Have you ever been engaged? Are you currently engaged? If so, you understand the importance of an engagement ring—a “rock!” Jewelers talk about “the four C’s”—cut, clarity, color, and carat. These four variables are used to calculate the value of a diamond. I have always found the first variable—cut—the most interesting.
“Cut” refers to the proportions, finish, symmetry, and polish of the diamond. These factors determine the brilliance of a diamond. Well-cut diamonds sell at a premium and poorly cut diamonds sell at discounted prices. The premise behind this variable is the more a diamond is cut, the more it sparkles. And what woman doesn’t want an engagement ring that sparkles?
Like a beautiful diamond, character is formed by pressure and polished by friction. A person doesn’t wake up one morning as a man or woman of character. Character doesn’t evolve out of osmosis.
Character is developed by adversity or what many have called “the school of hard knocks.” Indeed, there is no education like adversity. Yet, adversity has the potential to create greatness in a person. Thus, Solomon says, “Adversity is better than prosperity.”235 How can this be? Why is adversity better than prosperity? In Eccl 7:1-14, Solomon gives two reasons.
1. Adversity stimulates an eternal perspective (7:1-4).
In this passage, we will discover that some of the medicine that tastes the worst has the best cure. Solomon answers the question he raised in 6:12, “For who knows what is good for a man during his lifetime, during the few years of his futile life?”236 In doing so, he gives seven “better than” proverbs (i.e., proverbs of comparative value) to answer his own question.237 In fact, the word “good/better” appears eleven times in this chapter.238 Hence, the reason for the sermon title, “When Bad is Better.”
In the first four verses, Solomon suggests that there is much to be gained by sober reflection on sorrow and death. In 7:1a he writes, “A good239 name is better than a good ointment.” This section starts by establishing that a good name (i.e., reputation) is better than a good ointment (i.e., perfume or cologne).240 To make it more relevant, a good name is better than Euphoria or Giorgio. The point of this proverb is: The character of one’s reputation is more valuable and enduring than the scent of perfume. A good name can live beyond the grave,241 but the scent of perfume ceases to linger. We could say, “Who we are is more important than what we have or do not have!”
Many grew up watching Kyle Rote, Jr. play soccer. Kyle’s father is Kyle Rote, Sr., who was an all-pro NFL player in the 1950s. He was the captain of the New York Giants for ten years. What is so fascinating is after Rote’s death, Kyle Jr., said of all the compliments and awards his dad had received, one stood above the rest: fourteen of the elder Rote’s former teammates named their sons Kyle.242 The reputation of Kyle Rote, Sr. was so impressive that his teammates wanted to name their boys after him. The Rotes are a family that has a legacy that outlives their earthly lives.
What about you? As a husband and a father what is your reputation at work, in the neighborhood, in your church…or most importantly in your home? Are you a man of integrity? Are you seeking to be exemplary in every area of your life? Are you an inspiration to young men and your peers? Does your name mean something? I tell my boys, “You are Krell boys. Live up to your name. Do your mother and me proud. Most importantly, do your Savior proud and live up to your name ‘Christian.’”
Solomon concludes 7:1 by saying, “And the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.”
There are two days in our lives when our name is prominent: the day we receive our name, at birth, and the day our name appears in the obituary column. What happens between those two days determines whether our name is a lovely ointment or a foul stench.243 Solomon is not buying into the philosophy of despair. If that were true, he wouldn’t tell us eight times in his book to enjoy life.244 Ecclesiastes says that we must neither be hesitant to talk about death, nor scoff at it. Rather, we should talk about it forthrightly, for it is the inevitable prospect we all face, and its effects are devastating if we are unprepared.
Have you ever noticed the way we mark a person’s life span? We will write a person’s name, and below it will put something like this: 1934–2008. We list the year of birth and a year of death. Between the two is what? A dash. Solomon might agree that this life is a quick dash between birth and death—just a vapor. All we will ever do on earth, all the influence we will ever garner, all the reputation we will ever build is summarized in a simple line between one year and another. It’s not much time to serve God, but plenty of time for making a huge mess of things.245 Adversity is better than prosperity.
Solomon continues his wise words in 7:2:“It is better to go to a house246 of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart.” Solomon suggests that we would be better off going to a funeral than a party.247 The reason he gives is that death is “the end of every man.”248 I have some bad news for you. You are going to die. I have checked the death rate in Thurston County and it is a whopping 100%. You are going to die. Neither jogging, nor liposuction, nor all the brown rice in China can keep you young forever. Death is the destiny of every man. The wise person has come to terms with the brevity of life. He doesn’t live as though life on earth will last forever. Wise people go to funerals and pay attention. Wise people see the Tsunami horrors and watch and think carefully. Wise people study cancer victims. Wise people number their days and make the most of their time.249
If you were to visit old churches in New England, you would notice that many of them have a cemetery in the churchyard. The windows in the sanctuary are filled with clear rather than stained glass so that the pastor would see the graveyard as he preached. As he communicated his message to the congregation, a very serious message was being communicated to him. Two hundred fifty years ago, Christians believed that the central mission of the church was to bring men and women into a right relationship with God. That’s why they constructed their church buildings with see-through windows. They wanted their pastors to be continually reminded of the seriousness of their calling. Everyone who sat in the pews before them each Sunday would eventually fill a place in the cemetery and ultimately stand before God to be judged.250
This is why I have said for many years that I would rather do a funeral any day than a wedding. Now you may think I am morbid, and you’re probably right, but I see here in Ecclesiastes some biblical basis for my viewpoint. To be honest, one of the reasons I prefer funerals is a selfish one. As a preacher I appreciate it when people listen, and believe me, people listen much better at funerals than at weddings.251 But aside from that, funerals remind us that life is short and we need to think seriously about our lives.
