Ecclesiastes 4: The Restless Heart
Begin with Simon & Garfunkel “Bridge over Troubled Water”
Because our hearts are so incurably restless, we go through life filled both with the potential for greatness but also the potential for self destruction. Outward circumstances may contribute to that restlessness but they are never the ultimate cause. Augustine once prayed: "You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you."
This evening, as we come to chapter 4 of Ecclesiastes, I want us to explore that state of restlessness which we all experience from time to time. I want us to discover how God would have us indeed find rest for our souls. What am I talking about? One in four people suffers from it. Eleven and a half million people telephone the Samaritans every year as a result of it. One thousand people a week write to Claire Rayner because of it. People of all ages suffer from it; children, adolescents, the newly married, the middle-aged, the retired and bereaved. I think the saddest film I have seen was, "Out of Africa". It portrays the emotions associated with it. The Beatles wrote the song Eleanor Rigby all about it. Have you guessed what it is? "All the lonely people, where do they all come from? All the lonely people, where do they all belong?" Solomon outlines four of the situations in which loneliness is common, and in the middle of it all, he buries some clues to help us overcome it.
Loneliness may be caused by oppression; by competition by isolation; and by power.
1. Loneliness Caused by Oppression (4:1-3)
“Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed— and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors— and they have no comforter.” (Ecclesiastes 4:1)
Tyrannical regimes, totalitarian governments and greedy tycoons have a long and dishonourable history of causing communities to disintegrate and families to break up. Wherever their hand stretches, loneliness increases. For their victims the haunting refrain of the preacher Solomon "They have no comforter", is a nightmare which has become a day time reality. Think of the Mugabe controlling Zimbabwe, or Kim Jong in North Korea or Armadinijad in Iran. We see the same in Eritrea, Ethiopia and the Sudan. Some of the poorest countries of the world fighting one another over territorial claims. Only the little people, the common people, the poor, seem to suffer. Our world has not advanced since Solomon wrote this epitaph. He sees little option but to despair. It would be better, he says, not to have been born than to have to endure this. Verses 2-3 must be the lowest point of the entire book.
“And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 4:2-3)
If you have ever had suicidal thoughts you will be able to identify. There must surely be nothing sadder than this wistful glance at the dead and the unborn. It is a feeling that is actually commonly shared. I confess that I have felt that on occasions. Countess von Blixen, the heroine of "Out of Africa", stands at the graveside of her friend Denys, so tragically killed in a plane crash and intones, "Smart lad to slip betimes away, from fields where glory does not stay." But just when we are left thinking despair is the only option, Solomon uses that phrase again "under the sun". He offers a fleeting hint of another perspective. He doesn't explore it for the moment. He merely leaves us with the forcefulness of his bleak conclusion. Without God there is no hope. Without God, it is foolish to believe that justice will be done, for in this life it is patently not done. His conclusion is nothing less than that godless sorrow leads inexorably to suicidal longings. But Solomon is not about to tell us the difference God would make, not just yet. There is not only loneliness caused by oppression.
2. Loneliness Caused by Competition (4:4-5)
“And I saw that all toil and all achievement spring from one person’s envy of another. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. Fools fold their hands and ruin themselves.” (Ecclesiastes 4:4-5)
Psychologist rate the social need for achievement as next in importance to the biological need for survival. Competitiveness is woven into the very texture of family life, the educational system and most sports. The drive is acquired early and runs deep. True, competition has its healthy side. It stretches us mentally and physically and forms our character under adversity. But it can so easily degenerate into a self-centred nastiness toward others. Re-read 4:4. It is in work and in the commercial world in particular that competition seems to have its most spiritually debilitating effects. It also causes us to set so much store on things which are, in the light of eternity, quite worthless. Let me give you one example. One of the most interesting magazines I have ever come across was an in-house magazine for a famous Oxford Street department store. I don't know how anyone can get excited about selling handkerchiefs, but they certainly did. This year they were in despair because, in spite of Miss Blenkinsop's attractive display, she had not achieved her targets. The whole emphasis of the magazine was on the ruthless need to sell more , to reach higher targets, to increase the turnover. We must not mock the superficiality of a store’s concern to increase sales of handkerchiefs. Wasn’t that the cause of the sub-prime mortgage scandal? Wasn’t that the reason for the meltdown in the banking world? We are all susceptible to the thirst for more, the lust for better, the desire to achieve, even if it means trampling on someone else in the process. The spiritual consequences of competition are as real as those which result from oppression.
