Monday, February 2, 2015


In honor of today being Groundhog Day, I thought I'd post this Bible study using the (excellent) film of the same name. The junior high group at St. Thomas will be doing this study at some point during the summer.

Cycles of Life:
A Study of Ecclesiastes Using the Film

Lesson 1: The Meaningless Repetition

Ecclesiastes 1:1-11

1 The words of the Teacher, [a] son of David, king in Jerusalem:
 2 "Meaningless! Meaningless!"
       says the Teacher.
       "Utterly meaningless!
       Everything is meaningless."
 3 What does man gain from all his labor
       at which he toils under the sun?
 4 Generations come and generations go,
       but the earth remains forever.
 5 The sun rises and the sun sets,
       and hurries back to where it rises.
 6 The wind blows to the south
       and turns to the north;
       round and round it goes,
       ever returning on its course.
 7 All streams flow into the sea,
       yet the sea is never full.
       To the place the streams come from,
       there they return again.
 8 All things are wearisome,
       more than one can say.
       The eye never has enough of seeing,
       nor the ear its fill of hearing.
 9 What has been will be again,
       what has been done will be done again;
       there is nothing new under the sun.
 10 Is there anything of which one can say,
       "Look! This is something new"?
       It was here already, long ago;
       it was here before our time.
 11 There is no remembrance of men of old,
       and even those who are yet to come
       will not be remembered
       by those who follow.

Discussion Questions

What is one day you WOULD like to relive?

What are some examples of history repeating itself?
(Note: History is often the story of the same folly repeated over and over again. Economic downturns take place in clearly defined cycles, and just think about the mirror images of Napoleon, WWI, WWII, The Cold War, and so forth.)

Why is Phil so depressed at the prospect of reliving the same day endlessly? And why is Ecclesiastes point about the cycles of history written with such a negative tone?
(Note: If history just repeats itself, or if every day just repeats over and over, nothing you do can really have any visible effect. Most of the Bible has a very linear view of history, meaning it sees history as a story that is moving forward, and that we can therefore advance and take part in, our actions becoming part of the story. In this way, our actions gain meaning and value. Ecclesiastes is challenging this view. He claims that history is cyclical, and so nothing we do really makes any difference at all. He’s facing the same problem Phil does: if everything just repeats, nothing you do really matters.)

What do you think of Ecclesiastes view of history?
(Note: Ecclesiastes may be going too far here. While there definitely ARE cycles in history, there is forward motion too. And beneath the cycles God may be moving forward a plan we cannot see, but in which we take part anyways.)

In what way is time a ‘problem’? How do we overcome this ‘problem’?
(Note: Time is a problem in that it threatens us with death and eventually the erosion of our memory. What we accomplish will eventually disappear, nothing can stop that. To the degree we bind the meaning of our life with worldly things, time will ultimately ‘defeat’ us. But if what we do in this world becomes a doorway to a lasting eternal existence, then time becomes little more than a companion who reminds us to treasure each moment as something that will live forever within our experience and spirit.)

What are some of the ways Phil dealt with his predicament in the film?
(Note: Phil turns first to a life of pleasure and sin: free from the burden of trying to create meaning he relishes a meaningless existence. Later he turns to a woman as his way out, thinking that making her love him will somehow make everything right, knowing that she is special and thinking he can somehow leech off of that. Eventually he is overtaken by total despair and suicide and self-destruction are his only answer. He then tries for a program of self-improvement and seeks to become a wiser and better person, only to be confronted with his own limitations. Finally he tries to find value and meaning in his quest for self-improvement and just in the fleeting moments he’s given.)

Where do we find meaning in life if the universe is so big, and time’s length and repetition makes us seem so ‘meaningless’?
(Note: We do this by investing the everyday with lasting value, by trying to discover the eternal, the forever, in the everyday moments of the world. Religion is the embodiment of THAT quest.)

