Why Do I Feel Empty?


Eccl. 3:1,10-14; 4:9-12; 5:1-7

I.  Chapter 3, verses 1-8 – For all the variety of human activities and necessary human actions, God has established an appropriate time. This is illustrated through a series of virtual opposites.

A. It appears that most of these opposites exist as a recognition that this world is fallen and sometimes calls for measures that would be non-existent in an unfallen world. It also shows the continual movement of events in this world so that at one time one condition dominates and another time perhaps the opposite. In this fluctuating world, the constant is that there is  a time for each under God’s appointment.

1. Birth would be normal in an unfallen world, but death would not exist – 2

3. Neither killing nor healing would be known in an unfallen world – 3

4. Weeping would be unknown unless it were the response to an expansive manifestation of joy and delight, and then it probably would be, not the opposite of, but an extension of laughing; mourning would not exist to place a gray cloud over the affections and drag one’s joy into the dust. – 4

5. Would both love and hate—verse 8—be present in an unfallen world? It is sure that love would, for all would be in constant display of the two great commandments that constitute the whole of the Law to love God with all our being and our neighbor as ourselves. Probably hate would be implicit, as we would gradually attain a knowledge of both good and evil by way of learning about the fall of Satan and his angels, and we would hate the very idea that a created being could resist the glory of the infinitely glorious Triune God. A holy being can manifest a hate that is not sinful (Psalm 97:10; 101:3, 4; 119:104, 113, 163; Proverbs 6:16; Revelation 2:6) Hatred manifests itself only in light of the knowledge of evil, which should be hated, but it is not necessary that the world be fallen for creatures to attain a knowledge of good and evil. It could have been isolated to the company of Satan and his angels and not have been a subjection to vanity that came upon the entire world. Thus the implicit affection of hatred would not be a destructive emotion but only a mature and healthy manifestation of supreme love for God that abhors any idea that something could interrupt or seek to diminish the fullest display of his glory and the full execution of his will.

6. Reflect on other activities in this list that become a possibility only in a fallen world.

B. Thus, we see that human sinfulness calls for engagement in many strategic activities that sort out the difficulties that have to be dealt with in light of the destructive relations of people and nations with each other.

1. Political systems are given to govern fallen people, to restrain destruction and evil. Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17; Systems of law arise from several sources and are enforced, ostensibly, for the good of an entire society even if it is to the detriment of certain segments of a society. Many laws appear onerous but are given necessity by the dynamics of human evil. Some sources of law.

The law written on the heart that approves or disapproves of certain actions – Romans 2:14, 15

Revealed law that has become a part of the consciousness and conscience of a society; i.e. the impact of the second table of the Ten Commandments on the laws of most Western nations, now slowly eroding.

The self-protective propensities of all people in wanting legal deterrents from the intrusion of those that covet the positions and possessions of others.

Christians must use wisdom in their relations and act not only in accordance with the laws of a land, but in accord with the new writing of the Law on the heart by the Spirit of God. Compare Galatians 5:16-26 w/ Ephesians 4:20-31; Colossians 3:5-11; 4:5, 6; 1 John 2:7-11

2. Times of War and times of peace call for negotiations of self-interest and/or justice that would not be necessary in an unfallen world. – 8b

II. The Writer focuses the Attention of his Reader on the difference between the certainty, eternity and immutability of all that God does compared to the uncertainty, temporality, and constantly shifting nature of human activity. – 3:9-22

A. Though man has an indwelling consciousness of eternity, God requires man to live with constant change in order to redeem the present for the sake of eternity – 9-13

1. In verses 9-11a, Solomon points out that those who toil in this life must learn to recognize the beauty and worth of a thing for its own moment and find it beautiful for the time and place that God has given it. Light is for day, darkness is for night; the sun is magnificent by day, the stars and moon enchanting by .night. Happiness crowns wonderful accomplishments and positive milestones in life; weeping shows that we live on the cusp of loss at any moment. Praise is for all times. Prosperity sometimes gives days of personal advantage and the ability to be a material blessing to others; want comes like a whirlwind and points us to God as our source of all that we need in life. None of the things for which we labor have eternal value in themselves, but they are invested with a significance that will affect our eternity for the way we view them during this lifetime.

2. We instinctively know that God has made us for Himself. Our sinfulness drives us to temporality, but the image of God keeps the conscience always aware of the reality of eternity. The nature of God’s purpose, the occupation of eternity is hidden from us and is a matter of divine revelation.

