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 Those who deride the Bible for being outdated teaching just haven’t read it or thought about it.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?

34. The Good Life

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 34 :  The Good Life

Eccles 3:12,13   I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil–this is the gift of God.

Sometimes there are verses that look so simple and straight forward that you wonder why bother with them, but which in fact speak of deep truths. I have that feeling about these two verses. As a Christian you might think these verses are too simplistic and miss out on all the potential of the Christian life but, I suggest, there are some foundational issues here that determine how we will reach out for all that potential.

Look at Solomon’s starting point: “I know there is nothing better….” This man with all his wisdom and all his experience pushes all of his great achievements aside and says, THIS is actually the best way; there is nothing better that this! Now that is quite startling and especially to the modern mind that gets caught up in learning, in personal development, in achievement, in wealth and in possessions – and actually falls short in all of those things. Here, says Solomon, is the starting point for the good life.

He starts by speaking of TWO things: “to be happy AND do good.” Happiness is the first goal Solomon puts before us and yet most of this book is about his failure to achieve it and, as we commented in a previous meditation, it is the elusive element of modern life. Yes, so much of modern life is spent searching for that thing and many of us settle for the externals that we conclude must be the nearest we can get to it: having a good salary, achieving fame, obtaining ‘things’, going out for meals and for entertainment. Now each of these things may be good in themselves but they do not guarantee happiness. Having a nice house, a partner who looks good, children who are doing well at school. Yes, all OK, but not guaranteed to bring happiness. Ultimately, he concludes at the end of the two verses, happiness is a gift of God or, we might say, comes to us from God when we have a relationship with Him. In fact if we don’t have a relationship with him, we may have all the trappings and all the externals, but true happiness will always evade us.

But then he says, secondly, that ‘doing good’ is the other thing we should be aiming for. But what is doing good? Is giving money to someone ‘doing good’? It may not be. Is working for a charity ‘doing good’?  No, it may be a self-centred job, done for no other reason that to get money to live. No, good isn’t about the outward working but the motivation behind it. Philosophers have debated whether anyone can truly do good for any other reason than self pleasure or self achievement. So how can we do good, and trust that it is good? The answer has to come with Solomon’s ending – it is a gift from God, or it comes as God guides us.

But then he goes on and says something that seems too simple: “that everyone may eat and drink.” This is the first of a second two part goal.  But doesn’t everyone eat and drink? Doesn’t everyone do this?  Those are very much Western questions born out of the assumption that food and drink is readily available, but that isn’t so everywhere in the world. So, yes, for us in the Western world, the vast majority of us will have food and drink, and even have it in abundance. In fact looking at excessive waistlines, some of us have too much and we’d do better to give some of it away to those who don’t have it.

But this is linked with, “and find satisfaction in all his toil.” We’ve already touched on this in previous verses. The former part that we’ve just briefly considered was so obvious that we almost thought it unnecessary to mention and the implication is that the latter part should be the same – that we get pleasure from our work. However, a simple examination of much work in the Western world reveals that this is far from the truth. Perhaps it is something that we have taken for granted: work is hard, work is unpleasant, but we have to do it. Well for many of us, we have to do it because we have set our sights on a very high standard of living. For some of us we have to do it because we have caught the waft of riches and we’ve been hooked. Many of us sacrifice family relationships for such ambition. Perhaps we need to check our priorities and look at our lives afresh and turn to God and ask for faith and vision to see another way.

Each of these four things – happiness, doing good, having sufficient supply and enjoying our work – is a gift from God. If we lack any or all of them, perhaps it is time to seek the Lord and ask for His wisdom to readjust our lives. The Bible is full of wisdom on how to live. If we disregard God’s design, in whatever way, it may be the reason that we are lacking any of these four things. Submission to God’s will is ultimately the crucial issue here, for did Jesus not promise, seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Mt 6:33) Disregard this at your own cost.

32. Burden of Work

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 32 :  The Burden of Work

Eccles 3:9,10 What does the worker gain from his toil? I have seen the burden God has laid on men.

At times, Solomon’s thoughts seem to go round in circles, except the second time round he sees it slightly differently. He has previously spoken of work or labour: My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun.” (2:10,11) However in that context he was talking about labour as a means of getting pleasure or satisfaction or a sense of achievement. He had undertaken great projects (2:4) and so on, but having done it all, he was still left wondering what it was all about, because it HADN’T left him with a great sense of achievement. Once he had done it, that was it!

But then he thought about it in terms of leaving it to the next generation and that too seemed pointless:  “I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless.” (2:18,19).

Eventually, it just seemed tiresome: “What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless,” (2:22,23) and so, “A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” (2:24,25) Yes, almost somewhat begrudgingly he concludes that without God making some sense of it, it is all pointless. It was at that point that he moved in to considering that life is made up of seasons or times, lots of different ‘activities’.

Of course one of those ‘activities’ is work, but he can’t get away from his previous conclusions, hence he now says, What does the worker gain from his toil?” I mean we might today answer, “Money to buy all the goods and pleasures that we have in modern life” but even in saying that we are saying no more than he has said already. Increasingly modern analysts are acknowledging that in the West we are a deeply unhappy and dissatisfied people. Indeed one man has recently written a book called The Age of Absurdity – Why Modern Life Makes it Hard to be Happy! He says exactly the same things as Solomon: lots of achievements don’t satisfy; grubbing for money doesn’t satisfy; storing up goods doesn’t satisfy!

