|Series Theme: Meditations on Meaning & Values|
Meditations in Meaning & Values 1: Big Picture Stuff
Eccles 1:2,3 "Meaningless! Meaningless!" says the Teacher. "Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless." What does man gain from all his labour at which he toils under the sun?
For quite some time I have focused on meditations that work verse by verse through a Bible book. For the last few weeks I have had this idea floating in the back of my mind to revert to a themed series and the theme being ‘Meaning and Values', and to do that we really need to look at the big picture portrayed by the Bible. Now post modern people don't like ‘big pictures', they don't trust them because they question both the origins and the accuracy of such big pictures, but I believe that is a cop out, a failure to truly assess the evidence for such big pictures and to write out those that are dubious and validate those that can be trusted. This is not the place to take space to validate Christianity's big picture and why we can trust the evidence – but we may do that as we proceed through these meditations. So, meaning and purpose and values.
In the New Testament, John's Gospel is my favourite for its profundity and revelation of the Son of God. In the Old Testament my favourite is Ecclesiastes because it so points to the dilemmas of the modern world, and it is this book that will be the starting point for much of our thinking. It was probably written by King Solomon who started his reign with the blessing of God and so became the wisest man in the world and thus became incredibly rich and powerful. Tragically over the years he rejected God's wisdom and took foreign wives who pressed him to worship their foreign idols. Nearing the end of his life, he had clearly drifted far away from God and had a jaded perspective of life.
I observe this jaded outlook in modern atheists. In one of his earlier books Richard Dawkins in his Preface, quotes one of his friends, Peter Atkins who had written, “We are the children of chaos and the deep structure of change is decay. At root, there is only corruption and the unstemmable tide of chaos. Gone is purpose; all that is left is direction. This is the bleakness we have to accept as we deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe.” Dawkins realises that such rhetoric doesn't do well for the atheist cause and so while agreeing with this assessment acknowledges that none of us live with this long-term gloom. Indeed in future writing he goes on to try to show what a wonderful world we live in, but you can't help feeling it is slightly cynical propaganda that flies in the face of his foundational gloom. His wonderful world is still a world of accident and chance although he tries to paint into it meaning through evolution – but it is still by chance however much he tries to insert some meaning.
It is the same foundational gloom that cynical and jaded Solomon starts out with when he declares everything ‘Meaningless'. But even in those opening verses there is a clue to the root cause of his jadedness when he speaks of man's labour “under the sun”. Now that expression occurs, I believe, twenty eight times in this book and it speaks of the material world and only the material world. It excludes any other possibilities. Whether he does this purposely or it is a Freudian slip or even a nudging of God, is unclear but everything (well virtually everything – we will note the exceptions) is about life in the material world.
How tragic that a man who had an encounter with God in a dream (1 Kings 3:5-15) and received such wisdom that he was able to become so rich and powerful through it, should end up in such a jaded state. We will in some of the meditations ahead, look at some of his causes for feeling like this because they challenge us, what will we make the basis of our lives. It is an appropriate question for intelligent people to ask: what is the meaning of life, why do we exist, is there any purpose in my life? And yet, as Solomon was to go on to write, there appears a frustrating mystery about life: “ I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live.” (Eccles 3:10-12) Yes, the truth is we have these yearnings – a sense of eternity – and yet we cannot fathom how it all works.
The history of philosophy shows us great thinkers who came up with great ideas, only to be debunked by the next set of great thinkers, but one thing I notice, whether it is from Plato to the most modern philosopher, is that their thinking is “under the sun”. Yes, there are many world religions that seek to reach out to the spiritual world to find answers but so often come up with ideas that a rational and intelligent mind rejects as weird. In the foundation of Judaism and Islam we find the rational evidence of the Old Testament but it is only in Christianity with its New Testament that there is revelation of this ‘mystery'.
The intriguing thing about Solomon is that as he recognizes this mystery, he blames God. Even in his jaded state, he is not an atheist, which makes him one step better than the modern crusading atheists with their shallow knowledge of the Bible. It will only be as we ponder these things in the light of the Bible that we will come up with real and meaningful answers. Come with us on this adventure and face up these gloom makers of the world who only observe (and then misinterpret it) the things ‘under the sun'. There is more to life!
Meditations in Meaning & Values 2: Not a Lonely Machine
Eccles 1:5-7 Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever. The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises. The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north; round and round it goes, ever returning on its course. All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. To the place the streams come from, there they return again.
In 1967 Arthur Koestler wrote a book called, “The Ghost in the Machine”, the title coined by Oxford philosopher Gilbert Ryle, and is really about the mind–body relationship. Both believed that the mind of a person is not an independent non-material entity, temporarily inhabiting and governing the body. The title of that book could equally apply to the idea that deists have, that there is a God but he sits at a distance allowing the world to just continue on as a machine. Indeed the concept of the world as a machine is common to many modern thinkers.
In this they have good company in Solomon as he writes Ecclesiastes. In our verses above there is this sense of a world that just keeps on and keeps on, doing the same thing all the same with no change, a meaningless world. His reference to the water cycle is of course accurate: streams flow down to the sea, the sea evaporates, the water vapour forms clouds, the clouds cause rain and the rain falls on the ground and eventually runs into streams which run into the sea……
Yes, that is how God has made it to work but merely because that is so, it doesn't mean that is how it always was, or always will be. This mechanistic deist or even atheistic world view forgets, ignores or maybe is ignorant of certain things.
First of all it all had a beginning. For modern scientists it is the ‘big bang' but what they struggle with in their materialistic searching is what happened a second before the big bang. They are in a scientific cleft stick because on one hand they maintain that for anything to happen, there needs to be an originating force but supposing there was a big bang, what was before it? One of the crucial things we struggle with is the concept of ‘nothing'. The atheistic scientist would like to tell us that before the big bang nothing existed because if ‘something' existed it would just push their search back a further stage, but the problem is that if there was really absolutely nothing (and Christian philosopher Dr. Francis Schaeffer used to call it ‘nothing nothing' to emphasise the point) we cannot conceive of something coming from absolutely nothing. Absolutely nothing is a concept beyond our imagination and something coming from it is impossible – unless the something before it was God. Where did God come from, asks the sceptic? I don't know; I said there are things beyond our conceiving. All we have is, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” ( Gen 1:1) God did it, on purpose.
The modern scientist, if he is an atheist, wants an impersonal mechanistic beginning but if such a thing was possible then it would be absolute chance that brings it about and everything that follows would be absolute chance, and absolute chance rules out meaning and purpose and that would be all well and good except we all live our lives as if there is meaning and purpose to them. That is the greatest mystery: why? The answer has to be because the personal God gave us that sense. There was a beginning, a beginning with personality behind it, that of God, a beginning with a purpose and a meaning, not an accident.
