘under the sun’ will come up. Is a single key theme and if you miss it, you are going to miss the power of this book and what the intention is and why is in the Holy Scriptures. It is the things that we value and measure ourselves by; that are Havel, that are meaningless, that are fleeting. It is worldly wisdom, worldly knowledge and pleasure. An alternative title for this book could be the things that don’t work. So you try all these things and guess what? They don’t work, guys! So when in this book, he’s going to look at crooked politicians. He’s going to look at injustice to the poor. He’s going to look at materialism. He’s going to look at incompetent leadership. He’s going to look at guilty people who are allowed to commit more crimes and get away with them. He’s going to look at the desire to go the good old days. And he says, they are all Havel, they are all meaningless, they are all smoke, they are fleeting because they are things under the sun. His thesis which we are going to look at in the weeks ahead, is the only thing of lasting value that are found are above the sun. That means they are the things of God. They are the only things that are of lasting value and if you are looking at all these other things as substitute or as add-ons, they are meaningless, they are like smoke, they are fleeting, they are temporary.
So with that in mind, he jumps right in. he does analysis very thoroughly of all the different things that we look at. And the first one that he looks at in verse 12-18 we are not even out chapter 1 yet, and he’s peddled to the metal wisdom. Verse 12-18:
I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.
I said to myself, “Look, I have 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.
You know sometimes then we get this pretense that we have to be perfect to be a good witness because “if you are sinning and making mistake, God can’t use you. You can’t be a witness. You have to be perfect.” But you are not perfect, you know you are not perfect. So then you learn to fake it. You learn to turn that frown upside down. You learn to speak the language. You know you carry a battered, worn out Bible like this and people say, wow that guy is deep. You know, that’s wisdom, right? We learn these things, but it’s all here and is no heart transformation. And if you are looking for the meaning of life in that, the teacher says is not there.
What’s his conclusion after his study? We will see that in verse 18, I learnt this too as chasing after the wind. In verse 18: “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” This seems counter-intuitive. You would think that the more you know, the better you would be. The better equipped you are, the more effective you would be. You know, the more knowledge is going to be better, but that’s not necessarily the case. Because what is our relationship with God based on? Faith! And if you are looking to cross that T and dot that I, if you are looking for that final slam dunk, you may be surprised what you find in the end.
A while ago I talked about a man by name Charles Templeton and probably many of you will remember that. Charles Templeton was an evangelist coming out of the 1940s and early 1950s with Billy Graham; the two of them travelled together and by all intents and purposes, Charles Templeton was a far more effective evangelist than Billy Graham was. By Billy Graham own words, he was. He led more people to the Lord. He was speaking nationwide, he was in magazines, newspaper, newsreels were being done, I mean he was a very effective evangelist. But he had a very curious mind and spirit, he had a very intellectual bent and so he continued to study and read all good things to prepare himself for his ministry. But the problem was, at some point faith gave way to intellect and eventually you know the story, Charles Templeton walked away from God and became an avowed atheist right to the very end. And in his book, ‘Farewell to God’, Charles Templeton said this ‘In the course of our conversion, he said but Billy’, this is Billy Graham he’s referring to, because when he had this revelation that God was not real, he went to his friend and he loved Billy Graham. He went to his friend, Billy Graham and he said we can’t believe this stuff anymore, it’s a lie. So this is conversation. So he says, ‘so I went to Billy and I said Billy, is simply not possible any longer to believe for instance the biblical account of creation. The world was not created over a period of days, a few thousand years ago. It has evolved over millions of years, is not a matter of speculation, is a demonstrable fact.’ Wisdom is a Havel, it is fleeting, it is meaningless. And he kept on and on and on with his questions until at some point, he lost his faith. So I would encourage you to be curious, to learn. Oftentimes, you know Christians especially we who are evangelical are accused of being not intellectual. You know kind of simple-minded and not overly intelligent. And that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking is there was at what point do you it on faith. And why are you asking the questions? Are you asking the question to support your faith and to try to tear it apart? Is very dangerous of a godly Charles Templeton led thousands to the Lord and was an evangelist of evangelists. If he could walk away and that’s just one example, I could give you dozens of examples over the years, of people who are seminary professors, pastors, leaders and the church and in all kind of things that have walked away, that have said this is nonsense, I don’t believe it anymore. And if you look at each and one of their journeys, is very similar to this. There is never that heart transformation, it is all in their head, you have to be careful of that. Because as the teacher says with much wisdom becomes much sorrow, because the more knowledge, the more grief. It says wisdom is meaningless. So how do we make sense out of all of this? How do we see through kind of fog of life, because life could be a bit of a fog and seeking the meaning of life can even more so? Ecclesiastes can act as a light house shining a light, but it comes down to our attitude. What are we looking for? And a couple of questions that I would encourage you to meditate on over the course of this week, before we gather again next Sunday, to kind of prepare yourself for what the teacher is going to have.
