The Ways of the Wise

The Meaning of Life Series
  • What happens when we seek ultimate meaning outside of relationship with the Creator God? What happens when we're desperate for the answers to life but can't seem to find any? What happens when our souls get wearied from the constant pursuit of pleasure and possessions? These are enormous questions of life and meaning that Ecclesiastes grapples with in the timeless complexity and messiness of reality. In the end, the ancient philosopher recalibrates our hearts, minds, and lives to pursue meaning in the Ultimate God because God alone holds the key to the meaning of life.
7. The Ways of the Wise (Ecclesiastes 7:1-8:1)
  • Can we find meaning in life through running wise diagnostics?
Sermon Preparation Guide
  • Importance – What are the central ideas of the text?
  • There is meaning in leading a life led by wisdom centered on God. (Ecclesiastes 7:1-6, 11, 18)
  • There is evil in the world and in man. (Ecclesiastes 7:20, 29)
  • God is greater than any human wisdom. (Ecclesiastes 7:13 & 14)
  • Implications – What questions should the listener be asking?
  • What does the life led by wisdom look like?
  • If man is evil, how does one yet life the way of wisdom?
  • What does it mean to say that God is greater than any human wisdom?
Talk it Over Discussion Guide
  • Interpretation – What is the text telling/showing us?
  • What is important about retaining a “good name?”
  • What is the advantage of a deep, serious life as over against a life of frivolity? Why is the former better than the latter?
  • What is the benefit of wisdom and the way of wisdom?
  • How is wisdom a shelter?
  • What are the limitations of wisdom? How far can wisdom take one towards the answers of life?
  • Why is it not necessarily productive to look back at “the old days?”
  • Why should one not live at the extremes of life? What are the extremes the Preacher sets forth? (Ecclesiastes 7:16-18)
  • What is the state of mankind? (Ecclesiastes 7:26-29)
  • Why is it so hard to find a righteous man or a righteous woman?
  • How does wisdom make one's face shine? (Ecclesiastes 8:1)
  • Implementation – What should the listener’s response be?
  • Describe the ways of wisdom as it plays out in your life?
  • In what ways do you lead a serious, thoughtful life? In what ways do you lead a frivolous life?
  • What is it about the “good old days” that hinder living in the present?
  • How is wisdom good with an inheritance? How is wisdom a protector?
  • Should the fact that you don't know your future in detail bother you in the living of life every day? Why not?
  • How can you avoid the extremes and why should you?
  • What should your approach be to listening to the gossiping words of others, or the criticism of others?
  • How should you view other people without God? What is their state without Him?
  • How should you live amidst people who are not perfect?
  • How can you live the way of wisdom and how can doing so make your face shine?
Sermon Teaching Notes (as prepared by Pastor Dick Murphy)
  • Investigation – What’s generally going on in this area of Scripture?
Chapter 6 has left us on a low note, the last three verses seeming to say that life is so short an uncertain that we can’t even know what is good and how to live; it’s all vanity and all of
us are just going to die anyway, our lives having been determined by God. So live however you like, for it just doesn’t matter; “[f]or who can tell man what will be after him under the sun?” (Ecclesiastes 6:12) The Preacher has left us in a dark, depressing place, to be sure. But the real question is whether the Preacher will stay there, and whether, by extension, we will stay there.

The good news is that in chapter 7, the Preacher shakes out of the depression. He does not leave us in meaninglessness, with no direction. The Preacher has already looked to God for meaning (Ecclesiastes 2:24; 3:12; 5:1 & 2, 20), and with that overall context, he now proceeds to give us a series of proverbial sayings that speak to how to live life, sayings that are literally the “ways of the wise” which will serve one in good stead in life, and which are, ultimately, the ways of God as opposed to being the ways of man. Even if they do not provide all the answers to life and its meaning, these sayings give direction and offer a shelter from the lack of answers; these sayings are good, for the now and for the future. So what do these proverbs say?

Verses 1 through 6 basically tell us to be serious in life, not frivolous. Here are their messages:

verse 1 says, “Preserve your reputation”
verse 2 says, “Face the issue of death and eternity”
verses 3 and 4 say, “Allow sorrow to bring you life insights”
verses 5 and 6 say, “Be open to constructive criticism”

In short, they say, “The wise man will live life with a measure of solemnity, and an intentional avoidance of thoughtless behavior, always with humility and with the ultimate future in mind. Life is more than totally in the moment; there is always tomorrow, next week, next year, and even eternity. That future must have an impact on one's present behavior.” As an example of the sense of these verses, one commentator had it right when he wrote the following about the saying concerning sorrow: “A sorrow shared may bring more inner happiness than an evening with back-slapping jokers.” We know that the Preacher is not excluding joy and happiness by offering these sayings as the ways of the wise, as he has already written, “Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot.” (Ecclesiastes 5:18) Rather, the Preacher is providing a setting for that enjoyment, a setting that takes life seriously and one's lot in life as having an arc of goodness to achieve.