When we are consumed with competition, our spirit becomes undernourished and we become empty. Socially, envy comes between us and our family and neighbours. We moan about cliques without realising we step into one by categorising others by them. Competition destroys relationships and leads to loneliness. So what's the answer? The temptation is to overreact: to blame the system and opt out. We no longer trust our politicians so we don’t bother to vote. But Solomon calls such an approach foolish. “Fools fold their hands and ruin themselves.” (Ecclesiastes 4:5a) So what’s the answer? “Better one handful with tranquility than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 4:5b). Refuse to opt out but refuse to get sucked in as well. Embrace the need to work with one hand rather than selling out with two. Why? Because that leaves you with one hand to help your neighbour. Think about it. Does your work schedule mean you never have time for friends? To meet your neighbours? Loneliness can be caused by oppression. It can be caused by competition.
3. Loneliness Caused by Isolation (4:7-8)
“Again I saw something meaningless under the sun: There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. “For whom am I toiling,” he asked, “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?” This too is meaningless— a miserable business!” (Ecclesiastes 4:7-8)
Not everyone’s loneliness is their fault or the result of other's actions. Some are isolated due to circumstances. They have never married, even if they wanted to. Perhaps they have been widowed or divorced in life without a close family around them or even find themselves married but unloved. It is to this form of loneliness that Solomon now turns. He draws the picture of a person who desperately wants a companion but finds none. So work becomes a substitute. The trouble is, this merely rubs salt into the wounds. Wealthy because of hard work but with no-one to share it with. So what's the point? The sense of loneliness merely increased. Work and wealth are no substitutes for love and companionship. A former Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Gordon Lang, was a bachelor. His biographer said,
"In the loneliness of his bachelor life his great need was not for friends, of whom he had plenty, any more than work, of which he had too much. It was for that old, simple and human thing-someone in daily nearness to him."
Does Solomon have anything to say to help such people? Yes. But lets keep his answer until we have explored the final cause of loneliness of which he speaks. So far we have observed three causes: Oppression, competitiveness and isolation.
4. Loneliness caused by power (4:13-16)
“Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to heed a warning. The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom. I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor. There was no end to all the people who were before them. But those who came later were not pleased with the successor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” (Ecclesiastes 4:13-16)
"It is lonely at the top, desperately lonely". The head-teacher, the chief superintendent, the managing director, the Bishop, the MP, the Royal prince... they all have to walk a difficult tightrope. Not appearing too aloof yet maintaining a distance. Their diary may look exciting, their schedule exotic. We may even envy them, but inside, they struggle with the same feelings of loneliness and isolation we do. Only more so because of their position. This is because ultimately the buck stops with the person at the top. Lyndon B Johnson said that the loneliest moment that anyone can experience is when the phone rings in the middle of the night and a voice says, "Mr President, I have a call for you...." and then there is a split second before you are connected. That split second feels like an eternity. What has happened that requires waking the President? Has there been a nuclear accident? A terrorist atrocity? A war begun? A major tragedy? Then the full weight of the loneliness of office falls. But it is not the responsibility of office that Solomon is concerned with here, but the fickleness of the people.
One minute you are a popular public figure, the next minute you're a no body deserted even by your former supporters. Oliver Cromwell, who took the throne away from Charles 1 and established the Commonwealth, shrewdly said to a friend, "Do not trust to the cheering, for those persons would shout as much if you and I were going to be hanged." Cromwell understood crowd psychology. Jimmy Carter faced it with his own disarming honesty. In 1984, when Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale were fighting each other for the US Presidency, the press went looking for ex-President Carter.
Why wasn't he on the campaign trail supporting his Party's nominee? Eventually they tracked him down to the burnt out ruins of 742 East Sixth Street, Lower East Side, New York. Amid rotting floorboards and sagging ceilings, Jimmy Carter, with carpenter's tools in hand, was restoring the building to hospitable condition to provide low-cost housing for the poor. When the reporters caught up with him, the questions poured out. Wouldn't he rather be involved in politics? Wasn't it odd for the former President to be doing this? One asked, "What does it feel like for a former president to become a carpenter? Jimmy Carter smiled and replied, "That's how fleeting fame is." As a Christian, he was simply doing His Father's will. The quest for power, says Solomon, if your life is built on it, is a great anticlimax. You work to achieve fame and influence and once you've got it, what then... nothing, emptiness, loneliness. Four reasons for loneliness. Oppression, competitiveness, isolation and power.
