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Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

Ecclesiastes 3:16–4:16

The teacher sees the overwhelming futility of life, despairs and despondent and wonders how to respond.

Good morning

Would you please join me as i ask for God’s help in prayer?

Dear Heavenly Father

We thank you that all wisdom comes from you and that you have revealed yourself to us through your living and active word. Father, May your Spirit teach us today. We pray this in Jesus name, Amen.

As Australia wakes up to the news of the Federal election, it was one that many thought would go to the wire, many would not have known who would be prime minister today. Isn’t it a privilege that we live in a democracy and we can enjoy peace in our country, something we ought to give God much thanks.

As Australia votes on our leaders and policies, many do so I presume with a hope for what will be a better future, for themselves, for their children, grandchildren, as votes are casts with considerations about the economy, the environment, healthcare, corruption  and the list goes on…of course granted there are some who just show up because it’s compulsory as well.

Many hope for a better tomorrow, or perhaps a better way… and perhaps we can give thanks to God for installing leaders at His time, and the opportunity to have a vote.

This seems quite different to the Teacher’s time. In many ways we see he hopes for a better way, but as you may well know, he has come to the conclusion that life is futile, meaningless, all activity under the sun.

It seems like he finds himself in a dark tunnel with no light, and life was just tough, rough and there was just a foul stench all around. There was but despair. Have you seen the news lately of those having to live and take shelter underground in Ukraine, whilst bombs fall overhead.  Now perhaps we have not been through extreme danger like, but do you know despair? Despair at the news of illness, grief, financial struggles,  career challenges, despair at injustice and the broken world around, betrayal of a loved one, despair at getting old.. despair in so many different ways…and that brings us to the place of asking, what’s the point? and perhaps wonder, is there a better way? It appears that the teacher observes life and just sees despair all around, and leads him to conclude that things were hevel, the hebrew word translated vapour, futile, meaningless…what can one do? Can things be better?

Today, we continue our journey with ‘the Teacher’. Last week, we considered that God is ultimately the one in control of the Time for everything and has made things beautiful in its time.

Yet whilst the Teacher confesses that God is in control,  The teacher sees 5 things that make him wonder, what’s the point of it all? As we look at them, we might hear the echoes of pain of a broken world then, as well as now.

We are going to take a look at them all, but spend more time on the first few. After that, we will consider some conclusions that we might draw as present day readers.

The first two are about society in general- about injustice and oppression (verse 16 to chapter 4:3), the next two are about the human condition, jealousy, greed and loneliness (verse 4:4-12)and the final one shows us a case of political change and highlights the transience, the temporary nature, of man (verse 13-16).  I wish it we were like we were sitting on the street of a Parisian coffee shop, watching the world go by as we sip a tea or coffee, but I’m afraid its more like watching a sad and sombre news reel.

Despite the gloom, the teacher, offers a comment as what might be better, perhaps a bit of silver lining to a dark cloud, or at least a patch of clear sky when the rest is cloudy.

So first, we look at society in General.

First off, The teachers observes wickedness and injustice. To make it worse , it’s in the place where you would expect a fair trial in the courts. Please take a look with me at verse 16.

Ecclesiastes 3:16 CSB

I also observed under the sun: there is wickedness at the place of judgment and there is wickedness at the place of righteousness.

We hear the groans of a broken world. Wickedness is present where justice ought to have been served. Because of sin, wickedness corrupts the way society functions. Those who were supposed to serve justice are corrupt, they mis-use their power.

In the courts, I understand Lady Justice is blindfolded- it’s to symbolise that justice should be rendered “without passion or prejudice” to ensure a result which is fair. No prior knowledge, complete impartiality, yet here, the teacher sees wickedness rather than justice,  bribes rather than blindfolds.

How does the Teacher’s respond to this?

I think he expects God to act, but he’s not sure how or when he does. The teacher gives a fairly ‘orthodox and stock standard response’,.. how things are meant to work, a principle called Divine Retribution, obedience would lead to blessing, yet disobedience would result in curse. And so he says in verse 17

Ecclesiastes 3:17 CSB

I said to myself, “God will judge the righteous and the wicked, since there is a time for every activity and every work.”

