Be Bold! part 2 (Ecclesiastes 11:5-6)

“You hope for the best and work with what you get,” so said Nick Fury in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.”

The leader of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Marvel’s universe is the master of planning, hoping, and then dealing with whatever the situation throws at him.  In the Marvel universe of movies, you see Nick Fury pop up at various points with the reminder to work the situation and not be paralyzed by what you don’t have.

In some ways, the Bible’s wisdom is congruent with the seemingly unpredictable Nick Fury. 

Solomon starts out Ecclesiastes 11 with these words…

1 Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days. 2 Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth. 3 If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth, and if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie. 4 He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap. 5 As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything. 6 In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.

What Solomon is doing in this paragraph, in light of all that he has said about the unpredictability of life, is that it can’t paralyze us.  Wisdom says that just because we don’t know what will happen in the future doesn’t mean we can’t act and find, at least some, success.

We noted in vv. 1 and 2 that Solomon recommends diversification and patience.  Try many things, or take many opportunities, and some will pay off.  It may be “many days” before we experience the reward, however, so we must be patient.

Verse 3 reemphasized the unpredictability of life.  They couldn’t predict the rain, nor where a tree would land.  But that was no excuse for not working.  Just watching the weather will not result in crops.

We cannot predict the future, the rise and fall of the stock market, what ventures will be successful or failures.

So be bold.  Take chances.  But hedge your bets by diversifying your projects.  In unsettling uncertainty, take appropriate action.

The temptation in the face of unsettling uncertainties in life is to make excuses and go back to bed.  That is what the sluggard does.  According to Proverbs 26:13, “The sluggard says, “There is a lion in the road!  There is a lion in the streets!”

Verses 3-6 seem to have to do with farming.  Most people in Israel lived by growing their own food.  This was very common throughout the world and history until the industrial revolution.

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, especially in the dry, rocky soil of Israel.

Verses 3 and 4 speak of the unpredictability of the weather for farming, but still encouraged farmers to sow the seeds.  Just watching the weather for optimum sowing or growing reaped nothing.

Just as nobody knows the “way of the wind” or how the fetus is formed in the womb, so nobody knows the works of God in His creation.  God has a time and purpose for everything (3:1-11), and we must live by faith in His providence and use each day wisely (v. 6).  Certain aspects of God’s world are mysterious, but that doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to go on about our work.

The word “spirit” (ruach) might just as well be translated “wind,” as in verse 4.  In that case the Preacher really draws two analogies.  The first analogy points to the wind as an analogy for the mysterious purposes of God: we do not know which way the wind will blow.

Jesus used the same analogy when he was teaching Nicodemus about the born-again mystery of regeneration: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8).

Yet it is just as likely, if not more so, that the Preacher is talking about the human spirit and the way it animates the human body.  What divine mysteries unfold when a child grows in his mother’s womb!

By the way, this is a great proof of the sanctity of the life of the unborn in the womb of the mother.  Notice that she is “with child.”  What is growing inside her is a person.

We know more, perhaps, than Solomon did about the growth of a child from conception to birth, but this knowledge should not diminish our sense of wonder.  In fact, the more we know about life in the womb, the more amazing it should seem to us.  

One whole new person (sometimes more than one) grows inside the body of another person.  I say “person” because the Preacher clearly states that the child in the womb is not merely a body but also a living spirit.  Who can possibly explain the mystery of how the life of a soul animates flesh and blood and bone?  We are indeed “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14).

This is not the only work of God that goes beyond our understanding, however.  The Preacher uses the mysteries of the womb as an analogy for all the other wonders that are beyond human thought — the mysteries of creation and the providence of God.

When we consider the extraordinary human body, the animal and vegetable world, and the amazing galaxies of stars surrounding us, we cannot help but be astounded.  They are so intricate and complex that even our best machines and best minds cannot replicate what God has done.  The end result is that we “do not know the work of God who makes everything.”

This mystery of life still results in the same command in v. 6 to get to work.  We should work humbly, in amazement of God’s works, but we should still work.

Certain aspects of God’s working on earth defy explanation.  The mystery which shrouds our very origin underlies the whole of reality (cf. Isa 44:24ff.).  In its context this verse drives the reader to a sense of need and warns against an unwarranted optimism in life.  The life of faith does not remove the problem of our ignorance; rather, it enables us to live with it.  Faith flourishes in the mystery of providence; it does not abolish it.  (Michael A. Eaton, Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 143)

Verse 6 says “In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.”

“Despite human ignorance about reality and especially about what is going to happen, one cannot remain inactive.  Paralysis is out of the question” (Roland Murphy, Ecclesiastes, p. 110).

Since the future is in God’s hands, the wise person proceeds with his work diligently, hoping his efforts will yield fruit, as they normally do.

We do not know the end results, so we must humbly trust in God for the outcome.  Our responsibility is to work diligently, both morning and evening.  We don’t know whether only part, or all, of our work will be profitable.

In other words, get cracking, redouble your efforts:  you cannot guarantee results, but you increase your chances if you are diligent and make the most of the chances that come your way.  There is nothing more sad than looking back on life and seeing it as a series of missed opportunities and thinking, “If only I had done that.”  Do what you have to do, do what you can do–now.  (Robert Davidson, The Daily Study Bible: Ecclesiastes, 80)

As Tommy Nelson says, “The purpose of the sovereignty of God is not to cause you to lean on a shovel, praying for a hole.”  The sovereignty of God is not an excuse not to give our own effort.  Instead, we are to maximize our effort, seven or eight times, morning and night.

Philip Ryken says: “Ecclesiastes teaches us to take the opposite approach.  It may be true that, to paraphrase this passage, “you never know,” but it is equally true that “you will never reap if you never sow.”  So work hard for the kingdom of God. Live boldly and creatively.  Try something new!  Be a spiritual entrepreneur.  Even if you are not completely sure what will work, try everything you can to serve Christ in a world that desperately needs the gospel.  Work hard from morning till night, making the most of your time by offering God a full day’s work.  Then leave the results to him, knowing that he will use your work in whatever way he sees fit.

The Preacher’s practical exhortation to sow good seed is not just for farmers, of course. It applies to many areas of life. But the Bible most frequently uses the imagery of sowing and reaping to talk about what we do with the Word of God. Jesus told a famous parable about a farmer who sowed his seed on four different types of soil.  When he explained this parable to his disciples, he told them that “the sower sows the word” (Mark 4:14).  Of all the things that we ought to be sowing, therefore, the most important is the living Word of God.

We sow the Word when we read it, study it, and memorize it for ourselves, listening to the voice of God.  We sow the Word when we teach it to our children at bedtime or around the family dinner table.  We sow the Word when we give someone a Bible or use a simple verse from Scripture with a friend who needs to know Jesus.  We sow the Word when we take it to the prison, the nursing home, and the college or university campus.  We sow the Word when we support sound Biblical preaching in our own local congregation, as well as through missions and ministries that broadcast the gospel around the world.  There is no one single way to share the gospel; the best way to do it is every way we can.

From time to time we may wonder whether any gospel ministry ever accomplishes anything.  But the Bible encourages us with many wonderful promises about the work that the Holy Spirit will do with the Word of God:

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10–11)

Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. (2 Corinthians 9:6)

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9)

Jesus Christ is the Lord of the harvest, which will come at the proper time.  This was true in his own life and ministry.  Jesus said, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).  Jesus was talking about his own death on the cross and burial in the ground, as well as the resurrection that followed.  It was not just words that Jesus sowed but his very life itself, when he offered his blood on the cross for our sins.  The gospel harvest of his saving work is forgiveness and eternal life for everyone who believes in him.  Jesus does not offer this grace in portions to seven, or even to eight, but to millions and millions of sinners who turn to him in faith and repentance.

Now Jesus sends us out to do a little sowing of our own.  He is the Lord of the surprising harvest (surprising to us, not to him).  We do not always know what God will do with what we sow.  But if we keep sowing, the day will come when God will reap a harvest of salvation.

So cast your bread upon the waters.  Give a portion to seven, or even to eight. In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand.  What God will do with it, you never know; but you will never reap if you never sow!

We hope for the best but work with what we’ve got.  We plan well and work hard knowing ultimately the Lord is in control.  Life is an adventure with many twists and turns. 

Life may be unpredictable.  It may be an unsettling uncertainty.  But we can know that God is in control.  His ways may be mysterious to us, but they are known to Him.

Although we may not know the exact outcome of all our choices and labors, we can know that we partner with God as believers and that he will “work all things together for our good.”

The 5th century church historian Theodoret tells a story about the mysterious work of God in the world.  It is a story about a Christian monk named Telemachus.  Now, for whatever reason, Telemachus was present one day at a Roman gladiatorial battle.   Now Christians generally hated the gladiatorial battles.  If you don’t like the violence of a football game, understand that when someone gets injured in a football game, everyone stops and it’s a big deal and they all clap when an injured person leaves the field. In a gladiator battle the point was to fight until blood was shed and people were left dead in the arena.  They would cheer and clap when people were killed.  So Christians hated the gladiatorial games.

One day a monk was there and he saw what was happening was so horrified by the violence and the bloodshed that he ran out into the arena.  Now the accounts, there are different accounts, it’s unclear exactly what happened, except that we know that he died in the process of this.  This monk was either killed trying to get between the gladiators or he was killed when the crowd thought, who is this who has the audacity to interrupt our entertainment?  And they then demanded his death.  Or maybe the city prefect demanded that he die.  Something happened which brought about the death of Telemachus in the arena.  You think about all the gore and the bloodshed and the violence and the disregard for the sanctity of human life that Christians should oppose and it couldn’t get any worse than this.  Now a Christian’s blood was shed as he was trying to stop the barbarism.

But in the mysterious working of God, the story of this got back to the Christian emperor Honorious, who from this point on January 1st in the year 404 forward took stock of this and made a ban on the gladiatorial game, so they were stopped from that day forward.  One man didn’t know what to do.  What can you do when there’s nothing you can do?  One man did the only thing he could think to do, and it was a terrible plan.  It was the only thing he could do, and it had no chance of success and he was killed in the process of this.  The risks were high and the odds were low, and he lost his life.  But you never know how God might work.  You never know how God might work.  That’s the kind of boldness the preacher is urging us on toward in this passage.

You don’t have to risk your life necessarily, but you do need to take risks in life.  It’s so easy to look at this world and throw up your hands in despair.  It’s so easy to look at this world and be discouraged by everything happening in politics, in our culture in our neighborhoods, everything happening in our personal lives and in our work.  It’s so easy to just open up the newspaper or watch the news and find a thousand new reasons to be discouraged.

Solomon encourages us to take action.  We don’t know which action will be the one that makes the difference, that gets a return.

As Christians, we live “above the sun,” from a heavenly perspective.  We know the end of the story—that Jesus wins in the end.  In fact, we know that He has already won over Satan through the cross and resurrection.

Even still, we live right now in a world that is unpredictable.  Our responsibility is to prayerfully and wisely take action, and to keep taking action until something works.

Jesus took the preacher’s message, and he says, this is about the Kingdom of God. In Mark 4:26-29 he tells this parable, for example. Jesus said,

26 And he said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. 27 He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. 28 The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Our responsibility is to scatter the seed.  So much of our progress in the gospel ministry may seem to be in vain.  We see so little produce from our efforts.  But we have to be patient and keep working and trust God for the outcome.

Don’t wait for perfect conditions.  Invest in the gospel, share the gospel, in as many ways and as many times as you can.

Be Bold! part 1 (Ecclesiastes 11:1-4)

As we approach Ecclesiastes 11 we are nearing the climax of the book.  “We cannot see God’s whole plan, and there is nothing in this world that we can build on so as to find satisfaction or the key to the meaning of things.  Yet we are to fulfill God’s purpose by accepting our daily lot in life as from him and by thus pleasing him make each day a good day.  But how can we please him when there is so much we cannot understand?  The Teacher has already shown that certain things stand out as right or wrong, and a sensible conscience will see these as an indication of what God desires.  This section gives further wise advice in the light of an uncertain future.  We must use common sense in sensible planning and in eliminating as many of the uncertainties as we can” (J. S. Wright, “Ecclesiastes,” pp. 1188-1189, emphasis mine).

Even though we cannot predict the future, this should not lead to despair, but rather diligence.  Don’t let the uncertainties of life paralyze you.  Be diligent in your work, diversify in your opportunities, enjoy life and leave the rest to God’s providence.  Someone has said, “Do your best and let God take care of the rest.”

The limits of our wisdom are a catalyst to industry not despair.  Verse 6 is the counterpart to verses 1-2: both speak of hedging against the ups and downs of life that we “do not know” about and cannot control (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 229).

Sometimes it is tempting to wonder whether anything we do for God, or even in general, will matter.  Whether in our prayers, or giving, or ministry, does it really make any difference?  The reality is, in this life we may not be able to see the impact we have in other people’s lives.  Warren Wiersbe starts off his comments on this section of Ecclesiastes with the question, “Is life worth living?”

Even when we do not know how God will use our work to advance his kingdom, we should continue to pray, continue to serve, and continue to hope, “knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

This seems to be the attitude that the Preacher has here in Ecclesiastes 11, verses 1 to 6.

1 Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days. 2 Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth. 3 If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth, and if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie. 4 He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap. 5 As you do not know the way the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything. 6 In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.

Derek Kidner believes Solomon is summing up the message of Ecclesiastes in three parts: Be bold! (11:1-6); Be Joyful! (11:7-10); and Be Godly! (12:1-8).

If chapter 10 could be summed up in the command “Be sensible!” here Solomon says, “Be bold!”  Caution must give way to enterprise.

Having emphasized the unpredictability of life from chapter 9, verse 11 and following, Solomon doesn’t want us to be paralyzed, but to act in faith.

The ESV Study Bible entitles this paragraph “wise practices in light of the unpredictability of life.”  Another way of summarizing this paragraph is that dividends don’t come without risks.

Solomon’s first bit of wisdom is to “cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days.”  This bit of wisdom seems to be carried on in verse 2 as well: “Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.”

But what does this mean?  Soggy bread?

Three suggestions are most common: (1) It refers to maritime commerce.  (2) It refers to taking steps to spread out one’s financial resources in multiple directions (diversifying one’s portfolio).  (3) In older Jewish and Christian interpretation, it was taken to refer to giving to the poor, in which case finding it again represents others being kind to you in return.

For example, some commentators draw a comparison to an ancient Arabian proverb: “Do a good deed and throw it into the river; when this dries up you shall find it.”  Others remember the words of Jesus: “Give, and it will be given to you. Good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap” (Luke 6:38).

“When you see people in need, though you do not know how they may use your money—it may not be apparent that they will even use it wisely—nevertheless, be generous….take a chance, for in the wisdom and purpose of God it may very well return to you someday when you need help” (Ray Stedman, Is This All There is to Life?, p. 163).

Similarly, the portions of seven or eight mentioned in verse 2 may be offered to the poor.  In Biblical times it was customary for a family to share a feast with neighbors in need. For example, when Ezra read the Law of God in Jerusalem, and the people celebrated, Nehemiah told them, “Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord” (Nehemiah 8:10).  To give a portion, then, is to share the good things of this life.  To share seven portions would be the height of generosity.  To share eight is to do even more: it is to do everything we can to help others, not using the fear of some coming disaster as an excuse to be stingy, but giving and giving and giving some more.  

Martin Luther said, “Be generous to everyone while you can, use your riches wherever you can possibly do any good” (Martin Luther, “Notes on Ecclesiastes,” in Luther’s Works, trans. and ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, 56 vols. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1972), 15:171).

Walter Kaiser explains this text well.  Observe what he says: “‘Be liberal and generous to as many as you can and then some,’ is the way we would say it.  So, make as many friends as you can, for you never know when you yourself may need assistance.  Instead of becoming miserly just because you fear that the future may hold some evil reversal of your fortunes, leaving you in poverty and want, you should all the more distribute to as many as possible so that you can have the blessing of receiving in the event of such reverses (Kaiser, Ecclesiastes: Total Life, 114). 

