The Search is Over: “The Fool on the Hill” – Ecclesiastes 9:13-10:20

One day in 1967, Paul McCartney sat down at his dad’s piano at the family home in Liverpool, England and began playing variations on a D 6th chord. He played for about five minutes, back and forth, with no particular direction when he noticed a series of notes that seemed pleasing to him, and he repeated them a few times. As he thought about the repetition, his mind floated to a picture of an eastern mystic that he heard interviewed on TV some days before. The man seemed detached from the world around him, but he was perfectly fine with the world thinking his life was a disconnected waste. “The Fool on The Hill” became Paul McCartney’s major contribution to the Magical Mystery Tour, and it was written sitting at that piano. Later, McCartney played the tune and sang some of his impromptu wording for John Lennon. When Lennon told him to write the words down, McCartney shrugged and said, “I will remember them.” He opened the song with:

Day after day, alone on the hill, the man with the foolish grin is keeping perfectly still. But nobody wants to know him, they can see that he’s just a fool. And he never gives an answer… But the fool on the hill sees the sun going down and the eyes in his head see the world spinning around…”

Was the mystic smart and ridiculed or dumb and disconnected? In the song, it is hard to tell. He may be wise but unwilling to communicate to those around him. A close look at the words of the song are bound to leave you unsure of what the songwriter’s intent.

Yet the picture lingers. Sadly, when we look about in the world, we see people who seem unaware of how foolish they appear to others. Becoming wise isn’t a simple matter for many of us. In fact, if there are two places we can easily stumble when it comes to wise living, they are where we receive counsel and how we develop proper patterns in life. Think about it…

First, we need to learn to accept counsel exclusively from reliable sources.

Much of “growing up” is learning who we can believe in! All of us have believed some report from the web that wasn’t factually true. If we did the really embarrassing thing, we passed it to others. The recent surge of issues regarding “fake news” demonstrates the most recent version of a constant battle between truth and rumor, slander and scoop. It is amazing to watch how many people will make decisions about crucial things based on an article they read or a report from social media – only to discover the whole thing is at least speculation and at worst downright fabrication.

For instance, have you noticed how many so-called “health products” have a low-toned voice disclaimer about how there is no actual representation to “make your health better” when that was the subject of the whole advertisement? I am amazed when they present a forty-five second commercial of how their product will surely make your life better and solve your health issue, and then have a fast speaking and low-toned voice tell you at the end of the ad that what you saw doesn’t actually represent any verified claim that the product can really help you at all!

Does following a claim by “shady sources” make you look foolish? It certainly can. Consider this story:

The New York Daily news reported on December 5, 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch, a 28-year-old man from North Carolina was arrested after he opened fire inside “Comet Ping Pong” in Washington D.C. The pizza restaurant was named in a “Reddit post” as the secret location of a child sex ring, run by then-candidate Hillary Clinton. After his arrest, Welch told police he decided to “self-investigate” whether the so-called “Pizza Gate” conspiracy theory was true — that Clinton and her campaign chief were operating the ring in the restaurant’s back room. He took a rifle and went to DC to check it out.

Getting information from unreliable and unconfirmed sources can be both embarrassing and dangerous.

In addition to this, there is another practice that separates the wise and the one who lacks wisdom…

Second, we must develop habits that work out successfully in the world.

It isn’t your imagination. Some people just can’t seem to “land on their feet” in life. They exert some effort to be successful, but they seem to keep failing, year after year. If you ask them, they aren’t really sure why, but they know something is wrong that is holding them back from becoming all they were meant to be. You see it in the worker that doesn’t seem to advance in the job. You detect it in the person who can’t seem to land the job in the first place. You see it in the person who seems constantly stirred but their expended energy doesn’t help them progress. Some will tell you honestly they don’t know what line they missed, but they feel they didn’t get some piece of instruction other people did. They aren’t trying to be wrong, but they need wisdom to identify their weaknesses and spot paths to successful living.

Solomon had much to say about wisdom, and nearly as much to say about foolishness. From the middle of the ninth and through the tenth chapter of Ecclesiastes, the wise king reminded us of the two skills developed by the wise…

Key Principle: Wise people learn two essential skills: how to discern good sources and how to develop successful habits.

Solomon opened with a view of “how to find proper sources for the truth” in 9:13-10:7.

Discerning Good Sources: Cautions about seeking counsel!

It is obvious to all of us that sometimes we need help finding direction. Since wrong counsel can lead to devastating consequences, Solomon offered some tips to keep in mind when seeking wise counsel. If Orson Wells radio experiment in “War of the Worlds” taught us anything long ago, it made clear that where we get our perceptions and our news can impact dramatically how we respond to life. Solomon opened with some words that may surprise some of you…

First, wisdom doesn’t always come from the place you would think to look for it.

For some reason, our prejudice has much to say about who we listen to – even when they don’t demonstrate a pattern of wisdom. He warned:

Ecclesiastes 9:13 Also this I came to see as wisdom under the sun, and it impressed me. 14 There was a small city with few men in it and a great king came to it, surrounded it and constructed large siege works against it. 15 But there was found in it a poor wise man and he delivered the city by his wisdom.

The scene was a small walled town surrounded by a large and well-resourced army. As the siege ramps were being constructed outside the wall to make holes and breaches in it, a small group of men gathered inside to weigh their options. The words of a poor man who was wise made sense to the leaders of the village, and they executed a plan based on his theory of negotiation. They were pleasantly surprised when the plan succeeded and peace came to the city. The point of the portion was to remind a student that people think they know who will offer the truth that delivers – but these men got it wrong. The poor man was wiser than the town councilmen. We must grow to understand that some attained success without any real knowledge of how it happened. They don’t have a formula – they simply were in the right place at the right time. When pressured to offer direction to you, they may be unable to do so. Just because someone has had success, does not mean they can instruct you on how to have success – apart from instructing you to follow God’s Word.

Second, when wise counsel comes from an unlikely place, it often isn’t always valued as it should be.

Solomon continued his words concerning the poor wise man with a sad note:

Ecclesiastes 9:15b “…Yet no one remembered that poor man. 16 So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.” But the wisdom of the poor man is despised and his words are not heeded.

He may not look the part, but your dad may be a very wise man. Your mom might know what you really need to hear right now. They may have never been in leadership of a Fortune 500 company, but they very well may have pulled a family through a tough time and paid every debt created along the way. Just because the world doesn’t see them as particularly wise and recall their mammoth struggle to put food on the table and pay for your braces in Jr. High, doesn’t mean they aren’t champions at budgeting. Don’t forget the people who got you to where you are. Don’t overlook the sacrifices because your familiarity bred a heart of contempt for them. Look carefully at what people have done in their lives with what they have been given. If they had little but stretched it to cover the needs, they are perhaps wiser than the one who had much and struggled little. If they managed much, they probably can help you get organized.

Let’s face it: Our world places great value on people who can throw a ball and little value on a child care worker who holds a baby. We will pay enormous sums of money for those who can catch a pass, but are quite stingy when it comes to one who will care for our loved one in their last days, when they need constant help. My point: the value system of the world doesn’t reflect what is truly important. A wise men or woman learns to look carefully and remember those who have cared for you, taught you and helped you along the way. Don’t look past those who the world may not recognize, and again, don’t forget who helped you become the person you are.

Third, we must learn to listen carefully for wise counsel over the most pronounced voices.

Solomon discovered the loudest mouths were often attached to the smallest minds. He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 9:17 The words of the wise heard in quietness are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools.

There is a difference to being “in charge” of the room and being right in our opinion. Having authority placed upon us should humble us, not make us think we are automatically smarter than everyone else in the room. Just as I recognize Scripture teaches believers to respect authority, I must also recognize those of us who are in the position need to become wise enough to quiet down and listen to the other people. A shouting “ruler” (as Solomon put it) isn’t right because they are louder than all the other voices in the room.

A wise word leads us to act on truth. It must be heeded because of what it is – not because of the package in which it is presented. Many in our world are distracted and follow the flash and tinsel, but not the truth. Look past the package. Develop and ear to hear truth and wisdom whether it is presented well or not.

Fourth, never forget wrong counsel can do untold damage – and it doesn’t take much.

Wrong answers matter. Wrong directions can bring perilous consequences. The king wrote:

Ecclesiastes 9:18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good. 10:1 Dead flies make a perfumer’s oil stink, so a little foolishness is weightier than wisdom and honor.

These sayings reinforce the “one bad apple will spoil the whole bunch” idea. In 9:18, Solomon made clear that wise living offered grand protections, but needed to be embraced for all to bring safety to a community. Think about it. One unwise fire builder in the forest imperils all the other campers. Time and again, Solomon will remind us that a community is only as strong as the least wise among it. Building the Great Wall of China would only keep out the Mongols until one gate keeper was bribed. All the effort of the Kingdom to protect itself from invasion was undermined by a single traitor. The saying isn’t to leave us in despair; it is a warning. We must educate and train those among us who are weak and underdeveloped in wisdom. Our young are idealistic, but often don’t have the experience to understand how a policy that clearly offers them help in the short run may not be best for the society in the long run. Parts of our nation have been deeply wounded by the behaviors of some students, and it appears they haven’t been offered wisdom to connect their ideals with practices that will build a strong society. It isn’t their fault as much as it is ours. We must raise them up in wisdom.

Not only can one bad soldier cause the downfall of the squad in the field of conflict, but a little foolishness mixed into otherwise wise planning can spoil results. You need to lock the back door as well as the front. That was the point of the first verse of chapter ten. It doesn’t take much poison to ruin the whole pot of stew. Wise is the society that watches what is put in the pot as its young are trained. We aren’t trying to be uncooperative, but we cannot and must not allow an agenda of social experimentation to infect the education of our young. It has devastating consequences. Let me offer an illustration if I may.

Children mimic what they see at home, both on media and in the behaviors of those in charge. If there is no respect for authority developed in the home, but rights are constantly echoed, the child will have little regard for those in whom enforcement of the law has been placed. They will learn little in regard to personal property. They will see the values of peaceful protest and turn them into a destructive riot – while actually believing they are both exercising their rights and helping their community. They will harm others and destroy property while believing they are being heroic and helpful. Respect must be taught. Boundaries are a learned idea. When someone feels they have the right to destroy my automobile because they have encountered injustice by the local police, they are simply wrong. When that idea is allowed to fester, they will begin to believe violence is a practical tool. I have lived and worked with people who thought the violent bombing and destruction of a bus of school children was a legitimate form of protest. It is not. It is murder and mayhem – and we must teach that your rights stop at my nose. You don’t have the right to hurt people or property that is not yours to make a point no matter how valid your point may be. Children must be taught that sometimes how you argue erodes and even invalidates the point you are trying to make. That is wise instruction.

Fifth, recognize there will be choices and watch the path of the would-be counselor before taking their advice.

Solomon encouraged seeking mentors, but warned to watch them before accepting them in that role. He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 10:2 A wise man’s heart directs him toward the right, but the foolish man’s heart directs him toward the left. 3 Even when the fool walks along the road, his sense is lacking and he demonstrates to everyone that he is a fool.

Verse two isn’t political; though in our current day it may seem like it can be obviously applied that way. In Solomon’s day, “left” and “right” weren’t code words for liberal and conservative. The point he made was simpler: Fools choose a path different than wisdom directs. Wise people are called to live differently than the accepted foolishness around them. Solomon noted that if one looks closely, they can spot the fool.

Look at verse three and ask this question: How did Solomon indicate I could tell a fool? The answer is this: Watch the path they walk upon, the direction they take, and the way they walk it. In other words, if you would receive counsel from them, look at the way they have lived. The longer I live, the more I see it. There are those who are wise and quiet. There are those who are foolish and loud. There are those who are ready to pass wisdom to me, but have no evidence their path of wisdom has been applied to their own walk – at least not for very long.

I want to take advice of health from someone who is healthy. I want to take my advice on work from one who has a long track record of working diligently. I want to take my counsel on marriage from someone who demonstrates they have a good one over the long haul. Degrees mean you have encountered information in a theoretical form for a specific duration of time. They don’t guarantee that I can apply truth any more than reading a recipe makes me a chef. Look for people who have lived in a way you seek life to go. Watch their walk before you accept their talk. That is wisdom at work.

Sixth, choose positions carefully and prepare to hold your ground thoughtfully when challenged.

Solomon wrote it this way:

Ecclesiastes 10:4 If the ruler’s temper rises against you, do not abandon your position, because composure allays great offenses.

Don’t be defensive and loud, but rather confident because you chose your positions well. Don’t abandon your moral post because it makes the person in charge upset. Calmly stay by the values you have thoughtfully formed. The results of bringing a testimony of truth and solid values into a meeting will diminished rapidly if you abandon your positions when challenged. Learn truth. Accept it. Stand by it. When those who have power test your resolve, stand by what you know to be true with kindness and confidence.

Every now and then in a class I test this idea. I will ask a question, and a student will raise their hand and offer an excellent answer. From every angle, what they answered was correct. Yet, if my facial expression changes as though what they said is somehow painful, many will back off their answer to try to please me as their teacher. Solomon argued that we should so carefully form our positions in wisdom, that we are prepared to stand by them when they are tested.

Seventh, don’t be surprised to learn that titles don’t tell the whole story.

Live for a while on the planet, and what Solomon wrote next will become painfully obvious. He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 10:5 There is an evil I have seen under the sun, like an error which goes forth from the ruler— 6 folly is set in many exalted places while rich men sit in humble places. 7 I have seen slaves riding on horses and princes walking like slaves on the land.

Solomon noticed two things: Not everyone who has the position is in the right place and not everyone who lacks position is undeserving of a great position. I have worked in many places, but I have noticed something that may be true where you work. Often in the office there is a boss who depends heavily on a worker. In that same office, many of the workers could leave and little would be affected by their absence. Yet, there is one person, often a low-ranking clerk of some sort who carries the office on their shoulders. They can find what no one else can. They know all the little idiosyncrasies of the machines and can make them all work when needed. They understand the computers, the printer and know where the relevant files are kept. They may not be in charge, but they effectively run the place. When they aren’t available to help everyone, the whole work place slows progress.

The point is that titles don’t tell the whole story. Many who work hard and keep things running aren’t the ones with the titles at all. They know the work, they do the work – but another is placed in charge of the work. In my own work, much of what is essential to getting things done is performed by others around me. I am responsible, and I am affirmed when it goes well, but I am often not in the room when the real labor occurred.

All seven ideas we just reviewed teach one idea: Wisdom must be learned, but we must carefully select the sources from which we accept that learning. That will help us bypass one of the two great pitfalls that lead to a wise life. There is a second. When I discover the proper places to source wisdom, I must learn to adapt my life to conform to what I learn. Solomon would say it this way: “You must develop wise habits”.

Developing Good Habits: Wise Words for Successful Workers!

The first habit Solomon mentioned has become the mantra of many shops and factories. It is this:

Safety first!

Ecclesiastes 10:8 He who digs a pit may fall into it, and a serpent may bite him who breaks through a wall. 9 He who quarries stones may be hurt by them, and he who splits logs may be endangered by them.

The fundamental habit we must teach to our young as they begin to drive / work/ play/ is this: pay attention to what you are doing. Distraction can kill you. Leave the text until you stop the drive. Learn to work cautiously and be careful to look at the dangers of the task. Youthful exuberance can easily lead one to believe that sheer power will overcome all obstacles. It won’t. Careful use of resources and power will keep you from harm.

The other night I at a friends and we watched a few minutes of one of the reality shows that place people in ridiculously harsh environments as they practically kill themselves to win a prize, or simply to prove to themselves they can survive no matter what apocalypse may come upon them. The young man was collecting fire wood, but had no tools to chop it to size. He decided to take a boulder and hurl it at the wood placed at an angle against a rock. If never occurred to the young man that hurling a rock in close proximity may not work. The rock may bounce back and hit you. The branch may break and part of it will spring upward toward you. He tossed the boulder with great force and got a face full of wood smacking him in the forehead. Fortunately, all he hurt was his head, but that didn’t seem to be working very well even before… so there was little loss. Not to sound cruel, but it is hard to underestimate how little some people think before they do something that will definitely leave a mark.

Second, prepare your tools!

Wise people work on the tools before they work on the job. Solomon wrote:

Ecclesiastes 10:10 If the axe is dull and he does not sharpen its edge, then he must exert more strength. Wisdom has the advantage of giving success.

It always feels like if you don’t plunge in, you are wasting time. That isn’t true. Solomon would tell you to get the right tools and prepare them well for the work you are about to do. Probably referring to this text, some historians quip that Abraham Lincoln once put it this way: “If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six of them sharpening my axe”! (From My Study Windows by James Russell Lowell (Professor of Belles-Lettres in Harvard College), Section: Abraham Lincoln: 1864, Page 166, James R. Osgood and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View).

It is a simple picture: a man who wants to chop down a tree reads in Ecclesiastes 9:10 to “Do it with all your might!” As a result, he grabs his axe, finds a tree and begins to hack and wack away. Preparation would have saved his arms and increased his efforts. Ecclesiastes warns against taking simple wisdom of a Proverb and thinking in a superficial way while failing to see how complex and difficult life can be. The Bible isn’t a single verse, but many blended, some that balance others. This is such a verse.

I read one day that painting professionals realize the importance of surface preparation in achieving maximum paint performance. Most paint coating failures can be directly attributed to inadequate surface preparation which affects coating adhesion. When you want to get the paint flowing, the most important thing is to keep the can closed and prepare the surface.

When I was in school, back in the dark ages just after the wheel was invented, I had to take classes in both Greek and Hebrew. When I was doing that, I ended up thinking what MOST students think part way through the process. I thought I was wasting precious time. “How will this help me reach lost people?” I would ask myself. The answer comes from Solomon: “You are sharpening the axe. In the end this will save me time not waste it.” I will never rise to be great language scholar (although I continue to work on my English!) but gaining facility in the languages has enabled me to follow commentaries and make your own decisions about whether versions are right or wrong. The tree falls more easily because the axe was forcibly sharpened by my professors.

Remember this: Truth is never invented; it is only discovered. Discovery takes time. If God revealed it, chances are good that somebody else in the church history has seen it before. If you will take the time to work at preparation, learning and discovery – joy will come in the easier work.

Third…Practice, Practice, Practice!

Solomon told us what we heard in little league. You won’t hit the ball unless you practice. Unpracticed players embarrass themselves. He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 10:11 If the serpent bites before being charmed, there is no profit for the charmer.

A snake charmer is only impressive when the snake follows the script. Practice of the craft helps avoid the embarrassment and loss that comes with the snake doing what is natural and not what is practiced. The Bible calls believers to DO, not just to KNOW.

Let’s be honest: We only truly believe the commands of the Bible that we actually practice. We can easily claim, “We believe in witnessing.” The obvious question is this: Do you intentionally share Christ with people? If not, I would submit you either don’t really believe in it, you don’t recognize the lost-ness of those without Christ, or you just don’t care all that much about other people and their plight. Our problem, when we look honestly at it, is often that we know far more than we do and we teach people to know more that we teach them to apply what they know in practice. Filling notebooks with Bible insights isn’t the objective. Thinking that writing things down is the point is a mistake. The truth is you don’t judge an army by how soldiers sit in the mess hall and eat. The real judgment is made based on how the army performs in battle against the foe.

Fourth, don’t speak or act like you know what you don’t!

Now Solomon offered another caution that should become our wise practice:

Ecclesiastes 10:12 Words from the mouth of a wise man are gracious, while the lips of a fool consume him; 13 the beginning of his talking is folly and the end of it is wicked madness. 14 Yet the fool multiplies words. No man knows what will happen, and who can tell him what will come after him?

He offered this thought: A few helpful words are better than long predictions and detailed guesses. Beloved, we need great thinkers who work through deep thinking – but not all of us are that deep.

Each generation needs its C. S. Lewises and J. R. R. Tolkiens, and G. K. Chestertons, its Blaise Pascals but they are rare among us and always were. Be careful not to try to sound like you are, if you are not. The wisest people I know are unafraid to admit what they don’t know. Know what you know, but know what you don’t. That is a good habit. When you hear these words: “Somebody will have to teach me about this, I just don’t know,” you are hearing wisdom.

Fifth, be careful with your resources.

Don’t waste what you have been given – you may need it. He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 10:15 The toil of a fool so wearies him that he does not even know how to go to a city. 16 Woe to you, O land, whose king is a lad and whose princes feast in the morning. 17 Blessed are you, O land, whose king is of nobility and whose princes eat at the appropriate time—for strength and not for drunkenness.

With time on the planet, the young grow old – and some grow wise. You can note wisdom when you see someone who learned to conserve their energy for doing something important. Immature people blow through resources without thinking ahead, always believing more resources will come. Solomon would say this: “Don’t!”

Sixth, plan time to maintain and manage things.

Gaining something is one thing; keeping it is another. Solomon noted:

Ecclesiastes 10:18 Through indolence the rafters sag, and through slackness the house leaks. 19 Men prepare a meal for enjoyment, and wine makes life merry, and money is the answer to everything.

Everything you own takes maintenance. Every relationship does as well. Preparation and maintenance may not be glitzy, but it keeps the roof from leaking on your dessert at the table! If you want to have a great life, take time to maintain what is important.

Seventh, watch your mouth about those in charge.

Solomon began with learning who to trust, and he ends with learning who NOT to trust. He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 10:20 Furthermore, in your bedchamber do not curse a king, and in your sleeping rooms do not curse a rich man, for a bird of the heavens will carry the sound and the winged creature will make the matter known.

We get the saying: “A little birdie told me” from this verse. Respect isn’t a put up job – you need to cultivate it even when you think no one is listening. It will show eventually. Learn to respect those in authority. Don’t just put it on – do it as a matter of your own heart.

It is fine to disagree with those who lead us, but don’t confuse your opinion with real conviction. They are not the same thing. Opinions are things you argue about; convictions are things you are willing to die for. Our world needs men and women of godly, biblical convictions who refuse to waste their voice on matters of opinion. Throughout history, people who have had the greatest impact for God were not the most knowledgeable, nor the most talented, but rather those who stood unapologetically for conviction rooted squarely in the Word.

Wise people learn two essential skills: how to discern good sources and how to develop successful habits.

Mary Bartels wrote this years ago in Guideposts: Recently I was visiting a friend who has a greenhouse. As she showed me her flowers, we came to the most beautiful one of all, a golden chrysanthemum, bursting with blooms. But to my great surprise, it was growing in an old dented, rusty bucket. I thought to myself, If this were my plant, I’d put it in the loveliest container I had!” My friend changed my mind. “I ran short of pots,” she explained, “and knowing how beautiful this one would be, I thought it wouldn’t mind starting out in this old pail. It’s just for a little while, till I can put it out in the garden.”- Mary Bartels Bray, reprinted from Guideposts, June 1965.

I wonder if that is you. You were planted here in an old tin of a body, but your beauty is just beginning to show. Wisdom is living out God’s truth. If you do it well, the beauty of the Designer will show through!

The Search is Over: “The Incredible Journey” – Ecclesiastes 9:1-12

When I was a kid, Saturday mornings were for house chores. For the uninitiated, these are horrible punishments devised by mad men and women in the school of parenting, that were created to add misery to an idyllic childhood. My mother graduated from “Mom U” with a degree in “wake them up early on Saturday to dust something that didn’t look any different after it was dusted.” In spite of it all, somehow my siblings and I survived to tell the tale of such inhumane treatment…After chores, the remainder of the morning was normally given to the little “knob-type” television that was in the room with the couch we were allowed to sit on. There was another room with couches and chairs, and I am not certain what it was for, but we were only allowed there on Christmas when the tree was set up in that room. In the “TV room” we collapsed on the floor and couch and watched science fiction theater – a Philly area treat that was a combination of the weird and a dab of science sound. One implausible movie after another treated us to strange ideas. One I happen to remember was the 1966 film called “Fantastic Voyage,” a tale of a submarine crew who was tasked to shrink to microscopic size and venture into the body of an injured scientist to repair the damage to his brain.

It really was a fantasy for the biology nerds of my day! At one point, an arteriovenous fistula forced the crew to detour through the heart, and they were further forced to induce cardiac arrest to avoid turbulence that would crush their little vessel. They passed through the inner ear, where all personnel were ordered to remain absolutely silent to prevent massive waves of turbulence. The lungs were a highlight, where they had to replenish their supply of oxygen in the small ship. I recall a number of scenes from the movie, but don’t really remember the whole of the plot. I can say this: it was a journey to behold, even if it was the stuff of imagination.

Enough of make believe – we came to deal with real life. God left us a record of the wisest man ever to walk the earth, and he told us of a journey as well. This one wasn’t fiction, but it did unveil a fantastic voyage. It was the story of how life on this planet was designed to work, and what skills needed to be learned to navigate the troubles inherent in a fallen world.

In short, Solomon observed life, and as he observed intently some of the texture of it, life frankly scared him. He gazed and pondered the depths of some of the hardest to explain facets of our human experience, and it didn’t settle him. In fact, when he looked at how unpredictable life can be it was disconcerting. He contrasted that with how very predictable its end will be in death, and that didn’t exactly lift his spirits either. Finally, after careful and contemplative consideration, he came to the conclusion that many people on the planet are, well, just plain nut cases. Honestly, they are fruit cakes. He lost sleep over his observations. Then, as with many great minds disturbed by studying too intensely for too long a time – he decided to write down his observations. His work is intense at times, depressing at other times – and all true to life. He noted that in some ways, life is predetermined. In other ways, life is really what you make it. He would say it this way…

Key Principle: Though life is unpredictable and short, it can be incredible.

Solomon didn’t hate life all the time (though he admitted he did on occasion). He simply made a factual record that apart from understanding that we are created and have a purpose in our Creator – life doesn’t make sense. In fact, it isn’t even appealing to think about a cosmos disconnected. The remarkable thing is he wrote that before our modern curriculum developers who have sold American educators that very message. Make no mistake, Solomon said that life disconnected from God will drive people over the edge. Here are some of his telling observations in Ecclesiastes 9.

First, he saw that in the short run, we don’t know what we will face – and that is a problem. He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 9:1 For I have taken all this to my heart and explain it that righteous men, wise men, and their deeds are in the hand of God. Man does not know whether it will be love or hatred; anything awaits him.

He acknowledged that God is in control of our lives, but we cannot predict from day to day what we will experience. He is not cruel or erratic, but we live in a fallen world riddled with sin and its effects. Without our ability to see His complex plan in the midst of the world devastated by our rebellion against God, we will not be able to perceive how everything works, and it will always appear event are nothing more than “loose ends” while living under the sun.

