Ecclesiastes: Getting a Grip on Life

Ecclesiastes

Tom Pennington  •  March 6, 2005
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For those of you who are visiting with us, I should probably give you a little idea of where we have been in our study. We just finished, last week, a 16 month study in the morning of the wonderful Epistle to the Philippians. And this morning we are going to look at a particular book in the Old Testament. And next week, Lord willing, I plan to start a six to eight week series on marriage and family, before we begin our next book study in just a couple of months.

But this morning I want us to come to a book in the Old Testament and sort of give a jet tour through that book. I want us to do this a couple of times a year just to sort of expose ourselves, to sort of back up, if you will, from the trees and see the forest of a couple of books so that you have a grasp of the theme and how they work that theme out.

This morning we come to the book of Ecclesiastes. When I was in college I took a course on wisdom literature of the Old Testament. It was there that I first came to appreciate this great book. And I can tell you that the truths that I grasped from this book, that I intend to share with you this morning, have been absolutely life-changing. They have served as a grid through which I have seen all of life and continue to. And I hope when we are done this morning you will understand why and you too will embrace it for the amazingly rich treasure that it is to us from God.

As most of you know, I grew up in Mobile, Alabama, home of the world famous Mobile International Airport. It may be now international, but when I was growing up the only thing international was that some of the equipment they used they imported from Georgia. The gates were actual swinging gates that led right out onto the tarmac. I remember the first time I left Mobile International Airport and flew to Atlanta. I was incredibly impressed with what I found there. I immediately understood why some of my relatives had said that when people die in the south, they have to go to Atlanta to get to either heaven or hell.

Large airports still fascinate me. I have travelled recently, as you know, in not only our own airport here at DFW, but also Chicago O'Hare and Frankfurt, that is Germany, and some other places, and they fascinate me because of the incredible amount of organization that is required for them to operate effectively. I still find myself sitting in a plane looking out that tiny excuse for a window watching the planes and trucks and buses and equipment pouring around everywhere like a bunch of ants. And I still find myself thinking what I have thought on many occasions before and that is, I hope somebody somewhere is in control of this mess and really knows what is happening. And of course, there are such people. There is the control tower personnel, the air traffic controllers, the pilots.

Think about, for a moment, how different all that activity looks from that little window of the plane sitting on the tarmac versus the view of those who could see the big picture, those of us, those who are sitting, rather, in the control tower or those who are sitting behind a station where they can see all of the flights within a large geographic region.

There is a sense in which we think of God that way. We think of God as sort of a heavenly control tower person who looks out over all the creation and the universe and He is directing all of the traffic, as it were, to accomplish His great purposes. And there is a sense in which that is an adequate way to think of God, an accurate way to think of God. The problem is that many Christians make the mistake of thinking that because they are Christians, God is now going to take them on a personal tour of the control tower and show them His master plan, show them what He has in mind with their life and the lives of others. Trials and troubles and difficulties come and these Christians sort of work themselves into a frenzy asking: Why? What is God trying to accomplish? What is happening up there in the control tower? Why this mess on the runway? I am tired of looking out the window. I want a bigger perspective.

True biblical wisdom, on the other hand, is not understanding why. Instead, it is like being taught to drive. What is the key to good driving? Well, it begins with seeing things exactly as they are. That is why, when you go to get your driver's license, what do they start with? An eye exam. And if you don't pass that exam, you go no further. Because the first thing that is required in a good driver is the ability to see things exactly as they are and then to be able to react to those things, not to understand why that car is parked in the middle of the road, but to see it and to react appropriately.

That is also the key to wise living. It is seeing things exactly as they are. It is being ruthlessly realistic in looking at life and responding to it rather than asking the question, why? The book of Ecclesiastes was designed to turn us into realists, to help us see what life here is really like under the sun. It is one of five books in our Bible that are called wisdom literature: Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. Wisdom literature though has an ancient tradition. In fact, secular wisdom literature goes back to about 2700 B.C., that is 600 years before Abraham. But it reached its zenith in Israel during the time of Solomon. You will recognize that three of those five books I just mentioned were written by Solomon. This is the last of its kind. The book of Ecclesiastes is the end of the wisdom literature, probably at the end of Solomon's life.