But the Preacher continues on. Verse 7 says, “Do not seek advantage via your position; remember that bribery undercuts your character.” Verses 8 and 9 say, “See things through to the end, including your life. Patience is helpful and anger leads nowhere.” Verse 10 says, “Don't focus on the past as doing so keeps you from the present.” Verses 11 and 12 say, “The wise one will use well an inheritance knowing it was not earned; and wisdom provides security and preserves life.” Then verses 13 and 14 sum up by saying that the foregoing ways of the wise are sensible from the human perspective, but actually take God into account, knowing that God is in sovereign control over all things, including what seems to us to be good and what seems to us to be bad. We must live in what He provides us and trust in that provision in life. This approach is (again) not fatalism, but rather at least understands that there is a God, that God is sovereign ruler over all, that God has a plan and purpose to everything even if it is not knowable by us, and that God has given us life to live. These thoughts ring true to the believer in Christ who does know the future, it having been revealed by God. However, that believer has more to go on than merely clinging to a God who is somehow distant. The Apostle Paul wrote to this point in his letter to the Romans. Hear what he wrote:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. (Romans 8:18-30)

The call of those verses from Romans is to trust in God and the reality that He knows the end from the beginning and everything in between. The issue for us is one of faith, and more particularly, faith that sees beyond the now to the end in light of who God is, even without our knowing how things will work in the midst of those two ends. The author of the book of Hebrews wrote of this:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible. (Hebrews 11:1-3)

The Preacher does not see ahead to the end, but knows enough to life in the now in light of God and His plans. The Preacher, then, writes of faith even if he doesn't call it that.

But in verse 15 through 22, the Preacher confronts the question that comes up in light of the prior admonition to “do good in this life,” that question being “Why do good in this life if there's no reward for it, but instead even negative consequences?” (Ecclesiastes 7:15) His response, while not an answer to the question per se (that is, in terms of providing a solution), is that while we may not know the end, we shouldn't live at the extremes of “overly righteous,” which is “do-goodism” which undercuts relationships and results in extreme judgmentalism, or “overly wicked,” which is foolishness that can even lead to an early death. (Ecclesiastes 7:16 & 17). Instead, the Preacher says the way of wisdom is that one should put God at the heart of life and thus avoid such extremes. (Ecclesiastes 7:18. Cf. Philippians 3:8-10) Yet, though wisdom is to be sought and lived out, and though it provides strength in large measure (Ecclesiastes 7:19), even the wise person must recognize that wisdom has its limitations as no one is perfect (See Romans 3:10-18). So in that light, the wise one doesn't listen to gossip or the idle words of others, recognizing that he or she has spoken such words himself or herself. (Ecclesiastes 7:20-22) Nevertheless, human wisdom in itself is not able to provide answers to the profound questions of life and meaning; it runs up against the reality of life and evil in its attempt to find meaning, and instead finds these problems to be unsolvable. (Ecclesiastes 7:23-25) Especially galling is the reality that people are not only imperfect, they are evil. The Preacher was not able to find but one man in a thousand who was upright, and no women, and the latter including women who scheme to trap men! (Ecclesiastes 7:26-28) One wonders if this latter observation comes from King Solomon's experience with his multitude of wives, most of whom were foreign and who he presumably married to allow him to keep up with other potentates of his world and to secure treaties with foreign powers (I Kings 11:1-6). These women turned his heart from God and led him astray. But the point is that the wise person is extremely rare, and that reality only serves to underscore the issue of the presence of evil.

So where did the ways of wisdom leave the Preacher in the end? Again, even though there are ways of wisdom that make for some meaning in life when followed, when all is said and done, the Preacher found only meaninglessness. However, he recognizes that the problem is not God or from God (Ecclesiastes 7:29). Thus, in Ecclesiastes 8:1 he can say that though wisdom doesn't provide the explanation of things, because it is from God after all, wisdom and the way of wisdom “makes his face shine” and ameliorates against the hardness of the way of man which, ultimately, leads only to meaninglessness and destruction (See Proverbs 14:12). It seems, then, that the Preacher is working hard to hold on to the center of meaning, which he continues to insist is found in God, despite the fact that he cannot reach that point through wisdom that comes solely from man. So, the Preacher keeps searching life through wisdom, arriving at meaninglessness only to reject it as the final end to his life's journey. There is thus no solace for the Preacher in knowledge, which is limited, or in people, who are foolish and evil; there is only fearing God (Ecclesiastes 7:18). To the believer, the good news is that we don't have to cling to God out of sheer desperation. Rather, we know that God has reached out to us (John 3:16; Romans 5:8), that God has literally become one of us in order to give us meaning and indeed, in order to save us (Romans 5:6-11, 17). And we know that God cares for us (I Peter 5:7), loves us (Romans 8:37-39), and has plans for us which, even though we don't know the details (I John 3:1-3), we can rely on because He is good (Psalm 107:1; Mark 10:18), He keeps His word (Numbers 23:19; Deuteronomy 7:9; II Timothy 2:13), and in Christ He is always with us (Matthew 28:20). Surely knowing these things should make our faces shine. (Ecclesiastes 8:1b)    

