Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 12

Today is the last entry I will be publishing here, at least for awhile. When I started this devotional, I knew it was something I was supposed to do. I don’t know why, but it was an overwhelming compunction. The dreams of greatness I have had for it haven’t worked out. I leave knowing I can return at any time, and I know that I have accomplished what God wanted me to accomplish in this time. I trust He will do what needs to be done with what is here, as I will leave it posted for anyone who needs it.

It is appropriate that I am ending with the final chapter in Ecclesiastes. The author of this book, simply known as “the Teacher”, but strongly suspected to be Solomon, had a very cynical view throughout. He asked the hard questions. Many of these questions had no answer, but they still needed to be asked. If this was Solomon, it provides a great life lesson based on his character. Solomon had been given more wisdom, power, money, and influence than any other person to that point in history. Of those, it was the wisdom he cherished most. Despite that, he knew that it was all meaningless in the face of God because of the short time we are given on this earth.

6 Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,
or the golden bowl is broken;
before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,
or the wheel broken at the well,
7 and the dust returns to the ground it came from,

and the spirit returns to God who gave it. – Ecclesiastes 12:6-7

This is almost a final warning given to us by the Teacher. It tells us that it is much easier to devote ourselves to God early in life than later in life. If we do this, we commit our hearts early and will likely have greater contentment from following the Lord longer. When we don’t commit ourselves early, we run the risk of hardening our hearts and missing out on much of what God has planned for us. If that is the only thing that carries meaning in our lives, it makes sense to commit to it early. That is the best advice I can leave anyone with that comes across this blog.

13 Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the whole duty of man.
14 For God will bring every deed into judgment,

including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil. – Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

This is a great summary to end on. It very simply states what our responsibility is. It also gives us hope by living in Faith. We are asked only to fear God, have faith in His Son, and keep His commandments. This is our sole responsibility in life, and the earlier we see this the better. If I could leave one final message in this blog it would be this: Love the Lord God with all your heart. If we do so, there is nothing to fear from this final judgment.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 11

Last night I had one of those incredibly deep and meaningful conversations that leads me to a fork on my road of life. I was presented with a new truth. I can choose to move forward and remember that truth, or I can not change and continue down the path I am on. As further proof that God is all-knowing and all-powerful, I am brought to Ecclesiastes 11 this morning in my study. I have never been a person to take risks. Because of that, I have been violating the spirit of the Word here.

1 Cast your bread upon the waters,
for after many days you will find it again.
2 Give portions to seven, yes to eight,

for you do not know what disaster may come upon the land. – Ecclesiastes 11:1-2

Last night I realized that I haven’t lived much of a life because I haven’t taken many risks. Because of that, I am in the position I am in now with a job I hate, living in a place I hate. There is a difference here between foolish risks and calculated risks. The theme of control being an illusion continues to be played out here as well. Were are being told that it is better to take action than do nothing at all. For too long I have let my own fear paralyze me into doing nothing. As a result, I am here.

This is common. My biggest problem is recognizing this and agonizing over the missed chances. I realized last night, not for the first time, that there is nothing I can do about those missed chances. They cannot come back. Because of that, I must be prepared for the future chances that will come along. Agonizing over missed opportunities has robbed me of my joy in even those small, positive moments of life.

8 However many years a man may live,
let him enjoy them all.
But let him remember the days of darkness,
for they will be many.
Everything to come is meaningless.

9 Be happy, young man, while you are young,

and let your heart give you joy in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart
and whatever your eyes see,
but know that for all these things
God will bring you to judgment. – Ecclesiastes 11:8-9

I certainly don’t have any trouble remembering the dark days. When remembered properly, they give us perspective on the good times. We can easily be overcome by the negativity of this darkness. I speak from great personal experience when I say it can cloud everything we do. When we do remember the dark times in conjunction with the good, it can help us find God. Even in those dark moments, God has been there. If we search only for good feelings, we won’t find them totally in this world because it is a fallen place. In that, we lose touch with reality and are not centered on God.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 10

It is very frustrating when we see those who are not qualified promoted ahead of us. This seems to be the story of the last three years of my life. I have worked several jobs where, on the basis of seniority alone, certain people are untouchable. They constantly screw things up and even belittle other employees, yet they do not face repercussions. I have lost count of how many times I have heard the phrase, “That’s just the way they are,” when explaining their shortcomings while I am forced to clean up the mess.

