THE FIRST TIME I READ ECCLESIASTES
I WAS PERPLEXED BY THE REFRAIN:
LIFE IS MEANINGLESS!
I felt that way before I knew Christ.
Then I had so many Ecclesiastes-like thoughts.
Life seemed so repetitive.
Round and Round.
Not only was nature repetitive,
but my life was repetitive.
I felt the Ecclesiastes-like despair voiced in 1:9
“What has been done will be done again”
For before Christ I thought:
Is life going to be simply a series of trivial maintenance duties
punctuated by a dinner out or a new chair?
Are moments like these really going to be the HIGH points in my life?
But now that I knew Christ, my life was filled with meaning…
So why was a book of such haunting emptiness in the Bible?
It will be helpful for you to think of Ecclesiastes as being like a “one man play.” The lead character, the “professor” plays two main roles. Often he takes the “under the sun” perspective where he puts on blinders and limits his view of life only to the visible, to the things he can see under the sun. This is the secular world view — all that exists is the visible.
When he has the “under the sun” perspective, “he can’t get no satisfaction.” Oh — he tries — in the 2nd chapter he plunges himself into wine, women, and song. He builds an amazing home with gardens. Anything his eye desires he takes. And yet, at the end of the day, he asks “What is my life really accomplishing? Meaningless, meaningless.”
Other times, he removes his blinders, and takes the perspective he actually has. He looks up to God and eternity and then sees things very differently. You see all the haunting questions of Ecclesiastes are answered in Christ. Ecclesiastes is the drumbeat leading the way to the mystery that was hidden — the mystery of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I think you will find this week’s Bible study fascinating, for Ecclesiastes is written, not just for unbelievers who try to find their meaning in life “under the sun,” apart from God and eternity, but also for believers who revert, when they face challenges, to their idols, to clinging to people or things “under the sun.” Then, the emptiness comes back. Their lives again, are filled with Ecclesiastes-like despair. And then, near the end of the study, I want you to look at a verse from Ecclesiastes that I find fascinating and I think it shows the way of the younger brother and the older brother — and tells us that the one who fears God “shall come out from both of them.” I can’t wait to get your take on it, so finish the study!
God gives us gifts like youth, friendship, food, children, sex, marriage…
all can bring joy to the heart.
But they are gifts, not gods.
If we make them gods,
we will feel Ecclesiastes-like despair,
for they will fail us.
But if we set our affections on things above,
and not on things under the sun
then we also might have some fleeting enjoyment
as we gratefully receive the things under the sun.
Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun.
But do not forget:
This sweet gift is not your life.
Set your affections on things above
not on things on earth
for you have died
and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
When Christ who is your life appears,
then you also will appear with him in glory.
I have come to love the book of Ecclesiastes — so this may be my favorite Bible study during Lent!
1. What stood out to you from the above and why?
2. During this Lent our quest is to set our affections on things above. What has been helpful to you and why? (This study, a book you are reading, something you are giving up to have time and energy for Him, a song you are learning…) Share the gold.
Monday-Thursday Bible Study and Midday Connection (Dee: “When the Earth Shakes”)
Sometimes this week listen to the last Midday Connection program on Idol Lies. It aired last week and is about suffering and is entitled, “When the Earth Shakes.” You can find it under past programs: Click Here
(Then share your thoughts under question 7.)
Diane asked me to elaborate on how the gospel is the solution to every problem. I’d love for you to find the answers for yourself. I am going to give you, first, a haunting question of Ecclesiastes. Then I’m going to give you the New Testament answer. Then I’m going to ask you: “What problem does the gospel address here and how could it help you?” Because this is challenging, go ahead and write your answers, and I, or one of your sisters can jump in if we think you need a little help. This is so important. I think about how easily we turn to our idols and feel discontented. I think of the grave injustices those of you like Chris and Krista have experienced. I think of the sorrow that comes when one we love, like Susan’s nephew or my husband, dies. Every problem has its solution in the gospel. I can only give you a few highlights here, but they are golden. You might want to take one or two a day.
