FacebookTwitterRSS FeedPinterest

By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at / Published Life BPC 10.30 am service, 2002-02-10

Text: Ecclesiastes 6:1-12

The Lunar New Year only two days away, and many of us have probably been busy preparing for it. But I think that the mood of this year's celebrations may be more subdued than usual, because many have been badly affected by the present recession.

A few days ago, the Straits Times had an article calling this a Chinese Blue Year. Instead of stocking up on New Year goodies and new clothes, some may be spending the week in Malaysia or elsewhere to avoid answering questions from relatives concerning their job situation. The advice given in the article is that if you are cannot affort to celebrate in style, then spend this new year focusing on family bonding instead. I would like to add to that by suggesting that those who are hit by New Year blues may spend their time profitably in spiritual bonding, and that is, by drawing closer to the Lord.

Dearly beloved, this is the time to reflect on the real blessings that God has bestowed upon us - not the material blessings, which are only transient, but spiritual, intangible blessings which money cannot buy. This is a time also to consider the real value in eternity, of all that we are presently pursuing in life, and through this we can gain a better understanding of our purpose in living. It has often been through times like these that people become better and wiser. And one of the things we can learn about is the inescapable vanity of life.

The vanity of life is the subject of the book of Ecclesiastes. In this book of the Bible, King Solomon the wisest man who ever lived, used all the vast wisdom he had to make an accurate assessment of every pursuit in life, and the conclusion that he reached under the Holy Spirit's inspiration, was always the same: 'All is vanity and vexation of spirit' Let us turn our Bibles then to Ecclesiastes chapter 6, and study what the Word of God says about the things that people value the most in life (Read Ecclesiastes 6:1-12).

You will notice that the main theme of this passage is this: No matter where a man turns, he cannot escape the fact that nothing under the sun is really worth living for. Everything in life leads to the same futile result. It is all vanity, vanity and more vanity!

Solomon even cites some situations that people today would dream of having, Let us consider them now, one by one: In vv.1-2 he tells about a man who had everything he wanted in life - wealth, possessions and even honour. In v.3 he describes the hypothetical situation of a person who has a hundred children. In v.6 he describes another situation - living for a thousand years twice told (which is 2000 years). These three things - wealth and success, many children and longevity - were regarded by the Jews since ancient times as being the marks of blessedness. We can compare this with the conclusion of David's life as recorded in 1 Chronicles 29:28 'And he died in a good old age, full of days, [longevity] riches, and honour:[wealth and success] and Solomon his son reigned in his stead. [children, or posterity]'

Those of us who are Chinese will immediately recognise that these three things are also regarded by the Chinese as the marks of prosperity. In fact many customs of Chinese New Year are connected with these three things. E.g. Did you know that keeping awake till midnight on New Year's eve is supposed to bring long life?

When New Year comes, it is the custom for people wish one another 'Gong Xi Fa Cai' which means, 'May your wealth increase.' Fire crackers, certain flowers, hong baos are all symbols of prosperity. Everywhere you will see the red banners or the Chinese character 'Fu' upside down. The idea is that the good luck or prosperity will pour out of the character. When we go visiting, and bring two oranges to each house, the oranges are supposed to bring wealth because in Cantonese, the word for gold and orange sounds alike. The God of wealth is specially worshipped on the fourth day. People will eat food with auspicious names. On the seventh day, raw lettuce and fresh fish (yu sheng) must be eaten. The reason for this is that the Chinese word for fresh or raw also means 'life' or 'grow', therefore eating fresh vegetables and live fish is symbolic of a long and prosperous life. Eating groundnuts is also supposed to bring long life, while eating melon seeds is supposed to bless you with more children.

And in many Lunar New Year cards you will find depicted there, the famous emblems of prosperity: Fu Lu Shou, the three stars that epitomise happiness, success and longevity. The pursuit of these three things seems to be the peculiar obsession of the Chinese during the New Year season.

This typifies the philosophy of life that dominates that life of many people today. The philosophy of attempting to find one's happiness in the things of this life. But if this is all that people live for, their whole world will be shattered when they are unable to have these things, or when they lose these things. The fact is, neither wealth nor great numbers of children, nor years of long life, can bring the real happiness or blessedness that we need in life.

I. Wealth is Not Always a Blessing

Let us look again in our passage of scripture to study it closely. We begin by looking at the first two verses: 'There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it is common among men: A man to whom God hath given riches, wealth, and honour, so that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eateth it: this is vanity, and it is an evil disease.' What a tragic situation this verse describes: What is the use of having everything that one could wish for and yet not be able to enjoy it? Contrary to what many people think, money cannot buy happiness.