Ecclesiastes 10 touches on this briefly when it talks about the unfairness of life. Hard work and diligence do pay off when we work according to God’s principles, but that does not mean it applies in all situations. There are a number of people in authority (and that even includes this country’s government) that don’t deserve to be there. The way that life goes and sometimes even blind luck can elevate people who don’t deserve their lofty status. Still, God uses these to accomplish that which He wants to accomplish.

4 If a ruler's anger rises against you,
do not leave your post;
calmness can lay great errors to rest.
5 There is an evil I have seen under the sun,

the sort of error that arises from a ruler:
6 Fools are put in many high positions,

while the rich occupy the low ones. – Ecclesiastes 10:4-6

This has been a major source of frustration as I have been searching for a permanent job. I am not one to stay calm when I have to suffer for other people’s mistakes. I feel like I am being dumped on then, and that others are being praised for their stupidity. The important lesson is one that I have yet to learn, and that is patience. I have to learn and trust that God is in control in all situations. As we have seen earlier in this book, it may be as simple as asking yourself, “What does God want me to learn here?”

8 Whoever digs a pit may fall into it;
whoever breaks through a wall may be bitten by a snake.
9 Whoever quarries stones may be injured by them;

whoever splits logs may be endangered by them.
10 If the ax is dull

and its edge unsharpened,
more strength is needed
but skill will bring success.
11 If a snake bites before it is charmed,

there is no profit for the charmer. – Ecclesiastes 10:8-11

This is a lesson on taking risks in life. We can’t expect to get anywhere unless we risk something from time to time. Even if we are careful in what risks we take, accidents can happen. Still, we must boldly move forward. I have often talked here about how I have played it safe for too long. This has caused me to miss a number of risks, but in that I have missed a number of risky opportunities that surely would have worked out for the best. Once again, we must trust that God will make the best out of any situation.

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 9

In the movie Gladiator starring Russell Crowe there is a line that is repeated many times: “what we do in life, echoes in eternity.” There is a measure of truth to that. We know that if we don’t accept Christ in this life we will be dead in our sin. There are no second chances. If we walk with Christ, however, are promised a heavenly reward. Regardless, we all face the same thing at the end. We are judged on how we lived our lives and what choices we have made. We see an allusion to that here in chapter 9 of Ecclesiastes.

1 So I reflected on all this and concluded that the righteous and the wise and what they do are in God's hands, but no man knows whether love or hate awaits him. 2 All share a common destiny—the righteous and the wicked, the good and the bad, the clean and the unclean, those who offer sacrifices and those who do not.
As it is with the good man,
so with the sinner;
as it is with those who take oaths,
so with those who are afraid to take them.
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. – Ecclesiastes 9:1-5

As long as we are living we have hope of salvation. Since we are created by God, there is the potential for good in all of us. Even the most despicable of murderers and killers can be forgiven by Christ. That is the promise we have been given, and it applies to everyone. Some groups like to think that they have the edge on salvation. They like to think one act or another excludes someone from this precious gift. This is not true. As long as we are living, there is hope. Only once we cross that threshold into death can we be totally separated from God. We are already separated anyway, but the sacrifice on the Cross allows that separation to be bridged.

7 Go, eat your food with gladness, and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for it is now that God favors what you do. 8 Always be clothed in white, and always anoint your head with oil. 9 Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun— all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the grave, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. – Ecclesiastes 9:7-10

These verses take on a quite different tone from the earlier ones of this chapter. Here we are told to take what enjoyment we can out of life. It is easy to understand why the author here felt life was meaningless. This was more than 1,000 years before Christ’s death on the Cross. Through the system of sacrifices in the Temple as set up by Mosaic law it was easy to lose heart. Sacrifices had to occur again and again. They quickly lost meaning since they didn’t have any lasting effect. Therefore, they could only pursue what was set before them and hope they found enjoyment in their short time.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 8

I’m not suite sure what to take from this chapter. For the first time in a long time, I have studied a chapter for this blog and I really don’t know what to write. Chapter 8 of Ecclesiastes continues the general theme of much of life being meaningless, but if you can take even a small measure of joy from the suffering that we must go through in this life you should treasure it. We are powerless, but as I explained yesterday, we can relish this powerlessness. I know I have plenty of things that worry me pretty much from the moment I get up until I fall asleep in the morning. If I can let God handle some of those things it is one less thing to concern me.

