Passage – Ecclesiastes 1:1-18
I, like many of you, was appalled by the violent death of young PC Andrew Harper at the hands of three teenagers caught stealing a quad bike in Berkshire. A husband of just four weeks to his childhood sweetheart Lissie. Life is so cruel. The Covid pandemic which has claimed thousands of lives and inflicted economic misery on millions also resulted in the wealth of the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos who runs Amazon, growing by $34.6b to over $150b between mid-March and mid-May. Life is so unfair. The family of Harry Dunn, a teenager thought to have been killed riding his motorcycle by the wife of an American Intelligence Officer, fight tirelessly for justice whilst the suspected guilty party hides away in America behind diplomatic immunity. Life is so unjust. These are just a sample of real-life events that leave us heartbroken, angry and perplexed. It is no surprise that the question of suffering is top of the pile for most people when it comes to God. “How can you believe in God when there is so much suffering and injustice in the world?” Often my reaction as a Christian to this question is to try to explain everything biblically and defend God. Sadly, this doesn’t always cut it. That is one of the reasons why we have the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. Perhaps written by King Solomon, the son of David (1:1) and known for his wisdom, it helps us to have a better grasp of what exactly is wisdom. As we shall see, wisdom isn’t being able to understand and explain away everything that happens in life, but rather to live in humble dependence upon God, whatever happens in life.
Life is Meaningless
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (1:2) The teacher then invites the readers to take a good look at the world we live in, starting in chapter 1 with the aimlessly recurring events in the natural world- what do we get from all our work; people come and people go; the sun rises and sets; there is nothing new under the sun; there is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow. So much for the modern-day notion that the aim in life is to leave a legacy? The teacher’s quest for wisdom to be able to make sense of the world that we live in is concluded as “a chasing after the wind.” (1:17) “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” (1:18) The following chapters expand on the meaningless nature of the world we live in; we have no control over time and circumstances (3:1f); death comes to everyone, but it often bears no relation to whether it is deserved (7:15); humans die like beasts (3:19f); evil often runs rampant (4:1); the wicked prosper and the good don’t (8:14). When we see that this is what life on planet earth is really like, and how impossible it is to understand why some things happen and others don’t, then that in many ways is the beginning of wisdom.
God is Sovereign
We want to be able to understand everything that happens in the world and how it fits into our tidy theological box but that is not true wisdom. Later the teacher graciously puts us in our place. “As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.” (11:5) A closer inspection of the world we live in should actually humble us before God, our Maker. “For the truth is that God in his wisdom, to make and keep us humble and to teach us to walk by faith, has hidden from us almost everything that we should like to know about the providential purposes which he is working out in the churches and in our own lives.” (JI Packer- Knowing God) God puts it memorably like this through Isaiah- “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (55:9)
Such wisdom humbles us but it mustn’t cause us to despair or think that life is a waste of time. Indeed, this is the genius of Ecclesiastes in that it then gives us such an affirming picture of what a life of genuine faith in God looks like.
-“Fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13) We are to live in reverent awe of the God who is in control of the world we live in. Such faith is shown in obedience.
-Trust and obey God, worship Him and be humble before Him (5:1-7) He rules in heaven and we are here on earth and he has a better grasp of everything than we do.
- Be happy and do good (3:12). Seek to serve the needs of others and be a blessing.
-Remember that God will one day judge your life so be diligent in how you live publicly & more importantly privately (12:14). There is a day of judgment when all is laid bare.
-Live in the present and enjoy it thoroughly (7:14f, 9:7f, 11:9f) Present pleasures are God’s gift to be enjoyed. There’s no place for super-spiritual fun sponges.
-Work hard at whatever life calls you to do (9:10) and enjoy your work (2:24, 3:12f, 5:18f, 8:15) Our work is a gift from God and we glorify him through it.
-Use all the good sense and enterprise in taking advantage of the opportunities that are before you in life (11:1-6) Every day is a gift from God with opportunities to grasp
We won’t always be able to discern why things do or don’t happen in this life, but we can be absolutely sure that God is always good and works for His glory and our good. Therefore, whatever we might face, we can trust Him and rejoice in Him. This week’s Pep Talk is in memory of JI Packer, theologian and author, who died earlier this month and is based upon ‘What Ecclesiastes teaches us’ from his book ‘Knowing God’ p116f.
Prayer- Dear Lord God. The events and circumstances of life often leave us sad, perplexed and even angry. Please help us in those moments to look in faith to you, trusting in the fact that you do all things well. Thank you for the truth of the Cross that when evil appeared to win the day you used it for our good and your glory. Amen.