"The Cynic's New Year"
by David Legge | Copyright © 2004 | All Rights Reserved | www.preachtheword.com
Now I want you to turn with me to the book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, if you're not familiar with where that is, it's Psalms, Proverbs, and then Ecclesiastes. It's easy finding the Psalms, that big book in the middle of your Bible, then Proverbs and then Ecclesiastes chapter 1 and verse 9. Now this is always a book that is difficult to understand, a book that often cults and false religions home in on because there are very strange statements within it. You have to understand the context of the book, and the author. We commonly believe that King Solomon was the author of this book, but he was found in a state of cynicism, pessimism, you could say that he was backslidden, he had lost much of his faith in God. So immediately you understand that it explains a lot of the statements that he makes in these verses, that we aren't meant to take as rules and regulations and principles for our Christian lives, but to show us what life is like without God, when you feel that God has let you down and you feel that God is not there.
So, looking into the new year of the unknown, I want us to look this morning at 'The Cynic's New Year'. Ecclesiastes 1 and just verse 9, and we will be looking at a number of verses throughout this book, but just verse 9 to start off with: "The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us".
Clovis G. Chappell (sp?) was a famous American preacher many years ago, and on one New Year's Day he preached a sermon on this very text, Ecclesiastes 1 verse 9, under the title that I have borrowed off him this morning, 'The Cynic's New Year'. In his introductory remarks he said these words, listen very carefully as I quote them verbatim: 'Here is a man' - i.e. the cynic - 'for whom life has obviously grown stale. He has suffered heavy and tragic losses, among these surely one of the most pathetic is the loss of his New Year's Day. Of course January 1st came to him every 12 months, even as it did to others, but it had for him no thrill of expectancy, it never meant a resurrection of hopes, it never brought a revival of courageous effort to attain the heights, no longer did he allow himself to be betrayed by it into making rash resolutions for the achieving of the impossible. In fact, this day had ceased altogether to be for him the beginning of a new year' - this is what I want you to note, he says: 'it was only the beginning of another year, another year of boredom and yawns, of disgust and despair, of wearily trudging through a monotonous waste of desert sand'.
I wonder could that be said of any of us here today, whether we are saved or lost, whether we're one of God's people or not, it's irrelevant really in the light of God's truth today: could it be said that, as we stand of the threshold of a new year, that it is only the beginning of another year, another year of boredom and yawns, of disgust and despair, of wearily trudging through a monotonous waste of desert sand? Chappell remarked, 'The trouble with this man is that he has allowed himself to become a cynic'. He saw so much of life that he didn't like, that he could not understand, make head nor tail of, and he became a cynic.
In case you don't know what a cynic is, the Oxford English Dictionary definition of it is this: 'someone with little faith in human sincerity and goodness'. You've lost your faith in humanity, lost your ideal that people really can be good at times. Henry Ward Beecher, another great American preacher, defined the cynic like this: 'The cynic is the one who never sees a good quality in a man, yet never fails to see a bad one. He is the human owl, he is vigilant in darkness and blind to the light. He puts all human actions into two classes: the openly bad, and the secretly bad. He holds that no man does a good thing except for a profit'.
Now we're all cynics at times, we all adopt a cynical attitude from time to time when various circumstances come into our lives. But you know a cynic, when you go up to him and you say to him: 'So-and-so is a good man, have you ever met him?' - and the cynic replies: 'Well, he's a good man when you see him, but what's he like behind closed doors, do you know that?'. That is a cynic, or you say to them: 'So-and-so is', not a good man but, 'a good Christian' - and they say: 'Yes, he is a good Christian on a Sunday, but what is he like the rest of the week? He takes long wide steps from Sunday to Sunday in his religion'. The cynic is the type of person, and we're all like this I suppose, when you're nice to them they say: 'What are you looking for? What are you after?'. You see, for the cynic a trusting person, a person that has faith not just in God but in anything, is not trusting but is naive and foolish, and is looking to get hurt.