Meaningless Religion & Meaningless Riches

The Meaning of Life Series
  • What happens when we seek ultimate meaning outside of relationship with the Creator God? What happens when we're desperate for the answers to life but can't seem to find any? What happens when our souls get wearied from the constant pursuit of pleasure and possessions? These are enormous questions of life and meaning that Ecclesiastes grapples with in the timeless complexity and messiness of reality. In the end, the ancient philosopher recalibrates our hearts, minds, and lives to pursue meaning in the Ultimate God because God alone holds the key to the meaning of life.
6. Meaningless Religion & Meaningless Riches (Ecclesiastes 5:1-6:12)
  • Can we find meaning in life through worshiping things and money?
Sermon Preparation Guide
  • Importance – What are the central ideas of the text?
  • To approach God in other than humility and reverence is meaningless religion. (Ecclesiastes 5:1, 7)
  • Chasing after riches in whatever manner is meaningless and will not satisfy. (Ecclesiastes 5:10, 11, 13, 14, 16, 17; 6:2, 7)
  • It is best to accept one's life and what God provides as a gift from Him. (Ecclesiastes 5:18-20)
  • Implications – What questions should the listener be asking?
  • What is the proper way to approach God?
  • Is it the riches that yield meaninglessness or the attitude towards riches?
  • How does one accept the place one is in life as a gift from God?
Talk it Over Discussion Guide
  • Interpretation – What is the text telling/showing us?
  • Why is it better to listen when approaching God than to talk?
  • What does it mean to “utter a hasty word before God?”
  • What is a vow? Should one make a vow before God? If one does make a vow before God, how should one then proceed?
  • How are wealth and oppression of the poor connected?
  • Why is there no meaningful advantage in increasing wealth and income?
  • How can riches hurt a person?
  • What is it that the pursuit of riches does to a person? What is the end result of pursuing riches?
  • How should one treat wealth and riches?
  • Why might it be better to have been still born than to pursue headfirst after riches?
  • When one does not know one's future, yet God is in control, what should be one's attitude?
  • Implementation – What should the listener’s response be?
  • What approach do you take to worship? Do you presume on God and expect His response because of your situation?
  • How should you approach God?
  • Do you even make vows? If you do, how do you act on the vows before God?
  • Do you see a connection between oppression of the poor and wealth? What can you do to help alleviate those connections?
  • Do you seek after more riches and income to the exclusion of other, more important things? What things have you neglected in the pursuit of more riches and income?
  • How can you be satisfied with your present circumstances? Why should you be satisfied with your present circumstances?
  • In what ways has the pursuit of riches hurt you? Hurt others?
  • Where has the pursuit of riches gotten you? Will it get you anywhere?
  • How are what you have and what you earn a gift from God?
  • How should you deal with the reality that you do not know your future? Does that not knowing bother you? Do you feel as if your future has been predetermined?
  • What is the way out of the trap of riches?
Sermon Teaching Notes (as prepared by Pastor Dick Murphy)
  • Investigation – What’s generally going on in this area of Scripture?
The first seven verses of chapter 5 seem to offer an extension of the conclusion of Ecclesiastes 3:22 that we can accept life even if we don’t understand it, and live the life God has provided, finding enjoyment in it for what it is. In that context, the Preacher says in these seven verses that the life not bound in meaninglessness draws near to the true God, listens to Him, does not seek to presume upon God with words focused on one’s self, is careful to keep vows made, and fears God since He is in ultimate control and knows all. Good counsel, to be sure. The flip side of the foregoing is that worship which approaches God from the self and selfish perspective is not only meaningless, it is worthless. Such worship comes to God with alleged sacrifice which is in actuality an attempt to “bribe” God: “Lord, I make this sacrifice, expecting Your response in my favor based on what I have given.” Such sacrifice comes not from the perspective of humility and exaltation of God, but from the perspective of presuming upon God and even ignoring the evil and sin on one’s own life. Jesus commented on this type of approach in the parable He told as recorded in Luke 18:9-14 in which He compared the different approaches of two worshipers, one of which presumed on God and the other of which reflected true humility. The former worship and approach to religion is indeed meaningless and takes no mind of the reality of who God is and that a proper approach to Him is that he is to be feared (Ecclesiastes 5:7).

The Preacher now turns to riches again, and the approach of those who seek after wealth through whatever means, whether planning and working hard, or through oppression of others. Either approach yields meaninglessness, as the love of money will not yield satisfaction (Ecclesiastes 5:10) and its result often goes to others (such as the king; Ecclesiastes 5:9) Striving after riches and ever-increasing income yields only restlessness and fitful sleep (Ecclesiastes 5:12b) in contrast to the laborer who accepts what he or she has and as a result sleeps peacefully (Ecclesiastes 5:12a). The love of money is an insatiable desire that warps one’s character (Ecclesiastes 5:13), leads to disappointment and loss (Ecclesiastes 5:14), ignores what is important in life such as one’s own children (Ecclesiastes 5:14), leads to frustration and anger (Ecclesiastes 5:17), and in the end leaves one with nothing at the time one dies (Ecclesiastes 5:15b, 16).

So what is the conclusion of the Preacher as it relates to the meaninglessness of riches? It is the same as the conclusion reached in Ecclesiastes 3:22, namely that one should accept what God gives, live with enjoyment in that gift of God, not continually strive for more, and live out life to its end (Ecclesiastes 5:19 & 20). Thus, the Preacher says there is value in work and possessions for what they can provide for the living of life as opposed to the vanity of chasing after more and more to no end. While one may not understand from the purely human perspective how everything works and what God has in store, one can nevertheless live in light of what is given by God for the living of life and find basic satisfaction in that, not worrying about the future (Ecclesiastes 5:20. See also Matthew 6:31-34). While there may not be ultimate meaning in such a life, it will be a life that at least finds contentment.

