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You asked for a sermon on Ecclesiastes

 

   Ecclesiastes 1:2-9, 3:1-9, 12:13-14 

 

[1]         Is there any point to life? Is living worth the effort? Why bother when all of life is “vanity”, nothing but “vanity”?   The word “vanity” occurs more than thirty times in twelve brief chapters. And even where the word itself isn’t used, the meaning and mood of the word are heard anyway. “Who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life…?”, says the author. Or think of the assertion as stark as it is bleak: “I thought the dead more fortunate than the living” — and the stillborn more fortunate than either the dead or the living. (Ec. 6:12; 4:2-3; 6:3b-5)

According to Ecclesiastes human existence is anything but rosy.  Not only is individual existence overwhelmingly pointless, the social order is anything but encouraging.  To look out on the wider society is to find injustice rampant, to find oppression severe; and it’s to find little reason for thinking that the social order will ever improve.

In the sermon today we are probing the book of Ecclesiastes.  Before it’s the title of a book, however, “Ecclesiastes” is the self-styled description of the book’s author.  Ecclesiastes is a common Greek word that means “lecturer” or “preacher.” We don’t know the author’s name. It appears, however, that he or she was a Jewish person living in Jerusalem (or near Jerusalem ) approximately 200 B.C.E. Persian forces had overrun Jerusalem , and the subsequent occupation had made matters difficult for Jews in Jerusalem . Soon Persian domination gave way to Greek domination. Greece ‘s rule of Jerusalem wasn’t only onerous; it was corrupt, exceedingly corrupt.  Now matters were worse. The author wrote his book out of his reflection on human existence in such a setting; ultimately, human existence in such a setting under God.

 

[2]         “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity”, the book begins.  The Hebrew word translated “vanity” strictly means “transience”, “ephemerality”, the state of being short-lived, of passing quickly. “Transitory, transitory, everything is transitory; nothing lasts.  Everything comes only to go.”   The obvious question then is, “If everything is fleeting, then is anything real? Then is anything worth doing, or is everything pointless?”

Some readers see the book as a counsel of despair; they think the book preaches despair. But in fact it doesn’t. The book, rather, is a sustained critique of secularism, a sustained critique of secularised religion. The author adopts the standpoint of the secularist and speaks from that perspective in order to render himself credible with the secularists of his era and ours. The author wants us to know that he has grasped the essence of secularism.  At the same time, the shafts of light from God that pierce the bleakness of secularism here and there disclose the author’s heart.  While secularist existence is dark and bleak and transitory and pointless (says our author), he knows that life ultimately isn’t like this in that life’s ultimacy is God.  To be sure, the author states in line after line that all roads lead to dead-end futility; all roads, that is, except one.  And this one road is the road that leads to life. (Matt. 7:14)

 

[3]         Ecclesiastes points out several occasions of secularist despair.

(i)         The first one is the ceaseless round of things.  “A generation goes and a generation comes….The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.  The wind blows to the south, and goes round to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.  What has been is what will be….”   A treadmill. Ecclesiastes is telling us that life is a treadmill. We have to work ceaselessly merely to survive. But if we are toiling just for the opportunity to toil, what’s the point of bothering?

The best-known passage from the book begins, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, a time to die…”, and on it goes.  It sounds romantic. It adorns greeting cards and one of Karsh’s books of superb photographs.  But Ecclesiastes himself didn’t put this passage forward as something romantic; he put it forward as an instance of secularist despair. For he concludes his repeated “there is a time…” with the “zinger”, “What gain has the worker from his toil?”  You must have noticed that no modern romantic who quotes this passage (“For every time there is a season…”) ever quotes the conclusion to the passage: “What’s the point of bothering with anything, since the ceaseless round is ceaseless?”

 

(ii)         Another occasion of secularist despair is the fruitless search.  The secularist assumes that learning, pure scholarship, will give her the profoundest contentment. (2:12ff)   She wants to acquire the intellectual subtlety of the philosopher and the comprehensiveness of the encyclopaedist.  To be sure, there’s nothing wrong with wanting this. God has made us rational creatures and we are to love him with our minds.  But it takes more than learning alone to content the human heart.  It’s no wonder the secularist cries out, “I applied my mind to seek and search out by wisdom all that is done under the sun; it is an unhappy business…he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” (1:13,18)

I am the last person to denigrate scholarship.  What’s more, I deplore intellectual mediocrity, never hesitating to pronounce it sin. At the same time I’m aware that intimate acquaintance with God does not arise from subtle philosophising. I’m aware too that intellectual rigour and academic mastery guarantee us nothing with respect to wisdom. At the end of the day intellectual mastery doesn’t yield contentment.

