I mentioned a few weeks ago in chapel at Union a bit about my great uncle. He got married when he and his wife were both very young, and they spent a number of years together, happily married, raising their children. Then, about twelve years ago, his wife started showing signs of early onset Alzheimer’s. And of course it just got worse and worse, so that he spent the next ten years of his life caring for her. Eventually it got so bad that he had to put her in a nursing home, and he would get up in the morning, go to work, work all day, leave work, go to the nursing home until bedtime, then come home, go to sleep, wake up the next morning, and do it all again. Finally, two years ago, his wife died.
After years of caring for his wife, my great uncle struggled for the next year after her death. He was depressed, having made caring for his wife the focus of his life, and now she was gone. But finally, after a year, he met and married a godly Christian woman. We were all excited for him, hoping that he would know some happiness and peace that had no doubt been difficult to come by the previous eleven years. However, after they had been married only a brief while, my great uncle was diagnosed with cancer, that ended up taking his life earlier this month.
And you know one thing that I think the Preacher (most likely Solomon), the author of Ecclesiastes, would say to that story? I think he would say, “I could multiply stories just like that.” In fact, that’s one very good reason why we shouldn’t seek our lasting significance or lasting gain in this world only, on this side of eternity. And I think he would say that because that’s where he turns in the next section of Ecclesiastes—his observations of great troubles and tragedies in life.
By way of review (especially since the last two Sundays bracketed Thanksgiving break), the thesis of Ecclesiastes is given to us in 1:2-3. In verse 3 the preacher asks a question that he has just answered in verse 2. He asks, “What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” That is, if we consider life on this side of eternity only, and we ask ourselves, what kind of lasting significance or gain or profit do we get by all of our toiling about in life (again, considering this life only), the preacher’s implied answer is that we gain nothing. And the reason we gain nothing is because of what verse 2 tells us. Life is “vanity,” or a better translation is that life is a mist, a vapor, a puff of smoke. So, you can labor and toil for eighty years, thinking that you’re making your mark on the world, getting lasting significance and meaning out of this world, and getting lasting gain, but inevitably (unless the Lord returns), you’re going to die and in only a few generations be forgotten. Therefore, do not live trying to extract from this world what it cannot offer you. Do not live trying to get from this world what can only and ultimately be found in Christ. That’s the main thesis of Ecclesiastes.
Then, in 1:12-2:26, the Preacher shows us that he is not saying this simply because it seems reasonable for him to make such an argument. Rather, he is arguing from his own experience. He actually set out to see if he could get from this world some kind of lasting gain or profit or significance. He went after wisdom, pleasure, alcohol, building projects, work and industry, riches, and sex, and in the end, he concluded that the world on this side of Genesis 3 simply cannot provide us with the lasting meaning and significance and gain that our hearts long for. Therefore, we do not go through life thinking of this world as our lasting home, rather, we live for a world to come. We willingly give what we cannot keep to gain what we cannot lose, to paraphrase Jim Elliott.
But at the same time, the Preacher does not suggest that we go through life rejecting everything that comes our way. Rather, instead of trying to always get gain, simply accept life as a gift. Instead of seeing that relationship, or job, or project as something that will finally make you valuable and worthwhile, see it as a gift from God, give thanks to him, and enjoy it as his kindness to you in this life. And this move from the pursuit of gain to the acceptance of God’s good gifts is crucial to walking through life in a way that not only keeps us from constant frustration but frees us to delight in and honor our Lord along the way.
Well, when we come to the next section we’re going to look at (3:1-6:9), we see that the Preacher is now no longer describing his pursuit of gain through all of these avenues that he tells us was like chasing after wind, but he is instead reporting to us what he’s seen in this world as he’s observed it.i And what he’s going to show us is that he’s witnessed much that is troubling, if one hopes in this life only. But he’s not going to leave us there. Instead, he gives us a foundation for walking through this world, and then gives us some application for how to walk through this life in a way that honors our Lord. First, let’s start with the foundation he gives us. It is that God is working out his purposes and plans throughout this life.
