Ecclesiastes 1: Newness of Life
A man refused to get out of bed one morning. When his wife reminded him that he would be late for work, the man buried his head under his pillow and grumbled, "I don't care if I get sacked. I do not want to subscribe to this routine every day just to earn my three daily meals!"
The wife replied, "Then you had better start getting used to a routine of one meal a day."
Ecclesiastes, chapter 1, advances the theme of the vanity of human effort. Quite a number of us do not need any reminder of this fact. We go to work because we have to and not because we want to.
But there are some who are enamored of life and may not comprehend what all the gloom is about. "We're here, right? Might as well enjoy ourselves as much as we can while the going's good!"
These young and young at heart optimists ought to take a second look at the inspired thesis of the venerable King Solomon. Consider these opening points:
Before we go out into the world today to do our work, let's first consider why we are going to do what we are going to do. Recall the three important questions of life:
- By all the labor in which he toils under the sun, what a man gains is death.
- All is routine and there is nothing new; you'll get fed up after a while.
- There is no advantage in knowing more than others, for in much wisdom is much vexation.
The question we want to answer is number 2. As Christians, being enlightened by the saving grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, we must start to comprehend that the escape from the routine and morbidity of life lies in the way we conduct our lives, which should be in a spiritual manner. Continuing to live in the flesh is to live in the momentary pleasures of life, which is philosophized in Ecclesiastes chapter one.
- Where do I come from?
- What am I supposed to do here?
- Where am I going?
Take this thought with you as you go out into the world this morning: "Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life" (Rom 6:4).
- Ecclesiastes 1
- Romans 8:5-14
- Hebrews 11:25
Ecclesiastes 2: Life Achievements
When I was at the National University of Singapore, a business undergraduate residing at one of the hostels declared that he would achieve his first million dollars by the age of 35. That was some time ago and it represented a lot of money in a very short time. He was a confident and dynamic kind of guy, someone who would easily make the list of those most likely to succeed.
We all graduated in due time, but not long after, I heard that one morning, the confident young man had been found drowned in a public swimming pool. Experience has now added the possibility of suicide due to failure at the stock market, but at that time, all I could think of was that accidents can cut short anyone's most brilliant plan.
The hostel flew the hail flag at half-mast in recognition of his past contributions. The university continued its strive for achievement but few were those who had read Ecclesiastes 2:16-17:
And how does a wise man die? As the fool! Therefore I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me, for all is vanity and grasping for the wind.
The modern world has two labels for people: underachievers or overachievers. I think it is clear which is supposedly desirable. To Christians, however, we should adjudge most issues in terms of the truth. So, instead of asking, "Are we underachievers or overachievers?" and go pell-mell into working overtime to get that extra pay, that promotion, or to move in the right club circles, we should prayerfully reflect, "Are we right achievers or wrong achievers?"
The smart man learns from his own experience; the wise man learns from the experience of others. Why rush into working hard for something only to realize years later that it was not worth sacrificing for? On the different kinds of achievements, listen to what King Solomon has to say:
Solomon lived before Christ and did not have a full understanding of the salvation plan of God. He saw plainly the futility of life as it was and was distressed by the realization that "Death ends life's achievements." Despite this, Solomon, being a prophet of God, was allowed a glimpse of redemption and reached this minor conclusion in chapter 2:
- On laughter: "Madness!" and on pleasure: "What does it accomplish?" (v.2)
- On property, art and aesthetics, servants, music, sex: "I looked on all the works that my hands had done and on the labor in which I had toiled; and indeed all was vanity and grasping for the wind. There was no profit under the sun." (v.11)
- On intellectuality: "As it happens to the fool, it also happens to me, and why was I then more wise?" (v.15)
- On leaving it all to your sons: "I must leave it to the man who will come after me. And who knows whether he will be wise or a fool?" (v.18-19)
Everyone achieves something in life: death. The question worth answering is whether all our other achievements end there or have done something to help achieve the life after. The counterpoint to Ecclesiastes' gloomy perspective of life is the Christian message of hope. Be like Paul who declared, "For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Philippians 1:21).
- Eat and drink and find enjoyment in your toil. This is from the hand of God. - Work at a job you enjoy (if you have a choice). Enjoy the simple pleasures of life.
- To the man who pleases God, He gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy. - Have a right relationship with God. He will bless you in your life and give meaning to it.
- Luke 10:24
- Matthew 10:38-39
- Matthew 16:26
Ecclesiastes 3: Man's Destiny - God's Control
Asian folklore tells of a prince who once set out to battle a dragon. When warned about the ferocity of the beast and the immense danger to his life, the prince replied, "If I am fated to die battling a dragon, even if I were to flee a thousand miles from here, I would still be slain by a dragon. However, if I am not fated to die fighting a dragon and I set out today to slay it, it would be impossible for me to die!"
