part 23 – the conclusion of the matter (Ecc 12:9-14)
This morning we finish our series entitled meaningless? Question mark!
Go ahead and open your bibles and turn to Ecclesiastes, mark your place.
This morning is part 23. The author didn’t write this book to be read over a 23 week period. He wrote it to be read in one sitting. If you sit down and read the book in one sitting, the contents of chapters 1 & 2 are somewhat fresh on your mind when you get to the last six verses of chapter 12 and that helps when he draws an ultimate conclusion about life under the sun. It has been months since we read chapters two and three. But rather than read through the entire book together this morning, I will do my best to walk us back through the high points and tie them all together weaving his observations and frustrations together like a tapestry, preparing us for his conclusion.
As we close out this series, I want to explain why I chose the title Meaningless with a question mark.
One of the main themes of the book of Ecclesiastes is the concept of hebel. The word appears in the oldest Hebrew manuscripts around 38 times in the book and it literally means vapor. KJV consistently translates this as vanity. I preach out of the NIV and unfortunately, the NIV translators consistently translate hebel as meaningless. I believe that this is not the best translation
I counted around 35 times the word Meaningless in the NIV. The fact that in the NIV, near the open and close of the book, we have the phrase “Everything is meaningless” would lead one to believe that the teacher is trying to say precisely that – that everything is meaningless, including life itself. It gives the book a feel that the author has a very emo approach to life and thinks that life sucks and then you die, it is what it is.
I believe that his intentions are rather different. I believe that he intends to explore the meaning in life and one’s ultimate purpose under the sun; what will truly satisfy the soul? Life presents so many alluring things, shiny, flashy things that say to us: you want me, and you want me now and I will make you happy.
Finishing that project and really making progress – that will make you happy.
The pursuit of knowledge, that next degree, that next title with a new set of letters after your name – that will make you happy.
A big house with a pool and a boat and a sports car – that will make you happy.
Lot’s of sex and drugs and alcohol – that will make you happy.
The promotion at work that comes with the big corner office and the nice big desk – that will make you happy.
Being a cheerleader, the class president, the most popular kid at school – that will make you happy.
Winning the lottery – that will make you happy.
No, the teacher says. All of that is hebel. All of that is a vapor. It appears before you and has the allure of fulfillment; it appears as something that will make you happy and satisfy your soul, but it’s like a cloud. You see it from afar off, but as you move closer and closer to it, you realize that it’s not substantial; it’s not like a big puffy marshmallow or cotton ball that you can touch and feel. As soon as you get in its midst you realize that it’s just a mist. It’s hebel.
Pursuing happiness in these worldly things, in these temporal things that promise satisfaction don’t actually grant it. It’s like chasing after the wind, he says. He says this phrase nine times in the book. You can never catch the wind. You can never find ultimate satisfaction for your soul when pursuing happiness in things that don’t provide it. It’s like a finish line that you can never cross because the closer you get to it, the farther away it moves.
In chapter 1, he begins by pointing out the hebel of labor, there is something inside us that wants to get there. We want to arrive. We like progress, achievement, arrival. We want the journey to be over so that we can say, “I have arrived. I’m there.”
The teacher asks in Ecc 1:3 What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun? He points out that generations come and generations go but there is nothing new under the sun…
One can never really say, “I made it; I’m done, I have arrived.” Man’s toil, his labor under the sun is part of a never ending cycle of maddening monotony. The dishes are never done. There will be more to do in two days. The laundry is never done. There will be more to do in three days. Work at your job is never done. That’s why you’re going back tomorrow – to do more work. Trying to cross the finish line of work is never going to happen. It is a chasing after the wind.
In Ecc 2:17-23, he points out that not only is there no such thing as a finish line for work, one of the really frustrating elements of toil is that one day, when you die, you have to leave all that you worked for in the hands of another. He didn’t work for all of it, yet he gets it. And to make matters worse, who knows if the person to whom everything is left will be wise or a fool? A good steward or a crummy one?
Then in 4:4-6, he points out that excessive toil for the sake of accumulation and advancement is empty because it often leads to stress and anxiety. He says better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind. Better to have a little, but have a life of peace, than to work and work and work and turn into a workaholic that is full of stress and anxiety. If you are a workaholic, you can never work enough hours. It is hebel.
