Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Conclusion of the Matter

Ecc 12:13 Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. Ecc 12:14 For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.

Today, we conclude our series of blogs on the book of Ecclesiastes. In verses 1-6, Solomon gives a really insightful metaphor for the aging process and then gives the final outcome: dust (our bodies) returns to the earth, and the spirit returns to God who gave it (Ecc 12:7). Since we are all headed for the same physical outcome then we should take heed to the final words of the Preacher. The only thing that really matters is living a life marked by the fear of God and a mindset to let our works align with His commands.

To really appreciate Solomon's words, we need to take just a moment to reflect on Solomon's life and what it should have been. In these last words, we basically here Solomon telling us "don't do things like I did them!". So where did Solomon go wrong? It wasn't any one thing that he did, but rather a series of bad (sinful) decisions. In Deuteronomy 17, God outlines the requirements of the Israelite king. He (the king) is forbidden from multiplying horses and chariots, amassing huge amounts of gold, and multiplying wives unto himself. And yet I Kings 10 & 11 record that Solomon did exactly what was forbidden. Solomon had many horses and chariots (I Kings 10:26, 28-29), acquired tons of gold (I Kings 10:14-25), and had many wives and concubines (I Kings 11:1-8). He eventually worshiped other gods

Chapter 2 of Ecclesiastes really illustrates Solomon's pursuit of happiness "under the sun". He tried laughter, women, wine, song, accomplishments, achievements, and basically any thing his eyes wanted, he took (Ecclesiastes 2:10)! But none of these things made him happy. Ironically, the wisest man in the world who had everything he could ever want (and then some) came to this conclusion...."I hated life"!!!!!! (Ecc 2:17a emphasis mine). Why did Solomon hate his life? Because he took all of the commands that God had given him....and did exactly the opposite!!! Many of us go through life with such frustration. We feel that "if only... (fill in the blank)" would happen, then we could be happy. But here is a man who got everything he ever wanted and realized that it wasn't enough! And I wonder how many of us get what we wanted and then realize that it really wasn't what we wanted after all? That's one of the great lies of Satan. He has been telling this lie ever since the Garden of Eden. The lie is this- you would be much happier if you just had the thing that God withheld from you. Adam and Eve got what they "wanted". And they quickly realized that it wasn't what they really wanted at all. God gave them the command to save their lives, not to withhold pleasure from them.

Solomon realized at the end, that the only things that matter have to do with living life with God as the focus, not on the periphery. His admonition to "fear God" is one that we should not take lightly. I think we (preachers) have really tried to soften these words by saying "you shouldn't be afraid of God". Well, obviously there is a sense in which we are to come boldly before the throne of grace (Hebrews 4), but there is another dynamic and facet to God's character; holiness. When Jesus calmed the storm, the disciples were more afraid of Him then, than when the seas and winds were raging. When John (the disciple that Jesus loved...the one who leaned on his breast at the Last Supper) saw Jesus on the isle of Patmos- he fell at His feet as a dead man (Rev 1:17a). Any time men had encounters with God in the bible, they were notably and visibly shaken. The point is, that we need to live our lives with a reverential fear of the LORD which is the beginning of wisdom.

Finally, Solomon concludes with a reminder about judgment. There are two notable judgments in scripture: one for the believer in Christ, and one for the unbeliever. The believer will appear before the judgment seat of Christ (Romans 14:10-12 & II Corinthians 5:9-10) to receive reward or loss for the things done in the body (good or bad). Those who have rejected Christ and His words will appear at the White Throne judgment, described in Revelation 20:11-15. This will not be a place to make plea bargains or make final appeals to be granted entrance into heaven. This will merely be a sentencing event. Those whose names are not found in the book of life will be cast into the lake of fire. These are somber words, but they are intended to be. Ecclesiastes ends without folly or vanity. We are encouraged to enjoy the life that God has given to us. We are admonished to make the most of our youth (while remembering our Creator), to enjoy companionship with the people we love, and we've received quite a bit of good practical advice; everything ranging from financial matters to interpersonal communications. But in the end, we are reminded that life is short, death is certain, and we will all stand before God one day. And in the end, that's all that really matters.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Don't Wait Until Everything's Perfect

Ecc 11:4 He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap. (ESV)

We are quickly reaching the climax of The Preacher's sermon to us. These last few chapters are deeply emotional and charged with reflective moments. There are few things as gripping as the final words of wisdom from godly men. I feel much the same way when I read some of Paul's final words to Timothy. Especially when he urges him to "come before winter" (II Tim 4:21). I'm not exactly sure how old Solomon is at this point, but one certainly infers that these words are informed by years of experience. Unfortunately, much of it being bad experience. But before we talk about Solomon's failures (we'll likely do some of that next time), let's take some of his parting advice.