The title of the book Ecclesiastes comes from the Septuagint; it is the Greek name of it. It comes from the Greek word ecclesia, which you recognize, which simply means assembly. The Hebrew title is Koheleth. It comes from a word that means to gather or to assemble, same idea. That is where we get the word preacher that begins the book. It is one who speaks to the assembly. This may be even an office title. If you were to turn, and we won't do it, but to Jeremiah 18:18, you will discover that during Jeremiah's time, there were three spiritual offices in Israel. There was the prophet, the priest, and the sage or the wise man, the preacher if you will. And I think that is who is speaking here and giving us this book. It is Solomon of course.

Chapter 1 verse 1, we are told that these are "The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem." In verse 12 of chapter 1, he again says that he is "king over Israel in Jerusalem." In verse 16, he talks about being known for his great wisdom and in chapter 2 verse 9 for his great wealth. You put those and the rest of the evidence that is in this book together and all of that evidence argues for the author being Solomon, son of David.

It was probably written late in his life. In fact, if you read chapter 12, if you read that sort of poem on old age, he is much too well-acquainted with it not to have experienced it, probably that section is autobiographical. He has gone through those, that progression to old age that is described there in chapter 12. Personally I believe, and this is for another message, but I believe Solomon repented before his death, repented of all of his idolatry. And it is perhaps possible that this book was written after that repentance. It was probably written sometime between 950 B.C. and the latest would have been 931 B.C. So this is an ancient book, with us now for 3,000 years.

But Ecclesiastes has fallen on bad times, bad times because of some issues in the book itself. For example, some would say there are apparent contradictions within the book. You have him on the one hand saying, "Vanity of vanities! All is vanity," which seems to be cynicism and pessimism. And then on the other hand, you have him saying, "eat, drink, and be merry," which some would say, well, that is almost like Epicureanism, it is almost a form of hedonism, and those conflict with each other. Others look at difficult passages in the book and are put off by them. For example, in chapter 7 he talks about men dying like beasts.

Well, there are answers to all of these issues, but because of them this book has been one of the books that theologians refer to as being the antilegomena, that is, the book that some spoke against and suggested wasn't worthy of being included in the Scripture. But it has stood the test of time and the stamp of canonicity that we talked about when we studied that together many months ago now on Sunday night.

Now, when you come to this book there are three common approaches, three common interpretations or ways to interpret this book. The first is that this is man's reasoning apart from revelation. In other words, here is the best wisdom that an unregenerate mind can set forth and that is all Solomon is doing, he wants us to know how an unregenerate person thinks when he tries to, under his own steam, come to understand the world. There is a fatal flaw with this view and that is, you have an entire book given to us, as we will see in a moment, to stimulate us to action, actually giving us commands, and there is no warning in the contents to avoid, or in the context I should say, to avoid the contents. There is no warning. And in fact, we are told to follow it. This view is not a common one today, but it has been in years past and it has been rejected by most Biblical scholars as unworthy, an unworthy view of the book.

A second view of this book is that it is the vanity of life apart from God. In other words, here is a spiritual man describing what God says life without Him is like. This vanity of vanities doesn't describe the life of everyone, but only the life of those who don't know God.

The third view, the third common interpretation, and the one that I will take and argue for this morning, is that this book presents the vanity of life even with God, that life is filled with vanity even when you know God. This book provides us with a divinely inspired philosophy of life. That is the view that I will argue for this morning.

To begin my arguing, let's turn back to the last chapter, Ecclesiastes 12, and I want you to see how Solomon concludes his book. In verse 9, he gives us his credentials, "In addition to being a wise man," and by the way, this word "wise man" is the same Hebrew word that is translated sage in Jeremiah 18:18, so I think here he is claiming to be in that office of a sage, "the Preacher also taught the people knowledge," so he taught the assembly of the people of God, "he pondered," that implies careful thinking, literally the word is weighed, "he searched out," here is thoroughness and diligence, "and arranged," this speaks of order, "many proverbs;" this speaks of the form that his teaching took. It came to us in the form of proverbs. We see that as we read through this book.