Look even closer at his words.

He opened with words about emotional response. He said he “took to heart” the reality of life’s unpredictability. In a moment he will make clear how unpredictable life truly is, but in his opening line, he showed an honest assessment of how it feels. The truth is that life hurts. On the face of it, because we can’t see what is coming toward us, we cannot fully emotionally prepare for it. Life can and will hurt you, and you won’t know why at the time it happens. That isn’t happy news, but it is the truth.

Second, he noted along with the reality of pain the truth that being righteous or wise doesn’t offer us the ability to predict the difficulties and blessings we will face along the journey. Our education may inform us on the specifics concerning what we face once we are in it, but that learning will never really prepare us for the pain of the experience. No amount of wisdom offers you a crystal ball on your future.

Finally, he made plain one of the most powerful emotionally packed qualities of life – the reactions of others. Because we live in a fallen world, we are surrounded by people who are deeply flawed and damaged by the fall. Much of the pain we will face in life will be directly connected to how others deal with us. People may be loving and kind toward us, but may just as likely be hateful and troublesome. We may be at perfect peace with everyone we know, when someone enters our life that intends to do evil. We may do right, but that is no guarantee we will be repaid with a life filled with fair and reasonable people.

Ask health department workers who went to their annual Christmas party luncheon after a training session on December. 2, 2015, in San Bernardino. Sayed Farouk and his wife Malik came into the community research facility with weaponry and left behind 14 dead and 22 injured, some very severely. A few minutes before he left to get his bag of weapons, Farook posed with four fellow county employees in front of a Christmas tree in a conference room. The murderous couple left behind a 6-month-old daughter, who was taken into foster care, according to family members. “That’s very hard for us to comprehend.” said David Bowdich, who was the in charge of the FBI Los Angeles office.

Solomon understood the incomprehensibility of the reactions of people. Though he knew nothing of Christmas parties or high-powered rifles, he knew that nothing in life guaranteed that others would treat you fairly or evenly humanely. It isn’t a given that how you act will set the tone for how others treat you. A decent, hard-working, peace-loving young man of color may face hideous prejudice. A loving, kind and helpful janitor may be shot dead next to his bucket because of someone else’s incomprehensible world view. Because you do right, you are not somehow insulated from the actions of others who do not intend to be fair or just. That was Solomon’s observation.

Solomon summarized and restated the notion of unpredictability later in his speech using these words:

Ecclesiastes 9:11 I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all. Let’s face it, life here holds no guarantees except one – it is temporary.

Second, though we live with unpredictability in the short run, in the long run, we know what we will face – and that is an even bigger problem! He reminded:

Ecclesiastes 9:2 It is the same for all. There is one fate for the righteous and for the wicked; for the good, for the clean and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and for the one who does not sacrifice. As the good man is, so is the sinner; as the swearer is, so is the one who is afraid to swear. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate for all men.

“In short,” Solomon argued, “Everyone faces death. It is our reality.” Scan the pages of the newspapers. On the front pages you may be challenged by how outrageous the behavior of some people became as they took on police and ended in the morgue. Flip back a few pages to the obituaries. You will find kind people who went to bed one night and left their body for eternity. The circumstances for the two were very different, but both people woke up the morning before their death for the last time. Death is the reality for most of us when it comes to exiting the scene on this planet. I don’t believe that is news to any of us – but we seem to manage to avoid living like we know that is the real situation we live with.

Look at the way Solomon faced it. He opened frankly and succinctly: “We all face the same thing.” He observed that it didn’t matter if we behaved or not, gave or not, religiously observed, or not, swore an oath, or not. Life on this planet normally ends at a funeral. There were only a few who bypassed it. Enoch appeared to get to God without facing all that others face. Elijah got a chariot ride to glory. Here’s the truth: You and I need to understand that we are very likely NOT going to get a chariot or beam up experience. We will likely face death. It will come to all of us, unless we are here at the return of Jesus for His own.

Solomon’s point was not that it doesn’t matter how you live. His observation was simple: the way you live doesn’t determine how you enter eternity – though it may reflect where you will spend that eternity. Though wicked and good, clean and unclean, observant before God and an ignorer of God all die – he didn’t argue that how they lived didn’t matter. He argued that how they lived didn’t insulate them from facing death. Death passed on all men. No one should assume their behavior grants them an exemption.

Later in the same speech, Solomon added to that truth and noted the best plans we can make will one day be interrupted. He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 9:12 Moreover, man does not know his time: like fish caught in a treacherous net and birds trapped in a snare, so the sons of men are ensnared at an evil time when it suddenly falls on them.

Not only is life unpredictable in its course, the timing of its end is often very unpredictable. No matter what your plans are for next year, it would be wise to bear in mind that you may not have a next year in which to accomplish your plans. I am not trying to depress you. The statement is simply true, regardless of how it makes you feel. Life offers no guarantees and death is seldom on someone’s schedule or jotted into their “Daytimer.”

In a way, Solomon began this lesson with the unpredictable course of life, and ended it with the predictable end of life – and both seemed like a terrible problem to him…

Third, Solomon observed the timeline between our birth and death. He noted (along with an unpredictable life course and its all too predictable but untimely end) the incredible stupidity and seeming insanity of many of earth’s residents. Solomon observed:

Ecclesiastes 9:3b “…Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead.

Not only is life unpredictable and death certain, but Solomon made plain that people don’t make sense of how to navigate the journey very well. He used the term “evil” and “insane” to describe the way people live – and that was before they issued driver’s licenses to all the people in our neighborhood! Have you been amazed at the risks some people take to get from one place to another? Have you wondered how in the world they could think what they were doing was in any way “normal?”

Perhaps you think calling people insane is an impolite way to refer to them. I would ask you to “keep an open mind” on that point. On August 15, 2013, HuffPo reported this:

A pair of would-be Chicago restaurant robbers have proved not every crime has a “mastermind” behind it. Chicago police and prosecutors say Mario Garcia, 39, and Domingo Garcia-Hernandez, 28, went to the Clifton Grill in West Rogers Park late Sunday demanding food and telling the owner, “I will kill you, I have a gun with me,’’ the Tribune reports. Concerned for his customers’ safety, police say the owner told the men he was too busy but to come back in an hour — and they did. According to CBS Chicago when the men showed up a second time just after midnight, they demanded $100 in addition to food. The owner told the guys he needed to get his wife’s check book, which bought him enough time to call police. The men were charged with one count of attempted aggravated robbery each. Garcia-Hernandez is also charged with possession of a replica firearm, United Press International reports. According to police, the replica used: a squirt gun. The two men are due in court Aug. 19.”

Honestly, I have lived on the planet fifty-five years, and I am still taken by surprise when I read the news about how some people make decisions on how to spend an evening!

Everything we see in the passage leads us to the negative. Life is unpredictable. Death is certain. Our neighbors on the planet are lunatics. Wow. How in the world can we look at all this and not leave the lesson depressed? Fortunately, the ancient king didn’t just point out how bad a state we are in, he offered words of counsel on navigating the insanity through the rapids of unpredictability.

Stop for moment and listen to him – but hear ALL of what Solomon said. He wasn’t done at verse three. Life really isn’t as bad as all that. In fact, in many ways life is incredible. It can be beautiful. It is surely humorous.

If you aren’t laughing enough, it is because you aren’t looking at the whole scene or you are hanging out with the wrong crowd.

Life is unpredictable – but it is often hilarious! We face death – but we don’t have to make that the punctuation mark of every sentence along the journey! Listen to the positive counsel of the wise king:

First, learn to live optimistically. Hope carries us through the unpredictability of life.

Ecclesiastes 9:4 For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. 6 Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun.

Solomon shared something that growing up I thought my grandma made up : “Quit whining, there is still hope if you are breathing!” His method of sharing the truth was more philosophical. He said a dead king is worse off than a living pauper – and used the animal kingdom to show it. He simply made the point that we only contribute to the story until our time is done on earth – then our insights don’t matter (unless you are in the movies or an author).

I get the chance to both write and be on film. One of the beautiful things about writing is that long after you are here, your thoughts can live on. One of the ugly things about film is that you realize how much older you look now than when your series began! One of the key complaints the recently deceased Carrie Fisher made about playing Princess Leia was that people met her at fifty and sixty and were disappointed that she didn’t still look like she did when she was scantily clad in galactic wear at age 18. Film captures you at one moment and locks you there in the minds of others.

Don’t overlook the happy thought tucked into verse four. While we live, we need to see hope. People die faster on a battle field from hopelessness than they do from water or food deprivation.

• Hope is the new beginning for every ending.
• It is the belief that there is a remarkable and unwritten chapter of the journey yet to come.
• Hope waits for a new dawn and sees it as a new chance to take on troubles in a different way.
• Hope helps you focus on the opportunity inside the problem.

Solomon isn’t “pie in the sky” about life. He stated the obvious. You are still breathing. How about figuring out a way to make that a good thing? He went on…

Second, learn to live contentedly. Your Creator has planned some stunning moments in your journey.

He said it in simple words…

Ecclesiastes 9:7 Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works.

Obviously Solomon is assuming you are doing what pleases God when he makes his reference in the text. The statement doesn’t apply if you are ignoring His Word and doing evil. At the same time, if you are doing what God told you to do, Solomon would tell you to do your best to have some FUN on the journey. That was his point when he added the words “with a cheerful heart.” Take what God has graciously provided for you and add some cheer to your day! Dreariness isn’t spiritual, in spite of the many examples you may have seen in life. Godliness isn’t glum. Spirituality isn’t suffering in silence.

The fact is that a contented life comes from being happy with what God has provided – not becoming complacent about a desire to better yourself. Contentment isn’t an excuse to lay back and quit work; it is not about that at all. It is more about finding joy in what you DO have, instead of living in a dream world of what you wish you had. Contentment is a state of your heart – it isn’t locked into circumstantial response.

Honestly, some of the poorest people I know have lots of money – but they don’t know how to enjoy their life. Solomon would say: “Never let the things you want blot out the celebration of the things you have!” Remember: It isn’t how much you have in life, who you know in life or where you are in your life, that will become the driving forces of happiness. What you believe about each of those things in your life drives your happiness. If you learn to see the beauty of what you have, you will enjoy life much more.

Third, learn to live each day like a celebration of life. Each sunrise offers new opportunities to learn something new and enjoy something more deeply.

Ecclesiastes 9:8 Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head.

This too can be misunderstood if you don’t know the context of Scripture. Solomon isn’t calling us to be hedonistic to enjoy life – it is hedonistic to make enjoyment the chief end of life. Look closely at the verse…

He referenced clean clothing and a clean appearance (a well-oiled head) to suggest that we take the time at the end of the work day to clean up and enjoy the cool of the evening. He who works all the time celebrates little. You will find the more you learn to celebrate the mundane and daily parts of life, the more life will offer you to celebrate.

I LOVE to open a coffee can for the first time, and let the vacuum seal release all the aroma of the beans. I get very excited to tear the seal on the top of a jar of peanut butter to release the wafting smell of the once crushed and imprisoned nuts. I love the smell of a campfire, when it doesn’t include the smell of burning sneakers. I am fascinated by the ocean – and can watch for hours the waves crashing against the rocks or onto the sandy shore. Who can resist a laughing baby?

I know these things seem small, but they are the daily joys of life. The same rain that causes the child to cry – because recess will be indoors – makes the farmer smile. Life is, more often than not, how you choose to view what happens. Solomon would tell you to go to work and give it all you have – then come home and clean up and get ready to take pleasure in the small things.

Fourth, learn to live in rich relationship. Invest in them early and keep them fresh for a lifetime.

If I am excited about any part of this lesson, it is this part. Solomon wrote:

Ecclesiastes 9:9 Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun.

If you read the verse carefully, you will notice that Solomon didn’t down play how hard life is. He called your daily work “toil.” He called your life fleeting. He admitted that work took up much of your life’s blood and energy. Yet, against the backdrop of all that labor, he happily advised we find a good mate, and stick with him/her all our days.

I would be remiss if I didn’t use this time to be honest with you about marriage. There are seasons to life, and there are seasons to relationships. Those who don’t go the distance may never know the joy of making it through the tough times. Not every day is bliss, but the accumulated collection of life with a satisfying mate cannot be matched in life.

Let me take a moment to offer a few reasons to stick with it even if you’ve seriously considered giving up on your marriage.

First, half of the problems in your current marriage will be with your for life – because your spouse isn’t the whole problem. Let me kindly suggest a few of the problems in your marriage have to do with you. You can’t move on if you take YOU with YOU to happy land.
Second, starting over isn’t as romantic as it may sound. Do you really relish restarting the process of finding someone to trust, love and respect starting from scratch?

Third, when you break a marriage, you tear something you often cannot mend. Maybe it will rip the heart of your children. Maybe it will crush your credit. Maybe it will destroy your mate’s self-confidence. None of those things are good.

Finally, the person you married is still buried inside the cantankerous person eating breakfast cereal across the table. Maybe you have been taking each other or granted. I don’t know. May I suggest you pray like mad and give your best to making it work?

Honestly, there are no perfect marriages. There are flawed people who choose to grow together and stay at it in spite of their imperfections. Your spouse shouldn’t be compared with a movie character or cardboard cutout of perfection.

To the young I offer only this: Choose wisely the wife or husband of your youth. The days will slip away, and your figure will go with them. Pain will leave its mark on your brow all too soon. Don’t choose based solely on externals – because they don’t last long. Find someone you can honestly spend life with and be thankful they are willing to have you.

Fifth, learn to live fully. A half done life is less satisfying than a runny egg on your breakfast plate.

Solomon wrote it this way:

Ecclesiastes 9:10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.

You get one chance at life – don’t waste it. Don’t half live it. Give it all you have. You can sleep when you are dead. For now, put some energy into BECOMING. Put your best effort into the important things. Don’t take life for granted – you will be left with nothing but regrets if you do. Solomon would summarize the whole of this lesson this way…

Though life is unpredictable and short, it can be incredible.

Life Is Beautiful was a 1997 Italian comedy-drama film about a Jewish Italian book shop owner named Guido who used an overactive imagination to shield his son from the horrors of internment in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II.

In 1939 in Italy, Guido arrived to work in a city where his uncle operated a restaurant. He was a comical and sharp young man, and he found a woman and fell in love, stealing his wife from her own engagement party (to another man) on horseback. They married and had a son, and settled into owning an operating a little book store. War broke out and Guido is seized, with his family. They are forced onto a train and sent to a concentration camp. Guido never saw his wife during their internment, but he got creative and pulled off stunts, like using the camp’s loudspeaker to send cryptic messages to assure his wife that he and their son were safe. Though many are executed in the camp, Guido works to hide their true situation from his son. He convinced his son the camp was a complicated game in which he needed to perform the tasks his father gave him to earn points. He taught his son that whoever got to one thousand points first won a tank. He said if he cried, complained or said he was hungry, he would lose all his accumulated points. Quiet boys that hide from camp guards earn extra points. Though at times reluctant, the boy went along with the game. Guido maintained the story right until the end when, in the chaos of shutting down the camp as Allied forces approached, he told his son to stay in a box until everybody left and he will have completed the game. Guido ventured out to find his wife, but was caught by a soldier and marched to be executed. While he is walking to his death, Guido passed by his son one last time, but stayed in character and played the game, winking at his son. The next morning the camp was liberated and Guido’s son was reunited with his mother. It wasn’t until years later that truly understood his father’s story and the sacrifice he made for his family.

Guido didn’t need a good life to make his son’s life a good one. He needed to teach optimism and contentment. He needed to make each day a celebration. He needed to love more deeply the partner God gave him. He needed to throw himself into living with all he could – even when the circumstances weren’t ideal. It made the difference in his son and changed the world while he was in it. You and I need the same thing.

Though life is unpredictable and short, it can be incredible!

The Search is Over: “The Watermarks of Wisdom” – Ecclesiastes 8

We have all met them, and some of us live with them. Each of us has in our life someone who seemingly knows a great deal about health food, but even a cursory look at them shows they are unhealthy in their lifestyle. We may have a friend who can explain in detail the benefits of regular exercise, but they are grossly overweight and extremely undeveloped in the muscle department. Perhaps we have in our life someone who has incredible insight into raising children, but their own children seem like hellions. Another friend may offer tremendous advice on how to play a cello, but they cannot seem to hold the bow. There are people who know theory, and then there are people who have learned how to practice that theory consistently.

I mention this because in Biblical terms, there are people who know the theory of a godly lifestyle, but do not live consistently according to Biblical principles.

They get the idea of a walk with God, but they don’t consistently practice one – at least not according to the way God has expressed in His Word He wants them to practice it. They are not hard to find; they are all over the place in the Christian world. They can quote Scripture, but don’t seem to connect their bad habits and ungodly practices with violations of the very truths they memorize. Though we all have areas of life that are not consistently surrendered to God, that isn’t what I am talking about. For most of us, areas in which we struggle to surrender control are points of conviction. That is not true for these unwise friends. They appear satisfied that godliness is mere memorization, theological prowess and theory – whether or not it seems to be showing in their life choices. Solomon would call the unwise, and openly challenged that lifestyle as he explained the workings of godly wisdom in Ecclesiastes 8.

When we studied chapter 7 we noted that Solomon made clear two things were required to have wisdom: we must grab God’s Word and “take a knee” (or bow to worship Him). That was a great beginning point, but Solomon continued his message concerning a wise life. He made an important point that should separate the practical sheep from the theoretical goats.

Key Principle: Wisdom connects God’s direction to the normal choices of life.

Remember that Solomon was the third king of the United Kingdom of the confederate tribes made from the sons of Jacob. God presented him at the beginning of his reign the gift of a profound ability to connect truth to practice in life – what the Bible simply calls “wisdom.” Because God’s gift filled his life during the early days of his administration, it also filled his thinking and speech. Few Biblical writers spent as much time on the subject, because few had as much wisdom in their life as he did.

Though he later drifted far from it, Solomon began as a wise man, and became an avid student of wisdom.

He understood what wisdom is and how its practice helps enrich the lives of people. He knew why wisdom was and is essential. Since the whole of our discussion will be about the use of truth in life – let’s say it the way Solomon would as we study the Word of God written through his quill:

Wisdom is connecting truth to life. It is grasping the principles designed by our Creator and demonstrating their value in the practice of our daily life.

Pick up your Bible and look at how Solomon opened the discussion on seeing wisdom in practice. He posed the idea in a question:

Ecclesiastes 8:1a Who is like the wise man and who knows the interpretation of a matter?

He wasn’t asking an open-ended query; he was making a point. We all need wise people in life when trouble comes. How do we know when we found one? Solomon’s point was that when you see a wise man or woman, you will know that is what they are. Wisdom isn’t a mist, it is discernible. It is both practical and practiced. Let’s face it, when you need to reach out to someone you feel you can trust, how will you be able to discern if they are wise? Solomon used the question to hook us, but went on in his speech to answer the question. Read the rest of the verse:

Ecclesiastes 8:1b …A man’s wisdom illumines him and causes his stern face to beam.

The king first counseled that you take a discerning gaze at the face of your “would be” counselor in the tumultuous moment. He made the point that wisdom changes the countenance of the wise. It offers deep satisfaction to its possessor and a certain confidence you need for troubled times and hard advice in the difficult moments. When we don’t know what to do, panic often shows on our face. When we have the confidence of practiced truth that has bridged this gulf before, we show peace on our face in spite of the storm all around us.

That is one way to identify the wise, but it is not the only way to discern one in whom wisdom is operating well. In addition to the countenance, Solomon took the time to make clear in the rest of his message that because wisdom is the practice of truth, it can be clearly demonstrated in behavior consistent with God’s revealed facts about life.

Since wisdom is living according to God’s design, it is best revealed in (at least) six important “marking” behaviors.

Solomon asserted that wisdom can be seen. If we are following God’s direction, people will be able to tell by watching our behavior. What should they look for?

First, wisdom directs proper respect of authority

Entitled and disrespectful people have not connected God’s Word to their life properly. The very first behavior that revealed a wise person mentioned by Solomon was in relation to how they act under authority – perhaps because it is one of the first lessons we learn in life from our parents at home. He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 8:2 I say, “Keep the command of the king because of the oath before God. 3 Do not be in a hurry to leave him. Do not join in an evil matter, for he will do whatever he pleases.” 4 Since the word of the king is authoritative, who will say to him, “What are you doing?” 5 He who keeps a royal command experiences no trouble, for a wise heart knows the proper time and procedure.

When the king discussed respect, he did it in terms of royal authority – though it applies to all authority. Solomon’s view in this equation was admittedly from the top (as he was the king of his land), but he is careful to explain both the defining characteristics of respect and the ways in which respect for authority shows wisdom.

When our society was more rooted in Biblical ideals, people were taught to respect an office because of the office. Today, people openly reveal that no one is entitled to their respect if the office holder does not “earn” it. In fact, you will hear people espouse the idea that “I respect myself too much to offer allegiance to someone simply because they hold an office or position. They have to convince me of the value of respecting them.”

That may sound reasonable to you, but it isn’t Biblical. It isn’t moral. It isn’t wise. In the end, a society that requires every individual to earn your respect will give you unending opportunities to disregard authority while they are busy trying to convince you of the value of doing what you are told. Teachers in such a society become beholden to complaining students and absent parents. Police officers get arguments instead of compliance. Bosses get under performing and over-expecting workers.

No one is arguing that public servants and people in charge don’t need to behave well. That is a separate issue. The issue is this: the mark of wisdom is clear when we show respect for those in authority over us. Look at the verses again more slowly:

Solomon began with the notion that wisdom directs respect as an acknowledgement of God’s control and placement of those who are over us (8:2). Did you notice how linked human authority was with that of Divine authority? Ultimately, lack of respect for human authority structures is rooted in an expression of rebellion against the God Who appointed the authority over you. For this reason, it is difficult for anyone to really understand the coherent logic of respect without a firm belief in God. When the Scripture argues the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, this is a significant part of what such an ideal entails. Consider this:

The book Family and Civilization was the obvious magnum opus of Carle C. Zimmerman, a distinguished sociologist who taught for many years at Harvard University. Zimmerman demonstrated the connections between the rise and fall of the nuclear family and the rise and fall of their respective civilizations, with particular attention to ancient Greece and Rome, medieval and modern Europe, and then finally the United States. He traced the family structure from tribes and clans to modern nuclear families and then to the broken families of the twentieth century. (The book was published in 1947). He showed the consequences of each family structure for the bearing and rearing of children; for religion, law, and everyday life; and for the fate of civilization itself.

That may not sound interesting, but the compelling analysis predicted many of today’s cultural and social controversies and trends, including youth violence and depression, abortion and homosexuality, the demographic collapse of Europe and of the West more generally, and the displacement of peoples. One magazine lifted a quote from the book as follows:

“…Eight specific patterns of domestic behavior typified the downward spiral of each culture Zimmerman studied: Marriage loses its sacredness…is frequently broken by divorce; traditional meaning of the marriage ceremony is lost; feminist movements abound; there is increased public disrespect for parents and authority in general; an acceleration of juvenile delinquency, promiscuity and rebellion occurs; there is refusal of people with traditional marriages to accept family responsibilities; a growing desire for, and acceptance of, adultery is evident; there is increasing interest in, and spread of, sexual perversions and sex-related crimes.” – Confident Living (author unknown), November 1987, p. 34

Don’t get lost in the verbiage; his point is clear. Zimmerman showed the lessons of the family are what bring respect or rebellion to the public square. The cohesiveness of the training at home has everything to do with the crime rate, the social conscience and the public sense of respect for one another.

Solomon went on to note that respectful observers of authority stand by the one appointed by God and are not willing to abandon or betray them easily (8:3). Loyalty is a treasured commodity by those who learn respect. People who learn to show rightful respect to those in charge will reap the benefits of that knowledge.

Jerry Jenkins wrote a book that I read and used many times about twenty years ago, called Twelve Things I Want My Children to Remember Forever. The book was reprinted many times, and captures some basic lessons the author felt were essential as his children grew up. One chapter was entitled: “Some people have the right to be wrong.” In that part of the book, Jenkins made clear those in authority do not have the right to hurt you, nor to press you to do something that is illegal, immoral or ungodly – but they DO possess the right to tell you how to do the work they have hired you to do – because they are the boss. The coach has the right to call the play – even if you think you know better. The employer has the right to demand that you arrange the tasks he or she gives you according to their priorities, even if they don’t make sense to you. Respect demands that we not need to be fully consulted to be wholly compliant to those in authority.

Wisdom connects the value of respect for authority to the practice of daily living. Godly people take every opportunity to show respect… but that isn’t all…

Wisdom also informs timing, and as have been said, “Timing is everything.”

Wisdom separates play time from work time. It teaches balance between work and leisure and informs us what is essential for that moment. Solomon wrote it this way:

Ecclesiastes 8:6 For there is a proper time and procedure for every delight, though a man’s trouble is heavy upon him. 7 If no one knows what will happen, who can tell him when it will happen?

The king noted that even in the midst of heavy times, there is a moment when relaxation, laughter and release are appropriate. Because we don’t know what is about to happen, we must learn to govern our sternness and our intensity for the long haul. Reckless people play when they should be working. Unwise people take no breaks. Wisdom reminds us we can’t expend all our energy in the first quarter of the game. Timing and careful execution of both our work and our play show we have gained wisdom. But there is more related to this idea…

Wisdom reminds us of our limitations.

Fools fight battles they cannot win. Wise is the person who recognizes the right place to expend their energy. Solomon wrote:

Ecclesiastes 8:8 No man has authority to restrain the wind with the wind, or authority over the day of death; and there is no discharge in the time of war, and evil will not deliver those who practice it. 9 All this I have seen and applied my mind to every deed that has been done under the sun wherein a man has exercised authority over another man to his hurt.

This proverb is dense with idea. The beginning of verse eight reminds us that we don’t have unlimited power, and we aren’t in charge of our own finish line. If you keep reading, the verse reminds us there are evils of the world that break into our life and we cannot control their assault, nor rebuff the need to drop everything we are doing and march in resistance to their evil.

Ask those who were drafted and they will tell you they understand this concept well. They didn’t go to war because they knew the people that were disrupting the peace of the world community. They went because we sent them. They didn’t know the enemy, and they didn’t care. They were living life until they were conscripted to fight – and there was nothing they could do to stop the dramatic changes that were about to happen to them. From haircut to wardrobe to training – it was out of their control. They went from freedom to being told when to eat and where to sleep.

