Father, we thank you that you are our light and our salvation. Whom shall we fear? You are the strong hold of our lives. Of whom shall we be afraid? When evil doers assail us to eat up our flesh our adversaries and our foes, it’s they who stumble and fall. Though an army encamp against us, my heart shall not fear. Though war rise against us, yet we will be confident. One thing we ask of you Lord, that we will seek after and dwell in your house all the days of our lives, to gaze upon your beauty, to inquire in your temple. So we ask, Lord, as we just sang “Glorious and mighty, you’re awesome in beauty, greatly to be praised,” we ask that the beauty of your word would come forth this morning, that the deceptions in our mind would bow before the beauty of your truth, that you would save people this morning, that you would show us the significance of our daily calling. We ask that you would please strengthen Allan in Ethiopia and continue to use him and do mighty things in that nation. And Lord we thank you for the privilege of gathering together as your people, remembering your death, your resurrection, and we trust you to meet with us and to do your good work in our hearts now in Jesus name.
So, Keller writes of a time when J.R.R. Tolkien had been working on the stories and languages behind the Lord of the Rings for decades. Now imagine that. You spend decades writing the histories and inventing the languages upon which you will build a story which came to be known as The Lord of the Rings. There was a time when Tolkien became convinced that he would not be able to finish this monumental work. He feared that he would die before he was done. World War II was raging. Now Tolkien was 50 at the time, so he was not serving in the military, but he had seen the carnage of World War 1. So, the weight of the war was crushing to him.
There was a tree not far from his home that a neighbor had tried to trim and ended up mangling it. And he saw that tree and became convinced that that tree was a picture of his life. That kind of cut back, unfinished, tad mangled. But one day he woke up and he had a story in his mind. And as all of us do, if you wake up with a story you write it, right? And then it gets published. That’s what he did. And he wrote it and it was published and it was called Leaf by Niggle.
And it was a story about a painter whose name was Niggle. And to niggle is to work in a fiddling or ineffective way, to spend time unnecessarily on petty details. Niggle was Tolkien, a discouraged, distracted perfectionist. And in this story Niggle was painting a tree on a canvas but could not get past the details of the tree. He was far better at painting the minutiae on the of the leaves than he was of painting the tree as a whole. He spent countless hours getting the shade and the sheen on a particular leaf just right. He wanted the edges of the leaf to glisten with the moisture of the dew. The end he spent endless amounts of time on particular leaves, and he was often distracted. There were neighbors. One in particular – he had extended neighbors – but one who lived closer to him named Mr. Parish.
Mr. Parish had a lame leg and would often come knocking at Niggle’s door needing help with things. And that was frustrating to Niggle because he felt like he couldn’t work on his project. But he was too kind a person to say no. But inside he wanted to.
One evening he was painting away on a particular leaf, and Mr. Parish came knocking at his door and said that his wife was ill, and since Niggle had a bicycle and two good legs and Mr. Parish did not have a bicycle and one lame leg, he was asking Niggle if he would go fetch the doctor for him for his wife’s sake. Inside feeling very frustrated, knowing his time was coming to an end where he would have to take the long journey, he decided reluctantly he’d better go get the doctor. And so, he went out into an evening that was wet and windy, and he travelled to the doctor. He fetched the doctor to help Mr. Parish’s wife, and then he returned to his painting.
But he soon realized he was ill. Being out in the cold, windy, wet weather caused him to become sick. And even though he tried to paint, he couldn’t paint for very long. And soon he knew his time was coming to an end. The inspector would show up at his door soon and it would be time for the journey. At that time he feared the worst. He exclaimed, said to himself, it’s not even finished. And he feared that his life work would be wasted and cut short. Now we’ll come back to the story of Niggle, but that sense that he has at that moment is a lot like what Solomon is describing in Ecclesiastics. That fear of a meaningless, cut off, wasted life. Niggle felt it, Tolkien felt it, Solomon is clearly feeling it. Last Sunday. We looked at the beginning of chapter three. God taught us that he makes everything beautiful in its time. God knows the end from the beginning.
