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!

The Antidotes to Self-Trust

Nobody has to teach you to be mistrusting of others, it comes fairly naturally to the human heart that has been hurt … and who hasn’t been hurt.  No child has perfect parents (if they know their parents), no individual has a perfect spouse (if they are married), no employee has a perfect boss (if they work), no church-goer has perfect leaders (if they attend church) and no friend has perfect companions (if they have some friends) … period.

Just what is the problem that this creates? There are scores of problems arising from these situations – loneliness, abandonment, fear, worry, on and on that list can go.  But what is the problem? I would argue that the default response of the sinful human heart in these situations is self-trust.  Often times that is a conscience choice to push people away who caused hurt, and other times it’s not so deliberate.  Sometimes it’s done with a sinful rejection of those who don’t measure up to your god-like standard, and other times it is actually wisdom to flee violent or abusive situations.  Whatever the specifics of the case may be, in every case the thoughtful child of God needs to do battle against the leanings of their heart to only call yourself (and yourself alone) safe.

In one respect, it’s true – nobody out there is safe.  But the answer is not to push everyone away and opt for selfish isolation, but to stop expecting everyone around you to act like a savior full of endless grace and truth in glorious perfection.  Yet there are ‘safe people’ out there.  People who imperfectly love their Creator and are willing to imperfectly love you.  So, if that’s true how do we do battle against the idols of our heart which are all rooted in self-trust?

Antidote #1: Listen and Remember

The history of the nations of Israel and Judah are cyclical stories of stubbornness and forgetfulness.  God’s power is put on display for they to unmistakably see and yet they choose self, they choose their strategies and tactics for survival and significance.  He brings the firm and loving discipline of a Father who will not let them go, a remnant awakens to his promises and returns to Him.  From the wilderness wanderings, to the conquest of the land, to the period of the judges, to the monarchy, to the divided kingdom, to their captivities and the words of the prophets … it all says the same thing – “Listen to your God you stiff-necked rebels, and remember all that He has done and promised to do … and worship and obey!”  The New Testament writers say the same thing – “Therefore we must pay must closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it” (Hebrews 2:1).  Do you want to fight the self-trusting nature of your soul? Listen to, and remember, your Creator who says – “This is who I am, and this is what I’ve done … you can trust me!”

Antidote #2: Repent and Pray

My teenage son recently bemoaned the fact that he knows that adults aren’t perfect and that they sin, but that he doesn’t see them express that or own it very often.  Ouch!  Ouch to my own soul.  I want my wife and kids to think I’m perfect, but not expect me to be.  I want them to think I’m humble, but not expect me to repent before them.  Yeah, I know – pretty jacked up.  If I’m listening with a soft heart to my Heavenly Father then I will be the earthly father that repents of his own self-trust.  If I’m remembering the goodness of God to me in forgiveness and grace, then I will be a man who runs to Him for more of it – repentance and prayer.  When you and I aren’t quick to see our own sin and turn from it we are trusting in our own thoughts, words, or merit to deal with where we violated the heart and law of God.  And when we aren’t quick to pray, we are trusting our ability to handle the situation, carry the burden, and manage the fallout better than the Lord.  Do you want to fight the self-trust that comes second-nature to you? Process repentance before the Lord and openly with others, and talk to God about the trustworthy nature of His character to you.

Antidote #3: Doubt and Invite 

For all that can be said of self-trust (and lots can be said), perhaps one of the most foundational realities is that you aren’t trustworthy either.  It’s true.  You think you can trust yourself, your judgement, and your motives … but you can’t.  You are just like the next guy who you don’t trust.  It’s just such a greater draw to trust yourself than the next guy because you are in control.  The burden of success and failure is on you and nobody else … and you’re willing to live with that.  But be certain of one thing – You are made of the same stuff as that person who hurt you last year or last week.  Part of my repentance must be exchanging self-trust for self-doubt.  How’s that for an uplifting self-esteem message?  Actually I find it quite freeing personally.  I’m no savior, no perfect parent or perfect husband, certainly not a perfect preacher or all-wise counselor.  In my doubting of self, I am not doubting God’s work in me, His gifts to me, my identity as valued and loved, or the influence He has entrusted to me.  I am just saying that trusting Him is always the better option than trusting me.  And in that obedient doubting I get to invite the care, wisdom, and resources of Him and others to move me forward.  What a bargain: I’m free of putting all the weight on my shoulders, and I get the “light burden” (Matthew 11:28-30) of trusting Him.

