And He Tried Pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3)

And He Tried Pleasure, part 1 (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3)

Good morning, and welcome to Grace Still Amazes.

I’m Lamar Austin, senior pastor of Grace Bible Church in Mena, Arkansas, where everybody is welcome because nobody is perfect and anything is possible because of grace.

Having explored all sources of wisdom in his search for meaning and satisfaction and come up empty, Solomon now turns to a common pursuit of this present age—trying to find meaning and satisfaction in pleasure.

Solomon turns from philosophy to hedonism.  Instead of giving up his search, he turns to another possible avenue for fulfillment.

Hedonism is the pursuit of pleasure.  This is very much the philosophy of our day. The maxim of today’s generation can be stated in these six words: if it feels good, do it!  (Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge, 14)

R. C. Sproul points out the basic problem of hedonism, which he says is often referred to as the “hedonistic paradox.”  He says…

if the hedonist fails to achieve the measure of pleasure he seeks, he experiences frustration.  Frustration is painful.  If we fail to find the pleasure we are seeking, the result is frustration and pain.  The more we seek pleasure and the more we fail to achieve it, the more pain we introduce into our lives.  On the other hand, if we achieve all the pleasure we seek we become sated and bored.  Boredom is the counterpart of frustration; it is also painful to the pleasure seeker.  Again, the paradox:  if we achieve what we want, we lose; if we don’t achieve what we are searching for, we lose.  The result of hedonism is the exact opposite of its goal.  Its only fruit is ultimate pain.  (R.C. Sproul; Lifeviews, 131)

We today, being far richer than any previous culture, with so many opportunities for pleasure, are even less happy with our lives than Solomon was.

Now, it is not that God is against pleasure.  He has intentionally given us the good gifts of creation to enjoy (1 Timothy 6:17).  As Solomon himself will conclude in 2:24, any fleeting enjoyments the world has to offer are just that—enjoyments.  As such, they are to be enjoyed, not analyzed.  The person who makes pleasure his serious business will end up with the worries and headaches that attend serious business.  “Mental analysis crushes the merry heart, just as a joke that needs to be explained ceases to be a joke.”

However, our human hearts are idol factories and instead of enjoying these good gifts for God’s sake, for God’s glory, we enjoy them only for our own benefit.  That is when we feel the same sense of frustration that Solomon felt.

1 I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” 3 I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine–my heart still guiding me with wisdom–and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. 4 I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. 5 I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. 6 I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. 8 I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the children of man. 9 So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. 10 And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

If you just read the first and last verse of this portion of Ecclesiastes, you once again come away with the idea that Solomon tried to finding meaning and fulfillment in pleasure, only to conclude that “all was vanity and a striving after wind” with no benefit, no gain.

Did you notice, as I read this section, how Solomon is so self-focused?  Read Ecclesiastes 2 aloud and you will be overwhelmed with the number of times the first person personal pronoun comes into play–“I”, “me”, “my”, and so forth. 

As he prospered, Solomon seems to have begun thinking more and more about himself, his pleasure, and his own interests and needs rather than those of the people of Israel.  Lost in self-seeking, Solomon opened the doors of Israel to idolatry, adultery, self-indulgence, moral compromise, and spiritual disaster (1 Kgs 11:1-13). 

Solomon tells us that he came to a point where he said to himself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure.  So enjoy yourself” (Eccl 2:1a).

Every term in this short statement is important.  The word “test” indicates that what follows is an experiment, a deliberate attempt to learn something from personal experience.  The word “pleasure” shows what he wants to experience — the pleasures of life. 

The other important word, which gets repeated in every single verse in this passage, is the word “I.”  Admittedly, the writer is speaking autobiographically, so there are times when he needs to refer to himself.  But does he need to do it quite so often?  There is so much “me, myself, and I” in these verses that we get a strong sense of self-indulgence in the pursuit of self-centered pleasure.

Qoheleth becomes an experimental hedonist—one who gives their lives to pursuing pleasure.  In other words, he chooses to make his own personal happiness his chief end in life.  This is the way that many people live today, and it is a temptation for all of us–to live for ourselves rather than for God.  (Philip Graham Ryken, Preaching the Word: Ecclesiastes, 46)

Immediately the Preacher tells us that this quest failed as spectacularly as the first one. Pleasure did not satisfy his soul any more than wisdom did. “Behold,” he says, demanding our attention, “this also was vanity” (Ecclesiastes 2:1).  This pursuit also ended up in vapor and smoke.

Pleasure seemed to hold out the promise of purpose in life, but it didn’t last.  In the end it turned out to be empty, elusive, and ephemeral. 

This is true of sinful pleasure—it is pleasurable for a moment.  The writer of Hebrews talks about the “fleeting pleasures of sin.”  Satan couldn’t tempt us if there was not some pleasure attached to sin, but it is fleeting.  It lasts but a moment.

Even good pleasures don’t last long.  While they have some temporary, immediate value (e.g., relieving grief or boredom), they do not produce anything permanently or ultimately worthwhile. 

In verses 2–8 Solomon lists all of the pleasures he tried, followed in verses 9–11 by a personal reflection on what he learned from his experience.

The Possibilities of Pleasure (Ecclesiastes 2:2-8)

Solomon specifically mentions wine and laughter as two sources of pleasure used in his experiment.  It requires little imagination to see the king in his splendid banquet hall (1 Kings 10:21), eating choice food (1 Kings 4:22-23), drinking the very best wine, and watching the most gifted entertainers (Eccl. 2:8a).  But when the party was over, it left Solomon dissatisfied and empty.

First, Solomon experimented with laughter, with entertainment.  He sought to make his heart merry.  We, too, seek to amuse ourselves and entertain ourselves, especially to relieve our boredom or anxieties.  We use amusements as distraction from the burdens of life.

Imagine how the palace must have rocked with laughter.  Every night there were stand-up comics and amazing acts.

The 17th century Christian philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal said…

…prevail upon a man to join in any amusement whatever, and as long as that lasts he will be happy; but it will be a false and imaginary happiness, arising not from possession of real and solid good, but from a levity of spirit that obliterates the recollection of his real miseries, and fixes his thoughts upon mean and ridiculous objects, unworthy of his attention, and still less deserving of his love. 

Kidner believes that this is “a deliberate flight from rationality, to get at some secret of life to which reason may be blocking the way” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 31).

Like a modern celebrity Solomon ran from party to party, entertainment to entertainment.  At the end of it all, he judged it to be “mad” and useless.

The word “mad” here does not speak of mental strangeness, but of moral perversity.  The jokes were lewd and rude.

Not all laughter is bad, of course, because there is a kind of joyful laughter that brings glory to God (see, e.g., Proverbs 31:25).  But a lot of joking is frivolous and superficial, or else cynical, sarcastic, and even cruel (see Proverbs 10:23; 26:19; 29:9).  

Later Solomon will say, “For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fools; this also is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 7:6).  It was just noise.

To honor God, we need to ask whether our laughter is rejoicing in the goodness of God or is coming at someone else’s expense.

Solomon is not saying that laughter is wrong, neither does the Bible.  He is just saying that as an ultimate answer it fails to satisfy.  It is empty.

Here is how T. M. Moore paraphrases verse 2: “I concluded that laughter and merriment for their own sakes were madness.  What did they accomplish to help me find lasting meaning and purpose in life?”

Thus, Sinclair Ferguson notes:

Most of the time the truth is that laughter is simply empty.  Watch even a ‘clean’ comedy on television or on the stage; compare the after-effect with that of watching a tragedy.  From the very beginnings of drama the difference has been well-recognized.  Comedy is light, tragedy is weighty; comedy is superficial; but a good tragedy is able to produce a catharsis of the emotions, like a medicine that cleanses pollutants out of the system and makes it function properly again.  (Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Pundit’s Folly, 12-13)

Second, Solomon turned to wine.  This, too, is a very popular way to increase bodily pleasure or reduce physical or emotional pain.

3 I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine–my heart still guiding me with wisdom–and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. 

This verse turns out to be surprisingly difficult to interpret. To “cheer [one’s] body with wine” strikes a decidedly negative note.  It certainly seems to have the connotation of abusing alcohol (or drugs).

Rather than receiving wine as a gift and drinking it with thanksgiving to God (which was, and is, possible), he took it for himself as a selfish pleasure and indulged in it too freely and deeply.

If that is what he did, then what he said next is totally untrue — namely, that “his heart [was] still guiding [him] with wisdom.”  As we know from one of Solomon’s other proverbs, “Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is led astray by it is not wise” (Proverbs 20:1).

To get an idea of the lavish banquets in Solomon’s court just read 1 Kings 4:22-23…

22 Solomon’s provision for one day was thirty cors of fine flour and sixty cors of meal, 23 ten fat oxen, and twenty pasture-fed cattle, a hundred sheep, besides deer, gazelles, roebucks, and fattened fowl.

A cor equals 6.24 bushels, so that was 187 bushels of flour and 374 bushels of meal…a day.  It has been estimated that this would feed between 10 and 20 thousand people, so there were many others besides the king involved in this search for pleasure.

Before we dismissively lump him together with the pleasure-seeking crowds of today or of any day, let us notice what he is doing.  He is not advocating mindless debauchery.  You would never have found him drunk and incapable or among the helpless heroin addicts.  In all that he does he is determined to remain in self-control–“my mind still guiding me with wisdom” (v. 3).  He would seek the stimulus of wine, yes, but never be its victim.  This is an experiment.  He wants to see whether it works.  It does not.  Like many a person before and after him, he discovers that the pursuit of pleasure, the search for happiness, is self-defeating.  (Robert Davidson, The Daily Study Bible: Ecclesiastes, 15)

He had hoped it would act as a stimulant, and had discovered instead that it was a further depressant.  (Sinclair B. Ferguson, The Pundit’s Folly, 14)

Robert Burns exclaimed the temporary nature of pleasures in his poem

But pleasures are like poppies spread

You seize the flower, the bloom is shed

Or like the snow falls in the river

A moment white, then melts for ever…

Or like the rainbow’s lovely form

Evanishing amid the storm. 

In summary, David Hubbard states:

He knew the lure of pleasure, and he knew its snare.  He had found that pleasure promises more than it can produce.  Its advertising agency is better than its manufacturing department.  It holds out the possibility of exquisite delight, but the best it can perform is titillation.  It seeks to tickle the human spirit but cannot probe its depths.  It daubs iodine on human wounds when what is needed if surgery.  It may distract us from our problems by diverting our attention, but it cannot free us from those problems.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 76-77)

God has made us to seek after satisfaction and fulfillment, even pleasure, but His desire is that we find our greatest pleasure in Him.

John Piper calls this “Christian hedonism.”  He says…

Christian Hedonism is a philosophy of life built on the following five convictions:

1. The longing to be happy is a universal human experience, and it is good, not sinful.

2. We should never try to deny or resist our longings to be happy, as though it were a bad impulse. Instead we should seek to intensify this longing and nourish it with whatever will provide the deepest and most enduring satisfaction.

3. The deepest and most enduring happiness is found only in God.  Not from God, but in God.

4. The happiness we find in God reaches its consummation when it is shared with others in the manifold ways of love.

5. To the extent we try to abandon the pursuit of our own pleasure, we fail to honor God and love people. Or, to put it positively: the pursuit of pleasure is a necessary part of all worship and virtue. That is, the chief end of man is to glorify God BY enjoying Him forever.

Randy Smith clarifies…

God made us to pursue our joy. Joy is even a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22).  Therefore I believe the pursuit of joy it is a good drive within us.  I believe there is no problem with pursuing our happiness so long as our pursuit of happiness is in the pursuit of God’s glory.  In other words, the problem is not with the passion, but rather the problem is with the paths to happiness that we often choose.

That is the problem Solomon was dealing with.  He was trying to find ultimate joy in created things, in enjoying created things.  God made us to find pleasure, to experience deepest joy, but that joy is never found in created things, but in the Creator of all things.

Augustine said, “He loves Thee too little, who loves anything together with Thee, which he loves not for Thy sake.”

We can enjoy created things, but only if we enjoy them for God’s sake, for His glory.  He must be our greatest pleasure and greatest treasure, or our souls will feel the vanity of created things.  The only way to really enjoy laughter and wine or any created thing is to enjoy them for God’s sake; then we will really enjoy them, without guilt or regret, without a feeling of emptiness or futility.

We should enjoy the good things God has given us, but we must enjoy the Giver above the gifts. When we treasure Jesus above all things and then enjoy all things as from Him and give Him thanks, then we will experience greater fulfillment and satisfaction in life.

Can Amassed Wisdom Bring Satisfaction? part 2 (Ecclesiastes 1:15-18)

After he won his third Super Bowl, Tom Brady was interviewed by 60 Minutes.  In an incredibly candid moment, he told the guy interviewing him, “There’s got to be more to life than this, isn’t there?”  Here is one of the most gifted, famous and affluent athletes of our time and he was still unsatisfied after winning three Super Bowls.

Other rich and famous people are facing the same problem.  A famous fashion model was recently interviewed after winning a contest with 10,000 other women to have her image splashed across the cover of innumerable magazines.  It made her rich and hugely famous.  A year later she said, “I finally achieved my biggest dream, the dream I always wanted.  But when I finally got there, it wasn’t all I thought it would be.” 

Solomon, argued that, at least on the surface, life is much like a cul-de-sac that we drive into and find ourselves just driving around and around and around.  The reality that life is like a cul-de-sac didn’t stop him from trying to find fulfillment along the way because there was something innate within him—just like it’s within each of us—that pushes us to find meaning and purpose.

We all need a reason to live, a reason to get up and keep going and that was true of this writer as well.  So, he picked three of the most common ways that people use to find fulfillment and then he ran after them as hard as he could.  First, he chased after wisdom.

After all, wisdom is what is touted in the book of Proverbs as better than silver or gold, or honor.

In one of Solomon’s many famous proverbs we hear wisdom say, “Whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD” (Proverbs 8:35).  Here, however, that quest seems futile.

Many good minds have reached the same conclusion.  Before he died, the modernist poet Ezra Pound said, “All my life I believed I knew something.  But then one strange day came when I realized that I knew nothing; yes, I knew nothing. And so words became void of meaning” (See

Similarly, the infamous atheist and evolutionist Richard Dawkins has concluded that human existence is “neither good nor evil, neither kind nor cruel, but simply callous: indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose” (Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden (New York: Basic Books, 1995), p. 96.)

Last week we started Solomon’s quest to find meaning and fulfillment in wisdom.  Here is what he said…

12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.  It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. 15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted. 16 I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. 18 For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

We noted that although Solomon had all the advantages to search out wisdom to the fullest extent to determine whether it held the key to fulfillment, only to come up saying “all is vanity and a striving after wind.”

Today we’re going to continue Solomon’s theme where he indicates that wisdom and experience cannot solve every problem.  Guys, listen, we can’t fix everything.

