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!