On an earlier day Solomon had compiled the book of Proverbs and there he had personified wisdom (that later revelation reveals was the Son of God) and there the Son says, “ Then I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.” (Prov 8:30,31) What a beautiful picture of God, Father and Son, working together to bring into being this world in ways that defy our intellect, a world from nothing, but rejoicing together, “rejoicing in his whole world and delighting in mankind.” Nothing impersonal about that; they enjoyed bringing it into being and enjoyed what they made. Nothing about a ‘miserable old God' in that! Indeed when they had done it, “ God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” (Gen 1:31) It may be a stretch of the imagination to see the Father turning to the Son and saying, “Good job son!” but it does have that feel about it. So this world had a beginning, a personal one and that is important.
But poor old Solomon has this fatalistic feeling that this ‘machine' is going to go on for ever and ever. Actually no! This world has a limited duration, not because it will wear out or run down but simply because one day the Lord is going to say, “Enough!” and we find at the end, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” (Rev 21:1) We don't often think about this, perhaps because the Jehovah's Witnesses go on about it but the truth is that there is coming ‘the Day of the Lord' a day of great accounting and then these things follow. Now whether these are things that will happen in chronological order or they describe the process we go through after we die, only time and eternity will tell, but the big point is that the present world will not remain.
Does this mean that like Plato and his followers we tend to despise the material, despise the present physical world? No, definitely not! This present world is God's gift to us and we best enjoy it when we enjoy it in parallel with enjoying God. It is a wonderful world; yes it is a fallen world and sin and Satan spoil it, but as children of God we can enjoy to the full the wonder of this world that God has provided. So even if it is the water cycle, the next time you think about it, rejoice and give thanks and say, “Lord, thank you for the wonder of this, that you have given us water to enjoy in so many ways – to drink, to mix with so many other things, to swim in, to sail upon, thank you that it is here for our enjoyment. Hallelujah! A lonely machine? No way, a wonderful world given by God and….. no, I'll save that for the next one!
Meditations in Meaning & Values 3: Not a Lonely Machine (2)
Eccles 1:12-14 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem . I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
In the previous meditation we considered the idea of some modern philosophers that the world is merely a machine that keeps on going, which is what Solomon was saying in the opening verses of Ecclesiastes. We also noted the deist viewpoint that God made it and then stepped away and left this ‘machine' to run on its own. But we considered that this world had a beginning, a personal beginning at God's hands, and it will also have an end, also at His hands. In the meantime there is this wonderful world for us to enjoy. But there are two other aspects of all this to be considered, seasons and the God who intervenes.
Let's consider Seasons first. In his jaded outlook Solomon would have us believe that the world keeps on without any change but in reality that is not true, we have Seasons which mean there is constant change. Some parts of the world – e.g. the Tropics – have a lesser sense of seasons than others. Our own latitude means we have clear and distinct seasons so Spring heralds fresh life, Summer sees an abundance of that life and fruitfulness, and then Autumn sees a clearing away of that abundance so Winter is a bare season, and yet within it, life is building up to burst out again in Spring.
Now if you are jaded you will see the seasons as monotonous but within that ‘monotony' there is a reassurance; it will come round again, there will be a time of fresh fruitfulness to bring forth a new harvest, fresh provision without which we could not exist. But then as we hinted above, there are different seasons or rather expressions of the same seasons across the world which is why our season of fruitfulness may come to an end, but we're still able to import fruit from elsewhere in the world. Our summer is Australia 's winter. In this modern world of good transportation, so many fruit and vegetables are now available to us throughout the year. So yes, seasons come regularly but at different times around the globe, a regularity with variety.
The second thing we need to consider, we said, was the fact of a God who intervenes. Quite contrary to the atheistic position that simply sees the world as a closed machine, or the deist position that sees the world as a machine and God sitting outside of it having nothing to do with it, the Bible shows a completely different reality. The atheist and the deist only see a lonely machine just puttering on for ever and ever on its own, and Solomon almost appears a deist in his view of the world. The reality as the Bible reveals it, and Christian experience confirms, is that God may be outside His world and, unlike the pantheist view, the world is separate and distinct from him, but that doesn't mean He is not in it. This is the amazing biblical testimony that God turns up on His world and intervenes in His world.
Perhaps one of the simplest and most beautiful of verses comes early in the book of Genesis and refers to Adam and Eve, “ the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day,” (Gen 3:8) There are three simple things here. First, the fact that they could hear Him suggests He was singing. Second, the fact that they clearly ‘saw' him and heard him and spoke with him, suggests He was there in human form. Third, and this is the key, pertinent point in what we are saying above, God was on earth making His presence known. That is so simple and yet so profound.
When we move on through Genesis we find God communicating with human beings. He speaks with Cain (Gen 4:6-), He interacted with Enoch (Gen 5:24), He spoke with Noah (Gen 6:13-) and He brought judgment on a world where “every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.” (Gen 6:5) and afterwards re-established His covenant with Noah (Gen 9:8-), a sign of His desire for ongoing dealings with mankind. Then came Abram, the first man with whom God instituted a long-term relationship. This is followed by Isaac, Jacob ( Israel ), Joseph and Moses, then Samuel, Saul, David and Solomon. These are all stories of unique dealings with God. No, this God does not stand afar off but comes to the earth, almost it seems to see who He can bless with His goodness and love. But, no, it is not ‘almost', for that is exactly what He does.
As we go through the Old Testament we start to catch a feeling about this God who is gradually revealing Himself to mankind. His nature or character is revealed with His dealings with Moses where there are numerous references to His love. We have to wait until deep into the Christian era before the apostle John states it as simply and firmly as it can be: “God is love.” (1 Jn 4:8,16)
This is a revelation way beyond Solomon. There is a lot of difference between wisdom and revelation. He had the wisdom but never sought the revelation. He received some but in his jaded state in his latter years, it seemed to filter away from him. No, this is not a world running away with itself. God is in it working out His plans and purposes as we may no doubt consider in the days to come. God and this world are inextricably tied together; it is His creation and He still inhabits it. Hallelujah!
Meditations in Meaning & Values 4: Contented?
Eccles 1:8 All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing.
There is a striving in the world that is wearisome; it is the striving for meaning. Modern culture watchers in the West say as we move from a ‘modern' culture to a ‘post-modern' culture people are giving up on trying to obtain pleasure, comfort and meaning through owning possessions and are focusing instead on experiences. For some it may be experience stimulated by drugs, for others it may be experiences in travel and doing the unusual. If you go online and Google either 100 or 25 things to do before you die, you come up with this exotic list of travel things – seeing the Northern Lights, visiting the Amazon and so on. For others it may be doing a bungee jump, or a freefall parachute jump or wind surfing or white water rafting. These are the things of the affluent West. We are privileged to live in the day in which we ‘do', and for so many of us, with such affluence that we have money left over it enables us to do these things. And they are wonderful things because it is a wonderful world and God has made us to enjoy these things.