Chappell says: 'Thus his eye strains out every good quality and takes only the bad, his criticisms fall upon every lovely thing like frost upon flowers'. Everything is bad, and even that which seems good, deep down is bad behind closed doors. A totally pessimistic cynical attitude adopted toward everything in life. Now my question to us today, most of us here I assume are Christians, is: could there be such a thing as the Christian cynic? Or a Christian cynicism? One who has not just lost his faith in humanity's goodness, but also has lost faith in God? Now I don't mean that you become atheistic or agnostic, but that you feel that God has no good for you, and whilst He might have some blessings for others, you feel that there is nothing that God can offer you. The experiences of your past have only caused you to anticipate that the future will let you down just like the past.
Is it possible to be a Christian and to be a cynic? Well, in the Old Testament context of the book of Ecclesiastes you see it possible to once have had faith in God and to lose that. As you read through Ecclesiastes twelve chapters you find that he calls himself 'the preacher'. This is a man who is a preacher, but the text that he takes is not the text of a promise of God to encourage us, enthuse us and comfort us, but it's a cry of hopeless emptiness and despair. He concludes over and over again that everything in life that he has seen, even in the life of religion that he has enjoyed, is vanity of vanities, all is vanity - nothing is worth anything! So his conclusion is that there is nothing new under the sun - now I know we can say, 'Yes, you're right in a sense there, Solomon' - but what he means is in a pessimistic, cynical sense there is nothing new, there is nothing to look forward to, all is pain and anxiety and distress, it's all going round in a vicious cycle that everyone must experience, and you can never get out of it until you die - and in fact his conclusion in this book is that it's better to be dead.
His question is not to ask, 'Is there life after death?', but the question he's asking is, 'Is there life before death?'. Is there a life to be enjoyed? That was the spirit of this cynic. Theodore Roosevelt, the ex-president of the United States, made this quotation: 'The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer'. That is what a cynic does, he faces life with a sneer - are you facing the new year with a sneer? I don't underestimate what you've experienced in the last 12 months that have passed, but as you're entering into the unknown are you doing so as a cynic? I quoted a cynic on Wednesday evening at our Watchnight service in my message, Lord Dundas, you remember he was wished a happy new year, and he says: 'It had need be happier than the last, for I never knew one happy day in it!'. Now is that true? Of course he is bound to have known one happy day, or at least one happy hour; but the fact of the matter was that his spirit, human that it was, was embittered by this cynicism that caused him to see all of the future being dark and drear and hopeless.
Now let's ask four questions in the time that I have to me this morning about this cynic. The first question is: how did he become cynical? How did he become cynical, and how do any of us become cynical? Well, as you read through this book you find that he wasn't born a cynic, you can't be born a cynic really, and we also find that he was no ignorant fool. He was highly educated, and when we realise that it is Solomon who is writing this book we realise that he was the man who asked God for wisdom, and God gave him wisdom above all his fellows, and above every man apart from the Saviour Himself who had ever lived. This is no ignorant fool, neither is it a crown or court jester who tries to shock his friends by making sacrilegious or even blasphemous statements about life or about God just to get a reaction. This is not the spirit of the author, he is a preacher, he is a man who has known God and who knows God's word. This is a man before us this morning who is genuinely questioning the great issues of life.
Now if you've got two brain cells bouncing around your skull to rub together, there must have been some time when you have questioned the great issues of life, even as a believer in the Lord Jesus. I have. In fact the greatest of men, the men of God that we know to be the greatest, have found themselves in the valley of doubt and despair often. As one famous preacher has said: 'Doubt the man that never doubts'. We find Elijah, the greatest prophet in the Old Testament, and what is he doing? He has been already on the mount, he has thrown down the gauntlet to the prophets of Baal, to the King and to the Queen; he has had a great spiritual triumph and victory, he is coming down from the mount after invoking fire from heaven in answer to his faith and prayer, and he hears that Jezebel wants his head on a slab. What does he do in the face of a woman's scorn? He runs, runs and runs and runs away from the face of life's extremities, and he finds himself a Juniper tree to cast himself beneath, and by innate internal suicide he cries out: 'God, take my life, I don't want to live ever again!'.