That may be the most important underlying lesson of this entire book even if it hasn’t been directly stated yet. I was drawn to this book because I am at a period in my life where I feel like many things are meaningless. I toil away at many things where no progress ever seems to be made. Just yesterday I received a grievous insult along the lines of me wasting four years of my life. I was told that college was pointless. I told the person I was offended because that basically meant I had wasted four years of my life on something I was very proud of. It hurt not only because of that, but because I felt that maybe they were right since I am nowhere near where I want to be professionally six years after graduating. Does it feel like a waste? Yes, some days it does.

16 When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe man's labor on earth—his eyes not seeing sleep day or night- 17 then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it. – Ecclesiastes 8:16-17

This tells me that to enjoy life, it takes a conscious effort to surrender our will, even our very lives, to the Will of God. We can’t even begin to comprehend what happens here. Like this chapter states earlier, those who are wicked can achieve much while those who are righteous can have their lives cut short. As an extreme example, Hitler is one of the most wicked men that ever lived, yet he had immeasurable power for years and very nearly conquered a good portion of the world before he was defeated.

Conversely, there have been many people who have followed God, but have had to suffer immensely for it. Eleven of the 12 disciples eventually died a martyrs’ death, with only John living to old age. Even then, he was forced to live in exile from society on the island of Patmos in the Mediterranean. Is this fair? Of course it is not fair. It is what God calls us to do, however. Each role we serve is different. I have found, though, that it is when I am serving my role to my fullest, whether it gains me personal glory or not, is when I am happiest.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Ecclesiastes, chapter 7

One of the hardest things to deal with in life is knowing that God is in control even when things are going poorly. It is hard to accept this , but it is true because god created the darkness as well as the light. The notes in my study Bible pointed this out today when I was reading for Ecclesiastes 7. It stated that God is sovereign over everything, and that includes disaster. My Bible pointed us to Job 2:10 in this, where Job states that we must accept the bad from god, as well as the good. That is where we are linked to Ecclesiastes today.

13 Consider what God has done: Who can straighten what he has made crooked?
14 When times are good, be happy; but when times are bad, consider: God has made the one as well as the other. Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future. Ecclesiastes 7:13-14

There are two ways of looking at this. The first way is a hopeless way. In that way, we resign ourselves tot eh fate that we control nothing. It’s like a Puritan “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” view where we cannot do anything for ourselves. The other view is one that can bring us joy in this life. In that view, we still accept that we control things, but we are relieved that we don’t have to worry about that control. Think about it. Would you really want total control of the weather? A city? Pretty much anything beyond yourself? It seems like the more we try to control, the more chaos follows. This was the downfall of several dictators. This relates to our next verse somewhat.

20 There is not a righteous man on earth who does what is right and never sins. – Ecclesiastes 7:20

To me, this is proof that God is all powerful. This is a connection to the salvation that we find in Christ’s death on the Cross. If not for that death, we would we be lost. The fact that we need that salvation comes from not being perfect. That is very simply mentioned right here. None of us are perfect. If we were perfect, we would be totally righteous in our own right. True righteousness only comes through Christ.

24 Whatever wisdom may be, it is far off and most profound— who can discover it?
25 So I turned my mind to understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things and to understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly. – Ecclesiastes 7:24-25

This is why I am a student of life long learning. Wisdom is fleeting. It is even more difficult to obtain if we are not constantly seeking it. Sometimes we must simply take a step back and ask, “okay, what is god trying to tell me here? What can I learn from this?” We also can gain wisdom by listening to others. Assuming we always have the answers is the worst thing we can do. I know if I did that, I would really be in trouble. It is our folly when we don’t seek after more wisdom as long as we are breathing.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 6

The author of Ecclesiastes points out another harsh reality in today’s lesson. It is unfortunately part of our human nature to want more from life. Even though we are given much, we always want more. This is something I struggle with daily. Just this past weekend, I was confronted with the fact that I am rarely happy and thankful for what I do have. I think this is why this chapter has resonated with me so strongly. I am one of those people that cannot seem to be happy even when things are going well. It is a constant almost physical effort for me to relax and be sated even for a few brief moments. In those moments they are sweet, however.

