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Ecclesiastes: The Good Life #14 What Life Is All About Ecclesiastes 11-12


“Is life worth living?”

That was the question the Preacher raised when he began the discourse that we call Ecclesiastes. After experimenting and investigating “life under the sun,” he concluded, “No, life is not worth living!” He gave four arguments to support his conclusion: the monotony of life, the vanity of wisdom, the futility of wealth, and the certainty of death.

Being a wise man, Solomon reviewed his arguments and this time brought God into the picture. What a difference it made. He realized that life was not monotonous but filled with challenging situations from God, each in its own time and each for its own purpose. He also learned that wealth could be enjoyed and employed to the glory of God. Though man’s wisdom couldn’t explain everything, Solomon concluded that it was better to follow God’s wisdom than to practice man’s folly. As for the certainty of death, there is no way to escape it; and it ought to motivate us to enjoy life now and make the most of the opportunities God gives us.

Now Solomon was ready for his conclusion and personal application. What he did was present four pictures of life and attach to each picture a practical admonition for his listeners (and readers) to heed. The development looks like this:

Life is an ADVENTURE—live by faith (11:1-6)

Life is a GIFT—enjoy it (11:7-12:8)

Life is a SCHOOL—learn your lessons (12:9-12)

Life is a STEWARDSHIP—fear God (12:13-14)

These four pictures parallel the four arguments that Solomon had wrestled with throughout the book. Life is not monotonous; rather, it is an adventure of faith that is anything but predictable or tedious. Yes, death is certain, but life is a gift from God and He wants us to enjoy it. Are there questions we can’t answer and problems we can’t solve? Don’t despair. God teaches us His truth as we advance in “the school of life,” and He will give us wisdom enough to make sensible decisions. Finally, as far as wealth is concerned, all of life is a stewardship from God; and one day He will call us to give an account. Therefore, “fear God, and keep His commandments” (12:13).

  1. Life is an adventure: live by faith (ECCL. 11:1-6)

When I was a boy, I practically lived in the public library during the summer months. I loved books, the building was cool, and the librarians gave me the run of the place since I was one of their best customers. One summer I read nothing but true adventure stories written by real heroes like Frank Buck and Martin Johnson. These men knew the African jungles better than I knew my hometown! I was fascinated by I Married Adventure, the autobiography of Martin Johnson’s wife Osa. When Clyde Beatty brought his circus to town, I was in the front row watching him “tame” the lions.

Since those boyhood days, life has become a lot calmer for me, but I trust I haven’t lost that sense of adventure. In fact, as I get older, I’m asking God to keep me from getting set in my ways in a life that is routine, boring, and predictable. “I don’t want my life to end in a swamp,” said British expositor F.B. Meyer. I agree with him. When I trusted Jesus Christ as my Savior through baptism for remission of sins, “I married adventure”; and that meant living by faith and expecting the unexpected.

Solomon used two activities to illustrate his point: the merchant sending out his ships (vv. 1-2) and the farmer sowing his seed (vv. 3-6). In both activities, a great deal of faith is required, because neither the merchant nor the farmer can control the circumstances. The ships might hit a reef, meet a storm, or be attacked by pirates and the cargo lost. Bad weather, blight, or insects might destroy the crop, and the farmer’s labor would be in vain. However, if the merchant and the farmer waited until the circumstances were ideal, they would never get anything done! Life has a certain amount of risk to it, and that’s where faith comes in.

The merchant (vv. 1-2).

“Cast thy bread upon the waters” may be paraphrased, “Send out your grain in ships.” Solomon himself was involved in various kinds of trade, so it was natural for him to use this illustration (1 Kings 10:15, 22). It would be months before the ships would return with their precious cargo; but when they did, the merchant’s faith and patience would be rewarded. Verse 2 suggests that he spread out his wealth and not put everything into one venture. After all, true faith is not presumption.

“For you do not know” is a key phrase in this section (vv. 2, 5, 6). Man is ignorant of the future, but he must not allow his ignorance to make him so fearful that he becomes either careless or paralyzed. On the contrary, not knowing the future should make us more careful in what we plan and what we do. Verse 2 can be interpreted, “Send cargo on seven or eight ships, because some of them are bound to bring back a good return on the investment.” In other words, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

The farmer (vv. 3-6).

Daniel Webster called farmers “the founders of civilization,” and Thomas Jefferson said they were “the chosen people of God.” Farming has never been easy work, and this was especially true in the Holy Land in Bible days. The Jews tilled a rocky soil, and they depended on the early and latter rains to nourish their seed. Nobody can predict the weather, let alone control it, and the farmer is at the mercy of nature.

Verse 3 contrasts the clouds with the tree. Clouds are always changing. They come and go, and the farmer hopes they will spill their precious water on his fields. Trees are somewhat permanent. They stand in the same place, unless a storm topples them; and then they lie there and rot. The past [the tree] cannot be changed, but the present [the clouds] is available to us, and we must seize each opportunity.

But don’t sit around waiting for ideal circumstances (v. 4). The wind is never right for the sower and the clouds are never right for the reaper. If you are looking for an excuse for doing nothing, you can find one. Billy Sunday said that an excuse was “the skin of a reason stuffed with a lie.” Life is an adventure and often we must launch out by faith, even when the circumstances seem adverse.

Just as nobody knows “the way of the wind” (v. 5, nkjv, and see John 3:8) or how the fetus is formed in the womb (Ps. 139:14-15), so nobody knows the works of God in His creation. God has a time and a purpose for everything (3:1-11), and we must live by faith in His Word. Therefore, use each day wisely (v. 6). Get up early and sow your seed, and work hard until evening. Do the job at hand and “redeem the time” (Eph. 5:15-17), trusting God to bless at least some of the tasks you have accomplished. Just as the merchant sends out more than one ship, so the farmer works more than one crop.

Life is an adventure of faith, and each of us is like a merchant, investing today in that which will pay dividends tomorrow. We are like the farmer, sowing various kinds of seeds in different soils, trusting God for the harvest (Gal. 6:8-9; Ps. 126:5-6; Hos. 10:12). If we worried about the wind toppling a tree over on us, or the clouds drenching us with rain, we would never accomplish anything. “Of course, there is no formula for success,” said famous concert pianist Arthur Rubinstein, “except perhaps an unconditional acceptance of life and what it brings.”

  1. Life is a gift: enjoy it (ECCL. 11:7-12:8)

This is Solomon’s sixth and final admonition that we accept life as a gift and learn to enjoy all that God shares with us (see 2:24; 3:12-15, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10). In order to do this, we must obey three instructions: rejoice (11:7-9), remove (11:10), and remember (12:1-8).

Rejoice (11:7-9).

What a joy it is to anticipate each new day and accept it as a fresh gift from God! I confess that I never realized what it meant to live a day at a time until I was nearly killed in an auto accident back in 1966. It was caused by a drunk driver careening around a curve at between 80 and 90 miles per hour. By the grace of God, I had no serious injuries; but my stay in the Intensive Care Ward, and my time of recuperation at home, made me a firm believer in Deut. 33:25, “As thy days, so shall thy strength be.” Now when I awaken early each morning, I thank God for the new day; and I ask Him to help me use it wisely for His glory and to enjoy it as His gift.

Solomon especially instructed the young people to take advantage of the days of youth before the “days of darkness” would arrive. He was not suggesting that young people have no problems or that older people have no joys. He was simply making a generalization that youth is the time for enjoyment, before the problems of old age start to reveal themselves.

My middle name is Wendell; I’m named after Wendell P. Loveless, who was associated for many years with the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, especially radio station WMBI. He lived into his nineties and was alert to the very end. During one of our visits with him, he told me and my wife, “I don’t go out much now because my parents won’t let me—Mother Nature and Father Time!”

Young people have to watch their hearts and their eyes, because either or both can lead them into sin (Num. 15:39; Prov. 4:23; Matt. 5:27-30). “Walk in the ways of your heart” (nkjv) is not an encouragement to go on a youthful fling and satisfy the sinful desires within (Jer. 17:9; Mark 7:20-23). It is rather a reminder for young people to enjoy the special pleasures that belong to youth and can never be experienced again in quite the same way. Those of us who are older need to remember that God expects young people to act like young people. The tragedy is that too many older people are trying to act like young people!

Solomon’s warning is evidence that he doesn’t have sinful pleasures in mind: “God will bring you into judgment.”

God does give us “all things richly to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17), but it is always wrong to enjoy the pleasures of sin. The young person who enjoys life in the will of God will have nothing to worry about when the Lord returns.

Remove (v. 10).

Privileges must be balanced by personal responsibilities. Young people must put anxiety out of their hearts (Matt. 6:24-34) and evil away from their flesh (2 Cor. 7:1). The word translated “sorrow” means “vexation, inner pain, anxiety.” If we are living in the will of God, we will have the peace of God in our hearts (Phil. 4:6-9). The sins of the flesh only destroy the body and can bring eternal judgment to the soul.

The phrase “childhood and youth are vanity” does not mean that these stages in life are unimportant and a waste of time. Quite the opposite is true! The best way to have a happy adult life and a contented old age is to get a good start early in life and avoid the things that will bring trouble later on. Young people who take care of their minds and bodies, avoid the destructive sins of the flesh, and build good habits of health and holiness, have a better chance for happy adult years than those who “sow their wild oats” and pray for a crop failure.

The phrase means “childhood and youth are transient.” These precious years go by so quickly, and we must not waste our opportunities for preparing for the future. The Hebrew word translated “youth” can mean “the dawning” or “blackness of hair” (as opposed to gray hair). Youth is indeed the time of “dawning”; and before we know it, the sun will start to set. Therefore, make the most of those “dawning years,” because you will never see them again. “Youthful sins lay a foundation for aged sorrows,” said Charles Spurgeon; and he was right.

Remember (12:1-8).

This third instruction means more than “think about God.” It means “pay attention to, consider with the intention of obeying.” It is Solomon’s version of Matthew 6:33, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness” (nkjv). How easy it is to neglect the Lord when you are caught up in the enjoyments and opportunities of youth. We know that dark days (11:8) and difficult [evil] days (12:1) are coming, so we had better lay a good spiritual foundation as early in life as possible. During our youthful years, the sky is bright (11:7); but the time will come when there will be darkness and one storm after another.

Verses 3-7 give us one of the most imaginative descriptions of old age and death found anywhere in literature. Students don’t agree on all the details of interpretation, but most of them do see here a picture of a house that is falling apart and finally turns to dust. A dwelling place is one biblical metaphor for the human body (Job 4:19; 2 Cor. 5:1-2 [a tent]; 2 Peter 1:13 [a tent]), and taking down a house or tent is a picture of death. The meaning may be:

keepers of the house—Your arms and hands tremble.

strong men—Your legs, knees, and shoulders weaken and you walk bent over.

grinders—You start to lose your teeth.

windows—Your vision begins to deteriorate.

doors—Either your hearing starts to fail, or you close your mouth because you’ve lost your teeth.

grinding—You can’t chew your food, or your ears can’t pick up the sounds outdoors.

rise up—You wake up with the birds early each morning, and wish you could sleep longer.

music—Your voice starts to quaver and weaken.

afraid—You are terrified of heights and afraid of falling while you walk down the street.

almond tree—If you have any hair left, it turns white, like almond blossoms.

grasshopper—You just drag yourself along, like a grasshopper at the close of the summer season.

desire—You lose your appetite, or perhaps your sexual desire.

long home—You go to your eternal [long] home and people mourn your death.

Verse 6 describes a golden bowl—a lamp—hanging from the ceiling on a silver chain. The chain breaks and the bowl breaks. The fragile “cord of life” is snapped and the light of life goes out. Only wealthy people could have such costly lamps, so Solomon may be hinting that death is no respecter of persons.

The verse also pictures a well with a windlass for bringing up a pitcher filled with water. One day the wheel breaks, the pitcher is shattered, and the end comes. The fountain of water was an ancient image for life (Ps. 36:8-9; Rev. 21:6). When the machinery of life stops working, the water of life stops flowing. The heart stops pumping, the blood stops circulating, and death has come. The spirit leaves the body (James 2:26; Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59), the body begins to decay, and eventually it turns to dust.

For the last time in his discourse, the Preacher said, “Vanity of vanities … all is vanity.” The book closes where it began (1:2), emphasizing the emptiness of life without God. When you look at life “under the sun,” everything does seem vain; but when you know Jesus Christ as your Saviour, “your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58).

  1. Life is a school: learn your lessons (ECCL. 12:9-12)

Someone has said that life is like a school, except that sometimes you don’t know what the lessons are until you have failed the examination. God teaches us primarily from His Word; but He also teaches us through creation, history, and the various experiences of life. Solomon explained the characteristics of his own work as a teacher of God’s truth.

To begin with, his teaching was wise (v. 9); for Solomon was the wisest of men (1 Kings 3:3-28). The king studied and explored many subjects, and some of his conclusions he wrote down in proverbs.

His teaching was also orderly (v. 9). After studying a matter, he weighed his conclusions carefully, and then arranged them in an orderly fashion. His whole approach was certainly scientific. We may not always see the pattern behind his arrangement, but it is there just the same.

Solomon sought to be careful in his teaching, so he used “acceptable words.” This means “pleasing” or “gracious” words (10:12) that would win the attention of his listeners and readers. However, at no time did he dilute his message or flatter his congregation. He always used upright words of truth. (See Prov. 8:6-11.) Like our Lord Jesus Christ, the king was able to combine “grace and truth” (John 1:17; Luke 4:16-32).

The Preacher claimed that his words were inspired, given by God, the One Shepherd (v. 11). Inspiration was the special miracle ministry of the Holy Spirit that enabled men of God to write the Word of God as God wanted it written, complete and without error (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21).

He compared his words to “goads” and “nails” (v. 11), both of which are necessary if people are to learn God’s truth. The “goads” prod the people to pay attention and to pursue truth, while the “nails” give them something on which to hang what they have learned. Good teaching requires both: the students must be motivated to study and the instructors must be able to “nail things down” so that the lessons make sense.

On the surface, verse 12 seems to be a negative view of learning; but such is not the case. The statement is a warning to the student not to go beyond what God has written in His Word. Indeed, there are many books; and studying them can be a wearisome chore. But don’t permit man’s books to rob you of God’s wisdom. “Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them [the words of the wise]” (v. 12, niv). These “nails” are sure and you can depend on them. Don’t test God’s truth by the “many books” written by men; test men’s books by the truth of God’s Word.

Yes, life is a school; and we must humble ourselves and learn all we can. Our textbook is the Bible, and the Holy Spirit is our Teacher (John 14:26; 15:26; 16:12-15). The Spirit can use gifted human teachers to instruct us, but He longs to teach us personally from His Word (Ps. 119:97-104). There are always new lessons to learn and new examinations to face as we seek to grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Saviour (2 Peter 3:18).

  1. Life is a stewardship: fear God (ECCL. 12:13-14)

We don’t own our lives, because life is the gift of God (Acts 17:24-28). We are stewards of our lives, and one day we must give an account to God of what we have done with His gift. Some people are only spending their lives; others are wasting their lives; a few are investing their lives. Corrie ten Boom said, “The measure of a life, after all, is not its duration but its donation.” If our lives are to count, we must fulfill three obligations.

Fear God (v. 13).

Ecclesiastes ends where the Book of Proverbs begins (Prov. 1:7), with an admonition for us to fear the Lord. (See 3:14; 5:7; 7:18; and 8:12-13.) The “fear of the Lord” is that attitude of reverence and awe that His people show to Him because they love Him and respect His power and His greatness. The person who fears the Lord will pay attention to His Word and obey it. He or she will not tempt the Lord by deliberately disobeying or by “playing with sin.” An unholy fear makes people run away from God, but a holy fear brings them to their knees in loving submission to God.

“The remarkable thing about fearing God,” wrote Oswald Chambers, “is that, when you fear God, you fear nothing else; whereas, if you do not fear God, you fear everything else.” The prophet Isaiah says it perfectly in Isaiah 8:13, and the psalmist describes such a man in Psalm 112.

Keep His commandments (v. 13).

God created life and He alone knows how it should be managed. He wrote the “manual of instructions” and wise is the person who reads and obeys. “When all else fails, read the instructions!”

The fear of the Lord must result in obedient living, otherwise that “fear” is only a sham. The dedicated believer will want to spend time daily in Scripture, getting to know the Father better and discovering His will. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, but fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov. 1:7).

The last phrase in verse 13 can be translated “this is the end of man” (i.e., his purpose in life), or “this is for all men.” Campbell Morgan suggests “this is the whole of man.” He writes in The Unfolding Message of the Bible, “Man, in his entirety, must begin with God; the whole of man, the fear of God” (p. 228). When Solomon looked at life “under the sun,” everything was fragmented and he could see no pattern. But when he looked at life from God’s point of view, everything came together into one whole. If man wants to have wholeness, he must begin with God.

Prepare for final judgment (v. 14).

“God shall judge the righteous and the wicked” (3:17). “But know that for all these God will bring you into judgment” (11:9, nkjv). Man may seem to get away with sin (8:11), but their sins will eventually be exposed and judged righteously. Those who have not trusted the Lord Jesus Christ will be doomed forever.

“The eternity of punishment is a thought which crushes the heart,” said Charles Spurgeon. “The Lord God is slow to anger, but when he is once aroused to it, as he will be against those who finally reject his Son, he will put forth all his omnipotence to crush his enemies.”

Six times in his discourse, Solomon told us to enjoy life while we can; but at no time did he advise us to enjoy sin. The joys of the present depend on the security of the future. If you know Jesus Christ as your Saviour, then your sins have already been judged on the cross; and “there is therefore now no condemnation to them who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1 and see John 5:24). But if you die having never trusted Christ, you will face judgment at His throne and be lost forever (Rev. 20:11-15).

Is life worth living? Yes, if you are truly alive through faith in Jesus Christ. Then you can be satisfied, no matter what God may permit to come to your life.

“He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life” (1 John 5:12, nkjv).

You can receive life in Christ and—be satisfied.

 
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Posted by on May 10, 2021 in Ecclesiastes

 

Ecclesiastes: The Good Life #13 No Risks, No Rewards – Ecclesiastes 11:1-6


There was once an elderly gentleman who loved playing golf. But he was almost eighty, and his vision was not very good anymore. He always had partners with him when he went out to play so they could watch his ball and tell him where it went.

One day his buddies did not show up. It was a beautiful day for golf, and as he waited at the clubhouse he got more and more upset that he wasn’t going to get to play his round. Another elderly man in the clubhouse saw him and asked, “What’s wrong?” The man explained his predicament: “I was really looking forward to playing golf today. But I don’t see very well anymore, so I need someone to watch the ball after I hit.”

The second man was even older than he was, but he said, “That’s no problem. I’ll be glad to ride around with you. I’ve got 20/20 vision. I can see like a hawk. You just hit the ball, and I’ll watch it fly right down the fairway.” So they went out on the first tee, and the old man hit the ball right down the center. He turned to his spotter. “Did you see it?” The man replied, “I saw it all the way until it stopped rolling.” “Well, where did it go?” The older man paused for a moment and then said, “I forgot.”

Even the best-laid plans don’t always work out—that’s a reality we all have to face every day. So how should you live when you’re not sure how things are going to turn out? Solomon says, “Don’t play it safe—take risks.” In other words, you have to live confidently. You can’t hide just because life won’t cooperate. Don’t avoid blessings because of the concerns that come with them. Don’t say, “I can’t get married. What if difficult struggles come up between me and my mate?” Or, “I can’t have children. How will I know they won’t be born with a birth defect?” Or, “I can’t start a business. What if it folds?” Or I can’t join the military. I might get deployed.”422 God wants you to step out in faith and take risks. He yearns for us to stop playing it safe. In Eccl 11:1-6, Solomon will pass on two insider tips that will help us to take some risks and avoid playing it safe.

1. Diversify your investments (11:1-2).423

It may surprise you that Solomon offers financial counsel as he nears the end of Ecclesiastes. Yet, this book is down and dirty, nitty-gritty relevant to our earthly lives. Thus, in these first two verses Solomon says, “Since life is so uncertain, spread your financial investments out.” In 11:1 he writes, “Cast your bread on the surface of the waters, for you will find it after many days.” What in the world does this peculiar verse mean? Perhaps you’re like me and in your mind a number of thoughts arise. Cast your bread on the surface of the waters…and it will return to you soggy or moldy…and the seagulls will eat it…and your mother will be mad at you for playing with your food.424 These bizarre notions should cause us to ask the question, “What is Solomon’s point?” I would suggest that the word “cast”425 is better rendered “send” (NRSV).426 This verb refers to the commercial enterprises of sea trade.427 Furthermore, the term “bread” refers to grain and wheat from which bread is produced.428

Solomon was deeply involved in international trade with countless merchants.429 Then as now, one of the main trade commodities was grain. The merchants of Solomon’s day would load their grain ships and send them off. The Israelites were “casting [their] bread upon the water.” But notice that with Solomon, the word is plural: “cast your bread on the waters.” In other words, don’t put all your grain in one ship. Put your wheat in several ships, and send it out in a diversified way so that if one of the ships should sink, you’ll not be ruined.430 In others words, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” Diversify your portfolio.

Instead of putting your grain in a boat and sending it off, you could keep it and make bread. That would be a safe bet since you would retain control of your grain and your bread. But that’s all you would have. Obviously, when you send grain that you own across the sea you are taking a risk. You may never see it or any return again. There are various risks like pirates, shipwrecks, and unscrupulous traders. Yet, there are also prospects of receiving back a dividend. It has been said, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”431 The truth is, any kind of investing requires faith. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. No risk, no reward. So Solomon says, “Don’t play it safe—take risks.”

The thought of 11:1 is repeated and unfolded in 11:2. As is often done in the Scriptures, the case is first stated in a figure to grab our attention, and then a plain literal statement is given to avoid all possibility of misunderstanding. So 11:2 is a commentary on 11:1. Solomon puts it like this: “Divide your portion to seven, or even to eight, for you do not know what misfortune may occur on the earth.” Here Solomon clearly encourages us to diversity our investments. The phrase “to seven or even to eight” is the Old Testament pattern of x + 1.432 Solomon speaks of trying every avenue there is and then adding one more. The reason for dividing your portion is “you do not know what misfortune433 may occur on the earth.” The stock market could drop, the value of your house could plummet, Social Security could run out, and Medicare may be insufficient. Any number of financial misfortunes could, and most likely will, occur. In light of this, you and I must prepare to the best of our abilities. The phrase “you do not know” is found four times in 11:2-6. This has been a common theme throughout Ecclesiastes (cf. 1:13; 3:10, 11; 8:17). God and His works and ways cannot be completely known by fallen mankind, but we can trust Him because of what we do know!

God’s expectation is that we will invest our money wisely. Perhaps all of your money has been in the bank and you are barely drawing interest. You may need to consider purchasing stocks or a rental home. You may need to enroll your kids in the GET program (Guaranteed Education Tuition).434 Do not commit all of one’s possessions to a single venture. Look for the best means of investing the money that the Lord has entrusted to you. But don’t fall for any get-rich-quick schemes or multi-level marketing businesses. Before you know it, you’ve spent all of your money.

The biblical view comes down to this: Since God alone knows the future, we ought to make our plans, use our brains, study the situation, take all factors into consideration, seek wise counsel, do the best we can, and then leave the results to God. Don’t be reckless—that’s the path of certain ruin; but don’t sit on your hands either. Invest your money, take your chances, sleep like a baby, and let God take care of the future.435 Don’t play it safe—take risks.

[Why should you diversify your investments? Because you don’t know what will happen in the future. This reality will be especially drawn out in the following section where Solomon says…]

2. Seize your opportunities (11:3-6).

In this section,Solomon says that we cannot delay our course of action. We must “seize the day”—Carpe Deim. In 11:3-5, Solomon gives observations concerning the way things are, while in 11:6 he gives the practical application—the “so what” of the passage. In 11:3 Solomon writes, “If the clouds are full, they pour out rain upon the earth; and whether a tree falls toward the south or toward the north, wherever the tree falls, there it lies.” Humans experience, but cannot predict or control, the events of their lives (a recurrent theme in Ecclesiastes). We need to distinguish between those things about which we can do nothing and those about which we can. Since we cannot stop nature’s patterns (when it rains or where a tree falls), we had better work on finding something else to do.436 The point is simple: Don’t waste your time with God’s affairs! “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof” (Ps 24:1 KJV). Let God be God; He can concern Himself with His responsibilities. When we do that, we will realize all that we have to concern ourselves with.

In 11:4 Solomon writes, “He who watches the wind will not sow and he who looks at the clouds will not reap.” This proverb criticizes those who are overly cautious. The farmer who waits for the most opportune moment to plant, when there is no wind to blow away the seed, and to reap, when there is no rain to ruin a ripe harvest, will never do anything but sit around waiting for the right moment. And so, the seed stays in the barn. Solomon exhorts us not to be like this farmer. Don’t wait for conditions to be perfect, because that will never happen. It is true that the wind and rain might come and destroy the harvest. Today’s work might be ruined and you might have to do it over again tomorrow. But that’s okay. Today’s work might succeed as well as tomorrow’s. And if so, then you will be able to reap the rewards for both. Don’t play it safe—take risks.

There is no time better than the present to step out in faith. So stop procrastinating! Be diligent constantly.437 If we wait until we “have time” to do something we never will. The “perfect opportunity” begins now—while we still can.438 Don’t put what God has placed in your heart off another day. There is no perfect time to have kids. We never have enough money, energy, or patience. Once you have children, don’t wait for the right time to spend time with them. Before you know it, your kids will be all grown up. If you are married, don’t wait for your husband or wife to be all that you want. Begin pouring your life into your spouse now. Don’t wait until you have spare time, more money, or better health. If you are a student, seek to accomplish all of your dreams today. Don’t settle for settled-for Christianity. If you are not currently ministering, get involved today. If we wait until we’re less busy, until we feel right, until just the right moment, we will never witness, never serve, and never see results. Don’t play it safe—take risks.

In 11:5 Solomon continues with two more analogies: “Just as you do not know the path of the wind and how bones are formed in the womb of the pregnant woman,439 so you do not know the activity of God who makes all things.”440Life is unpredictable and mysterious. Solomon says life is just like the wind. The wind operates sovereignly. Humankind cannot create or control it, for the wind is unseen and unknowable. We perceive its presence by its effects.441 Likewise, we cannot understand how God forms bones in the womb. This is far beyond our comprehension, so we have to take this by faith. Yet, in doing so, we adhere to the most intelligent option available to us. It is clear that the creation of the human body couldn’t have happened by itself. Scientist Fred Hoyle says this would be akin to a tornado in a junkyard taking all the pieces of metal lying there and turning them into a Boeing 747.442 So, of course, since we cannot know God’s activities, we take it in faith that He is the one who makes all things.

There are many times when we look at things that go on in the world and we don’t have a clue as to what God is doing. But we have to trust Him because He is the one who makes and sustains all things. Too many Christians freeze because they don’t know what God wants them to do. They suffer from a paralysis of analysis. When facing a decision in their lives, they want God to tell them exactly what their choices should be. Does God have to tell you what to do? Will God tell you what to do? There is a difference between right or wrong decisions and right or left decisions. In the Bible, the will of God always refers to moral choices—decisions where one path leads to sin and the other to righteousness. For these right or wrong decisions, we can know the will of God. It’s found in the Bible. We need to pray and pursue the path of righteousness. For right or left decisions, God is under no obligation to reveal His plan to us. More than likely, He will not. That’s why in Ecclesiastes Solomon says you just have to be bold and act. Too often, Christians are looking for a no-fault deal. We try to do insider-trading with God to get some information that will show us which choice is best for us. But God doesn’t do insider-trading. He does not reveal His plan to men. In the Bible, there are men who wanted someone to tell them the future. Basically, they wanted someone to be their fortune-teller.443 God won’t tell you your fortune; He has already told you your duty. Don’t call a 900 number to find God’s will. Don’t turn everything into a mystical decision about what you “feel” God wants you to do. If it’s a right or left decision, pray about it and then boldly follow your heart.444

Our passage closes in 11:6 with the “so what:” “Sow your seed in the morning and do not be idle445 in the evening, for you do not know whether morning or evening sowing will succeed,446 or whether both of them alike will be good.” Solomon issues a command: “sow your seed,” which is used metaphorically of giving (cf. 2 Cor 9:6). He wants us to have confidence and leave the results to God. The key to this passage is found in 11:6, “do not be idle.”447 The terms “morning” and “evening” form a merism (a figure of speech using two polar extremes to include everything in between) that connotes “from morning until evening.” The point is not that the farmer should plant at two times in the day (morning and evening), but that he should plant all day long (i.e., from morning until evening).448 That is what Solomon would have for us. To represent God in all that we do, with all that we have. Don’t play it safe—take risks.

What types of risks can you take? There are many possibilities. One of my best friends left Portland and planted a church in Charlotte, NC, because the Lord led him to do so. Similarly, Lori’s cousin gave up a great forestry job in Alaska to move to North Carolina. Is the Lord leading you to a move of some kind? Theo and Myra Yu have two brilliant daughters, Apphia and Avonlea, who have opted to leave the security of their home to go to college halfway across the United States. Two families in our church recently adopted children from other parts of the world. Several of our young people have decided to go into military service. Some of our young couples are stepping out in faith and choosing a one-income home. Some of the busiest people in our church have committed themselves to ministry when there is no time available in their schedule. Some of our people are sharing their faith with others. They risk persecution, loneliness, and demotion.

Actor John Wayne (1907–1979) once said, “Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.”449 So how will you step out in faith today? What will you do in an attempt to stop playing it safe? Will you take some risks for the kingdom of God?

Danny Cox, a former jet pilot turned business leader, tells his readers in Seize the Day that when jet fighters were first invented, they “flew much faster than their propeller predecessors.” So pilot ejection became a more sophisticated process. Theoretically, of course, all a pilot needed to do was push a button, clear the plane, then roll forward out of the seat so the parachute would open.

But there was a problem that popped up during testing. Some pilots, instead of letting go, would keep a grip on the seat. The parachute would remain trapped between the seat and the pilot’s back. The engineers went back to the drawing board and came up with a solution. The new design called for a two-inch webbed strap. One end attached to the front edge of the seat, under the pilot. The other end attached to an electronic take-up reel behind the headrest. Two seconds after ejection, the electronic take-up reel would immediately take up the slack and force the pilot forward out of his seat, thus freeing the parachute. Bottom line? Jet fighter pilots needed that device to launch them out of their chairs. The question is, “What will it take to launch us out of ours?”450

 

 
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Posted by on May 3, 2021 in Ecclesiastes

 

Ecclesiastes: The Good Life #12 Wise Beyond Words (Ecclesiastes 9:13-10:20)


Ecclesiastes 7:10 - Bible verse of the day - DailyVerses.net

Have you ever heard of Ed Faubert? Faubert is what you call a “cupper.” In layman’s terms, he’s a coffee-taster. The man is so gifted that his astute taste buds are actually certified by the state of New York! So refined is Faubert’s sense of taste for coffee that even while blindfolded, he can take one sip of coffee and tell you not just that it is from Guatemala, but from what state it comes, at what altitude it was grown, and on what mountain.383

If you’re like me and you enjoy a good cup of coffee, you’re impressed with this man’s uncanny taste buds. His coffee wisdom is incomparable. But I have to ask this question: Why is it that so many Americans know so much about so many things that don’t really matter? Take me for example: I know a lot about sports. I know various athlete’s height, weight, strength, 40-yard dash times, and alma maters. I also know quite a bit about music. Growing up in the 1980s, I could tell you a few things about glam, metal bands, boy bands, and country acts. I even know many of their lyrics. But I ask you this: Who really cares about my pearls of wisdom? I know I don’t. I want to be wise where it really matters.

The legendary Mister Rogers once said, “Life is deep and simple, and what our society gives us is shallow and complicated.”384 Fred Rogers was right. In Eccl 9:13-10:20, we will see that life may indeed be deep, but it is also rather simple. Yet, in order to experience life as God intends, we need to follow His Word. In this passage, Solomon tells us that “wisdom helps make a life.” He then gives three challenges for us to implement as we navigate through life.