Chapter 6 confirms the conclusion already reached in chapter 5 that meaning is not found in riches. The Preacher seems to draw a contrast between the one to whom God has given riches but who accepts them as His gift (Ecclesiastes 5:19) and the one to whom God who has given riches but who chooses not to enjoy such blessings and instead seeks after more (Ecclesiastes 6:2). Jewish thinking considered having many children and a long life as a blessing from God. Thus, even if the individual of Ecclesiastes 6:2 was blessed beyond measure with a hundred children (Ecclesiastes 6:3) and a life of long years (Ecclesiastes 6:3, 6), if he leads a life that doesn’t see enjoyment in such, it would be better for him if her were stillborn (Ecclesiastes 3:b). The end of it all is death in any case, and the rich man is no better off than the fool neither of whom is satisfied with life (Ecclesiastes 6:7 & 8), or the poor man who accepts his lot (Ecclesiastes 6:8). It is all “vanity and a striving after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 6:9b) Moreover, there is no new argument to make in response to this conclusion, as all such arguments have been made and in any case, it would have to be made to the One who is stronger, namely God Himself who is in control of everything (Ecclesiastes 6:10 & 11). This seems to suggest fatalism which would say that one’s future is determined and that God is uninvolved if He even exists. That is not what the Preacher says. No; he concludes that God is involved, but chooses not to give us all the answers. So, the Preacher’s conclusion stands: God does give us good things to enjoy in the now even while we do not know the future (Ecclesiastes 6:12).

What have we seen? That empty and self-focused religion and worship are meaningless, as are riches and possessions. The approach to life outside of God continues to end up at meaninglessness. Yet again, the Preacher has found that one can nevertheless live and enjoy life by treating it as the gift of the true God, accepted with a trust in that God even if what He has in store for the future and one’s future cannot be known. There is life, and there is meaning in the mere living of it. And of course, to the Christian of today, all of this points to Jesus Christ in whom is found fulness of meaning in life as He is both the now and the future, and the means to a relationship with the God who does give us all things to enjoy. And He is the One who specifically tells us not to lay up treasures on earth (Matthew 6:19), that we cannot serve both God and riches (Matthew 6:24), and that we should trust in God for our provision while we seek after righteousness (Matthew 6:25-34). In short, in Christ is life, not in riches. So despite the seeming meaninglessness pointed to by the Preacher, indeed all is not lost!

A Crash Course in People Skills

The Meaning of Life Series

  • What happens when we seek ultimate meaning outside of relationship with the Creator God? What happens when we're desperate for the answers to life but can't seem to find any? What happens when our souls get wearied from the constant pursuit of pleasure and possessions? These are enormous questions of life and meaning that Ecclesiastes grapples with in the timeless complexity and messiness of reality. In the end, the ancient philosopher recalibrates our hearts, minds, and lives to pursue meaning in the Ultimate God because God alone holds the key to the meaning of life.
5. A Crash Course in People Skills (Ecclesiastes 4:1-16)
  • Can we find meaning in life even though getting ahead?
Sermon Preparation Guide
  • Importance – What are the central ideas of the text?
  • The human drive to be in power, the best, and always on top, derives from pride, and envy, and leads to oppression and meaningless toil. (Ecclesiastes 4:1, 4)
  • The pursuit of accumulation and advancement to the exclusion of personal relationships is vanity. (Ecclesiastes 4:4, 8, 16)
  • There is goodness in personal relationships. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)
  • Implications – What questions should the listener be asking?
  • What are your motivations in what you do? Do you find you always want to be in charge, in power, on top?
  • Why do you work and accumulate? Does your singular focus on work and accumulating shut out personal relationships?
  • How do you find two to be better than one? Three to be better than two?
Talk it Over Discussion Guide
  • Interpretation – What is the text telling/showing us?
  • Why is there oppression?
  • What is the result of oppression?
  • Why might the oppressor need comfort, and why is there none?
  • What is the relationship between labor and achievement to envy?
  • Why is there no meaning in labor and achievement if it derives from envy of others?
  • What is wrong and meaningless about seeking after riches with a singular focus that shuts out everything else?
  • What are the good things about having a companion, partner, helper, whether it's one or even two?
  • What is vanity about leaders as time passes by?
  • Implementation – What should the listener’s response be?
  • Am I in some way an oppressor of others? If yes, who are you oppressing and why? If yes, why should you cease oppressing? If not you, do you know anyone who is an oppressor and what his or her motivation is?
  • Are you oppressed by another person or persons? If yes, what is the basis of that oppression? If not you, do you know anyone who is oppressed and why?
  • What things do you seek after, that is, seek to achieve? Why?
  • Do you find that you envy your “neighbor” in any way, and that such envy is a basis for your working to achieve?
  • What meaning in your life might you be seeking in your achievements? In your leadership advancement?
  • Are you in any way leaving people out of your life as a result of a singular focus on work and advancement? If yes, what should you do about it?
  • How important are others to you? Do you see them as helpers, sharers of burdens, protectors? What is good about those relationships?
Sermon Teaching Notes (as prepared by Pastor Dick Murphy)
  • Investigation – What’s generally going on in this area of Scripture?
In verse 22 of chapter 3, the Preacher left us with a suggested course to follow in the face of meaninglessness, namely to enjoy the good things of life given by God, including good deeds, creative work, food and rejoicing. But as quickly as the thought of verse 22 was offered, the Preacher moves on to find more vanity in the context of human relationships (Ecclesiastes 4, 6, 8, 16).

