The Pattern of Pessimism
December 29th, 1991 @ 10:50 AM
THE PATTERN OF PESSIMISM
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-29-91 10:50 a.m.
Once again welcome to the uncounted throngs and multitudes of you who share this hour on radio and on television. You are now a part of our dear and precious First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the senior pastor bringing the message entitled The Pattern of Pessimism.
In our preaching through the Book of Ecclesiastes, we are now in our third message. And the background text is the beginning of the book: “The words of the Preacher, qôheleth, the son of David, king in Jerusalem”; introduces himself as Solomon. “Habêl; vanity of vanities—the wind, the breath—vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, all is vanity” [Ecclesiastes 1:2]. And thus he avows in the experiences of life; the worthlessness and the despair that characterizes all human experience. First, he speaks of the wise and the fool. They are alike.
I said in my heart, As it happens to the fool, it also happens to me; why was I then more wise? Then I said in my heart, this also is vanity.
For there is no more remembrance of the wise than of the fool forever… And how does a wise man die? as the fool.
Go through the cemetery, any cemetery, did you ever see an angel hovering over a wise man, or did you ever see a devil pointing out a fool? They all look alike when they are buried in the ground. Then again, the beast, the dog and the man:
I said in my heart concerning the condition of the sons of men, God tests them, that they may see that they themselves are like beasts—like dogs, like animals.
For what happens to the sons of men also happens to the dogs and the beasts and the animals; one thing befalls them: as one dies, so dies the other. Surely, they all have one breath; man has no advantage over dogs BS beasts and animals: for all is vanity.
All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all return to the dust.
Who knows the spirit of the sons of men which goes upward, and the spirit of a dog the beast and the animal that goes downward to the earth?
I tell you truly, were it not for the minister, and for the hearse, and for the funeral procession, and for the liturgy, you wouldn’t know whether there was a dog or a man in that coffin, they all die alike and turn to the dust. Then he points out the same happens to the good and to the wicked in death:
All things come alike to all. One event happens to the righteous and the wicked; to the good, the clean, and the unclean; to him who sacrifices and to him who doesn’t sacrifice at all; as is the good, so is the sinner; he who takes an oath as he who fears an oath.
This is an evil in all that is done under the sun: that one thing happens to them all. Truly, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil. Madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. For him who is joined to all the living there is hope: for a living dog is better than a dead lion.”
What are we talking about? the pattern of pessimism! When they die, they all look alike.
Then one other: the finality of death. “The living know that they will die—you know that—but the dead know nothing. They have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Their love, their hatred, their envy have now perished; nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun” [Ecclesiastes 9:5-6]. The tears that are shed are evaporated into the breeze. The hurt in the heart is now a part of the wind. And the tree that was bent by the hurricane now is standing up straight and you’d never know a storm had passed.
This is the pattern of pessimism, and it brings to the heart of the one who thus considers it an infinite despair and an indescribable sadness. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities”; all is breath and vapor and wind [Ecclesiastes 1:2]. And as he writes, he speaks, oh how sadly, of our condition. “I praise the dead who were already dead more than the living who are still alive. Yet better than both is he who has never existed; who has not seen the evil done under the sun” [Ecclesiastes 4:2-3]. Then he avows: “Blessed is a stillborn,” a child that comes into this world dead. “If a man begats a hundred children, and lives many years, so that the days of his years are many, but his soul is not satisfied… I say, that a stillborn child is better than he” [Ecclesiastes 6:3].
The pattern of pessimism; and not only do I read that here in the Word of God, written by the wisest man who ever lived, but I sense that and I see that, in all human life and in all human experience, if we accept what we see in this world as final, it ends in ultimate and desperate and deadly despair. For example, the reward of the best men and the most dedicated men who have ever lived—what has been the end of their lives? In Florence, Italy, this is the place where Savonarola was hanged and burned. And not in human history was there ever a greater devoted man of God than Savonarola. And in the 1400s, that is the end of the life of that marvelous exponent of the truth of God.
Think again: the main road that leads into Oxford University, into Oxford, England, this is the place, look at it. This is the place where Ridley, and Latimer and Cranmer were burned at the stake; greatest men of God that mind could think for. That is the end of their lives. Or walk through the city of London. This is the city where, in the Restoration in the 1600s under Charles II, John Milton, God’s incomparable poet, was hounded to death! Or once again, stand in the jail in Bedford, England. This is the jail where the Puritan spent twelve and one half years. Why?—because he refused not to preach the unsearchable gospel of Jesus Christ.
