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The strangest Bible book for the strangest time of our lives

Hey, friends! We are about to embark on a walk through the strangest book of the Bible, for this strangest time of our lives. The only time I have preached from Ecclesiastes in 29 years as a pastor is from one brief passage out of its 12 chapters. The rest of it is, quite frankly, so strange compared to what we expect to find in the Bible that I haven’t touched it. Until now.

Because we’re now in a once-in-a-lifetime event that has many in a place where we can hear the message of Ecclesiastes. Bill Murray’s old comedy movie Groundhog Day is the closest thing I know to what Solomon conveys in Ecclesiastes. I recommend you watch that movie as we go through Ecclesiastes. Parents, you probably don’t want to watch it with your kids around, because there’s some objectionable content in the movie—just like in the book of Ecclesiastes.

In Groundhog Day, cynical TV weatherman Phil Connors get stuck repeating the same day over and over again for an estimated 33 years. When this guy realizes he’s trapped in a meaningless cycle, he pursues meaning. First he gives himself over to hedonism, chasing every appetite that pops up. If it feels good, he does it! He eats like a glutton, smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish, chases women to bed, runs after greed, robs an armored car, and punches out a guy who annoys him. None of it brings any sense of meaning or fulfillment. It’s all a chasing after the wind.

Next, Phil yields to despair. Faced with the emptiness of no idea what his life is for, he takes his life multiple times. But 6 a.m. each morning, he wakes up still in Punxsutawney, PA on Groundhog Day.

When that doesn’t work, Phil turns to the pursuit of knowledge. He takes up piano lessons, French poetry, even ice sculpting. But no matter what he tries, he always wakes up to the same day, February 2nd.

He only awakens to February 3rd when he come to contentment with his circumstances. The last time Phil experiences February 2nd is when he looks into the eyes of the woman he wishes would love him, and admits, “I don’t know what will happen tomorrow; all I know is I’m happy right now.”

Later that evening, as he talks to her far after she would normally call it a night, she drifts off to sleep. And while she’s sleeping, Phil admits what a fool he’s been. “I don’t deserve someone like you,” he whispers. “But if I ever could, I swear I would love you for the rest of my life.”

That’s the turning point in Groundhog Day. And it’s close to the message of Ecclesiastes. When he finally comes to contentment with what comes his way, Phil is finally free to be a blessing to others.

What you end up with when you’ve done it all

In Ecclesiastes, we’re going to find a guy who tried it all, but in the end concluded that most everything is meaningless. Because like a lot of us today, younger Solomon imagined, “If I could just have more money, more pleasure, more success, more education, then I’ll be happy.” Solomon achieved it all, but afterward declared that it was meaningless.

And so the book begins with Solomon introducing himself and then immediately declaring…

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” – Ecclesiastes 1:2

In Hebrew, he says everything is hevel of hevels, meaning as meaningless as possible. Hevel translates breath or vapor, conveying the idea of fleeting. Nothing lasts. It all seems absurd, futile, frustrating, maddening.

What we are going to find in this unusual book are the musings of an older, repentant Solomon admitting where he went off the rails, so that we don’t.

I spoke with an ex-felon recently who openly admitted what he did, what he should have done that wouldn’t have gotten him in trouble, and how now that he’s a Dad, he wants to set a better example for his kids. He wants them to be spared from chasing the things that ultimately snared him. You’re going to hear a similar message from Solomon over the next few weeks.

So open your Bible or Bible app to the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, chapter 1. This week we’re going to draw three sobering observations about life, three realities that are maddening. If you’re taking notes, here’s the first.

3 sobering observations

It’s maddening that time will forget all we’ve done.

Solomon asks…

“What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.”

-Ecclesiastes 1:3-11

He describes endless cycles where we live and die, but time marches on without us. He can’t make sense of that. How is it that all that we accomplish will soon be as forgotten as yesterday’s sunrise or which way the wind blew last week or how rivers constantly flow into the ocean, but the ocean never fills up. It all seems hevel, meaningless, hevel of hevels.

We don’t want to imagine that time will quickly forget us, but it’s a fact that old man Solomon has come to grips with. If you don’t believe him, take a walk through Ritchie Woods Nature Preserve here in Fishers some day this fall. On the back side of the main trail, you’ll come to a fenced off small family cemetery. The headstones are so weather-worn, they’re illegible. The sum total of all we know is that the Osborns moved to that land in 1835 from Ohio, and farmed it. We know their names, Ebenezer and Hannah, who bore nine children named Aaron, Joseph, Harmon, MahalaBenjamin, John, Mary, and Anna. That’s all we know. Ten people. If they each lived to the age of 50, cumulatively there’s 500 years worth of accomplishment, lost to time. As Solomon puts it in verse 11…

“No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.”