Solomon, who was an expert on proverbs, speaking 3,000 proverbs according to 1 Kings 4:32 and, of course, wrote much of the book of Proverbs.  Here he gives a proverb expressing:

 15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted. 

Duane Garrett explains:

“That which is ‘twisted’ refers to a problem that cannot be solved, and that which is ‘lacking’ refers to lack of information (i.e. missing data cannot be taken into account and thus contribute toward finding an answer).  Some problems cannot be solved, and some information we can never find.  The intellectual more than anyone else should be aware of the futility of the human position.  No matter how he or she searches, the intellectual cannot answer some fundamental questions of life.  The implication behind this is that God’s ways are inscrutable.”

Isaiah tells us that God’s ways are higher than ours.  Job came to understand that God didn’t have to explain himself.

Solomon makes a similar statement in 7:13.

Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?

If we spend all our time and energy trying to straighten out everything that is twisted, we will have nothing left to live our lives!  And if we try to spend what we don’t have, we will end up bankrupt.  Unlike God, we do not have limitless resources.  Unlike God, we cannot fix or explain everything.

In short, Solomon is saying, “The past can’t always be changed, and it is foolish to fret over what you might have done.”  Ken Taylor paraphrased verse 15, “What is wrong cannot be righted; it is water over the dam; and there is no use thinking of what might have been.” (TLB)

That is why it is such a comfort to know that God is in perfect control and has the power and wisdom to straighten out what is twisted and supply what is lacking.  He won’t change the past, but He can change how the past affects us.  Sins can be forgiven, the past can be transformed.

But that is not Solomon’s message.

We’re the most educated nation in human history; every year we graduate thousands of master’s degrees, medical degrees, law degrees, and PhDs.  As a society we pride ourselves on being smart and getting smarter all the time and we probably all know some really bright people.  You probably work with some or maybe even live with some and I know I do.  Being educated and becoming intellectually competent are not bad things at all.  But if you think gaining more knowledge and leveraging your intellectual prowess are going to give you a lasting sense of fulfillment, think again.  Our minds are the gift of God but they are limited.  Relying too much on our intellect alone is not only fleeting and a chasing after the wind; sometimes it’s downright dangerous.

That doesn’t mean that Solomon gave up on this quest.  After his first attempt ended in failure, he had a heart-to-heart talk with his own soul, a running internal dialogue about what he had discovered thus far.

16 I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.”

Those who go through life living on explanations will always be unhappy for at least two reasons.  First, this side of heaven, there are no explanations for some things that happen, and God is not obligated to explain them anyway.  Second, God has ordained that His people live by promises and not by explanations, by faith and not by sight.

If anyone was equipped to solve the difficult problems of life and tell us what life was all about, Solomon was that person.  He was the wisest of men and had the greatest opportunity to face many different experiences of wisdom and knowledge.

The more we seek knowledge and wisdom, the more ignorant we realize we are.  This only adds to the burden.  “All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,” wrote T. S. Eliot in “Choruses from The Rock.”  At the close of his life, Isaac Newton said, “I have been paddling in the shallows of a great ocean of knowledge.”  He, too, felt the frustration of not being able to understand more.

All of this goes back to the Garden of Eden and Satan’s offer to Eve that, if she ate of the fruit, she would have the knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 3).  When Adam and Eve sinned, they did get an experiential knowledge of good and evil; but since they were alienated from God, this knowledge only added to their sorrows.

Relying too much on our intellect alone is not only fleeting and a chasing after the wind; sometimes it’s downright dangerous.

I heard about an article that was titled “178 Seconds to Live.”  It was about a test that was given to 20 of the smartest pilots in the world, all of whom had exceptionally high IQs and a great deal of aviation experience.  Each pilot was put in a flight simulator—without the use of any instruments—and then told to do whatever he could to keep the airplane under control as he flew into some very dark clouds and really stormy weather.

The article stated that all 20 of these incredibly bright people who had long and successful flying careers, “crashed and killed themselves” within an average of 178 seconds.  It took these highly intelligent, seasoned pilots less than 3 minutes to destroy themselves once they lost their visual reference points.

All their knowledge combined with their intellect could not save them. 

H. C. Leupold suggests:

“The closest analogy to the experiment here described would in our day be an honest attempt to solve all problems and to attain to all knowledge by the processes of rational thinking.  It would be the philosopher’s attempt to probe into the depth of matters by his unaided and unenlightened reason apart from any disclosures of truth that God has granted to man.”

But Solomon had not yet considered the claims of morality, so his quest was not complete.  He had tried to learn everything he could about life, like someone who attends the best universities and reads all the latest books claiming to reveal the mysteries of human existence.  But he had not yet fully investigated the difference between right and wrong or tried to find meaning and purpose in life by becoming a better person.

So he said, “I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly” (Ecclesiastes 1:17).

Formerly the Preacher had been seeking and searching for wisdom, but now he would take a comparative approach, contrasting wisdom with folly.  When he says “madness and folly,” he is not talking about insanity but immorality.  In other words, Qoheleth was using “madness and folly” the way they are usually used in the Old Testament — to refer to the mad foolishness of living in disobedience to God.  Solomon was not trying to see if losing his right mind would help him understand the meaning of life.  Rather, he was trying to understand the difference between right and wrong.

We all have an innate sense of right and wrong and many people still want to lead good, moral lives.  Although wisdom does have benefits, like Solomon too many people study folly a little too well.

Part of the back story to Ecclesiastes is 1 Kings 11, in which King Solomon fell tragically into foolish sin.  He married many wives and worshiped many idols.  In the process, the man who knew so much wisdom learned more about folly than anyone ever should.

One of the Targums of the Jews had an interesting word here:

“When King Solomon was sitting upon the throne of his kingdom, his heart because greatly elated with riches, and he transgressed the commandment of the Word of God: and he gathered many houses, and chariots, and riders, and he amassed much gold and silver, and he married wives from foreign nations.

Whereupon the anger of the Lord was kindled against him, and he sent to him Ashmodai, the king of the demons, and he drove him from the throne of his kingdom, and he took away the ring from his hand, in order that he should roam and wander about in the world, to reprove it; and he went about the provincial towns and cities in the land of Israel, weeping and lamenting, and saying, ‘I am Qoheleth, whose name was formerly called Solomon, who was king over Israel in Jerusalem.’”

Now, there is no reference to this in the Scriptures, but we might wonder whether it represented some part of the reality of Solomon’s later repentance.

So Solomon took up the study of folly, something he will continue in the next chapter.

And what was the result of this new quest?  Did knowing the difference between right and wrong help him find meaning and fulfillment in life?  Not at all.  The claims of conventional morality failed to satisfy his soul.  It was all a waste.

So he said, “I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:17).

Once again the Preacher quoted a proverb that summarized the conclusion of his quest.  Human wisdom failed because it could not straighten things out or make life add up (Ecclesiastes 1:15).  But knowing the difference between right and wrong failed for an additional reason:

“For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (Ecclesiastes 1:18).

Greater wisdom had only brought the writer greater “vexation” (mental anguish) and “sorrow” (emotional pain, v. 18). 

Maybe this is why some people say “Ignorance is bliss.”  And it makes us realize why Jesus recommends that we become as children in order to embrace the gospel.  Education, knowledge and expertise do not necessary make us good candidate for heaven.  Paul argues against the Greek conception of knowledge as a saving factor.

Once again the Preacher has succeeded in making us feel even worse about life than we did before.

This world is fundamentally flawed and we cannot fix it.  No matter how much information and expertise we might possess.  There must be something outside the system that can give purpose to life.

Zack Eswine summarizes this portion of Ecclesiates—Solomon’s quest to find meaning and fulfillment in wisdom—as a snapshot of that frowning moment in the Garden of Eden.  As Adam and Eve fig-leave themselves with shame and the Serpent is silent and caught in his treason, God declares a curse upon all that he had made.  They will live.  But from that point on, thorns, thistles, pain, and sweat await them all “east” of Eden (Gen. 3:14-24).

The preacher does exalt God.  But what he exalts is that aspect of God’s character which did not relieve Adam, Eve, or the Serpent from sin’s consequences.  We see his brooding and frowning.  This is the God who governs us.  He did not stop the unhappy business of paradise lost.  We must linger here.

This part of God’s story tells us that God will not bring salvation by giving us escape and immunity from the now-cursed world.  Jesus too will highlight this lack of escape throughout his teaching.  “In the world, you will have tribulation,” he assures us (John 16:33).

We will have to come to terms with this fact about God.  If there is no escape from what is under the sun, then rescue will have to come from somewhere else.  The time will come in which God will personally squint and sweat beneath the sun’s light and heat.  He will enter the gainless world, endure its vanity, and feel the pain of it.  “In the world, you will have tribulation,” Jesus will one day say.  “The poor you will always have with you,” he will declare.  In that, he will sound just like Solomon in Ecclesiastes.  But then Jesus will go further than Solomon can.  Jesus will stand beneath the sun with us.  From there he will look us in the eye and declare what Solomon cannot.  “But take heart,” Jesus will say; “I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). (Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, p. 58)

So I want to encourage you to seek after true wisdom—from God and His revelation in Scripture and in Jesus Christ, in whom are hidden are the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.

Can Amassed Wisdom Bring Satisfaction? part 1 (Ecclesiastes 1:12-14)

Can Amassed Wisdom Bring Satisfaction? part 1 (Ecclesiastes 1:12-14)

Good morning, and welcome to Grace Still Amazes.

I’m Lamar Austin, senior pastor of Grace Bible Church in Mena, Arkansas, where everybody is welcome because nobody is perfect and anything is possible because of grace.

In his book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams writes about Deep Thought, the powerful supercomputer that is tasked with determining the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. It takes the computer a long time to check and double-check its computations — seven and a half million years, to be exact — but eventually it spits out a simple, unambiguous answer: the meaning of life is 42.

“Forty-two!” someone yells at the computer. “Is that all you’ve got to show for seven and a half million years’ work?”

“I checked it very thoroughly,” Deep Thought replies, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”

That is the quest of life, the aim of philosophy, to understand the meaning of life.  This is the quest of the Preacher, especially in this next section of Ecclesiastes.  Will the search for wisdom give us the key to fulfillment and satisfaction in life?  Let’s see.

12 I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.  It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. 15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted. 16 I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. 18 For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

It doesn’t sound like wisdom enables us to find satisfaction in life either.

Ecclesiastes 1:12–2:23 announces the Preacher’s personal testimony, his confession to his inability to resolve life’s most important issues without God.  He has determined to examine a great range of human activities in a search for anything of lasting value.  In case his readers should purpose to take up the same search, “he warns us of the outcome (1:13b–15) before he takes us through his journey (1:16–2:11); finally he will share with us the conclusions he has reached (2:12–26).

Man has always held the pursuit of wisdom to be a high virtue, from Socrates, to the scholastics, to the Enlightenment, to modern scientism.  But Solomon will show us the futility of this pursuit in finding ultimate satisfaction in life.

Verse 12 affirms that the Preacher is Solomon, “king over Israel in Jerusalem.”  This statement not only helps us identify who the author is, but it reminds us that this Solomon, king of Israel at its economic and political height, would have all the resources he needed to pursue any quest.

In verse 13 Preacher perceives that in this world God has given an unhappy business, i.e., a troubling or burdensome task, to the children of man.

13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.

The Solomon of Ecclesiastes was a seeker; he was on a personal quest for wisdom and knowledge.

This quest fits everything we know about King Solomon from other places in the Bible.  When Solomon became king, God gave him the opportunity of a lifetime: he could ask for anything he wished.  Solomon chose wisely.  Rather than asking for money or fame, he asked for wisdom to govern the people of God.  God was so pleased with Solomon’s request that he said,

“Behold, I give you a wise and discerning mind, so that none like you has been before you and none like you shall arise after you” (1 Kings 3:12).

God made Solomon so wise that he wrote thousands of proverbs, and he was considered to be wiser than all the men of his day (1 Kings 4:29-34).

This precious gift of wisdom did not mean that the king instantly understood everything.  He still had to apply himself to the pursuit of knowledge, which is exactly what Solomon did: he devoted his life to learning.

Solomon’s quest was sincere.  When he says, “I applied my heart,” he means that the pursuit of knowledge came from the very core of his being.  The Preacher-King focused his mind and disciplined his heart to know the truth.

His quest was also comprehensive.  The words “to seek” and “to search” indicate the seriousness of his efforts.  We would say he “left no stone unturned.”  He was diligent in his search, telling us that he did all he could to find fulfillment from wisdom.

It is possible that the first verb indicates minute dissection of an issue to understand it, whereas the second means backing away to get the big picture.  If so, then Solomon did not lose the trees in the forest or the forest in the trees.

There is nothing wrong with his quest.  In fact, in Proverbs 2, Solomon recommends this to every young man:

1 My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, 2 making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; 3 yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, 4 if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures, 5 then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God. 

The quest is commendable.  Leaders need to be lifelong learners.  But Solomon was limiting his search to only what humans could understand and had experienced.

At his command emissaries went to India, to Egypt, to Ethiopia, to Babylon, to Greece, and to the uttermost parts of the world in search of answers to life’s most perplexing questions.  Solomon has ships and men to command.  His wealth funds wide-ranging expeditions.  His knowledge of the fauna and flora excels (1 Kgs 4:33).  His wisdom, though tainted by his disobedience, is still vast and capable of collating the results and reaching a conclusion.

He wanted to investigate every area of human endeavor — “all that is done under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 1:13). In short, he wanted to know everything about everything under the sun.

This is commendable.  Later Solomon will search for satisfaction through pleasure seeking and accolades through achievements, but he starts here…with a search through wisdom.

He would have made Plato proud.

However, we must realize that the wisdom Solomon was seeking was “under heaven,” or as he frequently says “under the sun,” meaning that it was not heavenly wisdom, not biblical wisdom so much as the wisdom one gains from ones senses, experiences and thoughts.

Seeking such wisdom is a worthy pursuit, as far as it goes.  All truth is God’s truth, wherever it may be found.  If we learn anything that is true to the world as it truly is, that truth ultimately comes as a gift from God.

By God’s “common grace,” as theologians call it, even books in the “Religion and Self-Help” section of a secular bookstore give people some of the knowledge they seek.  The question is, how far will such wisdom take us?  Will it help us to know and to worship Jesus Christ as the Son of God?  Will it lead us in the way of life everlasting?  Will it help us understand why everything matters?

This is the wisdom of those who guide us to a better life in the here-and-now; how to live a healthier, happier, more prosperous life.  This wisdom certainly has value, and many lives would be better for following it.  Yet if it excludes a true appreciation of eternity and our responsibilities in the world to come, this wisdom has no true answer to the meaninglessness of life.  It only shows us how to live our meaningless lives better.

So Solomon gave diligent search to try to gain all the wisdom he could.

