Was Solomon a Pessimist and a Hedonist?

As a boy, I thought Ecclesiastes was weird.  As a college student, I thought it was just too deep for anyone to really understand.  Now, I think I might sorta-kinda be able to maybe-somewhat understand what the wisest man in the world was saying.

For the longest time it just felt to me like Solomon was being so pessimistic –

  • “Vanity of vanities!  All is vanity.  What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?” (1:3) … “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after the wind” (1:14) … 
  • Pleasure, wine, great works, gardens, pools, possessions, wealth, wisdom … it is all vanity – Chapter 2
  • The world is just full of oppression, tears, misuse of power, discontentment, evil … and ultimately just death – Chapter 4, 6 , 9

Since Solomon had such a dark and pessimistic view of life it appeared to me his life motto was just “live it up because it’s all pointless” – “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do … enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun” (9:7,9) 

But is this really Solomon’s philosophy of life? Or was I missing something?

After close to 25 years in ministry, and close to 25 years of marriage, with kids now heading off to college, I think I may understand the wisdom of Solomon.  It wasn’t about hopelessness that leads to hedonistic pleasure, but rather about a hopeful dependance that leads to a joyful freedom.  Let me try to explain:

Solomon knew he wasn’t God, so he was free to be human 

Solomon gave himself, quite passionately I might add, to flipping over every possible human invention to see if he could find some purpose and delight in life.  His conclusion was that there was nothing on earth that could provide for him what only God could.  All these human pursuits would never amount to anything disconnected from the heart of a worshipper to the only One worthy of worship. “For apart from Him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? (2:25). We toil so hard to be in control or to feel like we have accomplished something that will make us feel important.  A wise pastor-mentor of mine used to describe how young men are trying to convince those around them that they have something significant to contribute, and older men are trying to convince those around them that they made some significant contribution in their life.  I think Solomon would say that both are vanity!  The wise Preacher knew that he was no savior, and for as much wisdom and wealth and power as he had, he was simply a created being whose “almond tree  blossoms” (gray hair comes – 12:5), and one day his “golden bowl is broken” (the head goes … dementia,  alzheimers ?? – 12:6). It takes living some years to come to the realization that the next great spiritual awakening in America probably isn’t going to happen through a sermon you preach.  But in that there is immense freedom.  Freedom to trust the only wise God who has given you gifts to use and enjoy during the days of your life.  You and I are free to be weak and needy, frail and faltering, so we can be trusting and true to the God who always gives out of the abundance of His grace.

Solomon knew life was hard, so he didn’t have to make excuses 

Solomon had both experienced and witnessed enough evil and pain in the world to know that there was no human remedy to such suffering.  Young people often haven’t suffered enough, nor have a firm enough grasp on the sovereignty of God to confidently hold pain and the goodness of God together.  I know I struggled to know how to do that.  I think Solomon had come to understand that you don’t have to conclude that God doesn’t care when you see heartache and trauma around you.  I think Solomon had come to recognize that there is another answer to pain in the world other than God must not exist or isn’t a God of love.  I think Solomon in all his searching finally removed himself from the throne and chose to trust a God He would never fully understand.  He didn’t feel the need to feverishly try to prop God up so He looked better to the fools and folly around him (that never works).  Nor did he give in to the arrogance of human wisdom in being the pot who challenges the Potter.  What freedom there is knowing life is hard, God is God, and He doesn’t need you to come to His aid.  You and I can be honest in tears, joyful in pleasure, and resist being the fool who lives to counsel the LORD.

Solomon knew God was King, so he could enjoy being in the Kingdom 

The lore of King Solomon is great in the Bible.  He sought God for wisdom and got it in spades.  We might say – He was the man!  Therefore, one might think after Solomon concluded his quest for the meaning of life and discovered he actually wasn’t the man that he’d be fatalistic and depressed.  Quite the opposite was true of Solomon.  His diligent pursuit of “everything that is done under the sun” (1:14) led him to conclude he wasn’t God.  His honest reflection on “the oppressions that are done under the sun” (4:1) made him realize life is simply hard and full of pain on this fallen planet.  But those conclusions didn’t sink him, but rather gave him greater focus and freedom in life.  He saw “all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun” (8:17) and rather than waste his time focused on trying to do God’s job, he could focus on delighting in God’s work.  That meant worship through hard work, obedient living, and delighting in the God who gives good gifts to His children.

