Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. Now all has been heard; hFear God and keep his commandments,
Perspective. Your view of the world.
How do you keep score? We have all heard that “the one who dies with the most toys wins.” Perhaps you are more religious than that, so you are less concerned with material things and more interested in collecting friends and accomplishments. Maybe you are looking for ways to add jewels to your crown.
What matters to you? I want to challenge us all this afternoon to consider our paradigm. That may be a new word to some of you. Your paradigm is your world view, the pattern or set of constructs through which you view the world. Your life’s work and actions will spring from your paradigm, from the patterns and views that shape you.
As Christians, we say that what matters most to us is loving God and loving people. We say that what matters most to non-Christians is salvation, being forgiven for their sins and saved from the destiny of their own making by Jesus’s actions on the cross, accepting God’s gift and trusting Him as their Lord and Savior. Therefore, what matters to us is helping them meet Jesus.
And I believe that we believe those things are true. We do not just say them for the sake of recitation.
But our actions show that many, many other things also matter to us. We care about making a living. We care about our human relationships. We care about bettering ourselves, through education and experience and healthy choices. We care about having fun. We care about the internet and television and baseball. We care about food. There is nothing wrong with any of those things, when kept in perspective. Your paradigm can include all these under the shadow of worship and evangelism and service and ministry.
When we overemphasize those things, caring about making a living becomes focus on wealth. Caring about our relationships becomes self-promotion, or lust and abuse, or worship of family and family time, or preoccupation with sex. Caring about bettering ourselves becomes obsessive devotion to wisdom and knowledge, or to travel, or to physical fitness, or to beauty. Caring about having fun becomes seeking pleasure at all costs. Caring about our jobs turns into workaholism. Any or all of them get in the way of what we say really matters – loving God, sharing the gospel, and loving people.
In short, a loss of perspective leads to idolatry, to placing things and people and concepts and achievements ahead of our worship and service of God in priority and too often in place of our worship and service of God altogether. Our paradigm shifts from being God-centered to being self-centered.
There is another way perspective can be lost. Have you ever awakened, considered what the day or the week or the month ahead has in store, and wondered, “What is the point?” Perhaps you identify with these words:
“Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” 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. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. 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 undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I amassed silver and gold for myself. I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. 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.“ [from Ecclesiastes 1 and 2]
Have you been there? Have you found yourself on the treadmill of life, just getting to work and then getting home in time to feed the family and throw in a load of laundry and maybe, just maybe, watch 45 minutes of TV before you collapse in bed so you can start it all over again the next day? We can be overwhelmed with it all, throw up our hands, and decide that it is all meaningless, all a chasing of the wind. Our idol suddenly is mere survival.
This is not a new struggle. Old Testament writers grappled with perspective, how to approach wealth and pleasure and work and wisdom. We read a lot about those things in the Proverbs, with optimistic words and aphorisms and short statements that can, for some, lead to pretty simplistic views of the world when taken out of context or viewed as two-line proof texts that fit well on a coffee cup. I love the Proverbs, but as with any other book of scripture, if you are pulling out a sentence or two, or perhaps even a chapter, and holding it up on its own as the sole measure of what God has laid out for your life, you are shortchanging the Bible.
The Old Testament book that best addresses this struggle is the Book of Ecclesiastes. I am willing to bet that most of you have never heard a sermon on the Book of Ecclesiastes. It is one of my very favorite parts of scripture.
The name “Ecclesiastes” is the Latin transliteration of the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Qoheleth, which is the pseudonym of the author of the book. Now that is a mouthful. The literal Hebrew title of this book is “The Words of Qoheleth, the Son of David, King in Jerusalem.” The word Qoholeth is associated with the Hebrew word for “assemble” and means something like “the one who gathers the assembly.” You may have heard the Greek word Ekklesia, meaning “congregation” or “assembly,” which is the New Testament word for church. So, you can see why Ecclesiastes sounds like our word ecclesiastical, which is used to mean “things of the church.” We often translate Ecclesiastes as the “Teacher” or the “Preacher.”
Qoheleth, the Teacher of the book, is the only Jewish name in the Old Testament that we always translate, which makes it unique. We have gotten used to talking about Jonah or Hezekiah or Haggai, using their Hebrew names, but for whatever reason we usually translate Qoheleth to “Ecclesiastes.”