God is in control and is working out his purposes and plans in this life
He shows us this in 3:1-15. In 3:1-8, he tells us, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (3:1). Then, he goes through all of the events that happens in our lives: being born and dying, weeping and laughing, seeking and losing, loving and hating, war and peace, and on and on. And his point is really two-fold: God is in control of all of these things, and we are not. He brings these themes together by noting, as he says in verse 11, “[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.” And again, he writes in 3:14, “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him.”
In other words, God is in control of the times and seasons and events of life. He’s carrying out his purposes and plans in ways that encompass all of the events of our lives. And in time, he will fit it all together, making “everything beautiful in its time.” If we could pull ourselves out of time and look at it from an eternal perspective, we would see this. It would be like a beautiful tapestry, all coming together beautifully so that even the things that man intended for evil, we would see God’s loving wisdom in bringing about good. That’s comforting, isn’t it?
But, also, God has not made us mere beasts, as if we’re one of the animals. Rather, he has put eternity into our hearts, but not so that we can find out what God has done from beginning to end. In other words, we don’t just go through this world like animals. We see stories like my great uncle’s story, and we wonder why that happened, how is it ultimately good, etc.? That is, we have eternity in our hearts. But, we can’t figure it out. We don’t have answers. Nor can we control it. We cannot add or take away from what God is doing so as to frustrate his ultimate purposes and plans that he is carrying out.
Thus, we go through life wondering about all kinds of things, but without answers and unable to control them. However, our foundation is that the God who created the world, redeemed us through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, and loves us is indeed in control and is working all things together so that they will be beautiful in their time. That’s the foundation that the Preacher gives us as we consider life on this side of eternity.
With that said, however, he is very much a realist and gives us the sum of his observations in 3:16-6:9, which is that we will witness much that is troubling in this life. So, we’ve moved from foundation (God is in control) to observation (we will witness much that is troubling in this life).
We will witness much that is troubling in this life
Now this point that we will witness much that is troubling in this life is simply a summary of what we see from 3:16-6:9. And obviously by looking at this large of a section of text, we don’t have the time to go into great detail on each section, but let me summarize each section as best I can. First, in 3:16-22, the preacher tells us that there is injustice in the world
As he makes his observations about life under the sun, the Preacher writes in 3:16, “Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness.” Now, he knows that God will balance the books in the end, as he continues in 3:17, “I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work.”
So, yes, he knows God will in eternity bring justice, but now, under the sun, there’s all kinds of injustice in the world. He mentions one seeming injustice in 3:19, writing, “For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies another. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity.”
I’ve referenced this before, but several years ago I watched a documentary about a cave diver. It was this guy who would strap on his scuba gear and go explore caves under water, wearing a camera on his head to record his experiences. Well, along the way he found the body of a man that had disappeared in that area years prior, so he talked with the family, let them know, and decided to go retrieve the body for a proper burial. However, the documentary ended in a devastating way. As the man goes does into the cave, getting this body put in a body bag in order to bring him up to the top proved harder than he realized, he started breathing heavily, and he eventually ran out of oxygen and died down there so that eventually both his body and the body of the man who had died earlier both floated to the top. And the documentary ended with you watching his camera and hearing him simply stop breathing, and it bothered me for days.
As I thought about it, though, what bothered me was not that I was unpleasantly roped in to watching a man die from the perspective of his head camera. What bothered me was to see the in-your-face frailty of human life. He died just because he couldn’t get air. That’s it. It wasn’t some heroic death in battle. He just ran out of air, just like an animal. And I thought to myself, “He, as a human, is much more valuable than some animal, but he died just the same.” That’s what the Preacher notes as well. There’s all kinds of seeming injustice, including man simply dying and being pushed aside, just like an animal. Then, in 4:1-6, he notes that there is little love for neighbor.
Little love for neighbor (4:1-6)
Another troubling thing the Preacher observed is that there is little love for neighbor in this life. He notes in 4:1-2 that he saw such oppression that he concluded the dead are better off than the living. And he roots this in envy, writing in 4:4, “Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from a man’s envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.”
