Gimme - Education, Pleasure and Work - Ecclesiastes 1:12 - 2:26
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me begin by reading some words from Jose Martinez who is a tax driver: ‘We’re here to die, just live and die. I live driving a cab. I do some fishing, take my girl out, pay taxes, do a little reading, then get ready to drop dead. You’ve got to be strong about it. Life is a big fake. Nobody gives a damn. You’re rich or you’re poor. You’re here, you’re gone. You’re like the wind. After you’re gone, other people will come. It’s too late to make it better. Everyone’s fed up, can’t believe in nothing no more. People have no pride. People have no fear. People aren’t scared. People only care about one thing and that’s money. We’re gonna destroy ourselves, nothing we can do about it. The only cure for the world’s illness is nuclear war-wipe everything out and start over. We’ve become like a cornered animal, fighting for survival. Life is nothing.’ Can you imagine an early morning conversation with him as he takes you down to Paragon station to catch your train! But that is what he thinks life is all about, as do millions of others like him. This man has probably never heard of Ecclesiastes, let alone read it, and yet we find him echoing only too clearly much of what the Teacher wrote thousands of years ago- we are ‘like the wind’.
The Teacher, as we saw last week, is a King, and what we would today call a believer. And as a believer he is an honest man who wants to ask honest questions and get honest answers. The big question is: Is there a lasting benefit from life ‘under the sun’? That is, what can we really expect from life as we know it? The fact is many of the things we experience, is, as he puts in 1:14, ‘meaningless’, hebel,- like bubbles or smoke, tantalising and transitory, such that you think you are on to a winner and it disappears before your very eyes, it is like chasing after the wind, a futile enterprise. And this feeling we have that life is meant to be so much more and yet never within our grasp is actually a God-given gift according to v13. It is like spots which irritate us which a symptoms of a deeper disease which needs dealing with, in this case, our estrangement from God. You see, the Bible tells us that we live East of Eden; that we are out of sorts with our Maker and so out of sorts with his world. In short, we are constantly being reminded by our disappointments, frustrations and longings, that we need saving. And that is why God in his sovereign, gracious love has put eternity into our hearts (3:11). We are not just reproductive biological machines, or plastic people whose lives are built on pleasure and entertainment, we are spiritual beings designed to have a personal relationship with our Maker, such that trying to find ultimate satisfaction in anything else is doomed to failure, as we shall see.
But the Teacher is not some ivory tower academic sitting in his chair theorising about the world. He adopts what we might today call a ‘scientific approach’; he wants to get first hand experience of things by engaging in empirical observation to see what he can come up with. And that is what he decides to do-v 13a, ‘I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven.’ More specifically he launches himself into looking at three areas of life which might offer some kind of hope that lasting value and purpose might be found here on earth- what we can call probing, pleasure and projects.
First of all probing, or as we might say education, trying to gain wisdom, 1:16-18 and 2:12-16. From the middle of the 19th century throughout the 20th century, and into our own, education has been seen to be the great hope for mankind. With better education we will have a more civilised society- so it is thought. And two World Wars and umpteen minor conflicts later have not seen that belief being undermined. Personally, I believe having a good education is one of the greatest blessings God can bestow, it transforms lives, it certainly has mine. But is it really the case that gaining more knowledge in itself produces the better life, the fulfilled life? Not according to our writer, v17 “Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. 18For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” What does he mean? Well, for one thing, the more we know, the more we realize how much we don’t know. Here is a little “mental knot” from the writer R.D. Laing: ‘If I don’t know I don’t know I think I know. If I don’t know I know I think I don’t know.’ You can never get to the bottom of the well of wisdom it just goes on and on and can be pretty frustrating to come to the knowledge that there is so little you do know after all the hard study, and all the reading and all the slog. Education is good thing, but not a lasting thing. Isn't it strange how quickly those things which seemed so important at the time begin to fade. Do some of you remember all that hard work for those GCSE’s or ‘A’ levels or a degree? Do you remember how you felt once those grades were posted on the school notice board? It was terrific (if you got the grades you wanted that is). But how do you feel about them now? Not that much I would guess. Good things which are not lasting things.