Qoheleth is either the author writing an autobiography or is the subject of a biography written by someone else. Both Jewish and Christian tradition say that Qoheleth is really Solomon. The book identifies its subject as a son of David and king of Jerusalem who has gained more wisdom than anyone before, and the nature of the book as wisdom literature leads many to the conclusion that Solomon must be both author and subject. Some recent scholars point to language in the book that appears to be post-exilic and say the language choices mean that Solomon cannot be the author. He could still be the subject, the Qoheleth of the title, but they say the book had to have been written by some later author. I don’t know the answer to that for sure.
Ecclesiastes, which is one of the books of the Ketuvim, or “writings” of the Hebrew Bible, has been a source of controversy. There have been, over the centuries, those in the church who did not think this book should remain in the canon as a part of our scriptures. The hullabaloo arises because this book can appear to contradict verses elsewhere, particularly in Proverbs. If you believe that both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes were authored by Solomon – as many people do – then these apparent contradictions can really cause problems. Regardless of whether you care about authorship, the more literal you are in your reading of scripture, the harder it can be to reconcile what you read, especially if you like to pull out individual verses.
Let me give you a couple of examples of what I mean.
Proverbs has a variety of verses that seem to teach that so long as we are righteous people who do our best, all will go well for us. For example: “He holds victory in store for the upright, he is a shield to those whose walk in blameless, for he guards the courts of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones.” [Proverbs 2:7-8] “Blessings crown the head of the righteous, but violence overwhelms the mouth of the wicked.” [Proverbs 10:6] “No harm befalls the righteous, but the wicked have their fill of trouble.” [Proverbs 12:21] But in Ecclesiastes, we read this:
All share a common destiny – the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not. As it is with the good, so with the sinful.… This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: the same destiny overtakes all…. There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. [Ecclesiastes 9:2-3, 8:14].
So, there is your uplifting devotional thought for the day!
We finish Proverbs, with its language that “the righteous man is rescued from trouble,” [Proverbs 11:8] and turn the page to the beginning of Ecclesiastes, and it seems to be 180 degrees apart, as pessimistic as Proverbs was optimistic. The book begins, “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless!” [Ecclesiastes 1:1] If you learned it in the King James, you know the words as “Vanity! Vanity! All is vanity!” Qoheleth says, “I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” [Ecclesiastes 1:14]
So, we have several choices. One is simply to discard the Book of Ecclesiastes, to say it is not fit for study, so we will just forget about it. A second is to spend the rest of this sermon doing a sort of scholarly thesis on how rabbinic scholars and early church fathers interpreted the book, quoting a lot of professors and literary historians – that would be interesting to some of us, but it would not be much of a sermon, and it is not what this pulpit is for.
A third option is to see what God has for us this afternoon in the Book of Ecclesiastes. I choose Door # 3.
I think of the Book of Ecclesiastes as “Proverbs… the Rest of the Story.” Part of that is the tradition that they are both written by Solomon. Part of it is the placement of Ecclesiastes in our Bible, immediately following Proverbs. To me, it falls naturally to look at the Proverbs as the youthful optimism of the Teacher, seeing the promises of God before him and certain of his path. As he gets older and experiences all of life, his optimism is replaced not with pessimism but with experience, with the knowing look of middle age and perhaps even the calm understanding of old age, and he writes Ecclesiastes from the perspective of one who has seen how all the Proverbs play out.
Let me be clear. I am not suggesting to you that the Proverbs are wrong or too-simple youthful wishes that should be discarded by the mature. Nothing could be further from the truth. What I do think is this – taking individual verses as literal prooftexts is a dangerous and often misleading pursuit. I think the wisdom literature, indeed the entire Old Testament, in fact the entire Bible should be read as a whole. Yes, there are individual stories, and of course we have to deal with it in bites. But if you do not read Genesis in light of First Samuel and Isaiah and Colossians, you are missing something. If you read the wanderings of the Israelites in Numbers and Joshua without the view of the redemption of Christ and the teachings of Paul, you are not getting the full view. That is why we always include multiple scripture readings in every service; they are not randomly chosen but instead help shed light on the specific scripture for the day on which the sermon is based. Surely, reading much of the Bible without understanding the victory of the end of Revelation is a mistake.
So too, reading Proverbs in isolation leaves out much of what God would teach us.
By way of example, let’s think about proverbs we teach our children.
· Slow and steady wins the race for the tortoise over the hare.
· It only takes one innocent child to point out that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes.
· Ugly ducklings grow up to be beautiful swans.
