One of the Psalms of Ascent Jews sang as they climbed up the road to Jerusalem for one of the annual festivals was Psalm 128, a song of blessing. This psalm describes what we all want.
Psalm 128 (The Message)
1–2 All you who fear God, how blessed you are!
how happily you walk on his smooth straight road!
You worked hard and deserve all you’ve got coming.
Enjoy the blessing! Revel in the goodness!
3–4 Your wife will bear children as a vine bears grapes,
your household lush as a vineyard,
The children around your table
as fresh and promising as young olive shoots.
Stand in awe of God’s Yes.
Oh, how he blesses the one who fears God!
5–6 Enjoy the good life in Jerusalem
every day of your life.
And enjoy your grandchildren.
Peace to Israel!
We want to be rewarded for all the hard work of our lives. We want a family: husband, wife and children. We want good lives for our children so they grow up and have good careers and get married and give us grandchildren. We want to live in a land that is at peace. We want to be healthy until the day we die peacefully in our sleep.
This is what we want but what is the reality?
Last Sunday some people in Uganda gathered to watch the final match of the World Cup when two suicide bombers blew themselves up, killing at least 76 people. One moment people were enjoying the match, chatting, relaxing and the next they were dead, injured and traumatized.
The earthquake in Haiti was six months ago and I saw an interview with one man whose family survived the collapse of his five story building. “A miracle,” he said at the time. They interviewed him now, six months later, and he is despondent. His wife has since died of a heart attack and he has not been able to rebuild his building which was his source of income.
Three NATO soldiers and five Afghan civilians died in a Taliban suicide attack on a police base in southern Kandahar province. 27 people were killed in a suicide bombing in Iran. Four were killed by a car bomb in Mexico City. 28 are dead from a hotel fire in Iraq.
Rioting continued in Belfast and in the Philippines, Typhoon Conson hit killing nine with ten missing.
These are some of the items in the international news but there is far more suffering that was not reported in the worldwide media. Children died in tragic accidents. Adults in the prime of life died unexpectedly. Con men swindled innocent or not so innocent victims. Children were abused, women were raped. The powerful took advantage of the weak.
And then there is the suffering that was not reported in the news at all. Families around the world were devastated by adultery and divorce. People suffered, waiting to die, in nursing homes and hospitals.
This suffering happens everyday and we are fortunate that the world is so big that this suffering is spread around so that we do not often experience it ourselves.
Where do you see the blessings of Psalm 128 in these items from the news?
People live as though this world holds the treasure that will satisfy, but that belief is shattered all the time. Death and tragedy intrude into our world, violating our sense of how the world should be. People lose jobs when their company goes bankrupt or when the national economy shatters. Parents bury their children. Women who want to have children cannot while those who should not be having children or who do not want to have children become pregnant.
I wonder if there has ever been anyone who has lived a long life without experiencing pain and disappointment. But no matter how long we live, there still comes an end. A man works and works and saves up money for retirement and then on the day of his retirement, he dies. All that he worked for is gone, slipping through his fingers as he is laid in the grave.
There is a woman in the former Soviet republic of Georgia who is reported to be 130 years old, but we will do well to live two thirds of that. No matter how well we live, every one of us will lose at the end when the grave claims us. Death is the ultimate reality that destroys any illusions we might have.
Job had a good life. He was wealthy, influential, with a large family. He had what every person wanted and then he lost it all. His wealth disappeared. His children died. His health deteriorated. All he had left was his wife and friends who lectured him on what he must have done wrong to deserve this punishment.
This is part of what Job had to say:
“Man born of woman
is of few days and full of trouble.
2 He springs up like a flower and withers away;
like a fleeting shadow, he does not endure.
This is the conclusion of a man who had no illusions. If Job had any expectation that this world could offer him what he wanted, he lost that and saw this world as it truly is.
The writer of Ecclesiastes had the same wisdom:
Ecclesiastes 1:14 (NIV)
I have seen all the things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
Or as The Message translates this:
Ecclesiastes 1:14 (The Message)
I’ve seen it all and it’s nothing but smoke—smoke, and spitting into the wind.
Man’s days are determined;
you have decreed the number of his months
and have set limits he cannot exceed.
