Solomon Found Despair So We Don’t Have To

One of the things that makes the book of Ecclesiastes so difficult for some to understand is the way that Solomon allows himself to think. Solomon was looking at life to see meaning and purpose. He wanted to be able to show what is right and wrong, good and evil, worthwhile and worthless.

What you might miss is that Solomon accomplishes his task in this book by, at points, examining life from a this-worldly point of view. He looks at life, all our pleasures and pains, and he thinks about what would matter if indeed there was no future for mankind after death. What Solomon concludes, what we see in his examples, is that without an afterlife, it is hard to see why anything in this life matters.

Here is a simple example of how this reasoning goes.

Ecclesiastes 9:1-6 – 1 But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. 2 It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. 4 But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. 6 Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun.

If you were to read this without context, without knowing what is happening in Ecclesiastes, you might think this to be unbiblical thinking. Solomon is not an atheist. Even in his greatest despair, he never would pretend like there is no God. Instead, what Solomon did here was to look at human circumstances with the assumption that this life is all there is. And this led him in place after place to declare that all we do is in vain, it is meaningless.

In verse 2, as an example, Solomon says that being good or being bad is irrelevant. After all, good people and bad people all die. Sometimes bad people live longer and happier lives. Sometimes good people live longer and happier lives. But either way, the same thing happens, all end up in the grave.

In verse 5, Solomon points out that, if this life is all there is, the only thing we know is that it is better to be alive than to be dead. After all, if this life is all there is, the dead know and think nothing. There is no justice. There is no reward for righteousness. There is no punishment for evil. Without a life to come, Solomon sees that the only good is to live; and even there, living is a vanity, because life leads to death.

Now, to stop us from really not liking this little book, let’s remember that Solomon will draw the perfect conclusion. Solomon, in chapter 12, will remind us that God does bring deeds into judgment. There is a life beyond this one. Solomon knows all this. He is just taking us through a teaching exercise that shows us how empty life is when one has no hope beyond their 80 years or so.

But we should be learning that there is a genuine emptiness to naturalistic worldviews. Solomon, even three millennia ago, understood that a person who views this life as all there is has no basis for either morality or hope. Even if we know our actions are evil, if we see this life as all there is, so what? Why would we care if we have been good or evil? Solomon shows that, in the end, all we do is live and die and return to dust. There is no hope and no meaning in such a worldview. And thus, such a worldview is unsatisfying and untenable. A this-life-only view offers no basis for morality, no reason for morality, no rational explanation for limiting aggression, no reason to value human beings over animals, no incentive for right behavior, and no deterrent for great evil.

Ecclesiastes is valuable for us because we need somebody to be honest with us about what happens when we see ourselves from a this-world-only view. Solomon was intellectually brighter than all his peers. He did the study. He showed us that naturalism leads to despair. But he did not lose his faith. In the end, he expresses confidence that God is, that God is good, and that God will judge. God will reward those under his favor. God will judge those who have opposed him and his ways. And we can be grateful that Solomon worked through this exercise and wrote it down for us under the inspiration of God. That should keep us from having to walk the same ugly path.

Hardships Are Calls

What should we do when we face pain? There are lots of reasons, after all, that hardships may come into our lives. This is a hard and broken world. Sometimes we do things to mess up our own lives. Sometimes things happen to us that we did not contribute to at all. And often, these are hard things to interpret.

In Job’s experience, as an example, he faced major hardship, but he had done nothing wrong to deserve it. God had a particular plan to accomplish for his own glory, and Job was part of that. The blind man in John 9 was born blind in order that the glory of God might be revealed. Esther was pulled from obscurity into a throne room for, as she was told, “such a time as this.”

But what are we to do with hardships? Is there anything we should assume that God wants us to do with them? I think we may see something in Amos 4. The passage is a little scary. After all, God is talking to a very rebellious people. But there is still something for us there.

