Monday, June 18, 2012

A Disappointing Discovery

TEXT  : Ecclesiastes  1:1-11
THEME :  A Disappointing Discovery!
DATE : The Lord's Day  17/06/2012

I wish to begin  with a word of perspective.  The God inspired text which we are considering here may be considered  pessimistic when it is  divorced from the rest  of Solomon’s sermon.  However, if we want to benefit from the wisdom of  Solomon’s sermon we are going to have  to  learn   to  face  the sometimes ugly realities  about life under the sun, in order that we may really appreciate  the life  that is above the sun . Peter  Leithart says  that  “… within this world  under the sun  there is a Word from the  world beyond the world under the sun, and that Word stands forever.” [1] 
I want you to remember  that  the gospel   of a wounded , broken , bleeding, dying and then resurrected   Jesus  becomes only  real when we see first the world for what it really is. It is a broken world! It is this world that crucified the Lord Jesus Christ, that purest , gentlest and loving of all men.   The reason why so many  are not attracted to the gospel of Christ today  is because they see this life under the sun as more attractive  and more  desirable than Life in the Son! 

Solomon , the writer of this text is  introduced to us in the first verse. You know  that he  is  a very imperfect sinful man like you and I. But he is the inspired   preacher, the son of David, and king in Jerusalem now speaking to us by the Holy Spirit. Incidentally, is it not  significant  that   all three of Solomon’s  titles   can be applied to Jesus Christ?  The Lord Jesus  is  the Preacher par excellence. He also  is the Son of David. And He is the King who came weeping over the state of this earthly   Jerusalem , but it is also He  who  shall reign forever in the New Jerusalem!

Solomon is prefiguring  the greater Son of David , and  in this  inspired sermon  he    will cure  us of any  unhelpful  attachment  to all   created  things  under the sun. He will show us  the  fleetingness, the emptiness  and the meaninglessness of fixing our hearts  on created things, rather than on the Creator who is forever to be praised (Rom 1:25). If  ever there was  a man in history  who has had the means  and the resources  to explore life under the sun, and to give himself to the pursuit of every conceivable pleasure under the sun, and  experience  the results of the pursuit  of these things   – it was this man.   You shall see this  in chapter 2. This man has seen and done it all. He has got the T-shirt! I am afraid to say that this pursuit has not left him without deep  spiritual  scars! He did not die as a happy, God fearing man,  even though he knew the truth. His epitaph in 1 Kings 11:1-9   is a very sad one !  No wonder that his testimony leaves many  sincere believers confused and uncertain  about his destiny.

What did Solomon  discover  in his  extravagant pursuit of  life  and pleasure? He discovered this: nothing material , nothing created  under the sun can ultimately satisfy the longing of the human soul!  And so we find this thought expressed in  v.2  :  Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.  This statement  becomes  the envelope  for the whole sermon. He will explain  how he has come to this conclusion   from v. 3 onwards. Vanity of vanities! All is vanity . What  we need to see in this  is that this is the truth! It is  perhaps not what we want to hear, but it is what we need to hear. It will drive to ask ultimate questions like “ … if not under the sun and on this earth … then where  shall we find  real meaningfulness  and  escape this vanity?“ 

Now there is a danger  in all this,   because    far too  many people   have  seen what   Solomon has seen  as they  were observing life under the sun, and they have simply  ended with  this thought:  “All is vanity!” , and resultantly they have pulled the trigger, or they have taken  an overdose  of pills, or drugs,   seeking to escape this meaningless life. 
In 1844  a child was born  near Leipzig in  Germany. His parents called him Friedrich. Friedrich Nietzsche! He  eventually   became  a noted  philosopher[2] . He  was  very disillusioned  with   the God of  the  Judaeo -  Christian  faith.  His  philosophical  views greatly  influenced Adolf Hitler. Nietzsche’s most famous  phrase is,  “God is dead! ”. In some ways he is the  father of modern atheism.  He also expounded the philosophy of ‘nihilism’  (from the Latin – nihil – nothing). The philosophy of  nihilism  basically  says that life is  without meaning or purpose. That, you can imagine , is a soul destroying conclusion!  Guess how he died? He became insane  and died at the age  of 55.   That is what I mean  about the danger of stopping short at  saying,  “ Vanity ! All is vanity!” It is true, of course! But it is  not the final truth, and the  good news is that Solomon  actually does not stop here. He will take us  to God , the Father of  real truth ! Solomon will force  us to look  to the world beyond this  world – time and again !  

So the paradox is this : We shall find our ultimate happiness, fulfillment and meaning   by  discovering that there is no permanent  happiness or fulfillment  or meaning in this fallen life. If you hold only on to this life, you will die a disappointed , disillusioned man.  So, from this position  we need to discover  that ultimate happiness  can  only found when our  souls  are connected  through Christ to God, our Creator and our Heavenly Father.  That is Solomon’s  counsel and therefore  God is the conclusion of the book  ( 12:13,14). He is  our soul’s anchor .
You won’t see that here yet in the passage that we are considering . That is why I needed  to  keep  the ultimate perspective  for us in view.