More likely, however, is the interpretation which sees Solomon as talking about sea commerce.  We are told twice in 1 Kings that Solomon himself, the author of Ecclesiastes, was engaged in that very work. In 1 Kings 9:26-28 and 10:22, we read twice that Solomon himself put his bread, his goods, his tradable items onto ships and sent them overseas to trade. Now think about the uncertainty of overseas trade in those days. You couldn’t get real time updates about where your cargo was. You couldn’t even get delivery notification. You wouldn’t find for many days whether the ship had successfully sailed somewhere, made the trade and come back with your profits until many days. The preacher saying it’s still worth it, even though it’s going to take many days account for those delays but be bold in your life.

To “cast [one’s] bread upon the waters” is to engage in international trade, sending one’s grain or other produce out to sea and then waiting for the ships to return with fine goods from foreign lands.  To “find it after many days,” therefore, is to receive the reward that eventually comes after taking the risk of a wise investment.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Generally speaking, investing in the future is not wasted—whether it be financially, educationally or relationally.

The idea is that it is wise and good to work for a return which cannot be immediately seen.  Eaton says, “The allusion is to the element of trust in much ancient business. Ships on commercial voyages might be long delayed before any profit resulted.”

According to Philip Ryken:

Ships on commercial voyages might be long delayed before any profit resulted. Yet one’s goods had to be committed to them.  Solomon’s fleet which brought back “gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks” (1 Kings 10:22) sailed once in three years.  Similarly the preacher has called his readers to take life as from the hand of God, and to enjoy it despite its trials and perplexities.  Such a life contains within it the elements of trust and adventure (“Cast”), demands total commitment (for your bread is used in the sense of “goods, livelihood,” as in Deut. 8:3, Prov. 31:14), and has a forward look to it (“you will find”), a reward which requires patience (“after many days”).

Verse 2 then continues the same thought.

“Give a portion to seven, or even to eight, for you know not what disaster may happen on earth.”

Rather than speculating about such uncertainties (see note on vv. 1–6), it is financially more prudent to explore multiple avenues for making one’s living and investing one’s resources (vv. 2, 6), which could involve giving a “portion” or “compensation” to several different areas (seven, or even to eight), because such diversification gives protection against unforeseen disaster in one or two of the areas (ESV Study Bible).

We have the saying, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

The phrase “to seven, or even to eight” Hebrew numerical formula called X, X + 1.  It occurs frequently in Proverbs (chaps. 6, 30) and in the first two chapters of Amos.  Here it is not to be taken literally but means “plenty and more than plenty,” “the widest possible diversification within the guidelines of prudence…”  Seven means “plenty,” and eight means, “Go a bit beyond that.”  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 227)

One of the main reasons for adopting this strategy is that “you know not what disaster may happen on earth.” Once again Qoheleth reminds us of the mysteries of the future and the many misfortunes of life — war, pestilence, famine, and financial collapse. Rather than simply taking our chances, we will plan for an uncertain and possibly unfortunate future. If we are wise, we will invest widely. Hopefully, if one investment does poorly it will be counterbalanced by another source of revenue that is doing somewhat better.

Misfortune and calamity (here as usual in Ecclesiastes called “evil”; see on 2:21) are part of life.  Who knows what crop will fail, what ship will be seized by coastal pirates, what merchant will abscond with the profits?  Spread your investments (“serving” is lit. “lot” or “portion”; see at 2:10) widely–to seven or eight places–so that no one or two tragedies can wipe you out.  That advice was crucial to the path to prosperity.  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 227)

There are ways to apply this sound financial advice to the spiritual business of God’s kingdom. Qoheleth’s concern, writes Michael Eaton, is “that the wise man will invest everything he has in the life of faith” (Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary , p. 140.)  Rather than holding on to what we have, hoarding it all for ourselves — which is the error that the man with one talent made in a parable that Jesus told (Matthew 25:24–28) — God invites us to be venture capitalists for the kingdom of God.

This is not exclusively or even primarily about money. It is about having the holy boldness to do seven (or even eight) things to spread the gospel and then waiting for God’s ship to come in.  Some of the things that we attempt may fail (or at least seem to fail at the time) — some of the ministries we start, for example, or the churches we plant, or the efforts we make to share the good news of the cross and the empty tomb.  But we should never stop investing with the gospel in as many places as we can.  Whenever we engage in kingdom enterprises, we offer the Holy Spirit something he can and often will use to save people’s souls.

Verses 3 and 4 continue with the idea of the unpredictability of life, but also with the need to act instead of being paralyzed.

3 If the clouds are full of rain, they empty themselves on the earth, and if a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie. 4 He who observes the wind will not sow, and he who regards the clouds will not reap.

The clouds follow their own rules.  Our weather prognosticators try to tell us the chances of rain, and most of the time get it right, but the weather follows its own rules.  Also, the falling tree doesn’t consult us as to the direction it falls.  These things are inevitable, but unpredictable.

The point seems to be, with these inconveniences in life, we have to accept what is and do what lies within our reach.  “Few great enterprises have waited for ideal conditions; no more should we” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 97).

There is nothing the farmer can do about either the rain or the tree; these natural and seemingly random events are far outside his personal control.

The one thing that the farmer can control is when he will sow his seed and harvest his crops.  But this particular farmer seems to be just standing there — watching the wind and the clouds, rather than farming his field.

The implication is that he is trying to guess when he can safely cast his seed or harvest his grain.  Although there is “a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted” (Ecclesiastes 3:2), apparently this man is not sure what time it is!  Back in chapter 10, the Preacher introduced us to a foolish homeowner who was too lazy to fix his roof (v. 18).  The farmer in chapter 11 also refuses to work, but he is a different kind of fool.  He keeps watching and waiting, but never sowing or reaping.  Why not?  Because rather than getting on with his work, he keeps hoping for better conditions.

Do not wait until conditions are perfect before you go to work, but labor diligently even though conditions may appear foreboding.  After all, God controls these conditions, and we cannot tell whether good or bad conditions will materialize.  Likewise, F. B. Meyer says, “If we are always waiting for favouring conditions, we shall resemble the farmer who is ever looking out for perfect weather, and lets the whole autumn pass without one handful of grain reaching the furrows.”

Though planning and foresight, and some caution, is definitely needed to avoid pitfalls (10:8), and in this fallen world, whatever can go wrong probably will go wrong (Murphy’s law), it is also possible to be too cautious and to suffer from an unhealthy inertia spawned by fear.  Be forewarned that if you wait for the perfect moment when there will be no obstacles or dangers, such a time will never come (11:4).

“In summary, the life of wisdom involves holding back and going ahead, being pessimistic and being optimistic, being cautious and throwing caution to the winds, being prepared for anything in the future and actively preparing oneself for the future, which will include death (unless the Lord returns first).  In each case, pray, meditate on God’s Word, consult wise counselors, and then take the most prudent action (James Bollhagen, Ecclesiastes, p. 380).

When favorable conditions come, they are the blessing of the Lord and guided by God’s will.

Interestingly, it was Ecclesiastes 11:3 which was instrumental in the salvation of R. C. Sproul.  Apparently R. C. and his childhood buddy Johnny, now collegians, were on their way to Youngstown, Ohio, to a bar.  When they got in the car, they realized they were out of cigarettes, so they went back into the lobby of their dorm to get a pack of Lucky Strikes from the vending machine.

While retrieving the cigarettes, they noticed a couple of guys sitting over at a table.  They motioned R. C. and Johnny to join them.  One of them was the star of the football team, so they were intrigued.  They were hunched over a book.

“What are you doing?” the football star asked.  “Nothing,” R. C. demurred—not about to confess their plans.  So Johnny and R. C. were invited to join them.  The bars of Youngstown would have to wait.

The book they were reading was the Bible.  This was the first time R. C. had ever witnessed a Bible study.  The two upperclassmen talked about Christianity and the things of God and the Bible for well over an hour—all new territory for R. C.

Then one of them turned the open Bible in R. C.’s direction, and he instructed R. C. to take a look.  It was Ecclesiastes 11:3.  Again, the second part of that verse reads:

“If a tee falls to the south or to the north, in the place where the tree falls, there it will lie.”

It cut R. C. in two.  He saw himself as that tree.  He saw himself in a state of torpid paralysis, fallen, rotting, and decaying.  He left the table and returned to his dorm room.  When he entered he didn’t turn on the light.  He just knelt beside his bed, praying to God, asking God to forgive his sins.

God used that verse to show R. C. the true state of his own soul and life.  R. C. had felt dead.  Now he knew that his true spiritual condition was death.  He had considered himself a Christian.  He went to church, after all.  Now he knew what Christianity was truly about.

He saw himself as he truly was—a sinner, unforgiven and dead in sin.  That night he prayed for forgiveness.

We never know what verse of the Bible will convict us of our sin and our need for salvation.  What verse has God used in your life to lead you to acknowledge your sin, your need for a Savior, and to move you to trust in Jesus Christ?

Foolish Leaders (Ecclesiastes 10:16-20)

In order for nations, churches, even families to function well, leadership is vital.  Everything comes down to leadership.  When there is no good leader to direct a team, a department, or an organization, then the following scenarios are inevitable: delayed decisions, conflicts, low morale, reduced productivity, and success is difficult.

Good national leaders exhibit a personal independence, maturity, wisdom, and self-control. Selfish, arrogant, and pleasure-seeking leaders bring trouble to any nation.

Solomon speaks to this issue of faulty leadership in Ecclesiastes 10, verses 16 to 20:

16 Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child, and your princes feast in the morning! 17 Happy are you, O land, when your king is the son of the nobility, and your princes feast at the proper time, for strength, and not for drunkenness!  18 Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks. 19 Bread is made for laughter, and wine gladdens life, and money answers everything. 20 Even in your thoughts, do not curse the king, nor in your bedroom curse the rich, for a bird of the air will carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter.

To this point, the Preacher has been talking about the way we employ our words.  In verse 16 he turns to consider another area where spiritual wisdom is badly needed but is usually in short supply — the exercise of political leadership. 

Leadership, or government, has been a recurring theme in Ecclesiastes.  Here Solomon says wise leadership is a blessing, while foolish leadership is a curse.

Derek Kidner reminds us that “The wise man cares very much about the way his country is governed, and about the way to rule himself and his affairs, in a world that is at once demanding (v. 18), delightful (v. 19) and dangerous (v. 20)” (Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, pp. 93-94).

These verses tell the story of a national disaster, with someone completely incompetent in charge.  The word “child” may indicate that the ruler is a youngster, like a boy king.  

On rare occasions this can turn out to be a blessing.  A notable example is King Josiah, who ascended to the throne of Judah at the tender age of eight.  The Bible says that when he was only sixteen, Josiah “began to seek the God of David his father” (2 Chronicles 34:3).  Josiah must be the exception that proves the rule, however, because more often than not, inexperienced leaders cause all kinds of trouble.

The word “child” (na’ar) is not limited to people under a certain age, however.  It could well refer, especially in a political context, to someone older in age but who is still immature.  King Solomon used the word this way when he first took the throne of Israel. “I am but a little child,” he said, acknowledging his lack of experience before asking God for the wisdom to rule (1 Kings 3:7).

Solomon’s son Rehoboam was not nearly as wise.  Although he was forty-one when he began to reign (2 Chronicles 12:13), Rehoboam had no idea what he was doing.  His court was corrupt, his judgment was unsound, and soon his kingdom was fell apart.

Little did King Solomon know that after his death his own son Rehoboam would “reject the advice the elders gave him and consult the young men who had grown up with him” (1 Kgs 12:8).  So, Solomon’s words proved prophetic, although he did not mean them that way.  (Roland Cap Ehlke, The People’s Bible, Ecclesiastes, 110)

“Verses 16 and 17 remind us of the influence the seeps down from the men at the top, to set the tone of the whole community….The first picture shows a ruler without dignity or wisdom, surrounded by decadence; the second, a leader who is readily accepted, surrounded by responsible men. (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 94).

To show how much trouble a country can get into when it lacks mature leadership, Qoheleth describes a kingly court where gluttonous princes feast every morning.  The Preacher is not talking about having a hearty breakfast but about a royal banquet that includes enough alcohol to get wasted.  Instead of getting up in the morning to improve and defend their country, these princes lie about in a drunken stupor.

Drinking at an early hour is a sign of debauchery (Isa 5:11) and a breakdown in leadership (cf. Isa 5:22–23).  Drinking in the early hours of the day marked a dissolute, slothful approach to life, with emphasis on luxury and personal indulgence.

Solomon is picturing a leader who uses his office to pander to his own desires rather than leading for the good of his people.  This is a self-indulgent leader.

A notable example from European history is Charles XII, who became the king of Sweden when he was only a teenager.  The wild behavior of Charles and his friends included riding on horseback through his grandmother’s apartment, knocking people to the ground in the city streets, and practicing firearms by shooting out the windows of the palace.  In response, the leading preachers of Stockholm all agreed to preach from Ecclesiastes 10:16 on the same Sunday, pronouncing woe on a land with a child for a king and princes that feasted in the morning.  (The story of young Charles XII is recounted by Dale Ralph Davis in The Wisdom and the Folly: An Exposition of the Book of First Kings (Fearn, Ross–Shire: Christian Focus, 2002), p. 188)

The point of both verses is driven home by the prophecy of social breakdown in Isaiah 3:1-5, where the men of weight in the community were to be ousted,

1 For behold, the Lord GOD of hosts is taking away from Jerusalem and from Judah support and supply, all support of bread, and all support of water; 2 the mighty man and the soldier, the judge and the prophet, the diviner and the elder, 3 the captain of fifty and the man of rank, the counselor and the skillful magician and the expert in charms. 4 And I will make boys their princes, and infants shall rule over them. 5 And the people will oppress one another, every one his fellow and every one his neighbor; the youth will be insolent to the elder, and the despised to the honorable. 

The Preacher is not saying there is anything wrong with a proper feast at the proper time and for the proper purpose.  Verse 17 praises the courtiers who sit down to a good dinner and gain strength for their kingdom work.  After all, the king’s table is supposed to be set with a royal feast, which Solomon knew as well as anyone.  But the Bible everywhere condemns the kind of bad behavior that is described in verse 16: excessive feasting, especially in the morning (e.g., Isaiah 5:11), and drunkenness on any occasion (e.g., Proverbs 23:20).  It also condemns people who use their position of privilege for selfish pleasure.

The real contrast between v. 16 and v. 17 is not so much the age of the leader, but the behavior.

The beatitude (v. 17) is the only glimmer of light in a gloomy scene.  It pictures the way the court functions if the body politic is to maintain its health: (1) the “king” is born and bred to the manner (for “nobles” or “free men,” see Neh 2:16; 4:14, 19; 5:7; 13:17) and therefore trained to cope with the high demand and wide range of royal responsibilities; (2) the political and military leaders (see “princes” at 10:7) engage in their festivities “at the proper time” (in the evening not the “morning”, v. 16) and for the right reason–“strength” (Heb. frequently has martial overtones,  “Strength to fight,” 9:16) not carousing (“drunkenness” is lit. “drinking” whose aim is not merely to slake thirst).  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 218-19)

So notice that the same activity is undertaken—eating—but done at the proper time and in the proper amount for the purpose not of enjoyment but of strength.  This not only empowered the leaders but would be imitated by the people, to their benefit.

Ray Stedman tells us that “In Hebrew culture the morning was to be used to judge the needs and problems of the people.  Late afternoon and evening were the times for feasting.  But here were men who indulged themselves all through the day; thereby neglecting their duties” (Is This All There is to Life?, p. 159).

The words of the Preacher call us to wise government.  We can apply his words to nations and kingdoms.  Politicians who rule for personal advantage bring disaster to the people they lead.  Woe to any nation characterized by sinful entertainment, lazy self-indulgence, and the widespread abuse of alcohol and other drugs, especially among its national leaders.

We can also apply the same principles at the personal level.  There is a time and a place for feasting and celebrating in the Christian life.  But there is also a danger of wasting our lives by living for our pleasures.

“So the picture begins to emerge,” writes Derek Kidner, “of a man who makes things needlessly difficult for himself by his stupidity.”

Although vv. 18-19 speak to the issue of work, the context seems to apply this primarily to the bad rulers.