You look at time and tide and history, and it brings you to infinite despair. That is one of the tragic experiences of the men of God. Could there have been a more worthy prophet than Jeremiah?
Cursed be the day in which I was born: let the day not be blessed in which my mother bore me.
Let the man be cursed who brought news to my mother, saying, A male child has been born to you; making him very glad.
Let that man be like the cities which the Lord overthrew, and did not repent: let him hear the cry and the shouting at noon;
Because he did not kill me from the womb; that my mother might have been my grave, and [her] womb always enlarged.
Why did I come forth from the womb to see labor and sorrow, that my days should be consumed in shame?
Ah, the despair of human life! Or look again: the finality of death! For there is no work, or device, or knowledge, or wisdom in the grave where you are going; none! Like many of you, I have walked several times through the miles and the miles of the catacombs under the city of Rome. Where did they come from? One of the most astonishing creations you could ever behold, those graves, and graves, and graves, miles and miles under the city of Rome; where are the catacombs and what? The answer is twofold. Number one; the Romans, as the pagan world, burned their dead; they cremated their dead. But the Christian—in the glorious example of his living Lord—the Christian refused to burn this body that Jesus says He will raise in the likeness of His own glorious resurrection [Romans 6:5]. So those early Christians, for those first centuries, refused to burn their beloved, and underneath the city they carved out and cut those miles and miles and miles of subterranean passages, and on either side they buried their beloved dead.
A second thing, they invented a word—you use it today. Koimeterion: it’s a Greek word, “sleeping place.” Koimeterion, when you spell it out, when you take it out in English, it comes out “cemetery.” Cemetery, koimeterion, is a Christian word, invented by those early Christians. And what they did was they believed in the brotherhood of God’s sainted people, and for the first time in the history of the world, they buried their dead together. Instead of, as the pagans, put one there, put one there, put the ashes there, put the ashes yonder, the Christians believed in the brotherhood of God’s sainted people, and they kept them together, and they buried them in those catacombs.
Now what has happened for two thousand years? Those skulls mock you. What of the faith, and what of the promise, and what of the hope of those marvelous first Christian people? Death is so endless, and for two thousand years there’s been no resurrection, and there’s no glorious triumph over the grave.
The pattern of pessimism—and one other: in your studying of modern theology, you will never come across things that are more devastating than what you read in scholarly studies of men. A modern theological professor, I quote him: “The Bible has lost all hold on the leaders of thought and certainly is destined before many years to become one of the curiosities of the past, this Book. The inspiration of those who spake, ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ is of only little higher type than that of the whirling dervishes and the heathen medicine men.” Or look again concerning the virgin birth—a modern popular preacher—I quote: “The historical evidence is not conclusive. It leads to a verdict of ‘not proven.’ It is a biological miracle which the modern mind cannot conceive.”
Like Tom Paine wrote in his Age of Reason, “Jesus was born when heathen mythology had fashioned in the world, and that mythology had prepared people for belief in such a story. Extraordinary men who lived under heathen mythology were reported to be the sons of the gods.” I quote another modern preacher concerning the atonement, the sacrifice of our Lord: “The idea of sacrifice and atonement are barbarous. And why should we commemorate the death of Christ? Why not commemorate the death of Emerson, or Socrates, or Immanuel Kant? We might as well speak of the wool of the lamb as to speak of the blood of the Lamb.”
May I quote another modern professor?
I believe that the whole view of the holy history with its theory of a chosen people, special revelations, prophecies is utterly unconvincing and basically vicious. I believe that beneath this whole superstructure of the so-called “divine plan of salvation” with its precise way in which God designs to save men is but one solid foundation, namely, man’s brave effort to save himself.
I quote another Baptist professor, “The theory of substitutionary punishment, that Christ dies for our sins, is founded upon a degradation which was outlawed from every decent personal penal system on earth long ago.” And another Baptist professor, “Paul’s idea of law, of penalty, of expiation offends the modern sense of justice and contradicts our ethical values at every point of conduct. I cannot see what good the sufferings of Jesus did. To be quite frank, that doctrine of atonement strikes me as being not merely incredible, but immoral as well.”
And it goes on and on! It is unthinkable, the pessimism and the blank dark despair that covers human life when we accept things as they are presented to us in modern life. But there is another way.