6 So look away from him and let him alone,
till he has put in his time like a hired man.
7 “At least there is hope for a tree:
If it is cut down, it will sprout again,
and its new shoots will not fail.
8 Its roots may grow old in the ground
and its stump die in the soil,
9 yet at the scent of water it will bud
and put forth shoots like a plant.
10 But man dies and is laid low;
he breathes his last and is no more.
11 As water disappears from the sea
or a riverbed becomes parched and dry,
12 so man lies down and does not rise;
till the heavens are no more, men will not awake
or be roused from their sleep.
This is not cynicism or pessimism. This is the reality of our world. You might not like to hear this, but this is truth with a capital T. If you are living for what this world has to offer you, prepare to be disappointed.
The world’s marketing campaign is marvelous. Buy this product and find happiness! Meet the right partner and settle into relational bliss! Get a promotion and find satisfaction! Earn more money and feel secure! Have sexual relationships and be fulfilled! These are empty promises, dead ends. Pursue these and you will smack up against a wall. These promises will not and cannot deliver.
Solomon pursued all these dead end streets and concluded: (Ecclesiastes 2:4–11) (The Message)
4–8 Oh, I did great things:
designed gardens and parks
and planted a variety of fruit trees in them,
made pools of water
to irrigate the groves of trees.
I bought slaves, male and female,
who had children, giving me even more slaves;
then I acquired large herds and flocks,
larger than any before me in Jerusalem.
I piled up silver and gold,
loot from kings and kingdoms.
I gathered a chorus of singers to entertain me with song,
and—most exquisite of all pleasures—
voluptuous maidens for my bed.
9–10 Oh, how I prospered! I left all my predecessors in Jerusalem far behind, left them behind in the dust. What’s more, I kept a clear head through it all. Everything I wanted I took—I never said no to myself. I gave in to every impulse, held back nothing. I sucked the marrow of pleasure out of every task—my reward to myself for a hard day’s work!
11 Then I took a good look at everything I’d done, looked at all the sweat and hard work. But when I looked, I saw nothing but smoke. Smoke and spitting into the wind. There was nothing to any of it. Nothing.
At this point you may ask me, “Jack, I thought we were in the middle of a series of sermons titled ‘Water for a Parched Tongue in a Dry Land’? What does this have to do with feeling dry and tired?”
Good question, and the answer is that sometimes when we are feeling dry and tired, it is because we have been looking in the wrong place for meaning, fulfillment and reward. We look in a bucket of sand for the water that will satisfy our thirst and then wonder why it is we are thirsty.
Wasn’t this Solomon’s problem?
He looked for meaning and fulfillment in work and what was the result?
Ecclesiastes 2:17–23 (The Message)
17 I hate life. As far as I can see, what happens on earth is a bad business. It’s smoke—and spitting into the wind.
18–19 And I hated everything I’d accomplished and accumulated on this earth. I can’t take it with me—no, I have to leave it to whoever comes after me. Whether they’re worthy or worthless—and who’s to tell?—they’ll take over the earthly results of my intense thinking and hard work. Smoke.
20–23 That’s when I called it quits, gave up on anything that could be hoped for on this earth. What’s the point of working your fingers to the bone if you hand over what you worked for to someone who never lifted a finger for it? Smoke, that’s what it is. A bad business from start to finish. So what do you get from a life of hard labor? Pain and grief from dawn to dusk. Never a decent night’s rest. Nothing but smoke.
In Greek mythology there was an evil king named Sisyphus who dared to conspire against the gods and therefore was punished by Zeus by being assigned the eternal task of rolling a huge rock up a steep hill. Over and over and over again, just as he is about to reach the top, the rock rolls back down and he has to begin again at the bottom of the hill. This is known as a Sisyphean task and isn’t that the futility of work we experience?
You wash the dishes and the next meal or next day or next week (depending on how long you are willing to live with the mess) you have to begin again. You wash clothes only to have to wash them again. You dust only to have to dust again. You straighten out one relational mess only to be confronted with another and many times it is the same relational mess recreated. You work hard to get a job only to have that job disappear and you need to find another job. You gain a customer only to lose another and have to go out and find a new customer. You work hard to learn how to get along with your boss only to have your boss replaced and you have to learn all over again how to get along with this new boss.