Not exactly the kind of guy you’d invite to a party. But this is the guy who’s hosted all the parties and found it meaningless, hevel of hevels. And he gives us the first clue to Ecclesiastes’ message by using a strange phrase. Twice in the passage we just read, Solomon describes the meaninglessness of life “under the sun;” under the sun. This is really important: he repeats the phrase under the sun and its variant under the heavens 30 times in this little diary. “Under the sun” is found in no other book of the Bible. Only here. So what’s he getting at? What is Solomon uniquely trying to convey in this unique Bible book?

Here it is: this book—even though it’s included in the Bible—is examining life purely from an earthly perspective. If this life is all there is; if we came from nothing, are here for nothing, and when we die return to nothing, then everything is meaningless. Someone summarizes this section of chapter one as, “You look at time and tide and history, and it brings you to infinite despair.”

Bertrand Russell captures the same in his writings. A brilliant polymath, logician, historian, social critic and Nobel laureate, Russell saw himself as an atheist. Here’s why. He writes, “We stand on the shore of an ocean, crying to the night and the emptiness; sometimes a voice answers out of the darkness. But it is the voice of one drowning; and in a moment the silence returns. The world seems to me quite dreadful; the unhappiness of many people is very great, and I often wonder how they all endure it. To know people well is to know their tragedy: it is usually the central thing about which their lives are built. And I suppose if they did not live most of the time in the things of the moment, they would not be able to go on.”

That’s the honest cry of a man who couldn’t believe God exists or cares. Life under the sun. Jerome, the first person to translate the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek into the common language of his day, Latin, reflects on this passage, writing, “What’s more [meaningless] than this [meaninglessness]: that the earth, which was made for humans stays—but humans themselves, the lord of the earth suddenly dissolve into the dust.”

Some of you are wondering right about now whether you want to keep listening. What a depressing start! Why is this even in the Bible?

See if this doesn’t hit a little closer to home. You walk into the kitchen and the sink is jammed with dishes, dirty silverware, pots and pans. So you wade into it, get to work, and before too long they’re all clean. Then you turn your attention to loads of laundry to be washed, dried, folded and put away. You sweep and vacuum and put out the trash. You answer emails and voicemails and text messages.

A day or two later, the sink is filled again. Someone has to cook and clean and shop for groceries, on and on it goes, where she stops, nobody knows! Welcome to Groundhog Day! The tides keep going in and out, the seasons and years march on, but all we’ve done will be forgotten, lost to time. That’s hevel of hevels, Solomon laments. Can’t make sense of it. Seems meaningless. There’s Solomon’s first sobering observation about life under the sun. Here’s the second:

It’s maddening that knowledge increases burdens.

It’s maddening that time will forget all we’ve done. And it’s equally maddening that more knowledge doesn’t equal less burden. Quite the opposite! Verses 12-18 Solomon explains that he earned the equivalent of multiple Ph.D.s, but no one of it lightened the load. He writes…

“I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. 

What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

What is crooked cannot be straightened;
what is lacking cannot be counted.

I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.”

 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, 

but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.

For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more knowledge, the more grief.”

Ecclesiastes 1:13-18

“With much wisdom comes much sorrow;
    the more knowledge, the more grief.”

Now knowledge beats ignorance, and education is important. But homicide detectives no doubt wish they didn’t have to know much of what their job entails. Healthcare workers who understand the end-stages of terminal diseases have to wish at times that they didn’t know the signs that death is coming. Members of elite military forces at times certainly wish they didn’t know either the dangers they face or the methods they’ve been trained in to eliminate threats.

More knowledge doesn’t necessarily bring wisdom

Life under the sun is a confusing mix of wisdom and knowledge, countered by madness and folly—sometimes in the same person, sometimes in ourselves. Consider Nobel prize winning German chemist Fritz Haber. He developed the technology that enables farmers today to grow much more productive crops by use of ammonium nitrate.

The same smart guy also developed the use of chlorine gas and other deadly gases in WWI. He was personally on hand the first time chlorine gas was let loose on troops in Belgium: it killed 67,000 men. He went so far as to use his intellect to calculate the formula for how little poison gas it would take to kill as many men as possible.

After Haber released the poison that slaughtered so many men in Belgium, his wife committed suicide by shooting herself in the heart with his service revolver. Fritz left within a few days to oversee the release of more deadly gas against another army. His justification? In his words, “during peace time a scientist belongs to the World, but during war time he belongs to his country.”

“It’s meaningless,” Solomon insists, that such intellect and education…for wickedness and destruction. Hevel of hevels, as meaningless as possible that great knowledge in no way guarantees great good.

Solomon’s third sobering observation about life under the sun is that…

It’s maddening that information doesn’t produce transformation.

