Category Archives: Sanctification/holiness

Ecclesiastes 2 – We gain nothing – God gives everything

Discussion question:

Laughter is the best medicine. Do you know a joke you could share?

Context

The Teacher of the assembly began by stating that everything around us is meaningless. That is, no matter how much you put in, you gain nothing. The world, on the other hand, under God’s rule provides and never ceases to provide. So, what is the point of our life? The Teacher decided to put their wisdom and understanding to use and experiment. Although the conclusion looks grim, the Teacher sets out to explore what to make of this world and this life.

Read Ecclesiastes Chapter 2

Observation

Structure

  • 1-9 The project of pleasure
  • 10-16 Poetry – The result of pleasure and wisdom
    • 10-11 Nothing to show for pleasure
    • 12-14 Better to be wise than a fool
    • 15-16 No better being wise than a fool
  • 17-23 The great despair of nothing gained
  • 24-27 The gift from God

1-9 The project of pleasure

“I said to myself…” The ESV says, “I said to my heart…” The meaning of the NIV is right but the word ‘heart’ helps us see where the Teacher is going. He wants to know what he longs for and what drives his life. He isn’t referring to a textbook on the matter but asking himself what is it all about. Note later the phrase, “…my mind still guiding me with wisdom.”

“I will test you with pleasure…” The first test will be to go where the heart desires and see what that produces. He will list out laughter and cheer before moving on to projects that are self-rewarding.

“…what is good…” Verse 1 and 3 have this same reference point. But what could he mean? The sense of worthwhile and profitable is probably in mind. Not a question of good verses evil but a judgment on what is useful and worthwhile doing.

“Laughter…is madness.” Again, a word to suggest an action done for no reason or benefit. True enough. A robot might ask that question.

“And what does pleasure accomplish?” He doesn’t seem to answer that question. Are we to assume nothing? As we continue through this chapter, we’ll find that some things can’t be concluded as bad or madness purely because it doesn’t produce anything. The Teacher is asking what progress do we make through pleasure. The answer is, ‘no tangible progress.’ But that doesn’t mean that pleasure is useless. He calls it pleasure and cheering himself. This is beneficial in the moment. But the question still remains, what real gain are we making through this?

“…cheering myself with wine…” We’ll likely cover alcohol later in the book but we will be sensitive for the moment on this topic. In the current context, the cheering through drinking achieves no profit. It is not condemned here but neither is it prescribed for better living. More on this will come.

“My mind still guiding me with wisdom.” Verse 3 and 9 have the same condition. The Teacher is on a project of understanding. The drinking and the folly was kept in check to observe the benefits. He did not cease his project of exploring the meaning of life. While pursuing pleasure, he was mindful of the process.

Verses 1-3a Describe his intention and the starting point was folly. Pleasure through madness. Unprofitable. But desirable. He then turns his attention to a different kind of pleasure: project management!

“I undertook great projects…” Verses 4-9 outline the exploration of putting his hands to work – not out of service to others but for self gain. Houses, vineyards, gardens and parks; servant breeding and stock, silver and gold and personal entertainment. The whole list of things are for himself. This is why this falls into the category of pleasure rather than of work. We certainly work for pleasure when it is achieving our goals and dreams. He was acquiring “…the delights of a man’s heart.”

10-16 Poetry – The result of pleasure and wisdom

After the decision to explore the fruit of pleasure through self indulgent pleasure and project management for wealth and leisure, the Teacher gives us some conclusions through poetry.

10-11 Nothing to show for pleasure

“I denied myself nothing my eyes desired…” The boundary of his experiment was wide.

“My heart took delight in all my labour…” I suggest he means that he put his hand to nothing except what he delighted in. As listed already, the outcome of all his work was for self.

“Yet when I surveyed…nothing was gained under the sun.” The conclusion is that he has nothing to show for it all. Remember that in chapter 1 he had concluded that our life comes and goes and you are left with nothing but the sun goes round and round without us. When we are done, our stuff will belong to someone else. He will take us to this point later.

“…this was the reward for all my toil.” Verse 10d is interesting. While life is meaningless and all the projects leave us with nothing, we still have the pleasure in the process. What is the reward? “Delight in all my labour.”

12-14 Better to be wise than a fool

“…to consider wisdom and also madness and folly.” This is an experiment of comparison. Is it better to be wise or foolish? To live life with understanding or without.

“What more can the king’s successor do than what has already been done?” This is not to be read as a universal question but specific to the outcome of this experiment. The present king has put his hands to everything he can find to do. Houses, vineyards, wealth and prosperity. What could the next king possibly do? I love the arrogance of this statement! Consider for a second, the Christian perspective on this. If the great Teacher and Kind is the one we ought to listen to: what on earth can we do that is greater than what the King of kings has done. Please forgive me. I’m not trying to jump too quickly to a hyper-Christian response. But the word of God here is for you and for me. I certainly can’t do what the Teacher has been able to do in his experiment. But take it even further and ask, what can we do that God has not already done?