1 I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on men: 2 God gives a man wealth, possessions and honor, so that he lacks nothing his heart desires, but God does not enable him to enjoy them, and a stranger enjoys them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil.—Ecclesiastes 6:1-2

This truly is a curse. When I look at my life I see that I have had all of my major needs met. I have absolutely no reason to despair over much of anything, yet I constantly feel unfulfilled. I feel like I am living this chapter, this passage even. It is a difficulty stemming from an inability to rise above this world. I don’t know if this is my fault or the world influencing me with its ways. It is a struggle that must be overcome, however, and soon. I fear it is causing much more harm than I realize at the moment.

12 For who knows what is good for a man in life, during the few and meaningless days he passes through like a shadow? Who can tell him what will happen under the sun after he is gone? – Ecclesiastes 6:12

God knows what is good for a man in life. We are once again reminded that life carries little meaning unless it is lived with God. It is this way, and only this way, that we can take some joy from our short time here. Only God can have an effect on what happens once we are gone as well.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 5

We know that Jesus taught that the accumulation of wealth is meaningless. One of his more famous sayings is that it is easier for a rich man to pass a camel through the eye of a needle than to get into heaven. Chapter 5 of Ecclesiastes has a lesson on the accumulation of wealth, but it is more of a lesson about stewardship, as opposed to a warning about seeking after wealth. Like many things in this book, it depends on our perspective. Wealth is fine as long as we do not make it our sole purpose of being. That is when it becomes dangerous because it turns our eyes from God. Wealth is fine as long as we view ourselves as merely taking care of it instead of living for it.

10 Whoever loves money never has money enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.
This too is meaningless.
11 As goods increase,

so do those who consume them.
And what benefit are they to the owner
except to feast his eyes on them?
12 The sleep of a laborer is sweet,

whether he eats little or much,
but the abundance of a rich man
permits him no sleep.
13 I have seen a grievous evil under the sun:
wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner,
14 or wealth lost through some misfortune,

so that when he has a son
there is nothing left for him.
15 Naked a man comes from his mother's womb,

and as he comes, so he departs.
He takes nothing from his labor
that he can carry in his hand. – Ecclesiastes 5:10-15

We all want more stuff. That is our human nature. As we achieve this stuff, however, it only benefits ourselves. We know that wealth can be a sign of God’s favor, but when we are given much, there is much responsibility expected of us. We are expected not to be frivolous with our wealth, and this includes more than physical money. This includes the spiritual gifts and talents that we are given. We can be sure that if we use these to serve the Lord, we are doing what is intended of us.

The most important thing are our spiritual gifts. They are not mentioned here, but to me it is more important that they are used properly than any form of wealth. For years I squandered my own talents as I pursued interests that I enjoyed for a time, but they rarely held my attention for long. In the past two years I have come to see that I am put on this earth to write. I don’t know what I am supposed to write, but I have feverishly followed this passion since discovering it and it gives me no greater joy. I know it is what I was put on this earth to do, so I am honing my craft until such time as the next direction of it is revealed. I want to be ready, so I will not squander this responsibility that I have been given.

18 Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him—for this is his lot. 19 Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work—this is a gift of God. 20 He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart. – Ecclesiastes 5:18-20

It is good to end this week on a positive note, just as yesterday’s chapter ended on a positive note. This passage is a good example of what my old pastor would call the zone of blessing. The author of this book has been quite clear so far that life is meaningless. When we are living in God’s grace with what we are given, however, we are distracted because we are occupied with gladness provided by God. As frustrating as life can be, I find that those frustration melt away when they are replaced with the deep seated joy of living in God’s zone of blessing. There is absolutely nothing better than those rare, perfect moments where you thank God for simply being alive.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 4

One of life’s greatest joys is when we see good come out of suffering. Right now, the Olympics are going on. They are always full of stories where people have overcome suffering in order to triumph. This year the U.S. Olympic team was lead into the stadium by flag-bearer Lopez Lomong, a Sudanese refugee who overcame oppression in his home country, made it to the United States, and became a citizen. In a few days he will compete in the 1500 meter race in front of the eyes of the world. He has overcome great suffering in order to reach the pinnacle of his athletic career.

Some people use suffering as fuel to achieve greater success. Just this week, I received a snide comment that really hurt, but I plan to use it as fuel in order to prove these people wrong. In chapter 4 of Ecclesiastes, we see how suffering can make a situation feel hopeless, yet we know that if we trust in God there can be good that comes out of this suffering. I have gone through some very dark and depressing periods of my life. Right now seems to be one of those periods where physically I am fine and all my needs area met, but I am in constant mental pain where sleep is my only refuge from it. In these periods, however, I have trusted God and he has taught me several important lessons. Why should I expect this time to be different?

