Tuesday, 16 September 2014

(260) September 17: Ecclesiastes 1-3 & 2 Corinthians 9

Ask God to open your mind, heart and will to understand, delight in and obey what you read.

To discover:­
As you read consider how the teacher’s reflections point people to God.

To ponder:
The author of Ecclesiastes records the insights of “the teacher” – probably Solomon (1v1, 12, 12v9). Its essential message is that, but for the reality of a final judgement, life is essentially meaningless (or pointless). This is because outside Eden we are subject to seeming chance, where disaster and death can come at any moment, putting an end to all achievement. The introduction begins the argument (1v2-11): People gain nothing from all their toiling as, to a large extent, everything continues just as it always has, people are never satisfied, nothing really new is achieved, and those who give so much to contribute just die and are forgotten. Both non-Christians and Christians sense this. Unless there is a life that can be enjoyed beyond this one, everything really is futile.
            The king tells us that he gave himself wholeheartedly to use his wisdom in studying life “under heaven.” His conclusion is that God has laid a heavy burden on men, because everything done is essentially pointless - like chasing wind. Things that are not right can generally not be changed, and things that should be are rarely assessed properly. Indeed, despite the benefits of wisdom being commended to us by the book of Proverbs, he concludes that gaining the heights of understanding with respect to wisdom and folly can feel pointless too, because it brings such sorrow, presumably in seeing the hardship and injustice of life (1v12-18).
            2v1-26 record the teacher’s personal experiment that helped lead to his conclusions. First, he tested whether his heart could find what is “good” in pleasure. But he found it meaningless, even when he sought to cheer himself up with drink. He built houses, vineyards and parks, gained many slaves, owned more livestock than anyone before, amassed a kingly treasure and acquired singers and a harem, becoming greater than any previous king. Yet despite having everything a man might delight in, and even delighting in his work, he could only conclude it was like chasing wind, as nothing was gained “under the sun” (2v1-11). Next, he turned himself to ponder wisdom and folly itself, seeing that a king cannot really do anything more than his predecessor had done. He certainly concluded that wisdom is better than folly as it gives light, enabling people to navigate life. But he realised both the wise and the foolish die and are forgotten in the end, so (if there is nothing more, see 12v9-14) there is no really gain in being wise.
            All this led the teacher to “hate” life, in the sense that he despaired over the fact that he had poured himself into so much, but wouldn’t ultimately gain from it, leaving it to whoever came next (perhaps his son). Indeed, not only would that person not have worked for it, but they might be a fool, ruining everything he felt he achieved (2v17-21). So he notes that man doesn’t ultimately gain from all the anxiety, toil, pain, grief and restlessness involved in his work, making it essentially pointless (2v23). But this doesn’t mean happiness cannot be found. It is found in the simple things of food and drink, which denote friendship – and in the satisfaction of engaging in work itself. This he concludes is a gift from the hand of God. Indeed, God gives those who please him wisdom as well as such happiness, no doubt because it is only with wisdom that we stop striving and learn to enjoy such simple pleasures. By contrast, God gives the sinner the task of storing up wealth in his insatiable desire for more, only to hand it over to those who please God – sometimes in this life, but certainly when the meek inherit the earth. So their lives are as pointless as chasing the wind, because all that they think they gain is then lost (2v24-26).
            The changeability of life is then affirmed in an outline of its positive and negatives (3v1-8). The point is that good times will be replaced by hard times, and hard times by good times. And God determines it all. So the worker may benefit temporarily, but not ultimately. And everything will have a time of beauty. Moreover, God has set eternity in our hearts so that we feel life shouldn’t just end suddenly, but endure. Nevertheless, it does end, beauty fades and what is gained is lost, leaving men, left to their own insights, unable to understand what God is doing. And so the reoccurring phrase “there is nothing better than” stresses the importance of doing good and being happy with the divine gifts of fellowship and industry (3v9-13). Indeed, the sense that God’s purposes are fixed and cannot be changed by us is intended to bring people to revere him, knowing they are subject to his will (3v14). This is a critical point in how we might use the sense of not being in control of one’s life in our evangelism. Indeed, the teacher affirms that although people don’t change, doing just what previous generations have done, God will bring it all to account in judgement. So doing good, revering him and being happy with his simple gifts really does matter. Moreover, this season in which injustice so often seems to reign will end, and a season will follow in which such activity will be judged (3v15-17). The chapter ends noting how God points people to himself not just with their sense of being subject to his will, but also their sense of mortality: God “tests” people, presumably with sickness and disaster, so they recognize that they die like animals, having no inherent advantage in the face of death. And few live with knowledge of whether the spirit of man rises upwards. Not knowing what will happen after death, a man’s lot in life really is therefore to simply find enjoyment in his work (3v18-22).
Praying it home:       
Praise God for his mercy in using the apparent randomness and hardship of life to point people to himself. Pray that he would help you to do good, revere him and find happiness in fellowship and work.

Thinking further:                             
To read the NIV Study Bible introduction to Ecclesiastes, click here.

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