Ecclesiastes — Lesson 5

Seeking Meaning From Promoting Social Good

I. Solomon’s Experiment

A. Solomon’s first three experiments involved seeking meaning and happiness from wisdom, from pleasure, and from wealth & power.

B. His fourth experiment is very different. He seeks meaning and happiness from helping others.

1. This fourth experiment is directed not toward himself, but toward others.

2. At first glance, it seems that this experiment might be a winner. It certainly appears to start off with a greater probability of success than did the first three.

3. If it is true that happiness can only be found outside of ourselves, then perhaps we can find it in service to others.

C. The Description of the Experiment from Ecclesiastes:

1. Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

a) Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up his companion. But woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up. 11 Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm; But how can one be warm alone? 12 Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him. And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.

2. Solomon appears to have sought meaning from helping others and promoting social good. As king, he was in a position to relieve a great deal of suffering.

a) In Proverbs, 37 verses are speak about the poor. For example, Proverbs 14:21 – “He who despises his neighbor sins; But he who has mercy on the poor, happy is he.”

3. Solomon also appears to have experimented with the idea that if he alone cannot find meaning under the sun, then maybe he and others can combine their efforts to find meaning together. Perhaps the problem with meaning is just one of manpower. As we will see, Solomon may have been the first to have that idea, but he was not the last.

D. The Result of the Experiment

1. Ecclesiastes 1:2-4

a) “Vanity of vanities,” says the Preacher; “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” 3 What profit has a man from all his labor in which he toils under the sun?

2. Solomon was concerned for the poor and oppressed, and the text suggests that he sought meaning from helping the poor and oppressed. Yet the result was no different – he found that ALL was vanity.

3. Solomon did not find meaning acting alone, and he did not find meaning acting with others. Man will not find meaning under the sun and it does not matter where he looks under the sun or how many look with him. Man will not find it, because it is not there. Meaning comes from beyond the sun.

E. Solomon’s Experiment Continues Today – in the World and in the Church.

II. Solomon’s Experiment Continues in the World

A. Recall from our introductory lesson that there are three primary responses to the question “What is the meaning of life?”

1. Theology

a) Man’s life can have permanent meaning, but only through God.

2. Nihilism (“nothing-ism”)

a) Man’s life has no meaning. Suicide is the only real issue.

3. Naïve Humanism (a.k.a. Optimistic Humanism or Secular Humanism)

a) Man’s life has whatever meaning he can give it, but that meaning can come from no source other than man.

b) We create our own values and give life whatever meaning we choose to give it.

c) (American Humanist Association) “Humanism is a way of living and acting that allows every individual to actualize his or her highest aspirations and successfully achieve a happy and fulfilling life.” [This statement, like most of the statements from this organization, is virtually content-free!]

d) I will use the term “humanist” below to refer to this category. However, the word “humanist” is not a bad term. Indeed, humans were created in the image of God, and Christians are the true humanists. Those who debase human life and see humans as nothing more than mutated monkeys should hardly call themselves “humanists.”

B. This third approach – naïve or optimistic humanism – is the same experiment that Solomon undertook.

1. The issue is whether man can find meaning and happiness in himself and apart from God.

2. According to the humanist, life is meaningful, but it is subjectively meaningful rather than objectively meaningful.

a) Man, rather than God, is the center of reference. Man is the measure of all things, and hence any meaning that man finds must be subjective.

(1) Unlike Solomon, humanists generally deny that God exists. Yet humanists are engaged in the same experiment that Solomon tried – whether man can find meaning in himself and apart from God.

(2) There is no practical difference between saying that God does not exist and saying that God exists, but he is irrelevant.

b) There are no objective values and there is no objective point to our lives.

c) We obtain meaning by creating values and pursuing those values.

C. The first point to make is that naïve humanism shares many similarities with nihilism. In particular, under each:

1. There is no reason why something exists rather than nothing exists.

2. There is no purpose toward which the cosmos or human history is moving.

3. Humans are modified monkeys that have resulted from a blind process of random mutations.

4. There are no absolute moral values that exist apart from man.

D. Yet humanism departs from nihilism on the issue of meaning – humanists not only seek meaning, but they believe meaning is attainable. Here is what they say on this subject:

1. (Humanist Manifesto II) “Human life has meaning because we create and develop our futures. Happiness and the creative realization of human needs and desires, individually, and in shared enjoyment are continuous themes of humanism. We strive for the good life here and now.”

