Encouraging Words For Discouraging Times

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. – 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 ESV

In an effort to prepare His disciples for His coming death in Jerusalem, Jesus provided them with some encouraging news:

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” – John 14:1-3 ESV

Jesus had repeatedly emphasized that His death was inevitable and unavoidable. It was part of God’s redemptive plan and, as an obedient son, Jesus was obligated to carry out the will of His Father. It was the reason behind His incarnation, a point that Jesus made perfectly clear when He said, “the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 NLT).

Without Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, the sin debt owed by mankind would remain unpaid and a sentence of death would still hang over the heads of each and every man, woman, and child who has ever lived. But Jesus did die. He was buried. He rose again and was see in His resurrected state by hundreds of His followers. Paul emphasized these facts in his first letter to the church in Corinth.

Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen… – 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 NLT

But the story of redemption didn’t stop there. We know from the gospel accounts that after Jesus appeared in His resurrected form to His disciples, He commissioned them to take the gospel message to the nations. And then He ascended back into heaven, right before their eyes. Luke gives us a glimpse of that moment in the book of Acts.

he was taken up into a cloud while they were watching, and they could no longer see him. – Acts 1:9 NLT

Jesus returned to His Father’s side in heaven. But the redemptive story doesn’t end there. As the disciples stood staring up into the sky, two angels appeared and gave them some very important words of encouragement.

“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why are you standing here staring into heaven? Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday he will return from heaven in the same way you saw him go!” – Acts 1:12 NLT

Jesus died. He was buried. He rose again. He appeared. He ascended. And, one day, He will return. This is the very event to which Paul refers in this section of 1 Thessalonians 4. He reminds His audience that there is another important event that looms on the horizon of redemptive history. The return of Christ for His bride, the church. This is the event commonly referred to as the Rapture. This word, while not actually in the Bible, is derived from the Latin translation of the Greek word, harpazō,  translated as “caught up” in verse 17. In the Latin Vulgate translation of the New Testament, this word became raptura, from which we get the term, Rapture.

The Rapture, while often confused with the Second Coming, is a completely separate end times event. It refers to the return of Christ for His bride, the church, and it will take place at the end of what is called the church age – a period of undisclosed length that includes the time in which we live. It began with the coming of Jesus and will end with His return for the church, when He takes all those who have believed in Him to join Him in His Father’s house in heaven.

All of this fits into the wedding imagery that Jesus used concerning He and the church. He is the groom and we are His bride. Technically, according to the traditional Jewish concept of marriage, we are the betrothed on Jesus. The marriage has yet to be consummated, but we are legally bound to Him, having been given to Him by His Father, just as in a traditional Jewish wedding (John 17:12). During the betrothal period, the bride and groom are legally married, but remain separated from one another.  It is only just before the actual wedding itself that the groom returns for His bride and takes her to his father’s house, where the wedding ceremony and feast are held. Jesus, having returned to His Father’s house, is preparing a place for He and His bride. Then, when the time is right, he will return for her and take her to His Father’s house, where the ceremony and the celebration  will take place.

That is the event to which Paul is referring and he appears to be bringing it up because there was confusion among the believers in Thessalonica. They had all be longing for and eagerly waiting on the Parousia or coming of Christ. The early church lived with a sense of immediacy and imminence when it came to Christ’s return. They expected it to happen any day. And Paul and the other apostles encouraged this outlook. Paul to the believers in Corinth:

But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior. He will take our weak mortal bodies and change them into glorious bodies like his own, using the same power with which he will bring everything under his control. – Philippians 3:20-21 NLT

But the Thessalonians were beginning to have second thoughts. Some of their fellow believers had died and Jesus had not yet returned. That raised some significant questions in their minds: Where did their deceased friends and relatives go? What was their eternal fate? Was Jesus ever coming back?

And Paul addresses these concerns by providing them with much-needed assurance of the coming of Christ. For Paul, the deaths of their friends and relatives was cause for mourning, but not despair. Sadness is a natural human reaction to loss but, for believers, our loss is to be accompanied with hope. Because we have the resurrection of Jesus as a constant reminder of our future destiny.  Jesus’ death was followed by His resurrection and, by virtue of our faith in Him, we have the same outcome awaiting us. Paul told the believers in Rome:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. – Romans 6:5 ESV

And he told the believers in Corinth:

It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. – 1 Corinthians 15:52 NLT

Notice what Paul says here. Those who have died will be raised to live forever. And those who are living when Jesus returns for the church will also be transformed. That is the very same message Paul is delivering to the Thessalonians. The dead have not missed the boat. Their souls have gone to be with Jesus in heaven. Just as Jesus told the criminal on the cross, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43 NLT). Those believers who die prior to the Rapture go to be with Him. But the day is coming when they will return with Him and receive their new resurrected, glorified bodies. Again, Paul addressed the reality of this incredible promise in his first letter to the church in Corinth.

…our physical bodies cannot inherit the Kingdom of God. These dying bodies cannot inherit what will last forever. But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! – 1 Corinthians 15:50-51 NLT

As Dr. Thomas L. Constable so aptly puts it: “the translation of living Christians and the resurrection of dead Christians will take place at the same time.” It is at the Rapture that all those in Christ, the living and the dead, will receive their glorified bodies, custom-made for the eternal state. As Paul puts it, “our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies” (1 Corinthians 15:53 NLT).

Paul wanted the Thessalonians to maintain their hope, even in the face of loss. Their loved ones were not gone, they had simply gone on ahead. And the day is coming when all believers, those who have died and gone to be with the Lord and those who are still living, will be reunited and will received their resurrected, glorified bodies. And the apostle John provides us with further words of encouragement regarding that day.

Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. – 1 John 3:2 NLT

With this fantastic news in mind, encourage one another with these words.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

1 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (2d ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) 64. All abbreviations of ancient literature in this essay are those used in the Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed. (OCD).

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All Things Are Possible With God.

23 And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” 26 But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 27 Then Peter saMy Sitesid in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” –  Matthew 19:23-30 ESV

It’s essential that we not separate the content of these verses from the encounter that Jesus had with the rich young man. Verse 22 ended wih the sobering statement: “When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”

He was wealthy and, when Jesus told him to sell all he possessed, give it to the poor and follow him, the man simply walked away. The cost was too high. In his mind, the price for eternal life was too steep to pay.

But we must not miss two important statements made by Jesus that will help give clarity to what Jesus told HIs disciples after the man’s departure. Two different times in His exchange with the young man, Jesus addressed the man’s desire to know what he had to do to gain eternal life.

If you would enter life… – vs 17

If you would be perfect… – vs 21

And in both cbases, Jesus had followed up those statements with action steps:

…keep the commandments. – vs 17

go, sell what you possess and give to the poor. – vs 21

But Jesus knew something the disciples didn’t know. It was not a case of whether the man would or wouldn’t keep Jesus’ instructions. It was that he couldn’t. It was impossible. While the young man claimed to have kept the five commandments Jesus outlined, there was no way he had done so perfectly. And it is painfully clear that the young man loved his wealth and possessions more than he loved God. In other words, he had broken the very first commandment, because he had made a god out of material things. And he was willing to sacrifice the hope of eternal life with God in order to hold on to his false god of materialism.

So, as the disciples watched the man walk way, Jesus had used the moment as a teaching opportunity. He made a statement that caught them by surprise.

“Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” – Matthew 19:23-24 ESV

For the disciples, this statement made no sense. As Jews, they had always understood that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. They had been taught to believe that one of the primary ways in which God bestowed His favor on men was through material possessions. When they looked at the lives of the patriarchs, like Abraham, Joseph, and David, they saw men who had been greatly blessed by God with great wealth. And they aspired to be blessed in the same way.

So, the words of Jesus caught them off guard. They were inconsistent with their understanding of how life worked. Which explains their astonishment and their question to Jesus: “Who then can be saved?”

In essence, what they were thinking was, if those that are blessed by God are going to have a difficult time entering eternal life, then what hope did they have. The disciples were far from wealthy. They had little in the way of possessions. And nobody looked up to them or aspired to be like them. But their whole concept of God’s blessings was warped. They had not yet understood what Jesus had said in His sermon on the mount.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit…”

“Blessed are those who mourn…”

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth…”

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…”

“Blessed are the merciful…”

“Blessed are the pure in heart…”

“Blessed are the peacemakers…”

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake…”

“Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely…” – Matthew 5:3-11 ESV

When the disciples asked, “Who then can be saved?” they were not using the term in the same sense we would. They were not tying salvation to the gospel, but to man’s entrance into eternal life. And their understanding was much like that of the rich young man. They believed that eternal life was a reward for the good things done in this life.

But Jesus shocked them when He said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV). The word “this” ties back the idea of salvation or the earning of eternal life. It is impossible for any man to earn his way into God’s kingdom. And not only that, it was going to be particularly difficult for a rich man. Why? Because, like the young man who had just walked away, they would find their wealth to be a barrier to saving faith. Materialism has a way of masking our need. It keeps us from recognizing our true spiritual poverty. Money can buy us a false sense of peace and security. It can make us feel invincible and invulnerable. 

And if you believe that your wealth is a sign of God’s blessing, you will have little impetus to see yourself as someone in need of God’s forgiveness.

This whole exchange began with Jesus describing the need for childlike faith. The disciples had been arguing over who was the greatest. They falsely viewed prominence and position as a sign of favor with God. But Jesus had told them, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3 ESV). Now, He was expanding on this thought by saying it was impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Why? Because a rich man lacked the humble, innocent, completely dependent faith that displayed his need for God.

And Jesus stressed the sheer impossibility of it all by using an extremely ludicrous illustration. A rich man could no more earn his way into God’s kingdom than a camel could squeeze through the eye of a needle.

Then, the always-ready-to-speak-up Peter asked, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” It’s obvious that Peter was thinking of the words Jesus had spoken to the rich young man: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor” (Matthew 19:21 ESV). In Peter’s mind, he had done what Jesus had asked. He had sacrificed greatly in order to follow Jesus so, he wanted to know what was in it for him. What would be his reward? Remember what Jesus told the young man. If he sold all that he had and gave it to the poor, he would “have treasure in heaven.” So, Peter wanted to know what he was going to get for all of his sacrifice.

Jesus answered Peter’s question, but not in the way that he had hoped.

“Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.” – Matthew 19:28-29 ESV

Jesus assured Peter that he would have a reward, but it would be far different than what he was expecting. Jesus revealed that there was a day coming when He would establish His kingdom on earth. He would sit on the throne of David and rule from Jerusalem. But that day was in the far-distant future. He was speaking of His millennial kingdom, which would take place after His second coming. And in that kingdom, the 12 disciples would receive their reward. They would rule over the 12 tribes of Israel. They would have positions of power and prominence. They would rule alongside the Messiah in His millennial kingdom. But in the meantime, they would be called to sacrifice. They would be required to give up far more than could imagine. Most of these men would end up sacrificing their lives on behalf of the kingdom of God. They would face persecution and difficulty. And Jesus had already warned them of the reality of their future fate.

“But beware! For you will be handed over to the courts and will be flogged with whips in the synagogues. You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell the rulers and other unbelievers about me. When you are arrested, don’t worry about how to respond or what to say. God will give you the right words at the right time. For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”  – Matthew 10:17-20 NLT

Their reward would be in the future. And it would be tied to eternal life in the kingdom of God. So, rather than seeking their reward in the here-and-now, they were to focus their attention on the hereafter. In this life, they would be required to sacrifice. They would have to die to self and serve God, not material things. Their faith was to be based on the future reward promised to them by God through Christ. They needed to stop viewing the kingdom from a worldly perspective. Wealth, power, and prominence in this life were no guarantee of eternal life. Salvation is a work of God. And nothing is impossible for Him. While we can never earn eternal life, God has made it possible for all who place childlike faith in His Son to receive the unmerited reward of life everlasting.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Present Sacrifice for Future Reward.

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

45 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, 46 who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

47 “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and gathered fish of every kind. 48 When it was full, men drew it ashore and sat down and sorted the good into containers but threw away the bad. 49 So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

51 “Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.” – Matthew 13:44-52 ESV

The kingdom of heaven, while not quite what the Jews had anticipated, was of great value and worth. While it failed to live up to the expectations of the Jews, for those who had eyes to see and ears to hear, the kingdom was worth any cost to obtain. That seems to be the point behind this small collection of parables.

But not only does the kingdom of heaven have great value, it will require considerable cost from those who choose to be a part of it. While salvation is free, made possible by the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross, it does require commitment. In the first parable, Jesus described a man who found a valuable treasure in a field. But the field did not belong to him, so the treasure was not legally his to possess. So, greatly desiring to make the treasure his own, he sold all his earthly possessions and used the money to purchase the field. He had discovered something in that field that no one else knew existed. And he recognized that it was of far greater value and worth than anything else he possessed.

Jesus had already told His disciples, “If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9:23 NLT). And Matthew will later record Jesus telling His disciples, “whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25 ESV). The kingdom life is a rich and satisfying life, but it does require commitment and come with significant costs.

A big part of the message that Jesus is trying to make with these parables is that the full benefit of the kingdom of heaven is future-oriented. Unlike the kingdom the Jews were expecting, the full significance of the one Jesus is describing will not be fully realized in this life. In fact, Jesus will later give the disciples some important details regarding life in His kingdom. Matthew records an encounter Jesus had with a young man who was very wealthy. This well-off and well-intentioned young man presented Jesus with a question: “what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matthew 19:17 NLT). He was looking for the one thing he didn’t have and couldn’t buy: Eternal life. But he believed he could somehow earn it. So, Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me” (Matthew 19:21 NLT). But upon hearing these words from Jesus, the young man walked away dejectedly, “for he had many possessions” (Matthew 19:22 NLT).

Now, what Jesus says next is very important, because He told the disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is very hard for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 19:23 NLT). This statement blew the disciples away because, like all Jews, they believed wealth was a sign of a man’s righteousness and God’s blessing. So, Peter interpreted Jesus’ words as meaning that self-sacrifice was the key to reward, which is what led him to respond: “We’ve given up everything to follow you. What will we get?” (Matthew 19:27 NLT). Then Jesus replied:

28 “I assure you that when the world is made new and the Son of Man sits upon his glorious throne, you who have been my followers will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or property, for my sake, will receive a hundred times as much in return and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.” – Matthew 19:28-30 NLT

They would receive their reward in the future. The kingdom of heaven would not come to earth until the Son of Man sat on His glorious throne after His second coming. In the meantime, the sons of the kingdom would be required to sacrifice all in this life. Unlike the rich young man who refused to give up earthly treasures for a future heavenly reward, the disciples would find themselves sacrificing the temporal for the eternal.