Not only is pursuing the finish line of labor a chasing after the wind, so is pursuing wisdom as an end in itself. Some people suppose that they will achieve ultimate satisfaction for their soul when they arrive at some arbitrary finish line of wisdom, when they know what there is to know. But as the teacher points out in the latter part of chapter 1
16 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.”17 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.
This guy was the wisest person who ever lived. And he points out that wisdom is just as elusive and if it is seen as the end all be all, we will find that it is empty and a chasing after the wind because the more we learn, the more we will realize that we have got a lot to learn. That, too is a finish line that is always moving.
He also points out that 18 For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
the more knowledge, the more grief.
The more you know the sadder you can grow. With certain wisdom can come torture to the soul. With more knowledge of certain matters, the more grief. We have this phrase: Ignorance is bliss. There is a sense in which the Teacher is setting forth this idea.
Let me be clear…I don’t believe that the Teacher is advocating ignorance here, nor am I!
One writer puts it this way:
With knowledge comes both good and ill,
Some blessing and some harm;
But those who learn to fear the Lord
Can live without alarm
The bottom line for this portion of the text is simply this: The pursuit of education is not the answer to life’s dilemmas. To attain wisdom and knowledge, to learn more and more and educate ourselves is good and beneficial, but it will not bring ultimate satisfaction to our souls, it doesn’t bring us to discover the ultimate meaning of life, it is not the end in itself, but is simply a means to an end. That end, that goal, that meaning is found in knowing, fearing, and loving the Lord.
Proverbs 9:10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.
HEDONISTIC PURSUIT OF PLEASURE
In the Teacher’s observation, not only is labor and toil and the pursuit of wisdom as the end in itself hebel, a chasing after the wind, so also is a hedonistic pursuit of pleasure.
In chapter two the Teacher shares that he tried everything from:
cheering himself with wine
undertook great projects
building houses, vineyards
amassing silver and gold
a harem (that’s code for lots of women).
Then in verse 11 he says “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.”
In other words, these things didn’t provide meaning and purpose and ultimate satisfaction. And pursuing ultimate pleasure in these things is a chasing after the wind – they won’t do it for you.
Lot’s of women should make you happy, right? He had that, but if Solomon was the author, then he had 1000 women and it wasn’t enough! A selfish pursuit of pleasure in empty things will leave you empty, for it is hebel.
POWER & POPULARITY
In addition to toil for the sake of progress, wisdom as the end in itself, the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure, so also, the pursuit of power and popularity is hebel, a chasing after the wind.
In chapter 4, he points out that in the pursuit of power and popularity often times others are oppressed and afflicted in the process; people often harm others in the name of the advancement of self. This too, is hebel, it is empty a vapor.
At the end of chapter 4, he notes that popularity comes and goes like a vapor. One minute, you’re popular with the people and everybody is pleased with you, but the next minute, you find that nobody is pleased with you. Trying to please everybody is a chasing after the wind; just as you will never catch the wind, no matter how hard you try you will never please everybody. That is hebel.
The teacher also points out that the pursuit of wealth is hebel, a chasing after the wind. He says in 5:10 Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is hebel. If money is what you love and crave, if money is what you love, the Teacher has news for you, you will never have enough. The more you get, the more you want. Chasing down the finish line for enough is a never ending task. That is like chasing the wind. You’ll never get there.
With regard to wealth, the teacher points out two evils he has seen under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner and wealth lost through some great misfortune.
IN 5:15, he points out, as Job does, that Naked a man comes from his mothers womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand.
IN LIGHT OF ALL OF THE HEBEL UNDER THE SUN WHERE WILL WE FIND SATISFACTION, MEANING & PURPOSE? Three things:
Pleasure in the simple acts of eating, drinking, and toil, enjoying life as the gift of God
Fear God & obey his commands
In chapter 4, the Teacher says
8 There was a man all alone;
he had neither son nor brother.
There was no end to his toil,
yet his eyes were not content with his wealth.