Whilst he says this in principle, to him it seem not clear when it will happen, nor has he seen it happen.

So this leads him to consider the fate of human beings.

He says, In fact, it seems that animals and humans are just alike with no advantage for the humans because they come from dust and go back to dust.

The teacher seems to recognise there might be some sort of afterlife, but is not sure what happens after death.

Ecclesiastes 3:21 CSB

Who knows if the spirits of the children of Adam go upward and the spirits of animals go downward to the earth?

Whilst he trusts that God will judge every activity, he doesn’t see it happen…and wickedness is still around, and given death’s around the corner, he concludes that you might as well enjoy life in the present. take a look at verse 22

Ecclesiastes 3:22 CSB

I have seen that there is nothing better than for a person to enjoy his activities because that is his reward. For who can enable him to see what will happen after he dies?

›     I wonder What can you enjoy?  The power to work and rest, and all that is beautiful in creation. yet that almost seems too positive for the Teacher.

but he seems to say, make the best of it.

The second thing the Teacher observes  are acts of oppression and the tears of those oppressed in Ecclesiastes 4:1

Continuing on from the wickedness seen in high places, here the teacher sees all those acts where people take advantage over one another, particularly the vulnerable.

Genesis reminds us that man was made in god’s image, yet here, we have people oppress one another and perhaps treating people more like animals than humans.

The prophet Zechariah tells us God’s command and concern particuarly for the vulnerable.

Zechariah 7:10 (CSB)

Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the resident alien or the poor, and do not plot evil in your hearts against one another.’

Yet we see exploitation:

Ecclesiastes 4:1–2 (CSB)

Again, I observed all the acts of oppression being done under the sun. Look at the tears of those who are oppressed; they have no one to comfort them. Power is with those who oppress them; they have no one to comfort them.

The teacher saw a people who were hard pressed, and had no relief. Perhaps they were exiles, living as foreigners and treated as slaves, or forced to pay heavy taxes that squeezed them to poverty. But the teacher observes all forms of oppression as he looks around under the son. What we see is that it is pervasive, it’s all around,

so what’s better? how does he respond?

He concludes:

It’s better to be dead than alive. And in fact, it’s better not even to be born.

›     How attuned are we to oppression? Things like childhood labour,  human trafficking, even in our city,  restaurants where people are underpaid, or perhaps in homes, where in certain cultures women may not be treated as equals and are domineered over?

›     Do you see the pain of a world where we become so transactional in our encounters, where we function sometimes like robots, to get what we need.

›     Surely this world is broken. And how are we to respond? Is there a better way?

›     The teacher cries out to God, and concludes its better that the one who is not yet born, who has not seen the evil activity under the sun. One must wonder, Where is God in the suffering, where is God in the pain?

Friends, I did warn you that it is sombre.

We now move on to our second main point,  the human condition:

We see

  1. a) work driven by jealousy.

God created man to work in the garden: You might remember Gen 1:26 that   Man was a role to rule over the creatures of the earth, yet because of sin, there was a curse and work was now difficult and painful.

Here,  we see another symptom of sin. People wanting to go one up on each other, and was not satisfied with what they had. Rather than look at their creator, they looked at one another, and felt they needed to keep up, or better the other. Described as jealousy or envy…people were not satisfied with their lot. This is beyond healthy competition, this was more something deep seated, the green eyed monster of jealousy.

Ecclesiastes 4:4 (CSB)

I saw that all labor and all skillful work is due to one person’s jealousy of another.

You might know the phrase keeping up with the Joneses- I don’t mean our mission family who we support in the work of the gospel, but the idea of having to keep up materially with our neighbour..to have what they have, to seek contentment and place our identity out of material or achievement. yet you may know Companies driven by intense competition, people driven by jealousy of one another. you might see it in your heart.

The teacher tells us this too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.

