Sometimes reading the Bible is like a pearl necklace – we read chapters separately like collecting individual pearl, but we need a string to connect the pearls to become a necklace. It is the same for this 12-chapter Ecclesiastes. Ch.2 is called the “Chapter of Success”. The most successful human in history is now discussing success. In Ch.1 a wise man discusses about wisdom; in Ch.2 a successful man discusses about success. He shows us how successful he is; at the same time, he shows us how meaningless it is – death is inevitable. There was a story that a prison was walking to the electric chair for execution. When he was strapped in, the warden asked, “Do you have any last wish?” Thinking a bit, the prisoner said, “Can I hold your hand?” Everyone is afraid of death, but death is inevitable for all of us. This is what we will see in Ch.2.
In contemporary cultural narrative, success is a brand. We need to know how to see what success is. We need new eyes to see what success is.
Whenever I go to a city, I look for book stores because I like books. I can give you the name and address of the large book stores of cities I have been to. But one day, I could only saw playground. I have never seen any playground before; playgrounds were there, but I have never noticed them. I suddenly saw them because I became a father. After I have kids I can find every playground available because it would be by interest. My eyes begin to see playgrounds – we see what we are interested in. When I was in Korea, I saw lots of blue crosses all over the city; I thanked God that Christianity was so revived in Korea. Later a Korean friend told me, “No, the blue crosses are not churches. They are cosmetic clinics.” The next time I went to Korea, I look harder – the blue crosses were actually clinics but not churches that I wanted to see.
It is similar to “success”. We can’t see until someone tells us what success is, what success is not and what illusion in success is. In Ecc. Ch.2 we will very carefully define what success is. And there are THREE definitions that we have to pay attention to.
A. Beware of a Shallow Definition of Success (Ecc. 2:1-10)
There are three kinds of shallow definitions of success: what we can enjoy, what we have accomplished, and what we possess. Solomon has all three and in great abundant.
1. Success is shallowly defined by what We Can Enjoy (2:3)
In Ecc. 2:1, Solomon says to himself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” In ancient times, pleasure means entertainment. Solomon is enjoying entertainment; he is not enjoying ordinary entertainment, but world-class entertainment, the finest entertainment. He has the best of the world; he has the best food of the world, he has the best wine in the world. In 2:3, “I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine…” It is no cheap wine, and he is not being a drunk – he is like a wine taster being satisfied by the best wine of the world.
In such enjoyment, Solomon has the best of the best. Yet, there is no true satisfaction. His heart becomes empty. When every meal everyday is the best, you will eventually be bored. So he pours himself in work.
2. Success is shallowly defined by what We Have Accomplished (2:4-6)
In 2:4, he says, “I made great works.” It means he pours himself into his occupation. His occupation is king – in the entire country there is only one such post, and it is the hardest job in the entire country. He can either be very lazy, or be very hard-work. This is a difficult job because no one knows what to do; no one teaches you. But Solomon says, I don’t want to be a lazy king; I want to be the best king ever. So he pours himself into this occupation.
A king has two primary concerns: (1) don’t get conquered by another country, and (2) control and manage resources to make your name for yourself. In 2:5-6, he says he built houses, planted vineyards, made gardens and parks; but he repeatedly says he do these jobs “for myself”. “For myself” is not contrasting to “for others” or “for the people”; the “for myself” is contrasting to “for God”. His mind is still focusing materialistic goals for success in a materialistic world – he is living for himself but not for God. But we have to learn to live with wisdom and live for God.
There is a false dichotomy in this world nowadays. We separate things into sacred or secular. We think pastors or missionaries live for God, and ordinary workers in the market place cannot be that sacred. That is not true – I have seen pastors and missionaries who live not for God but themselves; in contrast, I have seen many who are not pastors and missionaries but live for God and not for themselves. Occupation is not the concern; no matter what your occupation is, you can choose to live for God or just to yourself.
Today, are you serving yourself, or are you really serving God? If you are willing to serve God, there is one thing you must know – you must serve God in His terms but not in your terms. If you are not serving Him in His terms but in your own terms, you are actually serving yourself. You have to remember that for God we live, to God we serve. This is what true success really looks like; what we do for ourselves will pass away, but what we have done for Christ will last for eternity. Tomorrow we will explore are we living in time or living in eternity. As for tonight, we must know that success is centered upon God. Do not let your success set upon what you have accomplished for yourself. Solomon was sensationally successful – he built these great works. But he said to himself – I did it for myself. And he realized this is not the right thing to do. We have to read through the entire book of Ecclesiastes to understand his turning of orientation. We are still on Ch.2, and we can hear his frustration. It is only in CH.12 that everything will be cleared: “Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth… Fear God and keep his commandments.” Not for myself, but for God.
～ ～ ～
If we use our achievement to define our success, we will always be insecure. It is because, even if you are at the top, the sense of security wants you to stay at the top. 5 years ago, I passed my post of “senior pastor” to two people whom I have be discipling for 20 years. They took turn to take charge of the church affairs. I have to switch office with one of them. My senior pastor office was 3-4 times bigger than his, and he said he didn’t want to move because his small office was enough for his work. I said, “Well, you are the senior pastor now, you have to get in this office. This has to be your office.” He didn’t want to. When I insisted, he said, “Let me pray about it first.” It is because he felt that in the eyes of other colleagues it was not that easy. At last he accepted reluctantly. Finally we exchanged our offices with our kids helping on 1 Jan one year. The only request is that I have to leave some books in the bigger office.
The point of this story is that there are some traps – such as how big your office is, what position you are holding – in defining success. What we own and what we posses is nothing; we have to learn to let go of them. The symbol of success is not materialistic substance; we should not mistaken substances to be the definition of success. This is superficial success.
3. Success is shallowly defined by what We Possess (2:7-8)
The third definition we think of success is what we possess. Fast-lane people always think of possession. We always want branded goods because it seems to be a mark of success. I myself have no particular interest in branded goods. It is not a sin nor a crime to possess branded goods, but branded goods give you a sense of esteem, a sense of success, and these would mislead us to false sense of success.
After 25 years being the senior pastor, the Board brought me a gift. It is not from the church’s fund; I think the board members spent their own money to buy me this gift – a pair of golden Rolex watches for me and my wife. That night we give thanks to God. I looked at the watch, and I joke to my wife, “I think my church is back-slided.” Of course I said this as a joke, because I know they loved us; it was a token for their appreciation. But I don’t need Rolex watches and I don’t wear it. So, after giving thanks, we brought the two watches back to the shop to see if I could get a refund. No matter how much I can get, I would like to give it back to the church. But the shopkeeper said, “No, your watches cannot be refunded. There is engraving at the back of the watch. But you can sell them in a second-hand store.” So my wife and I walked out the shop and search for a second-handed shop. But we stopped to think of how much we can sell the watch so that how much money we can give to the church. Finally my wife said, “Why don’t you just bear with it and wear with it for awhile? Next time when our church has a fund raising you can take it to the auction at a higher price.” She said so because at the first church building fund raising I auctioned away my Bible used in my bible college at 165,000 Singapore Dollars. At the second church building I auctioned away my sermon notes at my early times at 100,000 Singapore Dollars. So my wife said, “Why don’t you wear these watches for a while; next time when there is a fund raising, the auction price will be much higher than the price any second-handed store can offer now.” So now there is a mental frame in my mind that this watch does not belong to me; I am just wearing it TEMPORARYLY. It is meant to be given away.
B. Keep an Eye on the Bottom Line (2:11-16)
1. The Answer To Life is NOT In Our HAVING (2:9-10)
I see this as a parable to our life that everything we possess is temporary. After all we will die and we cannot bring anything away. It would then be foolish to put our self-esteem on these branded things we have, because they are all temporary. Fast-lane people are mesmerized by the illusion of grandeur. The car you are driving, the house you are living in, the phone you have, the salary, the social network… Solomon has all these but beyond measure. But he says, “Yet this does not give true satisfaction.” How rich Solomon is? In ancient times, the rich-ness of a man is counted by how much cattle and sheep you own. Once in a sacrificing service he made 120,000 sheep and 30,000 cattle. This man is way beyond rich. But what he has accomplished, what he possesses and what he enjoyed did not give him true satisfaction. In verse 10, he says, “And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them.” It means that he has instant gratification; he can get what he wants. After awhile he has so many things that he does not want anymore. And he says, “All is vanity and is chasing after the wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”
2. The Answer To Life is NOT In Our DOING (2:11)
Now comes a sobering picture. And in verse 12, “So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done.” In other words, he finally realizes that success in life is not in having, because after death everything will be taken away. Everything else becomes empty, and so he has to leave everything for his son who will come after him. And he says, “But what can my son do? I have done everything.” There are two answers for this question, one obvious, one subtle.
The obvious answer is, your son can do nothing since you have done everything. But the other answer is, his son can do one thing Solomon has not yet done. Solomon says, “I have done everything while I keep my wisdom with me. I studied about what is wisdom and what is folly.” That one thing his son can do is to go into foolishness and madness. It means that his son can be so self-absorbed into his success that he can be deceived to think that the success validates itself and it is the ultimate meaning of life. Solomon says no; the meaning of life is not in having, the meaning of life is not in doing. There must be something else.
3. The Answer To Life is NOT In Our KNOWING (2:12-16)
Solomon says, I tried to understand by wisdom. This is the string to connect Ch.1 and 2. In Ch.1, it is about struggle in life, and life without God is meaningless – I use wisdom to understand, but wisdom is useless. In Ch.2, I use entertainment to find meaning of life. I enjoy good food, I enjoy good wine, I enjoy best entertainment, but there is no satisfaction. So I build great things, I do great things – but it is still useless. So I posses, I get as many things as possible. In verse 7-8, “I bought male and female slaves…I had also great possessions of herds and flocks…I also gathered for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces…I got singers, both men and women, and many concubines…” These are first-class entertainment man can enjoy. Everyone should be envy of me. So, in verse 9, “I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem.” I was a sensational success.
Then it comes a sobering idea in verse 15, “Then I said in my heart, ‘What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?’ And I said in my heart that this also is vanity.” The phrase “will happen to me also” in Hebrew is with emphasis of “EVEN to me” – what happen to the fool will happen EVEN to me. What will happen? Death. Death is inevitable. Wise or unwise, death is inevitable; educated or not educated, death is inevitable; rich or poor, death cannot be ignored or escaped.
There is an old legend that some one run to Samaria to escape death, but let me tell you a modern version. One morning, a driver stops at a traffic light. He sees Grim Reaper the Death. He is frightened. But as he looks, Death turns his face to the driver and shows a puzzled face. The driver is very scared; he worries about his life. He says to himself, “Death is coming for me, I must escape!” So he does not drive to his office; instead he drives as fast and as far as possible. By the end of the day, he reaches a small town he has never been to. He thinks he has escaped Death. Exhausted, he does not see a truck coming, and his car is crashed in the traffic junction. While he is pinned inside the car, dying, he sees Death outside his window. He asks, “What are you doing here?” Death asks the driver the same question, “No, what are you doing here?” The driver says, “I saw you this morning, so I drive away from you.” Death says, “That’s why I am surprised. I am told to take your life tonight, but I didn’t understand why I have to meet you this far away.”
You cannot escape death. No man can think of success but without death. Death is inevitable. So this is what Solomon tells us in this “Chapter of Success”. Solomon says, “Look at me, I am a spectacular success; look at what I posses, look at what I enjoy. But what do all these bring any good? What happens to fools still happens EVEN to me.”
We need new spectacle to see. We must know that death is inescapable.
4. The True Answer To Life is In BELIEVING (2:17-26)
So, life is not about having, life is not about doing, and life is not about understanding. What is then the key to life? The true answer to life is believing. It is a believing that God has a plan for everything. In verse 21, I have to “… leave everything…” In verse 24-25, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?” What is he seeing here is not that eating and drinking is useless. But true enjoyment comes from God. God is the true source of enjoyment and satisfaction.
In the Bible it says God is the true source of what we are longing in our heart, because God is the true source of happiness. We are not saying “Life + Enjoyment = Vanity” because life and enjoyment are also a gift. But what Solomon says is “Life + Enjoyment without God = Vanity”. The reason we put God in the center of our life is that one day when we die – and death is inescapable – there is accountability before God. God do not account for how much we have done, how much we have possessed, how much we have enjoyed, but He will ask what you believe in. Do you believe God is the source of your happiness and satisfaction? Jesus is everything, so having Jesus is enough. You will not understand the joy of enjoyment in life until you understand Jesus is everything. When we die we cannot bring anything along with us. If I do not give my Rolex watch away, I cannot take it to the Heaven and brag to God, “See? 25 years of Pastor, and I got a Rolex.” Because in Heaven everything is nothing.
Let me end today’s session with a story. A man is dying, and he tells his wife and friends to exchange his everything into gold bar, put the gold bar into his coffin, and so that he can carry all these gold bars to Heaven. Everyone does put the gold bars into his coffin, and he does able to drag all his gold bars to heaven. When he exhaustedly reaches the gate of Heaven, Peter asks this man, “What have you brought here?” The man proudly says, “I brought along my gold bars.” Peter is puzzled, and points to the floor, “See, roads in Heaven are built with gold. You brought some concrete all the way to here; what for?”
Jesus is everything, having Jesus is enough. Death cannot be escaped, but Jesus took it away. So Jesus says, you don’t have to worry about what you eat ad what you wear, because LIFE is more important than good and cloth. It is not that cloth is not important, but being fashionable is not important. What is important is life. Satan came and changed the values of us; nowadays young people – even Christian young people – are brought into Satan’s lie: that materialism is life. We need new and radical discipleship to the younger generation, to tell them what true success is. The true success in life is stewarding what God have given us. True success in life is that in the end of days we can rest in His peace. True success is that we live for eternal but not for the temporal.
LORD, thank you for Your Word. You are the true source of happiness. Even death will come, and death is inevitable, but in Jesus Christ we have life. It is because You said whoever believe in Jesus will have life. Help us turn away from false success, but teach us to understand in true deep success of life. God, teach me what true success is.
Materialism is not the answer to life. Only Jesus can satisfy. Only in Jesus we will be safe, because on the cross He turned death to life. Jesus You said, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” So teach us this precious truth. For this we give you thanks.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.