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Living on the Ragged Edge
Chuck Swindoll examines King Solomon’s vain quest for satisfaction, recorded in the book of Ecclesiastes. In this straightforward Classic series, we discover the ultimate secret for the “good life”—a life of meaning and satisfaction in a world on the ragged edge.
- Journal of a Desperate Journey
Selected Verses in Ecclesiastes
Living on the Ragged Edge is a study of the book of Ecclesiastes, and it’s for folks who live in the trenches—down there where it’s dark and dirty and full of responsibility, where the grit of reality mixed with the grind of accountability holds people’s feet to the fire. It’s for real people who cannot free themselves from the demands of competition or escape the pressures of deadlines. All the messages in this study will offer straight talk on coping with life as it really is.
No matter where you live, it isn’t long before you realize that you’re back on the ragged edge of reality . . . especially if you’re the type who wants to make a contribution to this world before you’re six feet under.
Solomon, David’s brilliant son who followed his dad as king of Israel, came to realize that nothing is worthwhile—everything is futile.
- Chasing the Wind
Boredom. Monotony. The unchanging drag of life is an inescapable, undeniable reality. Just look around. How many people do you know who regularly wake up each morning motivated about the day? How many individuals genuinely enjoy their occupation? Or anticipate a new week with delight? Or feel challenged and excited about their marriage? Or insert creative ideas and activities into their day to keep life full of zest and enthusiasm? Aside from a few exceptional occasions, most folks live lives of quiet desperation. They see no future in their employment, little hope for their marriage, a lack of challenge in whatever pursuit they might undertake, and strong doubt that things will ever change. Life to most adults is nothing more than chasing the wind . . . empty, futile, purposeless, grinding boredom. Such is one’s existence “under the sun.” And to make matters worse, not even the alleged enjoyments bring lasting satisfaction—vacations, travel, cruises, extravagant possessions, sexual escapades, delicious food, booze, professional entertainment, and a dozen others. When the brief excitement ends, the inevitable monotony returns. This is the bold, dreary message of this lesson.
- Eat, Drink, . . . and Be What?
Fast-lane living is not limited to twenty-first century citizens. Solomon cut that swath centuries ago. Pushing aside all restraints, ignoring every twinge of guilt, the man set out on a quest for pleasure that would make the sensual lifestyle in Vegas pale in comparison. Solomon’s world was a cafeteria. Hedonism was never pursued with greater commitment. When he laughed, it was nothing short of an uproar. When he drank, it was with limitless intensity. His sexual escapades knew no bounds. Even his meals became lavish, luxurious feasts. Solomon embraced the lure of self-gratification with extreme determination. No project was too lavish, no dream a mere fantasy; whatever he imagined, he lived out. We’re talking maximum involvement! And, as we shall discover . . . maximum emptiness.
- More Miles of Bad Road
With disillusionment and despair casting ever-enlarging shadows across his path, the writer of this journal began to intensify his reactions. Intellectualism didn’t satisfy. Pleasures finally fell flat, landing with a dull thud. Laughter failed to lighten life’s load. Possessions, projects, parks, livestock, collections of precious gems, slaves, singers, and even sex did nothing to remove the monotony of existence. As life continued to cave in all around Solomon, he pondered the possibility of things changing in the next generation. “Maybe the answer lies in those who come after me,” he mused. But, as we shall see, not even that gave him any hope. The result? Twice he said it: “I hated life. . . . I hated all the fruit of my labor” (Ecclesiastes 2:17–18). Doesn’t anything work? Isn’t there any pursuit that will truly satisfy?
- Do You Know What Time It Is?
Will time last forever or will it ultimately come to an end? Because humans invented the clock, then obviously that device will not accompany us into eternity. The planets that God Almighty arranged in space continue to be the most perfect chronometer ever created, but when those planets stop, well, time stops. So even time is temporary. And that means we need to invest it wisely and find ways to enjoy it while it is ours to claim.
Ecclesiastes 3 provides a necessary and relieving break from the frenzied, hard-driving, seldom-resting business person of the latter half of Ecclesiastes 2. Because our time is short and the seasons of life keep going in a seeming endless cycle, Solomon addressed two questions: Are we able to affect or alter life’s events, and are these events moving toward any ultimate objective?
