The Emptiness Within

Read Ecclesiastes 1:12-2:11 to start

In the past I’ve preached sermons inspired by songs, by animals, by body parts, and on one occasion, by cookies. This morning my sermon arose from a picture I saw online not long ago. It was a picture of a bag of packing peanuts, you know, those white foam pellets that you sometimes find when you open a shipping box. We see a fair number of those at work, they are annoying and messy when you unpack a box. This was a picture of a medium sized bag of those, labelled “Void Fill” quite prominently.   If you went and searched on google this morning you’d probably find the same picture in the first few results. What makes the picture memorable, and the inspiration for my sermon, is the caption that someone added – I had no idea you could buy this, I’ve been using alcohol all this time.

It’s supposed to be funny. But it captures a truth, a dark truth at that, and perhaps more than one truth. There are countless people today who feel that they have a void inside them, a void that they cannot fill. No doubt we have seen this, and perhaps we have felt it ourselves. The writer of Ecclesiastes certainly did, as evidenced by the passage we read to start.

We’ll speak more on that in a few minutes, but there is a concept that you have probably heard, perhaps you have heard it preached from this or a similar pulpit. That is the notion of the God-shaped hole. In case you are not familiar with it, this is the concept that in every person there exists an empty space, not a literal one, but rather a spiritual one, an emptiness of the soul, which can only be filled by the presence of God.

Thinking about the experienced void and the need to fill it from the picture I described got me thinking about this God-shaped hole. I recall as a child hearing this idea, I believe it was in Sunday school, or at least that is the instance I best remember. Likely it was taught to me on more than once occasion, because it’s something that has remained with me.

I can’t tell you who coined the precise term “God-shaped hole.” I did considerable research on the topic. The phrase does not appear in scripture. The idea, if not the actual term, has been explored and postulated by any number of scholars. 20th century writers like CS Lewis and Salman Rushdie wrote about this. The idea is often attributed to French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who never used that precise term itself, but did hold to a similar idea, and wrote the following in his Pensees, published in 1670:

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.

The idea of the god-shaped hole may indeed go all the way back to Augustine, who wrote “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

These are all writings and ideas that are useful and interesting, those may have merit, but useful and interesting does not necessarily equal true, nor does it equal biblical. And that is what I am most concerned with.

Is this a concept that is Biblically sound? Should we use that idea when preaching and teaching, and in particular should we use it with the young? I would not want to see children taught something that is not true, and not in accordance with God’s word, even if it might be a useful and interesting comparison. Neither would I want falsehood and error taught to adults, of course, but ideas formed in youth have great influence and staying power.

So what is true? Certainly the idea of emptiness inside, that is not something we have to look far afield in order to find evidence of that. We see this in the world around us, and we see it detailed in scripture in the passage we read from Ecclesiastes. The writer, presumably Solomon, runs through a long list of things that he did, that he tried, in some instances he said gave his heart, or he gave himself, to those. Let’s look at that list, it may be 3000 years old, but it holds every bit as much relevance now as it did then.

He gave his heart to seek out wisdom, and certainly, we know that Solomon had much wisdom, God granted him that in great measure. But did his wisdom result in fulfillment? It did not. He found that it was vanity and vexation of spirit. That word we have in English as vexation, the Hebrew word means longing or striving. That same word appears seven times in scriptures, all of them in Ecclesiastes. The wisest man who ever lived did not find satisfaction in his wisdom. He found a longing there for something else, something more. What’s more, at verse 18 he declares that much wisdom is much grief. That is the counterpoint to ignorance is bliss, I suppose. The more you know, the more you have to be troubled by.

That’s hardly the only thing that Solomon tried, though. After wisdom, at the start of chapter 2, we have mirth and pleasure. Wisdom gave him grief, so he looked for happiness and fun. He may have found it, but he found it empty.

Next he turned to wine and folly. Then he looked to projects and achievements, such as the building of great works, houses, vineyards, orchards. He had servants, he had no doubt the best people working for him. He had herds and flocks, more cattle and livestock than any who had come before him in Jerusalem it says. Then he got at verse 8 much wealth, gold, silver, and treasure, the particular treasure of kings it says. Not sure what exactly that would be, but I’m sure it was impressive. Finally he surrounded himself with entertainment, he had skilled singers and musicians, and at verse 10 it says he withheld not his heart from any joy.