1. Appreciate wisdom in others (9:13-18).

Solomon emphasizes the worth of wisdom. In 9:13-15, he begins with an intriguing parable. He writes, “Also this I came to see as wisdom under the sun, and it impressed385 me. There was a small city with few men in it and a great king came to it, surrounded it and constructed large siegeworks against it. But there was found in it a poor wise man and he delivered the city by his wisdom. Yet no one remembered that poor man.”386 In this parable, a poor, wise man outsmarts a great king. He saves the day, yet he is unrewarded with wealth or social esteem. Whether the poor man delivered the city by diplomacy or military strategy is not the issue. The point is that the city owed its survival to him, but he received no reward or lasting respect.387 The sad truth is: wisdom is sought out only in desperate times; otherwise, only those who have wealth or power are in a position to demand public attention.388 Although the wise man failed to personally profit from his labors, his wisdom was not profitless for others or for his world. In fact, this poor man’s wisdom impressed Solomon (9:13) so much that he draws three conclusions from this parable (9:16-18):

  • Godly wisdom is greater than strength. In 9:16a Solomon writes, “Wisdom is better than strength.” If you want to understand the truth of these words, go to your high school reunion. The students who were boring nerds look great and are successful. The cool party-animal jocks are all burned out. You see, even though our society glorifies strength it is short-lived. We lose strength as we advance in years, but the wonderful truth is that we can gain wisdom as we grow older. Wisdom works. It is based on eternal principles. Plug into wisdom and your life will be a success.
  • A strong young man at a construction site was bragging that he could outdo anyone in a feat of strength. He made a special case of making fun of one of the older workmen. After several minutes, the older worker had had enough. “Why don’t you put your money where your mouth is?” he said. “I’ll bet a week’s wages that I can haul something in a wheelbarrow over to that building that you won’t be able to wheel back.” “You’re on, old man,” the young worker replied. The old man reached out and grabbed the wheelbarrow by the handles. Then he turned to the young man and said, “All right. Get in.”389
  • This older man outsmarted the younger, stronger man with his wisdom. Wisdom may not bring accolades and popularity, but it tends to win the day. This is especially true in the church. Although our church has outstanding ministries for children and teens led by many younger adults, we need to continue to appreciate those who are older and wiser and who have laid the foundation for these ministries. The prayers and faithful service of many older and wiser saints who have remained committed to our church have made our present ministries possible. We must never forget the debt that we owe those who have served behind the scenes for many years and in many ways. We need to express appreciation for the wisdom that God has placed in our midst.
  • Godly wisdom is not always heeded. In 9:16b-17 Solomon said, “But the wisdom of the poor man is despised and his words are not heeded. The words of the wise heard in quietness are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools.” Sadly, wisdom frequently goes unrewarded. We have all heard the expression, “Give credit where credit is due.” Well, unfortunately, in our fallen world this does not always happen. Often, godly wisdom and counsel falls upon deaf ears, or at best, goes in one ear and out the other. Therefore, when people do heed godly wisdom we ought to get excited. When a husband/father says, “I will not take that promotion because my family and church will suffer,” we should express our appreciation. When a spouse says, “I will not file for divorce even though I may have biblical grounds,” we ought to express our appreciation. When a high school student walks with God and is obedient to his or her parents, we ought to express our appreciation.
  • Godly wisdom can be overcome by sheer folly. In 9:18 Solomon writes, “Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.” As effective as godly wisdom is, a single person—“one sinner”—can cancel much good. This phrase “one sinner destroys much good” is like our, “one rotten apple ruins the whole barrel” or “one bad egg spoils the omelette.” Throughout the Bible, there is an abiding principle: “A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough” (1 Cor 5:6). We must guard ourselves from being contaminated by sin which will destroy godly wisdom. Television is not wicked in and of itself. But I know this: Many of us are being influenced by sinners through the tube. Moreover, our children are being influenced by sinners. The average American watches 1,680 minutes of television per week. The average parent spends 38.5 minutes per week in good conversation with their kids.390 Who do you think has more influence on our kids? The answer is obvious. May we not be overcome by foolishness.

[Solomon states that we should appreciate wisdom in others. Why is this so important? The answer is: God’s wisdom is greater than man’s strength. Solomon now goes on to exhort you and me to…]

2. Avoid foolishness at any expense (10:1-7).

In the midst of a passage praising wisdom, Solomon warns us of the dangers of foolish behavior. In Ecclesiastes 10, he uses the word “fool” nine times. In Solomon’s three books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon), he uses the words “fool, fools, foolish, and folly” a staggering total of 128 times.391 We could call him a “fool buster.” Consequently, he writes an entire chapter replete with proverbs that will help us to behave with wisdom instead of foolishness. In 10:1 he shares a most unusual proverb: “Dead flies make a perfumer’s oil stink, so a little foolishness is weightier392 than wisdom and honor.” This particular proverb may not be a terribly pleasant thought, especially if you are wearing perfume. It is Solomon’s vivid way of illustrating how a tiny bit of foolishness can destroy the powerful fragrance of a person’s dignity and reputation.393 This is the source of the well-known phrase “a fly in the ointment.” Notice, this comes right after the statement in 9:18 that “one sinner destroys much good.” The point being made is that it takes far less effort to ruin something than it does to create it. Or perhaps another way to put it is that it’s easier to make a stink than to create sweetness. Flies are insignificant creatures in the overall scheme of things. A perfumer’s oil, on the other hand, is a very costly substance created with care and skill. Still the insignificant can spoil the valuable. We must always remember that wisdom helps make a life.

Although there are probably many legitimate applications of this proverb, there are two I’d like to zero in on. First, the fly may be a person. One person who is out of sorts with God can lead a whole group into sin. One person who is negative can put a wet blanket on everyone’s hope. One person who is super-critical can create single-handedly an atmosphere of discouragement. Are you a fly in the ointment at your home, at work, or at church? Second, the fly may be a flaw in character. One fault unchecked or one secret sin cherished can poison a person’s entire character. May I suggest that you choose to swat one fly before it lands in your perfume. Perhaps it is a bad attitude; maybe a bad habit; perhaps a tendency toward being irresponsible or unreliable; maybe an omission of something we should be doing that if not corrected could lead to spiritual deterioration.394 It’s easy to think, “It’s just a little thing:” a “little” relationship, a “little” flirtation at the office,” a “little” edge in a tone of voice, a “little” padding on the expense account,” a “little” experimentation in the wrong area—just a little thing.395 But we must remember that a little thing can ruin everything. Wisdom helps make a life.

In 10:2 Solomon writes, “A wise man’s heart directs him toward the right, but the foolish man’s heart directs him toward the left.” First of all, this is not a political statement! God is not a Republican or a Democrat. He is a Theocrat—He alone rules His kingdom. We could call Him a benevolent dictator. Even though it is a campaign season, I will leave this alone. In Israel the right hand was the place of strength, skill, favor, and blessing.396 The left hand was considered the place of weakness. That’s why you hear people say, “I can beat you left-handed.” It means I can beat you with my unskilled hand.397 Solomon is saying that a wise man typically does the “right” thing while the fool does the “left” or wrong thing. My condolences to you if you are a lefty and you find this offensive.

In 10:3, Solomon continues his theme of foolishness with another proverb: “Even when the fool walks along the road, his sense is lacking398 and he demonstrates to everyone that he is a fool.” The “road” is not a literal highway but the fool’s metaphorical way of life. The Scriptures are portrayed as a well-worn, clearly marked path.399 Deviation from the path (in any direction) meant sin and rebellion.400 The fool doesn’t have to do a lot to demonstrate his foolishness. It is easily manifested in how he lives his life.

In 10:4-7, Solomon discusses our response to various leaders. In 10:4 he writes, “If the ruler’s temper rises against you,401 do not abandon your position, because composure allays great offenses.”402This is an extremely practical verse. Solomon says, “When your boss gets angry at you, let it go. Never let another person’s actions determine your reaction. Just hang in there and deal with the person. Keep your cool and maintain your composure. In doing so, you may one day gain a hearing with your superior.403 It is important to note the phrase “do not abandon your position.” I have worked for difficult people before, and my tendency has always been to want to quit. Yet, what I have learned is that difficult people are everywhere. This is why Solomon says, “Calm down. Breathe. Don’t quit and run to a new place trying to run away from a broken world.” We must all recognize that there will always be some people that we just can’t stand. These individuals may be in your family, work, school, neighborhood, or church. It’s easy to get angry and frustrated with these people. It’s natural to wish they weren’t a part of our life. Life without them would be so much easier but we would be spiritually flabby. Because of them, we are forced to grow in areas that would otherwise remain undeveloped for God.404

Solomon closes out this section in 10:5-7 by saying, “There is an evil I have seen under the sun, like an error which goes forth from the ruler—folly is set in many exalted places while rich men sit in humble places. I have seen slaves riding on horses and princes walking like slaves on the land.” In life, role reversal occurs.405 Often those who work hard or are successful lose their positions to less competent and qualified people. This is especially true in our society. A hundred years ago, the famous people were doctors and scientists. I know it may be hard to believe but even lawyers and pastors were respected. And now, you can’t turn on the TV without finding out what’s new with Brittany Spears and Paris Hilton. With all due respect to these ladies, I have no idea how they keep getting on television. It baffles my mind. These ladies need to recognize that wisdom helps make a life.

[Solomon urges us to avoid foolishness at any expense. Why does he harp on this? Ultimately, because he knows that foolishness can destroy our lives. Solomon now goes on to exhort us to…]

3. Apply wisdom to life (10:8-20).

In this final section, we will clearly see that wisdom is “skill for living.” Solomon provides four concrete ways that we can make wisdom work for us.

First, apply wisdom in getting a job done (10:8-10). Solomon writes, “He who digs a pit may fall into it, and a serpent may bite him who breaks through a wall. He who quarries stones may be hurt by them, and he who splits logs may be endangered by them. If the axe is dull and he does not sharpen its edge, then he must exert more strength. Wisdom has the advantage of giving success.” These five illustrations make the point: Think before you act. You can have incredible energy, gusto, and perseverance. You can go out and dig a massive pit. But stay away from the edge or you might fall in and break your neck. Avoid the perils of your own work. Be wise as well as energetic. If you are clearing the stones from an old wall, be careful. All your strength could get you killed if there is a copperhead on the other side of that wall.406 It’s not enough to have energy; you better have wisdom to go with it. If you are an excavator, be careful when you cut out a piece of rock because it has to fall somewhere. Don’t let it hit you on the head. Be smart with your energy, diligence, and talent. If you’re cutting trees the same advice holds true. The tree has to fall somewhere, so be careful. And if you don’t have enough wisdom to sharpen your axe you are going to make your work a lot harder. Stop and sharpen that edge. If it’s dull you will have to strike harder and harder until you get out of control, miss the log, and hit yourself.407 It’s typically better to work smart instead of harder. If you exercise wisdom, you will have success.

Second, apply wisdom in controlling your words (10:11-15). In 10:11 Solomon writes,“If the serpent bites before being charmed, there is no profit for the charmer.” This verse first looks like a random thought, but actually is the key to this entire section. You’ve probably seen a snake charmer on television. It’s quite a talent to be able to charm a snake, isn’t it? But if the charmer gets bitten, his talent didn’t do him any good. The charmer had the skill but he didn’t use it. Solomon’s point is that you need to use the wisdom you have. Otherwise, you may as well not have that sense, for it is of no service to you. It’s not enough to know how to charm the serpent; you have to actually apply your knowledge before you’re bitten. Let’s apply this idea to life. You probably have many areas in life where you know the right things to do. You could give a list of wonderful principles for marriage, parenting, money management, sexuality, friendships, and work. You know all the right answers in your head. But that’s not the most important part, is it? If the serpent bites, the person who knows how to charm a snake is no better off than one who doesn’t. So the important thing is not just that you have the knowledge but that you actually use it in marriage, parenting, and so on. You have to use your wisdom. Our churches are filled with Bible-believing people who have mangled their lives because they were bitten by the snake. They didn’t put their wisdom to use. What about you? Are there areas of your life where you know the right thing to do but just aren’t doing it? Are you praying with your spouse? Are you reading the Bible with your kids? Are you out of debt and using your money wisely to fulfill the Lord’s calling on your life? If the answer to any of these questions is no, you need to put your wisdom into practice.408Wisdom helps make a life.

In 10:12-15, it becomes clearer that Solomon’s focus is on controlling our words. He writes, “Words from the mouth of a wise man are gracious, while the lips of a fool consume him; the beginning of his talking is folly and the end of it is wicked madness. Yet the fool multiplies words. No man knows what will happen, and who can tell him what will come after him?409 The toil of a fool so wearies him that he does not even know how to go to a city.”410It is sad to say but both the foolish and wise alike can multiply their words. Yet, consider the following benefits to silence or at least to talking less: (1) you can listen carefully to what others say; (2) you have time to frame your thoughts; (3) your companions will value your words because you have listened to them; and (4) you run a much lower risk of saying something foolish.411 A wise person once remarked that it’s better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

Third, apply wisdom in leading others (10:16-19). In 10:16-17Solomon writes, “Woe to you, O land, whose king is a lad and whose princes feast in the morning. Blessed are you, O land, whose king is of nobility412 and whose princes eat at the appropriate time413—for strength and not for drunkenness.” In these verses, Solomon informs us that some leaders try to solve problems with pleasure—food and drink. Food is for activity, not for inactivity. We eat to live; we do not live to eat!! One who controls the base appetite to eat probably can control other areas where self takes control. Self discipline is crucial in a leader! We are affected by the tone set by those at the top of any organization. This is true of both good and bad leaders. Laziness, incompetence, or moral failure in any organization will cause it to collapse. This is true from the White House all the way to your house. So Solomon gives us some guidance. An image of bad rulers is compared to good ones. The first priority for bad rulers is to fulfill their own appetites and desires. Good rulers, on the other hand, are disciplined. They enjoy good things in moderation, so they can concentrate on governing well.

In 10:18, Solomon shares another memorable proverb: “Through indolence the rafters sag, and through slackness the house leaks.” Picture a guy sitting at home with a bottle of beer in his hand, watching television. He’s supposed to be doing work, taking care of things, providing for those for whom he is responsible. He’s supposed to be a steward of the tasks entrusted to him. But the house is falling down. The roof is leaking. The bills are stacking up. The beer belly is growing larger.414 Solomon says that this is not an appropriate response. While effort alone will not guarantee success, lack of effort will almost certainly guarantee failure.

What is it that you know you need to do this week that is not done in your life? It will take you less than three seconds to answer that question. I already know what it is in my life. Now that you know what it is, name it. Plan it. Schedule it. Do it. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; because in the grave where you are going there is no planning, no foresight, and no work. You want to rest? You will have plenty of time to rest in the grave. Until then, stay busy doing what needs to be done.415

In 10:19 he writes, “Men prepare a meal for enjoyment, and wine makes life merry, and money is the answer to everything.” There may be a hint of sarcasm in Solomon’s voice. Throughout this book, he has taught that there is no answer for anything. On the other hand, lots of money would help anyone searching for pleasure in an attempt to escape life’s harsh realities. Yet, only wisdom matters.

Lastly, apply wisdom in withholding criticism (10:20). Solomon states that the wise person should not even criticize someone in the privacy of their bedroom. Listen to these words: “Furthermore, in your bedchamber do not curse a king, and in your sleeping rooms do not curse a rich man, for a bird of the heavens will carry the sound and the winged creature will make the matter known.” Many will ask the question, “What shall I do when those in authority over me are fools?” Solomon says, “Be careful what you say about those in authority over you. Loose lips sink ships. They also sink careers and friendships.” Of course, it is hard to keep reckless words a secret, but we must realize that words can travel like the speed of light.416 Those who hear juicy gossip and slander often use them for self interest (i.e., tell the king in order to gain favor). This is the origin of the little expression: “A little bird told me.” Birds don’t talk, of course, but Solomon is reminding us with this illustration that a wise person doesn’t say something in private that he wouldn’t want someone to hear in public.417 We should watch what we say because we never know who is listening. Remember, “The walls have ears!” We should always utilize discretion, caution, and control. Sam Rayburn (1882-1961), democratic politician from Texas, said, “Among my most prized possessions are words that I have never spoken.”418 Today, will you recommit yourself to holding your tongue? Will you strive to believe the best about people? Will you refuse to participate in gossip? If someone wants to talk to you about another person, will you shut him or her down? The truth is: gossip and slander can destroy churches. May you and I see gossip and slander in the same repulsive light as we do child molestation. We would never want to be party to this because it is sinful and we know the damage that it does. The same is true with gossip. It is utter foolishness.419

A man walked into a convenience store, put a $20 bill on the counter, and asked for change. When the clerk opened the drawer, the man pulled a gun and asked for all the cash in the register. The man took the cash from the clerk and fled, leaving his $20 bill on the counter. So how much did he get from the drawer? Fifteen bucks. Go figure.420 We read this story and we think, “What a fool!” Yet, we often exchange God’s wisdom for man’s foolishness and don’t think anything of it.

How should you respond to God’s Word today? I would suggest memorizing James 1:5: “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” If you and I humbly come to the Lord and ask to exchange our foolishness for His wisdom, He will grant this prayer every time. He will also change your life in the process. Wisdom helps make a life.

A Little Folly Is Dangerous Ecclesiastes 10

Before he concluded his message, Solomon thought it wise to remind his congregation once again of the importance of wisdom and the danger of folly. (The word “folly” is used nine times in this chapter.) In verse 1, he laid down the basic principle that folly creates problems for those who commit it. He had already compared a good name to fragrant perfume (7:1), so he used the image again. What dead flies are to perfume, folly is to the reputation of the wise person. The conclusion is logical: Wise people will stay away from folly!

Why is one person foolish and another wise? It all depends on the inclinations of the heart (v. 2). Solomon was not referring to the physical organ in the body, because everybody’s heart is in the same place, except for those who might have some birth defect. Furthermore, the physical organ has nothing to do with wisdom or folly. Solomon was referring to the center of one’s life, the “master control” within us that governs “the issues of life” (Prov. 4:23).

In the ancient world, the right hand was the place of power and honor, while the left hand represented weakness and rejection (Matt. 25:33, 41). Many people considered the left side to be “unlucky.” (The English word “sinister” comes from a Latin word that means “on the left hand.”) Since the fool doesn’t have wisdom in his heart, he gravitates toward that which is wrong (the left) and gets into trouble (see 2:14). People try to correct him, but he refuses to listen, and this tells everybody that he is a fool (v. 3).

Having laid down the principle, Solomon then applied it to four different “fools.”

  1. The foolish ruler (ECCL. 10:4-7)

If there is one person who needs wisdom, it is the ruler of a nation. When God asked Solomon what gift he especially wanted, the king asked for wisdom (1 Kings 3:3-28). Lyndon B. Johnson said, “A president’s hardest task is not to do what’s right, but to know what’s right.” That requires wisdom.

If a ruler is proud, he may say and do foolish things that cause him to lose the respect of his associates (v. 4). The picture here is of a proud ruler who easily becomes angry and takes out his anger on the attendants around him. Of course, if a man has no control over himself, how can he hope to have control over his people? “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city” (Prov. 16:32, nkjv). “Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls” (Prov. 25:28, nkjv).

However, it isn’t necessary for his servants to act like fools! In fact, that’s the worse thing they can do (8:3). Far better that they control themselves, stay right where they are and seek to bring peace. “Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone” (Prov. 25:15, niv). “A king’s wrath is a messenger of death, but a wise man will appease it” (Prov. 16:14, niv).

To be sure, there is a righteous anger that sometimes needs to be displayed (Eph. 4:26), but not everything we call “righteous indignation” is really “righteous.” It is so easy to give vent to jealousy and malice by disguising them as holy zeal for God. Not every religious crusader is motivated by love for God or obedience to the Word. His or her zeal could be a mask that is covering hidden anger or jealousy.

But if a ruler is too pliable, he is also a fool (vv. 5-7). If he lacks character and courage, he will put fools in the high offices and qualified people in the low offices. The servants will ride on horses while the noblemen will walk (see Prov. 19:10 and 30:21-22). If a ruler has incompetent people advising him, he is almost certain to govern the nation unwisely.

Solomon’s son Rehoboam was proud and unyielding, and this led to the division of the kingdom (1 Kings 12:1-24). Instead of following the advice of the wise counselors, he listened to his youthful friends. He made the elders walk and he put the young men on the horses. On the other hand, more than one king in Jewish history has been so pliable that he turned out to be nothing but a figurehead. The best rulers (and leaders) are men and women who are tough-minded but tenderhearted, who put the best people on the horses and don’t apologize for it.

  1. Foolish workers (ECCL. 10:8-11)

Students are not agreed on what Solomon’s point is in this graphic section. Was he saying that every job has its occupational hazards? If so, what lesson was he teaching, and why did he take so much space to illustrate the obvious? His theme is folly, and he certainly was not teaching that hard work is foolish because you might get injured! Throughout the book, Solomon emphasized the importance of honest labor and the joys it can bring. Why would he contradict that message?

I believe Solomon was describing people who attempted to do their work and suffered because they were foolish. One man dug a pit, perhaps a well or a place for storing grain, but fell into the pit himself. Why? Because he lacked wisdom and failed to take proper precautions. Frequently Scripture uses this as a picture of just retribution, but that doesn’t seem to be the lesson here. (See Ps. 7:15; 9:15-16; 10:2; 35:8; 57:6; Prov. 26:27; 28:10.)

Another man broke through a hedge [wall, fence], perhaps while remodeling his house, and a serpent bit him. Serpents often found their way into hidden crevices and corners, and the man should have been more careful. He was overconfident and did not look ahead.

Verse 9 takes us to the quarries and the forests, where careless workers are injured cutting stones and splitting logs. Verse 10 pictures a foolish worker par excellence: a man who tried to split wood with a dull ax. The wise worker will pause in his labors and sharpen it. As the popular slogan says, “Don’t work harder—work smarter!”

Snake charmers were common as entertainers in that day (v. 11, and see Ps. 58:4-5 and Jer. 8:17). Snakes have no external ears; they pick up sound waves primarily through the bone structure of the head. More than the music played by the charmer, it is the man’s disciplined actions (swaying and “staring”) that hold the snake’s attention and keep the serpent under control. It is indeed an art.

Solomon described a performer who was bitten by the snake before the man had opportunity to “charm” it. Beside risking his life, the charmer could not collect any money from the spectators (see v. 11, niv). They would only laugh at him. He was a fool because he rushed and acted as though the snake were charmed. He wanted to collect his money in a hurry and move to another location. The more “shows” he put on, the bigger his income. Instead, he made no money at all.

Some charmers had a mongoose available that “caught” the snake just at the right time and “saved” the man from being bitten. If for some reason the mongoose missed his cue, the serpent might attack the charmer, and that would be the end of the show. Either way, the man was foolish.

The common denominator among these “foolish workers” seems to be presumption. They were overconfident and ended up either hurting themselves or making their job harder.

  1. Foolish talkers (ECCL. 10:12-15)

In the Book of Proverbs, Solomon had much to say about the speech of fools. In this paragraph, he pointed out four characteristics of their words.

First, they are destructive words (v. 12). The wise person will speak gracious words that are suited to the listeners and the occasion (Prov. 10:32; 25:11). Whether in personal conversation or public ministry, our Lord always knew the right thing to say at the right time (Isa. 50:4). We should try to emulate Him. But the fool blurts out whatever is on his mind and doesn’t stop to consider who might be hurt by it. In the end, it is the fool himself who is hurt the most: “a fool is consumed by his own lips” (ECCL. 10:12, niv).

In Scripture, destructive words are compared to weapons of war (Prov. 25:18), a fire (James 3:5-6), and a poisonous beast (James 3:7-8). We may try to hurt others with our lies, slander, and angry words, but we are really hurting ourselves the most. “He who guards his mouth preserves his life, but he who opens wide his lips shall have destruction” (Prov. 13:3, nkjv). “Whoever guards his mouth and tongue keeps his soul from troubles” (Prov. 21:23, nkjv).

They are also unreasonable words (v. 13). What he says doesn’t make sense. And the longer he talks, the crazier it becomes. “The beginning of his talking is folly, and the end of it is wicked madness” (nasb). He would be better off to keep quiet, because all that he says only lets everybody know that he is a fool (5:3). Paul called these people “unruly and vain talkers” (Titus 1:10), which J.B. Phillips translates “who will not recognize authority, who talk nonsense” (ph).

Occasionally in my travels, I meet people who will talk about anything anybody brings up, as though they were the greatest living experts on that subject. When the Bible or religion comes into the conversation, I quietly wait for them to hang themselves; and they rarely disappoint me. The Jewish writer Shalom Aleichem said, “You can tell when a fool speaks: he grinds much and produces little.”

Third, they are uncontrolled words (v. 14a). The fool is “full of words” without realizing that he is saying nothing. “In the multitude of words, sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise” (Prov. 10:19, nkjv). The person who can control his or her tongue is able to discipline the entire body (James 3:1-2). Jesus said, “But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No.’ For whatever is more than this is from the evil one” (Matt. 5:37, nkjv).

Finally, they are boastful words (14b-15). Foolish people talk about the future as though they either know all about it or are in control of what will happen. “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth” (Prov. 27:1, nkjv). Several times before, Solomon has emphasized man’s ignorance of the future (3:22; 6:12; 8:7; 9:12), a truth that wise people receive but fools reject. (See James 4:13-17.)

There is a bit of humor here. The fool boasts about his future plans and wearies people with his talk, but he can’t even find the way to the city. In Bible times, the roads to the cities were well-marked so that any traveler could find his way, but the fool is so busy talking about the future that he loses his way in the present. “He can’t find his way to the city” was probably an ancient proverb about stupidity, not unlike our “He’s so dumb, he couldn’t learn the route to run an elevator.”

  1. Foolish officers (ECCL. 10:16-20)

Solomon has already described foolish rulers. Now he exposes the folly of the officers who work under those rulers, the bureaucrats who were a part of the machinery of the kingdom. He gave four characteristics of these foolish men.

Indulgence (vv. 16-17).

If the king is immature, the people he gathers around him will reflect that immaturity and take advantage of it. But if he is a true nobleman, he will surround himself with noble officers who will put the good of the country first. Real leaders use their authority to build the nation, while mere officeholders use the nation to build their authority. They use public funds for their own selfish purposes, throwing parties and having a good time.

It is a judgment of God when a people are given immature leaders (Isa. 3:1-5). This can happen to a nation or to a local church. The term “elder” (Titus 1:5ff) implies maturity and experience in the Christian life, and it is wrong for a believer to be thrust into leadership too soon (1 Tim. 3:6). Age is no guarantee of maturity (1 Cor. 3:1-4; Heb. 5:11-14), and youth sometimes outstrips its elders in spiritual zeal. Oswald Chambers said, “Spiritual maturity is not reached by the passing of the years, but by obedience to the will of God.” The important thing is maturity, not just age.

The New International Version translates verse 16, “Woe to you, O land whose king was a servant.” The suggestion is that this servant became king with the help of his friends (cf. 4:13-14). Now he was obligated to give them all jobs so he could remain on the throne. In spite of their selfish and expensive indulgence, these hirelings could not be dismissed, because the king’s security depended on them. To the victor belong the spoils!

Incompetence (v. 18).

These foolish officers are so busy with enjoyment that they have no time for employment, and both the buildings and the organization start to fall apart. “He also who is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster” (Prov. 18:9). There is a difference between those who use an office and those who merely hold an office (1 Tim. 3:10). Immature people enjoy the privileges and ignore the responsibilities, while mature people see the responsibilities as privileges and use them to help others.

Woodrow Wilson wrote, “A friend of mine says that every man who takes office in Washington either grows or swells; when I give a man an office, I watch him carefully to see whether he is swelling or growing.”

Indifference (v. 19).

This verse declares the personal philosophy of the foolish officers: Eat all you can, enjoy all you can, and get all you can. They are totally indifferent to the responsibilities of their office or the needs of the people. In recent years, various developing nations have seen how easy it is for unscrupulous leaders to steal government funds in order to build their own kingdoms. Unfortunately, it has also happened recently to some religious organizations.

“For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10, nkjv). The prophet Amos cried out against the wicked rulers of his day who trampled on the heads of the poor and treated them like the dust of the earth (Amos 2:7, and see 4:1; 5:11-12). The courts might not catch up with all the unscrupulous politicians, but God will eventually judge them, and His judgment will be just.

Indiscretion (v. 20).

The familiar saying “A little bird told me” probably originated from this verse. You can imagine a group of these officers having a party in one of their private rooms and, instead of toasting the king, they are cursing [“making light of”] him. Of course, they wouldn’t do this if any of the king’s friends were present, but they were sure that the company would faithfully keep the secret. Alas, somebody told the king what was said, and this gave him reason to punish them or dismiss them from their offices.

Even if we can’t respect the person in the office, we must respect the office (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17). “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people” (Ex. 22:28).

These hirelings were certainly indiscreet when they cursed the king, for they should have known that one of their number would use this event either to intimidate his friends or to ingratiate himself with the ruler. A statesman asks, “What is best for my country?” A politician asks, “What is best for my party?” But a mere officeholder, a hireling, asks, “What is safest and most profitable for me?”

This completes Solomon’s review of his fourth argument that life is not worth living, “the certainty of death” (2:12-23). He has concluded that life is indeed worth living, even though death is unavoidable (9:1-10) and life is unpredictable (9:11-18). What we must do is avoid folly (ch. 10) and live by the wisdom of God.

This also concludes the second part of his discourse. He has reviewed the four arguments presented in chapters 1 and 2, and has decided that life was really worth living after all. The best thing we can do is to trust God, do our work, accept what God sends us, and enjoy each day of our lives to the glory of God (3:12-15, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15; 9:7-10). All that remains for the Preacher is to conclude his discourse with a practical application, and this he does in chapters 11 and 12. He will bring together all the various strands of truth that he has woven into his sermon, and he will show us what God expects us to do if we are to be satisfied.


385 The word translated “impressed” is the Hebrew adjective gadol, meaning “great.” Gadol is only translated “impressed” in Eccl 9:13. Solomon uses this word twice in the very next verse (9:14) where it is rendered “great” or “large” in most English versions.

386 Cf. Eccl 4:13-15. In both 4:13-15 and 9:13-15 Solomon seems to draw from real life situations. This is supported by the verbs in Eccl 9:13-15 which function either as past definite actions (describing a past situation) or as hypothetical past actions (describing an imaginary hypothetical situation for the sake of illustration). The LXX uses subjunctives throughout 9:14-15 to depict the scenario as a hypothetical situation. See NET Study Notes.

387 In 2 Sam 20:15-22, a wise woman delivered the city by having the men of the city cut off Sheba’s head and throw it over the wall. But even in the historical account, we are not given her name. And when we add this to what Solomon says we can assume that she was soon forgotten.

388 Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1993).

389 Preaching Today Citation: Submitted by John Beukema, Chambersburg, PA.

390 Church Leaders Intelligence Report Enclosed: 04.30.08.

391 See Eccl 10: 2, 3, 12, 13, 14, and 15. David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 249.

392 The terms “weightier” and “honor” are parallel. “Weightier” (yaqar) is from the same root as “precious,” “prized.” It is a play on the Hebrew concept of that which is heavier (i.e., metals) is more valuable. The word “honor” (kabod) is also a word play on “heavy” (e.g., Eccl 6:2; Ps 62:7; 84:11; Prov 3:16, 35; 22:4; 25:2). This term is often translated “glory” (e.g., Ps 3:3; 4:2; 19:1; 24:7, 8, 9, 10 [2x]). See Bob Utley, “Ecclesiastes”: unpublished sermon notes.

393 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 250.

394 Michael P. Andrus, “Sharp Goads and Hard Nails”(Ecclesiastes 7-11): unpublished sermon notes.

395 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 252.

396 E.g., Gen 48:18; Ps 16:8; Isa 41:10.

397 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 159-160.

398 It is interesting that the phrase “his sense is lacking” is literally, “the fool has not heart” (i.e., he cannot think clearly, he lacks judgment, cf. Prov 6:32; 7:7; 9:4,16; 10:13, 21; 11:12; 24:30). This is just a clever way of saying that folly affects every area of one’s life. Utley, “Ecclesiastes.”