Jesus’ second parable supports this point. A merchant in search of a pearl of great value finally finds what he has been looking for, and immediately sells all he has to possess it. He spares no expense to make this treasure his own. He considers his current possessions as expendable and any price he must pay, justifiable. Again, Jesus seems to be emphasizing the future reward of the kingdom. In both parables, the men had to sell all they had before they were able to enjoy the treasure they sought. This would have taken time. It would have required a period of great sacrifice and incredible commitment as they slowly sold off all they owned. The enjoyment of the reward would have had a built-in delay. And in the meantime, they would have experienced the obvious ramifications that accompanied the selling off of all their earthly possessions. Until the first man had raised the full price for the land and the second man was able to afford the cost of the pearl, they would have done without. But they were willing. For them, future reward was worth the price of present sacrifice.

The third parable Jesus told, while slightly different in nature, continues to support His overall premise. In this story, Jesus used common imagery to which His disciples would have been highly familiar. He described a fishing net being thrown into the sea. As any fisherman knew, this process would have taken time. The net would not immediately fill up with fish, but would do so over an extended period of time. Then, when the signs indicated that the net was full, the fishermen would have hauled it to the surface. At that point, there would be a process of sorting the catch, keeping some while throwing out others. And Jesus made His point perfectly clear, So it will be at the end of the age” (Matthew 13:49 ESV). At the present time, the net of the Gospel is in the “sea” of the world. It will one day be slowly gathered in, but not all who find themselves within the net will end up as part of the kingdom of heaven. There is a future day coming when Jesus will differentiate between the good and the bad, the saved and the lost, the sons of the kingdom and the sons of the evil one.

If you recall, Jesus has already taught His disciples that not everyone who calls Him, “Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven. Not all who appear to serve Him will be accepted by Him in His future kingdom.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ – Matthew 7:21-23 ESV

But for those who are willing to sacrifice now, their future reward will be great. Those who are sons and daughters of the kingdom will discover this life to be one of great cost. It will require endurance. It will demand commitment. But it will be well worth it.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven…” – Matthew 5:10-12 ESV

Those who are willing to sacrifice now, placing their hope and trust in the future reward promised to them in Christ, will not be disappointed.

“Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” – Matthew 25:21 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Worldly Pleasures and Treasures.

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. – Matthew 6:19-24 ESV

The kingdom life is an other-worldly life. It is not of this world. It is not natural to this world. It is marked by…

…heavenly values, not earthly ones

…an eternal perspective, not a temporal one

For the average Jew, material prosperity was seen as a sign of God’s blessing. Affluence was a proof of God’s approval. To have much was to be loved much by God. But in these verses, Jesus refutes that mindset.

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures in earth…but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” – Matthew 6:19, 20, 21 ESV

Jesus is attempting to shift their focus from earth to heaven. He is promoting an eternal mindset over a temporal one. Solomon, the son of David and the great king of Israel once wrote:

I said to myself, “Come on, let’s try pleasure. Let’s look for the ‘good things’ in life.” But I found that this, too, was meaningless. So I said, “Laughter is silly. What good does it do to seek pleasure?” After much thought, I decided to cheer myself with wine. And while still seeking wisdom, I clutched at foolishness. In this way, I tried to experience the only happiness most people find during their brief life in this world.

I also tried to find meaning by building huge homes for myself and by planting beautiful vineyards. I made gardens and parks, filling them with all kinds of fruit trees. I built reservoirs to collect the water to irrigate my many flourishing groves. I bought slaves, both men and women, and others were born into my household. I also owned large herds and flocks, more than any of the kings who had lived in Jerusalem before me. I collected great sums of silver and gold, the treasure of many kings and provinces. I hired wonderful singers, both men and women, and had many beautiful concubines. I had everything a man could desire!

So I became greater than all who had lived in Jerusalem before me, and my wisdom never failed me. Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. I even found great pleasure in hard work, a reward for all my labors. But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless—like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere. – Ecclesiastes 2:1-11 NLT

It was all meaningless in the end. You can’t take it with you. And it can’t deliver what it promises. Jesus told a parable with a similar lesson:

“Beware! Guard against every kind of greed. Life is not measured by how much you own.”

Then he told them a story: “A rich man had a fertile farm that produced fine crops. He said to himself, ‘What should I do? I don’t have room for all my crops.’ Then he said, ‘I know! I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll have room enough to store all my wheat and other goods. And I’ll sit back and say to myself, “My friend, you have enough stored away for years to come. Now take it easy! Eat, drink, and be merry!”’

“But God said to him, ‘You fool! You will die this very night. Then who will get everything you worked for?’

“Yes, a person is a fool to store up earthly wealth but not have a rich relationship with God.” – Luke 12:15-21 NLT

A right relationship with God for eternity versus a rich lifestyle that ends at death. The problem is not with the temporal things themselves, but our affections for them.

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. – Colossians 3:1-4 NLT

Teach those who are rich in this world not to be proud and not to trust in their money, which is so unreliable. Their trust should be in God, who richly gives us all we need for our enjoyment. Tell them to use their money to do good. They should be rich in good works and generous to those in need, always being ready to share with others. By doing this they will be storing up their treasure as a good foundation for the future so that they may experience true life. – 1 Timothy 6:17-19 NLT

Money and materialism are not the problem. It is the love of them

Yet true godliness with contentment is itself great wealth. After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content.

But people who long to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many foolish and harmful desires that plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows. – 1 Timothy 6:6-10 NLT

The treasures of this earth bring short-term returns on investment. They are temporal, not eternal. We are to treasure that which is lasting. And we are to set our eyes on the things of God. Which is what Jesus reveals in verse 22:

Your eye is like a lamp that provides light for your body. When your eye is healthy, your whole body is filled with light. – vs 22

The word, “healthy” in the Greek is haplous and it means “single, whole, singleness of purpose, undivided loyalty.” Jesus is saying that your eye, like a lamp, is to have a single purpose. And the one who is approved by God is to have unswerving loyalty to God’s kingdom purposes. He is talking about heart fidelity toward God. The good eye is the one fixed upon God, unwavering in its gaze, and constant in its focus. We should not suffer from a “wandering eye.” An eye with a single focus will have a single byproduct: Light (purity).

…but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. – vs 23

The word “bad” in the Greek is ponēros (pah-ney-rahs) and it means “bad, blind, or wicked.” Jesus is referring to a spiritual blindness or inability to focus on the right things. It results in darkness (devoid of God’s precepts). A dim light is a light without focus or purpose. It results in darkness. The one who is approved by God will live a life of single-mindedness.

A stingy man [a man whose eye is evil] hastens after wealth and does not know that poverty will come upon him. – Proverbs 28:22 ESV

Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy; [a man whose eye is evil] do not desire his delicacies. – Proverbs 23:6 ESV

Take care lest there be an unworthy thought in your heart and you say, “The seventh year, the year of release is near,” and your eye look grudgingly [be evil] on your poor brother, and you give him nothing, and he cry to the Lord against you, and you be guilty of sin. – Deuteronomy 15:9 ESV

In verse 25, Jesus sums up this part of his message with a warning about duplicity or divided allegiance.