Our friend Tim Keller and others have elevated the emphasis on “idols of the heart”.  Solomon would certainly resonate with that concept.  Ecclesiastes ought to be an “idol-smashing tool” in our lives to the idol of control, the idol of comfort, and the idol of influence.  Those pesky little idols rob you of job, they steal your freedom, and they make you a slave to vain living.  When you and I, like Solomon, finally gain enough Godly wisdom, we too can simply enjoy being a servant in the household of the King.  It is a really great place to be!

When You Don’t Know What To Say

I’ve always loved reading Mark’s account of the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13) and in the midst of one of the most glorious supernatural encounters with the human Jesus to read one of the most silly natural encounters with the human Peter.  There go Peter, James, and John up the mountain with Jesus.  They see this guy they’d shared meals with now become radiantly white and full of glorious beauty right before their eyes.  He is having a conversation with a couple of the great dead guys of the Bible – Elijah and Moses.  And what happens next? Worship, fear, silence? No … Peter opens his mouth.  “Rabbi, it is good that we are here.  Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (9:5).  My sense of this? “This is so cool Jesus, thanks for bringing us with you so we could see you like this.  It’s neat to see Moses and Elijah too.  I’ve gotta do something to help here, how about we build you tents to rest in”.  Really? Peter had just witnessed glory face to face and the best he can come up with is tents? Like men of such glory need to rest, like they’d rather retreat to isolation that enjoy the fellowship they were having, like they needed help from Peter if they did want tents to rest in.  What was Peter thinking? Why did Peter say this? Well, Mark tells us – “For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (9:6). 

I know by now that one of the marks of proud people who have helping gifts is that they feel the great need to speak more than they should (Yes, I’m referring to me).  We (yes, now I’m including some of you too) think that people need our input, need our direction, need our truth-speaking … and in many cases they do.  But all to often, rather than taking time to pray, reflect, and formulate Godly counsel, we just speak because (1) We genuinely believe it will help, and (2) It genuinely makes us feel like we helped.  So here are a couple items to consider in our well-intentioned and often poorly-executed speaking:

Be Quicker to Listen 

Yes I know, I didn’t come up with that.  “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).  Do everything you can to make sure that when you speak you are speaking to the right thing.  That requires listening, active listening.  But did you know that active listening requires speaking? More to the point, active listening requires asking questions.  When you ask questions you are forced to think about not only what is being said, but what isn’t being said.  You have to consider who this person is, where they are coming from, and what it is that they most are needing.  When you ask good questions you are forcing yourself to resist the urge to make assumptions, think you know what they are saying, and offer a quick remedy.  Asking good questions does more than just get at information, it actually in-and-of-itself says, “I care!”  You don’t see yourself as their savior, fixer, or teacher … you just see yourself as their friend.

Offer Observations not Answers

If Peter had taken in what was happening a bit longer, and even talked out loud about what he saw rather than offer a “to-do”, it might have helped him better understand the scenario he was in.  Perhaps rather than providing an answer he would have observed that falling on his face was a better response that looking for tent pegs.  We all process information differently.  Some of us are auditory processors and we think through situations as we talk them out.  Others of us need to write things out to see on paper pros and cons, possible solutions or fixes.  And others of us just need time to soak it in, the processing comes slowly over a period of time.  Whichever the case may be, processing the situation is needed prior to applying our “fix it skills” to those we are looking to be a help to.  As we make observations, we are forced to reckon with our own presuppositions, our own experiences and story.  It makes us reflect a little more on the silly things people have said to us that weren’t helpful in our need, and hopefully prevent us from repeating that mistake.

Think Long-Term over Quick-Fix

If we enter into conversations with the goal being that we want to actually walk with this person and not just quickly move them on their way, we will not feel as urgent about the right information getting passed on.  We will be quicker to identify with the suffering they are facing.  We will be more sympathetic to the complexity of the circumstances they are involved in.  We will be prayerful about the help coming from the Spirit of God.  Rarely does solid, Biblical, helpful counsel come out in a one-time, thirty-minute conversation.  Truth can be spoken and obedience commended, but they, like us, are people in process … and process takes time.  So think about how to ask questions and make observations today so that you get to do it with them again tomorrow.

