“A Summons to Christians in Discouraging Times”
February 5, 2023
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
The Bible knows the difference between the Day of the Lord, or times of the Spirit’s power and, what in Zechariah, it calls “the day of small things.” There are times when the gospel is going forward with power and great effect and, as we read in Matthew 11, violent men take it by force. And there are times when the kingdom of God in a particular place seems to be slumbering, or, even worse, suffering violent opposition and in retreat. There have been a great many of both such times in the history of the church and now we have found it so in our own time. Pastor Kelly reminded us last Lord’s Day evening that he was a young man in the year of the evangelical, proclaimed so by Newsweek magazine in 1976, impressed as its editors were by the growing influence of evangelical Christianity in the country. But now Mike finds himself as an older man in a time of the church’s weakness, the loss of that once significant influence, and open and growing hostility to her convictions in the culture. In a single generation we have moved from the Jesus Movement of the 1970s to a time of spiritual disintegration. To be sure, as he reminded us, the story is very different in other parts of the world, but then, you and I don’t live in other parts of the world. Our children and grandchildren aren’t growing up in other parts of the world. The church we are a part of; the church whose fortunes matter most to us, is the Christian church in America, and I doubt her prospects for the future have ever been at lower ebb than they are today. So, when our text speaks of wickedness in the place of justice it is speaking a word apropos our culture and, alas, even our American church.
But the Bible prepares us to face such times, since they have occurred and will occur frequently, for reasons known to God and sometimes to us, though usually only after the fact. Much of Israel’s history that is recorded for us in Holy Scripture was a time of very small things, with the church herself an enemy of the true faith. The prophets preached of the remnant – a believing minority, sometimes a very small minority, serving the Lord and trusting him – when there was little happening in church or world to encourage their faith. The Bible has much to tell us about our calling in such times, much encouragement to give us when there is little such encouragement in our outward circumstances. Indeed, the Bible has an entire ethic for the remnant, for Christians like you and me in a time like ours. I have chosen just one biblical word for us among the many that apply to our present circumstances. It is a word given us in different ways and in a number of places in the Bible, but nowhere more pointedly or poignantly than in the book of Ecclesiastes. This book, as you know, poses a challenge to our understanding. Remembering a few things about it will help us appreciate what we read. I’ll mention these things as they appear.
v.11 Here is the first key to the proper reading of Ecclesiastes. Life is both beautiful and terribly frustrating, mysterious, and disappointing. Actually, it is almost impossible to overstate the wonder and beauty of this world and our life in this world, on the one hand, or the misery, sorrow, and pain of that same life, on the other. We want to understand what is happening and why; why life is so full of rich promise, yet so often turns out to be the reverse of what we expect or hope for. And, as believers, as the children of God, we find ourselves so often wondering why God does not grant greater power and influence to those he loves. We can’t help but ask the question, God has made us that way; the search for meaning is fundamental to us, made in the image of God as we have been. But, try as we might, we never find the answer. The statement here that we never really find out what God is doing in the world or even in our own lives, is a primary theme of this book. That God knows what he’s doing, and that his purpose is holy and wise, the author says often enough. But that we don’t know his purpose is one of the great burdens of believing life, and something that we must learn to accept if we are to make peace with our place in the world.
v.13 That there is both a calling to fulfill and pleasure to find in our lives, even in this world of trouble and sorrow, is also a primary theme of the book of Ecclesiastes.
v.15 God has ordered the world so that men and women will fear him, revere their Maker and obey his commandments, will be forced to recognize their own mortality and weakness and recognize his limitless power and sovereignty. “[All people are prisoners] of a system [they] cannot break, or even bend; and behind it is God. There is no escape…” [Kidner, A Time to Mourn, And a Time to Dance, 40.] But men and women of faith have no need to fear this captivity. We can be sure that in his management of human affairs nothing and no one has been forgotten or accidentally left behind.