Lesson 2: The Escape of Pleasure

Ecclesiastes 2:1-11

 1 I thought in my heart, "Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good." But that also proved to be meaningless. 2 "Laughter," I said, "is foolish. And what does pleasure accomplish?" 3 I tried cheering myself with wine, and embracing folly—my mind still guiding me with wisdom. I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives.
 4 I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards. 5 I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them. 6 I made reservoirs to water groves of flourishing trees. 7 I bought male and female slaves and had other slaves who were born in my house. I also owned more herds and flocks than anyone in Jerusalem before me. 8 I amassed silver and gold for myself, and the treasure of kings and provinces. I acquired men and women singers, and a harem as well—the delights of the heart of man. 9 I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me. In all this my wisdom stayed with me.
 10 I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
       I refused my heart no pleasure.
       My heart took delight in all my work,
       and this was the reward for all my labor.
 11 Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
       and what I had toiled to achieve,
       everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
       nothing was gained under the sun.

If there were no tomorrow, what would you do?

What originally prompts Phil to seek out pleasure? What about Ecclesiastes, why does he begin his ‘quest for pleasure’?
(Note: Phil realizes with the help of his drunken friends that his predicament means that there are no consequences to his actions. That just as he can add nothing to the world, he can take nothing from it. So Phil starts having a good time. Ecclesiastes is on a deeper quest. Unable with his mind to perceive any meaning in life, he wants to experience everything he can to try to see if any of it brings him meaning.)

What are some of the things Ecclesiastes and Phil do to search for the heart of pleasure? What are the similarities? What are the differences?
(Note: Phil plays chicken with a train, insults a police officer, robs a bank, engages in every bad habit imaginable, and seeks out romantic and sensual exploits. Ecclesiastes built parks and buildings, acquired slaves and all manner of property, and obtained a harem. Both Phil and Ecclesiastes included sexual sin in their list of follies, and both included attaining riches. But Phil seeks out romance itself and Ecclesiastes gives no thought to it, Ecclesiastes tries to build things of real value and Phil doesn’t concern himself with that at all.)

Why does Phil’s quest end in despair? Why does Ecclesiastes’? And why is pleasure seeking incapable of giving our lives meaning?
(Note: Phil despairs because he perceives a value that is beyond pleasure in his relationship with Rita but is incapable of attaining that value through pure pleasure-seeking. Ecclesiastes similarly doesn’t discover meaning IN pleasure and so the quest is wasted. Pleasure cannot give your life meaning, because meaning if it exists is found only in what really LASTS. Pleasure is fleeting, it can make you FEEL meaning but it cannot give you what is really meaningful. Pleasure is also self-centered and you can only discover meaning in creative RELATIONSHIP, with other people, and with God. Phil perceives this with Rita but can’t act upon it. Ecclesiastes can feel the eyes of God upon him and this reminds him of the futility of his quest to make his own meaning. Meaning is not within our own power to give, because we know instinctively its proper source is God.)

In what ways do you try to replace God with pleasure? How do we avoid this in our own lives? Is it right just to forget about pleasure and happiness altogether?
(Note: As we will see later on, God does NOT want us to avoid pleasure and happiness. Replacing God with pleasure is evil, but avoiding the wonders of life which are them selves God-given is also a moral mistake. The trick is to see pleasure and happiness as having value in and through God, and only so long as they are flowing naturally from God. Happiness and pleasure can ‘point’ to God, but if they cease pointing to God and become ends in themselves they lead to idolatry of the worst sort)

Lesson 3: Total Despair

Ecclesiastes 2:17-23, 3:18-21

17 So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. 18 I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me. 19 And who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will have control over all the work into which I have poured my effort and skill under the sun. This too is meaningless. 20 So my heart began to despair over all my toilsome labor under the sun. 21 For a man may do his work with wisdom, knowledge and skill, and then he must leave all he owns to someone who has not worked for it. This too is meaningless and a great misfortune. 22 What does a man get for all the toil and anxious striving with which he labors under the sun? 23 All his days his work is pain and grief; even at night his mind does not rest. This too is meaningless….18 I also thought, "As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. 19 Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath ; man has no advantage over the animal. Everything is meaningless. 20 All go to the same place; all come from dust, and to dust all return. 21 Who knows if the spirit of man rises upward and if the spirit of the animal goes down into the earth?”

Discussion Questions:

What do you think it means to despair?
(Note: Despair is the loss of hope. It’s more than just sadness or depression…it’s a complete lack of motivation and the loss of the basic psychological facts that push us to survive normally. It’s the psychological loss of meaning.)

