‘Solomon’s Epiphany’ – Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:11 – January 6th, 2019

We just finished up the Christmas season, and I’d like to look at a book that’s about as “New Year’s themed” as it could be. If you have your Bible, please turn with me to the book of Ecclesiastes. This is one of the lesser-known books by Solomon, and it isn’t hard to figure out why. But I hope that as we read through a short passage from the beginning, it’ll come to reshape our New Year’s resolutions moving forward. We’ll be reading chapter 1, verse 12 through chapter 2, verse 11. Solomon writes:

“I, the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be counted.

I said in my heart, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me, and my heart has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind.

For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, “It is mad,” and of pleasure, “What use is it?” I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom—and how to lay hold on folly, till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life. I made great works. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made myself gardens and parks, and planted in them all kinds of fruit trees. I made myself pools from which to water the forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves, and had slaves who were born in my house. I had also great possessions of herds and flocks, more than any who had been before me in Jerusalem. I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines, the delight of the sons of man.

So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And 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 expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”

*

So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem. Also my wisdom remained with me. And 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 expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”

Solomon was the king of Israel during what an economist might look at and call the “Golden Age,” at least on paper. Israel was never wealthier than it was when Solomon was king. But if you listen to Solomon, himself, instead of bible study curriculum that gushes about him, he’s gonna tell you that it wasn’t because he was a great king. If you listen to the way that Solomon talks about himself, you’d come away thinking he was the villain of the Old Testament.

If you remember the book of Samuel, you might remember that Israel was a country without a king, from the time God brought them out of Egypt till years later when some of the surrounding nations decided to pull a Teddy Roosevelt and start annexing territories from smaller, weaker nations, just because they could. The Israelites panicked, like you would, and said “There’s no way the Philistines aren’t gonna conquer us when our turn comes around.” And they decided what they needed was a powerful king like all the other nations had. So they told Samuel, the prophet, that they wanted “a king like the other nations.” And they wouldn’t let him talk them out of it.

So they get Saul as their king, which seems to work out for a while. The problem is they asked for “a king like the other nations,” and that’s what they got. So when Saul becomes king, he starts out the way a lot of us start out: he’s passionate about following the Lord, and he tries to run Israel the way that God would run Israel. But it isn’t long before that’s not enough. Because what nobody tells you about holiness is that it’s boring. If you read Leviticus, or Deuteronomy, you’ll be surprised about how much isn’t there. People talk about God’s law like it’s super gross, or super weird, or super complicated, but the truth is that it’s boring. Because growing in godliness isn’t just about doing the right steps, and doing the right rituals; it’s about doing right by other people.

It’s about becoming a gentler and more patient person. I know we’ve all been taught to be scared of those first five books in the Bible, but the truth is that the longer you look at them, the more ways they find to tell you how to love your neighbor. And that’s boring. At least for most of us. Because if what you want is power, or if what you want is pleasure – if you wanna gratify yourself till your heart and your stomach are fuller than full – then the kind of gentleness that Bible is going to shape you into the image of will never be enough for you.

And so Saul does what a lot of us do and he started using his power as king to try and satisfy himself instead of serving God like he meant to when he started. So God replaces him with David, and it looks like things are going well for a while, but there’s something deeply crooked in David, just like there was something deeply crooked in Saul, so David starts using his power as king to try and satisfy himself however he has to, even if it breaks God’s law – just like Saul. And eventually that comes to the point where he kills one of his own generals after knocking up his wife, so that’s a pretty far plummet from being a “man after God’s own heart.”  And the child he has with the general’s wife grows up to be Solomon, the guy who wrote Ecclesiastes.

And right after David dies and Solomon becomes king, God comes to him and writes him a blank check. He says “Ask me for one thing.” And Solomon’s heard about King Saul, and he’s watched his father, David, take a hammer to almost everything he’s ever built because his appetite for sin made him foolish, and he asks God for Wisdom. So God makes him wise in ways that Saul and David weren’t, and it looks up front like Solomon is gonna be the one who’ll turn this all around, and be a king who isn’t like the other nations.