“No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” – Matthew 6:24 ESV

This is about loyalty. It forces us to ask the question, “What do we love most? The things of this earth or the kingdom of God?” During trials, our true allegiances get revealed. When we face the potential loss of those things we love dearly, it shows. You can’t serve the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this earth equally. We are to have an eternal perspective. When we love the things of this world, it becomes obvious. Our love shows up in the form of anxiety. Worry is a common malady to all men, regardless of income level or social status. We worry about not having enough or losing what we already have. Five times in 10 verses, Jesus uses the word, “anxious” and He will tie it to temporal, earthly things:

  • Life
  • Food and drink
  • The body
  • Clothes
  • The future (on earth)

But Jesus reminds us that those who are approved by God trust Him for all these things:

  • For life
  • For food and drink
  • For our bodies
  • For our clothes
  • For the future

We are to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Our allegiance is to be undivided – focusing on Him and Him alone. God knows what we need and He can provide for those needs. But notice His emphasis on NEEDS, and not wants. We have a tendency to turn wants into needs. It is not enough to be clothed – we want to be richly clothed. It is not enough to be fed – we want to be well fed. It is not enough to have health – want to be immune to all illness. It is not enough to have life – we have to have abundant life (on our terms). So we want and we worry. But when we make the things of this earth our focus, the desire for them produces unwarranted worry and unnecessary anxiety.

The seed that fell among the thorns represents those who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life and the lure of wealth, so no fruit is produced. – Matthew 13:22 NLT

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:6-7 NLT

So humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you. – 1 Peter 5:6-7 NLT

Worldly pleasures and treasures produce divided allegiance and result in worry and stress. But when we make God our focus and the treasures He has laid up for us our greatest desire, we will be truly blessed and find that there is no reason to worry. Our God will meet all our needs, both now and for eternity.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The End of the Matter.

Besides being wise, the Preacher also taught the people knowledge, weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care. 10 The Preacher sought to find words of delight, and uprightly he wrote words of truth.

11 The words of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings; they are given by one Shepherd. 12 My son, beware of anything beyond these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh.

13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. Ecclesiastes 12:9-14 ESV

As Solomon wraps up his book, he seems to do so by providing his credentials as proof of the veracity of his words. Referring to himself in the third person, he restates the well-known fact of his wisdom, given to him by God. But he claims to have put a great deal of effort and energy into enhancing that wisdom with further insight and knowledge through the use of diligent study and research. Solomon had collected the wise sayings of the sages, putting many of them in the book of Proverbs. But he had not been content to simply collect and edit these sayings, producing them in written form for others to read. No, he says that his effort included “weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care” (Ecclesiastes 12:9 ESV). Solomon had tested these truths, taking the time and energy to determine their reliability and truthfulness. Like a metallurgist testing the quality of gold, to assess its true value, Solomon had proven the accuracy and soundness of each proverb before passing them on to the people. His goal had been to find teachings that would prove beneficial to life.

Solomon compares proverbs or wise sayings to a goad, a sharp stick used to prod animals along. Like a goad, proverbs are simple in nature, but highly memorable and powerful in terms of their impact. Like a sharp stick to the rump of a wayward cow, a proverb can cause a person who is straying from the truth to quickly course correct and realign their steps. He also compares proverbs to firmly fixed nails that keep things the way they were meant to be. They hold things in place, providing a sense of security and stability to life. Someone who lacks these time-proven truths or maxims, is left to learn the lessons of life the hard way: Through painful trial and error. And one of the reasons Solomon seems to have written this particular book was to pass on to those under his care the life lessons he had learned. As we’ve stated before, Solomon wrote this book near the end of his life, and he had a great deal of wisdom, gleaned from personal experience, that he sought to impart. In one of his proverbs, Solomon expressed this same desire to teach others what he had learned from life.

1 My children, listen when your father corrects you.
    Pay attention and learn good judgment,
for I am giving you good guidance.
    Don’t turn away from my instructions.
For I, too, was once my father’s son,
    tenderly loved as my mother’s only child. – Proverbs 4:1-3 NLT

10 My child, listen to me and do as I say,
    and you will have a long, good life.
11 I will teach you wisdom’s ways
    and lead you in straight paths. – Proverbs 4:10-11 NLT

And Solomon firmly believed that the proverbs he had collected had been given to him by God, making them divine instructions, not simply the words of men. That’s why he refers to them as having come from one shepherd. While their human authors were many in number, the truths these proverbs contained came from God alone. He is the author of all truth. And that’s why Solomon warned, “My son, beware of anything beyond these” (Ecclesiastes 12:12 ESV). There are countless books available and you could spend your lifetime searching and studying the written wisdom of men, but you would be wasting your time. And no one knew that better than Solomon himself, because he had done it. He knew it was all vanity, a chasing after the wind. The apostle Paul would fully agree with Solomon. In fact, he described the wisdom of men in less-than-flattering terms: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness to God” (1 Corinthians 3:19 NLT).  Earlier in that same letter, Paul asked and answered his own question regarding man’s so-called wisdom. “So where does this leave the philosophers, the scholars, and the world’s brilliant debaters? God has made the wisdom of this world look foolish” (1 Corinthians 1:20 NLT).

As Solomon prepares to wrap up his book and his life, he can’t help but come back to the one truth that held all his thoughts together. It is the one point of clarity in a long life filled with perplexities and incongruities. He refers to it as “the end of the matter.” It’s the summary or synopsis of life.

Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. – Ecclesiastes 12:13 ESV

Now, the thing missing in Solomon’s summary is an understanding and awareness of God’s future plans for his life. Like many in his day, Solomon had no clear concept of or theology concerning the afterlife. It was all a mystery to him. As far as he could tell, what existed beyond the grave was nothing more than a black hole.

Life after death was as enigmatic to him as the unequal distribution of justice. His emphasis was on this life (‘under the sun’) and its opportunities for service and enjoyment; he thought life after death offered no such opportunities. – Donald R. Glenn, “Ecclesiastes.” In The Bible Knowledge Commentary: Old Testament

So, while Solomon’s admonition to fear God and keep His commandments sounds like solid, biblical counsel to us, we have to keep in mind that he is placing all his emphasis on the here-and-now. He knows that God is sovereign over all. He realizes that God controls all things and is the distributor of all good gifts. He can give and He can take away. So, from Solomon’s limited, earth-bound perspective, it made sense to keep God happy by fearing and obeying Him. That way, you could hope to enjoy in this life some of the blessings that only He can bestow. And when Solomon speaks of God’s judgment, he seems to have in mind a judgment that takes place in this life. His rewards or punishments are based on thoughts and behaviors committed in this life. He is fixated is on present, not future rewards. He is expecting all of God’s blessings to show up in this life, not the one to come. Because as far as Solomon could tell, there was no guarantee of a life after death.

But as believers in Jesus Christ, we have been given additional insight into God’s redemptive plan. We have the entirety of God’s Word to guide and instruct us. We know that there is a life after death. Jesus promised it. Paul wrote about it. The New Testament goes out of its way to describe it. Yes, there is a judgment, but it’s rewards are not temporal in nature. They are eternal. In his first letter, the apostle John told those who read its contents: “I have written this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13 NLT). Jesus Himself promised: “I tell you the truth, those who listen to my message and believe in God who sent me have eternal life. They will never be condemned for their sins, but they have already passed from death into life” (John 5:24 NLT).

