Introduction to Ecclesiastes
All through the Book of Ecclesiastes we have found the oft-repeated phrase, “under the sun.” He used it 27 times, primarily in the first half of the book. The same is true with the word ‘vanity’ used sixteen times (see chart). Solomon looks back upon his backslidden life and sees that when man pursues things ‘under the sun’ or apart from God, things are not well.
Not a few people have told me that they feel depressed when reading this book. Some don’t even want to read the book because of it! This was Solomon’s purpose. Whenever a person lives his life apart from the clear influence of God’s grace, he will end up with a sad life. Something is desperately missing. Unfortunately, man doesn’t observe this right away but often only after most of his life has passed.
Think of the Book of Ecclesiastes as a big canvas. Scene after scene is carefully painted. In between each scene are many more pithy statements that serve as a backdrop to the whole. When one looks at the picture, one’s eyes are drawn to the large despairing scenes painted at the beginning of the book. Having seen it, it creates a curiosity as to why he so personally writes about his despair. The reader begins to look for something the author might have found. As one looks deeper, Solomon’s advice, largely found in the later part of the book, can be seen. The book progresses from depressive analysis to hopeful solutions.
Solomon wants to grant us his hard-earned discernment not to make money or a reputation, but to warn and rescue. He is trying to help those caught in secularism’s web to escape the plague of meaningless and find true goodness and joy in the presences of God. If hope cannot be found ‘under the sun,’ then we ought to live ‘under the heaven”the world influenced by God. (For more on the introduction to the Book of Ecclesiastes).
The secular society as we know it is best described as man without God. The modern world boasts that its choice is much greater than the old way of morals and God. They run with a frenzy after new approaches to life and understanding so that they can escape God’s influence in life. The secular man boasts in his choices but hides the consequences: depression, broken relationships, hatred, disease, drugs, loneliness, and anxiety.
Jesus in John 10:10 strips the glamor coating off secularism's pill and shows the poison hidden inside it. “The thief comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy….” (John 10:10). When a man lives in the groove of the secular world apart from God’s grace and truth, he lives in the spirit of the world. This is what Paul clearly described in Ephesians,
“And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest.” (Ephesians 2:1-3).
The course of the world is ruled by the prince and power of the airSatan. Man is convinced that he rules, but in a very real sense, it is not man who is in control, but their father, the evil one, who works his devilish ways through mankind.
Humanism rapes man and woman of what it is good, whether it is the secularistic version of humanism or the religious variety. Solomon has lived in the pulse of the world. And now, when he looks back, he saw that he was fooled. It was all meaningless and emptylike a vapor of air. He got cheated and is trying to help us avoid falling for this delusion.
Without God, man’s resources are limited to what he has and what he makes out of life. But because they are missing life’s most essential part, their pursuits in life are vain. One of the key characteristics of our society right now is what I call the pursuit of independent success. I believe this is something Solomon observed in his life as he penned the words in Ecclesiastes 4:9-12, only from a different approach.
Remember, brothers and sisters, falling into the world is the worse thing that can happen to you. You and I might get deluded thinking that we are missing something when we are not having the fun of the world. Don’t be deluded. Once we doubt the power, joy and love of the truth of God, Satan begins to veer us into the barren course of the world. What we will be addressing today is very popular mindset. The road is well-travelled. It is not like one of those paths where you have to cut down branches to get through. It instead is a broad and oft-traveled path. One can travel on it without thinking. In fact, the opposite is true. If we do not purposely seek another road, we will by the power of the world default to this path. This is the path or pursuit of independent success. It is a hybrid of the world, another of its byproducts. We will find this path both inside and outside the church. The church should know better, but it has lost for the most part been mesmerized by the world. Oh, may the church of God come back to the Lord and trust in His good and beautiful ways!
A Definition of Independent Success
When one looks back on one’s life, life will not consist of projects, plans and pleasure. They are important but not the most important part of life. They certainly should not what one builds his life upon. Solomon repeatedly states that what is important at the moment does not bring the reward it promises. “Thus I considered all my activities which my hands had done and the labor which I had exerted, and behold all was vanity and striving after wind and there was no profit under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 2:11).
Most people will forget what you have done. What seems so important right now will become irrelevant with time. Once a person takes his degree, it becomes less and less important. Once the opening of the architecture’s prized building is pass, his importance is whittled away. It is much more accurate to see that these life situations only provide the context in which one lives out his life.
One might be busy with this startup while another is establishing a career as a doctor, housewife, businessman or missionary. Each task is important when God calls you to it, but the task only dictates the place in which you are to serve. The context is rather incidental. Many have been confused by this and thought the task is the race itself. This is why, I believe, Solomon looks back and sees that his independent pursuit of success hurt many people, families, churches and countries.
Before describing this mentality a bit more clearly, let me more clearly define what I mean by independent success. This is the broad road of the world which in many cases runs right through the church.
By independent, I mean that people are on their own. They might have others around them. They might even be married or belong to a cell group. But they have a deep pursuit in their life. They are the only ones that really know that plan and thrust for their lives. Other people around them are, in this sense, only arbitrary. They are inconsequential except in that they help serve the purpose of helping one attain his or her goals. In the world’s harsh language, one could say, “They are out for themselves.” This means relationships come second.
