I want you to finish this sentence in your head: “Life is … ?” Now the optimist in me wants to say that life is amazing and wonderful. I’ve just come back from two weeks holidays. I’ve been waking up to beautiful panoramic views of blue sky and green bush each morning. I’ve experienced walking to the top of Australia by climbing mount Kosciusko. My family and I enjoyed having an entire beach to ourselves. And as my wife carries our fourth child in her womb I am super aware that life is precious! As the ad on TV goes, “Life is a gift. Every kick. Every heartbeat.”
But the pessimist (or perhaps the realist) in me also wants to finish the sentence by saying, “Life is unfair!” I think of the lady who lost her unborn child because a drunk driver crashed into her car. This horrible event makes me think that sometimes life is cruel. It is ANZAC Day next week, and it provides yet another reminder of the horrors of war.
The book of Ecclesiastes is a book found in the Old Testament of our Bibles. It was written about a thousand years before Jesus was born—around three thousand years ago. And the way Ecclesiastes would finish this sentence would be to say that “Life is meaningless”.
The author of Ecclesiastes is hunting for life’s meaning. But he is doing it by conducting an experiment, trying to see if he can find meaning in life by looking at what’s in front of his eyeballs. His method is to temporarily leaving his Bible closed. He is conducting a thought experiment in which he allows God out of the picture, and experiments with what he can see, feel, touch, sense, and experience. Can I get meaning from these things “under the sun” without reference to God in heaven. And so he asks, “What is the meaning of life? What is the gain? What is the point? And so far, Ecclesiastes has gone down one dead end after another.
For instance, take your work and your career ambitions. After his extensive experimenting, Ecclesiastes concludes that a person can work hard, but at the end of the day, all his toil only leads to sleepless nights and pain, and no real lasting gain, because when someone must leave their job, another person will come in and will either bin it, update it, or ruin it.
Or again, Ecclesiastes says that a person can buy up and experience all that this world has to offer by pursuing wealth, riches, and possessions, but for all that cannot take a single bit of it beyond the grave. And if someone pursues happiness or pleasure, they will simply end up chasing the next exciting thing in an endless, unfulfilling, meaningless cycle.
I’ve been reading the autobiography of Phil Knight. He’s the founder of Nike. Listen to his outlook on life before he started making running shoes:
“Like all my friends I wanted to be successful. Unlike my friends I didn’t know what that meant. Money? Maybe. Wife? Kids? House? Sure. But deep down I was searching for something else, something more. I wanted my life to be meaningful. Purposeful. Creative. And above all, different. I wanted to leave a mark on the world.”
Phil then booked a round-the-world ticket. Then, when he finds himself at the Great Sphinx in Cairo, it suddenly hit him, that the sun that hammered down on the thousands of men who built those pyramids is the same sun that shone on the millions of visitors who came afterwards, including him—and not a single one of those people has been remembered. Here’s a quote from Phil, “That’s when I realised all is vanity says the Bible, All is now says Zen … and all is dust, says the desert.” Phil Knight is the modern day equivalent to the author of Ecclesiastes.
In Ecclesiastes chapters 7 and 8, our writer sets his sights on wisdom. He considers that just maybe, life is all about being wise and making the right decisions. Ecclesiastes 7:25:
So I turned my mind to understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things and to understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly. (NIV)
Now I don’t know what you think about when you hear the word ‘wisdom’. But whatever we do, we can’t make the mistake of thinking that ‘wisdom’ equals ‘information’. We are drowning in information overload these days, what with ‘podcasts’, ‘YouTube’, ‘Wikipedia’, smartphones. This is the age of ‘Google Assistants’, of ‘Siris’, of ‘Alexa’ and ‘Echo’.
But just because we can tell a device to switch off the lights, or ask it what the weather is going to be today, that doesn’t make us wise.
So let me give you a heads up about where we’re going in the rest of this talk. We’re about to look at five scenarios designed to show us that at best human wisdom can only make sense of some things but not all things. You can be street smart, book smart, you can have smartphones and your PhDs, but ultimately it’s all meaningless.
