Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"ONLY THE GOD OF LIFE CAN FIX THE BROKENNESS OF LIFE"
1 Kings 4:20-34
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Psalm 39:3; Hymn 51:8
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
The Australian Labor Party is traditionally very left leaning. Mark Latham, though, is trying desperately hard to move his party substantially to the right. He wants, for example, closer bonds between parents and children, and so promises each family three books to read to their children…. He recognizes that boys need fathers, need male mentors; that there’s so many single parent families in Australia, he says, does not augur well for the future. This is conservative language, the language of the political right. What’s happening here? Latham wants votes, and he recognizes that voters have become more conservative.
Voters have become more conservative. A generation ago we had the sexual revolution. Today society sees the fruits: instability in marriage because of easy divorce, countless children raised in single parent homes. Society realizes: the emotional cost has been too high, and so we’re seeing a reaction back to permanent marriages and fathers taking responsibility for their children. Point: we’re coming full circle.
So what was the value of all the hue and cry of the previous generation? It was all hot air, a breath in the wind…. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity…. People can try to change things, but the more they try to change things, the more things stay the same….
We may be thankful for the return to conservative values. But the principle displayed here –that nothing really changes- isn’t that discouraging? I think especially of young people, who see things that need to be fixed up, and they have the energy and zeal to do it. Isn’t it discouraging to tell these young people that their efforts will not help in the long run??
This, congregation, is the question the Preacher addresses. This teacher in Israel has a word for those who try to fix up the brokenness of this life. Let people try, he says; that’s fine. But let those who try –and that’s all of us!- keep two things in mind. The first is that all is vanity and a striving after wind; the second is that all must fear God and keep His commandments.
I summarize the sermon with this theme:
ONLY THE GOD OF LIFE CAN FIX THE BROKENNESS OF LIFE.
1. People cannot fix the brokenness.
"Vanity of vanities," says the Preacher; "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity." The term translated here for us as ‘vanity’ means ‘breath’. A breath by definition disappears. You take in air, your body does what it wills with that air, and then you exhale it. The air you exhale disappears, is of no further value, is untraceable, useless. That, says the Preacher, is true of all things: "all is vanity", "all is breath", exhaled, gone, of no value.
The Preacher is empathic on the point. He doesn’t say: "vanity, all is vanity." No, he says "vanity of vanities", and the point of the doubling is to intensify what he’s saying. All is not just vain, but all is very vain. All is not just breath, but all is only breath and nothing else. And even that emphatic doubling is repeated: "vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities." You hear it: the Preacher is absolute. Anything, everything, is breath, only breath, nothing but breath. Getting up in the morning is vanity, going to school is vanity, getting a job is vanity, falling in love is vanity, reading the paper is vanity; "vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity," a breath blown away by the wind….
Nor is the Preacher’s insistence that all is vanity, absolute vanity, restricted to our text. It’s a refrain that comes back time and again through his book. In fact, it’s the book’s theme…. It’s how he starts the book in our text, and it’s how he ends the book in 12:8. And in between he repeats it any number of times in between. Whatever you do makes no sense, for all is vanity….
Why, brothers and sisters, is the Preacher so absolute? Who is this pessimist that pours such a cold shower on our enthusiasm to fix things up? What credentials does he have to stifle our zeal?!
The Preacher identifies himself in vs 1 as "the son of David, king in Jerusalem." That can be none other than Solomon. Vs 12 adds that this son of David "was king over Israel in Jerusalem." There were only two kings who reigned over all Israel from out of Jerusalem, and that’s David and is son Solomon.
Now, I should tell you right away that many scholars, also reformed men who take the Bible seriously, doubt whether Solomon actually wrote this book. For a number of reasons they argue that Ecclesiastes was the last book to be written in the Old Testament, well after Malachi, and the author put himself forward as if he were Solomon because what he says is Solomonic in wisdom. Once you adopt the position that the Preacher was an unknown writer in an unknown time, more questions arise. What made him write this book? Is the wisdom of this book his own work, or is he actually quoting the work of an unbeliever – and then adding his pious opening and closing words? There are Reformed authors who say so….
Let us stay with the plain meaning of vs 1: the Preacher is "the son of David, king in Jerusalem" – Solomon. Given that tidbit of information, we know the nature, struggles and wisdom of the author, as well as the time in which he wrote this book.
