Andrew McFarland Campbell  


These exhortations were given by me between 1999 and 2005. That was a long time ago, and I have grown a lot since then. They may not reflect my current beliefs.

Please open your Bibles at Ecclesiastes chapter 1. This morning I am using the Revised Standard Version.

The words of the Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains for ever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises. The wind blows to the south, and goes round to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already, in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to happen among those who come after. I the Preacher have been king over Israel in Jerusalem. And I applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be numbered. I said to myself, “I have acquired great wisdom, surpassing all who were over Jerusalem before me; and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge.” And I applied my mind to know wisdom and to know madness and folly. I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.

At first sight, the book of Ecclesiastes is not the most upbeat or optimistic book. The underlying theme seems to be “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity”. This is in stark contrast to, say, the Psalms which have beautiful phrases like “The LORD is my shepherd I shall not want” and “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?”

It would be strange if the book of Ecclesiastes had a fundamentally different message to the other books of the Bible, and of course it doesn’t. Ecclesiastes contains the same message as the rest of the Bible, but it has a different feel, a different point of view to the rest of the Bible.

Ecclesiastes was written by the son of David, king in Jerusalem, and although it is not stated explicitly it seems to be Solomon, writing at the end of his life. He is writing from experience. He has realised that many of the things he has done amount to nothing more than vanity and vexation of spirit.

Chapter 2, verses 9 to 11: So I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.

The writer realises that even though he has worked very hard for worldly things he must leave it to the man who will come after him, and who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool.

I think that probably accounts for the superficial downbeat feeling of Ecclesiastes. The writer knows that he has put a lot of work into basically nothing. This brings to mind Matthew chapter 6, verses 19 -21:

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.

Christ told us that explicitly, and the writer of Ecclesiastes tells us exactly the same thing, based on his own experience.

This passage from Matthew summarises one of the main themes of Ecclesiastes, and Ill be returning to it towards the end of this exhortation, so it is worth keeping at the back of your mind for the moment.

There are lots of other themes and ideas in Ecclesiastes that occur elsewhere in the Bible. Please turn to Ecclesiastes chapter 3 verse 14.

I know that whatever God does endures for ever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has made it so, in order that men should fear before him.

That is in stark contrast to what Ecclesiastes says about the works of man, isnt it? What man does is vanity and vexation of spirit. What God does is everlasting and indestructible. As Psalm 111 says:

Full of honour and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures for ever.

Ecclesiastes 1 verse 15 is possibly one of the most difficult verses to understand. “What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be numbered.”

When you consider this passage in context it is actually a much more positive statement that it seems to be when you look at it on its own. Ecclesiastes 3 tells us that there is a time for everything, and verse 17 in particular says God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work.

The world is in a terrible state. Everywhere we look there is some terrible problem of some sort or other. We can’t really do anything about most of them, and it is very easy to be distressed about theft, murder, ethnic cleansing, and immorality of all kinds.

Ecclesiastes is saying, in effect, there are these problems, and we cant sort them out on our own, but dont worry: God will sort everything out in his own time. That doesnt mean that we can ignore the needy, but we shouldnt be distressed if our efforts, humanly speaking, seem to be completely futile.

In common with the rest of the Bible, Ecclesiastes is opposed to worldliness. Chapter 4 verse 6 says “Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.” Striving after wind is the way the RSV translates vexation of spirit.

This is echoed in 1 Timothy chapter 6 verses 6 to 8:

There is great gain in godliness with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content.

This brings us back to Matthew 6:19 again, doesnt it? Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.

A couple of years ago – unfortunately I have lost the reference – I read about a survey in the magazine New Scientist. The survey tried to find if there was any relationship between the amount of money a person earned and how happy they were. They were expecting to find that people on very high incomes would be very stressed, and consequently unhappy, and that people on very low incomes would also be stressed and unhappy, with the happiest people being the comfortably off, those who could afford frequent holidays, and nice cars, but were not in the high stress jobs that bring in the high salaries..

What they actually found was quite different. The people who were happiest on average were actually those who earned just sufficient money to feed, clothe and house themselves and their dependants. The theory was that the more money you have the more you want, and the less happy you become.

If we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content

Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.

Sometimes its difficult not to chase after a more elaborate lifestyle, to go for a better paid job, or whatever. We know that as followers of Christ we shouldnt go after theses things, but sometimes it is difficult to see why. More money doesnt make us happier and that is why we are not supposed to be materialistic.

Ecclesiastes 5 verse 10 puts this very succinctly.

He who loves money will not be satisfied with money; nor he who loves wealth, with gain: this also is vanity.

Ecclesiastes also deals with the importance of fellowship, particularly the benefits of fellowship during difficult times. Chapter 4 verses 9 to 12:

Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow; but woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up. Again, if two lie together, they are warm; but how can one be warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

The metaphors there are lovely, arent they? When you are with somebody, and you fall, they help you up. Similarly, when you are in an ecclesia and you have difficulty, the other members of the ecclesia support you. A problem that would defeat an individual is easily solved when there is mutual support.

Despite first appearances, Ecclesiastes isnt a depressing book. It is advice about how and why to follow Gods instruction, and it is given by someone who ignored that instruction and realised that everything outside Gods way is vanity and vexation of spirit.

Before I talk about what I feel is the ultimate message of Ecclesiastes I want to consider vanity and vexation of spirit and Matthew 6, verses 19 to 33:

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.

Jumping to verse 25:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

As an aside, isnt it interesting that Solomon in all his splendour is mentioned in this context?

We can avoid vanity and vexation of spirit by seeking the kingdom of God and remembering that we are being looked after. If we follow Gods instruction we need not be worried about anything. That isnt really stated anywhere explicitly in Ecclesiastes, but I think the message is there implicitly. Living outside of Gods instruction leads to vanity and vexation of spirit, so living within Gods instruction must help avoid it.

The ultimate message of Ecclesiastes is found in the final two verses of the final chapter, chapter 12 verses 13 and 14:

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgement, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

The same thing is said in one of our other readings for today, Deuteronomy 6, verses 4 and 5:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD; and you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.

In Mark chapter 12 Christ is asked Which commandment is first of all. In verses 29 to 31 he replies:

“The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”

The third reading for today is John 19, the story of the crucifixion of Christ. Christ laying down his life as he did is the ultimate example of both these commandments. He loved God so much that he followed Gods will in everything he did, even to the point of death, and he loved his neighbour – and we are his neighbours – so much that he laid down his life for us.

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