Praise Coming in Pain

I’ve been thinking a lot about praise lately and how we just don’t do it enough.  We barely have to think about complaining about circumstances or what someone did (or even who they are), but praise doesn’t seem to come as naturally or flow as freely.  I want that to change in me.  Perhaps you’ve heard worship leaders speak of how “God inhabits the praises of His people”, but have never really known what that means.  Let’s reflect a bit on this …

First of all this comes from Psalm 22, arguable the greatest Psalm in the Psalter.  This Psalm was on the lips of our Savior while He hung on the cross.  Many have simply called this the Psalm of the Cross with good reason.  Written by David, but his situation and circumstances lay off in the far background in this case.  What captures our attention is the suffering Savior on the cross … the darkness of His final hours and the glory that would follow.  The opening words we are familiar with – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest.”  The Son prayed (in Gethsemane and even in this hour) and felt no comfortable answer.  He cried out to His Father and felt distant, alone, with little hope of rescue.  It’s true.  Read it yourself (22:1-2).  Yet in his crying he knew – “Yet you are holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel.  In you our fathers trusted; they trusted, and you delivered them.  To you they cried and were rescued; in you they trusted and were not put to shame” (22:3-5).  Jesus knew all too well the Father’s character and goodness to doubt His deliverance.  He knew that even if his prayer went unanswered that is was not due to His unfaithfulness, but for some other weighty and necessary reason.  He marveled at His holy Father who could forsake him, without diminishing His holiness nor going silent in his cries of agony.  He could argue with God from the foundation of His holiness … and know that praise and trust could flow.  Jesus needed future grace! He looked back at the fathers of Israel, knew that in their darkest hours they trusted the LORD and He delivered them.  They too cried honest cries and were rescued.  What is this flowing from the lips of Jesus other than true praise – I feel alone, my prayers are going unanswered, but you are holy, and you have always been faithful … so I cry (my role) and You rescue (Your role).  Jesus not only faced the wrath of God for the judgement of our sin on the cross … He modeled praise!

Praise fits every circumstance

How can this not be our very first takeaway?  If in Jesus’ darkest hour praise came, there is no circumstance whereby praise should be absent from our lips.  In every circumstance there is appropriate praise … be it cries of joy or cries of pain, both are praise if they are bound to the character of God and aimed at His redeeming work.  Do you and I need to work at this? I’d say so.  My grumbling about you isn’t praise, and your complaint about me isn’t either.  We need to learn what Paul had learned – “In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need”.  What is that secret Paul? “I can do all things through him who strengthen me.”  When my life is locked down on the foundation of God’s character, then I can praise him from the dark cross and the flowing river.

Praise is pointless if it doesn’t point to God 

We all need to get better at encouraging one another, blessing one another, pointing out where we see God at work in one another.  But if it’s not pointing to the love, grace, rescue, and power of God it’s just empty flattery, and … “A man who flatters his neighbor spreads a net for his feet” (Proverbs 29:5).  Your man-centered flattery is just as evil as your grumbling complaints.  So, learn to speak words of blessing that are rooted in the work of the Spirit in your own heart.  If praise doesn’t flow easily it’s merely an indicator that your heart hasn’t rested deeply on the One who was forsaken for you.  When you can say, “You’ve always been faithful, you will rescue me”, then you can turn to others and say, “I thank God for you, want to love you well … how can I serve you in your needs?”

This is the kind of honest prayer and praise that indeed God inhabits.  May it flow deeply, freely, and powerfully from our lives!

The Danger of Emptying Salvation of Judgement

I love to preach the Word, and I really love being surprised by what I’m preaching.  Recently, in preaching through the book of Isaiah I was surprised by a particular sermon … how much I needed it and how much has remained deeply embedded in my soul.  I suppose it just shows that you’re always learning and growing in the riches of the Gospel. Isaiah 13-23 proved to be a challenge as to how to preach this section of oracles against the nations.  I chose to cover it in two sermons – the two “high-points” that emerge from this section – The Danger of Resisting God’s Sovereignty & The Danger of Emptying Salvation of Judgement.  It was the second sermon that most surprised me … because who likes talking about wrath, hell, and judgement?  But here’s some of what I discovered and will summarize here … Three Reasons God’s Character Demands Judgement: 

Dealing with the Wickedness of Sin – God’s judgement is always set in relation to evil.  He doesn’t judge the righteous, but the unrighteous.  No innocent parties are ever effected by the judgement of God because there are no innocent parties.  The whole world is under the curse, and every man, woman, and child are fully deserving of His wrath poured out on them.  Now if you minimize that reality then you don’t get to see the glory and immensity of His grace toward His children, and how what you do tomorrow is never held against you because there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.  The judgement of God on the wicked is a subset of his ultimate purpose in defeating evil and providing security and rest for His people.

