The Sleeping Man–Ecclesiastes 2:24-26

A few minutes ago, Bo the Poodle and I took our daily drive to QuikTrip. Bo stands in the back seat, his head out the window, making strange noises at squirrels, while I use the trip to refill my soda cup with Diet Dr. Pepper.

This morning, as I parked at the end of the store, I saw someone whose trip was not progressing quick–or quickly. In years past, many people placed little racially insensitive “decorations” in their yards: a sleeping Mexican, seated with his sombrero covering his head and knees. The guy at QuikTrip, minus the sombrero, looked very much like this figure as he apparently slept on the sidewalk, his back leaning on the building.

So now, a few minutes later, I wonder if this sleeping guy, who I’m going to assume doesn’t have an air-conditioned home and pillow-top bed, is really the smart one. Let’s look at what Ecclesiastes has to say about the work that people do.

There is nothing better for a person than to eat, drink, and enjoy his work. I have seen that even this is from God’s hand, because who can eat and who can enjoy life apart from him? For to the person who is pleasing in his sight, he gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy; but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and accumulating in order to give to the one who is pleasing in God’s sight. This too is futile and a pursuit of the wind.

–Ecclesiastes 2:24-26

Here I am writing this. Later, I’ll write an adult lesson for church. Then I really need to get started on a month of curriculum for children, due in a few weeks. And somewhere along the line, I’ll have to start grading my summer school students’ work. Around the house, I have a wheelbarrow of dirt that needs to find a home and some ivy, ripped off an old tree, that should be cleaned up.

Without God, everything is a vanity, a futility, a vapor.

What will the sleeping man at QT have done at the end of the day? Unless I miss my guess, he’ll have shuffled aimlessly around town and picked up handouts and leftovers wherever he can. He’ll probably have to sleep somewhere else tonight to avoid a run-in with the authorities. This might prove his hardest task for the day.

So is today’s passage telling me that God is better pleased with this man who is eating what others gather and accumulate? I don’t think so, unless he is also given “wisdom, knowledge, and joy.” But it does tell us that if our activities do not bring us those things, then we’re doing something wrong. It does tell us that if we cannot enjoy our work, then perhaps we’re in the wrong line.

Ecclesiastes does not call us to sleepwalk through our lives, but there is more than one way to sleep through life. You can waste your life sleeping on a convenience store porch or you can waste it slaving away at work that no one will care about six months hence.

Finally Koheleth has brought God into the picture. Without Him, everything is a vanity, a futility, a vapor. Only when we center our lives humbly around what comes from God’s hand can we truly wake up and transcend the futility.

A Reason for Sunday–Ecclesiastes 2:22-23

Yesterday, I mentioned the work that Jim performed, transforming a 110-year-old dairy barn into a wonderful home. About a week back, I spoke about the ramp that I was building to allow handicapped access to the deck and therefore the interior of that home. Yesterday, I completed that ramp, applying two sets of boards between the railing and the floor to keep particularly careless scooter drivers from plunging to their deaths off the side.

So, aside from the momentary praise of my wife–which isn’t a bad thing–what do I get out of all the work that I put in on that ramp. For one thing, my bank account is several hundred dollars lighter. For another, and more lasting outcome, I’ll probably see a procession of people with blue handicapped placards in their cars parking at the foot of the ramp and rolling up to bless my home with their presence. Already, my mother-in-law has used the ramp to come over for lunch. What other travails await me?

My biggest chore yesterday was not the installation of those last 12 boards. They went in with little challenge. No, the biggest chore was getting all of the leftover wood and the vast array of tools and screws picked up and taken back to their dwelling place in the basement. As I did all of that, I had some time to think on my ramp.

What does our work give us other than a few dollars that buy transitory things and illusory security?

It will never look better than it does right now. It will never be stronger than it is right now. It will never be more plumb and level than it is right now. If I’m lucky, I won’t have to perform any adjustments, repairs, or reinforcements to the ramp for five years, but those tasks will come. The moment you put wood, even pressure-treated wood, out into the elements, it begins changing, and not for the better. I don’t know if that’s what Solomon had in mind, but it’s what pops into my mind when I read Ecclesiastes 2:22-23:

For what does a person get with all his work and all his efforts that he labors at under the sun? For all his days are filled with grief, and his occupation is sorrowful; even at night, his mind does not rest. This too is futile.