When people don’t know the Lord and live for only this life under the sun, seeking to extract gain from this world, then it puts you in a place where your neighbors are your competitors. There are only so many riches, only so much glory, only so much pleasure, you tell yourself. And so in your pursuit of this lasting gain, you push down your neighbor. David Gibson notes that “any friend can share your sorrows and failures, but it takes a true friend to share your joys and successes.”ii He’s right because this requires you (minimally) putting a halt to your own pursuit of gain and rejoicing in that which is gained by your neighbor.
He mentions in 4:6 the fool who is lazy and does not work, but even that is unloving toward one’s neighbor because one reason we work is so that we might be able to give. Merely looking for how we might get gain ourselves can convince us to spend less hours working when perhaps we should spend more. But I don’t think I have to convince you that this is prevalent in the world. We see it all the time—envy, competition, backbiting, and destruction of our neighbors—all because we’re trying to get gain for ourselves from this life.
Loneliness and isolation (4:7-16)
In 4:7-8 he speaks of a man who has no family and yet is laboring, never satisfied with riches, so he continues to sacrifice for more and more gain, never asking for whom he is laboring. Similarly, he ends this section in verses 13-16 talking about a king who goes from prison to the throne—a true success story—but he grows old and stubborn, and another is lined up to take his place, having forgotten about him altogether.
And we could add our own stories as well, couldn’t we? Some of the most successful people in the world have chased after drugs and other self-destructive behavior, not because they haven’t achieved what so many other convince themselves they want, but because they felt lonely, isolated, hurt, and unable to deal with pain. Not much has changed since the Preacher made his observations of the world around him.
But before we move on, let me note one more observation the Preacher mentions. In 5:8-6:9 he notes constant dissatisfaction and the vain pursuit of riches all around him.
Dissatisfaction and the vain pursuit of riches (5:8-6:9)
He writes in 5:10, “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity.” Again, in 5:15, he notes of a man who had once accumulated great riches and then writes, “As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand.”
Then, in chapter 6, he notes that he has observed “a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor so that he lacks nothing of all he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy the, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity, it is a grievous evil. If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied with life’s good things, and he also has no burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he” (6:2-3).
This is a pained look at life, but it’s also an accurate picture of life, isn’t it? Our views of others, especially those who are achieving great success, often is formed in the way that they’re presented—whether on the big screen or in magazines or the like—but it is not real life. All the money in the world can’t dull the pain of abuse or loneliness or dissatisfaction. It doesn’t produce the real gain and meaning that we’re all tempted to seek from this broken world.
But now let’s pause and think about what the Preacher has described so far. God is in control, appointing times and seasons for all the events that encompass our lives. Also, we’re not mere animals who wonder about, live, and die. He’s put eternity in our hearts in the sense that we want to see the big picture, want to know why things are happening, and what to have great understanding. But we don’t have it. We can’t see the big picture clearly when a man is diagnosed with terminal cancer after caring for his Alzheimer’s ridden wife for a decade. Moreover, as I noted at the beginning, stories like my great uncle’s are less of an exception in life than we think. Looking around us, we see injustice in the world, little love for neighbor being demonstrated, loneliness and isolation, and dissatisfaction and the vain pursuit of riches.
So, what is our response to that? What do we do with a world that constantly can make one want to doubt that God is making everything beautiful in its time? Some have pointed to traumatic events in their own lives or in the lives of others as a reason to abandon their profession of faith altogether.
But there is another way. The Preacher doesn’t simply give a foundation and make observations, but he also gives us some applications. In fact, he gives them all along the way, positioning one of them at the center of his depressing observations. What does he encourage us to do? Let me note four things, briefly.
We must do the following:
Trust God (3:14)
Job rightly confessed to the Lord, “No purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 42:2). That’s the same truth we saw the Preacher declare in 3:14, writing, “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people may fear him.”