But ultimately Solomon realized that this kind of wisdom—wisdom apart from God’s revelation through Scripture—was a dead end.  It didn’t end up “42” but zero.

It is rather an “unhappy business.”

The same Hebrew phrase occurs in 4:8 and 5:14 (“unhappy business”), where it refers to the burdens and trials experienced by those who live under heaven (this phrase is interchangeable with the expression “under the sun”; cf. 1:14).  For some inscrutable reason, God ordains that mankind should endure painful experiences in this present fallen order.

Again, Ecclesiastes represents a post-fall world.  Solomon’s reference to the “children of man” is literally “the children of Adam.”

Remember that God had given Adam tasks to fulfill in the garden and enough knowledge to enjoy life to the full.  But when Eve and Adam rebelled against God, they and their environment was cursed.  Now, the tasks are difficult and not nearly as fulfilling.

Tommy Nelson points out:

Adam had no philosophic problems in the garden.  He walked with God in the cool of the day.  He was in touch with infinite reality; he had an absolute answer for creation, for the dignity of man and for the distinctiveness of his wife.  He understood himself in relation to the animals and to the cosmos.  He knew why he was here.  He knew where he was going.  He knew what he was to do, but he sinned.

When Adam sinned, the lights went out.  His awareness of his place and purpose vanished.  His eyes darkened, and his offspring have continued in that state.  His children cannot look up and know what is up above the sun.  We’re just down here in this machine, trying to find some scrap of meaning. (The Problem of Life with God, pp. 21-22).

Now man is not only finite, but fallen.  Everything is now filtered through this new reality.

In fact, the word for “unhappy” is a moral word.  The Hebrew ra, means “evil.”

Thus it describes a moral category rather than an emotional state. The problem is not simply that life makes us unhappy, but that it is evil in itself.  It is not just an unfortunate business, but a bad business.

Everything we do and experience has been infected with evil, with sin.

As Francis Schaeffer once wrote, “All men . . . have a deep longing for significance, a longing for meaning . . . no man, regardless of his theoretical system, is content to look at himself as a finally meaningless machine which can and will be discarded totally and for ever.” (Death in the City (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1970), p. 98.)

Notice that this “unhappy business” is no accident, it is what God has given.  So Derek Kidner says, “He sees the restlessness of life which any observer could report, but he traces it to the will of God.  It is He who has given it to the sons of men.”  He goes on to say…

“This may sound more like bitterness than faith, but in faith it drops a clue to something positive which will be picked up in the final chapters.  At worst it would imply that there was sense, not the nonsense of chance, behind our situation, even if the sense were wholly daunting.  But it can equally well chime in with the purposeful discipline which God imposed upon us as the sequel to the Fall.  That was how Paul—with an evident glance at Ecclesiastes—was to interpret the travail of the world: “for the creation was subjected to futility…by the will of him who subjected it in hope. (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 29).

It may seem cruel of God to devise such a system, but it is actually evidence of His great love and mercy.  He built within us the desire and need for that which brings meaning and fulfillment to life.  As Augustine wrote, the Creator made a God-shaped space in each of us, which can only be filled with Him.

Ultimately we cannot be satisfied, we won’t find fulfillment in life, unless we have a personal relationship with this God.

H. C. Leupold points out that throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon refers to God as Elohim, not Yahweh.  Now, Yahweh is the personal God of covenant and promise, whereas Elohim is the distant, majestic creator God.  It makes a difference how we view God.  It may reflect how Solomon, at this stage in life, due to his own rebellion, was somewhat distant from God.

This is, however, Solomon first mention of God, as if he is beginning to see that the only One Who can answer life’s questions is the Creator Himself.

The mention of God (for the first time) in v 13 and God’s “giving” are important for understanding some basic presuppositions of this book.  It is to be interpreted within Qoheleth’s own religious traditions: God controls everything and grants “gifts,” even if arbitrarily.  This is all part of the inscrutable divine action, which defies understanding.

So, in verses 13–15 he describes the unhappiness, the emptiness, and the futility of his own efforts to understand the universe — the end of his first quest.

Verse 13 describes Solomon’s intention, whereas verse 14 expresses his experience.

14 I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. 

Within the space of two verses the lofty king (v. 12), with equally lofty intentions (v. 13) has come crashing down.  All his plans are foiled.

Solomon’s exhaustive search for answers meets with failure.  All his wisdom and resources cannot turn up the answer to his most basic question: What is the purpose of life on this planet?

He attempts to make order of chaos. In our own times another very knowledgeable man has undertaken a similar task with a strange twist to it.  World-renowned physicist, Stephen Hawking, investigates the origin of the universe while seeking to disprove the existence of God.  So far, like Solomon of old, he has failed.

Could it be that people like Solomon and Hawking are looking but not seeing?  They take into account the visible, but what about the invisible?

Charles Swindoll recounts an interesting story.  A native American was visiting New York City.  Walking with a friend near the center of Manhattan, the Indian suddenly stopped his companion and whispered, “Wait, I hear a cricket.”  

His friend was disbelieving.  A cricket?  In downtown New York?  Impossible. The cacophony of sounds from passing taxis, impatient honking, people shouting, brakes screeching, and subways roaring would make it virtually impossible to hear a cricket, even if one were present.

But, the Indian was insistent.  He stopped his friend and began to crisscross the street and sidewalks with his head cocked to one side, intently listening.  Then, in a large cement planter where a tree was growing, he finally found the cricket and held it up for his friend’s benefit.

Amazed, his friend asked how he could have possibly heard that cricket.  Reaching into his pocket, the Indian grasped some coins, held them waist high, then dropped them on the sidewalk.  Everyone within a block turned to look in their direction.

As Swindoll explains, “It all depends on what you’re listening for.  We don’t have enough crickets in our heads.  We don’t listen for them.  Perhaps you have spent all your life searching for a handful of change and you’ve missed the real sound of life.”

He had researched it all, and it was “vanity and striving after wind.”

“Striving [chasing] after wind” (v. 14) graphically pictures the futility Solomon sought to communicate (cf. 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6; 6:9).  The literal Hebrew is “shepherding wind.”

The Preacher depicts how endlessly men and women can analyze life without living it for God.  Ecclesiastes reveals that the search to answer all of life’s conundrums is like trying to shepherd the wind—to attempt to push the wind into a pen of one’s own making. It just won’t go. It is futile and useless.

James Bollhagen concludes this verse saying:

The human eye surveys the panorama of human experience with no light of divine revelation piercing the darkness.  When the church sees the pathos of this verse, it will treasure all the more God’s revealing himself in the Holy Scriptures….The church will also better understand the plight of every human being.  It will not merely commiserate with people on the level of sight, but it will focus on bringing to the lost world “the one thing needful” (Luke 10:42), the Gospel of the Savior, who has seen “the all” (cf. Eccl. 1:14) of this world’s evil and has conquered it for our salvation (John 16:33).

Same Old, Same Old, part 2 (Ecclesiastes 1:5-11)

We began last week looking at Solomon’s slap in the face, reminding us that viewing life from earth’s perspective, from the here and now, without God, leaves us breathless with the meaninglessness of life.  We look for meaning and satisfaction and find none in life.

So he starts out…

1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 3 What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? 4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. 7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. 8 All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. 9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”?  It has been already in the ages before us. 11 There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.

All is vanity.  It is empty and meaningless.  Why?  Because we come and go and it seems we don’t even leave a mark on the world.  Sun, wind and rains all cycle through taking no notice of us.

5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. 7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. 

As for the world, it remains the same.  There is no progress, only the same old, same old.  The sun (v. 5), the wind (v. 6), the rains (v. 7) appear, disappear and come back again.  These hardworking forces all seem to be quite busy doing something new each and every day.  But a closer look will show their motion-filled monotony.

The world is a very repetitive place. Nothing ever changes. So what profit is there? What do we gain?  Jerome said, “What is more vain than this vanity: that the earth, which was made for humans, stays — but humans themselves, the lords of the earth, suddenly dissolve into the dust?” (quoted in J. L. Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes , Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1987), p. 63.)

Nature is not heading to a climactic point but is performing an endless cycle of the same thing every day.  You come, you live, you die, you go into the earth.  Does the earth care?  Does the earth applaud you?  No, it just keeps going.

The theory of evolution has been promoted as a way of thinking about this world.  Evolution believes that by chance we came into being because of some chemical concoction.  But if all we are is chance molecules joining together, then when we wonder “Who am I?” evolution answers back, “You are nothing.”

That’s as good as it gets “under the sun.”

According to Ecclesiastes, even the sun itself gets short of breath.  The word “hastens” is really the Hebrew word for “pant” (sha’ap), which may suggest that the sun is racing from east to west and back again; but more likely it means that the sun is weary of its slow and endless journey across the sky.  Usually we turn to nature to find encouragement for the soul, but when the Preacher looks at the sun, he simply sees the monotony of life in a static universe.

The sun rises and sets—over and over and over again, same old, same old. It never gets anywhere.  It never does anything new.  It is still a big old ball of hot gas seemingly doing perpetual somersaults around the earth. It is exhausting even to think about.

The great novelist Ernest Hemingway went to this verse of Ecclesiastes for the title of one of his books, The Sun Also Rises.  Like most modern literature, this first novel of Hemingway depicts heroes and heroines who are disillusioned and wearied with life.  (Roland Cap Ehlke, The People’s Bible, Ecclesiastes, 12)

Around and around the wind goes, following its circular course but never reaching a destination.  For all its constant movement, there is never any progress.  The wind might seem to be “free,” but it returns to the same place.

The flow of water seems just as profitless. “All streams run to the sea,” the Preacher says, “but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again” (Ecclesiastes 1:7).  When he talks about water flowing and flowing again, he is not describing the water cycle, in which water evaporates into the clouds and eventually returns to water the earth in the form of rain.  Rather, Qoheleth is talking about the way that all rivers and streams flow forever to the sea.

There is an especially vivid example of this in Israel, where Qoheleth lived.  The Dead Sea is landlocked; it has no outlet to another body of water.  Yet for all the centuries that the Jordan River has been flowing down into the Dead Sea, the sea is not yet full, and thus the water continues to flow.

Again, this is what makes the gospel so thrilling and fulfilling, for we don’t have to depend upon the waters of the world to quench our thirst when we have a fountain of water welling up inside us, the Holy Spirit.

Solomon is, however, mounting up examples of the fact that in nature, everything is in a rut.

“The preacher’s point is this: When we die, the sun will rise the next morning, the waters will tide, and the wind will blow, while human beings after us will likewise come, take their turn, and go.  So, our worst and best days fade.” (Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, p. 49).

What Solomon is pointing out to us is that we so often believe the illusions of permanence and control.  Nature reveals that neither is true for us.

Its meaning is blunt and simple: you will not be able to induce significant change in the course of life because creation itself is stamped with an indelible pattern that brooks no human alterations.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 49)

Life just doesn’t have any natural reward of itself.  It doesn’t automatically head to a climactic point of happiness, meaning, and fruition.  It just grinds on with the sun rising and setting.  Nature never rewards you; instead, it smashes you into pulp, then you die and go into the ground.  (Tommy Nelson, A Life Well Lived, 4)

All of this is true only if you look at life “under the sun” and leave God out of the picture.  Then the world becomes a closed system that is uniform, predictable (but not controllable) and unchangeable.  It becomes a world where there are no answers to prayer and no miracles, for nothing can interrupt the cycle of nature. (Warren Wiersbe)

Daily life is like the famous song from the musical Show Boat , in which Old Man River just keeps rolling along.  The song is sung by Joe, a dock worker on the Mississippi River, who is worn out by all his hard work.  What he sings sounds a lot like Ecclesiastes:

Ah gits weary,
An’ sick o’ tryin’,
Ah’m tired o’ livin’,
And skeered o’ dyin’,
But Ol’ Man River,
He jus’ keeps rollin’ along!

Michael Eaton notes:

“For Old Testament orthodoxy, creation rings with the praises of the LORD. Creation is his….  But, says the Preacher, take away its God, and creation no longer reflects his glory; it illustrates the weariness of mankind.” (Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes).

There is a treadmill to life’s experiences.  The mood has been well expressed by L. Alonso Schökel: “In what another might see as the rich, limitless variety of creation, he contemplates the monotony of existence.  The result is that the theme reveals his attitude, and the technique he uses is synonymy.  He wants us to focus on what is the same and overcomes his readers with the fatigue of monotony” (A Manual of Hebrew Poetics, 71).

All of this makes the Preacher tired just thinking about it.  So he takes what he has observed in nature and summarizes it like this: “All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it” (Ecclesiastes 1:8).  Life is such a wearisome, toilsome trouble that it is hard even to put into words.  The Contemporary English Version says it like this: “All of life is far more boring than words could ever say.”

Yet he is not finished making his argument.  It is not just the natural world that proves how little there is for us to gain in life, but also our own personal experience.

Solomon summarized the plight of man in relation to this inhuman, impersonal, destructive, entropy-filled cosmos by saying:

All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

After surveying instances of the constant repetition of an action in nature, the author now turns to the activity of humans (the primary interest in the work) and finds the same phenomenon there: they are part of that world, always active and yet never satisfied.  The inadequacy of words is not merely the inability of humans to find words that fit (the ideal of the sage was the right word at the right time; cf. Prov 15:23, 25:11).  Rather, the point is that human words never achieve their purpose.

Life is such a wearisome, toilsome trouble that it is hard even to put into words.  The Contemporary English Version says it like this: “All of life is far more boring than words could ever say.”

Verse 8 speaks of our incessant curiosity, wanting to see and hear everything.  And with the internet and social media we can satiate our senses with pixels and data.  But it leaves us empty.

Every day we see an endless procession of visual images: Comcast, YouTube, BlackBerry, Netflix. We can also listen to an endless stream of sounds: iPod, iPhone, iTunes, TVs, CDs, and mp3s.

Yet even after all our looking and listening, our eyes and our ears are not satisfied. 

There is always one more show to watch, one more game to play, one more song to which to listen.  So we keep text-messaging, webcasting, Facebooking, Twittering, and Flickring.  But what have we gained?  What have we accomplished?

Our senses may be fed, but are never filled.  We always are looking for more.

As Zack Eswine relates: “Sunshine is pleasant and happy.  But it cannot satisfy us.  Everything we sense leaves us restless.  Like a child two days after Christmas, or lovers two days after holding hands for the first time, we grow bored even with the good things.  We always want more.” (Recovering Eden, p. 52)

According to the preacher, there is nothing but the same old story:

9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”?  It has been already in the ages before us.

Now, it is obvious that technology and invention have given us many new and wonderful devices.  The things we create, however, are not Solomon’s focus.  Rather, the context makes it clear that his focus references the toil of human beings under the sun and the absence of gain that it provides them.

Every generation faces the same basic issues and questions.