Showing Mercy to the Violated – What would you think of the cop who saw a person beat up, and then left him there to suffer while he began his investigation of who did it? Or would you think a friend compassionate who only got mad at the sin done to you by an abusive father or husband, without ever saying “I’m sorry for all the hurt that has been inflicted on you.”  God’s character not only demands judgement because of the wickedness of sin and rebellion, but because He cares for the broken and violated.  He does chase down the bad guy deserving of judgement, and what motivates that is also a compassion for the wounded and hurt.  Simply put – He loves to show mercy to the violated.  How comforting would it be to have your car stolen, the thief is put in jail, but nothing is done to return or replace your car? You were wronged, and part of the wrong was made right, but you’re still left walking too work.  God is not like this.  I think this perhaps is one of the reasons the new heavens and new earth are for all eternity.  So many wrongs done in the world of human history – joys stolen and crimes committed – that it’ll take eternity for the reversal of such wickedness for the delights that are to now be enjoyed!  He restores your heartache, loss, and the many ways so many of you have been violated … because He is a God of judgement.  And when evil is judged, mercy is shown!

Upholding Justice – It only naturally flows then that God’s character demands judgement because He is a God of justice.  Isaiah’s “answer” to the wrongs in the world is “If you want help and refuge, then you must come to the LORD and His throne because He alone is the one who judges and seeks justice.”  Here we see God is not the God only of the nation of Israel, but to all who come to Him as King!  I don’t know all the places each of you have been wronged in your life.  But if you truly care about those wrongs, at least two things will be true of you: 1- You will not seek revenge on your own as though you are judge and jury, and 2- You will not resent, resist, or remove the judgement of God from the Bible.

I have these vivid memories of my sister and I getting in trouble as we were running through the house and somehow a plant or vase got knocked over and broken.  Either neither of us thought we did it, or we didn’t want to admit it, but the fact was still the fact – something was broken and someone would have to pay.  It’s perhaps easier to talk about judgement, wickedness, and injustice when we are speaking of people “out there”, but the reality is I’m wicked Babylon, and I’m the one who has lacked mercy on the hurting, and I’m the one who has been unjust … and someone’s got to pay.  There are no “get out of jail free” cards before the court of the High King.  God the righteous judge looks on the one who has done the violating and the one on whom injustice has been committed and says, “Someone’s got to pay”.  “What?! He did it … she did it”.  And the judge says, “All have sinned and fall short”.  And just then another man appears in the courtroom and says, “I’ll pay … I’ll take the judgement they both deserve”.  Because of God’s holiness, every sin must be dealt with by judgement, no sin goes unpunished.  There are only two places that sin gets judged – at the cross or in hell, through a substitute or by oneself, by an atoning sacrifice or by eternal condemnation.  David Jackman writes, “In Scripture, judgement and salvation are two sides of the one coin because the justice and mercy of God are two aspects of his unchanging character.”  Judgement always precedes salvation and healing, because “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness for sins” (Heb 9:22).  As hard as it is to wrestle with the subject of God’s judgement, please don’t give in to the unBiblical notion that the God of love is different (or better) than the God of judgement.  Because the minute you remove judgement from the character of God you have drained salvation of its sweetness, and the cross of its effect.  May the wrath and judgement of the Father that was poured out on His Son be the most humbling thing you’ve ever conceived, and the greatest gift you’ve ever received!

The Sweetest Promise

My Life Journal Entry for today …

The Sweetest Promise –

Zephaniah 3.17
“The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will quiet you by His love; He will exult over you with loud singing.”

The nation was in total spiritual decay. The people idolatrous, and the safety and security of the nation about to be obliterated. And after God strongly uses His prophet to call them to justice and repentance, He offers perhaps one of the sweetest promises ever given. Not only mighty to save, BUT rejoicing and exulting over you as He brings quiet and rest. WOW! What intimacy, what Fatherly care.

I see the strong warnings and the powerful wrath of a just God in the Old Testament, but I never ever want to miss the gentle joyful love of the Father who will do whatever it takes to get glory for Himself and love His people into the joyful relationship He designed.

These words refresh my soul this morning Lord. What tender care you bring to your children. I want nothing more!