Again if you’ve never studied this book, it’s pretty hard, it’s a tough book, but there some amazing truth in here. And the first question is this, where is your heart? First, you have to turn from the futility of sin in the world. Jesus said in Matthew 16: “What good will it be for a man to gain the whole world and to lose his soul?” So where is your heart in all of this as you try to make sense of life?
And secondly, where are you looking? If you count yourself as a follower of Jesus Christ, are you living for the Lord or are you living for the world? Where are you living? Are you looking under the sun or above the sun? Because as we learnt recently, Jesus said in John 10; ‘I come that you may life and have it to the full.” And full in the translation is exceedingly, abundantly more. So we have a life under the sun, which is just smoke, is fleeting, is temporary, is meaningless. Or you can have above the sun; life in Christ, which is full, which is meaningful, which is rich, which has a future to it as well. Life under the sun has no future because that’s not the kingdom of heaven on earth. You can experience it now here, is not a matter of dying and going to be with Jesus. I mean that’s part of it but that’s down the road. What are you living and experiencing now? What are you experiencing life at this point and that speaks to attitude?
So our attitude comes down you know to this. Is the glass half full or is it half empty? That’s entirely within your control. What’s it’s filled with? How much is leaking right now? Sometimes, circumstances are not within your control but how you view it is. The key is beginning to understand that. I’m a master of this, I mean I have a PhD trying to play God’s part and not mine. Actually, I do a very lousy job of being God. I should really do my part and let him do his part, but I’m still quite there yet. But God is going to do his part if we let him, but then we need to do our part. Part of our part is to have that right attitude.
Pastor and author Charles Swindoll, he said this, "The longer I live, the more I realize the impact of attitude on life. Attitude to me, is more important than facts. It will make or break a company, a church or home. The remarkable thing is that we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past, we cannot change the fact that people will act in certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude. I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me, and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you. We are in charge of our attitudes." Isn’t that great?
The book of Ecclesiastes speaks to that. This book is going to systematically dismantle all of the things that this world values. That is going to make you kind of countercultural, is going to make you feel uncomfortable because all of us I will grant you value something that is going to be found meaningless in that book. I value way too much of that and that makes me feel uncomfortable. If you are looking at the deep struggles that you face, the deep challenges that you face, as I face when I looked at the futility and the meaningless of my dad dying of cancer in three weeks when we didn’t even know he was sick, it’s tough stuff. How do you say, God is good, Jesus loves me this I know, the Bible tells me so was true in my head. How do you live it out? How do you live and reconcile that and carry on? How do you get up and speak before a church? How do you carry on with that? You have to examine the reality of what you value and when you do, you find that a lot of them are under the sun. You can’t control all of them. But you can control your attitude and how you do them.
Ecclesiastes is a real book for real people; plastic Christians are not going to track with this. But for real people with real struggles, it's a real book. And I’m so glad that God has allowed it to be in the scriptures because we will see some total of man’s wisdom and it is Havel, it is fleeting, it’s temporary. But then, we will be presented with God’s wisdom and how he’s called us to live this life that he’s given us and then we’ll have a choice of how we respond to it. We will see life is not in vain. Life is not meaningless, it is not fleeting if it’s lived according to God’s will. There is victory in Jesus as we sing that song. But is also a choice. What is your attitude and what will your choice be?