What did all this get him? We read at verse 11 Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun. All his great wisdom, all his fun, all his wine, all his wealth, all his projects and accomplishments, all his possessions, all his entertainment, all of these left him unsatisfied. That same word was there, the vexation of spirit. He still had a longing for something else. He had everything he could gather, everything he could experience, everything he could enjoy, but it was not enough.

We of course see this in the world around us. We see those with great material wealth, but they invariably want to increase it. Millionaires want to invest their money to become multi-millionaires, who in turn seek to become billionaires. They don’t often say “Okay, I have more than enough, I’ll stop now.” We see those who want to accomplish and build, those who are industrious in their goals, they keep working. Once one project is done, they are on to the next. We see those who enjoy alcohol, they keep drinking, time and time again, no matter how much regret they might feel the next day, not to mention Monday morning after a boozy weekend. But next weekend they are back at it, even though the previous binge did not bring fulfillment.

Those who enjoy entertainment, we seek that out continually, for we do not remain entertained. Once one enjoyment has been had, it is on to the next, and the next, and the next. There is no satisfaction found, not in anything this world has to offer.

In 1965, the Rolling Stones released their song “(I Can Get No) Satisfaction” to great success. That strikes a chord with the listener, because satisfaction is not something generally achieved, and never with any sort of permanence. It’s been 53 years since that song came out, and the Rolling Stones still perform it, I checked online, they did 14 concerts last year, and they performed that song at every show. They might well be the most recognizable, wealthy, and I imagine the longest lasting rock stars in the world, but they still sing about not finding satisfaction.

If people all around us are empty inside, if the Rolling Stones can’t get satisfaction from this world, and if Solomon, in all his glory, found that all was vanity and vexation of spirit, then it seems clear that there is something empty inside us, something that we are unable to fill. There is a problem, that much is abundantly clear. Scripture tells us this, our experience tell us this, the world around tells us this. There is a problem. There is a void.

Is this void God shaped? That’s a more difficult question to answer. Looking at the things with which many have tried to fill the void, though, we can certainly find any number of shapes that do not fit. Our souls, though, are not like some sort of shape-sorter toy into which we cram plastic squares and triangles looking for the correct match. I remember my kids playing with those toys when they were younger; we had one that came apart in two halves so you could get the various pieces out from inside. Pretty sure that there’s a picture in my wallet of one of the kids wearing one half of that shape sorter as a hat, I won’t say which one because it would likely cause considerable embarrassment. But our souls are not like that. They are not made of injection moulded plastic with perfectly formed openings. Our souls are messy, untidy, chaotic things. The problem is not even so much that we have emptiness inside as it is that we are also broken. As we are broken, it should not be a surprise to find that a piece or two might be missing.

Harsh as it may sound, it is true. We are broken by sin, both our own sin and the sin of 200 generations that came before, reaching all the way back to the Garden of Eden. We are broken by our separation from God, by a world that wishes to tear us down, by an adversary that would see us spend eternity in hell. We were not design to be broken, but broken we are.

We were designed to have communion and fellowship with our creator. Adam and Eve walked with God in the garden in the cool of the day, we read in Genesis chapter 3. The writer of Ecclesiastes, after considering all the vain things which man pursues, wrote in the next chapter, immediately following the well-known passage about times and seasons, wrote in verse 11 He hath made every thing beautiful in his time: also he hath set the world in their heart, so that no man can find out the work that God maketh from the beginning to the end. We hear the first part of that verse often quoted, the next phrase not as much. The Hebrew word that we have translated as the world, it does not mean a place, but instead a period of time. Or not time, in fact, because it would be much better translated as eternity. The same word is most often translated as for ever or everlasting, and sometimes as always or evermore. Solomon knew that God had set eternity in the heart of man, and that we could never fill that longing on our own.

Solomon knew this. I imagine his father explained it to him. From the Psalms we see David knew this as well. Likely he taught this truth to his sons, Solomon of course among them. David knew that God alone could satisfy his, could fix him, could save him. The best known of the Psalms, number 23, is no doubt familiar to us all. There is one little phrase in there that I will call your attention to, in verse 3: He restores my soul. Only four little words, words that we might easily skip over in our reading as we go from beside the still waters to the paths of righteousness. But as much as we need the other blessings of that Psalm, we long to have our souls restored. That is a gap, a shortcoming we have that needs to be dealt with. We need to see our souls restored.