There are many today who want to become rich, but they do not realise that many rich people today who are not enjoying the riches that they have. Their riches cause them to worry a lot, to lose much sleep and invest heavily in costly security devices. They worry that they or their loved ones might be kidnapped. They are more worried than us about the recession because they are affected much more by the slowdown in business and the low prices of stocks and shares. And thus, the blessing that riches and wealth are thought to bring, turn out to be only an illusion.

In Ecclesiastes 6:2 God's Word also tells us that matters are made worse when it is a stranger who gets to enjoy all a person's hard-earned riches in the end! This may happen if a man has no children to inherit his wealth, or when he loses his property through war, violence, or some other act of injustice. My father who lived through the Japanese Occupation told me that a number of people who were millionaires before the second world war became paupers overnight.

War came and took away all they had. Soldiers would come into the house of a wealthy man and just help themselves to anything they liked. No one could stop them. In the Philippines some rich people who owned large valuable tracts of property lost everything when Mt Pinatubo erupted 8 years ago and buried whole towns and villages deep in tonnes of volcanic ash. They escaped with only a few personal belongings. Everything else was lost. The land they owned became worthless.

To have worked so hard all of one's life in order to build up a vast personal empire of riches, wealth, and honour, only to see it all gone in a short moment is such a terrible catastrophe to experience, that even king Solomon at the end of v.2 'it is an evil disease.' This is the only instance where he ever used such an extreme description.

Some might respond to this and say, 'Well, all these people were most unfortunate to have lost their wealth, but they are only a few. But this rarely happens. There are still many rich people who are enjoying their wealth and are able to keep enjoying it.' Well king Solomon did not think so. Look again at v.1 and you will see that he says, 'it is common among men' Brethren, if we believe that every word of the Bible is true, then we must believe this: And if it is true that it is common for wealth not to be enjoyed by those who own it, but by someone else, then we must stop believing that wealth always brings blessings.

II. Children are Not Always a Blessing

Another blessing that is commonly sought after is the blessing of having many children. Let us look now at v.2 'If a man beget an hundred children, and live many years, so that the days of his years be many, and his soul be not filled with good, and also that he have no burial' This describes the life of a man who seeks happiness in having many children. The Bible records that Jacob had 12 sons and one daughter. Gideon had 70 sons. King Ahab also had 70 sons. Although it is commonly thought that children bring joy, it is also true that every child that is born into a family is an added responsibility: one more mouth to feed, one more body to cover with clothes and provide a bed for, one more mind to educate, one more soul to train and discipline!

And if the family is poor, having a large number of children will only worsen their plight. In many third world countries, we see the sad results of large families - children who have hardly anything to eat, with no one to care for them. We do not face this problem here in Singapore, but raising up children here is still not an easy task, and one which places great stress and strain on many parents. The demands are greater for us, because we have to prepare our children not only to survive but to do so in a very competitive environment - our commercial and technological jungle.

Now, the great burden of providing for the needs of the children is supposed to be amply compensated when they grow up and are able to take care of their aging parents. And many people look forward to that hope - that one day they will be well provided for by all their children. But this is based on the assumption that the children will grow up to be good, independent, responsible and caring people who will take care of their parents. And generally speaking this is true, as Psalm 127:3-4 shows us: 'Lo, children are an heritage of the LORD: and the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them: they shall not be ashamed, but they shall speak with the enemies in the gate.'

But this does not guarantee that every child will turn out that way when he or she grows up. Every child that is born, is a sinner, and will remain one unless he or she comes to salvation in Christ. Even though Christian parents may do everything in their power to train their children in the way that they should go, there still remains the possibility that they may rebel against the Lord and their parents when they are grown. And a person can have a hundred children but none of them are good and filial. Each of them might have his own career to pursue, and family to look after.

In the end, the parent is abandoned to rot away and die without a decent burial, as the end of v.2 describes 'also that he have no burial.' We who are God's people should never do a thing like that to our own parents as 1 Timothy 5:8 says that a believer who does not provide for his own loved ones 'have denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.' But while we should honour our parents in their old age and teach our own children to do the same, there is still a limit to the impact of our nurture upon them. Some may still grow up to become irresponsible adults who do not care for us, nor for obedience to God.

