A Word to the Wise
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A Word to the Wise

From Series: A Study in Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes 1:1-18  (ID: 2286)

The author of Ecclesiastes tells us more than thirty times that life is meaningless under the sun—and it can certainly feel that way. From birth to death, our days are often marked by apparent repetition, drudgery, and insignificance. In this message, Alistair Begg helps us to confront this reality and to understand how this Old Testament book can be read in light of Jesus. When we view the world with eternity in mind, life “under the sun” begins to look very different.


Sermon Transcript: Print

We’re going to read from the Bible, in the Old Testament, in the book of Ecclesiastes. Ecclesiastes chapter 1, and it reads as follows:

“The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem:

“‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’
   says the Teacher.
‘Utterly meaningless!
   Everything is meaningless.’

“What does man gain from all his labor
   at which he toils under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
   but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
   and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
   and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
   ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
   yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
   there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
   more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
   nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
   what has been done will be done again;
   there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
   ‘Look! [There] is something new’?
It was here already, long ago;
   it was here before our time.
There is no remembrance of men of old,
   and even those who are yet to come
will not be remembered
   by those who follow.

“I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! I[’ve] seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

“What is twisted cannot be straightened;
   what is lacking cannot be counted.

“I thought to myself, ‘Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.’ Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind.

“For with much wisdom comes much sorrow;
    the more knowledge, the more grief.”

Thanks be to God for his Word.

Father, as we study the Bible together, we need your help desperately. It’s a futile exercise simply to listen to a man talking, but we believe that when your Word is preached, that your voice is heard in a way that is promised to us in the Bible and that we don’t fully understand, but we know when it happens. We ask that it may happen now, for the glory of Christ and for our good, and for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

I invite you to take your Bibles and turn again to Ecclesiastes and to the portion that we read earlier in the service.

In reflecting on it, I think that a number of things have been in the back of my mind that have pointed me in this direction, all of which have taken place outwith the country. I came back from speaking at the Southwest Bible Festival and was returning to the small private hotel where they had made provision for me. Earlier in the day, I had made the acquaintance of the proprietor and his wife, a nice man from Lancashire called Mark and his wife by the name of Ruth. They had found out from me why I was there and what I was doing and seemed marginally intrigued by it.

When I got back quite late in the evening, I discovered when I walked into the entranceway that in the parlor, immediately on my right-hand side, which was the bar with a few extra tables, Mark and Ruth were there with a small coterie of people. And so I went in to sit with them and to say hello and to be friendly. And when I sat down, Ruth said to me, “How did the talk go?”

So I said, “Well, I think it went fairly well. There were a few people still awake when I finished,” I said, “which is usually a pretty good sign.”

She said, “Well, what did you talk about?”

I started to tell her the outline of what I’d been saying, and suddenly, one of two ladies sitting immediately to my right, behind a big floral decoration, the lady, right in the middle of what I’m saying, launches out and says, “Myth and dogma!” Just like that: “Myth and dogma!”

So I looked around the flowers, and I said, “Is that your name?”

And she said, “No, my name is Angela. But what you’re saying is absolute rubbish.”

Now, this is the first time I ever met this lady in my life. So I said, “Well, do you want to talk about it?”

“Yes,” she said. “I’m studying philosophy.”

“Oh,” I said, “that’s interesting. Who are you studying?”

She said, “Well, I’m just studying generally.”

I said, “Well, which philosophers have you found most helpful?”

Well, she couldn’t actually think of a single philosopher at this point—which, in fairness to her, was largely due to the fact that she’d consumed a fair quantity of alcohol before I showed up, and it was still in process—she and her sidekick, Averil, both of them dressed in navy blue and looking fairly prosperous and through the woods from the small private hotel.

“Well,” I said, “did you find Nietzsche particularly helpful?”

“No,” she said. “No.”

I said, “How about Sartre?”

She said, “Well, he’s good, but not a lot.”

I said, “Well, what about a twentieth-century philosopher, the best that Britain could produce, Bertrand Russell? Did you enjoy Russell? And what about his answer, ‘Only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, [may] the soul’s habitation be built’?[1] Angela, is that what you’re telling me you built your life on?”

