The Search for Satisfaction
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player
return to the main player
Return to the Main Player

The Search for Satisfaction

From Series: A Study in Ecclesiastes

Ecclesiastes 2:1-26  (ID: 2288)

A life lived without practical faith in God is full of emptiness and dead ends. The writer of Ecclesiastes explored the potential of education, pleasures, projects, and power, but none could answer the deepest longings of his heart. Alistair Begg reminds us that unlike these pursuits, a life built on the foundation of Christ does answer our questions and satisfy our souls’ desires, making meaningful our everyday activities and endeavors.


Sermon Transcript: Print

Now we’re going to read from the Bible, in the Old Testament, in Ecclesiastes chapter 2. Ecclesiastes 2:1:

“I thought in my heart, ‘Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.’ But that also proved to be meaningless. ‘Laughter,’ I said, ‘is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?’ I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.

“I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a haremas well—the delights of the heart of man.I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.

“I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
 I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my work,
 and this was the reward for all my labor.
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
 and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
 nothing was gained under the sun.

“Then I turned my thoughts to consider wisdom,
 and also madness and folly.
What more can the king’s successor do
 than what has already been done?
I saw that wisdom is better than folly,
 just as light is better than darkness.
The wise man has eyes in his head,
 while the fool walks in the darkness;
but I came to realize
 that the same fate overtakes them both.

“Then I thought in my heart,

“‘The fate of the fool will overtake me also.
 What then do I gain by being wise?’
I said in my heart,
 ‘This too is meaningless.’
For the wise man, like the fool, will not be long remembered;
 in days to come both will be forgotten.
Like the fool, the wise man too must die!

“So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun.For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.

“A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God,for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”

Father, we thank you for your love and for your grace, not least of all that’s found in the wisdom of your Word and in the way that it introduces us to Christ. We pray in the study of the Bible now that you will show us ourselves and show us our Savior, in Christ, and make the Book live to us.[1] For we pray in his name. Amen.

Can I invite you, then, to turn once more to Ecclesiastes chapter 2? Page 472 in the pew Bibles, if you wish to use them.

If you have read ahead, as some of you will have done, you will perhaps have been struck by how compellingly relevant the words of this ancient book prove to be—that although the Preacher, the Professor, the Speaker, the Pundit, which is really… These are all synonyms for Ecclesiastes, Koheleth, the name that is at the heading of the book. It’s amazing that although this was written some three thousand years ago, when you read it, it would appear that the man had been reading Time magazine and Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, USA Today, and the New York Times, all in the past week, to be able to write as he did. It, of course, speaks to us of the compelling wonder and wisdom of the inspiration of the Bible. And we’ve determined that we’re going to study this book together at a fairly high altitude, moving through it quicker than we do most, over these next few weeks, believing that it would be purposeful to do so in light of some of the other things that are going on.

We noted last time—and I remind us of this fact so that we would have a grasp of how the writer is coming at his material—that he’s setting before the reader the emptiness of life—that is, a life that is lived without a practical faith in God. This is what he’s saying: he’s saying, “If you take practical faith in God and set it aside, if you seek to live life, go through all of your experiences of life—whatever they may be—ignoring, denying the existence of God and his claim upon your life, then you’re going to find certain things to be true.” And the way in which he illustrates this—at least in the early part of the book—is to walk down a number of dead-end streets. And as he comes to the end of these avenues, he says, “I want you to consider the realities that are conveyed in what I’m writing. And I want at the same time simply to ask you: Have you learned to cope with this?” No one who is a thinking person is going to be able to deny what it is he says. And therefore, if we’re agreed that this is a circumstance of our human existence, then it is legitimate for the writer to ask: “Have you learned how to cope with this?” Or better still: “Do you have an answer for this?”

Information to the mind cannot in and of itself satisfy the needs of the heart, nor is it capable of taming the unruliness of the soul.

In the debate at the bar which I referred to last week, when staying in the south of England in that small hotel, the proprietor, whose name was Mark, proclaimed in the course of our conversation an interest in and a benefit that he received from the works of Stephen Hawking. Hawking, of course, from England, is one of the most brilliant cosmologists and astrophysicists not only of our age but really of any age at all. His most famous book, which is found on the coffee tables of a great number of people who have never read it, is called A Brief History of Time. And in that, of course, he seeks to substantiate his thesis as it relates to the origins and significance of the universe. He is honest enough to recognize that his own arguments force him, in the end, to lament the ultimately unsatisfactory nature of science when it comes to answering ultimate questions.