2. (A. J. Ayer in The Central Questions of Philosophy) “But without the help of such a myth [religion] can life be seen as having any meaning? The simple answer is that it can have just as much meaning as one is able to put into it.”

3. (Paul Kurtz in In Defense of Secular Humanism) “The humanist maintains as his first principle that life is worth living, at least that it can be found to have worth… . The universe is neutral, indifferent to man’s existential yearnings. But we instinctively discover life, experience its throb, its excitement, its attraction. Life is here to be lived, enjoyed, suffered, and endured.”

4. Humanists like nihilists believe that this life is all that there is, but unlike nihilists, humanists do not despair at that idea. Suicide is not an option for the humanist.

E. Humanists are very clear that they are seeking meaning apart from God.

1. (John Dietrich) “For centuries the idea of God has been the very heart of religion; it has been said ‘no God, no religion.’ But humanism thinks of religion as something very different and far deeper than any belief in God. To it, religion is not the attempt to establish right relations with a supernatural being, but rather the upreaching and aspiring impulse in a human life. It is life striving for its completest fulfillment, and anything which contributes to this fulfillment is religious, whether it be associated with the idea of God or not.”

2. (Humanist Manifesto II) “Humans are responsible for what we are or will become. No deity will save us; we must save ourselves.”

a) When they say no deity will save them, they mean no deity other than man.

b) (Walt Whitman in Song of Myself) “Divine am I inside out, and I make holy whatever I touch…”

3. (Carl Sagan) “The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”

4. (American Humanist Association) “Caring about the welfare of others helps provide inner strength and doesn’t depend upon guidance from a God. Feeling at home in the universe and the joy that comes from thinking positively does not depend upon any theistic belief.” … “Religion without a supernatural element can become meaningful and personal.”

a) Humanism is a religion until a humanist tries to keep religion out of our public institutions and schools. Then humanism conveniently stops being a religion.

b) Humanist Paul Blanshard wrote: “The question is not whether secular humanism is a religion, but whether it is the only religion not subject to the First Amendment.”

F. Humanists believe that meaning can be found from service to others and to posterity.

1. (American Humanist Association) “What we do now is what matters. Concern for others becomes our salvation.”

2. (A. J. Ayer) “There is … no ground for thinking that human life in general serves any ulterior purpose but this is no bar to a man’s finding satisfaction in many of the activities which make up his life, or to his attaching values to the ends which he pursues, including some that he himself will not live to see realized.”

3. The key phrase in that last quote is “attaching values” – we attach values to the ends we pursue. Values are defined by man and no value exists apart from man.

a) Thus, one man may decide that feeding the poor has some value, and he may thus attach value to that activity. He could then find meaning by pursuing that activity to which he has attached value.

b) However, another man may decide that the poor deprive society of valuable resources, and he may thus attach value to eliminating the poor. He could then find meaning by pursuing that activity.

c) One helps the poor and finds meaning; another kills the poor and finds meaning. Is this a dilemma for a humanist, and, if so, is there a solution to this dilemma? Why choose the first option (feeding the poor) over the second option (killing the poor)? Why be “moral”? What does it even mean to be “moral”? Why are some values “moral” and others not?

d) Is anything intrinsically right or intrinsically wrong? If so, how can man be free to define his own values? If not, how can we complain about someone else’s values?

4. Note, also, from the Ayers quote that humanists are not concerned about seeking meaning from ends that they themselves will not live to see realized.

a) Thus, they do not appear concerned with the pursuit of temporary meaning rather than lasting meaning. But, of course, this must be the case, since apart from God there can be no lasting meaning. If there is to be any meaning at all, it must be temporary meaning.

b) Humanists believe they themselves are temporary, so they are not concerned that the meaning they find is also temporary. A lack of permanence is only a problem if you yourself are permanent.

G. Humanists have several ways of defining “morality.”

1. “Human experience and reason are grounds for belief and action, putting human good – the good of self and others in their life on earth – as the ultimate criterion of right and wrong.”

a) But what is “human good”? What is “human”?

2. (Jeremy Bentham) “Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters – pain and pleasure. It is for then alone to point out what we ought to do … . They govern us in all we do, in all we say, and in all we think.”

a) This is the natural view of those who believe that man is himself an animal.