Yet still we have to work to provide food – today most of us work to get money to buy the food, but we still need to work. For some of us work is very fulfilling, but for many it is more like a burden. Indeed the reality is that it IS a burden laid on us by God. In the Garden of Eden, after the Fall, God said to Adam, “Because you listened to your wife and ate from the tree about which I commanded you, `You must not eat of it,’ Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground.” (Gen 3:17-19)

Now why was that? Was it just God making life awkward for mankind? I don’t think so! The Fall brought a separation between the couple and God and He ratified this by excluding them from the Garden. What this meant was that God’s presence was no longer continually where there were and so His healing, restoring, life-giving presence was not there affecting the plant life like He had been before. Now He only came occasionally, we see as we read through Genesis, to meet with specific individuals who were open to Him. Mostly He stood afar off from mankind so as not to destroy them. But this meant that His life-giving presence was no longer there. This is the effect and meaning essentially of a curse – the removal of God’s blessing of His life-bringing presence. Thus from then on it would be hard work to control the growth in the ground and there would not be the fruitfulness that there had been previously.

So yes, in the sense that it is work without God’s presence and it now seems a burden, it is hard, but is there a sense whereby the Christian, submitting his life and work to the Lord, invites the Lord to come and bless his activity? David had known God’s blessing on his life and Solomon had known God’s blessing on his life so that he had prospered. Surely these were signs of what could be under God’s lordship. The challenge thus comes, dare we surrender all to the Lord and ask Him to lead us into our career or vocation and then ask for His blessing on it so that we too prosper? Maybe this needs some thinking about!

14. Same End

Meditations in Ecclesiastes : 14 :  The Same End

Eccles 2:14-16 I came to realize that the same fate overtakes them both. Then I thought in my heart, “The fate of the fool will overtake me also. What then do I gain by being wise?” I said in my heart, “This too is meaningless.” For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Like the fool, the wise man too must die!

Death, they say, is a great leveller!  Think about this for a moment. Here is Solomon and he’s probably the world’s best example from ancient times of a man who, in modern parlance, had been there, done it and got the tee-shirt! From all he tells us in this book, in all we read of his life in 1 Kings, and all we catch of his wisdom in the book of Proverbs, here is a man whose life had been full! Whether it is actually true or not, he seems to have been a man constantly on the go. He is a great national leader and he’s the richest man in the world. He is looked up to by other kings. He stands out like no other – and it’s all the work of God.

There are times in the Old Testament when I look and wonder if the Lord did something with someone or allowed a certain set of circumstances, simply so that in the days to come, we would be able to look and understand the incredible range of people and circumstances. Job is an obvious classic example of a rich man who had it all taken away from him, a case study on how men react under such circumstances. Samson was a case study of how charismatic people with immense strength cope with it – or don’t.  Solomon is the classic example of a man who has been given immense wisdom, a case study in how to fill your life with activity and achievement. There are great men and ordinary men in the Bible, evil women and good women. There are rich men and not so rich men; there are women with big families and women who can’t have children. The range of people, their characteristics and their circumstances is enormous, yet there is one common fact that unites them all – they all died. They lived out their years, and then died.

We were all born. That we know today. We know how we came onto this planet. We also know, deep down, that one day we will no longer be here. One day we are all going to die:man is destined to die once.” (Heb 9:27). Hence the world’s saying, Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Cor 15:32).  We all know that death is there lurking and we never know when it will come for us. Every day across the world, there are people dying at all ages. We never know when it will come, but come it will.  For many it is something to be feared, the great unknown: those … held in slavery by their fear of death.” (Heb 2:15).

Solomon has been pondering the wise and the foolish and now he faces this truth: “The fate of the fool will overtake me also”. Having realised that, he thought,What then do I gain by being wise?” You can be as wise as you like, as rich as you like, and as powerful as you like, but your end is going to be the same as the fool: you will die! As we said death is the great leveller.  We need to realise that this latest question from Solomon should be seen in the context of his wondering about death. Previously he has concluded that there are good and practical reasons why it is better to be wise than foolish. No, his present question is purely in the context of death. When it comes to death, all your great wisdom counts for nothing! Great wisdom will not stop you dying. Great riches will not stop you dying. Bill Gates is going to die one day and then be answerable to his Maker. Every rich and powerful person across the face of the earth is one day going to die. They will not be able to escape it. It doesn’t matter how rich or how powerful, they are all going to die and all face God. It doesn’t matter whether they believe in an afterlife or not, death will happen and then they will know!

But Solomon has got a further humbling thought in his mind: For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered; in days to come both will be forgotten. Not only will you die, but in the years that follow here on earth – the earth where you are not – those who are left here will soon forget you.  Oh yes, every now and then, you will come to someone’s remembrance, but mostly you will be forgotten. However great you think yourself today, in a hundred years, your body will be dust, and your soul will be in heaven or hell, and on earth here, there will probably be no one who remembers you! What a cheerful meditation! Well, no, it’s not meant to be; it’s meant to be realistic.

What are the lessons here?  First, make the most of today. You’ll only live it once and all the days you have are limited. Death will come. Second, make the most of today with God, because how you live in response to Him will determine what happens after death. Now you may think we’ve made rather heavy weather of these verses, but they bring out a most serious point – you will die, and after that there is eternity. If that is so, and if what you do today determines your eternity, then what you do today takes on a new significance! How you respond to Jesus, how you respond to the call of his Spirit; these things will determine your eternal destiny. Don’t waste today!