First, the Preacher comments on injustice (cf. Ecclesiastes 3:16 & 17), and notes that in human relationships one finds oppression; that is, situations where one group of people (the oppressors) “lord it over” another group (the oppressed). This is a situation common among human beings which derives from the thirst for power and control exercised over others. The thinking goes that I lift myself up at the expense of others. The oppressed can only cry, and in their tears find no one to comfort them (Ecclesiastes 4:1b). The oppressors have the power and no tears; yet they, too, find no comfort in their position as it is never enough (Ecclesiastes 4:1b). The Preacher’s conclusion: the oppressed would be better off dead than alive (Ecclesiastes 4:2), or better yet, not ever having been born (Ecclesiastes 4:3). What an awful conclusion; it is no answer or solution to oppression, it's just meaninglessness, and certainly points to there being no meaning in relationships between oppressed and compressor.

Second, the Preacher comments on the drive to achieve and accumulate, and notes that such derives from one’s envy of others and the desire to “one up” one's neighbor, to be superior to or better than the neighbor, rather than finding meaning in the work itself (Ecclesiastes 4:4). Again, there is just meaninglessness and no meaning in relationships, only the lifting of one essentially at the expense of the other. The two proverbs of verses 5 and 6 give us two pictures of the implications of verse 4. Verse 5 speaks of the foolishness of the one who does nothing, who does the opposite of the one who works to accumulate and get ahead of others. His end is starvation. Verse 6 speaks of the necessary balance of rest and work, a balance which is not present in the person of either verse 4 or verse 5. But the Preacher goes on in verses 7 and 8 to point to the life of the one who labors to accumulate but does so in a relationship vacuum, without friends or family, and says that, too, is vanity. In short, it is vanity to achieve and accumulate when one is alone; the riches are hollow and end up going to no one known to the accumulator. All that work and accumulation is for nothing and is meaningless. Thus, the singular drive to achieve and accumulate leads to loneliness and emptiness, to a separation from others and relationships, and to the inability to live, as Ecclesiastes 3:22 suggested one do, in happiness in one’s work. Thus, it is “vanity and an unhappy business.” (Ecclesiastes 4:8b)

In contrast to the emptiness of verses 4 through 8, the Preacher goes on to point out the benefit of human relationships. How much better it is that one at least have a partner, another person with which to share the workload, to provide assistance, help and protection, not to mention creature comforts such as warmth. (Ecclesiastes 4:9-11) And for that matter, says the Preacher, three are better still (Ecclesiastes 4:12). While not stating it as such, the Preacher implies that in relationships there is meaning, irrespective of accumulation or power or achievement. And behind this implication is the fact that relationships are just as much gifts from the hand of God as are work, good food and enjoyment, and thus they are worthwhile in the living of life.

Even in the realm of politics, relationships, and wisdom in relationships, are important. The wise leader, as exemplified by the king in Verse 13, will continue to receive input and instruction as opposed to becoming foolishly dependent on himself alone and grasping to maintain power. (Ecclesiastes 4:13) Such a one is worse off than a poor young person who is wise though with no power, but who achieves a position of leadership (the throne), presumably by wise relationships with people including those he leads. (Ecclesiastes 4:14) Yet even that once wise young person must not forget how fickle people are and succumb to what one commentator referred to as the “revolutionary” who would seek to question and even usurp another's position (Ecclesiastes 4:15). Then again, the people will yet turn in their affections and become unhappy with that revolutionary. All of it, and all these relationships, are meaningless, so concludes the preacher, and a striving after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 4:16).

So the Preacher has found yet more meaninglessness, and has underscored the baseness of mankind without God, found in oppression, and envy and efforts at superiority. None of it leads to meaning or happiness. And in the midst of these things, human relationships are cast aside, victim to the foregoing baseness and selfishness. But as we've already seen, the Preacher still finds that relationships are worthwhile, and that they help all the individuals involved. Although the Preacher does not say they are God's gift, that implication is present, and the truth of verses 9-12 therefore stand out against the backdrop of the negativity of the surrounding verses. So then, even though there is vanity and striving after the wind in these things; yet the Preacher finds there seems to be some good available and it is in strong, mutually supportive relationships. In the end, even in the face of seeming meaninglessness, All is not lost!

Would You Look At the Time?