In the second place increased knowledge brings you an increased knowledge of misery which in turn makes you miserable and frustrated, so you are left with the realisation that so little can be done in the face of the huge problems and challenges which confront us as a species. This doesn’t mean we don’t try to do something but it does put a check on any dewy eyed idealism we once may have had that the world will invariably get better and better through education. For example, you think it is great to travel to South Africa as I have done, to gain knowledge- true in some ways, but not in others. I think of my experience at a place called Lavender Hill. What a wonderful name for a town. It sounds so idyllic. It is in fact a run down Black Township on the edge of Cape Town. It is a scene of abject poverty the likes of which many in Britain could not even begin to imagine. It is also a place of the most unspeakable evil. Armed gangs frequently engage in gun battles in the open streets with folk getting killed in the cross fire. Unimaginable things are done to little children on a daily basis in the form of sexual abuse. The week before I went there a policeman had been shot dead just around the corner from the church in broad daylight. A decapitated body was once found lying on the church steps. After a confirmation class four young girls set off from that church only to be raped in full view of a watching crowd in the middle of the road. When the minister tried to intervene, he was told leave well alone or he would be killed. Just what do you do with that kind of knowledge? It makes you feel quite sick. ‘With much wisdom comes much sorrow’.
This is not to say there really is no difference between living a wise life and living foolishly for there is, 2:13, ‘I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. 14The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in the darkness.’ In terms of general physical and mental health and quality of relationships, there are tremendous advantages in living a sensible life, using your brains and indeed getting enjoyment out of learning. The Teacher is not denying those things for a moment. This is one of the reasons why Christians have often been at the vanguard of education in the West, it is part of expressing our God given image; we have minds which are to be used for his glory. But if this life is all there is, life ‘under the sun’ then what is the point of cramming your head with more and more knowledge when you are going to be occupying a grave next to someone who just didn’t even bother-v 15, ‘Then I thought in my heart, "The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?" "This too is meaningless." 16For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die!’ If you excel in your academic achievements there may be some bronze bust made of you which is perched on a shelf at a red brick university somewhere, but what the heck, death levels everybody out, so the prodigal and the professor both end up as worm food. So why not just live for pleasure? This is what our man tries, 2:1-3: ‘I thought in my heart, "Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good." But that also proved to be meaningless. 2"Laughter," I said, "is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?" 3I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly--my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.’
This is the route of consumerism, getting more goods to make us feel good. It is the mentality of ‘shop until your drop’, partying until you are pooped, playing computer games until you clapped out. Somehow we have to inject into ourselves the high octane fuel of enjoyment which will produce the necessary high to help us cope with what is otherwise a mundane existence. Let me say again, we are not to misunderstand our writer. As we shall see towards the end of this chapter, having pleasure is a good thing but it can never become the thing, that which motivates us to get out of bed in the morning in order to live a productive, meaningful life. For a start, pleasure can never be sought in and of itself, it is always a by product of something else. So you gain a profound sense of delight in having a conversation with a friend, it is so rich you don’t realize you have been talking for three hours when it has only seemed like three minutes. The activity is the conversation, the pleasure gained is the by- product. And so one could go on and think of the pleasures of reading, listening to music, going to the cinema, sex- these are all activities which can lead to pleasure, but to try and base our lives solely on pleasure seeking is like chasing after the wind it can’t be done. Sure, the advertisers will tell us different, but they lie. We are left feeling empty, craving more, which of course, is what the advertisers want.
So what else is there to try? Projects, working at something you hope will last, v4 ‘I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. 5I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. 6I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. 7I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. 8I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well--the delights of the heart of man. 9I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me. 10I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor.’ This man really goes for it doesn’t he? He has the power and the money to do it of course; he is the king after all, so no expense is spared. Again, note that there is satisfaction in these things- he says so in verse 10. This is because we are made in God’s image and as God is the great worker and project maker- bringing a universe into being, in our own small way we are to be like this too. I love projects, I am not mad about gardening- I leave that to my wife- but planning things and bringing them to completion brings a tremendous amount of satisfaction and sense of achievement. But, they have their limitations too- v11, ‘Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.’ Why is that?
Well, first it is toil and this can lead to anxiety, v23, ‘All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.’ Here is the actor John Thaw (TV’s Inspector Morse), ‘I suppose I am a workaholic. It’s all about needing to work to give yourself some importance, to prove that you exist. If I have a month or two off with nothing happening I get very fidgety, nervy, edgy. It isn’t insecurity because I know there’s work coming up. It must be, I suppose, that I need work so as to be able to say to people: ‘Look, I’m here. I exist.’ Could I ask whether that would be a fair description of you? The reason why you are taking on that course or this course, stretching yourself silly, even though you would not dare admit it, at the expense of your family and friends and maybe your health, is because deep down it is in your work, gaining that qualification, that you are seeking your identity? Without it you feel like you are nothing. You want to be well thought of, that is why you are working all the hours that God gives you. But you are never really satisfied. That is why you have to go on to the next thing, and the next and the next- you are driven. Do you see what you are doing? You are making a good thing into the thing- in short, an idol and it is killing you.