399 E.g., Ps 119:105.

400 E.g., Deut 9:12, 16; 31:29.

401 The Hebrew says “rising, his spirit rises.” The double use of the word “rise” (alah) is given to intensify the meaning of the word (“it soars”).

402 This is advice for those who serve the king (or other leaders). It links up with Eccl 8:1-4 and 10:16-7, 20.

403 In Proverbs we read, “By forbearance a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue breaks the bone” and “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (25:15; 15:1).

404 Ray Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun: Ancient Wisdom for Contemporary Living (Chicago: Moody, 1998), 251-252.

405 Cf. Eccl 9:13-18; Prov 29:2.

406 The comment about the serpent biting the one who leans against wall (Amos 5:19) would be humorous in that culture. Since the walls were made of stones and everyone knew that snakes enjoy the cool shade and crevices that go with a stone wall, only a fool would causally lean against one without first checking it for snakes.

407 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 163.

408 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 164-165.

409 This is a recurrent theme (cf. Eccl 3:22; 6:12; 7:14; 8:7; 10:14). The future is hidden, even from wisdom. Wisdom is far better than foolishness (cf. 10:15), but it is limited by this fallen period of human history.

410 Hundreds of years later, James likens the tongue to a horse’s bit and a ship’s rudder (Jas 3:3-4). The point is: The discretion (or lack thereof) we use in our speech dictates the direction of our lives. This is repeated throughout God’s Word. If only we could grasp its significance.

411 Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun, 261. See also Prov 10:19.

412 According to Solomon, a noble ruler should be a descendant of rulers who are disciplined in the course of their life (10:16-17). Though this seems to be elitist to us, Solomon’s point is that rulers should have a healthy upbringing, have adequate resources, and be well-trained and prepared and equipped for the responsibilities of leadership.

413 This concept of a divinely appropriate time was first introduced in Eccl 3:1-11, 17; 7:17; 8:5, 6, 9; 9:8, 11, 12 (2x); 10:17 (esp. 3:11).

414 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 265.

415 Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun, 266.

416 See Jesus’ words in Luke 12:3: “Accordingly, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed upon the housetops.”

417 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 276.

418 “Sam Rayburn”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sam_Rayburn.

419 For an excellent discussion on gossip see Daniel Hill, “Ecclesiastes”: http://www.gracenotes.info/.

420 Preaching Today Citation: “Strange World,” Campus Life, Vol. 56, no. 2.

 
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Posted by on April 26, 2021 in Ecclesiastes

 

Ecclesiastes: The Good Life #11 Living While You Live – Ecclesiastes 9:1-12


Ecclesiastes 9:10 | Scripture Pictures by Verse | Amazing ...

“DEATH!” There I said it—the infamous “d” word. Death is one of those subjects we don’t like to discuss. That’s why it’s a subject of so many euphemisms. Instead of using the word dead, we say, “passed away,” “returned home,” “gone to a better place,” “sleeping in Jesus,” or “went to be with the Lord.” At least we use those terms around the church and the funeral home. In less guarded moments, we speak of “taking a dirt nap,” “kicking the bucket,” “buying the farm,” “cashing in the chips,” “biting the dust,” or the ever-popular “croaked.” Whether we lean to the reverent right or the flippant left, we shy away from speaking directly of the ultimate enemy.343

It seems that we are hesitant to come to grips with our impending death. We would rather avoid any discussion about it. After all, death is a depressing subject. And who wants to be depressed? Yet, I would argue that we are not prepared to live until we are prepared to die. Solomon tackles the subject of death head-on. Instead of denying death, he discusses its reality and our response. In Eccl 9:1-12, Solomon provides two reminders that will enable us to make the most of our few days on earth.344

  1. Death is certain (9:1-6). In this first section, Solomon explains that death is the “Great Equalizer.” Death plays no favorites and overlooks no one. Regardless of your strength and wealth, you are going to die. In 9:1 Solomon writes, “For I have taken all this to my heart and explain it that righteous men, wise men, and their deeds345 are in the hand346 of God. Man does not know347 whether it will be love or hatred; anything awaits him.” After much reflection, Solomon acknowledges that God is sovereign over everything and everyone. Here he states that nothing befalls the children of God that doesn’t first pass through the hands of God. Yet, with this, Solomon reminds us that we may experience “love or hatred.” The terms “love” and “hate” refer respectively to divine favor or disfavor. Solomon’s point is this: There are no guarantees as to what life will bring, but the certainty of life is that God is involved in the lives of those who trust Him. No one by even righteous deeds can gain control over God and coerce blessing from Him. One must acknowledge that all is in God’s hands.348 I’m reminded of this by the words of Bob Hope, after receiving a major award. He responded, “I don’t deserve this, but then I have arthritis and I don’t deserve that either.” Although I appreciate the humor of this remark, it is bad theology. Like Job, we are to receive both good and bad because both can come from the hand of God.

In 9:2-3, you’re going to find out why Solomon is not coming over for dinner. He writes, “It is [i.e., death] the same for all. There is one fate349 for the righteous and for the wicked;350 for the good, for the clean and for the unclean; for the man who offers a sacrifice and for the one who does not sacrifice. As the good man is, so is the sinner; as the swearer is, so is the one who is afraid to swear. This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that there is one fate351 for all men. Furthermore, the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil and insanity is in their hearts throughout their lives. Afterwards they go to the dead.” Solomon could summarize verses 2-3 with these words: “Under the sun, you’re done.” If he were living today, he would say, “We’re all going to ‘take a dirt nap.’” Ultimately, every man who has ever lived or will ever live will die. Solomon was right; the same destiny overtakes us all. You and I can work out, take our vitamins, drink bottled water, stay away from McDonalds, and swear off Krispy Kreme, but even with the best of care for this flesh, it is one day going to give out and we will die.

In 9:3, death is labeled “the evil,” not simply a natural phenomenon.352 Death is an intrusion, it’s an enemy. This means we shouldn’t go to funerals and sing The Lion King song, “The Circle of Life.” The most ridiculous and pathetic advice you could give someone is: “Death is just part of life.” No it isn’t, it is death! It’s the wages of our rebellion and sin against God. It’s cosmic treason and it is punished by death.353 We were created by a living God, to be a living people, who live forever with this living God. The only way to get rid of death is to get rid of sin. That is why Jesus died for our sin, so we could live.354 Today, will you believe in Jesus Christ as you Savior from sin? He offers you eternal and abundant life.355

Despite the inequities of life, Solomon argues that life is better than death. In 9:4-6 he explains: “For whoever is joined with all the living, there is hope; surely a live dog is better than a dead lion. For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun.”356Solomon is focused on “life under the sun,” he is not talking about “life in the Son.” The person who lives “in the Son” can leave a godly legacy and attain eternal rewards. But that is not under discussion here. Instead, Solomon is speaking of life-and-death matters. We won’t get all we should out of these verses until we recognize that in Solomon’s day, dogs were diseased mongrels that ran in packs through city streets, not pampered pets.357 People feared and loathed them. Nevertheless, Solomon says that a live dog is better than the king of the jungle who’s dead. Why? Because the living know they will die! The living may yet reckon with the reality of death and in so doing embrace the joy life has to offer, but no such possibility exists for those who have already died. Their time has passed. There is no second chance, there is no purgatory, there is no reincarnation, and there is no eternal recurrence of life. You and I are going to die. We’re going to be painted up like a circus clown. We’re going to be filled full of preservatives. We’re going to be shut in a box, thrown into a six-foot hole, and become food for worms. This is painful, but it is true.358

This is one of the best passages in the Bible to offer to one who is contemplating suicide. Life may be a terrible drudgery for you right now. Relationships may have soured, finances may be non-existent, and spiritually you may feel far from God, but if you are breathing, there is hope that things may get better. Many people have built success out of the ashes of failure.359 Relationships can be healed; sickness can be cured; work can improve. It never makes sense to take your life. If you are feeling suicidal today, please tell someone.

Solomon has pulled no punches in his death-dealing exposé. The fact that our days are numbered ought to motivate us to live earnestly for God. In light of the brevity of life, we must live with seriousness, recognizing the importance of a life well invested. Twice a week for the rest of our lives, we ought to begin the day by looking in the mirror and saying, “I am going to die someday—maybe today.” What a difference that would make in our lives. The fact that we will die should affect the way we live.

[Solomon is clear that death is certain. Now he reminds us that…]

  1. Life is uncertain (9:7-12). In this section, Solomon urges us to make the most of our lives because time and chance can overtake us. In 9:7-10, Solomon unveils five imperatives that advocate living life to the fullest (“go,” “eat,” “drink,” “enjoy,” and “do”). These five imperatives are located in the central part of this chapter and are recorded there to present the central thrust of the chapter: life is short; death is certain; so live in the most meaningful way that you can.360
  • Party while you can (9:7-8). In 9:7 Solomon writes, “Go then, eat your bread in happiness and drink your wine with a cheerful heart; for God has already approved your works.” Solomon says, “Party on down with family and friends, for life is short and then you die.” Throughout the Scriptures, wine and bread are frequently representative of that which God gives us to comfort and cheer us.361 Even today they are symbols of the joy of the Lord and His goodness and blessing. Thus, we are to enjoy God’s good gifts and celebrate life with others. So slow down and enjoy a meal with your family and friends. The reason Solomon gives is that “God has already approved your works.” This means such enjoyment is God’s will for us. This encouraging word does not contradict the fact that we are the stewards of all God entrusts to us. However, it should help us realize that it is not sinful to take pleasure in what God has given us—even luxuries. We need to balance gratefulness and generosity, retaining some things and giving away others. This balance is not easy, but it is important.
  • Solomon continues in 9:8 by saying, “Let your clothes be white all the time, and let not oil be lacking on your head.” In the Old Testament, births, weddings, and harvest festivals were special occasions and required one to dress up and be fresh. In Solomon’s day, black clothes and ashes on the head were a sign of mourning. Conversely, white clothes and oil362 on the head were a sign of rejoicing. “Oil on your head” is the ancient equivalent of deodorant and perfume and cologne, so do yourself and others a favor and use it. Solomon tells us to dress every day as if we’re on the way to a celebration of life.363 Some would say, “What do I have to rejoice about? I could die any time.” Exactly! That’s a great reason to let every waking moment be a celebration of God’s gift of life. Get dressed. Eat out with a friend. Why? Because you can and because God enjoys your enjoyment.364 Therefore, “have a blast while you last.”365
  • Enjoy your spouse while you can (9:9). Solomon writes, “Enjoy life with the woman whom you love all the days of your fleeting life which He has given to you under the sun; for this is your reward in life and in your toil in which you have labored under the sun.” Solomon had many honeys and many honeymoons—to the demise of his kingdom. He treated himself to hundreds of wives and concubines. Now, at the end of his life, he wishes he had lavished all his love on the wife of his youth. A man who had a thousand women now speaks in the singular rather than the plural. One partner, one heart.366 Husbands, love your wife with every fiber of your being, for this may be your last day on earth. Listen to her, talk with her, spend time with her, make love to her no matter how many times she resists, tell her she is beautiful. Wives, we know this works both ways. Are you easy to enjoy? I will tell you that if you want your husband to enjoy you, be easy to enjoy. If you want your husband to desire your company, make your company pleasant to be around. You might say, “This is hard, she needs to show me first” or “He needs to demonstrate leadership.” But guess what…you’re going to die! What are you waiting for? Don’t waste your time; enjoy your life. Enjoy it now! Have a blast while you last.
  • Glynn Wolfe died alone in Los Angeles at the age of 88. No one came to claim his body; the city paid to have him buried in an unmarked grave. This is sad, but not unusual. It happens all too often in large cities where people tend to live disenfranchised lives. Glynn’s situation was unique, however, because he was no ordinary man. He held a world record. The Guinness Book listed him as the Most Married Man, with 29 marriages to his credit. This means 29 times he was asked, “Do you take this woman to be your lawfully wedded wife…forsaking all others, do you pledge yourself only to her, so long as you both shall live?” Twenty-nine times Glynn Wolf said, “I do,” but it never quite worked out that way. He left behind several children, grand-children, great grand-children, a number of living ex-wives, and innumerable ex-in-laws—and still, he died alone. He spent his entire adult life looking for something he apparently never found—and he died alone.367
  • How different this man’s life and death would have been if he invested all his love and energy into one woman. There is an ancient quote from The Talmud—a commentary on Jewish law—that states, “A man should eat and drink beneath his means, clothe himself within his means, and honor his wife above his means.”368 This summarizes well the last three verses.
  • Do your work while you can (9:10). Solomon writes, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.”369 The word “hand” suggests ability, “find” suggests opportunity, and “might” suggests intensity. Solomon wants us to know that we have only one life to make our contribution, “for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol where you are going.” The Hebrew word Sheol refers to the abode of the dead.370 Solomon is saying: When death overtakes us, our time to plan, be active, and execute wisdom will have come to a screeching halt. Sheol kills earthly work! That is why we must work while we can.371

Work is a privilege that we will not have after we die. Probably, toil connected with the curse on nature is in view here. We will be active in service in heaven, for example, but this will not be work as we know it now (Rev 22:3). If you think work is not a blessing, spend some time talking with someone who has been out of work for a long time.372 Throw yourself into something besides bed! You only get one shot at it. Do something worthwhile. Make a contribution.

I’ve read that a man or woman of fifty, having worked consistently since school, will have put in 56,000 hours of work. Imagine if you will, 56,000 hours of boredom and resentment. Who would come through such an ordeal with a sound mind? Yet a poor attitude towards one’s job creates that environment. Now imagine someone rising in the morning to say, “Thank You, Lord! Another day to use the gifts and the strength and the mind You have given me. What a gift You have given me that I may work and serve.” That mind-set will add years to your life and life to your years. It will also bring you success, promotions, and glory for God.373

Charles Spurgeon, the prince of preachers, often worked eighteen hours a day. Famous explorer and missionary, David Livingstone, once asked him, “How do you manage to do two men’s work in a single day?” Spurgeon replied, “You have forgotten that there are two of us.”374 Surgeon was right. We have the Holy Spirit working in and through us. He can and should make work a pleasure not a pain. So have a blast while you last.

Tragically, many Christians live as if it is a sin to enjoy life.375 Yet, God created man and woman to live in a place called Eden, which means “delight.” The Bible teaches that one day we will live on a new earth that will be like Eden once again.376 So we are to prepare now by living a life of joy. The Hebrews knew joy perhaps better than any culture. In the Old Testament, there are no less than ten different words for “joy.”377 What is the level of joy in your life?

Every year I teach a class called “Eschatology” (i.e., the study of last things) at Ecola Bible School. One of the homework questions I ask my students is, “How would you live today if you knew it would be your last?” Some students give what they think are spiritual responses such as, “I would read my Bible all day and share Jesus with my loved ones.” However, many of the students say, “I would have a good meal with my family and friends. I would tell others how much I love them. I would go skydiving.” They figure if I haven’t read my Bible or shared Christ like I should, why bother doing so in my last day? People and enjoyment are what is meaningful to them. So have a blast while you last.

The last two verses of this section could serve as a summary for the entire book of Ecclesiastes. Solomon writes, “I again saw under the sun that the race is not to the swift and the battle is not to the warriors, and neither is bread to the wise nor wealth to the discerning nor favor to men of ability; for time and chance overtake them all.” But just in case we are confident in our strengths and gifts to help us make our mark, Solomon lists five desirable assets: the “swift,” the “strong,” the “wise,” the “discerning,” and “to men of ability.” He then informs us that these talented individuals do not always win and find great success. Wisdom, skill, and hard work can promote but not guarantee success. This is true because “time and chance overtake them all.”378 First, time limits us. This is an echo of the teaching throughout Ecclesiastes that the seasons of our life are in the hand of God. This is a warrant for faith but also a death-blow for self-confidence. Second, chance is the unexpected event which may throw the most accomplished off course, despite the most thoroughly prepared schemes. Time and chance overtakes humankind just like death itself.379 So have a blast while you last.

Solomon concludes in 9:12 with these powerful words: “Moreover, man does not know his time: like fish caught in a treacherous net and birds trapped in a snare, so the sons of men are ensnared at an evil380 time when it suddenly falls on them.” Unfortunately, man does not often recognize this truth. We live as if we are the master of our own fate, the captain of our soul. How foolish we are! Rather than the master of our fate, we are more like little fish. We swim along, minding our own business, and suddenly we are snatched up by a net…and there is absolutely nothing that we can do about it! Time, chance, and death catch one unexpectedly, like a trap, and there is no escape. When the trap has closed, any opportunity to enjoy life is over. Just stop for a moment and think about it: What will we do if our heart or lungs fails us? What can we do if we contract a fatal disease? What can we do if we lose our job or our business? What will we do if a child dies or if a spouse leaves us? Sooner or later, we will all find out that our present existence and future destiny belong to the Lord alone. So have a blast while you last.

In a sense, this verse is a microcosm of the whole book of Ecclesiastes. So much of life is enigmatic and fails to conform to the rules we have learned. We’ve been taught that if you want to succeed you have to compete and be aggressive, get up earlier, go to bed later, put in more hours, do unto them before they do unto you. But, says Solomon, it doesn’t always work that way. Nothing is guaranteed. This is how life is, but we shouldn’t despair nor should we quit aiming to be swift, strong, wise, brilliant and learned. We should, however, quit thinking that life owes us anything, or, for that matter, that God owes us anything under the sun. Now if you talk about the long run, that’s a different story. Even Solomon says in 8:12: “Although a wicked man commits a hundred crimes and still lives a long time, I know that it will go better with God-fearing men, who are reverent before God.” But in the meantime, often it will seem that time and chance play a bigger part in our lives than God’s providence.

You play the board game Monopoly. You buy railroads and place hotels on Park Place and Boardwalk. You pass “Go” and collect $200. Everyone has fun. Then the game ends, and all the hotels, all the colorful tokens, and all the funny money go back into the box. Solomon, who held an empire much less plastic, would tell us that whether you build in plastic or gold it’s all the same. Build the temple, extend a dynasty, even write three God-inspired books—in the end, it all goes back in the box.381 Likewise, life is short. You and I are going to die. Stop and ask yourself, “What really matters? How do I want to be remembered? What do I want others to say about me?” And then make a commitment to have a blast while you last.

“Oh why do people waste their breath Inventing dainty names for death?”

John Betjeman, the late Poet Laureate of England, wrote those words in his poem “Graveyards.” Every honest person can answer the question, as Betjeman did in his poem: we invent “dainty names” because we don’t want to face up to the reality of death. Sociologist Ernest Becker claimed “that of all things that move men, one of the principal ones is his terror of death” (The Denial of Death, p. 11).

During many years of pastoral ministry, I have seen this denial in action. When visiting bereaved families, I have noticed how often people deliberately avoid the word “death” and substitute phrases like “left us,” “went home,” “went to sleep,” or “passed on.” Of course, when a Christian dies, he or she does “go to sleep” and “go home,” but this assurance should not make death any less real in our thinking or our feeling. The person who treats death lightly may fear death the most. If we take life seriously—and we should—then we can’t treat death flippantly.

This is not the first time the subject of death has come into Solomon’s discourse, nor will it be the last. (See 1:4; 2:14-17; 3:18-20; 4:8; 5:15-16; 6:6; 8:8; 12:1-7.) After all, the only way to be prepared to live is to be prepared to die. Death is a fact of life, and Solomon examined many facets of life so that he might understand God’s pattern for satisfied living. Robert E. Lee’s last words were, “Let the tent be struck!” Unless Jesus Christ returns and takes us to heaven, we will one day “strike our tent” (2 Cor. 5:1-8) and leave the battlefield for a better land. We must be ready.

In this chapter, Solomon drew two conclusions: death is unavoidable (1-10) and life is unpredictable (11-18). That being the case, the best thing we can do is trust God, live by faith, and enjoy whatever blessings God gives us.

  1. Death is unavoidable (ECCL. 9:1-10)

“I’m not afraid to die;” quipped Woody Allen, “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” But he will be there when it happens, as must every human being, because there is no escaping death when your time has come. Death is not an accident, it’s an appointment (Heb. 9:27), a destiny that nobody but God can cancel or change.

Life and death are “in the hand of God” (v. 1), and only He knows our future, whether it will bring blessing (“love”) or sorrow (“hatred”). Solomon was not suggesting that we are passive actors in a cosmic drama, following an unchangeable script handed to us by an uncaring director. Throughout this book, Solomon has emphasized our freedom of discernment and decision. But only God knows what the future hold for us and what will happen tomorrow because of the decisions we make today.

“As it is with the good man, so with the sinner.” (v. 2, niv). If so, why bother to live a godly life?” someone may ask. “After all, whether we obey the Law or disobey, bring sacrifices or neglect them, make or break promises, we will die just the same.” Yes, we share a common destiny on earth—death and the grave—but we do not share a common destiny in eternity. For that reason, everybody must honestly face “the last enemy” (1 Cor. 15:26) and decide how to deal with it. Christians have trusted Jesus Christ to save them from sin and death; so, as far as they are concerned, “the last enemy” has been defeated (Rom. 6:23; John 11:25-26; 1 Thess. 4:13-18; 1 Cor. 15:51-58). Unbelievers don’t have that confidence and are unprepared to die.

How people deal with the reality of death reveals itself in the way they deal with the realities of life. Solomon pointed out three possible responses that people make to the ever-present fear of death.

Escape (v. 3).

The fact of death and the fear of death will either bring out the best in people or the worst in people; and too often it is the worst. When death comes to a family, it doesn’t create problems; it reveals them. Many ministers and funeral directors have witnessed the “X-ray” power of death and bereavement as it reveals the hearts of people. In facing the death of others, we are confronted with our own death, and many people just can’t handle it.

“The heart of the sons of men is full of evil,” and that evil is bound to come out. People will do almost anything but repent in order to escape the reality of death. They will get drunk, fight with their relatives, drive recklessly, spend large amounts of money on useless things, and plunge into one senseless pleasure after another, all to keep the Grim Reaper at arm’s length. But their costly endeavors only distract them from the battle; they don’t end the war, because “the last enemy” is still there.

Those of us who were privileged to have the late Joseph Bayly as our friend know what a positive attitude he had toward death. He and his wife had been through the valley many times and God used them to bring comfort and hope to other sorrowing pilgrims. His book The Last Thing We Talk About (David C. Cook Pub. Co.) is a beautiful testimony of how Jesus Christ can heal the brokenhearted. “Death is the great adventure,” said Joe, “beside which moon landings and space trips pale into insignificance.”

You don’t get that kind of confidence by trying to run away from the reality of death. You get it by facing “the last enemy” honestly, turning from sin and trusting Jesus Christ to save you. Have you done that?

Endurance (vv. 4-6).

When confronted by the stern fact of death, not everybody dives into an escape hatch and shouts, “Let’s eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die!” Many people just grit their teeth, square their shoulders and endure. They hold on to that ancient motto, “Where there’s life, there’s hope!” (That’s a good paraphrase of v. 4.)

That motto goes as far back as the third century B.C. It’s part of a conversation between two farmers who are featured in a poem by the Greek poet Theokritos. “Console yourself, dear Battos,” says Korydon. “Things may be better tomorrow. While there’s life there’s hope. Only the dead have none.” Shades of Ecclesiastes!

Solomon would be the last person to discourage anybody from hoping for the best. Better to be a living dog (and dogs were despised in that day) than a dead lion. All that the Preacher asked was that we have some common sense along with our hope, lest too late we find ourselves grasping a false hope.

To begin with, let’s keep in mind that one day we shall die (v. 5). The Christian believer has “a living hope,” not a “dead” hope, because the Saviour is alive and has conquered death (1 Peter 1:3-5; 2 Tim. 1:10). A hope that can be destroyed by death is a false hope and must be abandoned.

What Solomon wrote about the dead can be “reversed” and applied to the living. The dead do not know what is happening on earth, but the living know and can respond to it. The dead cannot add anything to their reward or their reputation, but the living can. The dead cannot relate to people on earth by loving, hating, or envying, but the living can. Solomon was emphasizing the importance of seizing opportunities while we live, rather than blindly hoping for something better in the future, because death will end our opportunities on this earth.

“The human body experiences a powerful gravitational pull in the direction of hope,” wrote journalist Norman Cousins, who himself survived a near-fatal illness and a massive heart attack. “That is why the patient’s hopes are the physician’s secret weapon. They are the hidden ingredients in any prescription.”

We endure because we hope, but “hope in hope” (like “faith in faith”) is too often only a kind of self-hypnosis that keeps us from facing life honestly. While a patient may be better off with an optimistic attitude, it is dangerous for him to follow a false hope that may keep him from preparing for death. That kind of hope is hopeless. When the end comes, the patient’s outlook may be cheerful, but the outcome will be tragic.

Life is not easy, but there is more to life than simply enduring. There is a third response to the fact of death, a response that can be made only by those who have trusted Jesus Christ as their Saviour.

Enjoyment (vv. 7-10).

This has been one of Solomon’s recurring themes (2:24; 3:12-15, 22; 5:18-20; 8:15), and he will bring it up again (11:9-10). His admonition “Go thy way!” means: “Don’t sit around and brood! Get up and live!” Yes, death is coming, but God gives us good gifts to enjoy so enjoy them!

Solomon didn’t urge us to join the “jet set” and start searching for exotic pleasures in far away places. Instead, he listed some of the common experiences of home life: happy leisurely meals (v. 7), joyful family celebrations (v. 8), a faithful, loving marriage (v. 9), and hard work (v. 10). What a contrast to modern society’s formula for happiness: fast food and a full schedule, the addictive pursuit of everything new, “live-in marriages,” and shortcuts guaranteed to help you avoid work but still get rich quick.

In recent years, many voices have united to call us back to the traditional values of life. Some people are getting tired of the emptiness of living on substitutes. They want something more substantial than the “right” labels on their clothes and the “right” names to drop at the “right” places. Like the younger brother in our Lord’s parable (Luke 15:11-24), they have discovered that everything that’s really important is back home at the Father’s house.

Enjoy your meals (v. 7).

The average Jewish family began the day with an early snack and then had a light meal (“brunch”) sometime between 10:00 and noon. They didn’t eat together again until after sunset. When their work was done they gathered for the main meal of the day. It consisted largely of bread and wine, perhaps milk and cheese, with a few vegetables and fruit in season, and sometimes fish. Meat was expensive and was served only on special occasions. It was a simple meal that was designed to nourish both the body and the soul, for eating together (“breaking bread”) was a communal act of friendship and commitment.

King Solomon sat down to a daily feast (1 Kings 4:22-23), but there is evidence that he didn’t always enjoy it. “Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred” (Prov. 15:17, niv). “Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting, with strife” (Prov. 17:1, niv). The most important thing on any menu is family love, for love turns an ordinary meal into a banquet. When the children would rather eat at a friend’s house than bring their friends home to enjoy their mother’s cooking, it’s time to take inventory of what goes on around the table.

Enjoy every occasion (v. 8).

Life was difficult in the average home, but every family knew how to enjoy special occasions such as weddings and reunions. That’s when they wore their white garments (a symbol of joy) and anointed themselves with expensive perfumes instead of the usual olive oil. These occasions were few, so everybody made the most of them.

But Solomon advised the people to wear white garments always and to anoint themselves always with special perfume. Of course, his congregation didn’t take his words literally, because they knew what he was saying: make every occasion a special occasion, even if it’s ordinary or routine. We must not express our thanksgiving and joy only when we are celebrating special events. “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4, nkjv).

Among other things, this may be what Jesus had in mind when He told His disciples to become like little children (Matt. 18:1-6). An unspoiled child delights in the simple activities of life, even the routine activities, while a pampered child must be entertained by a variety of expensive amusements. It’s not by searching for special things that we find joy, but by making the everyday things special.

Enjoy your marriage (v. 9).

Solomon knew nothing about “live-in couples” or “trial marriages.” He saw a wife as a gift from God (Prov. 18:22; 19:14) and marriage as a loving commitment that lasts a lifetime. No matter how difficult life may be, there is great joy in the home of the man and woman who love each other and are faithful to their marriage vows. Solomon would agree with psychiatrist M. Scott Peck who calls commitment “the foundation, the bedrock of any genuinely loving relationship” (The Road Less Traveled, p. 140).

It’s too bad Solomon didn’t live up to his own ideals. He forsook God’s pattern for marriage and then allowed his many wives to seduce him from the Lord (1 Kings 11:1-8). If he wrote Ecclesiastes later in life, as I believe he did, then verse 9 is his confession, “Now I know better!”

Enjoy your work (v. 10).

The Jewish people looked upon work, not as a curse, but as a stewardship from God. Even their rabbis learned a trade (Paul was a tent maker) and reminded them, “He who does not teach a son to work, teaches him to steal.” Paul wrote, “If any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thes. 3:10).

“Do it with all your might” (nasb) suggests two things: Do your very best, and do it while you still have strength. The day may come when you will have to lay down your tools and make way for a younger and stronger worker. Colossians 3:17 applies this principle to the New Testament Christian.

The things that make up employment in this life will not be present in the grave (sheol, the realm of the dead), so make the most of your opportunities now. One day our works will be judged, and we want to receive a reward for His glory (1 Cor. 3:10ff; Col. 3:23-25).

If we fear God and walk by faith we will not try to escape or merely endure life. We will enjoy life and receive it happily as a gift from the Lord.

  1. Life is unpredictable (ECCL. 9:11-18)

Anticipating the response of his listeners (and his readers), Solomon turned from his discussion of death and began to discuss life. “If death is unavoidable,” somebody would argue, “then the smartest thing we can do is major on our strengths and concentrate on life. When death comes, at least we’ll have the satisfaction of knowing we worked hard and achieved some success.”

“Don’t be too sure of that!” was Solomon’s reply. “You can’t guarantee what will happen in life, because life is unpredictable.”

To begin with, our abilities are no guarantee of success (vv. 11-12). While it is generally true that the fastest runners win the races, the strongest soldiers win the battles, and the smartest and most skillful workers win the best jobs, it is also true that these same gifted people can fail miserably because of factors out of their control. The successful person knows how to make the most of “time and procedure” (8:5), but only the Lord can control “time and chance” (v. 11).

Solomon already affirmed that God has a time for everything (3:1-8), a purpose to be fulfilled in that time (8:6), and “something beautiful” to come out of it in the end (3:11). The word “chance” simply means occurrence or event. It has nothing to do with gambling. We might say, “I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, and I got the job. Ability had very little to do with it!”

Of course, Christians don’t depend on such things as “luck” or “chance,” because their confidence is in the loving providence of God. A dedicated Christian doesn’t carry a rabbit’s foot or trust in lucky days or numbers. Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock said, “I’m a great believer in luck. I find that the harder I work, the more I have of it.” Christians trust God to guide them and help them in making decisions, and they believe that His will is best. They leave “time and chance” in His capable hands.

Who knows when trouble will arrive on the scene and wreck all our great plans (v. 12)? When they least expect it, fish are caught in the net and birds are caught in the trap. So men are snared in “evil times,” sudden events that are beyond their control. That’s why we should take to heart the admonition against boasting (James 4:13-17).

Second, our opportunities are no guarantee of success (vv. 13-18). It is not clear whether the wise man actually delivered the city, or whether he could have saved it, and was asked but did not heed. I lean toward the second explanation because it fits in better with verses 16-18. (The Hebrew allows for the translation “could have”; see the verse 15 footnote in the nasb). The little city was besieged and the wise man could have delivered it, but nobody paid any attention to him. Verse 17 suggests that a ruler with a loud mouth got all of the attention and led the people into defeat. The wise man spoke quietly and was ignored. He had the opportunity for greatness but was frustrated by one loud ignorant man.

“One sinner [the loud ruler] destroys much good” (v. 18, nkjv) is a truth that is illustrated throughout the whole of Scripture, starting with Adam and his disobedience to God (Gen. 3; Rom. 5). Achan sinned and brought defeat on the army of Israel (Joshua 7). David’s sin brought trouble to Israel (2 Sam. 24), and the revolt of Absalom led the nation into a civil war (2 Sam. 15ff).

Since death is unavoidable and life is unpredictable, the only course we can safely take is to yield ourselves into the hands of God and walk by faith in His Word. We don’t live by explanations; we live by promises. We don’t depend on luck but on the providential working of our loving Father as we trust His promises and obey His will.