But notice verse 10. Look at his content, "The Preacher sought to find delightful words," literally, words that are designed to penetrate, words that are so winsome that they penetrate into the heart. We have seen that with this book. Even those who are opposed to God love to quote Ecclesiastes. If you are old enough, you will remember the song "For everything, turn, turn, turn, there is a season, turn, turn, turn," et cetera. "The Sun Also Rises," the title comes from this book. And there is a long string of secular references to the book of Ecclesiastes, because the words are delightful; they are words that penetrate, that go to the base of our souls and find a resonance there.

He says, "I sought to find delightful words," but then he goes on to say this, "and to write words of truth." Listen, this book is not the meanderings of an unregenerate mind. What you find in the book of Ecclesiastes are words of truth. And they are written, he says, "correctly," literally, uprightly or honestly. You know, no book in Scripture I think is so brutally honest about the life of the world in which we live than Ecclesiastes. He says, I have written words of truth and I have written them to you honestly.

Notice his intended results, verse 11. Here is what he wanted to accomplish. "The words of wise men are like goads." This word goad is used two times in the Old Testament. It refers to a large sharp-pointed stick used to prod an animal into moving. He is saying, the words of wise men, in other words, the contents of this book, these proverbs I have assembled, are intended to stimulate you to act, to get you moving.

And then he says, "and masters of collections," notice the word these is italicized, it is not in the original text, "masters of collections are like well-driven nails." Masters of collections is parallel to the words of the wise. This is just another way to say these collected sayings. He says, these collected sayings "are like well-driven nails." In other words, they sink the truth deep into the mind. If you have ever read Ecclesiastes, you understand that. Its words never leave you. It is haunting in how it gets into your soul and into your mind. Like a well-driven nail, it penetrates down to the very core of your being and it establishes its teaching permanently in your memory. This is what he intended to do, to get us moving and to cause us to remember the truth that he set forth here.

But what is the source of all this truth? Notice the end of verse 11. He says, "they are given," that is, these collections, these words of wise men that are included in this book, "they are given by one Shepherd." The New American Standard translators have picked up on the fact that this is clearly a reference to the divine Shepherd, to God Himself. This is from God.

Now, to begin to understand this book you have to start with the key phrase. The key phrase is found 29 times in the book. It is this, "under the sun," "under the sun." His investigation of life is this side of the grave; it is in the realm of our activities. He defines it a little differently in chapter 1 verse 13 where he says he is looking "under heaven." This phrase "under the sun" defines the limits of Solomon's investigation.

All of us, of course, are aware of the ubiquitous personal video camera. Sheila and I have one. You know, one of those old big ones that needs its own bag? And we snatch it a couple of times a year to catch a few frames of important events, but I have to tell you, honestly, I hate the thing. I hate video cameras because you end up watching all of life's important events through the lens of a camera. You know, this thing that you want to experience and enjoy and have indelibly imprinted in your mind, you are looking through this tiny lens making sure the focus is right. And you can't capture all that is going on around you. You only see what is in front of the camera. And when people watch it, they too know that this is only part of what happened. All you are seeing is what you wanted them to see, what was in front of your lens.

Well, that is exactly what Solomon is doing in the book of Ecclesiastes. He is taking his divine camera, as it were, and he is focusing it on what is in front of his lens and that is, life as it appears here under the sun, how life looks to us with our human eyes, what we see. He is not discounting the fact that God is involved here. You see that throughout the book. He is simply saying, let me show you what life looks like if I just describe it as I see it, if I just call it like I see it.

And the perspective that he provides for us is crucial. It gives us wisdom for living in the world. It is designed to turn us into realists, to help us see the truth about life here. It provides us with a view of life from God's perspective. It gives us a divinely inspired philosophy of life. What do I mean by philosophy of life? A philosophy of life is simply the set of principles which govern your thoughts and behavior. It is a set of principles that govern how you think and what you do. Everybody has one. Everybody sitting here this morning has a philosophy of life. It may not be written out, but you have one.