Wisdom reminds us there are things in life that we will not have the strength, the intelligence or the latitude to adjust. We will be told, and we will comply. At the height of our personal strength, we are still weak and subject to authorities and forces bigger than ourselves. Solomon would say: “Don’t get too big for your britches!”

One of the noticeable traits of people who are entitled is they believe they offer greater wisdom than their life experience would normally afford. Another one is they feel deeply valuable, even when they have actually produced much in life. It is easy for the unwise to believe they know and can do almost anything – but wisdom teaches us some of our limitations. The candidate can make sweeping changes the elected official may not be able to pull off. Wisdom teaches us this often through powerful life experiences.

Wisdom reminds us of the difference between real faith and public piety.

While we are learning about limitations, we also learn about what is REAL in life. Solomon wrote:

Ecclesiastes 8:10 So then, I have seen the wicked buried, those who used to go in and out from the holy place, and they are soon forgotten in the city where they did thus. This too is futility.

The king observed some who lived poorly but went to worship regularly. He noted the fact that little of them was remembered after their life ended. Wisdom teaches that a good life is about impact on your life to others – not simply your attendance in places where good things are taught.

Solomon would ask: “Do you want to have an impact even after you are gone?” The answer to having one is not how many hours you spent in Bible studies and worship meetings – it is in how much you DO for people. You know the hours you spend learning and preparing. Others only know the hours you spend serving and doing. Wisdom reminds us to get out of the chair and get busy in the lives of people.

I believe the reason many believers struggle to serve is they get lost in the preparation. They know their own inner weakness and don’t trust themselves to be fully ready to serve others. They wrestle, year in and year out, with private sin and personal failures, and use these as an excuse to spend more time in preparation, and little time in serving. Sadly, they don’t realize that it is ONLY in serving that people are changed.

If making an impact is important to you – I urge you to begin to measure your life by how much you are serving others. Wisdom teaches that servants change others while students focus on themselves. We must go past preparation and into service to do what will be remembered.

By mid-chapter Solomon changed tempo in the narrative. The second half is still about wisdom, but it added a dimension. The king wasn’t only concerned with the application of wisdom to individuals as the first half of the chapter demonstrated, but also to public society. The remaining verses concern how wisdom plays out in the public square. After all, he was a king.

Wisdom instructs a community to offer swift judgment to deter crime.

Solomon began with wisdom concerning judgment of those who have been unwise. He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 8:11 Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil.

The point of the text is clear: Timely and reliable jurisprudence are marks of a wise society. An erratic court leaves justice wanting. A long held judgment that isn’t carried out becomes a joke. Solomon wasn’t pressing for a lynch mob to deal with criminals, but he made clear that a system with unending appeals is not a system that will deter people from crime. Years ago, when I was living in the Middle East, one of my European friends made a comment that stuck with me. He said: “The truth is if you were going to murder someone, the best place to do it is in America. You have more ways out of judgment than any justice system I can think of.” I am not sure if he was right, but I know there are many times I feel that way when looking at the cases that roll past me on the news ticker.

In our system, we have several grounds on which one may appeal for a reduced sentence or even acquittal that have nothing to do with whether or not they committed the crime. Out of compassion, we allow for mitigation of punishment based on what we perceive to be the mental state of the criminal, the passionate motivation for the crime, and a host of other conditions. While we have grown more compassionate in our judicial system, we may also be unwittingly creating more criminal incentive by offering so many ways out of taking full responsibility for our public actions. Solomon’s concern was not the swiftness of the proceedings to prove a man or woman guilty – but rather the length of time between a guilt finding and the execution of a sentence. In other words, wisdom says that twenty years on death row encourages more crime.

In the modern legal world, the idea of deterrence is generally not held in high regard. Biblical wisdom directs that when we have passed judgment on a criminal, their sentence should be swiftly executed in order to signal to others the seriousness of the crime and the certainty of the judgment.

Move for a moment from the county court room to your own living room. Most of us learned how serious Mom was about what she commanded by watching our siblings. She would tell our brother to take out the trash, and he would say, “In a minute, mom!” We would hear her voice change and her command become more shrill. “Get this trash out.” We would watch to see how far our dear brother could push the situation before they obeyed. If Mom walked in and said, “Take the trash out in the next minute or you are grounded for one week” you would recognize the swift result for ignoring obedience. How would that change the way you responded to mom next time she spoke?

Despite what some will tell you, deterrence and example should be part of the formula for a just society. Wisdom makes clear that while the guilty are being handled, the “not yet criminal” eyes are watching intently.

Wisdom reminds us of real justice and what truly works in the end.

Solomon offered another word on justice that is worth recalling as well:

Ecclesiastes 8:12 Although a sinner does evil a hundred times and may lengthen his life, still I know that it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly. 13 But it will not be well for the evil man and he will not lengthen his days like a shadow, because he does not fear God. 14 There is futility which is done on the earth, that is, there are righteous men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked. On the other hand, there are evil men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I say that this too is futility.

Solomon knew some would do wrong and seem to get away with it. Some would even profit from their misdeeds in the short run. Even for those who appeared to gain longer life and richer bank accounts, they weren’t really getting ahead. Their life was a mirage of richness – because they were facing God’s wrath in the end.

Solomon made an astute observation about our life on earth: If you try to judge fairness in life while you journey here – you will be left depressed. It is true! Sometimes the bad guy defeats the good guy here. Sometimes the good guy goes through great difficulty and dies at the hands of his enemy while the crime boss lives in luxury and dies in his bed peacefully. Here is the catch: the whole story doesn’t happen here. Death is just the beginning of another unending experience. What is unfair on earth will be made right after life here.

Remember the theme of the book? Life under the sun doesn’t make sense because the answers aren’t found in the material world. The cosmos doesn’t hold the meaning of it all, God does.

It doesn’t matter how many plays end badly, how many movies proclaim falsehood and how many songs try to convince you otherwise – evil will not win. Hate, murder, lies and injustice will be made right before the face of the Perfect One. If I didn’t know that, I would lean toward agreement with the radical skeptics and Nihilists – none of this appears to make much sense. Thank God for His Word! We have not been left here without a way to put a sense of burning injustice to rest.

Wisdom offered conclusions on priorities.

Solomon drew two important conclusions about the world by looking through the prism of God-given wisdom. They are worth sharing, and God let us have them in His Word.

First, he noted that enjoying life as a walk with God in every step of life made time here a blessing.

He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 8:15 So I commended pleasure, for there is nothing good for a man under the sun except to eat and to drink and to be merry, and this will stand by him in his toils throughout the days of his life which God has given him under the sun.

Life is not a curse, though we live in a fallen world. Over and over again, Solomon made clear that God provided life under the sun. God assigned our task of work. God offers moments of fulfillment – a full belly, an unstoppable “tears running down your face” time of laughter, an inner sense of deep satisfaction in a job well done. Each of these moments is to be treasured, and must never be taken for granted.

Dear ones, we have each other for a very short time. All our life here is the mere vapor of only a few moments. We have the joys of a beautiful sunrise and the stunning vista full of colors of sunset for a few more days to enjoy. If we choose, we can waste our life raging at what we don’t like about living in an incomplete and fallen world, but that is like spitting into the wind: We won’t change the world very much and we will get ourselves all wet and more miserable in the process.

Look very closely to the words of Solomon. He “commended” pleasure. The word is “shabach” which is literally “to praise.” In short, Solomon congratulated pleasure. He said, “You are good, and I am glad I have you in my life!” I am sad to say that many believers find that hard to believe. They seem to feel the godliness is glum at its core. I want to say this in such a way that it cannot be misunderstood. God gave you the pleasures of life. The fact that there are hedonists in this world is no excuse for you to see all pleasure as secret sin. God INTENDED you to enjoy your life – IF you would keep Him at the center of your joy, fulfillment and happiness. A God-centered life is the only kind God counts as a fulfilled life.

Let’s say it this way: God wants you to have a party, but only if He is invited!

He doesn’t want the party to become more important than our walk with Him. He must become our chief joy, or we have settled for something less than we could have. He gave us much to celebrate along the journey, but wants it to be the best it can be for us – and He IS the best for us.

Solomon offered a second observation. He wrote, “Don’t think you will ever make sense of all of life – you won’t.”

Ecclesiastes 8:16 When I gave my heart to know wisdom and to see the task which has been done on the earth (even though one should never sleep day or night – lit. “see no sleep in his eyes”), 17 and I saw every work of God, I concluded that man cannot discover the work which has been done under the sun. Even though man should seek laboriously, he will not discover; and though the wise man should say, “I know,” he cannot discover.

There is no command of God for you to figure everything out in life. You are to know Him and listen to His Word. In fact, godly wisdom only comes to one who is open to receive God’s Word. Musical notes fall to the floor without meaning if the audience is deaf. So it is with the wisdom from God.

It is also important to remember that a journey with wisdom truly is the road less traveled. Kent Lenard wrote a few years ago:

In a recent NCAA cross-country championship held in Riverside, California, 123 of the 128 runners missed a turn. One competitor, Mike Delcavo, stayed on the 10,000 meter course and began waving for fellow runners to follow him. Delcavo was able to convince only four other runners to go with him. Asked what his competitors thought of his mid-race decision not to follow the crowd, Delcavo responded, “They thought it was funny that I went the right way.” Delcavo was one who ran correctly.

Wisdom is practicing God’s truths in life. It is what you earn after decades of listening to God’s Word when you wanted to talk and give Him your insight and counsel. If you would have it, you must travel a different path. You can’t afford to simply memorize and get theoretical. Wisdom makes you act. It gives you strength to stand when no one else will.

Wisdom can be observed. It isn’t a mysterious ethereal concept locked in theoretical sophistry. It is practical. It is daily. It connects God’s direction to the normal choices of life.

Who was United States Senator Edmund G. Ross of Kansas? I suppose you could call him a “Mr. Nobody.” No law bears his name. Not a single list of Senate “greats” mentions his service. Yet when Ross entered the Senate in 1866, he was considered the man to watch. He seemed destined to surpass his colleagues, but he tossed it all away by one courageous act of conscience. Let’s set the stage. Conflict was dividing our government in the wake of the Civil War. President Andrew Johnson was determined to follow Lincoln’s policy of reconciliation toward the defeated South. Congress, however, wanted to rule the downtrodden Confederate states with an iron hand. Congress decided to strike first. Shortly after Senator Ross was seated, the Senate introduced impeachment proceedings against the hated President. The radicals calculated that they needed thirty-six votes, and smiled as they concluded that the thirty-sixth was none other than Ross’. The new senator listened to the vigilante talk. But to the surprise of many, he declared that the president “deserved as fair a trial as any accused man has ever had on earth.” The word immediately went out that his vote was “shaky.” Ross received an avalanche of anti-Johnson telegrams from every section of the country. Radical senators badgered him to “come to his senses.” The fateful day of the vote arrived. The courtroom galleries were packed. Tickets for admission were at an enormous premium. As a deathlike stillness fell over the Senate chamber, the vote began. By the time they reached Ross, twenty-four “guilties” had been announced. Eleven more were certain. Only Ross’ vote was needed to impeach the President. Unable to conceal his emotion, the Chief Justice asked in a trembling voice, “Mr. Senator Ross, how vote you? Is the respondent Andrew Johnson guilty as charged?” Ross later explained, at that moment, “I looked into my open grave. Friendships, position, fortune, and everything that makes life desirable to an ambitions man were about to be swept away by the breath of my mouth, perhaps forever.” Then, the answer came — unhesitating, unmistakable: “Not guilty!” With that, the trial was over. And the response was as predicted. A high public official from Kansas wired Ross to say: “Kansas repudiates you as she does all perjurers and skunks.” The “open grave” vision had become a reality. Ross’ political career was in ruins. Extreme ostracism, and even physical attack awaited his family upon their return home. One gloomy day Ross turned to his faithful wife and said, “Millions cursing me today will bless me tomorrow…though not but God can know the struggle it has cost me.” It was a prophetic declaration. Twenty years later Congress and the Supreme Court verified the wisdom of his position, by changing the laws related to impeachment. Ross was appointed Territorial Governor of New Mexico. Then, just prior to his death, he was awarded a special pension by Congress. The press and country took this opportunity to honor his courage which, they finally concluded, had saved our country from crisis and division. Jon Johnston, Courage – You Can Stand Strong in the Face of Fear, 1990, SP Publications, pp. 56-58)

The Search is Over: “Walking in Wisdom” – Ecclesiastes 7:9-29

A New Year begins… We all want to start off the year well, don’t we? Some of us have been reminded to make use of January 1 to hit the “reset” button and try to change some things about ourselves. Perhaps a diet change is necessary. Maybe we will start to head to the gym a few times each week. Some people will make resolutions to change some aspect of their life beginning today. The website Statistics Brain offered some idea of the numbers of people who make and attempt to follow through on resolutions, based on 2015 numbers:

• Percent of Americans who usually make New Year’s Resolutions 45 %
• Percent of Americans who infrequently make New Year’s Resolutions 17 %
• Percent of Americans who absolutely never make New Year’s Resolutions 38 %
• Percent of people who are successful in achieving their resolution 8 %
• Percent who have infrequent success 49 %
• Percent who never succeed and fail on their resolution each year 24 %

Their final analysis was this: People who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don’t explicitly make resolutions.

When we read that only 8% of the people who make such self-promising resolutions will attain that goal, we are tempted to discount the whole process. Yet, there is more behind the numbers. We mustn’t laugh at people longing for self-change – goal stating like this can help us identify areas in which we are secretly disappointed in our everyday choices. January 1 seems to afford us a moment to look introspectively at our life, recount the last twelve months and try to start anew. The truth is, in order to truly make a change in our behavior we must first see the value in a new behavior and then follow through on the change. If we don’t see real value in the change, we won’t take action and be consistent in making things happen. If we don’t work to follow through, change will be a short-lived idea.

Consider this: Jesus followers gather together regularly to consider a selection from the Bible for that same purpose – to examine our daily walk through life and evaluate the need to make changes. In addition to giving us the way to “find God,” the Bible offers teachings of wisdom that help us see the value of connecting specific life choices to the outcomes of life. Each passage of God’s Word either offers us a reason to walk as God instructs, or a method to do so. In the Biblical text, wisdom is not an abstract idea; it is the ability to take the principles of the Creator and apply them to the normal situations of life. Biblically speaking, therefore, it is impossible to really be “wise” in that sense without knowing God and recognizing His authority as well as understanding the specifics of His instructions. Let’s say it the way King Solomon did in Ecclesiastes 7…

Key Principle: You cannot learn wisdom without both grasping God’s Word and intentionally submitting to God’s rightful place in your life.

The short way to say this is: “Grab a Bible and take a knee.” We have to grasp the teachings of the Word and then bow before the Author.

The problem with some people is they will not take the time to listen to the Word. For those who DO avail themselves of its teaching, they face a second problem: human pride. We are simply tempted to resist doing what God instructs – either because we don’t see the value or we don’t revere Him sufficiently to make change. Some time ago, Bible teacher and Christian philosopher Dr. Ravi Zacharias reminded his readers that many simply don’t think they truly need God’s instructions in life. They choose to live as though they can “pull off life” designed by the Creator without a word from Him. They think themselves intelligent, effective and complete without His instruction. He used this little story to help us understand them. He wrote:

There is a story told about one-time heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali. Ali was flying to one of his engagements and during the flight the aircraft ran into foul weather. Moderate turbulence began to toss the plane about. Of course, all nervous fliers well know that when a pilot signals “moderate turbulence,” he is implying, “If you have any religious beliefs, it is time to start expressing them.” The passengers were instructed to fasten their seatbelts immediately, and all complied but Ali. So the flight attendant approached him and requested that he observe the captain’s order, only to hear Ali audaciously respond, “Superman don’t need no seatbelt.” The flight attendant, however, did not miss a beat but quickly fired in reply, “Superman don’t need no airplane either!”

The truth is that some think academic or material advancements confer wisdom without God. According to God’s definition, that is not so. It is because of such arrogance that many of us seem willing to easily cast aside Biblical standards and prohibitions without considering how unwise that is. Zacharias noted: “G.K. Chesterton aptly advised that before pulling any fences down, we should always pause long enough to find out why it was put there in the first place.

The Bible’s recipe for wisdom begins with reverence of the Lord (Ps. 111:10). It celebrates every word that connects the Creator’s grand purposes to our daily choices. Think of how this ideal is framed in Proverbs 3:

Proverbs 3:13 How blessed is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gains understanding. 14 For her profit is better than the profit of silver, and her gain better than fine gold. 15 She is more precious than jewels; and nothing you desire compares with her. 16 Long life is in her right hand; In her left hand are riches and honor. 17 Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. 18 She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her, and happy are all who hold her fast. 19 The Lord by wisdom founded the earth, by understanding He established the heavens. 20 By His knowledge the deeps were broken up and the skies drip with dew.

If you look closely, you will note the writer included:

• The marvelous result of wisdom – it brings happiness.
• The incredible value of wisdom – it is more precious than jewels.
• The lasting promise of wisdom – it offers long life, riches, honor and peace.
• The remarkable heritage of wisdom – the world was founded on it.
• The wonderful Author of wisdom – truly God created all things based on foundational principles He has willingly revealed!

God’s instruction in practice is wisdom, and it reveals the essential underlying principle of “how things were designed to work.”

Solomon knew the value of living truth in practical ways. He also wisely understood what it took to make changes that matter in life. As we turn back to consider carefully Ecclesiastes 7, we find a record of his commitment to making wisdom known, and citing its value. The passage contains two kinds of statements:

Proverbs about the value of wisdom – to help us see the value of making changes to live in line with the Creator’s purposes.

Practical instructions, both negative and positive, on how to live wisely.

Because proverbial writing often sounds like a group of people reading individual fortune cookies around a table in the local Chinese restaurant, we need to re-shuffle the order of the verses and group them by theme to build Solomon’s case. This is a common technique when studying this type of Biblical literature.

Note that Solomon first reminds us of the value of wisdom throughout the passage. He shared in this portion reminders that wisdom offers three critical advantages in life:

It offers protection – It is valuable to preserve life right now – not just helps us at some future time!

Ecclesiastes 7:11 Wisdom along with an inheritance is good And an advantage to those who see the sun. 12 For wisdom is protection just as money is protection, But the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the lives of its possessors.

Solomon notes that saving up and leaving something to your children is a good thing, but not nearly as helpful as leaving them with the tools to practice wise living. Because assets can make future things possible, they are valuable. Because people can make things happen, they must know how to act prudently with those assets. Consider this:

• Money can assist you in living a healthy life, but doing so will require deliberate healthy choices.

• Wealth may help you build a layer of protection against unwanted intrusion, but you will still need to be shrewd in your life choices with friends.

• All the security money can buy won’t help someone under guard who unwisely “ducks” their security detail to go off for some fun unprotected.

For reasons such as these, teaching our children to connect what God says about life to their daily choices isn’t designed to hinder them – but to help them. Lessons in wisdom aren’t designed to keep them from having fun; but to provide the means for a long and satisfied life without the guilt they would otherwise face for making poor choices.

Wisdom connects us to the manual of the Maker – and we function more safely when performing according to and within our design limitations.

In addition to protection, wisdom offers direction reminding us who we are and who we are NOT. Solomon wrote:

Ecclesiastes 7:19 Wisdom strengthens a wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city. 20 Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.

There is power – political, military and popular – and then there is one who knows how to live as God intended. Of the two, the latter is greater in real power. It is important to remember that wisdom offers a path when simple displays of power may not. Real strength comes from knowing the specifics of what God says will work.

At the same time, almost in the same breath, Solomon noted in verse twenty a humbling truth: “No one does right all the time!” Though we must not use this as an excuse for our lax behaviors, we have to admit that we will never get everything right – and that should humble us. We will constantly war inside ourselves. We will always fight the flesh within, the influence of the world without, and the powers of darkness around us. Even though God has given us the wisdom to gain victory, it is likely few, if any of us, will master the complete empowering of God to stand consistently on the Lord’s side. We just have to be honest – and in doing so we will remain rightly humbled. That will help to season our speech with grace.

Wisdom offers valuable direction, but doesn’t guarantee success in flawed beings like us.

Beyond protection and direction, wisdom offers warning of dangerous people and situations!

Ecclesiastes 7:23 I tested all this with wisdom, and I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me. 24 What has been is remote and exceedingly mysterious. Who can discover it? 25 I directed my mind to know, to investigate and to seek wisdom and an explanation, and to know the evil of folly and the foolishness of madness. 26 And I discovered more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are chains. One who is pleasing to God will escape from her, but the sinner will be captured by her. 27 “Behold, I have discovered this,” says the Preacher, “adding one thing to another to find an explanation, 28 which I am still seeking but have not found. I have found one man among a thousand, but I have not found a woman among all these. 29 Behold, I have found only this, that God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices.”

Solomon acknowledged that learning truth isn’t easy. He worked at separating truth from ridiculous theory. During his search, he found himself particularly tempted to trip in the area of self-control in relation to his sensuality. In his life, he recognized his libido often overcame his common sense. This was a forecast of the downfall of his life that would one day become obvious. He knew he was weak in this area. Time proved that to be true. He discovered along the path of life a handful of men who were able to see past his wealth and power and walk in integrity before him. In all that time, none of the women he met did so.

The text doesn’t attempt to paint all women in a bad light, though it is understandable how one could conclude that. The insights of Solomon regarding women are set in a specific context. First, he admits that he is tempted to see them in a wrong way – looking through the filter of physical beauty and sensuality. Second, he faced the fact that as King, women approached him with their own agenda and some knowledge of his weakness. Many men were equally crafty, but lacked the attraction to which Solomon was susceptible. Because of the pressure many believers feel to conform to the world’s views today, even some Bible teachers will hedge on the truth found here – but we must not. Solomon offered an important insight: Women who met him seemed intuitive about his weakness for them – and many attempted to play into that weakness. If you follow his story to the end, you will find that Solomon had little chance to meet a woman who reflected integrity – not because they didn’t exist – but because they couldn’t get access to him.

In the end, wisdom is designed to trumpet dangers ahead. If Solomon had listened to his own words and understood how perilous God said our hungers can be to our success in life – his story may have ended very differently.

He possessed wisdom until he allowed want to drive it out. He allowed passion to dull the stabbing pains of warning. How many believers walk this same tragic path!

The passage highlighted the fact that wisdom offers clear benefits. The remainder of the passage addressed how to walk in wisdom.

Let’s spend a few minutes in the rest of Ecclesiastes 7. You may note that some of the instruction was expressed in negative terms. Look closely at the recurrence of the words “do not” in verses nine, ten, sixteen, seventeen and twenty-one. Others are given in affirmation, positive truths in places like verse thirteen and fourteen where the writer calls us to “consider” something. In all, Solomon offered seven instructions on living wisely. He told us to:

Live deliberately: Do not allow emotions to control your life choices.

Ecclesiastes 7:9 Do not be eager in your heart to be angry, For anger resides in the bosom of fools.

If you let your anger and other negative emotions drive your life, you will disconnect from God’s way to live. The two characteristics that most show a Christian life are giving and forgiving – and angry people don’t do much of either.

Whether you believe it or not, control of your heart is most often by consent of your will.

Despite what you may have heard, you don’t “fall in love” – you want something and choose a way to get it…

Along the same line, when you blow up, you LET anger control you. Can I prove it? Have you ever been in a very angry discussion with someone and the phone rang. You went from stern, perhaps even loud and hostile, to a disarming “Hello!” in one moment! The outburst of anger was quelled in a second, when you decided it was appropriate to speak kindly!

Guy Glass wrote a classic story about anger. The story is told of a young boy was driving a big hayrack down the road and it turned over right in front of a farmer’s house. The farmer came out and saw the young boy crying and said, “Son, don’t worry about this, we can fix it. Right now lunch is ready. Why don’t you come in and eat with us and then I’ll help you put the hay back on the rack.” The boy said, “No, I can’t. My father is going to be very angry with me.” The farmer said, “Now don’t argue, just come in and have some lunch and you’ll feel better.” The boy said, “I’m just afraid my father is going to be very angry with me.” The farmer and the young boy went inside and had dinner. Afterwards, as they walked outside to the hayrack, the farmer said, “Well, don’t you feel better now?” The boy said, “Yes, but I just know that my father will be very angry with me.” The farmer said, “Nonsense. Where is your father anyway?” The boy said, “He’s under that pile of hay.”

Well, maybe that story is more about bad judgment, but who could resist telling it? The serious point beneath the words of Solomon: “anger resides in the bosom of fools” should not be quickly passed by. In the Bible, though not exclusive, the common use of the word “fool” is used in association with a person who does not know God, or has concluded that God does not exist. In places like Psalm 14:1

The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, they have committed abominable deeds; There is no one who does good.

Just as wisdom is “the connection to God and the principles by which He had built our world” – so a fool is person who attempts to live a fulfilling life in a willful state of disconnection from God. Sadly, many in the world are what the Bible referred to as “fools.” Add that idea to what Solomon shared in Ecclesiastes 7:9. He may well have been saying that those who choose to live a disconnected life from God can become a natural harbor for anger. The astounding thing is that Solomon offered this observation long before social media! If one looks only at the comments section of any religious forum, this appears to be a serious problem. Anger and disconnection appear to be related in the same way that psychologists identify angry youths from poorly “bonded” children.

Here then is wisdom: Walk closely to God and be open to forgiveness of others. The two will work together, and they will help you live in peace.

Live presently: Living in the past is terribly unwise and grossly unhealthy.

Ecclesiastes 7:10 Do not say, “Why is it that the former days were better than these?” For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this.

We should appreciate our past, but not worship it or try to dwell too long in it. Yesterday is gone. The sights and smells, the people and the places – they are all the stuff of memory. They can be precious, and they can draw us to tears. At the same time, we should be warned… Our memories can play tricks on us. We don’t necessarily recall the past the way it truly was. We can be tempted to recall the good and not the bad or vice versa.

We should celebrate the past and be grateful for God’s faithfulness that brought us through it. I recently heard a story that I thought celebrated well.