The people of Israel had refused to return to God. Through this chapter, God had told the people that he had sent several hardships their way. But in each of them, the nation refused to turn to him. And God has a response because of that refusal;

Amos 4:11-13

11 “I overthrew some of you,
as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah,
and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.
12 “Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel;
because I will do this to you,
prepare to meet your God, O Israel!”
13 For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind,
and declares to man what is his thought,
who makes the morning darkness,
and treads on the heights of the earth—
the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!

Stop and see that ending. It is scary. God says that he sent them through some hard times. But they refused to let their pain cause them to return to the Lord. And then God said, because they would not repent and return, they were to prepare to meet their God. Judgment was coming.

Now, do not misunderstand me, I am not suggesting that all our hardships have the same causes or the same purposes. But I will say this, no matter what our hardships, each of them should call us to turn to the Lord. Whether our hardships are chastening for our sin or trials for our sanctification, they should still cause us to turn to the Lord. We can always repent a little more. We can always see our need for God a little more. We can always recognize that he is holy, and we need his grace a little more.

Are you facing pain? I’m sorry if you are. None of us like hardships. But can I call upon you to turn to the Lord? Whether you have been super-noble or quite dodgy, your hardship should remind you that you cannot stand on your own. You need God’s help. You need God’s mercy. You need to remember that this world in its fallen state is not your home. You need eyes on heaven, eyes on eternity, eyes on Jesus. Let a hardship, any hardship, be a reminder to return to the Lord.

Restoring the Fallen Booth of David

It would be nice if we knew our bibles better. It would be nice if we knew the minor prophets better. God’s word is so good. God has said things to us that we need to see, things that seem unable to be fulfilled, things that only are fulfilled in Jesus.

Take the book of Amos as an example. This book promises some strong judgment from God on Israel, particularly the northern kingdom. Israel was in rebellion against God ever since their breaking away from Judah around 930 BC. They worshipped idols. They took up with foreign gods of other nations. And they participated in all sorts of evil practices. Israel was a nightmare where justice was concerned. The rich abused the poor and the weak. No judges would give the weak a fair hearing, they would only bow to the powerful. Immorality and injustice were rampant. And God let Israel know that he would be bringing justice to this nation soon.

Amos 5:2

“Fallen, no more to rise,
is the virgin Israel;
forsaken on her land,
with none to raise her up.”

Look at the strength and absolute nature of those words. Israel is falling, never to rise again. They have been so wicked that their power is broken. And, in truth, soon after the days of Amos, the northern kingdom went into exile under the Assyrian Empire, and they never rose to power again.

What then? Has God simply cut off that people? Is that the end of the story? If it were, it would have been just. But God has something bigger and more interesting in mind.

Amos ends with a tone of hope, a light at the end of the tunnel. But that light looks almost contrary to what he had said earlier. How could it happen?

Amos 9:11-15

11 “In that day I will raise up
the booth of David that is fallen
and repair its breaches,
and raise up its ruins
and rebuild it as in the days of old,
12 that they may possess the remnant of Edom
and all the nations who are called by my name,”
declares the Lord who does this.
13 “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord,
“when the plowman shall overtake the reaper
and the treader of grapes him who sows the seed;
the mountains shall drip sweet wine,
and all the hills shall flow with it.
14 I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel,
and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine,
and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit.
15 I will plant them on their land,
and they shall never again be uprooted
out of the land that I have given them,”
says the Lord your God.

Here is the promise, and it is magnificent. God says, just as things look hopeless for all Israel, that he will restore the fallen booth of David. He will restore the household, the kingship, the dynasty of David. How? How can God do that? How can God restore David’s dynasty while the northern kingdom is exiled and not rising to her former glory according to 5:2?

Readers for centuries would have wondered as well about when in the world this promise was to be fulfilled. After all, though the northern kingdom was exiled around 722 BC, the southern went into exile in Babylon, returned to the land, but never found herself out from under the thumb of some empire or another. The people of Judah were ruled by Babylon, Persia, and Greece. They were oppressed in the conflict between Egypt and Syria. And then, to make matters worse, the nation was clearly under the rule of the Roman Empire.