He sees all. He is above time yet sees and acts within time. And Solomon makes that point very strongly. But as you’ll notice this pattern that’s forming in our study of Ecclesiastes, Solomon will throw out what could be described as folly, and then he will move over toward wisdom, and then he will come back toward folly, and then back and forth, fluctuating. And so once right after declaring that God will make everything beautiful in its time, he raises objections – at least six – two at the end of chapter 3 and then about four in chapter 4. So, we’ll just mention the first one, focus on the second one and look at the other ones next week. So, the first objection, and these are objections to the fact that God makes everything beautiful in its time, that the small unfinished things matter, and he raises the first question/objection. Well what about injustice?
What about injustice? You’ll see that in verse 16 where we pick up from last week. Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness. So, if God is over our times, why are the most corrupt people often in the most influential positions? Why does wickedness sit in the seat of justice?
Why do demanding, manipulative people even in the day to day of our lives often get their way, and nice people get left in the wake, swept aside. Why is the place of purity often the place of immorality?
This day to day reality seems to undermine the beauty of God’s timing. Solomon quickly suggests an answer to that objection. Verse 17. He says that God will judge the righteous and the wicked every injustice God seeks out, remembers and brings to accountability.
He is shooting off of the end of verse 15. God seeks what has been driven away. And we talked about last week that could be translated what has been forgotten God does not forget the injustices that our world quickly overlooks. And it’s interesting as every generation produces a new wave of cynics, one of the first questions that cynics ask is “What about the problem of evil?” and often it is typically asked as if no one had asked that question before. 2500 years ago Solomon is raising that question. We have a problem. If we have a holy God who is over all things and will ultimately make all things beautiful in its time, what about the injustices and wickedness in our world today, in our hearts today?
And his basic answer here – and he gives a very short answer – we’re not going to develop this today because he’s going to come back to it again if you’ll notice in the beginning of chapter 4 and throughout the book. But his basic answer is, there is time for every matter, for every work. In other words, a slow judgment does not mean no judgment. Don’t get confused.
I know some of us would say that we can’t believe in God if there isn’t immediate judgment. Someone does something wrong and a lightning bolt flashes out of the heavens and they are consumed into a pile of ashes. Well, if that were the way God would operate, what would this crowd look like right now? Yeah hundreds of little piles of ashes. So the only way we can come to the conclusion that that would be a good thing is if we are delusional enough to think that the problem is out there.
No, the biggest problem with the world is right here, and I am although I wrestle with the problem of people just like you do, I am so grateful that God does not immediately consume the unrighteous, or I would be consumed. And Solomon comes back to this. Ecclesiastics 8:11, “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. But just because God doesn’t judge right away, we might be deceived into thinking he’s not going to judge. And that would be an erroneous assumption, a very dangerous assumption. And it’s so tragic to hear people say because of evil – and many times it’s a very personal horrible incomprehensible evil – that people have experienced and there’s no human explanation for it other than sin.
But many people have experience who say “Okay, well then, I can’t believe in God, a God who would allow that. And so you reject the very person who is the only one in the universe who can overcome evil and that’s what Solomon is saying. You become fully set in your evil. The greatest evil in the universe is to turn from the very one who can overcome it and make everything beautiful in its time.
Don’t assume that God is passive or powerless because his timing does not fit ours. Again, we’ll come back to that. The second objection he raises is, “What about death?” He keeps coming back to this subject but in verse 18 he’s says “I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. What happens to the children of man and what happens to the beast is the same. As one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath. A man has no advantage over the beast for all his vanity. All go to one place. All are from dust and to dust all return. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward in the spirit of the beast goes down to the earth.” So the beauty of God’s timing seems to disappear with the breath of the beast. If we look honestly, Solomon is arguing, at what happens to us and what happens to the animals, there’s no difference. Humans die, beasts die. Humans breathe beasts breathe. Humans go from dust to dust, beasts go from dust to dust. So, if you’re just going to look at the surface of things from under the sun, verse 21 makes sense. Who knows whether the spirit of man goes upward and the beast’s goes down. The beast-like and of people raises huge questions as to the rule of God over time. If my life is just a little longer and a little drier than my pet goldfish, then how can all things be beautiful in their time?