- Interlude of Rare Insight
Solomon had been in the pits. Having engaged in numerous projects, pleasures, and pursuits, none of which yielded any lasting satisfaction, the man foundered. Life seemed terribly boring . . . until he caught a brief glimpse of purpose in it all. That occurred when he mentally slipped above the sun, beyond the earth, and caught a ray of hope from God’s vantage point. He momentarily entertained a few thoughts with the Lord God in focus. This interlude, though brief and rare, brought into perspective several things Solomon had missed in his search for purpose and direction in life.
- Confessions of a Cynic
In the final paragraph of Ecclesiastes 3, we find Solomon alone with his thoughts—thoughts that are disturbing and painful. He had been active in his pursuits and projects. He had engaged the help of others in much of his activity, certainly during the extensive works of erecting buildings, planting gardens, digging reservoirs and irrigation canals, providing entertainment, and a dozen other involvements (Ecclesiastes 2:4–10). But in this passage, he pulled aside from his labor and mused. He observed and meditated and evaluated. He even talked to himself! In doing so, he admitted his disillusionment and his confusion. As he realized the inequities, the injustices, the unfair treatment, the greed and pride and beastly arrogance of people all around him, he recorded his reactions. As we shall see, he also came to some of his own “under-the-sun” conclusions.
- The Lonely Whine of the Top Dog
We are inundated with books, seminars, educational courses, and motivational speeches on the subject of top-level management and success-oriented leadership. The hype has never been greater nor the lure more effective. It is easy to get the impression that once one achieves such an impressive status, satisfaction and a great, liberating sense of pleasure are discovered . . . much like the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The long-awaited dream, however, is more often than not a distress-ridden nightmare. Instead of finding relief and companionship, the chief executive officer has a head-on collision with anxiety, pressure, jealousy, politics, ruthless decisions, economic headaches, and inescapable loneliness. Solomon said it all centuries ago. His words live on. May we hear them well and heed their cry. Those who fail to do so are identified in Scripture as fools.
- One Plus One Equals Survival
Loneliness has been called the most desolate word in the English language. But it’s more than a word. To many, it is a fact of life, especially for those who make it to the top (as we saw in the previous message) and begin to live distant and unaccountable lives. As Solomon finished describing that grim scene, he felt the need to offer a better plan, which led him into the thoughts we’re considering today. If we take his counsel to heart, we’ll discover one of the most important truths in all Scripture: two really are better than one. And upon discovering and applying Solomon’s words, we learn how to survive these lonely, desolate days between here and eternity.
- What Every Worshiper Should Remember
Ecclesiastes 5:1–7; Hebrews 4:12–13
So much of this ancient journal is horizontal musing, the bitter and barren side of life seen through the eyes of a cynic—Solomon himself. But on a few, rare occasions, the book is punctuated with remarkable vertical insights that scrape away the fašade of empty religion and drive us back to the reality of a meaningful relationship with God. This passage is one of those occasions. Like a cool oasis in the middle of a hot, dry desert, these seven verses provide refreshment to a soul weary from horizontal pursuits. Ecclesiastes 5:1–7 allows the Christian to take a few steps away from occupational involvements and into the Lord’s presence . . . to worship and focus on Him. What’s to be remembered? How are we to think and respond?
- Straight Talk to the Money-Mad
There’s an old Japanese proverb that says, “Getting money is like digging with a needle; spending it is like water soaking into sand.” We all nod in agreement. Who hasn’t known the struggle of financial frustrations? And even those who have plenty become disillusioned because money does not satisfy. As Seneca the Roman once stated, “Money has never yet made anyone rich.” But on we go, pushing and striving, planning and struggling to earn more so we can have more, then invest more and enjoy more. Fat chance! The more time we spend earning more money to buy more stuff, the less time we have to enjoy our stuff. Solomon addressed this dilemma in the verses we will examine in this message. He not only exposed the issues, he came to some conclusions worth hearing and heeding. But beware! This is not your typical “think and grow rich” advice. God is speaking about money here. We’d be wise to listen.
- The Few Years of a Futile Life
In our previous message, we gave serious consideration to the subject of money. We realized again that material things cannot satisfy; neither can an abundance of money. Those things are unable to provide some of our most essential needs: security, happiness, satisfaction, and contentment. The chapter we are looking at in this message builds on all those thoughts by carrying the subject to its logical conclusion. These twelve verses frame a painfully realistic portrait . . . another in a long line of “under-the-sun” scenes. It’s the tragic picture of a man, old and weary, who has come to the sunset years of his life. Long shadows fall across his memory as he stares out the window on his past. As we shall discover, the word-painting could be called simply futility.