I sat with an old woman of many years, as she stared downward at her wrinkled and misshapen hands. She asked me, ‘Have you ever looked at your hands, I mean really looked at your hands?’ I looked down. I slowly opened both hands and studied them. I turned them over, palms up and then palms down. Honestly, I had never really looked at my hands closely, and I listened intently to her words:

“Stop and reflect for a moment about your hands and how they have served you throughout your years. My hands are now wrinkled, shriveled and weak – but they have been the chief tools I have used all my life to reach out, grab and embrace life. They caught my fall as a toddler, when I crashed to the floor, unsteady on my feet. They put daily food in my mouth and pulled the clothes upon my back. My mother folded them the first time and taught me to pray. They tied my shoes and pulled on my boots. They held my husband’s rough hands tightly but wiped my tears gently when he went off to war. They have been dirty one day and bleached with cleaners the next. They have been softened by creams at times and scraped and raw on others. They have been covered with warm gloves, as well as swollen and bent. They were adorned with a wedding band and held my precious newborn son. These hands wrote countless letters to my wonderful husband and trembled and shook endlessly when I buried my parents and then later my spouse. They have held my grandchildren, consoled my neighbors, covered my face, combed my hair, and washed and cleansed the rest of my body. These hands are the mark of where I’ve been in the journey of the ruggedness of life. But more importantly, it will be these hands that God will snatch up and lift me to His side someday soon.”

There is a woman who knows how to celebrate her life without trying to stay in the past of it.

Wisdom says: “Live now. Yesterday is a memory. Make new ones today for tomorrow!”

Live sensibly: Keep a balance between the serious and the silly.

You may be surprised to hear that Solomon has a sense of humor. Some of you may be surprised to hear that ANY preacher has a sense of humor! Solomon wrote:

Ecclesiastes 7:15 I have seen everything during my lifetime of futility; there is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness. 16 Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise. Why should you ruin yourself? 17 Do not be excessively wicked and do not be a fool. Why should you die before your time?

On first glance, this doesn’t sound Biblical – even if it is in the Bible! If the words took you by surprise, look more closely at them. Solomon said:

Some people take every moment too seriously. They press endlessly as if every decision will bring some catastrophic result. They don’t seem to connect the fact that some things seem to “just happen.” Good people do the right thing and it doesn’t always work out. He pleaded: “Don’t make every step like it is monumental. Which breakfast cereal you choose probably has no eternal consequence.” On the other hand, he made clear that we shouldn’t frolic through life taking nothing seriously – because idiocy often results in physical harm. See YouTube where you can watch people do incredibly dumb things that land them in the emergency room.

Here is wisdom: Be careful, but fastidious. Be healthy, but not a hypochondriac. Be fun, but not careless. Balance your life between the fun and the serious – and learn to time the two appropriately! Remember: a bow always bent is easy to break.

Live graciously: Don’t take everything people say to heart.

Along with learning when to take something seriously, Solomon added a note about the words of others…

Ecclesiastes 7:21 Also, do not take seriously all words which are spoken, so that you will not hear your servant cursing you. 22 For you also have realized that you likewise have many times cursed others.

Learning to be gracious to others when they hurt you is a watermark of maturity in your faith walk. Those who need justice forget there is a God Who cares for that. We aren’t here to right every wrong – though you cannot tell by the way we so freely express what is “wrong” with our neighbor. Teach those God has given you to teach and offer to the rest a public grace.

Along the same line, remember that people don’t always mean what they say. Sometimes they say something badly. Sometimes they are hurt, lash out and later regret what they said. Often they express a feeling that holds a stronger reaction than they actually feel once the moment has passed. Solomon reminds: “You have done that, and so have they. Don’t make too much of it. You will end up bearing wounds that a gracious thick skin will keep from you.

So often it seems the man who offers an insult writes it in sand, but the man who receives it, sees it chiseled in bronze. Gracious hearing is also a standard of maturity, and cultivating thicker skin will make you doubly a promoter of peace.

Live soberly: Recognize that you can’t fix everything and everyone.

Solomon offered a simple word to the fixers among us:

Ecclesiastes 7:13 Consider the work of God, For who is able to straighten what He has bent?

What a good word! There are things we are to work at and try to fix in ourselves. There are also things we cannot fix.

We cannot fix all that is broken in life. We should always be compassionate, but we cannot take responsibility for all the troubles of another. If we have no limit to our help, the recipient will learn to do nothing for themselves.

We can’t fix other people, either.

We can’t change someone who doesn’t see any issue in their own behavior. We also need to be very careful to recognize that HURT PEOPLE HURT PEOPLE. Over the years I have noticed that some broken people who continually refuse to seek necessary help turn to break those around them. Compassion can leave a soft vulnerability that allows us to be deeply wounded. Ask anyone with an addict in their life.

It is also worth noting that sometimes the most broken people busy themselves fixing everyone else, because they see no way to fix themselves. They spot the splinter in another looking past the log in their own eye. They demand from the people in their life what they cannot summon from within themselves. They remain broken no matter how much you give them, how many hours you hold them, and how many rescues you offer them. We must love them – but that doesn’t always translate into doing what they want done. In Solomon’s words: “We have to leave room for God to work in people and situations.”

Live thankfully: There will be good and bad days, but every day is still a gift.

Ecclesiastes 7:14 In the day of prosperity be happy, But in the day of adversity consider—God has made the one as well as the other So that man will not discover anything that will be after him.

Here is a great word from a wise man and the Spirit of our Creator: Don’t lose your head in the day of prosperity anticipating that every day will be like that one. You won’t win every day. Not every day is harvest day. The long hours of plowing may well pay off – but don’t live like every day is payday. At the same time, remember that hard times help you appreciate easy ones. It isn’t God’s plan for you to know that everything will always work out. That may be offensive to you, but that is the truth.

There is one last piece of wisdom Solomon offered…

Live expansively: Live and learn! Grow your life and expand your horizons – don’t be stuck in a rut.

He wrote it this way:

Ecclesiastes 7:18 It is good that you grasp one thing and also not let go of the other; for the one who fears God comes forth with both of them.

Learn to grow. Build what you are learning now on what God has taken you through in the past. See all of life as God’s opportunity to show you new things.

Instead of throwing up your hands in troubled times and shouting “Why, God?” we should say something else. How about “What am I supposed to be learning, God?” We should seek to see HIM in the clouds of trouble. He is faithful, and if we pass into the cloud, it is only that we will learn to trust what we cannot see in Him.

In front of you is a new year. You can grow, or you can ruminate on the things you have already been and experienced. Wisdom says: “Hold on to what God taught you and GROW!”

You cannot learn wisdom without grasping God’s Word and intentionally submitting to God’s rightful place in your life. Grab a Bible and take a knee.

Let me close with a simple word about the days ahead. “Five frogs were sitting on a log. Two decided to jump off the log. How many were left? Actually there were five left. Just because two decided to do something doesn’t mean that actually did it. Your plans aren’t what will change the coming year; your action is.

In the 1920s an African-American youth growing up in Cleveland met the world famous runner Charlie Paddock, who came to his school to speak words of inspiration to the student body. Paddock was considered “the fastest human being alive” in his day. He encouraged the children to dream big! That young boy decided he too wanted to an accomplished runner. He took his dream to the track coach of his school. His coach told him, “It’s great to have a dream, but to attain your dream you must build a ladder to it. Here is the ladder to your dreams. The first wrung is determination! And the second wrung is dedication! The third wrung is discipline! And the fourth wrung is attitude!” The result of all that motivation is that he went on to win four gold medals in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He won the 100 meter dash and broke the Olympic and world records for the 200 meter. His broad jump record lasted for twenty-four years. His name was Jesse Owens. He had more than a dream. He put things in order in his life to make the dream become reality.

The Search is Over: “Leaving a Legacy of Godliness” – Ecclesiastes 7:1-8

In a meeting with mission leaders a few months ago, one of the principal speakers made a comment that set in place something I had been feeling for quite some time. When you hear it, it may not make immediate sense. Think it through and perhaps it will help us discern a path to some changes about how we reach out, and about how we set the pattern of our teaching in the coming days.

He said, “We have come to many fields with the Gospel, seen genuine conversions to faith in Jesus Christ, and raised a generation of pagan followers of Jesus. They know the Gospel and are regularly a part of the church, but they live thoroughly immersed in pagan thinking and superstitions not at all compatible with their faith.

He went on to express that although the “way” to God was clearly expressed to them, the “walk” with God was not. His prescription was this:

If we would teach the Old Testament stories to the people, they would see more of the daily practice of a God-walk.

All the leaders in the room identified with the notion that we don’t seem to be moving deeply past the Gospel into its implications in daily life in many of those who claim to come to Jesus on mission fields around the world. For instance:

• There are still quite a few who claim Christ as Savior who are wrapped up in practices of a type of “Voo Doo” in a few fields, even among those who hold church positions on Sunday morning on the island.
• There are many Christians around the world who continue to carefully consider the feelings of their long-dead ancestors before holding any celebrations in their homes because of their pagan superstitions.

These are just a few slight indicators that in finding Jesus, some we have reached may have found a new afterlife, but not a new lifestyle for daily living now. The strength of their cultural surrounding seems to overpower the lessons of the Word of God. It is heartbreaking for those new to the field to realize how far into paganism and false teaching many Jesus followers still live. Though that is a very real problem, my concern today, however, isn’t simply about far-flung fields of people who are being reached by our mission efforts – it is perhaps a bit closer to home. I believe we may be doing the same thing right here in our hometown churches. Let me explain.

One news cycle this past week illustrates my chief concern about the way we train a generation of Jesus followers here at home:

A social media content provider once named the “bored at work” network is now called “Buzz Feed.” It has become a globally distributed digital media organization read by about 80 million people every month. You cannot spend time on Facebook or similar outlets and not see their name as a source for some “news” content. This week they attempted to flex their muscle to lean into a story that may have backfired a bit. They went after a popular married couple on television, not for anything the couple said or did, but simply because of their faithful attendance at a Bible believing church each Sunday, where their pastor has been on record as believing the definition of a biblically-based marriage.

Buzz Feed ran an article that castigated the beliefs of the pastor taken from clips of his sermons in order to cast a pall on Chip and Joanna Gains, the couple featured on “Fixer Upper,” a show taped in the Waco Texas area. You may know them as a humorous couple that fixes homes and includes their family in the process. The article challenged their right to be on HGTV if they believed the teachings of their pastor – that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that activities outside of that are sinful according to the Bible. HGTV has a history of pushing out people for such things. In this case, it appears to have backfired. The couple said nothing publically, and there is no record of their private belief. Even those who normally beat the drum for such social change seemed to have felt this might be an attack reaching too far. That set up what I saw as the chief problem.

CNN stepped in to “report” both the “news item” and the apparent controversy over someone going to a church where the Bible is preached and yet being allowed to be popular on HGTV for fixing up homes. They weighed in while attempting to purport “sensitivity” to viewers who love and follow the Bible, all the while making the idea sound both outdated and quaint, but then added a statistic (which may be false). The anchor said, “Half of all Christians believe Chip and Joanna Gain’s pastor would be correct on his stance that marriage is defined and restricted in the Bible as between a man and a woman.” That statement got me thinking…half believe something so clearly written in the Bible.

From what source did the other half get their ideas? Clearly, culture is pressing believers hard here as well. This isn’t just a phenomenon on the mission field.

Jesus followers seem to learn how to find God, but are quite weak on how to follow God.

As we open Ecclesiastes, I want to assert that we aren’t wasting time on ancient proverbs left by King Solomon long ago. These words are God’s Words – and they are given with the purpose of helping you learn a WALK that matches your profession to know Jesus. The world may grow increasingly hostile to God’s most basic revealed truths – but the church MUST assert both the Gospel, and the life implications of walking with God in order to meet its responsibility to pass truth to the next generation.

Ecclesiastes 7 is a chapter filled with straight talk about life – principles revealed by God’s Spirit on how to live. Let’s say it this way:

Key Principle: Careful instruction on simple daily choices will pass the baton of godly wisdom to navigate life successfully from one generation to another.

Deliberately set aside the idea that COMING TO JESUS was a mere “aisle walk” after an invitation in church, or a momentary response to a preached message.

Jesus doesn’t want you to agree that He came, know He walked, believe He died for you – and then go on and live by your culture’s rules until the day you die… when you will get rewarded for that hand raising of aisle walking in Heaven. That isn’t the Christian life at all – but too many seem to think it is.

Christianity is journeying through life with Jesus. It is living in a way He wants us to live and walking WHERE He wants us to walk. Passing these truths, then, are passing the lessons of legacy – the passing of our faith in daily practice.

There is much in the chapter, so we will break it in several lessons. As you open the first eight verses, look at a word that is repeated – the word “better.” It appears four times in the first three verses alone. Obviously, Solomon was making a series of comparisons that push us toward choices in daily life. Here are eight of them as the passage unfolds – each about leaving something better behind us.

God wants to call you to a BETTER way of living than the culture will call you to live. Each of these teachings will challenge something about our culture’s approach to what is truly important.

It is better to focus on your reputation than on your cologne or your figure.

Our world will tell you it is better to focus on how you look, how you smell, how you walk and what you wear. They will offer you a thousand products that will cause others to pay attention to you, to like you, to approve of you. Godliness chooses a different direction…

Ecclesiastes 7:1 A good name is better than a good ointment, and the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.

Solomon spoke the Word of God and said in effect that a lasting reputation of your character and accomplishments (the things which make for a ‘good name’) must be considered more significant in our eyes than an expensive smelling cologne (in his day they used aroma infused oils and ointments for that purpose). To look and smell good leaves an impression. To be a man or woman of character and accomplishment leaves an even more lasting one.

Note the second part of the verse. He wrote, “To finish life well is more significant than to begin life well.” Obviously, beginning well helps greatly. A stable family life, a loving set of parents, and a home where God is worshiped and love is displayed are wonderful. At the same time, many of us won’t have all those advantages. What counts is not the world as it was when we got here, but the little corner of the world we created. Are we leaving the planet better than it was when we arrived? Have we made any difference at all? We shouldn’t overestimate our worth, but we should strive to make a difference in the world – one that includes being a man or woman of compassion and integrity. If no one cries when we leave, it is obvious we haven’t made a difference in many people. If they throw a party when we leave, the difference we have made isn’t a good one.

Both of the parts of the verse are about reputation. The first makes clear that INNER WORK on our character is more important in the long run than OUTER WORK on the body. The second reminds us that the reputation we finish with outstrips the memory of our cute entrance into the world. Here is the bottom line: If you choose to work on the outside, you will run out of options to make it look better. Some of the prettiest people you will meet didn’t take the time on character development they should have – watch how they treat people.

In our society, we reward a man or woman who can handle a ball with millions of dollars and great fame. Often, they are plucked from a high school or college, and have little or no character training on handling massive wealth and fame. Their external ability rewards them while their inner character (in its undeveloped state) destroys them.

Choose to work on the inside. Get regular showers and keep yourself presentable, but work harder on the inside than the outside – because the inside won’t fade like its shell.

It is better to consider life as short and finite. It is a precious gift in part because it doesn’t last long.

The world around us attempts at every corner to teach us we have more time than we do. Popular shows make us laugh. Consumer goods make our lives more comfortable. Even learning is filled with entertaining tools. We flip though magazines that show us colorful places we can travel, exciting experiences we can plan for our next vacation. In all of it, there is little to draw attention to the brevity of life – unless they are selling you some kind of insurance policy. Godly thinking moves opposite the culture. God said,

Ecclesiastes 7:2 It is better to go to a house of mourning, Than to go to a house of feasting, Because that is the end of every man, And the living takes it to heart.

Don’t get lost in the proverb. Solomon wasn’t telling us that we should choose our next vacation at a cemetery. He wasn’t cautioning you to cancel the Christmas party and hold a “wake” instead. Look at the end of the verse, and you will see the point. It is about what “we take to heart,” or where we consider the best place to learn serious things about life. Solomon argued, “If you allow yourself to recognize that we are all on the planet for but a short time, you will gain better insight into how to spend each day.”

If there is anything implied in most of the advertising you encounter, it is this: Next year can be better than this year. It can be more exciting. It can thrill you with experiences that will take your breath away – if you buy our product or service…and that is the goal. It is as if we should live life with an eye on how to make it less painful and more exciting. In some small way, that may not be so bad. Yet, the problem is this: The clock is ticking, and you aren’t getting younger. You may be reaching a stage when you can afford to do some of those experiences, but your body will no longer endure the abuse of them. Things are falling apart, and you are spending more time and money getting them glued back on and trying to make them work something like they once did.

The brevity of life should help me set better priorities, and live with “ends” in mind. Standing at a grave side should never be an entertaining scene of happiness – but it can be a place to learn something critical. It can be a place of change. It can remind us that today is precious, and life is a wonderful gift not to be taken lightly.

Go to the party. When you do, let the brevity of life remind you to hug the people you love there, and to tell them how important they are to you. Share with the little ones how Jesus has made your life wonderful. Become the positive person they WANT around. Remember, time is passing quickly. You can waste years of life in feuds of little or no importance. Don’t waste your life – that is the lesson from the house of mourning.

It is better to learn what to take seriously and not simply value the momentary reactions of people.

The world looks for the boisterous display and calls its possessor ‘happy.’ Life is judged, more often than not, by surface reactions and what seems to “make people happy” in the immediate. Some would say, “The louder the laugh, the happier the man.” Happiness and importance seems to be increasingly placed on the party atmosphere, and distraction from the sobering realities of responsibility. Godliness looks in the opposite direction. The Scripture teaches:

Ecclesiastes 7:3 Sorrow is better than laughter; for when a face is sad a heart may be happy.

Don’t read this one too quickly, because the translation can lead you in the wrong direction on its surface. Godliness isn’t glum. Look more closely at the words…

• The term for “sorrow” (Hebrew: kaw-as) is a term that is generally used for negative feeling, as in the word “vexation” or “provocation”. It isn’t the simple term for being sorrowful. It is the word used in the Torah for moments when the children of Israel did something evil that provoked God to a response. It is a word of “something that stirs the heart” and is usually used in the negative sense.

• The term “laughter” is the word (Hebrew: sekh-oke) for a joke, or a frivolous moment. It isn’t a word limited to the action of laughing – but often used in a much broader way as a moment of lightness.

A better way to think of Solomon’s proverb, then, may be to say it more like this:

Something that touches us deeply inside is better than a fleeting joke. Long after our face gives way from the laughter of the joke, our heart may still ponder the treasured lesson of the more vexing situation.” (Paraphrase).

Everyone likes to tell the joke that makes others laugh. The reaction is immediate and affirming. The fact is that you are more important in the learning of another when you offer truth that will cause them to ponder and stew over it – if it is true and helpful. For those who would walk with God, true happiness is found in the midst of the loving commitments to do what is hard to build another – not the self-oriented pleasures consumed for my pleasure.

• Parenting is hard, but godly parenting is pleasing on a deep level.
• Giving my best, day after day, in a job I do not enjoy is difficult, but honoring God in my best efforts at work promises to be immensely satisfying.
• Pushing for a serious cause that I know is important to my Master may take years and can be exhausting – but it will be rewarding when I recognize I expended my energies on things that matter.

A sobering countenance and a stirred spirit can profit me – because it presses me to stand by what I believe I am called to do, and do it for the Lord. Ask a teacher. Ask a mom. Ask a hard working factory man. Life can be rewarding on a deeper level than just a comedy club diversion.

Besides that, Solomon would warn you not to judge the book by the cover when it comes to satisfaction. A serious countenance encompasses a greater possible emotional range than an uproarious laughing spell. Lots of people are boisterously laughing on the outside, but bleeding from life on this inside. They hurt a thousand different ways and cannot even find a way to show it. You cannot judge deep satisfaction by surface appearances.

It is better to ponder inside the lessons gained in pain than to seek diversions of pleasure.

I have often noted how close bars locate to funeral homes. Our world offers one constant prescription to pain and loss in life – the distraction of pleasure. They consistently preach, “You have been through much; it is time for fun!” There is a deep reticence to spending quiet time pondering the lessons of pain. Godly living doesn’t so quick instruct us to take the pressure off. The Scripture teaches:

Ecclesiastes 7:4 The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, While the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure.

Note the issue of the text is where we spend our time thinking. The issue is where the mind dwells. Fools keep thinking of how to have constant pleasure and fun. Wise men and women take a sober look at the lessons of life and try to suck from the marrow of the experience. Foolish people try to block pain and take little time to learn when offered distracting pleasures.

There are times we should sit quietly, shut off the TV, put away the cell phone and quietly allow the painful moments and difficult lessons to settle in our minds. Constant noise is consistent distraction. Some of us would rather watch bad re-runs than carefully consider the difficult words shared by someone who loves us, but wants us to begin to take greater responsibility for our lives.

We can seek to let deep pain make us better people, or we can run from the lessons that only come from tough blows. Someone has said, “God speaks to us in our joy, but shouts to us in our pain.” I wonder if the call to distract might not be, at least in some cases, an avoidance from God’s voice.

It is better to gain from correction than to be undeservedly affirmed.

The world wants to give participation awards to keep anyone from feeling as though they didn’t measure up to the standard. They are missing the benefit of the lessons that come with correction and loss. Scripture teaches:

Ecclesiastes 7:5 It is better to listen to the rebuke of a wise man, Than for one to listen to the song of fools.

Affirmation is important, especially to a child. Every psychologist will confirm that idea. Yet, some in our time, have turned over-affirmation into a trite thing, robbing it of its value. Last summer, Pittsburg Steelers star James Harrison took a public stand when he returned his six and eight year-old children’s “participation awards” for local sports stating,

“While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best.”

That statement caused a bit of a firestorm in the youth sport’s world. Ashley Merryman, author of Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing was interviewed and shared, “The benefit of competition isn’t actually winning. The benefit is improving. When you’re constantly giving a kid a trophy for everything they’re doing, you’re saying, ‘I don’t care about improvement. I don’t care that you’re learning from your mistakes. All we expect is that you’re always a winner.’ Merryman continued:“I like kids. I want them to be happy and do well. But I’d much rather have a 6-year-old cry because he didn’t get a medal than have a 26-year-old lose it because they realized they weren’t as special as they thought they were.”

Now don’t lose your footing here if you don’t entirely agree. Simply consider the biblical side of what is being said: Correction can hurt in the short run, but is invaluable in the long run, if it comes from someone who is truly “wise.”

Don Yeager, writing for Forbes this past summer wrote:

A $2 billion a year industry has grown up around some parent’s need to reward their child with meaningless awards just for joining a team. And as it has, we have all fumbled an important life lesson for our children. Prizes won’t increase motivation—it actually lowers it. Why would a child attempt to improve when he or she is treated the same as the kid on the sidelines chasing butterflies? Unfortunately, the “helicopter parenting” crowd has already profoundly affected our society. Study after study on millennials show an increase in depression, anxiety, and a lack of coping skills with disappointment. How do we reframe this discussion with a generation of young people that have been sheltered from the harsh realities of losing? Simple: They have to be taught that losing is okay…if you learn from it…Our youth must learn how to handle both winning and losing in order to have a realistic perspective on life. Being celebrated for just competing hurts the player more than anything, because it prevents that lesson from taking root…which ultimately stunts that individual’s growth. The great ones in sports and business all know that you don’t get participation trophies by showing up for work. Winning and losing is a consequence of competing—and we’re all competing every single day in the professional world. We should never treat life as though it lacks hardships or that failures don’t happen. Instead, we can use these moments to make us better.

There is a great quote that summarizes this idea:

Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Regardless of how you feel about participation awards, know this: Learning to gracefully accept wise correction and integrate the lesson into your practice is absolutely essential for improvement. Blaming the referee does nothing to improve the skills of any player.

It is better to work hard toward lasting gain than settle for the momentary instant benefit.

The world makes many important things look easy. Do you want a good marriage? Find someone beautiful and do fun things together. Go to the right parties and wear the right clothes. Do you want to be successful? Learn to find that right “break” and “be discovered” by the important person. If you aren’t successful, it is probably because you haven’t yet been discovered for who you are! Godly thinking offers wisdom that draws our attention in the opposite direction. Solomon wrote:

Ecclesiastes 7:6 For as the crackling of thorn bushes under a pot, So is the laughter of the fool; And this too is futility.

On first look, the verse sounds like laughter is the culprit. It sounds like we shouldn’t tell a joke or seek to make another laugh. That simply isn’t the point at all. Look at the imagery Solomon used.

If you make a fire in the wilderness of Israel, you have very little wood to use. The place is desolate, and the best wood can be found in some of the valley floors, referred to in our day by the Arabic term “wadis.” There is sufficient wood to build a small campfire, and there are some bushes that offer very hot coals (like the Rotem bush that grows in the Judean desert). Among campers, we know the best fires aren’t the ones with the big flames, but rather the best red cooking coals. A fire that looks very small can cook a good dinner or heat a coffee pot. Thorn bushes are airy and can create a flash fire, but not make many useable coals on which to cook or keep you warm. The issues are sustainability and usefulness. Herein is Solomon’s lesson:

The loud affirmation of a fool won’t sustain you.

Momentary popularity by people who don’t know what they are talking about won’t help you or anyone else accomplish something of real value. Don’t focus on acceptance by other people. Don’t focus on popularity. Focus rather on knowing your God-given purpose through the gifts and abilities He has given you, and develop them to be most useful.

It is better to remember that people are always more important than things.

The world communicates a “dog eat dog” ethic of life. In a naturalist world, there is only morality when there is consensus on right and wrong. “Wrong” is defined in that system as a time when we perceive people are “hurt” by something. The man or woman of God is called to see it differently. Solomon wrote:

Ecclesiastes 7:7 For oppression makes a wise man mad, And a bribe corrupts the heart.

Solomon mentioned oppression and bribery. Both have a common underlying element. Both invest more worth in power and treasure than people. An oppressor sees more value in holding onto power than he sees in caring for the weak. A man of bribery sees greater value in winning through money than in justice for the hurting. In both cases, people are secondary to a higher goal.

In God’s economy, people hold a higher place than fortune, fame, power or pleasure. One who would serve God will do so by serving people.

Accomplishment is sweeter when you push ahead humbly and patiently than when you feel entitled to easy victory.

The world beckons us to enjoy the peak without the climb. We should have a wonderful, warm and family-filled Christmas without hours of shopping, decorating and cooking. We should have friends gathering to carol the old songs together without spending hours with them in tears and struggles over the year. We should have happy children without being proactive parents. Godliness looks at life as a gift, but also as a humbling set of hurdles over which one should patiently jump. Solomon said it this way:

Ecclesiastes 7:8 The end of a matter is better than its beginning; Patience of spirit is better than haughtiness of spirit.

