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All that is done under Heaven

Sermon passage: (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18) Spoken on: May 29, 2016
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev Enoch Keong
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Ecclesiastes

Tags: Ecclesiastes, 传道书

Listen to sermon recording with the play button or download with the download link. 您可点播或下载讲道录音。
About Rev Enoch Keong: Rev. Keong is currently serving as a pastor in the youth and young adult ministries, as well as the John zone pastor in Jubilee Church.

Title: All that is done under heaven
Date: 29 May & 5 June 2016
Preacher: Rev Enoch Keong

Pastor Xiaohui demonstrated for us last week his skills in Hokkien pronunciation and bible exposition. I was next door preaching when he did that. So may I ask did anyone clapped for him? Pastor Xiaohui’s aim was to draw out for us the 2 principles that we as humans need to hold in tandem: work hard for our goals and the gains on the one hand, yet to realize at the same time that there will be eventually no gain for anybody with the passage of time. Pastor Xiaohui then said that the 2 principles when held in tandem is gospel, for it helps us to be realistic about our toiling.

I agree with Pastor Xiaohui. But allow me to also say that that’s the half-cup-full reading of our situation. If we were to adopt a half-cup-empty outlook, can I say that we are in fact caught in-between freedom and determinism? Freedom in that when we have an aim, we can go all the way for it and we may get to enjoy the fruits of labor. But then there’s determinism at the other end of the spectrum, which tells us that it’s a sure thing that our efforts and gains will not mean anything in a long run. To me, life is like being caught between these two phenomena. Let me try giving a tiny example, I have received many sessions of scolding by teachers and parents for the way I did my math in school, and all those pushes probably help me to get some A’s along the way. But, in a few years’ time, I would need tuition on the new way that math is done–the modelling and what have you–before I can even understand my girl’s primary school work. All my past effort and glory and shame in school amount to nothing. (Some student among us might want to say, “Amen, so why study?”) It’s frustrating isn’t it? It’s like when we look at the present moment, we can say, “I have achieved”. But when we look further ahead or when we look back in time, we ask ourselves, “so what have I achieved?”

Its’ frustrating, it’s vexing, and that’s what the Preacher says having invested time to gain wisdom and used it to seek and to search out all that is done under heaven. But if we think that he is promoting an indifferent attitude toward life, let us first consider the man and things that he does and says.

Who is the Preacher? He does not give us his name, instead he describes himself as a king who rules in Jerusalem and whose wisdom had surpassed all who were before him. In Israel’s history, only David and Solomon ever ruled in Jerusalem, so it is at least clear that the author of Ecclesiastes wants his readers to think that it is King Solomon who wrote this book, and who had sought and searched all that is done under the heaven.

King Solomon was a man who had at his disposal great power, immense wealth and unlimited genius. When such a person says that he had sought and searched all that is done under heaven, the point made is that he has done a very thorough search.

Question, does anybody here need to do a search that is so thorough to conclude that all is vanity and a striving after wind? Anybody here is like the Preacher? I dare not say that I possess wisdom, and I don’t suppose any of us would want to say that of ourselves. Yet even we, commoners, would not need to spend such relentless and drastic effort to say something to the same effect. Just read a few history books, or ponder on our own family history, or even just to watch a few Korean drama serials that talks about life, and we will soon get the feel that nothing really last forever. Here is purportedly the wisest man on earth, and Pastor Xiaohui reminded us on AGM Sunday this year that when 2 women claimed to be the mother of a toddler, the king was able to crack the case in no time and without any help from modern technology. So why did he hold such an elaborated search to reach his conclusion? Or, perhaps, reaching a conclusion isn’t his motivation for seeking and searching. What was then his reason behind his relentless and elaborate search operation?

The answer to the question is probably hidden in the second half of verse 13. We have made mention of the first half of the verse a few times this morning. “And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” The second half goes this way, “It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with.”