Well, then she started to say things a little more forcibly to me. And when all was said and done, I went to bed about 1:15 in the morning. They stayed downstairs. I could still hear them talking when I drifted into unconsciousness in my room, directly above the bar, around 2:05 a.m. By that time, Angela had promised to come to the talk on the Sunday evening. But when I looked for her, apparently she’d been in bed since early Sunday morning all the way through Sunday, trying to recover from the events of the previous night. Ruth, however, did come along.

So that was the first thing. I was struck by the fact that here, in all of this protestation of philosophy, the words of the preacher ring out: “For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.”

The second event took place on Tuesday—that’s last Tuesday—when, in a small village in Shropshire, I went out for a stumble. And as I went down the road… I used to call it a run, then I changed it to a jog; now I call it a stumble. So I went out for a stumble and stumbled upon a church and a graveyard; went into the graveyard as is my wont, so that I could check out the tombstones. And as I walked amongst the tombstones all by myself, I noted that some had been there since the seventeenth century. Some were large, and some were small, and some had worn away. But I went through them all, looking for names and looking for quotations.

I found myself stopping at a small plate in the grass. I was drawn to it because of some freshly cut flowers. And as I looked at the flowers, nestled in with the flowers was a small porcelain bear. And as I looked down, it was ten years since the death of this fourteen-year-old boy, and apparently, members of his family had been there in the last few days or the last few hours, memorializing his passing and reflecting on all that life might have been had they enjoyed him through the ages of fourteen all the way through twenty-four—which, of course, he would have been at this point, the same age as our oldest child. I found myself reflecting on the words of Ecclesiastes: “It’s better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting, because death is the destiny of everybody, and the people who are still alive should take that to heart.”[2]

The third signpost came on the same day, but in the evening, when, in my responsibilities now to speak to a group of some ninety evangelical ministers, we were pondering how it would be possible for each of these men to better be involved in reaching out to their community and also to equipping their people to do the same. And in the course of a question-and-answer session I found myself saying, “You know, gentlemen, you will never have an evangelistic church unless you yourself are an evangelistic pastor. You will never have an evangelistic, outreaching congregation unless you have an evangelistic, reaching-out pastoral team. You will never find that the congregation is able to engage people in conversation to move them towards a consideration of who Christ is and why he came unless those who are in leadership are making that a way of life.”

And as I heard myself saying that, I was challenged by it. I found myself saying, “Well, how well are you doing yourself, smarty-pants? It’s easy for you to say this to a group of men and then run out of the country. But what are you doing?” And I said to myself, “I wonder if it might not be possible to encourage the congregation along these lines—of saying to a friend or to a neighbor expressly in the next three months, ‘Why don’t you come and join us for worship some Sunday morning? We’d love to have you come. We’re going through an old book together called Ecclesiastes, and I think you’ll find that it is very apropos where life is being lived.’”

And so, all of these signposts, coalescing with others, led me to the conclusion that we will still stay away from Luke chapter 21 (looking forward to it, I hope; I certainly am), but seeking the opportunity now to examine this book, Ecclesiastes.

Some of you, of course, are saying, “Well, you did this before.” And that’s about one person. The rest of you have forgotten completely that I did it before, and even those of you who remember that I did it couldn’t remember one single word that I said about it. I actually have read my notes, and they weren’t any good, so you shouldn’t feel badly about that. I’ve tried my best to forget it also.

But what you have here in Ecclesiastes is a solid dose of reality. A solid dose of reality. T. S. Eliot on one occasion remarked that “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.”[3] Men and women really can’t do with reality very much. That’s why the constant interference in our lives is an introduction to fantasy, to mirage, to that which is out and beyond us: “If only we could get out of this place, if it’s the last thing we ever do, then perhaps over there and beyond this little thoroughfare we can find the answers.”

Now, the Teacher, as he introduces himself here in verse 1, is “son of David” and “king in Jerusalem.” Although he doesn’t actually say, “I am Solomon,” Solomon best fits the description, I think you will agree. And his approach is to wrestle with the enigmas of life. He is himself involved with the questions that he’s raising. He’s not like some distanced university professor who is simply firing out various notions and then standing back and watching as the members of his class get embroiled in the discussion. Rather, this individual is involved in the very questions that he raises. As someone has put it, he has built an observation tower, and he has built it at ground level. He is right down where people are living their lives.

