A sermon on Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
August 4, 2019
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
“Double, double, toil and trouble/ Fire burn and cauldron bubble…” How many of you recall hearing those words before? I imagine that most everyone probably has. Many folks of a certain age may recognize them as part of a song sung by a group known as “The Frog Choir” in the third installment of the Harry Potter movies, 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. In the movie, the song is scored by John Williams of Star Wars fame and also includes a reference to the Ray Bradbury novel, “Something wicked this way comes…”
But even if you are not a Harry Potter fan, those words may still sound a bit familiar to you. It may be that you recall hearing them in an English literature class years ago. They are to be found in one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, Macbeth.
At the beginning of Act 4 Scene 1, Macbeth consults with three witches who are hovering around a boiling cauldron of…well, who knows what, though they talk of adding “eye of newt” and “tongue of dog” to the mixture. As they stir the pot, they make certain prophecies concerning Macbeth. The prophecies all eventually come true. If you remember the story, Macbeth is bent on killing everyone who stands in the way between him and the Scottish throne. Though the witches do not tell him, they know—and they let the audience in on their secret—that it is all going to end badly for Macbeth by the end of the play…
I do not know if William Shakespeare had these words from Ecclesiastes in mind when he wrote Macbeth or not. But it seems that these words “Double, double, toil and trouble” could very well sum up what the writer of Ecclesiastes writes in the last two verses of our text. In those two verses, he writes, “What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This…is vanity.”
Pretty depressing words, aren’t they? If you think so, then you would not be alone. Old Testament scholar Lawrence Boadt has written, “No one has ever challenged the book of Ecclesiastes’ right to the title of the most [cynical] book in the Bible. [The book] has a unified approach to the value of wisdom: pessimism…[In contrast to the books of Psalms and Proverbs,] Ecclesiastes has its doubts whether confidence in wisdom has any basis in human experience… [In the eyes of its author], futility and emptiness result from the constant human search for the meaning of life…”1
1 Lawrence Boadt, Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1983), 483-484.
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Ecclesiastes looks at life through the eyes of a skeptic. The author, who is traditionally identified as King Solomon, wonders what any of it is worth since everybody meets the same end. Everyone—rich and poor, wise and foolish, powerful and nameless, righteous and unrighteous—everyone will die and soon be forgotten when they are lowered into the grave. Throughout his life, the author has tried to find meaning in many ways that people through the centuries have valued. He speaks of gaining money, possessions, wisdom, knowledge, pleasure, and experiences. But in the final analysis, he comes to the conclusion that all of those pursuits are inadequate in discovering lasting meaning in life…
And what about the fruits of your labor—all that you have worked hard for over the years? Well, it will all eventually be enjoyed by someone else—someone who may squander it and use it improperly and disrespectfully. Nothing very “feel good” about that either. It is no wonder that the book of Ecclesiastes was one of the last books to be added to the Old Testament canon. It did not make it in until sometime around 100 BC…The bleak picture that it paints concerning the ultimate meaning of life was not one that learnèd Jewish rabbis were apparently eager to embrace…
Verse two begins, “Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” This verse articulates a theme that will regularly occur throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. The Teacher will emphasize over and over to the reader that “All is vanity.”
The word “vanity” is a translation of the Hebrew word hebel. It is a word that is notoriously difficult to render in other languages. It is often translated as “vanity” or “meaninglessness.” But really, the word is derived from another Hebrew word that means “vapor”…or “breath”…or “smoke.” The Teacher tells us that all of the earthly things that people strive for have no more substance to them than a vapor or smoke. They are all insubstantial and transient. You can see right through them. Some vapors can even be foul or poisonous…
In the face of all that he calls “vanity,” the Teacher gives us this advice in Ecclesiastes 9:7-11 on the best way that one should live their life. He writes,
Go, eat your food with gladness and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 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. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all of your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.”
Hmmmmmmm…So the Teacher in Ecclesiastes basically gives us a variation of the old advice to “Eat, drink, and be merry—for tomorrow we die.” Here is the question that I would like for us to consider in the time that we have remaining: Is “eat, drink and be merry” really all that life is about? Is “eat, drink, and be merry” the best that any of us can do with the time that God has given to us on this earth? Or as the old song made popular by Peggy Lee many years ago asks, “Is that all there is?”
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In 1648, the leaders of the Church of England and of the Reformed churches (that is, the Presbyterians) joined together to construct a catechism. A catechism is a way to state the essentials of the faith and to aid in the teaching of new converts. This particular catechism became known as “The Westminster Shorter Catechism” and it has had a profound effect on churches in English-speaking countries for more than 450 years. And that includes Baptist churches as well as churches of many other denominations…2
In the normal manner of catechisms, a question is posed to the student and the student is to respond with a memorized answer. The opening question of the Westminster Catechism is this: “What is the chief end of man?” That is a good, basic question, isn’t it? And it gets to the core of the concerns of the book of Ecclesiastes. The response to the catechism’s question is equally noteworthy: “Man’s chief end is to glorfy God and to enjoy him forever.”
