ECCLESIASTES 4 - Solomon’s Razor’
We’re looking at the book of Ecclesiastes, a book written about 3,000 years ago probably by King Solomon, reflecting on the purpose of life. It’s quite a cynical book and a very discontent book. In fact, that’s what I want to talk about today, discontent. I believe that God wants to speak to us out of this book today. I believe he wants to warn us about three false friends(three diseases of the soul that can rob us of life, three sources of discontent) and to invite us into a place of peace and contentment at his table, with him.
I’ve been thinking about the verse “there is nothing new under the sun” (Chapter 1:9). It occurs only once in Ecclesiastes, but I think it is a power razor * in the sense that it cuts off false claims. I want to label it Solomon’s Razor, and it can help us recognise subtle claims that are all around us that ‘new is good’, ‘new is best’, ‘I’ve got to have the new’. I want to name that obsession with the new as a disease of our culture, a disease of our souls. It’s not a new disease but it is pervasive in our disposable economy. I want to suggest that this one verse from Solomon can help us diagnose and deal to ‘neophilia’ – obsession with the new.
Ok, to be fair, there are some new things - golden kiwifruit were new; there is a first time you fall in love; the space shuttle was a new thing. But what Solomon’s Razor helps us to see is that new is not always so original, new is not always better, new is not always good. Many things that masquerade as new aren’t new. A new taste is an old appeal to the stomach; a new style is an old appeal to the eyes; a new palace is but a house built large.
I heard the story recently of a teenage friend who pulled out his new phone and the people he was with laughed because it wasn’t an iPhone 6. We live in a culture very different to Solomon but human nature hasn’t changed. We live in a consumer culture where the economy and media are built on selling us the newest and latest gadget. TV news exists to sell advertising - more toothpaste, new 4 bladed razors, Samsung Galaxy whatever. At one level we all know about consumerism yet it’s the air we breathe, it’s so pervasive that we start to no longer recognize it.
And here’s the kicker, consumerism is built on discontent. We are being set up to live discontented lives and it’s suffocating. Let’s talk about it. Everyone has the new jeans and everyone is talking about them. There’s a lot of emotional pressure for me to get the new jeans, for my wife to get the new jeans, for my kids to get the new jeans so that they aren’t teased, and maybe I go and borrow money I can’t afford to buy the new jeans. Neophilia damaging our lives. If you need new jeans – no problem. If you like them and can afford them – no problem. It’s the discontent that’s the problem. And, whatever your income is, I’m sure you will face the same challenge somewhere – clothing – technology – holidays – new kitchen. Every day our media are pushing NEW, and the addiction to consuming is one of the great addictions of our time.
In our economy, marketing is not based on a careful consideration of your goals, desires and needs. Marketing is based on devising a new product, describing how that product can solve a problem for you, and then convincing you that you have that problem. So, with respect, 100 years ago no one cared about how white their teeth were. Now, teeth whitening is a major business. A lot of money is spent on shaving products - I use a four bladed razor for a closer shave. When I used to use a two bladed razor I didn’t think my shave wasn’t close enough. I’ve got a 2003 Toyota Corolla. It goes well, it’s weatherproof, it’s a safe vehicle; but it’s old – it’s paint is peeling, the carpet has a hole in it and I’ve never really liked it’s shape. Neophilia wants to plant discontent in me so that every time I drive it I think ‘it could be better’. A few years ago I read a book by John Ortberg called “When the Game is Over, It All Goes Back in the Box”. John compares life to a Monopoly game and says at the end of life, no matter how much you have accumulated, it all goes back in the box. It’s a great book encouraging richness towards God. But one of the things he teaches is to tell yourself “It could be worse”. He says this is an antidote to Discontent. So when I hop in my car I give thanks that it starts, I give thanks that it goes well, I give thanks that the seat is comfy, I give thanks that I can still squeeze the whole family into it, I give thanks that it’s green and not an embarrassing colour. Can you see where I’m going? As a Christian, I believe that God wants good things for me, and that he provides good things for me, that he’s a good father. And when I look with that attitude at the things I have, it builds contentment in me. Matthew 6:8 “For your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
Of course, there is a time to change cars. Our other car broke down again earlier this year, the door handle broke off, it needed a cambelt change, the key broke, and there was this list of things that all went wrong at once. And Karen and I sat down to pray whether we should change the car. Well, five seconds into praying I started laughing. As I prayed ‘Lord, should I change the car’ it was like I heard God say ‘How many signs do you need, Simon? The car’s stuffed, get a new one!’ New is not always wrong, it’s the discontent I’m talking about. No wonder we struggle with contentment.
Here’s the next thing. Because we are all assailed by neophilia, we can start to apply that to our possessions and then to our goals and then to our relationships. I am a visionary, I can have 10 new ideas before breakfast, and I believe that discipleship for me is often aboutfaithfulness, investing not just in the new idea but in carrying through the idea.
I went to two funerals two weeks ago and at both of them the eulogies talked about Fergus Hume and Win Manson’s commitment to prayer, and commitment to pray for people. Win, Marion’s mum, used to pray for her family every day, and to pray for the church and to pray for the missionaries. Win had a lovely little pattern - prayer for blessing, prayer for protection, prayer for salvation (or growth if the person was already a believer). Would you like to be that sort of person? Faithfulness and thankfulness are the antidote to neophilia.
