This sermon is part of the sermon series "The Most Relevant Book of the Bible: Ecclesiastes". See series.
On the 4th of July we celebrate the day of American independence. As we all know, the writers and signers of the Declaration of Independence declared for the whole world to hear that we are endowed by our Creator with the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Well, Americans have life and they have liberty, but the pursuit of happiness isn't going so well.
After he won his third Super Bowl, Tom Brady was interviewed by 60 Minutes. In an incredibly candid moment, he told the guy interviewing him, "There's got to be more to life than this, isn't there?" Here is one of the most gifted, famous and affluent athletes of our time and he was still unsatisfied after winning three Super Bowls.
Other rich and famous people are facing the same problem. A famous fashion model was recently interviewed after winning a contest with 10,000 other women to have her image splashed across the cover of innumerable magazines. It made her rich and hugely famous. A year later she said, "I finally achieved my biggest dream, the dream I always wanted. But when I finally got there, it wasn't all I thought it would be." It's not just the rich and famous who aren't finding much satisfaction with all their money and fame. Average Americans appear to be equally inept at finding fulfillment.
Innumerable sociological surveys have been done over the past 10 years asking newly married people what they think their greatest joy in life will be and by an overwhelming margin they reply "raising our kids." But then they survey them five years later with one or two kids running around and they report pretty low levels of happiness. How often have we heard that and maybe even lived that?
We were told that if we worked more and got that next raise we'd be satisfied. But we weren't. We're told every day that if we just buy that new product we will find fulfillment so we buy it and then discover that the buzz wears off and we're still unfulfilled. We think that if we just change jobs or move to another place in the country we'll find happiness. We disrupt our families and make those changes only to realize a year or two later that the new job is a lot life the old job and the weather in the new place has more downsides than we realized.
The Teacher, who was probably Solomon, argued that, at least on the surface, life is much like a cul-de-sac that we drive into and find ourselves just driving around and around and around. The reality that life is like a cul-de-sac didn't stop him from trying to find fulfillment along the way because there was something innate within him—just like it's within each of us—that pushes us to find meaning and purpose.
We all need a reason to live, a reason to get up and keep going and that was true of this writer as well. So he picked three of the most common ways that people use to find fulfillment and then he ran after them as hard as he could.
Solomon argues that he gave himself over to the development of his mind. Wisdom means foundational knowledge about life and how it all works and fits together. If he had lived, like we live, in the Age of Information I think he might have become the ultimate computer hacker. Certainly, in his own context he thought he would find fulfillment there but no it too was "a chasing after the wind." This relates directly to us as Americans today.
We're the most educated nation in human history; every year we graduate thousands of master's degrees, medical degrees, law degrees, and PhDs. As a society we pride ourselves on being smart and getting smarter all the time and we probably all know some really bright people. You probably work with some or maybe even live with some and I know I do. Being educated and becoming intellectually competent are not bad things at all. I'm a professional educator. But if you think gaining more knowledge and leveraging your intellectual prowess are going to give you a lasting sense of fulfillment, think again. Our minds are the gift of God but they are limited. Relying too much on our intellect alone is not only fleeting and a chasing after the wind; sometimes it's downright dangerous.
I read about an article that was titled "178 Seconds to Live." It was about a test that was given to 20 of the smartest pilots in the world, all of who had exceptionally high IQs and a great deal of aviation experience. Each pilot was put in a flight simulator—without the use of any instruments—and then told to do whatever he could to keep the airplane under control as he flew into some very dark clouds and really stormy weather. The article stated that all 20 of these incredibly bright people who had long and successful flying careers, "crashed and killed themselves" within an average of 178 seconds. It took these highly intelligent, seasoned pilots less than 3 minutes to destroy themselves once they lost their visual reference points.
All their knowledge combined with their intellect could not save them. As the Teacher said in 1:18: "For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief." All of you here are really bright people and that's a good thing. But Solomon would warn you about relying too much on your intelligence; he'd say don't use it to find your fulfillment; don't place too much of your identity there because if you do, at some point you will be bitterly disappointed. He's trying to tell us if we take the good gift of our minds and make its use our ultimate goal, in the end we'll only find frustration because it's not God.
Since intellectualism couldn't deliver the Teacher tried something we're really into in our culture: Hedonism. Hedonism is a fancy word for pleasure and Solomon gave himself to it. In the first part of 2:1 he says "I thought in my heart, Come now, I will test you with pleasure, to find out what is good." Now skip down to the second half of verse eight: "I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well—the delights of the heart of a man. He says in verse 10 "I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure." The context here indicates that he's talking about sexual pleasure. In 1 Kings 11 we're told that he had 700 wives and 300 concubines and being the king, they were at his beck and call at all times. All those women did not satisfy him. As he says in the rest of verse one "… that also proved to be fleeting."
His experience here is extremely relevant to American culture in 2015. We live in a society that is sexually stimulated 24-7-365. Girls Gone Wild to The Girls Next Door to a multi-billion dollar porn industry to every issue of Cosmo which stares us down in the checkout line telling us 15 new ways to have great sex. We face that because lots of people are looking for their ultimate fulfillment in sexual pleasure. They really do believe that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. But the unending pursuit of sexual pleasure leads to loss, not fulfillment.
