46. Vows

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 46 :  Care with Vows

Eccles 5:4-7 When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger, “My vow was a mistake.” Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands? Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God.

Handling the Bible requires a little wisdom. Perhaps that is why in the Middle Ages the Church wasn’t very keen on it being left in the hands of the layman. I would never take that stand but I do encourage people to read the Bible and read it with understanding. Now this is one of those times where we need to realise three things about the text before us. The first thing is that it was written by Solomon from an earthly standpoint, hence the phrase which crops up again and again, “under the sun.” The second thing is that it was written during a phase in his life when he had drifted from God and succumbed to the folly of his foreign wives who worshipped idols. The third thing to note is that the Bible is progressive and so we now have far more revelation through the New Testament than Solomon ever had.

Now I say all this because I am going to make a suggestion that is almost unique in these meditations and it is this: Solomon’s understanding was limited and therefore his teaching is limited and we shouldn’t let it condemn us. It is wrong in its incompleteness!. Having spoken in earlier verses about keeping quiet before God, he does recognise that there will be times when people feel constrained to come before God and make a vow or promise before God. An example of such a vow from the Old Testament would be that of Hannah: In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the LORD. And she made a vow, saying, “O LORD Almighty, if you will only look upon your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the LORD for all the days of his life.” (1 Sam 1:10,11) In the New Testament there is a reference to a vow that the apostle Paul had made: “Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchrea because of a vow he had taken.” (Acts 18:18). In other words he needed a haircut because probably he had previously made the vow of a Nazirite (see Num 6:1-21) and separated himself off to the Lord for a period. We see a similar reference in Acts 21:22-26.

Now previously Solomon has said, “Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God.” (v.2) so here he adds, It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin.” i.e. guard your mouth and don’t make hasty promises before God that you cannot keep, for in so doing you are committing a sin. Look, he says, don’t turn up in the Temple one day and make a vow before the officials there and then later do not protest to the temple messenger, “My vow was a mistake.” Yes, it obviously was a mistake and you shouldn’t have made it if you can’t keep it now but, he says, don’t try and just squeeze out of it now.

Now we come to the part where I believe Solomon is adrift in his old age: Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands?” i.e. God will destroy what you do because of your sin. This is only half the story! The whole purpose of the Temple was to provide a place where people could come and meet with God – and especially when they had sinned! A large part of the sacrificial system was about saying sorry to God, of repenting and seeking to put things right as God had decreed.

A chunk of the early chapters of Leviticus is all about coming to God when you have sinned! You came to say sorry; you came to put it right in the prescribed manner. Solomon in his jaded state seems to have forgotten that. The deception of his idolatry seems to have wiped from his mind the big thing that separates off God from his idols. The Lord is holy and will deal with sin and where there is a hard heart that fails to repent, then He will take severe action, but God is primarily a God of redemption! The plan of redemption, we’ve seen before, was in God’s heart before He created the world. He knew people would sin and so He made provision in the Law for that failure to be dealt with. There WAS a way back to God!

Yes, his final words are right, we are to “stand in awe of God” because He is holy and we were not, but both in the Law and the Gospel God has provided for us to come back to Him. So even where there was a foolish vow that would lead to bad things (see Jud 11:30 on) the right way of dealing with it was to acknowledge that the making of it was presumptuous sin and to confess it and seek forgiveness through a sacrifice according to the Law. Today we do it through the blood of Jesus shed on the Cross for us, but the process is ultimately the same: conviction, confession, repentance and cleansing and forgiveness (1 Jn 1:9). If you are rash with you mouth, the way back to God is through the Cross – but there IS a way back! Hallelujah!

45. Words

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 45 :  Wisdom with Words

Eccles 5:2,3 Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. As a dream comes when there are many cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words.

If anyone has the temerity to say the Bible isn’t practical, they have obviously never read large parts of it. Solomon has just counselled listening in the presence of God and now, before he actually comes to the subject of vows that he has in his mind, he gives a general warning about the way we speak in God’s presence. It is very much a continuation from verse 1 where he counselled listening. If you listen you don’t speak!

Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. An aspect or expression of sin, I believe, is stupidity, and a part of stupidity is thoughtlessness and therefore sometimes our rash statements before God as simply thoughtless and comes from remnants of the stupidity of sin left over in our lives from the past.  Probably the greatest example of a big mouth in the Bible is the apostle Peter. For example, remember the time when Jesus is explaining he will have to die, Peter launches out, “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” (Mt 16:22) Or there was the time at the Last Supper when Jesus wanted to wash the feet of the disciples: “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” (Jn 13:8) You don’t say no to Jesus! He has a reason.

How easy it is to make surface or shallow commitments. It is one of the reasons that I am wary about commitment times at the end of a sermon. It is important to bring people to a place of decision but I wonder how often those decisions are shallow and the seed has fallen on ground that will not be long-term fruitful (See Mt 13:18 onwards).

Now having said this and having used Peter as an example, there is one instance where Peter’s rashness led him out into an experience no other human has ever had. It was in the midst of the wind on the lake and Jesus walked to them across the water and spoke to them. Observe Peter: “Lord, if it’s you,” Peter replied, “tell me to come to you on the water.” (Mt 14:28) Do you ever have those times when God turns up and you find yourself saying crazy things? Sometimes it enables us to step out in faith like Peter did but sometimes it is something we later rue and don’t follow through on. Solomon’s warnings hold true.

Solomon obviously had this sort of thing in mind when he was writing his proverbs: “When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise.” (Prov 10:19). The more we speak the more likely we are to get it wrong!  But Solomon now gives another reason: “God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.” What does he mean? God is not human like us; His home is in heaven because He is the Lord and from there (implied) He sees all things and therefore He knows all things. So, you’d better be careful what you say because God sees and knows and knows the truth. To be on the safe side you’d do better to keep your words few (just like he says in Proverbs).

To conclude these particular thoughts, Solomon uses a comparison: As a dream comes when there are many cares, so the speech of a fool when there are many words.” First the comparison: dreams. Dreams, he says, naturally flow when we are worried. Similarly words naturally flow from a fool. Remember in this sort of writing, a fool is someone who is morally limited, and who lacks wisdom. Sit on a bus and listen to chattering conversations, go on Facebook and note the shallow chattering there, and go on chat rooms and see the multitude of words poured out there. I have given up writing in such places because I am aware that it is so easy to just pour out shallow words that really don’t touch the truth which is often far more complex than chat rooms allow. I used to write a weekly blog commenting upon the affairs of the world. I gave it up for two reasons. First, because it is so depressing commenting on the many negative things in the world and, second, because I came to realise that to make any meaningful comment that really touched on the truth meant that you had to cover so many points that you couldn’t do that with a limited length blog.

So Solomon’s warning comes to us: check out your speech – especially before God. Be careful not to just pour out meaningless words, words which we sometimes utter because we feel we will achieve something by them. Yet the truth is that they need to come out of the heart and need to be truthful, for that is what the Lord looks for.

44. Right Worship

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 44 :  Right Worship

Eccles 5:1 Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.

Before we think much about this verse we first need to confront a major change between the times of the Old and New Covenants. In Solomon’s day he had the Temple to go to for meeting with God. He had just built it, and it became the central focus for worship in the land. The Temple was ‘the house of God’. But now of course that Temple and subsequent temples have been destroyed and there is no temple in Jerusalem. More than that, the teaching of the New Testament is that WE are the temple of the Lord (see 1 Cor 3:16, 6:19, 2 Cor 6:16, Eph 2:21) so contrary to much popular thought our church buildings are NOT the house of God – we are.

Solomon’s warning was to be careful when you went into the Temple. Unlike, say a modern cathedral the temple wasn’t a place for beautiful singing and inspiring liturgy, it was a place for offering incense and sacrifices and both were forms of worship, although the latter also involved a coming to put things right between God and man. Far more than modern religious buildings, the Temple was primarily a place where lives were put right with God through sacrifices and by affirming love for God by burning incense.

Now in the light of the description that I have just given Solomon’s exhortation to go in to listen, seems rather strange. In what follows Solomon is going to consider speaking before God and particularly uttering vows before God (which would have been accompanied by a sacrifice). We’ll consider this more in the meditations to come, but the problem with vows is that they are so often given in order to try to persuade God to perform in some way. An example of this is the silly vow that Jephthah made in Judges: And Jephthah made a vow to the LORD: If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD’s, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” (Judg 11:30,31) This ended with him foolishly sacrificing his daughter which was not what God wanted. Jephthah was so unsure of God’s love and God’s good intentions for Israel, that he felt he had to ‘bribe’ God with his blatant, over-zealous commitment.