There is much we can learn from Solomon. But we have to take all that he wrote and combine it with what we have come to know since the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus. We have been provided with the end of the story, something Solomon did not have. So, when he said, this is “the end of the matter; all has been heard”, he was not quite right. There was more to come. As a matter of fact, the Savior of the world was to come, and He has. And it was His arrival on this earth in the form of a man, His sinless life, His sacrificial death and bodily resurrection that remove all the vanity, meaningless, futility and frustration from life. This world, while a wonderful gift from God to be enjoyed, is not all there is. There is far more to come.

Qoheleth’s intent in his writing is to pass judgment on man’s misguided endeavors at mastering life by pointing out its limits and mysteries. He would prefer that man replace such false and illusory hopes with a confidence based on the joy of creation as God’s gift. – Robert K. Johnston, “Confessions of a Workaholic’: A Reappraisal of Qoheleth.”

But even more important than enjoying God’s gift of creation, is placing our faith and hope in God’s offer of new creation. New hope. New life. New joy and the promise of a never-ending, frustration-free, sinless future with God.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. – 2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV

 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

When the Afterlife Becomes an Afterthought.

Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.

So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity.

Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.

10 Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity. Ecclesiastes 11:7-10 ESV

For Christians, reading the words of Solomon found in the book of Ecclesiastes can be a bit disconcerting. After all, we place a high priority on eternity and heaven. The New Testament is replete with encouraging words regarding both. In fact, right before He ascended into heaven, Jesus told His disciples:

“Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me. There is more than enough room in my Father’s home. If this were not so, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.” – John 14:1-3 NLT

The apostle Paul wrote a great deal about the afterlife and always in glowing terms and with a great deal of eager anticipation. He told the believers in Corinth:

51 But let me reveal to you a wonderful secret. We will not all die, but we will all be transformed! 52 It will happen in a moment, in the blink of an eye, when the last trumpet is blown. For when the trumpet sounds, those who have died will be raised to live forever. And we who are living will also be transformed. 53 For our dying bodies must be transformed into bodies that will never die; our mortal bodies must be transformed into immortal bodies.

54 Then, when our dying bodies have been transformed into bodies that will never die – 1 Corinthians 15:51-54 NLT

In his second letter to the same body of believers, he compared life on this earth in our physical bodies with the life to come, when we receive new, glorified bodies.

While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 5:4-5 NLT

And yet, all throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon seems to paint the afterlife in a negative light, almost as if it is something to be avoided at all costs. How could this man, who had been given wisdom by God, and who had been called to lead the people of God, have such a dim view of eternal life? Part of what we must understand is that the Hebrews did not have a well-developed theology of heaven. Their concept of rewards, for instance, tended to focus on this life. Their understanding of the covenant relationship between God and His people was tied to earthly rewards and blessings. That’s why they viewed those who were wealthy as somehow blessed by God, and those who were poor or sick, as having been punished by God for some hidden sin they had committed. The great patriarch of the Hebrew faith, Abraham, had been blessed by God with flocks and herds. His reward was in this life. Solomon himself had been blessed by God with great wealth. It is not so much that the Hebrews did not believe in the afterlife, it is that they had no consistent idea of what it looked like. That was God’s domain. He alone knew what life after death held. And since men cannot see into the future, they were left to experience and enjoy all that this life has to offer – for as long as they could. The Torah, one of the most revered of all Jewish sacred texts, has little or nothing to say regarding the afterlife. The emphasis is placed on this life. And that is how Solomon has treated this entire book.

Even in the closing verses of the final chapter of Ecclesiastes, Solomon returns to his fear-filled view of death. He states:

So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity. – Ecclesiastes 11:8 ESV

Notice that he believes in some kind of existence after death, but he describes it as “days of darkness” and concludes that whatever comes after death will be vanity or a meaningless existence. Solomon understood that life carried with it the undeniable reality of a future judgment. He knew that God was holy and just. He recognized that there would be a day when God would mete out His judgment on all mankind, and no one could be fully assured how that would turn out. Solomon would have fully concurred with the words of the author of Hebrews: “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27 ESV). But what Solomon didn’t understand was the hope that the author of Hebrews had because of his faith in Christ. He immediately followed the previous statement with the encouraging, hope-filled words: “so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28 ESV). Solomon’s advice was:

Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. – Ecclesiastes 11:9 ESV

In other words, live your life. Have a good time. Enjoy all the pleasures and joys that life has to offer, but always remember that there will be a judgment. God will one day reward you for how you lived your life on this earth. That was Solomon’s perspective. We can only imagine how his theological thinking had been skewed by the influence of all the false gods he had embraced. His religious views had to have been a toxic blend of pagan beliefs and Jewish doctrine. He was a man who wasn’t really sure what he believed in anymore, other than what he could see, touch, and taste. For Solomon, the unknown was nothing more than unknown. The afterlife was a mystery whose secrets were hidden from mere men. So, Solomon placed his emphasis on this life. He embraced each new day with a sense of hope, which is why he stated, “Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun” (Ecclesiastes 11:7 ESV). Waking up was a positive to Solomon, because it meant you hadn’t died in your sleep. Remember what Solomon said earlier in his book: “There is hope only for the living. As they say, ‘It’s better to be a live dog than a dead lion!’” (Ecclesiastes 9:4 NLT). Solomon is an old man, sharing his views on life and all that he has learned during his many days under the sun. And his final words in this book are directed at the young. “ Remove vexation from your heart, and put away pain from your body, for youth and the dawn of life are vanity” (Ecclesiastes 11:10 ESV). In other words, stop worrying so much. Take care of yourself. Enjoy your youth while you can, because it is going to be gone before you know it. Like everything else in life, it is a vapor, here one day, gone the next. Before you know it, your youth will have been replaced by old age.

So, what do we do with all of this? How are we to respond to the words of Solomon. It seems that, far too often, we attempt to take the book of Ecclesiastes and treat it like his other book, Proverbs. We read Ecclesiastes, picking and choosing those verses or statements that have some kind of positive application to them. We seek out the wise sayings of Solomon about diligence, hard work, prudent investing, and the avoidance of foolish behavior. And there is nothing inherently wrong with that strategy. But the question we must ask is why the Spirit of God inspired Solomon to write this book in the first place. Why Solomon? And why was he prompted to write this book at the end of his life, not at the beginning? The book of Ecclesiastes provides us with a unvarnished glimpse into the life of a man who had it all, including a relationship with God. He had been raised by a man whom God described as a man after His own heart. Solomon had been given every opportunity in life. He had been provided with the privilege of building the temple for God. He had been blessed with wisdom from God. But at some point in his life, Solomon walked away from God. He allowed himself to become obsessed with his possessions. He compromised his convictions. He made false gods of equal value to the one true God. And if we are not careful, we can fall into the same trap. Even as believers in Christ, we can allow ourselves to be lulled into a sense of spiritual complacency and moral compromise, searching for meaning and purpose in life from the things of this world. The book of Ecclesiastes was not meant to be a stand-alone reference for godly living. It is one book among 66 books that make up the entirety of God’s inspired Word. The Scriptures are to be read in their entirety, so that they can provide us with a well-balanced, Spirit-inspired understanding of God and our relationship with Him. It is essential that we take the views expressed by Solomon and compare and contrast them with those of the New Testament writers. When we read the words of the apostle John, found in his first epistle, we begin to get a clearer view of what it was that Solomon was missing in his book.