Again, in the words of Zack Eswine…

“Every human being has tried to navigate food, clothing, and shelter.  Each one has wrestled with what it means to work, to provide a way of life, to make their way, to hope and weep for their children.  Crimes, wounds, and enemies are not new.  Handling weather patterns, sickness, romance, gaining, sadness, forgiveness, commitment, laughter, and dreams has not originated with us….A young one in love is an ancient thing.  Spring rains are old-fashioned.  Most human questions have hung around.  Death speaks all languages. Uniqueness does not bring about the gain for which we strive. (Recovering Eden, p. 53)

Has Solomon abandoned the hope-filled view of history of his people, a linear history that has a goal and purpose, for the cyclical way of viewing history common to the East?  This may be part of what is contained by the “under the sun” perspective he is forcing us to consider.

The journey goes on; we never arrive.  Under the sun there is nowhere to make for, nothing finally satisfying or really new.  As for pinning our hopes on posterity, in the end posterity will have lost the faintest memory of us.

Verse 11 states…

11 There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.

As the generations come and go (1:4), there are very few people who make any significant impact on the course of world history; the majority of the human race lives and dies in obscurity.  The seemingly never-ending march of human generations thus appears to be as purposeless as the repetitive cycles of the natural world.

Today’s celebrities are tomorrow’s obituaries, and their names are as disposable as the morning paper in which their life stories will be printed.  And if that is what becomes of our celebrities, what will become of us?

One day we too will be forgotten.  Centuries from now, the common experiences of our own time will be among the “former things” that are mentioned in Ecclesiastes 1.  What we have accumulated will be lost; what we have accomplished will be forgotten.  Our descendants will not remember us any better than we remember our ancestors.  Eventually, when things that have yet to happen are forgotten, those people will no longer be remembered either.

Folks, this is reality “under the sun.”  This pessimistic, hopeless perspective is what results when you leave God out of the equation.

Here again it is crucially important to understand the Preacher’s purpose.  There is a reason why he wants us to feel the full weight of the weariness and futility of life under the sun.  “The function of Ecclesiastes,” writes Derek Kidner, “is to bring us to the point where we begin to fear that such a comment (all is vanity) is the only honest one.  So it is, if everything is dying.  We face the appalling inference that nothing has meaning, nothing matters under the sun.” (The Message of Ecclesiates, p. 20).

Yet this phrase also leaves open the possibility of a different perspective.  When he says “under the sun,” the Preacher “rules out all higher values and spiritual realities and employs only the resources and gifts that this world offers.  The use of this phrase is equivalent to drawing a horizontal line between earthly and heavenly realities.” (H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1952), p. 28)

But, of course, this is not the only way to look at things, or even the right way to look at them.  There is a God in Heaven who rules over the sun.  Therefore, we are not limited to the terrestrial; [but] by the revelation of the Word of God, we can also see things from the celestial.  

The reason the Preacher shows us the weariness of our existence, making us more and more disillusioned with life under the sun, is so we will not expect to find meaning and satisfaction in earthly things, but only in God himself.

Here is how the nineteenth-century English commentator Charles Bridges explained the Preacher’s strategy: “We are permitted to taste the bitter wormwood of earthly streams, in order that, standing by the heavenly fountain, we may point our fellow sinners to the world of vanity we have left and to the surpassing glory and delights of the world we have newly found.”

Just because you are a believer in Jesus Christ doesn’t always mean that you are including God, spiritual realities and eternity in view in your practical, everyday life.  We often live as “practical atheists.”  We believe in God, but don’t keep Him in mind in day to day activities.  We believe in spiritual realities and eternity, but we live for the material and the present.

By the way, Solomon never uses the personal name of God Yahweh in this book.  He addresses God as Elohim.  Again, it speaks to the reality that this viewpoint occurs when we fail to pursue a personal relationship with God.

Solomon is warning us of the futility, emptiness and dissatisfaction of living this way.

As we continue through Ecclesiastes, I hope you will remember to put God front and center in your mind, and to consider the reality of spiritual and eternal things.

David Guzik points out that for the Christian, there are many new things:

· A new name (Isaiah 62:2Revelation 2:17).

· A new community (Ephesians 2:14).

· A new help from angels (Psalm 91:11).

· A new commandment (John 13:34).

· A new covenant (Jeremiah 31:33Matthew 26:28).

· A new and living way to heaven (Hebrews 10:20).

· A new purity (1 Corinthians 5:7).

· A new nature (Ephesians 4:24).

· A new creation in Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).

· All things become new! (2 Corinthians 5:17Revelation 21:5).

Same Old, Same Old, part 1 (Ecclesiastes 1:2-4)

“Everything an Indian does is in a circle,” said Black Elk, a Sioux religious leader.  “Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing and always come back again to where they were.  The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood….” (Warren Wiersbe)

You would think Black Elk had been reading the first chapter of Ecclesiastes!

Eastern religions have this same concept, that life repeats itself over and over again throughout the centuries.  Whenever you use phrases like “life cycle,” or “wheel of fortune,” or “come full circle,” you are joining Black Elk, Solomon and a host of others in taking a cyclical view of life.  Here is how Solomon puts it.

1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 3 What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? 4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. 7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. 8 All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. 9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”?  It has been already in the ages before us. 11 There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.

We are studying the book of Ecclesiastes because it is very honest about the troubles of life—so honest that the American novelist Herman Melville once called it “the truest of all books.”

Ecclesiastes captures the futility and frustration of a fallen world. It is honest about the drudgery of work, the injustice of government, the dissatisfaction of foolish pleasure, and the mind-numbing tedium of everyday life — “the treadmill of our existence” that we see in this first passage.

Verse 2 is David’s motto, which he will spend the remainder of the book explaining, proving  and illustrating.  It functions much like Proverbs 1:7 in the book of Proverbs.

Solomon begins with a motto about life, a fairly pessimistic one:

2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities!  All is vanity. 

Talk about a Debbie Downer!  With these encapsulating superlatives, Qoheleth takes the whole sum of human existence and declares that it is utterly meaningless.

The repetition “vanity of vanities,” like “King of kings and Lord of lords” and “holy of holies” indicates that Solomon is speaking of vanity in the nth degree, an ultimate and unsurpassed vanity.  And it is not “a mere flicker on the surface of things, where it might even had have a certain charm.  It is the sum total.”

Solomon is claiming that life is pointless—all of life, that it has no meaning, no purpose.

To him, the place that was once called “very good” has been reduced to nothing, totally empty of meaning and satisfaction.

While we as Christians might object, Solomon is not quick to run to a possible fullness of life that comes with God and Jesus Christ.

In Derek Kidner’s words:

“He wants us to look very closely at the world we can see and at the answers it seems to give, before he will do more than drop hints of his own standpoint.”

Solomon wants us to face our own discomfort and disappointment with this world.  He wants us to take an honest look at the things we don’t like about life…and death.

As Zack Eswine says…

“What God created and purposed was legitimate and good.  To lose this good is pain.  There are things worth crying about.  To learn such tears for the Eden that once was is to learn how to cry like the wise we are meant to become.” (Recovering Eden, pp. 28-29).

Again, this word vanity occurs 38 times throughout the book of Ecclesiastes and 35 times elsewhere.  In 13 of those cases it refers to idols.

It comes from the Hebrew word hebel.  It can refer to a mist or vapor.  “Whatever disappears quickly, leaves nothing behind and does not satisfy is hevel. One of my language professors at seminary defined hevel as ‘whatever is left after you break a soap bubble.’” (Warren Wiersbe, 1109.)  No matter what Solomon experiences and examines, it all comes up hevel.  This is his constant refrain until chapter 12.

Taken literally, the Hebrew word hevel refers to a breath or vapor, like a puff of smoke rising from a fire or the cloud of steam that comes from warm breath on a frosty morning. Life is like that.  It is elusive, ephemeral, and enigmatic.  Life is so insubstantial that when we try to get our hands on it, it slips right through our fingers.

Life is also transitory. It disappears as suddenly as it comes.  Now you see it, now you don’t!  We are here today and gone tomorrow.  Thus the Bible often compares our mortal existence to a vapor.  According to the psalmist, we are “mere breath” (Psalm 39:5); our days will “vanish like a breath” (Psalm 78:33; cf. Job 7:7).  The Apostle James said something similar when he described life as “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14).  So too when the Preacher says “vanity of vanities,” he is partly making a comment on the transience of life.  Breathe in; now breathe out.  Life will pass by just that quickly.

But life is not merely transient, it has no meaning.  It is “smoke and mirrors.”  Laurin (p. 586 says)…

“It appears to imply here both (1) that which is transitory, and (2) that which is futile.  It emphasizes how swiftly earthly things pass away, and how little they offer while one has them (cf. Jas 4:14).”

God had told Adam…

for out of [the ground] you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return (Genesis 3:19).

Tommy Nelson summarizes:

“Materially speaking, life is short and then you die.  You will lose everything you own to the next generation.  Your children will rent out your house, purge your possessions, and spend your inheritance.  Ultimately, you will be a distant memory at a Thanksgiving meal” (The Problem of Life Without God, p. 11).

Kidner believes that Solomon’s method here is to embody the most radical thoughts of people, unbelievers in particular, and he follows their train of thought “further than they would care to take them.  Path after path will be relentlessly explored to the very point at which it comes to nothing.  In the end, only one way will be left” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 23).

Fortunately, we know from this side of the cross that Jesus came to make empty lives full.  He came, he said “that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

Verses 3-11 is Solomon’s first illustration of the utter vanity of life—the cyclical nature of life here on earth.

Rather than saying, “All work is vanity,” Solomon made the same point by asking this rhetorical question that expects a negative response.  He will use this literary device often throughout the book (cf. 2:2; 3:9; 6:8, 11-12; et al.).

3 What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?

The same question will come up again in chapter 3: “What gain has the worker from his toil?” (v. 9).  The idea of gaining some profit will come up repeatedly as well; it appears nearly a dozen times in the book of Ecclesiastes (e.g., Ecclesiastes 5:9).

The word “man” here in verse 3 is the word adam in Hebrew, which echoes Genesis and reminds us that the Fall of Adam is never far from Solomon’s mind.  Ecclesiastes certainly reflect a post-Genesis-3 viewpoint.

The word “gain” is a commercial term.  It can also be translated “profit.”  This is the goal toward which anyone in business is working. The goal is to turn a profit as the reward for one’s labor. Gain is the return on investment for hard work.

What profit do you have at the end of a day of work?  What profit do you have in a lifetime of work?  When you die and your life is over, what do you profit?  Am I really accomplishing anything?

Have you ever asked yourself these questions?  Maybe we should.

Solomon’s repetition in “all the toil at which he toils” also reminds us of Adam’s curse.  God had told Adam:

cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Solomon uses the phrase “under the sun”, which will pop up 29 times in this book, to indicate a perspective that is earthbound and temporal.  It does not take heaven or eternity in view.  In the metanarrative of Scripture, it does not take up creation or redemption, but only the fall.

The book clearly states at the outset that it limits itself primarily to things that are apparent to the natural mind.  One of its key phrases is the continual repetition, under the sun.  (Ray Stedman, Is This All There Is to Life?, 9)

Ecclesiastes, then, is a summation of what man is able to discern under the sun–that is, in the visible world.  The book does consider revelation that comes from beyond man’s powers of observation and reason, but only as a contrast to what the natural mind observes.  (Ray Stedman, Is This All There Is to Life?, 10)

Believe me, Solomon is not the only person to think this way.  Many philosophers, and especially moderns, having eliminated God out of the picture, have lost any sense of meaning and purpose in life.

If you discount eternity, and the reward we receive there, it can certainly seem like you end up life with a big fat zero.  From this viewpoint, you spend your life working and laboring and what do you end up with?  Nothing.

So Solomon expresses dissatisfaction with life.  He sees it as empty and ephemeral, tragic and transient.

David Augsburger, in his book When Enough is Enough, writes:

Emptiness is the center of our humanness.  To flee it is to miss the creative openness toward creation and the Creator.  To stuff it full of things is to block our ability to receive others in listening love.  To anesthetize it with addictive experiences is to deaden the creative springs of the true self.  Emptiness is to be embraced as a gift.

This is similar to Augustine’s cry at the beginning of his Confessions: “You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”

Like Solomon, Augustine went through a succession of desperate searches for fulfillment: excessive pleasures, false religions, philosophy, dissipation and distractions—futilities that left him so weary of himself he could only cry out, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

Solomon looks at life and sees endless cycles that, for now, lead to no meaning or satisfaction.

“Ah, but one hopes to make the world a better place, or at least to leave something for those who follow.  As though expecting that reply Qoheleth points to the ceaseless making and unmaking that goes on in human history: the wave after wave of generations with their rise and fall, their coming men who are soon forgotten men; all this against the impassive background of the earth, which sees each generation out and goes on for ever.  No doubt it will see the last of us off the scene, and what will man amount to then?” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 25.)

To prove his point — that we have nothing to show for all our effort — the Preacher lists a series of things that never seem to go anywhere or gain anything.  The first half of his introductory poem gives examples from creation — the natural world (vv. 4–7).  The second half gives examples from human experience (vv. 8–11).  But whether we look at the world around us or consider our own life experience, the point is the same: there is nothing to gain.  People like to talk about progress — economic development, technological advances, evolutionary improvements — but it is all a myth.  There is never any progress: just the same old, same old.

According to Ecclesiastes, the evolutionary chart in school fooled us into believing that history is a straight line going up and we are more advanced than those primitive people who came before us.  The truth is that history is really a circle, a cul-de-sac to be more exact.  One generation after another drives around and around that cul-de-sac worshiping their idol and trying to outdo their neighbor with more sex, more stuff, more power, more information, and more fame.  As fools often do, we mistake movement for progress.  With brutal honesty about this fact, Ecclesiastes feels more like a punch in the gut than a kiss on the lips.

Like an overcritical building inspector, in Ecclesiastes 1:4–11 Pastor Solomon shows us what is wrong with our work.  Later, he will point out what I call “minor problems”—that our willingness to work often comes from impure motives such as envy (4:4); that our work, if profitable, often leads to sleepless nights (5:12; cf. 2:23); and that all the wealth from our work must be bequeathed to someone who doesn’t deserve it and might foolishly squander it (2:18–19).  The two major problems in our construct, however, he addresses in verses 4–11.

The first major problem is that our work adds nothing new to this world.

From the human point of view, nothing seems more permanent and durable than the planet on which we live; nothing seems more ephemeral and meaningless as our lives.

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

Nature is permanent, but man is transient, a mere pilgrim on earth.  His pilgrimage is a brief one, for death finally claims him….Individuals and families come and go, nations and empires rise and fall, but nothing changes, for the world remains the same.

We think we make a difference, leave a mark, Solomon says, but we don’t.

Start with nature — earth, wind, fire, and water.  Qoheleth says, “A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever” (Ecclesiastes 1:4).