Part of me wants to accuse Solomon of being melodramatic. “You were the king, man! Snap out of this gloomy routine!” I want to shout. I understand what he is saying, but I feel as if he overplays his point. On the other hand, I’ve never been a king.

An old country song might describe the perils of being a king, whose mind does not rest:

How many times have
You heard someone say
If I had his money
I could do things my way.

But little they know
That it’s so hard to find
One rich man in ten
With a satisfied mind.

It seems that most people work at either mind-numbing or back-breaking jobs, or if their work is more in the head, then they can’t lay it down when the end of the shift comes along. And what does our work give us other than a few dollars that buy transitory things and illusory security?

Perhaps the real glory of the Sabbath is that it allows us to take a time out from this pointless work “under the sun” so that we can focus on the One who is beyond the sun.

Steward of the Barn–Ecclesiastes 2:18-21

I think Jim might drive by our house, pictured above, from time to time. I don’t know that he does. I haven’t seem him, but it seems reasonable that he might. About 15 years ago, Jim bought a decrepit but structurally sound former dairy barn and turned it into a wonderful home.

He refinished the original floors on the main level, preserving the rough, stained nature of a place where work had been done for decades. He installed staircases to the loft and to the basement. Where only smallish windows had allowed the sun in, he put in large ones that fill the open hayloft with light.

Jim also installed a greenhouse on the south side of the barn, equipping it with fans and thermostats. When it gets too cold in the greenhouse, a fan pulls warmer air in from the basement. When it gets too hot, a fan pulls that air out. He didn’t settle for ordinary heating and cooling but opted for a geothermal heat pump system. So far, our utility bills have been quite reasonable. One other bit of overbuild was in the electrical system. Jim put in far more capacity than we will ever need or use, but should we ever want to run a commercial kitchen, a server farm, and several welders simultaneously, it’s nice to know that the amperage is available.

Our work today is necessary, but it is not permanent.

Why did Jim leave this marvelous place? It wasn’t because he or his wife didn’t like it anymore. You could tell talking to them that they still maintain a love for the barn–which is why I envision him driving by on occasion. Apparently, he found that the work and expense of maintenance were just more than he could continue. Still, he recalls how he turned vision into reality, so he (maybe) drives by. That’s what takes me to Solomon today:

I hated all my work that I labored at under the sun because I must leave it to the one who comes after me.  And who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will take over all my work that I labored at skillfully under the sun. This too is futile. So I began to give myself over to despair concerning all my work that I had labored at under the sun. When there is a person whose work was done with wisdom, knowledge, and skill, and he must give his portion to a person who has not worked for it, this too is futile and a great wrong.

All of my work, efforts that seem so significant, so permanent, so necessary, will one day be passed over to someone else. Will that person care for things the way that I do? Or will they allow what I’ve labored to create to be swept into the dustbin of history?

If Jim’s happiness depends on his work here outliving him, then he may or my not be pleased with how things turn out. If my happiness depends on whether my students continue to follow the lessons I so carefully placed in front of them, then I’m almost certain to be disappointed.

Our work today is necessary, but it is not permanent. Like so much in Ecclesiastes, it is a vapor, futile.

Fame Like a Mist–Ecclesiastes 2:16-17

For, just like the fool, there is no lasting remembrance of the wise, since in the days to come both will be forgotten. How is it that the wise person dies just like the fool? Therefore, I hated life because the work that was done under the sun was distressing to me. For everything is futile and a pursuit of the wind.–Ecclesiastes 2:16-17

The grounds of Mt. Washington Cemetery are littered with stones. Maybe I shouldn’t say “littered,” since that suggests that the stones are placed randomly and without good purpose. Instead, you’ll see stones in (mostly) neat rows, all placed to mark the burial spot of somebody. Having spent three summers in my youth working on those grounds and then visiting it numerous times because of my family buried there, I’m quite familiar with those stones.