“For whom am I toiling,” he asked,
“and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?”
This too is meaningless—
a miserable business!
To have healthy relationships is more satisfying to the soul than to toil and toil and toil with eyes never content with one’s wealth. All of that toiling is a chasing after the wind, for the man who does this will never achieve the satisfaction he desires for his soul. But the man who may not have much materialistically, but has a family who loves him, whether that family is a wife and kids, or just a wife, or just a brother or sister, or a church family, he is far more wealthy and far more satisfied than the man who chases after the wind but never catches it.
9 Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
10 If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.
But how can one keep warm alone?
12 Though one may be overpowered,
two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
ENJOY LIFE UNDER THE SUN
The second answer to our question of where one can find meaning, satisfaction, and purpose is enjoyment in the simple acts of eating, drinking, and toil, enjoying life as the gift of God.
This, like the concept of hebel and the idea of chasing the wind, is a recurring theme, a chorus that resounds throughout the book.
2:24-25 24A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?
3:12-13 12 I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. 13 That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.
3:22 So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot. For who can bring them to see what will happen after them?
Your lot in life is labor. Do your job and find satisfaction in your toil. You don’t know whether the person that comes after you will do a good job or a poor job with what you leave them. You won’t know and you can’t control it anyway so don’t worry about what you can’t control. Worry about what you can control, which is how you do your work and how you view your work. Since it is your lot, enjoy it.
5:18-20 18 This is what I have observed to be good: that it is appropriate for a person to eat, to drink and to find satisfaction in their toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given them—for this is their lot.19 Moreover, when God gives someone wealth and possessions, and the ability to enjoy them, to accept their lot and be happy in their toil—this is a gift of God. 20 They seldom reflect on the days of their life, because God keeps them occupied with gladness of heart.
8:15 So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.
9:7-10 7 Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for God has already approved what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.
It has been said that a good preacher makes points that are bluntly stated, clearly explained, and endlessly repeated. If that’s true, then the author of ecclesiastes does a wonderful job.
Finally, the last point, the third and final answer to our question, “What, then, is meaningful, what then is our purpose, what then will satisfy us?” is Fear God and obey him.
That is found in the last portion of our text:
Ecc 12:9-14 9 Not only was the Teacher wise, but he also imparted knowledge to the people. He pondered and searched out and set in order many proverbs. 10 The Teacher searched to find just the right words, and what he wrote was upright and true.
11 The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd.[b] 12 Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them.
Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.
13 Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.
Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of mankind.
It was the duty of Adam in the Garden. Fear God and do not eat from the fruit of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, yes, even though the serpent makes it sound like a great idea and inserts doubt that God has his best interest in mind.
It was the duty of Noah. Fear God and build a monstrous boat, yes, even though there is no water for miles and everyone is making fun of him.
It was the duty of Moses. Fear God, go to Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go. Lead my people out of Egypt. Even if you are slow of speech.
It was the duty of Joshua. Fear God, be strong and courageous, take the land as your possession.
It was the duty of Israel in the Land. Fear God and obey the Law of Moses.
And for you and I, as followers of Jesus Christ, it is our duty. Fear God, love God, and love your neighbor. Do to others as you would have others do to you.
Do you want to live a purpose filled life? Your duty, your purpose is: Fear God and obey his commands, and his commands are not burdensome, for they are to do to others the very thing you want others to do to you: love them as you love yourself, for this is the whole duty of mankind.
SO TO CONCLUDE THIS SERIES,
Life is not meaningless, but many things in life are hebel, a vapor. They have the allure of meaning and satisfaction and pleasure, but they evaporate as soon as you think you’re close. There isn’t really a finish line, it’s just a mirage.
Toil for the sake of progress
Wisdom as the end all be all
Hedonistic pursuit of pleasure
The pursuit of power & popularity
The pursuit of wealth
They are all hebel.
But a life in which you are not chasing the wind, but a life in which you find purpose, ultimate meaning, ultimate satisfaction for your soul is a life in which we:
enjoy healthy relationships
find joy in the basic fundamentals of life, eating, drinking, working, a life in which we enjoy life as the gift of God
fear God and obey his commands for that is the whole duty of man