3. (John Dewey) “The bad man is the man who no matter how good he has been is beginning to deteriorate, to grow less good. The good man is the man who no matter how morally unworthy he has been is moving to become better. Growth itself is the only moral end.”

a) This is a wonderfully circular definition! The “moral” man is the man who is becoming more “moral.”

b) This “definition” owes much to Darwinism – which Dewey said caused a “transfer of interest from the permanent to the changing.”

c) No one had a greater impact on education in this country in the past century than John Dewey.

(1) Another humanist (Paul Blanshard) writing in The Humanist said: “I think the most important factor moving us toward a secular society has been the educational factor.”

(2) Charles Francis Potter (who signed the first Humanist Manifesto) wrote: “Education is thus a most powerful ally of Humanism, and every American public school is a school of Humanism.”

(3) In addition to being a leading humanist, John Dewey has been called “one of paganism’s greatest pagans.”

4. (Humanist Manifesto II) “The values of humanism are autonomous and situational. … Ethics stem from human need and interest.”

a) By “autonomous” the Manifesto means that the values are determined by “individual choice and control” without any external restraints.

b) Yet the same Manifesto later says that the values must be determined “consonant with social responsibility.” Thus, there is no external restraint except for that one.

(1) Which “society” determines what is responsible? Isn’t this just a way for societies to define their own values rather than individuals, and if so, how does that solve anything?

(2) It is interesting to note the language that was added to the Humanist Manifesto II over what was in the Humanist Manifesto I.

(3) The Humanist Manifesto I was published in 1933, and the Humanist Manifesto II was published in 1973. Apparently, the humanists found some disagreement with one of the their number who lived during the interim – Adolph Hitler.

(4) Thus, we are still free to define our own values and pursue those values – but now we must do so “consonant with social responsibility.”

(5) The hope apparently is that this phrase will prevent a repeat of Nazi Germany. Now you know why they are called “optimistic” humanists!

H. The “Nazi Question” is a problem for humanists and all others who wonder whether man can find meaning in himself and apart from God.

1. The Issue: Is it all right to find meaning under a system that also allowed Hitler to find meaning?

2. If you had asked Hitler why he was exterminating the Jews, what would his response have been?

a) He would have said he was doing it for the “common good” and that his actions were “consonant with social responsibility.” He would have claimed that his actions were in line with “human need and interest” and intended to promote “human good.” He would have used all of the right phrases.

b) But how could killing humans promote “human good”? Simple. Hitler merely redefined “human” – those he killed were “sub-human.”

c) And how would a humanist respond to that “logic”?

(1) He, no doubt, would complain about the reclassifications of some people as “sub-human” and argue that that is where Hitler went wrong. He didn’t really work toward the “common good.”

(2) Modern humanists would never fall into the trap of reclassifying people, would they? They would never say that some life is “sub-human” and therefore can be exterminated in accordance with the “common good” and “consonant with social responsibility,” would they? Of course they would, and they do – Article 6 of the Humanist Manifesto II states that abortion is a “right.” A right for whom? Humans – as opposed to the sub-humans in their wombs.

3. A humanist will tell you that his values are good and Hitler’s values were evil – but by what standard? I thought values were autonomous and situational?

a) When man seeks meaning from himself and defines his own values, how can another complain that his values are evil?

b) Remember, humanist values are autonomous and situational. They are defined by the individual, and do not exist apart from the individual.

c) The problem with humanists is that they deny the existence of a roof (an absolute), yet they don’t want to get wet! So they create temporary roofs to keep themselves dry and deny they have created any roofs at all.

(1) Either there is some absolute moral code that exists independently from man or there is not. If there is not, then the Nazis were right to pursue the “values” they defined in line with their desires and their societal goals.

(2) Now you see why it is called “naïve” humanism! Deep thinkers tend to be either theists or nihilists – humanism does not withstand close scrutiny.

(a) But the nihilists also have problems with consistency. Chesterton complained about Russian philosophers who “will denounce a policeman for killing a peasant, and then prove by the highest philosophical principles that the peasant ought to have killed himself.”

d) No humanist can offer a rational objection to the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews.

(1) That activity was one to which the Nazis placed a great deal of value, and they pursued that value in line with their view of societal responsibility.

(2) Humanism fails in either way it responds. It either fails to provide a rationale for a moral objection to obviously immoral behavior – or it provides such a rationale and thereby admits that there are moral absolutes.

(3) Dostoevski was right: “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted.” Humanists try but fail to overcome that reality.