18 Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks. 19 Bread is made for laughter, and wine gladdens life, and money answers everything. 

Kidner says, “It seems likely that the proverbs of verses 18 and 19 were placed here especially for their bearing on the ways of the powerful: their rule and misrule, their use and abuse of God’s gifts, as seen in the previous verses” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, pp. 94-95).

Certainly the “sloth” (v. 18), which silently destroys a neglected house, is as fatal to a kingdom (or a business) as to a building.  Nothing else is needed to bring it down, and nothing is more devastating.  Whatever kinds of damage can be safely overlooked, decay is not among them: time is on its side.

In Eaton’s words, “If attention is not paid to the everyday details of life, the results become a crippling liability.”

In Proverbs 18:9 Solomon had said: “Whoever is slack in his work is a brother to him who destroys.”  In other words, the end result is the same whether one actively tears something down or passively neglects it.  Ultimately it is ruined.

The rulers and princes, given to sensual indulgences, will slumber in the affairs of state.  The nation will fall from lack of attention and effort.  The damage, small at first, increases rapidly through neglect.

We often focus on the sins of commission, but the sins of omission can be just as damaging and we must take them seriously, especially those of us in leadership.

J. Oswald Sanders, in his Christian classic book Spiritual Leadership points out that the way a leader uses his time, in particular his leisure time, is what makes the biggest difference.

The way we employ the surplus hours after provision has been made for work, meals, and sleep will determine if we develop into mediocre or powerful people.  Leisure is a glorious opportunity and a subtle danger.  Each moment of the day is a gift from God that deserves care, for by any measure, our time is short and the work is great.

Minutes and hours wisely used translate into an abundant life.  On one occasion when Michelangelo was pressing himself to finish a work on deadline, someone warned him, “This may cost your life!”  He replied, “What else is life for?”

Hours and days will surely pass, but we can direct them purposefully and productively.  Philosopher William James affirmed that the best use of one’s life is to spend it for something that will outlast it.  Life’s value is not its duration but its donation–not how long we live, but how fully and how well.  (J. Oswald Sanders, Spiritual Leadership, pp. 93-4)

Some believe that verse 19 comes from the mouths of the foolish leader and his princes.  Given to self-indulgence, their aim is laughter and good feelings.  They believe that “money answers everything.”  Their aims are selfish and they will ultimately be let down.

Others believe that this speaks to the fact that foolish leaders are money hungry.  Warren Wiersbe points out: “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 in religious organizations” (The Wiersbe Commentary: Old Testament, p. 1140).

Others believe that the point of verse 19 is not that every man has his price, but that every gift has its use.  Bread, wine and money are good gifts and can be used for good…or bad.  God’s wholesome gifts are good, and their proper gifts are delightful and perfectly sufficient.

In contrast to a lazy fool, a hard-working individual has everything that he or she needs.

Bill Barrick notes: The opposite of laziness is diligence.  The lazy will suffer loss, but the diligent will enjoy the fruits of their labors.  They enjoy food enough, drink enough, and money enough to take care of every need (v. 19).  This positive interpretation of the verse depends upon associating it with the appropriate behavior of wise rulers in verse 17, rather than connecting it with the irresponsible feasting of foolish officials in verse 16.

According to Garrett, “The point is that at least some money is essential for enjoying life, and steps must therefore be taken to insure that the economy (be it national or personal) is sound.”

Money does have its limitations, of course, which is why the Bible often warns us not to trust it (e.g., Hebrews 13:5) or worship it (e.g., Matthew 6:24).  But from the practical standpoint, what the Preacher says remains true: if we have enough money, we can buy anything else we need.  Bread is a daily necessity.  Fine wine is a delicious pleasure.  But if we have the money, we can buy both bread and wine, plus anything else that we need or want. 

Generally, that comes from being industrious in our work, the opposite of what we see of the leaders in verse 16.  They do nothing but party and everything falls apart.

Now, if we find ourselves under the reign of such a foolish government, what is the wise thing to do? Shouldn’t we curse the king and his cronies? If that is what we think, then we might not like Solomon’s suggestion. In fact, we might be ready to write him off when it comes to his political advice. “Stick with the pithy proverbs,” we might say to Solomon the sage, “and let someone else handle political affairs.” For in Ecclesiastes 10:20 we read,

20 Even in your thoughts, do not curse the king, nor in your bedroom curse the rich, for a bird of the air will carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter.

Cursing a ruler comprises a violation of the Mosaic law (Exodus 22:28).  Paul instructed Timothy to pray for “kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Tim. 2:1–2).  “Cursing” a ruler is wrong because we should respect the position that he or she holds, even if we cannot trust them because of their decisions or behaviors.  We should respect the position.

As the old sayings go, “Even the walls have ears.”  Long before bugs could be planted in offices to listen to private conversations, leaders had spies or supporters who would “rat out” those who spoke against them.  Thus, Solomon is urging restraint in our tongues, even in our thoughts.

Our American way seems to have just enough patience to give a President 100 days to change the nation to our liking and spend the remainder of his four years complaining that he can’t change anything.  All in all, that complaining does nothing except make us more angry.

This doesn’t mean that we should never speak out against injustices.  It is possible that Solomon has in view situations in which the possibility of speaking out would effect no change for the better, only get one in trouble.

Solomon seems to be saying, when you live in a bad government, to survive is the first step, though by no means the last.  Solomon will continue to help us apply wisdom to our situation.

Eaton says, “Everything that has been said about wisdom and folly points again to the main lesson of Ecclesiastes: the need to face life as it really is, and take our life day by day from the hand of a sovereign 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” (Warren Wiersbe, The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: Old Testament, p. 1141).

Foolish Talkers (Ecclesiastes 10:12-14)

Throughout Ecclesiastes 10 Solomon has been contrasting wise living with foolish living.  None of us are as wise as we think we are.  The pursuit of wisdom, especially “wisdom from above” must be a lifelong pursuit.  And if we want to get any wiser, we need to start by humbly admitting our folly.

The Preacher has been showing us the difference between wisdom and folly in daily life, helping us in the many practical situations where wisdom is required.  At the end of chapter 10 he continues in the same vein, teaching us about the wise employment of words (vv. 12–14, 20), the wise exercise of leadership (vv. 16–17), and the wise expenditure of effort (vv. 18–19).

Today let’s look at the mouth of a fool.

12 The words of a wise man’s mouth win him favor, but the lips of a fool consume him. 13 The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness, and the end of his talk is evil madness. 14 A fool multiplies words, though no man knows what is to be, and who can tell him what will be after him? 

This passage, and many others, show us that God takes words seriously.  We should too.  Some anonymous poet has written:

A careless word may kindle strife.

A cruel word may wreck a life,

A bitter word may hate instill;

A brutal word may smite and kill,

A gracious word may smooth the way;

A joyous word may light the day.

A timely word may lessen stress;

A loving word may heal and bless.

Eventually every wise teacher has something to say about what we say, because the way we use our words is “the acid test of wisdom.” 

If the mouth only speaks what is in the heart, then every time we say something, we reveal the wisdom or the folly inside.  If our heart is wise, we will speak wise words.  Conversely, if our hearts are foolish, we will speak foolish words.

The Preacher begins by saying, “The words of a wise man’s mouth win him favor” (Ecclesiastes 10:12).

This may simply mean that someone who speaks wisdom will gain a good reputation.  No one knew this better than Solomon, who became world-famous for his royal wisdom.

Yet perhaps we should take the verse more literally.  The word “favor” is really the Hebrew word for “grace” (hen), favor that is undeserved.  The verse is literally, “The words of a wise man’s mouth favor.”  They result in favor, blessing to others.

A wise person’s words show this kind of grace to other people — they are messages of blessing.  The point of the verse, then, is not that wise speech will get us something from other people (namely, their favor) but that they will enable us to give something to other people (namely, the gracious love of God): “Words from the mouth of a wise man are gracious” (Ecclesiastes 10:12, NASB).  The NIV says, “Words from the mouth of the wise are gracious.”

This is the point of Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.”

Gracious words “build up” the other person.  Instead of putting them down with our words, we use words and tones which build up.

It is said that Winston Churchill and Lady Astor were champions of the insulting barbs.

Churchill is supposed to have told Lady Astor that having a woman in Parliament was like having one intrude on him in the bathroom, to which she retorted, “You’re not handsome enough to have such fears.”  Lady Astor is also said to have responded to a question from Churchill about what disguise he should wear to a masquerade ball by saying, “Why don’t you come sober, Prime Minister?”  In another recounted exchange, Lady Astor said to Churchill, “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea,” to which he responded, “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it!

My all-time favourite is this aspersion: Bessie Braddock to Churchill “Winston, your drunk!” Churchill: “Bessie, you are ugly, and tomorrow morning I shall be sober.”

Although these may be funny, or meant in fun, they do not fit the category of giving grace.

Many of us, foolishly, use our words to make ourselves look smart or hip or “in the know” or connected or powerful.

We use them to get a laugh, or to get attention, or to get someone to do something for us.  We use our words to get a job or to get a girl (or a guy, as the case may be).  We use our words to build ourselves up and tear other people down.

What are some ways that we can show grace through our words?

First, we might speak slowly.  Instead of blurting out the first thing that comes to us, slow down your response and think about what you should say.  Sometimes it is best not to say anything.  Wisdom knows when to speak and when to be silent.  Wisdom guides our responses so that when we speak we can speak in a way that builds up the other person.

The wise person realizes that ultimately he or she will have to give account for every word spoken.  Jesus said: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).

Second, we speak words of praise and appreciation, both to God and to people.  We acknowledge that we owe something to others for the ways they have benefitted us through their words or actions.

Third, we encourage rather than criticize.  Some people are master critics, they can always find something to harp on.  Usually, the way to bring out the best in other people is not by finding fault but by finding something we can praise them for.  Look for the good in others.

Fourthly, we can speak the truth to others.  We are to “speak the truth in love” according to Paul in Ephesians 4:15.  Sometimes, the most gracious, loving thing we can do for something is to tell them the truth.

Fifth, speak with gentleness.  Wisdom waits until emotions are under better control.  Then whatever words we speak can offer genuine grace.  According to Proverbs, “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil things” (15:28).  Also, Proverbs 15:1 says, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

Sixth, wisdom also knows when to ask for forgiveness and seek out reconciliation.  When a relationship has been broken and a person wounded, wisdom knows to ask for forgiveness.

Since it is “out of the abundance of the heart” that “the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34), wise speech requires a heart overflowing with the love of God.  Remember what the Preacher said at the beginning of this chapter: a wise heart inclines us to do the right thing (Ecclesiastes 10:2).  Therefore, wise speech can only come from a wise heart, and this is a gift from God, whose Son lives in our hearts through faith (Ephesians 3:17).

If ever a man uttered words of wisdom, it was Jesus Christ.  The Bible says that when Jesus spoke, people “marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth” (Luke 4:22).  This was in keeping with the Messianic prophecy of Psalm 45:2 — that God would pour grace on the Savior’s lips.

The words of the fool, however, are not so wise.  To reinforce the danger of foolish speech and to help us see how often our speech is so foolish, Solomon gives us several illustrations.

The Apostle James said, “if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man” (James 3:2).  But that is so hard, isn’t it?

First of all, the “lips of a fool consume him.”  Literally, his words eat him up.  A fool’s mouth destroys him.  He opens his mouth to speak and his mouth turns around and gobbles him down.

He says things that destroy his reputation, his relationships, his opportunities, his testimony.

There are many ways that words can destroy.  Sometimes a fool says something that gets him into trouble.  His rash words make someone else angry, and that person destroys him.  Sometimes a fool says something that ruins a relationship.  She carelessly reveals something that would be better left unsaid, but once it is said, the damage is done.  There are thousands of ways for foolish words to destroy the person who utters them.

Not only can a fool’s words destroy him and others, but they can become evil.  Verse 13 says…

13 The beginning of the words of his mouth is foolishness, and the end of his talk is evil madness.

The fool’s talk starts out bad enough, as foolishness, but it ends up being “evil madness.”  It goes from bad to worse.  “Evil madness” indicates that his speech expresses both moral depravity and mental disability.

And part of the reason is goes from bad to worse is that the fool can’t stop talking.  He “multiplies words.”  As Proverbs 19:19 says, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking.”

Linking back to the end of verse 11 where the “babbler” is as dangerous as the uncharmed serpent, ready to strike and kill, this fool’s lips are ready in the moment to destroy him and all he holds dear.

Adonijah’s self-willed proclamation was to his own ruin (1 Kgs 1:5, 2:25).  Rehoboam’s foolishness–giving grievous instead of gracious words to his people–made “his own tongue to fall upon himself” (1 Kgs 12:1-19 comp. Ps 64:8).  Wisdom guides the nearest way to our own security (Prv 10:9)–folly the surest road to our own ruin.  (Charles Bridges, The Geneva Series of Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 250)

Koheleth draws our attention to another mark of the fool.  A fool, he says, “multiplies words” (v. 14).  He does not know when to keep quiet.  He goes on and on spouting nonsense (cf. Prov. 15:2) quite oblivious to the fact that it is nonsense.  The trouble is that he believes what he says.  The more he talks, the more he convinces himself that he knows.  He has got all the answers.  He has eliminated the unknown from his vocabulary.  Any sense of bowing humbly before the mystery of life has gone.  It takes a wise man to know when to say, “I don’t know.”  (Robert Davidson, The Daily Study Bible: Ecclesiastes, 74)

The fools mouth babbles on constantly, “multiplying words” without making any sense.  We use to call them “chatterboxes.”  Have you ever found yourself trying to talk your way out of a bad situation—like you’ve been caught in a lie and you just dig yourself in deeper and deeper?

The word for “fool” here is sakal, which implies a dense, confused thinker.

I once found a bumper sticker that I put upon the bedroom door of my little sister which said, “Start brain before engaging mouth.”  It was a reminder to think before speaking.  Fools don’t do that.

Nor are the fool’s lips only a curse to himself.  They become a pest to all around him–from beginning to end.  The beginning of his words is foolishness.  But he goes from bad to worse–often as if he was worked up to a frenzy.  If his oracular voice does not command attention, he is all on fire–all is a blaze and smoke–till his anger becomes a sort of mischievous madness.  Thus this combustible talker spreads mischief wherever he goes–in his family–in society, stirring round about him “envy and strife, confusion, and every evil work.”  (Charles Bridges, The Geneva Series of Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 250-51)

Sooner or later what we say to one person will get repeated to another person, with varying degrees of accuracy.  Once the words leave our mouths, we lose control over where they go.  If the wrong word reaches the ear of the wrong person, there may be serious repercussions.  How easy it is to send a quick electronic message, but how difficult it is to undo the damage done by words that are personally insulting or sexually inappropriate.  It would be wiser not even to think such things, let alone say them, especially because God knows all our thoughts (e.g., Ps 139:4).  (Philip Graham Ryken, Preaching the Word: Ecclesiastes, 245)

There is yet another problem with the words of a fool: they are presumptuous.  In other words, fools make arrogant and boastful claims about what they know and about what they will do, but they are unable to back up their words with knowledge or action.  So, the Preacher says, “A fool multiplies words, though no man knows what is to be, and who can tell him what will be after him?” (Ecclesiastes 10:14).

The fool continues to talk even though neither he nor anyone else can tell what the future holds.  The picture here seems to be of the fool making dogmatic statements about the future.  The fool also does not even perceive what is most obvious.

In Proverbs 18:2 Solomon said: “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing his opinion.”  He loves the sound of his own voice.

He has no knowledge of the present, let alone the future.  Nor can any man give him any knowledge of the future.  Yet he speaks with conviction on such things.  (Michael A. Eaton, Tyndale OT Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 136)

It’s easy to pontificate about the future—because it isn’t here yet and no one can verify it…yet.  But sooner or later the fool’s version of the future is revealed for the sham it was…just words.

