Rejoice, Remove, Remember! | Ecclesiastes 11:7-12:8

Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.
So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.

Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.

Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity. 

Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near of which you will say, “I have no pleasure in them”; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain, in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows are dimmed, and the doors on the street are shut—when the sound of the grinding is low, and one rises up at the sound of a bird, and all the daughters of song are brought low—they are afraid also of what is high, and terrors are in the way; the almond tree blossoms, the grasshopper drags itself along, and desire fails, because man is going to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets—before the silver cord is snapped, or the golden bowl is broken, or the pitcher is shattered at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern, and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity.

Ecclesiastes 11:7–12:8 (ESV)

 

We now come to the end of the main body of Ecclesiastes. Just as the Preacher has repeatedly warned us of death, the great equalizer, coming for us, he now concludes with a poem describing the final years of human life. The portrait of our inevitable physical decay is framed by a message to those who are not yet in those last years. Likely writing the poem from firsthand experience, Solomon commands us to rejoice in our youth, remove the sins that cause us to waste our lives, and remember our Creator.

LIGHT IS SWEET // VERSES 7-8

First of all, what does the Preacher mean when he says that light is sweet and that seeing the sun is pleasant? From a physiological standpoint, researchers continue to learn more and more the truthfulness of this statement. We now know that exposure to sunlight releases serotonin in the body, a hormone that helps to regulate moods, calm anxiety, balance digestion, and many other functions. Simply being under the sun that God created, therefore, grants many health benefits to our bodies. Given our propensity today to remain indoors more than ever before, we should make particular of this verse’s practical wisdom. Although we humans have managed to create lightbulbs and channel electricity, our lights cannot offer the same benefits as God’s original creation. In many ways, we continue to form shallow imitations of God’s works. And particularly if you wrestle with depression or anxiety, listen all the more to Solomon’s words here. For all its simplicity, a walk in the sunshine is one of the greatest weapons against the various forms of mood disorders.

It is also interesting to note the subtle shift that is happening here. Solomon has repeatedly used the phrase “under the sun” throughout Ecclesiastes, but now he is directing our gaze upward toward the sun itself. Of course, the Preacher will firmly turn our attention above the sun in the epilogue.

Verse 8 is essentially a microcosm of the verses that will follow. Two commands are given: rejoice in all of our years and remember that the days of darkness will be many. The verse then ends with yet another vanity proclamation (although it seems that vanity here is not referring to pointlessness and meaninglessness of life but rather its brevity and transience).  Since these two commands are explored more in the later verses, I will not expound upon them here, but I do want to make note of Solomon’s usage of units of time. He commands for us to rejoice in all the years that we live while remembering that the days of darkness will be many. Isn’t it so tempting for us to let days of difficulty that the LORD places before us overshadow the years of joy? This in no way makes light of the days of darkness. They will come, and they will be heavy. Let us prepare our hearts now to consider the sovereignty of God during those days of adversity (7:14). Yet in general, God gives so much more time of rejoicing than He does days of darkness.

REJOICE // VERSE 9

Solomon’s first command to the young is to rejoice. This thought is not foreign to Ecclesiastes since the Preacher has repeatedly told us that there is nothing better in life than to enjoy the life that God has given us. But despite the similarity to Ecclesiastes’ main refrain, something different is happening here. In those previous exhortations, the Preacher is simply presenting the result of his investigations before us. He is informing us that he has only found enjoyment to a gift that only God can give. Whether we follow his advice or not seems to be just set in our lap. But not here. He is now blatantly commanding us to rejoice, to enjoy life.

Let me ask two questions: Do we think of God’s commands as being for our good? Or do we think of them as God trying to limit and hinder us?

In Deuteronomy 10:12, God gives this message to the Israelites: “And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good?” Notice those last three words: for your good. God’s commands are for our good and flourishing on the earth.

Further on in Deuteronomy 28:47, God warns Israel of the curses that will befall them “because you did not serve the LORD your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart”. God has never wanted mindless obedience. Curses would still come upon the Israelites for joyless obedience.

Do we tend to think of God as commanding our joy and delight in Him? God commands our joy in Him because He is our ultimate source of joy. God is not a megalomaniac who tells us simply to enjoy Him or else; rather, He calls us to enjoy Him because nothing else can satisfy us. Even the good gifts of God are temporary and, therefore, cannot give lasting joy. Everything will eventually fail us (or we ourselves will fail). God is the only One who cannot fail. God points us to Himself because there is nothing greater. When He commands us to rejoice, we can only do so in Him. We can only find true joy in God Himself.

Let us consider a few more questions.

First, who qualifies as the young man here? The answer seems to be anyone who is not presently living out the poem of verses 1-7 in chapter 12. Solomon does not appear to recognize all the various age classifications that we assume today. Young and old, youth and elderly, are the two categories of people for these verses in Ecclesiastes.

Second, is Solomon urging us to follow our heart? Typically, those of a more Reformed theological persuasion tend to throw up Jeremiah 17:9 whenever we talk about following the heart: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Yet notice that Solomon appears to be telling us to follow our heart: walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. The only thing more dangerous than following our heart is following our eyes. Didn’t the Preacher himself warn that the eye is never satisfied with seeing? How then do we reconcile these things?