But here is the downside: if you make these things your life focus you become jaded, just like Solomon. No one encapsulates the phrase, “Been there, done it, got the tee-shirt” more than Solomon. He had had the possessions and he had had the experiences and then he comes up with our verse today: “All things are wearisome.” Well yes they are if you make yourself the central focus of all things. For some post-moderns the ‘experience' to give a buzz may simply be doing good, going and helping refugees, helping to build an orphanage or similar ‘good works' - and they are good. They are good things to do, but not if you are using them to solve the mystery of “Why am I here, what is my point, how can I have a sense of meaning and purpose?”
“The eye never has enough of seeing”. If you could record what a person two hundred years ago saw in their life and then compared it with someone in the West today, I would guess that today's person sees hundreds if not thousands of more things, if not tens of thousands more things. We have television, communication devices etc. and we can travel anywhere on the planet. If you are interested in animals you do not have to leave your home; you will sit in front of a TV, watch a video, or scan the Internet and you can see any and every creature known to mankind. If we want to be entertained we have media devices and systems to allow us to watch films, series or talks, twenty four hours a day. Indeed there are some people who fritter their lives away in front of ‘the box'.
“Not the ear its fill of hearing.” TV, radio, personal devices bringing music or plays or talks, the list is endless. What applies to watching, equally applies to hearing. We can listen twenty four hours a day. Indeed clearly some people feel lost without a pair of earphones plugged in wherever they go. Whatever Solomon heard, we can hear a thousand times more!
But all the time we are watching or listening, we are being passive observers and passive observers soon become jaded. I think this is why one of Paul's comments to the Ephesians always means so much to me: “ we are God's workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Eph 2:10) This is the wonder of the Christian life. We came to Christ through a crisis. It might have been expressed in a variety of ways but ultimately we were dissatisfied with the life we had and with ourselves. The Holy Spirit convicted us of our need to be put right with God and so we came to Him on bended knee and surrendered our lives to Him and received His forgiveness and cleansing, His adoption as His children, and His Holy Spirit to empower and lead us. And then we realised that with Him in charge, that was only the beginning. He had a new life for us to enter into, He had plans and purposes unique to us as an individual. He had new gifts and abilities for us to receive to enable us to step out in a new purposeful life as He led.
Suddenly there is a sense of purpose, meaning and fulfillment. In me He put a hunger for His word, and a hunger to share it which for one phase in my life meant traveling in Europe, Asia or America, teaching. I would never have dreamed of doing those things and going to those places previously. Now I look back and marvel. Today I look around me and like the President in that TV series, The West Wing, simply say, “Right, what's next?” But He (the Lord) moves slowly. He knows it take time to change me, and that is as high on His agenda for me as the things to do. So I'm not in a rush. I hope I am available for whatever He puts before me, but I am contented as I receive what He gives me today and wait for what He has for tomorrow. As long as I keep my ear open to Him for the “What's next?” the possibilities are endless.
But in the meantime? In the meantime, there is a wonderful world to enjoy. No, it is not wearisome because I am not making the ‘seeing and hearing' the be-all and end-all of life. First thing in the morning, even before writing, I sit and pray and reflect or meditate briefly. This morning as I started to focus on the verse above and think about these things, I realised how much I appreciated the small things of life. I glanced out the window and half way down the garden my wife has a bird feeder which suddenly was covered with a family of long tailed tits and a goldfinch. I sat and marveled at their beauty and thanked God. But then, amazingly, for they do not come close to the house usually, two of the baby long tailed tits and the goldfinch came and flitted around on a bush less that three feet from my window. It was like a show was put on for me. How wonderful. Yes I have seen the Rockies in Canada and gazed in awe at their rugged enormity. I have gazed at endless miles of ocean, and I have seen the film of a great Whale leaping out of the sea and gasped. But this morning it was the beauty of some small birds that had me praising and worshipping. Wearisome? You've got to be joking! This is God's wonderful world, an expression of His love for us. Amazing! Thank you Lord!
Meditations in Meaning & Values 5: Fame
Eccles 1:11 There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered There is no remembrance of men of old, and even those who are yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.
I like biographies and autobiographies. I look on my bookshelves and see Nelson Mandela's face and a bit further on Margaret Thatcher's face and then the profile of Dr. Francis Schaeffer, and I wonder, “When I am gone will my children consign these to a local charity shop, and how much longer will their names remain anything more that a figure in history?
With the advent of printing and the blossoming of the publishing industry, Solomon's words here are no longer as true as they might have been then, but then I reflect further and realise that the vast majority of us will not go down in history. We found ourselves yesterday talking with some friends about one of our son's high jumping exploits and the fact that his name is still up on a board back at his old school for holding the school's high jump record. The reality is that most boys there today pass the board without giving it a thought and even when they do most will wonder who that person was. Fame is a very present experience.
I enjoy looking back over the period of my life and reflecting on who and what were in it. Yet if the truth is told, most of the great names from the past seventy years are just that, names. It's difficult to remember politicians from fifty year ago unless they really stood out like Churchill. And who were the musicians back in the 50's, 60's and 70's? We struggle to remember some of their names when their music is played again today, but so often by a copycat band so even their names aren't mentioned any more. I think back to those of my family who have died. When it comes to great sportsmen, footballers or Olympians, how few are remembered thirty years later? Only by those whose job it is to remember. The rest of us have far more to fill our thoughts. I remember my sister and my parents very clearly but my grandparents only stick in my mind courtesy of old photos, but I know virtually nothing about them. They are disappearing in history.
So if what Solomon says is true about us, and we will soon be consigned to be lost in history, why do some of us strive to achieve great things today? Is it to try and get on the roll of honour and be remembered? It's a pretty shallow ambition.
I believe there is a reason that Solomon does not touch upon God in his writings for why we do strive today, why we do try to be successful and achieve greatness? It is simply because we are made in the image of God and as such we have creative instincts, instincts that desire to create, desire to write, desire to invent, desire to organise, and all of these desires have an end product in mind and we strive to achieve it, and in so doing gain some temporary fame perhaps. So some of us become great musicians, some great writers, some create important companies that produce many jobs and strengthen the economy. Others give themselves to service, voluntary or otherwise and have names that appear in the public eye. These, I want to suggest, are simply because we are made in the image of God. That does not make us perfect, far from it, but it does mean we achieve in certain areas of life and in so achieving also achieve a measure of fame.