3. The problem of meaninglessness: My life is meaningless!
A. This is the theme that permeates Ecclesiastes. Look at the following verses and then summarize (briefly please!) why the professor, when he has the “under the sun” view, finds life so frustratingly meaningless.
- Ecclesiastes 1:2-11
- Ecclesiastes 2:1-17
B. Read John 10:10-11 and explain how Jesus is the answer to meaninglessness. How is the gospel part of that answer?
C. Does your life ever feel meaningless? How might John 10:10-11 and Colossians 3:1-4 provide a solution?
4. The problem of discontentment: There is nothing new under the sun!
A. Another refrain in Ecclesiastes is “under the sun.”
- What famous quotation of discontentment can be found in Ecclesiastes 1:9?
- How do you see discontentment in Ecclesiastes 2:11?
B. God tells us that there is something new — but it is not “under the sun.”
- What is new in 2 Corinthians 5:17? Have you experienced this? Share some way you have been made new.
- What is coming according to Revelation 21:1-4? Do you believe this and hold it in your heart?
C. I LOVE THIS NEXT PART — DON’T MISS IT. Read Ecclesiastes 2:24-26 carefully.
- How, according to Ecclesiastes 2:24, are we to see the gifts under the sun? How thankful are you are throughout the day as you receive these fleeting gifts? Explain.
- In verse 24, there is a phrase: “This, also.” The also refers back to the preceding passage, where we see existential despair. How is existential despair (or a lack of satisfaction for things under the sun) a gift from God?
(Answer the above question before you read this from Eugene Peterson: “A person has to be thoroughly disgusted with the way things are to find the motivation to set out on the Christian way. As long as we think the next election might eliminate crime and establish justice…or another pay raise might push us over the edge of anxiety and into tranquility, we are not likely to risk the arduous uncertainties of the life of faith.” From A Long Obedience in the Same Direction)
- In verse 26, the professor talks about the one “who pleases God.” We know, from New Testament light, that the one who pleases Him is the one who is covered in the righteousness of Christ. When He made us His child, we are intertwined with Him. When He died, it is as if we died. When He was raised, it is as if we were raised. When our life is in Him, we will have “wisdom and knowledge and joy.” But if our life is not in Him, find our fate in verse 26.
- How is the gospel the solution to discontentment?
5. The problem of injustice: Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, there is wickedness.
My dear friend with whom I have the privilege to work in prison ministry tells me stories that make me weep. Racism is still rampant in Texas. Right now there is a mentally retarded black woman awaiting execution. Years ago, my friend nearly succeeded in stopping the execution of a young black woman that was unjustly accused of murdering her husband and little boys. (She came home after a Mafia murder and had her hands all over the bodies in a panic, trying to find signs of life. Her fingerprints were the only evidence Texas had.) The one who accosted Daniel, Chris’s late son, has not been brought to justice. My daughter lost an arm through abuse. There are smaller daily injustices too. People cheat us, unjustly accuse us — we did not get my husband’s life insurance as we should have, and I was too overcome with grief to fight it. But I can walk calmly, knowing God sees, cares, and will do all things right in His time. The professor is right — often there is not justice “under the sun.” Each of us has experienced injustice “under the sun.”
And each of us has committed acts of injustice to others. Last week at my retreat a missionary from Haiti talked about how she was asking a four-year-old if he knew why his blood pressure was so low. He said, “It’s just not my day.” At first she laughed — but then she realized, It wasn’t his day to eat. He only gets a meal every other day. When she said that I thought, I am God’s plan for bringing justice to those treated unjustly — and I fail because of my idol of comfort. I want to walk in repentance, but I am SO grateful for the mercy of the cross. If God gave us the justice we each deserve, there would be no one alive.
- In Ecclesiastes 3:16-17, the professor states both the “under the sun” problem and the eternal answer. Find them.
- What does Jesus tell us concerning injustice and suffering in John 16:33?
- How does the cross show us at once how terrible sin is, yet, how merciful God is?
- As you look at the injustice in your life “under the sun,” how is the gospel the solution? As you look at your own injustice to others, how is the gospel the solution?