Thoughts on the Christmas Star

I always find the events surrounding the most important birth in the world fascinating.  And it seems as if each Advent season, something new captures my attention.  Just what was the deal with the star the wise men saw that drew them to Jerusalem to speak with king Herod?  I certainly don’t offer anything conclusive, I’m no astronomer, nor do I have some secret knowledge that scholars through the centuries have lacked, but some textual observations to bring perhaps a bit more clarity …

1- Matthew is the only Gospel writer that records the piece of the story including the wise men from the east and the star (Matthew 2:1-12).  Remember Matthew was written for a Jewish audience, an audience well acquainted with the Old Testament Hebrew Scriptures.  It appears the idea of the star being connected to the Star Prophecy of Numbers 24:17 may have been in Matthew’s mind and a detail he felt important to his audience.  This Star Prophecy came to represent the coming of a great deliverer for the nation of Israel.  The “War Scroll” found at Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) as well as its role in the Jewish holdout at Masada give ample historical evidence that the Jewish people zealously held to the star prophecy and the “star that would come out of Jacob”.  Of course they understood it to be a King, and in the Christmas story it represents the symbol of a King or the announcement of a King.  So I believe we could conclude that it was an important part of the story for the Jewish readers in proving that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah – Star.

2- Wise men in the east (astronomers) knew what to look for, they were studying the heavens.  Hmm … Lots of celestial occurrences have been identified to try and attach a reasonable explanation to the physical event of the Christmas star.  And in each case the timing, location in the sky, or plausibility seems rather forced, or at best a guess.  Here’s what we do know, these non-Jews were directed by some occurrence in the heavens to pack up and head a great distance to Jerusalem.  They recognized something unique was happening, but not everyone could observe it.  Contrary to popular Christmas pictures there was most likely not a huge star with its tail pointing like an arrow down to the Bethlehem location.  It took a trained eye and mind to observe this celestial anomaly, one that even Herod’s wise men had no knowledge of.  If everyone could have seen this like a neon sign in the sky, would not there have been huge crowds lined up to see what the strobe light was advertising?  At least a few months had passed since the birth of Jesus and it still appeared to be relatively unknown to many (2:3-4), but not to the wise men.

3-  When the wise men got to Jerusalem, had their visit with Herod, and were sent off to Bethlehem, the text says the star “went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was”.  Even if Matthew doesn’t have the proper astronomical vocabulary to scientifically describe what is happening, it still seems quite clear that something unique (dare I say supernatural) is going on.  But again, only to the trained eye, otherwise why wouldn’t Herod’s soldiers just have followed the star also and killed baby Jesus?  So, God directs these wise men to the new King and they worship with great joy.  Angels announced the birth to shepherds, and the heavens announced the birth to the wise men, it’s not like this was a normal natural birth in the first place.  So, I’d propose this is one of those events in Scripture where science and faith appear together – wise trained scientists who exercised faith and embraced the supernatural.

4- What to make of all of this?  I offer two conclusions.  First, this was yet another picture of the divine invading the human.  God entered the realm of man.  Heaven came down to earth.  The supernatural broke through the natural.  And God included the wise men of the east to validate this occurrence.  Second, this event marked to the Jewish readers that the “Star Prophecy” was not just for the nation of Israel, but for the world.  Worshippers come from outside of Israel to bring gifts to this unique King, and the heavens declare that this king is for the whole world, announced in the heavens not only to Jewish shepherds but for all peoples.  A divine announcement that a Savior has come to redeem mankind from every tribe and tongue!

So friends, let’s be people of great joy, like the wise men.  Let’s fix our minds on the God who created the universe and can use every part of it to declare His glory.  Let’s be people who care about the nations, all of them, and capture God’s heart for the world at Christmas time.  A Savior indeed has come who alone takes away the sin of the world.  Rejoice with exceedingly great joy (2:10)!

Looking to the Star,

Pastor Mark

Holy Week Reflections – Resurrection Sunday

He Is Risen!  He is risen indeed!  And for centuries the empty tomb has stood as the landmark event in human history.  No greater day had there ever been and will there ever be until the King of King and Lord of Lord returns to bring His Kingdom to ultimate fruition.  Today I have a picture of the resurrection of Jesus as the great exclamation point over the heavens.  God raising His Son from the grave put the definitive mark on all of His promises made from the beginning that He is who He said He was – THE I AM!  Alive in the present, not a past tense ‘once was’ or a future tense ‘will be’ but Jesus is alive and victorious over the world’s system, Satan’s schemes, and my sin.  Jesus is the great AMEN to the work of God throughout human history.  In recognizing the redemption work of Jesus we all say YES and AMEN to all that God said to mankind because He has put the grand exclamation point out there for all to see (2 Corinthians 1:19-20).  It is finished and victory has been won.  The empty tomb leaves us with anything but emptiness for those who believe.  It guarantees for us the ultimate victory, our glory, His return!  I run to the tomb this morning and I behold that ‘He is not here, He has risen just as He said!’