When people think about the next generation, they usually think in terms of progress.  Our children are our future; they will be able to accomplish things that go beyond anything we could ever dream.  Whether it is generation X, generation Y, or generation Z, there is always another generation to give us hope for the future.  We imagine and hope for progress.

But Ecclesiastes take an “under the sun” perspective and makes us realize that one generation may be rising but another is dying off.  Soon that generation will die off too.  Generations come, generations go.  And you don’t even have to be dead and gone before the younger generation refuses to listen to you anymore.

This is the perspective Solomon wants us to wrestle with, a perspective “under the sun.”

The Argument of Ecclesiastes

Warren Wiersbe said that when he was asked to launch an Old Testament series of commentaries, he could think of no better place to start than Ecclesiastes, with the title “Be Satisfied.”

Yet satisfaction is what this book seems to lack, at least at first.  It shows that although we seek satisfaction in all the events, activities, people or things of life, we inevitably come up short.

Every one of us craves meaning and happiness—it’s human nature to look for it.  The question is, where are we looking to find it: work, pleasure, our children, our spouse, beauty, sex, our possessions, our position, our reputation, our accomplishments?

Ecclesiastes won’t allow for pat answers to these deeply existential questions—it forces us to look deeply at life and see where happiness and true satisfaction come from.

C. S. Lewis once wrote: “Human history…[is] the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”

For those who see no end to their laborious search for meaning and satisfaction, Jesus promises rest: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

Again, setting the book within its context of wisdom literature:

Proverbs is all about getting us moving in the right direction, toward the Lord and away from ourselves.  Job shows us how to keep moving in that direction when everything falls apart.  Ecclesiastes completes the triptych of wisdom books, inspiring us to persevere in that journey, despite how frustrating it may be to do so.

Proverbs tells us what is generally true in God’s moral universe.  Ecclesiastes seems to argue against that.  It points out the exceptions, the dark side of reality, which we all feel at times and need to grapple with in a serious manner.

Ecclesiastes, more than other any book, reveals the fallout from the curse of Genesis 3.

Today we want to look at the argument of Ecclesiastes, how it is laid out to accomplish its purpose.

The thesis of this book is stated in Ecclesiastes 1:1-11, and the thesis is clear: Life is empty.

1:2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 

That’s how it’s stated. It’s stated that way not because that is Ecclesiastes’ final verdict, but to shock all who are trying to live life apart from God, or without a living trust in God, into the reality of what they are facing.

To restate the thesis in light of the total teaching of Ecclesiastes: Life “under the sun” (that is, life lived apart from God) is empty.

This phrase “under the sun” is used 29 times in the book of Ecclesiastes (and nowhere else in Scripture) to emphasize the perspective from which Solomon is speaking.  What that literally means is you lock God out of a closed system, and you are left with only this world of time plus chance plus matter.

But we should not think of “under the sun” in a spatial sense, but more of a temporal sense, “now rather than then.”  It is like Asaph’s struggle in Psalm 73 with the blessings he saw the wicked enjoying (now) but ultimately came to realize that in eternity the roles would be reversed.  We live under the sun today, but we will live in glory tomorrow.

In his famous sermon “Learning in War-Time,” C.S. Lewis wrestled profoundly with the relationship between things temporal and things eternal.  The particular pressure point in his context was the advent of the Second World War.  How should his students make sense of the pursuit of academic pleasures — what Lewis called “placid occupations” — while Europe was poised on the precipice of so great a conflict?

Lewis engaged the question by widening its lens, dramatically broadening the scope from the immediate danger to the more remote but greatest reality of all: judgment by the living God.  If learning in wartime may be compared to Nero fiddling while Rome burned, then “to a Christian the true tragedy of Nero must be not that he fiddled while the city was on fire but that he fiddled on the brink of hell.”  In other words, Lewis suggested, the real question is this: How should we make sense of anything at all in our present, bodily, earthly lives while the yawning chasm of eternity waits for us beyond the grave?

Under the sun, life is monotonous; over the sun, it’s adventurous.  Under the sun, wisdom is vain; over the sun, wisdom is extremely useful. Under the sun, wealth is futile; over the sun, wealth opens up great opportunities.  Under the sun, death is certain; over the sun, death provides great motivation.  The Christian life can be compared to a puzzle, a battle, a challenge, a race, a treasure hunt, or a pilgrimage.  None of these are monotonous or boring. They are the stuff of true adventure.

Life “under the sun” is meaningless.  It is futile.  It’s a bad joke.  In this book, “the Preacher” (that’s what the author calls himself) argues that every human avenue to meaning and fulfillment fails, apart from faith in the God of providence.  All substitutes for finding true enjoyment and meaningful, well-grounded satisfaction in life, other than God Himself, end up empty.  Throughout the book, especially in the early going, he explores ways that humans try to dig themselves out of this meaninglessness: through thinking about life hard and long, through the pursuit of pleasure, through work, family, and affluence, for instance.

This books tells the story of perhaps the only person ever to have everything the world has to offer—money, wisdom, and pleasure—and he comes to the conclusion that those things cannot satisfy.

In the first cycle, Ecclesiastes 1:3-11, Solomon says that work has no advantages.  There is no advantage to work from earth’s perspective because of the cycles of life which entrap people and because of the lack of fulfillment in doing anything.  Because everything is cyclical “under the sun,” one is never satisfied (v. 8), there is nothing new (v. 9-10) and nothing will be remembered (v. 11).

Verse 2: “Everything is meaningless” (I’m empty.)

Verse 8: “All things are full of weariness” (I’m tired.)

Verse 8: “Never enough…not satisfied” (I’m restless.)

Verse 11: “There is no remembrance” (I’m expendable.)

Ever felt that?  Empty, tired, restless, expendable?  This is the perspective of the person who has not yet integrated his or her relationship with God into the experiences of everyday life.

In the second cycle (1:12-18), Solomon tries to escape into wisdom, into learning more and more.  But he ends up in the same place. 

1:13 And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 

Wisdom “under the sun” merely sees work as affliction, that life cannot be altered, and that there is pain in life.  Solomon concludes that being wise, knowledgeable, savvy, smart, philosophically reflective, and astute can’t provide meaning/satisfaction. Indeed, it leads to despair.

So Solomon tries another (3rd cycle, 2:1-11) escape route, this time into pleasure.  He says, in effect, “Well then, if wisdom brings grief/despair, what about pleasure/laughter?  Maybe escape from grief via comedy and the satiation of the senses will suffice.”  But it doesn’t.  Pleasure-seeking as a way of satisfaction fails because God has not built us to be satisfied that way. “It cannot quench man’s spiritual thirst.”

A fourth cycle goes back to wisdom in 2:12-18).  In examining wisdom and folly Solomon affirms that the former (wisdom) is preferable, but not ultimately fulfilling since death is the end of both the fool and the wise (2:12-16) and because we all die it is empty and senseless (2:17).  Solomon’s conclusion, in v. 17, is…

So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.

In 2:18-26, he discusses escape route #3–the belief that work/vocation can provide meaning/satisfaction.  But there the Preacher explains, first, why work won’t work (18-19) as the provision of meaning/significance in life; second, why work alone (apart from relationship with God) leads to despair (20-23); and then tells us, third, about the kind of work that truly satisfies (24-26).

Verses 24-25 introduce a key thought:

24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 

Enjoying life for the moment is appropriate, even in the midst of hating life (on the whole) because of its troubles and inability to deeply satisfy.  Enjoying life is “from the hand of God” and is totally dependent upon Him.

Actually, Solomon will say this, or something like this, seven times throughout the book.  It’s a troubling answer, but it’s also a simple one.  Believe it or not, seven times the answer is to have fun and enjoy the life that God has given.  Until chapters 11-12, that is the only answer, but it is the penultimate answer.

So where does one go from here?  The best human wisdom can’t supply meaning.  Pleasure can’t either.  Work/vocation, apart from God, fails. Where to?  That leads us to 3:1-22 and the Preacher’s first full-scale attempt to give a positive, constructive answer to the depressing scenario of life under the sun.  From the contemplative life, to the sensuous life, to the active life–in search of meaning and satisfaction–and he can’t find it there, anywhere (apart from God).  The solution: sovereignty and providence!  The world is divided into two camps: those who believe in God’s sovereignty and those who reject it.  All else is a variation on one of those two themes.

In 3:1-8 Solomon affirms that everything, including events and experiences which seem to be contradictory, has an appointed time. 

Then in 3:9-21 Solomon gives a general solution: Although the appointments of life may point to despair in striving, meaning for life may be found if one follows the eternal drive within oneself to recognize God as the giver of life.

Here again, Solomon gives us a clue that the answer to life lies beyond this life. In v. 11 he says…

He has made everything beautiful in its time.  Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 

There is an afterlife.  We may not have the answer to every question in this life, but we can trust God for life after death.

Then, in a very difficult, somber, and sobering passage, Ecclesiastes 4, the Preacher contemplates all the rampant injustice and oppression in this world–the Preacher proves once again that “if we hope only for this life, we are of all men most miserable.”

Then moving through chapter 5 we see that the overall theme of chapters 4-5 is that Solomon affirms that life can be enjoyed rather than fearfully protected and despaired of when one knows God as the One who gives life.

We learn here that though wealth can be a gift from God, it is an awful curse without Him and a major trial even with Him.  There he shows the emptiness of wealth, prosperity, and affluence, without God.

In our religious life we must revere God (5:1-7).  In our business life we do not trust in riches (5:8-17).  Once again, Solomon returns to the theme of enjoying the moments:

18 Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 19 Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil–this is the gift of God.

It is ok to enjoy God’s good gifts, pleasures, possessions and powers.  These are gifts from God.  The danger is when they become the source of our joy or we begin trusting them, rather than trusting in and enjoying God Himself.

We must be careful not to allow good things to become god things—to put our ultimate trust or love or satisfaction in them.

As Augustine said, ““He loves Thee too little, who loves anything together with Thee, which he loves not for Thy sake.”

In 6:1-12, we find the Preacher’s summary of various escape routes from nihilism, vanity, and meaninglessness: wealth, long life, family, work, words; but we also find there that none of these can provide true satisfaction, significance, happiness, blessedness, meaning, fullness, fulfillment.  The search for satisfaction, significance, happiness, blessedness, meaning, fullness, fulfillment is not wrong in itself, but often pursued wrongly.  God has not built life for anything apart from Him to satisfy.

In 7:1-29, by presenting a series of opposites, dangers, and fallen-world life scenarios, the Preacher shows true wisdom and the folly of trying to make sense of life apart from God. And in 8:1-17, he continues and confirms the point of chapter seven by pointing out the quandary of oppression in this life, the futilities that face us.  This life, considered apart from God, has no cheering answer to give us about the meaning of life, and no hope to offer us–only frustration.

In 9:1-18, the Preacher emphasizes that the person who knows God draws comfort from God’s sovereignty, even in the face of death and life’s difficulties, and views death in moral terms.

Death is the big bugaboo in the book of Ecclesiastes.  It comes to all of us, cuts life short and “under the sun” is the end.

Then in 10:1-20 he compares and contrasts wisdom and folly, and basically gives us a taxonomy of folly.  The Preacher makes two basic points: a little folly can do a lot of damage, and folly is a heart problem, shows in character and conduct, is found in high places, has consequences, is especially apparent in speech and laziness, and has dreadful effects on a nation.  Although wisdom doesn’t solve every problem, it is clearly superior to folly.

In 11:1-10, we learn how to respond to the uncertainties of life in light of an overarching trust in God’s providence.  It’s the beginning of the Preacher’s “end game.”  

“The life of indifference and unbelief has been placed against [the life of faith] on the scales and been found wanting.” Now the Preacher calls for a verdict.  The whole section is a sustained call to decision.  We must respond to God without delay, in wholehearted faith, whether life is adverse or comfortable, for we are marching towards the day of our death.” (Eaton).

We meet here a call to bold, confident, and joyous living, even in light of the uncertainties of life because of the certainties of God’s providence.

11:9 and then chapter 12 encourages us to “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’” (Ecclesiastes 12:1).

The key verses of the book are found at the end, where Solomon at long last gives us the answer what makes sense of life:

13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

The book of Ecclesiastes shows us there are no pat answers in matters pertaining to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  He does whatever he pleases, which often will look to us like “time and chance” (Eccl 9:11).  But His word never fails, His promises are sure, and His commandments are not burdensome.  When He sets his affection on you, he gives you the gift of irrational joy in the face of such frustration.  Don’t ever give that up or take it for granted, for Jesus died and rose so the pure life of the age to come could invade our present age of frustration.

Christians ought to respond to their world in a way unlike anyone else, and Ecclesiastes explains why.

The Pursuit of Ecclesiastes

Ever heard of the term YOLO?  It’s an acronym that became popular internet slang in 2012.  It means “You only live once.”  Along the same lines as the Latin carpe diem (‘seize the day’), it is a call to live life to its fullest extent, even embracing behavior which carries inherent risk.

YOLO captures the thinking and philosophy of the American young person.  It focuses on oneself and offers an answer to Aristotle’s ancient question: How ought a man live his life?

This worldview says, “you only live once and then you die.”  It is a fairly pessimistic worldview and it focuses only on the material world and the here and now.  So, go for the gusto, enjoy yourself, eat, drink and engage in sex, for tomorrow we die.  Get the most out of life now.

And aren’t we guaranteed, by our Constitution, the right to pursue happiness?

Yet Malcolm Muggeridge, in his book Jesus Rediscovered, states…

This lamentable phrase, ‘the pursuit of happiness’ as an inalienable right, is responsible for a good part of the ills and miseries of the modern world.  To pursue happiness as a conscious aim is the surest way to miss it altogether, as is only too evident in countries like Sweden and America, where happiness is most ardently pursued, and the material conditions thought to be most conducive to happiness are all in place, and yet despair abounds.

Of course, the gospel presents a different worldview—a worldview that includes a resurrection to life hereafter, investing this life with so much more meaning.

But that pursuit of trying to find meaning in this life is ancient.  And today we are going to go back to the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes.

Ecclesiastes was written by Solomon, though that is debated.  I believe it was Solomon because verse 1 tells us…

1 The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem.

Solomon, of course, fits that description.  He was the son of David and he was king in Jerusalem.  Solomon also had the opportunity to pursue the paths that the author believes would lead to meaning—pursuing wealth, wisdom and pleasure.

Solomon reigned at the high point of Israel, under him the nation of Israel prospered like never before!  Solomon was rich in wisdom, the wisest person on the planet.  People traveled from all over the world to hear his counsel.  He also had over 700 wives and 300 concubines.  With his wives, he engaged in parties and rituals and festivals.