Fame is about being known but mention the name Jack the Ripper and immediately we realise that not all fame is good. In the past five to ten years we have had almost a stream of so-called celebrities paraded and prosecuted in the public eye for wrong behaviour with children or young people. One moment they were great figures and the next they were fallen stars. In fifty years time will my grandchildren remember them? Probably not. A little later Solomon decides, “ A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work,” (Eccles 2:24) Just get on with life and enjoy what you do, he says. It is jaded and it is defeatist and it is “under the sun”
In the previous meditation we adjusted the focus of this lens peering at life to discern meaning and purpose and focused it on our lives today as Christians, how we have a new purpose today which is to live out the lives we have but now being lead by Him. There are two things that can deliver us from a ‘jaded world and jaded life' view.
The first is entering into the life He has given us to live out today which involves bringing His love into focus. We may still be a great singer or a great writer or a great politician or whatever, but our foundation and our goal is His love. While we are on this earth our goal has to be His will, or as Jesus put it, His kingdom. In a different context Jesus said, “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness,” (Mt 6:33) but it applies well here. When we fail to do that we put our energies into things that will not last – including fame – and along the way become jaded.
The second thing that can deliver us from this jaded mentality is to remember that there is a life to follow this one. This is not all there is. One day we are going to enter the courts of heaven to embark on an even greater adventure. They say that when you die you cannot take your money with you. You can't take your fame either. When we enter heaven the wonder will be that you got there at all and the reason will be not your fame or your achievements, but that fact that Jesus died for you and you accepted his salvation. There will be no boasting in that.
If we are allowed to look back on our lives with the vision of God that sees everything, we will see that everything we were was an act of God's grace. We will see our failures and our weaknesses and, although in the public eye we may have received acclaim, in the courts of heaven they will know what you were really like behind the closed doors, what you were really like inside your mind. Yes, we fell short of the glory of God but His glory was still there for us.
Maybe we'll see that any fame we had – any great writing, any great invention, any great work was actually done by the guidance of God with the grace of God. We thought it was us but in reality it was Him blessing His world. And so we stand there naked of all fame and glory, but suddenly we realise as never before, “I am a child of God. This is my home. This is my Father!” and all of what we achieved on the earth becomes meaningless. It was good while it lasted but now, here in eternity, it is something else. Hallelujah!
Meditations in Meaning & Values 6: ….and Fortune
Eccles 1:8-9 I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well--the delights of the heart of man. I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
In the previous meditation we considered the subject of working for fame and then faced the truth that we may achieve some measure of fame on this earth, but we cant take it with us when we enter heaven, for heaven knows the reality of our lives. Fame and fortune go together. Very often it is riches that create the fame. Names such as Rockefeller and more recently Gates are known for their wealth. Times don't change and so Solomon's wealth and power (those two also so often go together) made him well known. In our verses above, even now in his jaded state, he is able to say, “I became greater by far that anyone in Jerusalem before me.”
The historical record of 1 Kings is equally clear: “ King Solomon was greater in riches and wisdom than all the other kings of the earth. The whole world sought audience with Solomon to hear the wisdom God had put in his heart. Year after year, everyone who came brought a gift--articles of silver and gold, robes, weapons and spices, and horses and mules.” (1 Kings 10:23-25) I love the record earlier in that chapter of the coming of the Queen of Sheba. Note first of all the gifts she brought to him: “Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan--with camels carrying spices, large quantities of gold, and precious stones--she came to Solomon” (1 Kings 10:2) and then, “And she gave the king 120 talents of gold, large quantities of spices, and precious stones. Never again were so many spices brought in as those the queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon.” (1 Kings 10:10) She was one seriously rich Queen, but note her response when she saw what Solomon had: “When the queen of Sheba saw all the wisdom of Solomon and the palace he had built, the food on his table, the seating of his officials, the attending servants in their robes, his cupbearers, and the burnt offerings he made at the temple of the LORD, she was overwhelmed.” (1 Kings 10:4,5) Such was his affluence that today we would say it blew her mind away! He was staggeringly rich and it was all because of the wisdom that the Lord had given him (see 1 Kings 3:10-14).
But then I have to face a simple verse with a terrible word in it: “King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh's daughter--Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the LORD had told the Israelites, "You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods." Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love.” (1 Kings 11:1,2) It's that word, ‘however'. That says that despite all this, Solomon had a weakness and that weakness led him in a course of action that God had warned him against and that in turn led him away from the Lord so he ended up in this jaded state that we find here.
Now there are three things, I suggest, that this story we have been considering highlights, three subjects we need to think about. The first is wealth . It is clear from the accounts that Solomon's wealth came as a result of God's gift of wisdom. God is not against wealth but it is what we do with it and what it might do to us.
So first, what we do with it . It is clear from the Bible that God is for the poor and needy. The apostle James provides us with perhaps the most scathing warning the Bible about wrong uses of wealth and power: “Now listen, you rich people , weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you.” (Jas 5:1-6) He warns the rich to beware God's judgment that falls on those who use their wealth wrongly. He firstly criticizes them for storing it up and not making use of it for good (implied). He criticizes them for paying low wages and living an affluent life style while the workers live in poverty. They have used their power to oppress the weak and needy, the poor. It is this sort of behaviour that has caused revolutions around the world, and that is not surprising.
For Christians such behaviour is doubly abhorrent for the apostle John taught, “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (1 Jn 3:17) It is difficult in a society that is a Welfare State that provides for those on low incomes, to know where there is real need. But when it comes to the poor of the world it is even harder to know how to act wisely to help the poor because often whatever we give will seem like a drop in the ocean and will in no way change the need that is there. We need the wisdom of God. How can I give so that it changes the life in the long-term, not merely for the moment? How will my giving help when the political situation in a foreign country is so bad it seems to prevent any change taking place? We need the wisdom of God.
The Bible says much about poverty and about seeking to alleviate it. Perhaps in the short space we have we might simply suggest it is something we should be thinking about. But what can wealth do to us? When Israel were getting ready to enter the Promised Land, Moses warned them, “When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you--a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant--then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the LORD, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Deut 6:10-12) Affluence means we can become complacent and forget that all the blessings we have came from the Lord. I believe it is true that we, the church of the twenty-first century, have yet to learn to live with affluence so that it does not weaken us spiritually.
The story of Solomon is partly about wealth and so as we conclude this meditation remember, God is not against it but we have a responsibility how we use what we have and we need to watch what it might be doing to us. Jesus warned that affluence can strangle us (Lk 8:14) He also warned about setting life priorities (Mt 6:19-21,24). The affluent West is a dangerous place to live! We'll look at the other two subjects that Solomon's story highlights in the next meditation.