Now let  us pursue Solomon’s primary  observation: “Vanity of vanities , says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity .”  When you want to emphasize  something in  Hebrew thought, you repeat  it. Jesus did this when He said :"truly, truly"( lit. amen , amen) ). By saying  "vanity of vanities", Solomon makes  his point  emphatically. This strong statement  becomes , as I  have observed earlier  the envelope for  the whole book. From this observation he pursues  his argument :   [3] What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
Having  made the summary statement in v.2 , the Preacher now asks the question. What  does man gain  from  anything he does in this life? What's the use? What is  the value and meaning of our work under the sun ?  Here is the key to  the Preacher’s current perspective. This is life under the sun. This is life at face value  on this earth as it is observed by any human being without  taking ‘life above the sun’( God)  into consideration. Life only viewed from an earthly perspective can make you terribly cynical.  Is this monotonous existence  all that there is to life? You are born  in hospital , and you die in hospital , and in between you try to stay out of hospital! Life at face value can be a terrible  disillusion. What do we ultimately work for? Money helps , but it brings no ultimate satisfaction  (5:10).  In  6:7  a man  works to eat – but he finds  that  this does not really  satisfy him .  In Ch 6:2 there is a man   has wealth , possessions and honour- and yet ultimately  somebody else takes it from him  and enjoys what he has worked for. If life is only viewed from  this perspective  then there isn't much to live for .

Next, Solomon takes to task the monotonous routine  of life : [4] A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
We start life  by thinking that we are the generation that is going to change the world. And the world  is obsessed with the dynamism  of youth for that  reason. Midlife crisis happens because  we have finally seen the meaningless of the pursuit of things. And it leaves us feeling empty and burnt out.  Soon ,the youth will  discover the same thing . The history of  the fashionable and the new teaches us  that  today's novelty is the material of tomorrow's garbage heap. There is a dreary sameness to each generation  and it goes on endlessly – or so it seems .  No wonder the cynics have said that the only thing that we learn from past generations is that we learn nothing from them!  I speak of course  from Solomon’s present viewpoint , and not from his  ultimate viewpoint. 

The monotony of life is now  illustrated  in the way  we observe the  endless cycles of  the well- known elements  :
[5] The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.
[6] The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind,and on its circuits the wind returns. There are regular weather patterns which are repeated again and again. They remind us of the continuing "sameness" of life.
[7] All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. Water runs endlessly from river to ocean. In the  ocean it  evaporates, condenses  and rains on the earth and flows  back into  the rivers into the ocean where  repeats its monotonous cycle .
Solomon  looks at this unending, ever repeating , monotonous  cycle  and applies it to  our daily  experience. [8] All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.[9] What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.
Three common  activities of mankind  are  mentioned here:  uttering (saying) ; seeing and  hearing .
The point is that our restless  hearts  cannot cope with the sameness of things . We always want  more to be said. We always want to see more  and to  hear more. An entire industry is built around this  culture of dissatisfaction.  But after you have  told of , seen and heard of one thing , you want the next .  Your children  are the most  eloquent exponents of this frustration : “ I’m bored !”  They want more !   So there is this lack of satisfaction . Life under the sun leaves us feeling empty. There must be more. Little do we realize that our hearts  contentment      is not found in  chasing novelty . Augustine of Hippo ( 4th Century Church father)  hit the nail on the head : “ O Lord , our hearts are restless until they are found in you!” .

So, there is this lack  of novelty. Solomon says  : [10] Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already  in the ages before us. We live in an age of novelty. We have seen things in our day of which our ancestors did not even dream about .  Only two hundred years  ago  it took  at least  a    three month journey  from Cape Town to Windhoek by ox wagon by the early missionaries. It  now take  less than a  24 hour day to cover that distance on a tar road.   We fly men  to the moon and space-probes to Mars and Venus. We have computers  with storage capacities  that make the head dizzy!  But modern kids area already bored with space-probes  on  Mars  and  the  amazing 1 Megabyte computer of 1996  is laughed at .  We are so easily  bored with the advance of technology .  The new quickly becomes old .  And yet,  with regard to human nature,  nothing has really changed.  We still struggle with the same  monotony – because we still struggle with the same soul emptiness  of a life under the sun apart from God !

And then there is the lack of remembrance. Solomon says  :  [11] There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after. The sad thing is that  even when you accomplish  something significant under the sun, it is eventually forgotten.   Everything you have and everything you are will one day be forgotten. I do not know my grandfather’s history, and I made sure that before my own father died , that he wrote down everything he remembered . But apart from that  we will forget !

That’s  life "under the sun." That  is the message of Ecclesiastes. And at face  value  this  portrays  a rather depressing picture. BUT REMEMBER !  It is depressing because life without God is always depressing.
The good news is that God has not left us "under the sun." For Christians, life is not  simply "under the sun" but rather “under the Son!”  Everything under the sun is vanity apart from God.  Everything in this world, everything in this earthly sphere is incapable of satisfying the deepest part of our soul apart from God. 
 This first section ( verses 1-11)  then  contains  the introduction to the whole book.  His thesis  is found in v.2 , and  verses 3-11  are  an amplification of his thesis :   Life  lived by the routines  of what we  see and hear  and talk about   leads to despair .
But if you put God into  all this,   the light dawns , and you can really  see, hear and talk ! You  can see   with  new eyes that see the glory of the Creator. You can see  and  hear  with new  ears  and eyes that hear and see  the message that the sun  and the wind  and the streams and the ocean  shout at  you !  “I am your God , and I am He  who faithfully sustains you each day with  faithfulness” .  And your mouth can sing and tell : From the rising of the sun to the going down of the same , the LORD’S name  is to be praised ! Amen      
A thought provoking  book  to read

[1] Peter Leithart : Solomon among the Postmoderns , p 102
[2] Nietzsche's influence remains substantial within and beyond philosophy, notably in existentialism, nihilism and postmodernism ( Wikipedia)

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