Friday, April 28, 2017

Ecclesiastes: Does Anything Really Matter? Day 1, Introduction

The book of Ecclesiastes begins by identifying its author, "The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem." (Ecclesiastes 1:1) This can be no one but King Solomon. The Bible has this to say about Solomon, "God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. Solomon's wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the people of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than anyone else, including Ethan the Ezrahite---wiser than Heman, Kalkol and Darda, the sons of Mahol. And his fame spread to all the surrounding nations. He spoke three thousand proverbs and his songs numbered a thousand and five. He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also spoke about animals and birds, reptiles and fish. From all nations people came to listen to Solomon's wisdom, sent by all the kings of the world, who had heard of his wisdom." (1 Kings 4:29-34)

Verse one says this book contains the words of the Teacher, which is the Hebrew koheleth, meaning something like teacher, preacher, speaker of the assembly, or bringer of wisdom. This is a logical title for Solomon to give himself, though it may be one of the titles given to him by the people of Israel or by those who came to hear his wisdom. The Bible says he was wiser than all the wise men of the East, wiser than the priests and magicians of Egypt, wiser than some specific men who are mentioned by who would have been known in his time. He possessed an insatiable appetite for learning, yet for all his education and all his wisdom, he found life lacking in meaning. The problem with great intelligence is that along with it comes a talent for introspection. The smarter a person is, the more likely he or she will spend time pondering the meaning of life. The more intelligent a person is, the more he or she will struggle with boredom and dissatisfaction.

Solomon, like many others before and after him, finds out that fame and fortune leave him feeling empty inside. And, like many others who have enjoyed a huge measure of celebrity, he spends a good part of his life trying to ignore his discontent by filling himself with alcohol or by pursuing the lusts of the flesh. Needing something upon which to expend his energies and his restless thoughts, he took on massive building projects and busied himself during the daytime hours with city planning. But in the long dark nights when there was no work to do, and no one to talk to, and nothing to occupy his mind, he finds himself falling into despair. He thinks to himself, "Does anything really matter? My wisdom will die with me. My buildings and my parks and gardens will endure after me, but will anyone take care of them? Will anyone look at them and remember me? Who will inherit my fortune? Will he be a wise man or a fool? Will my successor be a good king like I've been and like my father David was, or will he bring the nation to ruin? I've spent my days working my fingers to the bone and for what? I have no control over anything that happens after I die. All my work seems meaningless to me. None of it has any eternal value."

During Solomon's reign the nation of Israel controlled the largest portion of the Promised Land that it ever would. The twelve tribes were united under one king, but division would ensue after Solomon's death. The nation enjoyed a time of peace and prosperity while Solomon was on the throne. The Bible tells us that, "The people of Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the seashore; they ate, they drank and they were happy." (1 Kings 4:20) He had twelve thousand horses and fourteen hundred chariots. Solomon was a ladies' man, marrying seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. Many of his marriages were for the purpose of political alliances, but we are also told, "King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women." (1 Kings 11:1a) Nehemiah called this a sin, pointing out that men of Israel were not to marry foreign pagan women. (Nehemiah 13:26) The women Solomon married were from cultures of which the Lord had said, "'You must not intermarry with them, because they will turn your hearts after their Gods.' Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been." (1 Kings 11:2-4)

So we see the main reason for Solomon's discontent: he was not faithful to the Lord. No wonder life began to seem meaningless! He had immersed himself in every worldly pleasure, in every practice of the cultures around him, in building palaces and parks in his own name, in indulging himself with alcohol and rich foods and debauchery, and all of this left him feeling empty inside. He had a hunger of the soul that none of these things could fulfill. Solomon was a man who removed God from the center of his life, essentially dethroning Him as King of kings, and had crowned himself in God's place. Whenever we allow our lives to revolve around ourselves instead of God, we are going to end up disappointed and dissatisfied. Humans make very poor gods. We are unable to keep from letting ourselves down and from letting others down. For a while we might be able to numb our depression by filling the hours with work or pleasures as Solomon did. But what do we do in the night when doubt creeps in, and when despair lurks at the door, and when depression falls down over us like a long black cloak? How do we comfort ourselves then? What do we do when we are forced to come to the conclusion that a life not centered on God is meaningless?

As the book of Ecclesiastes opens we find King Solomon in a state of mental and spiritual crisis. He's severely depressed. Everything seems pointless. All the labor he has expended feels like a waste of time. Nothing has satisfied him. Nothing he has done appears to have any eternal significance. So he cries out, "'Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher. 'Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.'" (Ecclesiastes 1:2) The word that the NIV renders as "meaningless" and the KJV translates as "vanity" is the Hebrew hebel which means "fleeting or temporary, futile or fruitless, empty or absurd". It is believed that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes near the end of his life, when he gazed around him at all he had accomplished and realized he took no real pleasure in it. He wrote this book during his final years when he looked back on his life and felt like he had simply spent it chasing the wind, not achieving anything of lasting importance.

Solomon will end up answering his own question. He wonders, "Does anything really matter?" and he will come to the conclusion that nothing matters to the person who lives his life without God. Nothing fully satisfies the soul of man other than a relationship with the Creator. Nothing lasts except what is done for God's kingdom. This is when Solomon will have the wisdom to realize that something does matter. When God is at the center of our lives, everything takes on a deeper meaning. Life is richer and more fulfilling. When we put God in His proper place in our lives, all other things take their proper places, and most importantly we take our proper places. We are not gods and the world should never revolve around us. This leads to a sense of futility and hopelessness. But everything matters when our world revolves around God.

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