But with the last thing he ever wrote, Solomon wants to make sure that we know that he wasn’t. And that’s the opposite of a “power-move.”  Imagine if all the currently-living U.S. presidents spent their last years writing an autobiography together called “How I Ruined America And You Can, Too.” That’s the kind of thing Solomon’s doing here. P

So in verses 12-18 of chapter 1, Solomon says instead of protecting him from the mistakes the other kings made, Wisdom turned on him. It didn’t actually make him a godly king, it just made miserable. But that’s a good misery.

Because like Saul, we get bored with holiness. Loving-the-Lord-by-loving-our-neighbor will never satisfy that deep crookedness in us. But most folks go their whole lives and never realize that they’re crooked inside. Solomon chased after wisdom and he found it. And it made him miserable, because your crookedness oughtta make you miserable.

Because wisdom is like a blacklight, and your heart’s like an old couch. Wisdom will reveal the way that your desires are crooked. It will reveal the way that your appetites are crooked. And if you have a conscience, that’ll make you miserable.

But it’s not enough to grieve over your crookedness. That has to go somewhere. Because you can realize there’s something wrong with you and not care. And that’s dangerous. Because the wiser Solomon gets, the more the he sees what Leonard Cohen calls “The Crack In Everything.” He sees the crookedness in himself and everyone, but instead of softening his heart toward God’s mercy, it makes him callous.P

So King Solomon goes on a decades-long bender, and at the end he doesn’t laugh anymore, and all the things he used to satisfy himself are boring just like godliness is boring.

He starts to drink like Hemmingway, and he ends up just as disillusioned. He’s going through the same process as the other kings. The only difference is that he can put words to what’s happening.

When your endgame is to satisfy yourself with or without God’s blessing, you end up stuffing your pockets full like a shoplifter at a dollar store. But when there’s holes in your pockets, that has consequences for the way you treat people. Since godliness will never be enough for the deep crookedness in you, you’ll find ways to make other people into objects for your own satisfaction. Maybe through sexual conquests, or maybe you’ll exploit your employees, or worse. If your loudest desires are to gratify yourself, you’ll sacrifice people on the altar of your own satisfaction.

But when there’s holes in your pockets, there’s holes in your pockets. So at the end of everything, when you’ve used everybody who’ll let you, you’re still not actually satisfied, and you can’t uncut your pockets. There’s something called “the law of diminishing returns,” where things get progressively less satisfying the more you do them. And there’s only so much under the sun. So eventually, whatever sin you used to take pleasure in’s gonna be about as boring as the godliness you don’t think you want.

I can remember being 15 and desperately wanting to be an atheist. My parents had taken me to church nearly every weekend of my life since I came out of the womb, and it’s just really hard to not believe in God when that’s the way you’ve grown up. It’s on you like several coats of paint, so it takes practice to turn yourself into an unbeliever.

So I practiced. I had this journal I would write in. And I’d write entries in it, kind of play-acting like an atheist. I’d write all the reasons that God couldn’t exist, like cancer, or car accidents. I’d point out that if the God my parents believed in existed, my grandpa wouldn’t have died when I was four. My cousin’s husband wouldn’t have died and left his two young children without a dad. But I only half-believed any of the stuff I wrote. In this journal, I wrote a lot about the plight of the children in Africa, but not one ounce of me cared about the children in Africa. You know what I’m talking about? They were a deflection tactic. Other people’s suffering was a tool that I could point toward to keep God off my back.

So I could say “My sex life is none of God’s business while kids are starving in the Ukraine.” And then when people tried to push back on that, I could default to “Well, God probably doesn’t exist, so it doesn’t matter anyway.”  Because I knew that if God really existed, I’d be bound up in obligation to other people. I would owe some basic dignity to everyone on earth, and that would limit the pool of options in how I could go about gratifying myself.

Because the fact that God existed meant I owed a kind of basic human decency to everyone I knew and didn’t know, and that would radically change my relationship with other people. And I knew that. So I was endlessly inventive about finding ways to convince myself that there was probably no God, so there was probably no “sin,” so there was probably nothing wrong with whatever I was already doing.