As we walk by faith, we need not fear our “last enemy,” because Jesus Christ has conquered death. “Fear not; I am the first and the last; I am He that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore” (Rev. 1:17-18). Because He is alive, and we live in Him, we don’t look at life and say, “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity!”

Instead, we echo the confidence expressed by the Apostle Paul: “But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:57-58, nkjv).


345 This is the only place in the OT where this word, which normally is used of “service God,” is used as a noun.

346 “Hand” = “power,” cf. Eccl 2:24; Job 19:21; 27:11; Ps 10:12; 17:7.

347 The subsections that follow begin “no one knows” or the equivalent (Eccl 9:1, 12; 11:2; cf. 9:5; 10:14, 15; 11:5 [twice], 6).

348 Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1993),

349 The word translated “fate” (miqreh) should be translated “event” instead. Solomon refers only to that which “meets men at the end of their lives, an “event,” a “happening,” or “outcome.”

350 The “wicked” and “righteous” both refer to covenant people (not people of the world) because this follows the theology of Deut 31:29 and Jdgs 2:19.

351 The word translated as “fate” (miqreh) appears only rarely outside of the Book of Ecclesiastes, one time each in 1 Sam 6:9 (“chance” – NASB), in 1 Sam 20:26 (“accident” – NASB), and in Ruth 2:3 (not translated, but is subsumed by the verb “happened” – NASB). Within the Book of Ecclesiastes, the author consistently (all seven times) uses this word to reference the ultimate end (“under the sun”) of all animate beings – that ultimate end being “death” (Eccl 2:14, 15; 3:19 [3x]; 9:2, 3). Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.

352 This too is a meditation on the fall; humanity has been cut off from the tree of life (Gen 3:8-24).

353 Paul writes, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…For the wages of sin is death” (Rom 3:23; 6:23a).

354 David Fairchild, “Living While Dying” (Eccl 9:1-12).

355 Jesus Himself said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have itabundantly” (John 10:10).

356 Verses 4-6 do not contradict 4:2-3 where Solomon said the dead are better off than the living. A person who is suffering oppression may feel it is preferable to be dead (4:1), but when a person is dead his opportunities for earthly enjoyment are non-existent (9:4-6). Dr. Thomas L. Constable, “Notes on Ecclesiastes”; 2007 edition: http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/ecclesiastes.pdf, 24.

357 See 1 Sam 17:43; 24:14.

358 Fairchild, “Living While Dying.”

359 Michael P. Andrus, “Sharp Goads and Hard Nails” (Eccl 7-11): unpublished sermon notes.

360 Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.

361 Eccl 2:24; 3:13; 5:18; 8:15; cf. Gen. 14:18; 1 Sam 16:20; 25:18; Neh 5:15; Lam 2:12.

362 Putting oil on the face and arms was a sign of gladness (cf. Ps 23:5; 45:7; 104:15; Isa 61:3).

363 Paul joins the chorus: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” (Phil 4:4) And “rejoice always” (1 Thess 5:16).

364 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 233.

365 This clever title/slogan comes from Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge: Coming to Terms with Reality, Bible Study Guide (Fullerton, CA: Insight for Living, 1986), 250.

366 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 234.

367 Preaching Today citation: Steve May, Sermonnotes.com.

368 Preaching Today citation: The Talmud; submitted by Aaron Goerner, Utica, NY.

369 It is quite possible that the Apostle Paul had Eccl 9:10 in mind when he wrote Col 3:23, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men.” His point is: Life must be lived to the fullest in all that you do. Elsewhere, Paul wrote, “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). A helpful maxim here is, “Doing a little thing for God makes it a big thing.” The reason being, our God is not a little god…He is a colossal God! Anything that is done for the Lord and His glory is an enormously significant work!

370Sheol occurs sixty-five times in the OT and is translated “grave” in approximately half of those instances. The word sheol encompasses the region of departed spirits who are conscious, either in bliss or torment. Since the writers of the OT believed in an afterlife, sheol never means just the grave.

371 Jesus said, “We must work the works of Him who sent Me as long as it is day; night is coming when no one can work” (John 9:4).

372 Constable, “Notes on Ecclesiastes,” 25.

373 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 234.

374 Preaching Today citation: “Charles Haddon Spurgeon,” Christian History, no. 29.

375 Lest we think that only the ancient Hebrew readers to whom the author of Ecclesiastes was writing are those who should heed Solomon’s advice (commands), the authors of the NT concur. See Matt 5:16; 1 Cor 10:31; Eph 5:28, 33; Phil 4:4; Col 3:17, 23; 1 Thess 5:18; 1 Tim 6:17.

376 See Rev 21-22.

377 See Neh 8:10; Ps 104:31; Zeph 3:17.

378 Five accomplishments are listed, none of which guarantees success or prosperity: (1) the swift-footed may find himself a loser (cf. 2 Sam 2:18); (2) military strength is no guarantee of success in battle (cf. Isa 36-37); (3) wisdom similarly is no guarantee of a livelihood (cf. Eccl 9:13-16; 10:1); (4) understanding may be accompanied by poverty (cf. Eccl 9:15); and (5) favor may be delayed for innocent Joseph (Gen 37-41) and not come at all for others (Eccl 9:13-16). Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 16. The Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, ed. by D. J. Wiseman (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 130.

379 The prophet Jeremiah explained why these apparent “upsets’ in the natural order of things happen: “It is not for man to direct his steps” (Jer 10:23). Ultimately God is sovereign and in complete control.

380 Nowhere in Scripture, here or in its seven other occurrences (Jer 2:27, 28; 11:12; 15:11; Amos 5:13; Mic 2:3; and Ps 37:19)—with the possible exception of Amos 5:13—do the authors of Scripture use the phrase to indicate a condition of sinfulness. Instead, those writers use this phrase to denote a time of disaster, trouble, or calamity. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.

381 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 227.

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2021 in Ecclesiastes

 

Ecclesiastes: The Good Life #10 Living Under the Thumb Ecclesiastes 8:1-17


Devoted To You

One day, a bus driver was driving along his usual route. He didn’t encounter any problems for the first few stops; a few people got on, a few got off, and things went generally well. At one stop, however, a big hulk of a man got on. He was 6’ 8”, built like a bodybuilder, and his arms hung down to the ground. He glared at the driver and told him, “Big John doesn’t pay!” Then he sat down at the back of the bus. The driver was 5’ 3”, thin, and very meek, so he didn’t argue with Big John.

But he wasn’t happy about it. The next day, the same thing happened. Big John got on again, made a big show of refusing to pay, and sat down. It happened the next day, and again the day after that. The bus driver began to lose sleep over the way Big John was taking advantage of him.

Finally, he could stand it no longer. He signed up for bodybuilding courses, karate, judo, and a class on finding your self-esteem. By the end of the summer, the bus driver had become quite strong and felt really good about himself. The next Monday, Big John entered the bus and again declared, “Big John doesn’t pay!” Enraged, the driver stood up, glared back at Big John, and bellowed, “And why not?!” With a surprised look on his face, Big John replied, “Big John has a bus pass.”320

This poor bus driver learned a valuable lesson: Things are not always as they appear.

In Eccl 8:1-17, Solomon shares that in the midst of life we must trust that God is in control of those things we don’t understand. This requires humility and wisdom. I am reminded of an old country song by Mac Davis, “It’s Hard to Be Humble.” I would suggest, “It’s easier to be humble when you submit to authority.” In this chapter, Solomon gives two simple tips for living with humility (and wisdom).

1. Respect human authority (8:1-9).

In this section, Solomon urges us to respect human authorities. Ironically, Solomon writes these words as the King of Israel. He is a king writing about how to get along with the king. In 8:1a Solomon poses an insightful question: “Who is like the wise man and who knows the interpretation of a matter?” This rhetorical question requires the answer, “No one!” No one is like the wise person who studies the Bible and knows God’s will. Solomon continues in 8:1b by stating: “A man’s wisdom illumines him and causes his stern face to beam.” Solomon says the wise person is illumined and has so much joy that you can see it on his face. He is not telling us to be wise and fake it; he is saying that we should be joyful, no matter what the circumstances are.321 What do others see when they look at you? Do you have joy? If not, perhaps it’s because you aren’t soaking in the wisdom of God’s Word. It’s not being integrated into your life and giving you joy. Wisdom brings joy because a person who has biblical wisdom is assured of what is right. There is no greater privilege than understanding where we came from, who we are, where we are going, how sin is removed, and what the will of God is. There is no greater blessing and there is no other place to find these answers than from God in His Word. Solomon begins this chapter by saying that in a world full of questions, it’s wonderful to know the absolutes of life. Some things in life we can’t understand but some things we can understand—what the moral will of God is, who He is, and who we are in Him.322

In 8:2-4, Solomon explains our responsibility to government. Now this may remove the smile from your face; however, God wants us to exercise wisdom and behave appropriately in the presence of our king. In 8:2 Solomon writes, “I say, ‘Keep the command of the king because of the oath before God.” Solomon begins this section with a command: “Keep the command of the king.”323Notice that this obedience is not for the sake of the king. It is for the sake of the One who placed the king on the throne.324 It is “because of the oath before God.” It was the practice in the ancient world that when a king came to the throne, the people of his kingdom were required to swear an oath of obedience to that king.325 Today we do not enter into these kinds of oaths. But we do make commitments to authorities. We pledge allegiance to the country of our citizenship. When we work for an employer, we are bound to obey him until such a time that we leave his employment. At our church, members promise to worship, serve, give, and submit to the leadership. We all make commitments (“oaths”) to various authorities.

Unfortunately, we have a tendency to make commitments or oaths prematurely and then find ourselves unable to fulfill them. God sees this as breaking our oath to Him, not to the king. How you obligate yourself to work, marriage, and church, is a great indication of your character. If you were hasty to get married and now find that you aren’t as motivated to keep your vows as you were in the beginning, realize that God is who you are breaking your oath to. If you make promises to your work in order to get the job, and now you find that you can’t manage to fulfill these promises, remember that God is the One you are offending. If you promise that you will serve at the church and use your gifts for God’s glory, then falter in your promises, remember it is God whom you are breaking your commitment to. Does this mean you should never make vows or promises? No. It means you should be cautious who you obligate yourself to and ensure that when you make obligations, even small ones, God is behind all of it. We ought to remember that any authority under which we find ourselves is a God-ordained authority and should be obeyed. The only exception to this rule is when such an authority commands us to do something that is in opposition to God’s Word. Only then are we to disobey, and then only in that single area.326

Of course, it is not always easy to obey a king. There are times when kings don’t do what we want or expect them to do. This leads Solomon to write in 8:3-4: “Do not be in a hurry to leave him. Do not join in an evil matter, for he will do whatever he pleases.’327 Since the word of the king is authoritative, who will say to him, ‘What are you doing?’”328The idea here is of abandoning support for a leader just because he does not do what you wanted or expected him to do. Earlier in Eccl 4:13-16, Solomon discussed how a king’s popularity can quickly evaporate. Someone new comes along and the people throng to his side abandoning the present leader. Solomon says that wisdom should slow this down and will use caution in leaving a leader. This is also relevant in other areas of our lives. It is easy to become disenchanted with your spouse and assume that if you leave your current spouse you can be happier with a new spouse. It is easy to become disillusioned at church by pastors or those in leadership. Most people immediately threaten to leave, assuming that they will not have these types of frustrations at other churches. This principle also applies to our jobs. The greener grass syndrome is very deceptive. In our attempt to escape our troubles, we may find further grief and pain.

The NIV’s translation of the second clause of 8:3 (“Do not stand up for a bad cause”) captures Solomon’s intent better than does the NASB’s rendering (“Do not join in an evil matter”). The NASB’s interpretation potentially leaves the reader wondering what exactly the “evil matter” is, or perhaps even if the author is urging the reader not to participate together with the king in some jointly executed evil act. By contrast, the NIV’s interpretation of the second clause helps the reader to understand that the prohibited action is one in which an individual joins together with others in an attempt to thwart or contradict some action of the king (or perhaps even to participate in a plot to overthrow the king).329 Solomon warns against acting in opposition to a king because a king does whatever he wants. Furthermore, a king has the right to rule and you do not. It’s easier to be humble when you submit to authority.

In 8:5-7, Solomon brings up the theme of timing when he writes, “He who keeps a royal command experiences no trouble, for a wise heart knows the proper time and procedure. For there is a proper time and procedure for every delight,330 though a man’s trouble331 is heavy upon him. If no one knows what will happen, who can tell him when it will happen?” The wise person knows the right time to act (8:5), because there is a right time for every action (8:6). Yet, no one can fully predict when that right time will be, because no one (other than God) knows the future (8:7). Not only are you to obey human authority because God said to do it, you are also to do so because it makes life a lot easier. Generally speaking, when you obey the king’s commands, you don’t get into any trouble with the king.332 This principle has many modern-day corollaries. When you drive the speed limit, you don’t have to worry about speed traps. When you pay your taxes, you aren’t particularly worried about an IRS audit. When you do your work faithfully on the job, it doesn’t concern you that the boss is watching. So save yourself some grief and obey the laws of the land. Not only will you be pleasing the Lord, but you will avoid trouble. It’s easier to be humble when you submit to authority.

This first section closes in 8:8-9. Solomon writes, “No man has authority to restrain the wind with the wind, or authority over the day of death; and there is no discharge in the time of war, and evil will not deliver those who practice it. All this I have seen and applied my mind to every deed that has been done under the sun wherein a man has exercised authority over another man to his hurt.” This is a general summation of the human situation. Solomon reminds us that we have no control over some of the most important elements in our lives. We have no control over the weather that affects us daily. You’ve probably taken a trip to the coast hoping for sunshine, but instead you are greeted with rain and wind. We have no control of the weather. We have little or no control over what may be considered the most significant day of our earthly lives—the day of our death. We can eat healthy, take vitamins, exercise, and still die unexpectedly. A doctor told his patient, “I’m afraid you only have three weeks to live,” “Okay then,” the patient replied, “I’ll take the last two weeks of July and the week between Christmas and New Year’s.”333 That’s not how it works. We have no control over our death day. We also have little or no control over events that might hasten the day of our death (i.e., being discharged from war). Sadly, Solomon informs us that when we do have authority (8:9), we tend to use it to hurt others. In all of this uncertainty and frustration we must trust the Lord as we go through life. It’s easier to be humble when you submit to authority.

[God is clear that we are to respect human authority. In our second section, He will say…]

2. Respect divine authority (8:10-17).

In this section, Solomon urges us to fear God and submit to Him. In 8:10 he writes, “So then, I have seen the wicked buried, those who used to go in and out from the holy place, and they are soon forgotten in the city where they did thus. This too is futility.” In this verse, “the wicked” are unbelievers who go through the motions of attending “the holy place” (i.e., the Temple) on a regular basis. The phrase translated “they are soon forgotten” or “they received praise” is better rendered “they boasted” (NET).334 These hypocrites assume that they can disrespect God and His authority over their lives. But God wants the wicked to know that He has the last laugh.

In 8:11, Solomon explains that one of the primary reasons the wicked continue in their wickedness is delayed justice. He puts it like this: “Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed quickly, therefore the hearts of the sons of men among them are given fully to do evil.” God’s mercy in not executing judgment immediately against those who sin is interpreted by those who do not openly fear God as being either a sign of weakness or impotence on God’s part, or a sign of a laissez-faire attitude on God’s part. The sinner then assumes (incorrectly, of course) that God does not really care whether people sin or not and/or that there are no negative consequences for sinning. Thus, the sinner feels secure in a self-oriented life, doing whatever he or she desires to do with no worries about what God may think or do. This is also true in government and paternal discipline. We slough off if there are no consequences.335

In spite of the fact that the wicked seem to prosper, Solomon argues that it is still better to fear God. In 8:12-14 he writes, “Although a sinner does evil a hundred times and may lengthen his life, still I know that it will be well for those who fear God, who fear Him openly. But it will not be well for the evil man and he will not lengthen his days like a shadow, because he does not fear God. There is futility which is done on the earth, that is, there are righteous men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked. On the other hand, there are evil men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I say that this too is futility.” Solomon acknowledges that sometimes justice is backwards. The righteous receive what the wicked deserve and vice versa. A criminal gets shot and sues the city. A Christian family is killed by a drunk driver. Missionaries are martyred. Babies are aborted. These are depressing mysteries in life that cannot be resolved “under the sun.” Yet, these mysteries may have been generated intentionally by God so that humans would have to trust Him to guide them.336

In the end, the wicked will come and go. Their end will come quickly for their lives are likened to a shadow that passes by. Solomon emphasizes the “fear” of God three times in 8:12-13. The inevitable conclusion is that this is the only way to live one’s life.

In Psalm 73, Asaph contrasts the end of the wicked with that of the righteous. He reminds us that although it appears that the wicked are defying God, ultimately, the Lord will judge them in righteousness and truth. Asaph did not come to this realization by looking at the circumstances around him, he had to enter into the sanctuary of God; then he perceived their end! (Ps 73:17) The truth is, apart from the Scripture and fellowship with other believers, we will not find any peace in this life. We need God and each other.

So what is Solomon’s solution to this wretched life? He shares his pearls of wisdom in 8:15: “So I commended pleasure, for there is nothing good for a man under the sun except to eat and to drink and to be merry, and this will stand by him in his toils throughout the days of his life337 which God has given him under the sun.” Solomon says, “Life is to be enjoyed.”338 The formal refrain: “to eat and to drink and to be merry” is Solomon’s way of saying: “Life is a gift from God, make the most of it.” Carpe Diem: “Seize the Day!” Even though life doesn’t always make sense, even though we don’t always understand what God is doing, we can trust in His sovereignty and let Him worry about all that is going on around us. So go out and enjoy your favorite meal! Do you like Chinese, Mexican, Italian, or a good steak or burger? Whatever your preference, eat and enjoy yourself. Solomon also tells us to drink. He means just what he says, “Drink,” but be sure to do so in moderation. Finally, he encourages us to be merry. Since you can’t change the present, the past, or the future, you might as well trust God and be content…even downright merry. Life is short and then you die. Why make this life miserable? Enjoy it.

Chapter 8 closes in 8:16-17 with these words: “When I gave my heart to know wisdom and to see the task which has been done on the earth (even though one should never sleep day or night), and I saw every work of God, I concluded that man cannot discover the work which has been done under the sun. Even though man should seek laboriously, he will not discover; and though the wise man should say, ‘I know,’ he cannot discover.”339Solomon discovered that he could not discover. God’s great knowledge and immensity overwhelmed him. Solomon is not alone. The more we work and think through various quandaries, the more we ought to recognize that we are humble peons that can’t discover a thing. What we really need is to stop striving and straining and to return to simple faith in God.

An advanced student asked the legendary Bruce Lee if Lee would teach him everything he knew about martial arts. In response, Lee held up two cups, both filled with water: “This cup represents all I know, and the second cup represents all you know,” Lee said. “If you want to fill your cup with my knowledge, you must first empty your cup of your knowledge.”340

Harry Houdini made a name for himself by escaping from every imaginable confinement—from straightjackets to multiple pairs of handcuffs clamped to his arms. He boasted that no jail cell could hold him. Time and again, he would be locked in a cell only to reappear minutes later. It worked every time—but one. He accepted another invitation to demonstrate his skill. He entered the cell, wearing his street clothes, and the jail cell door shut. Once alone, he pulled a thin but strong piece of metal from his belt and began working the lock. But something was wrong. No matter how hard Houdini worked, he couldn’t unlock the lock. For two hours he applied skill and experience to the lock but failed time and time again. Two hours later he gave up in frustration. The problem? The cell had never been locked. Houdini worked himself to near exhaustion trying to achieve what could be accomplished by simply pushing the door open. The only place the door was locked was in his mind.

Faith is not a complex process. It is not the result of years of education, pilgrimages, or flashy supernatural experiences. The door to belief is ready to open and is locked only in the minds of those who choose to believe it is.341 God wants you and me to stop trying to figure this life out. He just wants us to humble ourselves and submit to Him. Will you trust God in the midst of this unstable and uncertain life? Will you choose to believe that He is bigger and wiser than you are?

 

What About the Wicked? Ecclesiastes 8

As King Solomon continued to investigate the value of wisdom, he came face to face with the problem of evil in the world, a problem that no thinking person can honestly avoid. It is not unbelief that creates this problem, but faith. If there is no God, then we have nobody to blame but ourselves (or fate) for what happens in the world. But if we believe in a good and loving God, we must face the difficult question of why there is so much suffering in the world. Does God know about it and yet not care? Or does He know and care but lack the power to do anything about it?

Some people ponder this question and end up becoming either agnostics or atheists, but in so doing, they create a whole new problem: “Where does all the good come from in the world?” It’s difficult to believe that matter alone produced the beautiful and enjoyable things we have in our world, even in the midst of so much evil.

Other people solve the problem by saying that evil is only an illusion and we shouldn’t worry about it, or that God is in the process of “evolving” and can’t do much about the tragedies of life. They assure us that God will get stronger and things will improve as the process of evolution goes on.

Solomon didn’t deny the existence of God or the reality of evil, nor did he limit the power of God. Solomon solved the problem of evil by affirming these factors and seeing them in their proper perspective. We must not forget that one major source of evil in this world is fallen man and his “many devices,” both good and evil, that have helped to create problems of one kind or another (7:29, nasb). God certainly can’t be blamed for that!

During the darkest days of World War II, somebody asked a friend of mine, “Why doesn’t God stop the war?” My friend wisely replied, “Because He didn’t start it in the first place.” Solomon would have agreed with that answer.

The Preacher explored the problem of evil in the world by examining three key areas of life.

  1. Authority (ECCL. 8:1-9)

Beginning with Nimrod (Gen. 10:8-9) and continuing over the centuries through Pharaoh, Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar, Darius, the Caesars, and the latest petty dictator, millions of good people have been oppressed in one way or another by bad rulers. The Jews often suffered at the hands of foreign oppressors, and Solomon himself had been guilty of putting his own people under a heavy yoke of bondage (1 Kings 4:7-28; 12:1ff).

Keep in mind that Eastern rulers in that day held the power of life and death in their hands and often used that power capriciously. They were not elected by the people nor were they answerable to them. Some leaders ruled as benevolent dictators, but for the most part rulers in the ancient East were tyrannical despots who permitted nothing to stand in the way of fulfilling their desires.

Solomon described an officer in the royal court, a man who had to carry out the orders of a despotic ruler. The officer had wisdom; in fact, it showed on his face (v. 1, and see Neh. 2:1ff and Prov. 15:13). Suppose the king commanded the servant to do something evil, something that the servant did not want to do? What should the servant do? Here is where wisdom comes to his aid. His wisdom told him that there were four possible approaches he could take to this problem.

Disobedience.

But Solomon’s admonition was, “Keep the king’s commandment” (v. 2). Why? To begin with, the officer must be true to his oath of allegiance to the king and to God, who is the source of all authority in this world (Rom. 13). To disobey orders would mean breaking his promise to the ruler and to God, and that has serious consequences.

The king’s word would have more power than the word of his servant (v. 4) and was bound to prevail, even if the king had to eliminate the opposition. Nobody could safely question the ruler’s decisions because “the king can do no wrong.” There was no law that could find the king guilty.

Third, the officer should obey orders so that he might avoid punishment (v. 5a). After all, his disobedience could lead to his death (see Dan. 4). Paul used a similar argument in Romans 13:3-4. We all have enough misery, so why add to it (v. 7)? Furthermore, since nobody can predict the future, we don’t know how the king will respond to our decisions.

One thing is sure: a day is coming when wickedness will be judged (v. 8b), and even kings will not escape. Nobody can control the wind or prevent the day of his death (“wind” and “spirit” are the same word in the Hebrew), and nobody can get discharged from the army when a war is on. Likewise, nobody can stop the inexorable working of God’s law, “Whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Gal. 6:7, nkjv). “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Num. 32:23).

But suppose the servant simply cannot obey his master? Then the servant must consider the other possibilities.

Desertion (v. 3a).

You can just see the officer leaving the king’s presence in disgust and giving up his position in court.

Even this action may not be safe since the king might be offended and punish the man anyway. But more than one person has quit a job or resigned from office in order to maintain his or her integrity. I recall chatting with a Christian press operator who left a fine job with a large printing firm because the company had decided to start printing pornographic magazines. He lost some income, but he kept his character.

Defiance (v. 3b).

“Do not stand up for a bad cause” (niv) can mean “Don’t promote the king’s evil plan” or “Don’t get involved in a plan to overthrow the king.” I prefer the second interpretation because it goes right along with the first admonition in verse 3. The officer rushes from the king’s presence, finds others who are opposed to the king’s plans, and with them begins to plot against the crown. Solomon did not approve of this approach.

Is there ever a place for “civil disobedience” in the life of the believer? Do law-abiding citizens have the right to resist authority when they feel the law is not just? Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.” Was he right?

When it comes to matters of conscience and the law, devoted believers have pretty much agreed with Peter: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). Christian prisoners and martyrs down through the ages testify to the courage of conscience and the importance of standing up for what is right. This doesn’t mean we can resist the law on every minor matter that disturbs us, but it does mean we have the obligation to obey our conscience. How we express our disagreement with the authorities demands wisdom and grace; this is where the fourth possibility comes in.

Discernment (vv. 5b-6).

The wise servant understands that “time and judgment [procedure, nasb]” must be considered in everything we do, because it takes discernment to know the right procedure for the right time. The impulsive person who overreacts and storms out of the room (v. 3) is probably only making the problem worse. Wisdom helps us understand people and situations and to figure out the right thing to do at the right time. “The wise heart will know the proper time and procedure” (v. 5b, niv).

This is illustrated beautifully in the lives of several Old Testament believers. Joseph didn’t impulsively reveal to his brothers who he was, because he wanted to be sure their hearts were right with their father and their God. Once he heard them confess their sins, Joseph knew it was the right time to identify himself. His handling of this delicate matter was a masterpiece of wisdom (see Gen. 43-45).

Nehemiah was burdened to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, but he was not sure the king would release him for the task (Neh. 1-2). He waited and watched and prayed, knowing that God would one day open the way for him. When the opportune hour came, Nehemiah was ready and the king granted him his request. Nehemiah knew how to discern “time and procedure.”

A prisoner of war in a Gentile land, Daniel refused to eat the unclean food set before him, but he didn’t make a big scene about it. Instead, he exercised gentleness and wisdom by suggesting that the guards permit the Jews to experiment with a different diet. The plan worked and Daniel and his friends not only kept themselves ceremonially clean, but they were promoted in the king’s court (see Dan. 1).

The apostles exercised spiritual discernment when they were arrested and persecuted (Acts 4-5). They showed respect toward those in authority even though the religious leaders were prejudiced and acted illegally. The apostles were even willing to suffer for their faith and the Lord honored them.

We have the options of disobeying, running away, defying orders, and even fighting back. But before we act, we must first exercise wisdom and seek to discern the right “time and procedure.” It’s not easy to be a consistent Christian in this complicated evil world, but we can ask for the wisdom of God and receive it by faith (James 1:5; 3:17-18).

  1. Inequity (ECCL. 8:10-14)

Solomon summarized his concern in verse 14: “righteous men who get what the wicked deserve, and wicked men who get what the righteous deserve” (niv). In spite of good laws and fine people who seek to enforce them, there is more injustice in this world than we care to admit. A Spanish proverb says, “Laws, like the spider’s web, catch the fly and let the hawks go free.” According to famous trial lawyer F. Lee Bailey, “In America, an acquittal doesn’t mean you’re innocent; it means you beat the rap.” His definition is a bit cynical, but poet Robert Frost defined a jury as “twelve persons chosen to decide who has the better lawyer.”

In verse 10, Solomon reported on a funeral he had attended. The deceased was a man who had frequented the temple (“the place of the holy”) and had received much praise from the people, but he had not lived a godly life. Yet he was given a magnificent funeral, with an eloquent eulogy, while the truly godly people of the city were ignored and forgotten.

As he reflected on the matter, Solomon realized that the deceased man had continued in his sin because he thought he was getting away with it (v. 11). God is indeed longsuffering toward sinners and doesn’t always judge sin immediately (2 Peter 3:1-12). However, God’s mercy must not be used as an excuse for man’s rebellion.

The Preacher concluded that the wicked will eventually be judged and the righteous will be rewarded (vv. 12-13), so it is better to fear the Lord and live a godly life. The evil man may live longer than the godly man. He may appear to get away with sin after sin, but the day of judgment will come and the wicked man will not escape. It is wisdom that points the way; for “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 9:10).

No matter how long or full the wicked man’s life may seem to be, it is only prolonged like a shadow and has no substance (v. 13). In fact, the shadows get longer as the sun is setting. Solomon may be suggesting that the long life of the wicked man is but a prelude to eternal darkness. What good is a long life if it is only a shadow going into the blackness of darkness forever (Jude 13)?

How should the wise person respond to the inequities and injustices in this world? Certainly we should do all we can to encourage the passing of good laws and the enforcement of them by capable people, but even this will not completely solve the problem. Until Jesus Christ sets up His righteous kingdom, there will always be injustices in our world. It is one of the “vanities” of life, and we must accept it without becoming pessimistic or cynical.

  1. Mystery (ECCL. 8:15-17)

The person who has to know everything, or who thinks he knows everything, is destined for disappointment in this world. Through many difficult days and sleepless nights, the Preacher applied himself diligently to the mysteries of life. He came to the conclusion that “man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun” (v. 17; see 3:11; 7:14, 24, 27-28). Perhaps we can solve a puzzle here and there, but no man or woman can comprehend the totality of things or explain all that God is doing.

Historian Will Durant surveyed human history in his multivolume Story of Civilization and came to the conclusion that “our knowledge is a receding mirage in an expanding desert of ignorance.” Of course, this fact must not be used as an excuse for stupidity. “The secret things belong unto the Lord our God; but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law” (Deut. 29:29). God doesn’t expect us to know the unknowable, but He does expect us to learn all that we can and obey what He teaches us. In fact, the more we obey, the more He will teach us (John 7:17).

A confession of ignorance is the first step toward true knowledge. “And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know” (1 Cor. 8:2, nkjv). The person who wants to learn God’s truth must possess honesty and humility. Harvard philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said, “Not ignorance, but ignorance of ignorance, is the death of knowledge.”

The French philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote in his famous Pensees (#446): “If there were no obscurity, man would not feel his corruption; if there were no light, man could not hope for a cure. Thus it is not only right but useful for us that God should be partly concealed and partly revealed, since it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness as to know his wretchedness without knowing God.”

For the fourth time, Solomon told his congregation to enjoy life and delight in the fruit of their labors (v. 15; see 2:24; 3:12-15; and 5:18-20). Remember, this admonition is not the foolish “eat, drink, and be merry” philosophy of the unbelieving hedonist. Rather, it is the positive “faith outlook” of God’s children who accept life as God’s special gift and know that He gives us “all things richly to enjoy” (1 Tim. 6:17). Instead of complaining about what we don’t have, we give thanks for what we do have and enjoy it.

This ends Solomon’s re-examination of “the vanity of wisdom” (1:12-18). Instead of rejecting wisdom, the king concluded that wisdom is important to the person who wants to get the most out of life. While wisdom can’t explain every mystery or solve every problem, it can help us exercise discernment in our decisions. “Yes, there is a time and a way for everything” (8:6, tlb), and the wise person knows what to do at just the right time.

 
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Posted by on April 12, 2021 in Ecclesiastes

 

Ecclesiastes: The Good Life #9 Wise Words for Wise Ones – Ecclesiastes 7:15-8:1


ecclesiastes 7-8

A young man loaned an acquaintance $500, but failed to get the borrower’s signature on a receipt. When the guy hadn’t paid him back a year later, he realized he had probably lost the money due to lack of proof. He asked his father what to do. “The answer is simple,” his father said. “Just write him and say you need the $1,000 you loaned him.” “You mean $500,” his son replied. “No, you need to say $1,000. He’ll immediately write back that he only owes you $500, and then you’ll have it in writing!”279

This father provided wise counsel and his son was able to receive profitable words in writing. Similarly, our heavenly Father provides wise counsel and we can read His profitable words in the writings of the Bible. And who can’t benefit from a bit more wisdom? In Eccl 7:15-29 Solomon says, “Wise up by going low.” By this he means biblical wisdom comes through humility. In this passage, Solomon offers three provisions of wisdom.

