The elusive meaning of life

What is the purpose of life? Solomon figured it out in the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes – too late for his own good, but hopefully not for ours:

Life never stops

All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. (1:7)

If we focus our attention only on the world’s issues, we will see no redemption, no solutions, no ending point – except our own death, which we don’t want to face.

The struggles of life never end. Our friends and relatives get sick or injured. People we know die too soon. We marry and divorce, have children and raise them, work and go out on Friday nights. We give thanks and buy Christmas presents – then do it again next year.

Nothing is permanent.

Rinse, repeat. There is nothing new under the sun.

It’s a mad, mad world

I applied my mind to know wisdom AND to know madness and folly … (1:17, emphasis mine)

How can we know wisdom AND folly? Doesn’t wisdom avoid folly? What is wisdom, if it’s not to seek the best this life (and the next) has to offer? Are madness and folly worthy pursuits? Seriously?

Madness and folly are destructive. Perhaps meaningless, perhaps worse than that. If I’m mad in this sense, I’m acting without thinking. I don’t consider consequences. Anger is the same, but I think madness in this context refers to being crazy. Bad crazy.

Folly means lack of good sense, or foolishness. How can that parallel wisdom? How can one pursue both?

This is why Solomon failed at life. He wanted to have it all. But even Adam and Eve knew better than that. When they sinned, they hid from God. Solomon flaunted his madness and folly. How can that possibly be a wise thing to do?

Gone in a moment

Whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; 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. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and again, all was vanity and a chasing after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun. (2:10-11)

He wanted girls, he had girls. He wanted business success, he built cities. He wanted wealth, he taxed his subjects – heavily. Because he was the king, he received everything he asked for.

henry ford 9

Business success and wealth are not bad pursuits in themselves, but they aren’t the end – only the means to a different end.

Solomon never understood this. What’s the big-picture purpose of life? Money, sex, wealth … once the act is done, the pleasure ends.

Rinse, repeat. There is nothing new under the sun.

That’s why Solomon was never satisfied. He pursued things that can never satisfy. They give pleasure for a moment, and then it’s gone.

Priorities …

For everything there is a season …

A time to kill, and a time to heal …

A time to seek, and a time to lose …

A time to tear, and a time to sew …

A time for war, and a time for peace. (3:1, 3, 6, 7, 8)

What are we pursuing, anyway? Life is a series of contrasts. There is a time to kill, and a different time to heal. That takes wisdom, to know when to do which. Perhaps we need to kill our madness and folly. Perhaps wisdom provides healing from that.

memorial 28

What are we to lose or tear? When are we to pursue war? When wisdom opposes folly, does that cause a fight? Do we have to choose one or the other? Do we tear ourselves away from madness, and sew our hearts into wisdom’s coat of many colors? I have friends who pursue peace at all costs. Is there a time to say, wait a minute, we need to stand up for what we believe in, even if we will suffer for it?

Madness and folly cannot produce healing or peace. We must fight madness and folly. We must kill them.

This is wisdom, too.

God creates, we discover

… (God) has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. … then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun. However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out. (3:11, 8:17)

Oh, here is madness defined. We play God. We think we can understand everything. We understand plenty and we discover new truths all the time, but that’s all we can do. We cannot create anything. We can only discover what already is.

There is nothing new under the sun.

Computers didn’t exist in Biblical times, you say, so mankind does create things. The technology is new, that is true; but the scientific principles on which the technology is based are not new. They’ve always been there. We invent the technology, but we do not create the science.

God created the science back in the day. All we can do is discover it.

I dream of …

Dreams come with many cares, and a fool’s voice with many words. With many dreams come vanities and a multitude of words; but fear God. (5:3, 7)

What do we dream of? A nice family, a house on the lake, a fulfilling job that pays all the bills, athletic, musical or acting ability that gives us fame … To what end? We can’t take any of those things, wonderful as they are, with us into the next life.

What are we willing to sacrifice for these dreams? Are the sacrifices worth it?

Intoxication

The lover of money will not be satisfied with money; nor the lover of wealth, with gain. This also is vanity. … All human toil is for the mouth, yet the appetite is not satisfied. (5:10, 6:7)

Appetites are for the moment. We are satisfied, but we get hungry again very quickly. If our bank account is heavy, the intoxication of wealth urges us to continue on. When we reach our goal, then what? We need a new goal. We need more.

We understand this. We know it’s true, yet we do it anyway. This is madness and folly.

True friends

It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise than to hear the song of fools. (7:5)

Will we accept rebuke from anyone? My ways are set: Don’t tell me what to do, how to think, how to live.

Go ahead, live Frank Sinatra-style: I Did It My Way. See how that goes. (Wise people have your best interests at heart, fools do not. Wise people see things you are blind to. Fools don’t care.)

Deception

See, this alone I found, that God made human beings straightforward, but they have devised many schemes. (7:29)

Wisdom is God’s design. Madness and folly are our fault.

Nothing new

The end of the matter, all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (12:13-14)

This is Solomon’s conclusion, but I’m not sure he believed it. He wrote it, but he didn’t live it.

The fact that he wrote Ecclesiastes is wisdom. The fact that we ignore it and are doing the same things Solomon warned us about is madness and folly.

There is nothing new under the sun.

God’s benediction prepares us for each moment

The LORD bless you and keep you;

The LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;

The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Numbers 6:24-26

 

I heard this benediction many times in church as a child. It’s a warm, positive, uplifting way to send a congregation out of the sanctuary and into our big, bad world.

