Vanity
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Vanity

Solomon - Ecclesiastes 2

It is a curious fact that most Christians are taught the seven last things, including the second coming of Christ and the bodily resurrection of the church -- but are seldom taught why this is important. The result is that they are convinced that such doctrine has no practical application in their daily lives -- it’s all “other-worldly.” Yet, at no time in human history has this doctrine been more practical. The age in which we live reeks with existential sadness. Consider this incident:

Novelist Ayn Rand had mesmerized a student audience at Yale University with her prickly ideas. Afterward a reporter from Time magazine asked her, "Miss Rand, what's wrong with the modern world?" Without hesitation she replied, "Never before has the world been so frantically committed to the idea that no answers are possible. "To paraphrase the bible," she continued, "The modern attitude is, 'father, forgive us, for we know not what we are doing -- and please don't tell us!'"

Solomon anticipated this attitude 3,000 years ago in his wisdom writing, the book of Ecclesiastes. We shall see what he made of the meaninglessness (“no answers are possible”) of life.

The Road Atlas of Folly

The Road of Pleasure

{2:1} 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?" {3} I 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. -- Ecclesiastes 2:1-3 (NIV)

The road of pleasure is a four lane freeway in our time. Never before has so much money been devoted simply to pleasure. Everything from amusement parks to “adult” nightclubs are in ample supply. But see what Solomon has to say; he has tried it all. He had the money, the power, and the time to try it all, and he did. Here are some thoughts:

·         Laughter is foolish - and we hire comedians to make us laugh. It is no accident that clowns are a diminishing breed, found only in the antique of the circus, while comedians are everywhere. Comedians are there only for a laugh; if all you are after is a laugh, then anything and everything must be funny. That breeds the cynicism which passes for humor today. But clowns understand that tragedy and comedy are the same art; have you ever seen Weary Willy (Emmett Kelley) sweep the spotlights together?

·         Pleasure accomplishes nothing. You may have sex with a woman for twenty years and give her up in a night for a younger woman; if you love a woman that long, she becomes part of you. This is accomplishment.

·         Finally, there is wine. “A man’s got to believe in something. I believe I’ll have another drink.” The drunkards of the world are tragic testimony to those who rely on drink for their meaning.

The Road of Success

{4} I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. {5} I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. {6} I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. {7} I 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. {8} I 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. {9} I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me. {10} I 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. {11} 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.

-- Ecclesiastes 2:4-11 (NIV)

Solomon now tries the way of the world: the party is over, he will be a “real man,” he will get something done. This is the way we react as we get a little older. Look at what he attempts:

·         First, there is accomplishment. It can be small (look at my garden, my pets, my whatever) or large (my great achievements) -- but in either case, when it is done, it fails to satisfy. Interestingly, it can provide great feelings of success along the way. One way to look at it is provided by Queen Elizabeth: when asked how she remembered the accomplishments of the dozens of people she knighted at a ceremony one year, she stated simply that she asked each one, “What will you do next?” The reply never failed to tell her what they had done, and what they were.

·         Next, there is the joy of “being the boss.” I’m important, I’m worthwhile, because all these people listen to me and must do what I say. Perhaps you might recall what you’ve said about all those important people who were your boss.

·         Finally, there are the rewards of business success: money, entertainment and sex. I recall one comment from one of my former students who said that “a man can tell a woman’s bra size with just one glance. And a woman can tell a man’s wallet size just as fast.” This is success?

It’s interesting to note that all of these look like success at the time. The sense of accomplishment, of power, of conquest, all look great. It is only when Solomon “surveyed” all that he had done that he saw how meaningless it is. One tactic we use with great success is to refrain from surveying; we let sleeping worms lie.

The Road of Wisdom

{12} Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom, and also madness and folly. What more can the king's successor do than what has already been done? {13} I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness. {14} The wise man has eyes in his head, while the fool walks in the darkness; but I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both. {15} Then I thought in my heart, "The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?" I said in my heart, "This too is meaningless." {16} For 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!

-- Ecclesiastes 2:12-16 (NIV)

With a sigh, Solomon gives it up. Wisdom is better than folly -- indeed, the universe is constructed along that principle -- but, as John Maynard Keynes once said (when asked what he meant by “in the long run”) “In the long run, we’re all dead.” So do the best you can with it, but realize that it’s a losing struggle. One of the most brilliant philosophers of the twentieth century put it this way:

The life of man is a long march through the night, surrounded by invisible foes, tortured by weariness and pain, towards a goal that few can hope to reach and where none can tarry long. One by one, as they march, our comrades vanish from our sight, seized by the silent orders of omnipotent death.

Brief and powerless is man's life, on his and all his race the slow, sure doom falls, pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way. For man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gates of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day.

The Existential Conclusion

What is Solomon’s reaction to this, that wisest of all living?