When you walk the area near my family’s plot, you’ll see several impressive structures. One, marked “Byrd,” looks like a miniature version of Athens’ Parthenon. Another, over the hill, seems like a good-sized Medieval church perched on a hillside. No one, seeing these two mausoleums (mausolea?) would doubt that the people interred there came from families with a huge amount of money. The Byrds were involved in a thriving retail business a hundred years back. The one over the hill belongs to William Rockhill Nelson, founder of The Kansas City Star.

What we can’t tell by looking at these grave markers is the relative wisdom and foolishness of the people commemorated there. When we throw out the extraordinary burial sites, we’ll find thousands of slabs of granite and marble that all look remarkably similar. They’ll have names and dates etched onto them. Some are larger and some are smaller, but in the end they’re all pretty similar.

Walk along those grounds thoughtfully. A couple of notions might strike your mind. First, the vast majority of these people are as utterly anonymous as the vast majority of people you encounter at the grocery store. Second, you can tell even less about these people here than you can typically tell about the ones at the grocery.

Have you ever thought that you could distinguish the wise and the fool as you browse the canned-goods aisle? I have. I’m sure I can’t do it with 100% accuracy, but I have fair confidence in many of these determinations. On the other hand, the people under the headstones are pretty much leveled.

Nobody etches “Fool” or “Terrible Mother” or “Spendthrift” or “Lazy” or “Easily Deceived” on the headstone of their family. The markers of veterans rarely differentiate between the hero and the coward. Instead, in death, everyone is a “Beloved mother and grandmother” or a “PFC, US ARMY, WORLD WAR II.”

So here’s the bottom line. Unless your wisdom or foolishness exists far out on the edges of the bell curve, it’s not likely to be remembered after your funeral flowers wilt. The things that seem so important to us today, will seem exceptionally small down the road. So again, even wisdom, which the Bible repeatedly urges us to pursue, will become a futile thing in the end–at least “under the sun.”

 

The Old Fool–Ecclesiastes 2:12-15

“There’s no fool like an old fool,” an old saying goes. In the past, I heard that and simply thought of it as a way for young people to get their digs in against old people: “Hey look, I can call them old and fool at the same time!” Of course, that was when I was younger and wanted to get my digs in against old people.

Older now, I’d like to spend some time thinking about a fool who is roughly my age, not terribly old or terribly young. “Jack” is single after bungling through his marriage to a much less foolish woman. He has pretty effectively alienated his only child, and his ex-wife would like to ignore him. Jack, after bottoming out financially a few years ago, went to live with his mother. I don’t care how wise or foolish you are, living with your mother in your 50s sounds terrible. (Having your mother come live with you sounds problematic as well, but that’s another matter.) Now Jack’s mother has died, so he is left with the awkwardness of a home that he can’t afford and that technically belongs to him and his two brothers.

Jack’s brothers possess the wisdom that he lacks. They’re also, despite a gruff exterior, reasonably nice fellows. They’ve agreed to let Jack live in the house as long as he wants. One of them decided to cover his brother’s housing expenses for a year to be sure he can get his feet under him. Today, Jack attempts to make a living buying and selling old stereo equipment as that year of paid-up expenses runs out. Frankly, I think he’ll have to turn around a lot of speakers and amps to support himself when the year is done.

Jack’s brothers wouldn’t want to trade places with him. They understand the value of making some good decisions along the way, but they have to wonder why he’s not having to pay more for his bad decisions. I’m reminded of this as I read Solomon’s words:

Then I turned to consider wisdom, madness, and folly, for what will the king’s successor be like? He will do what has already been done. And I realized that there is an advantage to wisdom over folly, like the advantage of light over darkness.

The wise person has eyes in his head,
but the fool walks in darkness.

Yet I also knew that one fate comes to them both. So I said to myself, “What happens to the fool will also happen to me. Why then have I been overly wise?” And I said to myself that this is also futile.–Ecclesiastes 2:12-15

The reality, as Solomon recognized is that “there is an advantage to wisdom over folly,” but we do all end up in the same place. The wise can die young. Fools can live well into their advanced years. And when it’s all over, the wise and the fool will be placed in the same ground.