That was Elijah, his counterpart in the New Testament, John the Baptist - his spiritual descendant if you like - after pointing the way to the Lamb of God who could take away the sin of the world, he was the forerunner of the Messiah preparing the way, making straight the path of the Lord, the servant of Jehovah. After doing so he's locked up in prison for calling the King an adulterer, and as he's lying on the damp wet ground he begins to doubt, he begins to think: 'Has my ministry all been a waste? Have I been pointing forward to the wrong one?'. My friends he was human, a lot of people say: 'John the Baptist didn't think like that', John the Baptist did! They do exegetical somersaults to try and say that he didn't doubt, he did doubt! He doubted just like Elijah his father doubted, he had fear and he passed through such a dark valley of despair and doubt and depression - but what we have here in this preacher in Ecclesiastes is even worse than those two types of depression, this isn't something that just blows past, a passing bout of the blues - we all get that from time to time. This was an ingrained cynicism that had affected all of his life, everything that he had known and enjoyed before, it was destroying him!
How did he become cynical? Well, we don't really know. All I know is that some people get this way because of a great disappointment. They have been embittered because they haven't got where they have wanted in life, they haven't achieved what they have longed for, their dream - because of that they resent life, they resent God for not giving them what they thought was their right and their fairytale. But as we look at Solomon in this book, and indeed the other books, we don't see that at all, we see the exact opposite - anything he wanted in ambition he seemed to get. Whatever his hand touched it had that Midas touch. He was the richest, the most wealthy, the most beautiful King in existence. That might be the reason why you're cynical, you've been disappointed, but it wasn't Solomon's.
Some get cynical because of suffering in their lives, not disappointment but suffering. Job, if you look at him in his book, look what he suffered. He suffered the loss of his family, he suffered the loss of the business, his farm and all his cattle and all his wealth - but when Satan took his hand and actually touched his body, and he began to get ill and experience pain, it was then he became a little bit cynical. He started asking the questions, and then he cursed the day that he was ever born.
I wonder why you may be cynical today, why was this preacher cynical? I'll tell you that his was none of those, we don't know that he experienced any pain or sickness, or disappointment, this was a deliberate reasoned cynicism! You see it from these chapters, that having done much experimentation in the whole laboratory of life, he finds that the only reasonable position possible to him is a cynic. It's the only way to be, it's the only conclusion as I have looked into life!
Can I just say that he was right? Does that shock you? It ought to shock you! He was right! Do you know why he was right? Because Solomon was looking at life without God. He had lost his faith, not just in humanity but in divinity, and being without God means naturally being without hope. Are you like that? Oh, I have to confess to you there are times I do get like that. On one occasion Martin Luther was like that, and he was so dejected and depressed - I think I've told you this before, but it's worthy of telling again - his wife came into his kitchen dressed in black, and he said: 'Who's dead?, and she says: 'God's dead'. 'God's dead? What do you mean God's dead? God is not dead, woman!'...'Then why are you living as if He was?'.
How did he become cynical, we don't know, but the primary reason was this: he had left God out of the whole picture! God was not in the equation. Here's the second question: what things of life did he conclude as vanity because of his cynicism? Read the book when you go home: he concluded that the universe was vanity. That universe that you look into the dark sky at night and see the wonder of it all, the constellations, the stars, the planets, the sun and moon, and you fall - perhaps - as a believer on your face before God in worship because the heavens declare of God, the firmament showeth forth His handiwork. But for this old preacher, there was nothing in the universe to thrill him, nothing to excite him. That hymn that we so love here in the Iron Hall, it goes like this:
'Heaven above is softer blue,
Earth around is sweeter green.