Solomon was an exceedingly wise man. The Holy Spirit tells us in 1 Kings 4 that "Solomon’s wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the men of the East and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all men…. He spoke 3000 proverbs, and his songs were 1005…. Men of all nations, from all the kings of the earth who had heard of his wisdom, came to hear the wisdom of Solomon" (vss 31ff). Think only of the Queen of Sheba. We have some of his proverbs in the book of Proverbs, and yes, they are profound sayings that demonstrate that this man was well-versed in the harsh realities of this broken, sinful life. In fact, the book of Kings makes clear that Solomon himself has tested and tested again the theme of Ecclesiastes. He knew from personal experience that riches and comforts do not make a man happy – for he was incredibly rich and still not satisfied. He knew from personal experience that obtaining more wives, more concubines does not produce contentment; why else did he keep getting more and more wives –100 wasn’t enough, 200 wasn’t enough; he ended up with 300- and why else did he keep adding concubines to his harem – 400, 500, 600, 700! Satisfaction?! He saw with his own eyes that the Israelites of his day experienced the same frustration. Sure, they never had it so good economically and politically and spiritually as in the days of Solomon; for they all sat under their own vine and under their own fig tree (1 Kings 4:25), and God Himself dwelt in their midst in the new temple. Yet resentment grew amongst the people of Solomon’s day, dissatisfaction, and it kept growing until after Solomon’s death the northern 10 tribes broke away from Jerusalem in order to go it alone. What was the value, then, of all that Solomon had built up? It was a breath, nothing, vanity….
At the end of his life Solomon turned away from the Lord. Did he write the book of Ecclesiastes before he fell away from the faith? Did he repent in his old age and write it then? We don’t know. But this wisest of men, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, studied life so carefully. Then he assembled the young and not so young of his kingdom together, and told them his conclusions. Is enthusiasm profitable? Does the labor of a lifetime make sense? "Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity."
Now: why does Solomon say this? Why does the labor of a lifetime result only in frustration? Why are 78 wives not enough, 246 not enough, 634 concubines not enough either? Why does sitting peacefully under one’s own fig tree, with one’s own vineyard to drink from, not lead to national contentment? In the book of Chronicles we read that Solomon "made silver and gold as common in Jerusalem as stones" (1 Chron 1:15); why, then, was there unrest with the people?
Solomon, brothers and sisters, knows his Bible (cf Dt 17:18ff), knows of the happiness there was in Paradise and of the curse that followed the fall into sin. He knows that the fallen world is characterized by death (Gen 2:18; 3:19), by thorns and thistles and sweat and tears (Gen 3:17ff), by exile from the presence and friendliness of God (Gen 3:24). He also knows that Adam and Eve received a son and called his name ‘Abel’ (Gen 4:2). Abel: that’s the Hebrew word for ‘vanity’, the same word as Solomon repeats in our text. Why, brothers and sisters, would Adam and Eve call their son ‘Vanity’, ‘Breath’? Is that what they thought of the baby? No, in the years since the fall into sin Adam and Eve had come to taste for themselves how empty and futile and senseless all their labors were! They put a fence around their garden to keep the wild rabbits out, and next morning learned that again their lettuce plants were eaten. They hoed the weeds out of their garden, and next week they could do it again. They could build a house, and next year discover that the termites had eaten it away. They labored and labored and labored, and what did they really achieve? Could they restore Paradise? Could they through their labors rebuild the happiness and contentment and peace that used to characterize their lives? Their efforts were useless, vanity, a striving after wind. They gave expression to that frustration in the name they gave their second son: Abel, breath, all is vanity….