“…wisdom is better than folly…” Having eyes to see is obviously better than not. The Teacher doesn’t seem to go further than saying that obviously it is better to be wise. But…

15-16 No better being wise than a fool

“…the wise, like the fool, will not be long remembered…like the fool, the wise too must die!” This is the real measuring line. What is profitable? What is worthwhile? What is measurably good? Well, if death is the end for everyone irrespective of wealth or poverty, wisdom or folly, then what’s the point? The Teacher will begin the next section with much depression. The phrase “…the days have already come…” remind us that our days are numbered. Death is not an ‘if’ but a ‘when’.

17-23 The great despair of nothing gained

“So I hated my life…” Has the lessons from the Teacher started depressing you? Well, that was his journey too!

“…the work…was grievous to me…” Not pleasurable anymore since the final word is death which resets all gains.

“…I must leave them to the one who comes after me. And who knows whether that person will be wise or foolish?” Even if we think of our lives as a baton race where we help build for the next generation, even that is folly. It strikes me how every generation elements that we have done poorly and hope that we can leave something better for the next generation – when the reality is that they will grow up to lament their efforts also.

“For a person may labour with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then they must leave all they own to another who has not toiled for it.” A great effort in this life amounts to…? Just note that the Teacher is not saying we should give up on life – bear with it – but what is the profit of life? What’s in it for me really? Depressing?

24-27 The gift from God

“…this too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment?” Depression is replaced with contentment. The profit of wisdom, knowledge and skill is nothing. We gain nothing from any of it in the end. But the pleasure we receive in the process is God’s gift to us. The very presumption of the experiment is the gift from God. The fact that any pleasure can be received is God’s gift. Our emotional ability is God given. We can’t even produce that from nothing!

“…God gives happiness…” Godliness with contentment is great gain, says Paul in 1 Timothy 6:6. The ‘happiness’ is not simply pleasure or laughter but relief from the pains of gaining nothing. Relief from depression! True contentment is a gift from God. It doesn’t come from gaining through this life but through learning how to please him – to enjoy God and to know him. This is the fruit of the Spirit – to know God in truth and to be sanctified through a growing knowledge of God.

“…but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over…” To the one who strives to gain, they lose everything. But to the one who will pursue God, they gain contentment which is the gift from God. As Jesus once said, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it!” Mark 8:35

Suggested questions for running this study.

Q1. Verses 1-9 describe the Teacher’s plans to test pleasure. What types of pleasure does he describe? What is the difference between the pleasures of Verses 2-3a and the pleasures of 3b-9?

Q2. Verses 4-9 describe the endeavours of a king. How far away is our lifestyle to his? 

Q3. The poetry from Verse 10 is a reflection of his findings. What does he conclude?

Q4. When he contrasts wisdom and folly in Verses 13-16, which ends up the winner? Discuss the despair that results in Verses 17-23.

Q5.  How does the Teacher resolve his depression in Verses 24-27?

Q6. Look up one or more of these New Testament passages to discuss. Matthew 6:25-34; 1 Timothy 6:6-11; Romans 8:5-11.

Meaning

Pouring our energy into this life for the sake of gain is fruitless. We can certainly try but the end will be the expected result. Both the foolish and the wise will die. Our day is coming. But to the one who turns to God and lives for him, they receive contentment as their gift. In this life, we gain nothing except vapour. But with God, we receive the gift of living.

Application

Challenge#1 Seek first the kingdom of God

Matthew 6:19 onwards illustrates Jesus’ perspective on all of this. Even Solomon, in all of his glory, had nothing more than what God provided for him. We are in a more privileged position than Solomon. We have the benefit of his wisdom as well as Christ’s wisdom. This world will give us thrill if we chase it and we will be left with nothing in the end. But with Christ, seeking His kingdom first, we get wisdom, contentment, and eternity. The bible talks about ‘chasing after’ the things of this world like the pagan does. That is foolish. The wise person looks at the logic: we can add nothing to this life but God can give us everything we need and more. Shall we seek first our kingdom or Gods?

Challenge#2 How much is too much?