This blessing rests in the middle of a lecture from God to Moses for the people of Israel camped at Mount Sinai, as they were beginning their wanderings in the desert before reaching the Promised Land. This part of the lecture included rules for the Levites, whom God designated as the priests for the entire nation.

Numbers is a book about holiness. Israel is set apart from all other nations. The Levites are set apart from all other Israelites. Break the rules, and you die. Literally.

Not every rule was punishable by death, of course – at least for the perpetrator. God instituted plenty of sacrifices for the people, including the Levites, to regain their holiness when they become “unclean” or when they sinned.

Those sacrifices meant that an animal had to die for a human’s errant ways.

Serious stuff. And bloody.

Most of Numbers 6 talks about the meaning of a nazirite vow, “to separate themselves to the LORD” (v. 2). We’re familiar with this vow because Samson broke all of it, reaping a heavy price while still receiving many blessings from God (his story is told in Judges 13-16).

So, while this blessing asks God for favor, we have a role to play as well. If we turn our backs on God and reject His laws, we can’t expect many blessings from Him, can we?

I frequently test God this way. I want to do things my way, then ask God to bless it and make it good. Most of the time, my way is a cheap imitation of what my Lord and Savior really wants to give me, and wants me to do.

I know that God wants the best for me. If I only understood what that really means …

The LORD bless you …

Dictionary.com offers six definitions of “blessing:”

  1. the act or words of a person who blesses.
  2. a special favor, mercy, or benefit:

the blessings of liberty.

  1. a favor or gift bestowed by God, thereby bringing happiness.
  2. the invoking of God’s favor upon a person:

The son was denied his father’s blessing.

  1. praise; devotion; worship, especially grace said before a meal:

The children took turns reciting the blessing.

  1. approval or good wishes:

The proposed law had the blessing of the governor.

God wanted to give the Israelites favor, mercy and good wishes. He wants the same for us today.

… and keep you

This blessing also asks God to “keep you.” This means that God will protect Israel and keep them from harm. http://www.gospel.com/bookmarks/Lord-bless-keep-Christian-perspective/12210/

God protects us today as well.

The LORD make his face to shine upon you …

This implies that God does not shine on everyone. He causes His face to shine on those who seek His face and want to be a blessing to Him. Several times in the Bible, people asked that God not hide His face from them (Job 13:24, Psalm 27:9, 44:24, 69:17, 88:14, 102:2, 143:7).

http://storage.cloversites.com/makinglifecountministriesinc/documents/What%20does%20His%20face%20shine%20on%20us%20mean.pdf

… and be gracious to you

Dictionary.com offers these definitions of “gracious:”

  1. pleasantly kind, benevolent, and courteous.
  2. characterized by good taste, comfort, ease, or luxury:

gracious suburban living; a gracious home.

  1. indulgent or beneficent in a pleasantly condescending way, especiallyto inferiors.
  2. merciful or compassionate:

our gracious king.

  1. Obsolete. fortunate or happy.

I like the “merciful or compassionate” definition for Numbers 6, although “kind, benevolent, and courteous” certainly could apply as well.

We’re asking God to be on our side, not because we deserve it or we even know what “merciful” or “compassionate” mean, but because we know God has the best plan, the right plan, for each of us. By giving us mercy and compassion, God wants us to give those away – ie, share mercy and compassion with literally everyone we meet.

The LORD lift up his countenance upon you …

What is countenance? Dictionary.com explains it this way:

  1. appearance, especially the look or expression of the face:

a sad countenance.

  1. the face; visage.
  2. calm facial expression; composure.
  3. approval or favor; encouragement; moral support.
  4. Obsolete. bearing; behavior.

Countenance is a person’s face or facial expression. It doesn’t have to be positive, but it often is. Moses is asking God to smile for us, because of us. What a thought that is.

… and give you peace

Peace is a tough concept to understand. Dictionary.com lists many possibilities:

  1. the normal, nonwarring condition of a nation, group of nations, or the world.
  2. (often initial capital letter) an agreement or treaty between warring or antagonistic nations, groups, etc., to end hostilities and abstain from further fighting or antagonism:

the Peace of Ryswick.

  1. a state of mutual harmony between people or groups, especially in personal relations:

Try to live in peace with your neighbors.

  1. the normal freedom from civil commotion and violence of a community; public order and security:

He was arrested for being drunk and disturbing the peace.

  1. cessation of or freedom from any strife or dissension.
  2. freedom of the mind from annoyance, distraction, anxiety, an obsession, etc.; tranquility; serenity.
  3. a state of tranquility or serenity:

May he rest in peace.

These definitions say “peace” is the absence of war, but it’s much more than that. Absence leaves a vacuum. If not war, what replaces it? Mutual harmony? Tranquility or serenity?

I think peace is more than those things.

Here’s a few Bible verses on peace:

 

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.

Hebrews 12:14

 

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:7

 

The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace.

Psalm 29:11

 

Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.

Psalm 34:14

 

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9:6

 

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

John 16:33

 

We are to pursue peace; it’s not in our human nature to do this. We prefer to defend ourselves, even if that means we antagonize others. Jesus “gives strength to his people” to pursue peace.

Jesus is called the Prince of Peace 700 years before He is born. Jesus claims this by saying peace is one of His objectives for us. The world doesn’t understand peace; only Jesus offers peace that “transcends all understanding,” that “overcomes the world.”

Benediction

There’s a lot in this Old Testament benediction. If we do our part, God will surely do His.

Blessings will follow. That’s a promise.