By success, a person believes that the accomplishment of a series of activities is extremely- important for their lives. They not only want success; they are driven to succeed. They must have that success. In their eyes, that success defines their worth as a person. We might think of a young Ph.D.-bound person who is driven by this idea of success. He has adopted his parents’ perspective that states meaning in life comes by having a high education and its associated benefits. He believes he can only fit in life if he reaches these goals. If he doesn’t succeed, he rather not think about this. At least he tries not to. Failure would mean rejection by his peers and perhaps more importantly by his family. This spirit of independent success is so strong that it devastates those infected by it. For now, however, let us see what this independent success looks like in our daily life.
A Descriptions of Independent Success
We will look at four life descriptions of this independent success.
The individual who comes to believe that the meaning of his life stems from the pursuit of these things will be devastated one way or the other. If he does not meet up with these goals, he will be ruined and if he does, he will discover their meaningless. But for the time being, these things are so important to him that he or she does not think they as individuals have any real meaning in life apart from these things. This is why some people commit suicide. They have failed. They feel as if they have no worth. They believe it and pull the plug on their life.
Those who are still convinced of the value of pursuing these goals are desperate to win. Their whole life is into achieving these things. They are willing to use wrong means to gain them if necessary. They are willing to hurt others if it comes down to it. It is a fierce competition. A person can run into certain situations where the cold competition can be felt. Ecclesiastes 4:4 says, “And I have seen that every labor and every skill which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. This too is vanity and striving after wind” (Ecclesiastes 4:4). And if they succeed in achieving those things, they are prideful and disdain others.
Those who are driven towards achievement cannot see how they hurt the family. Some spouses live apart from each other. They are telling each other that their achievement is more important than their marriage and more important than the children. In most cases, they will not say this. They will say they are doing it for their child, parents, etc.
I am not speaking about short periods of time, of course. But those that sacrifice their families cannot even begin to think about the consequences on the family. In reality, it does not matter to them. Success is too important for them. Can you sense the independent spirit in your life?
They have a family but find the meaning in life to be in achieving some goal rather than in having great relationships. Their strong belief in what they are doing sets them up for that deluded pursuit. They have not learned from Solomon’s life.
Many families have been ruined by such a spirit. One would think that those with a spirit of independent success would see the problem, but they are blinded by their ambition. Divorce is common in such situations. Confused children are the result. Children have come to hate their parents because of their pursuit in life. The children can see through the materialism because they are missing out from the much-needed love. What is the sense of having things if one does not have love? Even if a person professes to be a Christian, if he devotes himself to independent success, he too will fail.
Many a church is filled with these ambitious leaders. If they have not dealt with their ambition and pride, then they will run the church in the same way they have run their lives. When I visit different cities, or even look at the churches in our own city, I see strife and self-ambition in the church. They have, so they tell others and themselves, a goal for the Lord.
They believe they know what is right for the church. This pursuit becomes all important-no matter what. The silly thing about all of this is that it it done in the name of the Lord. They think they are doing it for the Lord. They even are convinced that they are making sacrifices for the Lord, but in fact, they are allowing the evil one to ruin God’s beautiful plans. They are convinced that they are preserving God’s vision by taking fifty people and starting their own church. I could tell you many a story, but they are all sad. Very sad.
These leaders are totally insensitive to how God wants things done. They only focus on the end results and disregard the importance of those around them. Their goal stands as the most important thing in life. They are deluded. Wasn’t it Jesus who said, “Love one another?” Why do Christians allow building programs, doctrinal ‘purity’ and leadership styles become more important than Jesus’ command? There is a deeper passion running deep in their veins. They are, as Jesus says, wolves in sheep clothing.
This destructive ambitious spirit runs through the veins of many a great leader, politician, CEO, etc. The most important thing for them is to do what is needed to get the job done. They are willing to hurt others if necessary. Behind them is a burnt out trail of broken relationships. They don’t even see it. They never look back. When people have such a cause, then the cause has them. They are willing to break every code of conduct to get what they want. This independent spirit of success drives them to accomplish their goals but in the meantime the foundation is ruined.
Great exceptions. Before going on, I want first of all to testify that I have seen a lot of exceptions. God has woken up His people from their pursuit of life as has been described. They have found how the Lord Himself is the one who guides them. They have learned that God leads them differently in obtaining their goals. Their goals are obtained, but more important they have discovered the value of what Solomon is referring to, “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor.” Right relationship is everything. Upright conduct is as important as the goals, if not more important. Now let us go on and see what Ecclesiastes 2:9 does mean.
The Structure of Ecclesiastes 4:9-12
“Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor. For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up. Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone? And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12).
Let’s first note the structure.
The main point is found in verse 9. “Two are better than one because one gains a better return for their hard work.” Each of the other verses, 10, 11 and 12 all start with the word ‘if’ and its conditional clause. They serve as illustrations and reemphasis of the main point. So let us think through a bit why Solomon said this phrase after his long and seemingly productive life. We must remember that Solomon had it all. He reached the zenith in this world.
Solomon concludes from all that he has observed that two are better than one. What makes him say this? Truly, if anybody was not lonely, it was not Solomon with all his wives and concubines, was it? Truly, if anybody was not productive, it was not Solomon with his world renown projects including buildings and parks, was it? Truly, if anybody was not wealthy enough to do what he wanted, it was not Solomon with his massive fortress of wealth where gold was as common as silver, was it? Truly, if anybody could impress others with his wisdom, it was not Solomon, was it? Withstanding all this, Solomon concluded, “The two are better than one.” Why? What was he saying?
Solomon admits to having missed out on the best of life despite the success he seemed to have. He seemed to have everything but he confessed that his dream became a nightmare of emptiness. In this little saying, Solomon revealed that he had missed out on a good and essential part of his life.