And one of the things that will become apparent as we try and do a chapter a time—at least a chapter a time—is that this book understands us. We often think, “I wonder if I’ll understand this book,” and, of course, our quest is to do so. But what we discover is that this book turns its searchlight on our lives, and suddenly, as we read it, we say, “It would appear that the author of this book knows me!” Maybe you’ll find that out even this morning.

Now, you will notice in verse 2 that he begins with his conclusion. Begins with his conclusion. In Jewish writing, it was customary to put the most important point up front. And so that’s what he does. He says, “I want you to know first of all that everything is absolutely meaningless.” “Meaningless.”

You say, “Well, that’s not a very pleasant thought.” No, it’s not a particularly pleasant thought. But remember Eliot? Humankind doesn’t do well with reality. Do not adjust your life; the problem is reality. “Meaningless,” he says.

Now, he puts his conclusion up front in much the same way as the old Columbo shows used to operate. You remember the fellow with the raincoat? I think that’s him. And those programs, I think, if I recall correctly, always began by allowing the viewer to see who did it. So you didn’t have to wait till the end to find out who did it; you as the viewer knew who did it, and then the whole program was about following Columbo as he puts the clues together to finally reach the conclusion that we already know. So the program begins with the conclusion, and then everything else works towards it. That’s exactly how Ecclesiastes works.

Now, there are certain phrases that are absolutely crucial, none more so than the little phrase here in verse 3, “under the sun.” It comes some thirty times. Some thirty times. And what the writer is saying is this: “My perspective, largely, in this survey is taken not from the vantage point of an infinite, personal creator God who has established a link with his creation but is established from the framework of secular thinking or is bounded only by the framework of our lives—from birth to death, if you like.” And he says, “What I did was I set out to examine the course of life from birth to death, and I’m forced to conclude that if you simply stay in that box, if you stay within those nine dots, then I think I can adequately convince you that the conclusion must inevitably be that, as Hemingway put it, life is a dirty trick, a short journey from nothingness to nothingness.”

A few months ago now, in attending the Cleveland Clinic to be examined by a physician, we engaged in conversation concerning a mutual friend who had been a physician at the Clinic. The reason we spoke of him was because of the mutual friendship, but also because he was coming back to the Clinic to give a talk on alternative medicine—to give a talk on the healing power and properties of prayer. And as we observed that it was interesting that this scientific rationalist should somehow or another have come to this conclusion, the physician volunteered to me this: he said, “When I entered science and began to pursue medicine, I did so because it appeared, within that framework, to give sensible and cohesive answers to life’s questions. Now,” he says, “I know that it doesn’t. It doesn’t answer the huge questions of life.”

Now, I admired his honesty. But beyond that, he had nothing to say. What do you say to your friend when they tell you that? “I don’t have answers to the big questions.”

Well, let’s follow the line and move through it as quickly as we can. Do the facts of life, as presented here by the preacher man, do the facts of life bear out his thesis—namely, that life is meaningless? Well, look at what he points out.

First of all, he says, in verse 3, “Here is a fact of life: it’s marked by drudgery.” “What does man gain from all his labor at which he toils under the sun?” “It’s frankly boring!” he says. That’s the inference. Life is all about punching in and punching out. You punch in, you punch out. You stamp your card, you stamp it out. Stamp it in, you stamp it out. It’s Monday now, it’s Tuesday now, it’s Wednesday now, it’s Thursday now, until finally, you punch out for the last time. And whether you are an engine driver, whether you are a young executive, whether you are a schoolteacher, whether you’re involved in the janitorial staff of a school, it doesn’t matter what it is—whether you’re a mother at home, whatever it may be—the fact of the matter is that life is possessed by an inherent monotony.

McCartney, in a song penned soon after the Beatles had broken up, writes in this way:

Every day, she takes her morning bath, she wets her hair,
[She ties] a towel around her as she’s heading for the bedroom chair.
It’s just another day.
Slipping into stockings, stepping into shoes,
Dipping in the pocket of her raincoat. …

[And] at the office where the papers grow, she takes a break.
[She pours a cup of] coffee, and she [tries so] hard [just] to stay awake.
It’s just another day.[4]

And for many people, if we’re honest enough to face the amazing finitude of it all, we are like premature residents in a sad, sorry scene in a retirement home: individuals who are awakened at the same time every morning when the light is turned on, who are dressed, who are wheeled down the hallway to sit in a lounge and to stare at a point on the wall till finally the afternoon shadows fall, and they are wheeled back again to be undressed, to be placed in bed all over again and to wait for the light going on the following morning. And many of our lives are actually possessed of that same kind of monotonous feel, if we’re honest.