Worse still, some may become forever dependent on us, and we have to keep on providing for them. Children may become liabilities and not assets. Some turn out to be delinquent, and this brings much grief and sorrow instead of joy. Some time ago the government even set up a small claims tribunal court specially to deal with settling legal disputes between parents and their children. This shows how prevalent the problem is even here in Singapore. Awhile ago I mentioned that Gideon had 70 sons. Well, almost all of them were murdered by one evil son he had named Abimelech!

At the end of v.3 Solomon makes a comparison which heightens the misery of raising many rebellious children 'an untimely birth is better than he.' It is better to have been born dead into this world. After all, as the next verse shows, both the man who dies without a burial, and the stillborn child end up in the same state. However the stillborn child reached the same end without having to go through all the miseries which the man had to go through because of his many children.

What should we learn from all of this? Do not place all your hopes in life on your children. Just as we should not place our hopes in prosperity and riches, we should not look to our children to provide for us the happiness or blessing we seek in life.

III. Longevity is not always a Blessing

Another blessing that is often much sought after by people is longevity. It is considered to be a grand achievement to live up to a ripe old age. Many people want to prolong their life and live up to 80 or 90 or even a hundred if possible. There is a story that the emperor of China, Chin Shih Huang Ti, wanted to lengthen his lifespan. And he heard that somewhere in the islands of Japan there was some herb that could make him live forever. So he sent a whole group of Chinese to the islands telling them not to return until they have found it, or else they would be beheaded. So the group went to search the islands, but they never found it, and they never returned. Shih Huang Ti died and the people settled in Japan and became the ancestors of the Japanese! Ironically, the Japanese today have the longest life expectancy in the world. So perhaps they did find that herb after all!

Even if such a sought-after herb of immortality existed, and a person could live forever on earth, that does not necessarily mean that he would have years of blessing and happiness. Look at v.6 'Yea, though he live a thousand years twice told, yet hath he seen no good: do not all go to one place?' Dear friends, it is good to live forever - but only if it is in a body and world that has no sin. To live forever in a body and world that is still under the curse of sin is not at all a pleasant prospect for us.

In Psalm 90:10, Moses tells us 'The days of our years are threescore years and ten [seventy]; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years [eighty], yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.' Medical science has made it possible for people to live longer and longer, but with that it now has to deal with the peculiar health problems of old age - arthritis, rheumatism, dementia, memory loss, incontinence, enlarged prostate, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, insomnia, failing eyes, ears, heart and other organs. All of these have opened up a vast new field of medicine today called Geriatrics, and this is probably going to take centrestage in many of our hospitals.

Lately we have been hearing that the population of Singapore is aging, and in about 20-30 years time, the majority of Singaporeans will be senior citizens. So housing estates with specially designed units are built now to cater to the infirmities of old age. In the past Singaporeans have been employing maids to take care of their children, but in the years to come, it will be their grown-up children who will employ the maids to take care of them!

Some of us may have seen or may even have looked after those who are very old, weak, bedridden, and incontinent for years and years, and wonder if we will become like them when our turn comes. It is not a happy prospect. So is longevity a blessing after all for us? Only if we are able to remain physically strong and healthy in our old age, and if there is nothing better for us after death.

But for us who belong to Christ, there is something better for us after death. We can look forward to a better life after this present one. So we do not need to anxiously prolong our life in this world as many are trying to do so desperately. Trying to prolong one's life on earth beyond one's allotted time, is like trying to fill up an immense bottomless pit.

One can fill his body each day with all the tonics, vitamins, herbs and medicines that are needed to keep feeling well. The number of pills one needs to take tends to increase with age. But despite consuming all that, the problems are still there. Old age is not like a disease that requires only a few days of rest and medicine to be cured. There is really no cure for old age.

But those who do not know the Lord often spend much time, effort and money to delay death as far as possible, because to them, everything that they hope for is only in this life. Therefore they want to make it last as long as possible. But for us who are in Christ, although we enjoy the life we have on earth, we know that everything we hope for is not in this life, but beyond it. The advantage of remaining on this earth is that we can be used by God to do His will on earth as long as we are here. But once we can no longer be useful to Him here, and become a burden to our loved ones, isn't it far better to leave for a better life?

Dearly beloved, if ever I became like that - when my life can no longer be used by God and I am just bedridden, marking time here on earth, and a great cost and burden to my loved ones and friends. I would probably pray to the Lord, 'Oh Lord, please take me home. I am no use to Thee or to anyone here any more. It is not longevity that I want, but to live forever with Thee.'

Now, we have already seen that contrary to what many people believe today, wealth, children, and longevity are not always blessings. In fact they can become great burdens. So we should not live for these things. There is one more thing that we should be careful not to live for, and that is: Success.