Whether that question is about alcohol (v3) or prosperity and ambition (v9), in God’s wisdom we are required to be sober minded about everything. To keep wisdom with us (v3 and 9). The bible does not forbid alcohol (it endorses it at times 1Ti5:23) but it certainly condemns the foolishness of excess (Proverbs 23:20). The bible does not condemn making money (it endorses it at times 1Thess4:11; 2Thes3:10) but it certainly warns of the dangers of wealth (Matt19:24). The question is not, how much is too much, but why are you even asking the question? See Challenge#1

Challenge#3 Preach Ecclesiastes to your neighbour

The book of Ecclesiastes is an excellent text for discussing with our neighbours. All the work and toil that goes into this life and for what? So we can enjoy a long weekend at Bonny Doon? What if life was already handed to us? What if everything our heart desires has been offered to us through Jesus? Could it be possible that all our efforts are in vain? Could it be possible that if we lost our life and surrendered our efforts and attention to Jesus, we would receive much, much more than we could ever give up? Mark 8:35-38 challenges us to leave everything in faith and follow Jesus. Romans 8:30 tells us what we get when we turn to him (Romans 8:28-32).

Mark 6:14-29 – What Herod heard

Discussion question:

Have you ever wondered how different life would be as a king or queen? OR Do you think Queen Elizabeth watches Neighbours?

Read Mark 6:14-29

Context

This story of the death of John the baptist is included in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke). It appears in Mark right in the middle of the mission that the disciples are sent on. Jesus sent his Twelve Disciples off on mission in Mark 6:6-13 and Mark records their return from mission in Mark 6:30. While they are spreading the news about the kingdom of God, calling people to repent and believe, healing and casting out demons, we are given this account of John the Baptist. On the ground, the disciples are spreading the news of the kingdom, but in the earthly kingdom of Herod, we see sin with no repentance and a mishearing of who Jesus is.

Observation

Structure

  • 14-16 What Herod heard and concluded about Jesus
  • 17-20 What Herod heard from John
  • 21-29 What Herod heard from his step-daughter/niece!

14-16 What Herod heard and concluded about Jesus

“King Herod heard about this…” This is referring to the mission that the disciples were on. The commotion in the streets caused by the disciples preaching a message of repentance had reached the ears of Herod. We are brought from the real street-talk of the kingdom of God into the house of an earthly king. See Luke 3:1 for a scope of the rulers of the day. Herod was the tetrarch over Galilee. It lists four men ruling different regions under the higher reign of Tiberius Caesar. One of the four was Herod’s brother Philip.

“Some were saying… John… Elijah… A prophet…” Jesus’ name was not in question but what was his position or identity. His name was well known but what about his calling or importance? Malachie 4:5 will help understand why Elijah is listed and why the disciples repeat this rumour in Chapter 8. Ironically, it is John the Baptist who is the Elijah figure predicted to come as he was one of the prophets like the Old Testament prophets whose primary message was to call Israel to repent and return to the LORD. A prophet like Elijah would come and prepare the way for the LORD. This was John the Baptist (Mark 9:12-13). As readers of this story, we are meant to realise how wrong they all are – that they misunderstood Elijah and rejected his call to repent – how then will they understand who Jesus is?

“But when Herod heard this, he said…” Herod’s conclusion is that Elijah has somehow come back from the dead with even greater powers than he had before.

17-20 What Herod heard from John

“For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested…” We are taken back in time to understand Herod’s experience with John. What follows is a story of lust and sexual immorality; of a call to repent and a man who doesn’t disagree but unwilling to repent.

“…Herod feared John… when Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.” This is the profile of someone who is unable to understand the mysteries of the kingdom of God. Many people responded to John’s ministry of repentance and repented. Herod revered John as a holy man but what he spoke about puzzled him.

21-29 What Herod heard from his step-daughter/niece!

“Finally the opportune time came.” This refers to Herodias’ dilemma in Verse 19. She had a grudge against John. He was a nuisance to whatever her ambitions were. The size of this grudge comes out further when we hear how it is released.

“…the daughter of Herodias came in and danced, she pleased Herod and his dinner guests.” You can imagine alcohol and festivities and the passion of the moment and pride and the want to impress the rulers that have been invited to the party. This is not a PG rated party. Herod is swept up in the moment and promises his niece anything up to half the kingdom. Wow!

“She went out and said to her mother, “What shall I ask for?” Herodias must have had quite the influence over her daughter. The offer has already been suggested: half the kingdom! Why not take that offer?

“The head of John the Baptist.” The grudge is strong. Her hate of John focuses her attention and dismisses all other possibilities. 

“On hearing this, John’s disciples came and took his body and laid it in a tomb.” The story is complete with the outside world hearing what has taken place inside the governor’s house. This earthly ruler behaves so unimpressively. His kingdom offers nothing but selfish ambition. He is more concerned with saving face than with righteousness and justice.

Suggested questions for running this study.

Q1. Look up Luke 3:1 to hear who is listed as important in Jesus’ day. A tetrarch is a sub-ruler. By telling us the story about Herod and John, what contrast is Mark giving us to consider?