That’s hardly the only passage where David speaks in such terms. If you turn to Psalm 42, I’d like to read a few verses from there to demonstrate this. Reading from verse 1 As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. 2 My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God? 3 My tears have been my meat day and night, while they continually say unto me, Where is thy God? 4 When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me: for I had gone with the multitude, I went with them to the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday. 5 Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted in me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him for the help of his countenance. David describes his soul in several striking comparisons. He describes it as having thirst, great thirst in fact. Like a deer that pants for water, there is urgency there, a pressing need. I’ve not had much occasion to encounter thirsty deer, but I’ve seen thirsty horses and dogs. Any animal that runs will reach a point of impending dehydration, when water becomes an immediate demand. There is no ignoring that thirst, no temporary setting it aside while other things are taken care of. A thirsty animal needs water, it seeks water, and it will not rest until it has found water and consumed its fill.

The Psalmist felt the same way about God. Not in his body, though, but rather in his soul, in his inner being. What he describes in this Psalm strikes me as sounding very much like the feeling of having a void, that emptiness inside that we spoke of earlier. Only instead of attempting and failing to fill that opening with the things of this life, with possessions or pleasure or projects or passion or any one of a thousand fleeting joys this world has to offer, instead of those he looked to his creator in order to take away that longing. David recognized that his soul had an empty space. He saw that he had a need, he had a lack, and that he was unable to satisfy it himself.

Now of course, you and I, we are not David. You might argue that this is hardly a reasonable comparison. How can you or I expect to have the same relationship, the same yearning for God’s presence as did David? After all, David was called a man after God’s own heart. He wrote at least half of the Psalms, possibly more as a number of them have no specific author information. He was anointed to be king by the prophet Samuel after being chosen by God for that role. Oh, and he fought a giant with a nothing but a stone and a sling. So yes, it is not an entirely fair comparison.

Does that mean we should not expect to have the same urgent need for God as did David? Frankly, our need for God should exceed his. None of us have been given divine inspiration to write scripture. The word of God is complete, and that fact that we have it available to us should point us to our creator on a greater level. That we have more knowledge of God available to us should steer us more readily toward Him.

Sadly, the opposite is often true. Availability of blessing may lead to complacency. We have truth at our fingertips, but we ignore it. This is true of our society at large. At no point in the history of the world have more people had greater access to the gospel than they do today. But does that mean that more people turn to their creator in order to fill the gap in their souls? It doesn’t look that way to me. We have so many other things that we can use to make a vain attempt at fulfillment that the God of creation is sadly often relegated to the sidelines.

Is that an excuse? Is the noise of modern life, is the general level of luxury in which we live, especially when compared to the previous 6000 years of world history, even the working poor in our country have food to eat, cars to drive, and a roof over their heads, is our wealth and abundance an excuse for our failure to acknowledge the Lord and His proper place in our lives?

I think we know the answer to that. Look at David again. Whatever we might have in this life to attempt to fill our void, David had more. He was a king. He had plenty of what this life could give. He had perhaps not the wealth on a level like Solomon would later possess, but he had no shortage of money. He had success; his military campaigns were almost entirely without setback. He had family, he had multiple wives, many sons and daughters, and many friends and allies. And having grown up working as a shepherd and later as a musician, and after spending many years on the run from his enemies, he was someone that no doubt appreciated what he had.

Yet despite all this David still felt a sharp need for fulfillment in God. We see that in Psalm 42, and we see it elsewhere. It was not only for David’s benefit, not an exclusive need that he alone felt, he wrote in Psalm 107, 8 Oh that men would praise the LORD for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men! 9 For he satisfieth the longing soul, and filleth the hungry soul with goodness.

The soul seeks satisfaction. There are two words used here to describe the condition of the unsatisfied soul, longing and hungry. Hungry is obvious enough, and the Hebrew word does indeed mean hungry, perhaps even to near the point of starving. Our souls, when we are without God, are essentially in a state of continual hunger. It’s a good analogy for what we see in the world around us, for the desperation that people have, that urgent need to find fulfillment. A hungry soul will look for whatever it can find in order to ease that hunger. There are many things this world offers, but like junk food they offer little value and no lasting contentment. Only the goodness that God offers will fill the hungry soul.