It would be one thing if we could fix a problem and move on, making progress step by step, always looking forward, never having to look back. But the difficulty is that problems reoccur. Dysfunctional behavior never takes a vacation. New procedures are created only to find that someone has discovered a way to twist them around to his or her own benefit.
Friends came to fix up a rural school here in Morocco. They paid to fix up the bathrooms and then a year later discovered that the pipes were not installed properly and the toilets back up and run out the door into the courtyard. So now the cement on the floor has to be broken up and pipes replaced. This is how it goes. How can work reward us when the same problems continue to be recreated?
Trying to find meaning in work is only smoke and spitting into the wind.
Solomon looked for meaning and fulfillment in pleasure and what was the result?
Ecclesiastes 2:10–11 (NIV)
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure.
My heart took delight in all my work,
and this was the reward for all my labor.
11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun.
We pursue pleasure. We crave pleasure. We long for pleasure. But the more you get the more you desire it. Pleasure is like an addictive drug. It is wonderful the first time but becomes less and less satisfying so you have to increase the amount and quality of pleasure to get what you are looking for.
Frederick Buechner wrote that:
Lust is the craving for salt of a man who is dying of thirst.
When pleasure becomes our goal, we can never experience enough pleasure. No matter how good the meal was or how wonderful the massage was, we set out to find that pleasure again, only this time a little better. And lesser meals and lesser massages lose their ability to give us pleasure.
Pleasure cannot satisfy us, cannot quench the deep spiritual thirst we have.
The pursuit of pleasure is smoke and spitting into the wind.
Solomon sought for justice and concluded that this was also a dead end.
Ecclesiastes 4:1–3 (The Message)
Next I turned my attention to all the outrageous violence that takes place on this planet—the tears of the victims, no one to comfort them; the iron grip of oppressors, no one to rescue the victims from them. So I congratulated the dead who are already dead instead of the living who are still alive. But luckier than the dead or the living is the person who has never even been, who has never seen the bad business that takes place on this earth.
Ecclesiastes 5:8 (The Message)
Don’t be too upset when you see the poor kicked around, and justice and right violated all over the place. Exploitation filters down from one petty official to another. There’s no end to it, and nothing can be done about it.
From Cain’s murder of his brother Abel to the present day, injustice has always been here. It hurts us deeply because we know that this is not the way it should be. Children should not be abandoned at birth and when parents come along to love them and take care of them the government should not take the only parents these children have ever known away from them.
The powerful should not take advantage of the weak but that is what happens, over and over again, in each generation. Injustice in our world has been a constant and will be with us up to the second that Jesus returns.
If the pursuit of justice is your goal, you will be overcome by injustice. You will become bitter and cynical, hardened against the perpetual suffering you encounter.
The pursuit of justice is smoke and spitting into the wind.
Solomon has so much wealth that when the Queen of Sheba came for a visit, she left speechless. And what did Solomon think about all his wealth?
Ecclesiastes 5:10, 15-17 (NIV)
10 Whoever loves money never has money enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income.
This too is meaningless.
15 Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb,
and as he comes, so he departs.
He takes nothing from his labor
that he can carry in his hand.
16 This too is a grievous evil:
As a man comes, so he departs,
and what does he gain,
since he toils for the wind?
17 All his days he eats in darkness,
with great frustration, affliction and anger.
Whoever loves money never has money enough and when they do gather more money they are disappointed because it does not satisfy.
Jesus warned a man who was upset his brother was not sharing their inheritance properly:
Luke 12:15 (ESV)
“Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.”
The lure of wealth is very powerful and despite the clear evidence that it does not satisfy, we continue to lust for it.
The wise person learns from Solomon that the pursuit of wealth is smoke and spitting into the wind.
Earlier this week I was talking about this with a friend who has gone into business after being a pastor and I warned him about the dangers associated with gaining wealth. I talked to him about Solomon’s experience and he told me with a smile, “I’d like to get to the point where Solomon was and learn for myself that it does not satisfy.”
This made me think of a line from Will Rogers, a popular commentator in the US in the first decades of the 1990s. One of his observations was this:
“There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”
There are a lot of us like this, who have to learn for ourselves and cannot learn from what Solomon or anyone else experienced.