›     It appears Sydney is rarely just 9-5pm. we hold church meetings late at night because of the hours we work…and i get it…that’s a reality we face….but we need to be careful about what our motives are. We work long hours, we have mortgages and bills to pay…we need to support families, the squeeze is real. Yet where do we find our hearts in all this? The teacher warns about jealousy and envy? Some of us may see the teacher’s comments speaking to us, and we may feel sorrow that we have let our efforts and work define ourselves

The teacher has a couple other remarks about work, a warning about being lazy, verse 5, and verse 6, an encouragement to be content- better one handful with rest, than overworking and ending up being consumed by work.

Hear, a Better way.. better one handful with rest. than putting two much into our hands that you have trouble keeping it all together.

›     Perhaps that may mean dropping some work commitments, saying no to a promotion in order to spend more time with loved ones, or being more available to other activities and enjoy some rest. The teacher sees one working out of jealousy, and observes again, it is meaningless, futile, like the wind.

  1. b) next, we see another futility under the sun: it was profits before people… the human condition afflicted by greed and loneliness that drives one to ask, again, what’s the point?

Take a look at verse 8,

Ecclesiastes 4:8 CSB

There is a person without a companion, without even a son or brother, and though there is no end to all his struggles, his eyes are still not content with riches. “Who am I struggling for,” he asks, “and depriving myself of good things?” This too is futile and a miserable task.

The teacher sees this person who is probably wondering, How much is enough?

The teacher sees one all  alone, enslaved to work, yet not satisfied. He sees his labour and toil, and he sighs.

This person has riches, yet his eyes are  not content.

Our society  values individualism, self-fulfilment and self sufficiency, yet it seems that this guy is working away at it. Perhaps he has an impressive CV, plenty of work experience, research articles, more letters after his name than letters in his name…but at the end of the work day, he wonders,  Who am i struggling for? what’s the point? In all his striving, the teacher says, , this too is futile and a miserable task.

Yet again, The teacher sees a better way- this time, in the blessing of company.

Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their efforts, perhaps meaning greater productivity or teamwork. Considering Travel imagery- i think it helps us understand the following few images and the benefits of companionship. , so if one fell off the road, the other could help them back on track, and in the cold desert nights, it was not uncommon for people to lie next to one another to keep warm, and finally, if met by robbers, its safer in numbers. This section ends actually not on 1, or 2 however, but by an ancient near eastern well, known to the day saying that ‘a cord of three strands is not easily broken’.

›     Are we thankful for friends, family and fellowship? How are we going at making time for people  in our lives?  Don’t overlook the importance of company and fellowship because you are too busy at work.

In the fifth and final observation,

We see the transience of life, even those of kings and rulers in the political world. How timely. Perhaps the Kings were the ones who would set the agenda, they would set the policies and the tax rates.. perhaps they offered hope. Yet the teacher sees how people do not remember them. He sees an example of a poor but wise youth take over the kingship of a foolish old King. There’s a change in leadership. This youth is followed by a second youth …there’s another change in leadership. The teacher sees that all people then follow this new youth, but ultimately that person is forgotten also, people come and people go…and  he says those who come later will not rejoice in him.

We’ve just had our elections, Australia will soon welcome in our 31st prime minster, yet i wonder, how many of them do you remember?

This passage says it that its very likely that those who come later will not rejoice or care about who really was elected today.

Again, the teacher sees rulers come and go, and concludes that this too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.

Have you seen some of pain and brokenness of life that the teacher sees- the broken human society where there is injustice, oppression of the weak and vulnerable, displays of power over the weak, striving fueled by jealousy, envy and greed, loneliness and a break down in u life? How should we respond to this overwhelming despair, the discord, and where there are only glimpses of a better way, and one in which the teacher says it’s better to die….

The Teacher is aware of a God who is in control of the times, who would judge, and it was right to Fear him. Remember, The editor gives this conclusion to the book.

Ecc 12:13-14

Ecclesiastes 12:13–14 (CSB)

When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is this: fear God and keep his commands, because this is for all humanity. For God will bring every act to judgment, including every hidden thing, whether good or evil.