And so he writes,

Even if there is only one positive unified theory, it is just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equation and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual [scientific approach] of [constituting] a mathematical model cannot answer the question of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?[2]

Good question! He says we can construct the mathematical models. We can put the rules together. And within the framework of our astrophysical research, we’re able to make certain extrapolations. But what we cannot answer is where the fire comes from that breathes life into this. What we cannot answer is why does the universe bother to exist at all.

Now, that’s a very helpful quote, because it serves to simply substantiate the way in which the Preacher here, the Pundit, is making clear statements concerning the dead-end of education or, if you like, intellectualism. And from 1:12–18, we mentioned that last time, albeit briefly—not that the writer, nor we, are seeking to debunk education. I know that many of you have never read this book, although your education is incomplete without it. But the book entitled How the Scots Invented the Modern World will tell you there, amongst many other wonderful truths, that the first nation in the Western world to establish elementary education for its citizens was Scotland. That is the very first place where a society said children must go to school. So, it would be absolutely fatuous for anybody to say, “Well, the idea that down at the end of the road marked Intellectualism or Education you will find a group of people saying ‘Away with all of that stuff’—you know, ‘We are believers in God; therefore, we neglect education.’” Not for a moment! No, the Christian faith has always been at the forefront of education. And every parent wants the best of educations, both for themselves and also for their children. But what the writer is pointing out is simply this: that it is a serious mistake to think that intellectualism or education holds the answer to the quest for meaning.

Now, of course, we’re confronted with this all the time. It’s constantly coming out, said, “You know, we can deal with the drug problem if only people had more information. We can deal with the smoking problem if people were only better educated. We can deal with premarital sex on the basis of education,” and so on. It’s patently not the case. But it doesn’t stop us from continuing to believe the mistaken notion that education holds the answer. It doesn’t! Where do you find the worst graffiti? “Well,” you say, “well, in the inner city.” No, I don’t think so. The worst graffiti I’ve ever seen is in the best of universities. For there, these individuals with the vast brains are able to bring their vast brains to bear upon that which is perverse. Where do you find gang rape, first of all? Not in the inner city—at least not as it’s been highlighted for us at the end of the twentieth century. Where have we found it? In the highest echelons of our military academies, where young men who are the brightest and the best, who have been hand-picked and educated and disciplined to the max, are a glaring testimony to the fact that if education held the answer, then they would not be involved in these dreadful things. So Einstein says, “I’ve discovered that the men who know the most are the most gloomy.”[3] Information to the mind cannot in and of itself satisfy the needs of the heart, nor is it capable of taming the unruliness of the soul.

Well then, if the way of wisdom, at the end of chapter 1, doesn’t hold the answer, “let’s go down,” he says, “the path of pleasure. Let the good times roll! Let’s see what happens down here. Let’s be a good-time Charlie. Let’s see if this is actually the answer to the puzzle of life.” Hedonism! Verse 1: “I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.”

Now, some of you this morning are a little embarrassed to be here, if we were honest. The reason you’re embarrassed to be here is because you don’t want any of your friends from your work environment finding out that you’ve been slipping into Parkside—the reason being that you’ve been saying for quite a considerable time that as far as you’re concerned, Christian faith is the ultimate escapism. And you’ve been quite forceful about it. And so, consequently, if the word gets out that you’re actually here, opening the door, even just a tiny bit, to the possibility of the reality of faith, then, of course, it’s going to make it difficult when you get back to the office. But I want to encourage you in this way: I want to ask you to think about the possibility that the real escapism is represented in a make-believe, rose-colored, self-focused life that leaves God completely out of the equation.

Now, it’s on this route that the Preacher says, “Let’s think about laughter for a minute.” Laughter! Now, laughter’s medicine for the soul, it says somewhere, doesn’t it? I like to laugh. Don’t you? Laughing’s good. I saw Tracey Ullman the other evening—you may know her, the English actress—and she was being interviewed by a biographical channel. And really, what it came down to at the end of the day is the man asked her a question about this and a question about that; she just said, “I love to laugh! That’s all it is. I love to laugh! My husband makes me laugh. My kids make me laugh. Everything makes me laugh!” I said, “That’s good! I’d like to meet her, just sit and laugh for a while. It would be good.” But look at what he says: “Laughter … is foolish.” “Laughter … is foolish.”

