Ecclesiastes — Lesson 7

The Indifference of the Universe as a Source of Vanity

I. The Sources of Vanity

A. Solomon tells us from the start that all he found was vanity in his search for meaning and happiness under the sun.

B. Our next five lessons will consider the question, “Why?”

1. Why was Solomon unable to find meaning and lasting happiness under the sun? What were the sources of the vanity that he discovered?

C. We will consider five sources of vanity:

1. The Sameness and Indifference of the Universe

a) That is, not just why bad things happen to good people, but why bad things happen to good people with the same frequency as they happen to bad people.

2. Death as the certain and final end of life.

a) Modern man is in a state of denial regarding death, yet death is the one appointment that we all must keep.

3. Time as a cycle of endless repetition.

a) Is there anything new under the sun?

4. Evil as a perennial and unsolvable problem.

a) The first source of vanity involves human suffering – especially of the innocent. This source of vanity is more basic than that: why is there evil in the world?

5. God as an unknowable mystery.

a) What if all we knew about God was what we could gather from under the sun?

D. For each of these sources of vanity, we will be considering three questions:

1. Why did Solomon identify this as a source of vanity?

2. What has man done to explain the source of vanity apart from God?

3. Is it a source of vanity to the Christian? If not, why not?

II. Why did Solomon identify the sameness and indifference of the Universe as a source of vanity?

A. The indifference of the Universe to man was one of the primary reasons that Solomon gave for why all was vanity.

1. Why be wise when the wise man suffers the same fate as the fool? The universe cares nothing about our wisdom.

2. Why seek pleasure when disease and death can steal it away in a moment? The universe does not hesitate to bring us pain.

3. Why seek money when money it will be ultimately be left for others? The universe cares nothing about our money.

B. Listen to Solomon as he explains the problem:

1. Ecclesiastes 7:15

a) All things have I seen in the days of my vanity: there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness.

2. Ecclesiastes 8:14

a) There is a vanity which occurs on earth, that there are just men to whom it happens according to the work of the wicked; again, there are wicked men to whom it happens according to the work of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity.

3. Ecclesiastes 9:1-2

a) For all this I considered in my heart even to declare all this, that the righteous, and the wise, and their works, are in the hand of God: no man knoweth either love or hatred by all that is before them. 2All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not: as is the good, so is the sinner; and he that sweareth, as he that feareth an oath.

4. Ecclesiastes 9:11

a) I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

C. The issue that Solomon raises is one that has puzzled mankind for millennia: Why do bad things happen to good people?

1. The issue is not just that the suffering appears undeserved, but that it appears random and pointless – distributed by mere chance.

2. Also, when we first approach the problem it often appears that God is part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

3. Atheists have long argued that all we have is a house of cards and that the existence of human suffering provides a logical proof for the non-existence of God.

a) Logic is an essential tool for anyone who wants to think clearly – but we must be very careful that we use it correctly.

(1) Logic has been called a methodical way to reach the wrong conclusion with confidence.

(2) Logic does not strive for truth, but rather for consistency. A false statement might very well be a logical statement if the premises are flawed or if a term is ambiguous..

b) Here is the logical conundrum presented by the atheist:

(1) If God does not know that good people suffer then he is not all knowing.

(2) If God knows but is incapable of preventing it then he is not all powerful.

(3) If God knows and can prevent it but chooses not to then he is not all good.

(4) Thus, since good people suffer, it follows logically that God is either not all knowing, not all powerful, or not all good.

4. Solomon looked at the suffering of the innocent and concluded that all was vanity. Atheists look at the suffering of the innocent and conclude that there is no God – or at least no God with the attributes that are described in the Bible.

a) How can we explain this problem? Can man find meaning in the face of human suffering? Is a belief in the God of the Bible inconsistent with the fact of human suffering?

b) We will look first at how men have sought to explain this problem apart from God, and then we will look at what God has to say.

III. How have men sought to explain this problem?

A. Buddha’s entire philosophy centers around his answer to the problem of human suffering.

1. After he left the palace and saw the Four Distressing Sights, he sat down under the Bodhi tree and later arose with the Four Noble Truths:

a) Life is suffering.

b) The cause of that suffering is desire.

c) The way to end suffering is to end desire – with Nirvana (extinction) being the state at the end of that process.

d) The way to end desire is the Noble Eightfold Path of ego reduction.

2. Why should we care what Buddha had to say about anything?

a) More than one million native-born Americans have converted to Buddhism during the past decade.

b) Men today (like Solomon) are looking for an answer to this question of suffering. We need to let them know that there is an answer and that Jesus Christ is the source of that answer.

B. Plato said that no evil can happen to a good man.

1. He said that when I harm your body, I don’t harm your soul, but I harm my soul instead.

2. The only person who can do me real harm is me.

C. Aristotle saw happiness as the goal of life, yet he did not consider happiness and suffering to be polar opposites.

1. The meaning of happiness has changed since the time of Aristotle.

a) Greek: eudaimonia (good soul).

b) For Aristotle, to be happy was to be good.

c) For modern man, to be happy is to feel good.