1 Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun:
I saw the tears of the oppressed—
and they have no comforter;
power was on the side of their oppressors—
and they have no comforter.
2 And I declared that the dead,

who had already died,
are happier than the living,
who are still alive.
3 But better than both

is he who has not yet been,
who has not seen the evil
that is done under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 4:1-3

Here the author of this book is arguing that it is better to have never been born that to be alive or even dead. His argument is that, if you are never born, you never have to see what a broken and sinful world this is. Because of that, all hope is gone without God. At this point it is becoming a depressingly repetitive theme, but the author is successful in making a major point. We have a need for redemption and hope, and the only way to that is through God. Thanks to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, which would come more than 1,000 years later, we have hope where there once was none.

9 Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their work:
10 If one falls down,

his friend can help him up.
But pity the man who falls
and has no one to help him up!
11 Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.

But how can one keep warm alone?
12 Though one may be overpowered,

two can defend themselves.
A cord of three strands is not quickly broken. – Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

This is one of the first positive signs that we see from the author of Ecclesiastes. We don’t have choice when it comes to existence. Here the author argues that if we must suffer, our suffering can be eased if we are not alone. When we have friends we can use them as a coping mechanism with our struggles. This is also in line with an idea that dates all the way back to Genesis in that man is not meant to be alone. We are given companions in the form of our spouses. This is something I am incredibly thankful for because life would certainly suck a lot more if not for my wife.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3

This chapter of Ecclesiastes may be familiar to many people. It was the inspiration for Turn, Turn, Turn, a song by the Byrds that came out in 1965. Back then it was a chart-topping single. The words, however, are much more timeless. The lesson at the beginning of this chapter is that all things have a place. There is a time for joy as well as sorrow. There is a time for toil as well as rest. It is hard to find deeper meaning than that in life because everything has its own place. I am struggling with that now because I am in a place where my toil has very little meaning, yet it has a place for the moment. I must find that place.

9 What does the worker gain from his toil? 10 I have seen the burden God has laid on men. 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. 12 I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. 13 That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. – Ecclesiastes 3:9-13

Even this toil is beautiful. I struggle to see that when I am in the midst of a job that I hate. I view it as a waste of time, but I am there because God has placed me there for the moment. Therefore, it cannot possibly be a waste of time. I am struggling to serve this time and make it better, but I feel far from the happiness in this toil that the author mentions here.

18 I also thought, "As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. 19 Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. 20 All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?" – Ecclesiastes 3:18-21

We know from other promises in Scripture that we are more than animals. The author here breaks things down quite simply. Both man and animal are here for only a short time before returning to dust. We are unique, however, in that we have the capacity for joy in our time here. We are also children of God. We are promised to never be separated from Him if we trust in the sacrifice of His Son Jesus. God knows the Spirit of man, and knows its destinations. We are promised this numerous times in Scripture. This merely asks the hard questions that must be asked about a life without faith.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Ecclesiastes, Chapter 2

I love it when the Bible resonates with my personal life. It is because of that resonance that I chose to write about the book of Ecclesiastes. My personality unfortunately leans toward the negative way too much in my life. When I despair, I feel a lot like the author of this book. I am fascinated by this book because the author is very frank about his feelings. He dares to ask the difficult questions even if he knows he will not like the answers. In this, we see the underlying truth come out: only God has value.

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. 2 "Laughter," I said, "is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?" 3 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. – Ecclesiastes 2:1-3

I went through a very similar period as described here when I was in college. For a time, I tried to cheer myself with liquor, with women, and with other pleasures. While they provided enjoyment for a time, in the end they left me feeling more empty than before. I don’t know if I would even classify them as pleasure now, but merely distractions from the reality that is life.

Pleasure does serve a purpose. We are not to go through life without enjoying any kind of pleasure. It is when we become consumed by the pursuit of that pleasure that we lose our way. Pleasure is not the meaning of life. When we think it is, it becomes hollow. Instead, it is a nice little bonus of life. It can serve as an anesthetic to life. Like any drug, too much of it can build a tolerance to where we lose sight of God. Our ultimate pleasure comes from living in the glory of God. That is the type of pleasure that brings fulfillment.