Well, what does that mean? What it means is simply this: that if everything’s funny, nothing’s funny; that if everything is worth laughing about, nothing’s worth laughing about. Think about it: when you choose your entertainment, if you go to see a comedy and you go to see a tragedy, which one has the most lingering benefit to you? If you’re honest, you must answer the tragedy. Because the comedy is light, it’s fleeting, it’s superficial. There are a bunch of jokes; you can’t remember the half of them. The tragedy, by contrast, is weighty, it’s lingering, and it’s capable of producing an emotional catharsis in you such that may last not only through the remainder of the evening but perhaps even for a lifetime. You may find yourself saying, “I’ll never forget when I saw Antony and Cleopatra. I’ll never forget that evening, walking out of this place, after I saw Troilus and Cressida. I’ll never forget those things.” But you’ve forgotten all of the others, the laughing ones.

Billy Graham tells the story, in a book that was written years ago, of a disturbed patient who consulted a psychiatrist for help. The man was deeply depressed, and nothing that the doctor tried to say to him was able to relieve him of the burden that he felt. And as the time ticked up to the hour and the psychiatrist realized he had nothing really to help the man with, he said to him, almost as a last gasp, he said, “By the way,” he said, “I know I haven’t been a great deal of help to you, but I do want you to know that there is a terrific show in the local theater. And there is a comedian in there that has got everybody rolling in the aisles. And I think it would be excellent therapy for you if you just went in there, had a couple of hours, and just laughed for a while. Forget your troubles. Why don’t you go?” “Well, thank you,” said the man, as he stood up to leave. And then he turned back and he said, “I am that comedian.”[4]

Peter Sellers, the Pink Panther, his biography is called The Mask Behind the Mask. Try and find this funnyman, and you’ll discover that he knows that laughter is ultimately foolish.

“Let’s go to a show!” It’s empty. “Let’s go to the bar!” Isn’t that what he says? “[So] I tried cheering myself with wine.” Now, this isn’t a comment on the merits or demerits of abstinence from alcohol. This isn’t the writer despising those who drink wine, as though to do so were ungodly. It’s not that. I mean, people may do that with this passage, but clearly, that’s not what he’s saying. He’s actually referring to an approach to wine which is used in an endeavor to lift a man or a woman out of their sense of depressing emptiness. It’s an attempt to use this mechanism in such a way to get whatever I can from it—if you like, to squeeze the juice out of it to my own benefit. But in actual fact, it ends up working as a kind of anesthetic depressant.

And so, off the man goes with his friends. After all, he’d had the idea… Everything was coming at him, saying, “You know, it’s far better down the bar.” That’s what people tell me all the time: “You know, you go to church, a bunch of boring people. You go down to the bar, everybody’s nice down the bar. That’s why I go down the bar.”

“Mm-hmm. Well, fine. And thanks for sharing that. That’s okay. Tell me more.”

“I love it down there. They play the piano. They sing the old songs.” “Sing [me] a song, you’re the piano man.” And he’s “sharing a drink” that’s “called loneliness, but it’s better than drinking alone.”[5]

No, you see, what he’s referring to here, this is Jimmy Buffet. This is what he’s referring to. This is “wasting away in Margaritaville.”[6] That’s what he’s doing here, “looking for his lost shaker of salt.” “I tried it down the laughter. I went to the comedy club; it left me empty. I went down the bar; it did the exact same thing.” He’s talking about wine here, not as a good thing that has been granted to people in the living of their lives but as a drug to mask the unsatisfied longing of his soul.

“Well,” he said, “let’s just move on and try projects.” Verse 4: “I undertook great projects.” Notice: “I built houses for myself,” and so on. In other words, “I just had a jolly good go at the whole business.” “I think what I’ll try and do is add an extension. I think I’ll extend my extension. Oh, I don’t know what I’ll do. I think I may build a new house. No, I think I may knock my house down and build another one on the same place.” Whatever it is. “I had tried these projects, and I built parks, and I planted vineyards, and I had all these wonderful fruit trees, and I had reservoirs to water the groves of the flourishing trees.” This is a pretty nice setup, you’ve got to admit. I mean, this is not your average “Great Homes of Ohio” in here. I mean, this takes it up a couple of notches from the back of the, you know, Chagrin Valley Times or the Sun Valley Newspaper, or whatever the jolly thing is. You can look at the best of that and then just go [blows raspberry], nothing, compared to what he’s talking about here. But it did nothing!