If we are wise, we will follow the counsel of James, who sounds as if he must have been familiar with Ecclesiastes:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13–15)

Words devoid of content–how characteristic of our time!  There never was such a day in which people were bombarded with so many words, so much literature, so much spouting of words through the media.  Yet much of it is thoroughly empty, unsatisfying, and misleading in the extreme.  (Ray Stedman, Is This All There Is to Life?, 154)

Plato said: “Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something.”  They just feel compelled to open their mouths.  They don’t think about what they are going to say, they just say it.

Fools don’t tend to think before they speak; or, if they do, their words betray the corruption of their hearts.  The more they talk like fools, the more they act like them.  Folly is a cancer that fills the soul and spreads to every area of life.  It has to be cut out and controlled or it will destroy a man.  The wise man, on the other hand, finds favor with his words, because they enlighten and edify those with whom he speaks.  (T.M. Moore, The Christian Worldview Journal, July 15, 2011)

Winning the war of words involves choosing our words carefully.  It is not just about the words we say, but also about the words we choose not to say.  Winning the war is about being prepared to say the right thing at the right moment [in the right way], exercising self-control.  It is refusing to let our talk be driven by passion and personal desire but communicating instead with God’s purposes in view.  It is exercising the faith necessary to be part of what God is doing at that moment.  (Philip Graham Ryken, Preaching the Word: Ecclesiastes, 246)

Koheleth, like the wise teachers of Proverbs, knew that his students were headed for positions of responsibility, whether in government service or business.  As persons of prominence they had to watch their language.  Success or failure would be determined, in some measure at least, by the winsomeness, accuracy, and frugality of their speech.  Like the snake charmer (v. 11), they had to be “masters of the tongue.”  (David Hubbard, Mastering the OT: Ecclesiastes, 216)

Are you the master of your own tongue?  Is your heart filled with wisdom and a love for God and others that leads you to speak in ways that minister grace and build up others?

Foolish Workers (Ecclesiastes 10:8-11)

Our passage today is Ecclesiastes 10:8-11.

8 He who digs a pit will fall into it, and a serpent will bite him who breaks through a wall. 9 He who quarries stones is hurt by them, and he who splits logs is endangered by them. 10 If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength, but wisdom helps one to succeed. 11 If the serpent bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage to the charmer. 

So what is Solomon trying to communicate in this graphic section of this chapter?  Is he merely saying that “anything can happen,” and we need to accept accidents?  Or is Solomon encouraging us that there is no advancement without risks involved? 

Tom Constable believes that vv. 8-11 merely show the problem of bad timing.  He says, “Improper timing can also nullify wisdom.  Four different situations illustrate the fact that though wisdom is valuable in a variety of everyday tasks (vv. 8-10), one can lose its advantage if the timing is not right (v. 11).

Or is Solomon continuing the idea that we won’t succeed without wisdom?  The German commentator Franz Delitzsch explains: “The sum of these four clauses [in vv. 8-9] is certainly not merely that he who undertakes a dangerous matter exposes himself to danger; the author means to say, in this series of proverbs which treat of the distinction between wisdom and folly, that the wise man is everywhere conscious of his danger, and guards against it” (p. 379)

So far Solomon has been weaving together both themes (unforeseen risks and wisdom), seemingly to say that we need wisdom, but we also need to trust God with the outcome and with the process.

Since this section ends with “but wisdom helps one to succeed” (v. 10) then Solomon is probably telling us that these people needed to use more wisdom in their work.  Also, since Solomon holds a high view of work throughout Ecclesiastes, to argue that working exposes us to too many accidents would seem to discourage people from working.  We already have enough excuses for not working, don’t we?

Solomon’s first example is “he who digs a pit will fall into it.”  David Hubbard argues that this should be understand as possibilities rather than predictions.  A person who digs a pit may fall into it.

Unlike the evil person who receive just retribution for their malicious intent in digging a pit, this man was likely digging a well or a place for storing or winnowing grain, and then he fell into it.

Pit digging can be an act of treacherous, malicious violence.  On occasion the psalmist complained that someone had “dug a pit” to capture him and kill him (e.g., Psalm 35:7).

In this case, however, the foolish (and possibly evil) man fell into his own pit!  This was not an accident of misfortune but an act of poetic and presumably divine justice.

David talked about a similar incident in Psalm 7: “He makes a pit, digging it out, and falls into the hole that he has made. His mischief returns upon his own head, and on his own skull his violence descends” (vv. 15–16).

But Solomon also speaks to the likelihood of unintentional accidents in life.  In Proverbs 26:27 he says…

Whoever digs a pit will fall into it, and a stone will come back on him who starts it rolling.

Warren Wiersbe believes that he “lacked wisdom and failed to take proper precautions.”  In other words, just pay attention to what you are doing.

It reminds me of the time I was helping put a new roof on my father-in-law’s house.  I was backing up, unrolling tar paper, when I stepped right off the roof.  Fortunately, there was a porch roof about three feet below me that I fell down upon, instead of falling 12-15 feet.  That was simply a matter of not watching what I was doing and being inexperienced.

The next scenario Solomon brings up is the man who “breaks through a wall” and has a snake bite him.

Why might a man break through a wall?  Well, he might be tearing down a wall that separates properties in order to gain more property.  Or he might be simply remodeling a house.  Or he might be trying to break in.

Jay Adams believes it is the latter, saying “instead of pulling off the intending theft, the breaking and entering leads to the thief himself becoming the victim…of a snake bite.”  In this case, the risk comes from doing evil.  Wisdom realizes that there is danger in doing evil.

Folly can be deadly. In the words of Charles Bridges, “Evil shall fall upon the heads of its own authors.”

For every folly, there is an equal and opposite self-destruction.  The addict seeks the calm of the drink or the thrill of the hit but ends up wasting away.  The lusty sinner wants sexual pleasure but by gratifying desire outside the holy bonds of matrimony ends up spiritually unsatisfied.  The selfish husband or wife wants to have things his or her own way but in trying to get it ruins the relationship and loses everything.  The angry father or mother wants more control, but angry emotions set everyone on edge, which only leads to more chaos, more anger, and ultimately less control.  These are some of the pitfalls of folly.  Dig the pit, and you will fall in.  Break down the wall, and the snake of sin will come back to bite you. (Philip Ryken, Ecclesiastes—Why Everything Matters)

On the other hand, it may be that Solomon is simply saying that there “is always the possibility of an accident, even in the most pedestrian activity. These sayings fit well with 9:11–12 and 10:14 about the “evil time” and “human ignorance” (R. Murphy, Ecclesiastes, Word Biblical Commentary, p. 102).  The man should have been more careful, but was overconfident and did not look carefully at what he was doing.

Verse 9 take us to the quarry and the forest.

9 He who quarries stones is hurt by them, and he who splits logs is endangered by them.

Here there is no suggestion of evil intent, but rather the simple fact that workplace injuries do happen.

Derek Kidner reminds us: “The outlook behind these pointed remarks is not fatalism, as verses 8 and 9 might suggest on their own, but elementary realism.  The blinding glimpse of the obvious in verse 10, backed up by the dry humour in the next verse, dispels any doubt.  We are being urged to use our minds, and to look a little way ahead.  For there are risks bound up with any vigorous action, and the person we call accident-prone has usually himself to blame, rather than his luck.  He should have known; he could have taken care.

Quarrying stones and splitting logs is normal business.  But what Solomon wants us to recognize is that in normal, everyday action there are unforeseen and unseen risks.  Wisdom helps us prepare for them, even if wisdom cannot protect us from every accident.

There is a wiser and safer way to live, but it will take some patience.  The Preacher shows this by drawing a couple of analogies, one from a blacksmith and one from a snake charmer: “If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength, but wisdom helps one to succeed. If the serpent bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage to the charmer” (Ecclesiastes 10:10–11).

Verse 10 compares wisdom to a sharpened blade.  It takes more strength to wield an axe or a sword when the blade is dull, and to cut something in two, a man has to keep hacking away at it.  The them of verse 10 is “work smarter, not harder.”

This picture of a dull blade reminds me of a joke.

A man goes to a tool store to buy a chainsaw.  The server sells him the top-of-the-line model, saying that it will cut through over 100 trees in one day.

The man takes the chainsaw home and begins working on the trees but after working for over three hours he only cuts down two trees.

“How can I cut for hours and hours and only finish two trees?” he asks himself.

The next morning he gets up early in the morning and works until nighttime, but still only manages to cut down five trees.

The very next day the man brings the chainsaw back to the store and says it doesn’t work properly.

“Hmm, it looks okay,” says the server, and starts the chainsaw.

The man jumps back in shock and cries, “What’s that noise?”

Well, in this case the man didn’t know how to use his tool.  In Ecclesiastes, the problem is more that the man doesn’t keep his tool in the right condition for using it.  He didn’t spend enough time preparing his tools for achieving maximum output.

Back in the 1800’s a young man was looking for a job and went to the local logging company to apply for a job.  The foreman asked him if he could cut a tree down with an ax.  The young man said yes, and proceeded to take his ax, walk over to a tree and drop it like an old pro.

The foreman was impressed and hired him.  On Monday, the young man outperformed everyone else on the crew.  But, each day after that, he got slower and slower and by Friday, he barely managed to cut down one tree.

He worked just as hard; swinging his ax, hitting the tree over and over again, but it just didn’t work as well as it did on Monday.  Finally, the young man who was nearly exhausted laid down his ax, and sat down.

At this point the foreman came over and told the young man he knew what the problem was.  He explained to the young man that he had been so busy cutting trees down that he had forgotten to sharpen his ax.  Consequently, it had become dull and was essentially useless since it had not been kept in good condition.

And Lewis Sperry Chafer reinforces this.  He said:

One man challenged another to an all-day wood chopping contest.  The challenger worked very hard, stopping only for a brief lunch break.  The other man had a leisurely lunch and took several breaks during the day.  At the end of the day, the challenger was surprised and annoyed to find that the other fellow had chopped substantially more wood than he had.

“I don’t get it,” he said.  “Every time I checked, you were taking a rest, yet you chopped more wood than I did.”  “But you didn’t notice,” said the winning woodsman, “that I was sharpening my ax when I sat down to rest.”

Maybe you need to take some time away, slow down and sharpen your tools.

Stanley Lobel of Lobel’s butcher shop in New York explains that a sharp knife means you have to make fewer cuts.  A dull knife makes you work harder; several cuts are required where one or two would do.

It’s really a simple law of averages: fewer cuts means fewer chances of cutting yourself over the long run.  More cuts, and the risk goes up.  A sharp knife will also cut more cleanly and precisely than a dull knife, and with much less chance of slippage.

All these stories show just how important it is to take the time to prepare.  J. Vernon McGee illustrated how important this is for ministry by telling this story:

“A young man told me the other day that God had called him to preach, and he wanted to take a short course to prepare himself.  I said, ‘Young man, don’t do that.  Sharpen your hoe.  Sharpen your sword.  Don’t go out untrained.  Take the time for sharpening.'”

Think about the men that God used mightily.  Abraham waited 25 years for God’s promise of a son to be fulfilled.  Joseph was sold into slavery at age 17 and spent thirteen years serving Potiphar or in prison.  David spent 12-13 years on the run from Saul before becoming king.  Paul spent three years on the back side of the desert before starting his ministry.  Jesus didn’t have a public ministry until he was 30.

God was preparing them, sharpening them so that he could use them.

The skilled craftsman makes sure that the axe he uses is sharp before he begins his work.   It is easy to see when it is put like that, but perhaps not so easy to recognize in our lives.   Don’t we often go rushing into things, barging ahead, justifying ourselves that we are busy, that we are doing something, without first stopping to think whether this is really the right way to handle this situation or deal with that person?  (Robert Davidson, The Daily Study Bible: Ecclesiastes, 73)

Wisdom tells us to take time to sharpen our tools.  What tools has God given to you?  Your mind, your heart, your hands?  Your relationships?  Your ministry?  Your job?  Whatever tools God has given to you, take time to sharpen them.

This principle applies to education.  Be sure to get the best training, sharpening skills for effective service in the kingdom of God.  It applies to relationships: a prudent courtship is far more likely to lead to a more successful marriage than a whirlwind romance.  I have read that the more sessions of pre-marital counseling that a couple gets, the more likely they will be satisfied with their marriage.

How sharp is your blade?  Are you hacking away at life like a fool or staying on the sharp edge of wisdom?  Living wisely may take more time at the beginning, but it saves time in the long run.  Make sure you have the right tools for the job God has given you to do, and then take the time to prepare them well.

Zack Eswine points out: “The fool believes he has no time to sharpen his worn-out blade.  He believes that rest exposes either weakness or loss.  Fatigue in persons or instruments is not permitted.  People and instruments are made for our use. He will use them and will not slow down because they are worn nor will we take the time necessary to nourish, daily tune up, or recover their strength” (Recovering Eden, p. 201).

Verse 11 is more difficult to interpret, but it seems to make nearly the opposite point.

If the serpent bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage to the charmer.

Here the danger seems to lie in acting too slowly: “one who is able to handle a difficult matter (a charmer) fails for lack of promptitude (the serpent bites . . . before charmed).”  The point of this saying is that even experts fail if they do not apply their skill.  In this case, wisdom says to act before something bad happens.  The advantage lies in exercising one’s abilities.

Wayne Schmidt sees this as another advocacy for preparation.  He says, “Don’t take your show on the road until you have charmed the snake.”  In other words, don’t go public until you’ve worked out all the kinks.

But on the other hand, this doesn’t mean not to act.  There are many areas of life that we know what to do, we’re just not doing it.  We have all the right answers in our head, but they don’t work themselves out into daily behaviors.

You have to use your wisdom, otherwise it’s just knowledge.

Taken together, verses 10–11 show us why we need wisdom from God.  Sometimes it is important to take more time to prepare.  Other times we need to act before it is too late.  Wisdom comes in knowing the difference.

Ovid, the famous Roman poet, is reported to have said, “At times it is folly to hasten, at other times, to delay.  The wise do everything in its proper time.”  Solomon had said back in Ecclesiastes 3, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Eccl. 3:1).  Thus, the wise person is never early and never late but always right on time.

If there is one thing we should not delay on, it is getting right with God.  If you do not know Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, I encourage you to act today.  Admit that you are a sinner in need of forgiveness from God, then accept the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as God’s way of forgiving you for your sins.  Trust in Jesus Christ alone for your salvation.

A Foolish Ruler (Ecclesiastes 10:4-7)

If there is anyone who needs wisdom, it is the ruler of a nation.  There are not only a multiplicity of problems to deal with, but those problems can be extremely complex.  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 is right, but to know what is right.”  That takes wisdom!

Unfortunately, wisdom isn’t a given in leaders.  Sometimes leaders can be and act very foolishly.  Verses 4-7 give us practical advice on how to deal with foolish bosses and leaders.

4 If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your place, for calmness will lay great offenses to rest. 5 There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, as it were an error proceeding from the ruler: 6 folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place. 7 I have seen slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves.

The kings of Israel and Judah were not immune to leading poorly.  Neither are we.  Zack Eswine reminds us: “God does not remove foolish leaders from our lives.  Nor does he give us immunity from becoming foolish in our leadership.  Just because we follow God, this does not mean that we aren’t capable of folly” (Recovering Eden, p. 94).

This ruler could be in a position of government, or possibly a boss in the marketplace.  As for foolish government leaders, we can appreciate Mark Twain’s humorous comment: “Suppose you were an idiot.  And suppose you were a member of congress.  But I repeat myself.”  That Solomon has political rulers in mind seems the case from the context, but verse 4 can be applied in a variety of situations.

Fools are known for giving vent to their anger and rulers are not exempt (Prov. 12:16; 29:11).  Earlier Solomon had said, “anger lodges in the bosom of fools” (Eccl. 7:9).  In this case, the leader’s anger makes the workplace miserable.  In other words, you might “work for a jerk.”

Some of us have known what it’s like to work for a jerk—someone who is critical and nitpicky, someone who is cruel in their criticisms and just looks for something to nail you on.  It is hard to work in that kind of environment; it wears you down.

What should you do?  The temptation is to want to quit.  That is the easy thing to do, and it might be the right thing to do.  But Solomon recommends another option: “do not leave your place.”  Don’t quit.  Don’t run away just because it is difficult.

Not only should we not run away from this problem, but we should, on the positive side, interact with calmness.  The preacher recommends a calm and quiet response that turns away wrath.

In the words of one commentator, “The anger of a ruler must be soothed with a calm forbearance that neither panics in fear nor deserts in bitterness” (Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary , p. 134).

The wise man does not quit his job when his boss gets angry with him.  He maintains his composure and so gives the impression, rightly or wrongly, that his boss did not need to be angry.

The Preacher is not condoning verbal abuse.  Nor is he saying there is never a time for people in authority to put down a tyrant or for someone to walk away from a fight.  In fact, back in Ecclesiastes 8:3 he seemed to indicate that on certain occasions we should walk away.  But here the Preacher is saying that ordinarily the best response to anger is to stay, not to run away, and to remain calm, not to get angry.

Getting angry would only make things worse, for as Derek Kidner explains, “it is better to have only one angry person than to have two!” (Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes , p. 90).

This is good counsel for workers with an angry boss, for students with an angry teacher, for parents with an angry child, and for wives with an angry husband (or vice versa).  It is good counsel for all the situations in life when someone else is suddenly provoked to anger and it makes us mad that he or she is angry.  Just because someone else gets upset does not mean that we have the right to walk away from a relationship, especially if that relationship is ordained by God and is sealed with a promise (the way marriage is, for example).  The way to deal with foolish anger is not to be intimidated by it or to respond in kind but to keep calm, which we can only do by the power of the Holy Spirit.

James recommends that we be “quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (James 1:19).  It seems that this verse is saying that if we can slow down our response time and not just blurt out whatever comes to mind, we can curb our anger.

Then, when we do speak, Solomon tells us in Proverbs 15:1 to speak with a “soft answer” that turns away wrath.  Usually, as Solomon said back in Ecclesiastes 9:17 that the ruler may be “shouting.”  You can de-escalate the situation by just calming down and using “soft” words.

In Proverbs 25:15 Solomon says, “With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone.”

When someone is shouting at us in anger, we generally opt for one of two responses: fight or flight.  We either respond back and vent our anger verbally or physically, or we walk away and slam the door on our way out.

Neither of these responses help resolve the problem.  When someone gets angry towards us, it is quite tempting to say, “I’m not going to take this anymore!”  And while there are times when walking out is appropriate, it doesn’t necessarily resolve the problem.  Depending on the relationship (marriage for example), we have a covenant commitment to that person.  In those cases we need to stay and act calmly and help the person with their anger.

Staying calm is part of God’s winning strategy for dealing with foolish anger.  Stay faithful to your commitments and work towards a peaceful resolution.

In the famous children’s book The Wind and the Willows, by Scottish author Kenneth Grahame, Toad is portrayed as a great fool, whose friends (Badger, Rat and Mole) try to rescue him from his follies.  Toad tires easily of good activities and is lazy and prone to wanderlust and self-aggrandizement. He easily loses “all fear of obvious consequences” and gives “animals a bad name … by [his] furious driving and [his] smashes and [his] rows with the police.” The wise Badger tells him, “Independence is all very well, but we animals never allow our friends to make fools of themselves beyond a certain limit; and that limit you’ve reached.”

And that is what we often have to do with fools.  We have to confront them with reality, but in a calm, sensitive way.

Sometimes we don’t even have to speak up.  We can transform a situation just be our calm and consistent actions.  Peter commended a life of quiet gentleness.  He told Christians to submit to the governing authorities, even when they were persecuting the church, because by doing good deeds, the suffering church would “put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:13–15).  He told servants to respect their masters, even if they were unjust, for it is a gracious thing to endure injustice (1 Peter 2:18–19).  He told wives to submit to their husbands, even if they were unbelievers, so that by pure and respectful conduct they might win their husband’s heart for Christ (1 Peter 3:1–2).

If we doubt the wisdom of Peter’s counsel — or if we think that it is impossible for us to follow — then we should remember the example that Peter gives.  Why should we keep serving people who make us suffer?  Peter said, “Because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps” (1 Peter 2:21).

Jesus Christ didn’t open His mouth (1 Peter 2:23).  But in quietness and calmness sacrificed his life for us.

There may be a time for you to leave.  There may also be a time when your own anger (hopefully truly righteous indignation) will move you to address the issue.  But don’t just allow your anger to explode.  It is always good to remain cool and calm.  Never let another person’s action determine your reaction.  You choose to act according to God’s directions.

David Hubbard says, “”The lesson is that the self-controlled person who has less rank is really more powerful than the out-of-control supposed superior.”  Solomon would agree.  He said, “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city” (Prov. 16:32).

Verses 5-7 are less clear in what they mean.

5 There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, as it were an error proceeding from the ruler: 6 folly is set in many high places, and the rich sit in a low place. 7 I have seen slaves on horses, and princes walking on the ground like slaves.

“There is an evil that I have seen under the sun” clues us in that this is not an ideal situation.  He seems to be saying that in these topsy-turvy conditions in which social order is not observed is the responsibility of a ruler who is not doing his job.  The fool should not be exalted, the slave should not be treated as a ruler.

According to verses 6 and 7, the ruler’s error was putting the wrong people in important positions, and the damage resulting from inept people in responsible positions can be immense.

Of course, this does not reflect the modern rhetoric of class warfare; his concerns are focused upon a person’s competence for the task.  Qoheleth believes that important positions in government run better when filled with capable and competent people, irrespective of considerations such as social status or wealth.  His complaint has to do with competent people being moved aside in favor of inept and inexperienced people who happen to have the right political or family connections.

Of course, this may not be totally the fault of the rulers.  Solomon has shown how even the best preparations don’t always lead to the expected conclusions.  Despite wisdom, sometimes things don’t turn out as expected.

Warren Wiersbe calls this man a pliable ruler.  I’m not sure that’s his problem.  Being flexible is a good trait for leaders.  Ken Blanchard, for years, has talked about being a situational leader, the kind of leader that people need.  He talks about a person’s performance readiness.  A person may be able, confident and willing to do a task, or he or she may be able but insecure or unwilling.  They might also be unable, but confident or willing to take up a task, or they might be unable and insecure and unwilling.  Each of these four needs a different kind of leadership and direction from the top.

But the problem with this man is that he just didn’t seem to be able to keep things in order.  He let people do what they wanted to do.  He didn’t put people in the right roles for them or for the organization.  Leadership guru Jim Collins calls this “getting the right people on the bus.”

In particular, putting fools in charge always leads to our hurt.  “Like snow in summer or rain in harvest, so honor is not fitting for a fool” (Prov. 26:1).  “Whoever sends a message by the hand of a fool cuts off his own feet and drinks violence” (Prov. 26:6).  “Like an archer who wounds everyone is one who hires a passing fool or drunkard” (Prov. 26:10).

Why does it hurt people when folly gets promoted?  “Because foolish people have their wires crossed.  They exalt themselves and deem wise only those things which will do the same.  Wisdom gets viewed as folly.  The wise are overlooked and passed over” (Zack Eswine, Recovering Eden, p. 196).

A male butterfly will pass by a living female of his own species in favor of a painted cardboard one, if the cardboard one is larger than himself and larger than her.  While the living female butterfly opens and closes her wings in vain, her life and theirs together seem small.  The male has eyes for larger things.  He gives his time and attention to the cardboard. (Annie Dillard, The Writing Life, p. 18).

So Eswine concludes: “Folly leads us to overlook what is small and what would bless us in order to chase after what is large and what in the end will leave us barren.  This is why foolish leaders hurt people.  They overlook what they ought not in order to honor what they most want for themselves.  For this reason, just like a bully who looks for someone who values his bullying to join him, so a foolish leader looks to promote those who value his folly.  Overlooked, then, are the wise” (Recovering Eden, pp. 196-197).

Another factor that may be in play here is called the Peter principle—when you get promoted to a level you cannot handle.  The Peterprinciple is a concept in management developed by Laurence J. Peter, which observes that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to “a level of respective incompetence”: employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent, as skills in one job do not necessarily translate to another.  It is uncanny to see the number of people who are promoted to a level above their competency.

It is clear that the upheaval of verses 6 and 7 arise from the inadequate leadership of the ruler of verse 5.  He is putting the wrong people in the wrong places.

Some of us are offended by this poetry.  We root for the underdog.  We want social leveling in which the slave finds freedom and the rich are humbled.  But this is not the way Solomon understood them.

It is true that the wisdom literature sometimes points out the folly of riches.  But at other times the Sage presents riches as a blessing (Prov. 10:4; 28:20).

Also, notice that Solomon does not contrast the rich “in a low place” with the “poor” but instead puts folly “in many high places.”  In this case, the “rich” is in antithesis with a “fool” and therefore what Solomon is doing is presenting the “rich” person not so much as having material possessions in abundance, but having the true, steady and faithful character (or integrity) from which a measure of wealth generally comes in the Scriptures.

“The Preacher’s point is that an erring leader overlooks this kind of faithful character and places impatient, wandering, slothful, get-rich-quick schemers tragically in charge” (Eswine, Recovering Eden, p. 198).

Similarly, “slave” is not contrasted in this analogy to freed people, but with “princes.”  As in Prov. 19:10, the Preacher is setting up a contrast to show the impropriety of this appointment.  “It is not fitting for a fool to live in luxury, much less a slave to rule over princes” (Prov. 19:10).

This has nothing to do with the shameful American enslavement of colored people.  In the Scriptures “slaves” would be those who were criminals, or debtors, or prisoners of war.  It had nothing to do with the color of the skin.

In historical context, what Solomon is saying is that it would be unwise to put criminals, or debtors, or prisoners of war, in places of governmental leadership.

Finally, the language of Solomon is proverbial, which always states something that is normative, but not ultimate or final, or something that is always true.

We all have stories, personal or in history, of people who rose out of humble circumstances and became wonderful leaders.  Of course, that happens.  But what Solomon is referring to is normal life, what would normally happen.

Sin in the world corrupts any community or organization.  People who ought to be leaders shy away from leadership.  People who shouldn’t become leaders grab for power.  And those who have unfairly grabbed the reigns of power tend to reward those who practice the same underhanded strategy.

In conclusion, Derek Kidner remarks: “If some are inclined to applaud (this seeming social leveling of vv. 6-7), Qoheleth will not exactly quarrel with them—for his aim, throughout, is to shake our pathetic faith in the permanence of affairs; and in any case he has no illusions about the men at the top.  But neither does he view these upsets as triumphs of social justice.  The examples he has witnessed have been either turns of the wheel of fortune (v. 7) or else appointments that went to the wrong people (folly…set up in many high places, 6).  We can make our own guess at the intrigues, threats, flatteries and bribes that paved the way for them” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 90).

Understanding how sin invades any group of people should lead us to expect less from those organizations and to trust more in our Lord.  He is always wise and just and rewards righteous efforts, even those deeds done in secret.

Wisdom Trumps Folly Every Time (Ecclesiastes 10:1-3)

In the last few chapters of Ecclesiastes we’ve seen the Preacher scratch his head in bewilderment over the fact that being righteous or having wisdom, though obviously good in themselves, do not always pay off.  No matter how much we might prepare and forecast, life is unpredictable.  It is good to plan, but we must hold those plans loosely.  We must learn to trust God’s sovereign purpose even when it leads us in places we’d rather not go—into sickness, failure, financial problems, relational difficulties, even to death.

But even though wisdom cannot save us from every misfortune, it is still better to be wise than foolish.  That is the way Solomon starts off Ecclesiastes 10:

1 Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor. 2 A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right, but a fool’s heart to the left. 3 Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense, and he says to everyone that he is a fool. 

Throughout this chapter Solomon gives us a series of maxims concerning wisdom and foolishness, similar to his book of Proverbs.

The main motif is yet another survey of observations about life under the sun.  The general import of the proverbs is hinted in verse 10: “wisdom helps one to succeed.”  Some specific topics include the following: brief snapshots of folly (vv. 1–3); observations about power structures and rulers (vv. 4–7); satiric snapshots of people who do not use their head or take adequate precautions, accompanied by latent humor (vv. 8–11); the importance of words (vv. 12–15); political observations (vv. 16–17); laziness made vivid (v. 18); a cynical observation about living high on the hog (v. 19); not criticizing one’s superior (v. 20). (Literary Study Bible)

The first proverb is “Dead flies make the perfumer’s ointment give off a stench, so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.”

In this proverb “the perfumer’s ointment” and “wisdom and honor” are good things, things to be desired.  However, “a little folly,” just like little dead flies, can turn something good into something undesirable.

Although there was nothing wrong with the perfume, it had attracted a swarm of flies and the stench of their carcasses had turned the perfume rancid.  Just like “one sinner destroys much good” (Eccl. 9:18) and a “little leaven leavens the whole lump” (Gal. 5:9) so a few flies turn the perfume bad.  Likewise, just “a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor.”

This is the metaphorical confirmation of the truth at the end of chapter 9.  One sinner destroys much good.  One sin can destroy much good.

All it takes is one rash word, one rude remark, one hasty decision, one foolish pleasure, or one angry outburst to spoil everything.  As Derek Kidner observes, “It is easier to make a stink than to create sweetness.”  Another way of viewing it is that it takes a lot of effort to build up a reputation for wisdom, but it only takes one bad decision to ruin it.

The unguarded moment–the hasty word–the irritable temper–the rudeness of manner–the occasional slip–the supposed harmless eccentricities–all tend to spoil the fragrance of the ointment.  (Charles Bridges, The Geneva Series of Commentaries: Ecclesiastes, 234)

Jay Adams remarks: “Some stupid remarks or some foolish actions can destroy what ought to be a delightful family or church gathering.  It doesn’t take much to destroy a relationship that was months in the building.  Some complaint, some argument, some thoughtlessness or wickedness–that’s all it takes.  Just a few flies!  (Jay E. Adams, Life under the Son, 101)

Pay attention:  Little things, single moments, have great impact on our lives and the lives of others.

So Derek Kidner comments: “There are endless instances of prizes forfeited and good beginning marred in a single reckless moment – not only by the irresponsible, such as Esau, but by the sorely tried, such as Moses and Aaron.”

The Wesleyan commentator Adam Clarke says: “Alas!  Alas!  In an unguarded moment how many have tarnished the reputation which they were many years in acquiring!  Hence, no man can be said to be safe, till he is taken to the Paradise of God.”

The power of a Spirit-filled life cannot be overestimated.  But every Christian must also be aware of the tremendous danger of compromising with sin.  A little too much self-confidence, a small yielding to the flesh, and our testimony can be lost.  (Richard W. De Haan, The Art of Staying Off Dead-end Streets, 126-27)

Solomon had already compared a good name to good perfume (Eccl. 7:1), so here he is showing how quickly that reputation can be ruined, by a little folly.

It is vital to know the difference between wisdom and folly.  Most Christians can distinguish good from evil.  Our conscience tells us that some things are morally right, while others are morally wrong.

This kind of thinking is fine, as far as it goes.  The trouble, however, is that some of the most important choices in life are not between good and evil but between wisdom and folly.  Or, to put it another way, sometimes we have a whole range of choices we could legitimately make as far as following God’s moral guidelines—so which one do we choose?

Sometimes folly and wickedness are partners in crime.  The Preacher put them together just a few chapters earlier: “Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool” (Ecclesiastes 7:17; cf. Jeremiah 4:22).  However, one can do something foolish that it not necessarily wicked.  Wickedness has to do with actions that are deliberately malicious and harmful.  Foolish decisions, however, may just be impulsive and rash, not thought through and hurtful and generally doesn’t regard God.  That’s bad enough, but not wicked.

The Preacher has told us many things about the fool already.  He is lazy (Ecclesiastes 4:5), ill-tempered (7:9), and morally blind (2:14).  He refuses to take advice (9:17).  His life is not pleasing to God (5:4).

Here the Preacher adds that the fool is directionally-challenged: “A wise man’s heart inclines him to the right, but a fool’s heart to the left” (10:2).

By the way, Solomon is not talking about politics here.  He is not necessarily recommended conservative over liberal political stances.

The “right hand” is often associated with strength and blessing in the OT (e.g., Ex. 15:6, 12Ps. 16:11; 17:7Isa. 41:10, etc.), and the Preacher is either referring to the “left hand” with a correspondingly negative connotation (Gen. 48:14Judg. 3:15).  By the way, did you know that the Latin word for left hand is sinistera, from which we get “sinister.”

With apologies to left-handers, the Bible generally treats the right side as the good side: “The right hand was associated with a strength which saves, supports and protects” (Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary , Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), p. 133).

In addition, the right hand was used to convey blessing, such as the time that Jacob crossed his arms to place his right hand on Ephraim’s head and thus give him the greater blessing (Genesis 48:13–20; cf. Proverbs 3:16).  The right hand was also associated with authority, which is why Jesus sits on the right hand of the Father (e.g., Colossians 3:1).  Given this background, it is not surprising that at the final judgment, the sheep will be on the right, but the goats will be on the left (Matthew 25:31–33).

When the Preacher says that the fool is on the left, therefore, he is telling us that the man is going the wrong direction in life.  There are plenty of examples in the Bible. Think of the contrast between Abraham and his cousin Lot.  When the two men divided the land of promise (see Genesis 13), Abraham was content with what God provided. Lot, on the other hand, chose the better territory for himself (or so he thought).  Foolishly, he moved to Sodom, an evil city that was later destroyed by God.

There is a similar contrast between Ruth, who remained faithful to Naomi and the people of the one true God, and her sister-in-law Orpah, who abandoned Naomi and went back to the worship of pagan idols (Ruth 1:6–18).

So it could be that Solomon is simply stating that wisdom and foolishness invariably reveal themselves in one’s behavior (cf. Eccles. 10:3; see also the note on 8:1), in opposite behaviors.

Perhaps this contrast is captured best in the Jerusalem Bible: “The wise man’s heart leads him aright, the fool’s heart leads him astray.”

Someone has noted that when a rocket is launched, if it’s path is off one degree it can miss its target.

In 1979 a passenger jet carrying 257 people left New Zealand for a sightseeing flight to Antarctica and back.  Unknown to the pilots, however, there was a minor 2 degree error in the flight coordinates.  This placed the aircraft 28 miles to the east of where the pilots thought they were.  As they approached Antarctica, the pilots descended to a lower altitude to give the passengers a better look at the landscape.  Although both were experienced pilots, neither had made this particular flight before.  They had no way of knowing that the incorrect coordinates had placed them directly in the path of Mount Erebus, an active volcano that rises from the frozen landscape to a height of more than 12,000 feet (3,700 m).  Sadly, the plane crashed into the side of the volcano, killing everyone on board.  It was a tragedy brought on by a minor error—a matter of only a few degrees.

Experts in air navigation have a rule of thumb known as the 1 in 60 rule.  It states that for every 1 degree a plane veers off its course, it misses its target destination by 1 mile for every 60 miles you fly.  This means that the further you travel, the further you are from your destination.

If you’re off course by just one degree, after one foot, you’ll miss your target by 0.2 inches. Trivial, right? But…

  • After 100 yards, you’ll be off by 5.2 feet. Not huge, but noticeable.
  • After a mile, you’ll be off by 92.2 feet. One degree is starting to make a difference.
  • If you veer off course by 1 degree flying around the equator, you’ll land almost 500 miles off target!

If you only live a few days, one mistake won’t make that much difference.  But over the course of a lifetime, little sins can ruin a life, taking it places no one would want to go.

Which direction are you going in life?  Are you moving toward temptation or away from evil?  Are you moving the right way in discipleship or falling away spiritually?  Are you drawing closer to the people of God or going off by yourself?  Only a fool would go the wrong direction in life.

Eugene Peterson called discipleship “a long obedience in the same direction.”  The direction you choose is important and wisdom helps you make the right choice.

Why does the fool move in the wrong direction?  Because his heart is already leaning in that direction.  In Scripture, the heart is the central command center of our being.  The heart has desires and affection, thoughts and reflections, and makes decisions.  Everything in life follows the heart.

The wise man goes the right way because his heart leans the right way, but the wicked man’s heart leans in the opposite direction, which is where he ends up going.  Wisdom and folly are inclinations of the heart.

Solomon connected the heart with the way one lives in Proverbs 4:23, encouraging his son: “Keep [guard, watch over] your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”  It all starts with the heart.  Or, as an old mentor used to say, “the battle is fought at the thought.”  Guard your heart and your control your behavior.  Guarding the heart is an active, vigilant process.  We want to fill our heart with God’s wisdom, not the world’s foolishness, or the world’s wisdom. 

That is why Solomon spent so much of his time in Proverbs teaching his son to value and love wisdom.  In Proverbs 4 we read:

1 Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight, 2 for I give you good precepts; do not forsake my teaching. 3 When I was a son with my father, tender, the only one in the sight of my mother, 4 he taught me and said to me, “Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments, and live. 5 Get wisdom; get insight; do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth. 6 Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you. 7 The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight. 8 Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honor you if you embrace her.

In Proverbs 3 Solomon said:

13 Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, 14 for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. 15 She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. 16 Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. 17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. 18 She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called blessed. 

Solomon encouraged his charge to give utmost effort to gaining wisdom in Proverbs 2:1-4:

1 My son, if you receive my words and treasure up my commandments with you, 2 making your ear attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding; 3 yes, if you call out for insight and raise your voice for understanding, 4 if you seek it like silver and search for it as for hidden treasures,

So, if we want to be blessed, we will seek wisdom from God’s Word, represented here by a parent’s teaching.

The fool is on the wrong road completely, but sadly, he does not even realize it.  According to verse 3, “Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense, and he says to everyone that he is a fool.”  This is part of the definition of a fool: he seems to be the only person who does not know that he is a fool!

There are at least two ways to take the second half of verse 3 (“he says to everyone that he is a fool”).  One is to take it literally, in which case the fool is always busy telling other people that they are fools.  He is not saying that he himself is a fool, but rather that everyone else is foolish.  This certainly is what fools usually believe — that they alone are wise and that everyone else is a fool (which, of course, is a very foolish thing to think!).  A fool is always “right in his own eyes” (Prov. 12:15).

It is also possible that verse 3 should be taken metaphorically.  The fool does not literally “say” that he is a fool, yet this is exactly what his words and his actions communicate.  He (or she) has such an obvious lack of spiritual good sense that his (or her) folly is evident to everyone.  Fools have a way of refusing to listen to good advice (see Proverbs 12:15; 18:2; 23:9) or of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time (see Proverbs 18:6) or of doing something else that shouts, “Look at me, I’m a fool!”  As it says in the book of Proverbs, “a fool flaunts his folly” (Proverbs 13:16; cf. 12:23).

Dan Allender says it well: the fool “will follow a path that seems to be right, even when the blacktop gives way to gravel and gravel to dirt and dirt to rocks and debris. Almost nothing will stop the fool from plunging ahead into peril” (Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman III, Bold Love (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1992), p. 263).

A fool’s actions speak for themselves, but the fool doesn’t hear.  He is unaware.

Walking is a common metaphor for living a life.  Our Christian walk is a lifestyle, the way we live our lives.

Verse 3 pictures the ordinary lifestyle of a stupid person.  It is not necessary for him to do anything extraordinary to proclaim his stupidity.  Everything he says and does as he walks through life, makes the fact abundantly clear.  (Jay E. Adams, Life under the Son, 102)

Even when the foolish tries to keep in the middle of the road, his encounters with normal people show him up for what he is (v. 3).  (Frank E. Gæbelein, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 5, 1185)

The application of these verses is simple: Don’t be a fool!  One of the reasons why the Bible defines the difference between wisdom and folly is so we can choose well how to live.  Do not be the kind of person who refuses to listen to constructive criticism or ignores what godly people are trying to say or erupts with disproportionate anger every time something goes wrong.  Instead turn your heart toward God and ask him for the grace to go the right way rather than the wrong way — his way rather than your own way.

It is Better to Be Wise After All (Ecclesiastes 9:11-18)

Since we are not eternal and omniscient like God, we don’t know what will happen next.  It could be good or bad, we just don’t know.

That fills some people with all kinds of anxiety.  Into this vacuum called “the unknown” rush all kinds of insecurities and fears.

Consider the curious case of Molière, the French actor and playwright.  While performing the title role in the final scene of his own drama The Hypochondriac, or The Imaginary Invalid, Molière was seized by a violent coughing fit.  As it turned out, his malady was not playacting. Molière died just a few hours later (“Molière, The Imaginary Invalid,” in the Literature, Arts, and Medicine Database of New York University).

Or consider Bob Cartwright.  Bob Cartwright was disappointed when he was unable to accept an invitation to fly to New York with his friend Tyler Stanger and the professional baseball player Cory Lidle for a playoff game between the Yankees and the Tigers.  He felt differently when he saw the news that Stanger and Lidle had crashed into an apartment building and perished. “I was supposed to be on that plane,” Cartwright said.  Yet just one month later Cartwright died in another plane crash, near his mountain home in California (See

Then there is Donald Peters, who bought two Connecticut lottery tickets on November 1, 2008 — just as he had for the previous twenty years.  As it turned out, one of his tickets was worth $10 million.  But Peters was not as lucky as one might think, because he died of a heart attack later on the very day that he bought the winning ticket (As reported in China Daily (January 5, 2009), p. 6).

None of these unfortunate, unexpected events would have surprised the Preacher who wrote Ecclesiastes. “Time and chance happen to them all,” he would have said. “Man knows not his time.”

Listen to the Preacher’s words in Ecclesiastes 9, starting in verse 11.

11 Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all. 12 For man does not know his time. Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them. 13 I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me. 14 There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it. 15 But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. 16 But I say that wisdom is better than might, though the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are not heard. 17 The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools. 18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.

Solomon’s emphasis in 9:2-10 was on the fact that a righteous person could not be more certain of his or her earthly future than the wicked.  In 9:11—10:11, his point was that the wise cannot be more sure of his or her earthly future than the fool.

Earlier we learned (9:2) that good things don’t always happen to good people.  Here we find that no matter how talented or gifted we are, we cannot be sure that we will be rewarded.

Here, the Preacher seems to struggle against a sense of fatalism—that it doesn’t matter what we do, we cannot guarantee our outcome.  In other words, we really have no control over our future.

Time and chance are paired, no doubt because they both have a way of taking matters suddenly out of our hands” (Derek Kidner).

He had earlier expressed the idea that our times are in God’s hands (Eccl. 9:1), but wondered whether that was a good or bad thing.  If God’s heart is not for us, then being in his hands can be a bad thing! (Heb. 10:31)

Fortunately, on this side of the cross, we can know that we know that we know that God is for us, because He already did the most difficult thing—giving his one and only Son to be the satisfaction for our sins (Romans 8:31-32).

But Solomon didn’t know that, or wasn’t focusing on that.

Again, Solomon is bemoaning this reality from an “under the sun” perspective.  From a purely physical viewpoint, life is unpredictable.  It would make sense that the swift would win the race.  Most of the time they do, but sometimes misfortune takes place—an injury, a baton drop, a lane violation.  Which is why Paul reminds us that “An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules” (2 Timothy 2:5) and therefore they must remain disciplined in order to win the prize (1 Cor. 9:24-27).

Think of the tortoise and the hare.  Rabbits should always win, but not if they lollygag along.

Yes, the battle usually goes to the strong, but some unforeseen event can turn the tide in battle.  How many times throughout history has a smaller force beaten a larger force?  Think of Abraham’s 318 men against the five kings of the East (Gen. 14:14).  Think of Gideon’s 300 men (originally 32,000) against the 120,000 Midianites (Judges 7).  Or think of David vs. Goliath.  In many cases this happened so that God would get the glory and that man would learn to trust in God alone.  God didn’t want Israel to trust in horses and chariots.  In Psalm 33:17 they were encouraged, “The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue.”

The Olympic slogan says citius, altius, fortius — swifter, higher, stronger!  But the race is not always won by the swift, nor the battle always by the strong.

In the early 1900s Jim Thorpe won two gold medals at the Olympic Games.  He stood before the king of Sweden and was publicly acknowledged as the greatest athlete of his time.  Yet those medals and honors had to be given back when it was learned that years earlier he had played professional baseball for five dollars a season, which rendered him no longer an amateur.  Only recently were his medals restored, posthumously.

Bo Jackson was one of the greatest athletes of our generation.  An All-Pro NFL football player and a Major League All-Star baseball player.  Bo Jackson was a marvel to watch.  In 1991, he was at the height of his career and the prime of his powers.  He was disciplined, determined and focused.

Despite his natural gifts and hard work, on January 13, 1991, he was tackled from the side while running down the sidelines for the Oakland Raiders.  Bo injured his hip and had to be helped from the field.  Within a year he was forced to undergo hip replacement surgery, and though he returned briefly to baseball, his career was essentially over.  Time and chance overtake them all.

Then the Preacher augments his list of physical attributes by mentioning several intellectual abilities.  Ordinarily we would expect someone with a superior mind to be worth a fortune, or at least to make a good living.  But when the markets crash, even the sharpest financial adviser suddenly realizes that he is not as smart as he thought he was.   Wisdom does not guarantee a good job or a prosperous future.

What the Preacher says is true: the wise do not always have bread, intelligence does not guarantee a good income, and having a lot of knowledge will not necessarily do us any favors.

In short, human ability is no guarantee of success in life.  Disaster can overtake any one of us.

As the Preacher says, “time and chance” happen to us all.  This phrase doesn’t deny the sovereignty of God.  We know that God “works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Ephesians 1:11).  Everything is under his wise providence and sovereign control.  What happens in life is not actually arbitrary, therefore, but is subject to God’s authority and plan.

However, we don’t know what God is up to.  And we cannot control the outcomes.  We can do our best and sometimes still come out receiving the short end of the stick.  We often hear, “You have to be the right person, in the right place, at the right time.”  But the Preacher is saying that life is really not under our control.

As Proverbs 16:9 says, “The heart of man plans, but the LORD establishes his steps” and Proverbs 19:21 says, “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.”  These Proverbs are not arguing against planning; they just mean that we have to hold our plans loosely.  We have to trust God with the outcome AND with the journey.

It reminds me of a story.

There was once a farmer who owned a horse and had a son.

One day, his horse ran away.  The neighbors came to express their concern: “Oh, that’s too bad.  How are you going to work the fields now?”  The farmer replied: “Good thing, Bad thing, Who knows?”

In a few days, his horse came back and brought another horse with her.  Now, the neighbors were glad: “Oh, how lucky!  Now you can do twice as much work as before!”  The farmer replied: “Good thing, Bad thing, Who knows?”

The next day, the farmer’s son fell off the new horse and broke his leg.  The neighbors were concerned again: “Now that he is incapacitated, he can’t help you around, that’s too bad.”  The farmer replied: “Good thing, Bad thing, Who knows?”

Soon, the news came that a war broke out, and all the young men were required to join the army.  The villagers were sad because they knew that many of the young men will not come back.  The farmer’s son could not be drafted because of his broken leg.  His neighbors were envious: “How lucky!  You get to keep your only son.”  The farmer replied: “Good thing, Bad thing, Who knows”.

We don’t know.  If don’t know if some success will be disastrous or if some misfortune is the key to victory.  We just don’t know.

That is why we have to trust God with the outcome and with the journey.  If we trust God, we can have an “above the sun” mentality.

There is a time for everything (Eccl. 3:1-8), we just don’t know when that time will be.  If we trust God and give Him thanks we can be content, whether it is a “good thing” or a “bad thing.”

Solomon says, “Man does not know his time” (Eccl. 9:12).  Then he illustrates this truth with a pair of images, drawn from nature.  “Like fish that are taken in an evil net, and like birds that are caught in a snare, so the children of man are snared at an evil time, when it suddenly falls upon them” (9:12b)

The fish and the birds get caught before they know it.  If they had realized they were swimming into a net or flying into a snare, they would have gone the opposite direction.  But by the time they were trapped, it was too late to escape.  Things can be going along great, and then all of a sudden, disaster.

Solomon had used this image earlier when he was encouraging his son to do all he could to escape the tempting snare of the adulterer: “as a bird rushes into a snare; he does not know that it will cost him his life” (Prov. 7:23).  This is why Solomon recommended prudence, an ability to strip through the camouflage of the world’s deceptions and perceive the consequences of an action.  In Proverbs 14:15 the prudent “gives thought to his steps.”  In Proverbs 22:3 Solomon says, “The prudent sees danger and hides himself, but the simple go on and suffer for it.”

The same thing happens to us human beings.  “Time” and “chance” overtake us.  Suddenly life is out of our hands.  God may “rudely” interrupt your life at very inconvenient times.  How many plans have been interrupted over the last two years over things outside of our control?

The word “time” may refer to the seasons of life or possibly to a time of judgment.  Either way, in this context is represents something bad.  As Philip Ryken says, “Before we know it, we will get trapped in a bad situation at work, or afflicted with a fatal disease, or caught in a financial tsunami. At the very end, of course, the time will come for us to die and go to judgment—a time that God knows, but we do not” (Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters, p. 223).

In this context, “chance” refers to “bad luck.”  From the rest of verse 12, which talks about “an evil net” and “an evil time,” it is clear that when the Preacher talks about “chance,” he is not talking about something good that happens but something bad. In a fallen world, many unhappy things happen every day, from natural disasters and environmental catastrophes to military conflicts and economic downturns (Ecclesiastes: Why Everything Matters, p. 223).

Derek Kidner comments: “All this counterbalances the impression we may get from maxims about hard work, that success is ours to command.  In the sea of life we are more truly the fish…taken in an evil net, or else unaccountably spared, than the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls” (The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 84).

“Try as he might, he will not be able to finesse the circumstances to effect a positive result.  The way things are is the way things are” (James Bollhagen, Ecclesiastes, p. 340).

So Solomon is saying that life is unpredictable.  In His mercy God is telling us to expect the unexpected.  Like Peter tells us, when hardship comes, we shouldn’t be surprised.  We need reminders that we are not in control.  But God is and we can trust Him.

So, what are we to do?  Just throw up our hands and give up and sit on the couch and flip through channels trying to find something that will take our minds off of life?  If the race doesn’t go to the swift, then why run, we might conclude.  If the battle is not won by the strong, then why get ready for battle?  If an education doesn’t guarantee a good salary, then why bother?

But Solomon does not give in to fatalism.  He commends the relative value of wisdom, telling us that it does matter if we live wisely.

And above all, we need to leave our lives in God’s hands—trusting him and being content with everything that comes into our lives.  This is what James, the wisdom book of the New Testament, tells us…

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”– 14 yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. 15 Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” 

Yes, wisdom is good; but no, it doesn’t keep us from having to trust God with the outcome.

The Preacher does this first by giving us the example of someone wise (Ecclesiastes 9:13–15) and then by comparing wisdom to several (less advantageous) alternatives (Ecclesiastes 9:16–18).

Here is the Preacher’s example: “I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me.  There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it.  But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city.  Yet no one remembered that poor wise man” (Ecclesiastes 9:13–15).

Okay, so everything’s positive about wisdom right up until that last sentence.  Wisdom can deliver a city, but the wise person will eventually—maybe sooner than later—be forgotten.  It kind of reminds me of coaching in the SEC.  If you’re not winning for me today, it doesn’t matter if you were national champions two years ago.  Scram!

Although some commentators perceive this story as a parable, many regard it as a true account of an historical event.  It was something the preacher had seen or heard of himself, not something he invented for the sake of making a point.

A poor man was wise enough to save his city from a “great king.”

According to Philip Ryken, “Some scholars have even tried to determine the precise historical context. Certainly we know similar stories from the Bible.  In 2 Samuel we read about a wise woman who saved the city of Abel by sacrificing the life of one evil man (20:14–22).  Wise King Hezekiah saved Jerusalem a different way — by praying to God for deliverance (2 Kings 19).  There are examples from ancient history as well, like Archimedes who reportedly saved Syracuse from the Romans by sinking their ships”

Despite the fact that this man was forgotten, his wisdom did save the city.  And that was significant.  This city had almost no chance of surviving.  It was totally outnumbered by a great king who had the latest military technology.

But this battle didn’t go to the strong.  Praise God!  In this case, one man knew exactly what to do.  And that is what wisdom is—the ability to live successfully—whether in one’s relationships, one’s responsibilities, one’s finances, or one’s problems.  For Qoheleth, this was an example of what wisdom can do.

Wisdom imparts saving faith (2 Tim. 3:15) the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.  On the one hand, this wisdom can definitely give a person an edge over his foolish neighbors in dealing with life.  Wisdom compares to folly like light to darkness (2:13).  A wise child is better than a foolish king (4:13).  Wisdom gives an advantage, provides protection, and prolongs one’s life—forever (7:11-12).  Wisdom brings understanding and make one’s countenance shine (8:1).

On the other hand, however, even wisdom cannot protect us from everything.  It cannot solve every problem, nor prevent every suffering.  We won’t be able to predict the future.  But we can trust God with it.

Happy is the city that has even one person who is wise enough to rescue its citizens.

Clearly, in this situation, wisdom is better than strength, but even so it does not guarantee a reward (cf. Judg. 9:53; 2 Sam. 20).  People generally do not value wisdom as highly as wealth, even though wisdom is really worth more.

Kidner reminds us that the point of this story is that we are to identify with this wise man, not because we are successful consultants, but simply that “sadly enough, we should learn not to count on anything as fleeting as public gratitude.”

We live in the world of “what have you done for me lately” and our good deeds are quickly forgotten.

Under the premise that death ends existence and consciousness for all, Solomon protested that the only lasting meaning this man might have – to be remembered – was taken away.  The almost unbelievable fleetingness of fame added to the sense of meaninglessness of life.

16 But I say that wisdom is better than might, though the poor man’s wisdom is despised and his words are not heard. 

Even though unappreciated, it is better to be wise.

17 The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools. 18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.

“In the pattern of this chapter this is one more example of what is unpredictable and cruel in life, to sap our confidence in what we can make of it on our own.  The last two verses (17-18) give an extra thrust to the parable by showing first how valuable and then how vulnerable is wisdom.  We are left with more than a suspicion that in human politics the last word will regularly go to the loud voice of verse 17 or the cold steel of verse 18.  Seldom to truth, seldom to merit” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, p. 85).

And don’t we see that so often today?  It is not the reasonable preacher of truth that gets heard, but the voice that shouts the loudest and heaps public shame upon others.

The practical upshot for the wise person might simply be this: sometimes people will listen to you, sometimes they won’t, and you cannot anticipate which reaction will prevail.  Regardless of what response is expected, a wise person will always speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).

Two things we might learn from verse 17.  One, the truth of a person’s statement cannot be assessed by the volume with which he says it.  Loudness, in fact, is often used to overcome a poor argument or reason.

Second, note the mass hysteria, “among fools.”  Groupthink can be a real problem today.  When “everybody” believes or says something, then we have a hard time bucking the trend.  It takes courage to stand alone and be the quiet voice of wisdom.

The Preacher continues to emphasize how often and how easily wisdom can be neglected.  The shouts of the powerful among fools or just one person can derail the good effects of wisdom.  Just as one wise man can save a city, one sinner can destroy it.

Solomon sensed that it was much easier to destroy than to build.  Establishing things by wisdom is much more difficult than destroying them by the work of even one sinner.

Deane reminds us:

“Adam’s sin infected the whole race of man; Achan’s transgression caused Israel’s defeat (Joshua 7:1112); Rehoboam’s folly occasioned the great schism (1 Kings 12:16).”

Solomon also may mean that even a wise man may give some foolish advice at times.  It just reminds us how credibility may take years to build and can be destroyed in a moment of weakness or foolishness.

Or, like J. Vernon McGee used to say: “A mother spends twenty-one years teaching a son to be wise, and some girl will come along and make a fool out of him in five minutes.”

Warren Wiersbe has a different perspective.  He thinks the wise man could have saved the city, but louder voices prevailed and nobody paid attention to him.  Verse 17 suggests that a ruler with a loud mouth got all the attention and led the people into defeat.  The wise man spoke too quietly and was ignored.  He had the opportunity for greatness but was frustrated by one loud, ignorant man.

The reminder of this painful fact of life is not intended to discourage the wise person from trying to work the good, but to help him keep his eyes wide open (2:14) and to present him from becoming disillusioned when his well-intended efforts meet with failure.

Yes, misfortune can happen even to the wise.

By the end of chapter 9, Solomon has made his case against all our self-sufficiency.

Enjoy the Good Life, part 2 (Ecclesiastes 9:9-10)

Last week we began a section in Ecclesiastes 9 where Solomon is recommending that despite that fact that we cannot discern everything God is up to–especially with regard to the inequities of life and the specter of death that hangs over everyone–we should still enjoy life.  We should enjoy the little blessings of life.  Here is our passage…

7 Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. 8 Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. 9 Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

We ended last week talking about verse 9, where Solomon commends “enjoying life with the wife whom you love.”  And we ended by talking about how sometimes that is not easy, that the romance may have fizzled and even the friendship may be on the rocks.

What enables the marriage to survive, much less thrive?  It is the commitment of agape love—that willingness to do what is best for the other person, even when it hurts and even when they don’t deserve it.

You see, a lot of people get married believing that it is a 50-50 relationship.  Have you ever heard it put that way—that “marriage is a 50-50 contract”?

That view, however, is not what the Bible says.  The Bible tells us that marriage is a “covenant” and a covenant requires 100% commitment.  In fact, many covenants that God made with individuals and nations in the Bible required 100% from God.  He guaranteed the covenant by His own initiative and actions.

Our salvation is like that.  He initiated it and it is through his actions that we are saved.  All we have to do is receive that forgiveness by faith.  We don’t have to do anything.

In premarital counseling I often talk about the “blessing zone” and the “misery zone.”  Let’s picture marriage as played on a football grid and the husband gives 40% of himself (maybe believing that he’s giving a lot more) and the wife gives 30% of herself.  Thus, you have a 30% gap I call the “misery zone.”  As long as we are playing the 50-50 game, we will not be enjoying the marriage.

However, if we take the biblical view of marriage as a covenant requiring 100% on our part, we try and let’s say we give 80% of ourselves to our mate and they give the same 30%.  Well, guess what, now we have a 10% overlap.  And that is the “blessing zone.”  That is when marriage begins to get interesting and enjoyable.

Most of the time, when we go “above and beyond” in showing love to our mate (or anyone), they will begin to reciprocate.  Maybe they won’t go “above and beyond,” but they will begin to respond.

If you remember the movie Fireproof, put out by the Kendrick brothers and starring Kirk Cameron, he had really blown it, putting their marriage “in the hole” and he had to work hard to rebuild trust and love with his wife.  He went on a 40 day “love dare” and it wasn’t until he was well into that last few days that she began to respond.

So, if you want the spouse of your dreams, just begin treating her (or him) differently.

There’s a joke that goes like this:

A man went to a counsellor for advice.  His marriage was really bad and he wanted out, but he wanted to hurt his wife as much as possible.  The counsellor thought for a while, then said, “I have an idea.  This is the way to really hurt her.  For the next three months, treat her like a princess.  Love her, bring her flowers, buy her gifts, take her out to dinner, do some of the housework.  Treat her like she’s the most wonderful woman in the world.  Then suddenly, you just leave.  That’ll really kill her.”

So he did.

A few months later the counsellor saw the man walking and said, “So how’s bachelor life treating you.”  “What do you mean?”  “You know.  How’d it go when you dumped your wife?”  “You’ve got to be kidding.  I’m married to the most wonderful woman in the world.”

If you don’t think your wife is worth enjoying right now, just treat her like a princess for a while and she will become a person you really will enjoy.  It’s called The Pygmalion Effect, as illustrated in the play My Fair Lady.

My favorite story is about Johnny Lingo.  Patricia Gerr recorded this experience in The Reader’s Digest (pp. 138-141, February 1988) from a trip to Kiniwata, an island in the Pacific.  Johnny Lingo wasn’t his real name, but apparently he was a networker and a real bargain hunter.

“Get Johnny Lingo to help you find what you want and let him do the bargaining,” advised Shenkin (the manager of the guest house she was staying in). “Johnny knows how to make a deal.”  In getting some more information about Johnny Lingo, he said, “Five months ago, at fall festival, Johnny came to Kiniwata and found himself a wife. He paid her father eight cows!”

I knew enough about island customs to be impressed. Two or three cows would buy a fair-to-middling wife, four of five a highly satisfactory one.

“Good Lord!” I said, “Eight cows! She must have beauty that takes your breath away.”

“She’s not ugly,” he conceded, and smiled a little. “But the kindest could only call Sarita plain. Sam Karoo, her father, was afraid she’d be left on his hands.”

“But then he got eight cows for her? Isn’t that extraordinary?”

“Never been paid before.”

“Yet you call Johnny’s wife plain?”

“I said it would be kindness to call her plain. She was skinny. She walked with her shoulders hunched and her head ducked. She was scared of her own shadow.”

She finally found Johnny Lingo and got to talking about the price he had paid.

“They ask that?” His eyes lighted with pleasure. “Everyone in Kiniwata knows about the eight cows?”

I nodded.  Maybe it was vanity.

And then I saw her. I watched her enter the room to place flowers on the table. She stood a moment to smile at the young man beside me. Then she went swiftly out again. She was the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. The lift of her shoulders, the tilt of her chin, the sparkle of her eyes all spelled a pride to which no one could deny her the right.

I turned back to Johnny Lingo and found him looking at me. “You admire her?” he murmured.

“She…she’s glorious. But she’s not Sarita from Kiniwata,” I said.

“There’s only one Sarita. Perhaps she does not look the way they say she looked in Kiniwata.”

“She doesn’t. I heard she was homely. They all make fun of you because you let yourself be cheated by Sam Karoo.”

“You think eight cows were too many?” A smile slid over his lips.

“No. But how can she be so different?”

“Do you ever think,” he asked, “what it must mean to a woman to know that her husband has settled on the lowest price for which she can be bought?  And then later, when the women talk, they boast of what their husbands paid for them.

One says four cows, another maybe six. How does she feel, the woman who was sold for one or two? This could not happen to my Sarita.”

“Then you did this just to make your wife happy?”

“I wanted Sarita to be happy, yes. But I wanted more than that. You say she is different. This is true. Many things can change a woman. Things happen inside, things happen outside. But the thing that matters most is what she thinks of herself. In Kiniwata, Sarita believed she was worth nothing. Now she knows she is worth more than any other woman in the islands.”

“Then you wanted–”

“I wanted to marry Sarita. I loved her and no other woman.”

“But–” I was close to understanding.

“But,” he finished softly, “I wanted an eight-cow wife.”

How you treat your wife, and how she sees herself, makes all the difference in the world.

Well, there’s one more thing that Solomon recommends we take pleasure in—our work. 

Remember that work itself is not the curse, but rather a stewardship from God.  Work was a joy until Adam and Eve sinned, then it became fraught with all kinds of difficulties.  The toil that we now do is “under the sun” (v. 9).

Even the rabbis learned a trade (Paul was a tentmaker) 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 Thess. 3:10).

Here Solomon says, “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). 

First of all, he is saying “do whatever lies at hand,” the work that is before you.  This doesn’t mean to work randomly and not “go” to work, but it simply means to take responsibility for the work that lies before you.  Don’t shirk it.  Do, don’t dream of doing.

In his sermon on this verse Charles Spurgeon described a young man who dreamed of standing under a banyan tree and preaching eloquent sermons to people in India. “My dear fellow,” said Spurgeon, “why don’t you try the streets of London first, and see whether you are eloquent there!” (Charles Spurgeon, “A Home Mission Sermon,” The New Park Street Pulpit (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim, 1975), 5:274).

It also implies that we can only do what God has given us to do, not the things that he has placed outside our reach.  We must, therefore, seek contentment in the work that we have been given and not be constantly pining for some other job.

The Preacher also tells us the way to do this work — not just what to do but how to do it: with all our might.

This is reflected in Paul’s writings in Colossians 3:17; Colossians 3:23 and Romans 12:11. In Colossians 3:17 Paul says, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

Work can cover a whole gamut of activities.  It doesn’t matter whether the work is sacred or secular—”Whatever you do,” Paul says, “do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.”  Do it for Jesus sake, for His glory.

In Colossians 3:23 Paul says, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men…”  There he emphasizes that our real supervisor is not man but God, who is always watching us.  We all know how easy it is to slack off when no one is watching and show off when someone is.  Well, we should work at it “with all our might” simply because God is watching.

Are you giving God (and your boss) 100 percent of your working time, or are you giving him something less than your very best?  The Puritan William Perkins said, “We must take heed of two damnable sins. . . . The first is idleness, whereby the duties of our callings . . . are neglected or omitted.  The second is slothfulness, whereby they are performed slackly and carelessly” (William Perkins, Works , 2 vols. (London, 1626), 1:752).

In Romans 12:11 Paul writes, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.”  This verse applies to any type of ministry for the Lord, possibly even those outside the church.  We should do any job, any ministry for God’s glory.  And our attitude should show zeal and fervency, not a lazy, carefree attitude.

We should also work while the still have the strength.  The day may come when we have to stand aside and allow someone younger to take our place.

The spirit of what the Preacher says about the pleasures of wine, women, and work is captured well by Eugene Peterson’s loose paraphrase in The Message :

Seize life! Eat bread with gusto, Drink wine with a robust heart.
Oh yes – God takes pleasure in your pleasure!
Dress festively every morning.
Don’t skimp on colors and scarves.
Relish life with the spouse you love Each and every day of your precarious life.
Each day is God’s gift. It’s all you get in exchange For the hard work of staying alive.
Make the most of each one!
Whatever turns up, grab it and do it! And heartily! 
(Ecclesiastes 9:7–10)

This is a call to Christian hedonism—pursuing pleasure in God and His good gifts.  his is a beautiful, bountiful world, and we were designed to enjoy its pleasures.  So make the most of every day.  Taste the joys of life with your children, your spouse, your friends.

But there is also a deadly spiritual danger in the pursuit of pleasure.  We may get so distracted by earthly pleasures that we lose our passion for God.  How tempting it is to worship the gift and forget the Giver!

Some people live for food. They make a god out of their belly (Philippians 3:19), and thus they are guilty of gluttony (which has little or nothing to do with how much people weigh, but everything to do with our attitude toward food).   people are addicted to wine or strong drink.  They are guilty of drunkenness and dissipation (Luke 21:34).  Others turn their relationships into idols by needing them so much they are willing to sacrifice their morals or their spiritual life.  Some pine for relationships so much that they think of nothing else.  Then, there are those who live for their work, or for the money that work produces, or for prestige and applause, or maybe just to avoid problems at home.

The pleasures that people pursue are usually good in themselves.  The danger comes when they take the place of God. “Sin is not just the doing of bad things,” writes Tim Keller, “but the making of good things into ultimate things.  It is seeking to establish a sense of self by making something else more central to your significance, purpose, and happiness than your relationship to God” (Tim Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Dutton, 2008), p. 162).

There are many things that can either be enjoyed as gifts from God, or can come between us and God as god substitutes.  When we seek to find our deepest satisfaction in those things we will be disappointed.

So what do we do?  Deny ourselves?  There are those who recommend self-denial and asceticism.  We know there are some things we need to avoid.  “‘All things are lawful,’” the Scripture says, “but not all things are helpful” (1 Corinthians 10:23).

In general, though, God wants us to enjoy his good gifts with gratitude.  “Everything created by God is good,” the Scripture says, “and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4).

This gives us a good test to use for all our earthly pleasures.  We can ask ourselves: When I pray, is this something I would feel good about including in my thanksgiving, or would I be embarrassed to mention it?  Am I thanking God for this pleasure, or have I been enjoying it without ever giving him a second thought?  When we are enjoying legitimate pleasures in a God-honoring way, it seems natural to include them in our prayers.  But when we pursue them for their own sake, usually we do not pray about them much at all (or about anything else, for that matter).  And we especially neglect to thank God for those gifts.

God alone “is the source of all the gifts of earthly life: its bread and wine, festivity and work, marriage and love” (Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes , The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1976), p. 83). 

Every pleasure comes from the God of all pleasure, and therefore it should be received with thanksgiving and praise. Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, / And every common bush afire with God; / But only he who sees, takes off his shoes / The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries” (Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh (New York: Penguin, 1996), book 7). 

See the gifts that God has given to you, and then respond with holy praise.  Everything we enjoy in this life should point us back to the Giver of “every good and perfect gift.”

God is good and God has given us good things to enjoy in this life, and we should enjoy them with thanksgiving.  We should remember that He has given them to us and to give thanks and praise to Him for all the goodness that He shows us throughout this good life—whether they be our work or our wives or all the simple pleasures of life that He has given us to enjoy.

We should give thanks to God for all of them, for they are good and He is good.

Enjoy the Good Life, part 1 (Ecclesiastes 9:7-9)

People may not sing it much anymore, but the following song was popular in its day:

You’re gonna take that ocean trip, no matter come what may;
You’ve got your reservations made, but you just can’t get away.

Next year for sure, you’ll see the world, you’ll really get around;
But how far can you travel when you’re six feet under ground?

Then the refrain:

Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think!
Enjoy yourself, while you’re still in the pink.

The years go by, as quickly as a wink,
Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.

Herb Magidson, “Enjoy Yourself (It’s Later than You Think),” 1934.

“Enjoy Yourself” was written in the 1930s and popularized in the 1950s, but its perspective on life is as old as Ecclesiastes. Our time on earth is short, so we had better make the most of it, finding joy in its many pleasures.

Solomon says it like this:

7 Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. 8 Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head. 9 Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. 10 Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going.

This doesn’t sound like the doom and gloom that Solomon has been relating to us.  He had just bemoaned the fact that both the righteous and the wicked, both the wise and the foolish, all die and are forgotten.  But here, as he has done so often (cf. 2:24-26; 3:12-13, 22; 5:18-19), Solomon recommended the present enjoyment of the good things God allows us to experience in life.

This was his conclusion, since our future on the earth is so uncertain, and since after that we die, we cannot enjoy these things, after death.

In particular, we should enjoy food and drink (v. 7), clean clothing and perfume (v. 8), and marital companionship (v. 9), among other of life’s legitimate pleasures.  Notice that this list includes some luxuries as well as the necessities of life (cf. 5:19).

I know I’ve mentioned this before.  It is important that our primary satisfaction must be in Jesus Christ Himself.  We are to “glorify God by enjoying Him forever.”  Keeping that in mind keeps any of God’s good gifts from becoming idols that we “must have” in order to be happy.  But, when we make Him our greatest joy, then we are allowed to enjoy all other good gifts for His sake, or for His glory.  We are to receive those gifts (Eccl. 2:24; 3:13; 5:20) with humble gratitude, knowing that we don’t deserve them, and then enjoy them as we rejoice in His generosity and kindness to us.

I find it God’s timing that this passage comes up during Thanksgiving week.

Solomon is providing some balance in perspective from the consternation and frustration that he feels about being unable to understand all of God’s ways.  Solomon has said a lot about life that is vanity and chasing wind.  He acknowledges that life is unfair and we often cannot figure out what God is up to.

But, while we may not be able to figure out the big things, we can enjoy and rejoice in the little things, the little gifts of life that God so generously and graciously gives us.

We need to respond to the times (Eccl. 3:1-8), remembering that there are times to be sad and times to be glad.  Experiencing both of these realities is what life is really about.  It is not a continual party; neither is it a perpetual funeral.  Some people need to spend more time at funerals, but others need to go to a party and enjoy themselves every once in awhile.

Of course, Solomon is not encouraging us to get sinfully involved in any of the pleasures of life.  When he says in v. 7 that “God has already approved what you do” he is not giving a blanket endorsement of everything a person might do.  Rather he is saying that enjoying the simple gifts of life finds approval with God.  God delights in our delighting in His good gifts.

“God has already approved what you do (v. 7) 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, this verse should help us realize that it is not sinful to take pleasure in what God has given us, even some luxuries.  

We all need to learn to balance grateful participation and generous sharing, keeping and enjoying some things and giving away others so that others might enjoy them.  This balance is not easy, but it is important.

What kinds of pleasure has God given his people to enjoy?  The Preacher mentions at least three pleasures in particular: contentment, comfort, and companionship.

He begins with the basic pleasures of eating and drinking: “Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart” (Ecclesiastes 9:7).

The word “go” here conveys a sense of urgency.  It is a command to engage in eating and drinking “with joy” and “with a merry heart.”  It is probably not the gastric eating and drinking that Solomon is commending, as much as the heartfelt joy in experiencing God’s good gifts.

How do we know if our eating and drinking are “with joy”?  I think the way we stoke our joy is through rejoicing, in expressing verbally our gratitude and our delight in God’s good gifts.  Yes, thank your hostess, but thank God too for the tastes of the food and drink.

For those of you who might have experienced the symptoms of COVID-19, you understand the blessing of being able to taste your food and drink.

Warren Wiersbe points out that Solomon, unlike the normal Israelite family, sat down to a daily feast (1 Kings 4:22-23).  However, there is evidence that he didn’t always enjoy it.  “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a fattened ox and hatred with it” (Prov. 15:17).  “Better is a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife” (Prov. 17:1).  He says, “The most important thing on any menu is family love, for love turns an ordinary meal into a banquet” (The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: Old Testament, p. 1137).

The celebration continues in verse 8: “Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.”  White garments were the “dress-up clothes” of the ancient Near East.  Many festive occasions were adorned with robes of white.

They were worn by war heroes in a victory parade, by slaves on the day they gained their freedom, and by priests on the high holy days of Israel (e.g., 2 Chronicles 5:12).  To put this into a contemporary context, the Preacher is telling us to put on tuxedos and evening gowns so we can dance the night away.

Again, he is telling us to enjoy life.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  God approves of it.

Qoheleth also tells us to wear sweet perfume.  To anoint someone’s head with oil (see Psalm 23:5) was to pour out something richly scented, like cologne — what the Bible terms “the oil of gladness” (Psalm 45:7).  This is an important part of getting ready for a celebration — not just looking good but also smelling good, especially in a hot climate.  People didn’t bathe that often, so perfume made up for that.  The Preacher is telling us to get ready for a party!

White garments and anointing oil make life more comfortable in a hot climate.” (Eaton)

Although white garments and perfume were normally for special occasions, Solomon is advising people to “always” wear white garments and never be lacking oil on the head.  This is akin to Paul’s exhortation “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice” (Phil. 4:4).

Again, Wiersbe says, “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” (The Wiersbe Bible Commentary: Old Testament, p. 1137).

I love this quote by G. K. Chesterton:

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged.  They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.  For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.  But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.  It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.  It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them.  It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

There is more. The Preacher also invites us to “enjoy life with the wife whom you love” (Ecclesiastes 9:9).  Literally he says, “with the woman you love,” but he is not just saying, “Love the one you’re with.”  That can be a dangerous sentiment.

Solomon knew nothing of cohabitation 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.  It is not, ultimately, based on passion or chemistry, but commitment.  M. Scott Peck calls commitment “the foundation, the bedrock of any genuinely loving relationship” (The Road Less Traveled, p. 140).

As Tremper Longman has argued persuasively in his commentary, the woman in view is understood to be none other than the man’s beloved wife (Longman, The Book of Ecclesiastes , pp. 230–231).  The Preacher is commending the daily pleasures of marriage and family life.

It’s too bad Solomon didn’t live up to his own ideals.  He abandoned God’s pattern for marriage—remember he had 1000 women—and then allowed some of them to seduce him away from faithfulness to 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!”

Here it seems appropriate to give a word of practical exhortation to married couples.  We could apply the principle of this verse to other relationships, of course.  We should enjoy the company of others as well.  The love between a man and his wife is not the only pleasure we can experience in human friendship.  

But here the Bible gives a specific command to husbands, who need to pay attention to exactly what the Preacher says.

9 Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. 

Every husband is called to enjoy his wife.  This means spending time together as friends.  In all the busy demands of life, set aside time to do things together that you both enjoy.  If you have to, schedule time together.  Some people go on regular date nights, just to get away by themselves.

Some people have the love language of quality time, but that can mean different things.  Some enjoy doing things side by side, like gardening, sports, or watching movies.  But for others, quality time means face to face, heart to heart conversation about the things that really matter.

It means prizing one another as lovers.  Speak terms of affection and get away — just the two of you — to fuel the fires of romantic love.  Emotional intimacy means sharing your love and affection for one another.  This form of intimacy can also be nurtured through empathizing with each other and trying to understand each other’s feelings.

Enjoying one’s wife also means valuing her as a person.  Listen carefully to what she says, without immediately pointing out where she’s wrong or trying to solve problems that she’s not even asking you to solve until she has been understood.  Value her opinion and take it into consultation when making a decision.

Enjoy her sexually.  Solomon is very explicit in the book of Proverbs, telling men to enjoy their wives sexually instead of going to prostitutes.  In Proverbs 5 Solomon says:

15 Drink water from your own cistern, flowing water from your own well. 16 Should your springs be scattered abroad, streams of water in the streets? 17 Let them be for yourself alone, and not for strangers with you. 18 Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, 19 a lovely deer, a graceful doe.  Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love. 20 Why should you be intoxicated, my son, with a forbidden woman and embrace the bosom of an adulteress? 

Those are pretty sexual words.  If that isn’t enough, read Song of Solomon 4.

1 Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful! Your eyes are doves behind your veil. Your hair is like a flock of goats leaping down the slopes of Gilead. 2 Your teeth are like a flock of shorn ewes that have come up from the washing, all of which bear twins, and not one among them has lost its young. 3 Your lips are like a scarlet thread, and your mouth is lovely. Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil. 4 Your neck is like the tower of David, built in rows of stone; on it hang a thousand shields, all of them shields of warriors. 5 Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that graze among the lilies. 6 Until the day breathes and the shadows flee, I will go away to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense. 7 You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you. 8 Come with me from Lebanon, my bride; come with me from Lebanon. Depart from the peak of Amana, from the peak of Senir and Hermon, from the dens of lions, from the mountains of leopards. 9 You have captivated my heart, my sister, my bride; you have captivated my heart with one glance of your eyes, with one jewel of your necklace. 10 How beautiful is your love, my sister, my bride! How much better is your love than wine, and the fragrance of your oils than any spice! 11 Your lips drip nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue; the fragrance of your garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon. 12 A garden locked is my sister, my bride, a spring locked, a fountain sealed. 13 Your shoots are an orchard of pomegranates with all choicest fruits, henna with nard, 14 nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense, myrrh and aloes, with all choice spices– 15 a garden fountain, a well of living water, and flowing streams from Lebanon. 16 Awake, O north wind, and come, O south wind! Blow upon my garden, let its spices flow. Let my beloved come to his garden, and eat its choicest fruits.

Whew.  That’s at least PG rated!  But can you see the delight these two find in each other?

Physical intimacy can be as light as holding hands, hugs and kisses, or it can involve engaging in sex.

These are only a few of the many ways that husbands are called to enjoy their wives.  But the key word is “enjoy” her.  Don’t just live with her and put up with her.  If you’re not enjoying your wife, it’s not her fault, but yours.

And notice that this enjoying of your wife is to be lifelong—“all the days of your life”—and even amidst all the difficulties or regular responsibilities—your portion in life and toil in life.

At this point some husbands (and not a few wives) will be tempted to complain that their wives (or husbands) are not always easy to enjoy.  The romance has fizzled away and sometimes even the friendship can be on the rocks.

If that is the case, then we need to notice exactly how the Preacher words this command: the wife when we are told to “enjoy” is also the wife whom we are said to “love.”  Maybe your wife, or your husband, can be very hard to enjoy right now, but you can at least obey God’s command to love them.

That’s because the love the Bible recommends as the basis of marriage is not a feeling, but a sacrificial commitment to do what is best for your spouse, even if it hurts and even if they don’t deserve.

That is exactly the kind of love that Jesus Christ shows to us through the cross.  He demonstrates His love in that “while we were still sinners” (undeserving) He died for us.  That is the kind of love that Paul says keeps a marriage strong.