Saturday, November 20, 2010

Chasing the Wind and the Words of the Preacher

I needed Ecclesiastes this week. Life is real and life can be painful, and God was good to let me hear Alistair Begg on the radio teaching a little from that book the other day. So I decided to turn to its pages once again and am so glad I did.

The message of Ecclesiastes is a confirmation that no, you're not crazy, and yes, the creation is in trouble and all our lives reflect that. It is because of the fall of Adam in the garden, because of the disastrous effects of sin. We're all now subject to the vanity of all worldly pursuits. They are all "fleeting, ephemeral, and elusive," as the ESV Study Bible introduction to the book puts it; the word translated "vanity" (over 38 times) in Ecclesiastes is literally "vapor." It is the same word and idea Paul uses in Romans 8 as he explains that in the Fall, the "creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it" (Romans 8:20).

We all know this, deep down. We may forget it for periods at a time, we may push it to the backs of our minds, but it only takes the right difficult circumstance to remind us vividly that the world is broken, and so to a great extent are our lives. It is a fact too painful to be acknowledged apart from hope. Some of the philosophers acknowledged it and came up with observations and solutions that lead nowhere but to a stoic bearing up under it all until death comes in relief. Some of the philosophers ended in despair. But that's not where Ecclesiastes goes. Thank God!

The message of Ecclesiastes is the greatest of news for the weary, the hopeless, the one who has "eyes wide open" and does not want to sugar-coat this life. The good news is this: God has told us all that he expects of his people (Micah 6:8). It is not too hard for us! (Deuteronomy 30:11-14, Romans 10:6-8, Matthew 11:28-30). That is because of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh who "came near" to make a way for us to heaven and to the resurrection (John 14:6). (Yes, I know Ecclesiastes doesn't know all this yet, but this is the way the Bible interprets itself.) More good news, straight from the pages of Ecclesiastes:

"He [God] has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I [the Preacher] perceived that there is nothing better for them [the children of men, that's us] than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil--this is God's gift to man" (Ecclesiastes 3:11-13). Isn't that such kindness from God?

God is sovereign over all our affairs, whether we have abundance (materially) or little: "In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him" (Ecclesiastes 7:14). Quit trying to play God, and relax! Trust him who holds all these things in his sovereign hands.

Don't labor and toil for vain things, but do toil: "Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot [there's God's sovereignty again!]. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil--this is the gift of God. For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart" (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20).

The message of Ecclesiastes is that there is so much about God's ways and his decretive (secret) purposes we don't know, that therefore we should live the short life we have on this earth humbly, in recognition of that, but in gratitude for the blessings of work, and family and God's provision for us (Ecclesiastes 9:7-9), whether little or a lot (it's always enough!). We should not be puffed up and "think more highly of ourselves than we ought to" (Romans 12:3). All mankind is in the same boat--the end of us all is the grave (Ecclesiastes 9:1-2). All this wisdom and truth of Ecclesiastes is to be understood in the New Testament revelation of Christ and what God did through him to win our salvation. For those who have received the truth of the gospel there is Heaven to look forward to.

Ecclesiastes ends with this: "The end of the matter: all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment with every secret thing, whether good or evil" (Ecclesiastes 12:13). This is the key to living. Life is complicated and fraught with difficulty, even evil, but God has given us a compass that points true North as we journey through: "Fear God and keep his commandments." He gave us the best motivation to do so, as well: "For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil." In between those two things lies our life, to be lived in simple, glad obedience, trust and gratitude.

I'm so thankful for Ecclesiastes. It's words are like "goads" (Ecclesiastes 12:11), the sharp, pointed sticks that keep the flock to the right path, and they are like "nails firmly fixed" (12:11), providing "moral and intellectual stability" (from the ESV Study Bible explanatory notes). It has been that for me over the past few days. Vanity, vanity, all is vanity apart from Christ. All flesh is as grass; the grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of the Lord, it lasts forever (1 Peter 1:22-25).

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