His influence was insignificant: “I bought male and female slaves and [I] had other slaves who were born in my house.” “Oh, I’ve got it together now. I’ve got a number of people working for me. Yes, I have this group and that group and the next group and so on. Big deal. And stuff! Boy, do I have stuff!” Verse 8: “Silver, gold for myself, treasures of the kings and provinces. Music, I’ve got all kinds of music: men singers, women singers, and a harem as well. I’ve got all of the delights of the heart of man. I have become greater than anyone else in Jerusalem before me.”

He’s given himself over to the wanton indulgence of his senses. This is what people say: “If only I could get there, that would be it, presumably.” Verse 10: “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired; I refused my heart no pleasure.” Nothing resisted that might be outwardly entertaining or that might be inwardly satisfying. There was some satisfaction in the activity, but as soon as the activity was over, as soon as the goal had been reached, it was just empty again.

Now, to whatever degree that we live our lives, you know—whatever it may be—anything from as small as moving from a three-wheeler to a two-wheeler bicycle, in the progression of life, to take it at its most trivial terms… As a child, you’re going along, and this little trembling three-wheeler operation, and you see the people further down the journey of life on the two-wheelers, you say, “On the two-wheeler must be where it is!” And finally, you make the transition to the two-wheeler. And then, when you’re on the two-wheeler, peddling like crazy, [makes engine sound] comes flying past: the scooter, the Lambretta, you know. “Oh, if only I had a scooter,” you know. And so it goes on. There’s no end to it! There’s no end to it!

Now, I haven’t moved in these circles a great deal, but I’ve moved in them a little. I remember… I’m thinking of a man right now. You would know his name. I’m not going to tell you what his name is. We spent the day as a family at his home—vast home! And in the afternoon, he took me out into his gardens. And as we walked around, all of his trees, like in a botanical garden, were marked with signs with Latin names on them. He had ponds and groves and all manner of things, and we walked all around. And in the course of it all, he said to me, “Do you believe in the resurrection?” I said, “Yes, I do.” None of what he had was satisfying to the great longings of his life.

Says Robert Burns, the poet,

  Pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flow’r, its bloom is shed;
[And] like [a] snow falls in the river,
A moment white—then melts forever;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.[7]

Reaching out for it, and it’s not there.

Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, was well-respected amongst the intelligentsia of Edinburgh, but he was notorious as a womanizer and as a drunk. And when you go to the Grassmarket in Edinburgh, you know that this plowman from Ayrshire, who wrote these amazing verses, had been down this avenue, and he knew that it was a dead-end street. Eventually, you see, the Marie Antoinette syndrome takes over, and men and women are forced to acknowledge the fact that nothing tastes.

It’s easy for us always to assume that in our particular generation we have, you know, the sort of archetypal representation of this. It’s probably unwise to do so. But there is no doubt that there is something about this baby-boomer group—of which, unfortunately, I am included, from a sociological perspective at least—there is something about this particular group that is moving through time at the moment that wrestles with this perhaps as much as any other group before it.

And every so often, as you read secular literature, you’re able to dip into something where an individual puts their hand upon it. Of course, some books appeal to one and not to another. I had read this book some time ago, now, called Balsamic Dreams. Those of my family are sick of me reading it to them in the house, and other friends put the phone down if I reach for it to give them a quote. But I don’t think I’ve foisted any of it on you, and so I want to, just for a moment—not because I’m looking for something to fill in a gap but because it is my express purpose to show, especially to those of you who are wondering, that the key to effectively teaching the Bible is to be able to show how this book impinges upon this book; that our study of the Bible does not happen somewhere away in a box, unrelated to yesterday and tomorrow. But indeed, if our study of the Bible does not immediately impact yesterday and tomorrow, then there is something wrong with our study of the Bible. And the only way that I can effectively do that is constantly urge you in the direction of making sure that you’re reading effectively both your Bible and what is going on in the world around you.