There are a couple of options. Let me suggest a couple options of the way people today apart from God are answering that question. One is, well death is natural. It’s beautiful because it’s natural because everything organic is good for you, right? And if it’s organic, it’s beautiful. As the great preacher Yoda has famously said, “Death is a natural part of life.” Oscar Wilde says death must be so beautiful.
To lie in the soft brown earth where the grass is waving above one’s head and listen in silence, to have no yesterday and no tomorrow, to forget. To forget time, to forget Life, to be at peace. He’s on something. He is desperately trying to romanticize death, but he’s confusing death with being buried alive. It’s like he’s listening to nothing.
Philosopher Peter Kreeft tells of story of a 7-year-old boy whose cousin died at the age of three. He asked his mother, “Where is my cousin now?” Good question. His mom did not believe in God, did not believe in an afterlife. So, she tried to explain to this 7-year-old where his cousin was. “Your cousin has gone back to the earth from which we all come. Death is a natural part of this cycle of life. And so when you see the earth put forth new flowers next spring, you know that it is your cousin’s life that is fertilizing those flowers.” The little boy screamed, “I don’t want him to be fertilizer!” That little boy’s intuitive response is the way all of us Christian and non-Christian are wired. God has put eternity in our hearts. We know there is more to life than death and being fertilizer. In other words, the boy was picking up on the unnaturalness of a natural view of death. There’s something that doesn’t resonate with us at all.
The second way – and this is closely related to the first way but adds a different piece to it – that people try to make death beautiful apart from God is to say it’s communal. So it’s not only natural, it’s communal. That is, our death widens the circle of life. And this is exactly the view of Mufasa as he was talking to his son, the future king Simba. And this clip I want to show you allows us to eavesdrop on actual footage filmed on site in Africa. This lion has a killer voice, so whatever he says sounds good.
Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope. Dad, don’t we eat the antelope? Yes. But let me explain. When we die our bodies become the grass. And the antelope eat the grass. We are all connected in the great circle of life.
That sounds beautiful when you have a voice like that. But I think Simba’s question is a good one. Don’t we eat the antelope and Mufasa is basically saying, Yeah, we eat them, but they eat us because when we die we turn into the grass so they can eat us to get us back for eating them. And that’s the circle of life.
It sounds a lot like MAD. Those of you who were around in the 1980s remember. This was the philosophical underpinning of all the treaties between the Soviet Union and the United States nuclear arms agreements. It was termed as MAD, that is, Mutually Assured Destruction, and the basic philosophy was if you have two nuclear powers, and both of them have the ability to wipe the other out at any moment and both agree not to protect themselves (that’s the key) so that if I wipe out you, you can wipe out me and then that will neutralize the threat of nuclear war.
And that was the basic philosophy that kept us on pins and needles for many, many decades. Well then Reagan came along, and he asked one question this was his question. Would it be better to save lives than to avenge them? And that rocked the world. He came up with SDI – Strategic Defense Initiative – mocked Star Wars. His basic premise was we have a responsibility to our people to protect them, not just to be able to wipe someone else up. So, it’s not just perpetuate the cycle of life by devouring, being able to devour one another. It’s actually being able to protect lives rather than just consume them. So these naturalistic pantheistic philosophies that are attempting to make something like death beautiful, fall short. And I believe if you read through the whole book of Ecclesiastes you see that picture quite vividly.
But even in the passage we’re in, even as Solomon is raising these questions, he is giving us clues as to the answer. Let me just show you three that are right in the very questions that he’s asking that communicate very clearly that you and your gerbil may both like to climb through piping at the McDonald playgrounds, but you’re still very different. A couple of clues. First one is in verse 18 where he says, “I said in my heart and that is, you’ll notice that’s self-reflection. The fact that you are questioning whether your bestial means you are not. And I don’t know if we need to spend a lot of time on that one.
But my family growing up, we had a lot of animals, really cool animals – pigs, chickens – and one chicken in particular was extremely intelligent. Dogs. But yet I never got any evidence from that, even that intelligent chicken that there was an ability for self-reflection. To step out of himself and consider what life is all about. So even the fact that Solomon is asking the question, “Are we any different from beasts?” He’s answering the question.