2. Feeling good is not compatible with suffering – yet being good is.

a) This is why the fact of suffering threatens modern man much more than it threatened the ancients.

3. To modern man, being good means being kind, and being kind means not causing others to suffer.

a) By that standard, God is not good since he lets us suffer.

b) Under the ancient standard, God might still be good (and kind) if he permitted suffering for the sake of a greater end.

c) Suffering does not refute a belief in a good God to the ancient mind (like Solomon) because a good God might well sacrifice our subjective happiness for our objective happiness.

(1) Parents who want only freedom from suffering for their children are not wise parents.

(2) Nowhere in the Bible is God described as our grandfather!

D. The author C. S. Lewis (who became a professor of literature only because there were no openings for professors of philosophy) argued that the problem was based on a reversal of values.

1. He argued that things have different values, some greater than others. Whenever we reverse this and treat a lesser value as thought it were a greater value (i.e., when we sacrifice a greater for a lesser), we not only lose the first, but we lose the second as well.

a) Example: We treat a hobby as more important than a person. We sacrifice that person and we turn our hobby into an obsession or addiction – thereby losing both.

b) Man is body and soul, with the good of the soul being more important than the good of the body.

c) God then might use suffering to train us to sacrifice the lesser good for the greater good.

2. For another example along these lines, consider the interplay of happiness and freedom – which of those is the greater value? Most would choose freedom.

a) The thing that makes suffering possible is freedom. Why can’t we cure suffering by eliminating freedom?

(1) There have been societies in which men sought to relive suffering by eliminating freedom – yet the end result was even greater suffering through the loss of freedom.

(2) Perhaps a world without suffering would be more like Hell than like Heaven.

b) Thus, if freedom and the elimination of suffering cannot coexist, shouldn’t we choose the greater value (freedom)?

3. C. S. Lewis is on to a good idea here, and it certainly provides a clue to the solution that we are seeking. Yet Lewis’ explanation was not a sufficient explanation even for him.

a) C. S. Lewis wrote two books on suffering. The first, The Problem of Pain, offered some very firm and logical arguments about the problem of suffering and pain. He seemed to have all of the answers.

b) Later, after he had married and while his wife was dying of cancer, he wrote another book on the subject called A Grief Observed. It was anything but firm and logical. In it we read:

(1) If my house has collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards. If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have been overwhelmed when my own sorrow came. It has been an imaginary faith playing with innocuous counters labeled ‘Illness’, ‘Pain’, ‘Death’, ‘Loneliness’. I thought I trusted the rope until it mattered to me whether it would bear me. Now it matters, and I find I didn’t.

c) We can examine academic treatises on the subject of suffering all day without really getting anywhere. We need to go to the true source.

(1) We need to follow the example of Job. He talked to God while his friends talked about God.

E. These philosophers have provided clues to the answer that Solomon sought, but we still don’t have the answer. We must turn to the Scriptures for that.

IV. What does the Bible have to say about this problem?

A. Moses tells us who started the problem – we did.

1. Man was given freedom, and that freedom led to suffering. Suffering was not part of God’s plan for man.

2. In fact, God immediately began the long process of restoration to remedy the problem that we caused.

3. God was not the source of the problem. Man was the source of the problem.

4. Originally:

a) God was in harmony with the soul of man – innocence.

b) The soul of man was in harmony with the body of man – immortality.

c) The body of man was in harmony with the world – happiness.

5. After the Fall:

a) God was no longer in harmony with the soul of man – sin.

b) The soul of man was no longer in harmony with the body of man – death.

c) The body of man was no longer in harmony with the world – suffering.

6. Man provided the problem. Genesis 3:15 tells us when God began to work on the solution.

B. Abraham shows us that faith suffers.

1. It is strange for us to be looking for a solution to suffering among a people (the Jews) who are more famous for their suffering than any other people.

a) In The Fiddler on the Roof, the Jewish main character tells God “I know that we are your chosen people, but sometimes I wish you had chosen someone else!”

2. Viktor Frankl, who came out of the Nazi death camps to write a classic book on man’s search for meaning, wrote:

a) If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life. I was struggling to find the reason for my sufferings, my slow dying. In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious “Yes” in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose. Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain, but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has meaning.

3. Abraham shows us that faith suffers, but does that suffering have meaning? We must read on.

C. Job shows us that our suffering may have a reason that is clear to God, but not clear to us.

1. Job demands an answer for his suffering throughout the book of Job and demands an audience with God to plead his case.

2. When God shows up, Job never gets a chance to try out his advocacy skills. Instead, he gets to listen as God asks him who he thinks he is to question God about suffering.