Our lives are shaped by a variety of things, but some of them are painful. Sometimes we OBSERVE the shortness of life, and the seriousness of its implications. Sometimes we have to pass through the experience of choosing the serious over the nonsensical. Sometimes we have to learn from the pain of correction. We always learn more when we do what we do for God’s honor and according to God’s pattern.

Practical and direct are the words of wisdom. They aren’t flashy, and they aren’t easy. They require careful forethought and disciplined response. That doesn’t make life less fun – it makes it more enduringly meaningful.

We cannot preach John 3:16 and ask people to come forward and receive Christ and expect they will know how that choice affects daily choices the day after that. Wisdom is living out truth in practice. The Bible has so much more on how to live than a simple “way to find God.” Finding God is essential, but it is also incomplete.

The single most effective method to keeping people from living out their faith is hiding that such a thing is in any way necessary. If all I need to do is find God in a momentary response to some message I heard, there is no compelling need for me to understand the many verses that regard following God throughout my life. Such verses simply act as ‘filler’ between those all-important “John 3:16 moments” that dot the 1189 chapters. Many in our day have been trained to believe this, evidenced by their choice to both make a public claim as a “Christ follower” and at the same time live as though that title has little bearing on their daily choices. That isn’t what Jesus called men and women to do. It isn’t the faith portrayed in the Bible at all. Jesus taught both a commitment, and a lifestyle that reflected it.

Careful instruction on simple daily choices will pass the baton of godly wisdom to navigate life successfully from one generation to another.

In 1926, a wealthy Toronto lawyer named Charles Vance Millar died, leaving behind him a will that amused and electrified the citizens of his Canadian province. Millar, a bachelor with a wicked sense of humor, stated clearly that he intended his last will and testament to be an “uncommon and capricious” document. Because he had no close heirs to inherit his fortune, he divided his money and properties in a way that amused him and aggravated his newly chosen heirs. Here are just a few examples of his strange bequests:

• He left shares in the Ontario Jockey Club to two prominent men who were well known for their opposition to racetrack betting.
• He bequeathed shares in the O’Keefe Brewery Company (a Catholic beer manufacturer) to every Protestant minister in Toronto.
• But his most famous bequest was that he would leave the bulk of his fortune to the Toronto woman who gave birth to the most children in the ten years after his death.
• This clause in his will caught the public imagination. The country was entering the Great Depression. As people struggled to meet even their most basic economic responsibilities, the prospect of an enormous windfall was naturally quite alluring. Newspaper reporters scoured the public records to find likely contenders for what became known as The Great Stork Derby. Nationwide excitement over the Stork Derby built quickly. In 1936, four mothers, proud producers of nine children apiece in a ten year time span, divided up the Charles Millar’s bequest, each receiving what was a staggering sum in those days – $125,000. Charles Millar caused much mischief with his will. This was his final legacy to humanity.

The Search is Over: “Strands that Bind” – Ecclesiastes 6

The word “Lilliputian” means something trivial or tiny. The term comes from the Irish author Jonathan Swift, who wrote in the early 18th century Gulliver’s Travels, where he told of an imaginary country of Lilliput, a place inhabited by people a mere 6 inches tall.

The full name of the work is Gulliver’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World in Four Parts and it weaves the travel tales of Lemuel Gulliver, a man who was first a surgeon, then a captain of several ships (1726, amended 1735). After a brief outline of his life and history before his voyages, part one recalls the fictional “Voyage to Lilliput” supposedly beginning on 4 May 1699. Gulliver washed ashore after a shipwreck and found himself a prisoner of a race of the tiny citizens of Lilliput Court. In order to keep this dangerous monster at bay, ropes that appeared as little more than strands were lapped across the sleeping giant as Lemuel lay on the beach. The Lilliputians needed assurances that Gulliver would not harm them. No single strand was large, but together, they were enough to hold Gulliver in place. In short, Lemuel Gulliver was in bondage.

I mention this classic of English literature because it illustrates something Solomon observed about men of his day. He would likely say it this way: If there is one word that describes the unbeliever… it is BONDAGE! He wrote in Ecclesiastes 6…

Key Principle: Though men may have many things, without a relationship with the God those things have no ultimate meaning!

Though they seem free – without a connection to their Creator Who gives life meaning, men are actually in bondage, held by six tough strands that keep them in fixed in place. As the chapter opened, Solomon shared that truth by stating it as an observation.

Ecclesiastes 6:1 There is an evil which I have seen under the sun and it is prevalent among men—

Note that Solomon observed the fact, and made clear it was a common occurrence for the men of his time. He first cautioned them to…

Wake up to see the cords (6:2-7)

You never address a problem you don’t admit to having. Solomon watched the people around him, and observed six problems, each that acted as a “cord”.

First, there was the cord of “unfulfilled busyness” (6:1-2).

Solomon noted the prevalent evil of…

Ecclesiastes 6:2 …a man to whom God has given riches and wealth and honor so that his soul lacks nothing of all that he desires; yet God has not empowered him to eat from them, for a foreigner enjoys them. This is vanity and a severe affliction.

Many a man or woman has worked tirelessly to gain wealth only to die before they had the time to really enjoy the fruits of their retirement. Here, the idea seems a bit different. Did you notice the word “foreigner” for the person who enjoyed the results of the other’s labor? For some people (apparently many in Solomon’s observation) they worked, perhaps at innovation or invention – but were consumed with the process and development of their vision, and didn’t take the time to enjoy their own success. Perhaps they developed great machines and vast systems to produce incredible products. Maybe they simply built the “better mouse trap.” In any case, they were sadly unable to stop creating and begin enjoying what they have produced.

This is a good word for the mom or dad who is “always on” in the instruction and modeling mode. There are times you need to sit back and smile at the little man or woman you are molding and shaping. Constant work doesn’t produce proper joy. We need to laugh with our children, enjoy their creative minds, and sometimes even join them in their silliness. It is possible to raise godly and responsible children, and have absolutely no fun in the process. It will be some “foreigner” that will benefit in the marriage – but you won’t see the benefit unless you take time to look for it.

How sad to work and work at a project that is successful, only to get caught up in the next level of the vision without any break to enjoy the labor. “Don’t do it!” Solomon warned. Many people do, but you don’t have to!

Second, there was the cord of the uncertainty of people (6:3).

In addition to forgetting to break the strand of the unfulfilled busyness, Solomon observed another tendency. He wrote,

Ecclesiastes 6:3 If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, however many they be, but his soul is not satisfied with good things and he does not even have a proper burial, then I say, “Better the miscarriage than he

Solomon knew that people will let you down, no matter how many are in your life. It doesn’t matter how close they have been to you emotionally (like your children) they will still fail you. Without satisfaction and contentment that isn’t dependent upon the relationships of your life, time will bring only more pain, uncertainty and trouble! Let’s face it: People are erratic and unreliable. In the proverb of Solomon the man had an extremely large family and an incredibly long life – but more people didn’t equal more satisfaction – only more responsibility.

The way Solomon made known the point of the proverbial saying was through the notion of a “proper burial” that he mentioned near the end of the verse. The man certainly had plenty of heirs to care for his burial, but in his case, they didn’t follow through on their duties. In the time of Solomon, the act of burying a loved one was of even greater import than it is today. The initial burial was temporary. The body was washed and smeared with an oily based cream along with a number of spices that aided in the degradation of the body. After a time, the tomb was opened and the bones of the loved one were gathered and placed into a repository beneath the bench upon which the body was originally prepared and allowed to degrade. As the bones went into the repository, the loved one was again mixed into the pile of bones of their family members from which they came. Since the process often took in excess of eighteen months, less attentive sons would not commit the bones to the repository, but got too busy to finish the proper burial.

Think about how this verse relates to the sentence before it. Could it be the sons learned continual work from their father, and now could not find the time to honor him with a finished permanent burial? Perhaps the fact that we are too busy when they are young won’t be clear until they become like us in later years.

Consider Harry Chapin’s words that pick up this theme:

My child arrived just the other day; He came to the world in the usual way…But there were planes to catch, and bills to pay; He learned to walk while I was away. And he was talking ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew; He’d say, “I’m gonna be like you, Dad – You know I’m gonna be like you.”

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, Little boy blue and the man in the moon, “When you coming home, Dad?” “I don’t know when – But we’ll get together then, You know we’ll have a good time then.”

My son turned ten just the other day; He said, “Thanks for the ball, Dad; come on, let’s play. Can you teach me to throw?” I said, “Not today, I got a lot to do.” He said, “That’s okay.” And he walked away, but his smile never dimmed – And said, “I’m gonna be like him, yeah, You know I’m gonna be like him.”

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, Little boy blue and the man in the moon, “When you coming home, Dad?” “I don’t know when – But we’ll get together then, You know we’ll have a good time then.”

Well, he came from college just the other day. So much like a man, I just had to say
“Son, I’m proud of you. Can you sit for a while?” He shook his head, and he said with a smile, “What I’d really like, Dad, is to borrow the car keys – See you later; can I have them please?”

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, Little boy blue and the man in the moon, “When you coming home, dad?” “I don’t know when – But we’ll get together then, You know we’ll have a good time then.”

I’ve long since retired, and my son’s moved away. I called him up just the other day
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind.” He said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I could find the time. You see, my new job’s a hassle, and the kid’s got the flu – But it’s sure nice talking to you, Dad. It’s been sure nice talking to you.”

And as I hung up the phone, it occurred to me – He’d grown up just like me. My boy was just like me…

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon, Little boy blue and the man in the moon, “When you coming home, Dad?” “I don’t know when – But we’ll get together then, You know we’ll have a good time then.” (Harry F .Chapin, Sandy Chapin • Copyright © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.)

It is true, what they say, “We grow too soon old and too late smart!” We teach a pattern and then are surprised when they follow our footsteps.

The truth is you cannot make your life about other people in the sense that you are dependent upon them to act in a way that brings you continual happiness. You cannot even really place your trust in the most responsible of them to be utterly reliable. People may try to please you, but in time you will find they fail you. One hundred children later – the man still couldn’t get a decent burial put on by his kids. In the end, Solomon would warn you not to put all your trust in people.

Third, there is the cord of the faded fame (6:4).

One of the reasons we shouldn’t trust in people too much is that we are all afflicted with short memories. Solomon wrote:

Ecclesiastes 6:4 …for it comes in futility and goes into obscurity; and its name is covered in obscurity.

Some of us may be picked out for “stardom” in some limited way – but most of us won’t. We all want to be remembered, but despite our desire, the world won’t stop when we are gone. All the hard work to become famous will quickly fade away and a generation later, no one will recall what we worked so hard to achieve. Fame is fleeting and the public’s memory is fragile.

I was reading a note the other morning that offered the testimony of a pastor I heard of, but never met. He was telling of a time shortly after he moved to California and began preaching, when troubles overwhelmed him. On the surface, it looked like his life was going well. He had a wonderful wife, three children and a fast growing congregation. What most people didn’t know was that one of his children expressed no relationship with Jesus, and was defiant in the home. The rebel child eventually took to the streets and filled his life with drugs. Our pastor friend, at the height of the growth of the work where he served, was preparing to resign, as he felt disgraced and grieved beyond any reasonable measure. As that was going on, another pastor, an acquaintance from meetings knocked on his door. He told our friend to “Get in the car” and they went for a drive to a nearby correctional facility. Parked outside, the driver turned and explained that for several years his daughter was housed in that place, and it nearly destroyed his life and ministry. Our friend began to cry and unburdened his life. Who doesn’t need a friend like that?

Solomon would warn you – most people don’t respond that way. Some will gossip. Some will condemn. Some will explain what you did wrong after the fact, and you will end up with a greater sense of guilt. We were wired to need others, but apart from the relationship with God, our need of others will not satisfy. More often than not, it will become a way of keeping us from coming directly to our heavenly Father.

We see it in counseling all the time. People who really need to pray, want to talk to a counselor, but not to God. They have no peace, because they seek it in the wrong place.

Some of you may recall the low action comedy of yesteryear named “Cheers” If you don’t recall the show, you may remember the theme song that reminded us that “Sometimes we want to go where everybody knows our name.” It is nice to be recognized, but we dare not build our self-esteem from the recognition of others. It is wonderful to be loved, but sometimes loving means being tough – so we cannot judge our lives by popularity – even among those we raise in our homes.

Solomon’s argument was that a miscarriage passed into and out of life quickly, and never felt the sting of making so little a difference on the planet. We must reckon with the truth that we will never make that much a difference in the world apart from fulfilling our God-given role in this life.

Fourth, there is the cord of the shadows (6:5).

Solomon continued his observations of the fortunate miscarriage as compared to the living miserable who trust in things that cannot satisfy. He wrote,

Ecclesiastes 6:5 It never sees the sun and it never knows anything; it is better off than he.

The wise old king could not perceive a single benefit to a life without satisfaction. He called the never living “better” because they didn’t experience to pains and insecurities of life without the surety of a walk with God.

Perhaps you have watched George Bailey one Christmas in the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The theme of the work was very much about this verse. Is it better to have “never lived” or to face the problems of life with loved ones and friends.

The 1946 American Christmas drama was produced by Frank Capra, based on the short story “The Greatest Gift,” which Philip Van Doren Stern wrote a decade before. Jimmy Stewart famously played George Bailey, a man who had consistently given up his dreams in order to help others. Under extreme pressure, he attempted suicide on Christmas Eve but was saved through the intervention of his “not so professional acting” guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers). Clarence shows George all the lives he has touched and how different life in his community of Bedford Falls would be had he never been born.

In Capra’s film, the meaning of life was found in friends. Solomon would have accepted none of that as a premise. He knew the truth. Life without a connection to its Author, the One Who made sense of it all, was nonsense. He pressed the idea even further with two more cords that fasten a lost man, one unconnected to the Creator, to the Earth.

Fifth, there is the cord of meaninglessness (6:6).

At the core of many of Solomon’s remarks is this one – life apart from God brings no lasting satisfaction regardless of how long it lasts. He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 6:6 Even if the other man lives a thousand years twice and does not enjoy good things—do not all go to one place?”

Without an intimate connection to God there is no enduring sense of purpose. Without that sense of purpose grounding our life and our accomplishments, there is little to truly look forward to but the grave!

Tucked into the twentieth chapter of the second book of the Kings in Scripture is a reminder of the folly of more time without the change of one’s heart toward God. Hezekiah had been a great king and loyal follower of God, until he read his own press clippings, and found himself satisfied in where he was, apart from a growing relationship with God. An illness overtook him, and a prophecy came that he was facing his own end. As he lay dying, he pleaded with God for more time. God heard his prayer, and told him that his life would be extended. Instead of using the additional time to build his walk with God, he went back to the life of distance from Him, and lived an addition fifteen years. The problem with the extra years is that time wasn’t all he needed – a renewal of commitment to God was the true need. A few years into the extended period of his life brought a new baby to the household – the little prince that would become King Manasseh upon Hezekiah’s death. Manasseh grew up in a household with a father who had a reputation for righteousness based on a past walk – and Manasseh got none of the reality of a walk with God. Until near the end of his long reign, Manasseh afflicted Israel with his grievous overt sinful character. Hezekiah got more time, but without using it to build his walk with God, it became a curse to the nation, not a blessing.

Time on Earth isn’t what you need to satisfy you – a deep connection to your Creator will fill the true need. You need to know why you were placed here, and what your life purpose truly is. That is found in your God. Apart from Him, life can be long, but the cord of meaninglessness will bind you through each year.

Solomon offered one more cord…

Sixth, there is the cord of appetite (6:7).

This is a terrible cord to remind us of at the holiday season, but I suspect he is not simply referring to a buffet table my wife prepared. He wrote,

Ecclesiastes 6:7 All a man’s labor is for his mouth and yet the appetite is not satisfied.

Haven’t you felt the tug of that cord on your life? Have you ever wanted something and thought it would bring a lasting satisfaction or peace – and they you got it. Within a few hours (perhaps) you were already planning the next purchase of an attachment for the thing you just got, so you could THEN make it satisfy you. On and on it goes. We never have enough. Things never quite fill the hole!

Rev. Mark Opperman wrote,

God populated the earth with broccoli and cauliflower and spinach, green & yellow vegetables of all kinds, so that man and woman would live long and healthy lives. Then Satan created McDonald’s. And McDonald’s brought forth the 99-cent double-cheeseburger. Then Satan said to man, “Do you want fries with that?” And the man said, “Super-size them!” And man gained many pounds.

God created healthful yogurt so woman might keep her figure that man found so fair. Then Satan brought forth chocolate, and woman gained pounds. God said, “Try my crispy fresh salad.” Then Satan brought forth ice cream. And woman gained more pounds.

God said, “I have sent you heart healthy vegetables and olive oil with which to cook them.” Then Satan brought forth chicken-fried steak so big it needed its own platter, and man gained girth and much bad cholesterol.

So God brought forth running shoes and man resolved to lose his extra pounds. Then Satan brought forth cable TV with remote control so man would not have to toil to change channels. And man gained even more pounds.

God brought forth the potato – a vegetable naturally low in fat and brimming with nutrition. Satan peeled off the healthful skin and sliced the starchy center into chips and deep-fat fried them. Thus he created sour cream dip also… and man clutched his remote control and ate his potato chips marinated in cholesterol. Satan saw it and said, “It is good.” and Man went into cardiac arrest.

God sighed, & created quadruple bypass heart surgery. Then Satan created HMO’s.” (Mark adapted this from text at:

We all know what it means to be tempted with something that is not a need, but a want that is disguised as a need. C. S. Lewis made these insightful observations about such tempting waves:

No man knows how bad he is until he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. That is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is…. Christ, because He was the only Man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only Man who knows to the full what temptation means.” (Today in the Word, November, 1998, p. 24)

If you have struggled with a diet, I don’t have to explain the cord of appetite. You already know it!

The Summary: Life tied down to the earth is drudgery (6:8)

Solomon summarized the six cords that he observed in one single statement of life…

Ecclesiastes 6:8 For what advantage does the wise man have over the fool? What advantage does the poor man have, knowing how to walk before the living?

Men work to meet their needs, and yet cannot get all they need. Most don’t even grow in the process!

In short, men without God simply are not free men. They are tied to the Earth from which they have tried to draw their fulfillment and sustenance.

• Some work by don’t get the fruit of their labors.
• Some feel the tug of unreliable people around them.
• Some hurt because they recognize people won’t remember them for long.
• Some feel life is filled with missed opportunities and failed dreams.
• Most know it is hard to be optimistic about the grave without God.
• Few get satisfaction for their appetites.

That is lost man’s condition. He is tied down. He is frustrated.

Yet, Solomon knows it IS possible to break free! He knows that we must first change our mind before we can grasp new hope. He offered instruction.

How to Break Loose the Binding Cord (6:9-12)

Essentially, Solomon made the process of breaking the cords clear in four steps:

The first step requires that I stop trusting in a dream of the future and take a sober look at now (6:9). Solomon expressed it this way,

Ecclesiastes 6:9 What the eyes see is better than what the soul desires. This too is futility and a striving after wind.

It is better to live in the reality of now. Some people dream their way through life.

Tom Jacobs, a staff writer at Pacific Standard Magazine wrote an interesting article about the young people just graduating from High School a few years ago. He follows the publishing of a statistical study with analysis that showed,

Twenty-five percent of blossoming Boomers admitted that “not wanting to work hard” might prevent them from getting a desired job. Among the Millennials, that number increased to 39 percent. (These trends were consistent regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status.)

In other words, nearly half of the students surveyed admitted they wanted the benefits of work they weren’t really committing to do. Tom continued,

What’s the matter with kids today? “Youth raised during times of societal instability (e.g., unemployment) and disconnection (e.g., more unmarried parents) were especially likely to endorse materialistic values,” the researchers write. “Furthermore, when a larger percentage of the nation’s economy was oriented toward advertising messages, youth were also likely to prioritize materialistic aims.”

There it is. The cost of the broken homes of America and the politics of economy have conspired to leave a generation who lean now toward things to make them happy – even though things seem more elusive to many. Some researchers hoped for this group to steer away from materialism toward the simple life. He wrote,

“Numerous social observers suggested that children (growing up in the current economic downturn) might reject materialistic values and return to frugality and thrift,” they note. “The current data argue against such predictions, given that the dislocation and insecurity wrought by high levels of unemployment and other economic woes are associated with higher levels of materialism later in life.” …Perhaps we should call them the “Frustration Generation.”

Studies don’t get it all right, so we must look at them with healthy skepticism. At the same time, it is clear that many today seem to think “something will happen” that will make them successful that will take them almost by surprise when it comes. “The big break” philosophy that is growing seems to see the height of the mountain of success, without the climb to get there. Solomon waves us off and says: “Get real! What you see is not a dream, it is reality. Deal with it.” People who think “It will somehow happen” live in a dream world that survives off someone else’s hard labor. We must get real. Let’s call this the death of unhealthy dreams

A second step Solomon offered is this: We must stop fighting the things that are not ours to change (6:10-11).

Ecclesiastes 6:10 Whatever exists has already been named, and it is known what man is; for he cannot dispute with him who is stronger than he is.

There are many things about my life that are already determined and defined – and I waste my energy fighting those. That doesn’t mean I cannot have some ideals worth fighting for – it means I have to choose fighting for ideals that are possible. I will not convince the world of the evils of breathing, and I cannot take a stand to call people to stop all taxes and yet have an organized society. Anarchists are often idealists run amuck.

There are things you can change and should seek to try, both personal and societal. Activism is encouraged and even called for in God’s Word. The problem is, some people take on causes against things God has already defined and set. You can’t beat some things because God didn’t give them to your charge. Let’s call this the death of unhealthy idealism.

A third step Solomon offered toward casting off bonds is this: We must recognize we can learn much, but even that won’t offer you all the answers (6:11).

Education is great, and learning is necessary, but it won’t solve every problem. He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 6:11 For there are many words which increase futility. What then is the advantage to a man?

There are problems too deeply rooted in the fallen world for us to pull out. There are connected issues we won’t see, even with our many studies and careful observations. We can’t fix everything – we can’t even really understand everything. Let’s call this the death of unhealthy expectations.

Finally, Solomon offered the positive that can unbind the cords of man (6:12). He offered two rhetorical questions:

Ecclesiastes 6:12 For who knows what is good for a man during his lifetime, during the few years of his futile life? He will spend them like a shadow. For who can tell a man what will be after him under the sun?

The two questions begin: “Who knows?” and “Who can tell him?” Both have the same answer: Man’s Creator. He alone knows what is best – you don’t know even when you think you do!

“Why do I need God?” the young man asked me. “I have health, strength, a good job and great friends. Things are going fine for me without Him.” He said, “You will not always have any of the things you mentioned.” I replied, “Your health will fail as will your strength. Your friends will be right beside you until they cannot. If you look around you, there is vast evidence of those truths. There is MUCH about life that cannot be seen in the present.”

If in watching all the stages of life we can learn anything, it is this: We often don’t get the answers until after we really seemed to need them. Experiences that are painful are often helpful – but only after the fact.

Solomon ended where life begins – with God.

He created you. He formed you in your mother’s womb. Your DNA was intentionally and carefully combined from many others in a complicated formula played out from the beginning of time. He is the only One Who knows you makeup at that level, and the only One Who sees your destiny and contribution to the tapestry of His story called human history.

He is the Designer. Why seek your answers from any other place? Solomon made the ending observation that without asking Him, your life will be like “a shadow.” It will look like something, but not have a lasting discernible impact. God knows why you are here, and God knows what story He is telling. Why not talk to Him about your life and its purpose?

The Search is Over: “God User” – Ecclesiastes 5

cubs12This has been a month of surprises. Chicago fans were gratified to see their team come to a World Series victory after a 108 year drought. Some of the nation celebrated a stunning upset at the polls in the election. Newsmen and pundits have desperately tried to explain the results in ways that maintain their own particular biases. In the end, all of us can agree this has been a time of surprise more than a “run of the mill” fulfillment cycle. For some, surprises are thrilling. For others, surprise of any kind shakes stability. It is with a special comfort, then, we approach our series called “The Search is Over” because Solomon uncovers some of life’s hidden problems – and they strip away surprising outcomes with God-planted sense.

For a few moments, we want to focus on the beginning of Ecclesiastes 5 and Psalm 15, because these passages uncover a tendency we all have to mishandle reverence and “use” God. Even more mature believers need to be reminded not to use God and their relationship with Him to justify behaviors God has no part in. Let me unpack that idea:

Perhaps during this last election season more than any other, we observed the widely varied ways people used God to justify their political positions. Many claimed God’s sanction for their view and on behalf of their candidate. Was the issue which candidate had more praying for them? Was God somehow confused by the posturing? Had God left us with confusing and contradictory principles in His Word? Instinctively, any Bible student would reject all of these possibilities. What is the answer, then? Is it possible the real problem was we didn’t listen to His Word carefully? Perhaps the real issues are how I prepare to meet Him, how I learn to listen to Him, and how I carry the message of His will to the world. In essence, how do I reverently observe my relationship with God and His Word? Solomon made clear the root problem…

Key Principle: The greatest sin committed regularly by God’s people is handling Him casually. All our other sin stems from this single transgression.

As believers and Jesus followers, some of us tend to add “God words” into sentences of mere preference. We say “I don’t think the Lord would be honored by….” in place of “I really don’t like…” Some of us have learned to routinely supplement explanations of “life moments” with words that muddy the waters of God’s true involvement and agenda. We say His name in a way that shows we don’t treat God with the care and reverence due Him – and we may not even be aware of it. That is a symptom of a larger problem – that of irreverence.

Don’t forget that in the core principles of both the Civil Code (found in Exodus and Numbers) of the Torah Law (the Law of Moses) and the Constitution Code (found in Deuteronomy), God told His people to revere Him. He cautioned them about evoking Him or using His name in a casual way! Is it possible these cautions were given because it would be easy for believers to irreverently treat God? Solomon suggests that is a root issue, and it can be identified in our walk. In fact, he argued there were a number of mistakes we make in our daily life that end up “using God” instead of helping us live for God.

Am I too casual with God? There are four great mistakes that indicate times when I am too casual with the Holy One. (1:1-7).

The first of these mistakes has to do with times I am about to seek the Lord for something. This isn’t just about Sunday morning – it is about any time I am about to come to the Lord in prayer and worship. The king said…

Mistake #1: I don’t get ready. Before I come, I need to prepare to meet with God by learning to listen much and speak little.