But this is the thing, we don’t need to bribe God, we don’t need to ‘get Him on our side’; He already is!   When we find individuals praying in the Bible so often they rehearse the truth before they ask for whatever it is.  A good example of this is the apostles praying in Acts 4:24-31 where they declare what God has said, then what has happened and put it in the context of the divine will and then, and only then, asked for God to move. In those cases they are declaring the truth as an act of faith. That is a very different thing from trying to get God on your side.

No, says Solomon, rather than going in to the Temple and uttering meaningless words and offering meaningless sacrifices, you would do far better to go in and simply listen.  Listen? Yes. Have you ever been into a church building or cathedral in the absence of people and just listened in the silence? As you look in awe you sense something of the greatness of God. As the Israelite would have gone into the great Temple they would have seen the altars for offering incense and sacrifices and seen the great curtain at the end behind which was the Holy of Holies, or Most Holy Place, where God was said to reside. There in the near presence of the Almighty, if the individual would just stand still and listen in silence, they would know the truth. They were sinners in the presence of a Holy God and they had to make sure they put their lives right with Him.

I wonder sometimes how much modern Sunday Services come under the same corrective words of Solomon. In so many ‘churches’ we know exactly what is going to happen, in general terms at least. We know there is going to be singing and there will be prayers uttered and the Bible read and expounded. It is all very predictable and unfortunately predictability so often linked with familiarity which, the saying goes, breeds contempt. Solomon’s ‘sacrifice of fools’ simply means doing something because it is expected, not because you are inspired to do it or need to do it. How many of our actions on a Sunday morning are born out of loving desire for God? How many are born out of a need to put things right with God? How many are born out of an awesome sense of reverence? Even in so-called ‘free churches’ the predictability is just the same.

Put aside Sunday mornings which aren’t very good at doing this anyway, how often do we sit still and listen to the Lord? Oh, we say, I pray and read my Bible. Yes, but how often do we sit still and just let Him speak to us?  Living in this noisy and hectic world today, it is not easy to sit quietly and let God speak to us. If you are like me, our minds are full of things to do, places to go, people to see. There are worries and concerns and all these things are like a background noise that makes it difficult to listen to the Lord. Then when He does speak, we wonder was it Him or was I making it up. Time and experience are primary learning ingredients here. You’ve just got to do it and learn to discern His voice. Do we prefer to pour out shopping-list prayers or listen to God? I know which is easier, but it’s not the best.

43. Grumpy World

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 43 :  A Grumpy World?

Eccles 4:13-16     Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to take warning. The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom. I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor. There was no end to all the people who were before them. But those who came later were not pleased with the successor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind

There are times in Scripture when I feel I need to create a memo pad which I take with me to heaven and ask the writer exactly what he meant. Today’s verses would be on that memo pad. They start out fairly clearly but they go on to leave us wondering. Let’s try and unravel it.  Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to take warning. Well that seems fairly straight forward. Solomon compares wisdom and folly and says it is better to be young and poor with wisdom, than old and a king without wisdom. Who has he in mind when he speaks of this ‘foolish king’? Himself? It couldn’t have been David, his father, for that description really didn’t fit him. Perhaps it was Saul the first king of Israel who failed to realise that God’s blessing had left him and died for it.

But look next what he says: The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom. The implication is that the youth becomes a king and, further, if he has wisdom it doesn’t matter what his origin was – prison or poverty. Prison?  Perhaps he was thinking back to the stories of Joseph.  Poverty? Perhaps he was thinking of David as a shepherd boy when he was called by God.

But then he continues, I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor. What is this about? He has in mind the youth who succeeded this (presumably) foolish old king. Did he see himself as that youth who came with wisdom and received more wisdom? Or was he foreseeing what would happen after him? That seems unlikely because his own son, Rehoboam, acted very foolishly and his opposition, Jeroboam who took over the northern tribes, also acted foolishly. No, it is unclear who Solomon is thinking of. Yet this youth seems to have a great following in the people – but not for long!  But those who came later were not pleased with the successor. A week in politics is a long time, they say. After the honeymoon period is over this new young man in the place of ruler, no longer seems to win the hearts of the people.