6. The problem of death: Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth?
Old Testament saints lived in a shadowy world, before the cross. Job, Solomon, and David all had these moments of wondering what lay ahead. If we look only to the visible, it seems man is like the animal when he dies.
- What despair and questions do you find the professor asking in Ecclesiastes 3:19-22?
- What glorious promise does Jesus give in John 11:25-26?
- When you face the problem of your own death or the deaths of those you love, how is the gospel the solution.
7. We’ve been talking, during this series, about two ways of life that miss the gospel-centered life. There is the way of the younger brother, who rebels. We see this very clearly in the professor’s portrait of himself in chapter 2 — trying everything under the sun to try to be happy. But do we see the way of the older brother, who has so many rules, who is outwardly serving God but is doing it to get things from God, but who doesn’t love God? Do we see a picture of someone trusting in his righteousness — his religious ways in Ecclesiastes? I think so! I always feel more confident, with obscure verses, to find someone I respect affirm my finding — and I haven’t found that. So I am keenly interested in your thoughts, you women of depth, on Ecclesiastes 7:16-18. Here it is in the ESV:
Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? 17 Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? 18 It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them.
8. What thoughts do you have after listening to Midday Connection? (LINK)
Friday: Classic Keller. Christ Our Life: Link
This is a sermon many of you have already heard — but it is so classic that it won’t hurt you to listen again. I am summarizing it below, but have only caught the high points. Here is the link — and it’s free. I will also give you a second choice or additional option. The Professor’s Disillusionment. (It’s from Kellers Pointers to Christ series, a great series, and it is an overview of Ecclesiastes. Here is that link:
One of the many things I like about Tim Keller is his respect for women. He was led to the Lord by a woman, he has unusual respect for his wife, and he tells how it was a woman who helped him begin to understand that the gospel was not just the ABC’s of Christianity — but the A to Z. It happened in the 1970’s when he was twenty-five. He was making a pastoral visit to a woman in his congregation who had suffered much. She had been beaten many times, having been in a series of abusive relationships with men, and she bore the scars. She had become a Christian, had been seeing a counselor, and was coming to Keller’s church. Keller said, “I would visit her, like the good little pastor boy that I was, knowing almost nothing about the way that peoples’ hearts work.” He drove up the hill to her “trailer-like” house. What she told him that day penetrated his heart, and he went back and wrote down the “weird and amazing truths” that so mesmerized him.
Though this woman was a new Christian, she had a depth of understanding into the gospel that helped her sift her counselor’s advice, keeping the true, and letting the false fall to the ground. Keller transcribed her words into his own, but this is the gist of what she said:
My counselor says I have built my very significance and acceptability and identity on men. That’s why I’ve been defenseless with them. I simply have needed them too much… However my counselor doesn’t have a very good solution for me. She says what I should do instead is get myself an education and have a successful career. My counselor means well, and I absolutely need to do that, but…that would mean I would be switching from one kind of idol for another.
Keller said he’d never thought about this in his life, and asked, “What are you talking about?
For many years my heart has been looking at men and saying, “Unless I’m successful at love, I’m nothing.” But the therapist wants me to look at my career and say, “Unless I’m a successful independent businesswoman, in control of my own life, I’m nothing.” I don’t want to be enslaved to my work as I was to men. …I’m actually being asked to exchange a typical female idol for a typical male idol. I don’t want either.
When Keller asked her what she was now doing, she quoted Colossians 3:
“When Christ who is your life appears, you will appear with him in glory.” When I go to church and worship – when what Jesus did for me is so real and so wonderful, I think of the men in my life and I say in my heart, “I’m glad to know you and I certainly wouldn’t mind being married – but you are not my life. Christ is my life. I would love to have a man, but if I don’t, I’ve got Jesus and I set my mind on things above. You can’t give me any of the things that Jesus has given me.. …A career can’t die for me. If I fail in a career it will beat me up all my life for having been a failure. But if I fail Jesus, He died for me to forgive me.
9. What are your thoughts from the sermon? Can you see how idolatry is the opposite of living a gospel-centered life? Explain.
10. What is your take-a-way and why?