Secondly not only self-reflection, but divine examination. You’ll notice in verse 18 God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. There’s so much irony in that because testing can sound intimidating. God is testing. Don’t fail. But it’s actually ennobling, not intimidating. Like God is teaching, training, testing us, thereby differentiating us from the beast. Go back to Genesis 1 and 2. God created Adam and called him to exercise dominion over the beasts of the field. But then by the time you get to chapter 3, Satan came in the form of a beast, craftier than all the other beasts of the field.
And Adam placed himself under the authority of the beast with the promise that he would be as God and never die. So he believed the lie that he could be God. And that made him beneath the beasts. And you look at the mess that our world is in because of that. Christians call that the fall where sin affects everything. So, in this life what verse 18 is talking about, God is giving us the opportunity to see who we really are and who he really is.
We are not God. We are lower than we think. But we are not beasts. We are higher than we think. As Psalm 8:4-7 says, what is it man that you are mindful of Him and the Son of Man that you care for him. Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands. You have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen and also the beasts of the field.
See man is lower and higher than we think. Psalm 49:20 says man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish. We act like beasts when we are deceived by our pride. So, Solomon gives us these clues right in the very questions he asks – self-reflection, divine examination. The third one is at the end of that section, verse 22, last part you could call it future instruction. Who can bring him to see what will be after him? And the answer is, no one under the sun. Only God.
Only God can open our eyes to what will happen in our lives after we leave or in the future beyond this. And the book of Ecclesiastes becomes this instruction, this future instruction. As the book unfolds you get a glimpse of this in chapter 12:7. Solomon writes, “And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. So in the end of the book Solomon answers his own question. We are more than food for the antelope. We are not the same as our pet gerbil.
This may seem over-simplistic, but this is huge. Do you believe that? Once you settle that question, there is a cascade of implications that flow from that depending on how you settle that question. If you believe we are no different from beasts, the product of random evolutionary forces, then that tells you who you are, defines right and wrong or not. Everything flows from that and it really leads in a hopeless direction. But what if that’s not true.
What if you are fearfully and wonderfully made, male and female in the image of God who has made you in his image to reflect him. You represent him, broken by sin, redeemed by his son Jesus who became a man. So that sin would not have the final word. And so that death would not be the end. This is why Jesus came, that we would not perish. Let’s look at a very familiar verse, if you’ll turn there, John 3, page 888. If you’re using a seat Bible, don’t get scared. That’s not 666, it’s 888. John 3:16. This is the passage that God used to open my eyes when I heard it for the very first time. And I know some of you have heard it many times.
“But God loved the world.” John 3:16, “that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, should not perish, should not perish like a beast should not perish for eternity but rather have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world. He could have, he should have because of our sin. But he didn’t. He actually did it that the world might be saved through him for whoever believes in him is not condemned but whoever does not believe is condemned already. Why. Because he has not believed in the name of the only son of God. And this is the judgment. This will distinguish between life and death right here that life has come into the world and people love darkness rather than light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light lest the works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light so that it may clearly be seen that his works have been carried out by God. This is the way God is making all things beautiful in its time. This is it. And it’s not a plan. Like one two three necessarily, although we can understand parts of it.
It is a person. Jesus, when he was talking to Thomas and Thomas said, I don’t even know where you’re going and how do I get to the Father? He didn’t give him a five-step GPS coordinate. I am the way. I am the truth. I am the life. No one comes to the Father but through me. You can come to him. Right now, you can, as Joel was explaining you can admit you can repent, you can turn from your sin and believe confess today and his posture just like he says there in John 3, is not to condemn but to save. We are not animals driven by our cravings and our culture.
He has so much more for us so much more. So what should we do today in light of this beautiful life-saving truth? Well notice where Solomon ends his questioning in verse 22, this section. He said, so I saw 3:22 back in Ecclesiastes, “So I saw that there’s nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Nothing better.
Notice Solomon is not saying you never question because God is going to put you in situations where you are going to come face to face with life and death questions. You will. Even this week as I was standing with a young man looking at his mother’s body in a casket. He’s saying I don’t know what to believe. Is she in a better place? Is there a better place? Is it weak? Am I using religion as a crutch to believe she is in a better place because she she’s a Christian?