In 7:3-4 Solomon writes, “Sorrow is better than laughter,252 for when a face is sad a heart may be happy. The mind of the wise is in the house of mourning, while the mind of fools is in the house of pleasure.” Although most of us would prefer laughter and pleasure, Solomon informs us that there are benefits to sorrow and mourning. This life is full of sadness and sorrow,253 yet life’s difficulties have the potential to awaken a spiritual dimension in us. Sorrow makes us think about life, its meaning, and our priorities. A party rarely does. Sorrow and suffering often brings one to God, while pleasure seldom does.254 Even these sad times give us hope, peace, and strength for there is a mellowing and maturing that takes place in affliction and sorrow that cannot be attained any other way.255 Solomon is not condemning happiness, just the opposite, he is advocating an appropriate peace and contentment that is not based on temporal circumstances alone. Adversity is better than prosperity.
Imagine reading your own obituary. Alfred Nobel had that opportunity. Around the turn of the 20th century, Nobel’s brother passed away. Alfred picked up his morning paper the next day to see what was written about his brother and was stunned to discover his own obituary! The paper mistakenly printed that Alfred had died, describing him as the inventor of dynamite. Nobel realized the legacy he was leaving was associated with death and destruction. Alfred had a second chance to rewrite his legacy. With input from friends, he decided to invest some of his wealth to honor those who furthered the cause of peace in the world. Today many know that Nobel invented dynamite, but he is better known for another of his creations—the Nobel Peace Prize.
You are going to leave a legacy. Your life will have a lasting impact. God has given you the capacity to think carefully about what will be left in the wake of your life and to live intentionally to leave behind something eternally worthwhile.256 I challenge you to create a eulogy you would like offered at your funeral. First, write up your present eulogy. At this point in my life, what would my wife say? My kids? My coworkers? My neighbors? God? Now write up your future eulogy. By God’s grace, what might my eulogy ideally say?257 Adversity is better than prosperity.
During World War II, the Japanese attacked allied forces using “kamikaze” pilots. These pilots, who believed in the Shinto philosophy of honorable death in battle, would commit suicide by flying their bomb-laden planes into allied sea targets. A television documentary showed the kamikaze pilots as they climbed into their planes. Once they were situated, workers would permanently seal the cockpits closed, prior to their departure. The planes were given only enough fuel for a one-way journey from the ship to the target. The fate of the kamikaze pilots was sealed before they left the ground. It’s hard not to wonder what must have been going through the minds of the young soldiers. Certainly they must have thought about what was going to happen to them, but I can imagine that they bravely shut out any inkling of death from their minds, choosing instead to focus on the mission at hand. How closely this seems to parallel our lives. We are, in a sense, kamikazes too. Our being has been permanently sealed inside of our bodies and we’ve only been given enough fuel to make it for a hundred or so years—if we’re blessed. Death awaits us all, but we—perhaps like kamikaze pilots—choose not to think about it, but rather the mission at hand: that big project at work…our vacation plans for next month…that term paper due on Tuesday. So many things on our minds, we really haven’t time to think about death—and besides, who wants to think about it anyway? But failing to think about death usually means failing to think about life.258
[Adversity stimulates an eternal perspective, but as we shall see…]
2. Adversity cultivates godly character (7:5-14).
This second section reminds us that God loves us too much to let us remain as we are. In 7:5-6 Solomon writes, “It is better to listen to the rebuke259 of a wise man than for one to listen to the song of fools. For as the crackling of thorn bushes under a pot, so is the laughter260 of the fool;261 and this too is futility.”262Solomon likens the meaningless praise and laughter of fools to “the crackling of thorn bushes under a pot.” This was a culturally relevant comparison that we don’t readily understand. Branches of a thorn bush thrown on a fire will flame up with rapid intensity, providing a short hot burn. If you needed to heat up something quickly instead of preparing a fire for slow cooking, you would throw thorn branches on the fire. Solomon uses his illustration to say that the praise of fools is quick, hot, showy—but gone quickly. It flames up, dies out, and you need something else to stoke the fire. The rebuke of a wise man, however, can change your life forever.263
In the past few months, my wife has been helping me work through some of my weaknesses. Lori has the gift of discernment so she has God-given insight into my life. Since she knows me better than anyone, she also has the ability to help me work through my weaknesses and sins. I can’t imagine not receiving her input. God has used her to speak into my life like no other person. Husbands, are you man enough to welcome a rebuke from your wife? Can you receive a rebuke from the person who loves you the most? If not, why not? If your wife has the courage to lovingly lay you out, why can’t you receive it? Is it your pride? God wants want you to hear from your wife because she may be the only person courageous enough to speak into your life. If you are unmarried, can you receive a loving rebuke from a parent or a friend? Are you teachable with your dad or mom? Remember, the ones who brought you into this life love you and want what’s best for you. But you may say, “They sure don’t show it!” That may be the case, but that is not your responsibility. You can’t change other people’s actions, but you can change your reaction. In the book of Proverbs, Solomon says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Prov 27:6b).264 Will you receive a rebuke from a parent or friend? If so, God will mold your character and make you into the man or woman that He wants you to be.