17 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. 18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. 19 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. 20 So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. 21 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. 22 What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? 23 All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless.
24 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, 25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? 26 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. – Ecclesiastes 2:17-26

For without God, who can find enjoyment? We see that if we serve God in the capacity we are asked, fulfillment will happen. This does not mean we will always feel joy. Personally, right now is one of those times where I am serving God, but there is little joy in doing so. I have even felt the anxious struggle mentioned in verses 22 and 23. When we struggle and work hard to make our ends meet it is hard to rest. We then struggle for what? We cannot take it with us, as true wealth is only found in God.

It is easy to get in the mindset of this author. If we follow Him and please Him, however, that is where we find peace instead of despair.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Ecclesiastes 1

I wanted to take a break from the gospels for a couple of reasons. First, I like having a break because it allows me to approach each one from a fresh perspective. Second, I felt called to go back to the Old Testament and wrote on the book of Ecclesiastes. I don’t think I am alone when I say that I feel this book relates to me. It is a book that asks some tough questions. It’s a cynical book, one in which the author is not afraid to talk about the doubts he was struggling with when it comes to faith. Many of these doubts are the same ones I have experienced.

Doubt is a natural part of life. I think even those that have been the strongest pillars of faith, such as Abraham, have gone through periods of deep doubt. This doesn’t make us terrible people. It shows our humanity. Lately I have gone through a period where I have felt that a number of things are meaningless. I have let it consume me, which is a dangerous thing to do. When it consumes us we lose sight of God. Ironically, it is losing sight of God that causes us to feel that things are meaningless.

3 What does man gain from all his labor
at which he toils under the sun?
4 Generations come and generations go,

but the earth remains forever.
5 The sun rises and the sun sets,

and hurries back to where it rises.
6 The wind blows to the south

and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course. – Ecclesiastes 1:3-6

It is easy to feel meaningless. We’re all born, and we’re all going to eventually die. Sadly, it is an immutable truth. The cycles here represent humanity’s desire for something more. We always want more money, more power, more prestige. When we look for more of the things of this world we find that they are empty. We cannot take them with us, so they ultimately mean nothing. This is where we must rise above the wants and needs of this world and keep our focus on God. In God, we have the only thing that gives our lives meaning and purpose.

12 I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. 13 I devoted myself to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under heaven. What a heavy burden God has laid on men! 14 I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
15 What is twisted cannot be straightened; what is lacking cannot be counted.
16 I thought to myself, "Look, I have grown and increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge." 17 Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. – Ecclesiastes 1:12-16

Once again the author is making the point that apart from God, life is meaningless. It is believed that king Solomon was the author of this book. He was famous for asking for wisdom above all other gifts from God. If this was Solomon, he realized that even such a powerful gift as wisdom is meaningless. It pales in the face of the awesome power of God. We will see that the central theme of this book is that God makes all things on this earth seem trivial to the point where we have no choice but to trust in him. That is where we find true value.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Mark, Chapter 16

Yesterday ended with the most depressing day in human history. Jesus, the man that many believed was the Savior, was inexplicably dead. Though He had talked about His death, His followers had lost faith. Many followers had deserted Him as He died on the Cross. Mary Magdalene and Jesus’s mother were on their way to the tomb to care for the body at the beginning, most definitely with heavy hearts. After following Jesus for so long they were lost, confused, and in the midst of a hopeless situation.

Then a miracle happened. We see in Mark’s account a very streamlined version of the resurrection compared to the other gospels. Even in these short verses, however, it is no less miraculous. In the midst of a desperate situation, Jesus had risen from the dead.

4But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
6"Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.' "
8Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid. – Mark 16:4-8

I’m sure this was overwhelming for these women. The body of their Lord was gone, and in His place was an angel telling them that Jesus was alive. I know I would be confused in this situation. Mark’s original text ends here, but we see a continuation in later manuscripts.

15He said to them, "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. 16Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. 17And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; 18they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well." – Mark 16:15-18

This clearly echoes the Great Commission mentioned at the end of the book of Matthew. Jesus’s victory over sin and death means nothing unless we continue His work here on Earth. If we kept this gift to ourselves, it would be the height of selfishness. Therefore, it is our mission in life to spread the gospel wherever we go. We are each called to a different task. In that task, we must live the Word of Christ to present it to the nations. Each person’s unique gifts are given to them with that primary goal in mind. Everything else is secondary.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Mark Chapter 15

Are you thankful for what God is going to do? In Mark 15, that was the ultimate moment in human history for needing to be thankful for what God is going to do. We see Mark’s account of the Crucifixion, which, as I described in my writings on Matthew, is the single worst event in human history. The chapter begins with Jesus being mocked and flogged. The Pharisees who were so confident in prosecuting Jesus didn’t even have the guts to carry out the death sentence themselves. Instead, they handed Him over to the Roman authorities. Pilate is a bit of a coward in his own right. He was sensible enough to realize that Jesus was innocent of the crimes leveled against Him, but didn’t have the guts to stand up to the Jews.