What we all really need is not so much wisdom that’s neat and tidy because life’s not like that. Instead we need wisdom that’s outside the box, wisdom that rattles the cage, wisdom that will expose our simplistic, shallow, sloppy ways of thinking. Ecclesiastes will points us in the direction of someone who can and does provide us ultimate wisdom.
The other day, my daughter played a quick game of “Would you rather?” with me. Would you rather eat 73 pieces of Vegemite on toast in one sitting or leap from a five-storey building into a giant bowl of cornflakes and milk? I am with you who choose jumping into a cereal bowl? If nothing else, it’ll be fun! Here’s another one for you animal lovers out there. Would you rather eat a handful of sleep from a dog’s eye, or a handful of wax from a cat’s ear?
In Ecclesiastes 7, we’re dealing with a different kind of “would you rather” questions, only there’s a lot more at stake. Here the writer of Ecclesiastes asks, “Would you rather be at a funeral or a festival? Deep down, would you rather have a fine reputation or a fancy car? Would you rather laugh or cry?”
So often, wisdom is all about choosing what is better. That is the key word here—‘better’. It pops up seven times in the space of eight verses, starting in Ecclesiastes 7:1, “A good name is better than fine perfume”.
Remember that there were no “Chemist Warehouses” back in those days, with aisles of fragrances, perfumes, and scented oils. Perfumes were valuable back then, but not as valuable as wearing the cologne of good character, or the perfume of a positive reputation.
Those who live under the same roof as us often see us at our worst. But rather than making others walk on eggshells around us, or numbing the pain with alcohol, it is far better to say sorry, seek forgiveness, and exercise self-control. That’s the wise thing to do.
Here at church, before anyone steps into any type of leadership position, we take character very seriously. Character counts. As a church, we value godliness over giftedness, because leadership is not about making us look good, but showing how good Jesus really is. Verses 1 to 4 continues in this way:
The day of death better than the day of birth. It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart. Frustration is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure. (NIV)
Death is a better teacher than birth. You’re better off being at a funeral than a feast or a festival. Only when was the last time you actually wanted to be at a funeral? But as I look back at the funerals I’ve been to over the years, each of them in their own unique way confronted me with my own mortality. As painful as they were, everyone funeral, from the elderly man to the one year old baby boy, reminded me of my coming death in a way that a birthday party or a wedding hasn’t. That’s why the Psalmist says in Psalm 90.12, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
It is no good thinking about death when it’s your turn to be put in a coffin. Now is the time to make wise choices.
Here’s a thought for you: “Your last day on earth can be better than your first day on earth. Your last day, the day of your death, can actually be better than your birthday, all thanks to Jesus. Because on the day that Jesus was born, God turned up in the flesh. But that’s not end of story, because the one born in that crude wooden box went to die on a cruel wooden cross. Jesus’ death on our behalf secured everlasting peace, grounds our confidence, and provides solid hope. That is why the day of our deaths can be better than the day of our births, because we can before we die side with Jesus Christ, the one who stared death in the face and conquered it!
Thomas Boston puts it like this: “In the day of his birth he was born to die but in the day of his death he dies to live”—and I would add, Jesus lives forever.
Ecclesiastes then turns his attention away from your funeral and mine to the days leading up to it, to discuss how we should live out our days. Chapter 7 verse 8: "The end of a matter is better than its beginning, and patience is better than pride.”
Stick-ability is the name of the game here. Starting something is exciting, but it’s not in the same league as finishing it. I don’t need to remind you how good it is to see the end of that sucker, whether it’s a course of study, a work project, a home renovation, or saving up for something. It’s worth it when you reach your goal.