Now, management understands this, work-study people understand this, and scientific journals are clear on it. Quoting from one, it says this:

By and large people [seldom] enjoy their work, nor do they enjoy travelling to and from it. Most jobs are repetitive, require [very] little … personal initiative and, for the most part, people are incapable of fulfilling anything like their full potential through them. …

People go to work that they do not enjoy and spend a considerable proportion of their working hours getting to work and then … home. It thus looms large in a life that is not very pleasant at the outset.[5]

Now, you can explain road rage in multiple ways. But surely a contributory factor to that sense of bedevilment that you find a person behind the wheel is this dreadful drudgery. They’re going somewhere because they have to, they’re going somewhere because it’s demanded of them, but if they had their choice, they would not go, they are disgusted with how long it takes to get there, and they know that in a matter of ten hours or so, they’re going to be in the exact same position, only heading in the opposite direction.

You say, “Yes, but if we could get up and beyond that, you know, then it would all be different.” No, I don’t think so. Nineteen sixty-nine, we have a man on the moon: “One small step for a man, one giant step for mankind.” But by 1980, Dr. Lewis Thomas, writing in the Harvard magazine says, “You can walk on the moon if you like, but there’s nothing to do there except look at the earth and when you’ve seen one earth…”[6] Totally meaningless! You’ve got to punch in and punch out, simply go through this, do your best to make sense of it, and then finally die? “I met a [man] who sang the blues. I asked [him] for some happy news.”[7] It’s a fact of life.

Secondly, verse 4: life is marked by transience. When I went through that graveyard, the numbers fell out the way they always do. They averaged out to around “threescore years and ten,”[8] just exactly as the Bible says: “As for man, his life on average will last about seventy years.”[9] There were a couple of ninety-ones, an eighty-four. There was a fourteen, a twenty, and so on. I did the math in my head—which is always dangerous, as you know—but I’m pretty sure that it would come out right around threescore years and ten. The frailty of our lives this morning is not in question.

I walked on grass familiar to me in Scotland. And as I walked down beaten paths—not cart paths put in with concrete and black stuff, but just paths that had been eroded by many, many travelers—I was confronted by the fact that I walked these paths when I was three years old. And then I said, “That was forty-seven years ago! And before me, people walked it. And before them, people walked it. And what of the pebbles on the seashore that I picked up and let pass through my hands? These have been around for so long.”

Thirdly, life is repetitive. That’s the significance of his description of the wind and the sun and the streams. He says, “Think about the sun. It’s in its same course every day—never goes on vacation, never does anything different, just goes round and round. It hurries back to where it rises. The moon is up, and then it’s down. The wind. It blows off somebody’s hat. It provides a refreshing breeze. It brings the leaves down so that we can rake them, if we wish. It makes the aircraft bounce around, particularly under ten thousand feet. And it never seems to quit. But where does it come from, and where does it go? And the stream! All streams flow into the sea, yet the sea is never full. It’s like a bathtub with the plug out.” Why? Well, because of evaporation—a trillion tons a day evaporating and being recycled in order that the bathtub may be filled up, and yet the bathtub is never full.

There isn’t a relationship with a person on the face of the earth who can deal with the deep longings of your life. There’s not a theorem that you can ponder that will ultimately satisfy your intellectual curiosity.

Now, Solomon says, “You think about this. Think about the stream.” Tennyson did, remember? “For men may come and men may go, but I go on forever”—“The Brook,” by Sir Alfred, Lord Tennyson.[10] He says, “The reason I’m reminding you of these physical things is that human experience mirrors them.” It mirrors them. It is repetitive. That’s why advertising, knowing this, is constantly urging us, “You’ve got to get out! You’ve got to move on! You’ve got to try this! You’ve got to wear these! You’ve got to drive that!”