Famous New York Yankee Mickey Mantle tells how as a teenager playing in the minor leagues, he began playing poorly. Growing discouraged, he gave into homesickness and self-pity and tearfully called his father to come and take him home. But when Charles Mantle arrived, he didn’t give the expected sympathy and reassurance. Instead, he looked at his son and said, “Okay, if that’s all the guts you’ve got, you might as well come home with me right now and work in the mines.” It was a stinging slap in the face, but the young man got the message, stuck it out, and went on to make baseball history.265
In 7:7-10 Solomon writes, “For oppression makes a wise man mad [impatient], and a bribe266 corrupts the heart. The end of a matter is better than its beginning;267 patience268 of spirit is better than haughtiness of spirit. Do not be eager in your heart to be angry, for anger resides in the bosom of fools. Do not say, ‘Why is it that the former days were better than these?’ For it is not from wisdom that you ask about this.” The injustice of life causes many people problems, even believers (cf. 4:1; 5:8), if we don’t allow God time to set it straight, and sometimes it is not until the afterlife. It is easy to be discouraged. Oppression rules and reigns in our country and throughout the world. I just heard a report on the news yesterday that young girls are being kidnapped from Washington State to work as prostitutes in other parts of the world—some as young as 12 years old. Business tycoons corrupt politicians and corrupted politicians seek even larger bribes. Government officials, politicians, and pastors sell out. That is the world we live in. This past week, a young man asked me a profound question: “Why do I get madder the more I read the Bible?” The answer is because he is seeing our world from God’s perspective and things aren’t as they are supposed to be. Yet, in these discouraging realities, we need to remember the One who will have the last word. The end of God’s work is even better than its beginning.
This is why Solomon emphasizes patience.269 Our Western society has lost its taste for the long haul. We want everything NOW. We crave instant coffee, fast food, immediate gratification, and instant entertainment. Our computers and our modems are faster and we chaff at the idea of waiting for anything. How many times have I allowed myself to become impatient at another drive or a red light? How many times have I been impatient with my wife or children? How many times have I been impatient with myself or our church? I can think of plenty of times. Yet, Richard Hendrix once said, “Second only to suffering, waiting may be the greatest teacher and trainer in godliness, maturity, and genuine spirituality most of us ever encounter.”270 God is interested in character development so He will test our patience to develop perseverance. He frequently does this because life is a marathon, not a sprint. God is building patience in us so that we will go the distance in our marriage, ministry, and Christian life.
However, humans without a sense of God’s presence and purpose in one’s daily life often seek peace, but reflect on positive circumstances in the past! Bruce Springsteen used to have a song called, “Glory Days.” Yet, the truth is the person who laments the passing of the “good old days” does not remember them very well.271 Instead, we should have the attitude, “I would not trade today for anything! These are the days God has given me. I want to live for today.”272Adversity is better than prosperity.
In 7:11-12 Solomon writes, “Wisdom along with an inheritance is good and an advantage to those who see the sun. For wisdom is protection just as money is protection, but the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves the lives of its possessors.” Prosperity can be a good thing if the prosperous person behaves wisely. Solomon states that both prosperity and wisdom are literally “shadows” that offer protection.273 The superiority of wisdom, however, is that it guides one through difficult times and thus preserves life. Money, to the contrary, often vanishes in hard times.274 So prioritize biblical wisdom, which Solomon says, elsewhere, is “the fear of God” (Prov 1:7).
Our passage concludes in 7:13-14 with these powerful words: “Consider the work of God, for who is able to straighten what He has bent? In the day of prosperity be happy, But in the day of adversity consider—God has made the one as well as the other so that man will not discover anything that will be after him.”
Solomon explains that we cannot understand why God uses adversity and prosperity as He does.275 God “bends” certain things and there is nothing we can do about it. Affliction is the appointment of God.276 It is generally futile to try to figure such things out; we can’t straighten what God has made crooked. There are “crooked” things we cannot straighten, and we must learn to believe and say, “God, you are God. You are good and powerful. I trust you. I believe in you. And even though I don’t like some of the things that come from your hand, I think I accept them with joy.” God does not waste sorrow or adversity. He knows the purpose for which we go through tragedy and sorrow. It is for our good, and the good of His kingdom.
