Ecclesiastes 2:24-3:22 – Faith In God: The Alternative to Pessimism

Notes from a sermon preached on 11.01.09am

What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labours under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.’ Eccl. 2:22-23

And so ended the passage we looked at last week, a depressing look at the drudgery that can be life. Last week we started a new sermon series going through the book of Ecclesiastes, in which the Teacher – either King Solomon himself, or someone following in his footsteps – took on the quest of finding meaning in life. What is it that brings us contentment, fulfilment, true happiness? What is the point of it all?

Over the centuries we’ve all been on that same quest, although we may not describe it in some of the lofty terms that the Teacher does. Like him, we’ve tried finding contentment in pursuing pleasure, accumulating knowledge, learning from history and devoting ourselves to WWW. As we called it last week – work, wealth and women (or men depending on your gender!)

Sadly, like him, so often we find these things wanting. They don’t always turn out to be the answers we though they might be – as for several of these the credit crunch is proving right now.

I’m glad you’ve made it through to this week and that the depressive nature of last week’s topic didn’t cause you all to pack it all up and give in! I hinted at the end of last week that the Teacher had some good news for us. Today, you’ll be glad to hear, we come on to that!

Straight after those depressing words we opened with the mood changes completely. He starts talking about eating and drinking – symbolic for being content. He talks about finding satisfaction in work and enjoyment. He talks about receiving gifts and wisdom, knowledge and happiness. Something has definitely changed. But what is it? What is he doing that has transformed things? He’s still talking about the same activities – working, seeking knowledge and wisdom, eating, drinking – and yet these are now positive things.

In a stage show, lighting can have dramatic effect. Bright white lights can make everything seem very clinical, stark, naked. Blue lighting can make it seem cold, secretive, or spooky. Swap for yellow lights, and the same scene becomes much warmer, more friendly. Think of the difference in mood you can experience by walking from a kitchen illuminated by fluorescent strips into a living room light by warm soft lighting. Totally different experiences. Or for those who came to the Carols by Candlelight service here a few weeks ago – how different this room feels under those lights than it does today.

The difference in these passages is caused by the light shining on them.

Again and again in the first couple of chapters the Teacher talks about the activities he sees and tries as being done ‘under the sun’, for example, Eccl. 2:17, ‘So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.’ You can almost picture the scene can’t you of a farm labourer hoeing a field being beaten down by the harshness of the midday sun above him. Each movement is an effort, the heat draining the energy from him as fast as the sweat pours from his brow.

The picture is one of humanity on their own battling against the elements. It’s an aggressive picture, a lonely picture, a hopeless picture, a losing battle. Its also a very earth bound picture. I remember the first time I came to Wormley. I was doing this bicycle trip around the churches in our denomination. To start with it was very much an endurance test, knocking out the miles on the road. So often I would find myself head down, starring at the road a foot in front of the bike, counting out the strokes, one at a time, blocking out the rest of the world.

I don’t know if you noticed, but this sense of isolation is underlined by God being mentioned only once in last weeks passages (1:1-2:23), and even then only to blame for the burden of this heavy life in 1:13, ‘What a heavy burden God has laid on man!’

Then we come to 2:24. Suddenly the Teacher raises his head and looks up. Immediately these references to ‘life under the sun’ simply vanish. Instead, it is God that shines through everything, the divine brings illumination. The mood is transformed. Everything looks so different. Moving from life under the sun to life under God brings a newfound optimism and contentment. Compare our opening verses:

What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labours under the sun? All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.’ Eccl. 2:22-23

With the subsequent ones:

24 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, 25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?

If we live with our eyes to the ground, live under the sun, then our life will appear meaningless. There is no lasting fulfilment here. But if we live with our eyes to God, then everything changes.

