I attended Willow Creek’s Global Leadership Summit this year at a satellite location here in Omaha. There was a lot to receive, some things to redeem, and others to reject. Today, Erwin McManus, pastor of Mosaic in Los Angeles, closed out the Summit with his talk about Christians being culture creators and creative story tellers.
He exceptionally articulated the fact that because God is a creator, Christians are also called to be creative and enter into the redemption that God is working in the world. He told about the time he led Soledad O’Brien to Christ while describing a documentary he was making about the longings and desires every person has. McManus is clearly an innovator, very intelligent (despite barely graduating high school), and no doubt loves Jesus.
The text that McManus spoke from, and formed his argument around, was Ecclesiastes 1:1-11. Aside from the first ten minutes McManus sounded like a (fairly) orthodox Christian, albeit using post-modern vocabulary. In those first 10 minutes, however, his use and interpretation of the text was irresponsible, troubling and dangerous at best.
After telling the audience that Ecclesiastes is his favorite book in the Bible, he read the first eleven verses and said that he has been convinced for a while that “Solomon is wrong.” Wrong about what? Wrong that “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun” (v. 9). McManus described a time he spoke with his wife and she humorously said, “You are going to hell…Don’t tell anyone you think that.” McManus said he waited a “long time” to tell anyone. He also said, “I don’t believe the Bible’s wrong…I believe Solomon is wrong!” He stated, “Solomon said that animals and men are the same. Do you think that’s true? I don’t.”
McManus went on to argue, as you can imagine, that there are new things in the world. He mentioned various stories in the Old Testament where God did something new, the fact that every person is made unique, the incarnation, the death and resurrection of Jesus, and countless other “new” things. He’s right. New things happen all the time.
But McManus is also wrong. He’s wrong because Solomon is not wrong. It’s not just dangerous that McManus took Ecclesiastes 1 completely out of context (as scary as that is, especially with Ecclesiastes!). What’s more is that he said, “Solomon is wrong.” He told 180,000 people that a biblical author, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, actually got it wrong. Solomon said there’s nothing new. He’s wrong. I don’t believe him. Let me tell you how the world actually is. If McManus is free to do that (and convince people to do likewise), who is to say that he cannot twist any other passage?
What was Solomon’s point in saying that everything is meaningless and there is nothing new in Ecclesiastes 1? Did he literally mean there is no purpose in live and that literally nothing new ever happens? Moreover, has any respected biblical scholar or pastor ever assumed that’s what he meant? No and no.
Ecclesiastes is a book of repentance. Solomon wrote it after a long life wasted on sex, drugs, and rock and roll, B.C. style. He was the richest, wisest, sexiest, strongest, and most famous man in the known world. But he turned from the Lord and so nothing was fulfilling to him. His fall is recorded in 1 Kings 11:1-8. Solomon “did evil in the sight of the LORD” (v. 6) and did not remain faithful to Yahweh. He had “hewed out cisterns…that can hold no water” (see Jer. 2:13). He looked for ultimate satisfaction, just as McManus said every human does, in things other than God himself. Women, money, and fame were never meant to deliver ultimate satisfaction.
Ecclesiastes chronicles Solomon’s journey back to God before his death. The book ends with this: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (12:13-14). That gives us a small peek into how the rest of the book should be interpreted and applied.
When Solomon says, therefore, that “All is vanity,” and that “there is nothing new under the sun,” he does not mean that God does not do miracles or that he cannot “bring into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17). Solomon also does not mean that human beings are not creative agents who partner with God in his redemptive work by creating beauty in this world through relationships, culture, and art. Would a man whose father was the most accomplished musician and poet in the history of the world say that humans don’t create new things?
What then does Solomon mean? He means that living a life apart from God’s commands (see 12:13) is a big waste of time! Living far from God only brings emptiness to life that leaves a person attempting to fill their void in life with truly boring things. Things like drink, food, sex, money, power, pornography, video games, sports, gambling, children’s soccer games, internet, cell phones, books, family, diet and exercise, body image, cars, status, power, and a thousand others. A life lived for anything other than God and his glory brings misery and ultimate meaninglessness. That life produces what seems to be purposeless existence. “I lived for women and fame and wisdom and money and everything else you could try,” Solomon says. “It was all vain.”
What is not vain? When does creativity and renewal and beauty and majesty appear? It appears when we “fear God and keep his commandments” (12:13). Any Jewish person hearing this text would think of Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”
Jesus said this was the greatest commandment (Matt. 22:37). Jesus even said that this commandment, and “the second greatest” commandment, sum up “all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:40). Ultimately, we fear and obey Jesus Christ, who is the exact imprint of God’s nature, the image of the invisible God, and God himself (Heb. 1:3; Col. 1:15; John 1:1), and we love other people because they are made in the image of God. We fear and obey Jesus, not to simply avoid meaninglessness and escape hell, but because he has saved us from our sin, reconciled us to God, given us rest, and rescued us from the wrath to come. This the the gospel: We are accepted by God through Christ, therefore we obey.
Solomon tells us that a life lived apart from fearing God and obeying him will be meaningless, uncreative, and boring. Solomon experienced exactly what C.S. Lewis wrote thousands of years later, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” Solomon was far to easily pleased. Apart from God’s grace, so are you and me.
McManus was right to say that we are born in the image of God and we are to create beauty in every sphere of life and do it for the glory of God. He had that quite right. At the end of his talk, I was waiting for him to give the real “twist” and say, “Actually, Solomon isn’t wrong. In God’s story, there is true beauty and creativity. When you write your own story, filled with your own pleasures, there is nothing new that will come of that. The final outcome of that will always be misery.” But he did not.
McManus is wrong because Solomon is not wrong. If Solomon is wrong about life, then the Bible itself is wrong. If that is the case, then our faith is null and void and all the beauty we see and create is actually an illusion, a product of random chance, not of God’s sovereign and purposeful design. Therefore, I will go so far to say that no one has been “righter” than Solomon, who experienced firsthand the emptiness and deadness of life outside of God’s loving reign. Thankfully, he repented, which most people do not do.
The Imago Dei has indeed been marred by sin. We are a segmented fraction of our true potential. God is re-creating what is marred, and he will finish his good work (see Rom. 8:29; 1 John 3:2; Rev. 21:5).
All who are being made new–by grace through faith–start now in partnering with God to help, in a small way, to make everything else new, including this world. That will never happen if you are lost in a slum satisfied with mud sandwich. There’s no beauty, no renewal, no art, no creativity there. There’s only meaningless. And that’s where Solomon was. Until he repented.
Let us go and do likewise.