As much as the Bible promotes wisdom as the ultimate thing to seek, we have to confess that wisdom is only a thing for this life, for “under the sun.” If the fool does not suffer for his foolishness, if the wise does not profit from wisdom, then there’s no real advantage to wisdom, here or hereafter.

On its own, wisdom is of no more value than possessions.

Look on my Works and Despair!–Ecclesiastes 2:9-11

“I am the greatest!” Muhammed Ali famously proclaimed as he neared the height of his boxing prowess. In many ways, Ali was a remarkable man. Although I disagree with what he stood for, he at least stood for something beyond himself, and he was, at his peak, a remarkable boxer.

Today, though, nobody thinks that Ali is, or was, the greatest. Boxing isn’t much of a thing these days, and the human memory is short. Sure, Ali was perhaps the most recognized person in the world as he claimed, but that recognition has been diminished over time. Most people might be able to identify his photo, but they’re more apt to simply know his name rather than to recall him as a living, breathing force of nature.

Ali is going the way of William Jennings Bryan. (This is probably the first time those two have been associated.) Bryan was a major force in politics around 1900. Three times he was the Democratic nominee for president. He served in Congress and as Secretary of State under Woodrow Wilson. The bottom line is that he was a big deal, but today he is mostly remembered, if at all, for the insultingly inaccurate portrayal of him as the antagonist in the play Inherit the Wind.

The same could be said for our man Solomon. He’s still a big deal, 3,000 years later, but he’s not nearly as big a deal as he was while on the throne.

So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; my wisdom also remained with me. All that my eyes desired, I did not deny them. I did not refuse myself any pleasure, for I took pleasure in all my struggles. This was my reward for all my struggles. When I considered all that I had accomplished and what I had labored to achieve, I found everything to be futile and a pursuit of the wind. There was nothing to be gained under the sun.–Ecclesiastes 2:9-11

Of course you and I are not as significant as Ali, Bryan, or Solomon. If I were, I’d be working in a slightly more exalted venue than Tune My Heart. If you were, you’d have better things to do, I would guess. But hopefully we have achieved something in our lives. Hopefully we have a bit of something to put on our lives’ resumes. And who really cares?

When I look at my accomplishments, I see a couple of books, a ton of blog entries, some scholarly articles, and a huge mass of children’s Bible study curriculum. I see many hundreds of students taught and a handful of teaching innovations. Nearly all of this stuff is ephemeral, the sort of thing that will not hold up over time. Even some of the brilliant teaching ideas I had when I first walked into a classroom seem like dinosaurs today. My accomplishments are largely pointless.

Percy Shelley understood, presenting this truth in his poem “Ozymandias”:

And on the pedestal, these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains.

What will remain of my works when I’m done? Of yours? That’s why Solomon is in such a gloomy mood in Ecclesiastes.

Buy High; Sell Low–Ecclesiastes 2:4-8

It’s 1983 and Cabbage Patch Kids are taking over the world. In that first year the toys were available, some 3 million were sold–or rather “adopted” in their clever parlance. In that same year, my father-in-law Bill was driving a truck for TG&Y, a long-disappeared retailer, a position that put him in direct contact with the bulk of the merchandise that flowed into the stores he served.

During the fall and Christmas season of 1983, Bill delivered, among other things, many cases of Cabbage Patch Kids. While most of the dolls made it onto the shelves at the various TG&Y stores, a few were “liberated” by employees who used their access and employee discount to buy dolls for their loved ones. Bill latched on to one and then another and then another. By the end of the season, he had somewhere around 10, despite having only one child in the family who might reasonably be expected to play with them.

It was during that Cabbage-Patch madness in the days before Christmas that some stranger discovered that Bill had just obtained another doll. “I’ll give you $700 for that doll,” the stranger said, displaying a stack of bills to prove his earnestness. While $700 is a good chunk of change today, those 1983 dollars would be worth $1,800 today.

