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!

Gratitude … and the Day After Christmas

First of all, just let me say that I believe gratitude is a good thing.  Not only is it a good thing, it is a Biblical command – “Give thanks in all circumstances …” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).  But there’s a problem with gratitude.  Gratitude looks back at what’s been done, given, or accomplished … therefore is an inadequate motivation for looking forward to tomorrow (John Piper helped me work this out years ago in my favorite book of his – Future Grace).

You and I said “thanks” for our gifts on Christmas morning, but we need something more to motivate us the day after Christmas.  What is that something more? Looking forward to the gifts that God continually bestows every day until He returns and for all of eternity!  That’s what Piper calls “faith in future grace”.  Here’s why I think this is a big deal:

We know what’s expected of us

It’s easy to be grateful on Christmas morning.  Most of us that have reached an age of understanding social norms recognize that we are supposed to say “thank you” to grandma, and express appreciation for what we were given whether we like it or not.  Any moralistic, behavior-oriented, socially-aware individual can do that (most of the time).  We are conditioned to perform, and even “giving thanks” can become a conditioned response.  I’m not suggested that we don’t say “thanks”, I’m just suggesting that we recognize where our gratitude can malfunction, and that there is more to gratitude that often gets revealed the next day.

When the expectation to perform is no longer present

In our house the day after Christmas ends up being the day to return what you didn’t like, didn’t fit, or want the cash from to buy something else.  Gifts cards that were gratefully received on Christmas get bartered away between siblings for cash to get what you really want.  Of course there isn’t anything wrong with returning gifts, it just alerts us to the great reality that the gifts of yesterday don’t satisfy in being the gifts of tomorrow.  We want more, different, or even if we loved what we got we want that feeling of pleasure to last as long as possible (I’m still basking in the glow of my Apple Watch, but it’ll fade over time).  My point?  The expected social gratitude … and even the proper Biblical heart response of gratitude is a flawed motivation for tomorrow.  It’s always looking backwards, and it’s often seeking an experience or feeling.

We get pleasures forevermore … greater than Christmas morning

The truth of the matter is that for the follower of Jesus even if everything falls apart the day after Christmas, we still have the greatest gift one could ever receive.  The kids can complain, the relatives leave grumpy, the house left in shambles, but Jesus is still enough.  The new year may hold suffering, disappointment, and broken relationships, but the Spirit of God is still at work sanctifying and conforming you into the image of Christ.  If we are merely motivated by gratitude when this stuff hits, then there is nothing to be grateful for anymore, and you have to coax up some regurgitated gratitude of days gone by to get you through.  But if motivated by faith in the future pleasures of God then we can face the day after Christmas … and everyday knowing that God is at work … and it only gets better!

So be grateful … I’m sure you have much to thank God for.  But be a person of faith … we have a God who gives good gifts to His children every day, and never ceases to make the delights of the Gospel precious to those who seek Him.

Getting Happy

I love preaching on worship … because I love talking about the glory of God.  I mean really, what better subject is there to teach on? Everything centers on the wonder of who God is and what He has done through His Son in redeeming mankind … the greatest display ever of His glory to this fallen planet.  As I reflected further on this subject in my own life yesterday I remembered one of my absolute favorite quotes from one of my “hero dead guys” – George Muller, listen:

“But according to my judgment, the most important point to be attended to is this: above all things, see to it that your souls are happy in the Lord! Other things may press upon you; the Lord’s work even, may have urgent claims upon your attention. But I deliberately repeat, it is of supreme and paramount importance that you should seek above all other things to have your souls truly happy in God Himself. Day by day seek to make this the most important business of your life.”

What is being happy in the Lord other than a life of worship.  Muller had it figured out and sought after this life with every breath he took.  I think it looks something like this:

Not Finding Happiness in Lesser Things

Contrary to some “christian” teaching, I believe that the Gospel is about enjoying the good gifts of God on earth in anticipation of the good gifts of the new earth.  Our Father isn’t about giving us stones when we ask for bread.  He doesn’t shove a rock at us and tell us to make the best of it.  Rather He indeed has given us “all things richly to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17).  And it is only when we recognize them as good gifts and not little gods that we can actually enjoy them to the glory of God.  When we try to suck life out of football and turkey, we ruin a good day.  But when we recognize the God of all glory who redeemed us from the futile way of life we formerly walked, then (and only then) can we rightly enjoy parade-watching, warm crescent rolls, and a lazy afternoon of beating your family at cards.  Why? Because we’re not trying to find happiness in those lesser things, we’re just enjoying them for what they are – little gifts from the God of glory who is the only truly satisfying Gift!

Anticipation that Fuels Contentment

I don’t live in the “holiday at the sea” that Lewis points us to, but that doesn’t mean that I should “live making mud pies in the slums” either.  It’s not an either/or, but a eager anticipation over a dismal acceptance.  I know that what God promises me is so much greater than anything this world as it currently is has to offer, and with such confidence I am fueled to live for so much more than mud-pie making.  That doesn’t mean I’m forced to a dismal acceptance of the current situation and must coerce contentment upon myself.   Nor does it mean I have to keep up a public persona of everything being “good, fine, ok” in the here and now.  It actually means I can be happy in the Lord regardless of the current mud without making mud-pies my food of choice … and I can joyfully anticipate the great feast awaiting me on my holiday at the sea.  That makes me happy and honest.