IV. The Pursuit of Success is not always a Blessing

The Chinese people are well known for being industrious. Many of our forefathers came here without very much, but through ambition, hard work and shrewd conducting of business, they were able to improve their lot in life. This characteristic has been passed down through each generation, so that many today are able to enjoy a much better standard of living. For some of us, our grandparents may have lived in a little cubicle in Smith Street or Pagoda Street. But by the next generation, their children had moved into small 3 or 4 room flats, and by the time of our generation the trend is to upgrade to even bigger flats or apartments. And the next generation will strive for even better things than that.

But what is the ultimate purpose of this pursuit? Where will it end? People will not remain content and satisfied for long with what they have. They will keep wanting more and more. No matter where one is, there are always higher standards of living to aim for. They will continue to strive for what the world around them defines as 'success', and that success is an elusive goal to achieve. Those who have attained one academic degree will want to go for a postgraduate degree, and when he has got that, he will want to go for his doctorate. Look at v.7 now, which says, 'All the labour of man is for his mouth, and yet the appetite is not filled.' i.e. people are never satisfied!

In v.8 Solomon makes some comparisons: 'For what hath the wise more than the fool?' In this verse, both the wise and the fool have the same insatiable appetite. Both are not satisfied with what they have, although one may have better ability to get rich than the other. In contrast to both of them, we see those who are considered poor by this world's standards but who have the right attitude in life: 'what hath the poor, that knoweth to walk before the living?' These people may not appear to be very successful in the eyes of men, but they are contented with what they already have, and with what they can see with their eyes. V.9 tells us: 'Better is the sight of the eyes than the wandering of the desire' - Their desires do not wander away into visions of having great riches and making greater gains for themselves.

To put this all very simply: A poor person who is contented is better off than a rich man who is not contented. Some years ago an enterprising Singaporean businessman told his friends, 'After I have made 5 million I will stop and enjoy myself.' Now he has already made 5 million, but he hasn't stopped, because now his ambition is to make 25 million! It is better to strive for contentment than to strive for what the world defines as 'success' because the latter is never-ending quest.

The next verse gives us another reason to be contented, and that is that we should humbly accept whatever plans God has already made for us. 'That which hath been is named already, and it is known that it is man: neither may he contend with Him that is mightier than he.' If we refuse to accept God's will for our lives, and we aspire to things that are greater than what He wants for us, then we are contending against God, who is mightier than us. No one can oppose God and win.

The final two verses form the conclusion of this whole chapter: 'Seeing there be many things that increase vanity, what is man the better?' The many things here refer to all that has been stated before: the pursuit of wealth, having many children, trying to live longer, and pursuing what this world calls 'success.'

None of these things can provide the real lasting blessedness that man is seeking. All they do, is to increase vanity. Whatever man seeks to do in life, he cannot escape from the final outcome, which is vanity. The last verse tells us that no one can ever come up with something really good and worthwhile for man to pursue with his short life on earth, because no one can see what the outcome of it will be. 'For who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow? for who can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun?'

So dearly beloved, here now is the dilemma: A man has no choice but to live for a time in this world, and therefore he should make good use of his life. That is the only way to have a truly blessed life. But then on the other hand, whatever he does with his life leads to vanity! He just cannot escape from it. So what is he to do?

Now the solution to this dilemma is actually implied in the last verse itself. If we were to seek an answer to the questions that are asked in v.12, the most obvious and best answer that one can give to both of them is 'God.' God alone knows what is good for man in this life, because He created man. And God alone can tell a man what shall be after him under the sun, because He knows, and in fact, He determines the final outcome of all things. God Himself says this in Isaiah 46:10 'Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like Me, Declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure:' 

And in the light of what God has already revealed to us in the Scriptures we can learn what is good for us to do with our lives. Let us turn our Bibles to Micah 6:8 'He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God' According to this verse, what is good, what is truly worthwhile for us to do, that will ensure a blessed life for us, and not vanity, consists of three things:

Firstly, to do justly - this implies putting away our personal sins and living according to the commandments of God. Secondly, to love mercy - this implies loving our fellow men as God has loved us and shown mercy to us. And the third thing is to walk humbly with the Lord - this implies maintaining an intimate personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

And so, as we celebrate Chinese New Year this week, let us be thinking about this. While everyone around us is celebrating the pursuit of wealth, success and longevity, we will seek instead for three other things which we know are good, according to God's Word - to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.

Vision & Mission

 

To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

October 15 & 22 - The Cost of Discipleship

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. Matthew 16:25