Reverence begins with an attitude of solemnity and careful preparation before meeting God. The write began:

Ecclesiastes 5:1 “Guard your steps as you go to the house of God and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil.”

He observed: “People who make promises lightly don’t recognize that God takes our word seriously.” Some make the mistake of coming to God haplessly and unprepared – and that is foolishness.

Essentially, fools are arrogant people. They tend to have simple and quick answers to complex questions, but ignore many of the unintended consequences involved in implementing their ideas. They draw conclusions by taking small pieces of information and combine them with much emotion to end up with an answer that satisfies them – even if it is wholly illogical and completely untrue. Solomon speaks heartily on behalf of learning to listen well before concluding God’s direction on a matter.

Turn, if you will, to Psalm 15 and look at the words found there. A generation before him, his father King David wrote a song about, “What kind of friends have you chosen, Lord?” This incredible song defines the kind of person God enjoys, the kind He desires us to become. These character traits are given in the frame of “preparation to spend time with God.” Take a moment and look at the preparation steps in Psalm 15. David wrote it this way:

Psalm 15:1 Master, who may dwell in your tent? Who can live on the place of your holy mountain?

When we studied that Psalm in earlier lessons, we noted that it was likely David saw some people change their clothing, and their behavior based on being in the presence of a powerful figure like their king.

• If they wanted the king’s attention to their matter, there was an expected pattern of behavior.

• If they expected to bring their matter to the king, there was an expected selection of dress.

• If they wanted to be treated with care before the king, there was an expected etiquette in their presentation.

As moderns, we don’t often see the need for pomp or exacting etiquette. We are a casual society, stopping only briefly for the royal wedding or choreographed presentation in matters of state. We still like a good inauguration on occasion, an elaborate wedding of grand graduation ceremony. We still dress up – but much more rarely than at other times in history. In any case, because King David confronted the tendency people have to change their behavior radically in order to gain access to his presence, he took that observation in a different direction than most of us would have.

He decided that if people changed themselves to be acceptable in his presence to show honor, he should carefully examine his life and decide if he had sufficiently prepared himself to enter the presence of his Holy King.

Note that David already concluded that the changes were WORTH THE SACRIFICE. He began with the words: “Who can?” He promptly devised, under the influence of the Spirit, a preparatory inspection checklist he could use to gear himself up for intense and prolonged worship and intimacy with God.

He argued that approaching God requires forethought. Many commentators seem to miss that the passage is about our approach to God, not about the EFFECTS OF WORSHIP. This ancient song offers us a checklist David used to get ready for worship and prayer.

In the question: “Master, who may dwell in your tent? Who can live on the place of your holy mountain?” are two implications:

• First, he wanted to come into the presence of God, and dwell there – or prolong the time they shared together.

• Second, he presumed that NOT EVERYONE was ready simply because they wanted time with God.

The mountain of God was HOLY (kodesh) or distinct from any other place. The question revealed that David understood that we cannot be casual with the holy. We must prepare. We must acknowledge its supreme difference from the normal.

I hear far too little about preparation for worship, and far too much about how people want worship to change us. I do not dispute the notion that worship should and will change us – I argue that preparation was also part of the plan of God. We need to take responsibility for preparation – and not spiritualize our laziness and undue familiarity by making right choices to prepare our hearts to meet God.

Keep reading the Psalm. Each verse contains specific attributes of a checklist beginning in verse 2.

Psalm 15:2 includes the first three phrases that appear to deal primarily with inner attitudes that set the stage for all the others. “הולך תמים ופעל צדק ודבר אמת בלבבו׃“

Psalm 15:2 “He who walks with integrity, and works righteousness, And speaks truth in his heart”.

Attentive to Sin

David opened with a reminder that self-examination is needed, particularly in the area of sinful practices that have been left unattended, and have left marks on our life. He calls one who would seek God to first be attentive to sin. He calls the seeker: “One whose goings are unblemished (tawmim).”

When I was a kid, my mother told us what time we needed to be ready for church. We appeared, like a whole team (I come from a large family) at the front sidewalk before we climbed into the panel van to go to church. We were to be clean. We were to have church clothes. We were to be 100% ready. Mud on the clothing, dirt on the hands, grease in the hair – were all wholly unacceptable. Trying to cover dirt was unacceptable. That is David’s point.

Active in Doing Right

The second phrase is “and works righteousness.” David claims the one who is prepared to meet with God has been active in seeking right acts (“v’pual tsedek”), that is, he accomplishes what is right and just (15:2b).

To meet God we must be one who is busy DOING SOMETHING to help. I have to ask myself: “Am I actively working with my energies to accomplish positive tasks in the lives of others?” It is one thing to focus on walking in a way that is unblemished, but a whole different matter to be positively producing right acts with my time, talent and treasure – all received from my God to live this life.

Look back at your week. Are you able to draw a line back to specific things that helped another that didn’t also somehow make YOUR LIFE better – so that you know you weren’t really just doing it to help yourself? Have you been a DELIBERATELY POSITIVE PART of someone’s week? David urged: “Don’t just be AGAINST EVIL in life, be helping someone in a GOOD way.”

In days of 24 hour whining of what has been called “social media” – don’t forget there is no substitute for “doing.” Complaining about something isn’t the same as positively helping someone through a struggle. Your pithy sayings are remembered for a moment. Your help to another isn’t soon forgotten.

Authentic in Lifestyle

Look at the phrase in last part of Psalm 15:2 where David wrote: “And speaks truth in his heart.” The words reflect one who is authentic; one who declares in words (debar) truth (ehmeth) from his heart (layvawv).

Essentially, the verse reminds the worshipper to be intentional and clean – and not to cover sin. This evokes the old idea of “sincere.” The term comes from two Latin words, sine ceres – meaning ‘without wax’. Potters during the days of the Roman Empire, would often fill a crack, fissure, or chip in their fired pottery with wax before painting it, thus giving the impression of perfection where there was actually a deep flaw. David suggested that before coming to the Lord, you and I should dismiss our tendency, knowingly or unknowingly, to give a better impression than we warrant. A pot with no wax was a “sincere” pot. It really was consistent with its appearance.

There is no wax in the one who would become a true worshipper. He is not like the Pharisee, saying on the outside what he is not on the inside. Neither is he like the modern Evangelical Christian, who loudly proclaims his heartfelt love for Jesus, but cannot bring himself to keep the commandments. He is a cup washed inside and out who speaks the truth in his heart, and lives out the same. He doesn’t come dirty and he doesn’t come haughty.

Here is the truth: I must constantly check my heart, with God’s Word and the piercing light of God’s convicting Spirit. I must face the fact that I can be self-deceived.

If I regard lies in my heart, God’s Word will be torqued to produce hardened justifications and self-affirming feelings, rather than challenge my knees to buckle to His holy distinctiveness.

My hunger for His presence must press me to search deeply into the recesses of my heart before I can dwell in intimacy with Him. Isn’t that why David called upon God to “try his thoughts”…

An Uncompromising Tongue

Psalm 15:3 says: “He does not slander with his tongue, Nor does evil to his neighbor, Nor takes up a reproach against his friend.” Note these three specifics relate to SPEECH and the use of the tongue. David called for speech that is guarded and gracious (the term “does not slander” is lo rawgal al-lishanu – 15:3a): He who has no hidden words that speak from behind others (i.e. rawgal: to go on foot as if to spy from rehgel: foot – 15:3).

I cannot allow poor speech about other if I am to be prepared for a prolonged intimacy with God. I exclude myself from His inner confidences and hold myself outside the chamber if I casually treat the use of my words concerning others. I must guard my mouth. James could not have been clearer (see James 1) about the devastating nature of the “tongues fire” damage.

David also called for positive speech that is not deliberately provocative. The second phrase reminds me that I must not devise inequity or trouble for my neighbor (15:3b). Though the grammar does not exclusively include only the tongue, the context demands that I address verbal traps I may have set for people. I dare not become casual with another man’s heart, another man’s reputation – I must treasure others and their care if I am prepared to stand in the presence of the Master.

A Loyal Defender

The idea continues profoundly in the next phrase, “Nor does evil to his neighbor”, where David called for my speech to be loyal. One who will not allow (lo nasa: does not take in) his neighbor to be ashamed (Charpaph is reproach from charpaw: upbraid or blaspheme) or taunted (15:3b). The idea is that this one will not accept upbraiding of his neighbor, but loyally comes to his defense.

One who desires to become a true worshipper makes every effort to defend his neighbor’s good name.

I will not only cease from casually speaking badly of another, I will refuse to be in the place where such speech occurs. I will stop it, because it will blemish my heart and make me as unusable as a dropped scalpel in an operating room. I must check my tongue for loyalty, and behind disloyal speech I will find a hunger to be affirmed by others that is both unhealthy and unholy. My value comes from my Master – not my friends. The hunger to be seen as important is a manifestation of immaturity and ungodliness. It must be tamed and quieted inside, and then sacrificed on a holy altar before God.

A Man or Woman of Choice Companions

The next verse speaks of choices I make. David wrote: (Psalm 15:4) “In whose eyes a reprobate is despised, But who honors those who fear the LORD…”

The first two phrases pose a simple choice: “Do I spend my time surrounded by people that understand His Holiness and draw me toward Him, or do I casually encamp with those who have declared themselves to be His enemies, and than walk into His presence?” The first phrases are both selective ideals:

As I grow to maturity, I must learn “selective rejection” express in the idea “in whose eyes a reprobate is despised. This is not an excuse to learn to be “judgy” and “mean” as some may portray it. In order to be prepared to spend time with God, I must deliberately set aside a rejector of God and His ways. I dare not choose to pitch my tent in the camp of the scornful and agnostic men and then walk from that place into the tent of God on the Holy Hill. If I am not uncomfortable with the work of evil men, my heart is not right and ready. If I am not broken by their hardness, and wounded by their careless pride, I am not ready to worship. I don’t learn to HATE them, but I also don’t learn to TOLERATE evil. I am broken for them, but not partners with them.

At the same time, I learn selective affirmation, where David says I learn to place weight (kawbad) on those who revere the Lord! (15:4b).

Let me say it clearly: Who you hang out with affects your worship of God. What you laugh at in the world affects your worship. Where you were last night, and the night before has much more to do with what will happen today than you may believe!

A Reliable Friend

Writing on the subject of the use of the mouth, David continued in Psalm 15:4b “…He swears to his own hurt and does not change.”

He offered the idea of one who has an unwavering commitment: His word is his bond. He who keeps his word when he covenants to do something, refusing to exchange it when the things shows itself to be more difficult than anticipated (15:4b). It is easy for me to want the benefits of a relationship without the work in the relationship. It is easy for me to make promises but walk away from them when my attention is pulled elsewhere. In a day awash in broken promises, contracts, mortgages, marriages – believers must stand apart from the culture of casual commitment.

A Careful Steward

David finished his short list of traits in the Psalm with the words: Psalm 15:5 “He does not put out his money at interest, Nor does he take a bribe against the innocent.”

David revealed an attitude that can be uncovered in looking carefully at the use of money. When I offer help, is it for others or for myself? Am I Generous? If I give to another of my substance without an angle to personally gain from it, I don’t use what God has entrusted to be against another. (Note the term “neshek” is today a “weapon” but from the word “to bite” nawshak – 5:5a). Do I use money to “bite” another? Is this about THEM or about MY GAIN?

Using money as a weapon is wrong. All that I have has come from God’s good hand. If I want to be in His presence and walk in intimacy with Him, can I treat things as more important than the people of my life? If I am “flexible” and lenient on myself for the sake of business, I allow a blemish in my heart to grow.

The part about a bribe regards our honesty (“nor does he take a bribe”). One prepared to worship God cannot be bought to say something against innocent ones for personal gain (15:5B). This is logical next step when people are less important than money and gain in my life.

David closed the Psalm with the incredible benefit of preparation – a stable gate as I walk into God’s presence and seek His face. He wrote:

Psalm 15:5b “…He who does these things will never be shaken. Stability: לא ימוט לעולם׃ (lo yimot: won’t totter or collapse + l’olam: forever).

We’ve spent some time on the first point, but it is a neglected and important one: It is a terrible mistake to fail to prepare and enter before God with a loose tongue. As we look back into Ecclesiastes 5, Solomon isn’t finished. He continued with…

Mistake #2: I don’t give reverence. As I come, I must carefully measure my words. Any promises must be made carefully.

Ecclesiastes 5:2 Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few.

The truth is that when we aren’t ready, we speak too quickly. We also make the mistake of thoughtlessly demoting God to “our friend upstairs, or our friendly genie in the sky.” Note how Solomon made clear the difference between you and I and the Creator of all – we are on one little rock in the cosmos – God is over it all.

I want every believer to become comfortable spending deep and rich times with God. At the same time, I offer Solomon’s warning: God isn’t your buddy – He is your Creator. Don’t get flippant with the One Who holds life together. Speak honestly, but thoughtfully.

Solomon continued with a third mistake he observed about how people handle God and sometimes “use Him.”

Mistake #3: I don’t remain active. As I persist before Him, I must recognize the need for personal investment.

Look at the third verse carefully, because it a proverbial statement that can be hard to grasp on a quick pass:

Ecclesiastes 5:3 For the dream comes through much effort and the voice of a fool through many words.

Here is the idea: We can easily make the mistake of thinking anything we desire is a simple matter of asking God. Yet, any dream we pursue must be matched by sincere work toward that goal. We cannot drop our request in God’s lap and make it His problem while we offer none of our efforts.

Long and loud prayers aren’t a justification for inaction in things we are able to do.

If you want a job – pray. At the same time, get some applications filled out. If you want a spouse – pray. At the same time, take the time to be where godly people are and see who you can meet there.

I have noticed that often, believers use sovereignty to push off responsibility. That isn’t right.

Solomon offered one last mistake…

Mistake #4: I don’t remember commitments.

We ask God for things. We make promises to God. We don’t take seriously that God has a fantastic memory. He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 5:4 When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it; for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow! 5 It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. 6 Do not let your speech cause you to sin and do not say in the presence of the messenger of God that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry on account of your voice and destroy the work of your hands?

We make a mistake when we think God will endlessly excuse our carelessness. If our word EVER matters, it matters when offered to God. The proverb in these verses is clear: Better to never promise than promise and not deliver (5). I must say less and do more (6-7). Overstated promises are not reverent promises!

The greatest sin committed regularly by God’s people is handling God casually. All of our other sin, directly or indirectly stems from this single transgression.

Solomon closed with a simple injunction:

Ecclesiastes 5:7 For in many dreams and in many words there is emptiness. Rather, fear God.

Don’t talk about a walk with God. Get one. Don’t kick the opportunity down the road.

I want to end this lesson in an unusual place. Walk in your mind’s eye into a casino. Weird, huh? I confess I am far too cheap to gamble. I don’t think that is proper stewardship, but my real underlying objection is that I am miserably cheap about throwing away money. In any case, I am told if you go into a casino, you will see color, sound and excitement. What you WON’T see is a clock. At 8:00 AM there are people eating, drinking at the bar and gambling. The people don’t know what time it is, and the casino has no interest in them knowing the time. This is one of the enemy of our soul’s greatest ploys – hiding the limitations of time.

You have an opportunity to stop a pattern that is hindering your walk badly right now. You can turn to God and tell Him that you want to begin a NEW DAY of revering Him. You can also put if off… but that is a very bad idea. One sin is infecting many other areas of your life. Like the pipe leaching dangerous checmicals into your drinking water, lack of reverence is bringing poison to your soul. Every day you get weaker.

We have just celebrated Veteran’s Day. I thought it may be helpful to understand quiet reverence for God by reckoning how we honor even other men and women in our world for their sacrifice. I hope this helps to set the tone for honor and

Reportedly, it all began in 1862 during the Civil War when Union Army Captain Robert Ellicombe was with his men near Harrison’s Landing in Virginia. The Confederate Army was on the other side of the narrow strip of land. During the night, Captain Ellicombe heard the moans of a soldier who lay severely wounded on the field. Not knowing if it was a Union or Confederate soldier, the captain decided to risk his life and bring the stricken man back for medical attention. Crawling on his stomach, the captain reached the stricken soldier and began pulling him toward his encampment. When the captain finally reached his own lines, he discovered it was actually a Confederate soldier, but the soldier was dead. The captain lit a lantern and suddenly caught his breath and went numb with shock. In the dim light, he saw the face of the soldier. It was his own son. The boy had been studying music in the South when the war broke out. Without telling his father, the boy enlisted in the Confederate Army. The following morning, heartbroken, the father asked permission of his superiors to give his son a full military burial despite his enemy status. His request was only partially granted. The captain had asked if he could have a group of army band members play a funeral dirge for his son at the funeral. The request was turned down since the soldier was a Confederate. But, out of respect for the father, they did say he could have one musician play. The captain chose a bugler, and he asked the bugler to play a series of musical notes he had found on a piece of paper in the pocket of the dead youth’s uniform. This wish was granted, The haunting melody we now know as “Taps,” used at military funerals, was born. Source: Pulpit Helps (July 2001) article written by: Diane O. Sides, Missouri State University, Cape Girardeau, MO.

The Search is Over: “Working Nine to Five” – Ecclesiastes 4

9-to-5-bThose who were familiar with the 1980’s may recall an American comedy film called “9 to 5” that starred Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton, and Dabney Coleman. The film was set in the daily work life of three working women who lived out various fantasies of getting even with and eventually disposing of their boss, who they referred to as “a sexist, and an egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot”. I didn’t see the movie and I am not recommending it, because I thought it was a girl movie (and young men didn’t watch girl movies!) At the same time, it was a hit, grossing nearly $4 million in its opening weekend in the United States. It was the 20th highest-grossing comedy film and launched an already known Parton into mainstream popular culture. A television series by the same name followed, as well as a musical version (with some songs written by Parton) opened on Broadway in 2009. Surprisingly (at least to me) 9 to 5 is number 74 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Funniest Movies”- giving it a long-time placement in the ranks of comedy entertainment. The idea of the film was that an abusive boss is taken captive, by three women who change the office policies in his name and inadvertently capture the attention of the higher corporate figures by increasing their productivity. Their boss becomes well thought of because of his innovation – when it wasn’t him at all. Famous or not, I cannot see the movie as something I would like to watch unless I were held captive, but regardless of how the movie was, it does make an observation worth recalling for this lesson: It is very possible that you have learned much about human nature from your work place.

In an essay that became chapter four of Ecclesiastes, Solomon essentially asked: “Can we talk about work for a bit?”

I have to admit that much of what I learned about life came through my work experiences over the years. Watching my father at the Mobil Oil Refinery when I worked as a summer intern for two summers taught be much about my dad’s work ethic, and how other men respected him. Working beside a woman who took her own life at home one day taught me that people hide troubles and you cannot imagine the dragons some are dealing with inside. Many things about people can be learned from watching people at their job site. In fact, people scurry off to their jobs every day by the millions and they offer us some lessons.

Line them up and take a look at them closely. You may observe these seven “characters from the working world” that Solomon highlighted. He left behind a record of observations that remind us of this truth…

Key Principle: Watching people at work can reveal some of the deepest flaws we have come to see as normal in society.

Solomon started “at the top” – a place where we have all seen the self-important and undeserving at some point…

First, there is the problem of BAD BOSSES.

Can we not all agree that some people shouldn’t – under any circumstances – be given power over others? Solomon saw them as he observed people. He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 4:1 Then I looked again at all the acts of oppression which were being done under the sun. And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors was power, but they had no one to comfort them. 2 So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living. 3 But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.

As a king, Solomon didn’t struggle through the “work a day” world, to be sure. At the same time, his perspective was a unique one. He observed the work of foremen, military leaders and community chieftains. He saw that some who led were servants, but many were simply hard-hearted “haves” who lorded over “have nots.” He concluded that some people work to beat down others in order to feel superior. Look again at his words:

First, he acknowledged that acts of oppression were taking place across a spectrum, and he took as many into account as he could see (4:1). Just as he came to understand there were seasons of life, he came to recognize there was systemic inequity in the world. He saw that inequity playing out to break down relationships. Those who were beat down and lowly cried, but there seemed no one ready and able to help them (4:1b). At the same time, it wasn’t all fun and games for those who had power. They, too, were alone in their position, unable to find the warmth and comfort they sought. It was a grievous state, and I reflected on the hardships of the poor and powerless for some time.

After a time of refection, He looked at the grave yard and thought of those who toiled for years under backbreaking labor, and he commended them for making their way through the difficulty of this laborious and unfair world (4:2). He thought of the heavy weight they carried through life, and compared it to the sufferings of the poor and downcast of his generation. He pondered the many hours of labor on crops that were lost to fire or locusts. He contemplated how tired they were when they dropped onto their small woven mats on the floor of a tiny dwelling. He wondered how many nights they went to bed hungry. His mind filled with images of beggars, lepers, lowly and sickly people – and he thought their life was so bad, so broken, that perhaps the one who died at birth was better off than those children who lived in squalor with distended bellies, sitting in a hopeless dump.

Solomon unfolded three ideas here:

First, power and privilege have their problems too. Even the powerful need love, comfort and acceptance. Alone, they feel just as lonely.

Second, life truly is unfair – and there are people who exploit other people. They bring pain and deprivation to others and muffle the sounds of their crying when they pass them by.

Third, no one seemed to be able to address the unfairness of it all. Hungry children would go on being hungry. Destitute people would try to find a way to make it another day. Powerful people would keep pushing people around and feel entitled, but they would still be unhappy inside.

In the end, Solomon could imagine a pain so great and a powerlessness so complete, that he posited some would have been better never to make an entrance on the planet. His was an observation of a thoroughly wretched kind – leaving little hope.

We must remember there is no one on the earth apart from our Creator who will be a perfect example. Everyone will have at the minimum some blind spots, while some will exhibit such open cruelty that our breath will be taken away at the moment we encounter their brazen acts and arrogant nature. Powerful people aren’t the answer to saving humanity, and they won’t save our country either. They are broken just like the rest of us.

Second, there is the problem of JEALOUS COWORKERS.

Solomon looked around at productive people and their ventures. He noted that much work seemed to be fueled by feuds, jealousy and vicious rivalry. In fact, Solomon noted that some work simply because they envy others. He noted:

Ecclesiastes 4:4 I have seen that every labor and every skill which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. This too is vanity and striving after wind.

When you read the words of Solomon, remember they are proverbial in nature. Proverbs express “truisms” and often generalize something. He isn’t saying that everything ever done was completed for a bad reason – he said that his observation is that it was so common, that appeared to be the norm. He made the point that he observed an unhealthy competitive battle that others defined as “progress.”

Anyone who has studied the history of business will readily admit that jealousy and theft are a regular part of the patent and invention process. That isn’t an overstatement.

• The sewing machine is thought by many to be the creation of Isaac Singer (of the Singer Corporation fame). The truth is that inventor Elias Howe patented the design in 1846, and sued Singer in 1849, for stealing the design. When the two settled in court, neither acknowledged that Walter Hunt actually created a sewing machine with a needle eye in 1834, but he chose not to patent it because of his conviction that it would lead to unemployment.

• When I was three years old, Robert Kearns invented the intermittent windshield wiper. Kearns showed his plans to each of the “big three” auto manufacturers and (according to later charges) the design was stolen by three each within one year. Kearns sued Ford in 1978 and Chrysler in 1982, eventually winning almost $30 million in compensation.

• The radio was either the brainchild of Marconi or Tesla.

• When Gordon Gould created the first laser at Columbia University, he had no idea it would take thirty years for the patent office to uphold his fight to get credit for the invention (and get royalties).

On and on it goes. Solomon wasn’t wrong – there is a lot of stealing and creative borrowing in business. The road to human progress is strewn liberally with stolen patents and inventions. Solomon found all the cut-throat business theft depressing.

We need to be careful as believers about the times in which we live. People express that as long as something is “legal” it doesn’t matter if it is moral. Increasingly, even people of faith are caught saying that if it isn’t against the law, it isn’t a problem. The fact is the law doesn’t always strictly track with what is morally right. Theft of another’s labor is fundamentally wrong. Avoiding appropriate responsibility because of a legal loophole is still an immoral decision. Solomon was depressed by the very thing that makes so many people cynical about modern life. He continued with another group he observed…

Third, there were the problematic LAZY LOUNGERS.

Solomon observed that some people just don’t know when to get to work. They seem to misunderstand the nature of society and believe that regardless of their choices, someone should help them when they don’t prepare what is necessary on their own. He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 4:5 “The fool folds his hands and consumes his own flesh.”

The idea is this: Foolish people don’t know when to get busy, work hard, and save what they will need for the days ahead. They eat the seed corn instead of planting it. They don’t plan – because their plan is to get someone else’s portion when they don’t have what they need.

Anyone who feels a sense of compassion knows there are some in our society who need a hand at some point along their life journey.

At the same time, the statistics suggest that we may have something else happening in our country as the twenty-first century unfold. The Department of Commerce report currently shows nearly 68,000,000 Americans receiving some form of government assistance NOT including the 70,000,000 on Medicaid. Current employment figures in the US from 2016 show that there are 125 million or so who are working 35 hours or more per week. Think about that. For every two workers, there is someone receiving aid. One fifth of the country gets a Welfare check, with the remaining number receiving some other aid.

Certainly some of the people who receive assistance are supremely worthy of the help. We have handicapped people, hurting people with extraordinary hurdles to overcome, and other special needs citizens. All of us, I believe, want them to have good lives. I know of no one who is indifferent to struggling people. The problem is, there are far too many who simply make more by not working.

Believers were told to be different than the world around them in our value system.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:9, after commanding sexual purity, Paul passed a second command to the believers of Thessalonica – they were to work hard and stay out of other people’s business as part of their testimony (4:9-12). He wrote:

1 Thessalonians 4:9 Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you… 10 …But we urge you, brethren, to excel still more, 11 and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, 12 so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.

It may astound modern Christians to know that Paul intended believers to get a job, work in that job and avoid making other people pay their way. In fact, the Apostle made the point that a believer’s ability to take care of others and live quietly at work was very much a part of their Christian faith. We need not meddle from the pulpit; we have Scripture before us that challenges any who would see a way around work as God’s plan.

It is true that there are disabilities that need to be taken into account – but I suggest this is an extreme much less frequent than claimed – even by believers. We cannot enshrine laziness in some kind of reward system and expect anything less than an increasing number of unproductive people. When there is a true need, a believer is not wrong to access the provision for that need – but we must be very wary here of expecting others to pay our way through life.