In California, we used to joke that their philosophy is somewhere on the bumper of their car. You know, you ride through and either it is on the vanity plate or it is on a bumper sticker somewhere. Things like, you know, you drive up behind this huge motorhome, brand new, pulling a nice SUV of some kind. And down on the bumper it says, We are Spending Our Children's Inheritance. Well, there is the philosophy. You know, they have a philosophy of life. Or there is the tragic one. You pull up behind a young person's car and you see a sticker that says, Life is an Expletive, Then You Die. Well, there is a philosophy as well. My personal favorite though is, you pull up in California behind this vehicle that is overloaded with toys. You know, they are pulling a jet ski and maybe they have got skis up on top and the back is crowded with toys and there on the bumper it says, He Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins. What is your philosophy? It is not necessarily what you say. As you have heard me say many times before, behavior always betrays belief. Look at how you live and you will know what your philosophy of life really is.

But what exactly is this divinely inspired philosophy for living in the world that Solomon unfolds here in Ecclesiastes? Well, the key to the book of Ecclesiastes is understanding Solomon's two major propositions or themes that weave their way through the entire book. If you understand these two themes, then you can read the book of Ecclesiastes with understanding. Let's look at them together. These themes constantly recur. They are examined from different angles. They trace themselves through different parts of life, but these two themes constantly recur.

Theme number one, life is a gift from God. Life is a gift from God. This book is often accused of harboring and teaching the most extreme form of pessimism. But actually, it is built like the city of Rome on seven hills, seven hills of joy, because there are seven passages in this book, that thread throughout the book, that set forth this great theme, that life is a gift from God and is intended to be enjoyed. Let me show you these. I wish we had time to look at each of them in its full context, but let me just give you these for further study in the future. Someday, in God's providence, we will have a chance to teach carefully verse by verse through this book.

But turn first to Ecclesiastes 2:24. Here is the first, just a simple proposition,

There is nothing better for a man than to eat and drink and tell himself that his labor is good. This also I have seen that is from the hand of God. [To live this way, to live in joy, to enjoy the fruit of your labor, is from the hand of God.] For who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him?

Notice in the next two references how Solomon moves beyond a simple proposition to say that he himself had come to embrace this approach to life. Chapter 3 verse 12,

I know that there is nothing better for them, [for men, that is,] than to rejoice and to do good in one's lifetime; moreover, that every man who eats and drinks sees good in all his labor – it is the gift of God.

You and I are to embrace life as a gift from God. And notice how Solomon begins verse 13, or excuse me, verse 12, he says, "I know," I have come to this conclusion.

Same thing in verse 22 of chapter 3, he says, "I have seen," I have come to this conclusion, "that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot." That is, that is his inheritance, that is his portion of the inheritance. "For who will bring him to see what will occur after him?"

Now when you turn to chapter 5, it continues to grow, this progression. Where it started with a simple proposition and then Solomon said he had come to embrace it, when you come to chapter 5 verse 18, here he urges us to consider how important this is. Chapter 5 verse 18, he says,

Here is what I have seen to be good and fitting: [In Hebrew, the expression could be translated this way, "Take note of what I have discovered. Think about this. You, my readers, consider this."] to eat, to drink and to enjoy oneself in all one's labor in which he toils under the sun during the few years of his life which God has given him; this is his reward. [This is his share literally, this is his portion, this is his inheritance.] Furthermore, as for every man to whom God has given riches and wealth, He has also empowered him to eat from them and to receive his reward and to rejoice in his labor; this is the gift of God. For he will not often consider the years of his life, because God keeps him occupied with the gladness of his heart.

Solomon says, I have embraced this; I want you to consider it.

Then when we turn to the fifth reference Solomon makes to this great theme of life being a gift from God, he makes his point in even more exuberant terms. Chapter 8 verse 15, he says, "So I commended pleasure." Now I have to tell you, I love the New American Standard, but I think this is a bad translation. The Hebrew verb commend is one of the Old Testament words for praise. Six of eight times, it refers to the praise of God. And the Hebrew word that is translated pleasure is the common Old Testament word for joy or gladness. Here is what Solomon actually says, "I praised joy, for there is nothing good for a man under the sun except to eat and to drink and to be merry." I don't like that translation either, "to be merry." That leads you to sort of a hedonistic, epicurean life or conclusion. The word merry is literally the word "to rejoice," "to be glad." So he says, "I praised joy, for there is nothing good for a man under the sun except to eat and to drink and to rejoice [to be glad], and this will stand by him in his toils throughout the days of his life which God has given him under the sun."