3. We should see the ability to work and provide for things that give pleasure and temporary satisfaction as part of God’s plan for his creatures. This is a gift of God and should train us to find delight only in the plan of God and ultimately all desires will be fully satisfied when we engage him in the eternity which he inhabits in his ineffable goodness.

B. God’s Decrees determine temporal events – 14, 15

1. Verse 14 – That which God does as his own proper action has eternal significance and lasts forever. None can alter His plans or change his intended outcome. Ephesians 1:11 confirms this in saying that “In Him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things after the counsel of his own will..” This should provoke awe, wonder, and worship from the creature.

2. Verse 15 – Things that have come to pass in time, have existed in the mind of God from eternity; Things that will yet come into being, have been in the mind of God from eternity. God has all things, even those events apparently most furtive, under his omnisapient gaze.

C. God is the final judge of all things – 16-22

1. verse 16 – Among men, even the best situations are fouled with our polluted hearts. Where justice should prevail, wickedness inserts itself; and where righteousness should reign, even there, wickedness spreads its foulness.

2. God sees all of this, and knows how evil penetrates even our best efforts. He will give visibility to all in the day of judgment and show the perfection of his decree prevailing even in the midst of human sin.

3. God shows us our creatureliness and the ultimate temporality of all our actions. In that sense we are not different from the beasts. God show us that we are created, have nothing independent of what he has give us and we are sustained, as the very beasts are, by the sovereign provision of God.  Beasts die, and humans die. Beasts breathe and then stop breathing, and humans breathe and then stop breathing. The oxygen that keeps them alive keeps us alive. When one looks at the form of each after death it is impossible to discern if a human has a spirit that has returned to God or if it ceases to exist with its body. We know that the writer understands by divine revelation that the human spirit returns to God (12:7), but at this point he is reinforcing the point that if we live in open disregard of God’s holy presence and his sovereign governing and judging of the world and all peoples, we live as if we had nothing distinctly moral and spiritual about us that bears responsibility before this righteous and eternal judge.

4. Persons, therefore, should find joy in their work, see it as their personal stewardship, something that has been given them for their present joy before God. “That is his lot,” meaning it is the portion of life to which God has assigned him and he must approach it as a steward before God. After him no one can tell him what will become of his work, so he is responsible for it in the present.

 III. Chapter 4 – In a world so filled with sin, injustice, inequity, and self-centeredness wisdom is not valued and all things soon come to vanity

A. Verses 1-3 – Because wickedness dominates the relationships between men, the dead are better off than the living, and those that never have been and thus have not experienced the evils and oppression of men are better than both the dead and the living.  Solomon grieved to see the dominance taken by the mighty and the rich over those that were dependent on them. As Solomon speaks of things done “under the sun” he has in mind the world of men; God is above the sun and the creator and noting escapes his knowledge and his just accounting.

B. Verses 4-6 – The inescapability of vanity is seen in that the world of labor and inventiveness and accomplishment is driven by envy and a desire to outstrip others in possessions and recognition; at the same time, the foolish person who does nothing destroys himself as if he were eating his own flesh. Given the stress and the increasing jealousy and envy driven by competition, Solomon accepts a “handful of quietness” as worth more than the toil that simply creates vexation of spirit, destruction of relationships, oppressiveness of the weak, and striving after the wind.

B. Verses 7-12 –  Sympathetic companionship helps one cope with the cruel emptiness of mere survival. Under the oppressions of the cruel one that shares the load and helps with the toil gives relief to the seemingly endless difficulty of life. A zeal for advancement that no one else shares or an individual goal that no one else values makes for distressing solitude. Companionship gives strength and security; it gives a joy to all situations that would be worthless and drudgery in its absence. Ah, but if there were three, then the strength would be complete; the approval and agreement of a third to the sentiments and goals shared by two give a completeness and a fellowship that satisfies. Jesus promised not to leave his disciples as orphans, but that he would send another like him, the Comforter. In fact, through he work we have fellowship with the triune God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a threefold cord that is impossible to break.