In other words, God is indeed over all things, and he is working them to the end of the good of his children and the glory of his name. All things will be beautiful in their time, and nothing can stop or interfere with that perfect plan of God. And one reason the Preacher says he tells us this—while at the same time reminding us that things are not in our control—is so that we might fear him. In other words, he wants us to look to him with trust and reverence, knowing that even when we don’t have the answers, he does. And he can be trusted.
Love our brothers and sisters and walk with them (4:9-12)
In the midst of talking about man’s loneliness and isolation, the Preacher discusses the blessing of community. He mentions in 4:9-12 that two are better than one and that a three-fold cord is not quickly broken. He’s telling us not to live for ourselves only but for others. On this side of the resurrection of Christ, this is a reminder for us to walk in the community of faith, with other believers, loving them, being vulnerable with them, helping them, and asking them to invest themselves in us as well. This is God’s design, and it is good.
Serve God sincerely (5:1-7)
I don’t think it’s by mistake that 5:1-7 comes right in the middle of the Preacher’s sorrowful observations about life. Oftentimes, a writer will put at the center of structure that is guiding his writing to show what is, well, central. And in the midst of all of these sad observations, he tells us to speak to God honestly and sincerely. When we make a vow, do it. And he concludes in 5:7, “God is the one you must fear.”
If we’re honest, so much of our striving for gain in this life has to do with our exaltation of the opinions of others around us. It’s not simply that really believe the nicest house, or most attractive spouse, or successful job is in and of itself infinitely satisfying, but your heart tells us that we need the approval and praise of others. We need them to think highly of us and approve of us as exalted because of our spouse, or house, or job, or the rest. And that leads to little love for neighbor, injustice, loneliness and isolation, a van pursuit of riches from a dissatisfied heart, and the like. But the Preacher is saying, “Remove your focus from fearing man to fearing God. Stop clamoring for man’s approval and seek only God’s.” That is what is demanded in the command to fear God.
If you know you have God’s approval, now you are freed up not to need to get ahead of your neighbor but can love them. You don’t have to have more than others but can give because you know that all things are yours in Christ. This is the truth that Paul would use years later to correct a Corinthian congregation that was divided and pairing themselves with lofty teachers in other to exalt themselves above others. Paul simply reminded them that they have all things in Christ, and now they can quit striving for more and begin to love and bless others. Finally:
Enjoy and give thanks for your lot in life (3:12-13; 4:6; 5:12; 5:18-20)
Throughout this section, the Preacher repeats the exhortation he gave us at the end of chapter 2 to see this life as a gift from God to be enjoyed. Whatever God has given you in life is for your good, so stop, recognize that, and enjoy it. I’ve shared before the story that D. A. Carson once told about a man who was serving on the mission field with his wife and two children. The mission agency invited him to come home and pursue Ph.D. work, which they would fund, so that they could send him back home. He took them up on it, came home, and began his studies, only to find out that he was diagnosed with cancer. After treatment, it ended up only coming back. And ultimately, they had to remove most of his intestine so that he would have to only eat small amounts and go to the restroom almost immediately, for the rest of his life. But he was cancer free.
Then, right after that, his wife got cancer, and she died. And Carson tells the story of that man coming to his church to give a report, and his report was full of thanksgiving. He thanked God for healing him, for giving him an amazing wife and letting him enjoy life with her all those years before her death, for giving them children, for giving them a mission agency that helped him get a Ph.D., and on and on and on.
I think the Preacher would tell us—and is telling us in Ecclesiastes—that this shouldn’t be heard as some kind of super Christianity but simply regular Christianity. This is the way that children of God should live their lives, knowing that their God in in control, working all for their good and his glory, who has redeemed them through his Son, and delights in giving good gifts to be enjoyed along life’s journey, even though we know that we are just pilgrims, passing through this world, awaiting our ultimate and glorious home. May our Lord come quickly, and until he does, may we be a people who trust and fear our God, giving thanks to him and enjoying his gifts along the way, as we walk with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Let’s give thanks to him now as we come to the table. Amen.
We see this with the repeated references to him “seeing” different events and situations in this life (e.g., 3:10, 16; 4:1, 4; 5:8; 6:1).
David Gibson, Living Life Backward, 70.