So, what about this restoration? How would it come? Verse 12 tells us that the restoration will include gentile nations. Verses 13-15 talk of a prosperity to come that will be supernatural. How?

New Testament readers who have paid attention to Amos know. The answer is Jesus. Jesus came, arriving in the line of David. Jesus is the Messiah, the promised king from God. Jesus is the one to establish the restoration of the fallen booth of David. But, as is so often the case, he does so in ways that others might have a hard time grasping.

Jesus came and established his kingdom in a way that none expected. He did not come to set up a physical throne or to overthrow the nasty Romans. Instead, Jesus established the kingdom of God based on promised eternal salvation. Jesus saves all who come to him by God’s grace through faith alone. Jesus welcomes Jews and gentiles into the family of god, into the true Israel of God, without distinction of ethnicity, class, background, or anything else.

Is that a proper interpretation of Amos? In Acts 15, we see that the church indeed saw it this way, and it was recorded for us under the inspiration of God.

Acts 15:13-20 – 13 After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. 15 And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written,
16 “ ‘After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen;
I will rebuild its ruins,
and I will restore it,
17 that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord,
and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,
says the Lord, who makes these things 18 known from of old.’
19 Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, 20 but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.

Note that, at the Jerusalem counsel, when the question arose as to whether or not gentiles could be welcomed into the church without first submitting to Jewish ceremonial law, James cited Amos 9:11-ff. God used James to teach us that the restoring of the fallen house of David was done as Jesus, the Son of David, conquered death and built the kingdom of God by saving a people from every nation. Yes, the gentiles are part of this kingdom. IN fact, Paul later reminds us that in Christ, there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is only in Christ or not in Christ.

And once we see that Jesus is the fulfillment of what Amos said, all the rest falls into place. How is there no recovery for the sinful northern kingdom as we saw in 5:2? How will there, at the same time, be this restoration of a kingdom as promised in 9:11? How will we see those who are planting the next crop chasing those who are still harvesting the abundance from the last crop around the fields? How will we see the promised supernatural and physical blessing of God? It is all in Christ. Jesus builds God’s kingdom. Jesus saves Jews and gentiles. Jesus saves people descended even from the exiled northern kingdom, even if we do not know who they are. And Jesus will return. And Jesus will reign. And Jesus will undo the curse of sin over the earth. And when Jesus does this all, we will see all fulfilled.

Christians, there is great hope in the prophecy of Amos. We need to know it. We need to love it. We need to let it make us tell people about Jesus. And we need to find our hope in the present kingdom of Christ along with the promise of his coming.

Let Your Words Be Few

Here is an interesting bit of counsel from Solomon on our attitude when we approach the Lord to worship.

Ecclesiastes 5:1-3 – 1 Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools, for they do not know that they are doing evil. 2 Be not rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven and you are on earth. Therefore let your words be few. 3 For a dream comes with much business, and a fool’s voice with many words.

Solomon cautions people to guard themselves as they approach the place of worship. He reminds them that God is in heaven, indicating that God is high and holy. In comparison, we are, well, not. And this distinction should cause us to be careful in what we say and what we do, especially as worship is involved.

Of course,

Solomon is writing here under an Old
Testament economy. Worship in this context has much to do with presenting right sacrifice before the Lord. And it would be utter folly for a sinful man to go to the temple and confidently assert what God must accept from him as an offering. There is no room for us to be brash in our dealings with God.

So, in a direct line of application, the king is warning people not to think they can tell God what must happen for God to accept them. This is still true today. There are many people who believe that they can determine exactly what God ought to do with them and their lives. They believe that they can sit in judgment over the ways of god. But man will never set the parameters by which God deals with him. This is God’s work and God’s alone. God has said that there is only one way to salvation, by his grace through faith in Christ alone. God has made it clear that trusting in Jesus in such a way that brings us to repentance is our only path to being accepted. We do not work to earn salvation, it is faith alone. But that faith is a life-changing faith.