A man or woman of faith trusts God. Therefore, when times are good, be happy. Enjoy what you have. Don’t waste the opportunity by trying to accumulate more. Don’t wait for retirement. Enjoy now. One of the saddest things in life is the fact that when our children are young and most enjoyable we fathers tend to be busier than ever, establishing ourselves in business and preparing for the children’s future. Unfortunately, too often, by the time we have their college education secured they are gone and there’s little opportunity to enjoy them. When times are good, be happy. But when times are bad, be patient. Be patient because the same God who made the good times has allowed the bad. Neither situation is outside of His sovereignty and there is no sure way of knowing what’s coming next. Try as we might, we cannot prepare for all contingencies, and while God expects us to be prudent, He does not want us to play God. There are times when you just have to play the cards which you have been dealt. Remember that it is God who is the dealer. What you have has been given by Him. Adversity is better than prosperity.
You may be familiar with the story of Job—the man who lived out Murphy’s Law. He lost his health, his wealth, and his children. He had it so bad that his own wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God and die!” (Job 2:9). But Job said to her, “‘You speak as one of the foolish women speaks. Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?’ In all this Job did not sin with his lips” (Job 2:10). Adversity is better than prosperity.
A wise old Chinese woodcutter lived on the troubled Mongolian border. One day his favorite horse, a beautiful white mare, jumped the fence and was seized on the other side by the enemy. His friends came to comfort him. “We’re so sorry about your horse,” they said. “That’s bad news.” “How do you know it’s bad news?” he asked. “It might be good news.” A week later, the man looked out his window to see his mare returning at breakneck speed—beside a beautiful stallion. He put both horses into the enclosure, and his friends came to admire the new addition. “What a beautiful horse,” they said. “That’s good news.” “How do you know it’s good news?” replied the man. “It might be bad news.” The next day, the man’s only son decided to try the stallion. It threw him, and he landed painfully, breaking his leg. The friends made another visit, all of them sympathetic, saying, “We’re so sorry about this. It’s such bad news.” “How do you know it’s bad news?” replied the man. “It might be good news.” Within a month, war erupted between China and Mongolia. Chinese recruiters came through the area, pressing all the young men into the army. All of them perished, except for the woodcutter’s son, who couldn’t go off to war because of his broken leg. “You see,” said the woodcutter. “The things you considered good were actually bad, and the things that seemed bad were actually good.”277
“Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.” Thomas Gray wrote those oft-quoted words in his poem “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.” He pictured the students on the playing field and in the classroom, enjoying life because they were innocent of what lay ahead.
Alas, regardless of their doom, The little victims play!
No sense have they of ills to come, Nor care beyond today.
His conclusion was logical: at that stage in life, it is better to be ignorant and happy, because there will be plenty of time later to experience the sorrows that knowledge may bring.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate? Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies. Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss, ‘Tis folly to be wise.
Solomon had come to a similar conclusion when he argued in 1:12-18 that wisdom did not make life worth living. “For in much wisdom is much grief,” he wrote in 1:18, “and he that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow.”
But then the king took a second look at the problem and modified his views. In Ecclesiastes 7 and 8, he discussed the importance of wisdom in life (“wisdom” is found fourteen times in these two chapters); and he answered the question asked in 6:12, “For who knoweth what is good for man in this life?”
The Preacher concluded that, though wisdom can’t explain all of life’s mysteries, it can make at least three positive contributions to our lives.
- Wisdom can make life better (ECCL. 7:1-10)
“Better” is a key word in this chapter; Solomon used it at least eleven times. His listeners must have been shocked when they heard Solomon describe the “better things” that come to the life of the person who follows God’s wisdom.
Sorrow is better than laughter (7:1-4).
If given the choice, most people would rather go to a birthday party than to a funeral; but Solomon advised against it. Why? Because sorrow can do more good for the heart than laughter can. (The word “heart” is used four times in these verses.) Solomon was certainly not a morose man with a gloomy lifestyle. After all, it was King Solomon who wrote Proverbs 15:13, 15; 17:22—and the Song of Solomon! Laughter can be like medicine that heals the broken heart, but sorrow can be like nourishing food that strengthens the inner person. It takes both for a balanced life, but few people realize this. There is “a time to laugh” (ECCL. 3:4).
Let’s begin with Solomon’s bizarre statement that the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth (v. 1). This generalization must not be divorced from his opening statement that a person’s good reputation (name) is like a fragrant perfume. (There is a play on words here: “name” is shem in the Hebrew and “ointment” is shemen.) He used the same image in 10:1 and also in Song of Solomon 1:3.
Solomon was not contrasting birth and death, nor was he suggesting that it is better to die than to be born, because you can’t die unless you have been born. He was contrasting two significant days in human experience: the day a person receives his or her name and the day when that name shows up in the obituary column. The life lived between those two events will determine whether that name leaves behind a lovely fragrance or a foul stench. “His name really stinks!” is an uncouth statement, but it gets the point across.