This man was the epitome of YOLO.  Surely this guy knows how to enjoy life and surely he is satisfied?  But in the second verse of Ecclesiastes he says: “Meaningless! Meaningless?’ says the Teacher. ‘Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”

The book of Ecclesiastes is part of the Writings, the Kethubim, in the Jewish Bible.  It is part of a five-book grouping knowing as the Megilloth, the “scrolls.”  In Jewish tradition one of the five short books is read on each of the five major holidays that are based on the Old Testament: the Song of Songs is read during the Passover, the book of Ruth during the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), Lamentations on the anniversary of the destruction of the temple in 586 B. C., Esther during the Feast of Purim (Lots), and Ecclesiastes during the Feast of Booths, otherwise known as the Feast of Ingathering.

Why read during the Feast of Booths?

One possibility is that it recalls the forty-year sojourn of Israel in the wilderness, re-enacting that time of struggle by living in tents or booths, which matches Ecclesiastes’ focus on the brevity and struggle of life.

A second possibility is that Booths is a time of singing, dancing and drinking because of the new vintage and the harvesting of other produce.  Ecclesiastes likewise encourages eating and drinking and finding enjoyment in the gifts of God during this transitory life (2:23; 3:13; 5:7-18; 8:15; 9:7).  At the same time, the outwardly somber tone of Ecclesiastes, which accents the brevity of earthly life and the coming judgment (12:13-14), would serve to keep the revelry under control.

A third possibility is that Booths, like most Old Testament feasts, includes the theme of thanksgiving:  even though the believer may have to sleep on bare ground in a lean-to and live a hand-to-mouth existence, he still rejoices in his God, who somehow or another continues to provide for all his daily needs, fulfilling the petition to “give us this day our daily bread” (Matt 6:11).  It reminded Israel to look to God and depend upon Him.

Of course, in our English Bibles the book of Ecclesiastes is part of the section we call poetry or wisdom: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.

We acknowledge three Old Testament books as belonging to Solomonic authorship—Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon, although reading the three seems to be from three different people.

Many believe that Proverbs was written first, presenting wisdom in a positive sense that guided a person to making the best choices and thus most normally experiencing God’s blessings.

Song of Songs explores the marriage relationship, again from a largely positive perspective.  Of course, remembering how many wives and concubines Solomon had, we can see that Song of Songs represents an idealistic viewpoint.  In reality, Solomon was not happy through marriage.

Barry York says…

In this final stage, toward the end of his life Solomon wants to gather people before him as a “Preacher” (1:1) and have them reflect with him on what he has learned through the years.  He evaluates his life and realizes how much of it was lived “under the sun,” or in the foolish worldview that lives life without acknowledging the God who rules from on high above the sun.  All of his false pursuits of riches, knowledge, and pleasure – representing deviations from the fear of God he encouraged his son to follow in Proverbs – were vanity (1:2) and chasing after the wind (1:14).

Yet he does this evaluation without demeaning the earlier stages, as he encourages such things as enjoying hard work (2:24), good food (2:25), companionship (4:9-12), and the joys of youth (11:9).  What must accompany these activities is the fear and presence of God.  When we reach the end of our days, will we have finished well by coming to the conclusion that Solomon expressed in the last words of Ecclesiastes (12:13-14).

By the way, the English title, Ecclesiastes, is from the Greek, meaning “congregation.”  The Hebrew title Qoheleth, means “preacher.”

Luther envisions

These words were spoken by Solomon in some assembly of his retinue, perhaps after dinner…to some great prominent men who were present.  He spoke this way after he had thought long and hard to himself about the condition and vanity of human affairs….This is, then, a public sermon which they heard from Solomon.

There are three approaches to the study of Ecclesiastes.

For example, Tremper Longman sees Ecclesiastes as having two voices. The most air time is given to the Cynic, as most of the book is an extended quote of his cynicism (Eccl 1:12-12:9).  The outer frame (Eccl 1:1-1112:9-14), however, refers to “the Preacher” in third person; therefore it was composed by someone else, who is evaluating the Preacher’s message.  This outer frame is the only place in the book where we find an orthodox, praiseworthy message.

In short, this approach typically sees the book as entirely (or almost entirely) negative and not to be commended as godly.  It is in the Bible primarily to help us understand the worldview of a thoughtful unbeliever.

The second approach, which in my observation is most common among pastors, says the book of Ecclesiastes is to be commended and held up as a model for the wise life.  Some proponents of this approach are Zack Eswine and Douglas Wilson.  The book is exploring hedonism, the pursuit of pleasure.

That pursuit may be ungodly, leaving God out, “Life is meaningless, so let’s just live it up while we can,” or it might be commendable, “Life is meaningless in itself, but God miraculously blesses us with the ability to enjoy it anyway.

In other words, Ecclesiastes presents both a dark side and a light side to life. The dark side is the vanity of life “under the sun” (which is all human existence); the light side is the supernatural gift of joy from God, despite the ubiquitous vanity. God has created a world with no meaning inherent within it; yet he also blesses his people with an irrational joy in the midst of that vanity.

Thus, this view helps us understand how to find the good in the midst of the bad.  It is in the Bible to help God’s people learn how to derive joy from the Lord even when the vanity of life may war against such joy. And the best way to apply the book is to recognize both the vanity of life on earth and the gift of joy from God.

The third approach, which in my observation is most common among evangelists and engagers of culture, says the book of Ecclesiastes is to be commended as a model of how to expose a false worldview and replace it with the truth.  Some proponents of this approach are Sinclair Ferguson and Leland Ryken.

Some, such as Ryken, see in Ecclesiastes two competing voices, which alternate, almost in dialogue.  There is the voice of the unbeliever, for whom life under the sun is meaningless and hopeless.  And there is the voice of the believer, who expresses the joy of seeing the God who superintends everything from beyond the sun.

In this approach, the phrase “under the sun” tends to refer not to human existence universally (as in the Hedonist approach), but to the human existence of the unbeliever.  Believers, therefore, can be freed from an “under the sun” perspective and have it replaced with an “eternal” perspective.

In short, this approach typically sees the book as roughly half true and half false. It is in the Bible to help God’s people relate to those whose only perception is “under the sun,” and to win such folks to a more truthful and satisfying outlook on life.  The best way to apply the book is to help people grapple with the despair of materialism and naturalism, and to win them to a God’s-eye view of the heavens and the earth.

Why Study the Book of Ecclesiastes?

I am sharing here Matt Francisco’s article The Ancient Book for Anxious Moderns, in which he says…

There is perhaps no Old Testament book more perfectly suited for preaching to the modern West than Ecclesiastes.  Even before the disquieting unrest of 2020, it was clear that America had entered a new age of anxiety.

Just over the past few years, diagnoses of major depression have skyrocketed, rising 33 percent from 2013 to 2016, as have the number of people who describe themselves as lonely.  The percentage of Americans who experience stress is 20 points higher than the global average––all while life has been getting better for the average American by almost every available metric.  As Gregg Easterbrook has written in The Progress Paradox,

If you sat down with a pencil and graph paper to chart the trends of American and European life since the end of World War II, you’d do a lot of drawing that was pointed up.  Per-capita income, “real” income, longevity, home size, cars per driver, phone calls made annually, trips taken annually, highest degree earned, IQ scores, just about every objective indicator of social welfare has trended upward on a pretty much uninterrupted basis. . . . But your graphs would lose their skyward direction when the topics turned to the inner self . . . the trend line would cascade downward like water over a falls on the topic of avoiding depression.  Adjusting for population growth, ten times as many people in the Western nations today suffer from “unipolar” depression, or unremitting bad feelings without a specific cause, than did half a century ago.  Americans and Europeans have ever more of everything except happiness.

The problem, as Easterbrook illustrates, is not primarily that the American dream is dead, but that it has been achieved by so many and found wanting.

This is exactly what the author of Ecclesiastes warned us about. For 12 chapters the Preacher chronicles mankind’s fruitless attempts to find meaning, purpose, and joy under the sun, concluding time and again that all is vanity, a striving after the wind (1:14, 17; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6, 16; 6:9).

He asks, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?”  But his question is not meant to lead us to despair.  Instead, like a skilled physician of the soul, his question is meant to expose the prevailing symptom of our malady––an unrelenting restlessness and dissatisfaction with life––in order to lead us in the way of wisdom and joy.”

The quest the Preacher describes startles us with its familiarity: we too have staked our hopes on finding meaning, purpose, and joy under the sun; we too have been left disappointed.  Sure, we may have had moments where we almost grasped what we were after––maybe when we first landed that job, when we first got married, or when our work was finally recognized––but as soon as we held it, it began slipping through our fingers.

Naively, we assumed these moments pointed to a future moment, just out of reach, when everything would finally make sense, when we’d be able to rest, when we’d be unassailably happy.  As long as we were willing to follow the requisite steps, all we ever wanted would be ours.  But the moment never comes, and so we remain hungry and restless.

The Preacher reveals that he’s had everything we think we want, and his probing questions confirm our darkest suspicions––those we’ve sought to silence through busyness, distraction, and denial––that there is nothing under the sun that will ever satisfy the longing of an infinite soul.  There never could be a relationship, career, or accomplishment that would bring us rest, joy, and peace.  Pursuing these things as ends in themselves is a striving after wind.

In the end, death will make them vanish anyway, for “the wise dies just like the fool” (2:16), and man dies just like the beast.  And so castles made of sand slip into the sea eventually.

Without the sobering perspective of Ecclesiastes, we could easily be deluded into thinking that we’re restless and dissatisfied simply because we haven’t “arrived.”  The Preacher disabuses us of that notion.  In the face of this bleak future, we too cry “Vanity; vanity; all is vanity!” as we see the futility of life under the sun. But his words are not meant to leave us hopeless; instead, as Derek Kidner writes, “He shocks us into seeing life and death strictly from the ground level, and into reaching the only conclusions that honesty will allow.”

The first honest conclusion is that our restlessness and dissatisfaction arise from our attempts to find meaning and joy in God’s creation apart from the Creator.  In other words, “vanity, vanity, all is vanity” will always be true for the life lived apart from God.  We may choose to ignore the Preacher’s warning, continuing to place infinite expectations on finite things, but we do so at the cost of real joy, meaning, and purpose.

The second conclusion gives us hope: our inmost desires for joy, meaning, and purpose not only can be satisfied, but were designed to be.  Our disappointment in created things is not an act of cosmic cruelty; it’s a merciful signpost.

As early as Ecclesiastes 2:24–26, the Preacher writes, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. . . . For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy.”

Six times the Preacher encourages his reader to “eat and drink and make your soul enjoy the good of its labor, for it is a gift of God” (Eccles. 2:24; 3:12–14; 3:22; 5:18–19; 8:15; 9:7–9). Think of this phrase as a chorus meant to bookend every “verse,” gently reminding us that there is purpose and meaning and joy in one place only: a life lived before God.

The whole duty of man is to “fear God and keep his commandments” (Eccles. 12:13), a summary of his wisdom, and a message in full harmony with the rest of the Bible.  As Tim Keller has explained, the fear of the Lord is not terror, but instead a “life-rearranging, joyful awe and wonder before God.” Therefore, wisdom is found in recognizing and submitting to God, the gracious King.

Only when we recognize God and his gifts (Eccles. 3:13; 5:19) are we freed to rightly enjoy his created things. We can eat and drink and find enjoyment in our toil, because we know they’re but signposts pointing to the deeper joy of a life lived before God.

Therefore, far from a manifesto of hopelessness, Ecclesiastes shows us how to find joy in every moment.

A Fond Farewell (Philippians 4:21-23)

Well, today we get to the final portion of Philippians, Paul’s benediction in Philippians 4:21-23.

21 Greet every saint in Christ Jesus. The brothers who are with me greet you. 22 All the saints greet you, especially those of Caesar’s household. 23 The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

In many ways Paul, here in this final passage, recapitulates several of the themes that have been woven through this epistle from the very beginning.  Paul has emphasized fellowship and grace throughout this epistle.

Five times Paul has mentioned the fellowship that he shared with the Philippians and the fellowship they had amongst themselves.  It was a precious thing they were in danger of throwing away through conflict.

Together they were a community of brothers and sisters in Christ bound together by a great quest that was nothing less than the evangelization of the Gentile world—a quest they had pursued from the very first day.  They need to hold that dear.

Someone has written concerning the early church,

What that first century world saw was the phenomenon of people of all walks of life loving one another, serving one another, caring for one another, praying for one another.  Slaves and free men were in that community.  Rich and poor were in the fellowship; Roman citizens and non-Roman citizens were in that community. Members of the establishment and those violently opposed to the establishment were part of that community.  The intelligencia and the illiterate were members of that community.  To the utter amazement of the world outside they were bound together in an inexplanable [sic] love and unity. (Source unknown.)

God’s grace was mentioned in the very beginning (1:2) and forms the backbone for every exhortation Paul gave.  The indicative—what God has done for us—always forms the motivation and power for the imperative—what God calls us to do.  Without grace there would be no ability to be a fellowship.

Paul sends his own greetings, then the greetings of his team mates, and even all the Christians there in Rome.  The “brethren” who were “with” Paul in Rome included Epaphroditus, and probably Timothy.

He doesn’t mention them by name, like he does in Romans 16.  Perhaps, since the church at Philippi was so dear to him, the list would have just been too long.  Coffman says, “If Paul saluted a few friends by name at the end of this epistle, it would have been an insult to a hundred others whom he personally knew in Philippi.”

But even so Paul instructs the leaders of the church to greet each and every one, individually and personally.  Each one is an important partner in his ministry.  Each one has an important part to play.

By the way, by greeting “every saint” it includes Euodia and those who sided with her, as well as Syntyche and those who sided with her.  We don’t know how this conflict turned out, but Paul still considered them worthy of a greeting because they were still “saints in Christ Jesus.”

What he does call them, as well as the believers in Romans is “saints,” in fact, “saints in Christ Jesus.”  That is our most important identity.  If we could just live in that identity, we would find greater joy, security and power to live our daily lives.

So often today people want to identify themselves by their problems (their victim status) or by their rebellion against God.

But if you are a Christian, you are a “saint in Christ Jesus.”

You didn’t achieve that sainthood by living a good life or doing some great deed.  You are a saint precisely because you are “in Christ Jesus.”  You were placed into Christ Jesus—baptized into Christ—by the Holy Spirit the moment you believed the gospel.

Always remember who you are in Christ Jesus.  That is the most important thing about you.

Notice also Paul’s mention of “Caesar’s household.”  Remember that back in chapter 1 Paul had said that his imprisonment in Rome had allowed him to advance the gospel so that “it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ.”

These handpicked soldiers, the cream of the crop, had been assigned to guard Paul and throughout the weeks and months of his imprisonment had been exposed to the gospel so that many of them came to faith in Christ.  That word then got out into “Caesar’s household.”

So it was that some soldiers and cooks and housecleaners and civil servants in Caesar’s house had come to Christ.  Here John Calvin cuts to the chase: “it is evidence of divine mercy that the Gospel had penetrated that sink [pit] of all crimes and iniquities.”

