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Death Changes Everything

January 27, 2008 Speaker: Bryce Morgan Series: What's the Point?

Passage: Ecclesiastes 2:12–2:26

Death Changes Everything
Ecclesiastes 2:12-26
January 27th, 2008
Way of Grace Church

I. Ignoring the Inevitable

I want to begin our time in God's word this morning with a quote. Listen and consider this statement:

"Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, people have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things"

When we look around at our world, especially at our own culture, this seems to be a pretty accurate description, doesn't it? Especially in regard to death. We ignore death by turning it into something else. We sentimentalize death. We popularize death, in movies and games. We marginalize death through the worship of youth. We distract ourselves.

So often, death becomes something that is pushed to a distant future which we somehow believe will never happen.

But even though this quote is extremely accurate in its description of modern life, it was written almost 400 years ago, by the French philosopher and mathematician, Blaise Pascal.

Listen to what Pascal went on to write about human existence and death:

"Imagine a number of people in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition"

Whether we want to believe it or not, that's a fitting description of life. When it comes to life, no matter how much we deny it or ignore it, death changes everything.

This morning, we are going back even further in time, to do the opposite of what Pascal observed: we are going "TO think about such things". Turn with me to the almost 3000 year old book of Ecclesiastes.

II. The Passage: "So I Hated Life" (2:12-26)

Once again we return to words of this man we're calling the Teacher. You may remember that Ecclesiastes contains the thoughts and struggles of this Teacher as he contemplates the ultimate question in regard to life: why? Why are we here? Why is anything the way that it is? What is the point of this thing called life?

So far in the book, we've seen that the Teacher has begun to consider different paths to life's purpose. His first quest, in 1:16, is the one he will keep coming back to throughout the book. It is the quest for wisdom.

Surely wisdom will lead someone to the right answers, won't it? After talking, at the beginning of chapter 2, about how he also looked for purpose in earthly pleasure, the Teacher returns to the broader question of wisdom in 2:12. Let's look at it together...

A. An Unavoidable Event (2:12-17)

12 So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. 13 Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. 14 The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 15 Then I said in my heart, "What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?" And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. 16 For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! 17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.

There's that common refrain we find throughout the book: "all is vanity", or "all is pointless".

Notice again that the Teacher is considering the way of wisdom, but specifically here, he is comparing, he is considering the differences between wisdom and foolishness. Maybe it is better to simply live like a fool. Maybe life will make sense if you do that.

But the Teacher is quick to point out the obvious in verse 13. "There is more gain in wisdom than in folly". Why? Because, verse 14, "the wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness".

All of us know that life is hard. But hopefully all of us know that it is much harder when you live like a fool. There are real consequences to foolishness, and the Teacher affirms the value of having some wisdom.

But, as is typical with the Teacher, as is typical in this book of pondering and processing life, this conclusion about the superiority of wisdom is not the end of the matter. No, look at the end of verse 14. "And yet...I perceived, I realized the same event happens to all of them (to the wise and the fool)."

What's this event he's talking about? Look at the end of verse 16. "How the wise dies just like the fool!" Living wisely may be valuable for a time, but in the end, in the grand scheme of things, why does it matter if our unavoidable fate is death. What's the point?

And so..."I hated life" concludes the Teacher. This is raw, isn't it? But this is the way the Teacher is trying to make sense of life in this world.

Let me point something out here. For much of the Old Testament, God had given limited revelation in terms of anything about an afterlife. In Ecclesiastes, death is seen as the absolute end of life as we know it. Listen to what the Teacher tells us later in the book , chapter 9:

3 This is the evil in everything that happens under the sun: The same destiny overtakes all. The hearts of men, moreover, are full of evil and there is madness in their hearts while they live, and afterward they join the dead. 4 Anyone who is among the living has hope-even a live dog is better off than a dead lion! 5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even the memory of them is forgotten. 6 Their love, their hate and their jealousy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.

In light of his perspective, I think we understand his struggle with living either wisely or foolishly. In the end, what's the point? Have you come to recognize, do you believe that when it comes to life, death changes everything?

B. Death the Thief (2:18-23)

Look at how he goes on to explain the influence of his inevitable death. Verse 18:

18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. [this also is pointless]

Because the shadow of death always hangs over us in this life, the Teacher finds himself questioning the value of doing anything. "Why am I working so hard to accomplish this or that, when, in the end, death will rob me of everything, and someone else will get what is mine?"

As a king, the Teacher wondered about what kind of man would come after him, what kind of man would ascend to his throne. All the preparation in the world could not guarantee that his successor would be wise. Because of death, the Teacher would ultimately be unable to do anything about his position or his possessions.

My wife and I did a lot of work on the last house we lived in. It was a home built in the 1950's and we spent a good deal of time, sweat, and money on updating different parts of the house. When we sold the house to move out here, I was glad that the new owner would be able to enjoy an updated home. But when I drove by the house a couple of months after we moved out, I noticed that certain things had been changed, things that I had work hard on.

You see, like the Teacher, I was tempted to ask, "What was the point of our costly investment if the next owner was simply going to knock something down or cover something up or replace this or that?" In terms of that house, I no longer had any power.

And if all of life is that way, then why do anything? It will not last. We will not last. Death changes everything.

C. Appreciating Life (2:24-26)

But notice how the Teacher ends this section, notice the conclusion to which he comes. Verse 24:

24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind.

Once again, his conclusions about death and toil were not the end of the matter. Here we see yet another observation in light of our life, in light of our death.

Because death will change everything, the Teacher ultimately points us back to an appreciation for life. He ultimately points us back to God.