· Cinderella escapes her cruel life with the mean stepmother and lives happily ever after.
· Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
· The bigger they are, the harder they fall.
· Familiarity breeds contempt.
· No pain, no gain.
We all know what all those mean, and we have doubtless taught them to our children. They are all full of truth.
That said, we do not expect our children to be slow, to expect absence and lack of familiarity in their relationships, to seek out pain, to be ugly, or to point out the faults in public officials. We all know that there is a lot about life that will not be happily ever after. Knowing these things does not make the proverbs untrue; we treasure them and teach them and even cling to them. But, we do so in context; as we grow and learn, we understand that there is more to the story. As Qoheleth tells us, “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” [Ecclesiastes 9:11]
So, too, we cherish righteousness and prize Proverbs that say things like, “What the wicked dreads will overtake him; what the righteous desire will be granted.” [Proverbs 10:24] Maturity teaches us that the wicked often win awards and elections and position and, seemingly, the game of life; and experience teaches us that we can be righteous and, at the same time, poor and hungry and divorced and sick and unhappy. That does not make the Proverb wrong. We value the call to a life of righteousness and attach vast importance to the direction in which the Proverbs point us; but it means the Proverb is not all there is of scripture, or of life.
As Paul Harvey says, now it is time for the rest of the story.
Proverbs tells us that wisdom will save us [Proverbs 2:12], but Qoheleth tells us that “with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” [Ecclesiastes 1:18] Proverbs teaches that “the desires of the diligent are fully satisfied” [Proverbs 13:4], while Qoheleth says that “pleasure… also proved to be meaningless.” [Ecclesiastes 2:1-2] The writer of Proverbs advises that “wealth brings many friends, but a poor man’s friends desert him.” [Proverbs 19:4] Sure enough, Ecclesiastes is having none of that, noting that, “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless.” [Ecclesiastes 5:10] Proverbs says, “Commit to the Lord whatever you do, and your plans will succeed” [Proverbs 16:3], but Qoheleth says that:
The work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind… 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. [Ecclesiastes 2:17-23]
I have entitled this sermon “The Answers of Qoheleth,” and right about now, you think I am nuts. You are ready to say that there are no answers here, only contradictions and despair, pessimism and diatribe. You can often identify with the idea that life is meaningless, that our daily turn of the wheel gets us nowhere, but where, you may be thinking, does this Teacher, this Qoheleth, provide us any answers?
Stay with me.
Answer #1 - View God accurately.
Perspective. We are under the sun, but God is not. The sooner we figure out that our earth-bound, wind-chasing human perspective will never grasp all of who God is or what God is about, the sooner our paradigms will adjust to God-centeredness. Rather than coffee-cup theology that can lead us to focus on what we can gain if we are just good enough, Qoheleth would, like the apostle Paul, and like Jesus, have us stop chasing the wind and instead set our hearts on things above.
Everything is appropriate in its time. You are probably all familiar – if not from Bible Study than from the Byrds song – with this most famous passage of Ecclesiastes:
[Proverbs 2:7-8] Our right paradigm allows us to glory in the promise that “Blessings crown the head of the righteous,” [Proverbs 10:6] for we know that we are crowned with His righteousness alone. victory He holds in store for the upright, the shield He is to those whose walk is blameless, for he guards the courts of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones.
We do not know the source of the wind or how the human body is formed in the womb, and we do not comprehend the ways of God. [Ecclesiastes 11:5] Our lives under the sun do not bring us meaning that we can understand. Seeking our own way is vanity.
But there is an alternative, a place to turn, a way to go. It is to fear God – to approach the creator with loving reverence that acknowledges His great power and mysterious ways – and to do His will, to keep His commandments.
Much of the New Testament is devoted to teaching us what it really means to fear God and keep His commandments. For now, perhaps not even the Teacher knows for sure what the details are, and maybe that is the point. We may well not understand all the particulars, but we cannot and must not let that failure to understand keep us from following God anyway.
You may be on that treadmill. You may have been a church member all your life but still feel trapped in meaninglessness. Now is the time. Honor God. Fear God. Love God. Come to the altar during this time and establish the relationship with the Almighty that will raise your view beyond what is under the sun.
For there is nothing else. Everything in this world, under our sun and made by our hands, lacks meaning outside of its place in the overwhelming will of God. To love our God is to recognize and embrace more than what is here, more than what those around us see, more than is simply under the sun.
That is the conclusion of the matter. Stop chasing the wind.