v.16 Here is the next key to the understanding of the argument of the book: the phrase “under the sun,” a phrase that occurs 30 times in these twelve short chapters. Our perspective is that of man, a mere creature, limited by our finite nature and our small place in this world. We don’t have God’s knowledge or perspective. We don’t know what God knows. We don’t know the future. We can see only a little of what occurs before us from day to day in this world and there is no doubt that what we see is often confusing and sometimes deeply disappointing. We are not looking down on this world from the perspective of heaven; we are looking up from down here, asking questions and receiving few answers.
v.17 The author of Ecclesiastes has often been accused of being a pessimist; even a man who has lost his faith. But this man knows that the Lord will put everything right in due time.
v.20 The Lord proves to all again and again, because mankind is so unwilling to face this fact, that we are animals, however sophisticated; we are mortal creatures. We are finite, not infinite and we must die, just as every other living thing must die. If it seems disrespectful to human beings to liken them to the beasts, we find the same comparison elsewhere in the Bible. As we read in Ps 49: ”Man in his pomp will not remain; he is like the beasts that perish.” And the same thing again in Hebrews 9: we are all going to die. In that respect, and only that respect, but it is an important respect, we are no better than any other animal.
And here, at the end of v. 19, is still another key to the interpretation of Ecclesiastes: the word translated “vanity.” It appears 38 times in this short book and notably in the inclusio, the thematic statement that both begins and ends the book: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” The word is variously translated: vanity, meaningless, absurd, ephemeral, and a host of other terms. Taking the book’s argument as a whole, adding in all of the author’s positive assertions of faith in God – in the justice and goodness of God, of the happiness that is just as much to be the believer’s lot as confusion, sorrow, disappointment, or pain – it is clear that the author, in using this word, does not mean that there is no meaning or purpose in the events that transpire in this world. He means only that we cannot discern that meaning or that purpose. God has hidden himself from us and does not disclose to us what he is doing; why this happens in the world, or why that.
v.21 There is a question of translation here: is he asking whether the spirit of man goes upward, back to God – as he will say it does in 12:7 – or when death will occur? [Fredericks, Ecclesiastes (Apollos OT Com), 123] That, we do not know. Think of how profoundly that ignorance shapes your daily life!
v.22 We cannot have a life without death, but we can have a life with reward. We understand very little of what is going on in this world, but we can still enjoy our lives if we accept our place and devote ourselves to fearing God and keeping his commandments, which, as the author says at the very end of his book, is all God asks of us. Remember, in the Bible fearing God is faith in action.
The text I have read is entirely typical of Ecclesiastes. The book has often struck Christian people as too depressing; as if the author doesn’t really appreciate the reality of salvation. But, as a matter of fact, the Bible says the same things in many places, in both the OT and the New. Romans 8 says very much the same thing, though with less of the literary flair, the typical Hebrew hyperbole; and the reflection that we find in Ecclesiastes. What is more, Ecclesiastes doesn’t say anything that isn’t perfectly obvious to an honest observer of human life. As Pascal put it, “Anyone who doesn’t see the vanity of life, must be very vain indeed.” [Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life,15]
While Ecclesiastes refers to many sorts of disappointments, this section concentrates on the injustice of things; the wickedness abroad in the world. And for a Christian, that must be first and foremost. Of course we feel the pain of sickness, of the separation from loved ones caused by death. Of course we feel, and feel keenly, the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. But tonight we are thinking about the kingdom of God, about the reputation of God in our world, about the fortunes of the body of Christ, the gospel, and Christian witness in our world. Our culture is going to hell with a flourish and Christians, of all people, cannot see that without pain. “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.” So we read in Ps 37. Israel was a ruin. To the pagans round about Yahweh seemed a rather silly, minor potentate, whose kingdom had been laid waste by Marduk and Babylon. That is what is happening in our country today. There is no fear of God anywhere; there is hardly any in the church. God is an irrelevance. Young people, hear me: You will always be half a Christian if your sorrows are all personal and have only to do with the disappointments of your private life. We cannot love God if we don’t love what he loves, and the church of Jesus Christ is the apple of his eye. If she is in distress; if she is failing; if she is dying before our eyes; we should be in great distress. It should depress us deeply. If our culture has nothing but contempt for God that should make us angry and deeply concerned both for ourselves and others.