All these things require patience. ‘Patience’ carries that idea of long-suffering. It could well be that God wants us to hurry up and wait when we wish that God would hurry up and do something. Patience is need in many areas of life. Perhaps it is with your spouse—the wise spouse gives up trying to fix their partner’s annoying habits but instead encourages them to pursue godliness. Or perhaps you need to be patient with long-term singleness—better to keep your eyes fixed on Jesus than on who can be your marriage partner. But we’re all works in progress. So friends, don’t give up. God hasn’t! He’s committed to you for the long haul, and maybe more than we are ourselves. God’s shown this by giving you his Spirit to live and changing you from the inside out. Wisdom is beneficial. Chapter 7 verses 11 and 12:
Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing and benefits those who see the sun. Wisdom is a shelter as money is a shelter, but the advantage of knowledge is this: Wisdom preserves those who have it. (NIV)
Wisdom is good when life gets messy and complicated because wisdom preserves our souls. It keeps our heads above water. But as good or valuable or desirable as wisdom is under the sun, it only gets you so far. For there are times when life deals an unfair blow. Chapter 7 verse 15:
In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: the righteous perishing in their righteousness, and the wicked living long in their wickedness. (NIV)
What does wisdom bring to the table when good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people? Back in February, a driver was looking at his mobile whilst driving for 20 seconds. What was this guy thinking! If that wasn’t bad enough, he ran into two cops who were setting up a Random Breath Test stop. They were simply doing their job, trying to keep drunk drivers off the road, and one of them ended up having his leg amputated! You could probably rattle off countless more similar stories in your own life or of people you know. What does wisdom bring to these situations?
Or what about chapter 8 verse 9, when someone lords it over others? What can wisdom do in the context of an abuse of power? Or in verse 10, there’s nothing wise about a wicked man getting a state funeral? Again and again we see just how limited earthly wisdom really is. Human wisdom just can’t cope when the innocent suffer and the wicked prosper.
Remember that the writer is looking at life under the sun. He is looking at human wisdom, which can certainly help, but will not ultimately satisfy the soul.
We see this when life gets frustrating, when your hands are tied and when there are things that are outside your control. Perhaps you are like me, and you like to have ‘all your ducks in a row’. You’ve got your diary all mapped out, and your ‘to do’ list ready to tick off. I call it organised. Others call it being a control freak. Well, start of Ecclesiastes chapter 8 is especially addressed to us, verses 2 to 3:
Obey the king’s command, I say, because you took an oath before God. 3 Do not be in a hurry to leave the king’s presence. Do not stand up for a bad cause, for he will do whatever he pleases. (NIV)
The writer is imagining a king and one of his officials. But this could just as easily apply to your boss, your parents, or someone in authority over you. Inevitably in these sorts of relationships, there’s going to be a power struggle. The person who is in control won’t always get things right, and the other person won’t always do what the person in control wants them to do. Power can and will be abused. And as frustrating as that can be, and as tempting as it is to take matters into your own hands, the voice of wisdom says, “Obey your king!” A wise servant will say to his king (and every other authority God’s put in place), “Your wish is my command”.
Someone who tasted this frustration firsthand day in day out was Helmuth Von Moltke. Helmuth was drafted to work in counterintelligence for Nazi Germany. But he was also a Christian, and therefore a staunch opponent of Hitler. On the one hand, resorting to violence to take down the Nazis was off-limits for him. But he could make the best of a bad situation. And so he sought to rescue from certain death as many prisoners of the Nazis as possible. Not surprisingly, he was eventually accused of treason, put on trial, and sentenced to death. In his final letter home to his beloved wife Freya, he quotes what the judge asked him at his trial. “Only in one respect does the National Socialism resemble Christianity”, the judge shouted. “We demand the whole man. From whom do you take your orders, from the other world or from Adolf Hitler? Where lie your loyalty and your faith?”
It was a no brainer for Helmuth. He knew exactly where his loyalty and his faith lay—not with Hitler, but Jesus. And that’s exactly what he told his earthly judge. His faith had enabled him to act wisely in government service, and now it enabled him to act even more wisely when he faced his final hour. He’d taken chapter 8 verse 5 to heart:
Whoever obeys his command will come to no harm, and the wise heart will know the proper time and procedure. (NIV)
All of this is the best that human wisdom can offer with no God in the picture. That’s as good as it gets! Now remember what I said earlier, that the writer is deliberately driving us in the direction of someone who’s got something better on offer, someone who can give us ultimate answers. The writer drops three quick clues.
The first is in chapter 7 verses 13 to 14:
Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked? When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider this: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, no one can discover anything about their future.
