June 30, 2014

Dissatisfaction Guaranteed [reprise]

by Clint Archer

The pop icon with the most remarkable lip-to-face ratio, Mick Jagger, encapsulated the sine qua non of Ecclesiastes with the characteristic pithiness of enduring poetry: “I can’t get no [obligatory guitar lead interlude] satisfaction.” And in one of the most elastically generous half-rhymes in the Presley corpus, “A little less conversation, a little more action / All this aggravation ain’t satisfaction in me.”  I am half way through preaching Solomon’s pensive, apparently cynical magnum opus, and I’m resolute in my determination to not slit my wrists. Last night’s sermon was the mid-term review—chapter 6 of 12. Basically our emo author is waxing glumly about life, the universe, and everything and how nothing in this sunburned existence brings happiness or fulfillment.

The whole thing is reminiscent of my undergrad studies in existentialism. If you asked Ernest Hemingway why the chicken crosses the road, he’d reply starkly, “To die. In the rain. Alone.” Then he’d turn a shotgun on himself. If you asked Jean-Paul Sartre, he’d offer, “The chicken is attempting to escape the company he finds himself in, and will try this ad nauseum until he resigns himself to the inevitable truism that hell is other chickens.” And then he’d outrun the specter of a giant lobster hallucination he spent most of his paranoid twilight years avoiding before offing himself too. It seems that suicide is de rigueur among existentialists, and you can see why. Who wants to live in a purposeless world? But Solomon’s incipient existentialism is the result of neither dithering senility nor morbid pessimism. He knows where joy can be located, and it’s not in this life.

Ecclesiastes unearths this insight: God (the Giver) lays a trail of breadcrumbs (his gifts) to lead us to the joy to be found only in him. We spend our lives frustrated that the breadcrumbs don’t fill us, while we miss the point; they are leading us to a banquet of satisfaction in God alone. I know this sounds very Piper-esque, “We are most satisfied in God when he is most glorified in us.” But Piper confessed to nabbing that gem from Jonathan Edwards who boosted it from the Apostle Paul who apparently picked it dexterously from Solomon’s pocket. It passed through Augustine’s hands at some point too, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless til they find their rest in Thee.” Now every youth pastor does the bit about a God-shaped hole in our hearts, and we all act like this insight is passé. But think about it. It is only Christians who have access to this insight through faith. If you don’t believe in God, you have no banquet, just a trail of crumbs. Unbelievers imbibe their fill of saltwater but their thirst burns unabated.

We should never underestimate the potency of this wisdom book in our evangelism. The Lord used Ecclesiastes to save my life. When I was studying philosophy in my undergrad, I was not yet a believer in Christ. I suckled on the sow of worldly philosophy for my intellectual nourishment. This didn’t end well for me. I never became suicidal, but I was also not sure why I shouldn’t be. In that sense I was mirroring the struggle of Albert Camus. For his whole career Camus wrestled to come up with a reason not to commit suicide. He then penned a seminal article, The Myth of Sisyphus, outlining the futility of life concluding that “there is only one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Self murder was his only way out of the Sisyphean task of life. If a man realizes his life is pointless, he can either keep rolling the boulder up the hill only to have to roll it again tomorrow, or he could kill himself and end the misery. This was the existentialist’s great controlling guideline. If a restaurant only has Coke or Sprite, you can choose either drink, or you could kill yourself. You have at least that control. Ironically, Camus died young in a car accident before he could decide to kill himself.

I didn’t like this philosophy, but I didn’t see how I could disagree with it, since these smart people believed it. Ignoring it seemed naïve, but refuting it was out of my IQ bracket.

So I asked my professor if anyone had dismantled this philosophy. I was told to ponder a quote by Herbert Marcuse who apparently refuted existentialism with these words: “It hypostatizes specific historical conditions of human existence into ontological and metaphysical characteristics.” I didn’t make that up. If I could just understand that sentence, I could disregard existentialism and get on with my life. Marcuse was a guy smart enough to dispel my text-book induced funk, but too smart for me to understand him, which is just a different kind of depressing. But then I met Solomon in Ecclesiastes.

The church I was attending was preaching through Ecclesiastes. I was astounded to discover that the very philosophy I was learning in my cutting edge university class had been published 5,000 years before. But with one, MASSIVE difference. This author offered an understandable solution. It’s not an obvious one, Solomon makes you work to get it, but when you do, everything falls into place and life suddenly takes on a rich meaning, deep fulfillment, and definite direction.