Then he asks, “Who can bring him to see what will be after him?” I’m a grandfather, fifteen times over. I cannot help but worry about my grandchildren who will grow up in a world that is already and steadily becoming more overtly hostile, outwardly and unapologetically disgusted and offended by the truth we hold dear as Christians. They will laugh at my grandchildren; they will sneer at how pathetic and silly they are; they will hate them. Will all 15 of them stand that terrible test? Will I see them all in heaven? What of this church and the people of this congregation? We are just now having to come to terms with what no previous generation of American Christians faced: a culture that widely thinks and no longer hesitates to say that historic Christianity is a collection of convictions alternately evil, unscientific, irrational, outworn, patriarchal, homophobic, and stupid. More and more think such convictions should be actively suppressed by the government. How will this congregation fare in the years to come?
The American church is now hemorrhaging its people into the world. Its numbers are shrinking. Its pastorate has been wracked by one public scandal after another, one news report after another barely disguising its glee at the sexual misbehavior or embezzlement of some Christian minister. Christian young people go to American colleges and come out with but a few shreds of their faith still left, or none at all. Some may keep Christ and heaven in their back pocket, but neither shapes the way they live their life. They are modern Americans in fact; Christians in only fading memory. Only a Pollyanna could think that things are likely to get better rather than considerably worse. Public voices are being raised claiming that Christian education is a form of child abuse. Pornography is now the mainstream. Marriage has become merely a “personal option,” with fewer and fewer making the choice. More and more of our young people are growing up without moorings – familial, moral, or social – and who knows what the result of all that will be? One result will not be that these people will be more inclined to stand up for the freedom of the Christian church to preach and live its message. Present indications are genuinely depressing and frightening. Indeed! “Who can bring him to see what will be after him?”
Our comfortable, easy day as Christians in America is drawing to its close, or so it certainly appears. The fight will go on, to be sure; and we may win a battle here or there. But the mass of people in our culture, and their numbers are growing by the day, I say most Americans – by experience, by education, and by the dint of relentless propaganda – are moving away from us with speed and with determination. The number of people in America who claim even a nominal association with Christianity is dropping like a stone. We are following Europe in its deep secularization. Only 1 in 10 Britons, French, and Germans now say that religion – any religion – is important in their lives. Most people in the Netherlands – not so long ago a highly religious population with a sincere Calvinist as their Prime Minister – have never once visited a church service.
To be sure, we are hardly the first generation of Christians to be faced with triumphant godlessness or overt persecution. It has happened before many times. Indeed, perhaps more Christians than not have lived in times like ours, or even in times like ours are soon to be. And many have suffered far more painful fates than anything that has so far been suffered here. But here is the point. We, who have had it so easy for so long, now must suffer what our brethren elsewhere and in other times have suffered. We are now the exiles; and America is our Babylon.
Why? we ask. Who can say? Divine judgment? Of course. To cleanse and renew Christ’s church? Of course. But God is always exercising judgment and always renewing his church. But no doubt he has other reasons as well, reasons of which we are and will remain entirely ignorant. But “why” questions, we learn in Ecclesiastes, are not within our purview. In the nature of the case, we cannot answer them. The search for an answer will get us nowhere. It is simply a fact of life, as we read, that we “cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” Nor can we find out what is coming next. But, for us, as Christians, with regard to what happens in the world, in the church, and in our own lives, the bottom line must always be, as we read in v. 14: “God has done it.” In Ecclesiastes, as throughout Holy Scripture, there stands above and behind every event in the history of the world, however large or small, happy or heartbreaking, the Living God, who inhabits eternity, who dwells in unapproachable light, and who brings everything – I mean everything – to pass according to the counsel of his sovereign will.