So what does it mean to live life under God as opposed to living life under the sun? Does this mean that we need to spend all our time singing worship songs and doing ‘Christian’ things? I sincerely hope not! Whilst I enjoy belting out the odd chorus, a never ending chorus binge – no thanks! The worker in both these sections is working the same field. The activities in chapters 1-2 are the same as those in chapter 3. We still work, do pleasurable things, eat drink and spend time with family and friends, only we do them inspired by God, and for God.

What do I mean? Let’s take the parable I told last week, the parable of the farmer who spent his time building bigger barns in order to house his ever-increasing crops. The story ends with him dying and never getting to enjoy his riches. Why is that farmer condemned in the parable? Is it because he was seeking to be a productive farmer, to grow the best crops he could? No. He is condemned because he is working ‘under the sun’, motivated by greed, harvesting for himself. If he’d been growing them for God, seeking to be a good farmer, using the gifts God had given him in thanksgiving and to help others, then Jesus would have praised him instead. Money is not the root of all evil – it is the love of money…

The same sort of idea can be applied to the other areas of our lives. What drives us as we engage in them? What do we do them for? Who do we do them for?

Do you want to be fulfilled in your work? Then work as if you were working for God not your boss.
Do you want to be fulfilled in your relationships? Then love your family and friends as if they were Christ himself.

Life under the sun and life under God are the same life, just motivated and driven by different sources. One leads to disappointment and the other to fulfilment.

Now, to leave it there would be easy – it would sound great – but if we’re honest, that’s unrealistic and simplistic. Life’s not like that. All this kind of theology does is leave people feeling as if they are inferior Christian, as if somehow they aren’t good enough at pleasing God as they aren’t fulfilled all the time and wondering why some of the folks who live life ‘under the sun’ seem to have a better life than they do

Fortunately, this isn’t the theology of the Teacher. He doesn’t stop at this point but expands it with three other observations.

For starters, he recognises that our finding satisfaction (v.13) is not something we earn, but a gift from God. The fact that we aren’t happy and others are does not mean that they are better at pleasing God that we are, that they are superior Christians. It doesn’t mean that we can earn satisfaction, just as we can’t earn salvation. Satisfaction is the gift of God, given to whom and whenever he chooses is his love and wisdom.

Secondly, although we might be striving to live under God, we can’t escape the fact that sin is still in the world, and that sin has consequences for those it touches upon – even those who are themselves innocent.

Read Eccl. 3:16

How often do you see people on the news torn apart by things that have been done to them or their families, but the culprits have got away with it, or have received what they perceive to be a lenient sentence. This lack of justice can be like a sore that won’t heal, preventing them from ever having closure and finding peace again. How do you reconcile that to the idea of living under God bringing contentment? If you live ‘under the sun’ there is no hope in such situations. How about those living under God? Does this take away our contentment? It needn’t, as we know that our life under God doesn’t end with our death, but continues afterwards. Read Eccl. 3:17. We know that God will act as judge over sin, including those sins which their perpetrators though they’d got away with. Closure can be found in him. Equally, that recognition of our life with God to come, counteracts any disjoint caused by seeing others who aren’t living under God having more enjoyable lives today.

In fact we don’t need to have our sense of contentment ruined today by the imperfections of life lived now. Life will never be perfect today – that’s impossible. We are imperfect people, living with other imperfect people in a world that is tainted. Inevitably there will be good times and bad times. If this life is all we have, then these seasons would ruin our sense of fulfilment. If to be satisfied, we need the perfect life here and now, then we are destined to failure – and that is the trouble with life lived ‘under the sun’. It is good when it is the season for being born, but death snatches that away. It is good when it is time to laugh, but weeping is sometimes louder. Peace is wonderful, but there is always war. But God has set eternity in our hearts. We may not fathom all that God is done, but he has told us that a time will come when these changing seasons will come to an end, and a new season be ushered in, life with him. Life under God knows that this is coming, so enables us to celebrate the good seasons as gifts of God, and to endure the bad, patiently trusting in him.

Until that day, the Teacher concludes there is indeed nothing better for us to do than to live for God, enjoy the work that he gives us and find our satisfaction in him.

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