Fritz Huber’s story proves the point. But Solomon realized it 3,000 years before Huber was born. The challenge is, will we believe this and act on it? In order to make sense of this opening chapter of Ecclesiastes, it’s time we jump to the closing verses of this book. Turn with me to Ecclesiastes chapter 12, beginning with verse 8. Solomon ends as he began, but then takes a turn to lead us in the right direction. He doesn’t leave us despairing. Verses 8-14 read…

“‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Everything is meaningless!’

Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people.

He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. 

The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.

The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.

Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.

Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.”

Ecclesiastes 12:8-14

After all his learning and compiling the proverbs we have in the Bible, the sayings of the wise, Solomon concludes, “Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” After all those years, he realized that mere information does not produce the transformation so desperately needed. Solomon was a walking Wikipedia—but all the information didn’t make him a better man.

Waiting for the world to change?

19th-century Jewish Rabbi Israel Salanter says, “When I was a young man,” he wrote, “I wanted to change the world. But I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my country. When I found I couldn’t change my country, I began to focus on my town. However, I discovered that I couldn’t change the town, and so as I grew older, I tried to change my family. Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, but I’ve come to recognize that if long ago I had started with myself, then I could have made an impact on my family. And, my family and I could have made an impact on our town. And that, in turn, could have changed the country and we could all indeed have changed the world.”

Solomon didn’t change himself. Despite all his study and learning, he failed as a husband. He failed as a father. And he failed to lead spiritually. The risk is the same for us today, in this Information Age. We have at our fingertips access to great wisdom as well as to great wickedness. Clearly, both are being accessed.

If information alone could remedy the world’s ills as well as our personal character flaws, we would have rocketed toward improvement over the past couple of decades. We obviously have not. Isn’t it now clear that we need something more than more information?

The One Shepherd we need

What is it? What are we lacking? Solomon says the words of the wise are, quote, “given by one shepherd.” There are only three other places in the Bible that speak of a single shepherd. Each of those three refers to the Messiah, to Jesus.

Without knowing who the Holy Spirit was moving him to mention, Solomon concludes his diary with a hint at our greatest need, the One who can bring meaning to our otherwise meaningless existence. Jesus, two thousand years later, declares in Matthew 12:42, “Now something greater than Solomon is here.”

This world as it is, is not right, and there needs to be a reckoning to make things right. Ecclesiastes says there will be one.

“Here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.”

If we were to stand on our own before God on the day of judgment, with every hidden thing in our lives up for scrutiny, there’s not one of us, not a person who has ever lived, who could stand innocent.

The purpose of the entire Old Testament, including Ecclesiastes, is to help us to recognize our need for transformation, not just head knowledge. The Old Testament is, as Solomon puts it, like a goad. We may not like this image, but a goad is a spiked stick that farmers use to drive cattle.

The Old Testament has some sting to it. It shows us how badly we need a Shepherd. We need One who can lead us through life, and then stand with us on judgment day. And this is who Jesus is.

We will one day die; That One Shepherd’s grave has been emptied.

We, like Solomon, have all sinned and fall short of God’s intent; That One Shepherd was tempted in all ways just as we are, yet he remained without sin.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray; That One Shepherd walked faithfully before God every day of his life.

This is the good news that Solomon goads us toward, friends: Jesus lived the life that Solomon did not, a life of full obedience to God’s wisdom. And then on the cross, Jesus shepherded the way to the Father.

You don’t need the gold that surrounded Solomon: if you have Jesus, he gives you your daily bread.

You don’t need the hedonistic pursuits that Solomon abandoned himself to: if you have Jesus, eternal pleasures await you, along with contentment today. As Augustine prayed in the 5th century, “[Lord], you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” This is what it took Solomon so long to discover. Let’s not take such a long and bent road.

Let’s pray.

Lord Jesus, we hear Solomon speaking with regret, and we want to heed his warning. We ask you to open our eyes to what matters most in this life. Keep us close to you, Lord. Make us a powerful encouragement to one another to run the race well, with eyes locked on you, the One Shepherd.

We thank you for the blessings of our families, our friends at church, our jobs, the foods we enjoy, the laughter along the way.

Thank you, Jesus, for showing us the joy of a life daily surrendered to God. Keep moving us in that direction, we pray.

Still praying, if you’ve not asked Jesus to come into your life, you can do that right now. Pray this with me: Jesus, I feel my need for you. I don’t want to go through life without meaning or purpose. So come into my life. Come in as Savior, and forgive my sin. Come in as Lord, and lead me from this point on. And I will serve you, as you give me strength, all the days of my life. Amen.

If you just prayed to receive Jesus, that’s the greatest decision you’ll ever make! Let us know by way of the yChurch website contact form, and we’ll be in touch to help you get started in your walk with the Lord, together with us.

God bless you this week and make you a blessing!