Chapter 9 verse 7, this is the sixth occurrence and here he changes to an imperative, to a command. It is now a command to us to follow his advice, "Go then," verse 7, "eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works." In other words, God has already approved your living like this, with this in mind. Verse 8, "Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head." In the Old Testament, in that culture, they didn't have the ability to step into the shower and take a shower. They didn't have the opportunity to put their clothes in a washer and wash them. So these things were reserved for special celebrations. You know what he is saying here? He is saying, let your entire life be a celebration. Verse 9, "Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given you under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun."

Chapter 11 verse 7 is the final one of these and this passage provides us an important balance. Notice verse 7,

The light is pleasant, it is good for the eyes to see the sun. Indeed, if a man should live many years, let him rejoice in them all [so rejoice in them all], but let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many.

In other words, Solomon is not saying that we should take a sort of Pollyannic approach to life as if everything is always wonderful. You know, we know people like that. Everything is always great. Well, everything isn't always great. And Solomon isn't saying that. What he is saying is there will be plenty days of darkness, but rejoice in all your days, in all your years. Enjoy the gift of God's life.

Verse 9, "Rejoice, young man, during your childhood, and let your heart be pleasant during the days of young manhood. And follow the impulses of your heart and the desires of your eyes." Now, if we stop reading there, we might be justified in saying that Solomon is almost hedonistic. But that is not what he is saying. Read the next phrase, "Yet know that God will bring you to judgment for all these things." He is not proposing a hedonistic approach to life, the sort of contemporary expression which is, do whatever feels good. Solomon is saying, enjoy life, but remember you are going to face God. So live it within the boundaries of His law, not reckless abandon, but legitimate celebration; celebrate life. This is the theme that Solomon builds throughout this great book.

Now some of you may be sitting there thinking: Is this really Christian? I mean, is this something that we are supposed to incorporate? Well, let me show you what the New Testament has to say about it. Turn to Acts 14. Paul is talking to a bunch of pagans and he says this to them in verse 17, "God did not leave Himself without a witness, in that He did good and He gave you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons," literally, "filling your hearts with food and gladness." Listen, God intended life to be a good gift and that goodness, according to Romans, to be what leads a man to repentance.

First Timothy 6:17, Paul writes to Timothy, "Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God," listen to how God is described, "who richly supplies us with all things." To give away, to refuse to enjoy, to punish ourselves with asceticism, to live in a monastery? No! He says, "who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy." This is a constant theme of Scripture and it is certainly the theme, one of the primary themes, of Ecclesiastes, life is a gift from God and it is meant to be enjoyed.

Listen, we live in an existential world. People believe that there is no point, there is no meaning. It shows up in art and in theater and in movies and in writing and in music videos. But that should never be the Christian's perspective. Life is a good gift from a good God that is intended to be enjoyed. So many Christians live as pessimists, as cynics. You have heard them. They make sarcastic, existential jokes about life here. Let me ask you a very personal question. Have you allowed the trials and troubles of life to turn you bitter and resentful and cynical? If you don't know, ask your spouse; they will know.

Regardless of how you got there, decide right now to repent of the sin of failing to enjoy God's good gift of life. Determine to enjoy all the good gifts of God that are a part of this life, good food, the love of family and friends, the beauty of the world around us, and all the other blessings that are ours here. Enjoy. And as you enjoy, praise Him and give Him thanks and give Him glory. If you go out to lunch today or if you eat at home and you enjoy the good food, remind yourself as you enjoy that variety that this is an expression of God's goodness to you and glorify Him in it. "Whether therefore you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." The first major theme that Solomon lays down across this great book is this simple reality, life is a gift from God and He intends, indeed He commands, that we enjoy it, always within the boundaries of His law.

And that brings us to the second great theme, and we will look at it just briefly, and it is this, not only is life a gift from God, but life has serious limitations. Turn to chapter 1, with those familiar words he begins, chapter 1 verse 2, "'Vanity of vanities', says the Preacher, 'vanity of vanities! All is vanity.'" He concludes in chapter 12 verse 8, "'Vanity of vanities', says the Preacher, 'all is vanity!'" He begins with vanity. He ends with vanity. And that is woven throughout this book.