Former playmate Susie Scott became a Christian and spoke with the 700 Club. She spoke very explicitly about her life in the Playboy Mansion, the orgies she was involved in and all the various and sundry sexual escapades she observed. She said, "When you go down that road, sex becomes less and less satisfying and more and more perverse and then it finally becomes utterly worthless. It doesn't mean anything to anyone."
Friends, her observation may seem either shocking or trivial or even untrue to you but she went down that road, she lived out that life, and she speaks from vast sexual experience. She's telling us—just like the Teacher did—that the unending pursuit of sexual fulfillment kills the development of intimate human relationships. It reduces sexual desire to an ever-increasing unnatural mechanical process that hollows out sex to the point where we can't get any thrills at all out of what was once one of the greatest pleasures of our lives. Sex is a wonderful gift but if you make it your god, over time, it will become a demon in your life. Solomon discovered that to be oh-so-true.
Intellectualism couldn't deliver and hedonism couldn't provide any lasting satisfaction. So the Teacher decided to pursue some good ol' fashioned materialism.
Solomon's saying I built more stuff and bought more stuff than anyone else around me. I had more homes and cars and computers & 401Ks and IRAs and employees than anyone else around me. He had it all—and even more—but it wasn't enough to satisfy his heart. As he concludes in 2:11: "Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was fleeting, a chasing after the wind; nothing was gained under the sun."
Some of you hear that and you're thinking Hey, wait a minute! That's just not true. When I got my iPod, my iPad and my iPhone and I could download my iTunes, I got a lot of satisfaction and fulfillment from those. Scott, you're just jealous because you're a PC person. Let's leave my personal computer preference out of the discussion for a moment and get back to the truth. I'm just like you; I like buying new stuff whether it's clothes, cars, or computers. But the reality is that consuming material stuff is like drinking a cup of Starbucks; it gives you a jolt of joy but after a few hours, it all wears off. That's why advertisers are so successful at getting us to buy something new. They know that we want the kick that comes from consuming but that thrill wears off pretty quickly and leads nowhere good.
In a book entitled Affluenza the authors note that in 1986 there were more high schools than shopping centers in our country. 26 years later, there are twice as many shopping centers as there are high schools. We now spend more on shoes, jewelry, and watches than we do on higher education. When you think about how much a degree at a four year college costs these days, that's a lot of shoes, jewelry, and watches; Americans have a billion credit cards and we're carrying over a trillion dollars in debt—not including mortgages because we can't get enough. We're trying to fill our souls with stuff and even though it's not doing the trick we just keep trying it over and over and over again and it only leads to more debt and greater frustration.
What the Teacher learned is that when we take the good gifts of God—like education and sex and cars and clothes and computers—and we make them the goal of life—in the end we don't find fulfillment but a whole lot frustration.
Between 1970 and 2006 the average income in our country, when adjusted for inflation, went up 18 percent. During the same period of time, we've acquired more stuff than we know what to do with, we have more information than we can keep up with. We have more seminars, books, and magazine articles on sexual satisfaction than Solomon could have dreamed of and we have more recreational opportunities than can ever engage in one lifetime. But from 1970 to 2006, the divorce rate tripled, teen suicide tripled, and we invented reality TV because we're so incredibly bored. We have a great depression in our culture but it's a depression of the soul because all of our education, affluence, sexual expression and recreation can't meet the deepest desires of our hearts. As we continue to run after all that stuff we're finding what Solomon found and that's a great deal of frustration.
But the good news is that he points us to a better place. He wraps up this section of his book by pointing us to a better person.
Having run so hard after all these other things, Solomon comes home to God. As he learned, without him there is no enjoyment of the good things of life because he's the one who gives us happiness. The solution is to put God at the center because what we put at the center of our lives determines how all the spokes work. If Jesus is at the center, he'll give us his grace and as we receive his grace, we can enjoy all the good gifts he's provided without putting so much emphasis on them and so much pressure on ourselves. That's the point of the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes. You can be rich, you can be smart, you can even be a gold-medal winning romantic athlete.
But unless Jesus is at the center of your life more money, more education, and more sex are never going to satisfy you. They may stimulate you but in the end you'll only find frustration because they can't give you fulfillment! But if you do as Jesus says, over time you will find it. He puts it this way: Seek first the kingdom of God [his rule and his reign in your life] and its righteousness and then all these things shall be given to you.
You don't need to get straight A's, earn a PhD, or invent a new form of software to be significant; you just need to know God's grace and then share it with your family and friends. You don't need a thousand women or a different man to satisfy you. You just need Jesus and the eyes he gives you for your spouse. You don't need more money or more stuff; you just need to know that Jesus will meet your needs day in and day out and give you enough to share with others.
What we all need is Jesus because he loves us, he has redeemed us on the cross and in the resurrection and he wants to give us more of himself. As great as Solomon was, Jesus is far, far greater and he beckons you to put him at the center of your life. So, for your sake, your family's sake, for God's sake, put him there.
And then you can go on and enjoy all the gifts of grace that he's given you because in Jesus and Jesus alone lies fulfillment and life. That's good news, friends, and it is cause for great joy.
Scott Wenig is associate professor of applied theology at Denver Seminary in Denver, Colorado, and author of Straightening the Altars.