15 Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. 16 For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. 17 And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT

This world is a wonderful place, created by God for our enjoyment. But it is fallen and suffering from the effects of sin. Everything has been marred by the fall, including mankind. God has provided us with tremendous blessings in this life. This planet provides us with incredible pleasures to be enjoyed as gifts from the hand of God. But we must never lose sight of the fact that there is something far greater to come. This world is not all there is. Our faith is in God and our hope is in what He has planned for us in the future. And that preferred future is available only through faith in His Son. And there is no better way to summarize the final words of Solomon than by listening to the words of Jesus Himself.

16 “For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. 17 God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him.

18 “There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son. 19 And the judgment is based on this fact: God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil. 20 All who do evil hate the light and refuse to go near it for fear their sins will be exposed. 21 But those who do what is right come to the light so others can see that they are doing what God wants.” – John 3:16-21 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The God of Eternity.

1 But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun. Ecclesiastes 9:1-6 ESV

There seems to be little doubt that Solomon believed in the sovereignty of God. He sincerely believed that the lives of all men were in the hands of God, whether they were righteous or wicked, good or bad. His view was that God acted as the divine arbiter over the fate of all, including their lives and inevitable deaths, leaving man no option but to make the most out of the days he had allotted to him by God. But this view of God’s sovereignty has a feel of resignation and resentment to it. He clearly states that “the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God”, but he doesn’t come across as all that pleased about it. In fact, he views this sovereignty as some kind of divine whim, where God metes out love and hate as He sees fit. Solomon almost paints it as some kind of arbitrary decision on God’s part, lacking any kind of reasoned explanation. He puts it this way:  “Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him” (Ecclesiastes 9:1 ESV). In other words, from man’s earth-bound perspective, he can never know if God is going to show him favor or disfavor. If good things happen, it is the will of God. If bad things happen, it is the will of God. That appears to be his somewhat pessimistic conclusion regarding God’s sovereignty.

As far as Solomon can tell, all people share the same fate. They all die. And even while they remain alive, they all experience their fair share of ups and downs, blessings and curses, successes and failures. And he points out that it really doesn’t seem to matter how you live your life. He compares the righteous with the wicked, the good with those who commit evil, the ceremonially clean with the ceremonially impure, and finally, the one who offers sacrifices to God with the one who does not. The individuals represented by these polarized comparisons all face death at the end of their lives, and the sole factor determining the day of their death is God. And Solomon expresses his opinion about the matter, concluding, “This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all” (Ecclesiastes 9:3 ESV). Solomon saw death as some kind of divine exclamation point at the end of man’s life sentence, ending any hope of experiencing joy and fulfillment. And it was that belief that led him to write: “a living dog is better than a dead lion” (Ecclesiastes 9:4 ESV). From his perspective, it was better to remain alive, even if you had to struggle with the apparent injustices of life. Solomon clearly saw life as preferable to death.

Solomon has made it clear that this life can be difficult and meaningless. Here, he states, “the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live” (Ecclesiastes 9:3 ESV). Men do evil things. They commit acts of violence against one another. They oppress and abuse one another. And yet, Solomon would prefer to put up with all that than face the final day of death. Because, as far as he can see, that day has a finality to it. “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten” (Ecclesiastes 9:5 ESV). Do you see how he views death? He sees it as an end, almost as a form of divine penalty doled out by God on all who have ever lived. It’s as if he’s saying that life is this hit or miss, futility filled existence, completely dictated by God, and then it suddenly comes to a screeching, abrupt end – all based on God’s divine determination. It’s no wonder he preferred life over death. For him, whatever existed beyond the grave was unattractive and undesirable. As far as he could tell, the destiny that awaits us on the other side of death was unknowable and, therefore, unwelcome. Concerning those who die: “Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:6 ESV).

Those are the words of a man who sees this life as the only source of meaning, purpose and fulfillment. In fact, Solomon seemed to believe that the only way God could bless human beings was through the physical pleasures associated with life on this planet. He saw man’s identity completely tied to his earthly existence. All rewards were relegated to this life and this plane of existence. There was nothing beyond the grave. And it is that world view that dictates the decision-making of just about every person who occupies this planet – unless they have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Yes, there are other religions that teach an afterlife where there are rewards. But Christianity is particularly future-oriented, placing the real emphasis of mankind’s existence not on this world, but on the one to come. Our reward awaits us in eternity, not on this earth. That does not mean God withholds blessings from His children while they remain alive, but that His greatest reward is yet to come. The words of Jesus, spoken in His sermon on the mount, confirm this.

19 “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. 21 Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. – Matthew 6:19-21 NLT

The apostle Paul had a future-oriented mindset. He had his eyes set on his future reward, his glorification that was tied to the return of Christ.

13 …but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. – Philippians 3:13-14 NLT

The author of Hebrews also provides us with powerful words of encouragement, using Jesus as an example of the way in which we should live while we exist on this earth.

1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. – Hebrews 12:1-2 NLT

Jesus suffered. He knew what it was like to endure rejection and ridicule, injustice and oppression. He even endured the pain of the cross, knowing that it was all part of God’s divine will for His life. It was a necessary part of the redemptive plan God had put in place before the foundation of the world. Jesus ran His life’s race with endurance, keeping His eyes focused on the will of God and the future reward of God. And now He sits in the place of honor beside God’s throne.

And the apostle Paul would have us remember that, as followers of Jesus Christ, we face a similar reward.

1 For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies. While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 NLT

Regardless of what Solomon believed, there is something beyond the grave. Not only does an afterlife exist, it holds blessings beyond anything we can imagine. The pain, suffering, oppression, and injustice in this life that Solomon has so eloquently described, will not exist in the next one. For those who place their faith in Jesus Christ, eternity awaits and a life free from pain, suffering, sin, sorrow, and the looming threat of death. John writes of this wonderful reality in his letter to the seven churches.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” – Revelation 21:3-4 NLT

Solomon was a wise man, but he reveals his inability to comprehend the ways of God. Over the years, he had developed an earth-based, temporal perspective that limited the sovereignty of God to the here and now. He saw life as an end all, which explains his obsession with experiencing all that life had to offer. And when he couldn’t find what he was looking for in this life, he deemed it all meaningless, like chasing the wind. But he failed to see that God had much more in store. The best was yet to come.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Injustices of Life and Uncertainty of Death.

16 Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. 17 I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work. 18 I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. 19 For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity. 20 All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the spirit of the beast goes down into the earth? 22 So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him? Ecclesiastes 3:16-22 ESV