Our study of the Bible does not happen somewhere away in a box, unrelated to yesterday and tomorrow.

Joe Queenan writes this book called Balsamic Dreams, which he refers to as A Short but Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation. And he starts it quite facetiously, in a prologue, by telling how he wakes up one morning, and he has a very bad cough, and he self-diagnoses lung cancer. Now, that’s another feature of the baby boomer generation: there are more than the quota of hypochondriacs amongst the baby boomers. And so, having determined that he is now on the road out, he says, “I’m gonna have to get on and do something useful with my life.” And so he starts taking piano lessons. He begins reading intelligent books. He gets to Edward Gibbon’s Fall of the Roman Empire and so on. He decides that he needs his ashes put somewhere. He doesn’t know whether the Schuylkill River of Philadelphia or the Delaware are mythical enough waters in which to have his friends scatter his ashes. One of his friends says, “Why don’t you go to the banks of the Seine? After all, you know, on the left bank of the Seine was where you spent time as a student.” “Oh,” he says, “that’s a terrific idea!” And so he makes plans for that. “[And] after,” he says (and I quote),

I’d taken care of the piano lessons and the tai chi and the personal trainer and the airplane lessons and [had] made the relevant inquiries about a ceremonial trip to Kathmandu, I figured it was time that I got my wife and children up to speed, mortality-wise. Here I hit some rough sailing. Seeing that I had only just entered my prime earning years and that my career seemed to be going extraordinarily well after hitting a fiscal plateau in the mid-nineties, my wife was a little ticked off that I should have picked this time to die. She suggested that I seek a second opinion. … Which is just as well, because when I did finally get the cough checked out, it was diagnosed as a generic allergy attack ….

Immensely relieved, I dropped the piano and cooking lessons, put off learning to fly an airplane, stuck the trip to the Inscrutable Orient on the back burner and jammed Marcel Proust back up there on the bookshelf with all those unread Robert Musil and Italo Calvino novels. I … informed my friend that on his next visit to Paris, he would have extra room in his luggage, [since] he would not be carrying my ashes.

[But] that night, my sleep was deeply troubled. My brush with death, however fleeting, however absurd, had brought me face-to-face with my own most jealously guarded values ….

Look [at] how I had reacted to the thought … I might be dying …. Did I say to myself “Now might be a good time to help eradicate poverty in rural America”? No. Did I ask myself “Wouldn’t this be a good opportunity to spend some time in a leper colony?” No. Did I ask myself “Why not use your few remaining months to make this planet a better place than the way you found it?” Of course not.

Instead, I embarked on a mad binge of self-aggrandizement. Rather than capitalizing on my remaining days and weeks to reconcile myself to my enemies, spend more time with my loved ones, consult wise men regarding the meaning of life, I had succumbed…

Listen!

…to the siren song of self-actualization.

Yet, in my defense, I was[n’t] the only member of my age group who would have reacted in this way. For in choosing this pointless, self-involved course of action, I was, if nothing else, being true to the ethos of my generation. When faced with unsettling developments like death, Baby Boomers always react in the same way: We sign up for self-improvement classes. A Baby Boomer par excellence, a prototypical product of the Me Decade, I only knew how to respond to the world insofar as it responded to moi. Everything I had ever learned as a Baby Boomer had oriented me in a single direction: further into myself.[8]

Now, my friends, and especially those of you who do not believe, ask yourself the question: Does that information, as it constantly presses in upon us—does that information match the deep longings of the human heart? Does it satisfy? Are we finding the answers within ourselves? Are we finding the answers in education? Are we finding the answers down the pathway of pleasure? Look at the realities! That’s what he’s asking us to do.

And I say a word to young people who are here this morning. And some of our young people, many of them are off on their retreat this weekend, and we have been thinking of them, and I’m sure they’re having a wonderful time. But for those of you who are here and you’re under the age of whatever—you regard yourself as still in the high-school realm or younger than that, anything from eighteen down—everyone else is not allowed to listen to this, except you. Everyone else puts their fingers in their ears. I want to speak to you.