The second reason the Teacher gives for the folly of working more and more and faster and faster is that you never live to enjoy the full benefits of what you have worked for, it tends to be left to some other Charlie who squanders it all- v18, ‘I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. 19And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. 20So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun.’ Has this not been the experience of many of the rich and famous, having offspring who to be honest couldn’t hold a candle to their parents and just throw it all away? Of course not only the rich and famous- we can all think of examples. Maybe it has happened to you.
Now someone you might have expected to have felt some great satisfaction in all his achievements was the man who invented dynamite – Alfred Nobel. Yet this is how he described himself, ‘Alfred Nobel-pitiful creature, ought to have been suffocated by a humane physician when he made his howling entrance into this life…. Important events in this life: none.” Near his death he wrote: ‘How pitiful to strive to be someone or something in the motley crowd of 1.4 billion two-legged tailless apes whining around on our revolving earth projectile.’ Bubbles, bubbles, everything is a chasing after the wind, you see. The lesson is clear isn’t it? If you expect to find deep lasting satisfaction from what you learn, from your pleasures, your projects, prepare to be bitterly disappointed. Get ready to look back on your life with your head in your hands muttering ‘What a waste’. The Unites States is big on car bumper stickers. I wonder what kind of bumper stickers the Teacher would have in his car, maybe something like, “Eat well, stay fit, die anyway”. “He who dies with the most toys, simply dies.” ‘Shrouds have no pockets”. You see, all this striving and struggling for more and more things one earth leads to the graveyard and the landfill site. It all seems so trivial and so wasteful.
Does this mean that there no ray of sunshine in the midst of all the doom and gloom, is there any Gospel? Well, yes there is- sort of- v24, ‘A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? 26To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind,’ Here is realism friends. Yes, there are many things in life which we can enjoy and should enjoy- good food, good company, work, family, friendship-the list goes on and on. There is genuine satisfaction in these things, but there is an altogether richer satisfaction when we see them for what they truly are- gifts from God. The value of these things does not simply lie in themselves but as they lead us to the one who gives them- God. Then they are not just items floating around meaninglessly in a disconnected fashion on a sea of endless activity, they are emblems of grace, God’s loving kindness. And this makes all the difference in the world. The writer G.K Chesterton said that the ‘chief idea of my life’ is the practice of ‘taking things with gratitude and not taking things for granted.’ He agreed with the artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, “The worst moment for an atheist is when he is genuinely thankful but has nobody to thank.’ Seeing food and drink and work as gifts totally transforms our view of the universe- everything become personal. Instead of work being nothing but a drag, it is a vocation- a calling. Instead of food being the result of some meaningless biological system, it is a kind gift from a heavenly Father. The whole of creation becomes infused with a new wonder and delight where everything is seen as a gift to be received with gratitude. What a difference it makes to my granddaughter Chloe when I take her by the hand to the shop and buy her something which together we can play with and talk about, instead of it just appearing in her room one day without any note of explanation. She is thrilled and excited about it and so am I. Friends, it is meant to be like that between us and God.
Let me tell you something: at the Graduation Address of Harvard University in 1978, Alexander Solzhenitsyn said: ‘If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die his task on earth….must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot be the unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best way to obtain material goods and then cheerfully to get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent earnest duty so that one’s life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than when one started it.’ Now he had read Ecclesiastes and believed it. But notice what Solzhenitsyn assumes: he assumes that this life is not the only one- otherwise being a better human being at the end is also futile for you die like all the others who were not better human beings- so Hitler shares the same fate as Mother Teresa. No there must be eternity. It is that perspective, living under heaven and then in heaven which transforms this life, where God through Christ becomes our Father. This life is a breath, a bubble, but the next life is shared with God who is eternal and it is the security of knowing that is where we are heading which makes this life worth while. The question is which life are you going to choose? Is it a chasing after the wind trying to please yourself or receiving the breath of God’s life and pleasing him-v 26?
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