 

(iii)         Another occasion of secularist despair is the preoccupation with pleasure. Now pleasure is good. Pleasure is preferable to pain. Yet even the noblest pleasures, the most sophisticated pleasures, can’t finally satisfy the human heart, never mind transmute it.  The aesthetically refined person watching the ballet is no closer to God’s righteousness than the blood-thirsty lout at a bullfight.  Cultural sophistication doesn’t render anyone godly; it doesn’t promote innermost peace.

 

(iv)         Another occasion of secularist despair is misgovernment.  The author weeps when he sees how oppressed people are violated.  “I saw all the oppressions that are practised under the sun.  And the oppressed had no one to comfort them.” (4:1-3)  Injustice abounds. Violence and victimization are virulent. Governments, whether intentionally or accidentally, invariably oppress at least some of the people they are mandated to protect.  “Man lords it over man to his hurt”, cries the author. (8:9)   To be sure, he adds, some rulers are virtuous and some are even helpful. Still, where political authority is concerned nothing can be counted on.  At any time a society may find itself in the hands of political rulers who are fools, weak or dissolute.  “Folly is set in many high places”, Ecclesiastes adds laconically. (10:5-6,16) None of us would disagree.

 

(v)         Another occasion of secularist despair is misfortune.  Life is riddled with radical accidentality.  “Like birds that are caught in an evil snare, so the sons of men are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them.” ( 9:11 -12) We never have life domesticated; we can never render life risk-free.  Piercing misfortune may stab us at any time. What we can’t foresee we can’t protect ourselves against.  It’s almost as if we can only wait to be “clobbered.”

 

(vi)         Another occasion of secularist despair is death.  To be sure, there are moments in life so unambiguously glorious that in such moments we can’t help being life-affirming.  At the same time, says Ecclesiastes, life is characterized by a struggle wherein we struggle every day to keep death at arm’s length. Proof of our struggle is our betaking ourselves to physician and surgeon and pharmacist as often as we need to.  Struggle as we might, however, we are going to succumb; what’s more, we know we are going to succumb.  Life is a journey, says Ecclesiastes, from a naked beginning to a naked end. ( 5:15 ) When all the romantic mythology surrounding life is set aside, life ultimately adds up to zero.

 

[4]           It all sounds so very bleak. Is it unrelievably bleak? Or can the bleakness be lessened in any way?         Ecclesiastes suggests several matters that mitigate the bleakness.

(i)         One such mitigation is life’s simple joys.  Simple joys sweeten life. The simple joys of food, wine and marriage (yes, Ecclesiastes says marriage mitigates life’s harshness); simple joys are oases of rest and peace and fruitfulness in the face of life’s difficulties and distresses.  These simple pleasures are God-ordained and are therefore to be enjoyed with a clear conscience: “Go, eat your bread with enjoyment and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.” ( 2:25 )

 

(ii)         Another mitigation of life’s bleakness is homespun helpfulness.  Right in the middle of the book (chapter 7 of 12 chapters) the author interjects a host of proverbial sayings; e.g., “The patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit”, and “Be not quick to anger, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools.”   Nobody is startled upon hearing this; nobody regards it as life-saving revelation. Still, everyone knows that homespun helpfulness does much to soften the “bite” of life’s bleakness.

 

(iii)         Another mitigation of life’s bleakness is enterprise (11:1-6)   Just because life unfolds so very uncertainly (“You know not” is repeated four times in six verses) we ought to do whatever we can to stabilize life. While life is riddled with uncertainties, there’s always one certainty: death.  Therefore we should always be doing what we can while there’s time to do it. Why keep life bleaker or harsher or more onerous than it has to be?

 

[5]         Near the beginning of the sermon I indicated that the book of Ecclesiastes is a sustained critique of secularism (or of secularised religion), and as such it starkly depicts many occasions of secularist despair. To be sure, there are several mitigations (just mentioned) that lessen this despair. Still, does the author have anything positive to say?         Does he have anything theologically profound to say?  Is there any good news, any gospel, in the book?  Indeed there is, for ultimately the author points us to the truth and reality of the God who shortly incarnated himself in Jesus of Nazareth.

 

(i)         The final chapter of the book begins, “Remember your Creator in the days of your youth”; i.e., remember your Creator from the days of your youth; remember always that God is your Creator.  Specifically, the author insists we remember that God our creator has made us upright. ( 7:29 ) While humankind isn’t upright now but is rather fallen and bent, our present sin and misery can’t be charged to God. He made us upright. Human perversity isn’t God’s fault. Life’s harshness, arising it does from our perversity, isn’t his fault.  Insofar s we are warped, we are self-warped — and the wonder of God’s grace is that he hasn’t quit on us in disgust or lost patience with us or given us up as intractable.         Precisely where we are handcuffed, he isn’t.  To “remember” our Creator is to have the love and power that created us in the past become operative to recreate us in the present.  To “remember” our Creator is to find that God can do something with respect to human perversity precisely where humankind cannot. This is good news.