These antidotes aren’t a “one-time” shot given at the travel clinic before boarding your international flight.  Rather they are required in “daily doses” for our spiritual health and vitality.  So take your medicine and enjoy the freedom it brings!

 

The Need For Other Voices

Last week in my blog I reflected on those situations we find ourselves in where we don’t know what to say and I offered some thoughts on how to respond wisely. Not only is it essential to often slow your voice down in relationship, but we need other voices in relationships as well.

Here’s what I mean … and I imagine this is an experience common to man.  You have been trying to help someone see something in their life and they just don’t understand or see it.  Then someone else comes along and says exactly the same thing to them and the clouds part and they wonder why nobody has ever told them this life-changing counsel.  Parents, you know what I’m talking about!  Your kid comes home from camp or youth group with awe over a truth that was illumined to them and shared it with you as though you’d never heard of it.  It is perhaps one of the craziest things in pastoral ministry.  People who come to understand a precious truth that you’ve been teaching, preaching, and counseling for years only to state that they’ve never heard it.  In my younger (and more arrogant) years, this would drive me crazy.  I so desperately wanted “credit” for faithfully teaching that or courageously sharing that with a friend.  Now in my slightly older (and slightly less arrogant) years, I am able to thank God for the “other voices” in people’s lives that help them grow.  Of course the spiritual reality behind it all is that not my voice or that of another is the “change agent” … it’s the Spirit that opens eyes, minds, and hearts to receive truth and delight in it!

Yesterday I enjoyed the great benefit of “another voice” speaking to a subject I love dearly – friendship.  As a pastor one of my greatest desires is to see the people of God in a local church love each other deeply from the heart … to be engaged in intentionally redemptive relationships as a norm for the life of the body.  But it is always of great value to have other like-minded voices teach that same truth … from their perspective, with their personality, and in the power of the very same Spirit to God’s people.  A friend speaking on friendship, how great is that?!  Pastor Jonathan Holmes taught us well from the unlikely friendship of Ruth and Naomi and guided us into extremely practical counsel for growing in spiritual friendship.  Listen to his sermon here, or buy his book here.  Listen to the wise voices God has placed in your life.  Invite other Godly voices to speak into your life.  But most of all know that the voice of God must ring the loudest in your ear … it is the Spirit that brings understanding!

Creation and Humility

I spent my prayer time this morning at Holden Arboretum.  It’s one of my favorite places on the planet.  I feel safe, small, and satisfied in all the God is for me.  I don’t need gadgets, an office full of good books, or even anyone to be with me (and I like all those things).  They recently built a tower that ascends 120 feet above the forest floor over the tree tops where you get an unbelievable view of the fall colors and Lake Erie.  As I stood on the top and took in the beauty and prayed for my wife, kids, and church body … I felt really small.  It got me reflecting on the way humility works …

Small Looking Up

My regular position as a finite man is from the ground looking up.  It’s not hard for me to gaze into the sky and come to the awesome conclusion that there is a Creator and I’m not him.  Walking through the woods with towering trees over my head it only makes sense that I would be rightly (and delightfully) put in my place.  I like that.  In a world with such creative technology and scientific advancements, the illusion of control is all around us.  But on the ground looking up it’s a sweet conclusion to recognize – “I don’t control any of this, I’m needy, and overwhelming grateful that there is a Sovereign God in control of it all”.

Small Looking Down

This morning my position was different, but the feeling was quite the same.  I was up high looking down.  I was above the trees and over the lake, in an “exalted” position.  But strangely I still felt really small.  Looking down on things didn’t make me feel big, rather it made me feel the bigness of my God.  He made it all, rules over it all, and sustains it all effortlessly.  And I really liked that.  The people of Babel thought a tower would give them power and control, proving they had no need for a Ruler God.  Thinking themselves small they sought to be big … making themselves big they were made to feel they’re small.

Humility From Either Perspective 

I know pride still courses through my veins … I think I have some measure of control, and more importance than I do.  But by God’s grace I have a growing delight in the feeling of smallness, finiteness, and neediness.  I’m aware of what awaits me in glory, and I know the victory that is currently mine, yet to act now as though I’m a king feels foolish and premature.  I’m the child of a King, and as such I have both an awesome identity and a wonderful perspective from which to look up at the throne of grace, gaze over the wonder of the Creator, and worship from bended knee … and I love it!  “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you” (1 Peter 5:6).  This is nothing other than embracing humility and enjoying worship.  And I want every perspective I have, from the forest floor or the highest height, to produce that in me more and more.