Now, why would that have such an appeal? Because of the peculiar nature of our lives. So Neil Young says,

Think I’ll pack it in
And buy a pick-up,
[And] take it out to LA,
Find a place to call my own …
Start a brand-new day.[11]

He gets to LA, what does he find? He’s in LA. He’s the problem, not Alabama, “sweet home.”

Also notice in verse 8, life—and it’s a fact—is insatiable. It’s insatiable:

All things are wearisome,
 more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
 nor the ear its fill of hearing.

“I’ve got to go to the mall, Dad.”

“Why?”

“I’ve got to get a new CD.”

“A what?”

“Yeah, I’ve got to get a new CD.”

“Do you realize that you have 890 CDs? Eight hundred and eighty of them have never even been played in the last five years.”

“Yeah, but it’s the new one. It’s the new one!”

“When I hear this one… When I see this thing…” So the Rolling Stones are in town, singing what? Singing their mantra, reinforcing what Solomon says: “I can’t get no satisfaction. And I’ve tried, and I’ve tried, and I’ve tried.”[12] Why is that? “If only I had been taller.” “If only I were prettier.” “If only I’d got two more floors up in this building.” “If only I had been recognized for what I’m really worth,” and so on. “If only my house were a little broader.” “If only the stairwell were a little wider.” “If only the gadgets were a little slicker.” It’s baloney, isn’t it?

You bought a computer lately? Welcome to the world of obsolescence! You know when you take that thing out, they’re watching you go. They don’t take their eyes off you till that thing is safely in the boot of your car, and you’re off up the street, and the space on the shelf that you evacuated is now filled with the new Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah version, which apparently wasn’t coming out until October of 2003. Don’t kid yourself! “Down the left-hand side, these computers are obsolete. Down the right-hand side, these computers will be obsolete as soon as you buy it.” We have gadgets, now, to work our gadgets. We have buttons that you press to make the noises of the remote control so that you can find it wherever it’s been left around the house.

Life has a huge appetite that can be never satisfied. Do you hear me? Life has a huge appetite that can never be satisfied.  If you have been trying to unscramble your life by filling it with relationships, there isn’t a relationship with a person on the face of the earth who can deal with the deep longings of your life. If you’ve been trying to satisfy it by intellectual pursuits, there’s not a theorem that you can ponder that will ultimately satisfy your intellectual curiosity. If you’ve been looking for it along the lines of an emotional trip, there is not a journey you can take that will answer the insatiable longing that is built into the very core of your being as a person.  And the sooner that a man or a woman faces up to this, the sooner they can make sense of their lives—the sooner they can say, “Aha! That makes sense!”

And in verses 9 and 10, it’s a fact of life that what we have is the same old, same old. That’s the significance: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again.” Just when we think we’ve had a new idea, we discover it in the ancient chronicles of the Greek or the Roman Empire. Just when the Wright brothers were fascinated with flying, somebody said, “You know, birds have been doing this for ages.” I tried to get onto the M42 on the outskirts of Birmingham the other day, sitting as a passenger and crawling in the traffic, and the person explained to me that this would soon be done because they were putting a new perimeter road around Birmingham. “Oh,” I said, “that’s wonderful. A ring road to ease the traffic.” Have you ever found that one of those roads ease the traffic? It simply relocates the traffic jam. So eventually, you’ve got to have a ring road for your ring road. Eventually, your whole country will be one gigantic ring road, and everybody will be on it. You say, “Well, that’s called Los Angeles.”

Our improvements don’t really improve things. You build high-rise flats so that you can get a lot of people in a small space, but you destroy the sense of community in the space they’ve left behind. There are no surprises. There are no breakthroughs. There are no interventions that really, ultimately alter anything.

Is this pessimism? No! This is life in the framework “under the sun.” Okay? From punch in to punch out. Think it through. “The nearer your destination, the more you’re slip slidin’ away.”[13]

And life is marked also by insignificance. Verse 11:

There[’s] no remembrance of [old men],
 … even those who are yet to come
will not be remembered
 by those who follow.

“Do you remember what’s-his-name?”

“What? Who?”

“What’s-his-name. I mean, Mr. what’s-his… with the…”

“Oh!”

And so it goes. And you’re talking about your uncle! Everybody believes they’re going to be immortal. Silly idea!

