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The Pandemic, Through the Lens of Ecclesiastes, by Rev. Frank Liu (March 2021 Banner, online edition)
This winter, I decided to tackle a sermon series on Ecclesiastes, a book that I’ve attempted on several occasions to start, but could not. As I think through the entire book, I see its relevance for our society today. With pandemics, riots, unrest, injustices, lockdowns, and plenty of time to think about life’s questions (e.g., the meaning/purpose of life, the value of work, what happens after death, etc.), Ecclesiastes leads us to answers. As I think through even the first two chapters, I also see an uncanny resemblance to some of the issues that have arisen within the Church.
In Ecclesiastes 1:5-7, the author points to the natural cycles of the earth (sun rising and setting, wind, and rain/water flow) as an irritating monotony. Perhaps such an observation is only the last straw for the boring monotony of life during the shelter-in-place of being stuck at home. But viewed from a perspective of God’s special revelation, these cycles should not be irritating, but rather reassuring. The cycles of nature (seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night) are assurances not only of God’s promise that He will not curse the ground again because of man (Genesis 8:20-22), but also a reminder of God’s covenant faithfulness to all of His promises. So rather than boring you, these cycles should be a great comfort to you.
In Ecclesiastes 1:9, the author wrote “That which has been is what will be, that which is done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” For non-Christians and for first generation believers, there is often the concern about the ability to break the cycle of generational sins. Are you really able to break free from the same sins of your parents and grandparents? It is as if there is a gravitational pull from one generation to the next! This was Elijah’s plea of despair when he exclaimed, “It is enough! Now, LORD, take my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kings 19:4). With man, this is impossible, but with God all things are possible (Matthew 19:26). God’s grace is always sufficient for sinners. The Christians in Corinth appeared to be the first generation also, and yet the Apostle Paul reminded them, “And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). In fact, this previous life of yours, whether as a first or 20th generation Christian, is decisively over (marked by your baptism as a sign of your old self’s death), and you now walk in newness of life by Christ (marked by your baptism as your union with Christ in His resurrection, Romans 6:3-4).
In Ecclesiastes 1:12-18, the author acknowledges that human wisdom cannot solve the great issues that men face, for what is crooked cannot be made straight (1:15). Perhaps the necessary first step is an accurate assessment of the problem. Ultimately, the problem is not man’s oppression, his lack of opportunity or privilege, his lack of education, or his lack of wealth, but rather his sin nature, which generates his sins and the just condemnation from God that results. In other words, your greatest problem is not someone else, but yourself, and so there is no one to blame but yourself. In light of the most contested presidential election in US history, remember to set your focus on the eternal and not the ephemeral, and your hopes on the divine and not on the democratic. It is easy to lose sight of the big, eternal picture in the midst of life’s problems. The great misconception of modern politics is that the problem is THEM and the solution is YOU (or your candidate). The Scriptures warn us not to be taken captive by human philosophies and empty deception (Colossians 2:8). According to the Scriptures, the gospel defines YOU as the problem (or rather, your sins) and JESUS as the solution. So long as you remember that you are your own biggest problem and Jesus is your eternal hope and solution, you are right where you ought to be (2 Corinthians 5:21)!
In Ecclesiastes 2:1-11, the author tests himself with boundless pleasure, and yet after the experiment he realized that it was all vanity because it did not satisfy. Perhaps you have been restricted in your ability to travel, to see your friends or grandkids, to enjoy the best restaurants and to do the activities you once enjoyed with others you love. As these avenues of earthly pleasure have been severely limited, it is a good time to ask of yourself: what is your greatest pleasure and joy in life? While there is nothing wrong with enjoying earthly wealth and possessions (1 Timothy 6:17), finite objects and beings can never bring infinite and eternal satisfaction. Rather, as Christians, the Lord Jesus is the only one who meets that need: “You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
In Ecclesiastes 2:12-17, the author recognizes that though human wisdom is superior to foolishness, the end result is still the same: the wise man and the fool alike die! (2:16). In other words, while human wisdom may prolong life or improve the quality of life, human wisdom cannot defeat man’s greatest enemy, which is death (1 Corinthians 15:54-57). A number of our members have dealt with the death of parents or are currently dealing with the declining health of their parents. While this has been in some ways a painful process, in others, it has brought occasions to witness to unbelieving parents or to witness to unbelieving siblings who are also helping to care for aging parents. The sight of our parents’ mortality also reminds us of our own. “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”—Romans 7:24-25a.
As I reflect on the ever-changing landscape of our society and on the struggles in the local body, I’m reminded that God’s Word is never silent and it is always relevant to the daily matters of life. Even as I think about the two tools that the Lord furnishes in our toolbox, prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4), there is no insufficiency in God’s provision. For the Word of God is living and active, and it has divine power to destroy the strongholds in human hearts, and every argument or lofty opinion held against Him (2 Cor. 10:4-5). God’s grace is indeed sufficient for us as it is for you!