Wednesday, May 27, 2009

There's Nothin' New Under the Sun

There are many songs that could have been inspired by the Book of Ecclesiastes. In addition to "Turn! Turn! Turn!" by the Byrds, there was Kerry Livgren of Kansas who sang, All we are is Dust in the Wind, and the Rolling Stones who shouted, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction!” The "Teacher" of Ecclesiastes (who tradition says was King Solomon, son of David) has searched out 4 approaches to finding true satisfaction in life. His conclusion after a lifetime of research is that all is “vanity” (hevel, a Hebrew word that means “vapor/breath, and thus trans. ‘vanity, empty, futile, or meaningless’). “A generation goes and a generation comes… all things are wearisome… what has been is what will be… there is nothing new under the sun.” The Teacher says it’s true, but is it the whole truth? Let’s examine what the Searcher has to say, and try to answer that question for ourselves.

Satisfaction through the pursuit of knowledge. The writer of Ecclesisastes is a collector of philosophy and wisdom which is what "Qoheleth" means: "a gatherer or collector" (usually translated "Teacher" or "Searcher"). But this Teacher has discovered that all the wisdom he has learned is in the end hevel, empty and meaningless. "In much wisdom is much vexation and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow." Not exactly the motto you expect to find in your child's classroom! Imagine taking a rigorous course in mathematics, western civilization, or music theory… You come to the end of the course and are ready to take your final exam; but just before you sit down to write…the instructor stands before you and says, “Studying, and the pursuit of knowledge is basically meaningless; a waste of time. You can all go home.”

Is that what Qoheleth is saying? Not quite. He is saying that the pursuit of knowledge as an end in itself is futile. Human beings have an insatiable hunger for knowledge; and not only to know, but to use what we know to solve problems. But it is a frustrating pursuit because the more we know, the more we know that we don’t know. Isaac Newton once said, “I have but been paddling in the shallows of a great ocean of knowledge.” With our human brains we have discovered how to cure diseases, travel into space, and split the atom. But no amount of knowledge gained through scientific investigation will ever be able to answer the question of why we exist at all.
But that’s not the most humbling fact. Because what we’ve come to learn is that more knowledge, more scientific advances, more intellectual achievement cannot, by itself, make us more kind, more loving, more righteous. King Solomon the son of David, new this; because for all his wisdom, it was his moral failures that led to the tearing of his own kingdom in two (1 Kings 11: 9-11).

Satisfaction through devotion to work & career. If the pursuit of knowledge has its limits, so does our devotion to work and career and the acquisition of more and more material wealth. “What do people gain from all their toil at which they toil under the sun?” (1:3) he asks. Nothing! What the Searcher learned, quite simply, is that you can’t take it with you. What we spend a lifetime hoarding and collecting will be handed over to others…who in turn will hand it over to others, and so on.

This weekend, I met a guy who became friends with my brother in Maui. As circumstances would have it…they were flying back from a conference together, missed their connecting flight and needed to stay with us over night. When I asked Gary how he came to live on Maui, he told me that a few years back his family discovered they were sitting on a large natural gas reserve in South Dakota…a discovery that made them all extremely rich. He now owns a vacation home in Maui…but events in his life caused him to search out a church. It was there that he met my brother and became a Christian. “I wish I had met the Lord 20 years ago. It would have saved me from making a lot of mistakes. These past few weeks have been the best weeks of my life.” Here is a man who had everything materially…but who still felt empty…until Christ filled that emptiness. Paul says that we should work wholeheartedly, as though we were working for the Lord (Col. 3: 23). The true spiritual discipline is not to simply divest ourselves of all material wealth, but to learn how to use and manage it for godly and Christ-honoring purposes.

Satisfaction through the pursuit of youth. After the pursuit of knowledge and devotion to work and wealth, the Searcher explored the impossible longing to be forever young. “A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever….the people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them” (1:4, 11). Later, he writes, “Rejoice young man while you are young…for youth and the dawn of life are vanity” (Ecc. 11: 9, 10).

We live in a culture that worships youthfulness. In one year, Americans collectively spend over $50 billion on anti-aging products. Actress Halle Barry, one of People magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People, said this about physical beauty: “Beauty? Let me tell you something, being thought of as a beautiful woman has spared me nothing in life—no heartache, no trouble. Love has been difficult. Beauty is essentially meaningless, and it is always transitory. I can’t believe what people do to themselves to make themselves look beautiful. … They still have that hole in their soul" [“Beauty's Beast,” (8-2-04).] Qoheleth couldn't have said it any better! The final approach to living life that the Searcher explored was…

Satisfaction through pleasure and anything new (1: 8-10) But this search ended also in dissatisfaction, for “All things are wearisome, more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be….there is nothing new under the sun.” (1:9) Jim Carrey once said, “I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

Solomon had money, he had power, he had fame… he built great monuments…he had many women “and the delights of the flesh”…but he still wasn’t satisfied (Ecc. 2: 1-8). Most Christians would agree that happiness doesn’t come about through wealth and fame and pleasure. Still, most Christians probably wouldn’t mind testing that principle out for themselves…just to be sure. But that need to try it out…that restlessness, that boredom with the same old thing, should tell us something. We have deep longings and desires which nothing in this world can fully satisfy. In the end, what Solomon found was that…

The ground of all truth, what gives meaning to our work, offers us the hope of life beyond death, and is endlessly new and exciting cannot be found “under the sun” but above and beyond it. (As Christians, we would say that life’s meaning is not found “under the sun” but “in God’s Son.”) “For to the one who pleases him, God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy” (Ecc. 2: 26) Mick Jagger went on to sing “You can’t always get what you want…but you can get what you need.” Kerry Livrgen, the writer of Dust in the Wind eventually discovered a relationship with God through Jesus Christ…and his first album was called Seeds of Change. Like him can know that we are far more than dust in the wind. In the Son we find true satisfaction. In him we get what we truly need. In him there is a reason and a season to turn from darkness and to live the life we were created to live.

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