Every generation since the days of Adam and Eve has experienced the same. Look carefully, says the Preacher to his audience, and check the lessons of history: "what profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?" (1:3). We labor and labor and labor, but do we really get ahead? One generation labors for 40, 50, 60 years, and what happens – he dies! Dies!! Is that progress? And what of the next generation? It labors another 40, 50, 60 years and also dies! Get ahead? O sure, it looks it, for a while. But it’s like the sun – vs 5. The sun rises, and goes up and up and up…, and then down, down, down until it’s gone. Progress? The wind blows and blows, so much air coming from the east that you’d expect the east to be empty of wind. But the wind turns around and blows from the west…. Progress? At the end of the day the air isn’t gone…. The rivers keep flowing, month after month, year after year. But the sea doesn’t get any fuller; the water evaporates and comes back as rain. Progress? The sun, the wind, the river: it’s all action, but no progress…. And so is man’s labor. You mend the fence, but tomorrow it’s fallen over again. You clean up the spiders, but tomorrow they’re back. You tear down the taboos western society has inherited from previous generations, but after 40 years there’s a return to those very norms. "All things are full of labor", and what true progress is there? As the Preacher says in 1:9: "That which has been is what will be, That which is done is what will be done, And there is nothing new under the sun." You build a fence, and no matter how good it is it eventually falls apart, and you need to rebuild it. You clean up the spiders, and no matter how good your broom or your spray, in due time you need to do it again. Men establish laws in the land, only to see expectations change….
Why that is? That’s because man cannot reach through to the cause of our brokenness and troubles! The cause is our fall into sin, and that problem is too big for us. Try though we might to fix up the bitter consequences of that fall, we can no more than tinker at the edges, put band aids on the symptoms; we can’t undo the fall itself. Here’s the truth of vs 15: "What is crooked cannot be made straight, And what is lacking cannot be numbered."
Adam and Eve learned it quickly after the fall, and every generation thereafter has learned it again and again. Even so, each generation anew seeks to improve the quality of life, each strives to bring about something of the Paradise we lost. Each generation thinks to make some progress – like the morning sun; it goes up, up, up – progress! But after the up, up, up comes the down, down, down; every evening again the sun sets. That’s what human labor is like also. Each generation labors, young people have so much zeal and zest to make things better, easier, more enjoyable. Up, up, up, progress! And if anybody made progress in improving things, surely it was Solomon – under whose reign the people ate, drank and rejoiced under their fig tree… (1 Kings 4:20, 25).
But Solomon saw it in his own life. Does prosperity lead to contentment? Does peace lead to Paradise restored? The fall into sin had brought God’s curse on the earth, and no labor of man can negate that curse. "What is crooked cannot be made straight." After the up, up, up of Solomon’s early years there follows the inevitable down, down, down. Hence Solomon’s discouraging conclusion (vs 14): "I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and indeed, all is vanity and grasping for the wind."
This, brothers and sisters, younger and older, is a hard reality we must accept. To admit that all is vanity, to admit that human labor ultimately achieves nothing –after every up must come a down- is a bitter pill to swallow – both for those who have labored for years as well as for the young and enthusiastic. But the Holy Spirit has put this conclusion into the mind of that most wise of all men, and caused Solomon to pass this sour truth on to the people of his prospering realm. More, the Holy Spirit has put this wisdom into the Bible He has given to us –why?- so that we –modern people living in an age of enormous technological advances (which generation of men has ever had as many comforts and opportunities as we?!)- should have it fixed in our minds that even our generation cannot make straight what is crooked. We have fallen into sin, and so provoked the wrath and judgment of the almighty Creator. No matter how hard we try, we cannot get out from under that reality. God’s curse as pronounced in Genesis 3 will always characterize life; we people cannot change that, no matter how hard we try. That is Principle No. 1 that must be fixed in the minds of each person on this earth, whether young or old. You’re enthusiastic? You want to change things, fix things, improve things? You want to set straight what is crooked? Says Solomon, says the Holy Spirit: you can’t! From the outset I tell you that all your labors are vain, are as useless as an exhaled breath.
Does this damning conclusion spell out the end of all initiatives? Does it tell our older people that all their labors over the years have served no purpose, and does it tell the youth that they’d better shelve their zeal?
That, brothers and sisters, is not the Preacher’s purpose. His purpose with the damning words of our text is to clear the way for the right answer. People cannot fix life’s problems, but God can. It’s only when you first acknowledge people’s bankruptcy that you can appreciate what God has done. That’s our second point:
2. People must trust God to fix the brokenness.
After 11 chapters of demonstrating that all is vanity, that human labor cannot fix the brokenness resulting from our fall into sin, the Preacher finally feels free to point to the answer. The deck is cleared; now people will listen. What the answer is? "Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter," he says at the end of his book. "Fear God and keep His commandments."