So long, Frank Lloyd Wright.
[How come you left] so soon[?]
Architects may come and
Architects may go and
Never change [their] point of view.[14]

Or, in the words of Isaac Watts,

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
[Buzzes off] at the opening [of a new morning].[15]

Now, are you thoroughly depressed yet? Is this the whole story? Is there another perspective? Well, if you stay with the preacher man here and he rules out God, then all you’re left with is this: that all you can do is launch into acts of silliness. There’s a reason for the drug-induced stupor of a young life. Because many times, those young people, they went right down all these avenues. They said, “This is insatiable. This is repetitive. I don’t want to be like my father. He leaves in the morning. He drives his car. He drives it home. He goes. Monday is the such and such. Tuesday is video night.” You know? “Wednesday is the lasagna. Friday is the such and such. I’m going insane! I don’t want to do this!”

But is there another alternative?

You see, Solomon is asking an essential question: Is there life before death? Is there life before death? Or is the limit of our senses so as simply to survive?

Peter Berger, arguably one of the brightest sociologists of the twentieth century, commenting on this, says—and listen carefully, and I’m going to stop very soon—“I am impressed by the intrinsic inability of secularized world views to answer the deep questions of the human condition, questions of whence, and whither, and why. These seem to be ineradicable and they are answered only in the most banal ways by the … religions of secularism.” And then he observes, “Perhaps, finally, the reversibility of the process of secularization is probable because of the pervasive boredom of a world without gods”[16]—small g! He’s not a believer. But he says, “The pervasive boredom of secularization may eventually run up against itself and usher us into the antidote to boredom, which is the discovery of gods.”

Well, he proved absolutely correct! The book that’s he’s writing in there is called The Challenge of Modernity. And that has been replaced with postmodernity—a world in which it is completely kosher to talk about angels and spiritual things and life and longings and hopes and dreams. And modernity has closed in on itself! So the people are out on the streets and say, “Well, maybe there’s a little god somewhere that I could hook into, because I certainly haven’t found the answer on these dead-end streets. Maybe I’ll worship the god of education.”

Oh, don’t do that. Because he’s tried it. And with this I close: “It’s not about education, stupid.” And yet, education is the mantra, the answer, for everything, isn’t it? “If only we were better educated. If only we understood more. If only we could advance in this and that.” Every solid believer has to be for education and the best education that they can get—and for their children and their grandchildren. Only a silly person would stand against it!

There’s a tremendous amount of education, and there’s a dreadful lack of wisdom. And until we have “the fear of the Lord,” which is “the beginning of wisdom,”[17] we can never really create a curriculum for sensible education.

And look at what he says in verse 14: “I’ve seen all the things that are done under the sun; they’re all meaningless, a chasing after the wind. For what is twisted can’t be straightened; what is lacking can’t be counted.” It’s like a Rubik’s Cube with two blocks missing: no matter how many times you spin it, you can’t get all the reds where they need to be—all the whites, all the yellows, all the greens, all the blues—because it is inherently flawed.

In the Lord Jesus Christ is the answer to all the deepest heartaches, longings, and aberrations of the human condition.

And my dear friend, this morning, you’re a sensible person; think this out. Have you been able to put the Rubik’s Cube of your life together in such a way that you’ve been able to answer the whence and the whither and the why? And if your worldview is unable to answer the whence, the whither, and the why, don’t you think you ought to consider a different view of the world—one that would answer the questions that are in your mind when you awake in the middle of the night and when you drive in your car and when you think about things?  Are you so proud as to hold on to these dead-end streets and forlorn avenues? It’s crooked, it’s futile, and it’s burdensome. “What a heavy burden God has laid on men!” This is ultimately the burden of man’s rebellion against God—the fact that man has said in his heart, “I don’t believe in God. And even if there is a God, I don’t want anything to do with him. I want to go my own way. I want to chart my own course.”

And so Solomon says to himself, “Well, you know, I’m a pretty educated person. I’m actually the brightest that ever sat on this throne over Jerusalem. I’ve experienced wisdom, so I’m going to apply myself to it. And not only that,” he says, “while I’m doing wisdom, I will also check out madness and folly.” You know that there are certain schools of psychiatry that regard both madness and foolishness as genuinely acceptable, alternative views of the universe. And as soon as you go there, and of course, nobody knows who the crazy person is. In Britain, there is a political party called the Monster Raving Loony Party that comes out at the general elections. Their slogan is “Vote for insanity. You know it makes sense.”

