Text — Ecclesiastes 2:1 – 3:9
Subject — Quest
Theme — The quest for meaning
Proposition — In Ecclesiastes 2 – 3:9 the teacher goes on a quest for meaning and finds two dead ends in his quest.
Purpose — Therefore having gone on a quest, with the Teacher for meaning this morning and having found three dead ends in a quest for meaning let us praise God that because He has united us to Christ, we walk in the ways of the covenant and so find meaning where the Teacher, speaking as a covenant breaker, could not find meaning.
As we begin to examine Ecclesiastes again, we emphasize again that only in the covenant … only as in Christ can we find meaning. Because Christ is the answer to our sin problem, Christ is the answer to our epistemological problems. Those in Christ can find meaning in all that the teacher couldn’t find meaning in, because in Christ they have a person who can bring all the different parts of our lives together to make a meaningful whole. Because we are united to Christ “in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge hidden,” (Colossians 2:3) we can have and find meaning. Because we are in covenant with God, “in His light we see light.”
The problem of man outside of Christ who desires meaning is that he is seeking to find meaning all the while defying the one, who alone, can give meaning.
For example, just this weak I was corresponding with someone I hadn’t spoken to in 30 years about this issue of finding meaning. I suggested, as I am teaching here, that meaning can only be found by presupposing God.
The response I received from this old acquaintance was,
“Isn’t it possible that knowledge and meaningful experience naturally evolve from consciousness and require no other preconditions? That knowledge and meaningful experience were not created and set out for consciousness to acquire but rather are created by consciousness?
Here we hear the voice of the covenant breaker that we so often hear in Ecclesiastes. Meaning is not derivative or dependent upon God but naturally evolves from consciousness. Meaning is created by one’s own evolved consciousness. Thousands of years later men are still evading God in order to have meaning independent of God.
And through the voice of the teacher in Ecclesiastes man outside of covenant with God continues to look for meaning.
In Ecclesiastes the Teacher’s purpose it to make clear that man’s life in the world is without foundation if he refuses to reckon above all with God.
We remember from last week that in the Teacher’s “burden of God” statement (1:13) the Teacher is acknowledging God from the outset as the one who is the source of his task and the one, in whom alone, his task can find traction. So, this heavy burden imposed by God is imposed for a discernible reason … it is imposed to challenge man’s self proclaimed autonomy from God.
And the book continues from here both as one who speaks as one trying to escape this burden of God by knowing autonomously and one who embraces this divinely sanctioned burden by knowing as one who thinks God’s thoughts after Him.
These words … “What a heavy burden God has laid on men” thus become a sort of thematic string we find throughout the book. To quote Michael Kelly from his commentary “The Burden of God”
“Each major section of the book … shows this theme returning again and again in order to underscore God’s absolute predominance over the life of man. It is this fact with which humanistic man in his wisdom does not wish to reckon, but which the book will make plain that he must. Man in his rebellion would dispense with God. the Teacher’s purpose is to make clear that man’s life in the world is without foundation if he refuses to reckon above all with God. Because man stands under God’s curse he must be made to take account of the fact that it is God Who is both the cause of the condition that troubles his life as well as the solution.”
And so to the covenant breaker this heavy burden imposed by God is a burden that will break him and send him flying into despair, but to the covenant keeper this heavy burden imposed by God is bearable because the work of finding meaning can be successful to the one in covenant.
This morning we are taking a look at three areas the Teacher explores in terms of finding meaning. In these areas of pleasure, labor, and wisdom, that we are looking at this morning, the Teacher does not communicate that these are evil in and of themselves (vs. 10). The point emphasized here is that these otherwise good gifts have no meaning if they are taken up as having meaning in themselves alone. He comes to this conclusion as a Son of the Covenant viewing the areas as one who has been given covenant eyes to see what the conclusion of the Covenant breaker must be.
I.) Humanist Wisdom Pursues Meaning in the Context of Pleasure And Finds A Dead End (2:1-3, 10)
Hedonism — This is a school of thought that teaches that the achievement of pleasure is the highest good. We often hear it capsulized in the idea of “eat, drink, and be merry.”
That Hedonism was thought to be an answer for meaning can be seen in an ancient Egyptian song. The following is a song attributed to the reign of one of the Intef kings before or after the 12th dynasty, and the text was used in the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties.
Let thy desire flourish,
In order to let thy heart forget the beatifications for thee.
Follow thy desire, as long as thou shalt live.
Put myrrh upon thy head and clothing of fine linen upon thee,
Being anointed with genuine marvels of the god’s property.
Set an increase to thy good things;
Let not thy heart flag.
Follow thy desire and thy good.
Fulfill thy needs upon earth, after the command of thy heart,
Until there come for thee that day of mourning.
Likewise the Teacher might have written,
He built his soul a lordly pleasure house
Wherein at ease he did dwell
He said, “Oh my soul make merry and carouse”
Dear soul, for all is well”
For the Teacher this meant Mirth, Spirits, and in vs. 10 he says he did not with-hold from His heart any pleasure. Yet weighing knee deep in this pursuit he concludes that there is no meaning apart from God.
Proverbs 25:16 is an interesting verse … “If you find honey, eat just enough – too much of
it, and you will vomit.”
In other words, even good things, in abundance, will eventually make you sick.
Of course we have seen this pursuit of finding meaning in pleasure continue full steam in the latter half of the 20th century. Hugh Hefner built his Playboy Empire. Drugs and Alcohol have proliferated in pursuit of a pleasure that allows one to drop out from this reality. Multiple Marriages combined with Multiple divorces have characterized our culture’s mad pursuit of pleasure. The gaming industry which is a multi-billion dollar industry is pursued in the name of pleasure. Our obsession with sports and entertainment outlets to the neglect of all other considerations reveals that 21st century man is still characterized as one who seeks to find his or her meaning of life in the pursuit of pleasure.
