The Search for Meaning, 3 March 2019

The Search for Meaning
Series—The Meaning of Life
Ecclesiastes 1

Series Big Idea:
The human heart is wired to pursue meaning in life…and the meaning of life itself only truly understood through our Creator.

Big Idea:
The search for meaning should ultimately lead us to God.

"Everything is meaningless." Is that true? Well, the Bible says it so it must be true, right? Not so fast! We must understand the context of these words…and what follows.

Today we begin a series called, “The Meaning of Life.” We’re going to look at several passages from the ancient book of Ecclesiastes, a book likely written by Solomon, the great king we saw two weeks ago as having been given one wish or request from God.

At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon during the night in a dream, and God said, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.” (1 Kings 3:5)

David’s son Solomon asked for a heart of understanding…for wisdom. He was considered the wisest person on the planet, and he’s likely the writer of the book of Ecclesiastes, a word which means, “one who addresses or convenes an assembly” or simply “teacher” or “preacher.” There’s debate about whether Solomon actually penned every word in the book, but if not, it’s almost certainly a compilation of his thoughts and ideas. He probably wrote Proverbs and Song of Solomon during his younger years when he was faithfully following God, and this book later in life after searching for satisfaction in just about everything but God.

Although it’s a little tricky to say and spell, Ecclesiastes is a literary treasure. Abraham Lincoln quoted from it when addressing Congress in 1862. American novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote, “
[O]f all I have ever seen or learned, that book seems to me the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man's life upon this earth—and also the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth. I am not given to dogmatic judgments in the matter of literary creation, but if I had to make one, I could say that Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound."

One of the most famous song lyrics in rock music history declares, “I can’t get no…satisfaction.” Ironically, Mick Jagger has possessed fame and fortune for decades, making his confession deeply tragic. If the lead singer of one of the most successful musical groups in the world isn’t satisfied, how are we to expect to find meaning and purpose in this broken world?

I’m so glad you asked!

I believe the secret to meaning, purpose, and satisfaction is all about perspective. It’s about attitude. It’s about vision.

Pastor Ken Baugh offers three principles that King Solomon will emphasize throughout the book of Ecclesiastes:

1. I will be satisfied to the extent that I see everything I have as a gift from God.
2. I will be satisfied to the extent that I notice what is going on in the lives of others.
3. I will be satisfied to the extent that I trust God during times of distress.

Do you see what’s missing? Self.

The mirror can be a dangerous thing. Sure, I use one each morning as I attempt to style my hair, but if I gaze too long, a number of unfortunate things may occur.

One of the great tragedies of our culture is our addiction with self.

John Ortberg, in his book,
Soul Keeping—which are staff and elders are reading this year—writes,

“Despite the rise of the mental health profession, people are becoming increasingly vulnerable to depression. Why? Martin Seligman, a brilliant psychologist with no religious ax to grind, has a theory that it’s because we have replaced church, faith, and community with a tiny little unit that cannot bear the weight of meaning. That’s the self. We’re all about the self. We revolve our lives around ourselves. Ironically, the more obsessed we are with our selves, the more we neglect our souls.”

This is hardly news. Solomon wrote about it hundreds of years before Christ!

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. (Ecclesiastes 1:1-4)

Solomon had everything the world seeks: money, sex, and power.

History is filled with people who acquired those things, yet they couldn’t “get no satisfaction.” Howard Hughes comes to mind, a character tragically portrayed in the DiCaprio movie The Aviator. Thomas Jefferson sought to give us the unalienable right of “the pursuit of Happiness,” but happiness is fleeting. It is temporary.

Will a new car make you happy? Yes…until it breaks down.

Will a new house make you happy? Yes…until you had to clean it!

Would a million dollars make you happy? Yes…until you had to pay taxes on it!

There are many things that can make us happy, but they’re temporary. Supermodels get wrinkles, clothes go out of fashion, tech toys become obsolete, delicious food ends up in the…

Under the sun—life outside of heaven and the kingdom of God—is meaningless. The King James Version of the Bible translates the first word “vanity,” not a reference to pride or obsession with appearance, but rather emptiness as in laboring in vain. Worthless, fleeting frustration, and emptiness are also common translations of the Hebrew word whose root means breath or vapor. It is used 38 times in this short book about life “under the sun.”

Life without God is like your breath this morning, seen only for a moment and then disappearing. One professor described
hevel, the Hebrew word, as “whatever is left after you break a soap bubble.”

Rick Warren said, “Without God, life has no purpose, and without purpose, life has no meaning. Without meaning, life has no significance or hope.” No wonder so many struggle in our culture.

Throughout human history, I suspect many people have never had much time or energy to ponder the meaning of life. Sure, philosophers have done so, but a great many people have focused on hunting and gathering food for survival. In fact, some research suggests depression doesn’t exist in any form in cultures where people are gathering food or hunting for food.

Meanwhile, the Jewish writer Sholom Aleichem once called life “a blister on top of a tumor, and a boil on top of that.” The rates of suicide and depression in our culture bear witness to the fact that we have the luxury of time, reflection, and thought…and it’s pretty bleak without God.

Solomon concluded in life under the sun, nothing is changed.