What is this vanity that life is? Well, the Hebrew word is simply breath. Life is breath. This is a metaphor. The key to a metaphor is understanding the point of similarity between what is being described and the image used to describe it. For example, in the gospels Christ says of Herod, "'Go tell that fox.'" That is a metaphor. What is the point of similarity between Herod and a fox? That one is easy. It is sly.

So what is the point of similarity between life and breath? Life is vain. It is like breath. What is the point of similarity? Life shares one of the attributes of breath. Breath is transitory or fleeting. Breath is meaningless or futile. And breath speaks of something that is incomprehensible. When you trace through the book and you come across the word vanity, the point of similarity between breath and what is being described changes. It varies with the context, but it will always be describing that which is fleeting, that which is meaningless, or that which is incomprehensible. And that is life.

The other expression that is used throughout this book is "chasing after wind." What a powerful image that is. You can picture a child chasing the wind and trying to grab onto it. You can't grab onto life. It is futile.

Now when you hear those expressions, "life is like breath" and "life is chasing after wind," it sounds cynical and pessimistic, but there is a reason. There is a theological presupposition that lies behind life here being vanity, and it is the fall. In chapter 1 verses 14 and 15 of Ecclesiastes, he refers to this world being characterized as crooked and lacking. In chapter 7 verse 29 he says, "God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices." You see, what lies behind the vanity that he describes is the reality that we live in a fallen world. That is why it is vain. That is why it is empty. That is why it is fleeting.

What are these limitations? You see, the world and life in it is not what it once was or what it will ultimately be. It has been subjected to the fall and therefore it is vanity. What are these limitations that we are talking about? Well, at some point we will trace these, but let me just give them to you. I mentioned serious limitations. Here are the limitations. Number one, life is not ultimately satisfying. Life is not ultimately satisfying. So many people think that someday they are going to reach a point where life satisfies their hearts. It will never happen, because life is vanity. We live in a fallen world and it will never satisfy your heart.

There is a second limitation and that is, we cannot know the mysteries of life. We just don't know so much of what is going on. And that is frustrating, isn't it? We want in that control tower. We are tired of looking out our little window. And it makes life appear meaningless to us because we don't have the big picture.

A third limitation is that we don't know the future. We don't know what is coming and so it keeps us forever off our guard. Now again, I don't want you to think that what Solomon is saying here about life's limitations, about its vanity, as being out of step with the rest of Scripture. The truth is, this is exactly what Paul says in Romans 8. You remember it, in Romans 8, Romans 8:18, let's start at verse 19 in the interest of time,

For the anxious longing of the creation awaits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. [Verse 20.] For the creation was subjected to futility [to vanity], not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it.

Listen folks, this is absolutely consistent with what Paul says. Life is a wonderful gift from God to be enjoyed, but it has serious limitations because we live in a fallen world. It will never satisfy your heart. You will never understand what God is doing. And you cannot know the future.

Let me give you briefly, in just a couple of minutes, an example of how this works. Let me show you how one part of life, these things are true. Turn to Ecclesiastes 2:24. He says here that "work," labor, "is good." Listen, work is a gift from God to you. There was work before the fall, folks. At the fall work was cursed and it became work. But before that, there was work. It was a gift. It was a good thing and it still is a good thing. Enjoy it, but realize that work has serious limitations.

Let me show you just a few of those. Chapter 2 verse 18, first of all, there are no lasting accomplishments. You work hard and what happens? Verse 18 of chapter 2, "I hated the fruit of my labor for which I had labored," "for I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or fool? Yet he will have control over everything I have done. This too is vanity." Think about it. You work hard. You get your office in order. And then you leave and who knows whether the person that follows you is going to wreck it in a day. It happens. It happened with Solomon. Solomon didn't know he was writing about himself. His son, Rehoboam, you know, he makes this great kingdom, Solomon does, and within months after his death Rehoboam manages to wreck it, divide it. Now you got the two southern tribes is all he has got left. Who knows whether the guy that comes after you is going to be a fool? There are no lasting accomplishments.

Chapter 4 verse 4, here is another limitation to our work even though it is a good gift. "I have seen that every labor and every skill which is done is the result of rivalry." "This too is vanity." In other words, the main motivation for human work is rivalry. Effort and skill hide the scramble for wealth and status.