If a person dies with a good name, his or her reputation is sealed and the family need not worry. In that sense, the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth. The life is over and the reputation is settled. (Solomon assumed that there were no hidden scandals.) “Every man has three names,” says an ancient adage; “one his father and mother gave him, one others call him, and one he acquires himself.”
“The memory of the just is blessed, but the name of the wicked shall rot” (Prov. 10:7, and see Prov. 22:1). Mary of Bethany anointed the Lord Jesus with expensive perfume and its fragrance filled the house. Jesus told her that her name would be honored throughout the world, and it is. On the other hand, Judas sold the Lord Jesus into the hands of the enemy; and his name is generally despised (Mark 14:1-11). When Judas was born, he was given the good name “Judah,” which means “praise.” It belonged to the royal tribe in Israel. By the time Judas died, he had turned that honorable name into something shameful.
In verses 2-4, Solomon advised the people to look death in the face and learn from it. He did not say that we should be preoccupied with death, because that could be abnormal. But there is a danger that we might try to avoid confrontations with the reality of death and, as a result, not take life as seriously as we should. “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Ps. 90:12).
The Preacher is not presenting us with an either/or situation; he is asking for balance. The Hebrew word for “laughter” in verse 3 can mean “the laughter of derision or scorn.” While there is a place for healthy humor in life, we must beware of the frivolous laughter that is often found in “the house of mirth” (v. 4). When people jest about death, for example, it is usually evidence that they are afraid of it and not prepared to meet it. They are running away.
The late Dr. Ernest Becker wrote in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death: “… the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man” (Free Press, 1975, p. ix). King Solomon knew this truth centuries ago!
Rebuke is better than praise (7:5-6).
King Solomon compared the praise of fools to the burning thorns in a campfire: you hear a lot of noise, but you don’t get much lasting good. (Again, Solomon used a play on words. In the Hebrew, “song” is shir, “pot” is sir, and “thorns” is sirim.) If we allow it, a wise person’s rebuke will accomplish far more in our lives than will the flattery of fools. Solomon may have learned this truth from his father (Ps. 141:5), and he certainly emphasized it when he wrote the Book of Proverbs (10:17; 12:1; 15:5; 17:10; 25:12; 27:5, 17; 29:1, 15).
The British literary giant Samuel Johnson was at the home of the famous actor David Garrick, and a “celebrated lady” persisted in showering Johnson with compliments. “Spare me, I beseech you, dear madam!” he replied; but, as his biographer Boswell put it, “She still laid it on.” Finally Johnson silenced her by saying, “Dearest lady, consider with yourself what your flattery is worth, before you bestow it so freely.”
The “long haul” is better than the shortcut (7:7-9).
Beware of “easy” routes; they often become expensive detours that are difficult and painful. In 1976, my wife and I were driving through Scotland, and a friend mapped out a “faster” route from Balmoral Castle to Inverness. It turned out to be a hazardous one-lane road that the local people called “The Devil’s Elbow,” and en route we met a bus and a cement truck! “Watch and pray” was our verse for that day.
Bribery appears to be a quick way to get things done (v. 7), but it only turns a wise man into a fool and encourages the corruption already in the human heart. Far better that we wait patiently and humbly for God to work out His will than that we get angry and demand our own way (v. 8). See also Proverbs 14:17, 16:32, and James 1:19.
“Better is the end of a thing than the beginning” applies when we are living according to God’s wisdom. The beginning of sin leads to a terrible end—death (James 1:13-15), but if God is at the beginning of what we do, He will see to it that we reach the ending successfully (Phil. 1:6; Heb. 12:2). The Christian believer can claim Romans 8:28 because he knows that God is at work in the world, accomplishing His purposes.
An Arab proverb says, “Watch your beginnings.” Good beginnings will usually mean good endings. The Prodigal Son started with happiness and wealth, but ended with suffering and poverty (Luke 15:11-24). Joseph began as a slave but ended up a sovereign! God always saves “the best wine” until the last (John 2:10), but Satan starts with his “best” and then leads the sinner into suffering and perhaps even death.
Today is better than yesterday (7:10).
When life is difficult and we are impatient for change, it is easy to long for “the good old days” when things were better. When the foundation was laid for the second temple, the old men wept for “the good old days” and the young men sang because the work had begun (Ezra 3:12-13). It has been said that “the good old days” are the combination of a bad memory and a good imagination, and often this is true.
Yesterday is past and cannot be changed, and tomorrow may not come; so make the most of today. “Carpe diem!” wrote the Roman poet Horace. “Seize the day!” This does not mean we shouldn’t learn from the past or prepare for the future, because both are important. It means that we must live today in the will of God and not be paralyzed by yesterday or hypnotized by tomorrow. The Victorian essayist Hilaire Belloc wrote, “While you are dreaming of the future or regretting the past, the present, which is all you have, slips from you and is gone.”
- Wisdom helps us see life clearly (ECCL. 7:11-18)
One of the marks of maturity is the ability to look at life in perspective and not get out of balance. When you have God’s wisdom, you will be able to accept and deal with the changing experiences of life.
