Monday, 18 September 2017

Seeking Earthly Pleasures is Vanity In and of Itself. The Ultimate Means to a Truly Fulfilling Life is to Fear God

Christian apologist Nabeel Qureshi of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries was called home by the Lord on the 16 September 2017. He died aged 34, leaving behind a widow and young daughter. 

Life is indeed short. People die young. People die old. People die saved. People die unsaved. People died married. People died unmarried. People die without debt. People die owing debt. People die and leave behind children. People die and not leave behind children. People die wise. People die foolish. People die rich. People die poor. But one thing is clear: all will die. So, one wonders, what is life? No other book in the Bible but Ecclesiastes examines such questions in a riveting, thrilling, realistic, and yet encouraging way.

Many people in the modern Church in the west find Ecclesiastes hard to accept, or hard to put into practice. They find it very depressing. Much of it is because most Christians in the west have every earthly thing they can have, including the ones who live a more simple life rejecting the crass materialism of the culture. 

However, Ecclesiastes is not intended to be a depressing book. Rather, it is to counsel people with wisdom, whether old or young, wise or foolish, rich or poor, about what should one's ultimate goal in life be.

Some people think that the focus or emphasis of Ecclesiastes is to enjoy pleasure. They point to the verses about enjoying the fruit of their labour, as if that is what the central message of Ecclesiastes is:

Behold that which I have seen: it is good and comely for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy the good of all his labour that he taketh under the sun all the days of his life, which God giveth him: for it is his portion.
Every man also to whom God hath given riches and wealth, and hath given him power to eat thereof, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labour; this is the gift of God.
 For he shall not much remember the days of his life; because God answereth him in the joy of his heart.
(Ecclesiastes 5:18-20).

However, this is only part of the story. The book of Ecclesiastes is a book which recounts all of Solomon's earthly pursuits by which he seeks pleasure. If anyone had it all, it was Solomon. Yet, he calls it all vanity of vanities, all is vanities. Solomon speaks more about his grief and despair than his joy found in earthly pleasures. Yet, some try to emphase the earthly pleasures, which is because they find it hard to accept that all they have on earth is vanity. They are too focused and distracted by earthly pleasures, and that is a problem.

Earthly things to enjoy may be legitimately enjoyed. However, that is not the main point of Ecclesiastes. It is a very marginal point of the entire book. This cannot be emphased enough in an culture which thinks that ease, comfort and pleasure are measures of the quality of one's life, and in a church which is so influenced by such a culture. To make things worse, the culture and those influenced by it, being so individualistic is one which reads Ecclesiastes to understand how one can increase one's pleasures.  

As such, many read Ecclesiastes, ignoring the real point as to why Solomon is listing his earthly pursuits of pleasure in Ecclesiastes chapters 1 and 2. He is listing them to show how vain they were, and not to show you how you can find fulfillment in such pleasures by seeking them. Neither is Ecclesiastes even saying that such things can give true fulfillment. They may give some fulfillment for a while, but only a while. Hence, that is why there is a season for every thing (Ecclesiastes 3:1):

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:

A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.
(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8).

Indeed, what is meant by a season for every thing is not that one can have all things. It means that there is a limit on everything one can enjoy, in that the pleasures of such things are only fleeting. All earthly pleasures have their time and are soon over is what Ecclesiastes 3 1:8 is saying.

Is it no wonder people in the modern western Church find Ecclesiastes hard to fully and properly accept? They want to enjoy every earthly pleasure forever for the rest of their lives and into eternity.

All earthly pleasures, whether it be marriage, family, food or wine are fleeting. You better accept this or else you are a fool. The seeking of such pleasures itself will ultimately lead to a lack of fulfillment. When all such things are gone, one will despair. This explains why so many people in old age who cannot enjoy such things are in despair, because they pursued these things, as opposed to the fear of God: 

Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun:

But if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all; yet let him remember the days of darkness; for they shall be many. All that cometh is vanity.
Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment. Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh: for childhood and youth are vanity.
(Ecclesiastes 11:7-10). 

Ecclesiastes 11:8 is very realistic about life, in telling the young person that in the many years to come, there will be much darkness, and all that comes is vanity. Many young people may not believe or want to believe that, but it is simply the reality. So, Ecclesiastes 11:9 is a warning to the youth who have many years ahead of them about how to spend their lives and walk in wisdom. It is not an encouragement in the positive sense to 'enjoy life' by letting one's heart cheer oneself, and walking in accordance to one's own heart and eye which are the ways of the fool (Proverbs 3:5-6; Jeremiah 17:9). Such ways are cursed by trusting in ways of man (Jeremiah 17:5). 

Rather, it warns them that God will judge them should follow their own heart, and eyes, seeking to cheer their own hearts. The nature of this verse being a warning is confirmed by the following verse, Ecclesiastes 11:10 which says "Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart, and put away evil from thy flesh: for childhood and youth are vanity".

Ecclesiastes 12:1-7 continues this exhortation:

Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them;
While the sun, or the light, or the moon, or the stars, be not darkened, nor the clouds return after the rain:
In the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out of the windows be darkened,
And the doors shall be shut in the streets, when the sound of the grinding is low, and he shall rise up at the voice of the bird, and all the daughters of musick shall be brought low;
Also when they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail: because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets:
Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the wheel broken at the cistern.
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was: and the spirit shall return unto God who gave it.

Ecclesiastes 12:1 warns the youth that one will not enjoy earthly pleasures, not because they simply run out of contentment. Rather, it is because such things are false cisterns, which cannot give true contentment. One may be content for a while in such things, but such will cease. This is indeed false contentment.

The climax of the book can be found at the end of Ecclesiastes in Ecclesiastes 12:8-13 where Solomon says:

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity.

And moreover, because the preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yea, he gave good heed, and sought out, and set in order many proverbs.
The preacher sought to find out acceptable words: and that which was written was upright, even words of truth.
The words of the wise are as goads, and as nails fastened by the masters of assemblies, which are given from one shepherd.
And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.
For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. 

The central message can be said to be the final verse of the entire book: Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man (Ecclesiastes 12:13).

So, do not seek earthly pleasures which are merely temporal and fleeting. Rather, fear God, and you will be fulfilled.