The way the whole of our society is set up for you young folks is to call you down each of these dead-end streets. Now, it is important, of course, that you are educated, and you are going to be, and you have choices to make concerning that. It is equally important that you do not succumb to the idea that education will answer the deepest longings of your soul. It’s important that you learn to laugh and you have a wonderful time. It is equally important that you do not buy the idea that the answers to your existence can be found with a bunch of good-time Charlies laughing about everything. When the cynics call you and say, “Nobody believes that anymore,” it’s important that you have a robust enough reaction to be able to stand against it. And when you look at those who’ve gone before you, who have reached the apex of the answers of materialism, and you find yourself distanced from that in your mind, it’s important that you recognize the distinction between work as a means to an end and work as an end in itself.

Here’s the deal: you may meet Christ at the crossroads, at the entryway, to all these dead-end streets—and there are more. And you may meet him now in your youth, and you may be saved from the heartache that is represented down those avenues. Or you may choose to resist the influence of your mom and dad, who have brought you to this place. You may choose to turn your back on the information that has been provided for you by those who have only the longing, loving urgency of their hearts to bring to bear upon you, and you may go down each of these roads. I tell you, you will, at the end of those roads, end up bloodied, beaten, broken, and sad. And even if you should remain happy at the end of all of those roads, you will stand—for they finally lead to one ultimate destination—before the throne of God, when you will answer to God as to why it was that you chose to reject all that he offered at the crossroads in the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

I am an older man now. I have both been down some of the roads, and I have watched others go down the roads. And I have for twenty-seven years sat with parents and with children and agonized as they have built for themselves elongated stories that have come about as the result of running away from this. I say to you today: make your parents’ faith your own faith! Trust Christ for yourself! This is not about what your dad is doing or your mother is doing. You will not stand in their custody before God. You will stand alone. You need a faith of your own. You need a Savior who is your very own. You need help, because all of the bombardment of these things will not diminish; it will only increase as time goes by.

I say to you: where you are today, in your heart of hearts, just cry out and say, “Lord Jesus, be my Savior at the crossroads of my life, before I go down into this educational world, before I go further into this pathway of pleasure and all that it offers, before I succumb to all the allures of cynicism, before I become just another disaster on the scrap heap of materialism. Lord Jesus, be my Savior, be my Friend.” Will you do that, just where you are?

Now, the rest of you can start listening again. I’m going to finish. And some of you are sitting here—the parents, the fathers especially—saying, “Well, this is a wonderful talk. I’m glad that you did that. Terrific! I mean, I’ve been so concerned about my son and my daughter. They’ve been down these paths, I’m telling you—down the whole rotten lot of them, they have. And some of them were down there just some Friday evening. I wish they could be like me. I’ve been trying to tell them, you know, ‘There’s only one answer to this great tyranny of life: just become like me. Just give it all to your work. Just become a workaholic. It’s all meaningless and a chasing after the wind. Why don’t you give it to your work?’”

Listen: one of the reasons that your kids are down those streets is because you’ve given it to your work. “Oh,” you say, “here we go. Guilt trip for Dad.” No, no! No guilt trip for dad. But it is a legitimate response on the part of our children to look at us and say, “Is this really ringing my father’s bell? I mean, I’m grateful for my bedroom, and I love my room, and I like the wallpaper. And I’m glad that I’ve got money in my pocket, and it’s good of him to give me this car that I can drive. But ultimately, look at what it’s doing to my dad! I don’t want to be that. After all, he’s building castles in the air.” Look at verse 18: “I hated all the things I … toiled for under the sun, [’cause I’ve got to] leave them to the one who comes after me.”

Some of you are attorneys, and that’s how you spend all of your life. You’re making a great deal of money sitting with people who are phenomenally concerned because they’re phenomenally successful. And now the transition as they’re facing death, is such that they just don’t know what to do: “What am I going to do with this stuff? What am I going to do with my money? How am I going to make a transition? Look at who’s going to get it! My succession plan isn’t working.”