Okay, you’re sensible people. I’m finished.

Solomon says, “Okay, that’s enough for chapter 1. I’m just going to go home, and I’m just going to play my stereo. I’m just going to have a nice cold drink. I’m just going to sit back in my recliner, and I’m going to play the Moody Blues before I fall asleep”:

Why do we never get an answer
When we’re knocking at the door
With a thousand [different] questions
About [peace] and [love] and war?

And then he hums to himself,

I’m looking for someone to change my life;
I’m looking for a miracle in my life.[18]

Are you?

Incidentally, attending services will never fill this void. Religious exercises, as helpful as they may be, an interest in the well-being of others, the participation in the routine bits and bobs of whatever is regarded as conformable and acceptable religious practice, can never answer the deep, insatiable longing of the human heart. That God-shaped void, as Pascal referred to it, may be addressed only by God himself.[19] And there is only one who straddles the course of human history. And to those who are asking the question, “Is there life before death?” he says, “I am the way and the truth and the life. You’ll never get to know God except through me.”[20] “I have come,” he says, “that you might have life, and that you might have it in all of its fullness.”[21]

Well, here we are. It’s time to punch out. I punch in and punch out the same as you. I think I may punch out for good, if I had not come to understand that in the Lord Jesus Christ is the answer to all the deepest heartaches, longings, and aberrations of the human condition . And right where you are today, in your heart of hearts, without the person to your right or your left even knowing, you call out to God, say, “O God, O Lord Jesus Christ, I’ve been trying to find it in something or in someone other than you. ‘You, O Christ, are all I want; more than all in you I find.’”[22] And you will discover that suddenly, the Rubik’s Cube doesn’t work perfectly every time, but at least the blues can all be got together on one side.

Father, thank you for the opportunity of being together. Thank you for the Bible. Thank you for the clarity with which it examines us and speaks. We pray this morning that it may search us out. And those of us who are meandering up and down some of these cul-de-sacs, thinking that maybe on a different avenue there’s the answer, only to cut through by a side street and find that we’re still confronted by the insatiable, unresolved, repetitive nature of our human existence, thank you for confronting us with the possibility that to stop and go in the glove box and pull out the Maker’s instructions in the Bible might not be a bad idea, and to discover that it introduces us not to a scheme of thought, not to a religious profile, but ultimately to a person—namely, the Lord Jesus Christ. So we want you to watch over us as we part from one another, to protect us in our comings and goings, to bring us again safely into the company of one another.

And may the grace of the Lord Jesus, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit rest upon and remain with each one, today and forevermore. Amen.


[1] Bertrand Russell, Mysticism and Logic (Mineola, NY: Dover, 2004), 37.

[2] Ecclesiastes 7:2 (paraphrased).

[3] T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” Four Quartets (1943).

[4] Paul and Linda McCartney, “Another Day” (1971).

[5] Clive Jenkins and Barrie Sherman, The Leisure Shock (London: Eyre Methuen, 1981), 2, 4.

[6] Lewis Thomas, “A Long Way to Go,” Trinity Reporter, Summer 1980, 20.

[7] Don McLean, “American Pie” (1971).

[8] Psalm 90:10 (KJV).

[9] Psalm 90:10 (paraphrased).

[10] Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “The Brook” (1886).

[11] Neil Young, “Out on the Weekend” (1972).

[12] Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” (1965). Lyrics lightly altered.

[13] Paul Simon, “Slip Slidin’ Away” (1977).

[14] Paul Simon, “So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright” (1970).

[15] Isaac Watts, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” (1719).

[16] Peter L. Berger, Religion in a Revolutionary Society (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1974), 15.

[17] Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 9:10 (NIV 1984).

[18] Justin Hayward, “Question” (1970).

[19] Blaise Pascal, Pensées (1670).

[20] John 14:6 (paraphrased).

[21] John 10:10 (paraphrased).

[22] Charles Wesley, “Jesus, Lover of My Soul” (1740). Language modernized.

Copyright © 2022, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.