- Wise Words for Busy People
We’ve reached the halfway point in Solomon’s journal. By now we have a pretty good handle on the man’s mental perspective as well as his method of pursuit. But something has been conspicuous by its absence—wisdom. This comes as a surprise because Solomon had considerable, God-given wisdom. That’s true except for a strange period in his life when he tossed restraint to the wind and acted out a role altogether unusual for a man of his heritage, his position, and his stature.
Had Solomon lived in our generation, perhaps we would explain his escapades as the result of a midlife crisis. Things that were once important and dear to him, he began to view with cynicism, especially the simplicity and purity of a walk of faith. Wisdom took a back seat as rebellion took control, grabbed the steering wheel, and jammed the accelerator to the floor! And even though lasting satisfaction eluded him, he kept taking every corner on two wheels. Funny thing about us humans—we tend to speed faster when we have lost our way. And when we do, wisdom steps back and waits, refusing to keep pace with our frantic, maddening race to find happiness.
- Putting Wisdom to Work
By the second half of Ecclesiastes 7, Solomon started to get a little better perspective on life. As a result, his counsel took on a whole new style. The dark clouds of despair and hopelessness broke, thanks to the hope that wisdom brought. Instead of cold, sarcastic cynicism, Solomon’s words evidenced a greater depth of caring, understanding, and insight. In the seventh chapter, each verse drips with rich and rare wisdom . . . the kind of counsel we get so little of in our world of human advice. But the writer’s desire was not that we simply extol the virtues of wisdom and stand in awe of it, but that we put it to work. What good is wisdom on the shelf of theory? Who needs it if it can’t benefit everyday life? Ecclesiastes 7:15–29 will help us see wisdom’s practical usefulness.
- The Qualities of a Good Boss
Wisdom. This one word describes the theme of the second half of Solomon’s memoirs in the book of Ecclesiastes. The terms wise and wisdom appear more than 30 times in the last six chapters, and the concept is interwoven through most of the paragraphs . . . Sometimes in a subtle manner, other times boldly. In the previous message, we discovered some of the benefits that come our way when we operate our lives according to wisdom: balance, strength, and insight. In today’s exposition, we’ll see these benefits personified in the life of “the wise man,” portrayed by Solomon in Ecclesiastes 8:1–9. Obviously, this individual is in command, having authority over others . . . Hence, we can apply the passage to today’s CEO or anyone who exercises authority over others.
- Mysteries That Defy Explanations
Just in case you haven’t noticed, God operates in the realm of mystery. His wisdom is not based on human logic or human knowledge. When we forget that other-worldly nature of God’s wisdom, frankly, we’re headed for trouble. As we have learned in previous messages, we cannot get God’s wisdom through academic pursuit. We can’t go to school and earn a degree in God’s wisdom. Our God is profoundly deep and mysterious, and His thoughts and ways are far beyond our ability to comprehend.
Not only do we scratch our heads at God’s ways, our lives take mysterious turns now and then. In this segment of Solomon’s journal, Ecclesiastes 8:10–17, we will learn about three rather familiar mysteries: unjust triumph, unfair consequences, and untimely pleasure.
- Have a Blast While You Last!
Solomon pulled out all the stops in this section of his journal. With bold strokes of his pen, he declared some of the inevitable, inescapable realities in life. Solomon hammered away at man-made philosophies of life that had failed to provide meaning and fulfillment. Following such brash assertions, he turned to the reader and offered counsel on how to conduct his or her life. In chapter 9, Solomon argued that human beings must accept God’s sovereignty and find meaning in relationship with Him. And keeping in mind God’s sovereignty and the finite nature of our lives, we must live life to its fullest, making the best of every moment of every day. We may resist the writer’s go-for-broke attitude in verses 7–10, but we are hard pressed to offer a better plan, especially in light of the certainty of death and the evil so prevalent in our world. See if you don’t agree that this section, though direct and bold, is very much in tune with life today.
- An Objective View of the Rat Race
We all need an objective view of the rat race we live in! Many of our lives can be summed up in three words: hurry, worry, and bury. Thankfully, Solomon’s ancient journal that God has preserved as the book of Ecclesiastes tells us to come to terms with reality and, with God’s help, enjoy life! This God-inspired book encourages us to squeeze every enjoyment out of life now, while we still have time!