 

(ii)         The next item of good news is that God is judge of all.  Many people don’t look upon this as good news; they regard it as ominous. They think that to say God is judge of all is to feel threatened with bad news.  Actually, the fact that God “will bring every deed into judgement” ( 12:13 ) is great good news, for now every deed matters; every deed now has eternal significance. We should recall that our author told us that everything is pointless from a secularist standpoint; but from the standpoint of truth — God is going to bring every deed into judgement — everything is not only significant but eternally significant.  From a secularist standpoint everything is fleeting, transitory; from truth’s standpoint everything has lasting importance.

Our Lord Jesus Christ insisted that a cup of cold water given to a needy person; this simple deed was so hugely important as never to pass unnoticed beneath the gaze of God, never to pass unrewarded. (Matt. 10:42) Our Lord spoke of those who clothed the exposed and attended the sick and comforted the isolated and generally succoured the wretched of the earth; our Lord said that anything done for the sake of these people was ultimately done to him, and he would see to it that it was rewarded.  What the secularist sees as pointless actually has everything to do with one’s eternal well-being.

There’s another feature of God’s judgement we do well to heed.  A few minutes ago I mentioned that we are to find pleasure in life’s simple joys in that God has ordained them.  When Ecclesiastes tells us we are to relish life’s simple pleasures he adds, “But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgement.” (11:9) Ecclesiastes’ reminder isn’t meant to dash cold water on our simple pleasures; his reminder is meant to magnify our pleasures as our awareness of the coming judgement keeps our pleasures pure and our joys unstained.  To hear and heed this reminder is to be the beneficiary of good news again.

 

(iii)         Lastly, the good news of Ecclesiastes is reflected in the closing paragraph of the book: “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” ( 12:13 )

Is a command to fear God good news?  Yes. Because to fear God is to reverence him, honour him, thank him.         Reverence and honour and thank him for what?  For who he is. But we know who he is only on the grounds of what he has done for us in Christ Jesus our Lord. He has given himself up to death for us; gone to hell and back for us; lavished himself upon us without reservation or hesitation; promised that he will never fail us or forsake us. Reverence, honour and thank him? Only the most benighted wouldn’t. Obviously the command to fear God is actually an invitation to soak ourselves in the mercy and patience and promise of God.

Then what about the command to keep God’s commandments, which keeping Ecclesiastes speaks of as “the whole duty of man”?   Is the command to keep God’s commandments good news? It certainly is. Israel always knew that life is a minefield.  To say that life is a minefield is to say that missteps or blunders in life trigger explosions that cripple or kill.

The commandments of God, said our Israelite foreparents, tell us where the mines aren’t in the minefield.         Therefore the commandments of God point out the path that is right, righteous, life-giving, wholesome in the midst of a minefield that will otherwise blow us apart. This being the case, keeping the commandments of God is the soul of wisdom.  It’s also the soul of self-fulfilment. Therefore the command to keep the commandments of God, so far from being onerous and chafing, is in fact the most delightful good news.  The command to keep the commandments of God is in fact the warmest invitation to thrive under God.  If you ever doubt this then think of our Lord’s command (or is it an invitation?) in the gospel of Matthew: “Come to me, all who toil and are burdened to the breaking point, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28) Our Lord’s word has the imperative form of a command: “Come. You come. You come right now.” On the other hand, the youngest child, upon hearing our Lord’s word, knows it’s the warmest invitation imaginable. In other words, the command of God is always at the same time the gospel of God. The imperative that constrains our obedience is always at the same time the good news that woos and wins our heart.

When Ecclesiastes says that keeping the commandments of God is the whole duty of man, he wants us to know that God’s good news is all-inclusive; it’s our all-inclusive privilege and blessing.

 

[6]         I’m hoping that some of you will go home and read the book of Ecclesiastes at one sitting. If you do, you’ll likely want to come back to me and say, “Victor, there’s good news in the book all right, just as you said.  But the good news is proportionately slight compared to the protracted bad news of secularism.”  True enough. Then let me speak to the book’s overall method.  Ecclesiastes doesn’t depict the truth and light of God on line after line. Instead Ecclesiastes describes the darkness and bleakness and despair of secularism on line after line — occasionally interrupting it all with shafts of God’s light. While the author may speak of the shafts of God’s light relatively infrequently, he does so in order to have the light appear so much brighter than the darkness. He knows that the light of God shines brighter in the dark.  And he knows that the light of God is light enough for anyone.

When Johann Goethe, the learned German philosopher and poet, was dying he called out from his deathbed, “Mehr Licht.  Mehr Licht.” “More light.” He didn’t need more light. There was nothing wrong with the light he had.         The light of God is all the light there is, and is light enough for anyone.

“Fear God, and keep his commandments.  This is the whole duty of man.”  Our whole duty is also our whole privilege.  As we are invited to fear God, and as we do fear him, we shall find light enough amidst the darkness.         We shall find light enough to leave us exclaiming with the apostle John, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5)

                                                                                                   Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    November 2005