The Meaning of Life Series
  • What happens when we seek ultimate meaning outside of relationship with the Creator God? What happens when we're desperate for the answers to life but can't seem to find any? What happens when our souls get wearied from the constant pursuit of pleasure and possessions? These are enormous questions of life and meaning that Ecclesiastes grapples with in the timeless complexity and messiness of reality. In the end, the ancient philosopher recalibrates our hearts, minds, and lives to pursue meaning in the Ultimate God because God alone holds the key to the meaning of life.
4. Would You Look At the Time? (Ecclesiastes 3:1-22)
  • Can we find meaning in life even though life seems repetitive and cyclical?
Sermon Preparation Guide
  • Importance – What are the central ideas of the text?
  • God is in control of time and circumstances; we are to control our response as we discern the times. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)
  • We are made to search for ultimate meaning, but we can't find it on our own. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
  • No matter what the times bring, God will judge in the end; but for now, He has given us every day to enjoy. (Ecclesiastes 3:12-14, 17, 22)
  • Implications – What questions should the listener be asking?
  • What is it about times and circumstances that, though they may seem repetitive and cyclical, you can conclude that God is in control of all of it and live accordingly?
  • Do you want to find ultimate meaning in life? Why can't you?
  • Can you say, “I will be joyful and do good as long as I live.” Can you say, “I will eat and drink and take pleasure in all my toil, for this is a gift from God.” And then can you live that way?
Talk it Over Discussion Guide
  • Interpretation – What is the text telling/showing us?
  • What does it mean that for everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven?
  • What do the things listed in verses 2-8 mean in general? Compare the contrasts in the listing. What do the specific things listed mean?
  • What does it mean to have “eternity” in your heart?
  • Why is it impossible to find out what God has done from beginning to end?
  • What is God's relationship to time? (Hint: read Ecclesiastes 3:14 & 15)
  • What is meaningless about finding wickedness in place of justice and righteousness?
  • What is the same about mankind and beasts?
  • What is the Preacher's answer to the meaninglessness that seems to derive from live?
  • Implementation – What should the listener’s response be?
  • How do you discern the times in your life, and how do you respond to them?
  • Go through the things in verses 2-8 and make a list of times in your life that correspond to those things, and how you have responded.
  • What is your response to the apparent repetitiveness and cyclical nature of life?
  • Do you have “eternity” in your heart? How so?
  • How and where have you observed wickedness in place of justice and righteousness?
  • How do you compare yourself to the beasts of the field? How are you the same? How are you different?
  • What is God's gift to you in terms of living life? How can you live life and find meaning in each day?
Sermon Teaching Notes (as prepared by Pastor Dick Murphy)
  • Investigation – What’s generally going on in this area of Scripture?
At the close of the Notes for the 3rd installment of this Series, we noted that in the face of meaninglessness, the Preacher “seems to say that the answer is not fatalism, but is found in the God who is the giver of good things.” In other words, while one can neither find nor fathom meaning and purpose in this life from human wisdom alone, there seems to be light in the darkness from the hand of God. In chapter 3, we will find further support from the Preacher for the conclusion he reached in the prior chapter.

The Preacher begins chapter 3 with the bald statement, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” Then the Preacher begins the familiar listing of various times appointed by God, a listing made famous in the 1960s by the musical group, the Byrds, in the song, “Turn, Turn, Turn” written by folk singer Pete Seeger years before and taken from this very passage. Verses 2 through 8 are beautiful poetry, even in the English translation, but they seem to be saying that times just come and go, that there's this and there's that, all of which happen at certain times, and that things seen repetitive and cyclical. So there's birth and death, planting and harvesting, weeping and laughing, etc. The implied question from the Preacher is, “Where's the meaning in all that?” If these times are indeed from God, the Preacher writes, we have no ultimate control over them, and their meaning is still incomprehensible and undiscoverable.

So, is the Preacher saying, then, “Just live with whatever comes?” Perhaps. Yet if we combine these verses with what came before in Ecclesiastes 2:24-26, a more accurate conclusion is that the Preacher is saying that life each day comes from God as a gift, and each day brings whatever it will bring, but in God's time and in His control. We humans may not understand it all, even if we want to, but we can live each day seeking to discern and to do what is right for each circumstance that unfolds that day. Thus, in the right situation, it is time to weep, or time to laugh, or time to mourn or to dance, and so on. Such a life would be in contrast to one that simply despaired of any purpose and therefore didn't care about any of these things. Notice that the listing is a series of contrasts; one could say of good times and bad times, or of opposites almost. So, for example, there is a time to be silent but there is also a time to speak (Ecclesiastes 3:7); or, there is a time for killing but also a time for healing (Ecclesiastes 3:3). In short, no matter which end of the respective spectrum one is at, that time, and everything in between, is from God, so one should and can discern such and respond accordingly … and there is meaning in that alone. Notice also that the Preacher is making no judgments about the things in the list; he is just saying that they all have their times as appointed by God.

Verses 9 through 15 seem to underscore the foregoing conclusion. They confirm that there is meaninglessness in toil and it is a burden (Ecclesiastes 3:9 & 10), but state again that God has made “everything beautiful in its time” and even put the longing in man's heart to know and understand life, to make sense of it all even though it is not possible from the human perspective (Ecclesiastes 3:11). So rather than despair at the impossibility of gaining a full understanding of the whole of life, man should be “joyful” and “do good” basically at all times; they should take pleasure in the good things given by God to enjoy including food, drink and even work (Ecclesiastes 3:12 & 13), because everything is appropriate in its time.  Moreover, man can stand on the truth that God sees things from the perspective of eternity, from outside of time, and thus we should be in awe of and before God, accept what is, what has been and what will come, as all and everything is from Him. (Ecclesiastes 3:14 & 15) Such an approach to life does not move a person into a relationship with God; but it does move a person away from meaningless and despair to a place where life can be lived for what it gives, and at least there is meaning in that.