Sometimes wrestling with the awfulness of death helps bring the goodness of life into sharper focus. Look at what the Teacher affirms in verse 24. He seems to say, "The best thing we can do in this life is enjoy those gifts that God has given us. He has made us to enjoy food and drink and yes, even our toil."

This truth is actually found throughout the book. In 3:12, 3:13, 3:22, 5:18, and 8:15.

I don't think this is the same idea that's found in the phrase from Isaiah that Paul quotes in I Corinthians 15, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die". That phrase comes from wicked resignation. The teacher speaks from wise reflection.

Remember what Paul and Barnabas told the people of Lystra:

16 In past generations [God] allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. 17 Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness."

A good meal is a good thing. Carrying out one's responsibilities is a good thing. Laughing is a good thing. Working hard to accomplish something is a good thing. There is a genuine joy in the simple pleasures of this life. We all know that.

And sometimes death has to awaken us to life. Think about what people do who find out they have only months left to live. Most do not curl up in some corner because of such catastrophic news. No, in the end, those who only have months left to live...really live; they live life to the fullest. In light of what they will lose, they appreciate even more what they have.

This, as the Teacher makes clear, this ability to enjoy life, is from the hand of God. But notice, it is for those who please God, those who walk in wisdom (v.26). And so wisdom is better than folly.

And yet, is this really the end of the matter?

III. A Death That Changes Everything

As we will see throughout this book, what the Teacher is wrestling with are these truths about life that seem to coexist in this kind of tension. There are numerous conclusions that seem to contradict, but all of them are deemed to be valid.

"I hated all my toil...but...the best thing is to find enjoyment in all your toil"?

They are all true at the same time. Yes, life can be enjoyed. But it will one day end, always sooner than we want; and the specter of death affects our joy. I think we could say that The fullness we can enjoy in life always seems to be restrained by the reality of death. (x2)

Do you find that to be true?

I was at a party recently, where life was being enjoyed by young and old alike. But I knew that one of the guests at that party was, as they enjoyed the festivities, was waiting to hear back from a doctor in a matter of days in order to discover the results of a biopsy. Would it be something minor, or would it be...cancer?

Was that party guest having a good time? It seemed like it. But there was also a shadow over that gathering.

We live every moment knowing that today could be our last day "under the sun". That's the tension in which all of us really live. That is the tension that the Teacher is reflecting on here. Remember Pascal:

"Imagine a number of people in chains, all under sentence of death, some of whom are each day butchered in the sight of the others; those remaining see their own condition in that of their fellows, and looking at each other with grief and despair await their turn. This is an image of the human condition"

And so..."Being unable to cure death, wretchedness and ignorance, people have decided, in order to be happy, not to think about such things"

So what are we to do? Enjoy life? Yes. But are we to think soberly about our own death? Yes. But if we're being honest, won't that affect our enjoyment of life? Yes. But ignoring death will cause its own problems. Yes. So is that the end of the matter? No.

Ecclesiastes is very often a messy book as it deals with these truths that sometimes seem mutually exclusive. But it's also a book written by a man who was reaching for something more, something that God had not yet revealed.

What the writer here was reaching for, what all of us have always been reaching for, is a hope in the face of death that can somehow unleash the fullness of God's gift of gladness.

Almost 3000 years ago the teacher questioned this tension and almost 2000 years ago God answered his questions.

Listen to what the writer of the book of Hebrews tells us about death:

...he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death-that is, the devil- 15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

Who is the writer talking about here? He's talking about Jesus Christ, the one who died in order to set us free from this tension of life in the face of death. Jesus died in order to bring eternity to those living under the sun, to bring meaning to lives that seemed ultimately pointless. You see, his death changes everything.

His death brings us hope. What kind of hope? "The hope of eternal life", as the Apostle Paul describes it in Titus 1:2.

You see, the Teacher understood his life as being on a conveyor belt of sorts. No matter what he did on that conveyor belt, life was always headed for the same destination: death. But the "hope of eternal life" is the hope that set us free and unleashes the fullness of God's gift of gladness.

When death becomes, not an end to any experience of gladness, but the actual beginning of knowing the fullness of God's joy, that's when our life here and now is changed. Since eternal life is, according to John 17:3, a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, then eternal life, that freedom, begins the moment we believe.

Since the teacher has gotten us thinking about this subject of enjoying life, I think it's fair to say that no one can really enjoy life until her or she has turned from everything under the sun, from the madness and folly of the human heart, and turned to the grace and freedom of Jesus Christ.

Apart from Christ people enjoy life like an inmate enjoys walking in the yard. Apart from Christ, we enjoy our relationships like a prisoner enjoys his contact during visiting hours. Apart from Christ, human beings enjoy their labors like an inmate enjoys making license plates in the prison shop. The enjoyment of the prisoner is always limited by their bondage.

But Jesus, and only Jesus, can free us from the bondage of sin and self and death. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God.

Only Jesus can take us from the tension and free us to live for the glory of God.

In light of what the Teacher tells us here about eating and drinking, remember what Paul said about eating and drinking:

So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. (I Corinthians 10:31)

Only when we live for the glory of God can we enjoy life. Only when we delight in Jesus Christ, can we delight in life, no matter our circumstances.

This morning, God wants to free us from the Teacher's tension of "hating life" and "enjoying life". He doesn't want to free us from the tension of life's difficulties. He wants to free our hearts and our minds by giving us the eternal perspective the Teacher was groping for.

Don't ignore death. But think about your own in light of Jesus Christ's. When you trust that He is your only hope, then new meaning will be given to the phrase, "death changes everything".





More in What's the Point?

November 16, 2008

Considering the Point

November 9, 2008

Remember Your Creator (Ecclesiastes 12:1-8)

November 2, 2008

Reality-Tempered Joy