In short Ecclesiastes saved my life.

I heartily recommend you study the book. But be prepared. Solomon, the philosopher author will huff and puff on his theological pipe and then blow smoke in our faces. This choking hazard will come at you in the form of pessimism (chpt 1), hedonism (2), fatalism, nihilism, absurdism, existentialism (3-4), agnosticism (6) and other –isms that should be –wasms.

Here are a few drops of the bitter toxins that await you…

Nihilism in 3: 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.

There is no point to anything, we all end up dead.

Fatalism in 1: 15 What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.

We can’t change anything anyway.

Existentialism in 2: 2 I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?”

I.e. there is no real meaning in anything we do, even what we enjoy so enjoyment is actually denying reality, and being crazy.

Hedonism 2: 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,

Since there is no meaning, let’s at least enjoy our short life. Don’t bug me with philosophy, pass the booze and the bong. This doesn’t sound very Christian. But lest you just tear the pages out your Bible, on your way to the shredder you should consider the rich theology and hopeful optimism of these passages…

Post Tenebrus Lux

2:13 wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness

2:25 without God there is no enjoyment

3:14 everything God does will remain forever.

12: 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.

Solomon is the strict headmaster that will teach this lesson so that we can apply it to our Christian walk. He emancipates you from cynicism. At the end of the book you  will be convinced that life in a fallen world is not worth living without a personal relationship with Jesus Christ which brings meaning to life, enjoyment to our relaxation, fulfillment in our work, and significance in our legacies. This is a liberating truth.

Life under the sun is a depressing thing. But life in God’s Son, Jesus, brings hope and lasting eternal joy.

Clint Archer

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Clint has been the pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church since 2005. He lives in Durban, South Africa with his wife and four kids.
  • Jane McCrory Hildebrand

    What a wonderfully written piece! Loved your humor and insights. Thank you!

    • What a wonderfully written comment. Thanks Jane.

  • Philip

    Consider the rich theology and hopeful optimism of these passages…”wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness”.

    But isn’t this passage immediately followed by…

    “The fate of the fool will overtake me also.
    What then do I gain by being wise?”
    I said to myself, “this too is meaningless.”

    For the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered;
    the days have already come when both have been forgotten.
    Like the fool, the wise too must die!

    So, this is hopeful optimism with respect to wisdom?

    “For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.”

    According to the writer of Ecclesiastes, when does this judgment occur, and what are the consequences of this judgment?

    • I’d say it’s very reminiscent of 2 Cor 5:10 “For we must all appear before the bēma seat of Christ to receive what is due in the body whether good or evil.”

      • Philip

        Ok, so this is something that occurs after death? And again, according the the writer of Ecclesiastes, what are the consequences of having been judged?

        • The doctrine of judgment after death is revealed progressively in Scripture. Besides Job’s assertions, there is very little idea of the personal judgment by the time of Solomon. The NT on the other hand gives a lot of material on the subject. If you are interested, I humbly recommend you read “The Preacher’s Payday” which expounds in some depth this fascinating topic.

          (Disclosure: all profits of the sale of Preacher’s Payday goes directly to buying my wife dinner at a fancy restaurant, about twice a year:)

          • Philip

            “The doctrine of judgment after death is revealed progressively in Scripture. Besides Job’s assertions, there is very little idea of the personal judgment by the time of Solomon.”

            Doesn’t that strike you as odd? One might think that this such an incredibly important concept would have been revealed at the start. Given that there is “very little idea of the personal judgment by the time of Solomon”, one can’t help but wonder if the concept of judgment after death is more of a human creation that a godly one.

            Now, according to the inerrant scriptures in Ecclesiastes…

            “Even a live dog is better off than a dead lion! For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing.”

            This God-inspired writer appears to be saying that there is nothing after death. The dead know nothing. This is the root of the despair. If the writer is, in fact, stating that there is nothing after death, then this would appear to contradict the later writings in the Bible.

          • Ecclesiastes is best read all in one sitting. That puts the cynical generalities in context of Solomon’s greater point: that only in a right relationship with God is there any meaning in life. The doctrine of progressive revelation is an important hermeneutical principle that needs to be applied in order to prevent misinterpretation. Judgment after death is clearly elaborated upon by Jesus and the Apostles.

          • Philip

            Well, I did read it all in one sitting. It’s not that long. Anyway, thanks for discussion.

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