Something lives in every hue
Christless eyes have never seen'.
That was his problem, he hadn't Christ in his view. When you don't have Christ in view and you look into the future, you don't see anything beautiful in the wonders of creation - heaven above is dark, earth around is dead, everything is death and destruction because Christless eyes do not see life like that. There was only vanity in the universe to him. There was only vanity in pleasure to him - and boy, did he gave himself to the task of enjoying as much pleasure as possible, and he had the wealth and resources to exhaust the lusts and passions that were in his bosom. Yet we read from this book that he returns from all of his sensual adventures empty, he went down every avenue that promised all the fruit of sensuality that could be purchased in his present day - yet at the end of it all he stands empty, hopeless, dissatisfied!
All vanity! Oh, that our pleasure-mad society today would realise that. How many believers are harbouring after materialism and the things of this world? The universe, pleasure vanity, achievement was vanity to him. He did in his life, and had the ability to do, most things that the world of his day thought worthy. He reached the top of the ladder, he had every possession, he had all the wine, the women, the song if you like, he could enjoy - yet at the end of it all he reached the top of the ladder and found that there was nothing! He became a builder, he constructed palaces and beautiful cities, changed landscapes into gardens and amassed a great fortune of wealth - but he said: 'Vanity of vanities, all of it is vanity'.
The universe, pleasure, achievement, and then wisdom - he was the wisest of them all, but yet he concludes that wisdom (although it's better than folly, although it's like light to darkness), the wise man at times is worse off than the fool because the wise man knows more, he therefore suffered more because of his knowledge - therefore he concludes in it all that it is better to be a happy fool than a miserable wise man. Do you get his reasoning? The saying puts it well: 'Where ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise'. That's what he said, and then he went bit further and said: 'Wisdom only means anything when it's used, it's only useful when it is used'. He tells the story about a poor man who saves his home city, but nobody appreciated him, and therefore he asks the question: 'How dies a wise man? What's the point of being wise? If you're wise and you use your wisdom, nobody appreciates it'. How dies a wise man? 'Even as a fool', he says! Both of them die as a beast, he had no faith in the universe, in pleasure, in his achievements, in his own wisdom, he was losing his faith in God, and he had lost long ago his faith in man.
It's very amusing when you read what he says about man. He says that there might be one good man in thousand, but as for a good woman...they don't exist according to Solomon! Sorry about that, ladies! Men were not only uniformly bad, but he goes a step further and he says that they are doomed to stay that way. He says the crooked can never be made straight. Now this is by far, I think, the most cynical statement of Solomon in the whole of this book - it's the most hopeless thing that he says - it's this: that man's in trouble but he can't get out of the trouble. If you believe that as you're entering a new year, that you're in trouble and not even God can get you out of that trouble, you've become cynical!
The great message of the Gospel and the Christian hope is this: yes, man is depraved - the fact is, man is a sinner - but hallelujah, Christ came to save sinners! What things of life he concluded vanity, those - thirdly, what did his cynicism do to him? You mark this very well, because this is a sort of stealth process, it can happen to you moment by moment, step-by-step, steps that are so small that you don't even realise it's happening. What did it do to him? Well the first thing is this: it killed all sense of responsibility. He had all the wealth, he had all the health, he had all the knowledge and all the wisdom, and he had the vast abilities to do whatever he could with the wisdom and knowledge that he had, but he had no sense of responsibility. He was a moral and spiritual dwarf - why? Because he thought it was all pointless, he didn't have God in his sight, and because God wasn't there overseeing and overlooking everything that he was doing he felt that he had no responsibility to God or to himself.
Another thing his cynicism did to him was it paralysed his charity towards others. Not only did it affect his responsibility towards God and himself, but his responsibility towards the rest of humanity. He could have helped them, but he thought to himself: 'Why should I help them? What good will it do them? If I get them out of this hole, and I fix them this time, they'll need another one a few miles down the road! That's what life's like, it's vanity, therefore it's vanity to help anyone! Every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost!' - that was his motto. Survival of the fittest, so there was no charity towards others.