“How stupid is life?” said the mole.
“This earth is a dull dirty hole!
I eat, I dig, and I store,
But I find it all a bore!”
“The larks sang high in the blue,
‘How sweet is the morning dew.’
How clear the brooks, how fair the flowers;
I rejoice in this world of ours!”
Which would you be of the two?
I side with the lark—don’t you?
[“Two View of It,” Priscilla Leonard]
And did you read that big article about Boris Yeltsin as he took the place of Mikhail Gorbachev? And in the heart of his message, this sentence: “The people here are weary of pessimism, and the share of pessimism is too much for the people to handle. Now they need belief.” And what that Soviet leader and the president of the new union over there has said, I avow in God’s world today. We are weary of pessimism; and we seek a glorious light to shine upon us. And that is the gospel! That is the message of Jesus Christ. It starts with, on those first pages and on this first chapter, “In those days came Ioannes baptistēs”, John the one who baptizes, preaching, “kerugma, in the wilderness of Judea, and saying metanoeō,” change your mind,” that’s the literal translation of it, metanoeō, “change your mind: for the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Lift up your heart!” [Matthew 3:1-2].
May I turn to the next chapter in that same First Gospel?
That it might be fulfilled which was prophesied by Isaiah: He comes, O land of Zebulun and Naphtali alongside the sea, beyond Jordan, Gentiles of the Gentiles, The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. And to them who dwell in the valley of the shadow of death, light is shined
This is a marvelous upness, and victory, and glory of the faith in view of Jesus Christ! There’s a great day a-coming; there is hope and light and the hand of God in all of the providences of life and of history.
Dear, me! So the Lord came! And in the most amazing thing that I have ever read in life, just before He died, just before He was crucified, He spoke those marvelous chapters in John 14, 15, and 16. It begins with:
Let not your heart be troubled: ye that believe in God, believe also in Me.
In My Father’s house are many mansions…
And I am going to prepare a place for you.
That’s the way it begins. Then it ends in John 16:33: “In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer,” lift up your heart, “I have overcome the world.” This darkness and death are not final: “I am victory over sin, Death, and the Grave” [1 Corinthians 15:54-57].
Just before Christmas I had a funeral service here. “In the world, ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” [John 16:33]. A sainted man in our church, sick, long time ill—He healeth all our diseases [Psalm 103:3]; there is no illness and there’s no sickness over there—and he aged, grew old in the middle of his eighties. And what’s that beautiful song? “Where We’ll Never Grow Old,” and he died.
“And there is no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for these things shall all pass away” [Revelation 21:4]. There are no funeral processions down those golden streets; there are no funeral wreaths on those mansions in the sky; and there are no graveyards outside of those golden gates: “God having provided some better thing for us” [Hebrews 11:40]. And this is the incomparable and glorious hope brought to us by our living Lord.
Second Timothy 1:10: “In His resurrection He brought life and immortality from the grave.” Oh, what a victory God has brought to those who have found trust in Him!
For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.
We are troubled on every side, but not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair;
Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed;
Always bearing about in our bodies the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life of Jesus might also be manifested in our mortal bodies…
For which cause we faint not; but though this outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.
For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory;
While we look not at the things that are seen, but of the things that are not seen: for the things that are seen are temporal and passing; but the things that are not seen are eternal.
For we know that if our earthen house of this tabernacle be dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven…
For we walk by faith, and not by sight.
[2 Corinthians 4:6-10, 16-18; 5:1-2, 7]
So I go on, not knowing. I would not know if I might. I had rather walk with Christ by faith than to walk by myself with sight. I would rather walk with Christ in the dark than to walk by myself in the light. Turning our pessimism and our despair into the glory of the likeness of the triumph of the Son of God—that is the gospel! And that is our faith, and that is our commitment to our living Lord!
And while we sing our song, you who listen on television, you’ll find the number on your screen. There’ll be a consecrated, dedicated man or woman who will answer that phone, and if you don’t know how to accept Jesus as your Savior, call. There’ll be an open door for you into the kingdom of heaven, and I’ll see you in heaven some glorious day. And to the great throng of people in God’s house this precious hour, in the balcony round, down the stairway, and in the press of people on this lower floor, down one of these aisles: “Pastor, today I’m answering God’s call with my life.” May angels attend you in the way as you come, while we stand and while we sing.