A belief in Fate as the overpowering will of heaven that mortals cannot overcome or escape is popular in many less-developed and more superstitious societies. In this concept, every man's life has been mapped out from birth to death and there is no swerving from the assigned path. Christians do NOT hold this view of fate. To do so would be to concede that we are but puppets in the hands of God and that there is no free will of man. Instead, Christians believe in predestination.
Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes tells us that everything under the sun is under the control of God and the schedule that He has set up. Life and death, weeping and laughing, loving and leaving - all these happen according to their time. Yet, fatalism is not the theme here. If a man were to jump from the top of a high building, the logic of the Asian prince cannot prevent a crumpled and mangled mess of flesh and bone at the foot of that building. Man has a part to play in his own destiny.
In good times, a man may feel that he is capable of achieving anything. During these times, lest pride overtakes and a man overextends himself to sin, it is good for a Christian to realize that a man's destiny also lies in the hands of God.
Take for example the issue of salvation. A man is saved by grace through faith. Grace is the free gift of God. Faith is man's acceptance with the help of the Spirit's inspiration.
An allegory may help here. A man is told to go to a town 40 kilometers away in half an hour. Running at 100 meters per 10 seconds (the speed of a world-class sprinter) would require 66.7 minutes. On his own power, it cannot be done. But if a car is provided, it suddenly becomes possible. However, the man must still know how to drive and then actually drive the car safely to the destination.
Salvation is like that distant town. No man can reach it on his own power. God's grace through the blood of Jesus is like the car; it transforms the whole situation and makes salvation reachable. Man's understanding and following of the truth of God is like driving the car. His effort is still needed here.
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you… Philippians 2:12-13.
In bad times, a man may think that life is too big for him and that he is swamped by circumstances beyond his control. His business collapses overnight when war breaks out in some distant country and his customers are unable to pay. A happy family is plunged into gloom when an accident takes away lives. As in good times, a Christian who realizes that a man's destiny lies in the hands of God will find comfort in his faith. We may not understand, but our faith must allow us to replace a desire for the comprehension of WHY with a comprehension that God is good, knows what is happening, and has allowed it to happen for good.
So before you go to work this morning, remember to be nice to God and to pray to Him for guidance, for He controls the times. Besides, put in your effort and take pleasure in your toil; it is God's gift to you. And should you think that you are bigger than life, note one thing: the best man is like the lowliest beast, for the fate of man and the fate of beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. We return to a recurring theme in Ecclesiastes: death ends life. On the right side of this fate, one must stay on the right side of God lest the other of this fate sees us on the bottom side of eternity.
- Ephesians 1:4-12
- Romans 8:28-30
- Ephesians 2:8-10
- Psalm 73
Ecclesiastes 4: Contentment
In Arthur Miller's 1949 play, "Death of a Salesman," Howard, the employer of the salesman, is seen totally fascinated by his new toy, a tape recorder. He remarks that he is giving up the rest of his hobbies to devote himself to this new pastime. Living in the 21st century, we are amused at this engrossment in what we take for granted today.
Sometimes when I compare my life with that of the kings of the past, I truly think that mine is more luxurious than theirs. I have air-conditioning and elevators. My car can travel faster than horses. I can fly. I drink Coca-Cola and have durians all year round. Yet, so many richer than I are dissatisfied with their lot today.
Stop and think for a while. Why are you not content? Ecclesiastes 4 tells of three kinds of people:
Which one are you?
- The competitor: "…for all toil and every skillful work a man is envied by his neighbor." (v.4)
- The sluggard: "The fool folds his hands and consumes his own flesh." (v.5)
- The quiet man: "Better a handful with quietness than both hands full, together with toil and grasping for the wind." (v.6)
Kings in the past were perceived to lead more luxurious lives simply because they had things which their neighbors did not possess. Perhaps, it was a castle, or maybe a stable of horses or a court orchestra. Science has given man better things today, but many continue to envy the present rich for their better cars, their private jets, and their bigger homes. And so, many compete from envy and strive ten times harder to obtain something intrinsically only a tenth better (e.g. a Mercedes costs $50,000 while a Toyota costs $10,000).
Christians are warned against laziness and told to do their best at work. We sometimes have to work hard to survive. The problem of unhappiness and materialism arises only when our effort is precipitated out of envy and a need to achieve something in this world. The doctor working overtime to save lives is commendable but one who opens his practice morning, afternoon, and night, seven days a week, to protect his market share does not know the meaning of life.
Take a break from climbing up the corporate ladder. Be very good at a certain level you are comfortable in and make yourself indispensable there. You will then have job security and time to carry out your Christian responsibilities and to live life fully.
Be content in the working world. Do not be complacent with your spiritual life.
- 1 Timothy 6:6-10
- 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12
- 2 Thessalonians 3:11-12