Meditations in Meaning & Values 7: Beware Feet of Clay
Eccles 1:16,17 I thought to myself, "Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge." Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.
In the previous meditation I suggested that this story we have been considering about Solomon, highlights three subjects we need to think about. The first is wealth and that Solomon's wealth came as a result of God's gift of wisdom. God is not against wealth but it is what we do with it and what it might do to us that needs thinking about. We considered that briefly.
But the second thing Solomon's story highlights is the whole subject of wisdom . Wisdom is simply the ‘knowledge of how to'. Solomon clearly already had wisdom because when the Lord came to him in a dream we find Solomon saying to the Lord, “Now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David. But I am only a little child and do not know how to carry out my duties. Your servant is here among the people you have chosen, a great people, too numerous to count or number. So give your servant a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong. For who is able to govern this great people of yours?" (1 Kings 3:7-9) The acknowledgement of need was an indication of existing wisdom. The Lord's response to this followed: “The Lord was pleased that Solomon had asked for this. So God said to him, "Since you have asked for this and not for long life or wealth for yourself, nor have asked for the death of your enemies but for discernment in administering justice, I will do what you have asked. I will give you a wise and discerning heart, so that there will never have been anyone like you, nor will there ever be. Moreover, I will give you what you have not asked for--both riches and honor--so that in your lifetime you will have no equal among kings,” (1 Kings 3:10-13)
The outworking of that was seen in the next chapter: “God gave Solomon wisdom and very great insight, and a breadth of understanding as measureless as the sand on the seashore. Solomon's wisdom was greater than the wisdom of all the men of the East, and greater than all the wisdom of Egypt .” (1 Kings 4:29,30) So this is why Solomon was as successful as he was.
Now we know the reason for Solomon's downfall, as we have considered it previously, was taking foreign wives contrary to the will of God and thus the Will of God is the third issue to be considered. How is it possible that such a man can accumulate incredible wealth as a result of the wisdom of God but fail to maintain the will of God ? The answer has to be what I call people's ‘feet of clay'.
The idea of ‘feet of clay' comes from the book of Daniel where king Nebuchadnezzar had a dream of an idol and in its description we find, “its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of baked clay.” (Dan 2:33) Iron of course is very strong but clay is weak. These feet of clay made the image vulnerable and weak, even though the rest of it can be strong. What I have observed over the years is that every great person has feet of clay. I like reading biographies and autobiographies and I note with every person they had their vulnerable areas, their areas where they were weak and got it wrong – every single person without exception has feet of clay.
So here is Solomon who has been given great wisdom and that wisdom has made him wealthy and strong – but he still has feet of clay, he has a weakness for women and that weakness leads him to take more and more foreign wives, all contrary to the will of God, and the result is his downfall. We read, “The LORD became angry with Solomon because his heart had turned away from the LORD, the God of Israel , who had appeared to him twice. Although he had forbidden Solomon to follow other gods, Solomon did not keep the LORD's command. So the LORD said to Solomon, "Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates. Nevertheless, for the sake of David your father, I will not do it during your lifetime. I will tear it out of the hand of your son. Yet I will not tear the whole kingdom from him, but will give him one tribe for the sake of David my servant and for the sake of Jerusalem , which I have chosen." (1 Kings 11:9-13) The rebels who rise up and the eventual divided kingdom are disciplinary measures brought by the Lord.
Now the challenge that comes to us in the midst of life is will we recognize our feet of clay and act to prevent them bringing us down. Remember, we may be bright, we may be successful and we may think we are wise, but if we tolerate just one area of our lives that is contrary to the will of God, we make ourselves vulnerable and open for the discipline of God. Is this why in the past fifty years a number of great men of God have fallen? Despite their anointing they held on to one little area of self-rule and that made them vulnerable to the discipline of God. He may tolerate it for some time but eventually He will act. Don't let the thought that you have got away with it for some years fool you. He will call you to account. It is better to repent while you can and deal with the vulnerability. Despite all his wisdom, Solomon thought he could get away with doing his own thing contrary to the will of God. His wealth didn't save him and his wisdom didn't save him because the most important thing, the will of God, was being flouted. It is a salutary lesson.
Meditations in Meaning & Values 8: What is Pleasure?
Eccles 2:1 I thought in my heart, "Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good." But that also proved to be meaningless.
Perhaps a little reminder would be appropriate. We are considering meaning, purpose and values in life, initially helped by the jaded writing of Solomon in Ecclesiastes. He is a good case study because without doubt he had been there and done it in so many areas of life that, more than most, he has the right to speak out about life. Tragically his writing is limited to experiences “under the sun” which excludes spiritual matters and therefore the conclusions he arrives at, although valid, are limited to the investigation of the life of a materialist. We have just considered fame and fortune and now we ponder on the merits and meaning of ‘pleasure'.
So what is pleasure and is all pleasure good? The first thing to note is that God has designed us to be people who experience pleasure. Pleasure is, according to a dictionary, enjoyment, delight, sensuous gratification of experience. Sight, taste, touch, smell, and hearing are the five senses we have and each is able to provide us with pleasure. It is amazing when you think about it more and more, how pleasurable our senses can be. And God made us like this!
But is pleasure good in itself? No, it is neutral. When a person takes cocaine I am told it produces a pleasurable experience, but one so strong it yearns to be repeated and repeated and repeated, and becomes addiction. The same can be true of alcohol abuse. Pain is meant to act as a warning to us but some people distort God's design and get pleasure from either inflicting or receiving pain (sadists and masochists). Sexual infidelity we sometimes refer to as taking the forbidden fruit, and perhaps in so doing we identify it with the sin of Adam and Eve. All sexual promiscuity is based on temporary pleasure and the thought of the pleasure blinds us not to think of consequences, the consequences of betrayal, the consequences of marriage breakdown, the consequences of family upset, or of sexual disease or unwanted pregnancy. Perhaps more than anything else, sexual sin comes from the anticipation of pleasure, but pleasure at a cost.
We sometimes speak of ‘comfort eating' where the pleasure of eating appears to satisfy feelings of inadequacy. How often, I wonder, do we seek pleasure to cover up an emptiness? Indeed some people make seeking pleasure the focus of their life. Solomon did it in his quest for meaning. In fact he was able to say, “ I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure,” (2:10) yet still his conclusion was, “But that also proved to be meaningless.”