{17} So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. {18} I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. {19} And 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. {20} So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun.

-- Ecclesiastes 2:17-20 (NIV)

You see the point? I have to leave my “stuff” to some kid -- and who knows if he’ll even be smart enough to know what to do with it? (Those who have a sense of craftsmanship hate to retire). I put out the effort; he gets control of it; I am in despair.

{21} For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. {22} What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?

-- Ecclesiastes 2:21-22 (NIV)

You see the point? Where do I get my reward? I did all the work, the kid doesn’t even appreciate it or know what to do with it, and what do I get for it? No wonder he thinks “all is vanity!” Solomon comes then the conclusion the existentialists have come to: the “foundation of unyielding despair” that Russell talked of. Perhaps Shakespeare’s Macbeth said it best:

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage And then is heard no more. It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.

Solomon will not go quite that far. He will give you the best the earth has to offer:

{23} All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless. {24} 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, {25} for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? {26} To 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.

-- Ecclesiastes 2:23-26 (NIV)

You see his prescription for the best this meaningless life can offer:

·         Be content in what you have to eat and drink (consider the lilies of the field?). Don’t pursue more; enjoy what you have.

·         Find satisfaction in your work. Neither work to live alone, nor yet live to work - but be a craftsman who takes pleasure in his accomplishments.

·         Be pleasing to God, and thus gain wisdom, knowledge and happiness.

There is the end of the matter. Life is without hope; make the best of it. So it would remain, for man’s wisdom alone cannot penetrate this veil. That is why when Western society rejected God it drove steadily to the conclusion that life is meaningless. There is no hope -- in man’s wisdom.

My hope is built on nothing less....

{5} Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.

-- Psalms 43:5 (NIV)

Against all this despair, the Jew was taught -- by faith -- to hope in God. The time had not yet arrived with the answer. Wisdom alone, not enlightened by revelation, cannot penetrate the mysteries of God. Our society today declares the grave the end -- indeed, some of us don’t want to find out that we may be mistaken about it:

In a cemetery in Hanover, Germany, is a grave on which were placed huge slabs of granite and marble cemented together and fastened with heavy steel clasps. It belongs to a woman who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. Yet strangely, she directed in her will that her grave be made so secure that if there were a resurrection, it could not reach her. On the marker were inscribed these words: "This burial place must never be opened." In time, a seed, covered by the stones, began to grow. Slowly it pushed its way through the soil and out from beneath them. As the trunk enlarged, the great slabs were gradually shifted so that the steel clasps were wrenched from their sockets. A tiny seed had become a tree that had pushed aside the stones.

The dynamic life force contained in that little seed is a faint reflection of the tremendous power of God's creative word that someday will call to life the bodies of all who are in their graves. He will also bring back every person drowned at sea, cremated, or destroyed in some other way. This is no problem to the one who made something out of nothing when he spoke the universe into existence.

Indeed, it is well worth remembering Christ’s funeral sermons. There weren’t any; he specialized in resurrections.

This is the answer for the Christian. The grave is not the end -- and therefore life is not meaningless, but very much given with a purpose, and greatly endowed with hope. What is that hope?

{13} while we wait for the blessed hope--the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, -- Titus 2:13 (NIV)

Indeed, the resurrection of the body provides us with the answer to many of life’s great dilemmas:

All these questions have the same answer.

·         What is it that gives a widow courage as she stands beside a fresh grave?

·         What is the ultimate hope of the cripple, the amputee, the abused, the burn victim?

·         How can the parents of brain-damaged or physically handicapped children keep from living their entire lives totally and completely depressed?

·         Why would anyone who is blind or deaf or paralyzed be encouraged when they think of the life beyond?

·         How can we see past the martyrdom of some helpless hostage or devoted missionary?

·         Where do the thoughts of a young couple go when they finally recover from the grief of losing their baby?

·         When a family receives the tragic news that a little daughter was found dead or their dad was killed in a plane crash or a son overdosed on drugs, what single truth becomes their whole focus?

·         What is the final answer to pain, mourning, senility, insanity, terminal diseases, sudden calamities, and fatal accidents?

By now you've guessed correctly: the hope of bodily resurrection.

That hope makes life worth living. Indeed, it makes it worth living in a special way. As the Apostle John put it,

{2} Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. {3} Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure. -- 1 John 3:2-3 (NIV)

It is coming; are we getting ready for it? Depend upon it:

{25} Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; {26} and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" -- John 11:25-26 (NIV)

If you believe this, what are you doing about it?

·         Are you living your life for pleasure, or for accomplishment, or even in “wisdom” -- or are you living it for the Lord, watching for His return?

·         Are you purifying your life, knowing that He will expect return for the “talents” that he has given you?

·         With whom have you shared the one thing that Christians have and the world so desperately needs -- the hope in Jesus Christ?

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