25It was the third hour when they crucified him. 26The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS. 27They crucified two robbers with him, one on his right and one on his left. 29Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, "So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30come down from the cross and save yourself!"
31In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. "He saved others," they said, "but he can't save himself! 32Let this Christ, this King of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe." Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him. – Mark 15:25-32

There are many perspectives that we can view this from. The Jews that wanted to crucify Jesus were driving the point home. Many of the people that welcomed Him to Jerusalem just a week earlier as the triumphant king were those now hurling insults at Him. Jesus’ compassion is what comes through most, however. Here he was, facing a humiliating and painful death, yet He still forgave even those that were putting them to death. Yes He could have come down from the Cross, but the penalty for sin would not have been paid. These verses just paint what else He had to endure in order to pay the penalty. They didn’t even realize the temple He had talked about for so long was Himself.

33At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"—which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
35When some of those standing near heard this, they said, "Listen, he's calling Elijah."
36One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. "Now leave him alone. Let's see if Elijah comes to take him down," he said.
37With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

38The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, "Surely this man was the Son of God!"
40Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there. – Mark 15:33-41

Once again, we must be thankful for what God is going to do. Jesus had His followers at the Cross. He even made some new believers like the Centurion mentioned here. In His final moments before death, He even put the fear of God into those mocking Him. In death, however, there was reason to hope. This chapter ends with Jesus being put in the tomb. There were plenty of reasons to lose hope at this point. What is amazing is that everyone lost hope, as no one was prepared for the Resurrection even though Christ had spoken about it at length. Even when all hope seems lost, we must be thankful for what God is going to do. That is keeping me alive today.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Mark, Chapter 14, part 2

Have you ever agonized over something you knew you had to do, but you knew it was going to be very unpleasant? For some people it is a trip to the dentist. For others, it may be visiting a particularly difficult to deal with family member. You know the act needs to be done, but you dread every second of it until it is finally over. We see the ultimate example of this as chapter 13 continues with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Literally hours after receiving the praise and honor from the woman with the perfume, Jesus had to prepare Himself for the most difficult thing anyone has ever had to face.

32They went to a place called Gethsemane, and Jesus said to his disciples, "Sit here while I pray." 33He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. 34"My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death," he said to them. "Stay here and keep watch."
35Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. 36"Abba, Father," he said, "everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will." – Mark 14:32-36

This was not an ordinary death He was facing. Men have died ordinary deaths both before and after this moment. Knowing that He was facing death was not a new emotion either. Still, this is the moment where Jesus was right up against it all. This is the moment that He knew He had to face, otherwise the fulfillment of His earthly ministry would not come to pass. Jesus certainly knew the joy that would come from freeing the world from sin. He knew the joy He would receive when each person turned from sin and accepted Him. It still did not make this moment easier. I don’t think we can even begin to grasp in human terms what he was facing. It’s not so much the physical torture and death that was so overwhelming; I think what he dreaded the most was taking on the physical, spiritual, and emotional burden of every sin committed by every human who has ever existed or will ever exist. I cannot even begin to fathom what that would feel like. Still, He knew he had to face it, and submitted.

This is the greatest picture of Jesus we can ever see. For all His power, He was still the most submissive person that ever existed and is the epitome of humble. He is the ultimate servant. He is the exact opposite of everything He could be, while also exhibiting and possessing all the characteristic of the divine, all-powerful Creator. I cannot wait to humble myself before His presence when the time comes. To me, there is no great example of humility and servitude to live up to, and He was the only one that could do it because He was perfect.

55The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. 56Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree.
57Then some stood up and gave this false testimony against him: 58"We heard him say, 'I will destroy this man-made temple and in three days will build another, not made by man.' " 59Yet even then their testimony did not agree.—Mark 14:55-58

This is the most absurd trial in human history. I am fond of saying that this basically boils down to the Jews saying, “You know Jesus, you’re not quite what we’re looking for in a Messiah.” Because He didn’t fit in with their notions and their ideals, He was a threat instead of a Savior. From reading the Old Testament, specifically Isaiah, we know that this had to happen, but it makes it no less tragic. They couldn’t even agree on their stories, but they still pushed through a guilty verdict. They chose only to listen to the parts of the message that suited their needs, and Jesus paid the price for that.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Mark Chapter 14

Mark’s version of the Last Supper is told in the style of the rest of the chapter, as it is big on the highlights but doesn’t have a lot of detail except for the part about the woman with the perfume.