For Solomon, life had become little more than a never-ending cycle of unavoidable outcomes. Planting was followed by harvesting, only to have to plant again. Periods of peace would eventually be replaced with times of war. Efforts to build and construct would one day result in the need to tear down. Seeking for what was lost would result in finding, only to lose again. Feelings of love would often succumb to thoughts of hate. And ultimately, life would be trumped by death. And as he notes in this passage, even while man lives, he experiences the inevitability of injustice. Where he expects to see justice and righteousness, he instead finds wickedness. Solomon describes life lived “under the sun” as a disappointing and difficult experience. And about the only silver lining he can find in this dark cloud of despair is that he somehow still believed that God would judge the righteous and the wicked. But it is likely that Solomon is not thinking of a future judgment related to the end of the world and the eternal state. He has his eyes fixed solidly on the here-and-now. Just take a look at his closing statement in this passage. “Who can bring him [man] to see what will be after him?” The idea of a future judgment was almost impossible for Solomon to fathom. His perspective was immersed in the present, bound by time, and marred by his inability to see into the future, especially beyond the grave.
Two different times in this passage, Solomon uses the phrase, “I said in my heart.” This is a statement of deep reflection. He is wrestling with substantive issues, turning them over in his mind, and trying to come to some sort of resolution. He is combining his many observations of life’s inequities and futile inevitabilities with his wisdom, and arriving at conclusions. These verses are not random, off-the-cuff thoughts, but the well-reasoned reflections of a man who has spent countless hours struggling to come to his conclusions. And yet, we can see that so much of what he has concluded is wrong. His views on life and man’s existence lack a divine perspective. Yes, he acknowledges the existence of God and even concedes the sovereignty of God over all things. But he views God as nothing more than a distant deity, far removed from everyday life, who stands in detached judgment over the affairs of man. In fact, when considering the human condition from his limited earthly perspective, Solomon concludes, “God proves to people that they are like animals” (Ecclesiastes 3:18 NLT). That is not a view of God that speaks of His love, mercy and grace. It does not reflect an understanding of God that is based on an intimate, interpersonal relationship. While Solomon was the son of David, he did not share his father’s opinion about God. Listen to what David had to say.
But you, Lord, are a shield that protects me;
you are my glory and the one who restores me.
To the Lord I cried out,
and he answered me from his holy hill. – Psalm 3:3-4 NLT
You make me happier
than those who have abundant grain and wine.
I will lie down and sleep peacefully,
for you, Lord, make me safe and secure. – Psalm 4:7-8 NLT
But as for me, because of your great faithfulness I will enter your house;
I will bow down toward your holy temple as I worship you. – Psalm 5:7 NLT
David had a deep and abiding love for God. He saw God as intimately involved in the everyday affairs of his life. His God was personal and relatable, not distant and disconnected. But for Solomon, God was little more than a powerful, unseen force, directing the affairs of life and determining the destinies of men with a certain degree of detachment and disinterest. In fact, Solomon accuses God of using His divine power to prove to men that they are little better than beasts.
For people and animals share the same fate—both breathe and both must die. So people have no real advantage over the animals. How meaningless! – Ecclesiastes 3:19 NLT
Just compare Solomon’s thoughts with those of his father, David.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him?

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
    and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

O Lord, our Lord,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth! – Psalm 8:3-9 ESV

David had a drastically different view of God and man. He fully acknowledged the inferior nature of man when compared to the majesty of Almighty God. But he also recognized man’s God-given status as the crowning achievement of His creation. Yet, all Solomon seemed to see was the fact that men were doomed to the same fate as animals. Death and decay await them both. And Solomon further expresses his dire outlook by asking the question, “who can prove that the human spirit goes up and the spirit of animals goes down into the earth?” (Ecclesiastes 3:21 NLT). In other words, what guarantee do we have that there is something out there after death? How do we know that there is any existence beyond the grave? You can begin to see why Solomon reached the conclusion, “there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can” (Ecclesiastes 3:12 NLT). When he considered the fact that the wise and the foolish both end their lives in death, he concluded, “there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work” (Ecclesiastes 2:24 NLT).

Enjoy it while you can. That seems to be Solomon’s life mantra. Since he had no guarantee of what would happen after death, he was going to grab all the gusto he could in this life. He resigned himself to the reality that this is all there is, which led him to say, “I saw that there is nothing better for people than to be happy in their work. That is our lot in life” (Ecclesiastes 3:22 NLT). But notice that he has relegated life to this world. He has no concept of eternal life. Once again, we must compare the mindset of Solomon with that of his own father. David repeatedly expressed his belief in the eternal nature of his relationship with God.

Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me all the days of my life, and I will live in the house of the LORD forever. – Psalm 23:6 NLT

I have asked the Lord for one thing—
this is what I desire!
I want to live in the Lord’s house all the days of my life,
so I can gaze at the splendor of the Lord
and contemplate in his temple. – Psalm 27:4 NLT

Let me live forever in your sanctuary, safe beneath the shelter of your wings! – Psalm 61:4 NLT

There is no doubt that life can be filled with injustices. We all know that death is inevitable and inescapable. But we have an assurance from God that all injustices will one day be rectified. It may not be in our lifetime, but we can rest assured that God will ultimately replace all wickedness with righteousness. He will mete out justice to all those who have lived their lives by taking advantage of the innocent and abusing the helpless. And while the fall brought the inescapable reality of death to God’s creation, He plans to redeem and restore all He has made. And for those who have placed their faith in Jesus Christ, we have the assurance that our existence does not end with our death, because He died so that we might live. And nobody expresses this reality better than the apostle Paul.

22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers together until now. 23 Not only this, but we ourselves also, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we eagerly await our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope, because who hopes for what he sees? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we eagerly wait for it with endurance. – Romans 8:22-25 NLT

 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Time & Eternity.

1 For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

What gain has the worker from his toil? 10 I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. 12 I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; 13 also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.

14 I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. 15 That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away. Ecclesiastes 3:1-15 ESV

In just eight short verses, Solomon uses a single word 29 times, and that word is “time.” He uses the Hebrew word, ’eth. In 257 out of the nearly 300 instances that Hebrew word is found in the King James Bible, it is translated as “time.” And it seems that Solomon is using this particular word to drive home a contrast between life as we know it on this temporal plane, and the timeless dimension of eternity. Solomon’s dilemma, like every other human being who has ever lived, is that he is restricted in his ability to discern anything beyond what he can see. He makes the very astute observation that God “has put eternity into man’s heart.” In other words, we have an innate awareness that there is something beyond this life, but we can’t perceive it. As Solomon puts it, man “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” The New Living Translation puts it this way: “people cannot see the whole scope of God’s work from beginning to end.” We are temporal creatures, living our temporary lives on this earth, hamstrung by the limitations of our human senses and incapable of seeing what lies beyond the day of our last breath.

It is important that we keep in mind that Solomon, writing this book sometime near the end of his life, has veered from the course established for him by God. He has surrounded himself with wealth, women, possessions, and pleasures of all kinds. He has set up idols to false gods all over the kingdom, and allowed himself to be distracted from his faithfulness to the one true God. His ability to see things from a godly perspective has been harmed and hindered by his love affair with material things, worldly pleasures, and man-made replacements for God. His world view has become influenced by the secular rather than the sacred. So, 29 times in these verses, he speaks of life in terms of time. And he does so by providing 14 stark contrasts that portray life as seen from his limited human perspective. Life lived on this earthly plane and viewed from a human perspective is nothing more than a series of polar extremes. The hope and joy of birth is contrasted with the sadness and seeming finality of death. Planting culminates with harvesting, and you begin the cycle again. Killing is an inevitable reality in life, and starkly at odds with the need for healing. There are times when tearing down follows a season of building up. Why? Because nothing in this life truly lasts. Weeping and laughter, as disparate and dissimilar as they are, share a strange coexistence, equally impacting the lives of men for good or bad. These various actions are relegated to time. They are aspects of human existence that, without a God-focused perspective, create a dissonance in the heart of man that can’t be understand or explained. They present, in just another form, the cyclical, repetitive and meaningless nature of life lived devoid of an eternal perspective.