What brings about despair in Phil? In Ecclesiastes?
(Note: Phil falls into despair because he cannot get Rita to love him. He’s incapable of having a real authentic encounter with another person, especially the woman he loves, because of his predicament. Ecclesiastes is almost assaulted by the fact of death and the realization that nothing he’s accomplishing will last, but rather will be passed to someone who may do very bad things with it. He can’t even be confident that in the long run what he does is ‘good’ for anybody, given the fact that those who come after him may be very evil.)

Have you ever dealt with despair before? If so, how?

How does Phil deal with his despair?
(Note: Phil’s answer is the worst possible: suicide. Suicide is a victory for darkness, when we given into that impulse we make our deaths a testament to meaninglessness and put a terrible burden on others around us. It may not be true that suicides necessarily go to Hell, but it is true that suicide is USUALLY a horrible act, the worst we can ever undertake, perhaps.)

What do you think is the right way to deal with despair?
(Note: Each person has to come to terms with their own darkness. But they shouldn’t try to do it alone. Seeking out other people who have had the same problem is very helpful, as are meditation, and therapy. But ultimately despair shouldn’t be looked at simply as a burden, it can be an opportunity to examine our lives and look for the causes of our predicament. If we’ve fallen into despair because of a vain search for pleasure, maybe our lifeworld should be centered elsewhere. Internal hardship can be an opportunity for more prayer, and scriptural study. Seeking out God in the darkness is difficult, but the rewards can be great for our overall spiritual lives.)

Why do you think pain and suffering can be opportunities to get closer to God?
(Note: Because God has suffered and does suffer. It is because we are not alone in our despair, and because God never abandons us that we can turn this negative into a positive. To understand this mystery fully, take a look at the cross.)

Lesson 4: “You’re Not God”

Ecclesiastes 5:1-7

 1 Guard your steps when you go to the house of God. Go near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools, who do not know that they do wrong.
 2 Do not be quick with your mouth,
       do not be hasty in your heart
       to utter anything before God.
       God is in heaven
       and you are on earth,
       so let your words be few.
 3 As a dream comes when there are many cares,
       so the speech of a fool when there are many words.
 4 When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow. 5 It is better not to vow than to make a vow and not fulfill it. 6 Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger, "My vow was a mistake." Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands? 7 Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore stand in awe of God.

Discussion Questions:

Why does Phil make a pretense to being a god?
(Note: He cannot die, he has learned so much he’s able to predict and manipulate the town however he wishes, he’s in complete control and knows everything about his environment.)

Phil suggests God may not be omnipotent but that instead His vast knowledge gives him control over everything. What do you think about this?

What does Ecclesiastes say about our words? What might this indicate about Phil’s pronouncement that he is a god?
(Note: Ecclesiastes says our words can bring upon us disaster, that God will bring us to bear for what we say. He’d take a dim view of Phil’s words here. It’s really what we would call blasphemy.)

What is the ultimate attitude we should have about God?

How do we tend to try to make ourselves gods? In what way have we discussed this issue before?

(Note: In many ways Phil’s attitude now is an extension of his pleasure-seeking. When we seek pleasure as a central ordering factor we are really centering our lives on ourselves, on what we can control. We are trying to make our meaning. In this way we really do what Phil is doing here: we try to make ourselves our own gods.)

What indication do we get that Phil has learned the lesson that he is not a god?
(Note: When he reads the poem, it ends with ‘only God can make a tree’. Phil has learned something this day, he’s learned that happiness is not something he can give himself but rather is a function of grace, spontaneous and given from outside. He may be very much in control, but his control ends at his own heart.)