I would suggest, however, that this also applies to worship in our modern context. We must first understand that, in Christ, we may approach God with freedom and confidence (Eph. 3:12). We must grasp that God grants to us the righteousness of Christ (2 Cor 5:21). And so we do not approach the Lord in worship fearing that we will not be welcomed. We have, after all, been given the right to be called children of god because of Jesus (John 1:12-13).

But I think this passage can remind us that, even in Christ, we ought to approach the worship of God with genuine reverence and humility. God is still God in heaven. He is still greater than us to an infinite degree. And we should be far quicker to listen to his word than we are to go into worship telling God what we will give him. We should follow
Scripture. We should, when it comes to new ideas, let our words be few. We should reverently and joyfully, with solemnity and with celebration, bring honor to the name of our God in the ways that God has clearly said honor him.

So, consider these thoughts when you next go to worship. Approach God in God’s way. Come to him first in faith and repentance, believing in Jesus and yielding your life to him. And come to him in humility with joy, knowing that God has shown us how he is to be worshipped. Come to sing, pray, and listen to the word. Come to participate in Lord’s Supper and take part in genuine, Christian fellowship. Come to honor God.

Where Is Your Support?

You need other people. This is counter-intuitive to our modern culture, but it is true. We have become a society of people who do not live together, do not work together, and do not support one another. Our friendships often are little posts of social media about what perfect meal we just ate, what beautiful vista we just saw, or what frustrating politician we want to disparage. But such pseudo friendships have little to do with helping us when we really hurt.

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 – 9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

In the book of Ecclesiastes, in the middle of his despair about the worth of life, Solomon points out how much human beings obviously need one another. One man alone cannot make it. One woman alone is not enough. We need support. We need to live in community. We need someone to pick us up when we fall. We need people to encourage us when we struggle. We need people to help us see when we are wrong.

In ancient Israel, community was a lot easier. You did not move away from your family land. Generations would live together on the same piece of property. Little compounds grew up where four generations would live up close to one another and share the load of the family farm. In the community, men gathered at the city gate to discuss the needs of the community and set right wrongs.

But in our culture today, people believe that we can live as total individuals, totally alone. And, for a time, you can. But in the end, most of us will realize that God has not designed us to live in this world alone. In Israel there was the gathering at the city gate and the family. In post-exilic Judah there was the Synagogue. In the New Testament era, there is the local church. And God has never designed people to live outside of those kinds of communities.

Think about your life. Where is your system of support? Who will help you when you hurt? Who will come and tell you when you are wrong, but still love you enough to help you grow? Who will care when you are sick? Who will hurt with you when someone hurts you, but also keep you in check so that you do not foolishly seek to hurt others back?

One person alone has a hard time. Pairs do better. Cords of three are strong. God made us for communities. And this is the beauty of a solid local church. A good church is a family. A good church will bring us together. A good church helps us have the support we need to survive this life. A good church puts people from different backgrounds and different personalities together, and we learn to function together as a unit because we have a common standard in the word of God.

You might say to yourself that this is not your experience in the local church. I’m sorry to hear that. But there are a couple of possibilities as to why this is. It is possible that you, in your experience in the church, have not been open to genuine community, genuine fellowship. If you are not willing to open your life to others in the church, you will not have the community you need. This is a problem you must work to rectify. You must show others that you are willing to be friends. You cannot expect that it is the job of others to seek you out and test your interest in community.

Of course, it is also possible that you have been in a bad local church; they exist. Find out if your church loves the word of God highly. If it really loves the word and not simply the concept of being a big church, it will be open to stronger fellowship and greater community. Talk to your pastor or elders. Ask how you can help establish greater community.

The point that Solomon made 3,000 years ago is still true. We need community if we are going to survive in this hard world. How will you find it?

Glad I’m Not Like Them

In a fascinating way, believers of all sorts have certain beliefs they value highly. The passionately theological value something. The Charismatic value something. The traditional value something. And all believe that the others around them should value what they value.