C. Verses 13-16 – Even well-executed wisdom eventually comes to vanity when made subject to the judgments of mere men in this world. Solomon tells of the accomplishment of a young man that had very little advantage in his birth or his possessions. By sheer dint of wisdom and successful execution of plans, he gained a large following and brought great benefit to a large number of people. But those that come after him will not recognize the good he did, or the intensity of thought and relentlessness in his pursuit of a course of action that he knew would be successful. They will look to themselves, seek glory for themselves, and refuse to recognize the greatness of one that preceded them. This is vanity and striving after the wind.

IV.  Chapter 5 – A heightened awareness of God mocks the vanity of this life and puts it in proper perspective

A. Verse 1-7 – One should know that God is not to be dealt with lightly as an object of religious manipulation by meaningless forms of religion and pious but merely formal language.

1. Verse 1 – Though God had put in place a sacrificial system, one must realize that it spoke of the necessity of death for sin. It pictured a God that would by no means clear the guilty but would exact the due punishment for transgression. A person, therefore, that brought the required sacrifice in a merely ritualistic way, with no feeling of remorse for sin and with no spirit of awe in the presence of God would merely multiply his transgression. Before the required sacrifice is offered, one must draw near and listen. He must hear what God says about himself.

2.  verses 2, 3 – Words must be at a minimum in such a holy moment as appearing before God as a sinner in hope of mercy. The simple, “Lord be merciful to me, the sinner” is sufficient. We do not talk our way into favor with God but we listen to his word; for faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. Another piece of wisdom literature says, “Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger. . . . and receive with meekness the implanted word which is able to save your souls.” (James 1:19, 21) “The Lord is in his holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before him.” Habakkuk 2:20

3. Verses 4-7 – A type of meaningless words used by fools is the expressions of vows and promises to God. God can not be put off with mere words nor fooled by disingenuous palaver. Fool neither yourself nor give greater reason to God for wrath by meaningless bargains with him. Religion that is merely formal or only a matter of talk, is vain.

B. Verses 8-17 –  How passing and frivolous and subject to abuse and evil interlopers are all material possessions.

1. verses 8, 9 – The tendency to oppression and graft in society calls for authorities and then authorities above authorities. A society is blest if its highest authority—the king in this case—is committed to a productive economy that will provide the necessities for all the land’s inhabitants. Otherwise bribery and sheer power will rule society and justice and honest production will be rare.

2. In a fallen world and a parasitic society, those that love money and obtain it will find themselves unsatisfied for their desire for wealth can never be quenched. They also will find themselves surrounded by flatterers, on whom they depend for their sense of accomplishment, and their wealth becomes consumed by the pure vanity of both flatterer and flattered. But a man who works and enjoys the challenge of labor in itself, because work is good, will sleep well with a sense of fulfillment though he might have little to eat. The full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep because, “The folks with plenty o’ plenty, got a lock on the door. ‘Fraid somebody’s a’goin’ to rob ‘em while they’s out a makin’ more. What for? What for?”

3. verse 13-17 – Some in an effort to gain more money quickly, make investments that promise to multiply their principle rapidly. The investment turns bad and the money is lost. His plenty has turned to nothing and his son who could have benefited from a more discreet and discerning father in money matters, now has nothing. The man returns to his original position of having nothing. He came into the world naked and so shall he go out of it. He spent his life in the service of money and it deceived him. “What gain is there to him who toils for the wind?” This loss, because it represents the failure of his life, that to which he committed his energy and in which he found his only delight,  slipped away in a moment and all he has left is loneliness, vexation, sickness and anger. No wonder Paul told Timothy to  charge those that are rich in the things of this present age “not to be haughty, not to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in food works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life” (1 Timothy 6:17-19)

C. Verses 18-20 – The writer expands his statement on the present enjoyment of temporal blessings as a manifestation of divine providence. In proper perspective, meaningful toil will yield joy; likewise wealth, if seen as a gift of God and used for the advancement of joy will yield the fruit of temporal satisfaction within a godward framework. Again we reiterate , we should enjoy all that God has given us in the context of its temporality and use it for the most temporal joy it affords, but constantly seek its usefulness for eternal things. Ecc. 2:24-26; Ecc 3:9-13; 5:18-20; 8:15; 10:17 1 Timothy 4:3, 4; Phil 4:12; Luke 12:13 (rich fool) Luke 16:1-3 : The unjust steward, commended by Jesus, knew that money could be transformed into a sense of personal indebtedness and secure relationships if handled with discretion. The children of the kingdom must be even more intent on the transformation of money into personal relations of an eternal nature.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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