Last week we began a new ten part series ASK at the Cathedral – on Ecclesiastes – God’s Word to Today’s World…
This coming Tuesday we will be looking at Ch. 2 “No Satisfaction!- (Why are wealth, wisdom and sex not enough?)” . Feel free to pray wherever you are in the world, come along if you are able (12:15 on Tuesday – bring your own lunch!), bring a friend…invite others…
This is our promo for this week –
Here are the notes from the talk – the notes are fuller than the actual talk – because of the time limit…And here is the video – apologies for the sound quality – we will be doing live stream next Tuesday…
Philip Yancy – Carl Jung tells us that a third of his cases were suffering from no other neurosis other than the ‘senselessness and emptiness of their lives”.
Despair – Why do people commit suicide? Why do people evince such despair? Walker Percy “ Why do more people commit suicide in San Francisco the most beautiful city in America, than in any other city? In Europe the suicide capital is Salzburg, Austria. Why does a man who has a good house, a good job and enjoys unprecedented cultural and recreational facilities still feels bad without knowing why? Existential despair did not come from Auschwitz but from the cafes of Paris, the coffee shops of Copenhagen. Philip Roth – “In the West everything goes and nothing matters. In the East nothing goes and everything matters.”
Wendell Berry speaks of his comfortable US upbringing “we knew and took for granted: marriage without love; sex without joy; drink without conviviality; birth, celebration and death without adequate ceremony; faith without doubt or trial; belief without deeds; manners without generosity…such humanising emotions as pleasure in small profitless things, joy, wonder, ecstasy were removed as by an operation on the brain.
This is a book written by someone who is called The Teacher. It is mainly written by Solomon – or someone in the Solomonic tradition – ch. 1 v. 1. The book is called Ecclesiastes because it means assembly – it is the word from which we get ‘ecclesiastical’ or church. It is a gathering of people who want to listen to the wisdom of the teacher. That is what we are doing here this morning.
Everything is meaningless – or vanity – The word meaningless appears over 35 times in the book. The rich get richer the poor get poorer. Evil people prosper, tyrants reign, disease spreads, everyone dies and turns to dust, life is unfair, nothing makes sense the whole world is twisted. Eat, drink and be merry. What is the point of working hard/ besides which we all die in the end. What is such a book doing in the Bible?
The Dialogue of Pessimism
There was an ancient school of literature which was known as the Pessimistic school. In the Dialogue of Pessimism (a Babylonian work of the fourteenth century BC) suicide is the only answer to the problem of life. In the Epic of Gilgamesh the god Shamash states bluntly ‘The life you pursue you shall not find’. There is a school of writing today which reflects that – Jean Paul Sartre. Camus. Nietzsche. The hopelessness which is felt when you see nothing that will save you – the people jumping out of the Twin Towers building. The elderly Jewish couple who realise what the smoking chimneys at Auschwitz mean and throw themselves upon the electric fences.
Ecclesiastes belongs to this school – yet it has a very different conclusion and meaning. In fact there is a great deal of joy in this. Not the kind of joy that is brought about by ignorance – just ignore it and it will go away. The scene in Schindler’s list where the women are discussing in their barracks the rumours of gas chambers – no it cannot be. Nor the joy that is brought about by illusion, false hope. This is a book that faces up squarely to the reality of life but does not result in despair. Sometimes it seems as though we are only presented with two choices in life – either face up to life with all its bleakness, horror and meaninglessness, or escape into a world of illusion, false hope etc. Whether that illusion might be.
One other point in terms of style. What is happening here? It could be that the Teacher is having a debate with himself. Torn between what he cannot help seeing and what he still cannot help believing. There is a great deal in this. Who of us has not wrestled with doubts and fears?
Or it could be that the Teacher is challenging us – asking the man of the world to think through his position to the bitter end. It is a challenge to the secularist. The Teacher burns at the injustices and wrongs in life, he mourns the passing of youth and the inevitability of death but he looks for something more. The secularist view – which is the prevailing majority opinion in our society – at least by those in power and with influence has a different take. What the teacher is doing is taking what the secularist thinks and asking them to work it out to its logical conclusion. It is a direct challenge. Can you take it?
So let’s go on to look at this first chapter
1) What goes around comes around – v. 2-11.
Everything is meaningless. It is a quote from Psalm 39 – “You rebuke and discipline men for their sin; you consume their wealth like a moth— each man is but a breath. Selah” (Psalm 39:11) Each man is vanity. Hebel. Used 39 times in this book. In this first chapter we see two evidences of that. This meaninglessness/vanity means brief, insubstantial – perhaps froth. Empty, Unreliable. Frail. Futile. Lack of discernible purpose. Absurd. The word is related to wind and mist and is used for things that do not last, cannot be grasped or are not worthwhile. A breath. That is what human life is like. So much of existensalist literature reflects that – Yancy “flat emotions, a radical indifference to others, the sensation of drifting, numbness to pain, a resigned acceptance of a world gone mad” Donnie Darko – Mad World. Camus’s L’Etranger Meursault says – the outsider. “It makes little difference whether one dies at the age of thirty or threescore and ten, since in either case, other men and women will continue living, the world will go on as before”
What about work? What do we gain? The toil here is both physical labour and mental anguish. It is hard work. Trouble. Misery. What is the dividend we get at the end of life? None says the Teacher. On our tombstone is the inscription ‘No Profit’. It is a big zero – when we ad dup the plus’s in our lives and the negatives the balance sheet comes out zero or negative. If there is no meaning there is no profit.