He tells us to cast our bread upon the waters, for we will find it after many days. Much could be said about this, but a general principle is that liberality and generosity are never a waste of time. When we reach the end of our journey, it is doubtful any of us will regret any acts of generosity. Furthermore, very few men on their deathbeds wish that they had spent more time at the office, or that they had made a few more dollars. There is a spiritual principle in the bible often referred to as the "law of sowing and reaping". This is certainly in view here, as we see that the bread we cast upon the waters will come back to us.

In verse 4 Solomon instructs us not to wait for all conditions to be favorable before taking actions. Solomon was certainly not known as a procrastinator,and was responsible for the creation of many projects and proverbs. There are very few things in life that come with 100 percent guarantees of success. There is risk involved in almost anything and everything. Some young people are waiting to get married "until they can afford it". Still, others are waiting until they are "more financially secure" before having children. I'm certainly not advocating a high-risk scenario where we live beyond our means in the name of faith. But how many of us that are married with children were actually truly prepared for the challenges? Honestly, some lessons are learned in the school of hard knocks. Some people are waiting to do ministry until everything falls into place. I once heard a wise minister say "never forget that the Promised Land was not a vacation for the children of Israel". While they wandered in the wilderness, one of the greatest challenges for the children of Israel was overcoming their own issues. However, when they came into the land of promise, there were all kinds of opposing nations that had to be subdued. And so it is with life- God doesn't remove all of the obstacles in our way before issuing directives to us.

In verse 5, we are reminded that God is in control. All of our forecasting and predictions come with limitations. Truly, only God knows the future. We are still seeing through a glass dimly. I like to summarize verse 6 by the old adage "don't put all your eggs in one basket". Solomon advises diligence in many matters, because we never know what will prosper, what won't, or if two different options will both prosper. Many view diversification as a lack of faith. But we are constantly reminded in scripture that God's will supercedes even the best of plans and intentions. It's a good idea to be skilled in as many areas as possible and to broaden every possible horizon. Not only does this make sense in the natural, but it also opens other doors for God to use your life in different ways. Many ministers end up in financial ruin because their areas of study are so specialized and they never learn any useful (to the secular world) skills or trades. When their ministry comes to an end (either by retirement or by some unforeseen unfortunate event!) they are often left unprepared.

Verse 8 is somber, yet real and truthful advice. "The days of darkness" will be many. We can make every attempt to avoid risk and harm, but life has a way of dealing us crushing blows in spite of that. Actually, God makes every attempt to remind us that we are just "passing through". Peter reminds us that we are "strangers and pilgrims" here on earth, and Paul says that our citizenship is in heaven. The brightest days are ahead of us. But here on earth, the days of darkness will be many. Solomon is not really trying to be pessimistic here though, for in verse 7 he says "light is sweet". We need to celebrate the good times and remember them fondly, because they can be few and far between.

I seem to be making a habit of summarizing some of these verses, and if you will allow me, I'm going to do it one more time. The end of chapter 11 reads to me as if Solomon is saying "enjoy your life, just remember to remember God!". When we're young, we feel invincible. Old age and death seem so far removed from us. Many of us put off things that need to be done now (not just unpleasant tasks, but even fruitful endeavors) because we feel like there is plenty of time to do it later. Solomon's advice is- don't wait- enjoy your life now. But make sure you enjoy it in a way that glorifies God. Because one day, we are all going to give an account.

We'll talk more about that next time....

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Fly In The Ointment

Ecc 10:1 Dead flies cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savour: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honour.(KJV)

We are nearing the end of our series of blog entries on Ecclesiastes. Chapter 10 contains some great pithy sayings as well as good old-fashioned common sense. As I mentioned earlier, one of the great appeals of wisdom literature is the universal application of these principles. We can read the words of Solomon and they resonate with us, because we are just like him. Well, maybe not in the sense that we're the wisest people of our day, or that we're royalty. But we're like Solomon in the sense that we are all human beings with common interests and conflicts. Paul says that there is no temptation that we face except that which is "common to man". Solomon says basically the same thing with the phrase "there is no new thing under the sun." So let's begin a brief look at chapter 10.