Q2. What had Herod heard about? What conclusions were being made about Jesus from Herod’s palace? What were they getting right and what were they getting wrong?

Q3. What issues did John the Baptist have with Herod and what does the bible teach about these things?

Q4. Given all we know from this story, how would you describe the kingdom of Herod?

Q5. Why do you think Mark (and Matthew and Luke) includes this story in the gospel?

Meaning

There is a scene change in the gospel of Mark. While the disciples spread the good news of the kingdom of God, we are taken to an earthly ruler who has no backbone or care for righteous living. He hears the talk about Jesus and is filled with fear. We hear the word of what went on inside his home and are filled with disgust. He had the prophet who God sent to point people to Jesus right in his house – imprisoned – but he killed him, letting lust and pride rule. Herod heard about Jesus but did not hear about the kingdom of God. Herod heard from John but did not understand. He heard from his family and submitted to sin.

Application

Challenge#1 Human government and us

Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 2 teach us to pray for our governments and have respect for their authority. It does not follow that we are to agree with their conduct or decisions. This can be a complicated area of discussion but isn’t it possible to live as citizens of this world but love the kingdom of God because it is so much better? People in this world will often disappoint us. The greatest people in the kingdom of God are those who live for Christ and give him the highest respect. John the Baptist spoke the truth to the ruler and faced the consequences for it.

Challenge#2 Lust, envy, hate and pride

These things are to be put to death in us. The fruit of the spirit feeds none of these things. Romans 8 teaches us to give energy to the Spirit and not to the desires and passions of the flesh. Sin is destructive and the Spirit gives life. When the outworkings of the flesh appear, turn back to God and repent. 

Challenge#3 The kingdom of God is not in palaces

While we read about the mayhem in the court of Herod, the real kingdom growth was happening in the villages. The news of this world will revolve around what is happening in politics and sport. Very little attention is given to people turning back to God. This emphasis will be turned on its head one day when everyone sees Jesus as King and that everything that we thought was great in this world is nothing compared to him.

Commandment #7 – No Adultery

Opening Question

Read Romans 13:8-10 and open in prayer for one another in response.

Exodus 20:14

You shall not commit adultery.

In the beginning (5 mins)

Genesis 2:20-25 describes the origin of marriage. What can we gather from these verses?

  • Marriage is for companionship – to do life together in partnership.
  • Marriage is for a man and a woman.
  • Marriage is exclusive and intimate – the two become one, naked and unashamed. Sex is designed to take place inside of marriage. Not for a fling but as part of the marriage union.
  • Marriage is for family units – leaving the family of origin to start a new family.
  • NB: please remain sensitive to those who are not married. 100% of us are also unmarried for a great portion of our lives and those who are married have a 50% chance of becoming unmarried again later in life as widows/ers.

The command to Israel (5 mins)

Read the following with regard to the 7th commandment:

Exodus 20:14, Leviticus 18:1-5, 20, 24-30, 20:10 (the whole chapter directs Israel to not do the detestable things that Egypt and the original land owners did, the subject of the chapter is sexual immorality).

Proverbs 6:20-35 (v32)

Israel’s history (10 mins)

Malachi 2:10-16 merges the issue of unfaithfulness to God with unfaithfulness in marriage. While God rebukes Israel here for marrying women who serve other Gods, he seems to accuse them of marital unfaithfulness which matches their unfaithfulness to Yahweh. What spiritual lesson does God teach us about adultery?

The marriage covenant is a model of our covenant with God. He is faithful and we must be faithful in our marriages. The Genesis language of the two becoming one is profound. Disobeying the 7th Commandment is not simply breaking a law but revealing our unfaithfulness.

The Gospel (10 mins)

Read Matthew 5:27-30. Discuss how Jesus speaks of the 7th Commandment.

Similar to the 6th commandment, we can break this command in our hearts and minds before any real testable action takes place.

When the gospel went out from Jerusalem to the Gentiles, the Christian church in Jerusalem was concerned to write to them. Read the letter in Acts 15:23-29. Being a brief letter, what do we notice of high priority?

Abstaining from practices associated with idolatry as well as sexual immorality. The concern is for Christians everywhere to not live as the pagans live. See Galatians 5:19; Eph 5:3; Col 3:5; 1 Thess 4:3; Heb 12:16; 13:4, not to mention much of 1 Corinthians!

Christian Living (15 mins)

The Israelites were told to not do what the other nations do in terms of sexual immorality. Christians are instructed in the same manner. We must stop living for the cravings of our own hearts but as mature people who have been saved by grace. Read Ephesians 2:1-10 to remember what we have been saved from and remember the gospel that saves.

Ephesians 2:1-10

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, 2 in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. 3 All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. 6 And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, 7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. 8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—9 not by works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.