But just when it appears that ere are rays of hope, the Preacher points out another observation which suggests meaninglessness, namely that in the place of justice and righteousness is found wickedness (Ecclesiastes 3:16). Yet, the Preacher says, though this is what is present on earth, God, whom he has just indicated is outside of time and the earth, will judge at the right time (Ecclesiastes 3:17). The implication, of course, is there is not much we can do about injustice and wickedness on earth, so we should leave it up to God. In fact, the Preacher goes on in the next verses to point out that on earth, humans are no different than beasts in that as created beings, they all have life on earth and they all die, dust to dust, and who knows where they go when they die, whether it is “upward” or “down into the earth.” (Ecclesiastes 3:18-21) Ouch! Meaninglessness again; humans are no better than animals. Are we at the point of despair again? It would seem so. Yet the Preacher returns to his prior conclusion: no matter what things seem and how pointless they may be, live life in the now, enjoy it, rejoice in one's work; and don't worry about the future because you cannot know it anyway (Ecclesiastes 3:22. Cf. Matthew 6:25-34).

In all, the Preacher continues to confront the frustration of not being able to find meaning from the human perspective, instead finding contradictions, meaninglessness, repetition and endless cycles, justice and righteousness turned on their respective heads in wickedness, and commonality between humans and animals. And the frustration is exacerbated because God has “put eternity into man's heart” meaning that humans want to know and to find meaning and purpose. But in this frustration and his search, the Preacher keeps landing on the conclusion that meaning is somehow found in God, if only in the sense that God has provided life for mankind to live and there is enjoyment in life, even if not all the time. So there is vanity of vanities, and chasing after the wind; but yet there is God in the midst, and God has not left His creations without anything but despair; rather, He has left them with life itself and all the good things that there are in life to enjoy, including good deeds, creative work, food and rejoicing, all of which can and should take on meaning in light of God and eternity, and the true goodness and beauty of Christ, the ultimate meaning.  The wise man will do well to live in light of such reality.
Life in the Fast Lane

The Meaning of Life Series
  • What happens when we seek ultimate meaning outside of relationship with the Creator God? What happens when we're desperate for the answers to life but can't seem to find any? What happens when our souls get wearied from the constant pursuit of pleasure and possessions? These are enormous questions of life and meaning that Ecclesiastes grapples with in the timeless complexity and messiness of reality. In the end, the ancient philosopher recalibrates our hearts, minds, and lives to pursue meaning in the Ultimate God because God alone holds the key to the meaning of life.
3. Life in the Fast Lane (Ecclesiastes 2:17-26)
  • Can we find meaning in life through a day’s work?
Sermon Preparation Guide
  • Importance – What are the central ideas of the text?
  • Meaning in life does not come from work. (Ecclesiastes 2:17)
  • Any meaning in life from work is defeated by the reality of death. (Ecclesiastes 2:21-23)
  • The answer to this conundrum may be to live with a fatalistic view, or it is at least that God does provide good things to enjoy and because of His goodness in this way, they can be enjoyed and in that is meaning enough for life. (Ecclesiastes 2:24 & 25)
  • Implications – What questions should the listener be asking?
  • What is your work and are you seeking for meaning in life from your work?
  • What is the implication that death faces all of us with regard to the living of life and the doing of work?
  • What is the view you should take with regard to your work and your life? Fatalism? Or gifts from God?
Talk it Over Discussion Guide
  • Interpretation – What is the text telling/showing us?
  • Why did the Preacher try to find meaning in work?
  • What happens to the accumulating of things from one's work when the time of death comes?
  • What is it that worries the Preacher about leaving what he has worked for to the next generation (his heir or heirs)? Why is this a worry?
  • Why is there no ultimate meaning in life in mere work?
  • What are the results of work according to the Preacher?
  • What does the Preacher propose as a “solution” to the meaninglessness of work?
  • What does the Preacher mean when he writes that enjoyment in food, drink and work is “from the hand of God?”
  • Why does the “sinner” find that “the business of gathering and collecting” is vanity?
  • Implementation – What should the listener’s response be?
  • What is good about finding pleasure in work? What is the wrong attitude about work? 
  • What is the point in accumulating things as a result of your work?  Does that give you purpose? 
  • Why is there no purpose for work whose sole end is the accumulation of possessions and wealth? 
  • Can people who do not have a relationship with God find meaning in work for the sake of work? 
  • What is your attitude towards your work?  Do you find enjoyment in your work?  If not, why not?
  • What does God have to say about work and your work? 
  • How can you find meaning in your work?  What, if any, changes might you have to make in your work or your approach to and attitude about work in order to find meaning?  What will you do about that?  
Sermon Teaching Notes (as prepared by Pastor Dick Murphy)
  • Investigation – What’s generally going on in this area of Scripture?
In chapter two, verses 1-16, we saw the Preacher’s review of his search for meaning as he looked at pleasure and then wisdom, madness and folly. He found that those things led to meaninglessness, not meaning. His answer to the meaning of life must lie in a different direction; but where? How about work … is the meaning of life to be found in one’s work? If one just works hard, that will provide satisfaction and purpose. So the Preacher looks at work, and verse 18 doesn’t pull any punches: “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun …” (Ecclesiastes 2:18). This does not mean that there cannot be any satisfaction in work; but rather it means that there is not ultimate satisfaction in work. Work is work, intimates the Preacher, and it gets you nowhere in the end. In fact, when you’re gone, all that your work has gotten you is an accumulation of the stuff of life – goods, wealth, material things, possessions – and these stay on the earth and pass on to your heir, and who knows whether that heir is wise or is a fool and what will happen to your accumulation. (Ecclesiastes 2:18 & 19) Was the Preacher, namely Solomon, thinking here about his heir, his son, Rehoboam, and wondering what would happen to the kingdom when it went to Rehoboam as his successor to the throne? History says Solomon had good reason to worry as Rehoboam was not a worthy successor, and followed folly rather than wisdom (I Kings 12:1-15) as a result of which the kingdom was divided (I Kings 12:16 et seq.).