Contrast this with ‘nature’ which seems to go on forever. There is an irony in this verse. Jerome “What is more vain that this vanity: that the earth, which was made for humans, stays – but humans themselves, the lords of the earth, suddenly dissolve into the dust?”. The restless circularity of nature. There is actually though no gain for creation in her toil. The wind blows, the streams flow, the sun rises, the sun sets, the ocean is never full. This last idea is indicative of weariness – everything flows but it is never full. All this activity does nothing significant.
V.8 then goes on to express the human experience of this restless weariness. Despite the activity of the creation it is unable to provide us with any lasting satisfaction. Emotional and psychological satisfaction. There is always more to hear and always more to see. We are never there. And we are always exhausted.
Now we go on to the circularity of human history. The generations come and the generations go – and there does not seem to be much purpose to it. There can be nothing new – history is a closed circuit.
v.10 – But what about that which appears to be new? It is an illusion. But what about nuclear power for example? The technological advances may be new but the people who wield them are not. We get really excited about new inventions that are going to change the world but they soon sink down to our former level. In fact the only reasons things seem new to us is that we have forgotten the past.
v.11 – nihilism. Past events are forgotten. Future events will be forgotten. More personally we will be forgotten. Over 50% of Britain’s under 35’s cannot tell you anything about the Holocaust and do not know what Auschwitz was. Secularism will lead to the same again – “He who does not learn from history is destined to repeat it”.
There is no real progress. .
2) Chasing the wind v. 12-18.
When he tries to understand all this – he grows in knowledge but it does not get him anywhere. His first avenue of escape is philosophy.
v.12 – Solomon as the king had all the resources necessary. He had the libraries, the power and the money. He set his heart – he studied hard and this is what he found. His search project leads to frustration rather than enlightenment.
a) There is a heavy burden God has laid on men. Could also be translated ‘grievous evil ’or‘ miserable businesses. We may live as secularists but the problems we face have been ordained by God. Mankind thinks and plans. We have been wired that way. We want to understand. The problem of life is for us all not just a hobby for philosophers. The quest of meaning is a quest for God and it is something that God has placed in our hearts. Acts ch. 17 v. 26-28. “The creator has instilled in every human being the desire to know the answers to life’s ultimate questions. Part of that which distinguishes humans from animals is the desire to know origin, destiny and purpose; to understand the why and how of all things. Even those who have no walk with the Lord feel this compulsion to discover the truth”
b) Humans are frustrated – v.14 – we desire gain, satisfaction and a sense of progress but that keeps eluding us. We end up chasing wind. Ambition for the unattainable.
c) There are twists and gaps in our thinking – v. 15. More than our thinking. In human life and in the environment. Our wisdom may help in many things but it cannot solve the fundamental problem of life.
The end result of all this was that he also looked at other alternatives – folly, pleasure, money etc. But it all still ended up with the same result. “The more you understand, the more you ache” The wise man becomes ever more conscious of the scope of his ignorance and impotence, of the uncontrollable power of nature, of great evils which he is powerless to remedy. To a certain extent, ignorance is bliss (1:18).
Conclusion: Is that it?
Is there no ‘but’? This is all true. This is the position of the secularist. But is that it? No. You will notice the key expression – ‘under the sun’. It is used 29 times in this book. It means without God. That is the old perspective. With a NT perspective we can see things differently. We still groan, the creation still suffers, and yet we know what is happening and why it is happening and we wait for something different.
Go back to the question of the Creation. Without God it is meaningless. The OT sees the creation as being full of God. But take away God and there is only meaninglessness. No God – what is the point? We are left with Tsunamis and natural disasters, with no explanation and no help. The OT loved the idea of admiring the skies, seeing nature sing for joy and the lessons taught by animals, grass, wind and trees. But without God none of it makes any sense. Look at Romans ch. 8 v. 20 – which refers to Ecclesiastes.
Come back to the idea of history. Is it all pointless? Going nowhere? The Israelite believed that God was in control of history – that it really was ‘His Story’. History is traveling to a goal. Without God there is no purpose and no new thing.
Again with God there is remembrance – we develop a longer term perspective. Later we are to be told by the Teacher to remember our Creator. That is all pointless if he does not exist.
And what about that weariness and exhaustion – that burn out of nature. What did Jesus say? Come to me all you who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest!
And what about you. Are you like the people Job describes..”They spend their years in prosperity and go down to the grave in peace. Yet they say to God, ‘Leave us alone! We have no desire to know your ways. Who is the Almighty, that we should serve him? What would we gain by praying to him?” GK Chesterton – “All men matter. You matter. I matter. It’s the hardest thing in theology to believe.” But it is what Jesus teaches us.