God is a good good father, and when we practice thankfulness we find contentment because we realise how we are loved.
But I want to keep talking about this new obsession because we’re getting this subtle message all the time that new is better. And I want to repeat Solomon’s insight that there are very few truly new things. I think new can promise a counterfeit new start - new place, new relationship, new job, new piece of technology. None of these things ultimately change who we are. They can all be helpful if we address the core question “Who was I made to be?” And Jesus can answer that question for you, “You were made to be a son or daughter of God”. In Jesus you can be returned to that place. My friends, you are each a masterpiece of God our father. He made you to know his love and to do certain things. He sent Jesus to forgive our sins, so that we can be more truly ourselves.
I think Solomon diagnoses two more similar sicknesses of the soul. Vs 4 “I saw that all labour and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbour.” This is such a powerful second razor. How much do we livecomparing ourselves to others??? How much do we try to win someone’s approval by being better than someone else. Yet God doesn’t play favourites. Acts 10:34 "I now realize how true it is that God does not show favouritism.” Envy and comparison are the enemies of contentment. And generosity and praise are the antidotes to this disease. To talk up the person you are envious of is hard work but wonderfully rewarding.
Our marketplace is built around competition and for some things that’s fine, but for personal values and public service it’s poison. How much of your discontent is envy driven? “If only I had a wife like Bob’s”. You have no idea what Bob’s wife is like. “If only I had four bathrooms like Sheila.” Well, then you’d have two more bathrooms to clean. Envy is a sickness of the soul and it drives discontent, and it stops us from recognizing that we have a good Father. Matthew 7:11 “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”
I can tell you in church life there will always be a better church around the corner. There will be a church that has a better pipe organ, or a better worship leader, a church that has better small groups, or a church with a better preacher, or a church with better technology. Here’s the test on envy. Are we looking at something new because it will serve our people or our community better or because it will help us to compete with the neighbours? Have you got a dose of envy sickness? Here’s a very effective solution. Talk up your neighbour and give to them, and you will find contentment.
Solomon has a third razor. Vs 8 “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.” This third disease of the soul that contributes to discontent is simply the never ending desire for more, usually wealth, but it can be anything. More, More, More. More is not always better. More money, a bigger boat, more influence, more clients. We as people are designed with limits, with boundaries and with a full point. It is so important that we learn our full point. Full of food, full lives, full timetable, full bank balance. We discover contentment when we discover the word ‘enough’. The antidote to ‘more’ is ‘enough’ and to give away, to give generously. It’s marking out our goals and celebrating achieving them. It’s knowing when to be satisfied and being able to give thanks to God for enough. In Philippians 4:12 Paul addresses this question of desiring more, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” And his answer is vs 13 “I can do all this through him who gives me strength”. He has found his contentment in God. My friends, I believe most of us believe this in our heads but don’t know it in our hearts. Contentment is to experience God’s fatherly love for us and to rest in it.
Now I want to gather these three sicknesses of new, better, more together and say that these are counterfeits in our lives for a deep sense of satisfaction that does not come from under the sun. We are God’s children and we are designed to find contentment in God. The next few verses are usually used of a man and a woman, but today I want to suggest that they can be seen as a person and God. Vs 9 “Two are better than one because they have a good return on their work”. When you include God in your work planning you will be thinking about deeper purpose and higher goals; and after all God is a better marketer and manufacturer than any other, he made the stars. Vs 10 “If one falls down his friend can help him up.” When we walk with God, God can pick us up from the troughs that we often fall into. I’m not so sure about the keeping warm at night. I might be stretching the metaphor there but verse 12 “A three stranded cord is not easily broken” is a powerful metaphor for including God in our marriages, partnerships and all our relationships.
I want to finish by saying that God wants you to live a content life in him, giving thanks for what you have, not competing with your neighbour, and not always wanting more.
There are some things we should be discontent about, the things God is discontent about - injustice, poverty and abuse in our community. But they are not about us. I truly believe that God wants you to find contentment in being his son or daughter. And I want you to experience that today. I believe that God would like to refill you with his Holy Spirit so that you can experience that contentment from the inside out – not trying to earn his approval, but just enjoying working with him for justice and peace. Amen.
* Occam’s Razor. A razor is something that cuts off excess. There was a guy in about the year 1300 called William Occam who came up with a problem solving technique – called Occam’s Razor. It’s very simple. He suggested that for any problem, if there are a series of ways of solving it, you should prefer the simplest one. “Among competing hypotheses that predict equally well, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” Or put a third way ‘the simplest explanation is usually the correct one’. Occam’s Razor is a problem solving tool. It shaves off unnecessary clutter. If you think of maths it’s like cutting off the step of adding 7, multiplying by 2 and removing 14.
When I was researching this on Wikipedia I found this reference to “Solomon-off”. “Solomonoff's theory of inductive inference is a mathematically formalized Occam's razor: “shorter computable theories have more weight when calculating the probability of the next observation, using all computable theories that perfectly describe previous observations”.