In truth, I believe that there is a definite right and wrong as to what ought to be important to believers. I believe that my understanding is from the word of God and not from my own preferences or personality. I believe that, in general, we would be better off if people valued what I value.

But there is a danger. Even if I am right, and I think I am right, there is a danger.

Luke 18:9-14 – 9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

In this parable, Jesus describes two men. One is very proud of his righteousness. The other is very ashamed of his sin and cries out to God for grace. And we all know that the tax collector who is begging for mercy is the one who ends up justified.

How does that apply to what I said earlier? I actually would suggest that there are two dangers we face, and we can avoid them with a little prayerful thought.

First is the obvious one. Be careful not to think that you are somehow better than others in the faith because of the thing you think is most important. If you value enthusiastic worship, do not look down at the one who is more stoic. If you value evangelism, do not look down on the one who is more timid. If you value doctrine, don’t look down on the one who is poorly taught. We must begin from the understanding that we brought nothing good to the table to bring about our justification. We are sinners worthy of judgment. God brought the love and the grace to us. And we all, like the tax collector, need to cry to God to have mercy on us, sinners.

The other edge that people can fall off of here is to assume that, because we are all under mercy, nothing matters. That would be a bad move. We begin with humility and grace. But we also look into the word of
God to see what God says matters. When we see in the word of God that the Scripture is how we hear God’s voice instead of a subjective personal vision, we learn that matters. When we see that God has revealed a standard for worship that is theologically rich, word-centered, joyful, and reverent, that matters. When we see that Christians are called to share our faith, that matters. When we see that only God changes human hearts, that matters. When we see that God has made men and women with total equality in value and beautifully different roles, that matters.

In order to avoid falling off the road on either side, let’s try this. Let’s begin with absolute humility. We are sinners. Not one of us is better than any other. We dare not grow the attitude that says that I’m glad God did not make me like that guy over there. And then let’s bottle up that humility, keep it on us at all times, and study the word of God diligently so that we can learn what God values along with our humility so that we can love him, love others, and obey him rightly in all things for his glory.

No Negotiation with God

In so much of our lives, we are called to negotiate our position. We tell people what we will give in order to receive something. We are careful to define what we will do and what we expect. After all, to not do so is to put yourself at risk in a fallen world.

But when it comes to salvation, we need to remember that negotiation has nothing to do with the process, and this is very good news. Coming to Jesus is total surrender to God and his authority.

I thought of this principle while reading through the parable of the lost son (some call him the prodigal son). The story is that of a man’s son who leaves home, blows his inheritance on evil living, and finds himself broke and alone. The son realizes that his dad treats his hired hands better than the son is living at present, so he determines to go home to his dad and negotiate a settlement, asking the dad to just give him a job on the farm.

Luke 15:17-19 – 17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’

What is interesting here is what happens next. The young man goes home, ready with his speech. He is rightly humbled and repentant. He knows himself to be unworthy and is asking for grace alone. He is willing to be a mere servant in his father’s household.

But when the young man gets home, his dad runs to meet him. The young man starts to give his speech. But his dad cuts him off before he can finish. Once the young man returns in repentance seeking mercy, the dad will not at all allow him to negotiate his position. Instead, the father restores his son to the family. He throws a party. He tells everyone that his lost son has now come home.

Jesus intends this as a parable of the gospel. We do not, when we come to God, have any right to negotiate our position. We do not tell God we will give this if he will allow that. Instead, we come like the son. WE come repentant. We come knowing that we are guilty and unworthy. We come ready to fully submit to whatever our Father demands.

But the Father, for his part, welcomes us. God treats us, not as slaves but as sons and daughters. God will not make divisions in his family for the worthy, the less worthy, and the barely included. Instead, God forgives repentant sinners in Christ and elevates us all to the level of his very own children.

We want to remember two things here. First, we want to remember that we cannot negotiate with God regarding what we will hold back from him. If we come to him, we come to him completely, yielding our entire lives to him. But we also do not negotiate our position in the family. God adopts into his family all who trust in Jesus and turn from sin to surrender in faith.