The author mentions God for the first time in this verse. The Hebrew name used here and in other parts of the book for ‘God’ is always Elohim, and never Yahweh. Yahweh is the name used when the bible makes mentions of the God who covenanted with Israel. In other words, the name Yahweh makes people think of Israel’s God. The name Elohim on the other hand refers to God as being the creator of the universe. The emphasis here is that Elohim, God, is the God of the entire humanity. Elohim gives us humans the very life we live and the good things that all people enjoy. The Book of Ecclesiastes is indeed gospel as Pastor Xiaohui has told us last week and 5:18-19 is a good example of the many verses in the book that talks about God as a giver,

“Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God”

But the Preacher doesn’t only talk about a God who simply gives good gifts. The first mention of God in the book concerns something pretty negative. The Preacher says that, “It [the task of searching by wisdom] is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with”. Other negative aspects about God and the bad things that he gives to this world are seen in 2 proverbs in our passage. The proverb in verse 18, I don’t suppose needs explanation. The one in verse 15 means that the world contains perversity, depicted by the word crooked; and he word ‘lacking’ refers to a lack in terms of order to things, meaning that the Preacher sees disorder all round. And both negatives does not happen by chance but it is God who has caused them to be so!

So what are we trying to say here? To the Hebrews, life and the good and the bad in life, all comes from God. And again to the Hebrews, life is then to be lived by engaging actively and attentively with all that God has given. The Preacher is doing exactly this when he does not just live–in an anyhow manner– but applies his heart, that is his whole person, to seek and to search all that is done under heaven. In other words, the Preacher is living life in obedience to God, who has called mankind to take seriously everything that he has placed in their paths. And that’s why we find him relentless in his search operation.

Caught in between freedom and determinism, that’s a fact of life that the preacher also reckons with. And from the number of things that he considers to be but vanity across time, the Preacher is probably more occupied mentally by the notion of determinism than by freedom. But look at him, look at the acts of the man, relentless, applied his whole being to know wisdom, knowledge and even madness and folly (v.17). That’s the attitude of the Preacher and the attitude that he seeks to influence us with his book: Whatever God gives, in it we live, to the max. (So Students, don’t say, don’t study)

What’s ours attitude toward life? Our 35 degrees Celsius and around 94% humidity weather is kinda draining for many of us. And so I often hear people around me using a word to describe their days, the same word I often find myself saying with my body language – ‘sian’. ‘Sian’ is a hokkien slang meaning listlessness, and the ‘sian’ feeling usually comes with a low degree of frustration or impatience. ‘Sian’ occupies many from Monday to Friday early afternoon, ‘sian’ dominates the emotions when the task is huge and difficult, ‘sian’ even creeps into our leisure time when there’s a plethora of choices and we don’t know what we want, and the ‘sian’ feeling is also there when fun time is over.

I am a bit unfair and extreme here, my apologies. But what is our general attitude to whatever God has placed before us? As for the Preacher and rightfully for us, allow me to repeat, it is ‘Whatever God gives, in it we live, to the max’. Living life in such a manner, the Preacher is at the same time seeking God, observing what God is doing in the situations around him, and seeking God with regards to his part to play in those situations. So don’t get me wrong, we are not talking about having a positive attitude this morning, but a thankful and godly response to God and to that which he places before us. In short, the Preacher is urging us to have a godly attitude, and live our lives to God.

Now that we have talked about the Preacher and his attitude, we can better appreciate what he does and says with regards to wisdom. People in the Preacher’s days valued wisdom a great due, and saw it as the key to successful living. The wise seeks knowledge, the fool pursues folly. This is not a direct quote from the Book of Proverb, but Proverbs is much about this idea isn’t it? And even the Preacher himself has this to say about wisdom,

“Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness.” (2.13)

“Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city.” (7.19)

But in our passage, the Preacher tells us that he worked really hard to acquire wisdom but at same time make a mockery of it with a proverb (v.18).

The apparent inconsistency is an example for us on how to view and live life with a godly attitude. It is true that in the big sweep of things, like when there’s a tsunami or when we think about the mass killings in world history, the wise and the foolish will look just the same, equally helpless and equally incapable. And with the passage of time, wisdom will indeed amount to no gain for anybody, just like everything else. So does it mean that we should throw away sayings such ‘respect yourself and other around you’? Or ‘love the Lord with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and your neighbor as yourself’? The Preacher will be the first one to say no, and we will see him working on the correct answer with his actions. We can be sure that he will put his heart to meditate on the words of wisdom and live them out diligently. Because, to him, God and his words are important, to seek God and his help amidst the ups and downs in life is important, taking good care of God’s creation is important, people and their wellbeing are important, and being answerable to God’s calling to live a godly life is important.