So what is Solomon saying here?  This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. He looks at the coming and going of leaders. Some are wise and some are not. Even when he looks at the example of a wise young man who becomes ruler, he sees that this young man’s popularity soon wanes. It seems that even wisdom doesn’t please the people for ever. Yes, that is the message here. We may not know who Solomon had in mind when he gave these examples, but the message is clear: it seems that wisdom is an elusive thing that can be lost, but even where there is wisdom that doesn’t always satisfy every one.

Perhaps another way we might express this is that in a Fallen World where every person is tainted by sin – that tendency to self-centred godlessness which leads to unrighteousness – it will always be going wrong. You can be as wise as you like, as good as you like, but still sinful people will get upset with you.  Does that mean we just give up and become miserable, critical and cranky?  No, of course not! We, those of us who are Christians especially, should get the grace God provides and seek to be salt and light to impact the world for good. So Solomon may be right, that without God all the coming and goings in high places are meaningless, but that shouldn’t stop us seeking to bring good to the situation.

Surely this must apply to every area of life. In the Fallen World where sin infects and Satan seeks to upset, there is always the potential for things to go wrong, for people to be nasty, for people to get upset, for people to be selfish and uncaring. Yes, all of this is true, but it doesn’t mean we have to go along with it; in fact Solomon’s declaration at the end should provoke us to change it. When he looks at this situation and declares it is pointless like chasing after the wind, our conclusion ought to be, well yes it is, so let’s not live like this, let’s not go along with this way of behaving, let’s work to be different, let’s work to bring peace and harmony to this world, let’s work to love people and accept them when they are less than perfect, let’s be there for them and bring blessing to them. Can we be that salt and light (Matt 5:13-16) that Jesus spoke of?

42. Two

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 42 :  The Strength of Two

Eccles 4:9-12 Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.

I find there are times when I am challenged by my casual approach to Scripture. When I first looked at these verses, I thought, “Whatever made Solomon jump to thinking about companionship?” and it wasn’t until I looked again at the context that I realised that these verses flow on in small section that starts, Again I saw something meaningless under the sun: There was a man all alone” (v.7,8) and yesterday we considered the frustration  of that man as he worked with no one to hand it on to. But now Solomon thinks on and essentially declares, “It’s not good to be alone.”

He lists the benefits of not being alone. First two working together can achieve far more than two individuals working alone. Second, if one stumbles and falls, it is good to have another alongside to help you up. Third, when it’s cold at night, it is good to have one to warm you. Fourth, when you come under attack it is good to have another alongside you to stand against the attacker with you.

Yes, these are the obvious benefits of not walking through life alone. It may refer to friendship, it may refer to having a partner in business or it may refer to having a spouse. There are many circumstances in life where two together are better than being alone, yet sadly in our day, I believe loneliness is growing. With the fragmentation of families there are individuals separated off from the group and that makes the loneliness even harder. In a permissive age there are those who have been encouraged to express their difference but who have found that doing that has isolated them from many others. I was part of a conversation only yesterday that was talking about tattoos which have become very common, and yet despite that, they still act – in many people’s eyes at least – as a brand that separates out and declares that this is a certain sort of person who is wanting! So many things in modern life, it seems, separate and divide and cause loneliness.

Possibly one of the most obvious ways in our modern society is what used to be called ‘courting’. How alien that concept seems to have become in a world where it seems it is common to not even wait for the third date to end up in bed. Yet sexual intimacy has proved to be elusive for many. Sex isn’t necessarily intimate; it can be purely exploitive, and we feel used. The excitement of once-forbidden fruit lasts only a while and then the couple realise they are miles apart; there is inner loneliness, even though there is outer closeness.

The advice I used to give to young people, and still do if they are willing to listen, is develop your relationship in three slow stages. First of all get to know each other by just being with each other, talking and sharing and finding out about each other, i.e. build the social aspect of the relationship first. Second, if the couple are Christians (and if they’re not I have no hope for their long-term relationship, and if one is and the other isn’t, generally, don’t walk this path together) then develop your spiritual relationships together – read the Bible together, pray together, go to church and worship together, and seek God’s will together and serve God together. Then, and only then, if these two facets of your relationship together indicate you are compatible, you talk about life-long commitment and only when you are committed for life, do you develop the physical side of your relationship.