Those are great questions and he even said, “Yeah there are situations like this where you can’t escape those questions.” God will bring us to a place where we have to face ultimate questions and that is not a curse. That’s a gift to strip us from a delusional way of looking at life and trying to entertain ourselves out of reality. The questions that Solomon is asking are vital. And as we just saw in John 3 we know the way. We know the one who knows the way if our faith in Jesus. Then Solomon comes right back to asking a basic question, well what about the day to day life?
What about today in the middle of an unjust culture? There’s no perfect place or perfect person. How do I live today? Well let me return to that story of Niggle. When he became ill and knew the long journey was about to begin, the inspector knocked on the door and he had to pull himself away from the painting that he had given his life to. He thought it was all over. His life means nothing. Done.
He boards boards a train for the long journey to the afterlife, the mountains of the afterlife, and he begins to hear two voices. The first voice is a voice of justice and has a very severe voice tone. And the voice of justice explains the time he has wasted the attitude he had when he was interrupted, the complaining.
But there was another voice, the voice of mercy. I love the way Tolkien describes in this book Leaf by Niggle that the voice of mercy was a gentle voice but had authority. It had authority, and the voice of mercy explained how he had shown compassion on his neighbors, so it’s showing kindness to him. The train arrived, and Niggle got out of the train and saw something that looked very familiar. This is what Tolkien wrote. “Before him stood the Tree, his Tree finished; its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and yet so often failed to catch.” Stop there for a second. Now all of you artistic people I think can relate to this because you get this image in your mind, what you want to put on the canvas or express in your music or in another creative way, and you find ways to do that, but it is never perfect. It’s never complete. And what Tolkien is saying is, part of what God is doing in making all things beautiful in its time is he’s bringing what we imagined to fruition. He gazed at the tree and slowly he lifted his arms and he opened them wide and he said it’s a gift. And he was talking about the tree.
But more than the tree. The life that he had received, that he had worked for so long, that could never be complete, but realized the gift of life. Never ending life. This gift of coming to a country where nothing is forgotten, unfinished or regretted. Every tear is wiped away, every sin is forgiven, every injustice made right. Where the imagined becomes the realized. Where God makes everything beautiful in its time. This story that Tolkien wrote had a huge impact on him because as you know he went back to work and finished Lord of the Rings. I think this is really what Solomon is getting at this point, that asking these big questions and seeing that God is making everything beautiful in its time does not strip away the beauty in the mundane. It actually infuses it with meaning and beauty.
Listen to what Keller writes. “If this life is all there is,” – if we are merely beasts with iPads – “then everything will eventually burn up in the death of the sun and no one will even be around to remember anything that has ever happened. Everyone will be forgotten, nothing we do will make any difference, and all good endeavors, even the best, will come to naught.
Unless there is God. If the God of the Bible exists, and there is a true reality beneath and behind this one, and this life is not the only life, then every good endeavor, even the simplest ones,” – Now do you understand what he’s saying here? In contrast to coming to the conclusion that what you do today is meaningless because there is an eternity, he’s saying the opposite. Even the simplest ones, pursued in response to God’s calling can matter for ever. That is what the Christian faith promises. ‘In the Lord, your labor is not in vain.'” As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15, labor is not in vain in the Lord. So, where are you?
I want to pray for you but as I do I want to ask you these questions. Do you know who you are? Have you settled that question? Fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God, broken by sin but redeemed by his son, child of God, or a beast. That changes everything. You know what God is doing. And will you trust? Father, thank you for this time to wrestle with these big questions. You make so clear in your word that we are not animals, fertilizer, non-things. We are yours. And you are the one who defines and transforms our reality.
So Lord as Peter said at the end of his epistle, we pray for us that after we have suffered a little while, you the God of all Grace who has called us to your eternal glory in Christ Jesus will himself restore, confirm, strengthen and establish us. And Lord if we need to be restored, confirmed, strengthened and established, that means we today are incomplete, often wavering, weak and unsettled. But that does not change what you’re doing, who we are in you. So, restore us, confirm us, strengthen and establish us. Our faith is in you. And may you receive dominion and glory forever and ever. Amen.