Some people seem unsure of a truth: Life is hard. Work is not always fun. Since the expulsion from the garden every job was given its weeds. We must be careful to check any thinking that would argue that everyone has it easier than we do. In many, if not most cases, some of our difficulty was added by our own earlier life choices. To sit and let the world go by expecting someone else to meet our need is foolish. That was Solomon’s point.

Fourth, there was the problem of HYPER HELPERS.

Have you ever been with someone who is “hyperactive” and cannot stop? Some people cannot find contentment. They just don’t know when to take a break. Solomon noticed them when he wrote:

Ecclesiastes 4:6 One hand full of rest is better than two fists full of labor and striving after wind.

We saw above that we aren’t supposed to be LAZY. At the same time, God nowhere expects us to be always BUSY. Solomon made that point by praising rest. There is a time when we would get further ahead if we stopped working, walked away, and rested for a bit. Have you found that to be true?

A number of years ago I met a man who was retired from a very demanding and responsible position. I thought he was a great friend, and enjoyed his company. When we together, he would always talk about how extremely busy he was, and how it was hard for him to fit everything in his day. After a time, I began to discern the man’s self-worth hung on his busy schedule. He lived such a stress-filled life on the job, he barely found time to think. Now, in retirement, he only felt significant if he was in demand. To do that, he filled his schedule with more that he could possibly do. When he was over his head with commitments, he felt important. Solomon argued that wasn’t the right way to live.

Can I lovingly but pointedly share something with those of you who are hyper workers. You make the rest of us CRAZY. We like to take a break. We don’t always want to be ON. Some of the people I have met in this world are wrapped SO tight, particularly at election time that people get tired just standing next to them. I saw a post the other day that said: “It has gotten to the place at work where I am employed to pay for the prescriptions I now require to cope with working here!” We would like to ask you to settle down a bit. The sun will come up tomorrow or the Son will come in the clouds.

I know this kind of talk is strange. Church is a place where we talk about values and responsibilities, but seldom about rest. For reasons that are still fuzzy to me, Christianity lost a very important Jewish component of rest and celebration. We seem to know how to instruct you to do hard things, but not easy. We can help you be serious and stern – but not to be jubilant and celebratory.

Let me ask you directly: Do you know how to really REST? Do you know how to be quiet, both outside and inside? Are you able to disconnect from the electronic world and stop worrying for a bit? Solomon would tell you to get some rest, and quit thinking you are indispensable. The world will make it for a few days if you step off the treadmill.

Fifth, he observed those with SENSELESS STRESS.

In addition to the hyper, he noticed some people who seem to lead lives of purposeless labor. They don’t stop to ask why they are still pressing so hard when there really isn’t a reason to do it all. Solomon wrote:

Ecclesiastes 4:7 Then I looked again at vanity under the sun. 8 There was a certain man without a dependent, having neither a son nor a brother, yet there was no end to all his labor. Indeed, his eyes were not satisfied with riches and he never asked, “And for whom am I laboring and depriving myself of pleasure?” This too is vanity and it is a grievous task.

Reading these words, several things are unclear about the man he referred to in the verses. Was the man without a dependent and alone in the world because he didn’t make a priority out of people in life? Certainly, there are those in our society that make their life entirely about their job. On closer inspection, it seems to me Solomon is lamenting people who work to reach another goal long after they need to move past setting new work goals. Work is a part of life – but it isn’t all of life.

Just as I am duty-bound to encourage and exhort those who are not working to GET BUSY, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that some of you are overstaying your welcome at work. Go home. Learn to enjoy the people in your life. There was a stage in all our lives where our friends were mainly our co-workers. That is fine for a time. If that is still true decades later, you may want to consider what life looks like after the job!

My children will tell you the difference between the people who know their father well and those who know me in my work life. Some people think I spend all of my time steeped in books and ancient manuscripts thinking about the Bible and the depths of the universe. I admit to being a bit of a geek, nerd or whatever term best expresses my strange fascination with the ancient world. At the same time, I love art. I love history. My life is enriched by beautiful music. I can sit on my porch and watch birds dance in the wind. I can play with a grandchild and be fascinated by their ever-growing view of the world. I love the grace of the ballet, but I can take joy from watching the tractor make straight furrows in the fields. I love the depth of the sound of the cello and the smell of a chocolate smothered dessert. I like to clean and shoot guns and I like to sit in a rocking chair and read books. Museums fascinate me. My kids know I am not always reading the Bible and staring at Heaven thinking theological thoughts… I love my work, but it is a part of my life. God has enriched my life with much more.

OK, enough of me. Here is the point: Not everything is dire and serious. Not every moment needs to be an intense moment sternly gazing as watchmen at the failing world around us. Not every day needs a new attainment goal. Pushing yourself is great. At the same time, the bow always bent is easily broken.

Take some time to assess whether you are working in areas that honor and please the Lord and grow your soul, or whether you are just doing what you have always done. When my soul shrinks, my mouth gets negative, and my heart gets sour. Feed your soul. Solomon advised: Take the time to see the reasons behind your labors, or your labors will be all you have to look forward to in life.

Sixth, he noticed some LONE WOLF WORKERS.

There are many people who don’t really know why the rest of us are here. They don’t see the need to get along and become a part of a group. They relish the lone approach and prefer to accomplish everything alone. Solomon observed:

Ecclesiastes 4:9 Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. 10 For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. 11 Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? 12 And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.

The king made the observation that we can accomplish more on a team then by ourselves. Help is nearer; and fear if farther off. Comfort is swifter, and our strength is greater. It is better to join forces than to stand alone.

Sometimes it takes someone special to understand the value of being together…

A youth minister was attending a Special Olympics where handicapped children competed with tremendous dedication & enthusiasm. One event was the 220 yard dash. Contestants lined up at the starting line, & at the signal, started running as fast as they could. One boy by the name of Andrew quickly took the lead, & was soon about 50 yards ahead of everybody else. As he approached the final turn he looked back & saw that his best friend had fallen & hurt himself on the track. Andrew stopped & looked at the finish line. Then he looked back at his friend. People were hollering, “Run, Andrew, run!” But he didn’t. He went back & got his friend, helped him up, brushed off the cinders. And hand in hand, they crossed the finish line dead last. But as they did, the people cheered, because there are some things more important than finishing first. (Sermon Central Illustrations).

Let me get straight to Solomon’s point: You need people. If you don’t know that, the day will come when you will wish you had someone calling on your phone, but you won’t. Make your life about others, and they will feel a loss when you aren’t with them. If they don’t miss you, it may be that you are making the time you do have with them about YOU and not about THEM. Change it while you can.

Seventh, Solomon saw some POLL LED LEADERS.

You cannot help but smile when you read the end of the passage. Solomon observed: Some work only when they are lauded. They do what the polls tell them will be accepted. They don’t lead – they follow. Solomon said it this way:

Ecclesiastes 4:13 A poor yet wise lad is better than an old and foolish king who no longer knows how to receive instruction.

In other words: a “street smart” kid sometimes knows better than a king that stopped being perceptive.

Ecclesiastes 4:14 For he has come out of prison to become king, even though he was born poor in his kingdom.

That ruler who stopped learning above may have started in poverty, but he learned to carefully escape it, and should see better what is happening.

Ecclesiastes 4:15 I have seen all the living under the sun throng to the side of the second lad who replaces him. 16 There is no end to all the people, to all who were before them, and even the ones who will come later will not be happy with him, for this too is vanity and striving after wind.

Solomon continued: If that king opened his eyes, he would see how easily people are discontented and looking for the prince to replace him on the throne after him. He will find it impossible to keep the people happy with him. His ending observation was: “Live to be popular and you will never be able to go beyond the crowd. People who are fixed on what others think cannot lead them well.”

The man was a king. He was supposed to be a leader. He was supposed to take what he learned as he climbed into the position of leadership and use it to better those he led. He should have learned along the path of life this critical lesson: You cannot, cannot, cannot make everyone happy. You just can’t. A fallen world will not be governed into peaceful bliss. The selfishness that permeates our broken state will cause strife. James said: We fight outside because of a war inside us. In the end, as we step into the coming week, we must remember, without God – life means nothing. Governments can’t fix that. Candidates can’t heal what is broken in our world. Let me close with this story I read recently to drive home some of Solomon’s enduring point…

A little boy is on the beach. On his knees he scoops and packs the sand with plastic shovels into a bright red bucket. Then he upends the bucket on the surface and lifts it. And, to the delight of the little architect, a castle tower is created. “All afternoon he will work. Spooning out the moat. Packing the walls. Bottle tops will be sentries. Popsicle sticks will be bridges. A sandcastle will be built. “Big city. Busy streets. Rumbling traffic. “A man in his office. At his desk he shuffles papers into stacks and delegates assignments. He cradles the phone on his shoulder and punches the keyboard with his fingers. Numbers are juggled and contracts are signed and much to the delight of the man, a profit is made. “All his life he will work. Formulating the plans. Forecasting the future. Annuities will be sentries. Capital gains will be bridges. An empire will be built. “Two builders of two castles. They have much in common.

They shape granules into grandeurs. They see nothing and make something. They are diligent and determined. And for both the tide will rise and the end will come. “Yet that is where the similarities cease.

…For the boy sees the end while the man ignores it. Watch the boy as the dusk approaches. “As the waves near, the wise child jumps to his feet and begins to clap. There is no sorrow. No fear. No regret. He knew this would happen. He is not surprised. And when the great breaker crashes into his castle and his masterpiece is sucked into the sea, he smiles. He smiles, picks up his tools, takes his father’s hand, and goes home.

“The grownup, however, is not so wise. As the wave of years collapses on his castle he is terrified. He hovers over the sandy monument to protect it. He blocks the waves from the walls he has made. Salt-water soaked and shivering he snarls at the incoming tide. “‘It’s my castle,’ he defies. “The ocean need not respond. Both know to whom the sand belongs… “And I don’t know much about sandcastles. But children do. Watch them and learn. Go ahead and build, but build with a child’s heart. When the sun sets and the tides take — applaud. Salute the process of life, take your Father’s hand and go home” (Max Lucado, More Stories for the Heart (Multnomah: Sisters, Oregon, 1997), 224-225. From a sermon by Eric Lenhart, Seasons of Life, 8/16/2010).

The Search is Over: “The Secret to Grasping the Meaning of Life” – Ecclesiastes 3

douglas_adams_portrait_croppedThe author Douglas Adams died in 2001 at age 49 of a heart attack. He was an interesting man – a radical atheist, environmentalist, and a thinker, who wrote the popular book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, along with a number of TV shows and “Dr. Who” episodes in the UK. In the heart of the Hitchhiker’s Guide novel, he added what became a central joke to the book’s plot (if you can call the book plotted at all) which has perhaps become more famous over the years than anything else in the book. The simple quote that expressed the joke is this: “The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is 42.” Are you puzzled? The writer explained this all-important number was calculated by an enormous supercomputer named “Deep Thought” over a period of 7.5 million years. It was a grand answer! If you are puzzled as to its meaning – so was everyone else, for no one knew what specific question the number answered. As a result, the novel suggested a special computer the size of a small planet was built from organic components and named “Earth” with the prime purpose to calculate the Ultimate Question. In classic British humor fashion, Adams showed that we have the answer, but not the question. What followed was almost cult-like. Some, with too much time on their hands, wasted years and significant effort trying to ascribe cryptic significance to the number 42 and its occurrences. In 2011, one author published a well-researched work on the uses of 42 and its symbolic meanings by great authors and thinkers, like Lewis Carroll, the writer of Alice in Wonderland. Some seemed desperate to find a deep meaning behind the number Adams inserted as a joke. When asked, Adams explained the number. “The answer to this is very simple,” Adams said. “It was a joke. It had to be a number, an ordinary, smallish number, and I chose that one. Binary representations, base 13, Tibetan monks are all complete nonsense. I sat on my desk, stared in to the garden and thought 42 will do. I typed it out. End of story.”

In spite of the fact the writer claimed he simply “made it up” – people searched the novel for something deeper. Scores of young people still associate 42 as “the humorous answer” to a question they are searching for – though only a few are serious in that search today. Many won’t recall the novel from which the question came, but they know the answer…42.

I want to take you to another book – this one not comedy, not mysticism, and not fiction. In fact, the insights you find in its pages are so raw, they will change you – yet they are often overlooked by modern readers on the search for meaning. The author of this book was a king, and reputed to be the most serious intellectual of his time. I suspect if King Solomon were here today, he may object to Adam’s number this way: “The meaning of life isn’t found in a number – it is found in a box. Consider this: Life’s meaning can only be discovered when the query is placed in a specific context. Apart from that, life simply won’t make sense, let alone have a cohesive meaning.” That is a truth offered by Solomon for our lesson today.

Before we unpack that truth, let’s recall where we have been in our study so far…

We called the first lesson from this interesting book of wisdom: “Discovering the Painful Truth.” In that walk through the opening chapters of the book, we noted that after searching the world for meaning, Solomon noted that he was forced to admit the meaning of life simply cannot be found here. The author searched high and low, experimented vigorously, and could not find the answer to the meaning of life HERE. It was only when he looked beyond this world, high into the heavens and well beyond the sun – the answer was found. To a Jesus follower, that insight makes sense without much need to expound on it. Yet, in the world around us, the search for meaning in the material world seems like it continues unabated as people continue the ancient quest for life’s meaning and significance apart from any notion of a Creator and His plan. If we are honest, we will note that increasingly our world resists the idea of a Creator – at least One Who places any controls, rules or expectations on us. They seek freedom from constraint, but cannot find so much as the meaning for the quest itself. The frustration of the venture was an important feature of the opening two chapters.

This book was a series of public addresses by a Koheleth (a preacher or public orator) given to expose a flawed view of life, and open the hearers to a proper perspective. In the opening words, Solomon exposed the emptiness of academic rationalism and experiential empiricism apart from the revelation of truth from the Creator. He said, in other words, “Life’s experiences and greatest insights are empty when not flooded with God’s truth! (Ecclesiastes 1:1-2:26).

As he continued in the third chapter, he began to carefully examine the problem of “how to properly measure depth and meaning in our lives.” Does my life matter? Am I diluting myself when I claim I mean more than my century journey through this world? (3:1-22). The Koheleth offered several essential observations that expose the answer. In essence, the passage offers this truth…

Key Principle: Life is a wonder and a joy – but only when placed in the right context. I won’t know it if I don’t frame it properly.

The beginning is familiar, poetic, pretty and (if you think of it) profoundly passive. He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 3:1 There is an appointed time for everything. And there is a time for every event under heaven— 2 A time to give birth and a time to die; A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted. 3 A time to kill and a time to heal; A time to tear down and a time to build up. 4 A time to weep and a time to laugh; A time to mourn and a time to dance. 5 A time to throw stones and a time to gather stones; A time to embrace and a time to shun embracing. 6 A time to search and a time to give up as lost; A time to keep and a time to throw away. 7 A time to tear apart and a time to sew together; A time to be silent and a time to speak. 8 A time to love and a time to hate; A time for war and a time for peace.

In effect, Solomon offered this observation: I have concluded that everything in life has a specific time and place, sometimes referred to as a “season” (3:1-8). On the surface, that seems an obvious truth. To some, especially coming off his experimental search in Ecclesiastes 1 and 2; it sounds a bit like surrender to a fatalistic world view – but it is NOT. To others who have journeyed the planet for some time, it seems like he was indicating “there are seasons to life.”

Hang out on Earth for fifty or so years, and if you are at all observant, you will learn that life truly does pass by in “seasons.” Things that are vital in one part of life are discarded when we enter another season. Life changes. Our desires change. Our sense of who we are changes.

Consider a little girl you may have known for a moment. She began life with big dreams and the desire to be the princess to her own version of a handsome young prince. Time passes, school days give way to summer nights, which make way for high school and perhaps even college classes. Eventually, she meets her choice for a life partner. They marry. She bears several children. After a short time, her life passes from her dreams to caring for and stewarding their dreams. A few decades slip by, and those children graduate and head out into the world. One day, she awakens from the long and arduous work of managing a family, and the bedrooms are empty and children are gone. The seasons have changed.

Solomon seems like he is saying, “Stuff happens. I am one little boat in a vast ocean, and I don’t control much of what happens around me, and often even to me.” That isn’t an unrealistic insight; that’s a fact. At the same time, that isn’t all he is trying to say. Look at the words more closely.

It is true. Life moves past me and my part is relatively small.

Solomon observed: There is an appointed time, only because there is One Who makes the appointments. Life has seasons, because life has a “Director of time.” Someone has the controls, but it is not me. Life is not unplanned – the problem is I don’t make, regulate or even know the whole plan.

The old king watched life, and remarked, “There is a day when a child is ready to be born, and when an old man breathes his last.” Things have a beginning and an end. Because they are happening all around us, we tend to focus only on one at a time. As I sat in the hospital with my father after his heart surgery – tubes and wires launching in every direction from his body – we remarked about the periodic music over the sound system that indicated a newborn had just been delivered in the other wing of the hospital. He was being repaired to stay with us, and a new one had just joined life’s journey.

As Solomon looked to the terraces and fields around him, Solomon recalled, “The planting seasons aren’t my choice – the ground and weather determine them.” So much of our life is WORK, and that season is a never-ending flow of projects that are mostly determined by conditions we didn’t cause. The roof needs to be replaced, the door hinge has loosened, the boss is expecting another quarterly report…

Still looking at the farm life around his kingdom, Solomon noted: “The cycle of life determines when I must pull up the old vines and fruit trees, because they don’t bear much anymore. There is a time when the old mare needs to be put down, and another when her foal needs to have his wounds bound for healing. The day finally arrives when the old barn needs to be felled, and the new one erected over the land.

A little time on Earth and it will become perfectly obvious: things change. Nothing here lasts very long.

Sometimes that is a good thing – there are moments that our broken heart pushes tears out of our eyes without any ability to shut them off. There are dark days and nights of seemingly unbearable pain, where loss drops a curtain of darkness over my heart for a time,

Sometimes life brings the very opposite. I simply wish that single moment wouldn’t end! There are other times I can barely catch my breath in fits of uncontrolled laughter, as I fall down crying joyful tears, unable to shake the funny thing I just saw or hear. There are grand vistas from beautiful peaks that when experienced open our heart to praise and nearly get our feet dancing. Solomon passed through all of these seasons.

He said, “When the rocks ruin the long plowed furrows, we know they must be plucked from the field and tossed aside.” Sometimes things that never bothered us become a problem to us – and that problem cannot be left alone. Other times, when the rock fence barrier has collapsed and needs rebuilt, we recognize the need to carefully gather each stone to set them one on the other.

What happens with rocks also happens with people. There are times you need them close. You lean on them. You cannot imagine facing life for another day without them. Then, there are times when you must do things alone. They cannot and should not help you. They are living their life, and you are doing what YOU should do.

There are seasons when we are working toward a goal, seeking something. There are other times when we recognize the need to give up on the goal. Endless striving will break any man.

Wisely, Solomon noted: “There are times when we are filling our house with new things. It seems like we need and need and need. Then there are times when our house has become far too full, and much of what we have we no longer truly need. We call these times: “yard sale” season.

There are things we have built or fabricated that had a seasonal purpose. They served us well, but now look like an old piece of junk. We need to know when it is time to part with those old treasures. They can’t follow us beyond this life, and no one else is attached to them.

As he winds down his list, Solomon noted, “Sometimes we should speak. We should offer help. We should share our experience. In another season, we learn that is not helpful. We sit silently with a hurting friend, and no longer feel the need to observe how their choices led them to this pain. We just hold their hand and cry with them. It is what they truly need, and the choices cannot be undone. The time for a lesson is past. The time for warmth and love is now.

Solomon closed his observations with this, “There is a time when you must walk away from a relationship and build new ones.”

In his wisdom and by God’s grace, he faced what some of you have been forced to face –

• We cannot fix people.
• We cannot make takers become givers.
• We cannot help those who do not truly desire to be helped.

Sometimes we find that our help is enabling them to bypass growth and continue harmful patterns. Sometimes we need to close that door – as hard as it is to do.

Because there are those who do not want what is right, there is a time when we may be forced to fight. We don’t seek trouble or strife, but we may not have any choice. We cannot surrender the weak around us to lies. We cannot stand idly by as evil men crush tender hearts. We have a duty greater than maintaining the peace at all costs.

Each of Solomon’s observations are important, and we could spend hours searching the meanings of each line. At the same time, the truth that life changes and seasons pass by can leave us with a nagging thought…

Since I am small, does my life really matter? (3:9).

Ecclesiastes 3:9 What profit is there to the worker from that in which he toils?

Solomon’s question could be simpler put, “What’s the point?” or perhaps, “Do I matter?” If I am going to spend life on this planet working, searching, and observing the seasons of change – does it count for anything?

Thankfully, Solomon does more than ask – he pours out some important components toward constructing the answer.

To discover meaning, life must be placed in context.

First, he explained what he learned having searched before us. He said, “The way I learned to identify a small piece of the plan (i.e. the part God gave me to do) was by recognizing God is the One Who weaves each life into a whole plan (3:10-11a). He said it this way,

Ecclesiastes 3:10 I have seen the task which God has given the sons of men with which to occupy themselves. 11 He has made everything appropriate in its time…

Solomon made sense of life by setting his experiences and seasons in the context of God’s plan. There is a TIMER and SEASON MAKER in the heavens. He said: “I set the seasons of life inside His control – and that was the beginning of making sense of life.

The Bible declares, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; Fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7). A little later, it makes plain, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10). Despite what you may have heard in our modern academies of learning, knowing God is the beginning of knowing everything else that matters.

Solomon found that knowledge in itself, knowledge within a naturalist system devoid of reverence for the Creator – was a waste and a depressing exercise. It got him nowhere and left him empty. He made that perfectly clear in Ecclesiastes 1.
Ecclesiastes 1:18 Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.

The wise man wasn’t arguing that stupidity is to be prized and learning was to be shunned. He was explaining that in the process of unfolding his search for meaning, he discovered in the depths of learning what could be sussed out by observation and examination. The issue wasn’t what he searched, or the methods he used. The issue was the CONTEXT of his search.

Life must be understood in the context of eternal purpose and an intelligent and deliberate plan by our Creator. A random existence leads to a purposeless world and a depressing emptiness.

To discover meaning, we need to be more perceptive.

Second, Solomon made clear the search was embedded within our hearts. If we are honest, we will admit we instinctively know we were made for more than the short century of our time on Earth. God inserted that little bit of information into our DNA. I believe that is the greatest reason why naturalism is fighting a constant battle in the science classroom. People may not WANT a God, because they don’t want accountability, but they KNOW something is wrong with the idea that everything got here by itself without any intelligent design or intent. We may not know all that we want to know, but we know this isn’t all there is. We just have to learn to hear what God wrote into our hearts. We were made for eternity. We were made for HIM. Solomon wrote:

Ecclesiastes 3:11b …He has also set eternity in their heart, yet so that man will not find out the work which God has done from the beginning even to the end.

The term “set” is “nawthan” from which we take the name “Nathan.” It is the word for giving a gift, or setting something in place for someone else. The deep inner longing for Heaven and more than our time on Earth is a gift of God. It isn’t meant to confuse or frustrate us – it is meant to help us by making clear that things may not be fair on this broken planet – but one day they will be set right. That adds some level of peace to our struggle with inequity as we make the journey through life.

To discover meaning, we shouldn’t get lost in the search.

Some people can’t begin to believe unless they understand every facet of everything. That is like a man who won’t get in the car until he fully grasps a combustion engine. Solomon’s third observation was this: “I must not consume myself with questions that have no answer in the here and now (3:12 a), but rather should give myself to the joy of living in His goodness (3:12b). He wrote,

Ecclesiastes 3:12 I know that there is nothing better for them than to rejoice and to do good in one’s lifetime; 13 moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor—it is the gift of God.

Some people don’t get this truth. Perhaps a little illustration will help…

Imagine you got a letter in the mail and attached to it was a check from a foundation – but you never heard of them before. If you are at all in touch with the way things are in our world, you would be suspicious. You might call a friend. You may even check out the foundation on the internet. Let’s say you do all of that, and you discover they are a philanthropic organization, and are quite legitimate. You look at the check carefully. Then you read the note. The message makes plain that you have been selected to take your spouse to a Tuscan farm in Italy, and spend a few weeks enjoying life. The check is sufficient for you to buy the air tickets that suit you best, rent a car when you arrive, and all other expenses, including your meals in fabulous restaurants. You will be fully cared for upon your arrival. You check the internet again, and discover dozens of people who received over the past decade a similar letter and check, and you see their fun-filled pictures. You read their reviews carefully – and the whole thing seems to be exactly as presented. You deposit the check, wait for it to clear and buy your tickets. You make your plans, and arrive in Fiumicino airport near Rome to rent your car. What should you do with your time? Would you spend the whole time pretending you are Tom Hanks in a Dan Brown novel and try to discover the “real reason” behind the gift? Would you just decide to accept the gift and go and enjoy it? Solomon’s point was that once he was clear on the fact that life only made sense when viewed as a gift from God, he reckoned the right response was to stop trying to figure out God and accept the gift the Creator gave in his life. He stopped trying to figure out God, and started to celebrate His goodness.

Solomon’s point was that each of us should enjoy the gift of life God gave – to work and to accomplish (3:13)! The very act of living is cause for celebration. The daily opportunity to work is a wonder created for us by a God Who knows what will make us full. The act of being creative, whether in art, music, writing or even dramatic expression, is designed to be a sensational experience! There is incredible joy in exploration and learning; all are wondrous gifts from our God.

Let me ask you: Are you conscious of how GOOD God has been to you? Do you stop and thank God for what He has given you? What happened that soured you to tasting the wonder of the gift of your life? Are you happy analyzing endlessly what is wrong with the world? Solomon made the simple point that life doesn’t have to be fully comprehended to be deeply savored.

Let me ask you:

• Are you conscious of how GOOD God has been to you?
• Do you stop and thank God for what He has given you?
• What happened that soured you to tasting the wonder of the gift of your life?
• Are you happy analyzing endlessly what is wrong with the world?

Solomon made the simple point that life doesn’t have to be fully comprehended to be deeply savored.