Lesson 5: The Greatness & Limits Of Wisdom

Ecclesiastes 7:11-25, 8:16-17

11 Wisdom, like an inheritance, is a good thing
       and benefits those who see the sun.
 12 Wisdom is a shelter
       as money is a shelter,
       but the advantage of knowledge is this:
       that wisdom preserves the life of its possessor.
 13 Consider what God has done:
       Who can straighten
       what he has made crooked?
 14 When times are good, be happy;
       but when times are bad, consider:
       God has made the one
       as well as the other.
       Therefore, a man cannot discover
       anything about his future.
 15 In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these:
       a righteous man perishing in his righteousness,
       and a wicked man living long in his wickedness.
 16 Do not be overrighteous,
       neither be overwise—
       why destroy yourself?
 17 Do not be overwicked,
       and do not be a fool—
       why die before your time?
 18 It is good to grasp the one
       and not let go of the other.
       The man who fears God will avoid all extremes .
 19 Wisdom makes one wise man more powerful
       than ten rulers in a city.
 20 There is not a righteous man on earth
       who does what is right and never sins.
 21 Do not pay attention to every word people say,
       or you may hear your servant cursing you-
 22 for you know in your heart
       that many times you yourself have cursed others.
 23 All this I tested by wisdom and I said,
       "I am determined to be wise"—
       but this was beyond me.
 24 Whatever wisdom may be,
       it is far off and most profound—
       who can discover it?
 25 So I turned my mind to understand,
       to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things
       and to understand the stupidity of wickedness
       and the madness of folly.
16 When I applied my mind to know wisdom and to observe man's labor on earth—his eyes not seeing sleep day or night- 17 then I saw all that God has done. No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all his efforts to search it out, man cannot discover its meaning. Even if a wise man claims he knows, he cannot really comprehend it.


What prompts Phil to undertake the path of wisdom? What prompts Ecclesiastes to search out wisdom?
(Note: Phil thinks that by improving himself he can become worthy of Rita’s love. Ecclesiastes sees how little the world makes sense and also notices how successful wise people are, and determines therefore to become wise so he can understand the world and perhaps discover the meaning of life.)

Why is wisdom a better path than pleasure?
(Note: Wisdom brings results that last. Pleasure is fleeting, but knowledge and wisdom have lasting effects. Wisdom is also more in keeping with how the world is. While pleasure seeks constant happiness, wisdom recognizes happiness and sadness, and the world indeed is both happy and sad. Wisdom is the more honest path.)

What does Phil do to become wise?
(Note: He learns how to sculpt and play music, he tries to become the best person he can possibly be, he becomes less self-centered and expands his knowledge and skill base exponentially.)

What are the limitations of wisdom?
(Note: Wisdom can tell you what is there, and can help you live a good life, but it cannot make truth nor goodness MEANINGFUL. It can’t confer purpose upon your life.)

How does Phil discover the limitations of wisdom? How does Ecclesiastes? How does Ecclesiastes discover the limitations of wisdom?
(Note: Phil realizes his skills and knowledge have necessary limits when the old man dies and he’s incapable of bringing him back. He can’t understand why the old man has to die, and looks up to God in humility and confusion. Similarly, Ecclesiastes realizes that the world is at least partially beyond his ability to understand, his wisdom cannot tell him the meaning of life. Before God you stand before mystery that you cannot totally comprehend. God is the limit of wisdom)

Compare and contrast the ‘down’ periods of both Phil and Ecclesiastes after wisdom with the despair that followed pleasure. What are the similarities? The differences?
(Note: Both are triggered by an event, for phil. Something happens that confronts him with his own limitations. But for both Phil and Ecclesiastes the down period after the wisdom adventure is not as deep. Wisdom confers some value, even if it can’t confer meaning.)

Lesson 6: Finding God In The Everyday


Ecclesiastes 2:24-26, 8:14-15

24 A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, 25 for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? 26 To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.
14 There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless. 15 So I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun.

For Ecclesiastes what difference does believing in God make?
(Note: God’s existence justifies living life. If you have God, you can see every moment as a gift, and even the simple pleasures of life, which once robbed you of meaning, now are full of value and purpose.)

What did Ecclesiastes mean by saying sinners only store up things for later generations?
(Note: Without God, no moment acquires meaning and value, and so it degrades into the meaningless cycle Ecclesiastes saw before as the thief of purpose in human life.)

What insight does Phil tell Rita he’s had, which marks his final turning point?
(Note: “I don’t care what happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life…I’m happy now, because I love you.”)

What does this say about Phil’s quest for meaning?
(Note: Phil has discovered meaning in the everyday. His love for Rita is genuine and he’s become a person she can love, but more than that he’s focused on right here, right now, and he’s discovered that the moment is full of meaning.)



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