Wisdom is better than a generous inheritance. Money can lose its value, or be stolen; but true wisdom keeps its value and cannot be lost, unless we become fools and abandon it deliberately. The person who has wealth but lacks wisdom will only waste his fortune, but the person who has wisdom will know how to get and use wealth. We should be grateful for the rich treasure of wisdom we have inherited from the past, and we should be ashamed of ourselves that we too often ignore it or disobey it. Wisdom is like a “shelter” to those who obey it; it gives greater protection than money.
The rustic preacher who said to his people, “Learn to cooperate with the inevitable!” knew the meaning of this verse. The Living Bible paraphrases it, “See the way God does things and fall into line. Don’t fight the facts of nature.” This is not a summons to slavish fatalism; like Ecclesiastes 1:15, it is a sensible invitation to a life yielded to the will of God. If God makes something crooked, He is able to make it straight; and perhaps He will ask us to work with Him to get the job done. But if He wants it to stay crooked, we had better not argue with Him. We don’t fully understand all the works of God (11:5), but we do know that “He hath made everything beautiful in its time” (3:11). This includes the things we may think are twisted and ugly.
While I don’t agree with all of his theology, I do appreciate the “Serenity Prayer” written in 1934 by Reinhold Niebuhr. A version of it is used around the world by people in various support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous; and it fits the lesson Solomon teaches in verse 13: O God, give us Serenity to accept what cannot be changed, Courage to change what should be changed, And wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.
Adversity and prosperity (7:14).
Wisdom gives us perspective so that we aren’t discouraged when times are difficult or arrogant when things are going well. It takes a good deal of spirituality to be able to accept prosperity as well as adversity, for often prosperity does greater damage (Phil. 4:10-13). Job reminded his wife of this truth when she told him to curse God and die: “What? Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil [trouble]?” (2:10) Earlier, Job had said, “The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21).
God balances our lives by giving us enough blessings to keep us happy and enough burdens to keep us humble. If all we had were blessings in our hands, we would fall right over, so the Lord balances the blessings in our hands with burdens on our backs. That helps to keep us steady, and as we yield to Him, He can even turn the burdens into blessings.
Why does God constitute our lives in this way? The answer is simple: to keep us from thinking we know it all and that we can manage our lives by ourselves. “Therefore, a man cannot discover anything about his future” (v. 14, niv). Just about the time we think we have an explanation for things, God changes the situation and we have to throw out our formula. This is where Job’s friends went wrong: they tried to use an old road map to guide Job on a brand new journey, and the map didn’t fit. No matter how much experience we have in the Christian life, or how many books we read, we must still walk by faith.
Righteousness and sin (7:15-18).
If there is one problem in life that demands a mature perspective, it is “Why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper?” The good die young while the wicked seem to enjoy long lives, and this seems contrary to the justice of God and the Word of God. Didn’t God tell the people that the obedient would live long (Ex. 20:12; Deut. 4:40) and the disobedient would perish? (Deut. 4:25-26; Ps. 55:23)
Two facts must be noted. Yes, God did promise to bless Israel in their land if they obeyed His law, but He has not given those same promises to believers today under the new covenant. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) wrote, “Prosperity is the blessing of the Old Testament; adversity is the blessing of the New.” Our Lord’s opening words in the Sermon on the Mount were not “Blessed are the rich in substance” but “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3, and see Luke 6:20).
Second, the wicked appear to prosper only if you take the short view of things. This was the lesson Asaph recorded in Psalm 73 and that Paul reinforced in Romans 8:18 and 2 Corinthians 4:16-18. “They have their reward” (Matt. 6:2, 5, 16), and that reward is all they will ever get. They may gain the whole world, but they lose their own souls. This is the fate of all who follow their example and sacrifice the eternal for the temporal.
Verses 16-18 have been misunderstood by those who say that Solomon was teaching “moderation” in everyday life: don’t be too righteous, but don’t be too great a sinner. “Play it safe!” say these cautious philosophers, but this is not what Solomon wrote.
In the Hebrew text, the verbs in verse 16 carry the idea of reflexive action. Solomon said to the people, “Don’t claim to be righteous and don’t claim to be wise.” In other words, he was warning them against self-righteousness and the pride that comes when we think we have “arrived” and know it all. Solomon made it clear in verse 20 that there are no righteous people, so he cannot be referring to true righteousness. He was condemning the self-righteousness of the hypocrite and the false wisdom of the proud, and he warned that these sins led to destruction and death.
Verse 18 balances the warning: we should take hold of true righteousness and should not withdraw from true wisdom, and the way to do it is to walk in the fear of God. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10) and Jesus Christ is to the believer “wisdom and righteousness” (1 Cor. 1:30), so God’s people need not “manufacture” these blessings themselves.
- Wisdom helps us face life stronger (ECCL. 7:19-29)
“Wisdom makes one wise man more powerful than ten rulers in a city” (v. 19, niv). The wise person fears the Lord and therefore does not fear anyone or anything else (Ps. 112). He walks with the Lord and has the adequacy necessary to face the challenges of life, including war (see 9:13-18).