So what words would sum up your life? Don’t let someone else set your pace or establish your objective, or you will be woefully off target. If you feel like you’re on the proverbial treadmill, beginning to resemble a mouse in a maze more than an intelligent human being en route to an admirable and challenging goal, here is a section of Scripture that invites us to pull out of the rat race and take an honest, studied look at life.
- Be Sensible!
The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes had completed his search for meaning in the endless halls of humanism. And he found nothing but futility, nothing that satisfies, and nothing of substance. With all that behind him, Solomon calmly and logically began to build a case for living life wisely instead of foolishly. If we didn’t know better, we’d be tempted to think these verses had been lifted from the book of Proverbs. In this section of his journal, Solomon wrote in maxims, one loosely connected to the next, comprising a whole chapter of contrasts . . . wisdom versus folly, the sensible person as opposed to the fool. The writer said, in effect, “Be sensible as you face life in all its diversity and challenge.”
- A Fool’s Portrait
When Scripture paints a life, the Spirit of God never overlooks the blemishes, the scars, or any other imperfection. The Divine Artist does not flatter His subjects. Ecclesiastes 10 is a case in point. Having established indisputable evidence that wisdom is the only way to fly, Solomon placed folly and foolishness alongside wisdom to highlight the contrast. Fools do not listen or learn, and they cannot hide the truth from anyone. Fools are known as such by the public. While on the subject, Solomon went further into detail, supplying additional information about the characteristics of a fool. The painting is anything but enjoyable; nevertheless, it drips with realism. If we laughed at fools before, we see the tragic and dangerous side of them now.
- Be Bullish!
Interestingly, the older we get the more cautious we become. With deliberate and careful concern, we study before we step, we ponder before we leap, we hesitate before we move out into the open. If we’re not careful, we replace the risks of faith with a methodical, almost tedious lifestyle that borders on boredom. But is that what God wants of us? Must growing old be synonymous with an overly cautious mentality? Not if we take to heart these first six verses in Ecclesiastes 11! You may be surprised to discover that the God of Scripture condones what would be called today a “bullish” approach to living . . . a bold, aggressive investment of our lives that has eternal value. Perhaps the best way to paraphrase these verses would be the five-word command, “Stop existing, and start living!”
- Enjoying Life Now, Not Later
Many people make the mistake of indefinitely putting off the enjoyment of life, almost as if the pleasure of living is something to be done once people are up in years. They spend their energy and time building toward some distant day when they can sit back, relax, smile on life, and finally enjoy it. But nowhere does Scripture urge us to embrace such a philosophy and certainly not in this ancient book of realism and wisdom named Ecclesiastes. In this section especially, Solomon repeatedly exhorts us to rejoice now, not later—during childhood and adolescence as well as adulthood and our twilight years. This disconnects true happiness, by the way, from material possessions, emotional maturity, and financial security. In Ecclesiastes 12:1, we find the secret to true joy in life. Joy is inseparably linked to living in daily relationship with God and trusting in the plan of our wise Creator.
- Gray Hairs, Fewer Teeth, Yet a Big Smile
This ancient journal has taken us from the energetic vitality of youth, through the disillusionment and cynicism of middle age, and now right up to the grave. We have entered into the writer’s struggles, we have felt the sting of his frustrations, we have nodded in agreement with many of his cries of exasperation, and now we sigh alongside Solomon as he describes the reality of growing older. But let’s not miss his point! Solomon stated his thesis at the beginning (Ecclesiastes 12:1) and at the end (12:6) of this very eloquent paragraph. Because all of us will “return to the earth” and because our spirit “will return to God who gave it” (12:7), now is the time to “remember Him” in all our ways.
- Wrapping Up a Ragged-Edge Journey
Solomon’s pilgrimage was quite a journey from the depths of despair through the slough of despond to the ragged edge of disillusionment. Caught in the jaws of his horizontal perspective, the man screamed his skepticism across life’s landscape. He did not mince words as he declared his feelings about humanistic, empty philosophy: vanity of vanities, all is vanity! His key phrase, repeated numerous times, was “under the sun.” But as he approached the end of the journey, a light started to shine. Hope emerged. Doubt dissolved. And Solomon exhorted the reader to remember your Creator while you are still young. Once God came back into view, Solomon’s whole perspective changed. In fact, the Preacher started sounding like a preacher again! Relief returned as Solomon closed his journal. With the prodigal back in the pulpit, and with his heart and soul focused “above the sun,” we can receive Solomon’s wisdom and apply it to our lives.
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