Yes!  Though both the Philippians and Paul were under Roman oppression, there were brothers and sisters even within Caesar’s walls who were on their side and praying for them.  Since Philippi as a colony had close ties with Rome, it is likely that some of the Roman Christians had friends in the Philippian church.

Robertson seems amazed at the ending here.  He remarks how, “…this obscure prisoner who has planted the gospel in Caesar’s household has won more eternal fame and power than all the Caesars combined.  Nero will commit suicide shortly after Paul had been executed. Nero’s star went down and Paul’s rose and rises still.”

Thus this innocuous final greeting trumpets the grand reality that one day the very seat of imperial power will bow its knee and “confess that Jesus Christ [Messiah]) is Lord [Yahweh], to the glory of God the Father” (2:11).

The mention of Caesar’s household must have been a huge encouragement to the church at Philippi.  Barclay enlightens us on this saying:

It is important to understand this phrase rightly.  It does not mean those who are of Caesar’s kith and kin.  Caesar’s household was the regular phrase for what we would call the Imperial Civil Service; it had members all over the world. The palace officials, the secretaries, the people who had charge of the imperial revenues, those who were responsible for the day-to-day administration of the empire, all these were Caesar’s household.  It is of the greatest interest to note that even as early as this Christianity had penetrated into the very center of the Roman government.

Thus, the very words of Acts 28:30-31 are in play here:

30 He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, 31 proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.

And we can be thankful that God’s Word is not bound.  Almost a year ago we thought it would be.  Churches had closed due to COVID, treated as “non-essential.”  But the Word of God was never bound.

Paul later wrote a letter to Timothy from prison.  Locked up in Rome again, expecting to die, Paul senses his preaching days are over.  What can he do while locked up in prison?

But Paul knows something about Scripture and it fills him with confidence, even as he’s lost his freedom. “The word of God is not bound!” he writes (2 Timothy 2:9).

But even when the preacher is silenced, God’s Word continues to spread.  The more you try to stop it, the more it seems to do its work.  Centuries later, after many attempts to stop it, it still continues to take new ground and capture new hearts.

You can lock up the preacher, whether by prison or by social distancing.  But you can never lock up God’s Word.  It always runs free.  It always accomplishes what God wants it to do.

“God’s Word can no more be chained than God himself,” says Kent Hughes.

The Word of God isn’t bound.  It can never be quarantined.  It’s still doing its work no matter what happens to the rest of us.  Nothing can stop it: not prison, not persecution, and certainly not a virus.

God’s Word will accomplish its purpose.  It always has; it always will.  In Isaiah 55 we read:

10 “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 12 “For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the LORD, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”

God’s Word is performative.  It will accomplish God’s purpose.  It can bring radical transformation.  Whoever heard of a cypress growing up out of a thornbush, or a myrtle out of briers?  It doesn’t normally happen.  It is not natural, but supernatural.

But that is what God’s Word can do.  It changes lives.

Finally Paul says, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.”

Paul did not say this to simply fill up space at the end of his letter.  To him, the Christian life begins and ends and is filled throughout with the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, so it was appropriate that his letters began and ended with grace also.

I like what MacArthur wrote concerning this, “Believers are not only saved by grace, but also sustained by grace.  They are governed by grace, guided by grace, kept by grace, strengthened by grace, sanctified by grace and enabled by grace.  They are constantly dependent on the forgiveness, comfort, peace, joy, boldness, and instruction that comes through God’s grace.”

Grace not only saves us but empowers us.  It justifies and it transforms.  Grace is at the center of our lives.  It is the unearnable, undeserved favor of God.  Grace is the very opposite of merit… Grace is not only undeserved favor, but it is favor shown to the one who has deserved the very opposite.

Martin Luther explains how this gift, which we couldn’t possibly purchase, was paid for at great price:

Although out of pure grace God does not impute our sins to us, He nonetheless did not want to do this until complete and ample satisfaction of His law and His righteousness had been made.  Since this was impossible for us, God ordained for us, in our place, One who took upon Himself all the punishment we deserve.  He fulfilled the law for us.  He averted the judgment of God from us and appeased God’s wrath.  Grace, therefore, costs us nothing, but is cost Another much to get it for us.  Grace was purchased with an incalculable, infinite treasure, the Son of God Himself.”

Jerry Bridges notes:

Grace is God’s free and unmerited favor shown to guilty sinners who deserve only judgment.  It is the love of God shown to the unlovely. It is God reaching downward to people who are in rebellion against Him.

Or, as Sam Storms puts it:

The first and possibly most fundamental characteristic of divine grace is that it presupposes sin and guilt.  Grace has meaning only when men are seen as fallen, unworthy of salvation, and liable to eternal wrath… Grace does not contemplate sinners merely as undeserving but as ill-deserving… It is not simply that we do not deserve grace; we do deserve hell.

Grace is receiving God’s absolute best when we deserve the absolute worst!

Without grace, we could not receive the gospel, because none of us can ever earn or deserve it.  Without grace, we could not grow in holiness, because we are so selfish and sinful that if God gave us what we deserve, we all would have been wiped out long ago.  We stand daily, constantly in need of God’s grace.  Without it, we would be quickly consumed.

William Farley, in his book Gospel Parenting, writes:

Grace is reward, or favor, given to those who deserve judgment.  If a judge found a serial rapist guilty, and then stepped down from his bench, agreed to take the death penalty in the criminal’s place, and sent the rapist on an all-expense-paid vacation to Hawaii for thirty years, that would be grace.  The severity of the criminal’s crimes would be the measure of the judge’s grace.  In the same way, the knowledge of what we deserve, and what it cost God to be gracious, is the measure of His fatherly grace.  When it is said and done, the cross is the tape that measures the length and breadth of God’s grace.

Grace is what builds fellowship as well.  It was at the center of the Philippians fellowship with one another.

God’s grace is something we all want for ourselves, but we don’t want to extend it to others, especially to those who have offended or wronged us.  But grace motivates us to forgive others and bless others.  It is when we understand and appreciate the grace shown to us that we will be more quick to forgive others.

Charles Spurgeon and Joseph Parker both had churches in London in the 19th century.  On one occasion, Parker commented on the poor condition of children admitted to Spurgeon’s orphanage.  It was reported to Spurgeon however, that Parker had criticized the orphanage itself.

Spurgeon blasted Parker the next week from the pulpit.  The attack was printed in the newspapers and became the talk of the town.  People flocked to Parker’s church the next Sunday to hear his rebuttal.  “I understand Dr. Spurgeon is not in his pulpit today, and this is the Sunday they use to take an offering for the orphanage.  I suggest we take a love offering here instead.”  The crowd was delighted.  The ushers had to empty the collection plates 3 times.

Later that week there was a knock at Parker’s study. It was Spurgeon. “You know Parker, you have practiced grace on me.  You have given me not what I deserved, you have given me what I needed.

Moody Monthly, December, 1983, p. 81.

We owe everything to the grace of God.

I hope this series on Philippians has encouraged you.  It is an epistle of joy and I hope that your joy in Jesus Christ and His good gifts has grown.

This is a book that calls us to a magnificent vision of life, to live for Christ and to want to know Christ, to pursue Him with all our strength as one leaning towards the finish line.

We are also called here to imitate Christ, to humble ourselves and put others ahead of ourselves.  That isn’t easy and that is why we continue to need the grace of God throughout our lives for every thought, affection, word and deed.

Paul ends this letter with a word of grace, because that is what the gospel is all about: the grace of our Lord Jesus who gave himself for you and for me.

Thus, Paul ends his short but joyous epistle to the first church in Europe, the church of the Philippians.  Barclay says, “It was to be another three hundred years before Christianity became the religion of the empire, but already the first signs of the ultimate triumph of Christ were to be seen.  The crucified Galilean carpenter had already begun to rule those who ruled the greatest empire in the world.”

I hope you will join me again next week as we tackle that difficult book called Ecclesiastes.

Until then, soak yourselves in the amazing grace of Jesus Christ.

What’s It All About? (Philippians 4:20)

In 1965 Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote a song to promote the film Alfie, entitled “What’s it all about Alfie?”  Remember that song?

What’s it all about?  That’s an even more important question when we ask Paul, or Moses, or David.  What is life all about?

Paul tells us in Philippians 4:20:

To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.

That kind of statement is so common in the Scriptures as to become almost trite.  Yet it points out the most important issue in all of our lives, in all of history, throughout the whole universe—the glory of God.

God’s glory is the most important thing to God, and it should be the most important thing to us.

Here Paul is saying that the Philippians’ lives—their ability to trust in God rather than the flesh, to put others’ needs ahead of their own, and to give to his needs—these things bring glory to God.

But what do we mean by glory?

The Hebrew word for glory is kavod.  It means something that is weighty, heavy, substantial.

Physically it can be used to describe someone who is heavy, like Eli in 1 Samuel 4:18.

Figuratively it can be used to describe Abraham being “wealthy” in livestock and in silver and gold in Genesis 13:2.

Eventually it came to refer to someone’s honor or recognition, that they were an important person.  Warriors, princes and judges were society’s “heavyweights.”  Of course, the biggest heavyweight is God Almighty.

“No one is more substantial than He is.  No one has more influence.  No one has a higher position or a weightier reputation.  No one is more deserving of honor, recognition and praise.  However weightless he may seem in the postmodern church, God himself is heavy” (Philip Ryken).

In the last part of that quote Ryken is pointing out a problem in our current culture.  Although God is objectively the most important, most substantial Being in the universe, we are treating him as weightless, unimportant and trivial.

God just isn’t tipping the scales the way He used to.

In his book God in the Wasteland: The Reality of Truth in a Land of Fading Dreams, David Wells describes this curious condition he calls “the weightlessness of God.”  He writes:

“It is one of the defining marks of our time that God is now weightless.  I do not mean by this that he is ethereal but rather that he has become unimportant.  He rests upon the world so inconsequentially as not to be noticeable.  He has lost his saliency for human life.  Those who assure the pollsters of their belief in God’s existence may nonetheless consider him less interesting than television, his commands less authoritative than their appetites for affluence and influence, his judgment no more awe-inspiring than the evening news, and his truth less compelling than the advertisers’ sweet fog of flattery and lies.  That is weightlessness.  It is a condition we have assigned him after having nudged him out to the periphery of our secularized life.… Weightlessness tells us nothing about God but everything about ourselves, about our condition, about our psychological disposition to exclude God from our reality.”

What Wells is saying is that God is still objectively all-glorious and extremely substantial, we just don’t think so.  We don’t live that way.

And it is this weightlessness of God—or more accurately, our own tendency to minimize Him in our thoughts and affections—that more than anything else explains the failings and weaknesses of the evangelical church. 

Philip Ryken says,

“It is because God is so unimportant to us that our worship is so irreverent, our fellowship so loveless, our witness so timid, and our theology so shallow.  We have become children of the lightweight God.” (Discovering God, pp. 15-16).

Because we don’t take God seriously we are not urgent about repenting and pursuing God, it is why we don’t turn off the television to read our Bibles or turn off our phones to pray.  It is why we don’t fast.

Again, this current minimizing of God says nothing about God.  He is as all-glorious and highly exalted as He ever was.  But it impoverishes our lives.

What do we mean by “the glory of God”?  What are we talking about?

God’s glory is so far beyond our ability to comprehend that it is somewhat difficult to put into words.  It is not so much an attribute or perfection of God, but the sum of all His perfections.  It is the—sometimes visible—display of all His beauties and perfections—His blazing holiness, justice, righteousness, kindness, mercy and truth—all of these and more.

Sam Storms defines glory…

As the beauty of God unveiled.  Glory is the resplendent radiance of His power and His personality.  Glory is all of God that makes God God, and shows Him to be worthy of our praise and our boasting and our trust and our hope and our confidence and our joy.

God’s glory is vitally important to Him.  And well it should be.  For God to not be vitally concerned about His own glory would be idolatry—putting another more important god before Himself.  Sam Storms writes:

What is the pre-eminent passion in God’s heart?  What is God’s greatest pleasure?  How does the happiness of God manifest itself?  In what does God take supreme delight?  I want to suggest that the pre-eminent passion in God’s heart is his own glory.  God is at the center of his own affections.  The supreme love of God’s life is God.  God is pre-eminently committed to the fame of his name.  God is himself the end for which God created the world.  Better, still, God’s immediate goal in all he does is his own glory.

God relentlessly and unceasingly creates, rules, orders, directs, speaks, judges, saves, destroys and delivers in order to make known who He is and to secure from the whole of the universe the praise, honor and glory of which He and He alone is ultimately and infinitely worthy.  According to the Westminster Confession of Faith, ‘The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.’  At the heart of the Christian world-view is the fact that ‘-The chief end of God is to glorify God and to enjoy himself forever.’

So glorifying God is to be our great purpose as well.  Glorifying God is what it’s all about.  It is the supreme purpose of God and should be our primary purpose as well.

God is glorious in what He does—in the works of creation, redemption and return.  Psalm 19:1 tells us that “the heavens declare the glory of God,” God receives glory in Israel’s redemption from Egypt in Exodus 15 and our redemption from sin in Ephesians 1.  Three times in Ephesians 1, as Paul is declaring the vast spiritual blessings we have in Christ—our election, justification, redemption, adoption—Paul breaks out in praise saying…

“to the praise of his glorious grace” (Eph. 1:6)

“might be for the praise of His glory” (Eph 1:12)

“to the praise of His glory” (Eph. 1:14)

And Jesus will return in glory, according to Matthew 25:31.

But God is glorious in who He is in and of Himself.  Even if God had never created, He would still be all glorious.  Even if He had never saved anyone, He would be all glorious.

We try to make ourselves look glorious, but our glory fades.  God’s glory never does.  He is by nature glorious.

How do we glorify God?

God, throughout history, makes His glory known through His acts of creation, redemption, providence and return.  Jesus’ disciples could occasionally see the glory of Jesus as He lived among them.

Of course, we all wish we could see the glory of God like Isaiah did in the temple.

We CAN see God’s glory in creation, if we just look.

God wants us to observe, and be changed by His glory, thus reflecting that glory.  In 2 Corinthians 3:18 Paul tells the Corinthians:

18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

As we “see” Christ through the mirror of God’s Word, as we “behold the glory of the Lord” we are changed.  We become more and more like Him and reflect His glory.

And realize, we don’t objectively make God more or less glorious by our actions.  He remains all glorious no matter how we live. 

C. S. Lewis said: “A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling “darkness” on the walls of his cell.”

But we can live in a way that makes others see God’s glory.

This is why the New Testament again and again calls us to do all to the glory of God.

Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Let your light so shine among men that they may see your good deeds and give glory to your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).

God’s glory is manifest in creation simply by creation doing the job God created it to do.  Likewise, we manifest God’s glory when we do what we are called to do—be salt and light in this world.