Everything as Worship

I think this is what Muller was getting at – When my soul is happy in God and that’s the daily business I attend to, then everything I do comes under this divine joy.  I can take out the trash with joy as much as when I study the Bible.  I can watch football with my sons with the same delight as I seek to help a struggling marriage in the counseling room.  And when the trash stinks, my study is laborious, the game is boring, and the couple’s marriage is disintegrating, my happiness is no less real … because it’s centered on the sure foundation of Jesus, and the not the shifting sand of the stuff of life on planet earth.

Like a Deep Breath

I enjoy a good deep breath, you know one where the lungs fill up nice and full and then the exhale that leaves you relaxed and wanting to take another?  I couldn’t always do that in California, sometimes I’d start coughing, but in NE Ohio, it feels really nice, even better with my eyes full of God’s fall canvas all around me.  Reading the Bible has become for me a good deep breath.  I find myself reading phrases of God’s promises, wonder, and grace, and taking (literally) a deep breath.  I want to soak it in, fill up, find enjoyment in His love for me.  Guess what? Sometimes I don’t even finish my whole Bible reading section because the breath feels so good (shh … don’t tell anyone!)  I need the Word of God in my soul like I need oxygen.  I need it’s refreshing breeze wooing me away from worldly lusts.  I need it oxygenating my blood so I bleed Bibline.  I need its sweetness more than any other ink and pages can offer me … because I need God and the power of His Gospel coursing through my bones!  Sorry, I think I was trying to be a songwriter or poet there.

Bottom line — I want the Word of God to dwell in me richly.  I’m sad for those who have dismissed the Bible as irrelevant, too hard to understand, or have just gotten side-tracked wrangling over words.  And while they miss the one and only message from heaven to a fallen planet, they also are suffocating and missing out on good deep breaths of the air of heaven.  So, slow down, put your Bible reading plan to the side for a minute and take a good deep breath from the breath of God

Breathing in to breath out,

Pastor Mark

A Boasting Bride

I love the Church!  With all her stains and wrinkles, her messy hair and mismatched shoes, she is the Bride.  If ever God came up with a plan that exalts HIS glory and not man’s, it’s the church.  And funny thing is, I’m so glad He did it that way.  I know that churches feel the pressure to do church “better” and unfortunately many think better means the way of business, or the way of entertainment, or the way of purpose, or the way of belonging.  And in each of those, there is good happening and good to be learned, but it’s not ours to make the bride … Christ purchased her, He’s purifying her, and He’s one day going to present her glorious to Himself at the greatest wedding party ever!  That’s all Ephesians 5:25-27 in case you missed the sermon Sunday (http://www.sermoncloud.com/Leroy-Chapel).  It’s ours to get the message right as we live on mission to the glory of God (Ephesians 3:8-10).  

Honestly, it’s easier to build a church on business principles, with motivational slogans, and top-notch marketing … just get the bride out of her dirty dress and put her in something hip and cool.  Get her some plastic surgery, bring in a fashion consultant, and fill her closet with a dress for every occasion.  The downside is Christ gets moved from the center as the bride is enamored looking at herself in the mirror. And its hard to preach a message of Christ crucified when He’s not the one being put on display.  The glory of the church is Christ!  God’s glory exalted in man’s weakness, sin exposed, and the Gospel as the only medicine for the soul.  So the work of the church is worship!  Sure, she ought to do her best at all she does – excellent programs, thorough planning, and diligent administration, but her calling in to boast in her husband.  And that’s what has stuck with me from Sunday’s message – A Boasting Bride.  Call it evangelism, call it missions, call it making disciples, OR call it a Bride who can’t stay silent about telling everyone she meets that her husband is the greatest!  He paid the highest price, is 100% committed to her growth, and will never give up on her until she is made perfect.  That’s a husband to be envied, a husband to be sought, a husband that’s worth glorying in.  So boast with me, Leroy Chapel, as the messy, in-process, dress-stained Bride in our glorious Husband to the people of NE Ohio and beyond.

 

For the love of the Bride,

Pastor Mark 

Intoxicated by Heaven

I’m trying hard to breathe the air of heaven, it sure feels good.  That picture from Sunday has really stuck with me.  I remember hearing as a kid the phrase, “he’s so heavenly minded that he’s of no earthly good”, but that just doesn’t seem to make much sense to me.  If I’m intoxicated by the glory-of-God air of heaven, I will bring such focused worship with my life here on earth.  It seems to me that someone who is of no earthly good, hasn’t tasted heaven and doesn’t get his purpose for worship here on earth.  I know I only scratched the surface of this issue on Sunday, and so many other passages could have been included … many of which you all passed on to me (thanks!)  

Passages like Romans 8:18 – “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed in us.”  There it is again that “comparison” word.  Oh how we need God to give us the grace to quit trying to compare God and His glory to anything earth has to offer!

Passages like Philippians 3:14 – “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”  HE’S the goal, HE’S the prize … we get God.  The streets of gold and the mansions of heaven mean little when we worship the God of the universe in plain sight!  WOW!

Passages like Colossians 3:1-4 – “Therefore if you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.  Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on the earth.  For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ, who is our life, is revealed, then you also will be revealed with Him in glory.”  It’s all there … seeking heaven while living in the reality of earth.  The anticipation of viewing the weight of His glory, during this wait of glory, for your weight of glory beyond compare!

Breathe in the air of heaven, and breathe it out here on earth for all to see!

Intoxicated by Heaven,

Pastor Mark