What are we today to make of the Teacher’s despair in the overwhelming futility of life.

I’d like us to consider some final conclusions:

  1. The mystery of God’s will has been revealed in Christ
  2. Christ delivers from injustice and oppression
  3. Christ offers rest from striving and gives true security

Last week, we looked at   Ephesians 1:8-10, and it’s helpful to see again God’s plan being met in Christ.

Ephesians 1:8–10 (CSB)

He has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he purposed in Christ as a plan for the right time—to bring everything together in Christ, both things in heaven and things on earth in him.

The teacher was not aware about God’s big plan, perhaps if you’ve been attending the God’s big picture course you may be learning about God’s progressive revelation. God had not changed, yet the mystery of Christ and his redeeming work had not been revealed to the Teacher. However, for readers of the bible today, knowing what happened in AD 30 in Jerusalem speaks to how Israel and God’s people were ultimately delivered from oppression and slavery.

The teacher saw the effects of sin, as people used their power to exploit and rule over one another, as people tried to live their self-determined and sufficient lives…Yet in all this striving, he concludes it is meaningless and futile.

As mankind tries to take control of their lives, he sees futility.

The teacher sees that God is in control, yet people also have decisions about how to live and what might be a better way. God in his kindness gives humans free will to decide, or else we would just be robots. Yet people continue to reject God and his ways.

In Mark’s gospel, we are reminded of Jesus to comes to earth to serve, and to save.

Mark 10:45 CSB

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

The one who was very nature God, took on flesh, despite being all powerful, emptied himself all but love on the cross, became afflicted and oppressed, unjustly, to bring us healing in our greatest need. Our broken relationship with God, restored. The consequences of sin, the brokenness death with, offering forgiveness and restoration.

For the oppressed, the afflicted, for those who have no one to comfort them, God sends relief, comfort and hope in the Saviour.  For those searching for meaning and purpose, God the Father sends Jesus to restore us to Him, to understand our greatest need to be made right with the Creator, to live rightly in His world.

God gives us the freedom to choose how to live, and how to respond. What love.

The prophet Isaiah spoke to us about one from the line of David to reign as king to administer justice and righteousness

Isaiah 9:6–7 (CSB)

For a child will be born for us,

a son will be given to us,

and the government will be on his shoulders.

He will be named

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.

For those striving in work, perhaps fueled by jealousy, Jesus offers rest and makes God the Father known, and invites people to come to him for rest and identity.

Matthew 11:28 CSB

Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

Fulfillment is not from our hands, but from our identify found trusting in Jesus.  Our human efforts will not find ultimate satisfaction, ultimately, it is a gift of God’s grace, seen by having new life that Jesus gives.

Wisdom ultimately comes to us from God, it is not what we make of life.

Whilst leaders come and go, Christians have a king who rules forever.

Isaiah 9:7 (CSB)

The dominion will be vast,

and its prosperity will never end.

He will reign on the throne of David

and over his kingdom,

to establish and sustain it

with justice and righteousness from now on and forever.

This is the great news of the gospel, totally undeserved, that God would rescue sinners like us, to bring us back to the Heavenly Father. He is the better way.

Yet the pain and the despair is real? why the suffering? We might not have all the answers,  yet the Teacher shows us God is in control, yet gives free will to choose how to live, and we live in a broken world and one that prefers our way over God’s way. Yet, God meets us and our world in our suffering and brokenness. The Father sent the son, in love, to save us, and to bring us home.

Friends, you might be familiar with the words of the song,  and i wonder if These words can encourage you in times of despair and despondency as praise and prayer to our Father.

There is no other name
In heaven can be found
Through whom we are redeemed
Through whom your grace abounds
No other name can save
But Jesus Christ our Lord

My joy in sorrowʼs tears
My strength to cast out fears
No other name but Jesus,
My hope in darkest night
My broken soulʼs delight
No other name but Jesus,

So, as life continues under the sun, may we not despair, and consider the better way by trusting in Jesus.