The second word, longing, is just as apt an analogy. The word, and the Hebrew word is shaqaq (shaw KAK) and the meaning is not so simple as the idea to long for something. The word has a sense of urgency about it. It is only used six times in scripture, and is translated a little differently every time. Here it is translated as longing, in the book of Joel it is translated as run to and fro, in Proverbs as ranging, as in a bear, and in Nahum of people who are jostling in the street.

What does this say of the longing soul? Certainly it does not have peace, or contentment, or quiet. Far from it. The idea of the soul seeking to run two and fro seeking something that will bring satisfaction, that is a striking image. And it is one that we see in the world around us, one that we see all the time. One that we may know far too well, in particular if we are not trusting God, if we are not relying on Him to meet our needs.

Sometimes I get like that at work, or at home for that matter. I’m trying to do too much, I run about like a chicken with its head cut off trying to work on ten different things at once. It’s not productive or effective. It does not bring peace or quiet, and frankly, it often does not see the smooth completion of anything. When our lives are like that, when we rush about trying to calm the cry of our souls, we will not find peace. We will never find peace when we look for it in any place, apart from looking to the Lord.

Whence comes that satisfaction? How do we find the fulfillment and the restoration for our souls that God offers? It comes only from the Saviour, from the Lord Jesus Christ. Turn to the gospel of John, chapter 7, for a couple of verses. 37 In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. 38 He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.

To set the scene, this took place during the Feast of Tabernacles, one of the three major pilgrimage festivals of the Jews, the others being the Feast of Weeks, or Pentecost, and of course Passover. This was a time when there would have been a great number of people present in Jerusalem, and in the temple in particular. This was the final day of the feast, so one would assume that the crowds were at their largest. For Christ to stand up and make this cry it would have caught the attention of a great number of people. This was an invitation for any and all to come. It was not subtle or quiet, it was loud and noticeable.

Who was the invitation directed toward? To any who was thirsty. Of course this was not speaking of a merely physical thirst, but a spiritual one. Anyone who felt they had a lack, a need they wished to see satisfied, an emptiness they needed filled, Christ extended His invitation to one and all.

Instead of emptiness, Christ offered living waters. Not merely a sip or a splash, but rivers of living waters. We don’t have rivers in this province, not real rivers. We simply don’t have enough high ground to catch rain that would fill lakes and flow forth, bringing water hundreds or thousands of miles downstream. We don’t have a St Lawrence or an Amazon or a Mississippi. We’ve no doubt seen rivers. New Brunswick has rivers, fairly impressive ones at that. A river is not a trickle or a puddle, it is not a source that is easily exhausted and dried up. It is not a stream or a creek that comes and goes with the seasons. A river is significant, it is considerable. And it is constant, it flows forth without stint or pause. A river of living water is not something small.

From whence comes this promised river of living water? In the KJV, the verse says from the belly, but that’s not a good word choice. Some translations say from his heart, some say from his body, the New American Standard says from his innermost being. That’s getting closer to what I believe is the original meaning. The Greek word, and that word is Koilia (koy-LEE-ah) is from koilos, meaning hollow. Come to Christ, bring your thirsty, empty soul to Him, and where was once a void now there will flow living waters.

What does that mean? The next verse makes it clear, 39 But this spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: The spirit of the living God, that is a sure fire way to fill the emptiness inside. Instead of a void, the Holy Spirit will fill you to overflowing. Instead of darkness, vacancy, and death, the fruit of the spirit, love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance, those will be produced in your life. That’s not even close to being a fair comparison. Why would you ever want to choose anything else?

Does the Bible teach that we have a God-shaped hole? Not in those words. There is no chapter and verse you can turn to and find a single convenient quote that encapsulates that idea. However, the Bible does clearly teach, the world around us demonstrates, and our own lives no doubt reveal to us that in us there is something we cannot satisfy. The shape is not important. What matters is that we are unable to come up with a satisfactory solution on our own. Solomon knew this, and his best efforts came up short. David knew this, and he sought to the Lord for satisfaction. And Christ knew that all who heard Him felt this void, and that all needed the living water that He alone could provide.

You can choose Christ. You can choose to have the Holy Spirit dwell within you, and fill that void. Or you can choose the things of this life. I warn you though, that only one way brings satisfaction. What this world offers are like those packing peanuts I mentioned to start. They may provide temporary void fill, but in the end they are simply garbage that gets in the way. Only God can repair what is broken. Only He can restore what is missing. Only God can fill the hole in your heart.