Solomon acknowledges that God “has made everything beautiful in its time.” There are those moments in life when we can enjoy the birth of a baby, the joy of laughter and dancing, the blessings of the harvest, the experience of loving and being loved, and the presence of peace in our lives and world. But that doesn’t keep him from asking the question: “What gain has the worker from his toil?” In other words, what benefit does a man enjoy from all the effort and energy he puts into his life? Whether he likes it or not, there will come a time when he has to replace the harvest he reaped by sowing again. He may one day be forced to watch the death of the child whose birth he witnessed. He will experience the pain that comes when love turns to hate and gain turns to loss. And Solomon describes it as “the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with” (Ecclesiastes 3:10 ESV). So, according to Solomon and based on his secular-based viewpoint, the best outcome human beings can hope for is “to be joyful and to do good as long as they live” (Ecclesiastes 3:12 ESV). As far as Solomon can tell, the most logical response, in light of the inevitability and futility of life, is that “everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil.” Why? Because “this is God’s gift to man.” What Solomon really seems to be saying is that if anyone can experience any semblance of joy and pleasure in the midst of all the meaninglessness of life, they should consider it a gift from God, and enjoy it while they can.

And Solomon reveals the pessimistic nature of his worldview by stating, “whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14 ESV). While this speaks of God’s sovereignty and providential control over all things, Solomon seems to be saying it with less than a positive point of view. He doesn’t exude a spirit of peace and solace with this statement, but a sort of hopeless resignation. He further qualifies his view by saying, That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been; and God seeks what has been driven away” (Ecclesiastes 3:15 ESV). Here is yet another reference to to the cyclical, repetitive, and futile essence of life lived under the sun. No sense of eternity. No expression of hope in what is to come. It is almost as if Solomon is painting God as some kind of cosmic puppet master in the sky who toys with man, determining his destiny, and relegating him to a hopeless existence featuring equal parts toil and trouble and joy and pleasure.

But Solomon had a warped perspective. He had lost his ability to see life through the lens of God’s love and faithfulness. His abandonment of the eternal God had left him with nothing but a temporal view of life. He had become blinded to the sovereign will of God that is always accompanied by the loving mercy of God. His sense of purposelessness was the direct byproduct of his lack of faithfulness. God was not the one who had changed. God was not the one who had moved. Solomon’s loss of hope was due to his loss of trust in God.

 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

You Can’t Take It With You.

12 So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. 13 Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. 14 The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 15 Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. 16 For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! 17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.

18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.

24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. Ecclesiastes 2:12-26 ESV

I’m sure there was a day when Solomon was fun to be around, but at this point in his life, he comes across as a pessimistic, old curmudgeon who has long lost the capacity to smile. He isn’t even a glass-half-empty kind of guy. His glass is bone dry and his temperament is dark and depressing. But he still has his wisdom and the ability to see things that many of us tend to miss. He also recognized his responsibility as the “preacher” or speaker in the assembly, to share his somewhat somber life lessons with others. Which is the whole reason he took the time to write this book.

Solomon seemed to believe that his role as king, equipped with virtually unlimited resources, unbridled autonomy, and unparalleled wisdom, placed him in a unique position to investigate the true meaning of life. So, he did. And he did so with all his heart, expending a great deal of time, money and energy in his pursuit. In fact, Solomon will repeatedly refer to his heart throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. He mentions it no less than eight times in this chapter alone.

I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” – vs 1

I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom – vs 3

I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. – vs 10

Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. – vs 15

So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun – vs 20

For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. – vs 23

While Solomon talks a great deal about the pursuit of pleasure, the accumulation of possessions, and his many accomplishments and acquisitions, the real focus of his attention is his own heart. Everything he did in life was meant to fill the void in his heart. He focused on external remedies in an attempt to address an internal problem. But he discovered that they were all like mist, fleeting and ephemeral. They brought temporary relief and short-lived satisfaction, but could never address his real problem: The state of his own heart.

Solomon even viewed his own wisdom, given to him by God, as an insufficient and inadequate resource for addressing his heart problem. As far as he could see, he could spend a lifetime using his wisdom to accomplish great good and for achieving noble goals, but when he died, he would leave it all behind, never knowing if his successor would be wise or a fool.

18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 2:18-19 ESV

All his accomplishments, regardless of how significant or praise-worthy, would be left for someone else to do with as he wished. His wealth, possessions, palace, even his concubines, would become the possession of someone else.

20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. – Ecclesiastes 2:20-21 ESV

And Solomon’s conclusion was, “This also is vanity and a great evil.” Now, what we must realize is that Solomon is not downplaying the significance of hard work or achievement. He is not suggesting that we simply avoid work altogether, refusing to waste our limited time on this earth in a vain pursuit of material things we will simply be forced to leave behind. Solomon seems to be addressing the need to live life with a recognition that our time on this earth is limited and we have little to no control over our own destiny. That is why he spent such a great deal of time in chapter one focusing on the inevitability of life lived under the sun. Generation after generation comes and goes, and the only thing that remains is the earth itself. The sun rises and sets, in a never-ending cycle, and man disappears from the face of the earth in a similar manner, but never to be seen again.

All of this led Solomon to conclude: “So I decided there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work” (Ecclesiastes 2:24 NLT). Again, we have to be careful when interpreting the meaning behind Solomon’s words. They can come across as defeatist in tone. He sounds like a man who has thrown up his hands in despair and resigned himself to simply endure life until he dies. But notice what he says: “I realized that these pleasures are from the hand of God. For who can eat or enjoy anything apart from him?” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25 NLT). This is one of the few times Solomon has mentioned God up to this point. He recognizes that the joy and pleasures of life are a gift from God, to be enjoyed and appreciated. Solomon is not a fatalist, proposing that we simply give up and fill up our lives with the mindless pursuit of pleasure. He is a realist, who is attempting to share his painful life lessons with others, preaching the message of finding enjoyment in the things God has graciously given to mankind. We are to enjoy them, but not worship them. We are to experience pleasure from them, but not make them the source of our pleasure. 

Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow. – James 1:17 NLT

In his commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes, Derek Kidner shares a powerful insight into Solomon’s message, revealing that the danger we all face is the temptation to worship the gifts more than the Giver, to seek satisfaction from the things of life, instead of the Creator of life.

“. . . in themselves, and rightly used, the basic things of life are sweet and good. Food, drink and work are samples of them, and Qoheleth will remind us of others [cf. 9:7-10; 11:7-10]. What spoils them is our hunger to get out of them more than they can give; a symptom of the longing which differentiates us from the beasts, but whose misdirection is the underlying theme of this book.” – Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes: A Time to Mourn, and a Time to Dance

Solomon ends this chapter with what he believes to be an insight into the ways of God.

26 God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy to those who please him. But if a sinner becomes wealthy, God takes the wealth away and gives it to those who please him. This, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind. – Ecclesiastes 2:26 NLT

Solomon believed that God was a rewarder of those who pleased Him. He shared the commonly held view of his day that God blessed those who were faithful to Him, even taking what belonged to the wicked and giving it to the godly. According to this way of thinking, all the rewards of a life lived well were to be enjoyed in this life. We get our rewards now. And for Solomon, this came across as just another example of the futility of life. If you work hard, it really didn’t matter, because God could simply take what was yours and give it to someone else He deemed more worthy. But Solomon failed to recognize what the author of Hebrews made clear in his letter.

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. – Hebrews 11:6 NLT

Yes, God rewards those who believe in Him and who seek to draw near to Him. But that reward has little to do with this life. It involves the life to come. While God may bless us in this life, and allow us to enjoy all the pleasures that come with life, our greatest reward lies in the distant future. Solomon had lost sight of that fact, and had immersed himself in a never-ending pursuit of significance and satisfaction in this life. And his sad and misguided conclusion was “This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)  Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson