Despair or Encouragement: A Matter of Perspective

“A generation goes and a generation comes, but the earth stands forever. The sun rises and the sun comes, but to the place from which it rises it presses on there. It goes to the south and again around to the north, around and around the wind goes, overall its surroundings the wind returns. Every river goes to the sea but the sea is not full. To the place from which the river goes, to there it returns. All words are wearisome and a man is not able to speak them; the eye is not satisfied with seeing and the ear cannot be filled by hearing.”

(Ecclesiastes 1:4-8)

How often we simply read words like this with a tone of despair — a kind of fatalism wherein all things are futility. Yet, to do so would be to miss what it is that Solomon is addressing to us. Essentially, these words are an expansion of verse 3: earthly things done for earthly reasons, it is that they avail you nothing. But, if you are using these earthly things to store up treasure for yourself in heaven, then we are talking about an entirely different conversation.

What you have here is a mention of cycles. One generation goes (as a pastor, I officiate far more funerals than I would like to!) but with the departure of one generation comes another (in most years of my ministry, I have been privileged to conduct more baptisms than funerals!). And so, in the cycle there is a continuation in which we can find joy and hope. The sun rises and it sets (with amazing regularity!). And so, even though one day is ending, there is yet a new day on the horizon and perhaps we will be able to accomplish in that day those things that were not accomplished in this one. The wind blows with amazing irregularity (see how Jesus applies this idea in John 3:8), but it blows consistently. The water rushes to the sea in the streams and rivers, but then evaporates into the air and is deposited back on the mountaintops through rain and snow.

If one looks at these elements in nature and in life as a burden, then these words of Solomon will seem dreadful…yes, another day, another year, another season, etc… Yet, if we see them as resources in which to be used for the glory of God, they are something to be celebrated. I heard a preacher once say that “Sundays come around with amazing regularity.” So, preacher — pastor — church member, if Sunday morning worship is something you do as a matter of duty, yes, what a drag that can be. But if Sunday is a day of worship and rest from your weariness, what a wonderful thing it is! So, friends, for you, which is it?

Verse 8 is often treated as a new paragraph, but it really continues the thought of those verses before it. We are people who live by words. We use language not only to communicate with others, but even our thoughts are constructed with words and phrases. And once again, we cannot speak all of the words that run through our lives, and if you leave that idea there, you will be dragged down into despair. But if you realize that all our words (thought or spoken) are an offering to God as a sacrifice of praise, then is it not wonderful that we are so filled with such words that we cannot get them all out? Like the cycle of the water, our words flow from us in an unceasing prayer (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and still more come to us as we are so led by the Holy Spirit to pray (Romans 8:26) and there is no end to the communion we have with our great maker.

We must recognize that we also use our words with one another and that the words of others can weary us at times. Sometimes we think, “Oh, if I could just have a moment of peace and silence from the endless complaining of the people around me!” Yet, when people find themselves stranded alone and without people to talk to, or they find themselves placed in solitary confinement in a prison, people tend to go mad. How indeed we desperately need the words of others and even the wearying ones are a blessing from God when you realize the damage that comes from being deprived of them.

Finally, there is the language of the ear and the eye and them not being filled with that they hear or see. Again, this is sometimes seen as a negative statement, but truly it is not. And this is the problem with scientific empiricism, which states that the only things you can know are those things that can be plainly demonstrated to the senses. This, friends, could not be further from the truth because we need our reason and our language to describe those things we see and hear. Furthermore, God has made us in his image, so when we observe something take place with our senses, we are compelled to think about those events and draw conclusions about them (the basis of scientific inquiry!). And again, this is a truly wonderful thing to do and experience. Sadly, oftentimes learning is restricted to a classroom, but how much more meaningful learning is when it is discovered! Discovery happens because the eye or the ear is not satisfied with a simple observation without conclusions.

In the end, though, this more optimistic mindset only makes sense if there is an overarching meaning and purpose to life — a purpose that is drawn from something that is eternal. So the resources of the natural world are meaningless if your only end is to serve yourself (because you, too, will die). But they are of great meaning if you are using them to glorify God and build his Kingdom. In the same way, words can weigh us down — countless study can be a burden to our souls — but endless study of God’s word when one realizes that this word draws us closer to God and teaches us more about the God we adore, that is a refreshing promise indeed! I have often told my children that in any job — any vocation — there will be things you dread. But you do those things you don’t like so that you can do the things you are most passionate about. If the spiritual things of life (prayer, Bible study, Christian worship, etc…), then no matter how mundane and dull your vocational responsibilities, if they enable you to do the spiritual things, then purpose can be found even in these matters. Even as a pastor, one can easily fall into a trap. For me, the teaching and preaching aspects of the ministry are the things for which I live — conflict counseling, administrative tasks, etc… not so much. But if you recognize that these “things that go with the territory as a pastor” are tools to enable you to  better preach and teach due to the relationships they build, then meaning is found, not dread. This principle applies to all of our lives, regardless of our vocation.

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