Jesus Speaks to Us About Emptiness
November 17th, 1985 @ 8:15 AM
JESUS SPEAKS TO US ABOUT EMPTINESS
Dr. W. A. Criswell
Ecclesiastes 1, 2
11-17-85 8:15 a.m.
It is a gladness unspeakable for us here in the First Baptist Church of Dallas to welcome the great throngs of you who share the hour on radio. This is the pastor bringing the message. It is the fourth one in a series of five on the result of an extensive survey made of the problems that face human life. The first message was on loneliness; the second was on hopelessness; last Sunday it was on purposelessness; next Sunday, the last one, it will be on fear. And they are built around the theme “Jesus Speaks to Us,” and the one today is on emptiness: Jesus Speaks to Us about Emptiness.
Just blue, just blue;
Ain’t prayin’ exactly just now;
Tear-blinded, I guess;
Can’t see my way through.
You know those things I ask for so many times:
Maybe I hadn’t ought to repeat it like the Pharisees do,
But I ain’t stood in no marketplace;
It’s just ‘tween me and You.
And You said, “Ask.”
Somehow, I ain’t askin’ now, and I hardly know what to do.
Hope just sorta left; but faith’s still here;
Faith ain’t gone, too.
I know how it is:
A thousand years is a single day with You,
And I ain’t meanin’ to tempt You
With if You be—and I ain’t doubtin’ You,
But I ain’t prayin’ today.
Just blue, just blue.
[author and work unknown]
Did you ever feel like that? A thousand times.
And that’s what Jesus said: “Whosoever drinketh of this water, this life, shall thirst again: But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I give shall be in him a well springing up into everlasting life” [John 4:13-14]. Uselessness, emptiness, just blue: and there is no more poignant or dramatic experiential paragon and drama of that than to be seen in the life of the king of Israel, Solomon. He took every area of life and carried it to its utmost extremity. He was able to do it; he was an Oriental monarch, unlimited capacity. And he drank from every cup, and labeled it. He sailed on every sea, and charted it. He made pleasure do its utmost, and then described what that utmost was. He made indulgence and carnality do their utmost, and described what that utmost was. He made money, and fame, and fortune, and building, and political and national and personal achievement do their utmost, and then described what that utmost was. And when he had experienced it to its last drop, he said it is a satiety, it is a weariness, it is a uselessness, it is an emptiness [Ecclesiastes 2:11]. That’s a remarkable response to the rewards of the human life, and it is universally true. The things and the achievements and the possessions of this life are of all things empty; they don’t feed the soul.
One of the most unusual things that I can remember, being here in Dallas: there was a very wealthy man who joined our church. This is many years ago. He built an empire; he founded a great company. Near here he built one of these big buildings. And I was in his home one evening, and for some reason—I have never known why—he took out a book, a big thick book, and in it he had carefully listed page after page all of his possessions: thousands and thousands of shares of this and of that, and the recording of deeds and possessions. Somebody like me, I was overwhelmed by it. And when he had gone through that book with me, “This is what I own,” and turned the page, and the pages and the pages—when he had gone through the entire book, he closed it with a resounding thud, and pushed it across the table from him and said to me, “Pastor, it is trash.” Oh! I was overwhelmed by the riches of the man. “It is trash.” And I began to think of those things, the materialities of life, and the achievements of mankind, and just what do they contribute to the human heart, and the human soul, and the quality of human life?
We live in a remarkable materialistic world. There’s no doubt about that. This man here who sits next to me on the platform, Bo Kernick, heads a government agency that looks at all of these airlines and these airplanes, seeking to make them safe for us. It’s a miracle, isn’t it? It’s a wonder, isn’t it? It’s like a seventh wonder, an airplane, but all that it does will get you to New York or London or Hong Kong a few hours earlier, and if it’s thirty minutes late, it’s slow. And when you get there, you’re just the same, you.
This last week I sat by Colonel Jim Irwin, who walked on the moon, and he had there by the podium that white rock that those astronauts brought back from that satellite: millions and millions of years old, they say. I picked it up and handled it. This is the man that walked on the moon, but he’s still the same. What he was up there, he is here. The achievement made no difference in him at all, there or here.
It’s a remarkable thing: as I speak, there are people listening to me miles and miles away, whose faces I can’t even see; yet I’m talking to them. It’s a miracle. And our televised service, I find people all over America who are listening to those services on cable television: East Coast, West Coast, up there toward Canada and down toward the Rio Grande. But it doesn’t make any difference in us; it’s a commonplace, and mostly, when we look at modern communication, it is of all things boring and a wearisomeness.
And that is spelled out in the experience of this wondrous king of Israel. He tried this and that and the other, and he labeled it, and he named it; he listed them. “I gave my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom concerning all things that are done under the sun; and this is a sore travail” [Ecclesiastes 1:13]. What? You mean learning and wisdom and education are a useless emptiness? It is. Whenever you get to one receding horizon of knowledge, there’s another one fading before you. And when you climb the hill and finally the mountains, the stars are as far away as they ever were. The more you study and the more you learn, the more you come to know you don’t know anything. Then he says, “I said in mine heart, Go to now, I will prove thee with mirth, and enjoy pleasure . . . And I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it? I sought in mine heart to give myself unto wine: not as a fool, not as one who lays hold on folly, but as one who was a philosopher” [Ecclesiastes 2:1-3]. He gave himself to every pleasure: it was his for the asking. Everything by which appetite could be indulged, he indulged. Think of the fellow: he had seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines [1 Kings 11:3].