“What does a man get,” verse 22, “for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun?” Remember “under the sun”? It’s so important. We’re not saying that work, where God is in control, is an irrelevancy. We’re saying that when that’s the totality of it, verse 23, “all his days his work is pain and grief,” and “even at night his mind does[n’t] rest.” He wakes up in the night. He turns over in his bed. He has pills to get him to sleep, pills to wake him up, pills to get him to the airport without losing his temper, and pills to bring him home successfully to his wife. And if he’s not using those pills, perhaps he’s gone down to one of the other possibilities, and he’s got “eighty-six proof anesthetic crutches” propping him “to the top, where the smiles are all synthetic and the ulcers never stop.”[9]

You say, “Well, where’d you come up with that nonsense?” Well, that’s a song, but the nonsense is all around me. In London, just, whatever, two weeks ago, in the Continental Club— which sounds grand, but it’s a dreadful little place—I was sitting, in the early hours of the morning, two hours ahead of my flight, and in came two fellows. And they weren’t in the door a split second before he said, “Are you ready to hit it?” And I looked round, and I wondered what they’re gonna hit. Then I saw what they were referring to: the big free-drinks deal. Everything there! It didn’t matter what time it was in the morning. The fact that it’s free—they must have been Scottish or something—the fact that it’s free: “Let’s hit it!” And so they hit it! Boy, did they hit it! I was looking at them. They can do what they like. I mean, I’m not condemning them. But I thought, “Eight o’clock in the morning! How can you do this?” And by the time they’re getting their bags, you know… And we sat in the same section of the plane, and the lady said, “Can I get you something to drink before we take off?” “Yeah, yeah, please!” It was pathetic! It was tragic!

You say, “Well, how come you can do a drunk so well? What’s that about?” It’s called growing up in Glasgow, which is the Western world’s center of heart attacks and the center of alcoholism in Western Europe. Just travel on public transportation as a small boy, and you can do it, you know.

But let me end with a hint of hope, because our time is gone. The final little section, verse 24, gives us an indication that he’s pushing beyond the canopy. He’s going up and out. He’s essentially pointing out the fact that there is a way to live your life that is built on sand, and eventually everything will collapse—that’s the story Jesus told, the picture he used in Matthew 7[10]—and there is a way to build your house upon the rock, and that life, then, will stand and last.

You see, it would be a dreadful misunderstanding if anybody was to take from this that somehow or another, this was a story about how Christianity is disinterested in education, in pleasure, in laughter, and in work and employment. Nothing could be further from the truth! What the writer is saying is this: that none of these things will make sense of your life or answer your deepest longings if you approach them down these avenues. But when you understand the true and living God and why it is you’ve been made and why it is that Christ died for your sins, then all of a sudden, all of the enjoyment of these things becomes a magnificent and wonderfully attractive proposition. So it’s quite wonderful.

The saddest book that I’ve read in the last twenty-four months I have in my hand, The Private Diaries, Memos and Letters of Howard Hughes. He was once the richest man in America, if not in the world. And in this book… And I don’t recommend you buy it. I don’t even recommend you get it out of the library. I read it to the end because I was committed to it. It’s full of so much that is sad and empty. He is ultimately the great hedonist, I think. You know, he’s been down all these roads. For those of you who are saying, “Yeah, well, I just get round a couple more corners. I’m sure that, you know, it’s down there.” Well, let Hughes tell you. He’s been down there.

Memo from Las Vegas, Nevada, May the 12th, 1969, to Robert Maheu, who was his key guy to whom he had given everything and entrusted everything, in terms of his business empire: “Bob, I want you to remember one thing. I can buy any man in the world, or I can destroy him. If that wasnt [sic] true, people like me wouldnt [sic] exist.”[11] Then the biographer goes on to say,

In the two years that Howard Hughes had been in Las Vegas, his bed sheets had only been changed five times. The shag carpet in his bedroom had never been vacuumed; [and] the end table had never been dusted; and the bathroom never cleaned. His closets were beginning to fill with Mason jars filled with urine, and the odor of rubbing alcohol barely camouflaged the stench from his rotting teeth and fungus-contorted nails.[12]

His greatest dilemma at this point was the transition, was the exact expression of the Preacher here: “What am I going to do with all this stuff?” And he was annoyed and frustrated because this guy Bob, to whom he had entrusted so much, had begun to think for himself. And he knew, “I can’t have him thinking for himself. If he thinks for himself, he may think me right out of the equation.” And so he continued to give himself to writing these prolonged memos that were about absolute nothing at all.

The only solid joys, the only lasting treasures that may be discovered in all of the journey of life are those joys and treasures that are found in a personal, living faith in God.