“No sir!” Bill quickly answered. He wasn’t going to part with that doll. He’d somewhere heard that Coleco wouldn’t be making them after that year–because you know that manufacturers frequently stop making things are selling extremely well.

Eventually, over several years, Bill, mostly driven by his wife, hoarded north of 75 Cabbage Patch Kids. The hunks of plastic eventually took over most of a spare bedroom in their home. When they finally tired of the dolls, they could barely give them away. They might have felt like Solomon:

I increased my achievements. I built houses and planted vineyards for myself. I made gardens and parks for myself and planted every kind of fruit tree in them. I constructed reservoirs for myself from which to irrigate a grove of flourishing trees. I acquired male and female servants and had slaves who were born in my house.I also owned livestock—large herds and flocks—more than all who were before me in Jerusalem. I also amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I gathered male and female singers for myself, and many concubines, the delights of men. –Ecclesiastes 2:4-8

My in-laws didn’t learn from the Cabbage-Patch fiasco. They’ve been obsessed with Precious Moments and Hallmark Christmas ornaments. Currently, she has dozens of Longaberger baskets and cannot keep herself from accumulating more. Each time, they buy at the peak of the market and sell when they–and everyone else–has lost interest.

How often do we put our emphasis on the accumulation of money or things? Whether it is frivolous junk or the productive things Solomon claims, when we lean upon our possessions, we will be ultimately disappointed. An increase of fruit trees means an increase of responsibility and an increase in worry along with an increase in fruit.

This is not to say that possessions are bad. But possessions that are not owned to achieve something beyond what they can give will be just as pointless as a small army of Cabbage Patch Kids in a spare bedroom.

The On-Ramp to Pleasure Mountain–Ecclesiastes 2:1-3

I’ve been “ramping up” lately. What I mean by that is probably not what you mean. In reality, I’ve been building a ramp so that people in wheelchairs, power chairs, walkers, or other conveyances can get onto my deck and, from there, into the house without navigating the incredibly challenging steps–two of them–that lead into the front door.

If I sound bitter, it’s because Penny has talked me into spending a good chunk of money and a fair measure of my bodily well being getting this project, literally, off the ground. This sort of construction is not much fun. My body aches from two solid days of sawing and measuring and filling and digging, not necessarily in that order. What’s more, this not-fun project won’t lead to fun. It’s not like I’m building some sort of backyard roller coaster. I’m making my house more accessible for people who aren’t exactly the life of any party, ever.

Who ever said that life was supposed to be full of fun, though? All too often, I hear people–kids mostly–who complain about something, saying, “That’s no fun,” as if this were some sort of premium argument clincher. I’m becoming convinced, as my life proceeds apace, that happiness isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I suppose I could join the Koheleth fan club.

I said to myself, “Go ahead, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy what is good.” But it turned out to be futile. I said about laughter, “It is madness,” and about pleasure, “What does this accomplish?” I explored with my mind the pull of wine on my body—my mind still guiding me with wisdom—and how to grasp folly, until I could see what is good for people to do under heaven during the few days of their lives. –Ecclesiastes 2:1-3

I enjoy pleasure as much as the next person. Good food is good. Good music is musical. Laughter can be a good deal of fun, but when we’re living for pleasure, then we have to ask ourselves where the actual point is. I know people who absolutely live for fancy food experiences. Others live to cram as much of any sort of food–Pizza Street, I’m thinking of you–into their mouths as possible. And it is all madness.

What’s your pleasure addiction? I’m not talking about traditional addictions. Someone needn’t be a bona fide alcoholic to be addicted the pleasures of fine wine or microbrewed beers. The foodie doesn’t have to be a glutton. Others have pleasure addictions for sports or art, for music or travel. These aren’t bad things, but they shouldn’t be an end in themselves.

This brings me back to that cursed ramp. My body hurts from unaccustomed labor, and I’m not building anything fun. My fingers, as they type these words, ache from gripping a variety of tools, but I’m not increasing the value of my home. So what’s the point? Ecclesiastes would say that there’s no point to anything under the sun, so maybe all I’ve accomplished is to give myself something to write about. But if I take pleasure in that, then again there’s futility.

It seems there’s no way out of this thing.