How strange this thing called pleasure is. Enjoyment or pleasure is a gift of God and yet we can so easily abuse it by excess or by chasing it across forbidden boundaries. Yes, this is the reality, that although God has designed us to receive pleasure in so many ways, it is not to be used in excess or for crossing forbidden boundaries. The young person who starts taking recreational drugs often soon finds the lure of something more, something more powerful and when addiction takes hold, the lift becomes blighted with a whole host of other forbidden things, that are contrary to God's design for us – lying, stealing, cheating and worse. The initial quest for pleasure can, without God, so easily lead on into so much more that should not be. King David wanted the pleasure of rest, so did not go out to battle with his men. From his palace he spied a young woman sunbathing, so he sent for her and had sex with her (Don't call it making love; it was pure sex, pure enjoyment). She became pregnant so David tried to cover it up and sent for her husband to have a rest from the battle and spend the night with his wife, but the man would not play ball, and so David had him killed on the battlefront. A man died because another powerful man wanted pleasure. God was not amused and held David accountable which was painful.
The gift of pleasure should evoke praise and thankfulness in us, and both directed towards God because He is the giver of all good things, or as the apostle James put it, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.” (Jas 1 :17) I like how the message version puts it, “ Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light. ” Writers write, composers compose and designers design – all through pleasure. We are made creative beings and when we are being creative we get pleasure because we are made in the image of God.
Perhaps we might conclude by saying that whenever we live or act or speak ‘in the image of God' it will bring pleasure. It is a pleasure being a child of God and knowing the Father's love and the blessing from the Son brought by the Spirit. But there is another word that is related to pleasure and it is ‘satisfaction'. When we exercise the ‘spiritual disciplines' as they are sometimes called – prayer, worship, reading and studying the word – they bring us both pleasure and satisfaction. Indeed everything to do with living out our relationship well with the Lord is both enjoyable and satisfying – because that is how He has made us. How wonderful!
Meditations in Meaning & Values 9: A World of Boundaries
Gen 1:9,10 And God said, "Let the water under the sky be gathered to one place, and let dry ground appear." And it was so. God called the dry ground "land," and the gathered waters he called "seas." And God saw that it was good.
In the previous meditation we reminded ourselves that we are considering meaning, purpose and values in life, initially helped by the jaded writing of Solomon in Ecclesiastes. At one point I found myself writing, enjoyment or pleasure is a gift of God and yet we can so easily abuse it by excess or by chasing it across forbidden boundaries . Now we did consider that some more, but the idea of boundaries has stayed with me, so much so that I believe we need to consider it more generally now.
In our verses above during the Creation process, God establishes the earth with land and seas and generally speaking they are fixed, boundaries have been set, but in the course of centuries we do know that sometimes coastlands change. With rising sea levels according to those who speak of the effects of greenhouse gases raising world temperature levels so polar ice melts and sea levels rise, we may anticipate that if this is true, then those ‘boundaries' may change considerably because of the folly of mankind.
Although that is a picture of physical reality it does steer us in the direction of realising that God has so designed this world – and us on it – with boundaries. Now the thing about a boundary is that it is a point of limit but there is something beyond it. If you were driving across Europe you would be in one country and would eventually come to a boundary or the frontier beyond which is the next country.
Now when you apply this to ethics, you realise that there are things we can do but maybe they are things we should not do. In the previous meditation we noted using drugs, drinking in excess, sexual promiscuity and so on, and all these things are examples of how we can do something but in so doing we have crossed over one of God's boundaries and entered forbidden territory.
Now what we did not pick up on previously is what happens when we cross the boundary. Our self-centred conceit, aided by the whispers of Satan, suggest that we will be all right., there will not be any negative effects of crossing the boundary. This is the lie of Satan, seen in Gen 3, and it is a lie because in a very down to earth, simple to understand way, God has designed us to work in a particular way, and when we ignore that, life ‘breaks down'.
The analogy of caring for a car applies well here. You buy a new car and you get a manual that tells you how to keep it running, how often to have it serviced, how often to have the oil changed, how often to change the tyres and so on. Now imagine an idiot who utterly disregards and ignores the manual. He never has the car serviced and after five years has an accident because the tyres were threadbare and the engine locked up at a crucial moment. We called such a person an idiot because the ‘boundaries' for him were a given period of time when, if the manual could talk, he would have heard, “Stop. Get the car serviced. If you continue any further without a service you will be in trouble.”
Now if that is true of a car, and it is true of any mechanical thing or piece of technology that has been designed to work in a particular way, why do we think that we are different, that rules of ‘running properly' don't apply to us. Whenever in the Bible we come across a “You shall not….” we are observing a boundary warning and to go beyond the boundary means trouble. We need to be very clear here: when God says ‘don't' it is because there is a very real, practical reason for saying that. If you ignore it, things really will go wrong in a big way and it is only our foolishness that thinks it will be all right.
Stop and go through the latter half of the Ten Commandments and think through the practical things that will backlash in our lives if you disregard them - "Honor your father and your mother, - "You shall not murder - "You shall not commit adultery - "You shall not steal - "You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor - "You shall not covet. If you really think through each of those ‘boundaries' to cross them will mean a whole series of bad things following.
We must say it again; the Bible is not full of ‘God being nasty' prohibitions. Whenever He says ‘don't' He is saying it in love to try to get you to avoid pain, for you and for others.
To conclude on not such a strong note, we should also note that there are ‘boundaries' in as far as there is a reality beyond which you simply cannot go. When the Matrix films first came out there was some talk about the Hindu thinking behind them that reality is what you make of it but the truth is that we live in a material world and whatever we may think, we are bound by it. So if I want to leave a room, I have to use a door or a window; I cannot walk through walls. If I want to fly I have to employ an aircraft of some kind and I am bound by gravity. If I get shut in an airless container I will suffocate; I need oxygen. We are designed to work and life in a material world.
When it comes to the spiritual world, again the Lord has laid down boundaries for our protection, so no witchcraft, no dabbling with the occult, and no spiritualism. The boundaries are there and we ignore them at our peril, and the Gospels are full of instances of Jesus having to deal with the demonic because people ignored the boundaries. So, whenever we come across one of these boundary warnings whether it is about steering clear of the occult world, maintaining right relationships or living rightly, the boundaries are there confirming or warning of the way the Lord has made the world. We can cross the boundaries (we have that ability) but we should not cross them because bad always follows. If we have crossed them in the past, the way of restoration is through repentance and Jesus' work on the Cross. Failure to go down this path laid down by God, means we are vulnerable to worse things coming our way, not necessarily because God sends them but because they are the automatic outworking of stepping across the boundary into the minefield. You have been warned.