And the tragedy of it is seen, for example, in this. He’s in the Dunes Hotel—and with this I’m going to finish, so don’t feel we’re here for the rest of the afternoon. He’s within the Dunes Hotel, and he is occupying the vast majority of his time rewriting instructions about tiny details—for example, the correct handling of the envelope which contains the cord for his hearing aid. And these are his instructions:

The door to the cabinet is to be opened using a minimum of fifteen Kleenexes. (Great care is to be exercised in opening and closing the doors. They are not to be slammed or swung hastily so as to raise any dust, and yet exceeding care is to be exercised against letting insects in.)

Nothing inside the cabinet is to be touched—the inside of the doors, the top of the cabinet, the sides—no other objects inside the cabinet are to be touched in any way with the exception of the envelope to be removed. The envelope or package is to be removed using a minimum of fifteen Kleenexes. If it is necessary to use both hands, then fifteen Kleenexes are to be used for each hand. (It is to be understood that these fifteen Kleenexes are to be sterile on both sides of each tissue with the exception of the very outermost edge of the tissue. The center of the tissue only should come in contact with the object being picked up.) If something is on top of the package to be removed, a sterile instrument is to be used to lift it off.[13]

Now, this is only a tiny excerpt from the focus of this man. And then, says the biographer,

The content of the memo on the handling of the hearing-aid cord did not differ substantially from the one that Hughes had dictated eleven years earlier. The major distinction lay in the fact that when Hughes was devoting days to the rewrite in 1970, he had not worn his hearing aid in over six years, [or] asked for the [cord].[14]

“Now,” says somebody, “that is a wonderful rhetorical ploy you have just used in setting up the apex of it all—a weird, strange, psychotic individual. And then you’re saying, ‘So, therefore…’”

Well, you see, if we had time, I could show you what a wonderfully handsome young man this was—how excellent in sports, how clever in mind, how devoted in family life. He didn’t get up one morning and decide he was going to end up dying on a plane as they hastened him to help at the end of his life. No. He just went down all the dead-end streets, one after another. And eventually, it ensnared him and killed him.

The only solid joys, the only lasting treasures that may be discovered in all of the journey of life are those joys and treasures that are found in a personal, living faith in the God who said, by means of this little book, “Careful! Don’t go there. Instead, trust my Son. I sent him to make your life all that it might be, to fill you with all that joy could be.” So we must choose today whom we’re going to serve.[15]

Father, we thank you for the Word of God, which is the Bible. We thank you for the truth that it conveys. We pray that you will draw to yourself men and women, young people. I pray for young men that are buffeted by all of these advances, who are wrestling, trying to figure it out, trying to make the shift from all that is represented in the faith of their fathers—whether it is their own, whether it will become their own. Lord God, I pray that you will give to them such a sense of your welcoming and your beckoning and all of the joy and the reality that is found in Christ, that they may lay hold upon your great and precious promises.

And we pray that the grace of the Lord Jesus, and the love of God our Father, and the fellowship of our Holy Spirit may be the abiding portion of each one, now and forevermore. Amen.


[1] R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943).

[2] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (New York: Bantam, 1988), 174.

[3] Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, et al., “The Russell-Einstein Manifesto,” https://pugwash.org/1955/07/09/statement-manifesto. Paraphrased.

[4] Billy Graham, The Secret of Happiness: Jesus’ Teaching on Happiness as Expressed in the Beatitudes (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955), 1. Some details have been altered from Graham’s original story.

[5] Billy Joel, “Piano Man” (1973).

[6] Jimmy Buffett, “Margaritaville” (1977).

[7] Robert Burns, “Tam o’ Shanter” (1790).

[8] Joe Queenan, Balsamic Dreams: A Short but Self-Important History of the Baby Boomer Generation (New York: Henry Holt, 2001), 4–6.

[9] Ray Stevens, “Mr. Businessman” (1968).

[10] See Matthew 7:24–27.

[11] Howard Hughes to Robert Maheu, Las Vegas, May 12, 1969, quoted in Richard Hack, Hughes: The Private Diaries, Memos and Letters; The Definitive Biography of the First American Billionaire (Beverly Hills: New Millennium, 2001), 317.

[12] Hack, 317.

[13] Howard Hughes to Robert Maheu, quoted in Hack, 333–34.

[14] Hack, 334.

[15] See Joshua 24:15.

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.