LESSON ONE: “WHAT USE IS IT?”
1. Boston College professor Peter Kreeft writes, “Ecclesiastes is the one book in the Bible that modern man most needs to read, for it is Lesson One, and the rest of the Bible is Lesson Two, and modernity does not need Lesson Two because it does not heed Lesson One....Whenever I teach the Bible as a whole, I always begin with Ecclesiastes. In another age, we could begin with God’s beginning, Genesis. But in this age, the Age of Man, we must begin where our patient is: we must begin with Ecclesiastes.” (From Three Philosophies of Life, 20, cited by S. McAllister in Knowing and Doing, Fall 2010)
2. Why? Ecclesiastes isn’t most people’s favorite, and in some ways it’s an odd book.
a. It contains the reflections of a fellow who has had his heart set on finding out what man gains by all his toil (1:2; 3:9; 5:16). He is trying to “figure things out.” He wants to be able to make sense of life.
b. But the opening verses of the book let us in on what he has seen: a world which is an endless cycle of repetition where generations come and go, but in which nothing changes, nothing is really accomplished, nothing satisfies, nothing is new, and nothing matters because neither people nor things are remembered long.
c. The most famous words of the book tell us how things look to him: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” Everything is “vapor,” useless, utterly meaningless! We are engaged in “a chasing after wind” (1:2, 14).
3. That is why! Ecclesiastes is Lesson One because we won’t sense our real need for God until we can see what this man saw.
a. As Kreeft puts it, “In this book God reveals to us exactly what life is when God does not reveal to us what life is.” (23)
b. Some have pointed out that it “represents a brilliant, artful argument for the way one would look at life – if God did not play a direct, intervening role in life and if there were no life after death” and that in that way it is “a reverse apologetic.” (Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, 193).
c. Any heart that gets Ecclesiastes will definitely have a place in it for the gospel!
1. The shape we are really in
a. When the Preacher searches out what man gains by all his toil, he looks in all the same places we look.
i. In fact, he not only tries them all, he also calls them to the witness stand to tell us the truth about ourselves.
ii. He explores education (1:16), laughter and leisure (2:2), projects and possessions (2:4-7), entertainment and sensuality (2:8), as well as prestige and recognition (2:9-10).
iii. Listen to the verbs: “I made myself...I bought...I had...I also gathered...I got...So I became great...” (2:5, 7, 8, 9).
b. But that’s not all he did: he then considered it all.
i. And when he evaluated what he had done, he said there is nothing to be gained in any of it (2:11).
ii. Why? Because the same event happens to all of us, wise or foolish, rich or poor, whether we’ve been around or haven’t (2:14, 16).
iii. We die, and then we have no control over any of the things we’ve toiled after, and none of them are even remembered (2:16, 18).
c. The point that Ecclesiastes drives home is that the things most of us are investing our lives in are pointless.
ii. What a way of saying what an old friend of mine used to say: “There ain’t no use in it!”
iii. Does anything make sense? Or are our lives only a useless pursuit of nothingness, forgotten the moment they are concluded?
2. The limits of our reason and ability
a. Someone has said, “In order to be prepared to hope in what does not deceive, we must first lose hope in everything that deceives.” (G. Bernanos)
i. For example, we would ordinarily depend on our ability to figure things out and fix them.
ii. Where meaning in our lives is concerned, though, Ecclesiastes says that’s exactly we can’t do.
iii. Our efforts not only bring us to dead ends, but are also are plagued with “the law of unintended consequences.”
b. The fact that there are things we are in no position to either figure out or fix is expressed in some vivid ways in this book.
i. 1:15 – “What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.”
ii. 6:12 – “For who knows what is good for man while he lives the few days of his vain life, which he passes like a shadow? For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?”
iii. 11:5 – “As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything.”
c. History has shown that human being can find out much and do a lot with it, but making sense out of life is not high on that list. That is still the work of God.
3. The work of God: part of our question
a. On his journey through life, our writer encounters the things that make life, from an earthly perspective at least, look pointless.
i. In the place of justice there is wickedness, and there are the tears of the oppressed who have no one to comfort them (3:16; 4:1).
ii. The same event happens to the righteous and the wicked (9:2).
iii. Time and chance happen to them all. The race isn’t to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those who have knowledge (9:11).
b. But he is dealing with reality, and in the face of all that we encounter that is beyond us, he still says that God is there.
i. “God is in heaven and you are on earth....God is the one you must fear” (5:2, 7)
ii. God may give a man wealth, possessions, and honor, but not the power to enjoy them (6:2). There may be a day of prosperity and a day of adversity; God made the one as well as the other (7:14).
iii. “Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?” (7:13).
4. Why then do we so deeply long for answers?
a. For some time our son Rob has going to a state prison for a Bible study with a group of men who are inmates. They have been reading through a chapter of the NT each Monday night. This semester he and Anita have also been hosting a group of law students for a Bible study in their home a night or two a month. They have been reading through Ecclesiastes.
i. I told Rob I would be interested in knowing how the responses of the two groups compared.
ii. He said they were surprisingly alike: both had such a hunger to make some kind of sense out of their lives.
b. Harold Kushner wrote, “Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth or power. Those rewards create almost as many problems as they solve. Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter, so that the world may be at least a little bit different for our having passed through it.” (When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough)
c. Vaclav Havel says, “The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.” (Cited by McAllister, Knowing and Doing, Fall 2010)
d. If we let Ecclesiastes do its work, it will bother us because we will have to reflect on things like: God’s presence and his rule; death’s reality and inevitability; life’s incomprehensibility; history’s unpredictability; and our own human vulnerability. And each of these is one reason why we seek meaning.
5. What makes sense for us
a. Ecclesiastes counsels us along two courses of action that tend toward meaningful living: both have to be honored at the same time.
b. One is acceptance – acceptance of the rule of God, and of the good gifts of God, and of the ways of God. Ecclesiastes 3:11-13 is an example....
c. The other is accountability – realizing, while we go about making our souls see good in our toil, that there is a time when God will judge the righteous and the wicked (3:17). Ecclesiastes 11:9 and 12:13-14 are the best examples....
1. Ecclesiastes is Lesson One, what someone called “an ancient book for modern times” (McAllister).
2. But it is the first lesson in a course about Christ, for it says “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (7:20).
a. Not one of us can claim to have made perfect use of what God has given us, nor to be completely ready on our own to give answer to him.
b. And we are all too aware of the “futility” to which creation has been subjected, and because of which it groans (Rom. 8:20, 21).
c. We need to be set free, and he is the one to do it!