Hopefully, you weren’t too depressed by Ecclesiastes 1-3 yesterday. Some have characterized this book as being pretty joyless, pessimistic, and sour on life — the “pessimists proverbs”, so to speak. The truth is that it is simply the strong medicine that we sometimes need about this world, wisdom isn’t always pretty — with a sprinkling of more joyful observations about gifts from God — 2:24; 3:12,13; 3:22; 5:18-20; 9:7-9; 11:9-10).
A number of years ago I had a weekly Bible study with an agnostic, who fancied himself a bit of an intellectual (he even smoked a pipe). In retrospect, I really don’t think he really questioned God’s existence, but it was a convenient philosophic position to hold, since it became clear in time that he didn’t really want to lead a godly life. In my study with him, I offered the moral argument for the existence of God: that if God does not exist, then there is no morality — it makes absolutely no real difference whether, for example, I murder and rape or not. He was shocked, blown away. How could I say such a thing, he exclaimed. I reasoned with him to the logical conclusion of an atheistic viewpoint — no morality, no ultimate accountability, nothing. He had no answer. As intellectual as he thought he was, he had never followed his philosophic position to the bitter (and I do mean bitter) end. He liked the idea of living in a world with moral standards for others to live up to, he just didn’t want to follow them himself. Similarly, people rarely ponder such ultimate questions as Ecclesiastes discusses, in part because life without God in the equation, life “under the sun” (where a lot of people prefer to live) is meaningless and empty— just as Ecclesiastes describes it. Things get brighter, only when we factor God in.
With these observations firmly in mind, let’s take a look at a few more of Ecclesiastes’ proverbial, “under the sun” observations.
“…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. So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living. 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.” Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 — The oppressed feels alone and without consolation; and sometimes, when the opportunity presents itself the oppressed become the oppressor — but still finds no consolation. Life is hard either way, and you still die. A world without God is a world without consolation, a world, ultimately, of disconsolate despair. We are alone. Sorry, just telling it like it would be without God.
“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.” Ecclesiastes 4:8 — Could there be a better description of a workaholic? Sometimes working for the same reason that a alcoholic drinks — to dull or hide from the pain of suffering, guilt, loneliness, despair, or depression. Welcome to the world “under the sun”, if the sun is the only thing over our heads.
“Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. 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. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.” Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 — A great piece of worldly wisdom about our need for one another — in a world with or without God. But if God’s part of your equation, how much better is it to have a divine companion in addition to your human one! Men die, God is immortal and powerful.
“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. 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.” Ecclesiastes 5:1, 2 — Is there such a thing as “under the sun” religion, too? Apparently so, and it is practiced by offering the sacrifice of fools — promising something to God in exchange for some benefit (ever done this?) and not coming through on your promise.
“If you see oppression of the poor and denial of justice and righteousness in the province, do not be shocked at the sight; for one official watches over another official, and there are higher officials over them. After all, a king who cultivates the field is an advantage to the land.” Ecclesiastes 5:8, 9 — Everyone hates the oppression of the government’s bureaucracy, but everyone realizes the need for government. Complaint, this passage seems to be saying in context, is also vanity. Now, as Americans, we would lodge an objection — complaint results in changes. But as 4:13-16 tells us, even politics is frustratingly a striving after the wind. As “The Who” put it in Won’t Get Fooled Again, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss” — in other words, they did get fooled again.
“There is a grievous evil which I have seen under the sun: riches being hoarded by their owner to his hurt. When those riches were lost through a bad investment and he had fathered a son, then there was nothing to support him.” Ecclesiastes 5:13, 14 — Wall Street, are you listening?
“All a man’s labor is for his mouth and yet the appetite is not satisfied.” Ecclesiastes 6:7 — More vanity isn’t it?
“What the eyes see is better than what the soul desires. This too is futility and a striving after wind.” Ecclesiastes 6:9 — I really like this passage; it tells the story of mankind’s perpetually sinful choices. Why did Eve pick and eat the forbidden fruit? Why did Esau trade his birthright for a bowl of stew? Why did David commit adultery with Bathsheba rather than keep his integrity? Why do we choose what we choose? Why? Why? Why? “What the eyes see is better than what the soul desires.” But it is emptiness every time!
See you tomorrow, Lord willing.