Chapter 5 verse 11, "When good things increase, those who consume them increase." Some of you live in this passage. "So what is the advantage to their owners except to look on?" In other words, increased riches bring increased responsibilities.

Chapter 5 verse 15, whatever you gain through your work, it is temporary.

As he came naked from his mother's womb, so he will return as he came. He will take nothing from the fruit of his labor that he can carry in his hand. This is a grievous evil – exactly as a man is born, thus he will die. So what advantage to him who toils for the wind?

Work is a great thing, but listen, whatever gains you make are temporary. You are not taking any of it with you. Death is the great equalizer. As you know, I worked in a mortuary when I was in seminary. I will never forget what a mortician told me as I stood watching him embalm a body. He said, "Listen, death is the great equalizer." He said, "When they get to me, they are all the same. I don't know whether they were rich or poor. I don't know whether they were a failure or success." Whatever gains you make in life are temporary.

Chapter 6 verse 7, "All man's labor is for his mouth and yet his soul is not satisfied." It happens, verse 8, to both the poor and the rich. Verse 9, "What the eyes see is better than what the soul desires. This too is futility." You know what he says there? He says, it always looks better than it tastes. You ever had the experience of walking by the bakery in the mall? This great smell comes wafting out, I am about to make you hungry here, you are already ready to desert me, I am going long, but this great smell comes out and you think, I am going to go in there and I am going to find the one thing that tastes like what I smell. This is vanity. You go in and you can never find the thing that tastes like what you smell. It is never as good as the smell. That is what he is saying, it tastes better than it, or it looks better or it smells better than it tastes.

Chapter 9 verse 11, here is another limitation to your work. It is a great gift, but verse 11 of chapter 9 says, "I saw again under the sun that the race is not to the swift, the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all." Now, he is not denying God's providence here. He is saying from the human standpoint in front of the lens, it looks like time and chance happens because, does the fastest guy always win the race? Does the guy who really deserves the promotion always get it? No, you know that.

This was brought home graphically to me a number of years ago. I was watching the Olympics. There was an American boxer. Now I should say that I think boxing is a terrible sport, but I enjoy watching it. And you will remember this American boxer who won the bout and worked all of his life to get to this moment, hours a day. And there was a judge who was from the country of the other boxer and who awarded more points to that boxer which caused him to win. And everyone was up in arms. It couldn't be. It didn't happen. Protests were made, and I thought, "The race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong." There is no guarantee of success.

So work is a gift, but it has serious limitations because of the fall. That is just one example of how Solomon weaves his two major themes through this book and he does so with the other parts of life. So what is our response to these two major themes, that life is a gift from God to be enjoyed and life has serious limitations? Chapter 12 verse 13, "The conclusion, when all has been heard, is this: fear God and keep His commandments."

Ecclesiastes is not the work of a cynic or a hopeless existentialist. Solomon looks realistically at life and then he points us in the way of faith. Things don't often make sense. Life isn't fair. And when life doesn't satisfy, believe God is good and that life is His good gift to you. When you can't understand why, believe God is wise and that He has a plan.

But we live in a fallen world subjected to vanity. Life is a gift, but it has serious limitations that are meant to drive us to God. You remember when you were young and you went, your parents took you to your grandmother's house, what did you most look forward to? Hours of adult conversation? The opportunity to express your love? The sheer joy of family? No! You went for the cookies. But as you grew up, the cookies became less important and the person became the reason you went. What Solomon says is: Listen, you have got a great gift, the gift of life. Enjoy it, but don't live for the gift. Focus your life on the Giver. "Fear God and keep His commandments." Let's pray together.

Father, thank You for this incredible gift to us, this way to view life in a fallen world, this philosophy of life written by the wisest man who ever lived and inspired by Your Holy Spirit. Lord, help us to understand that life is a precious gift that You intend for us to enjoy as long as we give You glory and thanks, and we do it within the boundaries of Your Law. And yet it will never satisfy our hearts. Lord, help us to enjoy the gift, but to always focus on You, the Giver.

Lord, I pray for the person here this morning who has never come to fear You at all. May they come this morning to fear You by believing and trusting Your Son so that their life can be lived even as Solomon urges here. We pray these things in Jesus' name, amen.