Then thirdly it made him miserable. Do you know what we have today, even among Christians? People who don't have any sense of responsibility towards the church or to God. You've Christians who don't have any sense of love towards their fellow believers, and then you've Christians who - I would have to say - are just plain miserable! Cynicism makes you miserable, it takes the bloom and the beauty out of life. This man got to the stage in his life where he said: 'The only one man that I can congratulate in humanity and in existence on the face of the earth is the man that is dead - Congratulations!' - pat on his back! In fact, even better than that, he goes further and he says 'Better than the man that is dead is the man that has never been born!'.
How do you like that for an attitude? He concludes this whole matter by saying: 'I hated life' - you never would tell, would you? - 'Life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing'. It's as if he seems to say, 'Eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die' - can I paraphrase that into modern language? 'The best thing to do is to get drunk and forget about it all!', that's what Solomon said. Do you see if I knew that there was no God? I wouldn't be doing this! I wouldn't, and I might just be getting drunk and forgetting all about it all. The thing that makes the difference is having God in your sight! If we have not Him, we are of all men most miserable! If Christ is still in the grave and rotting, God help us!
There's a story told of a man who was once pursued by a fierce beast. He saw a well as he was coming along, and he just decided to jump down it. He jumped down near the bottom of the well, and he discovered a horrible dragon with its mouth open ready to swallow him! Therefore he stopped and quickly held on to a weed, a little bush clinging at the side of that well. As he was hanging there with the beast baying down its breath upon him from above, and with the dragon with wide open gaping teeth from below, lo and behold what happened but two mice ran out of a little hole in the side of the well and started gnawing away at the little green bush that he was holding onto. Do you know what he did? He started to lick some honeydew that was on one of the leaves. That is the attitude of Solomon here: 'Life's just hell, and whatever pleasure I can get out of it I'll get out of it, because we're all going down, we're all going the one-way' - that ought not to be the Christian's attitude. We fall into it, it's the attitude of the world: 'Friday night, drown your sorrows, forget about it all, win the lottery and all the money and wealth will help me' - and at the end it doesn't!
The third question - we've asked, how did he become cynical, what things of life did he conclude as vanity, what did his cynicism do? It destroyed him. Fourthly: how did he escape his cynicism? Now here's a message for this new year, this man, near the end of the book if you turn to it, chapter 12, he seems to have come into a discovery of God again. Because he discovers God, through that discovery his whole attitude towards life changed - now can I just be a little bit personal for a moment, because I'm speaking to my own heart here? If we took some believers and set them beside some unbelievers, we would find - yes, that one is saved, and I don't dispute that, and the other is lost - but we would find that there is not one iota of difference between their attitude to the things of life! The only explanation is that God is not in your view, even as a Christian, and through all these things, the discovery of God, old things were passed away for Solomon and all things have become new!
Quickly let me give you these three things in antithesis to the last three destructive influences in his life: through the discovery of God he came to possess a new sense of duty. God was there, there was a God to answer, there was a God to serve, there was a God that was before him everywhere he went. As you read through the latter chapters of this book you find that he says: 'I ought, I ought, I ought, I owe, I owe, I owe' - that is the sentiment. He closes this book with one of the most majestic sentences in the whole Bible, and it's this: 'Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man' - eh? What about that? That's the conclusion of it all! There is a God, that's the only answer to this life, and He must be served, He must be obeyed - a sense of duty.
Secondly, he came to a new sense of his personal responsibility. He said in verse 9 of chapter 11, probably to one of his sons: 'Rejoice, O young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes: but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgment'. We are answerable to God, we are responsible to God, it doesn't mean that you can't enjoy yourself - but in all of our pleasures let us always remember that we have a responsibility to Him. Then at the end of it all, after the realisation that all he had suffered and all he had enjoyed was vanity, he shows us how to avoid the tragic mistake that he had made - and let me tell you that we don't all have to go down his road to find it out. He left the conclusion in chapter 12 verse 1: 'Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth, while the evil days come not, nor the years draw nigh, when thou shalt say, I have no pleasure in them'.