We once again see the shortsightedness of the disciples, but Jesus calmly and patiently explains what is about to happen to them. There isn’t as much dialogue as there is in the other gospels, but lasting impressions are still made by the way Mark explains this final night. The picture he paints is one of love, as Jesus keeps forgiving His disciples when they continue to go astray from the plan.

3While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
4Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, "Why this waste of perfume? 5It could have been sold for more than a year's wages and the money given to the poor." And they rebuked her harshly.

6"Leave her alone," said Jesus. "Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her." – Mark 14:3-9

Obviously this woman had a lasting impression, as Jesus’s prediction came true that her story would be told wherever the gospel was preached thanks to its mention here. Jesus also preaches a valuable lesson here that material goods have little meaning. This is not an indictment against the poor. Rather, it is a sacrifice this woman gave in order to honor Jesus. We do not know her name, but we see that the perfume she used carried great value. She gave this value up in order to honor Jesus. It was her act of worship and admiration, just as we find our own ways to worship and admire Jesus. It is unfortunate that the disciples did not see this, but Jesus patiently explains their error.

22While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, "Take it; this is my body."
23Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it.
24"This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many," he said to them. 25"I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God." – Mark 14:22-25

This is where the Old and New Testaments come together. The Old Testament is primarily about God’s old covenant with mankind. Since it was based on the laws of man, it didn’t work. Therefore, much of the Old Testament outlines the need for a new covenant. It is appropriate that Jesus faced His sacrifice at the time of the Passover. The Passover signified the promise that God would deliver Israel from the hands of the Egyptians. It was done in remembrance of that covenant between God and His people. With Jesus, He was the new covenant. Therefore, He performed the Last Supper as a symbol of that old covenant being made better through His sacrifice. That is why we continue the tradition of communion today. It symbolizes Christ’s covenant with us to forgive us of our sins.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Mark Chapter 13

Everyone wants the inside information on future events. We have reached the point in society where sometimes the hype and build up to an event supersedes the event itself. Anyone who paid attention to ESPN just before the last Super Bowl witnessed this. One would think an event like Jesus’s return, which is now almost 2000 years (and counting) in the making would be built up more, but it is not. We see an intimate portrait of what the disciples themselves were told of the event before Jesus’s death in Mark 13 today. It is certainly not a pretty picture.

5Jesus said to them: "Watch out that no one deceives you. 6Many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am he,' and will deceive many. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 8Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains. – Mark 13:5-8

We have certainly seen signs of this not only across the centuries since Jesus went to the Cross, but in increasing numbers in more recent times. I once saw a scientific survey stating that the number and amplitude of strong earthquakes have greatly risen in the past two centuries. We have recorded history of earthquakes thanks to the various civilizations that have existed in the last 2,000 years. Their history is spotty, but even taking that into account the number of quakes has risen.

Famines were also more prevalent back in the day, but more dangerous now. In Jesus’ time, the world population was much smaller than it is now. With almost 6.5 billion people on the planet a famine can be much more devastating. Just in my lifetime there have been devastating famines in several parts of Africa, North Korea, and now Syria. Are these definite signs of the end times? Maybe yes, and maybe no. We see in the following verses that this is just window setting, as things get worse.

9"You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. 10And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. 11Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit.
12"Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. 13All men will hate you
because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. – Mark 13:9-13

This is very encouraging because even though we will face oppression at the time of the end, the Holy Spirit is promised not to leave us. In this country, those who believe in Christ are often met with general ambivalence. We are not put to death for our beliefs and are free to practice them even if we are put in a bad light. Still, being put in a bad light could just be steps down the road of that coming oppression. We must always remember that God is in control. The end has already been written, and we win.

32"No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 33Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. 34It's like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.
35"Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37What I say to you, I say to everyone: 'Watch!' “ – Mark 13:32-37

This final event in human history will be the greatest vindication the world has ever know. People have lived and died for centuries waiting for this event, and we are given no promise that it will occur in our lifetime, even though some signs are already there. Still, we must be faithful and ready.