3. One author describes the situation as follows:

a) “God doesn’t explain. He explodes. He asks Job who he thinks he is anyway. The message behind the splendid poetry boils down to this: Until you know a little more about running the physical universe, Job, don’t tell me how to run the moral universe.”

b) Job told God to put himself in Job’s place. God said, No! You put yourself in my place!

D. Job also shows us that just because we are suffering does not necessarily mean that we are being punished.

1. Suffering is generally the result of punishment, but suffering can be caused by other things as well.

a) Job’s friends had trouble with this – they kept trying to trace Job’s suffering back to something he had done wrong – and Job kept protesting his innocence.

2. Job shows us that people can suffer without being punished by God.

3. Yet the author of Hebrews tells us that we can also suffer due to punishments from God. Read Hebrews 12:5-11 (which quotes from Proverbs 3:11-12). This suffering, verse 11 tells us, is for our training.

E. Samuel tells us that suffering brings repentance.

1. As God’s people went through cycles of rebellion and repentance it was always suffering that turned them to repent.

2. C. S. Lewis wrote that “God whispers in our pleasures but shouts in our pains. Pain is his megaphone to rouse a dulled world.”

3. Suffering continually reminds us of the most evident and obvious truth there is, yet one we are constantly forgetting in practice – we are not God.

F. Jeremiah told us that the question “why do bad things happen to good people” may be assuming facts not in evidence – we may not be as “good” as we think we are.

1. Jeremiah 6:13

a) “For from the least of them even unto the greatest of them every one is given to covetousness; and from the prophet even unto the priest every one dealeth falsely.”

2. To Jeremiah the real puzzle is not why bad things happen to good people, but why good things happen to bad people!

3. This is a hard message in a world that no longer believes in sin.

a) When was the last time you heard the word “sin” used outside of church?

b) When a politician is caught doing something wrong what do we hear? I have sinned, or I have made a mistake?

c) Hitting the gas when you meant to hit the brakes is a mistake. Adultery is not a mistake; it is a sin.

d) The term “mistake” lacks the intent element that is associated with sin, which is why men prefer the term “mistake.”

e) The word “sin” has no meaning apart from God. What could “sin” mean to an atheist?

4. Jeremiah reminds us that there is something called sin, and that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

G. Isaiah tells us that the suffering of the innocent may be vicarious – that is, it can be endured in the place of another.

1. Isaiah 53:3-5

a) He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

2. Isaiah told the Jews that a Messiah was coming and he would make atonement through suffering.

3. Thus, Isaiah tells us that the suffering of the innocent may indeed serve a purpose and have meaning – indeed, the ultimate meaning.

4. God’s answer to the problem of suffering was the most incredible event in the history of the world.

a) He came; he entered space and time; and he suffered. Why? Because he so loved the world.

b) Love seeks intimacy over happiness. Jesus chose suffering with man over the perfect joy he had in Heaven with the Father. Why? The only possible reason is love. (John 3:16)

c) He could not desert us to die in our sin.

(1) “Can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have compassion on the son of her womb? Surely they may forget, Yet I will not forget you.” (Isaiah 49:15)

(2) He voluntarily chose suffering to achieve a greater good – not for himself, but for us.

5. But Jesus not only suffered and died, but he rose from the dead.

a) Jesus changed the meaning of death for a Christian – and therefore he must have also changed the meaning of all those little deaths that precede death. He changed the meaning of suffering.

b) Pascal wrote that apart from Jesus Christ, we cannot know the meaning of our life or our death, of God or ourselves.

c) Jesus is the answer to the problem of suffering, and there is no answer under the sun.

d) Listen to Paul in Colossians 1:24.

(1) “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of his body, which is the church.”

(2) Paul’s suffering had meaning.

6. Christ provides the answer to the problem of suffering – he tells us that the solution to suffering is suffering – his suffering – because it is that suffering that brings us salvation.

a) Suffering to a Christian is an invitation from Jesus to follow him.

(1) “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Peter 2:21)

b) Christians view suffering (as they do everything else) in a totally different way from the rest of the world.

H. Thus, Jesus tells us three things that help us understand the problem of suffering.

1. Jesus came and suffered with us.

2. The suffering of Jesus transformed the meaning of suffering.

3. Although Jesus died, he rose from the dead.

a) The resurrection of Christ is what makes all the difference – and it is the resurrection that is the solution to the problems that Solomon found with suffering.

b) Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:14-19:

(1) And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. 15Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we have testified of God that he raised up Christ: whom he raised not up, if so be that the dead rise not. 16For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: 17And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. 18Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. 19If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable.

I. Jesus destroyed suffering by suffering – and yet we still suffer.

1. Yes, but only for a little while. Our life is not confined to Solomon’s laboratory (under the sun).

2. “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)

3. “For the which cause I also suffer these things: nevertheless I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day.” (2 Timothy 1:12)

[1] Much of the material in this lesson came from Making Sense Out of Suffering by Peter Kreeft (Servant Books, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1986).

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)