John Piper gives a helpful illustration:

Now, here’s a little bit of ambiguity in the word glorify or magnify.  Let’s take magnify.  

Telescopes magnify and microscopes magnify.  If you think of your magnifying of God as doing what a microscope does, you’re a blasphemer.  If you think of your magnifying God doing what a telescope does, you’re a worshiper.

How does a microscope magnify?  It takes a teeny little thing and makes it look bigger than he is, than it is.  Okay, you going to do that for God?  I don’t think so.  Teeny little God and you’re going to make him look bigger than he is.  No way.  Don’t magnify God like a microscope.

What does a telescope do?  A telescope takes something that looks teeny, like a star.  Teeny little prick in the sky.  Bigger than our solar system.  And it makes it look like it really is.  That’s what a telescope does.  That’s what you do. Right?  That’s what our lives are for.

In most the people you relate to God is small.  Zero almost.  Little teeny God.  Pull him out of your pocket when you need him every now and then.  He’s a very small factor in their life.

What are you here for?  You are to live in a way, talk in a way, feel in a way, act in a way toward them so that God gets bigger and bigger in their lives.  You make him look good.

Philip Ryken explains further that we are like the mirrors inside the telescope:

“A person who glorifies God is like one of the mirrors in a powerful telescope.  When an astronomer looks through his telescope, he is not trying to see the mirrors inside.  Yet actually that is what he is looking at—not stars, but mirrors.  By their reflections, those mirrors enable him to see the bright stars of the heavens.  In the same way, the followers of Christ reflect the glory of God.  We have no glory of our own.  Whatever glory we have is a reflection of God’s glory.” (Ryken, 24).

“Glorifying” means feeling and thinking and acting in ways that reflect his greatness, that make much of God, that give evidence of the supreme greatness of all his attributes and the all-satisfying beauty of his manifold perfections. (John Piper)

“God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied with him,” says Piper.  In other words, He is most glorified in me when Jesus Christ is my greatest treasure and greatest pleasure, when nothing means more to me than him.

Sam Storms says…

Pleasure is the measure of our treasure.  How do you measure or assess the value of something you cherish?  How do you determine the worth of a prize?  Is it not by the depth of pleasure you derive from it?  Is it not by the intensity and quality of your delight in what it is?  Is it not by how excited and enthralled and thrilled you are in the manifold display of its attributes, characteristics, and properties?  In other words, your satisfaction in what the treasure is and what the treasure does for you is the standard or gauge by which its glory (worth and value) is revealed.  Hence, your pleasure is the measure of the treasure.  Or again, the treasure, which is God, is most glorified in and by you when your pleasure in Him is maximal and optimal.

What are some ways we glorify God?

I like to define worship as “treasuring Christ above all things, trusting Him in all things and thanking Him for all things.”  In those ways I show His extreme value to me.

Our worship can glorify God, but sometimes it doesn’t.  Did you know that?  There are plenty of cases in the Old Testament where God told His people, “Stop worshipping me.”  God was deeply offended by the way they worshipped him.  So not all worship is created equal.

We worship Him by ascribing glory to Him for what He has done from pure and holy hearts.

We can also glorify Him by trusting Him.  Anytime we are going through lack or difficulty or pain, we can admit to God that we need Him, that we are powerless, ignorant and incapable and we need His strength, wisdom and authority.

We are saved when we admit that we cannot be good enough for God, that we have no spiritual capital to commend ourselves to God, and that salvation is depended wholly upon Him.

We glorify God by confessing our sins.  When we acknowledge that we have transgressed His laws (thus declaring them good and Him right), we glorify Him.

We also glorify God by our good works, when they are done in His strength and for His glory.  We can serve for our own glory and in our own strength.  That doesn’t glorify God.

In John 15:8 Jesus says,

This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.

Of course, we can also glorify God by telling others about Him.  This is true not only in witnessing, but also in parenting.

“The great battle of parenting is not the battle of behavior; it’s the battle for what kind of awe will rule children’s hearts” says Paul David Tripp in his little book Awe: Why It Matters for Everything We Think, Say, and Do.  Listen to David in Psalm 78:

4 We will not hide them from their children [God’s ancient deeds], but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done. 

Make much of God—in your own heart, in your own home, and to the world.

Being a Great Missions-Giving Church, part 2 (Philippians 4:17-19)

Last week we noted that in this final portion of the book of Philippians Paul is writing a “thank you” letter to the Philippian church.  Why?  Because they noticed that Paul was in need and they provided another gift to meet his need.

In short, they had been concerned for his needs, contented with what they possessed and consistent in their giving.  These characteristics should mark our giving as well.

This week we pick up in verse 17:

17 Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit. 18 I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent, a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God. 19 And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.

In these verses Paul speaks about some motives for giving.

First, giving helps those in need.

Giving to missionaries enables them to more effectively spread the good news.  Paul had said back in v. 15 that they had been partners in the gospel ministry.

This should be our primary motivation when giving—promoting gospel ministry.

Frankly, there are those on TV who are raising money primarily to enable them to live lavish lifestyles.  Don’t give to them; give to those who are involved in gospel ministry.

The famous British preacher, C. H. Spurgeon, once received a request from a wealthy man to come to their town and help them raise funds for a new church building.  He told Spurgeon he could stay in his country home there.  Spurgeon wrote back and told him to sell the home and give the money to the project.

Give to those who emphasize ministry, not money.  Paul’s focus was on preaching the gospel, not on his need for money.  While he genuinely appreciated the gift from the Philippians, he was more excited about what it signified about their heart for God, that it represented fruit accruing in their account in heaven (4:17). 

When we give to missions, we meet real financial needs that enables their ministries and encourages them.  Your giving makes a difference.  It may not seem like much, but added with the gifts of others, a great deal can be accomplished.

Remember that this was a partnership (Philippians 1:3-5).  Paul considered that although he was doing the work, they were just as much a part of the team as if they were really there working alongside him.  Their gifts are what made full-time ministry possible.

This is why Paul encourages churches to support their preachers.

To Timothy Paul wrote:

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. (1 Timothy 6:17)

And so there was no confusion about what Paul meant by “worthy of double honor” the next verse puts together two sayings from the Old Testament and from Jesus to show that he meant that they should be paid.

18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”

Likewise, Paul says in Galatians 6:6…

6 One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches.

Again, that is most likely referring to financial remuneration that allows the teacher plenty of time to study and minister the word, instead of having to work to pay for his needs.

So look for faithful servants or ministries who are focused on the furtherance of the gospel and give faithfully to them.

Whatever the Philippians gave to Paul must have been generous.  In v. 18 Paul piles us three words to express just how overwhelmed he was with their gift.  He received “full payment” so that he had abundance (“and more”) and was completely filled up (“well supplied”).

This reminds me that although the tithe might be a good starting point for your giving, God never intended for us to be limited by that set amount, but to give generously, even sacrificially, as God has enriched us.

So giving benefits those in need, but it also benefits us.  It brings reward to the giver.

Paul wasn’t trying to manipulate the Philippians’ generosity for his own sake, but indicates that it is for their sake.

“Not that I seek the gift, but I seek the fruit that increases to your credit” (v. 17).

Let me just clarify for a moment here that heaven is not something we gain by giving.  We aren’t forgiven because we are financially sacrificial.  We are not talking about being justified by our works, or made acceptable by God by something we do.

However, throughout the New Testament we have this teaching that there is more for us in heaven than merely being present there and forgiven of our sins.  We can win reward and have a “rich entrance” (2 Peter 1:11) into heaven.

Although cast in commercial language, this is obviously talking about spiritual credit.

When you give to the Lord’s work, you are giving to God and making an eternal investment.

And Paul had support for this from Jesus, who told the rich young ruler, “Go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21). Jesus, in fact, composed a proverb to help his followers remember this: “‘Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven’” (Matthew 6:19, 20).

The truth is, the only money that we will see again is that which we give away. And that money will return with compounded interest!

You and I have open accounts in heaven.  If we are smart, we will “lay up treasures for ourselves in heaven.”

This reflects one of the most important principles regarding giving in the Scriptures: that we are never the poorer for having given.  God will never be our debtor, and as my father used to say, “we can never out-give God.”

Many of us have earthly investments.  We know that when we can put away a little extra into these investments we will likely reap better returns in the future.  That is fairly certain.

Heavenly investments are similar, but much better.  First of all, we know that our eternal rewards are certain.  No plunge in the stock market can take away our heavenly reward.  Also, the investment rate is much, much better.

The present participle “increases” signifies continuing multiplication that creates compound spiritual interest credited to our account.

Jesus said,

give, and it will be given to you.  Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.  For with the measure you use it will be measured back to you. (Luke 6:38)

When you invest in God’s work, there is no risk and you get the highest possible return on your investment, guaranteed by the very Word of God!

One man has written on his tombstone: “What I spent, I lost; what I saved, I left; what I gave, I have.”  We can’t take anything with us, but we can send it on ahead.

This is why Jim Eliot so famously said:

He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.

Every time we get a paycheck we can decide whether to use it for materially beneficial ways for ourselves and our families, or rather for spiritually beneficial ways as we give it away to others.

Have you been laying up treasure in heaven?  You can invest in your eternal future by giving to the Lord’s work here and now.

Should we give in order to enrich our eternal future?  Yes!  But that is not the only, and not even the primary reason.  Ultimately, we give because…

It brings pleasure to God.

Paul moves from accounting imagery to that of sacrifice.  There is a spiritual dimension to giving that he does not want the Philippians to miss.

Paul says that the Philippians’ gift serves as a “fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (v. 18).

Sounds a little like Romans 12:1, doesn’t it?  There we offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.  Here the Philippians offer their resources.

The language Paul uses here is the language of sacrifice, reminding us that giving is itself an act of worship.  Sweet-savor (“fragrant”) offerings in Israel were sacrifices made in worship, not so much to atone for sin.

In other words, if all we did this week was go to church and take up an offering, we could still say that we worshipped.  Giving is an act of worship.

Giving is not just a financial transaction, but an act of worship—an act of defiance against the god Mammon and the kingdom of darkness.

By the way, the language here is also similar to Ephesians 5:2, but it is applied to Christ giving himself for us.

And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

His self-giving and our giving of our money is an act of worship.

An “acceptable sacrifice” is a sacrifice that is prescribed by God and when done in the manner he commands becomes acceptable to Him.

In the case of the Philippians whose hearts were committed to Christ and to their apostle, and whose gift was generous by any measure, their sacrificial offer was very pleasing (euareston) to God.  It was given to Paul, but it was as if it had been offered directly to God.

Ralph Wilson notes:

The idea of a sacrifice that is pleasing to God has an ancient history that goes back to the tabernacle in the wilderness (Exodus 28:38; Leviticus 1:3; 7:18; 22:19-20; Proverbs 21:3; Jeremiah 6:20).  “Pleasing to God” is another rich sacrificial theme.  The purpose of sacrifice is not selfish — to remove our sin — but Godward, to please God and express our love to him (Hebrews 13:16).

Fourth, it reflects trust in God’s provision.

The promise, for givers like this, is that God will “supply every need” (4:19).

The first half of this grand promise is closely linked with and echoes the preceding context. Just as the Philippians had kept Paul “well supplied” (v. 18), so now God will most certainly “supply every need” of theirs. 

We all want our needs met.  We also usually want our wants met as well.  God doesn’t promise to meet all our wants, but he does promise to supply every need.

What we fail to recognize is that the best way to meet our own needs is to become givers…to give things away.  Then, we don’t have to scramble and manipulate our way to have our needs met.  God Himself becomes the One who guarantees that our needs are met.  That is the best guarantee and comfort we could have.

How many needs do you think you have?  A study done by a sociologist in 1890 identified 16 basic needs that were necessary for life.  A similar study done 100 years later yielded quite different results!  By 1990 our basic needs had multiplied to 98!

Do we really have more needs today?  Or have we simply elevated more of our wants and greeds to that level?

Kent Hughes says…

“Every need” compasses the breathtaking range of everything that is vital to living for Christ.

God is committed to supply every need, even ones we are ignorant or unaware of.

2 Peter 1:3 tells us that “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness,” everything we need for life and godliness.  Ephesians 1:3 tells us that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…”  Nothing else is needed.  We are “complete in Christ” (Colossians 2:10).

Sometimes, however, it may not seem like God is meeting our relational, emotional or financial needs.  But maybe that it because God is working to meet deeper needs in our lives so that he allows us to go through times of “want” so that we can learn to trust God on deeper levels, to recognize how much we need him and are not strong in ourselves, and how to sympathize with others who go through want.

Paul promised the generous, “And my God will supply every need of yours” (v. 19).  This was intensely personal for Paul.  His God, who had repeatedly displayed his power in every conceivable circumstance, would supply the Philippians’ needs—just as he had done for Paul through them!

Paul had a relationship with “my God” that we need to have in order to benefit from this promise.  It is not a promise to everyone, but to those who have a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

And how does God do this?  How does He meet our needs?

The answer is equally expansive—“according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (v. 19b).  As Gordon Fee explains, “The Philippians’ generosity toward Paul, expressed lavishly at the beginning of verse 18, is exceeded beyond all imagination by the lavish ‘wealth’ of the eternal God, who dwells ‘in glory’ full of ‘riches’ made available ‘in Christ Jesus.’”

God’s “riches” are inherent in his being as the Creator and the God of the universe.  So his riches include and infinitely exceed the aggregate wealth of the universe.  God’s incalculable wealth together with the ineffable splendor of his glory form the treasury and the dazzling context from which he lavishes his children “according to his riches.”

Unlike us, God is never a stingy giver.  He has no reason to be.  Giving away everything doesn’t diminish God a bit.  He always gives from a perspective of abundance, not scarcity.  He can afford to give away anything and everything and delights to do so.

Notice that we do not receive help “out of his glorious riches,” but “according to his glorious riches.”

The difference is this:  If, for example Bill Gates were to write you a check for 1 million dollars, he would be giving out of his riches.  But if he were to hand you a signed blank check, allowing you to write in however much you needed, he would be giving to you according to, or in accordance with, his riches.

But God does far more because his riches are infinite and cannot be diminished by the endless zeroes of a celestial blank check. 

The fact that his riches are “in glory” sets up the ultimate locus “in Christ Jesus,” which describes in whom and how the riches that come from God’s glory are given to His people.  Paul began this letter by addressing it “To all the saints in Christ Jesus” (1:1) and concluded “in Christ Jesus” (4:19).  For Christians, every need is met in Christ.  He is our beginning and our end.  All things come to us in him and through him, and according to v. 20, for him, for His glory.

The Scriptures tell us that if we sow sparingly, we’ll reap sparingly, but if we sow liberally, we will reap liberally (2 Corinthians 9:6).  We can’t outgive God; nor can we ever bankrupt his account.