The world may seem meaningless to us, why things happen as they do may remain senseless and absurd to us, living as we do under the sun, but this author, as every biblical author, knows that God is in control, that he has ordered history down to its most insignificant details, and that he has a perfect, righteous, and altogether good purpose for everything. All is unfolding according to his plan. Or, as the great Charles Hodge beautifully put it, “God has not given either to necessity, or to chance, or to the caprice of man, or to the malice of Satan, to control the sequence of events and all their issues, but has kept the reins of government in his own hands.” [In Warfield, Selected Shorter Writings, vol. 1, 393]
Perhaps some of you may remember the story the Dutch tell of the little boy whose home was on a dyke in Holland near a great windmill. The arms of this mill were so great and long, and they silently swept so close to the ground, that they posed a danger to anyone who carelessly strayed too close to them. To awaken a proper fear of the danger in their son, his parents described for him in lurid terms what would happen if he were caught by those blades, carried high into the air, and then had his life beaten out of him when they flung him to the ground from such a great height. But he loved to play near the mill and, heedless of their warnings, one day, absorbed in his play, he strayed too close to the circling arms of the windmill. Suddenly his play was interrupted as he was violently struck from behind and jerked into the air, his feet up and his head down, being struck from behind with blow after blow. For a moment, a mere second, he was terrified; he thought his life had come to its end. But writhing and looking up at the heavens above him, he saw not the sweeping blades of the mill, but the face of his father. The blows were not the onset of his death, but punishment for his disobedience. He melted into tears, not of terror but of relief, even joy. He was not the prisoner of a heartless machine that cared nothing for his life; he had fallen into the hands of a father who was determined to ensure that his son would learn to live safely and grow up to be a responsible and happy man. [Ibid, 395-396] And that is the first difference our faith should make, and a huge difference it is. When life turns dark and depressing we are to confess the good, loving, and perfectly righteous God whose world this is, whose will we encounter every day in things both great and small, who cares for us, and who will, one day, put all things right.
Our children must learn from us that the tragedy of this world, the hostility of men and women to God and his Word, that even that, and all of that, is in some ineffable way God’s own doing; his judgment; perhaps even his grace by which finally to call people to himself that they may be saved. Everywhere, in everything, at every time and place, no matter what is happening, we and our children have to do with God: that which is, That which already has been; that which is to be…God has, or will have done it. Men and women have done it to be sure; Satan has done it; there is no doubt about that in our time, when such foolishness and wickedness has been so readily embraced, even celebrated by so many. But above them all, behind it all, before it all: there is God. The Almighty’s hand is always on the tiller!
For us, the first response to the vanity or meaninglessness of life must be, “My God has done this. My heavenly Father has ordered this. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have together placed me and placed us and placed his church in these circumstances, confusing and painful and heartbreaking as they are. God loves us and loves the world; he knows what is best for us and for it; he is ruling the world for the sake of the church, and this, in his infinite and perfect wisdom, is what he thinks best; this is what will lead to the best; this will accomplish everything that I myself would want, would crave, if only I knew what God knows, and if only I loved myself and the church and the world as much as God does.
But there is also this. It is a constant theme in Ecclesiastes that, even in the face of cruel disappointment, of understandable worry, of heart-rending confusion, God has given us a life that should be, at the same time, full of satisfaction, of pleasure, even joy. We have it twice in the text we read: vv. 12-13 and v. 22. God has ordered our lives in such a way that we can grieve the injustice and wickedness we see all around us every day and yet rejoice in his good gifts, in the satisfaction of doing good, in the pleasure of Christian love and fellowship, in the enjoyment of food and drink, and in the fulfillment of useful work.