I. What does the Bible say about humanism?

1. Romans 1:18-25

a) 18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,19 because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, 21 because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. 24 Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, 25 who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

2. Philippians 3:18-21

a) 18 For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: 19 whose end is destruction, whose god is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame—who set their mind on earthly things. 20 For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, 21 who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.

b) With regard to our citizenship, Augustine in The City of God wrote:

(1) “Two cities have been created by two loves: the earthly city by love of self even to contempt of God, the heavenly city by love of God even to contempt of self. The one city glories in itself; the other city glories in the Lord.”

III. Solomon’s Experiment Continues in the Church

A. The Church must be on guard against seeking meaning apart from God.

1. Many Christians attack “secular humanism” while simultaneously swallowing hook, line, and sinker the dogmas of modern, secular culture – its central dogma being that man in the measure of all things.

2. Even those who believe in God can fall into the trap of thinking that they can solve problems and find meaning and happiness apart from God.

3. Man becomes the authority for truth, and satisfying man’s felt needs becomes the mission of the church.

4. We have a mission and we can find no meaning apart from that mission – but what is that mission?

B. Our mission is not to feed the poor but to preach the gospel.

1. Jesus did not send us out into the world to feed every creature, but to “preach the gospel to every creature.”

2. We are commanded to help the poor and needy – and, of course, we must – but we must never consider that as our mission.

a) Of course, we cannot ignore the needs of the body in preaching the gospel. But neither should we focus on the needs of the body and ignore the more important spiritual needs.

b) Jesus recognized the physical needs of his followers when he fed the 5000 in John 6. But he also made it very clear that he had not come to merely satisfy those physical needs:

(1) (John 6:26-27) Jesus answered them and said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, you seek Me, not because you saw the signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled. “Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you, because God the Father has set His seal on Him.”

3. Many so-called churches have abandoned the great commission (which focused on man’s spiritual needs) and replaced it with a new commission that is focused on man’s physical needs.

a) Why the change? Like Solomon, they are seeking meaning and happiness, and like Solomon they are looking for it in service to others.

b) As with other pursuits of man (wisdom, pleasure, money), social work can become an end in itself rather than a means to an end.

c) Those who often accuse us of trying to earn our salvation are the very ones who seek meaning from their good works.

4. Consider the example in Acts 6.

a) A complaint arose in the Church that certain widows were being neglected. How did the apostles react?

b) Keep in mind from James 1:27 that “pure and undefiled religion before God” includes visiting orphans and widows in their trouble.

c) Yet the apostles did not drop everything to run and help the widows – they obviously did not consider that to be their mission. What was their mission? Read Acts 6:2-4.

(1) Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables.” Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; 4“but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

d) The mission of the apostles was to prayer and the ministry of the word. They obviously did not see the mission of the Church to be benevolence – otherwise they would have dropped what they were doing and attended to the widows’ physical needs.

e) Were the widows’ needs important? Clearly, yes. Were the widows’ needs more important than the ministry of the word? Clearly, no.

C. The danger is that our social programs will become our reason for existing – and when that happens we have pushed God aside. We are, in effect, seeking meaning from our social work.

1. We are in danger of pushing God out of his own church.

2. Our social programs become the end of our ministry, and suddenly there is no need for God, not even in the church.

3. We are secularizing the church. The world leads, and religion follows. God ceases to be a monarch, and becomes instead a mascot that goes along with the crowd.

4. Historian Joseph Haroutunian describing this secularization process wrote:

a) “Before, religion was God-centered. Before, whatever was not conducive to the glory of God was infinitely evil; now that which is not conducive to the happiness of man is evil, unjust, and impossible to attribute to the deity. Before, the good of man consisted ultimately in glorifying God; now the glory of God consists in the good of man. Before, man lived to glorify God; now God lives to serve man.”

5. C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters gives the following instructions on how to corrupt a Christian:

a) “Let him begin by treating Patriotism [or any other earthly pursuit] as part of his religion. Then let him … come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the state at which the religion becomes merely a part of the ‘cause.’ … Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing.”