At first listen, that answer may sound a bit curious to our ears. We can certainly understand the first part. The first part says that our “chief end is to glorfy God.” I doubt if there is anyone who would dispute that. As part of God’s creation, God is due all of our love…and praise…and thanksgiving…and worship…and honor. The God that we serve is way beyond all that we can think or even conceive of in our wildest imaginations. Immortal, invisible, the all-powerful One who was and is and is to come. Such an incredible God deserves our unqualified worship and adoration. The Apostle Paul tells us that it is our duty to glorify God when he writes in 1 Corinthians 6:20, “For you were bought with a price, therefore glorify God with your body…”
But the second part of the answer is a bit unusual to our normal ways of thinking. That’s the part that says we are “to enjoy him forever.” Let me ask you the question: When was the last time that you considered your relationship to God as one in which you “enjoy” God? I don’t know about you, but most of the people that I know do not seem to “enjoy” God very much—if at all. That includes both people inside of the church and outside of the church. And within the church, that includes those who are committed Christians and those whose commitment does not seem vital or strong. Instead, I find that people tend to struggle with God…to wrestle with God…to argue with God…to run from God—or sometimes even to try to ignore God or to avoid him altogether. But the idea of “enjoying” God? That does not seem to have occurred to very many people these days…
But I do not think that the concept is off the mark at all. God wants for us to enjoy his company in the same way that we enjoy being in the presence of those whom we love…and of who those who love us. So what does it mean to “enjoy God?”
You know how it is when you are truly in love with someone. Thoughts of that person occupy your mind constantly. You dwell on the qualities that attracted you to them. When they are away, you
2 For example, early British Baptist leader Benjamin Keach borrowed much of the Westminster Shorter Catechism (minus the discussion of infant baptism) for his Catechism, published in 1693. On this side of the Atlantic, Keach’s Catechism was adopted by the Philadelphia Baptist Association, which was the most influential Baptist association in colonial America, in 1742.
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count the hours or minutes until you can be with that person again. And that is because you love being with that person and you enjoy a connection and a bond that you have with no one else.
Remember how it was? In the first blush of love, everything was wonderful. Whatever the other person said was witty or wise. Everything they did was thoughtful and loving. Just being with that person was a refreshment to your soul, and when you were apart, you could not wait until you could be together again… Remember?
Well, the God described in the book of Ecclesiastes is not like that in his relationship to his people. There God is described as the ruler of all. That is true enough. God is all-powerful and rules over all. God observes all and judges all. But he is not close and intimate with those who follow his commandments. In Ecclesiastes, God is aloof. He ordains what he wills upon the earth, judges the righteous and the unrighteous, and he does not much get otherwise involved in the lives of his people.
This is different than the God that we have come to know in Jesus. For example, Jesus taught us to call God “Father.” Now “Father” is not a term commonly used in the Old Testament scriptures to describe what our relationship to God should look like. (It must be admitted that there are a few places where this is true. One is Psalm 103:13, which says “As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him.” But such instances are unusual in the Old Testament—they are not the norm…) And it is certainly not the norm in Ecclesiastes…
But enjoying our relationship with God is surely an important aspect of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. The Lord desires our relationship to him to be one of joy and intimacy. There are a lot of scriptures that could be cited at this point, but, in the interest of time, let me mention just a few…
You remember that, in Luke 2:10, the angels announced the birth of our Lord to the shepherds out in the fields. They began with these words, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great JOY that will be for all the people…” And in Philippians 4:4, the Apostle Paul encourages us to “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” And in terms of “enjoying him forever,” hear these words from Revelation 21:3-4. These words concern the future of God’s relationship with his people, “Now the dwelling of God is with [humanity], and he will live with them. They will be his people and he will be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
Isaac Watts is known as “The Father of the English Hymn,” as he was the first whose hymns written in English gained wide acceptance in churches of practically every denomination. Some of his hymns are among the greatest hymns ever written. They include “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” “Joy to the World! The Lord Has Come,” and “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”
One of Watts’ hymns that we sing here fairly regularly is “Come We that Love the Lord.” Our hymn book includes five of the original stanzas of the hymn and omits two of them. Regrettably, one of the omitted stanzas captures the essence of what I have been trying to communicate during the last few
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minutes regarding the idea of what it means to “enjoy God.” And he does it in just a few memorable phrases. The omitted stanza reads:
The sorrows of the mind
Be banished from this place;
Religion never was designed
To make our pleasures less.3
What a novel idea: Religion never was designed to make our pleasures less. I do not think that a lot of folks feel that way. Many people seem to experience the Christian life as something very different than that. But surely Watts’ observation is the essential meaning of what the Westminster Shorter Catechism was getting at. The purpose of our faith in Christ is not to make our lives more miserable and more burdensome. NO. Instead our faith is intended to liberate us so that we may enjoy God and to enjoy his good gifts to us now and for eternity…
Each of us has a choice to make. Each person must answer for himself or herself. And this choice is not a once-and-for-all-time decision. It is a choice that we face each and every day. And it makes no difference who you are or where you are in your life. The decision is this: How shall I live my life? What is my purpose on this earth? Shall I follow the way of Ecclesiastes which advises us that “All is vanity” and that all of life is ultimately meaningless? Or shall I seek to make the chief goal of my life to glorify God and to enjoy him forever?
That’s the question we face. What will you decide today…and tomorrow…and the day after that…and the day after that…
To God alone be the glory! Amen.
3 Quoted in Jere V. Adams, ed. Handbook to the Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Convention Press, 1992), 112.