After trying so hard to keep God out of the picture, the writer of Ecclesiastes finally throws his hands in the air as if to say, “Alright, alright, I give up! There’s only so many fridge magnets and one liners I can handle! I can’t put up with another self-help book, or another psychobabble podcast! The only way I can make sense of the world is to turn to a God who is the author of all things, who knows the future.”
And this is the same God who, in the person and work of Jesus, has plunged headfirst into our messed up world to fix it up, to secure an eternity where there are no more frustrations or hardships, financial, relational, mental, or physical, and of no more mess-ups, mix-ups, or stuff-ups. But before then, a day is coming when all wrongs will be righted, and when all that is crooked with this world will be straightened, which leads us to the second clue in chapter 8 verses 12 to 13:
Although a wicked person who commits a hundred crimes may live a long time, I know that it will go better with those who fear God, who are reverent before him. 13 Yet because the wicked do not fear God, it will not go well with them, and their days will not lengthen like a shadow. (NIV)
What a relief that God has in store a day when he’ll hold people accountable. But not only do we turn to a God who knows the future, but we have a God who knows us better than we know ourselves. Here is the third clue, which is also God’s verdict on you, me, and every other human in verse 20.
Indeed, there is no one on earth who is righteous, no one who does what is right and never sins. (NIV)
There is not a human alive today who can claim to be sinless, who has met God’s standards 100% all the time, whether it’s in their thought lives, in what comes out of their mouths, and in their actions.
At the end of the day, these three points remind us that God has power over the good and the bad, that accountability is around the corner, and that we’re not as good as we think we are. It’s those three things that help us make sense of life.
Now Christians are definitely not immune from what goes on in our world. Just because we side with Jesus, that doesn’t make us bulletproof or protect us in bubble wrap. The curve balls that life throws our way don’t simply ricochet and bounce off us. We too experience broken relationships, suffering, cancers. These things don’t discriminate between saved and unsaved people.
But Christians are people who’ve found answers, who’ve latched onto the only thing that makes sense, both in this life and the life to come.
With no God in the picture, we can all say, “Wisdom is a good thing”. But once you put God in the picture, you can definitely say, “Life can and does make sense.
And so, returning to our statement at the beginning, “Life is … ?” Life is best lived on God’s terms. Life is recognizing we’re not wiser than God! Life is living and believing that his way is always the best way. Ecclesiastes asks us which type of person we want to be.
Do you want to be someone who goes through life simply with human, earthly wisdom? Do you want to be someone who “googles” their way through life, who asks “Siri” or “Alexa”, anyone and everyone but the God who made you? Or do you want to be a different person, knowing full well that human wisdom won’t cut it, that it’s a dead end, and that instead you need divine wisdom that can only be found and revealed in the Bible. God’s wisdom is seen in a person an ordinary Jewish man whom God sent, who claimed to be king, and who died the most shameful of deaths on a cross in full view of everyone. That sounds like complete and utter foolishness in the world’s eyes, but it’s absolutely genius in God’s eyes, because it’s God’s way of offering forgiveness of sins. And three days later, God proved that Jesus Christ really is king, by raising him to life, never to die again.
If you’ve surrendered your crown and given it to Jesus, then the word to you is ‘keep going’. As tough and tiresome as it is, in the midst of worries and weariness and despite the fears that you’re missing out, keep going. With your Bible in hand, the lens through which we make sense of ourselves and the world, keep going by reading it, obeying it, trusting it, meditating on it. These words are your life!
And for those of you who haven’t yet taken the hand of Jesus, I want to ask, “Is life really better with Jesus?”
Someone who knew life was better with Jesus was Charles Ward. He was a sergeant in the US Army. In one of his last letters home, he wrote, “I hope I may come home again but life here is uncertain.” A few days later, Ward was wounded. And within the week he died. But in his last letter home he wrote, “Dear Mother, I may not again see you but do not fear for your tired soldier boy. Death has no fears for me. My hope is still firm in Jesus. Meet me … and Father in Heaven with all my dear friends. I have no special message to send you but bid you all a happy farewell. Your affectionate and soldier son, Charles Ward.”
How does Ecclesiastes itself finish the sentence I asked you at the beginning? Life is not about knowing all the answers. Instead, life is all about trusting and living for the one who does!