So work doesn't provide meaning; you do your work, and then you die. This leads not to a life of meaning, but to one of despair (Ecclesiastes 2:20). Thus, even if there seems to be some meaning in work, such as it produced something or made you feel good, that perceived meaning is blown away by the reality of the end by death (Cf. Luke 12:13-21 in which Jesus tells the parable of the rich fool who built bigger barns only to die suddenly.) Moreover, even during life, what one's work does provide is anything but meaning, says the Preacher. First, there is the frustration, noted above, that someone who comes later, and who may or may not be worthy and who didn't earn the rewards of another's earthly toil, will nevertheless reap the rewards.(Ecclesiastes 2:21) There is also the anxiety that derives from the constant striving and driving to achieve the results of one's work (Ecclesiastes 2:22). There is pain, grief and sorrow in the activities of one's work. And there is worry over one's work, even at night when one is not actually working and should be sleeping (Ecclesiastes 2:22 & 23). What should have come from work, namely meaning and purpose, does not come; instead what comes is meaninglessness.

So what is one to do? The Preacher essentially sets out what would be seen as a fatalistic approach, that we should just accept what is, enjoy life and “make the best of a bad situation.” (Ecclesiastes 2:24) Or, in the words of a pop song from some years ago by Bobby McFerrin, “Don't worry; be happy!” The Preacher puts it this way, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil.” This approach would represent not a contentment based on meaning, but instead based on the view that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable, and one should submit to that and passively resign oneself to and accept the “inevitable.” This approach says, “I have no control of anything anyway, so just live life to the fullest.” This approach represents the totally human perspective that excludes God. And this approach can be viewed as coming from God (Ecclesiastes 2:24b), though not the God we know, the God with whom we can have a personal relationship, the God who loves us and wants the best for us. Rather, this approach is moreso a “secular” view of God (as in “the gods”) as the force that controls things, the one who has made things as they are and things that can be enjoyed. So, following this view, work (among other things) is God's gift, so enjoy your life and work; take pleasure in it because it's from this God (Ecclesiastes 2:25). But guess what, there is still meaninglessness because this God who controls everything gives good things to some, and even gives success and possessions to those who are evil (“the sinner” Ecclesiastes 2:26). But with the latter, this God takes what they have from them and gives it to the non-sinner. What enjoyment is there in that as in the end, because everyone will die anyway as the Preacher already noted. So in the end, “[t]his also is vanity and a striving after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 2:26b)

Because we know that Solomon is Jewish, was raised in the Jewish religion, that his father, David, was a man after God's heart, and that Solomon began his reign as king fully submitted to the God of Israel and following His way (I Kings 3:7-15; 8:14-61; 9:3-9), it is quite possible that the foregoing fatalistic view was not what Solomon concluded, as opposed to merely setting it forth as the only approach for the person outside of God short of despair. Instead, in verses 24-26, Solomon may be providing a hint of the conclusion he will reach at the end of his book, namely, that God is part of life, and that approaching life from God's perspective is the way to meaning in life. Thus, these verses say that the One true God has given life to everyone, and that He has made things for His human creations to enjoy, so we should enjoy what God has given! Eat the good food and drink the good drink He has given us; work and find satisfaction in the work itself, in the completion of a job, in the creativity of the work, in the joy of simply working hard to the end of the day. The meaning is thus found in the true God who gives the meaning to these things, and it is the wise one who enjoys these things simply because they are from God Himself given for enjoyment. The sinner, on the other hand, will not find joy and satisfaction as he or she is merely engaging in the “business of gathering and collecting” (Ecclesiastes 2:26) and will lose even that. The sinner, therefore finds only “vanity and a striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 2:26b) in such business.

So the conclusion is that there is no meaning in work, and the great mind of the Preacher-King, when applied to the question of meaning in life, has come up empty yet again. But in an attempt to salvage at least something from the search, the Preacher has pointed to a life of enjoyment for enjoyment's sake, possible as nothing else than a fatalistic antidote to despair, where life ends at death, but the impersonal, controlling God at least let's us have a life, so live it out as best you can. What an empty conclusion, however, as it seems simply to underscore the outcome of life as meaningless and leading to despair. A “new wisdom” from the outside is still needed, a wisdom that gives a new orientation to life and provides meaning. What is this “new wisdom?” Where does it come from? The Preacher's seems to say that the answer is not fatalism, but is found in the God who is the giver of good things. As the search goes on, then, will the Preacher find that the latter perspective is correct, notwithstanding that so much in life appears meaningless? The subsequent chapters will show us his answer.