1. Wisdom provides humility (7:15-18).

In these first four verses, Solomon discusses one of the most prevalent questions of human history: Why do good people suffer and bad people prosper? In 7:15 he writes, “I have seen everything during my lifetime of futility;280 there is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness.”281The phrase “I have seen everything” is akin to the contemporary expression of disgust, “Now, I’ve seen it all.” Solomon is a bit miffed that there doesn’t seem to be any correlation between one’s goodness and one’s lifespan.282 We see this principle alive and well today. We see righteous people die abruptly, and we see wicked fools living for what seems too long. Think about it…Jesus lived to be 33 and Hugh Heffner seems as if he’s going to outlive all of us. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, does it?

It’s easy to agonize over these hazy areas of the faith, like those spots on a sparkling car window that simply won’t come clean. Yet, these hazy areas tell me that God is real, dynamic, and too great for my conception. His ways are higher than mine.283 If there were no hazy areas, Christianity would be too neat, too trite. If I can fully understand God’s thoughts, He would be no more God than I am. Others approach this theological puzzle (and others) with an ultimatum: solve it or God is not real. This is like approaching a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle and saying, “If I can’t assemble this in five minutes, I will deny that it’s a picture.” That’s unfair, isn’t it? It’s also irrational.

Our inability to work out an answer reflects only on our limitations, not God’s.284 Therefore, it makes sense to trust our loving and powerful God even when He does not think and act like we might want Him to. After all, He sees the end from the beginning. With this in mind, today will you give the Lord whatever intellectual issues that you are struggling with? It’s as simple as saying, “God, I don’t understand what you are doing or why you are doing it, but you are God and I am not so I will trust You.”285Wise up by going low.

Since we can’t possibly understand God’s decisions, Solomon’s conclusion in 7:16-17 is, “Do not be excessively righteous and do not be overly wise.286 Why should you ruin yourself? Do not be excessively wicked and do not be a fool.287 Why should you die before your time?” These verses have been terribly misunderstood. Some have dubbed these verses “the golden mean,” which suggests we should not be too righteous or too wicked. Rather, we should strike a balance and achieve a happy medium. Yet, if Solomon is telling us to be moderately godly, he is contradicting the Bible which clearly teaches us to seek righteousness and holiness with all that is within us.288 I believe, therefore, Solomon’s concern is not with godly character, but with godly character in one’s own eyes. His point is that we should not depend on our righteousness or wisdom to guarantee God’s blessing in our lives.289 In other words, if you are a particularly righteous person don’t be too confident that you will live to see your 120th birthday. The verb translated “ruin yourself” is better rendered to “be appalled, astounded.”290 Solomon is saying, “Don’t assume that God owes you anything for your righteousness.” If you do, you might be confounded or disappointed like the righteous person who dies at a young age.291

The truth is, no matter how righteous or wise we attempt to be we are still sinners in need of God’s mercy and grace. The apostle Paul understood this. Early in his ministry, he called himself the least of the apostles. Later on he said he was the least of all Christians. Then he said he was the chief of sinners. The older he got, the more he saw of God, the lower he became in his own estimation.292 In the same vein, John Newton, the former slave trader and author of “Amazing Grace,” said, “When I get to heaven, I will be amazed at three things. I will be amazed at those I thought would be there who are not there, those I did not think would be there who are there, and the fact that I am there at all.”293

The Chinese are reported to have a saying, “The shoot that grows tall is the first to be cut.”294 Biblically and practically, it makes sense to be humble. There is just too much we don’t understand. There are too many questions, too many tragedies, and too much sin. The only solution is to wise up by going low. But what does this look like practically? It means you take a close look at how you think, speak, and act. When you think of Christian self-righteousness, you most likely think of a person who sees the faults of others, but is oblivious to his or her own condition. Tragically, this may be the most frequently used reason for not becoming a Christian.

In the past, I used to dismiss this by saying, “There are hypocrites in every profession and sphere of life.” But now I agree with statements relating to hypocrisy among Christians. I will even acknowledge that I have been guilty of hypocrisy as well. I empathize with people who quote the common bumper sticker, “Jesus, save me from your followers.” Don’t get me wrong, we need to be authentically righteous, but we also need to be especially humble.

Not only is Solomon opposed to self-righteousness, he is also opposed to wickedness. Although we are sinful and will always have remains of hypocrisy and self-righteousness, we need to be careful not to use our sinfulness as an excuse to sin even more. The fact that we aren’t perfect should spur us on toward holiness, not toward moral compromise. It’s easy to see how this line of reasoning might work. “I’ve already told one lie. What difference will another make?” Or “I know I shouldn’t have used foul language, but why stop now?” All such reasoning is evil. Why compound your troubles by continuing to sin?

When you’re in a hole, stop digging. If you can’t make things better, at least make sure you don’t make them worse. This applies to all of us because everyone struggles with sin to one degree or another. You don’t have to take another drink, you don’t have to cheat a second time, you don’t have to keep on swearing, and you don’t have to lose your temper over and over again. By the power of God, and with the help of a few good friends, you can stop the patterns of sin and replace them with habits of holiness.295

If we choose to disregard God’s Word and play the fool we may die before our time. The truth is, God does sometimes punish the wicked in this life. There have been times over the course of my life when I have wondered what would happen if I attempted to steer off a cliff while driving my car. I have thought to myself, “Would God send an angel to steer my car away from imminent danger? Would God Himself slam on the brakes before I drove off the cliff?

Would He keep my steering wheel from turning in the direction of the cliff?” The answer to these questions is, “NO, NO, NO!” This is not to say that the Lord would not work a miracle, but the odds are against it. If I make a foolish decision, I may pay for it with my life. Young people, please don’t play the fool. One experiment with drugs could end your life. One sexual encounter could cost you dearly. One suicidal attempt could be your last. It’s not worth it. Live in light of eternity. Exercise wisdom and self-control. Wise up by going low.

The final verse of this section is rather interesting. Solomon writes in 7:18, “It is good that you grasp one thing and also not let go of the other; for the one who fears God comes forth with both of them.” The “one thing” that you are to grasp is the teaching of 7:17. The “other thing” that you are not to let go of is the wisdom of 7:16. In other words, it is good in life to grasp 7:17—don’t be wicked and foolish and blow life; be holy and wise. But at the same time, remember 7:16—you are a finite sinner who can’t control God or even understand what He’s up to. Obey God and what you know. Trust Him in what you don’t.296 Wise up by going low.

[Wisdom provides humility. We will now see…]

2. Wisdom provides strength (7:19-22).

In this section, Solomon says,“Wisdom is a strong ally in this fallen world, but it cannot shield believers from pain, injustice, and bad circumstances.” In 7:19 Solomon writes, “Wisdom strengthens a wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city.” The Hebrew word for “wisdom” (hokmah) refers to “the skill of living.” This involves both a godly perspective and a godly power to live life. Perspective and power are like the two wings on a bird, the two blades of a pair of scissors, or the two sides of a coin. The whole of wisdom doesn’t exist without both perspective and power.297

In 7:19, Solomon states that the wisdom of God is better than surrounding yourself with the ten best men you can find. It’s been said that a man with a Bible could stay in a cave for a year, and at the end of that time, he could know from his reading what everybody else in the world was doing. There is no greater blessing than wisdom. There is no greater activity than walking with God and revering Him. But watch out that you don’t let your good behavior go to your head.298

The reason for such humility is found in 7:20 where Solomon writes, “Indeed, there is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.”299 In our fallen state, our entire wills are oriented against God. We are bent on our own ways of evil from the get-go. Augustine said the only reason you think a baby is good is that he hasn’t got the power enough to show you how evil he is. He said, “If a baby had the strength when he emerged from the mother’s womb, he would seize the mother by the throat and demand his milk.” The only way any of us can be saved is if God makes radical change in us from the inside out. So Jesus gave Himself as a sacrifice for our sins. Then the Spirit of God changes our nature by abiding with us, keeping us, sanctifying us, and raising us by His power.300

In 7:21-22 we come to some especially relevant and practical words. Solomon is going to tell us that sometimes it pays to be a little hard of hearing. He writes, “Also, do not take seriously all words which are spoken, so that you will not hear your servant cursing you. For you also have realized that you likewise have many times cursed others.” Here Solomon says, “Don’t eavesdrop; don’t listen in on every conversation. Don’t go out of your way to listen to what is being said about you—sooner or later you’ll be disappointed. You’ll hear someone cursing you.” Of course, this is particularly distressing when you hear people in the church that you know and love cursing you. In my own pastoral ministry, I have been grieved and shocked by those who have intentionally or unintentionally sought to damage me. Maybe you’ve had a similar experience with other Christians. It hurts, doesn’t it? The truth is it doesn’t matter where you are, who you are, or what you do, people will fail you. Your best friends will fail you. Your coworkers will fail you. Your pastors will fail you. Your brothers and sisters will fail you. Your parents will fail you. Your spouse will fail you. Your children will fail you. If you live long enough, every one you count on in this life will fail you sooner or later.

How can you cope with the hurtful words that others have said about you? Solomon’s advice to the wise is not to listen to the gossip people say about you, because you know in your heart you have said unkind things about others as well. Let’s be honest. If we get upset when people talk about us, we are holding them to a higher standard than we hold ourselves to, because we are prone to do the same thing. With that said, sometimes a rebuke is in order if the comments are especially divisive. We need to be prepared to lovingly drill a fellow believer between the eyes and say, “Don’t talk about my brother or sister like that.” The reason that gossip and slander continue to go in most churches is that Christians tolerate it. No one ever wants to stick their neck out and call sin “SIN.”

My prayer is that you and I will stand up for others and sit down for ourselves. I am learning to take the destructive words of others toward me with a grain of salt.301 One man said, “I never worry about people who say evil things about me because I know a lot more stuff about me than they do, and it’s worse than what they are saying.”302 Seriously, the key to defusing gossip and slander is to humble yourself and not take yourself too seriously.303Wise up by going low.

[Wisdom provides humility and strength. Now we will see that…]

3. Wisdom provides insight (7:23-8:1).

In this final section, Solomon warns of the danger of foolishness. Yet, the implication is that wisdom can win the day through humility. In 7:23-24 Solomon writes, “I tested all this with wisdom, and I said, ‘I will be wise,’ but it was far from me. What has been is remote and exceedingly mysterious. Who can discover it?” In these two verses, Solomon discovered that he could not discover. Although he sought after wisdom with all diligence, he acknowledged that true wisdom was far beyond him. He continued in 7:25 by writing, “I directed my mind to know, to investigate and to seek wisdom and an explanation, and to know the evil of folly and the foolishness of madness.” Literally this is, “I myself turned my heart.”304 The ancients thought “the heart” was the center of thinking, reasoning, and feeling. Maybe we would say “he got his mind around an issue.” The search was sincere, thorough, and intensive. God has put in our hearts the desire “to know,” but it is beyond our current fallen ability. The desire probably comes from our being made in the image and likeness of God (cf. Gen 1:26-27), but sin has damaged our ability (cf. Gen 3). Yet, we still seek, search, yearn, and strive! This is to be commended, but it must be acknowledged that we are incredibly limited. We desperately need the Lord to reveal His thoughts and ways to us. Today, will you ask the Lord for His mind and heart? Will you ask for His insight? Wise up by going low.

So did Solomon discover anything? In 7:26 he writes, “And I discovered more bitter than death the woman whose heart is snares and nets, whose hands are chains. One who is pleasing to God will escape from her, but the sinner will be captured by her.” There is some mystery surrounding the identity of this woman. Some understand this woman to be a prostitute or an adulterer.305 The application then is to avoid sexual sin. I believe, however, that this woman is the personification of that wickedness which is folly itself. She is the “strange woman” of Proverbs 1-9.306 The antecedent of “the woman” is folly (7:25), a Hebrew feminine noun that also has an article.

This conclusion seems corroborated by the allusions in 7:26 to the tactics of folly who tries to lure one away from wisdom’s embrace.307 The point is: Foolishness is like a seductive woman, so beware for she will lead you to your demise. Be like a wise person who refuses to be captured by her. Use discretion as you travel this life. Choose your friends wisely. Bad company corrupts good morals.308 Guard your intake of television and movies. Don’t watch programming that will tear you down in your walk with Christ.

The mysterious words continue in 7:27-29 where Solomon writes, “Behold, I have discovered this,’ says the Preacher, ‘adding one thing to another to find an explanation, which I am still seeking but have not found. I have found one man among a thousand, but I have not found a woman among all these. Behold, I have found only this, that God made men upright, but they have sought out many devices.’” These verses lead us to ask whether Solomon was a chauvinist or a misogynist. Yet, when we read Proverbs and the Song of Solomon, we know that this is not the case.309 In fact, in Proverbs, Solomon often personifies wisdom as a woman. So let’s get one thing out of the way immediately: Solomon isn’t making a relative comparison as to the worth of men and women in general. That wouldn’t be fair and his conclusion wouldn’t be right. Furthermore, remember that with 1,000 women Solomon was the consummate ladies man.310 He’s not going to jeopardize his relationship with women, right?

The “man” in view in 7:28 is the “one who is pleasing to God” in 7:26. The Hebrew word for “man” here (adam) is generic and refers to people rather than males in contrast to females. Solomon meant in 7:28b that a person who is pleasing to God is extremely rare (cf. Job 9:3; 33:23). The reference to “woman” (7:28c) is a way of expressing in parallelism (with “man”) that no one really pleases God completely. A paraphrase of 7:28b-c is, “I have found very few people who please God, no one at all really.”311 This interpretation is confirmed by 7:29 where Solomon demonstrates the scarcity—even nonexistence—of good people, whether man or woman. That the parallelism of man and woman in 7:28 describes all humankind is corroborated by 7:29—a probable reference to the creation and fall of “mankind.”312

Verse 29 asserts two truths from Genesis: Initially, all of God’s creation was good.313 Humans can understand and implement God’s will. Fallen humans are creative and energetic in the area of evil and rebellion.314 Though morally capable, humans turn from God’s will to self-will at every opportunity! Even though we seek righteousness, we need to remember that no matter how good we get, we are still sinful—every last one of us—men and women both.

We need to remember that no matter how good we get, the only reason people tolerate us is that we have learned how to tame our public evil as opposed to our private evil. Does that disturb you about yourself? Here it is again: The only reason that you’re a likable person is that you have learned to distinguish between your public and private obnoxiousness, and you are smart enough to keep your lustful, hateful, wicked thoughts contained in your brain. In your public treatment of people, you have remained basically hygienic and nonviolent.315 I know this is a hard word, but don’t get mad at me; I’m just the mailman. I just deliver the mail.

So who is responsible for the universal failure to please God? Solomon said people are, not God. God made us upright in the sense of being able to choose to please or not please God. Nevertheless, in 7:29 we have all gone our own way in pursuit of “many devices.”316 The point is not that people have turned aside to sin, but that they have sought out many explanations.317 They have sought many explanations of what? In the context Solomon was talking about God’s plan. Failing to understand fully God’s scheme of things, people have turned aside to their own explanations of these things.

Solomon closes out this section in 8:1 with a transitional verse: “Who is like the wise man and who knows the interpretation of a matter? A man’s wisdom illumines him and causes his stern face to beam.” Wisdom provides insight. Wisdom will bring illumination and a smile to your face. How can you get wisdom? The primary way is by reading and heeding God’s Word. This morning, I was reading Proverbs 6. (I like to read one proverb for every day of the month.) This is what I read in 6:16-19: “There are six things which the LORD hates, Yes, seven which are an abomination to Him: Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, And hands that shed innocent blood, A heart that devises wicked plans, Feet that run rapidly to evil, A false witness who utters lies, And one who spreads strife among brothers.”

The first item that God hates is “haughty eyes.” God hates pride and self-righteousness. The fourth item is “a heart that devises wicked plans.” This summarizes the whole of foolishness and wickedness. The last item on this list is God hates it when “one spreads strife among brothers.” This ties back into Eccl 7:21-22. If you and I want to be wise ones, we will study God’s Word and then apply it to our lives. As Solomon said in Prov 1:7: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” May we heed these words and wise up by going low.

 
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Posted by on April 5, 2021 in Ecclesiastes

 

Ecclesiastes: The Good Life #8 When Bad is Better Ecclesiastes 7:1-14


What Does Ecclesiastes 7:9 Mean?

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.

  1. 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.”

  1. 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.

Wealth (7:11-12).

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.

Providence (7:13).

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 havearrivedand 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.

  1. 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:

http://preceptaustin.org/ecclesiastes_illustrations_ii.htm#7.

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).

 
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Posted by on March 29, 2021 in Ecclesiastes

 

Ecclesiastes: The Good Life #7 Is Life a Dead-End Street? Ecclesiastes 6


It’s interesting to read the different expressions people use to picture futility. Solomon compared the futility of life to a soap bubble (“vanity of vanities”) and to “chasing after the wind.” I have read statements like: “As futile as watering a post.” “As futile as plowing the rocks.” “As futile as singing songs to a dead horse” (or “singing twice to a deaf man”). “As futile as pounding water with a mortar” (or “carrying water in a sieve”).

In his poem The Task, the hymn writer William Cowper (“There Is A Fountain”) pictured futility this way: The toil of dropping buckets into empty wells, and growing old in drawing nothing up.

If Cowper were alive today, he might look at our “automobile society” and write: As futile as blind men driving cars down crowded dead-end streets.

Is life a dead-end street? Sometimes it seems to be, especially when we don’t reach our goals or when we reach our goals but don’t feel fulfilled in our achievement. More than one person in the Bible became so discouraged with life that he either wanted to die or wished he had never been born. This includes Moses (Num. 11:15), Elijah (1 Kings 19:4), Job (3:21; 7:15), Jeremiah (8:3; 15:10), and Jonah (4:3). Even the great apostle Paul despaired of life during a particularly tough time in his life (2 Cor. 1:8-11).

Perhaps the basic problem is that life confronts us with too many mysteries we can’t fathom and too many puzzles we can’t solve. For life to be truly satisfying, it has to make sense. When it doesn’t make sense, we get frustrated. If people can’t see a purpose in life, especially when they go through deep suffering, they start to question God and even wonder if life is worthwhile.

A man walks into a shoe store and asks for a pair of shoes, size eight. The well-trained salesman says, “But sir, you take an eleven or eleven-and-a-half.” “Just bring me a size eight.” The sales guy brings the shoes and the man crams his feet into them and stands up in obvious pain. He turns to the salesman and says, “I’ve lost my house to the I.R.S., I live with my mother-in-law, my daughter ran off with my best friend, and my business has filed Chapter 7. The only pleasure I have left is to come home at night and take my shoes off.”202

Can you relate to this man? Is your savings and checking account nearly depleted? Are you struggling to make ends meet? Are your cars and appliances ready to give up the ghost? Is your job tearing your innards apart? Is your marriage faltering? Are your kids making your life especially difficult? Are you sick and tried of being sick and tired? Are you lonely or depressed? Like Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, do you exclaim, “I can’t get no satisfaction?” Like Bono and U2, do you lament, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for?” If so, this passage from the Bible is tailor-made for you.

In Ecclesiastes 6, Solomon discussed three of life’s mysteries: riches without enjoyment (1-6), labor without satisfaction (7-9), and questions without answers (10-12).

  1. Riches without enjoyment (ECCL. 6:1-6)

What a seeming tragedy it is to have all the resources for a satisfying life and yet not be able to enjoy them for one reason or another. More than one person has worked hard and looked forward to a comfortable retirement only to have a heart attack and become either an invalid or a statistic. Or perhaps the peace of retirement is shattered by a crisis in the family that begins to drain both money and strength. Why do these things happen?

Solomon mentioned this subject in 5:19 and hinted at it in 3:13. To him, it was a basic principle that nobody can truly enjoy the gifts of God apart from the God who gives the gifts. To enjoy the gifts without the Giver is idolatry, and this can never satisfy the human heart. Enjoyment without God is merely entertainment, and it doesn’t satisfy. But enjoyment with God is enrichment and it brings true joy and satisfaction.

Verse 2 may describe a hypothetical situation, or it might have happened to somebody Solomon knew. The fact that God gave Solomon riches, wealth, and honor (2 Chron. 1:11) made the account even more meaningful to him. How fortunate a person would be to lack nothing, but how miserable if he or she could not enjoy the blessings of life.

What would prevent this person from enjoying life? Perhaps trouble in the home (Prov. 15:16-17; 17:1), or illness, or even death (Luke 12:20). The person described in verse 2 had no heir, so a stranger acquired the estate and enjoyed it. It all seems so futile.

What is Solomon saying to us? “Enjoy the blessings of God now and thank Him for all of them.” Don’t plan to live—start living now. Be satisfied with what He gives you and use it all for His glory.

Verses 3-6 surely deal with a hypothetical case, because nobody lives for two thousand years, and no monogamous marriage is likely to produce a hundred children. (Solomon’s son Rehoboam had eighty-eight children, but he had eighteen wives and sixty concubines—like father, like son. See 2 Chronicles 11:21.) The Preacher was obviously exaggerating here in order to make his point: no matter how much you possess, if you don’t possess the power to enjoy it, you might just as well never have been born.

Here is a man with abundant resources and a large family, both of which, to an Old Testament Jew, were marks of God’s special favor. But his family does not love him, for when he died, he was not lamented. That’s the meaning of “he has no burial” (see Jer. 22:18-19). His relatives stayed around him only to use his money (5:11), and they wondered when the old man would die. When he finally did die, his surviving relatives could hardly wait for the reading of the will.

The rich man was really poor. For some reason, perhaps sickness, he couldn’t enjoy his money. And he couldn’t enjoy his large family because there was no love in the home. They didn’t even weep when the man died. Solomon’s conclusion was that it were better for this man had he never been born, or that he had been stillborn (see Job 3).

Among the Jews at that time, a stillborn child was not always given a name. That way, it would not be remembered. It was felt that this would encourage the parents to get over their sorrow much faster. “It [the child] comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded” (v. 4, niv). In my pastoral ministry, broken-hearted parents and grandparents have sometimes asked, “Why did God even permit this child to be conceived if it wasn’t going to live?” Solomon asked, “Why did God permit this man to have wealth and a big family if the man couldn’t enjoy it?”

Some would argue that existence is better than nonexistence and a difficult life better than no life at all. Solomon might agree with them, for “a living dog is better than a dead lion” (9:4). But the problem Solomon faced was not whether existence is better than nonexistence, but whether there is any purpose behind the whole seemingly unbalanced scheme of things. As he examined life “under the sun,” he could find no reason why a person should be given riches and yet be deprived of the power to enjoy them.

The ability to enjoy life comes from within. It is a matter of character and not circumstances. “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content,” Paul wrote to the Philippians (4:11). The Greek word autarkes, translated “content,” carries the idea of “self-contained, adequate, needing nothing from the outside.” Paul carried within all the resources needed for facing life courageously and triumphing over difficulties. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13, nkjv).

The 2,000-year-old man and the stillborn baby both ended up in the same place—the grave. Once again, the Preacher confronted his listeners with the certainty of death and the futility of life without God. He was preparing them for “the conclusion of the matter” when he would wrap up the sermon and encourage them to trust God (11:9-12:14).

In this first section, Solomon discusses the three measuring sticks of success in Hebrew society: wealth, long life, and lots of children.203 As wonderful as these good gifts are, unless God is in the midst we cannot enjoy them. In 6:1-2, Solomon shares his basic premise: “There is an evil which I have seen under the sun and it is prevalent among men—a man to whom God has given riches and wealth and honor so that his soul lacks nothing of all that he desires; yet God has not empowered him to eat from them, for a foreigner enjoys them. This is vanity and a severe affliction.” The “evil” that Solomon speaks of in 6:1 refers to the painful misfortune204 of not being able to enjoy God’s good gifts. Solomon says that this misfortune is “prevalent among men.” This means that many people who have lived down throughout time have struggled with contentment and enjoyment. I know this is hard to believe, but it is in the Bible so it must be true. In 6:2, the active presence of God is emphasized. Solomon writes that God is the one who has given “riches and wealth and honor” (cf. 5:19). But here the blessing of material possessions is not balanced with the wisdom to enjoy them!

Solomon is penning a very important principle: Every good gift that God gives205 can only be truly and ultimately enjoyed if God empowers us. Riches, wealth, and honor do not automatically bring happiness, contentment, satisfaction, or a lasting benefit! Rather, they can bring unhappiness, ingratitude, restlessness, and grief. A perfect example of this is Howard Hughes (1905-1976). At age 45, Hughes was one of the most glamorous men in America. He dated actresses, piloted exotic test aircraft, and worked on top-secret CIA contracts. He owned a string of hotels around the world, and even an airline—TWA—to carry him on global jaunts. Twenty years later, at age 65, Howard Hughes still had plenty of money—$2.3 billion to be exact. But the world’s richest man had become one of its most pathetic. He lived in small dark rooms atop his hotels, without sun and without joy. He was unkempt: a scraggly beard had grown waist-length, his hair fell down his back, and his fingernails were two inches long. His once powerful 6’4” frame had shrunk to about 100 pounds. This famous man spent most of his time watching movies over and over, with the same movie showing as many as 150 times. He lay naked in bed, deathly afraid of germs. Life held no meaning for him. Finally, wasting away and hooked on drugs, he died at age 67 for lack of a medical device his own company had helped to develop.206

The lesson of Howard Hughes is this: “Never judge a book by its cover.” Even though Hughes had it all, he did not have the supernatural ability to enjoy what he had been richly given. Some of the wealthiest people in the world are also some of the most miserable. This is what happens when God is left out of the equation. All that this world has to offer can be incredibly empty and unsatisfying. It can be vanity!

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) said it well, “There are two tragedies in life: one is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.”207 Truly, prosperity may be a greater test of character than poverty. A Romanian church leader who spent time in the West said, “95% of believers who face the test of persecution pass it; 95% who face the test of prosperity fail it.”208 How are you doing with the prosperity God has given you? Are you passing the test? If not, pray for the grace to find satisfaction in God’s good gifts.

I want you to imagine for just a moment that you absolutely love peaches. You have an insatiable appetite them. (Lord willing, this is not too far-fetched for you if you hate peaches.) Now imagine that God has given you countless cans of peaches. You are anxious to begin eating them, but then it dawns on you that you don’t have a can opener. Unless you are especially creative, you’re in trouble. You can’t enjoy all of these peaches without a can opener. If you are smart, you will ask God who gave you all these cans of peaches for a can opener. And then you will be able to enjoy your peaches. In the end, it doesn’t matter how many cans you might accumulate unless the Lord gives you a can opener to go with your cans of peaches. We need to enjoy daily life whatever it brings,209 trust in eternal life whenever and however physical life ceases,210 honor God,211 and obey God.212Satisfaction in life is found by enjoying God’s blessings.

In 6:3-6, Solomon uses two illustrations to drive home his point about the vanity of money and pleasure apart from God. He puts it like this: “If a man fathers a hundred children and lives many years, however many they be, but his soul is not satisfied with good things and he does not even have a proper burial, then I say, ‘Better the miscarriage than he, for it comes in futility and goes into obscurity; and its name is covered in obscurity. It never sees the sun and it never knows anything; it is better off than he. Even if the other man lives a thousand years twice and does not enjoy good things—do not all go to one place?’” Solomon offers us the eye-opening comparison of a stillborn child and a 2,000 year-old man who fathers 100 children. One enjoys the full rich feast of life and comes back for about 25 second helpings; the other doesn’t quite make it to the table.213 Solomon exaggerates to make his point. The longest lifespan recorded in Scripture is Methuselah, and he lived to be “only” 969 years old (Gen 5:27). Imagine a man who lives more than twice that long—to be 2,000 years old—and has a hundred children in the process. Solomon’s point here is obvious: You could live twice as long as anyone else and have more children than anyone else, but if God is not involved and He is not granting you His satisfaction, it’s all worthless.

In fact, Solomon says that a miscarriage is better than such a person! Now we need to be careful not to misread Solomon at this point. He does not in any way argue that a literal “miscarriage of a child” is a good thing.214 His concerns here are more philosophical than literal. Obviously, it is tempting to kind of dance around the reality of a miscarriage being a part of this text. We all know people who have suffered through the tragedy of miscarriage. It’s absolutely gut-wrenching. My heart breaks for those parents who have suffered this ordeal. If you have experienced a miscarriage, I want you to know how sorry I am. Please know that I hurt for you and your church family hurts for you. Yet, in spite of your great pain and loss, I want us to hear and feel the weight of Solomon’s point: “It is more tragic for someone to be given life and possessions and honor and riches and not enjoy life’s good things than the tragedy of miscarriage.” You see for Solomon, he recognizes both of them as tragic. He’s just saying that it is more tragic for life to be granted and a person not to enjoy the good things in life than it is for a baby to not come to term. Do you feel his emphasis? You see, for all of us, we are on this side of life. We are on this side of life where we have been given opportunity to enjoy it, and Solomon is saying this, “If your life is not marked by the enjoyment of life’s good things, then it is better off that you were not even born at all.” In a nutshell his point is: “Better to miscarry at birth than to miscarry throughout life.”215 Satisfaction in life is found by enjoying God’s blessings. Will you join me in praying that the Lord will increase your level of satisfaction with the many good gifts that He has given you? If so, I can assure you that God will grant you a greater spirit of contentment.216

Now if we are to properly understand 6:3-6, we must step outside of our western mindsets. First, in ancient Israel, children were not an inconvenience; rather, they were considered a great blessing from God. Furthermore, children were not a financial burden; they were an economic asset to their family.217 Hence, the goal was to have a lot of kids. Second, a proper burial was also of utmost importance because it served as a statement about the significance of your life.218 Although this is not evident in our English versions, it is more likely that the “proper burial” does not refer to the rich man, but to the miscarried child. So the phrase would read: “Even if it does not have a proper burial, I say that the stillborn is better off than he.”219 Either way, the day of one’s death was important. Third, growing old was not looked down upon. In the book of Proverbs, Solomon says that “the honor of old men is their gray hair” and a “gray head is a crown of glory.”220 Long life was a great blessing from the Father.221 Yet, all of these good gifts cannot provide a lasting benefit (cf. 1:3; 2:18).

If Solomon were alive today I think he would urge us to stop worshiping our kids and our health. All too often life revolves around family. So many people seek a release from materialistic culture by making family a god in our own day. They get married and think that marriage is going to be the place where they find ultimate satisfaction. Then suddenly, you find out that she recognizes all your weaknesses, and you’re not as nice as her dad, and its hard work, and its rough going. Suddenly, the thing that was going to provide you satisfaction is the source of your greatest heartbreak. That’s what Solomon is saying.

Family, children, grandchildren, as great a blessing as these can be, are not the source of satisfaction. Similarly, many of us want to live long and prosperous lives. We try to eat right, work out, and make sure we look good. Yet, the truth is, many people who have been given long life do not use their years wisely for the Lord. So the issue is not long life per se, but rather how you live the life you have. It has been said, “It’s not the years in life but the life in the years.”222 Our health, children, and grandchildren can all be taken away so quickly. Sickness, bacteria, or an accident can rob us of long life and our children and grandchildren. Therefore, we need to enjoy what God has given us while we can. There is no guarantee that we will have our health and loved ones tomorrow. Therefore, live your life with enjoyment today! And remember satisfaction in life is found by enjoying God’s blessings.

[Solomon says, “Enjoy the blessings of this life.” Yet, he also wants you and me to…]

2. Accept the limitations of this life (6:7-12).

In this second section, Solomon reminds us that life has its challenges and we need to accept this reality. In 6:7-9, he provides three proverbial summaries of the futility of life: “All a man’s labor is for his mouth and yet the appetite is not satisfied. For what advantage does the wise man have over the fool? What advantage does the poor man have, knowing how to walk before the living? What the eyes see is better than what the soul desires. This too is futility and a striving after wind.”223 In 6:7, Solomon says that we all work so that we can eat. When you boil it down, whether you’re a high-profile CEO of a Fortune 500 company or you’re a college student working part-time for Burger King, you essentially work for food. You just work for your next meal. It’s sad but true. Think about it: Have you ever developed a hunger for a particularly appetizing dish? And then you ate it. And by the next day, no matter how good the meal was, you were hungry again. There is a curious repetition of hunger. It doesn’t matter how well you ate yesterday, tomorrow you will be hungry again. A man works and works to buy food, but it’s never enough. He has to keep working because he continually gets hungry and needs to eat. Wealth will never satisfy you. It will never scratch your itch deep enough.224

While the immediate reference is to food, Solomon’s intention seems to speak to anything material (Prov 16:26). Whatever it is that you pick to attempt to satisfy your soul will eventually be found to be lacking. Or to put it another way, stuff doesn’t satisfy. Why not? Because physical things can only satisfy physical needs, and that for which you hunger on the inside is a hunger of the soul. This is seen vividly in the Hebrew text of this verse. The word translated “appetite” (nephesh) in 6:7 is the same word translated “soul” in 6:2 and 3. Satisfaction in life is found by enjoying God’s blessings.