A Sunday school teacher asked a little class of boys, “Name me some of the animals in the Bible.” And the little fellows responded: one said, “A lamb.”
“That’s right,” said the teacher. One said, “Ox.”
“That’s right,” said the teacher. One said, “A goat,” said the teacher. And one of those boys said, “A porcupine.” And the teacher said, “Porcupine? There’s no such a thing as a porcupine in the Bible.”
“Oh yes,” said the boy, “yes, yes, yes. Solomon had seven hundred wives and three hundred porcupines” [1 Kings 11:3]. I can understand how a little five year old boy wouldn’t know what a concubine is—but Solomon did.
Not only wisdom, knowledge, and not only pleasure, but “I made me great works; I builded me houses, gardens, orchards, trees” [Ecclesiastes 2:4-5]. I suppose none ever rivaled him. It took thirteen years to make his own palace [1 Kings 7:1]. There was nothing like the extensive works of Solomon in his capital city. Not only that, but he says, “I got me servants and maidens, and servants were born in my house” [Ecclesiastes 2:7]. He had one thousand four hundred chariots [1 Kings 10:26]. He had fourteen thousand runners before him.
Not only that, but he says, “I had great possessions” [Ecclesiastes 2:7]. He made silver and gold: “I gathered me silver and gold and the peculiar treasure of kings and of the provinces” [Ecclesiastes 2:8]. He made it as common as dirt in Jerusalem [2 Chronicles 9:27]. And not only that: “Whatsoever mine eyes desired I kept not from them, I withheld not my heart from any joy; for my heart rejoiced in all my labor: and this was my portion of all my labor under the sun” [Ecclesiastes 2:10]. That passage says he didn’t wish, he didn’t try, he didn’t hope; he did it. Whatever was possible in human life, he experienced it.
And the result, this that I read now, is one of the most tragic passages in human literature:
Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labor that I labored to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun . . .
I hated life; because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous; it is all vanity and vexation of spirit.
I hated all my labor which I had taken . . . because I should leave it unto the man that should come after me.
And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall he have rule over all my labor wherein I have labored . . .
Therefore I went about to cause my heart to despair of all the labor which I took under the sun.
[Ecclesiastes 2:11, 17-20].
Emptiness, uselessness, and finally just to die and to leave it.
The world rolls round forever, like a mill;
It grinds out life and death and good and ill;
It has no purpose, heart, or mind or will.
Nay, it doth use man harshly, as he saith?
It grinds him some slow years of bitter breath,
Then grinds him back into eternal death.
[“The City of Dreadful Night,” James Thomson]
That is Solomon. And that is the emptiness of life.
How many people think, “If I just had more, I would be happy. If I could live in a gilded palace, if I could sit in an ivory chair, I would be so happy. I would have achieved the goals of life.” And isn’t it a strange thing? This man did it, and when he had done it, he says it was an ennui, a satiety, a vexation of spirit; it was a vanity under the sun [Ecclesiastes 2:20]. It is difficult to feed the soul on materiality, on human achievement. Somehow there’s something on the inside of us that longs for God. When you read Augustine’s Confessions, in the first paragraph you’ll read one of the most famous sentences in literature: “Thou, O God, hast made us for Thyself; and we are restless until we rest in Thee.”
And that leads me to the second part of my message. Our hearts ultimately and finally long for God; we’re just made that way. I would to God I could say that to these who are seeking ultimate reason and purpose and meaning in life. I think of it so many times when I read about these who have achieved fame and success in such areas as in Hollywood. No promiscuity do they deny themselves, no indulgence or pleasure do they abstain from, and yet they’ll give themselves to drugs just to drown out the weariness and the emptiness of life.
What do you seek ultimately and finally? Like a Marilyn Monroe: they say the reason she committed suicide, she couldn’t bear to see herself grow older and lose her beauty. Dear me! What do we ultimately seek in life? What do we want? Ultimately, we want God; we want the Lord. And that is one of the most marvelous experiences that we could ever enjoy in our earthly pilgrimage: thus to invite God into our lives [Romans 10:9-10]; to have a friend in the Lord Jesus; to change kingdoms, to change from the kingdom of this world into the kingdom of God; to change citizenships [Philippians 3:20].
I read one of the strangest things this week. There were two Frenchmen in England, and one of them decided to be an English citizen, and the other one appealed against it, but the first one persevered: “I’m going to take out citizenship and be an English. I’m going to be a citizen of the British Empire.” So he did. He became an Englishman; took out English citizenship. And his friend who remained a Frenchman saw him after he had gone through the papers and said to him, “Well, you look just the same. I don’t see any difference in you, now that you are a British subject. You look just the same to me.” And the Frenchman that had become an Englishman said, “Yes, that’s right, I guess. I may look the same to you, but I’m not the same.” He says, “Yesterday, Waterloo was a defeat. Now it’s a victory!” Oh dear! If we could just do that, change citizenships—as Paul says our politeuma, our citizenship, is in heaven [Philippians 3:20]—if we could just do that, just belong to the kingdom of our Savior, and let Him bring meaning and fullness into our souls; if we could just do that.