Let’s look further at the first chapter of Ecclesiastes:

The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again. (Ecclesiastes 1:5-7)

Without God, life is repetitive and monotonous. It’s a virtual merry-go-round. Every day the sun rises. Every day the sun sets.

Wait! That’s not true! The sun doesn’t move. The Bible must be false since scientifically we know the sun does not rise and set. Relax! This poetic language, language used by every meteorologist thousands of years later. As we study the Bible, it’s important to know what is propositional truth and what is poetry. There’s a difference between metaphors and declarations of fact. Read the Bible responsibly.

It is amazing that Solomon recognized the jet stream, wind patterns that blow to the south and turn to the north, creating the ever-changing weather we enjoy here in Toledo!

Nature has profound things to teach us. As much as I complain about the weather, it’s a reminder that even with smart phones and self-driving cars and the Internet and rockets in space, we still have no control over the weather. We can’t control the sun, the wind, or the sea. Control is an illusion. You can control your attitude. That’s about it! Oh that we could all truly grasp this simple yet profound truth!

Instead, we’re enticed by the thousands of marketing messages that bombard us each day. We put our trust in stuff. We put our hope in circumstances. We have expectations for sinful people who inevitably fail and hurt us. No wonder so many of us love to be busy. We have no space to ponder the harsh realities of life. If you avoid rest and quiet, there’s no time for reflection, contemplation, or even feeling. Who has room for depression when you’re going 24/7? If you’re constantly in motion, you might never realize…

All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 1:8-9)

Are you happy yet?!

I must pause and remind you of the context. Solomon is not stating absolute facts, but instead reflecting upon the futility of pursuing life apart from God. It’s all temporary. It’s as if humanity is on a treadmill, passing the baton of discontent from one generation to the next.

Solomon concluded in life under the sun, nothing is new.

It’s been said that the ancients have stolen all of our best ideas! Humans cannot “create” anything new because we are the creature, not the Creator. Edison said that his great inventions were “only bringing out the secrets of nature and applying them for the happiness of mankind.”

Solomon continues,

Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them. (Ecclesiastes 1:10-11)

Dear senior saints, no one remembers the former generations. So much for legacy! How much do you really know about your great, great grandparents? I know nothing about mine!

These first eleven verses set the stage for what follows. The message is pretty simple: all is meaningless under the sun.

Now he tells us nothing is understood.

I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. What a heavy burden God has laid on mankind! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 1:12-14)

Solomon, you’re not helping us!

What is crooked cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted. (Ecclesiastes 1:15)

I don’t think he would be elected for the president of the Optimist’s Club!

I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. (Ecclesiastes 1:16-17)

For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief. (Ecclesiastes 1:18)

Weren’t we praising Solomon last month for his wisdom? This man had it all, yet he can’t seem to even crack a smile! What’s his problem?

Remember, he’s talking about life without God. Life under the sun.

It breaks my heart to watch people on a quest to find meaning and purpose apart from God. People try to fill the God-shaped hole in their heart with pleasure, philosophy, and even religion. They pursue alcohol, drugs, porn, and food only to find themselves trapped in addiction. They climb the ladder—sacrificing health, family and friends—only to discover it is leaning against the wrong building!

What’s over the sun is something entirely different and wonderful!

We created by God, for God, and for God’s glory. We were created in His image, with an eternal soul, and for relationship with Him.

So What?

We’re going to be in the book of Ecclesiastes for the next three Sundays, so I’m reluctant to give you the punchline—the end of the book—but here it is:

Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

Fear God and keep his commandments. Life over the sun—with the Son—is so different than life under the sun, apart from God.

Instead of a monotonous, unchanging world where the earth, sun, wind, and sea repeat their endless cycles, we serve a God who answers prayer and intervenes. He stopped the sun so Joshua could win an important battle (Josh. 10:6-14), moved the sun as a sign to King Hezekiah (Is. 38:1-8), parted the Red Sea and Jordan River (Ex. 14; Josh. 3-4), calmed the wind and the waves (Mk 4:35-41), and will do radical things in the future (Rev. 6).

Instead of a world where nothing is truly new, God is working, creating, restoring, making all things new. His mercies are new every morning.

Instead of a world where nothing is understood and confusion abounds, the Holy Spirit lives inside every believer and is available to teach, comfort, and guide. We stand on the promises of God in the Bible. Hallelujah!

I know I’m largely “preaching to the choir” when I say we can only find meaning in a relationship with God, but many Christians live as practical atheists. Sure, we know the right answers on a theology quiz, but our lives look more like our neighbors than Jesus. We live like everyone else—except, perhaps, for a few church activities we sprinkle onto our busy schedules. My challenge to you—and me—throughout this series is to make more space for God. Invite Him into every arena of your life. Seek His will in all things, even little things. Obey Him even when you don’t feel like it. If we all take next steps with God this month, I think we’ll be amazed at how He blesses our obedience and faithfulness.

As we prepare for The Table, think about how you’ve either ignored or disobeyed God recently. This is a time to be remembered that God does exist, that God’s love language is obedience, that God will bring every deed into judgment…and also that Jesus died to offer mercy, grace, and forgiveness.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9)

Credits: some ideas from the writings of Warren Wiersbe, Brian Williams, Ken Baugh

You can listen to this message and others at the First Alliance Church podcast here.