Remember that Ecclesiastes is one piece of the Bible’s wisdom literature. Furthermore, if Solomon did indeed write Ecclesiastes, then this is the same author who wrote Proverbs 4:23: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.” The Preacher’s command here is not contradicting Jeremiah; instead, he is issuing this command to those who will actively seek to guard their heart. Especially under the New Covenant in Christ, we should grow in loving God with all our heart, and then our heart’s desire will be to follow the ways of the LORD.

Third, the verse ends by warning that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. For which things will God judge us? There are two ways of understanding this. God might be warning us against partying too hard. Rejoice and enjoy life. Follow your heart. Do what pleases your eyes, but if you cross the line into sin, judgment will come. Or it could mean that God will judge us for not obeying His command to rejoice. To refuse to be content and satisfied with the multitude of blessings that God has given is an offense to God Himself. This interpretation seems much more likely to me. If rejoicing is a command, then judgment will come to those who disobey.

REMOVE // VERSE 10

The second command is to remove vexation and pain. Once more, Solomon’s usage of vanity here is a reminder that youth is fleeting. It is a vapor that is here today and gone tomorrow. Because youth is so temporary, stop wasting time with needless frustrations, with things that do not matter, with being upset. Stop wasting time worrying about all the things that we cannot fix or control. Remove those vexations from the heart.

Now, this does not mean that we should rid ourselves of all the annoying people in life. Second only to loving God is loving those around us. Nor does it encourage us to stop doing things that are frustratingly difficult. Often the most life-giving activities are also the most difficult ones. Nowhere is this truer than in the Christian life. The way is hard and the gate is narrow, but the reward for the few who find is eternal life.

Instead, the Preacher is commanding us to stop doing worthless (and often sinful) things that ruin our life. In fact, we could break this down into two categories. First, if you can, make life less frustrating for yourself. Second, stop making excuses, and kill the sin that is killing you. Sin, after all, is the most vexing and painful action that we can ever take.

Perhaps a personal example of how these two categories play out will be helpful. Being highly sanctified in dealing with frustrations, it was difficult to remember a time when I was sinfully frustrated, but I managed to recall an example. Let me take you then all the way back to this morning. Having spent the weekend visiting some friends, Tiff and I slept through our alarm by an hour. We were awakened by our crying daughter, which to me means that we begin the day already playing catch up. I, therefore, began the day extremely frustrated with myself. But even though the frustration was with myself, it is unleashed upon my wife and daughter. I was incapable of enjoying the two greatest gifts that the LORD has given me because I was upset with myself.  Such is the great danger of unchecked vexations. They steal the joy that God gives. Graciously, the LORD brought this verse into my heart (Psalm 119:11 anyone?), and asked forgiveness from Tiff and thanked her for not returning her own frustrations back upon me. What exactly does this verse teach me in situations like this? First, if I get frustrated by sleeping too late, I should get up earlier. Cut vexations off at the root, if possible. Second, such frustrations are sin. I sinned against my wife and daughter, so I am called to repent and turn back to the joy of the LORD. Life is simply too short to waste time being upset or sinning. Cut it out and start rejoicing in the blessings of God.

REMEMBER // VERSES 1-7

The final command is to remember our Creator in the days of our youth. He tells us to do so before the evil days appear. Turn to God before old age sets in.

The word “before” in this verse begins the final poem of Ecclesiastes. This poem, which concludes in verse eight, rivals the breadth and majesty of Solomon’s own poem on time in chapter three. However, for this poem, the Preacher writes heavily in metaphors so the meaning can be quite difficult to interpret. To find Solomon’s meaning, we must understand that verses 2-7 are poetically used to cement the idea presented in verse one. He tells us to remember our Creator in the days of our youth, and now he defines what he means by youth: “remember God before _____ happens to your body.”

Verse 2 describes light being blocked out by a gathering storm. This likely refers to the ominous approach of death, finally eclipsing our futile dreams of immortality. In the days of youth, adversity is typically just a setback, but now even small things can become a travesty from which one may never return. When a person is young, time heals most wounds, yet at the end of life, time only approaches to kill.

We must keep in mind that within this poem each verse is meant to build upon the previous. Most interpret verse 3 as speaking about the onset of old age that has come before the gathering storm of death. “The keepers of the house tremble” is likely referring to the natural tremor that finds its way into most of the elderly. “The strong men are bent” describes the atrophy of the bones of the elderly, which often results in a hunched or bent back. “The grinders cease because they are few” portrays for us the time when chewing our food will be nigh impossible because of the lack of teeth. “Those who look through the windows are dimmed” most likely refers to the dimming of eyesight caused by old age.

And the poem continues: remember God before we are too old to ever leave the house. It is a natural progression that as we age, we sleep less. Some elderly individuals sleep only for a few hours each night. Thus, the elderly rarely find difficulty waking at dawn, while many youths cannot recall the last time that they saw dawn.

Aging is also often marked by the degeneration of the mind. Dementia and paranoia are likely to cause terrors in the elderly (v. 5). Their body is no longer able to do the things that it once could, which thus makes them afraid of heights and such. Solomon’s mention of a blossoming almond tree is a reference to one’s hair becoming white. Toward the end of winter, the almond tree will begin to blossom its flowers, before even its leaves grow. This creates a period of time when the almond tree is covered in white flowers, which could be thought to resemble a head of white hair. At the end of its life, the normally bounding grasshopper will sluggishly drag itself along – “much like the awkward gait of old men and women” (Barrick, 200). Most interpret the failing desire to be sexual desire. When death approaches in the old age, there is simply no desire, nor ability, to practice anything sexual. “It may be a great comfort to many of you to see that this is last on the list! It is the last thing to go, according to this statement” (Stedman, 177). Each of these is a sign that “man is going to his eternal home.”

The repeated use of the word “before” should keep verse one in our minds. Remember the Creator before death finally comes. Verse 6 presents various symbols of how death befalls us. Snapped, broken, and shattered are the images that Solomon wishes for us to have of death. He does not naively designate death as a joyous occasion, but rather emphasizes how devastating its effects are. It is also here that we are provided a glimpse at Solomon’s true view of life after death. For the majority of the book, any time that Solomon discussed what happens after death he did so very bleakly, from the perspective of being “under the sun.” However, here he states that our bodies will return to the dust from which we were created and our souls will return to God. This recalls the image of the creation of man in Genesis. God formed man from the dust and breathed His spirit into us to give life. Thus, death is the decomposition of the entirety of man. God summons the spirit back to Himself, and without the spirit, the flesh reverts to dust.

I think what makes this poem as brutal as it is beautiful is its reminder that death is often a slow process in which each of our faculties slowly succumbs to decay piece by piece. All the signs of aging are actually signs of approaching death; therefore, one should be prepared for death.

But why does Solomon specifically command us to remember God before old age? Thankfully, repentance can certainly be found as long as breath is still in the lungs. Of course, being alive is not a guarantee that we will be able to repent. Hebrews 12:17 warns us that Esau sought repentance with tears but did not find it. But generally, there is still hope for anyone who is still alive.

I believe that Solomon is commanding us to remember our Creator in the days of our youth because he wants to save us from living a wasted and vain life. John Piper poignantly begins his book, Don’t Waste Your Life, with the powerful story of an old man who repented and believed the gospel after one of the sermons of Piper’s father. After his conversion, the man wept that he had wasted his life. He came to see the beauty of Christ and understood that everything that he lived for previously was nothing more than a vanity. The sad reality is that even if we turn to the LORD at the end of our lives, our faculties will be so decayed that we will be able to do little for Him. Contrast this fact with the reality that true joy and delight are only found by remembering our Creator and living according to His design. A life given to God is the only non-wasted life.

VANITY OF VANITIES // VERSE 8

Ah, the bitter refrain of Ecclesiastes! How fitting is it that this poem of finality should conclude with the verse that began Solomon’s first poem in Ecclesiastes! The careful reader, or uptight English student, will surely have noticed that verses 1-7 are one gigantic run-on sentence. One commentator suggests that if one attempts to read the entire poem as one sentence, he or she would be out of breath—which is fitting because hevel can also be translated to mean ‘a breath.’

Let us conclude with a message to the young and to the old.

First, to the young: rejoice in the days of your youth, remove the sins and frustrations that will ruin and waste your life, and remember your Creator now. As a young man now, here is how I hope to prepare for the day that I will walk through chapter 12’s poem (should the LORD grant me those years). During my youth, I long to grow in the one thing that I will be able to do even with my final breath: prayer. Sadly, many people lose their sense of value along with their failing body. This is a tragedy because, for the Christian, the loss of physical faculties should mean full devotion to the work of prayer. When I am an old man, I long to be a mighty force of prayer, even if my hands can longer write words like these. Even if my legs can no longer hold my body up in the pulpit, I desire to have young men at my home learning how to pray.

Second, to the old: your final years are not the time to coast through life. The race is almost complete, so sprint to the finish line. In You and Me Forever, Francis Chan writes this thought better than I can, so I will let him speak:

At 85, Caleb was as courageous as ever. Rarely do we meet people in their fifties and sixties living by faith, much less people in their eighties. In speaking to young adults throughout America, they tell me of how they would love to be mentored by older people who are living by faith. But they can’t find any. Some may be joyful and friendly, but no longer living by faith. Sadly, their lives consist of visiting grandkids and taking vacations. Some are still acquiring more possessions, hoping to make the most of their last few days on earth. (p. 185)

Time flies. And it flies faster each year. So don’t procrastinate. Think of your age in miles per hour. When you’re seven years old, it feels like life is moving at seven miles per hour. It feels like you are never going to turn eight. When you’re in your twenties and thirties, the years start passing by more rapidly. By the time you’re doing fifty or sixty, it’s hard to even keep track of what year it is. Anything beyond that, and you’re in the fast lane. You should just put this book down now and sprint. Like a game of hot potato, you should get rid of your possessions as fast as possible. Invest everything you can in the Kingdom. Your life is going to be over any minute, and you’re going to regret holding on to things you weren’t able to keep. (p. 190)

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How to Waste Your Life

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down,
and hastens to the place where it rises.
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.
All streams run to the sea,
but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
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.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
“See, this is new”?
It has been already
in the ages before us.
There is no remembrance of former things,
nor will there be any remembrance
of later things yet to be
among those who come after.
Ecclesiastes 1:2-11 ESV

Ten years ago, I graduated high school. With aspirations for studying the Scriptures and writing books, poems, stories, or really anything of significance, I instead spent much of my time becoming moderately proficient at Halo 3 and Rock Band. Don’t get me wrong, the LORD was merciful on me in high school to keep me from many activities that could have done me a great deal of harm. But still I wasted so much of my time, so today I would like to give you the message that I would give eighteen-year-old me.

THE VANITY OF LIFE

The primary message of Ecclesiastes can be summarized as follows: everything under the sun is vanity. Once we understand what Solomon means by vanity, we will begin to understand why some consider Ecclesiastes to the be the most depressing book of the Bible. Other English translations of vanity include meaningless, futility, a vapor, or the merest of breaths. Hopefully, those words capture the idea. Vanity in Ecclesiastes is meaningless, futile, empty, pointless, worthless, fleeting, here-today-gone-tomorrow, transient, and momentary. To say then that the connotation is negative is an understatement.

So what does Solomon describe as being vanity?

Everything. Solomon says, “All is vanity.” Life is futile. Work is meaningless. Sex is a vapor. Laughter is momentary. Everything is pointless, like chasing after the wind.

Come on, Solomon. Why don’t you tell us how you really feel?

The remainder of these verses give a brief summary of Solomon’s reasoning behind his conclusion: why is everything vanity?

First of all, the sun has been rising and setting since the world began, but we humans can barely manage to live to be 100-years-old. Even the greatest of us cannot beat these inanimate objects. Alexander the Great accomplished enough for history to permanently remember him as being great, but despite the vastness of his empire and the brilliance of his leadership, his body is now nothing more than dust, just like the poorest of peasants under his rule. But the sun that beamed upon his head over the Persian desert is still the same more than 2000 years later.

Although it doesn’t presently benefit him, Alexander is at least remembered today. Solomon reminds us in verse 11 that the same cannot be said for the majority of people. Even though we often live as though we are the center of the universe, the harsh reality is that within a hundred and fifty years hardly anyone will remember that we ever existed, while even fewer will know or care anything about us. This is difficult for most of us to hear because we want to believe that our name and legacy will live beyond us, but while I am thankful for my great, great grandfather, I know nothing about this essential limb of my family tree except that his name was Floyd.

With such a harsh reality attempting to stare us in the face, we shouldn’t be surprised at humanity’s obsession with heroes. Superheroes, for example, allow us to imagine the fantasy of being great, of being more than human, of having a clear sense of meaning and worth. Driving home from the latest film, we don’t immediately begin talking about what we would do as a regular person living in a super-powered world. No, we identify first with the heroes, the larger-than-life characters, the ones who have left normalcy in the dust.

Ecclesiastes feels depressing because its goal is to destroy the fantasy world that we have made for ourselves. We cover ourselves with an onslaught of entertainment in order to hide from the terror of silence, that sinking feeling in our gut whenever we get a momentary glimpse at our own mortality. The looming inevitability of death can keep us grounded in reality like nothing else can. It reminds us that because our days are short, they should not be wasted. Because we are not promised tomorrow, we should make the most of today. Truly Moses was right when he prayed, “So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Unfortunately, the thought of death is also unpleasant. It reminds us that we are finite instead of infinite, that we are creatures instead of gods. So we hide ourselves from the inevitable, and often waste the precious amount of time that we have been given.

HOW TO WASTE YOUR LIFE

Throughout Ecclesiastes, Solomon describes how he chased lasting purpose and meaning under the sun. He does this by pursuing many things that we often make the supreme goal of our lives. His conclusion after each is that nothing but vanity can come ultimately from living for (fill in the blank). Allow me then to describe three of these pursuits and why they lead to a wasted life. We will then conclude by looking upon the one goal of life that will never result in a vain and wasted life.

Self

First, and probably most often, people pursue their own self-interests as the supreme goal of their life. Self-esteem, self-worth, and self-actualization are the gods we serve. Decisions and plans are made with self primarily in mind. To be fair, within a post-modern and materialist frame, self-interest makes sense. If life doesn’t have a Creator or an ultimate purpose, then I don’t have a purpose. I only know that I am here now and that I might not be tomorrow, so why should I not try to do and get everything that I want? Let’s eat and drink, for tomorrow we die, right?

Unfortunately, simply from a practical standpoint, we tend to be terrible judges of what is actually good for us. For instance, much debate has raged around a study that suggested that there are three steps for avoiding poverty: graduate high school, get a full-time job, and get married and have a family. The study found that of all the people surveyed who completed those three steps (in that order) only two percent lived in poverty. The debate surrounding the study is whether the relationship between the steps and avoiding poverty is of causation or correlation, and of course, even if it is causal, there are plenty of exceptions to the rule. Nevertheless, the statistics indicate a clear benefit from doing hard things like holding a job and maintaining a family. Yet selfishness can very easily whisper in our ear that graduating high school isn’t worth the hassle, that working a job that you might not enjoy isn’t a valuable use of time, or that settling down with a spouse and kids is too much work. The point is that we rarely understand what is truly good for us.

A subcategory of self-interest is the pursuit of pleasure. Solomon’s pursuit of pleasure is found in chapter two, where he claims that he did not deny himself anything that his eye wanted. Do you want a good home? Solomon built a palace. Want a nice garden? He planted entire forests and designed whole parks. Want to avoid physical labor? He had 35,000 servants. How about sex? Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Does music make you happy? His personal singers would act as his ancient iPod. Since this is the Bible, you might expect Solomon to claim that none it gave him the pleasure that he was looking for, but instead he says, “I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil” (2:10). He sought pleasure and found it. The problem was that pleasure alone didn’t last. Pleasure is a momentary vanity; therefore, it fails royally whenever we make it our lifelong goal.

Another route of self-interest might be the pursuit of self-actualization. This is the general path of many philosophies and religions. The overall goal is to keep improving yourself, to continue mastering yourself, your desires, and your passions. While this sounds great in theory (and the Bible certainly calls us to be self-controlled and disciplined), it too is vanity as the main goal of life. The sobering fact is that you will never fully become the person that you aim to be. Illustrative of this point is the title of a blog post I read a couple of months ago that was something along these lines: “If the you from 5 and 10 years ago was an idiot, what does that say about present-day you?”

Wealth

Second, many are tempted to pursue wealth as the driving force of their life. Money, possessions, and the power that surrounds them are quite appealing. If anyone had the right to speak about the effects of money, it is Solomon. If the accounts of 1 Kings are correct (and since they are within the Bible, let’s go away and make that assumption), then some have estimated Solomon’s networth to be around $2.1 trillion, making him the richest man to ever live. To put this in perspective, Rockefeller comes in at number two with a networth of $600 billion.

So what does the richest man to ever live say about money? “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity” (5:10). Notice that Solomon isn’t calling wealth or money evil. In fact, he goes on to say in verse 19 of the same chapter that it is a gift of God whenever anyone is able to enjoy the wealth and possessions given to him by God. But sadly, not everyone is able to enjoy the wealth that they acquire, and in verses 1-6 of chapter six, Solomon claims that it is better to be miscarried in your mother’s womb than to have blessings and not be able to enjoy them. But that is how the love of money works. You become so obsessed with having more that you cannot enjoy what you already have.

Family 

Finally, we might try to our family the goal of our lives. This is a particularly difficult one to grasp because it feels like the right thing to do and Hollywood seems hell-bent on teaching this valuable lesson (at times…). And of course, the Bible calls us to love our families well. Paul tells us that “if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). Clearly, family is serious business, but still it is not ultimate. If this sounds wrong, just consider the clear reality. If your spouse is the center of your life, what happens when he or she passes away, or worse if they betrayed you and left you alone? If your kids become your reason for living, what if they die, or what happens when they get married and have families of their own? As much as I love my wife and daughter, they are not God. If I make them my gods, they will be crushed under the weight of my expectations for them. Family is not eternal and will eventually fail, so family cannot replace God.

Of course, there are plenty more things that people make the goal of their lives, but we don’t have time to even attempt addressing such a never-ending list.

TO LIVE IS CHRIST

Take a moment to notice that self-interest, wealth, and family are not evil things. Each is a good gift given by a good God. The problem comes whenever we make them our gods, whenever the gifts usurp the Giver. While they are good to have, they are not eternal and, therefore, cannot truly satisfy us. Given enough time, they will each eventually fail us. God, however, cannot fail us. Augustine describes this trading of the Giver for His gifts as being like a hungry man who keeps licking a painting of bread instead of asking a baker for a loaf. Or we could say it is as ridiculous as writing and giving a thank you card to the gift itself instead of the giver. Doing so is foolish, as insane as trying to catch the wind in your hand.

This is why Solomon repeats throughout Ecclesiastes that true and lasting enjoyment of life is a gift from God. Enjoyment cannot be earned or bought. It is a gift that can only come from the hand of the Giver. Therefore, Solomon is constantly trying to force us to fix our hope above the sun, beyond this life, and onto the Author of life. All is vanity under the sun. A life lived exclusively under the sun is a wasted life, but a life given over to God is a life of true and lasting joy.

The Apostle Paul famously expresses a similar message in Philippians 1:21, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Often it is the second part of that verse that sticks out in our minds. We quote it as a reminder whenever we start to cringe at the thought of leaving this world. It comes with a lump in our throat as we hear stories of martyrs for Christ throughout history. Indeed, the blessed hope of the Christian faith is that Christ will return to resurrect our bodies so that we will live forever in His presence. Yes! Let “death is gain” be the Christian’s dying words! But the first phrase is just as important: “to live is Christ.”

What does Paul mean by saying “to live is Christ?” He means that all of life belongs to Christ. Our very state of existing is now the property of Christ. As Christians, we have been bought by God with a price, so we are called to glorify God with our bodies (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). That price was the very death of God upon a cross as a substitute for us. Because of the crucifixion of Jesus, Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God” (Galatians 2:20).

As a Christian, your life is not your own; it belongs to God. This is why Paul tells us twice to glorify God in everything that we do, in our eating or drinking (1 Corinthians 10:31) and in our words and deeds (Colossians 3:17).

And why would we not want to do so?

He is Author of life (Acts 3:15).

“In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

All of creation was created by Him, through Him, and for Him, so that He is preeminent in all things (Colossians 1:15-20).

The universe itself is upheld by the word of His power (Hebrews 1:3).

And one day, every creature in heaven, on earth, and under the earth will proclaim Jesus as Lord and bow before Him to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:9-11).

If living for the gifts of God is utter foolishness, then living for the Giver Himself is the wisest action we can take. But having God be the great purpose of our lives is for our good as well as His glory. After all, if we long to live for something greater than ourselves, who fits that category better than God! If we want to live lives that matter and have a real purpose, where else can we turn except to Him who formed all of existence?

But practically, how can we live for God’s glory?

If you are not a Christian, then the path toward living for God’s glory begins with repenting and believing the gospel (Mark 1:15). First, repentance is far more than simply apologizing for sin. Repentance is the heart-broken confession of sin, followed by turning away from it. Repentance is the renouncing of sin. Second, believing the gospel means understanding the good news that Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection saves us from our sins. The gospel is that even though we deserved the full and just wrath of God for our sins, the death of Jesus paid that penalty completely and gives to us the righteousness of Christ in its place. The good news is that we who were once objects of God’s wrath are now His children (Ephesians 2:1-10).

If you already a follower of Christ, other than continuing to repent and believe the gospel, here are some basic actions for being a disciple of Jesus. These basics are pray, know the Scripture, love the church, and obey Scripture.

Relationships cannot exist without communication, so how can we have a relationship with God without speaking to Him in prayer?

With God’s self-revelation in Scripture, we can quickly find ourselves praying to a god fashioned within our minds if we are not rooted and grounded in the Bible.

Many claim to love Jesus but can’t stand the church. The church, however, is the body and bride of Jesus. You can’t love Jesus and not love His church.

Finally, Jesus Himself said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). This does not mean that you will ever perfectly obey in this life, but it does mean that you should want to obey the commands of God.

Of course, living a life for God’s glory does not mean that you must be called to full-time ministry; instead, serve God wherever He places you in life. If you are a nurse, then be a nurse to the glory of God by working as though you are working for Christ (Colossians 3:23) and proclaiming the gospel whenever a door is opened to do so (Colossians 4:3). If you are a mechanic, then be a mechanic to the glory of God by working as though you are working for Christ and proclaiming the gospel whenever a door is opened to do so. In other words, be missional where you are and with what you are doing.

If that sounds like a boring and inconsequential life, consider the first 300 years of Christianity. Throughout that time, Christians faced some of the worst and most intense persecution found throughout history, and yet by the early 300s Rome had its first Christian emperor and in 380 Christianity was the official religion. How did Christianity become so powerful even in the midst of persecution? Church historian Justo Gonzalez notes that Christianity spread on the backs of ordinary and long-forgotten Christians, slaves and business-people alike, who took the good news with them wherever they went. Of course, Acts also tells us this fact as well: “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word” (8:4). After Stephen’s death and Christians became persecuted in Jerusalem, many fled the city, but they did not stop sharing the gospel.

The world’s greatest empire was overcome by normal and ordinary believers living their common and seemingly un-noteworthy lives for God’s glory. May we too give our lives to that one focus. After all, nothing else comes close to the value, meaning, purpose, and worth of exalting the name of Jesus Christ.

The Vanity of Jonathan Edwards

I read from Stephen Nichols (in Heaven on Earth: Capturing Jonathan Edwards’s Vision of Living in Between) that Jonathan Edwards was voted out of his church after moving the church to closed communion. The change backfired in part because Edwards failed to cultivate deep friendships within his congregation that would support him through such a major change. He certainly has such friendships, but they tended to be with other ministers via correspondence.

This struck me profoundly.

I’ve heard it said that some ministers are great preachers, while others are great pastors. The adage contains plenty of truth. While I would never call myself a “great” preacher, I certainly know that I am a better preacher than a pastor. Like Edwards, I am more comfortable around books than people. And while this was an area of failure for Edwards and an area of targeted growth for me, I can’t help lamenting the vanity of it all.

Edwards was a certainly a great writer and preacher. Indeed, he could be called one of the greatest American minds, and the benefit and blessing of his studies continue to endure. In fact, although I have yet to read anything by Edwards, I am a secondhand product of his legacy. Piper’s concept of Christian Hedonism played a significant role in reawakening my faith, and Edwards was a prime influence upon Piper’s development of that idea. Thus, in some ways, the Father used Edwards mightily through Piper to mold my faith.

But Edwards also succeeded in another realm: as husband and father. With eleven children, the Edwards’ home was busy to say the least, yet he made time to lead them in the Word and to open his home in hospitality. Nichols states:

All accounts concur: this was a home where love reigned (p. 42).

In short, Edwards succeeded as a preacher, writer, husband, and father, yet in part, he failed as a pastor. Of course, it is easy to write this off as being simply the will of God. Or we could call it yet another example of the scourge of humanity in a post-Genesis 3 world. After all, even the godliest of men had their failings. We’re broken people in a broken world. What’s new?

But have you ever really let that truth sink in?

Despite his best efforts and successes, Edwards will always be remembered as a flawed man with failures to his name (the owning of slaves being among the most glaring). Life is a balancing of many spinning plates, and some will break. We will never fully practice all of the doctrines that we believe. That inevitability is easy to understand but difficult to make peace with. Our greatest works are never enough to offset our failures because the failures don’t magically cease to exist. We will fail. Our efforts will never be sufficient. We cannot be good enough. We will never be enough. Attempting otherwise is a striving after wind. This is the vanity of life, and it is a grievous evil.

Of course, we say that is why grace is so wonderful. We are failures who cannot hope to truly succeed, but Christ’s death has paid the penalty of our sins while granting us His own righteousness.

This is the gospel, the good news.

Yet how often do we really let that bad news sink in first?

The gospel shines brightly against the backdrop of sin, brokenness, and despair, but I rarely take the time to truly despair of myself apart from Christ. This often leads to an underappreciated gospel.

But why did Edwards’ failure strike me so deeply?

I think it’s the combination of studying through the book of Ecclesiastes and feeling a similarity to Edwards. Like him, I am a husband, father, and pastor. I also feel the pull in my soul to write about the glories that I find in Scripture. And I understand the comfort of a richly composed page juxtaposed against the anxiety of being around others. I feel the same pull for time as him. How can I maximize my efforts as a husband without neglecting my children? How can I be a great preacher without neglecting the necessity of pastoring? How can I prioritize writing without compromising every other arena of life? When my body is laid in the ground, what areas of my life will be remembered as triumphs? Which will be my greatest failures? What actions of mine will stand as an eternal testament to my sinfulness? If Ecclesiastes teaches anything, it’s that this is all vanity, futile and a grievous evil.

As briefly mentioned, stewing in this vanity helps my perception of grace. All too often, I claim that I live for the glory, worship, and exaltation of God, but my motives are all too self-aggrandizing. Cognitively, I know my sin and my need of a savior, but there must be a hole in my heart because that truth continues to leak out.

The glories and exaltation of self are a mirage, careful compositions that are littered with clashing chords. I think of myself as Mozart when I am little more than a toddler slapping the keys. God, however, has been playing greatest masterpiece ever designed, and by His grace, I am given the honor of being used as a single note within that magisterial symphony of history.

In Christ, we become instruments, failures and all, for magnifying His greatness.

O then for grace to see the vanity of self clearly that I might behold more of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ!

 

Thus in recognizing our lowliness, ignorance and vanity, as well as our perversity and corruption, we come to understand that true greatness, wisdom, truth, righteousness and purity reside in God.  – John Calvin

The Vanity of Understanding Under the Sun | Ecclesiastes 7:25-29

Listen to the sermon here.

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

Ecclesiastes 7:29 | See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.

OPENING THOUGHT

To many the book of Ecclesiastes appears to be quite depressing. Of course, the book’s repeated proclamation of everything being vanity does little to disprove such interpretations. Likely written by Solomon near the end of his life, Ecclesiastes is the findings and conclusions to his lifelong search for discovering what is good for humanity to do during our short lives.

He has observed community, finding it necessary but damaged. He has chased unabashedly after pleasure, which only gave a temporary enjoyment. With more wealth than any other human in history, he discovers the insufficiency of wealth to satisfy our souls. But Solomon hasn’t just presented to us the bad news; he has also given us the good news that life can be truly enjoyed and satisfaction can be found. But enjoyment and satisfaction cannot be gained; they only come as a gift from God.

In chapter 7, we have studied some of the difficult teachings of Solomon. He began with a reminder that God makes days of prosperity and adversity and we should consider such things. He then pondered why bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people only to realize that no one is truly good or wise. Nevertheless, the chapter concludes with his commitment to pursue wisdom and what he learns about humanity.

GROUP DISCUSSION

Read Ecclesiastes 7:25-29 and discuss the following.

  1. Which verses stood out most to you as you read Ecclesiastes 7:25-29 this week? Why? What do these verses teach you about who God is?
  2. What is wisdom, according to the Bible? What is foolishness? Why does Solomon describe foolishness as wicked and insane? How does this differ from current views of foolishness?
  3. What does Solomon mean by the woman whose heart is a snare? Why is being captured by her worse than death?
  4. What does Solomon mean when he says that he has only found one man in a thousand but no women? In what ways do we rebel against God by seeking out many schemes?

PERSONAL REFLECTION

Because all Scripture profits us through teaching, reproving, correcting, and training us, reflect upon the studied text, and ask yourself the following questions about the present text.

  • What has God taught you about Himself?
  • What sin is God convicting or reproving you of?
  • How is God correcting you?
  • How is God training and equipping you for righteousness?

 

The Vanity of Righteousness & Wisdom Under the Sun | Ecclesiastes 7:15-24

Listen to the sermon here.

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

Ecclesiastes 7:15 | In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing.

Ecclesiastes 7:23 | All this I have tested by wisdom. I said, “I will be wise,” but it was far from me.

OPENING THOUGHT

Very few books can even attempt to rival the brutal honesty of Ecclesiastes. Its author, the Preacher, claims to have witnessed the very best that life has to offer, but at the end of it all, all is vanity under the sun. Much of his reasoning comes from understanding the brevity of life. Our time in this life is short and fleeting, especially when compared to the seemingly unchanging mountains and seas.

Yet in the midst of all this vanity, the Preacher continues to extend to us the brighter side of things: enjoyment is possible. Life is certainly full of toil, suffering, and sorrow, but these things do not exclude the ability to enjoy each day that we live. Unfortunately, enjoyment is a possibility, not a guarantee. Many people wander through life chasing after enjoyment without achieving it. The Preacher’s paradoxical answer is that enjoyment is not an achievement to be gained but a gift to be received. Enjoyment comes not through getting more but from simply realizing the beauty of what you already have.

As we continue our study through Ecclesiastes’ seventh chapter, the Preacher takes his understanding that prosperity and adversity are outside of our control and he dives into how that impacts our understanding of righteousness and wisdom. Too often, our pursuit of righteousness and wisdom are rooted a desire for self-improvement or self-exaltation. Only by realizing that no one is righteous or truly wise can we turn to the One who is altogether righteous and wise.

GROUP DISCUSSION

Read Ecclesiastes 7:15-24 and discuss the following.

  1. Which verses stood out most to you as you read Ecclesiastes 7:15-24 this week? Why? What do these verses teach you about who God is?
  2. What is Solomon’s message in verses 15-18? How do these verses relate to verses 13-14? What might application of these verses look like?
  3. If no one is truly righteous or wise, how then are we meant to live wise and righteous lives?

PERSONAL REFLECTION

Because all Scripture profits us through teaching, reproving, correcting, and training us, reflect upon the studied text, and ask yourself the following questions about the present text.

  • What has God taught you about Himself?
  • What sin is God convicting or reproving you of?
  • How is God correcting you?
  • How is God training and equipping you for righteousness?

The Vanity of Laughter Under the Sun | Ecclesiastes 7:1-14

Listen to the sermon here. 

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

Ecclesiastes 7:2 | It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart.

Ecclesiastes 7:14 | In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.

OPENING THOUGHT

Ecclesiastes is a brutally honest study of a post-Genesis 3 life under the sun. Because of sin, death entered the scene, and creation has never been the same. Even as we were meant to live eternally with God, we are now forced to watch as generation after generation comes and goes while the earth remains steadfast. After observing all of this, the Preacher arrives at the conclusion that everything under the sun is vanity, nothing more than the merest of breaths.

For the bulk of the book, Solomon strives to show how he reached his conclusion that all is vanity. He describes his near-endless pursuit of pleasure, his sobering observations on time, his firsthand experience that the love of wealth is unsatisfying, and much more. All of this is organized as an philosophical investigation of trying to find something of lasting meaning in this life.

As we enter the second half of the book, the Preacher continues his declaration of difficult and perplexing teachings. In a series of loosely connected proverbs, Solomon points to the good things of life (like laughter, songs, and feasts) and informs us of what is better (namely, sorrow and mourning). These sayings are so difficult because they cut against the very fiber of our being. Pain is unpleasant, so we shirk pain as an evil to be avoided. Yet Solomon’s message is that pain, sorrow, and adversity do have a place in this life: they are teachers, used by God to show us more of Himself.

GROUP DISCUSSION

Read Ecclesiastes 7:1-14 and discuss the following.

  1. Which verses stood out most to you as you read Ecclesiastes 7:1-14 this week? Why? What do these verses teach you about who God is?
  2. Why does the Preacher proclaim that sorrow is better than laughter, mourning better than feasting, and the day of death than the day of birth?
  3. How is wisdom an advantage even in a world where everything is vanity?
  4. What commands does Solomon give us for days of prosperity and of adversity? What do times of adversity in life teach us?

PERSONAL REFLECTION

Because all Scripture profits us through teaching, reproving, correcting, and training us, reflect upon the studied text, and ask yourself the following questions about the present text.

  • What has God taught you about Himself?
  • What sin is God convicting or reproving you of?
  • How is God correcting you?
  • How is God training and equipping you for righteousness?

The Vanity of Blessings Under the Sun | Ecclesiastes 6

Listen to the sermon here. 

SUGGESTED VERSES FOR MEMORIZATION & MEDITATION

Ecclesiastes 6:3 | If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with life’s good things, and he also has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he.

Ecclesiastes 6:9 | Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the appetite: this also is vanity and a striving after wind.

OPENING THOUGHT

While it isn’t meant to be depressing, the portrait that Ecclesiastes paints of this life is brutal, honest, and bleak. The bleakness of Ecclesiastes is immediately apparent, but it is also real and tangible. This book studies the monotony of everyday life and puts some of those thoughts and feelings into words. It provides a voice to the weariness of life that we all know lurks around each corner.

Thus far, the Preacher has presented before us his investigation to find something under the sun that isn’t vanity. He attempted giving himself to unmitigated pleasure. He studied the rhythms, randomness, and inevitability of time. He observed the necessity of community, while also noting how we each threaten to destroy that community. He has presented what he learned about God and wealth. Yet in each topic, his conclusion is still the same: all is vanity under the sun.

After warning of the vanity of wealth, Solomon now expands his focus beyond the monetary and onto the full breadth of blessings in this life. He soberly declares that even if a man lived two thousand years and had one hundred children, there is still no guarantee that he will actually enjoy the blessings of his life. Like our appetites, our souls constantly crave more, making satisfaction always sought but never gained. Fortunately, there is an answer to the endless desires.

GROUP DISCUSSION

Read Ecclesiastes 6 and discuss the following.

  1. Which verses stood out most to you as you read Ecclesiastes 6 this week? Why? What do these verses teach you about who God is?
  2. How are verses 1-6 related to Ecclesiastes 5:18-20? Why is the failure to enjoy life such a tragedy?
  3. In what ways do you attempt to satisfy the appetite of the soul? What is the alternative to the wandering appetite?
  4. What are the final questions that Solomon asks in this chapter? How does the rest of the Bible answer them?

PERSONAL REFLECTION

Because all Scripture profits us through teaching, reproving, correcting, and training us, reflect upon the studied text, and ask yourself the following questions about the present text.

  • What has God taught you about Himself?
  • What sin is God convicting or reproving you of?
  • How is God correcting you?
  • How is God training and equipping you for righteousness?