What are some of the problems in life that we must face and overcome? Number one on the list is sin, because nobody on earth is sinless (v. 20, and note 1 Kings 8:46). We are all guilty of both sins of omission (“doeth good”) and sins of commission (“sinneth not”). If we walk in the fear of God and follow His wisdom, we will be able to detect and defeat the wicked one when he comes to tempt us. Wisdom will guide us and guard us in our daily walk.
Another problem we face is what people say about us (vv. 21-22). The wise person pays no attention to the gossip of the day because he has more important matters which to attend. Charles Spurgeon told his pastoral students that the minister ought to have one blind eye and one deaf ear. “You cannot stop people’s tongues,” he said, “and therefore the best thing to do is to stop your own ears and never mind what is spoken. There is a world of idle chitchat abroad, and he who takes note of it will have enough to do” (Lectures To My Students; Marshall, Morgan, and Scott reprint edition, 1965; p. 321). Of course, if we are honest, we may have to confess that we have done our share of talking about others! See Psalm 38 and Matthew 7:1-3.
A third problem is our inability to grasp the meaning of all that God is doing in this world (vv. 23-25, and see 3:11 and 8:17). Even Solomon with all his God-given wisdom could not understand all that exists, how God manages it, and what purposes He has in mind. He searched for the “reason [scheme] of things” but found no final answers to all his questions. However, the wise man knows that he does not know, and this is what helps to make him wise!
Finally, the wise person must deal with the sinfulness of humanity in general (vv. 26-29). Solomon began with the sinful woman, the prostitute who traps men and leads them to death (v. 26, and see Prov. 2:16-19; 5:3-6; 6:24-26; and 7:5-27). Solomon himself had been snared by many foreign women who enticed him away from the Lord and into the worship of heathen gods (1 Kings 11:3-8). The way to escape this evil woman is to fear God and seek to please Him.
Solomon concluded that the whole human race was bound by sin and one man in a thousand was wise—and not one woman! (The number 1,000 is significant in the light of 1 Kings 11:3.) We must not think that Solomon rated women as less intelligent than men, because this is not the case. He spoke highly of women in Proverbs (12:4; 14:1; 18:22; 19:14; and 31:10ff), Ecclesiastes (9:9), and certainly in the Song of Solomon. In the Book of Proverbs, Solomon even pictured God’s wisdom as a beautiful woman (1:20ff; 8:1ff; 9:1ff). But keep in mind that women in that day had neither the freedom nor the status that they have today, and it would be unusual for a woman to have learning equal to that of a man. It was considered a judgment of God for women to rule over the land (Isa. 3:12, but remember Miriam and Deborah, two women who had great leadership ability).
God made man (Adam) upright, but Adam disobeyed God and fell and now all men are sinners who seek out many clever inventions. Created in the image of God, man has the ability to understand and harness the forces God put into nature, but he doesn’t always use this ability in constructive ways. Each forward step in science seems to open up a Pandora’s box of new problems for the world, until we now find ourselves with the problems of polluted air and water and depleated natural resources. And beside that, man has used his abilities to devise alluring forms of sin that are destroying individuals and nations.
Yes, there are many snares and temptations in this evil world, but the person with godly wisdom will have the power to overcome. Solomon has proved his point: wisdom can make our lives better and clearer and stronger. We may not fully understand all that God is doing, but we will have enough wisdom to live for the good of others and the glory of God.
235 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Ecclesiastes: Total Life (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 80, 82.
236 The last two rhetorical questions of Eccl 6:12 are answered in 7:1-14 (6:12a is answered in 7:1-12 and 6:12b is linked to 7:13-14 by the phrase, “after him.”
237 It is important to remember that proverbs, by their very nature, are not intended to be absolute, unalterable principles but generalized observations on life.
238 The word “good,” often translated “better” links chapters 6 and 7 together (cf. 6:3, 9, 12 and 7:1[twice], 2, 3, 5, 8[twice], 10, 11, 14, 18, 20, 26.
239 Davis notes, “Of the 52 occurrences of the word tob (good, better, prosperity, happy, pleasing) in the Book of Ecclesiastes, 14 (i.e., approximately 27%) appear in chapter 7 (with 11 of those 14 being recorded in the verses 1 to 14). No other chapter in the Book of Ecclesiastes (or in the rest of Scripture) contains more than 7 occurrences of this word (cf. Genesis 1; Psalm 119; and Ecclesiastes 9, for the only other chapters in Scripture containing at least 7 occurrences of the word tob [good]).” Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.
240 Solomon utilizes a play on words with the Hebrew words for name (shem) and ointment (shemen).
241 Prov 22:1 says, “A good name is to be more desired than great wealth.”
242 Preaching Today citation: Kansas City Star (8-16-02); submitted by Kirtes Calvery, Raytown, MO.
243 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 163.
244 In Solomon’s book of Proverbs, there are at lease thirty verses emphasizing the goodness of enjoying life (e.g., Prov 15:13, 15; 17:22). Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 162.