Now in the little moment that I have—you know, I don’t know what the time does. I have five minutes left. Can you believe I’ve been preaching twenty-five minutes? Man, one of these days, when I get my planet, we’re sure going to get my soapbox and let me just preach.
I want to show you the difference. When our hearts are open to the Lord Jesus, when we invite Him to come into our lives and fill our souls with His light and presence, emptiness given place to fullness: I want to show you what happens. One: all of the hurts and the afflictions and the sorrows of life immediately turn from despair to deepest meaning: “This is God’s hand in my life.” No matter what the hurt, or the misfortune, or the affliction, or the tears, immediately, when God fills our souls there is profound meaning and goodness and purpose in the hurt and the sorrow that comes.
I think of blind Fanny Crosby. I counted in our book here, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, there are sixteen hymns in this book out of which we sing, written by Fanny Crosby. Oh, so many things crowd on my heart! My father, when I was a little bitty boy, four, five, six years old, my father went to the funeral of his mother. And when he came back, he sat down by my side and told me about his mother, and he said, “They sang at my mother’s funeral, they sang:
Safe in the arms of Jesus, safe on His gentle breast
There by His love o’ershaded, sweetly my soul shall rest.
[“Safe in the Arms of Jesus,” Fanny Crosby]
And my father loved to sing; and he sang that song to me, when I was a little boy, a little bitty boy, written by Fanny Crosby, blind all of her life, blind.
Frances Havergal, and there—1, 2, 3, 4, there are four songs in our hymnbook by Frances Havergal, an English hymnwriter. She wrote to Fanny Crosby. May I read it?
Sweet blind singer over the sea,
Tuneful and jubilant, how can it be
That the songs of gladness, which float so far,
. . .
Are the notes of one who may never see
“Visible music” of flower and tree?
. . .
How can she sing in the dark like this?
What is her fountain of light and bliss?
O, her heart can see, her heart can see!
. . .
Well may she sing so joyously!
For the King Himself, in His tender grace,
Hath shown her the brightness of His face;
. . .
Dear blind sister over the sea
An English heart goes forth to thee.
We are linked by faith and song,
Flashing bright sympathy swift along;
One in the East, and one in the West,
Singing for Him, whom our souls love best,
. . .
Sister! What will our meeting be,
When our hearts shall sing and our eyes shall see!
[“A Seeing Heart: To Fanny Crosby,” Frances Ridley Havergal]
It turns the world around when Jesus comes into our hearts. It’s a new citizenship; even blindness is a blessing.
I read in my preparing this week, Ira D. Sankey—I didn’t know this—Ira D. Sankey, Moody’s singer, went blind. I didn’t know that. And as he lay dying, Fanny Crosby went to see him. And it must have been like heaven, those two blind singers. The thing that I read said that they sang together, and had the Bible read to them, and prayed together, and rejoiced in the Lord. It is a new world, it is a new kingdom, it is a new citizenship when Jesus comes into our hearts. I have to close.
Think of the beautiful life, think of the beautiful hope, think of the beautiful home, think of all that God hath prepared for us: what eye has never seen, ear has never heard, and heart has never imagined, when Jesus comes into our lives [1 Corinthians 2:9].
And that is our appeal to you this God-blessed, holy Sabbath morning. In a moment, when we stand and sing our appeal, to give your heart to the Lord [Romans 10:9-10], to find fullness and meaning in life: “Lord, Lord, here I am. This heart, this life, these hands, these days, may God enrich them, and fill them with His presence.” To bring your family: “Pastor, this is my wife and my children; we’re all coming today,” or just you; it is the sweetest commitment you’ll ever make in life, thus to walk with our dear Lord. Make the decision now in your heart. Do it now. Then, when we stand in this moment, on that first note of that first stanza, that first step will be precious beyond silver or gold. Welcome, welcome, while we stand and while we sing.
SPEAKS TO US ABOUT EMPTINESS
I. King Solomon a dramatic example
A. His opportunities
for indulgence, achievement unlimited
1. Able to carry
human experience to its utmost extremity
2. Whatever achievement
he sought to win, he outgrew
B. Hear what he says
1. In much wisdom
is much grief (Ecclesiastes 1:12-18)
pleasures empty and useless (Ecclesiastes 2:1-3)
his heart desired, his greatest successes he found grievous (Ecclesiastes 2:8-11, 17-20)
1. Tragic fallacy
of man who thinks if he had more he would be happier
2. Material can
never satisfy the spiritual
III. The difference Jesus makes
A. Universe is not
geocentric, but Christocentric (Colossians 1:16-17)
B. A change in
citizenship (Philippians 3:20)
IV. The difference in our hearts
A. Sorrows, tragedies
of life become meaningful, explicable
1. Fanny Crosby
B. Experiences known in
heart and soul will be unrelated to material things