In the process we end up looking for meaning in dead end streets and we become tired and dry. We want water and end up with buckets of sand.
It is important to realize that work, pleasure, justice and wealth are not evil.
Work is good. God set the example for us with his work. Jesus said he came to do the work of his father. Paul told the Thessalonians they should work. But work cannot be the end, cannot be the goal. You can’t find meaning in work. Work will always frustrate.
Pleasure is good. God created us as sensual beings in the sensual world he created. He means for us to take pleasure in life, enjoy the world and all that he made. Not to enjoy the pleasure of this world is to be an ungrateful child, dismissing the gift from his or her parents. But if pleasure is your goal, you will be frustrated. We need to enjoy the things of this world without longing for them. That is the key.
Justice is good. God is a god of love and a god of justice. Love and justice are part of God’s character. He cannot not love us and he cannot not be just. God expects us to love each other and he expects us to work for justice, to seek justice. But if justice is the goal of your life, you will be a very unhappy and disappointed person.
Injustice rises up in situation after situation because we humans have a sinful nature that expresses itself over and over again. It is distressing but if we want to see justice as we know it should be, we will have to wait until Jesus returns and ushers us into his kingdom. Until then we work for justice but should not be surprised when it does not arrive or when injustice again raises its ugly head.
Wealth is good. God wants us to prosper and do well. Wealth is not evil. It is the love of money that is evil, not the money itself. Wealth is a gift of God that needs to be used wisely. Wealth can be a great tool used to help build the kingdom of God. Many Christians say they are accumulating wealth to use for God’s kingdom, far fewer use their wealth wisely. Wealth is a gift but a dangerous gift.
We work for these things. It is good to work for them. But if we pursue them, we will never be satisfied. Injustice will always be present. Pleasure will be turned into slavery. Work will become drudgery. Wealth will become a trap.
If you are feeling tired and dry, there may be a number of reasons why that is so. Thus far in this series of sermons we have talked about the need to meditate on the word of God as a way of building up a reservoir to satisfy our thirst. We have talked about the need to give praise to God as a way of receiving the spiritual water we crave. We have talked about the truth that when we are going through the valley of death it is because God, our shepherd, is taking us from one green pasture to another. Periods of dryness are transitional periods.
Many things conspired to make us feel tired and dry; more than one thing will be required to make us feel refreshed. Spending time feeding from the scriptures and meditating on what you read is important. Drinking the joy of giving praise to God is important. Realizing you are on a journey and God is taking you to a good place is important. And so is the point of this sermon, that you need to be careful you are looking for water in the right place.
I have suffered and continue to suffer because of what has happened to the children at the Village of Hope. My dream was taken away. Part of my tiredness and dryness is because I have not handled this well.
When we are distressed about injustice or upset because of problems in our work or frustrated because there is too much hardship and not enough pleasure in our life or tense because the money we want is not coming our way, the focus is on us. It is how we feel, what we do not have. It is our misery, our suffering.
Job was feeling dry and tired. Where did he find water to drink? The answer for Job after all the wisdom of he and his friends was expended was that it was not about himself. It was all about God.
Job 38:4–7 (ESV)
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
6 On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
7 when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
For 121 verses God asked Job questions he could not answer, reminding him who was the pre-existing creator God and who was the created being.
The pre-existing creator God is the source of water that refreshes. It is in our relationship with Jesus that we find water that satisfies our deepest thirst.
Are you stuck in the pursuit of something that will not and never will be able to satisfy you? Are you frustrated that this world is not giving you what you want? Are you frustrated that you don’t understand what God is doing or not doing in this world? Is that perhaps part of why you are feeling tired and dry?
I have good news for you. You will not live on this earth forever. A time is coming when you will die a physical death and leave the struggles of this life behind. Because of what Jesus has done for you, when you cling to him he will sustain you in this life and when you die, take you to a better world.
Work to make this world a better place to live. Enjoy the beauty and pleasure of this world. Be grateful for all that God has given you but long for a more intimate relationship with Jesus. Let your life become full of praise for God and you will drink cool, refreshing, life-giving water that will satisfy your deepest thirst.