The Preacher begins with a parable about the fly in the ointment. It only takes one dead fly to ruin costly and precious perfume. Similarly, it only takes one blemish or moral failure to undo a lifetime of work. Sadly, many wonderful Christian men and women will be remembered only for their mistakes. There is a saying that goes something like this: "the bigger they are, the harder they fall". In the end, our gifts, talents, and abilities won't be what we will be remembered most for. Instead, we will be known for our character. No doubt Solomon did some wonderful things. He built a temple for God, wrote many proverbs, possessed great wisdom. Unfortunately some of the things we remember most about him deal with his multiple wives, worship of other gods, and over-the-top lavish lifestyle.

In verses 2 & 3 Solomon extols the value of wisdom. Those who are wise value wisdom at the "right hand"- a place of dignity, honor, power, and authority. Consequently, foolish people don't put a premium on wisdom, and publish their folly for the whole world to see. It is difficult to hide foolishness. One might be able to hide it for a while if they remain silent, but eventually the truth becomes evident. In verse 4, we are given some great advice on how to deal with angry superiors. We are told to "yield" and "leave not thy place". There is a verse in Proverbs that tells us that a soft answer turns away wrath. A similar thought is conveyed here, but with even more specifics. Whereas the exhortation to give a soft answer applies to everyone, here Solomon gives advice on how to deal with those who are over you. There are times when our superiors become displeased with us (sometimes deservedly so, perhaps other times not so). The temptation is to "leave our place". Many quit and throw in the proverbial towel at the first sign of discomfort or displeasure. Most relationships in life survive not because of an absence of conflict, but because of the ability to find compromise.

In verses 5 through 7 Solomon observes how the world is sometimes "upside down" from the way it should be. Often folly or foolishness is set in high places of authority and renown, while wisdom is not regarded and treated with contempt. Verses 8 & 9 are admonitions to respect the feelings and property of others. We can be sure that if we seek to harm our neighbor without provocation, we will reap the same calamity that we have sown, if not worse!

Verse 10 is a call to "sharpen the axe". We sometimes confuse frantic activity with productivity. There is an old parable about two men who were in the woods cutting down trees- a young man, and an older gentleman. The younger man was much stronger, faster, and vibrant. Yet at the end of the day, the older man had cut down many more trees than the young man. Puzzled by the day's results, the young man asked the old man what was his secret. The old man smiled and replied:

"You were working very hard today. In fact, I watched you and you never once took a break. But here we are at the end of the day, and I've cut down many more trees than you did. You want to know my secret? While you were frantically working, I would sit down and sharpen my axe. I took several breaks throughout the day and sharpened the axe while I sat.. It took much less effort for me to fell the trees because my blade was razor sharp. You worked very hard, but cut down little because you were swinging a dull axe!"

Verses 11 through 14 deal with the tongue. The babbler is compared to a serpent. The bible has much to say about the topic of the tongue so I won't go into great detail here. Foolish men are easy to spot because they are the ones who are always talking. In particular, Solomon seems to be admonishing those who love to make great predictions about everything (know anyone like that?). We might call such a person a "know-it-all". But the Preacher reminds us that only God truly knows the future.

In verses 16 & 17 we get a lesson about priorities and maturity. He says "woe to thee O land when thy king is a child". Now at first glance, we might interrupt with "but wasn't Solomon a child when he began to reign?". The Jewish historian Josephus records that Solomon was 12 years old when he began to rule. So obviously Solomon isn't speaking chronologically. Instead, he's speaking of maturity. We probably all know someone who is biologically an adult, but a child in terms of maturity. This is confirmed because (as Solomon states in this passage) the immature princes "eat in the morning". In contrast with this- the mature ruler does his business in the morning and eats in the evening- and even then- not for drunkenness (10:17b).

Verse 18 is a command against sloth and laziness. Solomon uses the analogy of a decaying building or a house that drops through. What caused this display of depreciation? Simply doing nothing! Many of us think that it takes some really willful act of disobedience to bring about spiritual ruin. But the truth is, spiritual destruction can take place if we simply do nothing. This is exactly the moral of the parable of the talents. The wicked man with one talent is not condemned for being a fornicator, a drunkard, and idolater, or anything like that. What was his sin? He simply did nothing!!!

The chapter ends with a warning not to curse the king- even in your thoughts. The powers that be are ordained of God. When we resist and curse them, we are actually holding God's ways in contempt. Again, this does not mean that every policy or ideology held by a government is sanctioned by Divine authority. But government and order are both products of the will of God.