Our modern society is full of young people who are essentially lonely, even though they go to clubs together, bed together and whatever else together. I have been there and I have seen it and that is how it is for so many young people who are desperate for closeness, desperate for real intimacy, desperate for trust and desperate to find real love, which is all about commitment as well as feelings, and yet the way that the world proclaims is not bringing home the goods!

I said as an aside earlier, and you may not have liked it, that I have no hope for a long term relationship without God. Yes, there are married couples who have lived it out for decades without God, but increasingly that is becoming a rarity with the pressures of modern life. Solomon’s enigmatic final phrase hints at the truth: A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” What is the third strand? God, of course!  With God genuinely in your relationship you have a real fighting chance of have a good life together ahead.

But why do Christians get divorced, I hear you ask, before I finish. Consider Jesus’ words: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.” (Mt 19:18).  If we have allowed ourselves to get into a place where we have been hardened (and it may only be one in the partnership) so that we are no longer open to hear God’s counsel, either directly or through a counsellor/leader, then yes we will end up divorcing, but that is a path where we have hardened God out of our experience, which is why just now I spoke of having God genuinely in your relationship. These are serious matters in these days of anguish and loneliness.

41. Contentment (3)

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 41 :  Learning to be Content (3)

Eccles 4:7,8 Again I saw something meaningless under the sun: There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. “For whom am I toiling,” he asked, “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?” This too is meaningless– a miserable business!

You may remember at the beginning of Ecclesiastes Solomon started off, Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Eccles 1:2) A number of times he has put content to that initial declaration and so now we find yet another thing that he has seen that he considers meaningless or pointless. Perhaps that word ‘pointless’ is one that might ring more bells for us than simply ‘meaningless’. There is no point in this, is what Solomon is saying.

Look, he says here, I have see one of these people that I have been talking about, who struggle and strive for meaning through work, to achieve greater and greater things, but this particular man has been working all the days God gives but the trouble is that he hasn’t got any close relative to leave it to or who could even benefit from it now. He’s just working for himself and as he comes to this realization of having no close family, he wonders why ever he is working and working like this. His work just goes on and on and yet there is no one else to benefit from it. Meanwhile as he is working away all the hours he has, he has no time to enjoy life; it is just passing him by.

I have observed a number of people who do exactly the same as the man in Solomon’s illustration. There are of course, those workaholics who use every waking hour to prosper their business but have no enjoyment of life. Their family never sees them so they cannot enjoy their wife or children and so becomes a virtual stranger to them. They may benefit from the wealth he accumulates but when it comes to relationships, their lives are empty.

Over the years I have watched a number of Christian leaders, good men given over to serving God, but as I have observed their lives I’ve sometimes wondered at the lack of variety, lack of creativity and indeed lack of enjoyment of life generally for these men. We may give ourselves over to sharing the Gospel and building up the church, but if we ourselves are not living in the good of God’s world and having time to build relationships with those closest to us, surely we are missing something and surely the form of Christianity we portray is seriously lacking!

There is another group of people in the world today that I have become aware of who are missing out on life. This isn’t to do with work though, so I am going off at a slight tangent here. I am thinking about the thousands and thousands of young people who are addicted to computer games or addicted to a social networking sites such as Facebook. Many young people (and no-so-young as well!) are spending hours and hours and hours on their computers or mobile phones while all around them the wonder of the world is being ignored. These are the new addictions to be added to those of drink and drugs. All such addictions mean that such people are missing out on the wonderful world that God has given us. Oh yes, it’s not just work that does this to us.

Perhaps we might sum it up by suggesting that contentment, real contentment, that is not one-sided or single-focused, involves having balance.  Balance here means keeping work in proportion and ensuring that it doesn’t take over your life. In fact, I would suggest, anything that takes over your life means that it robs you of the wonder of the experience of being a human being who has been designed by God to enjoy His world. Many of us forget that being a human being means we are a combination of capabilities and so we miss out on one of more of them. For instance, God has made us physical beings and so we have the capacity to enjoy the use of our senses – sight, hearing, taste, touch – all of these things given to us by the Lord for our enjoyment of His world. But we also have mental capabilities so we can read or write, think, reason and plan. We have a full range of emotional abilities and so we may laugh or cry, feel for others, enjoy, anguish and so on. But we are also spiritual beings and so we have the capacity to seek and know the Lord and be aware of the spiritual dimension to life.