I get it. I have sat for hours in front of paintings in some of the world’s best galleries. A few months ago, Dottie and I were in Madrid. We stayed in a little apartment across from a world famous art exhibit at Museo Nacional del Prado. One morning, I got a ticket and went across the street to sit and look at paintings in their renown collection. There were some paintings by Albrecht Durer, a few famous pieces by Rubens, some profound scenes from the Bible by Fra Angelico and many others. For about an hour, I sat on a bench and studied a painting by Raphael of the Holy Family. I looked at the blended brush strokes and then focused on the expressions of Joseph, then Mary, then Jesus. It was an opportunity to see through the eyes and hand of a master artist a scene taken as much from his life as from his Bible. I LOVED sitting there. There is a unique joy that can be experienced by quite observation of beauty. The fact that I cannot paint like that only makes it better.

To discover meaning, I have to admit there is only one plan – God’s plan.

God has no real competitors. He is alone in the Heavens, apart from the beings He Himself has made. Because that is true, I must admit that everything in life follows the plan of a Sovereign God, and that He must be revered by us (3:14). God has set seasons and cycles, and I am a part of the flow of that larger plan (3:15). He did it for His own reasons and His own joy. There is no other bigger reason for all of it. Solomon said it this way,

Ecclesiastes 3:14 I know that everything God does will remain forever; there is nothing to add to it and there is nothing to take from it, for God has so worked that men should fear Him. 15 That which is has been already and that which will be has already been, for God seeks what has passed by.

Those observations settled Solomon; they didn’t trouble him. They helped him make sense of the features of life that otherwise wouldn’t have found a place to rest inside him.

To find meaning, we admit that God’s judgment will come to all.

Solomon looked at inequity and the unfair treatment of people here, and found peace by looking to heaven. He wrote,

Ecclesiastes 3:16 Furthermore, I have seen under the sun that in the place of justice there is wickedness and in the place of righteousness there is wickedness. 17 I said to myself, “God will judge both the righteous man and the wicked man,” for a time for every matter and for every deed is there.

To the naturalist, every tragedy comes down to “bad luck.” There is no plan. Where is their help in the NICU as the life signs of the infant slip away? What sense can they make of that child’s life? Seriously, can an atheist encourage you after a fire wipes you home off the map, taking some of your beloved family?

Their message is simple: You and I are elegant viruses randomly mutated from stardust, meaning nothing. When tragedy strikes, they are forced to throw up their hands and say, “That’s the way it goes sometimes?” That very approach erodes the importance of life. It solves nothing for the person who was raped, the faithful spouse who felt the sting of a cheater, or the man who spoke truth, only to be rejected by his friends.

Knowing a judgment comes is a comfort to those who have been hurt by injustice. Men may measure each other by the color of their skin – but God is righteous. Men may allow injustice and buy off a jury – but there will come a day when all will be made known… and that is a GOOD THING. It adds back the missing resolve to an unfair world.

To find meaning, I must recall that life here is temporary – but here is not all there is.

Solomon closed the passage and pondered the end of both men and animals (3:18). He observed that, in a way, people here are temporary, like every living creature on earth. They are born, live a short time, and then pass away from the scene. He wrote,

Ecclesiastes 3:18 I said to myself concerning the sons of men, “God has surely tested them in order for them to see that they are but beasts.” 19 For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. 20 All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust.

That’s true. We are like animals in the natural sense. Our body is temporary – but even that is mercy! Our life is transient. Our journey passes like the morning dew. At the same time, our death in this body is not our final moment. Solomon finished his observations with two questions that one must rightly answer to find meaning. The first is a “who knows” question.

Ecclesiastes 3:21 Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth?

Here is the point of the question: If I cannot discern the difference between the temporary nature of the animal and the eternal nature of man, I cannot grasp the meaning of life. This is the essential question of our day.

If life is only material, and there is no deliberate Creator – we have no meaning. There is no purpose. If your life is cut short by someone else’s cruelty or negligence – too bad. Life isn’t fair. There is no answer. Dogs die. People get raped. Get over it. This is all there is. Accomplish much – it won’t matter. Nothing really does.

Don’t despair, we aren’t done. Solomon has one more observation that will bring peace.

To find meaning, I need to trust God knows what I don’t.

Solomon cannot leave his flock in despair – because that wouldn’t get his hearers understanding of the truth. He finished with these words,

Ecclesiastes 3:22 I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him?

Solomon reminded his hearers of this truth: there is One that sees beyond this life and knows the difference, and that is God Himself. He knows what I don’t know. I can’t figure out how all of this complicated life ends up making sense – but He knows. He is the Master of history, but also of the future. My fate is in His plans. Because that is true, the best thing I can do is focus on the things God has put in my life to work at and change, and receive each day as His gift for my part of the bigger circle of life. He alone can know the truth of my life and contribution.


Life is a wonder and a joy – but only when placed in the right context. I won’t know it if I don’t frame it properly.

Don’t fault God for the confusion… it came because of our rebellion against Him in the Garden. Before that, Adam and Eve DAILY had His presence to celebrate during their cool morning strolls through their home garden. It was sin that caused the break and gave us both the distance from God, and the confusion of trying to find meaning without Him. In the time chosen by God, Jesus came.

Jesus didn’t come to Earth to make the bored happy; He came to make the broken whole. He came to put back the context into which we find meaning. Happiness is the byproduct of restoration to God. Strangely enough, happiness in this life is not the primary goal – meaning is. With His coming, Jesus didn’t remove us from the struggles of life; He joined us on our journey through each one. The result is not a ‘care free’ life, but a caring Companion to lead us through the darkest hours. Following where He leads restores purpose, and that provides meaning.

Howard Culbertson (of Nazarene Missions) wrote a story that should help us see this truth:

In 1904 William Borden graduated from a Chicago high school. As heir to the Borden family fortune, he was already wealthy. For his high school graduation present, his parents gave 16-year-old Borden a trip around the world. As the young man traveled through Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, he felt a growing burden for the world’s hurting people. Finally, Bill Borden wrote home about his “desire to be a missionary.”1 One friend expressed disbelief that Bill was “throwing himself away as a missionary.” In response, Borden wrote two words in the back of his Bible: “No reserves.” Even though young Borden was wealthy, he arrived on the campus of Yale University in 1905 trying to look like just one more freshman. Very quickly, however, Borden’s classmates noticed something unusual about him and it wasn’t that he had lots of money. One of them wrote, “He came to college far ahead, spiritually, of any of us. He had already given his heart in full surrender to Christ and had really done it. We who were his classmates learned to lean on him and find in him a strength that was solid as a rock, just because of this settled purpose and consecration.”2 During his college years, Bill Borden made an entry in his personal journal that defined what his classmates were seeing in him. That entry said simply, “Say ‘no’ to self and ‘yes’ to Jesus every time.”3 … During his first semester at Yale, Borden started something that would transform campus life. One of his friends described how it began. “It was well on in the first term when Bill and I began to pray together in the morning before breakfast. … We had been meeting only a short time when a third student joined us and soon after a fourth. Borden’s small morning prayer group gave birth to a movement that soon spread across the campus. By the end of his first year, 150 freshmen were meeting weekly for Bible study and prayer. By the time Bill Borden was a senior, one thousand of Yale’s 1,300 students were meeting in such groups. Borden made it his habit to seek out the most “incorrigible” students and try to bring them to salvation. …Borden’s outreach ministry was not confined to the Yale campus. He cared about widows and orphans and the disabled. He rescued drunks from the streets of New Haven. To try to rehabilitate them, he founded the Yale Hope Mission. One of Bill Borden’s friends wrote that he “might often be found in the lower parts of the city at night, on the street, in a cheap lodging house or some restaurant to which he had taken a poor hungry fellow to feed him, seeking to lead men to Christ.”7 Borden’s missionary call narrowed to the Muslim Kansu people in China. Once he fixed his eyes on that goal, Borden never wavered. He also challenged his classmates to consider missionary service. … Upon graduation from Yale, Borden turned down some high-paying job offers. In his Bible, he wrote two more words: “No retreats.” William Borden went on to do graduate work at Princeton Seminary in New Jersey. When he finished his studies at Princeton, he sailed for China. Because he was hoping to work with Muslims, he stopped first in Egypt to study Arabic. While there, he contracted spinal meningitis. Within a month, 25-year-old William Borden was dead. When the news of William Whiting Borden’s death was cabled back to the U.S., the story was carried by nearly every American newspaper. “A wave of sorrow went round the world . . . Borden not only gave (away) his wealth, but himself, in a way so joyous and natural that it (seemed) a privilege rather than a sacrifice” wrote Mary Taylor in her introduction to his biography.10 Was Borden’s untimely death a waste? Not in God’s perspective. Prior to his death, Borden had written two more words in his Bible. Underneath the words “No reserves” and “No retreats,” he had written: “No regrets.”

1 Taylor, Mrs. Howard. Borden of Yale ’09. (Philadelphia: China Inland Mission, 1926, page 75)
2 Ibid. page 98
3 Ibid. page 122
4 Ibid. page 90
5 Ibid. page 97
6 Ibid. page 150
7 Ibid. page 148
8 Ibid. page 149
9 Ibid. page 149
10 Ibid. page ix

The Search is Over: “Discovering the Painful Truth” – Ecclesiastes 1-2

u2It seems that every generation has a writer, whether lyricist or poet, who expresses another form of the same thought: “We were made for more and we know by the yearning inside that doesn’t seem to find fulfillment in the things of this earth.” From Augustine to C.S. Lewis, from Bono to the Rolling Stones – this truth has re-emerged every few decades. For my generation, it was probably most profound in the words of the Irish rock group “U2” in their song “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for” from their 1987 album. The song has been critically acclaimed and is considered one of the best of that era. Bono’s hard-pressed vocals are one reason, to be sure. Yet, there is something more enduring about the song than just outstanding vocal parts. It seems the song lands on a deep sentiment embedded in most all its hearers: we have a deep inner itch for something this world doesn’t seem to scratch. The song bellows into the night about the reality that the bard has experienced much of life – but he still hasn’t found the experience that could satisfy his deepest longing.

He laments the fact that ultimate satisfaction doesn’t seem attainable in this world. His choice is to cynically give up, or keep searching.

The thought isn’t original to the lyricist, but it is a truth that strikes a cord, over and over, in every place it is exposed. C.S. Lewis articulated the same idea in his book Mere Christianity, where he framed one of his many arguments for the existence of God upon on our dissatisfied state as it regards our deepest longing. Listen to his basic argument:

A baby feels hunger; well there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Book III, chap. 10).

Lewis’s argument was reframed by the philosopher Peter Kreeft this way:

Every natural innate desire corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire, but there exists in us a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth and no creature can satisfy. Therefore there must exist something more than time, earth, and creatures which can satisfy this desire. This something is what people call “God” and “life with God forever.” (Peter Kreeft & Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL, 1994), pp. 78-81, also see his “The Argument from Desire” on (accessed Jan. 1, 2006).

This isn’t a new idea at all.

• In the Confessions, St. Augustine said it this way: “Thou, O Lord hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee

• The philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal offered it this way: “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.

“All that is well and good,” you say. “But, we didn’t come here for a philosophy lecture!” My response is, “Perhaps you did!” As you open your Bible to the book of Ecclesiastes, you will find the Hebrew title shows up in the first verse, and it suggests an oration from a philosophical mind, albeit one filled by the Spirit of God. The book opens:

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

The term Qoheleth is translated preacher, and refers to an orator of important truths. In a sense, what you will learn today is the conclusions of an incredible mind that searched carefully for an answer. In another sense, you will be listening to words that dropped from God’s very heart onto the page.

I should warn you about the truth you are about to hear, to help ease the sting of it. Bono, Augustine and Pascal all agreed with Solomon. They all shared a truth that is not at all fun to encounter until you have found the resolution to the problems it presents. That truth is…

Key Principle: After searching the world for meaning – we have to admit it cannot be found here. Life has meaning; it just isn’t clear without Heaven’s perspective.

In a nutshell, the truth is: If you are a deeply reflective person, you can’t find lasting satisfaction on the earth – it isn’t here. It exists, and you can find it – but you have to look where it is, and not where it is not.

S0000146 School of Athens--detail of Plato and Aristotle. Image licenced to Kathy Nakamura ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA by Kathy Nakamura Usage : - 3000 X 3000 pixels (Letter Size, A4) © Scala / Art ResourceThis problem has plagued deep thinkers for ages. My favorite picture is in the Raphael Room of the Vatican Museum, and is called the “School of Athens”. It is a graphic illustration of the search for truth, meaning and significance. The two men walking in the center recall Plato (the older) and Aristotle. Because Aristotle trusted observation and empiricism over all things, he points to the earth, claiming that TRUTH is found by observation of things physical. Because Plato found truth in the metaphysical, he is pointing to the Heavens. The tension between the two was well known even long ago. Solomon had long before settled the issue, but the two walking Greek philosophers weren’t exposed to God’s Word concerning the place to find what you are looking for. We have that opportunity as we look into the record Solomon left for us…


Solomon opened with his Observation of a Key Truth (1:1-3)

1:1 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 advantage does man have in all his work, Which he does under the sun?

Solomon pursued many things in his life – just as we all do. For most of us, our first pursuit is the quest to get our thumb into our mouth! As we grow, our quest expands to being able to use a bathroom dependably, and (some time later) to learn to drive. Life is filled with quests, accomplishments and struggles to get what we want. Underlying the quests of fortune, fame, power or pleasure, there is a singular pursuit – that of MEANING.

Without meaning, the other ends just keep us busy on the way, without any unifying significance.

The truth is: If you really think about it, you know you were made for more than what is on this earth, and what can be experienced in a mere century in an ever-flawed body. Your life wasn’t designed to fleet by without purpose – it was designed to MEAN something. Solomon’s opening doesn’t sound all that inspiring!

First, let’s get our mind around who the writer of the original record was.

• He was a Preacher – so he at least thought he had something to share you may need to know.

• He was a King – so he has had more experiences in his collection than many of us can claim. He had the resources to test his hypothesis and time to think about it, because he wasn’t trying to keep children from wandering onto the pool deck or trying to keep his boss happy all week long.

His message: “Life is vain” was probably no more popular in antiquity than today– but his first hearers knew he offered more wisdom and experience than anyone around him.

His premise is tough: “Life under the sun has no meaning.”

No matter what you have heard, he was absolutely right. It doesn’t. Search, and you won’t find it. That is what most people are doing. Don’t get lost in the words…The point of his observation is not that life has no meaning, but that the pursuit of meaning is at the heart of our life, and the answer isn’t found on our century long journey of experiences on a broken earth. That is his key observation that acts as a gift to us.

Listen to the way he groans about the meaningless and monotonous life of a rich and reflective man (Ecclesiastes 1:4-7):

Ecclesiastes 1:4 A generation goes and a generation comes, But the earth remains forever. 5 Also, the sun rises and the sun sets; And hastening to its place it rises there again. 6 Blowing toward the south, Then turning toward the north, The wind continues swirling along; And on its circular courses the wind returns. 7 All the rivers flow into the sea, Yet the sea is not full. To the place where the rivers flow, There they flow again.

Look at his observations:

• People come and go, and the most important people of today will be dust tomorrow.

• The cosmos operates the way it does, and little we do has impact on the process.

• The winds blow and we don’t control them – or much of anything.

• The earth seeps from below, only to rush back to the sea – and little we do changes any of it.

With every breath, you hear it. We don’t seem to count that much. We are here today, and gone tomorrow. That CAN’T be all there is to life!

Solomon continued with the sense of unsatisfied accomplishment (1:8-11).

Ecclesiastes 1:8 All things are wearisome; Man is not able to tell it. The eye is not satisfied with seeing, Nor is the ear filled with hearing. 9 That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun. 10 Is there anything of which one might say, “See this, it is new”? Already it has existed for ages, Which were before us. 11There is no remembrance of earlier things; And also of the later things which will occur, There will be for them no remembrance, Among those who will come later still.

Again, you feel the weightiness behind his words…

• Life is tough and leaves you exhausted.

• No matter what you have, you always want more.

• Nothing seems to change. It is the same problems, generation after generation.

• When we think we have found something new, it shows itself to have all the same issues as the old things we had before. In one way we improve life, and in another we create problems we didn’t once have.

• We work really hard to build something, but it doesn’t last and no one recalls who did all the work anyway!

Our lives slip away and we don’t seem to know why we spent so much, worked so hard, accomplished to much – and then were largely forgotten anyway.

Years ago on a TV show, a guest appeared that was a body builder. As he entered the stage with his huge muscular body the crowd went crazy as the body builder began to flex his muscles and show his power. The first question asked of him was this: “What do you use all those muscles for?” Without answering, the body builder again stood up and began flexing his muscles while the crowd cheered wildly. A second time, the question was asked, “What do you do with those muscles?” Again, the body builder flexed his muscles and the crowd became almost ecstatic. After asking three times, “What do you do with all those muscles?” the body builder just sat in silence. He had no answers. The man was all power but his power had no purpose other than to show off and bring attention to himself.

In the face of what felt like a meaningless life full of unsatisfying accomplishments, Solomon set out on a search for solutions to the apparent lack of meaning (Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:11).

He started by taking the whole pursuit seriously and making a personal commitment to search (Ecclesiastes 1:12-13a)

Ecclesiastes 1:12 “I, the Preacher, have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 And I set my mind to seek and explore by wisdom concerning all that has been done under heaven…”

Note this wasn’t a light approach to find answers. He used rich wisdom and the best apparatus for exploration that was available in his time. He recognized the size of the task, and didn’t offer less than his best focus and effort. At the same time, he knew immediately there were limitations to his search. He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 1:13b “…It is a grievous task which God has given to the sons of men to be afflicted with. 4 I have seen all the works which have been done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and striving after wind. 15 What is crooked cannot be straightened and what is lacking cannot be counted.”

He admitted up front three things:

• The problem of man’s meaning isn’t a simple one.

• The lack of meaning seemed obvious.

• He couldn’t change what was – he could only uncover the truth of what it was.

Solomon began the search with three personal experiments (1:16-2:10)

First, he chose to try to find meaning in the world of learning.

He sought practical knowledge that could lead him to lasting satisfaction (1:16-18). Like many who have sought degrees, one after another, he posited:

Ecclesiastes 1:16 I said to myself, “Behold, I have magnified and increased wisdom more than all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has observed a wealth of wisdom and knowledge.” 17 And I set my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly; I realized that this also is striving after wind. 18 Because in much wisdom there is much grief, and increasing knowledge results in increasing pain.

He said, in effect, I took on the quest through academic learning. I observed, studied, rehearsed and learned. I listened to the grand debates and sought the deep words of the sages – but some of them sounded a bit crazy! Worse yet, the more I knew about life, the worse I felt. As I learned of the depths of the quagmire of humanity, I just got depressed – because I couldn’t fix it all.

Second, he sought to find meaning in physical pleasure and mirth (2:1-3).

He decided to back away from the academics for the Friday night party scene on campus. The booze flowed, and the heaviness washed away a bit…but not for long. He wrote:

Ecclesiastes 2:1 I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure. So enjoy yourself.” And behold, it too was futility. 2 I said of laughter, “It is madness,” and of pleasure, “What does it accomplish?” 3 I explored with my mind how to stimulate my body with wine while my mind was guiding me wisely, and how to take hold of folly, until I could see what good there is for the sons of men to do under heaven the few years of their lives.

Solomon said he launched into pleasure with the gusto of a modern American – but he found it wasn’t a deep and lasting fulfillment. He tried comedians, and they were funny, but the laughter didn’t stay with him long before the reality that fun was fleeting set back in. He looked at the time he spent on the pursuit and felt as guilty as you and I when we blow four hours online with nonsense memes and counted it a wasted afternoon! He thought he would experiment with wine and try to see how much was the right amount to really enjoy life – but he couldn’t find a lasting happiness in it all. He put on weight and had a lot of headaches – and thought this just wasn’t working!

Let’s face it, our natural state is one of dissatisfaction. We were once happy to have a TV with 3 channels, now there are over 500 and we can’t find something to watch! We went from black and white to wide flat screens and we still can’t be happy. They cannot make enough entertainment to make life satisfying. There are only so many rides at the park, only so many flavors of ice cream to savor, and only so many jokes to laugh at. After a while, it all blends together…

Seeing learning and pleasure as wasted time, he decided to build something (2:4-11).

Solomon decided monuments and accomplishments would be his saving grace. He recorded:

Ecclesiastes 2:4 I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; 5 I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; 6 I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves and I had home born slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. 8 Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men—many concubines. 9 Then I became great and increased more than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. My wisdom also stood by me. 10 All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them. I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure, for my heart was pleased because of all my labor and this was my reward for all my labor. 11 Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun.

Look at what he did:

He built houses, farms, gardens, parks, ponds, forests, industries, herds and flocks, fine collections and commodities. He added to his reputation and was in all the best periodicals. He lived a thrilling and fast-paced life on the jet set. Yet, when the lights went out, when the crowds didn’t shout his name, when the last deal was done and the party was over – he felt empty. He didn’t feel full because people wanted to be him. He didn’t feel smart because he experienced so much. There he sat – unsatisfied and tired.

May I ask you something personal? What is it you think that you don’t have that would make you happy? Is it more money, more power, more pleasure, a bigger house, a nicer car, or greater recognition by your peers?

Solomon said you can’t buy find or make what you are seeking! If you found it, you would misuse it anyway…

A rich man was determined to give his mother a birthday present that would outshine all others. He read of a bird that had a vocabulary of 4000 words, could speak in numerous languages and sing 3 operatic arias. He immediately bought the bird for $50,000 and had it delivered to his mother. The next day he phoned to see if she had received the bird. “What did you think of the bird?” he asked. She replied, “It was delicious.” (Adapted from sermon central illustrations).

People pay a pile of money to speak to the world’s richest investors. If you could sit and chat with Solomon about his personal observations, wouldn’t that be worth your time? (2:12-26)

You cannot chat with him, but you can hear some of his deepest reflections. Take a look:

First, Solomon said: “My knowledge didn’t affect lasting changes to the world around me” (2:12-13).

Ecclesiastes 2:12 So I turned to consider wisdom, madness and folly; for what will the man do who will come after the king except what has already been done? 13 And I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness.

I found that no one gained from my personal search what I gained, and it wouldn’t take mankind to a higher level. In fact, people picked off a few morsels of my understanding and torqued it to live their own way – it was nonsense.

Second, Solomon admitted, “Both the wise and the foolish live with the same issues so I don’t see the great advantage to understanding everything on earth.” (2:14-15).

Ecclesiastes 2:14 The wise man’s eyes are in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I know that one fate befalls them both. 15 Then I said to myself, “As is the fate of the fool, it will also befall me. Why then have I been extremely wise?” So I said to myself, “This too is vanity.” 16 For there is no lasting remembrance of the wise man as with the fool, inasmuch as in the coming days all will be forgotten. And how the wise man and the fool alike die!

He made the honest point that smart and stupid people both face the same six foot hole at the end of life. Knowledge doesn’t make the end different at all – and it doesn’t guarantee anyone will even recall your unique contribution to the journey of men!

Third, Solomon noted: “When life is about what I have done it is bitter and hard, and even what I accomplished lost its luster.” (2:17-23).

Ecclesiastes 2:17 So I hated life, for the work which had been done under the sun was grievous to me; because everything is futility and striving after wind. 18 Thus I hated all the fruit of my labor for which I had labored under the sun, for I must leave it to the man who will come after me…

Solomon moaned on. He wasn’t thrilled with his experimental life. He hated it. It didn’t deliver. All that work, and there was no lasting satisfaction as he peered down at his gold retirement watch. It just wasn’t worth it.

Clarence Darrow was a famous criminal attorney who was a noted agnostic. Late in his life, he happened upon a young minister and befriended him. He talked with the younger man of his career and some famous trials in which he had argued. He said, “This has been an exciting life.” He was comfortable in fortune and guessed he was regarded as somewhat of a success by his peers. Then Mr. Darrow asked, “Would you like to know my favorite Bible verse?” His friend said, “Indeed I would.” Mr. Darrow said, “You will find it in Luke 5:5. ’We’ve toiled all the night and have taken nothing.’” He added, “In spite of my success that verse seems to sum up the way I feel about life.” No matter what one does in life, no matter what position he may obtain, no matter what he might come to own…if he leaves God out, the time will come when life itself will rise up and mock him with the word — nothing — nothing! (sermon central illustrations).

By now, you have probably about had enough of this depressing set of observations! Yet, Solomon didn’t leave us hopeless. He established that meaning wasn’t found HERE, but he didn’t believe meaning COULDN’T BE FOUND. It could. It was. There is ONE in Whom happiness and everlasting satisfaction can be found.

Solomon ended with the place where he discovered satisfaction:

Ecclesiastes 2:24 There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen that it is from the hand of God. 25 For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him? 26 For to a person who is good in His sight He has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, while to the sinner He has given the task of gathering and collecting so that he may give to one who is good in God’s sight. This too is vanity and striving after wind.

Look carefully at his words:

First, a fulfilled life begins when one acknowledges that his work, his labors, his very life came from God, and its purpose is found in His Creator’s design. God has the larger plan into which we are to fit. He asked: “Do you honestly think it is possible to be satisfied without finding it in what God made you for?” (2:24-25)

Second, a fulfilled life recognizes that God has made the world for us to enjoy INSIDE our relationship with Him. Without that relationship, we scurry around and work busily for things that won’t last and won’t satisfy. (2:26)

The Bible makes a simple claim, and you can test it with your life. After searching the world for satisfaction and meaning – you will they cannot be found here. Life has meaning; it just isn’t clear without knowing the Creator personally.

C.S. Lewis said it another way:

Our lifelong nostalgia, our longing to be reunited with something in the universe from which we now feel cut off, to be on the inside of some door which we have always seen from the outside, is no mere neurotic fancy, but the truest index of our real situation. ~ C.S. Lewis (The Weight of Glory, pg. 42)

She sat at the end of the counter, tired. The lines that etched from the outside of her eyes across her temples were like carved roads across a barren landscape. She looked worn behind the face of leather. She told of her life: three marriages, three children, five homes bought and sold, countless hours at work. She puffed her cigarette and looked out the window. “What was it all for?” She couldn’t believe that it was nearly over, and she still didn’t know.

The truth is, she may be your next door neighbor. She may be sitting a row ahead of you right now. She might even be you. Don’t waste your life on a useless pursuit to find meaning and satisfaction. Stop now. The answer isn’t here. Look up! It is only found in the One Who made you.