All of life is contaminated by loneliness and no position in life is exempt from its grasp. So, is there an answer?
5. Loneliness: is there an answer? (4:9-13)
Although Solomon offers little in the way of tips, techniques or therapies we expect of our counsellors today, he does at least sets us on the right road. First, he points to the value of human companionship (4:9-12), and secondly, to the value of true wisdom (4:13).
5.1 The Value of Human Companionship (4:9-12)
“Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If they fall down, they can help each other up. But pity those who fall and have no one to help them up! Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)
Solomon reminds us of the obvious - "two are better than one". Solomon has much more in mind than marriage. In verse 10, he speaks of a friend, and in verse 12 of a cord of three strands. It is human companionship that we all need. Mutual encouragement for when we are weak. Mutual support for when we are vulnerable. Mutual protection for when we are attacked. In a nutshell, if you find yourself lonely, God says, do something about it. Remember the first thing God pronounced "not good" in the Bible was not sin but loneliness. With confidence, take steps to offer companionship and you will receive it. After the service, don't spend the time in gossip or small talk. Pray for the people around you. Pray for those you know by name, and those you don't yet know. Decide to get to know them. Even if just one person a week. Over tea or coffee, take the initiative to introduce yourself, make friends, renew friendships, maintain friendships. Offer hospitality, join a home group, get involved in one of our serving teams. There are so many ways to build friendships and defeat the curse of loneliness. Show an interest in people’s family, their children, their parents, their work, their birthdays and anniversaries, discover a shared mutual interest, bake them a cake, invite them to tea. Living in a bedsitter doesn't always condemn you to be always on the receiving end of hospitality. Having four children doesn’t preclude you from fitting another chair round the table. The blockage is in the mind. Not so much as can’t but won’t. Avoid becoming jealous, possessive or domineering. Companionship is about giving and receiving the most valuable gift you have – your time. Friendship is reciprocal, and respectful. Lets banish loneliness from Christ Church. May we increasingly become a place where we find the love, friendship and patience that we all need, literally the Body of Christ. The value of human companionship.
5.2 The value of divine wisdom (4:13)
“Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to heed a warning.” (Ecclesiastes 4:13)
It would be easy to miss the importance of this verse. Solomon points us to something beyond the value of human friendship. You may have good friends but remain very lonely. Look again at the picture Solomon draws in verse 13. There are two people in it. One is mature, rich and powerful. The other is young and poor. We would naturally think the former had all the advantages. Certainly the OT would credit him with respect because of his age and position. And yet we are told it is the poor young man who is wise. What does this teach us? Experience is not an automatic teacher, nor can wisdom be bought. Wisdom needs to be pursued avidly, and guarded jealously. In his other work, Proverbs, Solomon defines wisdom for us. "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." (Proverbs 1:7). By "fear" we are to understand "a loving reverence for God that includes submission to His lordship and to the commands of His Word." Loneliness is sometimes therefore not about our situation at all. The four factors we have considered may be contributory but we cannot blame our loneliness on others. It is not a question of our circumstances as much as our perspective. To return to the theme running through the whole of Ecclesiastes, it is a question of whether we are living under the sun or over it. You can find two people in identical circumstances, one will be lonely, the other content. The difference lies not in their circumstances but in their response to God. Only He can take away our sense of loneliness. Jesus Christ said “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28-29). Armando Valladares was held prisoner in Fidel Castro's gaol on suspicion of counter-revolutionary activity. He witnessed the most terrifying brutality and did not know what his own fate would be. In his prison diaries he wrote.
"There were nights when there would be ten or twelve executions. You would hear the bars of the men's cell door and someone coming to the bars to see his friend and cry out his last goodbye. There was no way to sleep. That was when God began to become a constant companion of mine, and when death became a door into true life, a step from the shadows into eternal life."
As Simon and Garfunkel sang,
"When you're down and out, when you're on the street,
when evening falls so hard, I'll comfort you, I'll take your part. When darkness comes and pain is all around,
like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down"
is the bridge over the troubled waters of loneliness.
He laid His life down for you. He promises "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you." (Hebrews 13:5). And He is true to His word. Wisdom leads you to Him, and as we learn to trust Him and obey Him, your loneliness will melt like snow.