A balanced person seeks to use all these capabilities, but even that needs the wisdom of God, for He has laid down boundaries and if we cross them, we harm ourselves. Over emphasis of our physical abilities means we fall into gluttony, alcohol abuse and so much more.  Over emphasis of the intellect can lead us into pride and arrogance. Spiritual ignorance means we miss out on the most exciting side of our lives – encounter with the living God, the Creator of all things. In all these things we need to come to Him and ask Him to show us how to live our lives, show us how to avoid the pitfalls that Sin and Satan would lead us into. Failure to do this means we are likely to fall into a jaded view of life that Solomon ended up with. May that not happen!

40. Contentment (2)

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 40 :  Learning to be Content (2)

Eccles 4:5-7 The fool folds his hands and ruins himself. Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind. Again I saw something meaningless under the sun:

I never cease to be amazed at the practicality of the Bible’s teaching. Those who deride the Bible for being outdated teaching just haven’t read it or thought about it. Even in the midst of this jaded writing by Solomon in Ecclesiastes there is still wisdom to be meditated upon! The trouble is that sometimes it almost comes to us in shorthand and we need to pause up and think about it for it to really make sense. Take this opening sentence of these verses as an example: “The fool folds his hands and ruins himself.” What a simple picture! This man just sits back and folds his hands. It is a picture of complete inactivity. He does nothing. When you sit there with folded hand or folded arms, it is a sign that you are just looking and watching and doing nothing.

This inactivity, says Solomon, ruins a man. How so? Well first of all he is not working and so he is not earning and so he is drifting towards poverty. But actually constant inactivity is dull, it is boring and it is soul destroying. We need to be doing something purposeful. The person who sits back and does nothing has lost all purpose in life. They have no sense of achievement, no sense of fulfilment. Their mind is inactive and their hands are inactive. They are ruining themselves and not entering into the fullness of who they were designed to be.

This picture of laziness or idleness bringing downfall arises a number of times in Scripture in Solomon’s writings: If a man is lazy, the rafters sag; if his hands are idle, the house leaks,” (Eccles 10:18) and “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest– and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man,” (Prov 6:10,11) and “I went past the field of the sluggard, past the vineyard of the man who lacks judgment; thorns had come up everywhere, the ground was covered with weeds, and the stone wall was in ruins.” (Prov 24:30,31) The signs are all there around this person who Solomon calls a fool, meaning someone who lacks moral wisdom.

But then Solomon paints two swift pictures of contrasting lifestyles. Let’s take the second one first: two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.” This is the person who struggling and striving and working all the hours of the day, chasing after that illusory success. We live in a day when this lifestyle is clearly visible in this world of excessive materialism. The farmer of Jesus’ parable is often seen in those who work in the City: “he said, `This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ‘ “But God said to him, `You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’” (Lk 12:18-20) We try for bigger and better but in the process lose our soul. One day we’ll be separated from all we have earned and will face God empty handed. How tragic!

Yet he contrasts that lifestyle with one that is described as one handful with tranquility.” The ‘handfuls’ in the two lives refer to the wealth that has been achieved. One achieved a lot but in reality it was nothing. The first one achieved not much in material terms but yet it was the better lifestyle because it was accompanied with ‘tranquility’. What a lovely word that is! I always like the image of “the Sea of Tranquility” on the Moon. When somewhere is tranquil it lacks stress or upheaval, it is full of peace. When a mind is tranquil it lacks stress and is at peace.

How little tranquility there seems to be in modern lives, in modern minds! What a cost we have paid for our affluence. How few homes know this ‘tranquility’!  How often there is bickering and arguing, hostility and upset. Some families I know of, I am convinced, never know the experience of tranquility in their homes; there is an atmosphere of stress and upset that lingers there in the background and people tolerate it because it only bursts to the surface from time to time, but even in the times when it is not outright war, there is no tranquility!

Dare we assess our lives in this modern world against Solomon’s words? Are we working all hours, are both partners working all hours? What sort of people totter in the door in the evening?  What is the quality of our times together in the remaining hours of the day? What are our weekends like? Do we fill them with the activity we hadn’t had time for in the week? Is this really ‘life’? Many of us live on the basis of “it will be different next year – when I get a raise, when I get promotion,” but it never is. Are these the lives we really want?