Meditations in Meaning & Values 10: Self Remedies
Rccles 1:12-14 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem . I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
We have embarked, we recently reminded ourselves, on a series where we are considering meaning, purpose and values in life, and therefore we have considered the nature of the world and the way we live in trying to come to grips with the world and make sense of it. In 1943 a psychologist by the name of Abraham Maslow wrote a paper entitled, “A Theory of Human Motivation”. Out of this came his famous pyramid or hierarchy of needs. On the bottom of the pyramid was ‘physiological' meaning our basic physical needs, our concern to satisfy hunger, thirst etc. Next came ‘safety' or the need to feel secure. Then came the need to feel loved and to belong. Next came the need to feel esteemed and finally when all these others are in place, the need for what he called ‘self actualisation' which is about reaching full potential, fully becoming the person you can be. Intriguingly in later years he added a further level and said t he self only finds its actualization in giving itself to some higher goal outside oneself, in altruism and spirituality.
Observing Solomon in what he writes in Ecclesiastes, we see a man who, despite all his wisdom yearned to find true meaning in life, find his real purpose. Our verses today go back to chapter 1 where he acknowledges his hunger ‘to know' and yet the frustration when he limits it to all that is “under the sun” and his conclusion that it is all meaningless. Maslow similarly says we all have a yearning and a drive, and these are to fulfil the needs we have within us. Let's assume for a moment that he was right in his assessment, all we are saying is that this is how God has designed us, to be people who want to know, who want to understand. We have already noted before Solomon's sense of frustration when he writes later, “ He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” (Eccles 3:11) The words “yet they cannot fathom” indicates a search that ends in frustration.
Indeed so far we have considered how men and women, like Solomon, seek fame, fortune and pleasure as means of obtaining a sense of achievement or of meaning or of fulfillment. We have this yearning like an inner hunger. Many of us simply subside under the difficulties and pressures of life and, I suspect, give up on working for these things. Poverty is possibly the greatest burden that makes people give up. They don't have the luxury of climbing Maslow's pyramid and are stuck trying to make ends meet and thus meet that most basic of needs, to survive. However, they may be more fortunate than the person of a relatively affluent middle class who struggles, like Solomon, to use their relative affluence to achieve fame, fortune and pleasure in the false hope that these will be the means to achieving meaning and fulfillment, and yet remain frustrated and reach old age with a sense of jaded cynicism abut life.
Many of us pursue these goals endlessly because we dare not give up and arrive at a conclusion of helplessness and hopelessness. This is the predicament of the world and dare I risk saying it, also the predicament of Christians who fail to learn and understand the wonder of what they have entered into when they were born again. Thus many of us try this and try that, steadily moving along the shelves containing all the different sorts of self-help books. It is quite fashionable to have a mentor, a life skills tutor, and yet as I have read their godless writings, within them is a pretense that they have got the answers and yet, as Solomon found out, all this self help is hopeless unless it includes God.
There is a famous Puritan catechism that runs, “ Question 1 What is the chief end of man? Answer 1 Man's chief end is to glorify God, (1Co 10:31) and to enjoy him for ever. (Ps 73:25,26)”. In some senses that over simplified it but later questions and answers unpacked that. Consider again Maslow's needs and let's see how the Gospel meets those needs:
1. To survive physically: When we hear and understand the Gospel we realise that God has come to impart life (which affects our very physical being and for which He promises He will provide).
2. To feel secure: He makes us secure by dealing with our Sin and putting us right with God who promises to care for us and protect us.
3. To feel loved and belong: We hear He is love and through the work of Jesus we see His love for us, and He imparts His Spirit of love to us. He calls us sons and daughters, children of God, we are part of His family, we belong.
4. To be esteemed: We realise we have been lifted up to sit with Christ in the heavenly places, to share in all he has, we are special, we are esteemed (look how the father in the parable of the prodigal son treated his returning son.)
5. To become what you are designed to be: When we come to Christ, it is just the start; we enter a life of change where, stage by stage, we become more like Christ, more the people we were designed to be, and that includes receiving gifting to grow and to serve.
6. To give outwards and experience a spiritual dimension: Yes, even that last add-on is worked out as we allow the Holy Spirit to inspire and lead us in serving Him and blessing His world.
Yes, without the Gospel, we are condemned to a life of frustration, just like Solomon. Just like him we will embark on one thing after another in our self help crusade only to find frustration. With Christ we will be fully fulfilled and at rest. Hallelujah!
Meditations in Meaning & Values 11: To what end?
Eccles 2:17-19 So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless.
Unless we have either won or inherited a fortune, one thing that experience of this world shows us is that we have to work to provide for survival. If we are disabled we may rely upon a benign State to provide for us but otherwise, work is the lot of each of us. In a search for meaning, although many of these things overlap, I am sure many of us will be familiar with the question that drops into our mind in the middle of a rat race, why am I doing this? I have used that common term, ‘rat race' because as online dictionaries describe it, it is ‘ a way of life in which people are caught up in a fiercely competitive struggle for wealth or power.'
Now it may be that for many of us we would say that that is an overstatement of what we experience on a daily basis, but the truth is that life in business is today very much more pressurised than it used to be – and that is saying something. In one of my earlier careers, working in the City of London, I used to say that if I went on holiday it would take me three days in which my mind could slow down so I could enjoy the holiday and three days in which to get back up to speed once I returned to work. Since the financial crisis of 2007/8 many companies would acknowledge that the pressure to compete and the pressures to look for economies and efficiencies has increased.
I believe it is a very real question to ask in this part of history in the West, what is this all for, why am I doing this, and at what cost? Many years ago, when I worked in the City, my firm moved their office within London so that it added half an hour Underground travelling time to my already hour's journey to and from home every day. As I already indicated I had a quite high pressure job. We were about to start a family and I began to think, “If I continue this job I will never see my children and when I do I will be too tired to be there for them.” After much thought and soul searching (for when you are in a rut it is often very difficult to climb out) my wife and I decided that I would opt for redundancy, which I did.
For nine months I sat around looking for a job while we moved house, had our first child and I started building two new rooms in the roof of our new home. Not wanting to move back into London the options for a job were somewhat limited. Obviously we prayed about it but during that period was only the second time in my life when I have felt depressed (I'll speak about the other at some other time). At the end of that nine months a job opportunity came up teaching in a local college which I went for. Now to cut a long story short I have changed my career (not merely job) four times in my life and every time my salary initially dropped by a third but our standard of living and quality of life went up considerably. Now in ‘retirement' but still active, I look back with an amazing sense of God's provision for us, and His blessing having been on our lives. I believe he gave me my first job in the city, blessed it but then led us out into something better, and then something better, and then something better. In one sense I feel more fulfilled today than I ever have done before.