Now, pleasure, in and of itself, is not evil, as it is practiced consistent with God’s Law-Word, but pleasure will not give meaning if it is pursued as an end in itself as the Teacher tells us.
And yet we continue to embrace pleasure as a way to find meaning.
Ravi Zacharias says something that we here in this wealthy nation should take special note of:
“I am absolutely convinced that meaninglessness does not come from being weary of pain; meaninglessness comes from being weary of pleasure.”
II.) Humanist Wisdom Pursues Meaning in the Context of Work Achievements And Finds A Dead End (2:4-11, 17)
Many have been the men who have emptied themselves into their work. They are commonly referred to as “workaholics.” The Teacher toyed with finding meaning in just such a manner but the end was despair.
I suspect we are seeing this kind of thing repeated today.
A news release from The Conference Board reported in its most recent periodic poll that only 45 percent of workers in the U.S. were satisfied with their jobs, the lowest level in the 23-year history of the poll.
I suppose there could be a host of reasons why workers in the US are not satisfied with their jobs. One of those thought certainly could be the reality that ultimate meaning can’t be found in ones work.
The Teacher found here that what initially gave a rush finally, in the end, failed to fulfill.
“At age 45, Hughes was one of the most glamorous men in America. He courted actresses, piloted exotic test aircraft, and worked on top-secret CIA contracts. He owned a string of hotels around the world, even an airline – TWA – to carry him on global jaunts.
Twenty years later, at age 65, Howard Hughes still had plenty of money – $2.3 billion to be exact. But the world’s richest man had become one of its most pathetic. He lived in small dark rooms atop his hotels. Without sun and without joy. He was unkempt: a scraggly beard had grown waist-length, his hair fell down his back, his fingernails were two inches long. His once-powerful 6’4” frame had shrunk to about 100 pounds.
This famous and powerful man spent most of his time watching movies over and over, with the same movie showing as many as 150 times. He lay naked in bed, deathly afraid of germs. Life held no meaning for him. Finally, emaciated and hooked on drugs, he died at age 67, for a lack of a medical device his own company had helped to develop.”vii
A Chinese billionaire who converted to Christianity was asked “Why did you convert?”
This was his answer — “All my life I have spent my time climbing the mountain of wealth and success and when I finally got to the top…I looked around and nothing was there.”
Jesus once said, “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)
III.) Humanist Wisdom Comes To Some Conclusions Regarding Wisdom & Folly Apart From God (2:12-16)
Even for the Covenant breaker (the Humanist) their Wisdom will discern a difference between Humanist Wisdom and total Humanist folly (14), even though as sons of the covenant we might say the difference is only one of degree. Be that as it is the Teacher, speaking with as one with Humanist Wisdom begins to despair.
By introducing the idea of death, quite apart from saying anything about God in vs. 16 the Teacher has brought us to the end of anything called Wisdom that does not reckon with God. Wisdom, so called, apart from God ends in death just as folly apart from God ends in death. Apart from God, when matters are viewed in the long term there is no advantage whatsoever in being comparatively Wise as juxtaposed with the fool.
And so, we see that apart from God there is no meaning. The fool is as well served as the so called wise. Only by viewing life in light of God can we find meaning.
His despair deepens as he reaches conclusions regarding Wisdom as that Wisdom exists apart from God (17-23) and here we begin to see a muscular Nihilism in his despair. Nihilism is the denial that there is any meaning with the presence of a general mood of despair at a perceived pointlessness of existence that one may develop upon realizing there are no necessary norms, rules, or laws. Nihilism then is what we read in vs. 17-23.
The Teacher says that given these truths of man without God He hates life (17). Already he has lost patience with this pursuit.
RJR has said at this point,
“Even as patience is associated with hope, so by implication the loss of hope means impatience. When we have no hope, both waiting and tribulations become meaningless to us, and we cannot patiently endure them.”
So the Teacher has lost hope speaking with the voice of the covenant breaker and in losing hope he has lost all patience and in that loss of patience he declares his hatred for life.
And well he should. Man apart from God should hate life. This is the end of all men who try to live with themselves as their God when they consistently follow that philosophy to its bitter end.
However, what often happens with this kind of man is he seeks to bring that hatred to everyone else. He hates life and so all the world must hate as well.
In 2:24-26 the Teacher shifts from his exploration of man’s end and man’s conclusions as one apart from God (2:14-23) to a few words regarding life having meaning if one is a Son of the covenant who understands life in light of God. The only answer to the despair of 2:14-23 is to reckon with the reality of the God of the Covenant. 2:24-26 reveals that the pursuit of meaning in the context of pleasure and labor, can only be found if one presupposes the God of the Bible.
So, in 2:24-26 we see the deep clouds of depression part and the sunlight of hope enters again. If man will reckon with God … if man will live in light of God man can have hope. If man will receive his pleasure and labor as from the hand of God (24) and understand them in light of God man no longer has to be one who hates life. Man’s life can have meaning but only as one who lives as submitted to God. The Teacher can have enjoyment like no other because he receives what he receives from the “hand of God.”
Notice when God is submitted to, the pleasure and the labor that found so much despair suddenly change to matters that find joy unspeakable.
Vs. 26 gives us a strong hint that the way we are understanding the text is correct. God deals with His covenant people in one way and he deals with those outside the covenant in another way. The last phrase in vs. 26 “this too is meaningless … a chasing of the wind” refers then to God’s non arbitrary judgment upon the efforts of the sinner … efforts that have been chronicled earlier.