Here is the answer how not to have an absolutely miserable new year - and I know that there may be things that will happen that will cause you to be sad, we'll all have those probably - but let us not become cynical. How do I not become cynical when everything is going wrong in my life and in this world? Remember now thy Creator! This is what he forgot, that there was a Creator! Now can I ask you, just as we close our meeting - give me the time to do this - what are you remembering now that fills your potential new year with cynicism? What is it that is filling your gaze? Turn with me to 1 Kings 19 verse 1 to 3, it's Elijah again - and remember what has happened, as I told you he has run away from Jezebel - in verse 1 it says: 'And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and withal how he had slain all the prophets with the sword' - what a mighty man! 'Then Jezebel sent a messenger unto Elijah, saying, So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not thy life as the life of one of them by to morrow about this time' - now mark verse 3 - 'And when he saw that' - he saw that, it doesn't say he heard it, does it? 'When he saw that', the Hebrew, I'm led to believe, means 'it filled his gaze, his vision' - Elijah got the picture, he got the picture that she was after his life. 'He came to Beersheba, which belongeth to Judah, and left his servant there'. Then he goes a few days journey and casts himself before the Lord: 'I am not better than my fathers, let me die' - what happened? What he had heard filled his gaze and his vision, he got the picture of his circumstances rather than a vision of God!
What are you remembering today as you enter a new year? In the book 'A World of Ideas', Bill Moyers quotes the writer Jacob Neilman (sp?) with these words: 'I was an observer at the launch of Apollo 17 in 1975. It was a night launch and there were hundreds of cynical reporters all over the lawn drinking beer, wisecracking, and waiting for the 35 storey high rocket to go up into the sky. The countdown came and then the launch, the first thing you see is this extraordinary orange light which is just at the limit of what you can bear to look at. Everything is illuminated with this light, then comes this thing slowly rising up in total silence - because it takes a few seconds for the sound to come across - you hear a woosh, then a hum, and it enters right into you. The first stage ignites this beautiful blue flame, it becomes like a star, and then you realise that there are humans on it, and then there was total silence'. He describes the scene: the people around him just started to get up quietly, helping each other up. They were kind now, they opened the doors of their cars for each other, they looked at one another speaking quietly and interestedly. He says this mighty remark: 'These were suddenly civilised people because of a sense of wonder. It had turned them from cynics to civilised' - because they saw the wonder.
If we see the wonder of God, if we remember our Creator now in awe and wonder it will do great things for us, and we'll not be saying as we enter another new year: 'There is nothing new under the sun', but we will say 'We are new creatures in Christ Jesus, the old has passed away; behold, all things have become new'.
Let's bow our heads together. Maybe you're in our meeting and you've left God out of the picture completely, you're not even a Christian. Well, you're a liar if you can tell me that life is full and satisfied without Him. If it feels like it, it's not true satisfaction at all and you're being duped completely. Maybe you're a believer here and your backslidden circumstances have caused you to lose heart, lose faith in God. Do we all not need to take this word of exhortation today? And as the old king once said at the new year, to put our hands into the hand of the Lord and trust Him? Will we all do that today? I trust we will.
Father, we remember the two on the road to Emmaus, we thought about them already this morning around the table. They were downcast, dejected on a journey like we are on a journey of time, and they thought everything was dead, all their dreams and ambitions. They were a bit like Solomon the cynic, until the Lord Jesus drew strangely near, went with them, revealed Himself to them, spoke of Himself within all the Scriptures - it was Christ that made the difference. Lord, may He make the difference for all of us this new year's Sunday, and from this day on. To His glory we pray, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the tape titled "The Cynic's New Year" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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