Am I unusual? I don't think so. More and more we hear of people who have done similar things. Our youngest son was a Cambridge educated lawyer, again working in the city. Again starting off a young family, he asked the question, what am I doing in all this? At the time he was often in the office by 7.00am and didn't leave until at least 7.00pm and often 9.00pm, even once or twice working through the night. One day he said to me, “Dad, what am I doing? I work all hours I can, I have a good salary but I am taxed at 40% and cannot afford to buy a house locally?” In answer to his question he had himself headhunted and he went to work in the Cayman Islands as a lawyer with an equal but untaxed salary and where he finished work at 6.00pm and was home with his wife and two children within ten minutes. It's a tough life on an island with temperature about 30 degrees and sandy beaches and warm clear sea!
Now I have moved from theology to testimony in this meditation because there can be positive outcomes when we ask the questions and seek the Lord's wisdom and guidance. Does God want us to be working all hours of day and night? I don't believe so. Does he want us to be available to our partners and our children? I believe so!
Solomon's jaded thinking led him to wonder what the point was in accumulating great wealth which he would have leave to someone else who may not use it all wisely. I have observed that our parents – pre-war children who grew up with privation and so suffered what I can only call a spirit of poverty in later years. They earned money but because they had been through difficult times they hung on to it and never enjoyed it or made use of it. Jesus taught, “ Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Mt 6:19-21) Where we have inherited from that generation, or where we are part of a world that provides a good income, it is so easy to fall into the ‘spend for pleasure' mentality and although obtaining pleasure through your wealth is not a bad thing, it is if that is all that happens. We noted in the previous meditation Maslow's final addition to the needs pyramid – experiencing altruistic or spiritual goals.
Here's a radical suggestion: sit before the Lord and surrender your life and your wealth to Him and say Lord, please open my mind to alternatives. Am I doing what you want me to do, or is there something better you have on your heart for me, or is there a better way for me to be doing what I am doing now? Show how to use our money wisely, show me if there are ways you want us to invest in people and bless people. It might be a completely new day!
Meditations in Meaning & Values 12: And Orderly World
Eccles 3:1-3 There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,
In our quest to understand our world and find meaning, as we have commented previously, we come across those who maintain that it is a harsh world, a world of pain, a chaotic world and while we have to acknowledge that sometimes it does appear like that for a while, when we get and hold on to the bigger picture, that is far from the truth.
It is often said that modern science could only take off in the way it did because the earlier scientists had a Christian world view that said everything began from a Creator who has created an orderly creation. Because it is so much there we probably take this for granted but you know that if you put a heat under the kettle and leave it, the water will boil and evaporate. If you put water in the chiller compartment of the fridge it will turn to ice. It doesn't matter how many times we do those two things, the outcomes will be the same. We take this for granted but you could have a world that was completely unstable and so water boils at different temperatures or freezes at different temperatures. There, your mind is reacting against that, it seem impossible so used are we to order!
Perhaps this sense of orderliness has never been put so clearly in poetry as in these verses in Ecclesiastes 3. I wrote a series of studies in Ecclesiastes many years ago, you may wish to look them up for I deal with these verses in much detail. Here I just want to observe the orderliness of them, the sense of them.
“A time to be born and a time to die.” (v.2a) Neither are random. A woman conceives and so nine months later we know a baby will be born. A person grows old and older and older and we know that one of these day, this life will stop and they will depart our company. There is no doubt about this, “man is destined to die once.” (Heb 9:27)
“A time to plant and a time to uproot.” (v.2b) Gardeners know all about this… Spring is the time to plant. There is little or no point in trying to grow tomatoes outside in our climate in December. They need certain conditions and when those conditions are right – sufficient sunlight, sufficient warmth and a balance of rain – they will grow. But they have a limited life and so as Autumn approaches they start getting straggly and stop producing red tomatoes. You can feed and water them as much as you like, but they grow according to season. There is no question about it. It's an orderly world.
“A time to kill and a time to heal,” (v.3a) Killing is the last resort. War should be the last resort, but if an enemy is plundering your land and threatening your women and children (not to say men), it is a time to kill. There is no alternative. Not long back Ebola hit the news headlines in Africa and a worker was brought back to this country, his home, and he was treated. By the wonders of modern medicine the virus in him was killed. We used to keep rabbits and sadly went through the period when myxomatosis was rampant and the rabbits had to be put out of their misery, it was kinder to do that than leave them to suffer. These are not automatic things but they are needful things. Healing is easier. A compassionate heart sees the need and reaches out to heal.
“A time to tear down and a time to build,” (v.3b) There was a strange recluse who lived in our neighborhood once who never looked after her house. So dilapidated was it that when she was taken into care, the only thing to do with the house was pull it down, it was beyond repair. We moved into a small house and started a family and as our family grew we were either going to have to move or extend the house. It was a time to build.
What have we seen in these first few verses of this poem? Some things just flow with nature but other things allow us choices but the choices are often very limited, we do have to go down certain paths. There is order and there is choice but often even the choice is a predictable order. The phases of our lives bring with them challenges and choices but so often the paths before us are so predictable.
I used to teach construction and architectural students and we tried to get them to think big and think different, so one day I challenged them with a task of building a house that could change easily and cheaply to match the changing family. We pretended government taxed having spare and unused rooms, so it would have to grow and then reduce. They considered the needs of a couple, then they have a child, and then three children, But the children grew up and one by one left home until just the couple were left alone. Now these changes are very common, they are what life is like. What was not so common was creating a building that could easily expand and contract to cope with the changes. That felt artificial – and it was for the exercise in design and innovation – and that in itself again tells us how ordered life is.
Wherever you look in life there is this order, and we take it for granted, but it is how God has made this world, how He has made us. When a child is born we may not know what he or she will go through but we know they will grow up, they may face a variety of challenges common to human beings, they will go through different levels of schooling, they may go to university, they will choose a career, they may get married, they may have children, they will get older, they will get old and then they will die. Some of these things are real variables but some of them are certainties – unless other things creep in like a congenital illness, a serious disabling accident – and yet even within those areas, we are familiar with them if we observe our world, there is a familiarity even in such things that we see so regularly on our TV screens.
I can plant my tomato plants any time from January to June and they will grow. That is order, and yet depending on when I plant and how I treat them there are a whole range of outcomes – yet even those I can guess at. Even within disorder there is order, and that makes life partly reassuring at least. Of course the only non-variable is God. The psalms bear testimony to this. David cried, “How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me?” (Psa 13:2) Life seemed to be troublesome and even the things of life he could have guessed at were now troubling him. It may be orderly but sometimes things in the midst of the order go pear shaped. But then he declared, “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.” (Psa 13:5,6) When order turns to disorder, turn to the one who is always the same, always the same in His character and always the same in what He feels for you. It's an orderly world, but sometimes painful, so make sure you know Him who is unchanging and loving.