In 6:8 Solomon states, regardless of who you are (wise or poor) there is no ultimate satisfaction in this life unless you enjoy it. This leads to 6:9 which suggests, use what is available instead of yearning for that which is beyond you. Solomon’s proverb is similar to the more familiar, “A bird in the hand is worth more than two in the bush” (Prov 17:24). A roving appetite is not satisfied with what is at hand; it impatiently looks for something new, something better. Generally speaking, actually having something that you want (and is good for you) is better than merely wishing you had that same thing.225 What do your eyes see when they look at your life? Are your eyes satisfied or is your life lived around what the soul desires? Always more, always what you do not have; living for the future potential of filet mignon, and not enjoying the spam burger you have on you plate today.

When we take our children to the shrine of the Golden Arches, they always lust for the meal that comes with a cheap little prize, a combination christened in a moment of marketing genius—the Happy Meal. You’re not just buying fries, McNuggets, and a dinosaur stamp; you’re buying happiness. Their advertisements have convinced my children they have a little McDonald-shaped vacuum in their souls: “Our hearts are restless till they find their rest in a happy meal.” I try to buy off the kids sometimes. I tell them to order only the food and I’ll give them a quarter to buy a little toy on their own. But the cry goes up, “I want a Happy Meal.” All over the restaurant, people crane their necks to look at the tight-fisted, penny-pinching cheapskate of a parent who would deny a child the meal of great joy. The problem with the Happy Meal is that the happy wears off, and they need a new fix. No child discovers lasting happiness in just one: “Remember that Happy Meal? What great joy I found there!” Happy Meals bring happiness only to McDonalds. Have you ever wondered why Ronald McDonald wears that grin? Twenty billion Happy Meals, that’s why. When you get older, you don’t get any smarter; your happy meals just get more expensive.226 Yet, we must always remember satisfaction in life is found by enjoying God’s blessings.

Solomon closes out this chapter in 6:10-12 with some sobering words: “Whatever exists has already been named, and it is known what man is; for he cannot dispute with him who is stronger than he is. For there are many words which increase futility. What then is the advantage to a man? For who knows what is good for a man during his lifetime, during the few years of his futile life? He will spend them like a shadow. For who can tell a man what will be after him under the sun?” Throughout the book of Ecclesiastes, there are numerous allusions to Genesis. Solomon loved to draw upon the book of beginnings. This text is held together by the fourfold use of the catchword “man” (adam), here used not merely as a generic for human beings but as a term that points back to Genesis 2-3. Ecclesiates 6:10 (“Whatever exists has already been named”) does not refer to the divine naming of all things at creation; it is a literary allusion to Adam’s naming of all living things in Gen 2:19. The noun adam looks back to the substance from which humanity came, the adama (“soil”), and so draws attention to human mortality. The participle “known” alludes to the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the place at which Adam discovered that he could not contend with God and win. Adam contended with one “stronger” than he in an attempt to become “like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5). Adam was in effect the first “Teacher.” He sought an encyclopedic mastery of knowledge (cf. Eccl 1:13) and even experimented with firsthand experience in good and evil (cf. Eccl 1:17). What he discovered was his own mortality and weakness before God. That is, he discovered the real meaning of his own name.

No sage, however brilliant or daring, has substantially added to Adam’s discovery. Indeed, more exhaustive attempts at explaining the human situation only confound the facts and are of no benefit to humanity (6:11). Adam has already shown us what we are. The question in 6:12: “For who knows what is good” for adam, plays on the situation of Adam prior to the fall. The trees had “good” fruit, and the land had “good” gold (Gen 2:9, 12). It also plays on the name of the tree of his demise, the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Adam’s days, though they numbered 930 years (Gen 5:5), passed like a shadow and no one could tell him what was to follow him. What is true of him is equally true of all who bear his name. We are but weak mortals before an omnipotent God.227

Therefore, we need to learn to be submissive to our great God, for He alone knows the end from the beginning. He is the only sovereign. God is the potter; we are the clay. More arguing only results in more futility for man (6:11). Man does not know what is best for him or what his future holds completely (6:12). We are ignorant of our place in God’s all-inclusive plan. Human life is fleeting, it is like a shadow.228 It is futile to fight with God; He always wins. James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) said it well, “Your arms are too short to box with God.”229 Or as C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) said, “To argue with God is to argue with the very power that makes it possible to argue at all.” Disputing is a waste of time and effort. So long as I fight the hand of God, I do not learn the lessons He is attempting to place before me. When I find myself getting anxious about my life, it is usually because the horizontal has overshadowed the vertical. I have momentarily lost sight of who is still on the throne.230

What if a person visited your house and started to criticize things? She doesn’t like the colorful wallpaper, she doesn’t like the decorations, she doesn’t like the picture that hangs over the kitchen table. Once she is finished with her criticism, only one comment is appropriate. “Whose name is on the title deed of this house? When you start paying the bills around here, you get a vote on the decorating. Until then, feel free to keep your opinions to yourself.”231

This does not mean that we can never ask God a “why” question; however, I would strongly caution you to remember who it is you are talking to! Notice there are two questions introduced with “who” in 6:11 and 12. Solomon is implying that there is a “who” who holds the universe and its philosophical questions. He is leading us to the conclusion that satisfaction in life is found by enjoying God’s blessings.

Ray Charles was once baited by a 60 Minutes interviewer with a question about the inequity between his earnings and those of white entertainers. The question had overtones of racism and would’ve tugged at the heart of any man who was greedy. Ray’s answer was disarming: “I make a good living. I can only ride in one car at a time, I live in one house at a time, sleep with one woman at a time.” (I trust it was his wife.) Ray was right, and he was also content.232

My three children like certain types of food. If I am scooping them a bowl of ice cream or cutting them a piece of cake, they always ask for more before they have even begun to consume what I have served. My response is always the same: “Before I give you more, you need to eat what you have.” In the same way, before we can expect God to give us more gifts, we must enjoy what we have.

Do you enjoy your life? Are you satisfied with your life? Do you enjoy your spouse, your kids, your work, and your church? If not, pray to God that He will change your perspective. Tragically, you may have believed a lie that you can be and do whatever you want. Is that true? Can you do whatever you want? I can’t. Can I play in the NBA at 5’10’ with a 2-inch vertical leap? Nope. Can I make myself into a worship leader? Nope. Can I be a supermodel? Well maybe. Okay, nope! There are certain things that I simply cannot do. I am limited by God in some areas and blessed by Him in other areas. Yet, here’s what I can do: I can be satisfied with my wife, my kids, my ministry, because God has enabled me to be satisfied with all those things. Without His enabling me to be satisfied, I would never fully enjoy anything. But when I look beyond this world to the God who knows me and loves me, I find true and lasting satisfaction.

  1. Labor without satisfaction (ECCL. 6:7-9)

Solomon had spoken about the rich man; now he discusses the situation of the poor man. Rich and poor alike labor to stay alive. We must either produce food or earn money to buy it. The rich man can let his money work for him, but the poor man has to use his muscles if he and his family are going to eat. But even after all this labor, the appetite of neither one is fully satisfied.

Why does a person eat? So that he can add years to his life. But what good is it for me to add years to my life if I don’t add life to my years? I’m like the birds that I watch in the backyard. They spend all their waking hours either looking for food or escaping from enemies. (We have cats in our neighborhood.) These birds are not really living; they are only existing. Yet they are fulfilling the purposes for which the Creator made them—and they even sing about it!

Solomon is not suggesting that it’s wrong either to work or to eat. Many people enjoy doing both. But if life consists only in working and eating, then we are being controlled by our appetites and that almost puts us on the same level as animals. As far as nature is concerned, self-preservation may be the first law of life, but we who are made in the image of God must live for something higher (John 12:20-28). In the new creation (2 Cor. 5:17), self-preservation may well be the first law of death (Mark 8:34-38).

Both questions in verse 8 are answered by “None!” If all you do is live to satisfy your appetite, then the wise man has no advantage over the fool, nor does the poor man have any advantage trying to better his situation and learning to get along with the rich. Solomon is not belittling either education or self-improvement. He is only saying that these things of themselves cannot make life richer. We must have something greater for which to live.

A century ago, when the United States was starting to experience prosperity and expansion, the American naturalist Henry David Thoreau warned that men were devising “improved means to unimproved ends.” He should see our world today. We can send messages around the world in seconds, but do we have anything significant to say? We can transmit pictures even from the moon, but our TV screens are stained with violence, sex, cheap advertising, and even cheaper entertainment.

Verse 9 is Solomon’s version of the familiar saying, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” This proverb has been around for a long time. The Greek biographer Plutarch (46-120) wrote, “He is a fool who lets slip a bird in the hand for a bird in the bush.” Solomon is saying, “It’s better to have little and really enjoy it than to dream about much and never attain it.” Dreams have a way of becoming nightmares if we don’t come to grips with reality.

Is Solomon telling us that it’s wrong to dream great dreams or have a burning ambition to accomplish something in life? Of course not, but we must take care that our ambition is motivated by the glory of God and not the praise of men. We must want to serve others and not promote ourselves. If we think our achievements will automatically bring satisfaction, we are wrong. True satisfaction comes when we do the will of God from the heart (Eph. 6:6). “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to accomplish His work” (John 4:34, nasb).

Yes, in the will of God there can be riches with enjoyment and labor with satisfaction. But we must accept His plan for our lives, receive His gifts gratefully, and enjoy each day as He enables us. “Thou wilt show me the path of life. In thy presence is fullness of joy; at thy right hand there are pleasures for evermore” (Ps. 16:11).

  1. Questions without answers (ECCL. 6:10-12)

Thus far, Solomon has said that life is a dead-end street for two kinds of people: those who have riches but no enjoyment and those who labor but have no satisfaction. But he has tried to point out that true happiness is not the automatic result of making a good living; it is the blessed by-product of making a good life. If you devote your life only to the pursuit of happiness, you will be miserable; however, if you devote your life to doing God’s will, you will find happiness as well.

The British essayist and poet Joseph Addison (1672-1718) wrote, “The grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, someone to love, and something to hope for.” Addison probably didn’t have Christianity in mind when he wrote that, but we have all three in Jesus Christ!

The Preacher was not finished. He knew that life was also a dead-end street for a third kind of person—the person who required answers to all of life’s questions. Solomon was not condemning honest inquiry, because Ecclesiastes is the record of his own investigation into the meaning of life. Rather, Solomon was saying, “There are some questions about life that nobody can answer. But our ignorance must not be used as an excuse for skepticism or unbelief. Instead, our ignorance should encourage us to have faith in God. After all, we don’t live on explanations; we live on promises.”

It’s been my experience in pastoral ministry that most explanations don’t solve personal problems or make people feel better. When the physician explains an X-ray to a patient, his explanation doesn’t bring healing, although it is certainly an essential step toward recovery. Suffering Job kept arguing with God and demanding an explanation for his plight. God never did answer his questions, because knowledge in the mind does not guarantee healing for the heart. That comes only when we put faith in the promises of God.

Without going into great detail, in verses 10-12 Solomon touches on five questions that people often ask.

Since “what’s going to be is going to be,” why bother to make decisions? Isn’t it all predestined anyway?

“Whatever exists has already been named, and what man is has been known” (v. 10a, niv). To the Jewish mind, giving a name to something is the same as fixing its character and stating what the thing really is. During the time of creation, God named the things that He made; and nobody changed those designations. “Light” is “light” and not “darkness”; “day” is “day” and not “night.” (See Isa. 5:20.)

Our name is “man”—Adam, “from the earth” (Gen. 2:7). Nobody can change that: we came from the earth and we will return to the earth (Gen. 3:19). “Man” by any other name would still be “man,” made from the dust and eventually returning to the dust.

The fact that God has named everything does not mean that our world is a prison and we have no freedom to act. Certainly God can accomplish His divine purposes with or without our cooperation, but He invites us to work with Him. We cooperate with God as we accept the “names” He has given to things: sin is sin; obedience is obedience; truth is truth. If we alter these names, we move into a world of illusion and lose touch with reality. This is where many people are living today.

We are free to decide and choose our world, but we are not free to change the consequences. If we choose a world of illusion, we start living on substitutes, and there can be no satisfaction in a world of substitutes. “And this is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3, nasb). “And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding, in order that we might know Him who is true, and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life” (1 John 5:20, nasb).

Why disagree with God? We can’t oppose Him and win, can we?

“… neither may he contend with him that is mightier than he” (v. 10b). The word translated “contend” also means “dispute.” Solomon seems to say, “It just doesn’t pay to argue with God or to fight God. This is the way life is, so just accept it and let God have His way. You can’t win, and even if you do think you win, you ultimately lose.”

But this is a negative view of the will of God. It gives the impression that God’s will is a difficult and painful thing that should be avoided at all cost. Jesus said that God’s will was the food that nourished and satisfied Him (John 4:32-34). It was meat, not medicine. The will of God comes from the heart of God and is an expression of the love of God. (See Ps. 33:11.) What God wills for us is best for us, because He knows far more about us than we do.

Why would anyone want to have his or her “own way” just for the privilege of exercising “freedom”? Insisting on having our own way isn’t freedom at all; it’s the worst kind of bondage. In fact, the most terrible judgment we could experience in this life would be to have God “give us up” and let us have our own way (Rom. 1:24, 26, 28).

God is free to act as He sees best. He is not a prisoner of His attributes, His creation, or His eternal purposes. You and I may not understand how God exercises His freedom, but it isn’t necessary for us to know all. Our greatest freedom comes when we are lovingly lost in the will of God. Our Father in heaven doesn’t feel threatened when we question Him, debate with Him, or even wrestle with Him, so long as we love His will and want to please Him.

What do we accomplish with all these words? Does talking about it solve the problem? (v. 11).

In fact, there are times when it seems like the more we discuss a subject, the less we really understand it. Words don’t always bring light; sometimes they produce clouds and even darkness. “The more the words, the less the meaning”(v. 11, niv). But this is where we need the Word of God and the wisdom He alone can give us. If some discussions appear useless and produce “vanity,” there are other times when conversation leads us closer to the truth and to the Lord.

Who knows what is good for us? (v. 12).

God does! And wise is the person who takes time to listen to what God has to say. Yes, life may seem to be fleeting and illusive, like a soap bubble (“vain”) or a shadow, but “he who does the will of God abides forever” (1 John 2:17, nkjv).

Does anybody know what’s coming next? (v. 12b).

In spite of what the astrologers, prophets, and fortune tellers claim, nobody knows the future except God. It is futile to speculate. God gives us enough information to encourage us, but He does not cater to idle curiosity. One thing is sure: death is coming, and we had better make the best use of our present opportunities. That is one of the major themes in Ecclesiastes.

Solomon has discussed two of his arguments that life is not worth living: the monotony of life (3:1-5:9) and the futility of wealth (5:10-6:12). He has discovered that life “under the sun” can indeed be monotonous and empty, but it need not be if we include God in our lives. Life is God’s gift to us, and we must accept what He gives us and enjoy it while we can (3:12-15, 22; 5:18-20).

Solomon will next take up his third argument, the vanity of man’s wisdom (7:1-8:17), and discuss whether or not wisdom can make life any better. Though wisdom can’t explain all the problems or answer all the questions, it is still a valuable ally on the journey of life.


202 Preaching Now (5-2-06) Vol. 5 No. 16.

203 Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1993),

204 For the most part, as is the case here, the author records raah to indicate adversity, calamity, distress, trouble, misfortune, or the like (Eccl 2:21; 5:12 [twice], 15; 7:14, 15; 8:6, 11; 9:12 [twice]; 10:5, 13; 11:2, 10; 12:1, 11). If we understand this word to be pointing to a moral or spiritual deficiency, then we are suggesting that God’s work (in 6:2)—and thus He Himself—is in some way “sinful.” This is heresy! Rather, there seems to be some continuity with what Solomon has expressed in Eccl 2:18; 4:8; and 5:13-17.

205 Jas 1:17 tells us that “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.”

206 For more information on Hughes see http://www.famoustexans.com/howardhughes.htm.

207 Humorous Quotes attributed to G.B. Shaw: http://workinghumor.com/quotes/gb_shaw.shtml.

208 Bing, “Be Wise with Your Wealth.”

209 See Eccl 2:24-26; 3:12, 13, 22; 5:18-20; 7:7-9.

210 See Eccl 1:3; 3:9; 5:16; 6:11.

211 See Eccl 3:14; 5:7; 7:18; 8:12.

212 See Eccl 12:13.

213 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 138.

214 Job 3:16 and Psalm 58:8 also refer to instances where it would have been better off to have been stillborn; this was a figurative way to express evil, experienced at its worst.

215 Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament; Leicester, Eng., and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 106.

216 Paul writes, “But godliness actually is a means of great gain when accompanied by contentment” (1 Tim 6:6).

217 See Pss 127 and 128.

218 See Isa 14:18-19 and Jer 22:18-19.

219 Roland Murphy, Ecclesiastes (WBC Vol. 23a; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1992); Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs.

220 Prov 16:31a and 20:29b.

221 See Prov 3:16.

222 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 139.

223 Constable suggests, “This is the last of nine times the phrase ‘striving after wind’ occurs (cf. 1:14, 17; 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 6, 16). It opened and closes the section of the book dealing with the ultimate futility of human achievement (1:12-6:9).” Dr. Thomas L. Constable, “Notes on Ecclesiastes”; 2007 edition: http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/ecclesiastes.pdf.

224 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 87.

225 Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.

226 John Ortberg, Dangers, Toils & Snares: Resisting the Hidden Temptations of Ministry (Sisters, OR: Multnomah, 1994), 99-100.

227 Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs,

228 See Eccl 8:13; 1 Chron 29:15; Job 9:9; 14:2; Pss 102:11; 109:23; 144:4.

229 Ray Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun: Ancient Wisdom for Contemporary Living (Chicago: Moody, 1998), 164.

230 Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge: Coming to Terms with Reality (Waco, TX: Word, 1985), 183.

231 Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun, 164-165.

232 Schmidt, Soul Management,115-116.

 
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Posted by on March 22, 2021 in Ecclesiastes

 

Ecclesiastes: The Good Life #6 Stop, Thief! – Ecclesiastes 5


The magazine cartoon showed a dismal looking man walking out of a bank manager’s office with the manager saying to his secretary, “He suffers from back problems: back taxes, back rent, and back alimony.”

Many people today suffer from similar “back problems.” They refuse to heed the warning Bill Earle gave many years ago: “When your outgo exceeds your income, your upkeep will be your downfall.”

The wealthy King Solomon knew something about money. Some of this wisdom he shared in the Book of Proverbs, and some he included here in Ecclesiastes. After all, he couldn’t discuss “life under the sun” and ignore money!

But he goes beyond the subject of mere money and deals with the values of life, the things that really count. After all, there is more than one way to be rich and more than one way to be poor. In this chapter, Solomon issues three warnings that relate to the values of life.

  1. Don’t rob the Lord (ECCL. 5:1-7)

(Ecclesiastes 5:1-7 NIV)  “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.”

Solomon had visited the courtroom, the marketplace, the highway, and the palace. Now he paid a visit to the temple, that magnificent building whose construction he had supervised. He watched the worshipers come and go, praising God, praying, sacrificing, and making vows. He noted that many of them were not at all sincere in their worship, and they left the sacred precincts in worse spiritual condition than when they had entered. What was their sin? They were robbing God of the reverence and honor that He deserved. Their acts of worship were perfunctory, insincere, and hypocritical.

In today’s language, “Keep thy foot!” means “Watch your step!” Even though God’s glorious presence doesn’t dwell in our church buildings as it did in the temple, believers today still need to heed this warning. The worship of God is the highest ministry of the church and must come from devoted hearts and yielded wills. For God’s people to participate in public worship while harboring unconfessed sin is to ask for God’s rebuke and judgment (Isa. 1:10-20; Amos 5; Ps. 50).

Solomon touched on several aspects of worship, the first of which was the offering of sacrifices (v. 1). God’s people today don’t offer animals to the Lord as in Old Testament times, because Jesus Christ has fulfilled all the sacrifices in His death on the cross (Heb. 10:1-14). But as the priests of God, believers today offer up spiritual sacrifices through Him: our bodies (Rom. 12:1-2); people won to the Saviour (Rom. 15:16); money (Phil. 4:18); praise and good works (Heb. 13:15-16); a broken heart (Ps. 51:17); and our prayers of faith (Ps. 141:1-2).

The important thing is that the worshiper “be more ready to hear,” that is, to obey the Word of God. Sacrifices are not substitutes for obedience, as King Saul found out when he tried to cover up his disobedience with pious promises (1 Sam. 15:12-23). Offerings in the hands without obedient faith in the heart become “the sacrifice of fools,” because only a fool thinks he can deceive God. The fool thinks he is doing good, but he or she is only doing evil. And God knows it.

Then Solomon issued a warning about careless praying (vv. 2-3). Prayer is serious business. Like marriage, “it must not be entered into lightly or carelessly, but soberly and in the fear of God.” If you and I were privileged to bring our needs and requests to the White House or to Buckingham Palace, we would prepare our words carefully and exhibit proper behavior. How much more important it is when we come to the throne of Almighty God. Yet, there is so much flippant praying done by people who seem to know nothing about the fear of the Lord.

When you pray, watch out for both hasty words and too many words (Matt. 6:7). The secret of acceptable praying is a prepared heart (Ps. 141:1-2), because the mouth speaks what the heart contains (Matt. 12:34-37). If we pray only to impress people, we will not get through to God. The author of Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan, wrote: “In prayer, it is better to have a heart without words, than words without a heart.”

Verse 3 presents an analogy: Just as many dreams show that the person sleeping is a hard worker, so many words show that the person praying is a fool (Prov. 29:20). I recall a church prayer meeting during which a young man prayed eloquently and at great length, but nobody sensed the power of God at work. When an uneducated immigrant stood up and stammered out her brief prayer in broken English, we all said a fervent “Amen!” We sensed that God had heard her requests. Spurgeon said, “It is not the length of our prayers, but the strength of our prayers, that makes the difference.”

Solomon’s third admonition had to do with making vows to the Lord (vv. 4-7). God did not require His people to make vows in order to be accepted by Him, but the opportunity was there for them to express their devotion if they felt led to do so (see Num. 30; Deut. 23:21-23; Acts 18:18).

The Preacher warned about two sins. The first was that of making the vow with no intention of keeping it, in other words, lying to God. The second sin was making the vow but delaying to keep it, hoping you could get out of it. When the priest [“angel” = messenger] came to collect the promised sacrifice or gift, the person would say, “Please forget about my vow! It was a mistake!”

God hears what we say and holds us to our promises, unless they were so foolish that He could only dismiss them. If providence prevents us from fulfilling what we promised, God understands and will release us. If we made our vows only to impress others, or perhaps to “bribe” the Lord (“If God answers my prayer, I will give $500 to missions!”), then we will pay for our careless words. Many times in my pastoral ministry I have heard sick people make promises to God as they asked for healing, only to see those promises forgotten when they recovered.

People make empty vows because they live in a religious “dream world”; they think that words are the same as deeds (v. 7). Their worship is not serious, so their words are not dependable. They enjoy the “good feelings” that come when they make their promises to God, but they do themselves more harm than good. They like to “dream” about fulfilling their vows, but they never get around to doing it. They practice a make-believe religion that neither glorifies God nor builds Christian character.

“I will go into thy house with burnt offerings; I will pay thee my vows, which my lips have uttered, and my mouth hath spoken, when I was in trouble” (Ps. 66:13-14). When we rob the Lord of the worship and honor due to Him, we are also robbing ourselves of the spiritual blessings He bestows on those who “worship Him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24).

  1. Don’t rob others (ECCL. 5:8-9)

(Ecclesiastes 5:8-9 NIV)  “If you see the poor oppressed in a district, and justice and rights denied, do not be surprised at such things; for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still. {9} The increase from the land is taken by all; the king himself profits from the fields.”

Solomon left the temple and went to the city hall where he again witnessed corrupt politicians oppressing the poor (3:16-17; 4:1-3). The government officials violated the law by using their authority to help themselves and not to serve others, a practice condemned by Moses (Lev. 19:15; Deut. 24:17).

The remarkable thing is that Solomon wrote, “Don’t be surprised at this!” He certainly did not approve of their unlawful practices, but he knew too much about the human heart to expect anything different from the complicated bureaucracy in Israel.

The niv translation of verse 8 gives a vivid description of the situation: “One official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still.” Instead of the poor man getting a fair hearing, “the matter is lost in red tape and bureaucracy” (v. 8, tlb), and the various officials pocket the money that should have gone to the innocent poor man.

Verse 9 is difficult and major translations do not agree. The general idea seems to be that in spite of corruption in the bureaucracy, it is better to have organized government, and a king over the land, than to have anarchy. A few dishonest people may profit from corrupt practices, but everybody benefits from organized authority. Of course, the ideal is to have a government that is both honest and efficient, but man’s heart being what it is, the temptation to dishonest gain is always there. Lord Acton wrote to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Solomon’s investigation bears this out.

  1. Don’t rob yourself (ECCL. 5:10-20)

(Ecclesiastes 5:10-20 NIV)  “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless. {11} As goods increase, so do those who consume them. And what benefit are they to the owner except to feast his eyes on them? {12} The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep. {13} I have seen a grievous evil under the sun: wealth hoarded to the harm of its owner, {14} or wealth lost through some misfortune, so that when he has a son there is nothing left for him. {15} Naked a man comes from his mother’s womb, and as he comes, so he departs. He takes nothing from his labor that he can carry in his hand. {16} This too is a grievous evil: As a man comes, so he departs, and what does he gain, since he toils for the wind? {17} All his days he eats in darkness, with great frustration, affliction and anger. {18} Then I realized that it is good and proper for a man to eat and drink, and to find satisfaction in his toilsome labor under the sun during the few days of life God has given him–for this is his lot. {19} Moreover, when God gives any man wealth and possessions, and enables him to enjoy them, to accept his lot and be happy in his work–this is a gift of God. {20} He seldom reflects on the days of his life, because God keeps him occupied with gladness of heart.”

Solomon had already discussed “the futility of wealth” in 2:1-11, and some of those ideas are repeated here. What he did in this section was demolish several of the myths that people hold about wealth. Because they hold to these illusions, they rob themselves of the blessings God has for them.

Wealth brings satisfaction (v. 10).

Some people treat money as though it were a god. They love it, make sacrifices for it, and think that it can do anything. Their minds are filled with thoughts about it; their lives are controlled by getting it and guarding it; and when they have it, they experience a great sense of security. What faith in the Lord does for the Christian, money does for many unbelievers. How often we hear people say, “Well, money may not be the number one thing in life, but it’s way ahead of whatever is number two!”

The person who loves money cannot be satisfied no matter how much is in the bank account—because the human heart was made to be satisfied only by God (3:11). “Take heed and beware of covetousness,” warned Jesus, “for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things which he possesses” (Luke 12:15, nkjv). First the person loves money, and then he loves more money, and the disappointing pursuit has begun that can lead to all sorts of problems. “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Tim. 6:10, nkjv).

Money solves every problem (v. 11).

There is no escaping the fact that we need a certain amount of money in order to live in this world, but money of itself is not the magic “cure-all” for every problem. In fact, an increase in wealth usually creates new problems that we never even knew existed before. Solomon mentioned one: relatives and friends start showing up and enjoying our hospitality. All we can do is watch them eat up our wealth. Or perhaps it is the tax agent who visits us and decides that we owe the government more money.

John Wesley, cofounder of the Methodist Church, told his people, “Make all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” Wesley himself could have been a very wealthy man, but he chose to live simply and give generously.

Wealth brings peace of mind (v. 12).

The late Joe Louis, world heavyweight boxing champion, used to say, “I don’t like money actually, but it quiets my nerves.” But Solomon said that possessing wealth is no guarantee that your nerves will be calm and your sleep sound. According to him, the common laborer sleeps better than the rich man. The suggestion seems to be that the rich man ate too much and was kept awake all night by an upset stomach. But surely Solomon had something greater in mind than that. The Living Bible expresses verse 12 perfectly: “The man who works hard sleeps well whether he eats little or much, but the rich must worry and suffer insomnia.”

More than one preacher has mentioned John D. Rockefeller in his sermons as an example of a man whose life was almost ruined by wealth. At the age of fifty-three, Rockefeller was the world’s only billionaire, earning about a million dollars a week. But he was a sick man who lived on crackers and milk and could not sleep because of worry. When he started giving his money away, his health changed radically and he lived to celebrate his ninety-eighth birthday!

Yes, it’s good to have the things that money can buy, provided you don’t lose the things that money can’t buy.

Wealth provides security (vv. 13-17).

The picture here is of two rich men. One hoarded all his wealth and ruined himself by becoming a miser. The other man made some unsound investments and lost his wealth. He was right back where he started from and had no estate to leave to his son. He spent the rest of his days in the darkness of discouragement and defeat, and he did not enjoy life. Like all of us, he brought nothing into the world at birth, and he took nothing out of the world at death (see Job 1:21; Ps. 49:17; 1 Tim. 6:7).

This account makes us think of our Lord’s parable about the Rich Fool (Luke 12:13-21). The man thought all his problems were solved when he became rich, but immediately he was faced with providing bigger barns for his wealth. He thought he was safe and secure for years to come, but that night he died! His money provided no security whatsoever.

Keep in mind that Solomon was advocating neither poverty nor riches, because both have their problems (Prov. 30:7-9).

The Preacher was warning his listeners against the love of money and the delusions that wealth can bring. In the closing verses of the chapter (vv. 18-20), he affirmed once again the importance of accepting our station in life and enjoying the blessings that God gives to us.

The thing that is “good and fitting” (v. 18, nkjv) is to labor faithfully, enjoy the good things of life, and accept it all as the gracious gift of God. Solomon gave us this wise counsel before in 2:24, 3:12-13, and 3:22, and he will repeat it at least three more times before he ends his “sermon.”

There are three ways to get wealth: we can work for it, we can steal it, or we can receive it as a gift (see Eph. 4:28). Solomon saw the blessings of life as God’s gift to those who work and who accept that work as the favor of God. “To enjoy your work and to accept your lot in life—that is indeed a gift from God” (v. 19, tlb).

Solomon added another important thought: the ability to enjoy life’s blessings is also a gift from God. Solomon will expand on this thought in the next chapter and point out the unhappiness of people who possess wealth but are not able to enjoy it. We thank God for food, but we should also thank Him for healthy taste buds and a digestive system that functions correctly. A wealthy friend, now in heaven, often took me and my wife to expensive restaurants, but he was unable to enjoy the food because he couldn’t taste it. All of his wealth could not purchase healing for his taste buds.

Verse 20 may mean that the person who rejoices in God’s daily blessings will never have regrets. “The person who does that will not need to look back with sorrow on his past, for God gives him joy” (tlb). The time to start storing up happy memories is now. “So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Ps. 90:12).

It may also mean that the believer who gratefully accepts God’s gifts today will not fret and worry about how long he or she will live. It is an established fact that the people who have the most birthdays live the longest, but if they keep complaining about “getting old” they will have very little to enjoy. People who are thankful to God “will not dwell overmuch upon the passing years,” as the New English Bible translates verse 20. They will take each day as it comes and use it to serve the Lord.

In chapter 6, Solomon will conclude his discussion of “the futility of wealth.” He might well have chosen Matthew 6:33 as the text for his message, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you” (nkjv). The important thing is that we love the Lord, accept the lot He assigns us, and enjoy the blessings He graciously bestows.

If we focus more on the gifts than on the Giver, we are guilty of idolatry. If we accept His gifts, but complain about them, we are guilty of ingratitude. If we hoard His gifts and will not share them with others, we are guilty of indulgence. But if we yield to His will and use what He gives us for His glory, then we can enjoy life and be satisfied.

Whenever I go to the airport to pick someone up, I park outside of the arrival terminal. My goal is always the same: to avoid paying to park my car. So I wait as long as I can near the curb of the airline pickup area. While waiting I will often hear a recording over the loudspeaker, “The white zone is for loading and unloading only. No parking.” Now, mind you, I am waiting to load up; however, if my passengers are delayed and I am waiting at the curb too long, a police officer usually approaches my car and asks me to move on. Being the law-abiding citizen that I am, I oblige him. However, I must confess that I have been known to make the loop at Seattle-Tacoma Airport and begin this vicious cycle all over again.

Can I be honest? I wish there were some way to announce over a loudspeaker system outside every church, “The worship zone is for learning, listening, and changing only. No parking! Be alert! Listen carefully. Truth will be deposited in your head that is designed to change your life.” But chances are good that even if a loudspeaker made such an announcement, the same thing would occur—folks would still “park” and turn a deaf ear to the recording and give pastoral police officers the runaround.157

In Eccl 5:1-9, Solomon pens some convicting words.158 He is going to sober us up. He may even make us feel badly. Now, I hope that you don’t come to church to be made to feel happy. The Bible isn’t a book about happiness; it is a book about holiness. This means sometimes the Bible will say things that you and I don’t like. Yet, if our goal is to become progressively holy, we will welcome the hard words of Scripture. For hard words make soft people and soft words make hard people.159 In these nine verses, Solomon shares two prohibitions that will enable us to exercise holiness and worship the right God in the right way. He wants us to see that God seeks an open heart and a closed mouth.

1. Don’t be rash with your words (5:1-3).

In these first three verses, Solomon challenges his readers to prepare their hearts, minds, and mouths for worship. The idea is: before we worship, we must check our mental attitude and motive. In 5:1 Solomon writes, “Guard your steps160 as you go to the house of God and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil.” This verse is rather meaty because it encapsulates two important issues: our preparation for worship and our participation in worship. The first emphasis is upon our preparation for worship. Since Solomon built the Old Testament temple, he was an expert on how to approach God. It took him seven years and 153,000 men to build the temple, so he knows a thing or two.161 In 5:1, Solomon’s first words are a command to “guard your steps.”162 This is a common expression in our culture. When you exit a bus, the bus driver will say, “Please watch your step.” When you are getting off a plan, a flight attendant will generally stand at the cockpit door and tell you, “Thank you for flying with us and please watch your step.” When someone tells you to watch your step they are warning you of a potential danger just ahead that you had better pay very close attention to. When you were growing up, was there ever a time when you became angry and spoke rash and disrespectful words to your parents? What was their response? If your parents were like my parents, you probably heard these words: “Watch your step, young man (or young woman).”163

Solomon warns you to “guard your step as you go to the house of God.” This seems out of the ordinary to our modern culture. We have warnings about sin, temptation, and unbelief, but a warning about how to worship seems unusual to our ears. Our problem is that we do not take worship seriously enough. We tend to think that as long as we are worshiping the Lord, it does not really matter how we worship. But the Scriptures teach otherwise. So sacred was God’s house that the Lord said to Moses in Lev 15:31: “Thus you shall keep the sons of Israel separated from their uncleanness, so that they will not die in their uncleanness by their defiling My tabernacle that is among them.” God at times actually took the lives of those who failed to come to His house in the right way, as a warning to the whole nation that they were dealing with a holy God.

My mom spent the first twenty years of her life in the Roman Catholic Church. When she became a Christian at twenty and began attending an evangelical church, she marveled at how lax evangelicals seemed to be in the church worship service. My mom saw people eating and drinking in church. She noticed people talking during the worship service, coming in late, and going in and out during worship. Initially, my mom didn’t know what to think. It seemed so irreverent. It took her years to understand the evangelical culture. So which worship culture is correct—the formal Catholic or Orthodox Church or the informal Protestant church? The answer is both can be right! Now please don’t misunderstand what I am trying to say. I recognize that in the church age there is nothing hallowed about a building. The Bible tells us that you and I are temples of the Holy Spirit.164 However, when the church gathers for the purpose of worship, there ought to be a sense of God’s holiness and abiding presence.

This past week, Lori and I discussed with our children why it can be a good idea to fold our hands and close our eyes when we pray. The principle is to show respect for God and be free from distraction. We can’t put away some of the distractions that are in front of us so it can be helpful to close our eyes in prayer and in worship. Likewise, God wants us to enter into worship prepared and focused. Men are good at preparing. They’ll stay up late Friday night getting ready for Saturday’s fishing trip. They’ll spend hours organizing a basement workshop before beginning a project. They’ll devote a week preparing for a tailgate party at the football stadium. And they’ll study catalogs all summer looking for the perfect fall hunting jacket. The men of the Old Testament were charged by God with certain preparations as well—preparations for worship. At the first Passover, men were to select a perfect lamb, slaughter it, put its blood on the doorpost, roast the meat, and make sure the house was cleansed of leaven. Do men—or women—spend as much time preparing for worship today?165 What kinds of preparation should be made? Go to bed early and wake up early. Meditate on Scripture. Pray with your kids before church. Teach them the importance of service. Talk about the Lord on your way to the church. This Saturday, try to keep Sunday in mind. Try to give it the kind of preparation that will make it a day to remember. God seeks an open heart and a closed mouth.

The famous researcher, George Barna, recently said, “Having devoted more than two decades of my life and all of my professional skills to studying and working with ministries of all types, I am now convinced that the greatest hope for the local church lies in raising godly children.”166 Barna is exactly right! If the family breaks down, the core of society is demolished. It has been said again and again that the church is one generation from extinction. Therefore, it is imperative that we train our children how to worship God and love and serve the church.

5:1b alludes to participation in worship. Solomon says, “Draw near to listen…” Solomon has just indicted “Back Row Baptists.” It is so interesting to me that some Christians have to get to church early to make sure that they get that back row or near that back row. Instead of the front rows filling up first and moving backward, we start in the back and move forward. It is like we want to get in the church building but just barely in it. Solomon says draw near to listen. It is not draw near to sing louder. It is not draw near so that you can pray longer. It is not draw near so you can be closer to your friends so you can talk throughout the service together. No, it is draw near so that you can listen.

The “sacrifice of fools” refers to speaking foolishly.167 Solomon warns us of hearing too little and talking too much. The word “listen” carries double force: “listening with the intention of obeying.” God wants us to hear from Him. He seeks an open heart and a closed mouth. Thus, if you have walked out of church not hearing from God then you have not worshiped. You have attended church but you have not worshiped. You can check off your obligation card “I did it” but you did not worship. Worship can only occur when you hear from God. Today, will you make every effort to hear from God? Will you open up your heart and close your mouth?

Now that we’ve walked the walk, we have to talk the talk. We must talk cautiously to the Lord as well as walk cautiously before Him.168 In 5:2 Solomon writes, “Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few.” When I was growing up, my parents would say, “Watch your tone of voice!” They wanted to remind me that they were in authority over me and I needed to respect them. Likewise, God is saying, “Believer, you need to remember who your Father is.” It is unwise to hastily and impulsively give God a piece of your mind. First of all, you will be giving God a piece of your mind that you can ill afford to lose. Second, Solomon declares that “God is in heaven and you are on the earth.” Many people assume Solomon is saying that God is way up there in heaven and we are way down here on earth, so we’d better listen well. In actuality, this is a statement of perspective, not distance. God is in the realm of the infinite. He alone hears the inaudible. He alone sees the invisible. That’s the reason we are to be calm and quiet.169 What a putdown; what a blow to our egos! In five simple words—“you are on the earth”—the author shoots down any chance for us to think “more highly of [ourselves] than [we] ought to think” (Rom 12:3). What we consider to be great (i.e., “the earth”) Solomon and God conceive as being not merely small, but insignificant (in comparison to heaven). We are merely on earth—an average-sized planet in our relatively small solar system, but a planet that few humans have circumnavigated and even fewer have been able to leave for brief ventures into (near, not deep) space.170

Solomon wants you and me to understand that God is not your “buddy next door,” He’s not the “big man upstairs.” He’s the infinite, eternal, unchangeable God who is full of wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. Yes, He’s also a faithful friend and a caring Father, but He’s always more than that too. He expects us to take Him seriously as the chief authority in our lives.

Since we can’t understand everything, we should be careful about what we say to God. Do you know why? In 5:3 Solomon writes, “For the dream comes through much effort and the voice of a fool through many words.” Just as hard work produces sleep and dreams, so a fool produces many words and much pontificating. In contrast, Solomon says that men of effort are known for their dreams. They work hard and they are silent. Can you say to God that you are mixed up and need some answers? Certainly. God wants us to be honest with Him. But He also wants us to be careful how we approach Him. You have to watch your tone of voice. We may ask why but not with anger or disrespect. There can be no accusations as though God were not in control or bitterness as though we sit in judgment over Him.171 God is free to do what He wants, whenever He wants. Remember, He is God. God seeks an open heart and a closed mouth.

[Why should you not be rash with your words? Because God is God and you are not. Solomon now shares a second prohibition.]

2. Don’t be foolish with your words (5:4-9).

Solomon warns us against foolish speech and making foolish commitments. In 5:4 he writes, “When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it; for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow!” Solomon says that if you make a vow to God, then you’d better do what you said you would do. He begins with the assumption that at some point or another most people will make a vow to God (“when you…”). Yet, he follows up this assumption with a prohibition: “do not be late in paying it.” He then concludes 5:4 with a short, direct command: “Pay what you vow!” This short sentence is literally translated, “WHAT YOU VOWED, pay [it]!” The emphasis is upon the vow. Solomon, in essence, labels the person “a fool” who fails to pay his vow on time.172 Think about this. People make vows all the time. People are baptized. People become members of a church. Parents dedicate their children. Spouses commit their lives to one another. People make commitments to read God’s Word and to maintain their purity. Yet, all of us have broken vows that we have made before God and others. Maybe you have even said, “God, if you get me out of this mess I promise that I am going to stop this or start that or serve you with my life. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but God remembers these vows and holds us to them.

Therefore, Solomon’s suggestion in 5:5-6 is, “It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Do not let your speech cause you to sin and do not say in the presence of the messenger of God that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry on account of your voice and destroy the work of your hands?” Solomon says, “It would be better for us to keep quiet and not utter anything rash or foolish.” This is why I challenge people who are contemplating marriage and church membership. I want to make sure they understand what they are committing to. Please listen carefully: I believe that there are many Christians today who are experiencing God’s judgment in their lives because of their refusal to follow through with their commitments to Him. That judgment may not come in the form of physical ailments and death, though it certainly can.173 It may instead come by means of God destroying the work of our hands. That is, God may take our goals and aspirations and efforts to succeed and just turn those things into dust. Or He may allow us to prosper but make us miserable in our prosperity.174

In 5:7 Solomon writes, “For in many dreams and in many words there is emptiness. Rather, fear God.”175Solomon returns to the idea of dreams. His conclusion is that dreams and words can be nothing but emptiness—hebel. Thus, he tells us to fear God. To fear God is to stand in awe of Him. It is not to quake into oblivion or to become comatose. It is to acknowledge His worth. It is to respond to Him with obedience and gratitude. God seeks an open heart and a closed mouth.

Solomon closes out this section in 5:8-9 with an exhortation for us to watch what we think in reference to humans. “If you see oppression of the poor and denial176 of justice and righteousness in the province, do not be shocked at the sight; for one official watches over another official, and there are higher officials over them. After all, a king who cultivates the field is an advantage to the land.” These are peculiar verses that don’t seem to fit in this chapter. Yet, it seems best to place these verses with 5:1-7 instead of with 5:10-20. What, if any, connections are there between the two sets of verses? In what way(s) are we to compare our relationship to earthly rulers with how we are to act in the presence of God? It seems that Solomon is suggesting that we would not be so foolish as to chatter boldly before imperfect but powerful government leaders about problems we encounter. If not, then why do we chatter incessantly before the all-powerful God?177 He is sovereign and is in complete control.

While we search for excellence in many areas of living, let us not forget to pursue it also in our worship by paying attention, paying our vows, and paying respect. It might be easy to conclude from this message that a Christian should pray silent and short prayers, should never make public commitments, and should cower in absolute fear of God. But to come to that conclusion would be to miss the whole point. Rather, what we should do is to be sincere when we speak, to think through our commitments before we make them, and to never lose our reverence and awe for God.


158 This passage seems to be an interlude in the book of Ecclesiastes. So far in the book, Solomon has been focused on the horizontal, but now he focuses in on the vertical. This chapter presents something of an interlude. Up to this point, Solomon has been merely giving his observations. But now he gives a series of exhortations. So far, he has only showed us the way the world IS. Now he tells us what we are to DO on the basis of how the world is. (1) Before worship (5:1a); (2) during worship (5:1b-3); and (3) after worship (5:4-9).

159 I first heard this quote from Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church in Ballard, WA.

160 The commands of Eccl 5:1 and that of 5:7 together form an inclusio around this section, emphasizing the point that God is God and we are not. Barry C. Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, Multnomah Biblical Seminary unpublished class notes.

161 See 1 Kgs 6:38 and 7:1.

162 This is an idiom for “be careful what you do.” The NET Study Notes write, “This is a compound figure: ‘foot’ is a metonymy for ‘step,’ and ‘step’ is a metonymy for ‘action’ (e.g., Job 12:5; 23:11; 31:5; Pss 119:59, 101, 105; Prov 1:16; 3:23; 4:26-27; 6:18; 19:2; Isa 58:13; 59:7; Jer 14:10).

163 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 108.

164 See Paul’s words in 1 Cor 6:19: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?” Cf. 1 Cor 3:16 and 2 Cor 6:16 where Paul speaks of the local church as God’s temple.

165 David Jeremiah, “Turning Point,” 1/18/2008.

166 David Jeremiah, “They Walked with Him: The Little Children,” Today’s Turning Point 2/9-10/2008.

167 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Ecclesiastes: Total Life (Chicago: Moody, 1979), 74. See Hos 14:2; Heb 13:15.

168 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 109.

169 Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge, 152-153.

170 Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.

171 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 74-75.

172 Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes. The content of 5:4 (Heb. 5:3) is similar in meaning and intent to that of Num 30:2 and Deut 23:21, as the following chart reveals:

Eccl. 5:4 (NASB) “When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it, for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow!” Num. 30:2 (NASB) “If a man makes a vow to the LORD, or takes an oath to bind himself with a binding obligation, he shall not violate his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” Deut. 23:21 (NASB) “When you make a vow to the LORD your God, you shall not delay to pay it, for it would be sin in you, and the LORD your God will surely require it of you.”

173 See the cases of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) and the Corinthian church (1 Cor 11:27-34).

174 See also Michael P. Andrus, “In Search of Excellence in Worship” (Eccl 5:1-7): unpublished sermon notes.

175 The phrase “fear God” also occurs in Eccl 3:14; 7:18; 8:12, 13; and 12:13.

176 Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes, writes, “The word translated by the NASB here as ‘denial’ (gazel) is consistently translated by the NASB as ‘robbery’ (or the like) in each of the five other occurrences of this noun in Scripture (Lev 6:2; Isa 61:8; Ezek. 18:18; Ezek 22:29; Ps 62:1). The verb form of this noun (gazel) is variously translated as ‘to seize,’ ‘to take by force,’ ‘to tear away,’ and ‘to rob.’ Thus, the word here translated as ‘denial’ should be understood to convey a sense of forcefulness with it. In other words, by using this noun, the author graphically portrays a situation in which “justice and righteousness” have been ripped away from people against their will.

177 Davis, The Book of Ecclesiastes.

 
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Posted by on March 16, 2021 in Ecclesiastes

 

Ecclesiastes: The Good Life #5 Life Just Isn’t Fair -Ecclesiastes 4


When Solomon first examined life “under the sun,” his viewpoint was detached and philosophical (1:4-11); his conclusion was that life was meaningless and monotonous. But when he examined the question again, he went to where people really lived and discovered that life was not that simple. As he observed real people in real situations, the king had to deal with some painful facts, like life and death, time and eternity, and the final judgment.

Phillips Brooks, Anglican Bishop of Massachusetts a century ago, told ministerial students to read three “books”: the Book of Books, the Bible; the book of nature; and the book of mankind. The ivory tower investigator will never have a balanced view of his subject if he remains in his ivory tower. Learning and living must be brought together.

In this chapter, Solomon recorded his observations from visiting four different places and watching several people go through a variety of experiences. His conclusion was that life is anything but monotonous, for we have no idea what problems may come to us on any given day. No wonder he wrote, “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth” (Prov. 27:1, nkjv).

On June 17, 1966, two men strode into the Lafayette Grill in Paterson, NJ and shot three people to death. Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, a celebrated boxer, and an acquaintance, were falsely charged and wrongly convicted of the murders in a highly publicized and racially charged trial. The fiercely outspoken boxer maintained his claim of innocence and became his own jailhouse lawyer. After serving nineteen years, Carter was released. Nevertheless, Carter lost the most productive years of his life, between the ages of twenty-nine and fifty. He was deprived of his career, his wife, and seeing his children grow up.109

This real-life account makes me angry. I hate injustice. I hate knowing that innocent men and women will go to prison. I hate knowing that 85% of convicted murderers will be released. I hate knowing that children are being forced into prostitution and slavery. I hate abortion. I hate knowing that women are being physically and verbally abused. I hate racism. I hate age discrimination. I hate death. Yet, tragically, our world is full of those things that you and I hate. Therefore, we need to talk about the unpopular topics of death, injustice, hopelessness, and judgment because they stare us in the face every day of our lives.

In Eccl 3:16-4:3,110 Solomon cries out for justice, yet his cry seems to fall on deaf ears. Therefore, he concludes life is harsh and then you die. Now you may be thinking, “Oh, great, another encouraging sermon from Pastor Bah Humbug! Maybe I should stop reading before I collapse in depression and pessimism.” I freely acknowledge that no pastor in his right mind would choose to preach this text. Yet, in this passage I actually find meaning and motivation to live life

1. Injustice should move us to humility (3:16-22).

In these seven verses, Solomon tells us that life’s injustices should break us and then shape us so that we are humble before God and others.111 In 3:16 he writes, “Furthermore, I have seen under the sun that in the place of justice there is wickedness and in the place of righteousness there is wickedness.” The word “furthermore” connects this passage with 3:1-15, where Solomon stated that God’s timing is everything. “Furthermore” also marks a change in emphasis, for now Solomon is going to air a few grievances. Solomon’s observations are rather discouraging. He declares that life “under the sun” is filled with “wickedness.” The “place of justice” refers to the law courts.112 However, there Solomon sees injustice and oppression where the rights of the poor ought to be protected. Instead, the innocent are declared guilty and the guilty innocent. This is an application of Murphy’s Law: Although we may long for justice and righteousness, we inevitably end up with wickedness instead.

This hard truth is important for us to come to grips with. Sometimes bad guys win and good guys suffer. Johnny Christian doesn’t always score the touchdown and Paul Pagan doesn’t always fumble the ball. That’s a fact. Do you have a problem with that? Would you rather have a “perfect” universe? Wouldn’t it be great if, after a driver ran you off the road, his car would break down five minutes later? Or if someone cheated you in business, he would go bankrupt the next month? Or if someone got angry and yelled at you, her teeth would fall out that night? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? It certainly would be from a fleshly perspective, but unfortunately you’d have to live in that same “perfect” universe. So if you gossiped about someone, your tongue would turn green. Every time you lusted after another person, more of your hair would fall out. Every time you spent money on something you didn’t need to, the food in your refrigerator would rot overnight. Would you want to live in a world like that? None of us want that kind of instant justice from God. Yet, God’s patience with sin is an incredible blessing. If God was not so patient all of us would come under His immediate judgment.113 We would be wiped out in the blink of an eye. Fortunately, God grants us His mercy and grace. This should lead us to want to be more merciful and gracious with others, to have compassion for those who are in the grips of sin and under the influence of the curse. If these reminders don’t work, then remind yourself that life is harsh and then you die.

While wickedness seems to have run the score up on righteousness 105-0, ultimately, God gets His due because He is in control of the affairs of men. In 3:17 Solomon writes, “I said to myself, ‘God will judge both the righteous man and the wicked man,’ for a time for every matter and for every deed is there” (The word “there” is shorthand for God’s eternal judgment.114) Solomon informs us that God will judge. Sometimes He judges people in this life; sometimes He does not. But payday is coming someday! Wrong will not go unpunished, and right will not go unrewarded, forever. In the end, Jesus Christ will judge all people. Psalm 37:12-13 tells us, “The wicked plot against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them; but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for He knows their day is coming” (NIV). God gets the last laugh. While we may not see it in time, justice will be carried out in eternity.

Unfortunately, that is not always very satisfying. We hate it when someone “gets away with it.” Solomon tells us that in truth, nobody gets away with it. Paul Harvey illustrated this point when he told about a man named Gary Tindle who was charged with robbery. While standing in the California courtroom of Judge Armando Rodriguez, Tindle asked permission to go to the bathroom. He was escorted upstairs to the bathroom and the door was guarded while he was inside. But Tindle, determined to escape, climbed up the plumbing, opened a panel on the ceiling, and started slithering through the crawl space, heading south. He had traveled some thirty feet when the ceiling panels broke under him, and he dropped to the floor—right back in Judge Rodriguez’s courtroom! When the guilty seem to have escaped judgment, it’s only for a short moment and a short crawl. They will find themselves before the Judge once again in time. Sooner or later, the wheels of God righteousness will right every wrong, balance every scale, and correct every injustice in the world.115

Turning his eyes back toward earth, Solomon imparts a principle: Injustice reminds us that we are mortal. In 3:18-20 he writes, “I said to myself concerning the sons of men, ‘God has surely tested them in order for them to see that they are but beasts.’ For the fate of the sons of men and the fate of beasts is the same. As one dies so dies the other; indeed, they all have the same breath and there is no advantage for man over beast, for all is vanity. All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust.” As you can imagine, these verses have been used to support the evolutionary theory. While some of us may think, look, and act like monkeys, that is not the point of these verses. Solomon is not making a blanket comparison between humans and animals. He is merely saying that we both die.116 A better translation of the word “tested” is “make clear.”117 The point is that God allows human injustice to exist in the world in order to make it clear to us that we are just like animals in the sense that we are going to die. Life is harsh and then you die.

When I was growing up, I had a soft spot for animals. My whole family has always loved animals. In fact, the year I was born, my dad was voted the best amateur nature photographer in the world.118 Consequently, I could never get myself to hunt and kill any animal. Now, don’t get me wrong or call me late for dinner; I am glad to eat the meat of hunters, I just don’t want to be the one to pull the trigger. Believe it or not, while I was growing up I also had a soft spot for insects. I found it hard to kill bugs with my bare hands and feet, so I just sucked them up with our vacuum cleaner. I recognize that I am walking contradiction: I am particularly fond of football, boxing, and mixed marital arts, yet I don’t want to kill any insects. Go figure! But I will tell you this: Today, whenever I accidentally squish an insect, I can’t help but think that my life is every bit as fragile. Life is harsh and then you die.

In 3:21 Solomon postulates, “Who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth?” Solomon here considers this question empirically, with only his senses and his three-pound brain to guide him. And with the brute facts before him and us, we can’t prove a thing. At best, it is a guess. If we are only to consider what we can see, taste, touch, hear, and smell, your guess is as good as mine. From Solomon’s perspective, maybe all dogs do go to heaven and all people go to be meat on a shishkabob. Who knows? Everyone has their own guess when left to their own finite brains.119

The point of 3:21 is this: Most of us behave as though we had endless time and close our eyes to the fact of death. God wants us to face that fact (3:18). Even in our Christian service of God there may be the underlying idea that there is still plenty of time tomorrow, and what we fail to do here can be made up in our service in paradise. So Solomon challenges those who live as though they are immortal and are never to be accountable to God (3:16-17).120

So “who knows that the breath of man ascends upward and the breath of the beast descends downward to the earth?” Who can know the truth about the resurrection? The answer is “No one can!” No one can “under heaven” or “under the sun.” So who knows? GOD KNOWS…So the question then becomes: do you know the one who knows? Today, the God of heaven and earth offers you a relationship with Himself through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. If you desire such a relationship, trust in Christ as your Savior from sin.

Just to summarize: You may be successful, powerful, wealthy, talented, and personable, and when all is said and done, you’re going to die just like Bootsie the dog or Gilbert the hamster—whatever pet your kids talked you into that you currently regret. Okay, so who cares what you do, because in the end there’s no difference between you and the animal. You both die. Remember, life is harsh and then you die.

Fortunately, in the closing verse of chapter 3, Solomon encourages us to enjoy life in spite of the world’s injustice. He observes, “I have seen that nothing is better than that man should be happy in his activities, for that is his lot. For who will bring him to see what will occur after him [his death]?” (3:22) I love this verse. I’ve checked the Hebrew word “happy” in several lexicons. I’ve considered its Aramaic cognate and I’ve discovered that “happy” literally means “happy.” God wants us to be happy in the midst of this miserable life. The word “lot” or “portion” conveys the sense of the limitations of life. The portion is like an inherited plot of land that one has to work. Toil is inevitable, it is part of the heritage of your portion, but from that very same lot you may find enjoyment.121 Your lot in life may be a small family, a small-fry job, and a small-time neighborhood, yet when you are gone there is no portion to enjoy. So you need to enjoy your life NOW, despite its injustices and trials.

In 2004, The Nation magazine profiled an Alabama woman who works as a nursing assistant at a nursing home for $700 a month. She works the night shift, emptying bedpans, tending the bedridden, mopping floors, and doing other tasks beyond her job description because the place is understaffed. She can’t afford a car, so she pays someone else to drive her thirteen miles to work. If that person doesn’t show up, she walks. Better to walk than to call in sick and probably lose her job, she says. She lives alone with her three children in a shack. There is no phone. The toilet is in the floor. The heater is broken. But she likes her work. She likes to make the residents smile.122

This story convicts me. It breaks me and humbles me to dust! It motivates me to ensure that I enjoy my life. After all, I have nothing to complain about.

  • What is your unjust disadvantage? Don’t answer with a list of petty irritations, but think in terms of major handicaps in your life that you feel have been inflicted upon you unfairly.
  • When do you plan to replace passive self-pity with active courage? If you have not already begun to turn from a destructive, woe-is-me attitude, to a constructive, enjoy-life now posture, then start today. The Lord will give you the power to make the change, but you must avail yourself of it through prayer and action.
  • Have you ever considered the impact your distinctive message could have on the world around you? The Lord can use your disadvantage—be it physical, emotional, mental, financial, or anything else—to positively impact the lives of others. The only thing that stands in the way is your attitude. Will you change it today?123

[Solomon has informed us that injustice should move us to humility. Now, in 4:1-3, he gives us another one of his favorite buckets of cold water…oppression.]

2. Oppression should move us to action (4:1-3).

(Ecclesiastes 4:1-3 NIV)  “Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed– and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors– and they have no comforter. {2} And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. {3} But better than both is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.”

Men and women are oppressed in every area of life: business, marriage, family, relationships, and church. Wherever there is power, there is the potential and likelihood that it will be abused. In 4:1-3 Solomon observes, “Then I looked again at all the acts of oppression which were being done under the sun. And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors was power, but they had no one to comfort them. So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living. But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.” These three verses are depressing. Nevertheless, we must recognize that Solomon is using hyperbole (i.e., a deliberate exaggeration) to shake us to the core of our being. He uses forms of the word “oppressed” three times in three verses. He is deeply grieved by what he observes. This is the reason for his extreme language. These verses are not a call to suicide or abortion. They are simply the journal of a man expressing pain and devastation over all of the oppression in the world. Life is harsh and then you die. These words reverberate through my mind and soul.

Many of us as Americans have no idea of what it really means to be oppressed. We can be sure though, that in other parts of the world many know all too well what Solomon is talking about. Nowhere is heartbreaking oppression more evident than in the communist nation of North Korea. An estimated 100,000 Christians are being imprisoned and tortured at the hands of the ruthless Kim Jung II.124 There are 400,000 Christians in North Korea and one out of four are prison camps. This is brutal!

This past Monday, we celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Lori and I spent some time explaining to our kids who Dr. King was and why he was murdered. After sharing his life with our children, I was filled with frustration over the unrighteousness of mankind. To think that Americans have oppressed people over skin color is one of the most asinine things I have ever heard. It is an atrocity! What is worse is that many Christians were and are guilty of prejudicial behavior. Into the late 1960s, some Bible colleges and seminaries would not allow African-Americans to attend their schools. Today, various African-Americans are some of the greatest preachers on this planet.

Not only is there persecution and racism, there is also poverty. The Anchor Bible Dictionary catalogs six categories of the poor in the Old Testament and counts the number of references for each:

  • Peasant farmers, mentioned forty-eight times
  • Beggars, mentioned sixty-one times
  • The “lazy poor,” cited thirteen times, mostly in the book of Proverbs
  • Low-income laborers, mentioned twenty-two times
  • The politically exploited and oppressed, mentioned eighty times, the most in the Old Testament.125

In our country, 35% of individuals make less than $25,000. This is also true for 28% of households.126 Many people work for a low wage and no benefits. And many of these people aren’t lazy. They are just working jobs that do not pay well. They may also have recovered from some difficult circumstances along the way. There are many recovering alcoholics, drug addicts, prisoners, abuse victims, etc. Many of these people are trying to start over; however, it is not an easy road.

The above realities can prove to be overwhelming. Our temptation is to say, “Where do we even start?” It seems like we can’t make a dent into these oppressive problems. Indeed, it certainly does seem that way, doesn’t it? Even so, we are not responsible to do away with all the oppression of the world—only God can do that. We are merely responsible to do our little part.

One of my favorite cartoons shows two turtles in the midst of a conversation. One says, “Sometimes I’d like to ask God why He allows poverty, famine, and injustice when He could do something about it.” The other turtle says, “I’m afraid God might ask me the same question.”127

Ten years ago, a friend of mine and a former Green Beret gave me his beret pin, which in Latin reads:

De Oppresso Liber. This phrase means, “To free the oppressed.” Since he gave me this pin, I have kept it in my office to the left of my computer. I want to be reminded of the responsibility I bear.

Yes, we live in a world of injustice and oppression. Maybe you have been a victim of some form of abuse. Perhaps you were raped, molested, or fired from your job. Some of greatest movements have come from those who were cheated or treated unfairly. Candy Lightner founded MADD in 1980 after her daughter, Cari, was killed by a repeat drunk driving offender. Cindy Lamb whose daughter, Laura, became the nation’s youngest quadriplegic at the hands of a drunk driver soon joined Candy in her crusade to save lives. Consequently, thousands of lives have been saved.128 John Walsh and his wife, Revé, suffered the most horrendous loss that any parents could endure: the abduction and murder of their beautiful six-year-old son, Adam. Since that day in 1981, the founder of Americas Most Wanted has dedicated himself to fighting on behalf of children and all crime victims. As a result, thousands of victims have found justice, and dozens of abducted children have been safely brought home.129

You can make a difference in at least one person’s life. You can have a testimony, a ministry, an influence, and an impact. One of our church’s mission strategies is to “lead the world.” We do that by loving one lost person at a time toward Christ. Will you allow the injustices of this world to move you to action? Will you say, “Enough is enough! I want to make a difference in one person’s life?”

In the movie The Last Emperor, the young child anointed as the last emperor of China lives a life of luxury with 1,000 servants at his command. “What happens when you do wrong?” his brother asks. “When I do wrong, someone else is punished,” the boy emperor replies. To demonstrate, he breaks a jar, and one of the servants is beaten. In Christianity, Jesus reversed that ancient pattern: when the servants erred, the King was punished.130

In the courtroom (ECCL. 4:1-3)

“Politics” has been defined as “the conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” The nation of Israel had an adequate judicial system (Ex. 18:13-27; Deut. 17; 19), based on divine Law; but the system could be corrupted just like anything else (5:8). Moses warned officials to judge honestly and fairly (Lev. 19:15; Deut. 1:17), and both the prophet and the psalmist lashed out against social injustice (Ps. 82; Isa. 56:1; 59:1ff; Amos 1-2). Solomon had been a wise and just king (1 Kings 3:16-28), but it was impossible for him to guarantee the integrity of every officer in his government.

Solomon went into a courtroom to watch a trial, and there he saw innocent people being oppressed by power-hungry officials. The victims wept, but their tears did no good. Nobody stood with them to comfort or assist them. The oppressors had all the power and their victims were helpless to protest or ask for redress.

The American orator Daniel Webster once called justice “the ligament which holds civilized beings and … nations together.” The “body politic” in Solomon’s day had many a torn ligament!

The king witnessed three tragedies: (1) oppression and exploitation in the halls of justice; (2) pain and sorrow in the lives of innocent people; and (3) unconcern on the part of those who could have brought comfort. So devastated was Solomon by what he saw that he decided it was better to be dead than to be alive and oppressed. In fact, one was better off if never having been born at all. Then one would never have to see the evil works of sinful man.

Why didn’t Solomon do something about this injustice? After all, he was the king. Alas, even the king couldn’t do a great deal to solve the problem. For once Solomon started to interfere with his government and reorganize things, he would only create new problems and reveal more corruption. This is not to suggest that we today should despair of cleaning out political corruption. As Christian citizens, we must pray for all in authority (1 Tim. 2:1-6) and do what we can to see that just laws are passed and fairly enforced. But it’s doubtful that a huge administrative body like the one in Israel would ever be free of corruption, or that a “crusader” could improve the situation.

Edward Gibbon, celebrated author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, said that political corruption was “the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty.” Perhaps he was right; for where there is freedom to obey, there is also freedom to disobey. Some of Solomon’s officials decided they were above the law, and the innocent suffered.

  1. In the marketplace (ECCL. 4:4-8)

(Ecclesiastes 4:4-8 NIV)  “And I saw that all labor and all achievement spring from man’s envy of his neighbor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. {5} The fool folds his hands and ruins himself. {6} Better one handful with tranquillity than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind. {7} Again I saw something meaningless under the sun: {8} There was a man all alone; he had neither son nor brother. There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. “For whom am I toiling,” he asked, “and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?” This too is meaningless– a miserable business!”

Disgusted with what he saw in the “halls of justice,” the king went down to the marketplace to watch the various laborers at work. Surely he would not be disappointed there, for honest toil is a gift from God. Even Adam had work to do in the Garden (Gen. 2:15), and our Lord was a carpenter when He was here on earth (Mark 6:3). Solomon considered four different kinds of men.

The industrious man (v. 4).

It was natural for Solomon first to find a laborer who was working hard. For, after all, had not the king extolled the virtues of hard work in the Book of Proverbs? The man was not only busy, but he was skillful in his work and competent in all he did. He had mastered the techniques of his trade.

So much for the worker’s hands; what about his heart? It was here that Solomon had his next disappointment. The only reason these people perfected their skills and worked hard at their jobs was to compete with others and make more money than their neighbors. The purpose of their work was not to produce beautiful or useful products, or to help people, but to stay ahead of the competition and survive in the battle for bread.

God did not put this “selfishness factor” into human labor; it’s the result of sin in the human heart. We covet what others have; we not only want to have those things, but we want to go beyond and have even more. Covetousness, competition, and envy often go together. Competition is not sinful of itself, but when “being first” is more important than being honest, there will be trouble. Traditional rivalry between teams or schools can be a helpful thing, but when rivalry turns into riots, sin has entered the scene.

The idle man (vv. 5-6).

Solomon moved from one extreme to the other and began to study a man who had no ambition at all. Perhaps the king could learn about life by examining the antithesis, the way scientists study cold to better understand heat. It must have been difficult for him to watch an idle man, because Solomon had no sympathy for lazy people who sat all day with folded hands and did nothing. (See Prov. 18:9, 19:15, 24:30-34.)

Solomon learned nothing he didn’t already know: laziness is a slow comfortable path toward self-destruction. It may be pleasant to sleep late every morning and not have to go to work, but it’s unpleasant not to have money to buy the necessities of life. “‘Let me sleep a little longer!’ Sure, just a little more! And as you sleep, poverty creeps upon you like a robber and destroys you; want attacks you in full armor” (Prov. 6:10-11, tlb). Paul stated it bluntly: “If any would not work, neither should he eat” (2 Thes. 3:10).

The industrious man was motivated by competition and caught in the rat race of life. He had no leisure time. The idle man was motivated by pleasure and was headed for ruin. He had no productive time. Is there no middle way between these two extremes? Yes, there is.

The integrated man (v. 6).

Here was a man whose life was balanced: he was productive in his work, but he was also careful to take time for quietness. He did not run in the rat race, but neither did he try to run away from the normal responsibilities of life. A 1989 Harris survey revealed that the amount of leisure time enjoyed by the average American had shrunk 37 percent from 1973. This suggests that fewer people know how to keep life in balance. They are caught in the rat race and don’t know how to escape.

Why have both hands full of profit if that profit costs you your peace of mind and possibly your health? Better to have gain in one hand and quietness in the other. When a heart is controlled by envy and rivalry, life becomes one battle after another (James 3:13-4:4, and see Prov. 15:16). Paul’s instructions about money in 1 Timothy 6 is applicable here, especially verse 6, “But godliness with contentment is great gain.”

The industrious man thinks that money will bring him peace, but he has no time to enjoy it. The idle man thinks that doing nothing will bring him peace, but his life-style only destroys him. The integrated man enjoys both his labor and the fruit of his labor and balances toil with rest. You can take what you want from life, but you must pay for it.

The independent man (vv. 7-8).

Then Solomon noticed a solitary man, very hard at work, so he went to question him. The king discovered that the man had no relatives or partners to help him in his business, nor did he desire any help. He wanted all the profit for himself. But he was so busy, he had no time to enjoy his profits. And, if he died, he had no family to inherit his wealth. In other words, all his labor was in vain.

The Greek philosopher Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” But the independent man never stopped long enough to ask himself: “For whom am I working so hard? Why am I robbing myself of the enjoyments of life just to amass more and more money?” The industrious man was at least providing employment for people, and the idle man was enjoying some leisure, but the independent man was helping neither the economy nor himself.

Solomon’s conclusion was, “This too is meaningless—a miserable business!” (v. 8, niv) God wants us to labor, but to labor in the right spirit and for the right reasons. Blessed are the balanced!

  1. On the highway (ECCL. 4:9-12)

(Ecclesiastes 4:9-12 NIV)  “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: {10} If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up! {11} Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? {12} Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.”

Solomon’s experience with the independent man caused him to consider the importance of friendship and the value of people doing things together. He may have recalled the Jewish proverb, “A friendless man is like a left hand bereft of the right.” Perhaps he watched some pilgrims on the highway and drew the conclusion, “Two are better than one.”

Two are certainly better than one when it comes to working (v. 9) because two workers can get more done. Even when they divide the profits, they still get a better return for their efforts than if they had worked alone. Also, it’s much easier to do difficult jobs together because one can be an encouragement to the other.

Two are better when it comes to walking (v. 10). Roads and paths in Palestine were not paved or even leveled, and there were many hidden rocks in the fields. It was not uncommon for even the most experienced traveler to stumble and fall, perhaps break a bone, or even fall into a hidden pit (Ex. 21:33-34). How wonderful to have a friend who can help you up (or out). But if this applies to our physical falls, how much more does it apply to those times when we stumble in our spiritual walk and need restoration (Gal. 6:1-2)? How grateful we should be for Christian friends who help us walk straight.

Two are better than one when it comes to warmth (v. 11). Two travelers camping out, or even staying in the courtyard of a public inn, would feel the cold of the Palestinian night and need one another’s warmth for comfort. The only way to be “warm alone” is to carry extra blankets and add to your load.

Finally, two are better than one when it comes to their watchcare, especially at night (v. 12). “Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves” (v. 12, niv). It was dangerous for anyone to travel alone, day or night; most people traveled in groups for fellowship and for safety. Even David was grateful for a friend who stepped in and saved the king’s life (2 Sam. 21:15-17).

Solomon started with the number one (v. 8), then moved to two (v. 9), and then closed with three (v. 12). This is typical of Hebrew literature (Prov. 6:16; Amos 1:3, 6, 9, etc.). One cord could be broken easily; two cords would require more strength; but three cords woven together could not be easily broken. If two travelers are better than one, then three would fare even better. Solomon had more than numbers in mind; he was also thinking of the unity involved in three cords woven together—what a beautiful picture of friendship!

  1. In the palace (ECCL. 4:13-16)

(Ecclesiastes 4:13-16 NIV)  “Better a poor but wise youth than an old but foolish king who no longer knows how to take warning. {14} The youth may have come from prison to the kingship, or he may have been born in poverty within his kingdom. {15} I saw that all who lived and walked under the sun followed the youth, the king’s successor. {16} There was no end to all the people who were before them. But those who came later were not pleased with the successor. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”

This is Solomon’s fourth “better” statement (4:3, 6, 9), introducing a story that teaches two truths: the instability of political power and the fickleness of popularity. The king in the story had at one time heeded his counselors’ advice and ruled wisely, but when he got old, he refused to listen to them. The problem was more than pride and senility. He was probably surrounded by a collection of “parasites” who flattered him, isolated him from reality, and took from him all they could get. This often happens to weak leaders who are more concerned about themselves than about their people.

There is a hero in the story, a wise youth who is in prison. Perhaps he was there because he tried to help the king and the king resented it. Or maybe somebody in the court lied about the youth. (That’s what happened to Joseph. See Gen. 39.) At any rate, the youth got out of prison and became king. Everybody cheered the underdog and rejoiced that the nation at last had wise leadership.

Consider now what this story says. The young man was born poor, but he became rich. The old king was rich but it didn’t make him any wiser, so he might just as well have been poor. The young man was in prison, but he got out and took the throne. The old king was imprisoned in his stupidity (and within his circle of sycophants) and lost his throne. So far, the moral of the story is: Wealth and position are no guarantee of success, and poverty and seeming failure are no barriers to achievement. The key is wisdom.

But the story goes on. Apparently the young man got out of prison and took the throne because of popular demand. “I have seen all the living under the sun throng to the side of the second lad who replaces him” [the old king] (v. 15, nasb). It looked like the new young king had it made, but alas, his popularity didn’t last. “He can become the leader of millions of people, and be very popular. But, then, the younger generation grows up around him and rejects him!” (v. 16, tlb) The new crowd deposed the king and appointed somebody else.

Oliver Cromwell, who took the British throne away from Charles I and established the Commonwealth, said to a friend, “Do not trust to the cheering, for those persons would shout as much if you and I were going to be hanged.” Cromwell understood crowd psychology!

Once again, Solomon drew the same conclusion: it is all “vanity and vexation of spirit” (see vv. 4 and 8).

No matter where Solomon went, no matter what aspect of life he studied, he learned an important lesson from the Lord. When he looked up, he saw that God was in control of life and balanced its varied experiences (3:1-8). When he looked within, he saw that man was made for eternity and that God would make all things beautiful in their time (3:9-14). When he looked ahead, he saw the last enemy, death. Then as he looked around (4:1-16), he understood that life is complex, difficult, and not easy to explain. One thing is sure: No matter where you look, you see trials and problems and people who could use some encouragement.

However, Solomon was not cynical about life. Nowhere does he tell us to get out of the race and retreat to some safe and comfortable corner of the world where nothing can bother us. Life does not stand still. Life comes at us full speed, without warning, and we must stand up and take it and, with God’s help, make the most of it.

If this chapter teaches us anything, it is that we need one another because “two are better than one.” Yes, there are some advantages to an independent life, but there are also disadvantages, and we discover them painfully as we get older.

The chapter also emphasizes balance in life. “Better is a handful with quietness than both hands full, together with toil and grasping for the wind” (v. 6, nkjv). It’s good to have the things that money can buy, provided you don’t lose the things that money can’t buy. What is it really costing you in terms of life to get the things that are important to you? How much of the permanent are you sacrificing to get your hands on the temporary?

Or, to quote the words of Jesus: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8:36-37).

Alone at the Top (Ecclesiastes 4:4-16)

Karoshi is a Japanese word which means “death from overwork.” The syndrome is now so common in Japan that it claims as many as 30,000 victims each year. Its increase has caused such concern that since 1990, the Japanese government has been forced to provide restitution to karoshi widows.132 As Americans, we hear this and we think to ourselves, “That’s crazy! What are these poor people thinking?” Yet, all the while many of us are working ourselves to death, either literally or figuratively. The question is, “Why?” What is driving us to work so hard and so long? Our natural temptation may be to claim, “I work hard and long to glorify God.” This may be true, but I would suggest for most of us it is only partially true. If the truth be known, many of us are working hard to climb the corporate ladder, to impress our boss, to meet our own expectations, and to make more money. However, working long and hard for these reasons can lead to bitter disappointment and possibly even a premature death. If you don’t believe me, just ask the Japanese people.

Fortunately, Solomon has a solution for us. In Eccl 4:4-16, he encourages us to work smarter not harder and longer. How do we work smarter not harder? We work smarter not harder by making three specific choices.

1. Choose contentment over achievement (4:4-6).

When I was growing, up my dad would always tell me, “Moderation in everything.” Solomon imparts this same truth in these first three verses. He discusses the workaholic, the lazy sluggard, and then strikes the biblical balance between these two extremes. In 4:4 he writes, “I have seen that every labor and every skill133 which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. This too is vanity and striving after wind.”134Solomon once again observes life. He is a student of human nature and activity. In his “people watching,” Solomon discovers that people compete with one another in everything. The twofold use of the word “every” undoubtedly means every type of labor and achievement rather than every individual instance of these things. The point is: much achievement is the result of a desire to be superior over others. We live in a constant state of competition. Research indicates that nine out of ten office workers suffer from “professional envy” of colleagues they perceive to have more glamorous or better paid jobs.135 What drives many people is to climb the corporate ladder and outdo others.

This quest to get ahead is also true in other areas of our lives. We want to be more successful than our neighbors and friends. The clothes that you’re wearing right now, you’re not wearing because you needed them but because you wanted others to see you in them. You didn’t purchase that new car because you needed a car; you purchased that car because you wanted to be seen in that vehicle. Solomon is saying that we all want to be noticed and we want to be the focus of attention. Therefore, we envy one another and compete with one another. Whether we care to admit it or not rivalry is a driving force in all of us.

Some of us realize the evils of envy and rivalry and determine that we will be different. We don’t want to be the kind of people who step on everyone else on our climb to the top so we drop out of any competitive endeavor. Yet, this is a dangerous extreme as well.136 In 4:5, Solomon shares a proverb:137“The fool folds his hands and consumes [lit. “eats”] his own flesh.” The language of this verse means lazy people eventually make cannibals of themselves.138 They will kill themselves with starvation. Of course, Solomon is being sarcastic and he is using hyperbole. He mocks the lazy! Since they do not raise any crops, they must eat their own flesh.139

In the 1960s, one generation got sick of the affluence of the 1950s. So this group bailed out and claimed the title of “flower children.” Everybody gave up ambition and the drive for financial success. They let their hair grow long, quit bathing, and just sat on the grass and hummed.140 Obviously, this is not the way to accomplish God’s purposes in the world. I would dare say this is sheer laziness and foolishness.

Reflecting on foolishness, please give careful attention to the word “fool” in 4:5. When we read the word “fool” in the Bible, it is natural to assume that the term means “idiot” or “buffoon.” After all, this is what our English word “fool” means. Yet, the biblical meaning of this word means something far worse. A fool is someone who denies God, scoffs at wisdom, and laughs at eternity. Foolishness is a theological stance, a show of contempt for God’s laws.141

God intends for mankind to work, particularly the church. This is why our church emphasizes the importance of a godly work ethic. We believe that everyone who is physically, mentally, and emotionally able should work. Paul said it best when he wrote to the church at Thessalonica, “If anyone will not work, neither let him eat” (2 Thess 3:10). Elsewhere, Paul said, “Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for the Lord rather than for men” (Col 3:23). The Bible is clear that we are to represent Christ in our work.

One day a mother walked in on her six-year-old son and found him sobbing. What’s the matter?” she asks. The boy replied, “I’ve just figured out how to tie my shoes.” “Well, honey, that’s wonderful. You’re growing up, but why are you crying?” “Because,” he says, “Now I’ll have to do it every day for the rest of my life.”142 Maybe you feel like this six-year-old boy. You’re a stay-at-home mom and you’ve recognized that you’re going to be doing the same tasks for what may seem the rest of your life. Perhaps you work a monotonous job, day in and day out, and it kills you to know that you may be working this job for the rest of your life. God wants you to know that there is glory in the grind. Shrug off laziness. Work like today is your last day of work, for it just might be. Work smarter not harder.

Solomon now strikes a balance between workaholism and laziness. His solution in 4:6 is: “One hand full of rest is better than two fists full of labor and striving after wind.” At first glance, it seems 4:6 contradicts 4:5; however, we must recognize that 4:6 like 4:5 is a proverb.143 The comparison is between anything with rest and anything with work.144 This is not an argument in favor of laziness but a call for balanced living.145 Blessed are the balanced! The wise person realizes that some things matter more than other things, that your career is not the measure of your self-worth, that having more money can’t replace the joy of spending time with people you love. Contentment means that you have everything you need right now. If you needed more, God would give it to you.146 Solomon is saying, “Rather than grasping for so much that you have to be a workaholic to get it, be content with less. It is better to have less and enjoy it more.” Our problem is not the high cost of living; it is the cost of high living. We want far too much. The cure is contentment, being willing to settle for less materially if it means we can have some “rest.”

A new store opened at Minnesota’s Mall of America, called MinneNAPolis. It rents comfy spots where weary shoppers can take naps for seventy cents a minute. The new store includes themed rooms such as Asian Mist, Tropical Isle, and Deep Space, and the walls are thick enough to drown out the sounds of squealing children outside. The company’s website says, “Escape the pressures of the real world into the pleasures of an ideal one.” Some guests will want to listen to music, put their feet up, watch the water trickling in the beautiful stone waterfall, breathe in the positive-ionization-filtered air, enjoy the full-body massager, and just take an enjoyable escape from the fast-paced lifestyle.147

Do you ever get tired of running in the rat race where only the rats win? A sign by the roadside carried this message: “I’m getting sick of the rat race. The rats keep getting bigger and faster.” How much more could we enjoy life if we were content with what the Lord has given us? How many families would cease to be divided and destroyed if parents stopped breaking their necks to give their kids a better life than they had? Let me close this section by giving you 4:6 in the Keith Krell Translation: “Rather than putting two hands in for eighty hours a week, why don’t you put in forty hours with one hand and with the other eat some bubble gum ice cream?”148 Work smarter not harder.

[Not only must we choose contentment over achievement, we must also…]

2. Choose relationships over riches (4:7-12).

These verses remind us that people should be our priority. If you are too busy for the people in your life that matter most, you are too busy. In 4:7-8 Solomon writes, “Then I looked again at vanity under the sun. There was a certain man without a dependent, having neither a son nor a brother, yet there was no end to all his labor. Indeed, his eyes were not satisfied with riches and he never asked, ‘And for whom am I laboring and depriving myself of pleasure?’ This too is vanity and it is a grievous task.” Do you know anyone like this? Of course you do! With that person in mind, I’d like to describe this person. This man believes in the value of hard work and the inherent dignity of a job well done. He’s probably married and has at least three children whose picture he carries in his wallet. He loves his wife and thinks about her more than she knows. It’s true he works long hours—often he’s gone by six in the morning and doesn’t come home until after seven at night. The pressures at work are so enormous that it takes him an hour or two to unwind, so he doesn’t spend much time talking in the evening. He’s so tired that it’s all he can do to read the paper, watch a little television, and then go wearily to bed. His blood pressure is too high, he knows he needs to exercise, his diet isn’t the best, and sometimes he’s irritable and snaps at his family—and regrets it later. It’s true that he works seventy hours a week, but he doesn’t think of himself as a workaholic. He simply loves his job—and he’s good at it. And thankfully, he is able to bring home a nice paycheck and provide good things for his family. One of these days he plans to slow down and smell the coffee—but not today. He gulps his coffee and heads for the door before his family knows he’s gone. One evening he comes home and his family is not there. While he was at work, the kids grew up, his wife went back to college and found a career of her own, his children moved out, and now the house is empty. He can’t believe it. The Board of Directors just named him CEO. Now there’s no one to share the good news with. He made it to the top—alone.149

Even if you are not a successful, high-powered CEO, you can probably relate to this man. It is so easy to become consumed with work. We all tend to suffer from the hurry syndrome. We are busy people…so busy that sometimes we miss the significant people right in front of us. How many mothers and fathers have shortchanged their children for $10,000 or $20,000 extra a year? How many young consultants make great money but don’t have friends because they travel every week? How many wealthy people have accumulated huge nest eggs but no friends?150 Do you have anyone to enjoy life with? Are you taking the time to smell the coffee? Are you truly enjoying your children? Do you have any trusted friends?

The need to have someone to enjoy life with prompts Solomon to touch on friendship and community. In 4:9-12, he lists several benefits of friendship.

  • Friends bring about good results in labor (4:9). Solomon writes, “Two are better than one because they have a good return for their labor.” Relationships grow out of shared work whether it is yard work, mission trips, service projects, or local church ministry. Two human souls combine their strength, creativity, talent, and ambition. There is something special about working together with at least one other person. There is a bond that takes place when people work or serve together. Who are you currently working with or serving with? Work smarter not harder.
  • Friends pick up one another in trouble (4:10). Solomon writes, “For if either of them falls, the one will lift up his companion. But woe to the one who falls when there is not another to lift him up.” America is the land of the lonely. We cultivate loneliness in our culture. We take pride in being independent and alone. We even have a Declaration of Independence. Men especially are raised with this sort of macho attitude. Yet, even men need other men. This is why I meet with two weekly men’s groups. In these two groups we have learned a number of truths about community: (1) relationships are valuable, (2) we need to trust one another, (3) real men share their feelings, (4) real men need accountability, and (5) real men need to learn from one another. Who are you currently encouraging and investing in? Work smarter not harder.
  • Friends warm one another in a cold world (4:11). Solomon writes, “Furthermore, if two lie down together they keep warm, but how can one be warm alone?” If you are married, does your spouse have cold feet? My wife, Lori, has polar feet. One of my most difficult acts of service is to allow her to warm her feet on me. This is sheer unconditional agape love on my part. Of course, you may not be the sacrificial servant that I am, so you adjust the temperature on your waterbed or electric blanket. However, in Solomon’s time, cold was a much more serious issue. When forced to sleep in the open, or even in a tent, the more bodies that huddled together, the warmer all would be. So Solomon says that two are better than one in staying warm.151 Take two coals, heat them up and then separate them and what happens. Their heat will be extinguished. They cannot generate sufficient heat when they are alone. That is why it is so important for the church to meet together. We come together to create a bonfire of fellowship that we might set one another aflame with a zeal for serving the Lord. So who are you currently showing Christian love to? Work smarter not harder.
  • Friends hold up one another in adversity (4:12). Solomon closes his thoughts in this section with these words: “And if one can overpower him who is alone, two can resist him. A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart.” We need other people to give us strength in the midst of persecution and hardship. “A cord of three strands is not quickly torn apart” was a proverbial way of saying “there is strength in numbers.”152 We all face trials and tests of our faith. If you have no one to walk through these dark times with you, life will seem utterly impossible. Again, this is why involvement in a local church is so important. Are you currently bearing someone else’s burdens? Work smarter not harder.

[We must choose contentment over achievement and relationships over riches. Solomon now concludes by urging us to…]

3. Choose influence over popularity (4:13-16).

In this four verse parable, Solomon reminds us that popularity is fleeting; therefore, we are better to choose influence over popularity. The story goes like this: “A poor yet wise lad is better than an old and foolish king who no longer knows how to receive instruction. For he has come out of prison to become king, even though he was born poor in his kingdom. I have seen all the living under the sun throng to the side of the second lad who replaces him. There is no end to all the people, to all who were before them, and even the ones who will come later will not be happy with him, for this too is vanity and striving after wind” (4:13-16). What is in view in this parable is a succession of kings, none of whom fully satisfies the populace. The point is that even though a young man may rise from the bottom of society to the top, not everyone will accept or appreciate him. Therefore, since it is impossible to achieve full acceptance it is foolish to spend one’s life seeking advancement and popularity. It is better to stay poor and wise. From this unimpressive position, it may be possible to influence more people than you ever thought possible. Influence must always trump popularity because popularity is temporal.

If we are honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge that life at the top is fleeting. Our attention span is short, our memories nonexistent, and our only question is, “What have you done for me lately?” Presidents and prime ministers may have extremely high approval ratings for a while, but they don’t last. Just ask President Bush. If the 18-0 Patriots lose today, their quarterback, Tom Brady, who is one of the greatest players in NFL history, will be a goat. Former Dallas Cowboy quarterback, Don Meredith, used to say about quarterbacks, “Today you are in the penthouse. Tomorrow you’re in the outhouse.”153 What is true of quarterbacks is also true of pastors, state workers, teachers, and small business owners. Popularity doesn’t last. Today’s heroes are tomorrow bums. Become president of the Rotary Club or PTA. Get elected chairman of your Homeowners Association. You’ll be doing great if more than half the people still like you when you’re done.

Today is Super Bowl Sunday. Winning the Super Bowl is the professional dream of every NFL player. It isn’t the money they make; a winner’s earnings from a Super Bowl appearance amount to less than a full game’s check for the average NFL player. It isn’t the Vince Lombardi trophy, which they don’t get to take home. It’s the fame, the respect, that moment of supreme glory. The players do receive a ring, and the Super Bowl ring is perhaps the most coveted prize of the world of sports—on par with an Olympic gold medal. But even such a ring may not last. Charlie Waters of the Dallas Cowboys found that out when his five Super Bowl rings were stolen from the closet in his home. Joe Gilliam won two Super Bowl rings as a member of the 1974 and 1975 Pittsburgh Steelers, but he pawned them off for a few dollars after being caught in a vicious cycle of drug addiction and homelessness. Another former Steeler, Rocky Bleier, sold his four rings to cover divorce and bankruptcy proceedings. The Cowboys’ Thomas Henderson had his Super Bowl XII ring seized to pay back taxes. Former Raiders All-Pro cornerback Lester Hayes sold his to pay for dental work. Mercury Morris of the Miami Dolphins sold his ring to raise money to clear his name during a drug-trafficking case.

That ring, symbolic of months and years of hard work crowned by a season at the top, is as fleeting as the glory it supposedly stands for. The hype may be spectacular, the TV ratings may be the biggest of the year, the commercial time a cost of millions…but the glory is fool’s gold. Its luster is quickly tarnished. As Houston sports writer Steve Campbell puts it, “One of the dirty secrets about the Super Bowl is that the winner’s high often has less of a shelf life than a container of cottage cheese.”154

Achievement, riches, and popularity can all expire on us like cottage cheese. These three pursuits are so temporary. In the end they are hebel—breath, vapor, mist, and utter futility. So work smarter not harder. Just trust God, love people, and enjoy life.


110 This precise passage breakdown is adopted by R.B.Y. Scott, Proverbs Ecclesiastes (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 1995), 222-223.

111 Solomon returns to the theme of injustice in Eccl 5:8f.; 8:10-15; 9:13-16; 10:5-7; 10:16f.

112 Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 125.

113 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 61.

114 Duane A. Garrett, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs (NAC; Nashville: Broadman, 1993).

See also the NET: “I thought to myself, ‘God will judge both the righteous and the wicked; for there is an appropriate time for every activity, and there is a time of judgment for every deed.’” See also Ps 14:5; Zeph 1:14.

115 David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 76.

116 Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes, 127.

117 Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament; Leicester, Eng., and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 85-86. See also the NET: “I also thought to myself, ‘It is for the sake of people, so God can clearly show them that they are like animals.’”

118 The PSA (Photographic Society of America) awarded my dad, Richard Krell, for having the most pictures accepted for exhibition in international nature exhibitions throughout the world.

119 David Fairchild, “Justice Departed” (Eccl 3:16-4:3).

120 J. Stafford. Wright, “Ecclesiastes,” in Psalms-Song of Songs vol. 5 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary. Edited by Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), Electronic ed.

121 Choon Leon Seow, Ecclesiastes: A New Translation with Introduction (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 1997), 176.

122 Ray Waddle, Against The Grain: Unconventional Wisdom From Ecclesiastes (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2005). 65.

123 Charles R. Swindoll, Living on the Ragged Edge: Coming to Terms with Reality, Bible Study Guide (Fullerton, CA: Insight for Living, 1986), 35.

124 Open Doors, “North Korean Christians Being Tortured by the Thousands,” 24 January 2008.

125 Quoted in Waddle, Against The Grain, 64.

126 “Household Income in the United States”: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Household_income_in_the_United_States.

127 Peter John Kreeft quoted in Lee Strobel, The Case for Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 50.

128 “The History of MADD”: http://www.madd.org/About-us/About-us/History.aspx.

129 “About John Walsh”: http://www.amw.com/about_amw/john_walsh.cfm.

130 Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997),

132 Donald S. Whitney, “Rest for your Souls”: http://www.biblicalspirituality.org/weary.html.

133 Longman suggests the translation, “success or achievement.” Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 136. The use of the Hebrew term kishron in Eccl 5:11 supports the translation “success.” See also NIV: “achievement.”

134 The phrase “vanity and striving after wind” (Eccl 4:4, 16) brackets this section.

135 Quoted in David Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 87. See “Professional Jealousy Grips the Nation” 2 February 2004:

http://www.personneltoday.com/articles/2004/02/02/22184/professional-jealousy-grips-the-nation.html.

136 Solomon’s words in 4:5 seems to be the opposite of 4:4. Thus, Eaton writes, “We pass from the rat-race with its hectic scramble for status symbols to the drop-out with his total indifference.” Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary (Tyndale Old Testament; Leicester, Eng., and Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 93.

137 The phrase “folding of the hands” is used in Prov 6:10; 24:33.

138 Seow confirms the link to cannibalism and cites Lev 26:29; Deut 29:53; Jer 19:9; Ezek 39:28; Mic 3:3. Choon Leon Seow, Ecclesiastes: A New Translation with Introduction (Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 1997), 179.

139 See Prov 6:9-11; 10:4; 12:24; 19:15; 20:13; 24:30-34. Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes, 137.

140 Tommy Nelson, The Problem of Life with God (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2002), 65.

141 Ray Waddle, Against The Grain: Unconventional Wisdom From Ecclesiastes (Nashville: Upper Room, 2005). 68.

142 Preaching Today citation: John Ortberg, Leadership, Vol. 14, no. 3.

143 Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes, 138.

144 Seow, Ecclesiastes, 180.

145 If Solomon has to choose between the two options of workaholism and laziness, he would choose working hard with a contented heart. Elsewhere Solomon writes, “Better is a dry morsel and quietness with it than a house full of feasting with strife” (Prov 17:1).

146 Ray Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun: Ancient Wisdom for Contemporary Living (Chicago: Moody, 1998), 123-124.

147 Sermon News: http://www.sermonnews.com/MembersOnlyStory.asp?ID=35.

148 Revised from Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 66.

149 Pritchard, Something New Under the Sun, 125-126.

150 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God,67.

151 Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 97.

152 Eccl 4:12 is often read at weddings with the threefold cord in marriage being understood as the bride, the groom, and Christ. However, jumping to such conclusions violates sound hermeneutical principles. The context of 4:9-12a (the value of “two” people in contrast to “one” and in climactic parallelism with “three”), correlated with similar teaching about two or three gathered together in Jesus’ name (Matt. 18:20), might legitimately suggest applying Eccl 4:12 to the importance of cooperation in the body of Christ. A careful distinction needs to be made between the primary interpretation and possible secondary applications today. William P. Brown, Ecclesiastes: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Interpretation; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2000), 52-53.

153 Nelson, The Problem of Life with God, 69.

154 Quoted in Jeremiah, Searching for Heaven on Earth, 101.

 
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Posted by on March 9, 2021 in Ecclesiastes

 
 
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