I remember reading Andrew Bonar, the Scottish minister, saying, on the day of the death of his best friend Robert Murray McCheyne, when the latter was just 29 years of age, “Life has lost half its joys, were it not the hope of saving souls.” [Bonar, Memoir of McCheyne, pb ed, 4] I’ve always thought that a memorable and beautiful thing for a Christian minister to say in the hour of death. A testimony to a great friendship, on the one hand, a beautiful expression of a broken heart, on the one hand, but, on the other, a recognition of the truth so often stated in Ecclesiastes: even in the midst of confusion, sorrow, and pain, God has not left us bereft of important work to do and of pleasures to buoy us on our way. And, the fact is, if you read the life of Andrew Bonar, most of which, of course, took place in the nearly 50 years he lived after the death of his friend, it was in fact a wonderfully cheerful life, full of important labors, precious friendships, and happy times.
And these, brothers and sisters, are our marching orders today, as they have always been the calling of God’s people. Times may be darkening all the while, the fortunes of the church may be at low ebb and dropping lower by the day, the reputation of God and his people in our land may be poorer than they have ever been, injustice and wickedness are in the ascendant, but the Bible teaches us again and again that it is possible to be afraid and yet filled with joy, as were the women at the tomb on Easter Sunday morning; that it is possible to be sorrowful and yet always rejoicing.
And that double calling is ours and will remain ours through the years that lie ahead. It should be a matter of the sharpest grief for us, what is happening in our country and in the American church. It should be a source of embarrassment, of righteous anger, of fear for others, and of offense, that the Name of the Almighty and of our Savior is not revered, that the Savior of the world is not loved, that his marvelous gospel is not treasured as the greatest conceivable gift ever granted to the human race.
We cannot be thoughtful Christians if we are not afraid of the consequences of this unbelief and wickedness for the eternal fortunes of those we love and of our neighbors, whose interests, as the followers of Christ, we are to consider more important than our own. We cannot possibly be indifferent to the tragedy around us, the multitudes slipping away to eternity without a thought to their danger, defiantly indifferent to the truth God has made so perfectly clear to every human being. Think of them. One hour in hell will burn up all the pleasure their unbelief ever gave them.
But, at the same time, we cannot ourselves be faithful to the Lord, grateful disciples of Jesus Christ, if we do not embrace the work he has given us to do, and do not enjoy the gifts he has lavished on us first as his creatures and especially as his children by faith in Jesus Christ.
They may hate us, despise what we believe: that God created the world and each of us; they may gnash their teeth at our sexual ethics, at our insistence that faith in Jesus Christ is the way and the only way to God and heaven, at our fear of God and at the strictness of our obedience to the commandments of God. But let them, at the same time, see, let us force them to see that we are a good people, hard-working, valuable to others; and a happy people, connoisseurs of the good gifts our Heavenly Father has given us and them. Motivated by God’s love for us and for them, let them see that we regard what is happening in our country and in the church as high tragedy; let them watch us mourn. But let them also see us, supremely confident as we are in the sovereignty of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ, living together a happy, productive, useful life! It is the best way to make our faith attractive to those who find it offensive!
I’ve been reading, of late, Ron Chernow’s biography of George Washington, the only one of his four great biographies that I had not yet read. At one point, Chernow quoted Abigail Adams who was herself quoting a line from the English poet Edward Young. As some of you may remember, I have an interest in Edward Young because Ian and Mae Tait’s home in Welwyn, England, a home I visited several times, had once been Edward Young’s home. Indeed Young’s 18th century study had become Ian’s 20th century study. It was not Abigail Adam’s but Young’s line that arrested me: “Affliction is the good man’s shining time.”
There is the application and the summons of Ecclesiastes 3:9-22. We find ourselves, as Christians and as a church in America today, in affliction. We properly mourn that it is so. But affliction is a good man’s shining time! Brothers and sisters, make it so for you and your children, a happy life in a tragic world; a time to mourn in the right way for the right reasons; and a time to be happy in the same way. Teach your children to do the same!
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