D. Humanism and Christianity are like Oil and Water

1. Francis Schaeffer writes:

a) “There is no way to mix these two total world views. They are separate entities that cannot be synthesized. Yet we must say that liberal theology, the very essence of it from its beginning, is an attempt to mix the two. Liberal theology tried to bring forth a mixture soon after the Enlightenment and has tried to synthesize these two views right up to our own day. But in each case when the chips are down these liberal theologians have always come down, as naturally as a ship coming into home port, on the side of the nonreligious humanist. They do this with certainty because what their liberal theology really is is humanism expressed in theological terms instead of philosophic or other terms. An example of this coming down naturally on the side of the nonreligious humanists is the article by Charles Hartshorne in the January 21, 1981, issue of The Christian Century, pages 42-45. Its title is, “Concerning Abortion, an Attempt at a Rational View.” He begins by equating the fact that the human fetus is alive with the fact that mosquitoes and bacteria are also alive. That is, he begins by assuming that human life is not unique. He then continues by saying that even after the baby is born it is not fully human until its social relations develop (though he says the infant does have some primitive social relations an unborn fetus does not have). His conclusion is, “Nevertheless, I have little sympathy with the idea that infanticide is just another form of murder. Persons who are already functionally persons in the full sense have more important rights even than infants.” He then, logically, takes the next step: “Does this distinction apply to the killing of a hopelessly senile person or one in a permanent coma? For me it does.” No atheistic humanist could say it with greater clarity. It is significant at this point to note that many of the denominations controlled by liberal theology have come out, publicly and strongly, in favor of abortion.”

2. Another commentator writes:

a) “Theology is fast becoming ‘an embarrassing encumbrance.’ The doctrine of the utter otherness, or holiness, of God has been replaced by the idol of the moral self. God is slick and slack, happiness is the opposite of righteousness, sin is self-defeating behavior, morality is a trade-off of private interests, worship is entertainment, and the ‘church is a mall in which the religious, their pockets filled with the coinage of need, do their business.’”

E. Meaning and Happiness Can Only Come From Beyond the Sun

1. Man cannot find meaning and lasting happiness under the sun, whether he looks for it within himself or in others.

2. This is true of man in general, and also true of those in the Church. We in the Church must keep our eyes on the Son of God – who is beyond the sun.

3. (John 14:6) “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

God's Plan of Salvation

You must hear the gospel and then understand and recognize that you are lost without Jesus Christ no matter who you are and no matter what your background is. The Bible tells us that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) Before you can be saved, you must understand that you are lost and that the only way to be saved is by obedience to the gospel of Jesus Christ. (2 Thessalonians 1:8) Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” (John 14:6) “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12)

You must believe and have faith in God because “without faith it is impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6) But neither belief alone nor faith alone is sufficient to save. (James 2:19; James 2:24; Matthew 7:21)

You must repent of your sins. (Acts 3:19) But repentance alone is not enough. The so-called “Sinner’s Prayer” that you hear so much about today from denominational preachers does not appear anywhere in the Bible. Indeed, nowhere in the Bible was anyone ever told to pray the “Sinner’s Prayer” to be saved. By contrast, there are numerous examples showing that prayer alone does not save. Saul, for example, prayed following his meeting with Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:11), but Saul was still in his sins when Ananias met him three days later (Acts 22:16). Cornelius prayed to God always, and yet there was something else he needed to do to be saved (Acts 10:2, 6, 33, 48). If prayer alone did not save Saul or Cornelius, prayer alone will not save you. You must obey the gospel. (2 Thess. 1:8)

You must confess that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. (Romans 10:9-10) Note that you do NOT need to make Jesus “Lord of your life.” Why? Because Jesus is already Lord of your life whether or not you have obeyed his gospel. Indeed, we obey him, not to make him Lord, but because he already is Lord. (Acts 2:36) Also, no one in the Bible was ever told to just “accept Jesus as your personal savior.” We must confess that Jesus is the Son of God, but, as with faith and repentance, confession alone does not save. (Matthew 7:21)

Having believed, repented, and confessed that Jesus is the Son of God, you must be baptized for the remission of your sins. (Acts 2:38) It is at this point (and not before) that your sins are forgiven. (Acts 22:16) It is impossible to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ without teaching the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation. (Acts 8:35-36; Romans 6:3-4; 1 Peter 3:21) Anyone who responds to the question in Acts 2:37 with an answer that contradicts Acts 2:38 is NOT proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ!

Once you are saved, God adds you to his church and writes your name in the Book of Life. (Acts 2:47; Philippians 4:3) To continue in God’s grace, you must continue to serve God faithfully until death. Unless they remain faithful, those who are in God’s grace will fall from grace, and those whose names are in the Book of Life will have their names blotted out of that book. (Revelation 2:10; Revelation 3:5; Galatians 5:4)