Sunday, April 30, 2017

Ecclesiastes: Does Anything Really Matter? Day 3, Wisdom And Pleasures Are Meaningless

Solomon begins his discourse on all the worldly things in which he tried to find meaning. Today he speaks of the pursuit of wisdom and the pursuit of pleasure.

"I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind!" (Ecclesiastes 1:12-13) Solomon wails, "God gave us minds that want to learn, but there is too much to learn, and none of it really satisfies us. I had the time and the money and the opportunity to study anything I wanted, but I'm bored and unfulfilled. This is nothing but a heavy burden! Why did He make us this way?"

"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) This is a profound statement about the life that is lived without God at its center. A person can spend his or her life chasing after this thing or that thing only to find out it has no more substance than the wind. Everything about life on earth is transitory except our relationship with Almighty God. Because He is eternal, our relationship with Him can also be eternal. There is no one who can take away from us what we have in Him. Life is short and uncertain and what we possess today might be gone tomorrow, but the Lord says, "I will never leave you or forsake you." (Deuteronomy 31:6, Hebrews 13:5)

"What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted." (Ecclesiastes 1:15) There are certain laws of nature and of the universe that are absolute, even though we don't understand them. There are many things about time and space that even the most brilliant physicist or quantum theorist can't explain, yet they are there. Solomon has applied his mind to scientific endeavors and has ended up frustrated. He has wondered about such enigmas as this, "Some things about our universe don't make sense! I can't understand them. How did everything that exists burst forth out of nothing? How do the solar systems hold together without spinning out of control into deep space? How does time work and why is it that we can only go forwards in time and not backwards?" These questions have gone around and around in his mind until he is weary of them. There are no answers, only more questions. Those of you who just completed the study of Job with me will recall all the questions the Lord asked Job about the universe, the earth, and the animals. Job couldn't answer any of God's questions about how these things were created or why they do what they do. Solomon couldn't answer them either. He deeply wanted to know, but there are some things only the Lord knows.

"I said to myself, 'Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge. Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief." (Ecclesiastes 1:18) He comes to the conclusion, "Whoever said ignorance is bliss was onto something! The more I learn, the more my curiosity increases. But the more I learn, the more I realize how much I don't know. And the more I try to find out, the more puzzled I become. I'd be better off if I were simple-minded than to have to deal with this thirst for knowledge!"

Pleasure, like wisdom, has fallen short in satisfying Solomon. "I said to myself, 'Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.' But this also proved to be madness." (Ecclesiastes 2:1) At some point he abandoned his obsessive studies and decided to fill his life with the pleasures of this world. He thought perhaps these would provide diversion from the things that bothered him. But it didn't work.

"'Laughter,' I said, 'is madness. And what does pleasure accomplish?' I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly---my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was good for people to do under the heavens during the few days of their lives." (Ecclesiastes 2:2-3) Laughter is good medicine when added to a fulfilling life that is focused on the Lord. The "madness" comes into play when instead of seeking the Lord we spend our days and nights seeking mirth and entertainment, trying to ignore the emptiness in our hearts and attempting to block out the voice inside us that keeps telling us how unhappy we actually are. I picture Solomon sitting at a riotous party or ancient comedy club one night and suddenly becoming acutely aware of his loneliness and despair. He's laughing on the outside but weeping on the inside. He doesn't feel a bit better than he did before he got there so he goes home in a state of deep depression.

The pursuit of wisdom and pleasure have not filled the emptiness in Solomon's heart. So next he thought maybe keeping himself busy with huge projects might do the trick. He wouldn't be the first person or the last person to think that becoming a workaholic is the answer to his problems. We know he built the Lord's temple near the very beginning of his reign, but this was when his heart was still right with the Lord. As his heart grew cool toward the Lord he completed many other ambitious projects to keep his mind off his sadness. The Bible and the history books name some of the things he built, including an ornate palace for himself, a palace for his first wife who was the daughter of an Egyptian king (he would have constructed housing for all his other wives and concubines as well), a large fortification wall around the city, a citadel called Millo, facilities for foreign traders to stay in when they came to town, various cities around the nation for his fleets of chariots and his many horses, storage cities for the treasures he accumulated, zoos for the exotic animals he collected, and a beautiful system of parks and gardens for the citizens of Israel to enjoy. He mentions some of his projects and interests here in Ecclesiastes, "I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired male and female singers, and a harem as well---the delights of a man's heart. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me." (Ecclesiastes 2:4-9)

While he immersed himself in studies and pleasures and work, he never lost the intelligent mind that constantly sought meaning in life. Even when giving himself over to foolishness, he didn't lose common sense. Deep down he was aware the whole time that nothing he was spending his time on was fixing what was wrong. He enjoyed these things to a certain extent because it's human nature to enjoy them, but the hole in his heart wasn't repaired by any of them. "I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure. My heart took delight in all my labor, and this was the reward for all my toil. 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." (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11)

I am so thankful the Lord created us with an empty space that only He can fill! If He hadn't, would we ever seek Him? Would we ever know the joy of communing with One who possesses an intelligence and a goodness so much greater than ours? Would we ever experience the relief of knowing our faith in Him has made us righteous and justified in His sight? Would we ever know the love that is greater than any other love? We thank You and praise You, Lord, for creating us in exactly the right way, for giving us minds that need meaning and for fashioning us in such a way that nothing but a relationship with You will ever make us happy. Amen!

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