245 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 164.
246 “House of…” is a Semitic idiom (cf. 7:4, i.e., Bethel, Bethlehem).
247 Jesus said something similar in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are they that mourn” (Matt 5:4).
248 The noun “end” (soph) is used only five times in the OT and three of them are in Ecclesiastes (3:11; 7:2; 12:13).
249 The Psalmist declares, “So teach us to number our days, that we may present to You a heart of wisdom” (Ps. 90:12).
250 Haddon W. Robinson, “Ecclesiastes 7:1-4: Funeral or Birthday?” Daily Bread:
251 Michael P. Andrus, “The Tests of Adversity and Prosperity” (Ecclesiastes 7:1-29): unpublished sermon notes.
252 Here, as often in the Proverbs written by Solomon, the author stretches a point to make a point. Certainly sorrow is not always better than laughter, nor is a sad face always good for the heart. Solomon himself says the opposite in Prov 15:13: “A joyful heart makes a cheerful face” and in Prov 17:22 he wrote, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones.”
253 Job 5:7: “For man is born for trouble as sparks fly upward.”
254 Cf. Matt 5:1; 2 Cor 7:10.
255 God may have to break us in order to make us. Reproof is one proof of God’s love. Jesus, the perfect man, is described as “a man of sorrows,” intimately acquainted with grief (Isa 53:3). It is hard to fathom, but even the incarnate Son of God learned and grew through the heartaches He suffered (Heb 5:8). As we think about His sorrow and His concern for our sorrow, we gain a better appreciation for what God is trying to accomplish in us, through the grief we bear.
256 Wayne Schmidt, Soul Management (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 129.
257 Schmidt, Soul Management, 135.
258 Tim A. Krell, “Thoughts about Life” (Eccl 7),” Chasing the Wind: Philosophical Reflections on Life: an unpublished paper, 3/1/1996.
259 See Solomon’s words in Prov 15:31-32 and 17:10: “He whose ear listens to the life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise. He who neglects discipline despises himself, but he who listens to reproof acquires understanding…A rebuke goes deeper into one who has understanding than a hundred blows into a fool.”
260 The term “laughter” (sechoq) is used often in Ecclesiastes (cf. 2:2; 3:4; 7:3, 5, 6). It is used metaphorically of the person who seeks instant gratification. It denotes life that focuses on the pleasure of this life in an existential moment, but does not ponder the “lasting benefit.”
261 The simile portrays the fool as both worthless (like thorns) and about to be destroyed (burning under a pot). Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1993).
262 There is another play on the Hebrew words pot (shir) and thorns (sir).
263 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 172.
264 The Psalmist writes, “Let the righteous smite me in kindness and reprove me; it is oil upon the head” (Ps.141:5a).
265 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 173.
266 This is not the normal word for “bribe” (mattanah; cf. Exod 23:8; Deut 16:19), but is the word “gift,” used in a specialized sense (cf. Prov 15:27).
267 This may be a summary statement of Eccl 7:2 related to 7:1 about a good name which is acquired with time and must be maintained. Often we judge something or someone too quickly and are disappointed.
268 This is often used in Proverbs for a person slow to anger (cf. 14:29; 15:18; 16:21; 19:11). However, its most common usage describes Yahweh’s merciful character (cf. Exod 34:6; Num 14:18; Neh 9:17; Ps 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Nah 1:3).
269 There is also a correlation between impatience and a tendency toward anger. Impatient people are prone to anger. And an angry person is a foolish person. This brings us to the following progression:
Pride Impatience Anger Foolishness
The opposite is also true. Humility leads ultimately to wisdom.
Humility Patience Peace Wisdom
See John Stevenson, “The Better and the Best” (Eccl 7:1-14): http://www.angelfire.com/nt/theology/eccl07-01.html.
270 Preaching Today citation: Richard Hendrix, Christian Reader, Vol. 31
271 Robert S. Ricker with Ron Pitkin, Soul Search: Hope for 21st Century Living from Ecclesiastes (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 1985), 95.
272 The Psalmist said, “This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps 118:24).
273 This is the Hebrew word for “shadow,” which offers protection in the desert (e.g., Ps 17:8; 36:7; 57:1; 61:4; 63:7; 91:1, 4). The term “shadow” was used in the sense of brevity in Eccl 6:12, but here in the sense of God’s personal presence and protection.
274 Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs.
275 Throughout the Scriptures God acknowledges that He sovereignly permits everything (good and bad) to occur. In the beginning, God created darkness and light and He continues to allow disaster as well as prosperity (Isa 45:7).
276 Eccl 7:13 harkens back to the insoluble problem of 1:15. Here, however, the point is that God is in control of the times, and nothing can be done to resist His will. Verse 14 clarifies that this is to be understood in an economic context. God brings both prosperity and recession. When times are good, one should enjoy the prosperity; when times are bad, one should reflect on the fact that this too is from God’s hand. God does not allow us to know whether tomorrow will bring unexpected wealth or sudden calamity, but we can find peace if we accept all as from God (see Lam 3:38).