My ninth grade English teacher made us choose a famous literary figure and do a report in front of the rest of the class. So I chose a guy named Percy Shelley. He’s one of the most beloved poets of the 19th century. I didn’t really care about that. I picked him because he was famously an atheist during kind of the “last gasp” of Christendom in England. This was before Marx, before Darwin, back when it was genuinely controversial to be an atheist.

So I googled “famous atheist writers” at the library. And my friend Scott was like “How old are you, Ryan?” And my friend Alex was like “That’s awesome.” And I scrolled to the furthest back author I could find, and I landed on Percy.

He was married to a woman named Harriet Westbrook, and she’d given birth to a few of his children. But she was young, and he was bored. And if your main goal is to satisfy yourself, then one womanis never gonna be enough for that deep crookedness in you. So he found a second wife who was even younger and throughout the year 1816, Percy had two wives at the same time, and as a 15 year old I thought that was pretty punk rock.

But his older wife didn’t think it was very punk rock and after putting up with it for a year she drowned herself in a river, and then his teenage wife started writing books that sold better than Percy’s did, and he lost custody of his kids and all his friends started leaving and eventually he died in a boat crash in Italy, which, according to most of his biographers, was essentially a suicide.

And when I finished presenting my paper on Percy Shelley, a girl in my class raised her hand and said, “Maybe the reason he wanted to die in a boat crash was ‘because he didn’t have a friend in Jesus’.”  And that surprised me, because at 15, I had no idea that there were people who didn’t wake up most days halfway wishing they’d die in a boat crash, or something. So this girl was kind of an enigma, because she thought she ‘had a friend in Jesus’ and she didn’t want to die in a boat crash, and neither of those things made any sense to me.

But I started to notice people who weren’t like me. There was a guy on the football team named Brooks Stephenson. And I started noticing the way he acted toward people: a couple of guys got in a fight in the locker room, and he pulled them apart and made sure the smaller guy was okay. I started to notice the way he talked to the “lunch ladies”: He wasn’t just polite; there was an almost “active” kind of gentleness about him. And I started to notice the way he talked about other people. He was a quarterback and I was a receiver, and he was good, and most of us were terrible. But you couldn’t bait him into badmouthing anybody, even if his life depended on it. So from my perspective, Brooks Stephenson was like a space alien, or something.

But there was a reason Brooks was different than me, different from Percy, different from Solomon. Because we were all acting out of an emptiness in ourselves that we had no idea how to fill. We had holes in our pockets, so we’d stuff them full and hope that it would stick this time. But it never does, and that changes your relationship with other people. Everyone becomes an object you hijack to try and gratify yourself.

And I realized that Brooks’ pockets were different than mine. When I talked to him, he related to me differently than I related to other people. He wasn’t trying to get anything from me. He wasn’t trying to strip-mine me for affirmation. Because he didn’t need to. Brooks Stephenson wasn’t acting out of an emptiness in himself that he was desperate to fill. Brooks had a contentment that didn’t come from himself, that I couldn’t understand yet, because I hadn’t met the same Jesus he’d met. And that changed his relationship with me and everyone.A

So there’s a reason that, in Philippians 4:11-13, Paul is able to say:

“I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know both how to have a little, and how to have a lot. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being content—whether well fed or hungry, whether in abundance or in need. I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

And it’s easy to turn that verse into something it isn’t. I had a friend in, like, 12th grade – kind of a scrawny guy – who picked a fight with lineman on the football team. And I was like, “Y’know, I don’t know if this is gonna work out for ‘ya.” And he was like, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” And I was like “OK, what do you want the text for your funeral to be?”

You see a lot of shirts with, like, a weight-lifter and big letters that say “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” But Paul isn’t talking about sports, and he isn’t talking about beating up a lineman because he stole your girlfriend.

Paul says “I can be content in any circumstances,” “I don’t need to stuff my pockets full.” Paul has what Solomon wanted. But there’s a difference between the contentment that Paul found and the satisfaction that Solomon desperately searched for.

Because if your pockets have holes in them, if there’s a bottomless cavern in you, you need more than there is under the sun. Your satisfaction has to come from somewhere deeper than pleasure, and deeper than wisdom. It’s gotta run deeper than the things you think you want.

And Paul says the reason he’s content is because of the Christ who strengthens him. And I assure you Paul was not beatin’ up any lineman. But what I can tell you is that unlike Solomon, who had a thousand wives, Paul probably had one wife, who left when he became a Christian. Unlike Solomon who ate his fill, three times a day, Paul never knew where his next meal was coming from. Paul’s contentment was coming from outside of himself. It was Somebody Else’s Contentment.

Because that’s the way that Jesus strengthens you. It’s not by making you so strong you can beat up the lineman who stole your girlfriend. It’s by sharing his own contentment with you. So that God’s own contentment become your contentment. So you don’t need you pockets filled. You don’t need all the things you think will satisfy you. In case someone needs to hear this: a different spouse is not the thing that’s gonna satisfy you. Now, look: if you’re being abused, you need to speak with the police, you need to get somewhere safe. But that’s an extraordinary situation. That’s a different thing. If it’s been fifteen years and the flicker is gone, and you don’t really talk anymore, and there’s definitely no more kids coming, and you’re just bored, I can assure you: a new spouse, a new lover, a new conquest, is not the thing that’s gonna satisfy you, because your pockets have holes.

So your new spouse will be as boring as the one you’ve got, and sooner than it took the first time around. When your soul’s got empty pockets so you’re chronically unsatisfied, the solution is not to stuff your pockets full of things you think’ll make you happy again. You need a contentment that didn’t come from yourself, and isn’t dependent on you having all the things you think you want.

And if you’re a believer in Christ, if you’ve thrown yourself on God’s mercy, slowly Christ’s contentment becomes your own contentment. So you start to make decisions differently. Because we used to do the things that we did because we had some emptiness we needed to fill. We were like Solomon, or we were like Percy. We didn’t know why, we just knew that we weren’t satisfied and we needed to be, and we’d do whatever we needed to do to get satisfied.

But when we’ve thrown ourselves on God’s mercy, he gives us his own contentment. And that doesn’t satisfy all of our desires. That’s not what that does. Instead, it gives us a strength that doesn’t look like strength. When Christ’s contentment is our contentment, instead of fulfilling all of ours desires, it moves us to bank less and less on getting what we want. Because, in a way, Christ’s contentment fills up the cracks in the asphalt of your own satisfaction.

So you can be like Paul. You don’t have any of what Solomon has. But you’re content in a way Solomon can’t be. Because – and this is a dumb illustration – you’re kind of like a bowl that Christ pours his own contentment into, past the brim, so you start to overflow. And eventually you’re not acting based on your emptiness, because you’re not empty. When Christ’s contentment is your contentment, you start to act out of the overflow of satisfaction that he shares with you.

And it makes you generous with your money. It makes you generous with your home. It makes you generous with your kindness. Christ’s own contentment spills out of you onto other people, and it makes you strange. Because you’ll stop using them to satisfy yourself. You’ll stop taking advantage of them. You’ll start looking for ways that you can serve your neighbors instead of just subtly looking for ways that your neighbor can serve you.T

That’s why, if you’ll turn to Ecclesiastes chapter 12, and look at verse 13, Solomon ends his message by saying:

When all has been heard, the conclusion of the matter is: fear God and keep His commands, because this is for all humanity.

So this is a man who had more sex than any of us combined, with more partners than any of us combined, who made more money than any of us combined. Solomon saw things we’ll never see, he experienced things we haven’t thought to wish for. And his dying remarks are that “When all has been heard, fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13). Holiness is boring, but only if you’re deeply crooked inside.

So those things we think we want – the things we think will satisfy us – those are faint echoes of The Thing That Will Actually Satisfy Us. We need Christ’s own contentment, poured into us. To quote a guy from New York I heard once, “What seem to be our deepest desires are often just our loudest desires.” There is a desire beneath your desire for ‘Happiness.” There’s a desire beneath your desire for “Pleasure.” If you listen to Solomon’s last words, your deepest desire is for communion with the God you used to find boring. And I’d like to introduce you to him, if you’ll let me.

I’ll be standing at the front as we begin to sing. Come talk to me.

Let’s pray.

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