How surprising! Is that truly the answer to the futility of human labor to restore Paradise, fix life’s problems?? Where does Solomon get that from?!
As it is, beloved, this is precisely what the Lord God had promised Israel repeatedly in the past. I think of Moses’ words in Deut 4: "You shall therefore keep His statutes and His commandments …, that it may go well with you…" (vs 40). Or, as we can also translate: "that you may prosper." Moses repeats it in Deut 6: "Hear, O Israel, and be careful to observe [this law], that it may be well with you" (Dt 6:3; cf 10:12). The Psalmist picked up this theme in Ps 1: "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly…; But his delight is in the law of the Lord…. He shall be like a tree Planted by the rivers of water, That brings forth its fruit in its season…; And whatever he does shall prosper." Ps 128 echoes the same thought: "Blessed is every one who fears the Lord, who walks in His ways. When you eat the labor of your hands, You shall be happy, and it shall be well with you…." It is the promise of the Lord throughout Scripture: God’s blessing lies on obedience to His commands. That is the way to make progress. That is the way to improve life on earth. That is the way to taste again something of the Paradise we lost with our fall. "Fear God and keep His commandments."
Why? Why might fearing God and keeping His commandments actually help? That, brothers and sisters, is because our Lord Jesus Christ feared His God and Father, and so obeyed His commandments even though for Him strict obedience led Him to the cross. Through His obedience and sacrifice on the cross He paid for our sin in Paradise and for our sins day-by-day, so that we might be reconciled to God, permitted back into His divine presence. His obedience is our salvation. In the words of the Lord’s Supper Form: "by His death He has taken away the cause of our eternal hunger and misery, which is sin." Remember: He was not corrupted by the fall into sin, and so His labor could bear fruit in God’s kingdom. He was not corrupted, and so His labor in fact could improve things on this earth, could fix this broken life. That is why Principle No. 1 was not true for Jesus Christ; He was without sin, and therefore His labor was not in vain!
What, now, shall they who belong to Jesus Christ do? This: in gratitude for His salvation, they shall fear God and keep His commandments – even as the Lord Jesus Christ did. You see: obedience is evidence of faith. Those who believe that the Lord Jesus Christ restored purpose to life, reconciled sinners to God, demonstrate their faith by carefully doing what He has commanded, and His command is to love God and keep His commandments. It’s through obeying the Lord in the nuts and bolts of real life that life on this earth is improved and something is restored of the Paradise we lost. Recall Paul’s words to the Corinthians: "Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord" (1 Cor 15:58). Because Christ triumphed, obedience to God is profitable, works of obedience beneficial!
We all like to do our bit to improve life on this planet, make it better for those around us and for those coming after us. Especially young people are full of zeal and enthusiasm to pursue and reach that goal. The Holy Spirit impresses upon us God’s divine recipe for progress. Doing what we think is right avails nothing, nothing since we can’t get rid of the cause of your hunger and misery. But doing God’s will in our daily circumstances does help –even though it may make no sense to our broken minds!- because Christ Jesus has taken away the cause of our eternal hunger and misery. Paradise is in principle restored, and now the kingdom of God is built on this earth by the people of God doing the will of God. That is Principle No. 2, which every child of God must have written in their hearts.
Do you hear it, beloved? Labor without Christ, effort and sweat to improve this life without regard for the will of God, is vain, useless, will not ultimately achieve. But the labor of the Christian, labor done in obedience to the Lord, is not in vain! It achieves, it has value. For the Lord uses the labor of His people –and that’s labor done in obedience to God’s commands- the Lord uses the labor of His people to develop His kingdom on this earth, uses it to make His kingdom come.
What, then, of the zeal and enthusiasm people have to fix what’s broken, improve things on this earth? That zeal is good, even Solomon would not condemn that; look at the zeal with which he went to work to build a temple for the Lord in Jerusalem! But that zeal must be channeled, your energy must be poured not into deeds that look beneficial to our eyes, but be poured into deeds that obey God’s commands.
Let me paraphrase James and say it this way: zeal without faith is futile, vain, useless, a breath in the wind. But zeal driven by love for the Lord and therefore obedience to His word, bears rich fruit in His kingdom, fruit benefiting life on this earth.
So, young and not so young: fear God and keep His commandments. Obey, and it shall be well with you, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.